415 Squadron Association
At a reunion of four RCAF squadrons in 1971. Allan Bartlett (left) a former navigator on an Albacore, talks with John Enns, a former Hampden and Wellington pilot, and LCol Earl Sinnett, an air cadet in World War II and then CO of 415 Squadron.
Chief of the Air Staff Lieutenant-General Steve Lucas, Honorary Colonel John Enns, CO 415 Lieutenant-Colonel Ivan Boilard and Squadron Chief Master Warrant Officer Gignac flank the display case holding the Colours of 415 Maritime Patrol Squadron following the Squadrons closure parade on 29 July 2005.
Back Row L to R De Pelham, Enns, Calvert, Davey. Front Row L to R Morrison, Ross, McMillan
The Wellington Mark XIII Bombers were late models equipped with two powerful Hercules engines. The aircraft could carry a bomb load of 4500 lbs. Apparently this was equal to the load of a four engine Flying Fortress B-17. The Wellington cruised at 150 - 160 knots and had very good radar equipment, which allowed the crews to navigate accurately and find targets without waiting for the "moon period".
From mid-October 1943 until the end of May 1944, the Wellington crews utilized a mixture of tactics. As explained by John, “one was we carried no bombs only a large load of flares of which some had parachutes and some were special sea marker flares. The object was to act as scouts for torpedo carrying Beaufighters. We would find a target, preferably a convoy, and light it up with parachute flares on the landward side so the Beaufighters could come in to attack from the dark seaward side with the enemy ships silhouetted against the flares. The second tactic, as a refinement of the first, was to drop a circle or oval of sea marking flares about 8 - 10 miles out to sea from the target. On call, three to six Beaufighters would come to this circle and then follow the Wellington to the target and attack after the parachute flares were dropped. These tactics were not very successful, in that many times the coordinated timings didn't work. The flares would go out before the Beaufighters turned up, or they didn't arrive at all. Often the Wellington being at only 3000 feet and in full light of its own flares would be coned by flak from the enemy ships and even heavier flak from shore. Many were shot down. The third tactic was for us to carry a mixed load of bombs and flares. With 6 x 500 lb. bombs, it was intended that we bomb the target and then return to the landward side of target and drop flares for the Beaufighters. This also proved not too successful or popular.
Therefore, in June of 1944 we again changed tactics and carried bombs only for striking the enemy ships on our own, as we found them. We had excellent radar directed both ahead and to each side - we could pick up ships at more than 50 miles and enemy night fighters at about 10 miles. We continued to go out on strikes where we knew in advance of a sighted target, or patrols in a designated area of coast line and search for a target by radar until visual contact was made -for the attack. My method was to go out from Cromer, on the Norfolk coast at 500 - 1,500 feet, whichever was best for effective radar reception. I was never too concerned about night fighters because Ralph Morrison picked them up from 9 or 10 miles and if they came too close I would dive down to 20 feet above the sea if necessary. We found they never followed us down to that level. Several times Millar MacMillan could see their silhouette against a cloud or moonlight as they went on their way - above us. We were also equipped with radio altimeters, which gave me accurate readings from 400 down to 10 feet in 10 foot increments.
Depending on the size and disposition of the target, I would decide whether to drop a straight stick of 6 or 9 x 500 lb bombs at split second intervals or come back for two or more runs over the target and drop the bombs in pairs or threes or more per run. Our bombs had an "air burst pistol" in the nose which made them more effective without a direct hit. It was estimated an E or R Boat could be tipped over with a 50 ft. miss or very severely damaged with a straddle of two bombs 100 ft. apart. Several occasions we made more than one run. When coming near the target we would climb to 3000 feet (minimum 2,800 feet) because anything lower and we would blow ourselves up too.
We continued this fourth anti-shipping tactic for the rest of my tour. Also as “D” day approached, our general area of operations was extended from the Dutch coast south to include the French coast to the Cherbourg Peninsula and Channel Islands. In total I made 30 trips during my tour of ops. All of them were anti-shipping at night along the English Channel and North Sea coasts. All our ops trips were flown as a single aircraft - never in formation or group. Out of the 30, only 7 resulted in what I believed worthwhile direct attacks against enemy shipping with serious damage or sinking results. Others also served a purpose of deterring the enemy at times”.
“In early July 1944 additional Canadian squadrons were added to #6 Bomber Group, one of which was 415 Squadron. As new crews were formed and converted to the Halifax heavy bombers, the old 415 Wellington aircrews, including me and my crew, became "B" Flight of a newly formed RAF Squadron #524. Its new Commanding Officer, W/C Ron Knott, brought with him enough RAF Aircrews to form “A" Flight plus enough ground crew qualified to service all our Wellingtons which remained.” John reported that “after some days of ‘settling down’ we carried on in good form, although disappointed”. John flew his last 12 Ops missions on 524 Squadron for a total of 42 operational missions.
While serving on 524 Squadron John was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation read as follows: “This Officer has an excellent record as a fearless and skilful captain of aircraft. He has achieved considerable success during an eventful operational tour involving attacks in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire on E-Boats and convoys of merchant vessels.”
