Resurrecting a Halifax Bomber from the sea
By Elinor Florence
When I first heard about this, I thought it must be a joke or an exaggeration.
I have visited the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta, several times. Like every other visitor, I am staggered with the volunteer commitment to preserving an original Lancaster bomber, plus a number of other important aircraft and artifacts honouring the Canadian men and women who served with Bomber Command during the Second World War.
But this story is for real.
Led by retired Air Canada pilot Karl Kjarsgaard, volunteers have located the wreckage of a Halifax about 15 kilometres off the coast of Sweden.
They plan to dig up all 20 tons, ship the pieces to Alberta, and reconstruct the whole darned thing!
Their motto: “We leave no Halifax behind.”
Here’s the story behind this particular aircraft.
The Halifax HR871 of the RCAF 405 Squadron went down during a terrible storm on the night of August 2, 1943, on its way home from a raid on Germany.
The British pilot John “Pee Wee” Phillips, who is still alive, remembers it well. In an interview with author and historian Ted Barris of Toronto, he explained what happened.
On that fateful night, Pee Wee and his crew flew to northern Germany to mark targets around Hamburg. But Bomber Command’s meteorological experts had badly underestimated the poor flying conditions.
Pee Wee and his crew (pictured above) — navigator Graham Mainprize; flight engineer Herbert McLean; and rear gunner Lloyd Kohnke (all three from Saskatchewan); wireless operator Ron Andrews, from London, England; mid-upper gunner Joe King from Ontario; and bomb-aimer Vernon Knight, from Wales — flew into what was later called “The Night of the Great Storm.”
Their flight path took them into thunderheads that towered 30,000 into the air, violent wind gusts and St. Elmo’s fire that shot forks of lightning at their aircraft.
He aimed the crippled aircraft northward across the Baltic toward Sweden. At as low an altitude as he dared, along the coast of the neutral country, Pee Wee instructed his crew to bail out and they all parachuted to ground safely.
Then he locked the control stick of Halifax HR871 in place and aimed it out over the ocean, never expecting to see it again, before baling out himself.
The Halifax flew out to sea, then plunged into the sea and has lain there ever since, 15 metres below the surface and partly buried in sand.
A Swedish diving crew stumbled across the remains a couple of years ago, and the recovery was put in motion.
3, 4, 5. All remaining diving photos.
Recovery efforts were put on hold for the winter but they will resume this month. Naturally this will be costly, and donations are needed.
If you would like to support this worthwhile attempt to preserve an important piece of Canadian history, you may donate online HERE.
As for rebuilding an entire Halifax, this drawing shows how close they are to completion.
The red bits have been collected from various sources, and the yellow bits have been identified.
In spite of the reputation of the more famous Lancaster, more than 70 percent of Canadian bomber operations were performed in 6,178 Handley Page Halifaxes, making it the most important wartime bombing weapon.
Meanwhile, the Bomber Command Museum is launching its usual schedule of public events, and it is well worth a visit, especially when the volunteers fire up the four Merlin engines on the mighty Lancaster.
You can see the complete schedule HERE.
ALL PHOTOS CREDIT BOMBER COMMAND MUSEUM OF CANADA.
– Career journalist Elinor Florence, who now lives in Invermere, has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. She writes a regular blog called Wartime Wednesdays, in which she tells true stories of Canadians during World War Two. Married with three grown daughters, her passions are village life, Canadian history, antiques, and old houses. You may read more about Elinor on her website at www.elinorflorence.com.
Elinor’s first historical novel was recently published by Dundurn Press in Toronto. Bird’s Eye View is the only novel ever written in which the protagonist is a Canadian woman in uniform during World War Two. The heroine Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs. She spies on the enemy from the sky and makes several crucial discoveries. Lonely and homesick, she maintains contact with Canada through letters from the home front. Her second book – My Favourite Veterans: True Stories of World War Two’s Hometown Heroes, is now available at Lotus Books in downtown Cranbrook. The books are available through any bookstore including Lotus Books in Cranbrook, and also as an ebook from any digital book provider including Amazon, Kindle and Kobo. You can read more about the book by visiting Elinor’s website at www.elinorflorence.com/birdseyeview