The Military Museums

History of the 401 Squadron

Motto: Mors celerrima hostibus (Very swift death for the enemy)

No. 401 "City of Westmount" Squadron RCAF, originally No. 1 Squadron, was a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fighter squadron that flew alongside the Royal Air Force during World War II and is notable for having fought in the Battle of Britain. Postwar, the squadron operated in Canada as an auxiliary squadron, reserve squadron and a helicopter and training squadron.

No. 1 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force was formed as a fighter unit at Trenton, Ontario on 21 September 1937 with Siskin aircraft. The squadron was formed from the Fighter Flight of No. 3 (Bomber) Squadron. In August 1938, the squadron moved to Calgary, Alberta and was re-equipped with Hawker Hurricane aircraft in February 1939.

While stationed in Calgary, the squadron was commanded by S/L Elmer Garfield Fullerton. It was mobilized at Saint-Hubert, Quebec on 10 September 1939, and on 5 November 1939 it moved to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

The unit began as a permanent peacetime unit which, augmented by personnel from RCAF No. 115 Squadron (Auxiliary), arrived at its first base in the UK, Middle Wallop, on 21 June 1940. It had brought its own Hurricanes from Canada, and as these were not fully up to UK standard, the squadron was non-operational until mid-August when it moved to RAF Northolt.

At the time the squadron comprised 27 officers (21 pilots) and 314 airmen. To gain experience of Fighter Command operations, S/L E. A. McNab, Commanding Officer, flew on operations attached to No. 111 Squadron, and claimed a He-111 bomber destroyed on 11 August 1940.


Fighter Command 1940

The Squadron was posted to Middle Wallop in June 1940, before in July moving to Croydon. The squadron's debut was inauspicious, when two Bristol Blenheims of RAF Coastal Command were accidentally shot down on 24 August, and three crewmen killed.

On its second patrol on 26 August 1940 it met with 25-30 Dorniers and was credited with three destroyed and three damaged in the fight. However, three of the squadron's aircraft were shot down and one pilot (F/O R. L. Edwards) was killed. The squadron experienced a fairly high aircraft loss rate during the end of August and into September as the squadron battled against the German formations over south London.

On 21 September the squadron participated in the first attempt at a wing formation operation by the Northholt-based squadrons, with No. 229 Squadron RAF and No. 303 (Polish), although no enemy aircraft were encountered. By 27 September, although downing seven bombers, only six aircraft were operational by the end of the day.

On 11 October the depleted squadron were moved to RAF Prestwick in Scotland and its operational activity was coastal patrol work over the Clyde approaches.

Battle of Britain

During the 53 days it participated in the battle the squadron shot down 29 enemy aircraft, probably destroyed eight, and damaged 35. It flew 1,694 sorties (1,569 Operational hours and 1,201 non-operational), lost three pilots killed, ten wounded and 16 aircraft, with 2 pilots killed in accidents.

The most successful pilots were F/L G. R. McGregor (5 kills), S/L E. A. McNab (4 and 1 shared), F/O B. D. 'Dal' Russell (4 and 1 shared), F/O J.W. Kerwin 3 and F/O A.D. Nesbit 3.

1941

The squadron moved south again in February 1941 when it arrived at RAF Digby. It was here in 1 March that No 1 Squadron RCAF was re-numbered to No. 401 Squadron.

The squadron had replaced its Hurricanes with Spitfires Mk IIs in September 1941, Mk Vs in late 1941 and in July 1942 some of the first examples of the new Mk IX. Operating from Digby with No 12 Group Fighter Command until October 1941, it saw little action, but it then moved south to RAF Biggin Hill and remained in 11 Group carrying out offensive operations over Occupied Europe until January 1943.

On 21 October 401's first loss of this phase of operations was F/S B.F. Whitson, taken prisoner after being shot down over Saint-Omer. On 27 October the squadron was operating as high cover to the Biggin Hill Wing, and were 'bounced' by I and III gruppe, JG 26, led by Oberst Adolf Galland. Five Spitfires were lost, with F/O C. A. B. Wallace, P/O J.A. Small and Sgt. S. L. Thompson killed, and P/O C. W. Floody and Sgt. B. G. Hodgkinson both taken prisoner.

On 8 November 1941 on the last mass fighter sweep of the year the squadron was attacked by I. and III./JG 26, and F/O J. C. Weir (Prisoner of War) and Sgt. R. W. Gardner (killed) were lost over Le Touquet shot down by Fw. Babenz and Leut. Uibacker of JG 26. A two-Squadron sweep with No 72 Squadron over France on 22 November saw claims for 2 Bf-109s and 3 Fw-190s destroyed (I./JG 26 lost one BF 109 and a FW-190 crash-landed) for F/O H.A. Sprague (POW).

