The Rockcliffe Era 1949 – 1964
10 Jan 49
408 Squadron is re-formed at RCAF Station Rockcliffe. Its mission: To continue the aerial survey of Canada, previously being carried out by 413 and 414 (RCAF) Squadrons. Between 1945 and 1949 these units combined to photograph nearly two million square miles of Canada, and were responsible for the initial evaluation and testing of SHORAN – a short-range navigation system used to establish the exact latitude and longitude of reference points on the ground which, in turn, were employed to fix precisely the locations of the photographed landscape.
The CO of the newly formed squadron: W/C C.L. “Chuck” OLSON, formerly the commander of 413 Squadron and a key figure in the aerial survey programme. To carry out its new tasks, 408 was equipped with eight Canadian built (and modified) Lancaster 10 aircraft. Jun 49 By mid-month 200 squadron members and 4 Lancs deployed to four northern detachments:
· The Pas, MB – served as field headquarters, commanded by S/L J.W.P BARIL – responsible for the logistic support of the three satellite detachments
·Yellowknife, NWT – commanded by F/L E.C. EMOND;
· Coral Harbour, NWT – commanded by F/L R.G. CAMPBELL;
· Winnipeg, MB – commanded by F/L K.W. MACDONALD. (There were 21 officers, 45 ORs and 22 civilians in this group, which was to conduct the first Shoran operations.)
15 Oct 49
The first season of operations was over and acknowledged as a resounding success. The first Shoran quadrilateral had been completed and enough evaluation photo runs had been flown and analyzed for the geodetic survey authorities to declare the Shoran technique a success.
For this, much of the credit belonged to the maintenance crews. Working under the most primitive conditions, they had dealt speedily with snags ranging from scraped wingtips to complete engine changes. Their constant efforts and ingenuity had ensured a safe and productive season.
3 Lancs, their crews and maintenance personnel are dispatched to Whitehorse to participate in combined operation “Exercise Sweetbriar”. The squadron’s role, successfully accomplished, was to photograph enemy positions and conduct simulated bombing runs on them. Temperatures in the –30°F range prove to be a maintenance nightmare, but the exercise provides the squadron with valuable experience for future arctic operations.
14 May 50
In Winnipeg, Lac 214 crashes and burns on take-off when the undercarriage is retracted before the aircraft is fully airborne. There are no serious injuries.
16 Jun 50
The beginning of another photo-survey season.
7 Aug 50
A second Lanc is lost on take-off from Resolute Bay. Again, no serious injuries to the crew.
20 Nov 50
W/C Olsson, seriously injured in an automobile accident in Yellowknife, is replaced as CO by W/C D.J.G. JACKSON.
25 Nov 50
413 Squadron is disbanded. All of its Canso and Norseman aircraft are transferred to 408 and, along with the Dakota, which appears sometime later, it become a completely independent force, able to look after all of its own requirements. As a result, 408 is now the largest squadron in the RCAF.
For the ’51 season two detachments are fielded for Shoran and photo duties (Coral Harbour and Yellowknife). In spite of long periods of unfavorable weather during that summer, the squadron still manages to cover more than 10,000 square miles.
23 Sep 51
W/C H.M. SMITH succeeds W/C Jackson as CO.
With testing of nuclear weapons by the USSR being carried out beyond Canada’s borders, 408 aircraft are given a novel assignment – sampling the atmosphere for radioactivity over northern Canada, east of the Rockies. Ice reconnaissance flights in the north also become an increasing important assignment for the squadron.
From Detachments at Churchill and Yellowknife, the squadron photographs more than 200,000 square miles of northern Canada. As well, with the appearance of Soviet Ice Stations in the northern regions, 408 recce flights develop into regular Arctic patrols.
2 Feb 52
The squadron suffers its first peacetime casualty. Cpl G. HEALY is killed when a 408 Lanc crashes on take-off at Goose Bay, Labrador. Four other crewmen are seriously injured.
An unusually successful year for the Shoran operation, with an impressive 1004 lines being flown over northern Quebec, northern Ontario and the southern half of Baffin Island.
3 April 54
W/C Jack SHOWLER assumes command of the squadron, becoming the 13th CO in the 13 years since its formation in 1941.
With the construction of the Mid-Canada (Pinetree) Line of radar sites, the squadron’s main priority becomes the photography of a strip, 40 miles wide, almost from one coast of Canada to the other.
20 Sep 55
A Lanc crew headed by F/O “Pablo” Mackenzie, was among the first to identify and photograph a Soviet ice island installation, floating about 24 miles from the north geographic pole. Others in the crew included navigator F/O Moe GATES and Sgt. Dick TALBOT, who took the first-ever series of photographs of Soviet activity inn the Arctic.
The photo survey work on the Mid-Canada Line is completed.
While the rest of the squadron is busy with the Shoran work in the high latitudes, a detachment of three Lancs is established at Resolute Bay. Commanded by S/L Ken BROWN, a former member of the wartime “Dambusters”, this group carries out ice reconnaissance patrols, assessing the movement of ice packs and providing information to vessels engaged in re-supplying the early warning radar sites.
28 May 57
The last line of the Shoran programme is flown. W/C Showler turns over ‘command’ of the final site (Ice Cap in Greenland) to a local Inuit resident. The largest survey project undertaken anywhere in the world is now complete.
With the end of the Shoran programme, the primary role of the squadron becomes reconnaissance of the Arctic, with the dual purpose of reporting on ice conditions for the benefit of re-supply ships and the monitoring of Soviet activity in that region. For this task 5 photo and 3 Arctic recce version of the Lanc remain, while the Dakotas, Otters and Cansos are struck off strength, along with the attached personnel.
