History of 409 Squadron
When No. 409 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) came into existence on June 17, 1941, night fighting was still a new aspect of air warfare. Research on airborne intercepts that would enable a fighter to track and locate an aircraft at night had begun several years before the war, but progress had been slow for emphasis had necessarily been given to the development of day fighters that were to play such a valiant and successful role in the Battle of Britain.
Moreover, the Hurricanes and Spitfires were not designed for fighting at night and when the Luftwaffe switched from day to night bombing in the last phase of the Battle of Britain, their bombers were getting away almost scot-free. Out of 12,000 night sorties that the Germans flew over the United Kingdom between Sept. 7 and Nov. 13, 1940, only eight were intercepted by allied fighters; 54 were shot down by anti-aircraft artillery.
The best brains in the Air Ministry were put to work on the problem of improving night defences with the result that priority was given to the production of airborne radar. Equipped with this new weapon the airmen of the Commonwealth air forces proved themselves as formidable by night as they were by day and eventually drove the German air force from Britain's skies entirely.
Midnight is our Noon
Unlike the aerial dog fights that took place over England in the summer of 1940, the battle against the night blitz went on unseen and the public learned of the night fighters' successes only in the newspaper headlines. Many people were unaware that their night's rest depended on the constant vigilance of the night fighter crews. The only witnesses of combat in the night skies were the ground controllers in the darkened cubicles at the powerful ground interception (GCI) stations where they observed the course of every aircraft that was airborne and directed the night fighters on patrol.
As IFF apparatus (Identification, Friend or Foe) carried by allied planes made it possible to distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft, as soon as an unidentified plane appeared, the ground controller guided one of the patrolling aircraft onto it. While the pilot steered according to directions coming over the radio, the navigator busied himself with his radar set; when the airborne radar registered a blip he took over from the ground controller and guided the pilot to within visual range. From there on it was the pilot's show.
No. 409 Sqn. was formed at Digby, Lincolnshire as part of No. 12 Group of Fighter Command. It was the second of three Canadian night fighter units organized overseas in 1941 (Nos. 406 and 410 also organized that spring). No. 409 adopted the nickname "Nighthawk" and took as its motto the Latin expression Media Nox Meridies Noster (Midnight is our Noon). The squadron's badge depicts a crossbow against the background of a black cloak symbolizing its operations of fighting at night.
The first commanding officer was Pilot Officer (later wing commander) N. B. Petersen, a former flying instructor at RCAF Station Camp Borden and one of the first Canadian pilots to ferry a Lockheed Hudson aircraft from Canada to the United Kingdom. On reporting to Digby to take up his new appointment, he found an advance party at work but as yet the embryo squadron had neither aircraft nor crews, so he left immediately for nearby RAF Station Wittering to get checked out on the Boulton Paul Defiant, the aircraft with which the squadron was to be equipped. The two Canadian officers who were to be his flight commanders, Flying Officers B. A. Handbury and F. S. Watson, were already taking instruction at a night fighter operational training unit.
The first aircraft arrived July 6 and the next day 409 took to the air. Under Petersen's guidance the squadron quickly took shape as a happy, efficient unit. The commanding officer himself had an active part in the initial training program, teaching his pilots how to handle the Defiant and lecturing them in flying discipline, tactics and radio procedure. On July 25, the squadron moved to the satellite aerodrome at Coleby Grange to complete their training. The first operational flight was made August 3 by Flying Officer Hanbury; on August 20, Group Headquarters declared the new unit to be fully operational.
At almost the same time the crews learned that they were going to turn in their Defiants for twin-engined Bristol Beaufighters. Although this meant a further period of intensive training, it was indeed good news because at that time the Beau was the only aircraft with sufficiently high performance to take full advantage of airborne intercept radar and those squadrons already using them as night fighters were having great success.
The period of conversion training was marred by 409's first fatal accident that took the life of Wing Commander Petersen. The death of its commanding officer was a hard blow to the fledgling squadron and it was a sad day for all when they laid him to rest in the little country church yard at Scopwick. Fortunately an experienced, capable and well liked officer was found to succeed Wing Commander Petersen. This was Pilot Officer (later wing commander) P. Y. Davoud, formerly commanding officer of 410 Squadron, who in time was to become dean of RCAF night fighters. He had been a close friend of Petersen's and was known personally to many 409 crews. His appointment brought a feeling of uplift to an otherwise depressed squadron.