SWORDFISH VETERANS OF WORLD WAR II
Flight Lieutenant John Abram Enns DFC
Born in 1921, John Enns spent his youth on a farm near the Village of La Salle, Manitoba. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in May 1941 and trained extensively in Western Canada. Following basic military training, he completed ground school and basic flying training. He received his pilot wings on 31 July 1942 and was promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer (P/O). John was then sent to #1 General Reconnaissance School (G.R.S.) at Summerside, P.E.I., where he qualified as a Pilot/Navigator for long range Flying Boats. However, by the end of 1942 and beginning of 1943 qualified flight crews were more urgently needed for anti-shipping operations along the English Channel and North Sea coasts. In a latter correspondence, John recalled that “about 10 or 12 other pilots and I were posted to #32 RAF Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.) at Patricia Bay, Vancouver Island, B.C. for each of us to take on a crew and become qualified on Hampden Torpedo Bombers for anti-shipping work from the U.K.” This was November 1942.
John and Sonia Enns, 30 April 1944 F/Lt John Enns, DFC, October 1944
In August 1943, while John was flying from Thorney Island, he met his wife to be, Sonia, in the village of Emsworth, Hampshire. They were married there on 30 April 1944. In June 1944, the CO, W/C C.G. Ruttan, gave him permission to bring Sonia up to Bircham Newton. They lived off station in the village of Heacham, Norfolk. John related that “it was very difficult for Sonia to be alone at nights when I was on ops - even more so in those times when I was diverted to land elsewhere for bad weather or other operational reasons, without being able to let her know.” However we would do it again.
On 1 November 1944, John was posted to RAF Mullaghmore, Northern Ireland, where he served as Flight Commander and Chief Flying Instructor of the Coastal Command Loran Training School. The school trained all navigators of Coastal Command in the use of long range radar for navigation and signals from transmitters located in Iceland, Newfoundland and the U.K. Later, the school absorbed the Anti-U Boat Special Devices School to train crews in the use of sonobuoys for tracking submarines while submerged. The Japanese war in the Pacific was still going on so this was important work. They used Wellington Mark XIVs for both the Loran and Anti-U Boat Schools. In May of 1945, John was with a group who received about nine U-Boats which sailed into Lough Foyle and surrendered at Londonderry. “My navigator Bill de Pelham, who was also awarded the DFC in November 1944, was still with me. I was also able to bring my wife to join me in Northern Ireland. In January 1945, Sonia returned to England and then sailed to Canada. I returned to Canada in August 1945 and after V.J. Day”.
Following release from the RCAF, John went back to school in Winnipeg; it was September 1945. He spent his whole working life from 1949 to 1984, a total of 35 years, with I.C.I. England and Dupont of Canada which were jointly owned companies. Although constantly on the move, he was active in many military related activities. For example, he was a member of the Wartime Pilot and Observers Association, volunteered with the Air Cadet organization and attended many RCAF Reunions. In retirement, John maintained his military connections and was a regular guest speaker at schools throughout the Winnipeg area. There are many wonderful letters written by children that can attest to the positive impact he had on their lives. At 70 years of age, he told friends that “I am retired on a 50 acre farm and I am enjoying life. We have three married children and 9 grandchildren and we look forward to celebrating our 50th Wedding Anniversary on 30th April, next year”. Sadly his wife Sonia passed away that year, 1994.
A smiling John Enns in 2008.
The information for this article was gathered through internet research, newspaper articles and a letter that John Enns wrote in 1993 to a historian in Holland. While Honorary Colonel, John allowed the letter to be reproduced and used for future historical reference. Through email collaboration, between Major Chris Larsen, Colonel John (Jack) Backstrom and Chris Henneberry, a story was developed and photos shared. Additional information was gathered from the official 415 Squadron history book titled “Swordfish – The Story of 415 Squadron” and Operational Record Books from WWII.
P/O John Enns John Enns’ Hampden Crew in Victoria, BC 1942
In addition to John, his Hampden crew had three other members: the observer, P/O Bill de Pelham from Hamilton, Ontario; and two wireless air gunners (WAG), Sgt Ralph Morrison and Sgt Harry Calvert. They completed the O.T.U. on 5 March 1943 and were then posted as a fully trained crew to Bournemouth, England to await posting to a squadron. They would remain together until the end of their operational tour on 31 October 1944. The observer, Bill de Pelham, stayed with John until the end of the War in August 1945.
While at Bournemouth, the same crews who trained together at Pat Bay took a special torpedo dropping course at #1 Torpedo Training Unit (T.T.U.) at Turnberry, Scotland (site of the famous Golf course - the old runways are still visible there today). They carried out many camera attacks on training ships, as well as dropping dummy torpedoes that floated at the end of their prescribed run. Most impressive were surprise camera attacks on the Cruiser HMS Fiji and the Battleship HMS Nelson in the Firth of Clyde. John recalled the special tactic they practised for many hours whilst flying low over water, at night. He noted that “a torpedo attack was usually at a height of about 500 feet on the way to a target area (for best visibility in moonlight - since we had no radar on Hampdens), then down to 20 feet to within about 1,500 yards of the target, then up again to 90 feet - the best height for releasing the torpedo from a preferred distance of 800 to 900 yards”.
