Fairchild Bolingbroke (Bristol Blenheim) at Nanton museum recalls RCAF role in WW2 Alaska

Bolingbroke at BCMC. Photo: John Stemple

Bolingbroke at BCMC.
Photo: John Stemple

20th August 2016 | Nanton, Alberta, Canada. One of the often overlooked airplanes of the Second World War is the Bristol Blenheim, which was produced in Canada as the Bolingbroke. The Bolingbroke served the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as a maritime patrol aircraft and via the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) as an advanced combat trainer and target tug. Bomber Command Museum of Canada’s 30th Anniversary ceremonies, which were held today, appropriately utilized the facility’s Bolingbroke, which wears Blenheim livery, as a backdrop for speakers.

Bristol-type 142M Bolingbroke. Public Domain RCAF photo via Wikipedia.

Early in the conflict the Royal Air Force (RAF) heavily employed Bristol Blenheims. In fact, as BCMC’s website states, “Just one minute after Britain’s formal declaration of war against Germany took effect on September 3, 1939, a Blenheim IV of 139 Squadron took off to fly the RAF’s first sortie of the war, a photo-reconnaissance operation. The next day, Blenheims made the first Bomber Command attack by bombing enemy warships.” England was at war with National Socialist (Nazi) Germany at Blenheims were in the thick of the aerial fighting.

Blenheim Mark IV of 21 Squadron at Bodney in August 1941. Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Blenheim Mark IV of 21 Squadron at Bodney in August 1941. Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia and IWM. Original photo by RAF.

However, the aeroplanes, which had been considered quite advanced when debuted in 1935 and compared to the RAF’s standard fighters (the Gloster Gladiator and Hawker Fury), were by late 1939 generally unable to cope with opposing German Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Bf 110s during their often unescorted missions over the Nazi-occupied continent. Antiaircraft fire also proved a formidable impediment for Blenheims. Thus, loss tallies were unacceptably high and Blenheims were withdrawn from service (The Bomber Command War Diaries. An Operational Reference Book: 1939-1945, page 301) by RAF Bomber Command after No. 18 Squadron, RAF’s, nocturnal intruder mission against the airfields of Leeuwarden, Rheine, Twente and Vechta on the night of 17th/18th August 1942.

Canada's Bomber Command Memorial at BCMC. Photo: John Stemple

Canada’s Bomber Command Memorial at BCMC. Photo: John Stemple

The federal government of Canada, prior to entering the war, was interested in producing contemporary military designs and modernizing the RCAF inventory. The Commonwealth country understandably looked to the United Kingdom as a source.

One combat type that could be readily built was the Blenheim. In 1937 a contract was let that permitted license production of the Blenheim Mk IV through Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. The Bolingbroke (aka “Boly”) was the first modern, all aluminum aircraft built in Canada. Notably, the Fairchild versions incorporated instrumentation and other equipment manufactured in Canada and the United States. Some 600 were assembled at Longueuil, Quebec.

RCAF ensign flying over BCMC. Photo: John Stemple

The first of the Bolingbrokes entered service with the RCAF in November 1939. No. 8 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron was the first unit to receive to the Bolingbroke.

Canada, having been designated as a major partner in BCATP, placed the majority of Bolingbrokes in the training programme. In addition to performing as advanced multiengine aircrew trainers, others were converted for work as target tugs to train antiaircraft gunners.

Two RCAF squadrons were assigned to the American-Canadian defence perimeter to protect the Aleutian Islands and west coast of Alaska from Japanese attack. Combat usage of Bolingbrokes was limited to RCAF units based in Canada, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Ron Mackay summarizes (Bristol Blenheim In Action, page 41) Bolingbroke combat operations. He indicates that the planes were used primarily to fly anti-submarine coastal patrols over both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

No. 8 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron, which operated Bolingbroke Mk Is and Mk IVs from December 1940 to August 1943, was posted to RCAF Station Sea Island, which was located on the west coast of Canada, as part of RCAF Western Air Command. In June 1942, in response to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 7th December 1941 attacks on military bases around Pearl Harbour, Territory of Hawaii, it was equipped with twelve Bristol Bolingbroke IVs  moved to Alaska as a component of RCAF X Wing. The unit operated from Elmendorf Field at Anchorage, and additionally small detachments were based at U.S. Naval Air Station Kodiak and Marks Army Air Field at Nome. During March 1943 No. 8 returned to RCAF Station Sea Island.

No. 115 Squadron, RCAF, which was equipped with Bolingbroke Mk Is from August 1941 to December 1941 and Mk IVs from November 1941 to August 1943, arrived in the Aleutians in April 1942 and was assigned anti-submarine patrol and maritime reconnaissance missions. No. 115 was an RCAF Canadian Home War Establishment Squadron and patrolled the coastal waters of British Columbia and Alaska as a component of Western Air Command. On 7th July 1942 Flight Sergeant P.M.G. Thomas and his Bolingbroke crew sighted and attacked the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) submarine Ro32. The attack damaged the submersible and Thomas and his Wireless Operator promptly directed U.S. Navy destroyers to the coordinates. The submarine was believed to have been sunk by the American warships, but Japanese records (Bowyer, page 116) show the boat in service during August 1945.

Starboard rear view of BCMC's Bolingbroke. Photo: John Stemple.

Starboard rear view of BCMC’s Bolingbroke. Photo: John Stemple.

BCMC’s example is Bolingbroke #9987, a trainer model (Mk IV-T). The aeroplane was powered by two Bristol Mercury XX nine-cylinder, air-cooled, supercharged 920-horsepower radial engines. It served with No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School at MacDonald, Manitoba, as part of the BCATP. The plane was restored as a Bomber Command Blenheim IV. On 12th August 2000 it was dedicated in the memory of Pilot Officer Barry Davidson, a pilot from nearby Calgary who was shot down while flying a No. 18 Squadron Blenheim IV on 6th July 1940 on attacks on Luftwaffe aerodromes in France.

It is Bomber Command Museum of Canada’s 30th anniversary, and more than seven decades after the end of the Second World War the Bolingbroke stands as a tribute to the airmen who completed the first offensive mission of the conflict and the many young Canadian males who gave their lives in the defence of freedom and in service to King, Mother Country and Bomber Command. May they always be remembered.

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The author (John Stemple) thanks Bomber Command Museum of Canada. Furthermore, the 20th Century Aviation Magazine staff wishes to thank General Manager Andrea Townshend (and staff members Andrea Ramsay, Cara Gray and Mercedes Brentnall) of the High River Ramada Hotel and Kathryn of the Auditorium Hotel in Nanton for their exceptional hospitality and customer service.

Suggested Viewings

Bristol Bolingbroke IVT (Blenheim IV) Serving with RCAF in the 1940’s

 

The forgotten Bomber (1989) documentary

 

Bristol Blenheim Air to Air

 

Sources and Suggested Readings

Boyer, Chaz. Bristol Blenheim. Shepperton: Ian Allen Ltd. 1984.

Bristol Blenheim

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Blenheim

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV

http://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/bristol.html

Bristol Bolingbroke

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Bolingbroke

Mackay, Ron. Bristol Blenheim In Action. Carrollton: Squadron Signal Publications, Inc. 1988.

Middlebrook, Martin and Chris Everitt. The Bomber Command War Diaries. An Operational Reference Book: 1939-1945, London: Penguin, 1990.

No. 8 Squadron RCAF

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._8_Squadron_RCAF

No. 115 Squadron RCAF

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._115_Squadron_RCAF

World War II: Bristol Blenheim

http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/worldwariiaircraft/p/bristol-blenheim.htm