The honour of making the Nighthawks' first kill fell to the new commanding officer. On Nov. 1, Davoud and his navigator Sgt. T. Carpenter (RAF) were flying on night patrol when the ground controller put them into the trail of an unidentified aircraft. Soon a blip appeared on the screen in Carpenter's "little black box," showing the bogey to be well to port and 500 feet below the Beaufighter. Davoud's combat report describes how they closed in and shot down the German raider:
I increased speed and turned to port and obtained a visual at 6,000 feet, (silhouetted against the clouds in bright moonlight). I throttled back and lost height until slightly above and 400 yards to rear of enemy aircraft, who dived for cloud cover. I closed to approximately 200 yards, identified bandit as a Dornier 217 and fired a short burst observing hits on starboard main plane. The Dornier returned fire and having closed to about 100 yards, I fired two long bursts, seeing the second burst hit his starboard engine. Just before Dornier entered cloud, a big explosion blew his right engine and wing off. I pulled up to avoid a collision, and the Dornier fell burning, straight into the sea. I then returned to base, landing at 2255 hours.
At the end of November the squadron was declared fully operational on Beaufighters but two conditions most annoying to night fighters, foul weather and lack of enemy activity, kept them from fighting any more engagements until the following spring. "No flying owing to weather," were the comments that headed many an entry in the squadron diary during that fall and winter. Nevertheless, training was a continual commitment with interception practices being flown whenever the weather warranted.
On March 8, 1942, Second Lt. R. M. Trousdale, DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross), a hard flying, sharp shooting New Zealander, knocked down an He. 111 near Grimsby. Hopes ran high, for there were definite signs of increased German activity in the air, but a few fleeting blips and exciting chases were the only operational events recorded in the squadron diary until April 7 when Trousdale again destroyed an enemy bomber and thereby won a bar to his DFC.
Early in June the Beaufighter Vs were turned in for faster and more manoeuverable Beau VIs. The crews were spoiling for a chance to try out their new kites in action and they did not have to wait long for the fine summer weather and Hitler's rage brought the Luftwaffe into Britain's skies to seek reprisal for the tremendous damage that Bomber Command was now inflicting on the Fatherland. Flying Officer E. L. McMillan (RAF) was the first to score with the new aircraft when he destroyed a Do. 217 and damaged another on the night of July 23–24.
These victories were followed by four more in July, including a pair by Davoud and Carpenter, and seven in August. Nine Nighthawk crews took part in these encounters that resulted in one enemy aircraft destroyed, four probably destroyed and eight damaged. Most of these engagements were against twin-engined Do. 217s which were almost as fast as the Beaufighters, thus making it necessary for the night fighter pilots to push their aircraft to the limit for the ardently sought "tally-ho".
The wily German pilots had learned a lot about our night fighting tactics and led the Nighthawk crews on many an exciting moonlight chase as they weaved, dived and made violent and skillfully executed peel offs and hard stall turns in an effort to throw their pursuers off their tail. These manoeuvers meant the use of deflection shooting most of the time and the idea that the night fighters had simply to position themselves dead astern and open fire had to be disregarded.
These summer victories got the squadron off to what the diarist called "a good start.” The crews were eagerly looking forward to more "joy" at the Luftwaffe’s expense but the German High Command, finding that our night fighters were taking too heavy a toll of their aircraft to make a sustained attack worthwhile, called off their bombers for the time being. Nevertheless, Britain's air defences had to be maintained lest Germany launch an offensive to halt the preparations for the invasion of Western Europe that were now going ahead in earnest.
In a subsequent reshuffle of fighter squadrons, No. 409 was moved from Coleby to Acklington, Northumberland, in February 1943. Their new role was to defend the approaches to the industrial area of Newcastle, which the Germans had already favoured with two heavy air raids and many minor ones. But henceforth the Luftwaffe kept well to the south of this sector and 409 put in a rather quiet year with few operational events to record. Not until after D-Day did they have as much excitement as they had in the summer of 1942.
Before the Nighthawks moved from Coleby, Wing Commander Davoud received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his fine work with the squadron. On February 4 he flew his last patrol with 409 and departed to head No. 418 (Intruder) Squadron. His successor was Wing Commander J. W. ("Wendy") Reid of Sydney, N.S. who was only 24 years old when he took up his new command. He already had a lot of flying behind him, having soloed at the tender age of 17 years and had logged over 1,000 hours with the RAF flying Liberators across the Atlantic.
Since German planes declined to appear in 409's sector, Wing Commander Reid kept his crews in fighting shape with a rigorous training programme. In addition to the various flying practices the pilots put in long hours studying aircraft recognition while the navigators delved deeper into the mysteries of airborne radar. Occasionally night fighters were called from their regular patrol duties to search for lost aircraft.
To offset the inactivity at Acklington, detachments of two or three aircraft were sent to bolster other sectors but it seemed that as soon as the Nighthawks moved in, enemy activity ceased. The detachments at Coltishall and Middle Wallop flew a few Rangers (low flying sorties over enemy-held territory) on which they damaged a number of locomotives, trains and trucks. Two crews failed to return from these hazardous missions.