On 28 July 1943, John’s crew joined RAF Coastal Command and was assigned to 415 (Torpedo Bomber) Squadron at RAF Thorney Island. Once again intensive training continued. As John recalled, “England at this time was almost covered with airfields so we had to become accustomed to the heavy air traffic at night - together with the very numerous search lights and barrage balloons. I always felt much more at ease flying low over the sea. (less traffic!). On our first operational mission we carried bombs to the French coast at Dieppe. It was the night of 23 August 1943. We found no target so we jettisoned the bombs and returned to base. It was easy to make a landfall on this relatively high coast, when approaching at about 50 feet above the water. Thereafter we carried torpedoes to the Dutch coast”.
Operational missions were conducted only at night and only during “moon periods" since the Hampden had no radar equipment. The normal tactic was to fly out to the Dutch coast at about 500 feet, by "Dead Reckoning" navigation, find and make a visual landfall, identify it if possible, then move out about four to five miles off shore at low level and look for enemy shipping silhouetted in the moon path toward the shore. John recalled that “it was often a kind of a hit or miss exercise because, as you know, the coast line of Holland is very low. There were some shipping signal lights visible in 1943, but they were not necessarily 'for real’ and didn't help. On one occasion we made landfall at low level (50 ft.) and when I turned, discovered land all around us! Our operations were mainly of two types: either STRIKES where Naval Intelligence gave us information about location and type of target in advance; or PATROLS where we were assigned a certain stretch of enemy coast line which, as a single crew, we patrolled for 2 to 5 hours looking for targets. In Hampdens our only means was visual sightings up the moon path, as we flew parallel to the coast, just outside the reported enemy shipping lanes. Without doubt, 415 Hampdens with torpedoes had many successful attacks against shipping on the Dutch, Belgian and French coasts during 1942 and 1943. Also #455 the Australian, and #489 the New Zealand Squadron did much work with Hampden torpedoes on the Dutch coast”.
John’s operational time on 415 Hampdens was very short lived (just 3 operational missions) because in early October 1943 the Squadron was directed to convert to Vickers Wellington Mark XIIIs and Albacores. The Squadron was split into “A” Flight which operated Albacores and “B” Flight which operated Wellingtons. John’s crew was assigned to “B” Flight. During the same month, “B” Flight moved from Thorney Island to Bircham Newton in Norfolk. This move allowed easier access to the coasts of Belgium and Holland right up to Heligoland. The Wellington crews lived at Bircham Newton and flew their aircraft out of RAF Docking and later in 1944 from RAF Langham.
An operational crew on Wellingtons required seven members. John’s crew now needed to be augmented with a second pilot and two additional WAGs. As a result, a new first tour pilot, P/O R.E. Davey, was welcomed to the crew. At the same time, since the new Albacore crews only required a pilot and observer, the redundant WAGs from former Hampden crews were re-assigned to make up the deficit on Wellington crews. As a result, Warrant Officer (W/O) J.B. Millar MacMillan (also known affectionately as ‘Skip’) and W/O J.L. Ross joined John’s crew. Individual Captains could assign the WAGs to their duties on a rotating basis or have each specialise in one main job - especially while in enemy territory. John noted that “in consultation with his Wellington crew, I chose the specialisation route and it served us well many times. Through regular training and practise, each WAG, of course, remained interchangeable. It was interesting, that very strong crew loyalties developed, as demonstrated, I am aware of only one occasion where one of my crew flew an ops trip with another crew - all other times, when asked, they refused”
In 2002, at the age of 80, John Enns became the Honorary Colonel of 415 Squadron – a position he held until the Squadron was stood down in July 2005. He became well known amongst Squadron personnel of all ranks. Despite the distance, at the time he was living in Winnipeg, John was present for parades, Mess Dinners and a number of special occasions. He was extremely proud to be back with the Squadron and truly enjoyed spending time with the aircrew. While Honorary Colonel, John represented 415 Squadron when the Coastal Command memorial was officially unveiled at Westminster Abbey, London in 2003.
This retired RCAF Flight Lieutenant turned 86 just 24 hours before he helped close a significant chapter in Canadian military history. The Wartime Pilots and Observers Association held its final parade ceremony on 7 June 2008 at 17 Wing Winnipeg. As the number of Association members was dwindling rapidly, John noted that “of course it's sad, but it's time. I've enjoyed my time there, but it's now an awful lot of work for the few of us that are left." To no one’s surprise John oversaw the closing ceremony, when the President of the Association was unable to attend due to illness.
After a lengthy illness John passed away on 1 September 2013 at the age of 92. His body was interned at the LaSalle Mennonite Cemetery, Manitoba. He will be remembered.
At a 415 Squadron parade in 2002, Sam Chiles (left) Signals leader poses with LCol John Backstrom then CO of 415 Squadron and John Enns then Honorary Colonel of 415 Squadron.