1942-44

On 12 February 1942 following the 'Channel Dash' of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Operation Donnerkeil, 6 Swordfish of No. 825 FAA Squadron were to meet with an escort from 64 and 411 Squadrons (Hornchurch) and 72, 124 and 401 Squadrons (Biggin Hill) over Manston at mid-day. The escort missed the rendezvous, however, although 401 later claimed two Bf-109 destroyed, for the loss of Sgt. Levesque, who was taken prisoner.

The FW 190 fighter force continued to take toll of the Fighter Command Squadrons, 401 being no exception. On 28 April P/O J. A. Ferguson: (POW) and P/O G. B. Whitney (killed) were lost although P/O Don Blakeslee, an RCAF-enlisted American, claimed two 'probables'. On 1 May the squadron lost two more Spitfires to JG 2 over Le Havre, while on 1 June 1942 a section of 401 intercepted and mistakenly shot down two Hawker Typhoon fighters of No. 56 Squadron, one pilot was killed.

In June the squadron received some of the first Mark IX Spitfires, capable of taking on the Focke Wulf FW-190A on more or less equal terms. On 19 August during Operation Jubilee 2 probables and 3 damaged were claimed.

On 8 November F/L Don Morrison was shot down and badly wounded versus units of JG 26, losing a leg and being repatriated in 1943. Morrison's tally of 5.33 aircraft destroyed, 4 'probables' and 4 damaged was 401's highest since the Battle of Britain.

Moving to RAF Catterick in early 1943, the squadron was involved in training and coastal patrols for four months before returning to 11 Group in late May, where the squadron reverted to Spitfire Mk IX's and became part of No. 126 Wing, No 83 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force (2TAF). The unit resumed operational flying from RAF Redhill in June, and RAF Staplehurst in August and Biggin Hill on October.

Operations prior to D-Day were flown from RAF Tangmere. On 15 March four JG 26 FW-190s were claimed (three were actually lost).

D-day and European Offensive 1944

On 7 June eight aircraft were claimed destroyed, and on 18 June the squadron moved to the B-4 airstrip at Beny-sur-Mer, France. Six more fighters were claimed downed on 28 June. No. 401 shot down three fighters of JG 26 on 7 July. The squadron's 100th victory was notched up on 20 July, while seven more Bf-109s were shot down on 27 July over Caen.

The squadron increasingly operated in the fighter-bomber role, ground attack and armed reconnaissance operations, culminating in operations supporting operations over Nijmegen and the ground fighting in Arnhem in September. S/L R. I. A. 'Rod' Smith, an experienced Malta 'ace', was posted from 412 Squadron and took command in September. On 29 September the squadron surprised some thirty Bf 109s attacking a Typhoon formation, and claimed at least nine destroyed for one loss.

On 5 October, a 5-strong squadron patrol encountered a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet of KG 51 and shot it down, the pilot, Hpt. Hans- Christoph Buttmann, being killed. This was the first victory over this type credited to either the RAF or RCAF.

During late 1944 the unit operated from 'B-80' airfield in Volkel and then 'B-88', near Heesch, in the Netherlands.

In the course of Operation Bodenplatte, the mass ground-attack of 1 January 1945 by the Luftwaffe, the unit claimed nine of the attackers shot down, making the tally since D-Day some 76.5 aircraft destroyed, 3 probables and 37 damaged. The next day S/L WT Klersy was appointed Commanding Officer. The squadron caught FW-190s taking off from Twente airfield on 14 January and five fighters of I./JG 1 shot down for one loss, F/L LJ Mackay claiming three. On 23 January 401 claimed three Arado Ar 234 jet-bombers of III./KG 76 over Achmer airfield.

Operations were restricted in the early part of 1945 due to bad weather, but from the end of February it was heavily involved in the offensive until the end of the war. The squadron received a few Spitfire XIVs in May 1945 but Mk XVIs became standard equipment until the squadron disbanded at Fassberg in Germany on 3 July 1945. 20 April saw No 401 claim some 8 Bf 109s spotted taking off from a grass airstrip near Schwerin, and another 5 claimed later in the day over Hagenau aerodrome. On 3 May 401 attacked aircraft on the ground North West of Kiel, claiming 12 Ju 52s, 2 He-111s and a Ju-87 destroyed; the Squadron's last claims of the war.

End of the war and disbandment

The squadron ended the war as 2 TAF's top scoring unit, claiming 112 aerial victories between 6 June 1944 and 5 May 1945. Their total score for the war was 186.5 confirmed, 29 of which were claimed during 1940 when operating as No.1 RCAF Squadron.

Postwar: The squadron was reactivated as an auxiliary fighter unit on 15 April 1946 at RCAF Station St. Hubert and in 1968 became an air reserve squadron based in Montreal. In the 1980s, the squadron was renamed 401 Tactical Helicopter and Training Squadron.

No. 401 Squadron was disbanded on 23 June 1996.


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