Another aircraft was badly shot up by enemy anti-aircraft fire and the navigator, Pilot Officer E. V. Domone (RAF) was severely wounded in the right thigh. Suffering from intense pain and loss of blood, the plucky navigator carried on with his duties and worked out the return course for his pilot. After landing in England, Domone was rushed to hospital where it was found necessary to amputate his leg. He was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for having displayed "courage and fortitude of the highest order."
Mossies for Beaus
In March 1944, the squadron realized the fulfilment of a long-awaited desire when they began turning in their valiant old Beaus for sleek new de-Havilland Mosquitoes, at that time the fastest aircraft in the world. The switch-over to Mossies was a sign that better things were in store for the Nighthawks. Other significant changes that heralded the end of their long period of inactivity was their transfer to No. 85 (Base) Group of 2nd Tactical Air Command, and their move south, first to West Mailing in Kent and then to Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, where No. 410 Squadron was stationed.
The ban on night fighters chasing bandits across the English Channel was lifted in May and the crews were issued with French money and maps. Action was obviously approaching. "June the first came in with thunder showers and a feeling of things to come.” This prophetic sentence headed the entry in the squadron diary for June 1. But if the Nighthawk crews were aware that they were about to begin the most active period in their history, they took it in stride. Training continued as usual and defensive patrols went up whenever the weather was good. On June 5 the squadron learned of the D-Day invasion plans and the diarist recorded the breaking of the news in a most matter of fact way:
"On this date the whole squadron was confined to base when the entire personnel was briefed by Wing Commander O'Neill, station commanding officer, and informed that tomorrow would be D-Day."
That night Flying Officer H. F. (Red) Pearce with Flying Officer G. W. Moores, RAF, as his navigator scored the squadron's first victory in over a year when they probably destroyed a German bomber over the English coast.
The next night, working with mobile GCI units that had gone ashore with the assault forces, 409 Sqn. flew its first sorties over the beachhead. Patrols between June 6–8 were uneventful, largely because the Luftwaffe, apart from a few scattered raids, were late getting into the fray. On June 9, Pilot Officer R. S. Jephson, "B" flight commander, got the squadron's first kill over France. Jephson and his navigator, Flying Officer C. D. Sibbett, were flying on a beachhead patrol when the controller vectored them after a bandit. Sibbett's AI soon registered a "blip" and the navigator brought his pilot onto the tail of a Ju. 188.
Following standard night fighting procedure Jephson closed in, identified his target, and opened fire. His first burst set the enemy's starboard engine on fire, a second started a blaze on the port engine, and as the Nighthawk pilot pressed the firing button once more the fuselage disintegrated and the plane fell from the sky exploding as it hit the ground about 30 or 40 miles southeast of Le Havre.
Three in One Night
The next night "A" flight of 409 Sqn. experienced the satisfaction of shooting down three enemy planes in one night's operations. Flying Officers C. J. Preece and W. H. Beaumont distinguished themselves on this occasion by destroying two Ju. 188s. Preece knocked down his first victim with a fine bit of deflection shooting, scoring three times with three bursts. Continuing their patrol the Nighthawk crew were vectored after another bogey about three quarters of an hour later. Beaumont got a contact on his airborne radar showing the target aircraft to be 8,000 feet ahead and he brought Preece gradually onto it. At 3,000 feet they got a visual, at 2,500 feet they recognized it as another Ju. 188, and at 800 feet Preece fired a one-second burst that caused the enemy aircraft to explode in the air so violently that the Mosquito pilot had to pull up sharply to avoid a wing which had broken off.
The other kill went to Flying Officers R. L. Fullerton and P. Castellan. Fullerton had a little difficulty getting onto the tail of his target. Finally, after following four vectors "where I suspect I overshot each time," the crew got an AI [air intercept] contact at a range of two miles. From thereon the interception was straight forward. Two bursts from the Mosquito's guns sent the German aircraft spiralling earthwards with the starboard engine on fire. To add to the night's achievements Pilot Officer J. A. (Johnny) Hatch, "A" flight commander, returned from the beachhead with one engine unserviceable and made a perfect landing. "All in all it was a good night and "A" flight of 409 went to bed with that satisfied feeling."
In the 25-day period from D-Day to June 30, No. 409 Squadron saw more action than in the previous three years of their night fighting operations. They flew a total of 227 night sorties, destroyed 11 enemy aircraft, probably destroyed two and damaged five. They operated over the Normandy beachhead every night except one, June 26, when patrols that had taken off had to be recalled due to bad weather. Casualties for this period included one crew captured and one crew killed when their aircraft hit high-tension wires on returning from a patrol. Two other aircraft were written off as a result of crashes, but the crews were uninjured.
