12th August 2015 | Nanton, Alberta and Lakeland, Florida. Those who visit U.S. military aviation museums and organizations that preserve airworthy examples of the most relied upon heavy bombers (Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and Boeing B-29 Superfortress) flown by Americans in combat during World War II are often awed by the sight of one or more of these stately behemoths. However one machine is perennially missing from the inventories: the Handley Page Halifax. And although the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (near Dayton, Ohio) has a nice display about Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American and composer of the famous sonnet High Flight, also largely absent has been the recognition of the largely overlooked and forgotten contributions and sacrifices of the many hundreds of other Americans who voluntarily served as members of the RCAF.
The RCAF-Americans offered their lives in the defence of democracy, the Mother Country, and British Commonwealth of Nations long before the United States officially came into the great conflagration, and, ironically, in the months after the bombing of military bases at and around Pearl Harbour, Territory of Hawaiʻi, some of these U.S. citizens soon (circa 1943) found themselves based in and defending the American territories of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands as members of Canadian aerial bombardment and fighter squadrons.
Statistics compiled by Karl Kjarsgaard of Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada), an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Handley Page Halifax, recovering crashed Halifaxes, and restoring an example to airworthiness, reflect that at least 835 ‘Yanks’ were KIA while on operations in RCAF bomber squadrons alone. Dave Birrell confirms this (page 20) of his book Big Joe McCarthy: The RCAF’s American Damubuster. Birrell states, “Of the 8,864 Americans who served in the RCAF, about 800 were killed, many while serving with Bomber Command.”
Birrell adds the following information on page 33: “A striking example of the loss-rates is that during the RCAF’s Halifax operations between March 1943 and February 1944, the average loss each night exceeded six percent of the bombers sent to the target. A tour of thirty operations was required and at this loss rate, the chances of surviving a tour was a mere sixteen percent.” Notably, Birrell records the fact on page 61 that, “One third of all Bomber Command aircrew were Canadians” and as we now know hundreds of Americans were interspersed within the total.
Obviously the majority of the deaths referenced above occurred in Halifaxes because Canadians, and therefore the RCAF-Americans, were largely posted to Handley Page Halifax squadrons during the early war years. This fact undoubtedly qualifies the Halifax as the fourth most significant aeroplane in terms of American personnel casualties.
There were several reasons for these aircraft and personnel losses. One was that early marks or models of Halifaxes were forced, due to supply issues pertaining to the powerful and preferred Bristol Hercules radial aircraft powerplants, to rely upon lower-rated versions of liquid-cooled Rolls Royce Merlin engines. The more powerful Merlins were allotted to fighters such as the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricanes.
Thus, the four Merlins supplied for Halifax production were unable to lift the heavies to high altitudes. Flying at the lower levels, of course, made the Halifaxes more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and German night fighters tended to prey upon lower flying and more readily accessible bombers. This was confirmed by the late RAF night fighter pilot Wing Commander J.R.D. Braham in his classic book Night Fighter. Braham noted (page 151) the following: “[T]he information we had from Bomber Command Headquarters was that the enemy tended to hit the lower-flying bombers hardest.”
An additional factor was that the liquid-cooled engines’ glowing exhausts were beacons for roving Luftwaffe night fighters. Also, the kidney-shaped stabilisers created problems. This design caused manoeuvrability limitations that could cause loss of control during violent evasive actions.
Fortunately, once the D-shaped tails and Hercules radials appeared on Halifaxes losses subsequently declined because operational ceilings increased and control could be maintained throughout manoeuvres. Therefore, in the long term the Halifax became what many contend was the most versatile four-engine aircraft of the conflict.
Nevertheless, and largely as a result of the aforementioned shortcomings and deficiencies, some 70% of all RCAF bomber combat manpower losses between 1942 and 1945 were incurred aboard Handley Page Halifaxes.
The names, aircraft, home states, etc., have been confirmed related to approximately 740 of the RCAF-Americans with another group (perhaps in excess of 100) who were KIA with Canadian squadrons after they had begun transfer to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and Army Air Corps* is under active review. Many of these men were adorned in their new USAAF uniforms but still flying on operations with the RCAF when they died. Unfortunately, USAF and RCAF histories currently possess a dearth of information related to the subject.
The undoubtedly unintentional lack of remembrance is unfortunate for several reasons. At the time RCAF-Americans submitted their paperwork to transfer to the USAAC (in most instances this would have taken place in late 1943) they were told by USAAF personnel officers to go back to the RCAF and continue their combat tours until ordered to report by the USAAF command. Additionally, there was the appealing option of staying with the RCAF in order to finish a combat tour rather than depart and start a mission tally from the beginning with an unfamiliar USAAF crew and administration. Sadly, in hindsight, many of these airmen unwisely decided to stay with their RCAF and RAF mates. (RCAF men were spread amongst RCAF and RAF squadrons.)
Thus, USAAF and combat records often do not include these individuals who were essentially in bureaucratic limbo at the time of their demise. Similarly, RCAF histories and Rolls of Honour do not include this group because they had disappeared from official RCAF lists as the men were now USAAF but still flying Canadian and British aeroplanes.
As Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) and her sister concern (Bomber Command Museum of Canada) endeavour to educate the public and historians and perpetuate the legacy of the Handley Page Halifax, officials actively encourage museums and organisations in the U.S. to undertake efforts to pay tribute to the great flying machine and the Americans who died while doing so.
*Note: The Air Corps became a subordinate element of the Army Air Forces on 20 June 1941. Since the Air Corps was established by statute in 1926, its disestablishment required an act of Congress. This action did not take place until 1947. Between 9 March 1942 and 18 September 1947 the Air Corps continued to exist as a combatant arm and personnel of the Army Air Forces were still assigned to the Air Corps (Source: Air Force Association 2015 USAF Almanac).
The author (John Stemple) thanks Karl Kjarsgaard of Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) and Bomber Command Museum of Canada for their cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article. You may contact John Stemple via the following e-mail address: 20thCenturyAviationMagazine@Gmail.com
Braham, J.R.D. Night Fighter. New York: Bantam, 1961.
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Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada)
Birrell, Dave. Big Joe McCarthy: The RCAF’s American Damubuster, Nanton: Nanton Lancaster Society, 2012.
Bomber Command Museum of Canada
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Gaffen, Fred. Cross-Border Warriors: Canadians in American Forces, Americans in Canadian Forces From the Civil War to the Gulf, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995.
Handley Page Halifax
Kostenuk, S. and J. Griffin. RCAF Squadrons and Aircraft 1924-1968. Toronto: A.M. Hakkert Ltd., 1977.
Stachiw, Anthony L. and Andrew Tattersall. In Canadian Service Aircraft: Handley Page Halifax. St. Catharines: Vanwell Publishing Ltd., 2005.