W/C Showler relinquishes command to W/C J.F. MITCHELL.
On 20 Aug 1958, W/C F.W.H. MACDONELL replaces W/C Mitchell as CO.
The squadron is one of the last units anywhere still flying the Lancaster aircraft. Lanc 122, with F/L R.A. BELL as captain, is sent to Britain to participate in the presentation of Colours to No. 617 (RAF) “Dambusters” Sqn by HRH The Queen Mother.
The squadron’s role is amplified to include routine surveillance of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Polar Basin for the possible encroachment of Canadian territory by unauthorized forces, i.e. the Soviets.
Several squadron aircrew members, trained in the Russian language, provide escort service on Russian aircraft making diplomatic flight through Canadian airspace. This provides an opportunity to examine first-hand the Soviet aircraft (IL-18) and crew procedures and to compare them to our own. Included in these escort flights was the July 1961 visit to Cuba of astronaut Major Yuri GAGARIN.
3 Oct 61
W/C S.F. COWAN succeeds W/C McDonnell as CO. “Stew” Cowan was one of the relatively few aircrew who managed to evade capture after being shot down over enemy territory and make his way back safely to friendly hands. His personal story is told in the book, “Forty Nights To Freedom”, written by his sister, Gladys Smith.
Apr 19 62
The Squadron takes part in “Operation Tirec II” – an exercise in support of a photo satellite, involving the simultaneous photography of a specified area by four aircraft types, flying at different heights. The purpose: To solve the problem of distinguishing, in photographs, between cloud, ice and snow.
A T-33 Flight is established on the squadron. Equipped with a photo-recce nose, these aircraft operate in support of army exercises at Gagetown, Wainwright and Suffield.
In the period 29 April through 07 May, F/L Dave Ives (A/C); F/L Des Desaulniers (FO); F/O Ed Palmer (Nav); F/O Ken Luengo (2nd Nav / Nose Camera Op); F/Os Murphy and Giroux (RO and Raven); Sgts Neilson and Clark (FEs); Cpl Inglis (Camera Op); and Mr Derek Aston (MOT Ice Observer) embarked in Lanc ‘882’ on what was to be the last of the Squadron’s Apex Rocket, Arctic Sovereignty missions (AR 103/63); although that was not known at the time. On day seven of the mission, the original tasking was changed to a search, locate and recce mission in regard to the Soviet Ice Island ‘North Pole 11’, which was known to have been abandoned and was slowly breaking up, as it drifted into Canadian waters.
During the first recce flight (01 May) the #1 engine gobbled a valve and the aircraft returned to the USAF base at Thule, Greenland where the engine had to be changed. A successful airtest was conducted on the 04 May and that night the AIRCRAFT received the rerouting message. On the 5th a positioning flight was conducted to Resolute Bay, where refuelling, and updated crew briefing and amended flight duties were assigned and a short crew rest were in order. Later in the day (24 hours of daylight) a 7:45 hour mission was conducted that located NP11 on the first attempt, thanks to the excellent navigation, with minimal aids, of Ken Luengo and the keen eyesight of the First Officer. The weather was generally overcast over the ice pack and significant airframe icing and light freezing drizzle were encountered on descent through the low stratus, such that the nose turret , nav bubble and forward firing camera ports were unusable and camera operations had to be manually called by the Pilot. Initially there was also some difficulty in keeping the site in view during positioning turns, given some reduced visibility. The tasking message provided authority for a landing on the ice runway, if in the AC’s opinion that was possible. However, as the runway had split apart in the center that option was not possible. Thorough camera and visual coverage were obtained nonetheless and what turned out to be the final sovereignty flight of 408 Squadron was an unqualified success and that information was passed to Rockcliffe via HF, through the use of the code word ‘Gosling’. There was some discussion at a later time that suggested the Soviets had complained to Ottawa in regard to the purpose of the mission, but that was disregarded as NP11 was in Canadian waters. In due course the crew received a ‘thank you and well done’ letter from Air Commodore Lane, at that time the AOC of Air Transport Command.
18 June 1963
In a symbolic sortie, Lanc 839 flown by F/L J.M. ‘Des” Desaulniers is dispatched to the North Geographic Pole. There, a canister containing newspapers, magazines and a crew list are dropped in order to establish a Canadian ‘presence’ for future travelers. Other on board are: F/L WILSON, NYZNIK, SHUBALY; F/Os LUENGO, and GIROUX; F/Sgt JONES, Sgt SWEETEN and DOT ice specialist Larry THIELE.
W/C R.G. ORPEN succeeds W/C Cowan, thus becoming the squadron’s last commanding officer at RCAF Station, Rockcliffe.
11 Mar 64
F/Ls Dave Ives and “Willie” Wilson and Sgt Jones, in Lancaster 839, conducted the last operational mission of the Squadron’s Lancaster era, albeit an air test. On completion, low level passes were made down both of the hangar and flight lines, although no photos were taken of the event. While this final flight was being conducted, others of the squadron were converting back to the DC3 aircraft and they, together with their three Dakotas and the T-33 flight, departed to RCAF Station Rivers, MB on Thursday 1 April 1964. And so ended the Rockcliffe era and a vital and significant chapter in the Squadron’s peacetime history.
1 Apr 64
The unit is moved to Rivers, Manitoba, and is re-designated as “408 Transport Support and Area Reconnaissance Squadron.”