About the middle of June, the squadron began to fly one or two patrols daily against flying bombs. Flying Officers Preece and Beaumont bagged the first one on the night of June 18; a second one fell to Pilot Officer Jephson's guns on June 20. During the first part of July the Nighthawks were employed almost exclusively against V-1s and when they returned to regular night fighting duties over Normandy in mid-July they had ended the flight of eight of Hitler's secret weapons.
In July 1944, No. 409 Squadron destroyed eight German planes and damaged one. Six of these victories were won against Ju. 88s, Germany's best night fighting aircraft, leaving little doubt that the Nighthawks outclassed their Luftwaffe counterpart. Up until this time 409 had seen little of these aircraft, for it was Hitler's policy to use them mainly for home defence. As the tide of battle rolled towards Germany engagements between Mosquitoes and Ju 88s became more frequent. Sometimes the German ground stations and our own covered the same area, thus enabling our pilots to hear the enemy controllers manoeuvering the Ju 88s around the sky. Hitler's night fighters were flown by the best pilots the German Air Force could muster but they were no match for the Mosquitoes; by the end of hostilities No. 409 had destroyed 20, probably destroyed two and damaged one.
A victory over Germany's night fighters on July 26 cost the squadron one of it most experienced crews, Pilot Officer R. S. Jephson and Flying Officer J. M. Roberts. They engaged a Ju. 88 over Caen and a burst from Jephson's guns caused it to explode so violently that the Mosquito was badly shaken up by the blast and both engines stopped. Jephson reported via the radio that he and Roberts were going to bail out, but on discovering that Roberts was injured and unable to move, Jephson courageously decided to stay with the aircraft and try for a crash landing, hazardous as it was in the dark night. The plane crashed and both occupants were killed. The story of the combat was later obtained from the log of the controlling ground control intercept.
On Aug. 6 the squadron suffered another fatality that was also surrounded by heroic circumstances. Wing Commander M. W. Beveridge, DFC, who had succeeded Wing Commander J. W. Reid as commanding officer at the end of July, had his own aircraft (MM587) shot down by a Ju. 88 hunting in formation with a FW. 190. As Beveridge and his navigator, Flight Lieutenant John W. Peacock, prepared to abandon their disabled aircraft Beveridge got stuck in the pilot's escape hatch and Peacock couldn't get the navigator's door to jettison.
Time was running out when Peacock, deciding that at least one should survive the impending crash, rushed to Beveridge's assistance and pushed him free. There was just barely time for his parachute to open before he hit the ground but Peacock didn't have a chance and died in the crash.
Four nights later Pilot Officer J. A. Hatch and his navigator, Flight Lieutenant J. Eames, Royal Air Force, turned the tables on one of these FW 190, Ju. 88 combinations. As they came within visual range of the two aircraft the FW. 190 turned off to starboard and the intrepid Johnny followed it, knowing full well that at any moment the Ju. 88 would start creeping up his tail.
But before the German pilot had time to complete his manoeuver, a two-second burst from the Mosquito sent the Focke-Wulf spiralling earthwards in flames. Hatch turned sharply, probing the night skies for the other adversary, but further contacts turned out to be friendly bombers. A week later Hatch and Eames marked up a double-header, shooting down a Ju. 188 after a running fight and then blasting another Ju. 88 out of the sky.
But it wasn’t just the aircraft out on patrol that faced risks. Training to be a night fighter also came with a high level of risk as William (Bill) Vincent discovered on Nov. 13, 1942, prior to joining No. 409 when his and another Beaufighter collided in mid-air while practicing airborne intercepts.
“We would fly out in pairs, one aircraft acting as the target for a while, then swap roles and conduct our own intercepts on the other aircraft and under GCI (ground control intercept) control,” Vincent said in an interview.
“I was acting as the target and the 'fighter' was vectored onto me. As he completed his curve pursuit intercept he did not complete the breakaway properly. He was supposed to pull off to either the left or the right. Instead, he came right underneath my aircraft and pulled up right in front of me.
“He misjudged his pull up and my starboard engine chopped off his left elevator. He was trying to throw me into his slipstream, which would make it very difficult to maintain control of my aircraft. As it was, the collision and prop wash flipped me upside down and it took a lot of altitude to regain control.
“The other guy was unable to regain any control and went straight in. Neither he nor his nav got out. I was having my own troubles just then, however. The propeller blades of the Mk II were wooden, variable pitch ones. When the accident occurred, the blades just shattered and wood went flying everywhere. Fortunately, none broke through the cockpit plexiglass. If it had, I would have been skewered.
“I lost a lot of height getting my aircraft back to level flight. I had to watch not over-G’ing the plane because my starboard engine had been bent sharply off center. The supports and brackets were really stressed and I didn’t think the engine would stay on the wing. It did, however, and I was able to recover and land.
“They conducted an investigation and I was found not to be at fault. Seems the other pilot had a history of such ‘pull ups’ but had never been reported. This time he cut it too close and killed himself. Unfortunately, he took his navigator in with him and almost my crew as well.”
Cross Channel Bases
No. 409 Sqn. had the distinction of being chosen as the first night-fighting unit to operate from European soil. On August 24, stripped of everything but the bare essentials of equipment, they flew across the Channel to Carpiquet, near Caen, where an advance party under Flight Lieutenant V. L. Fiksdal, the squadron engineering officer, had set up a maintenance section. Two weeks later the mobile Nighthawks moved on to St. Andre and at the end of September they left that badly battered airfield for Le Culot.
At St. Andre the squadron was saddened by the loss of Wing Commander "Massey" Beveridge who was killed while searching for one of his crews that had bailed out after an attack by a German night fighter. The missing crew, Flight Lieutenant J. Leslie and Flight Lieutenant C. M. Thurgood, subsequently showed up but Beveridge crashed and was killed after running into thick fog. He was buried with full military honours in the town cemetery of Flavencourt, about 60 miles north-west of Paris. Second Lt. F. R. Hatton, "B" Flight Commander, now took temporary command of the squadron until Oct. 10 when Wing Commander J. D. Somerville, DFC, formerly of 410 Sqn., was appointed commanding officer.
On the same day that Wing Commander Beveridge was reported missing, Warrant Officer Len Fitchett and Flight Lieutenant A. C. Hardy had to leave their aircraft in a hurry when the port engine ran out of oil. On landing they were picked up by the French Maquis who received them royally, treating them to a hearty meal with plenty of good French wine. None the worse for their experience, they found their way back to the squadron and made more news four days later by scoring the squadron's first kill from a continental air base.
On the night of Oct. 6 more excitement developed around Le Culot airfield than the Nighthawks had seen since moving to the continent. Early in the evening Flight Lieutenant Gordon Sproule and Flying Officer F. G. Wilkinson were coming in for a single-engine landing when their undercarriage collapsed and the Mosquito finished the run on its belly, much to the grief of the already overworked maintenance crews. Before the runway could be cleared Pilot Officer F. E. (Hank) Haley called in on the radio to say that he and Pilot Officer S. J. (Fairy) Fairweather of the RAF had shot down a Ju. 88 and were coming in on one engine.
Because of the previous prang they couldn't land at base and were being diverted when their other engine cut out and they had to take to their parachutes. Just before midnight Flying Officer R. H. Finlayson and his navigator teammate, Flying Officer J. A. Webster, touched down with the news that they had destroyed an Me. 110. As a sort of finale to the eventful evening an aircraft from No. 410 Squadron force-landed at Le Culot after destroying a German plane and getting badly shot up itself. Fortunately, all went well and the squadron diarist summed up the evening's events as "a fairly good night."
The day after Wing Commander Somerville arrived the Nighthawks set out for Lille/Vendeville where they were quartered in a beautiful old French chateau that had been used by the Luftwaffe during the German occupation. The spacious dining room walls were finished in murals painted in Prussian military design ironically depicting Hitler's dreams of conquest. The squadron also fell heir to excellent dispersal huts and ground crew flight rooms complete with a collection of easy chairs, tables, and double-decker spring bunks for the night crews.
On Nov. 3, No. 410, the Cougar Squadron, joined the Nighthawks at Lille/Vendeville.
Throughout their wartime history these two units were closely associated; two of 409's commanding officers, Wing Commanders Davoud and Somerville, were formerly with the Cougars while two ex-Nighthawks, Pilot Officer s G. H. Elms and E. P. Heybroek, became commanding officers of 410. At Lille/Vendeville the two squadrons enjoyed some good times together.
On many an occasion when bad weather cancelled night flying the rafters in the old chateau rang to the night fighters' repertoire of air force and other songs as they gathered round the piano with Second Lt. George Bower at the keyboard. (Bower was now on his second tour with 409).
The first three weeks of November passed so quietly that it seemed as if the Luftwaffe was spending the winter in quarters but such was not the case. On November 25 both squadrons had a lively time. No. 410 stole the show with Lt. A. A. Harrington (USAAF) shooting down three German aircraft; No. 409 was close behind as Flying Officer R. E. Britten and Flying Officer L. E. Fownes destroyed one Ju. 88 and damaged another. There was more "trade" about the next night but the Germans dropped enough "window" in the area to upset 85 Group's radar system. Nevertheless two crews, Warrant Officer R. A. Boorman – Pilot Officer W. J. Bryant and Flying Officer W. H. McPhail – Flying Officer J. E. Donoghue, each made a freelance interception of a Ju. 87B.
Warrant Officer E. F. "King" Cole and Flying Officer W. S. Martin won the applause of their comrades on Nov. 29 for shooting down two Ju. 88s that were on the prowl for Mosquito patrols. About 1900 hours a burst from Cole's guns sent the first victim down in flames and half an hour later his cannon ripped into the second Ju. 88 causing it to explode in the air. Debris flew in all directions filling the air intake of the Mossie.
A wing of the German plane smashed into Cole's aircraft, knocking two feet off the nose and bending the port propeller. Five minutes later the port engine of the Mosquito stopped altogether. Then the toughest part of the night's operations began — getting safely back to base with one engine gone and a kite that wouldn't trim. They finally made it to a landing field at Brussels but came in a bit too high and ended up unhurt in an old shell hole. Their double victory won an immediate award of the DFC.
December brought the inevitable thoughts of Christmas and of home; on days off the Nighthawks carefully canvassed the shops at Lille, Brussels, and Ghent for gifts for families and friends. A few of the more fortunate ones were able to carry their shopping activities further afield to Paris or London. Ample time for wrapping the gifts was provided by the weather man who continually forecast rain, snow, fog and icing.
Yet in spite of the dirty December weather, the Nighthawks had a good month operationally, thanks to Hitler's committing most of what was left of the Luftwaffe to his flash-in-the-pan offensive in the Ardennes. On the night of Dec. 18, three German night fighters fell before the fire of 409 crews. One of these kills was registered by Wing Commander Somerville who thereby made his first tally with the Nighthawks; the others were made by Pilot Officer F. E. Haley and Flight Lieutenant R. H. Finlayson.
A week later, Britten and Fownes accounted for two Ju. 88s. The last engagement of the year was fought by Second Lt. Hatton and Flight Lieutenant Russ Rivers who out-manoeuvered another German night fighter and destroyed it with a single burst.
As the new year dawned Pilot Officer Bower, who had now taken over the diarist duties from Flying Officer D. J. G. (Red) Wilkes, indulged in a bit of reminiscing about the old:
It had been one of the most eventful years in our history, taking the squadron from practically non-op in the north of England to fully op in France. It saw D-Day with the squadron covering the beachhead. It has seen 45 Huns fall before the guns of the squadron, and also unfortunately it has seen some grand friends and comrades take off on their last flights. It has been a happy time for the squadron and it can be truthfully said that the squadron spirit has never been better than it has in the past twelve months.
1945's Quiet Beginning
After the Ardennes offensive, enemy air activity came almost to a standstill in 409's sector. On Jan. 23 Somerville, flying with Pilot Officer Hardy as navigator, accounted for a ]u. 188 while another crew, Flying Officers M. G. Kent and J. Simpson, made a kill on a Ju. 88G. These were the only engagements in January; in February there was only one when Kent and Simpson again brought down a Ju. 88.
Everyone was elated on Feb. 11 by the news that Wing Commander Somerville had been awarded the DSO, a fitting tribute to his own prowess as well as to the squadron as a whole. The citation read in part: "This officer has displayed outstanding efficiency, great courage and determination, qualities which have been well reflected in the fine fighting spirit of the squadron he commands." At the same time it was announced that Britten and Fownes had each been awarded the DFC.
The next day low cloud and rain cancelled all night flying; night state was reduced to one crew at readiness, thus enabling the squadron to observe the awards with a suitable celebration. About a month after this occasion Wing Commander Somerville finished his tour of duty with No. 409 and was succeeded by Frank Hatton. The former "B" Flight Commander had already distinguished himself as a capable leader and an excellent flyer. The news of his appointment was welcomed by all members of 409.
In March the weather improved sufficiently for the first softball game of the season to get under way. The outlook for flying was better, too, and regular night patrols once again became the rule rather than the exception. Preparations were now going ahead for Operation Plunder which was to carry the Allies across the Rhine and into Germany.
The night fighters of 85 Group kept constant vigilance to ensure the German Air Force didn't operate during the hours of darkness, but the Luftwaffe seemed powerless to interfere with the invasion of its home land and was seldom in evidence. Two of the very few victories won by the Group in this period went to Britten and Fownes, who destroyed a Me. 110 on 21 March and a Ju. 88 on March 25.
The squadron moved onto German soil on April 18, taking up headquarters at Rheine on the Ems River. The prospects of increased air activity produced a noticeable lift in morale witnessed by great bustle and good natured boisterousness as the Nighthawks prepared to settle down under canvas again. On April 23, 409 broke all its previous records, by shooting down no less than six enemy aircraft, three of them by one crew, Flying Officer E. E. Hermanson and Flight Lieutenant D. J. I. Hamm. Two others fell to Flying Officers J. H. Skelly and Pilot Offers P. J. Lim, a rookie crew on their first operational flight.
The sixth went to Pilot Officers P. J. Leslie and C. N. Thurgood. With the exception of Hermanson's first target, which was a FW. 190, the German aircraft were Stukas and Ju. 52s, troop transports that had figured largely in German operations in Norway and Crete. The Nighthawks' biggest problem was to avoid overshooting these slow flying aircraft and the pilots came into the attack with flaps and wheels down.
In bright moonlight the next night the squadron fired its guns in anger for the last time, taking three more German aircraft. Pilot Officer Len Fitchett and Pilot Officer Hardy shot down a Ju. 52 with a single burst while Pilot Officer B. E. Plumer and Pilot Officer H. G. Beynon destroyed a FW. 190 on the ground when they straffed an aerodrome close to the Russian demarcation line. Appropriately enough, it was Wing Commander Hatton who won the squadron's last victory. Hatton and Rivers took off at 0155 hrs on April 24.
At about 0400 hrs they were vectored after a bogey that turned out to be a Ju. 290 four-engined bomber. A second blip on River's radar indicated that a fighter escort was nearby and Hatton approached the target with caution. The Mosquito was suddenly illuminated by a series of red and white flares that made the pilot manoeuver evasively to avoid an attack from astern. When the flares had gone out Hatton closed in firing two long bursts into the big bomber. Bits and pieces fell off as the German plane made a slow turn to port then fell and crashed with a loud explosion.
Victory at Last
The Germans still had a large number of aircraft, including about 700 night fighters, but the shortage of petrol and the damage their airfields had taken from our bombers left the Luftwaffe in a sad state. No. 409 found their few remaining sorties of the war to be rather quiet. On 4 May news of the surrender of all German forces in Holland, Denmark and northwestern Germany was released. Nevertheless, a night state of two aircraft on readiness was maintained until May 8 when it was formally announced that the war had ended. The Nighthawks now could rest; their war-time flying was over.
VE-Day witnessed great activity at the Rheine airfield. Every few minutes Lancasters, Fortresses and Dakotas were landing and taking off busily engaged in transporting ex-prisoners of war back to the U.K. A happy climax to the VE-Day celebrations occurred when Flying Officers A. B. Sisson and D. S. Nicholson, who had been shot down over enemy territory on June 16, 1944, found their way back to 409 Squadron after having been liberated from a prison camp a few days previously.
After VE-Day the squadron settled down to a routine of morning parades and light duties. The weather was unusually warm and two good swimming pools in the vicinity of Rheine were frequented after the daily chores were done. On May 13 the squadron moved to Gilze, Holland, and on June 3 they headed for their last base at Twente in northeast Holland. On July 1,1945, just over four years from the day on which is was formed, No. 409 Squadron was officially disbanded.
The last victory by Wing Commanders Hatton and Rivers had raised the squadron's total of enemy aircraft destroyed to 64½. In addition, they had probably destroyed nine others, damaged 23 and had also shot down 11 flying bombs. While these statistics testify to the fighting spirit of 409 they do not sum up the squadron's contribution to the final victory.
One must remember the 52 members of 409 squadron who made the supreme sacrifice, the long list of honours and awards, the endless hours flown on night patrols and training flights, and the unceasing toil of the ground crew to keep the night fighters in the sky.
At the end of the Second World War, the Nighthawks received the following battle honours: Defence of Britain 1941–44, Fortress Europe 1942–44, France and Germany 1944–45, Normandy 1944 and Rhine 1945.
Reborn at Comox
On Nov. 1, 1954, slightly more than nine years after No. 409 (Night Fighter) squadron was disbanded, No. 409 (All Weather Fighter) Squadron was formed at RCAF Station Comox on the Pacific coast. The reborn squadron was an interceptor unit in Air Defence Command using the Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck and it continued to bear the name, motto and badge of the original night fighter unit. A link with the past was formally observed in the Comox officers' mess on March 1, 1958 when Wing Commader R. F. Hatton, DFC, the last commanding officer of the wartime Nighthawks, presided at a squadron presentation to Wing Commander T. J. Evans, the first commanding officer of No. 409 (AWF) Squadron.
In winning the Laurence A. Steinhardt Trophy for being the best ADC interceptor unit in 1959 the Comox-based squadron proved itself a worthy successor to the Nighthawks of Second World War. No. 409's groundcrew accumulated another honour, winning the Groundcrew Efficiency Award at the 1960 ADC rocket meet at Cold Lake.
The Nighthawks converted to the CF-101 Voodoo in March 1962, one of which was designated as “Hawk 1” and painted in the squadron colours. This emblematic Voodoo was a frequent visitor to airshows and competitions throughout North America. The squadron continued to win both awards for its air and ground crews. On Feb. 1, 1968, the Nighthawks was integrated into the Canadian Armed Forces.
The Voodoo was phased out in July 1984 and replaced by the CF-18 Hornet. The squadron was relocated to CFB Cold Lake where its role remained unchanged with brief spells flying NORAD ALPHA Alert at Cold Lake and Bagotville, before the Nighthawks were reassigned to CFB Baden-Soellingen, in Central Region (Germany). This phase heralded for the Nighthawks, and for the fighter community as a whole, the beginning of a new and exciting era in fighter aviation in Europe.
Return to Europe
On June 7, 1985, 409 arrived in Europe, the first Hornets to do so. This move to Europe also brought a primary role change to the Nighthawks: from one of air defence to air-to-ground operations, for the first time in the squadron's history. The squadron continued to prove its mettle by receiving excellent results in a number of NATO and national evaluations.
By the summer of 1990, 409 was beyond a doubt the most experienced and proficient fighter squadron in the Canadian Air Force. This reality coincided with Saddam Hussein's August invasion of Kuwait. On Sept. 14, 1990, the Prime Minister of Canada, The Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, announced that a Canadian fighter squadron would be deployed to the Persian Gulf. The deployment of 409 to the Persian Gulf was undertaken smoothly and effectively at the beginning of October 1990. The squadron thus became the first squadron on active service since the Second World War. Tasked with air defence of the allied fleet in the Persian Gulf, the squadron flew operational sorties immediately on arrival in Doha, Qatar. While on active duty, the squadron flew over 100 hours in the Middle East without any flight safety incidents.
Between June 1985 and June 1991, 409 accumulated over 28,000 Accident Free Hours on the CF-18, becoming the first squadron to achieve this flying rate for any nation or unit flying the Hornet aircraft. During this period, the Nighthawks served Canada well with a long list of firsts. The squadron was the first to Europe after D-Day, first in night fighter kills after D-Day, the first fighter squadron in Comox, the first operational Hornet squadron, the first Hornets in Europe and the first Canadian Fighter Squadron to the Gulf. It was also the first CF-18 squadron to disband, which occurred June 15, 1991.
409 was reformed on July 6, 2006 at 4 Wing Cold Lake by amalgamating personnel and aircraft from 416 Tactical Fighter Squadron and 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron. 409 is now 4 Wing's only operational CF-18 Squadron. It deploys tactical fighter forces to meet Canadian and allied defence needs. Under the umbrella of the NORAD mission, fighter crews are on stand-by 24/7 ready to respond to any aerospace threat.
The year 2011 was an especially busy year for 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS). Late March, 409 TFS deployed five CF-18 Hornets to Iceland for Operation Ignition, Canada’s participation in the NATO-Iceland air policing program. Iceland is the only NATO nation that does not maintain its own armed forces. At the request of the Icelandic government, NATO allies periodically deploy fighter aircraft to Keflavik to provide air defence coverage. Air policing is a peacetime activity that encompasses radar surveillance and identification of transiting aircraft. Fighter aircraft may assist in identifying and, if necessary, escorting aircraft.
During the same timeframe, the Canadian Forces commenced activities for Op Mobile to impose on Libya the arms embargo and no-fly zone called for in UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) passed March 17. It authorized the international community to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. The day after the Security Council Resolution was passed, Canadian Air Force assets deployed to the region, including six CF-18’s. Air operations to enforce the no-fly zone and protect civilians began on March 19, 2011.
The first group of 409 personnel was deployed to Trapani on 28 Apr. Some personnel went directly from Iceland to Italy, including the Squadron Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. Kenny. In June, Lt.-Col. Mcleod took over as commanding officer of 409, with the Change of Command ceremony being held in Trapani. Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed on Oct. 20, 2011. This resulted in suspension of flying operations, and on Oct. 31 Op Mobile officially ceased and closure activities began.
During Op Mobile, the combined 409/425 Sqn detachment accumulated 944 operational sorties and 3,881 flying hours. The capability of the CF-18 to drop GPS guided weapons (GBU-31 and 38) was acquired during the operation, with expeditious testing and evaluation carried out in Cold Lake during the summer.
Most recently, Operation IMPACT was the Canadian Armed Forces’ contribution to the Middle East Stabilization Force—the multinational coalition to halt and degrade the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Republic of Iraq and in Syria. As part of Joint Task Force-Iraq, Air Task Force-Iraq (ATF-I) 409 TSF contributed to coalition air operations against ISIL. The use of air power contributed to the destruction of ISIL infrastructure and equipment, denying them the military means to attack Iraqi security forces or coalition assets. This tremendous effort was made possible by the hard work and dedication of 409 TFS maintenance, logistics and Intelligence personnel, as well as the outstanding support from 4 Wing and multiple RCAF units from across Canada.
Although technological progress has led to changes in the techniques and tactics of air interception, the basic role of the pilot-navigator crew remains the same. The present-day Nighthawk crews well know what it is to wait in anxious readiness for the controller's call to chase a bogey and to stare intently as they approach the target, asking themselves, "Is it one of the enemy's or one of ours?"