Grostenquin, France

1952 – The Road to Big Muddy – Bill Worthy

I guess the best way to tell the "Leapfrog 2" story is to start at Uplands and provide a little of the background first.

I was posted from the Vampire OTU at Chatham in late April 1952 to a holding squadron (which was or became 434 Sqn later) at Uplands in Ottawa,. The first squadron to fly over the Atlantic route (439) was getting ready to depart, and farewell parties filled our social calendars to overflowing. 416 Squadron was also getting ready for a fall departure. They were divesting themselves of the trusty Mustangs which were heading for reserve duty and starting to accept delivery of the new Mk II Sabres (F-86E) from Canadair in Montreal. There was lots of excitement and change, with leadership from WW II fighter pilots (CO was S/L John McKay), some post war trainees with several years experience, and an incoming deluge of SPROGS like myself with 40 or 50 hrs of jet time. As 416 Squadron had relatively high experience levels they were frequently tasked to fill flight commander slots on the new squadrons being formed at Bagottville, St. Huberts, and Uplands. Harry Hrischenko, (who was the first Canadian pilot to bail out of a Sabre), and Ken Lewis, who later moved to the top levels of our Canadian Forces, were both sent to Bagottville as I recall. With some fatalities overseas at North Luffenham, more pilots were also sent there as replacements. This left a hole in 416's slate and Pudge Marshall, Fred Rudy and myself were posted in to fill the gap. Several weeks later, Gord Brown and John Hutt moved in as well. There were only a few Sabres to start with so the senior chaps got to play with them and we were stuffed into the old Harvards and a couple of Mk I T-33's with underslung tip tanks and Allison Engines. Check outs were quick and dirty and I remember coming in from a Harvard maintenance test flight and as I passed the T-33, Pudge called out for some assistance in the start sequence so he could take this news reporter up on a famil flight. Between the two of us we figured it out but I cannot foget the look of concern on the face of his passenger.

In due course we were checked out on the Sabre and did our Mach 2 run, combat training, and long range flight tests. I also remember the 48 plane flypast for Air Force Day. We gathered at St. Hubert and after a hot, hairy start up from both ends of the runway departed for flybys at several locations. I believe Bob Simmons led that one.

A few days before departure the government held a farewell parade and ceremony for the three Squadrons heading for 2 Wing. 430 flew in from North Bay, 421 from St. Hubert, and all the squadron aircraft were lined up around the corner perimeter of the ramp adjacent to the old hangars. It was pretty impressive with both ground and aircrews lined up in front of the birds. Many senior RCAF and government leaders did the inspecting while another squadron (I believe 413 from Bagotville) did the flypast. Shots of this ceremony are posted on the wall of the Glouchester Street mess in Ottawa, and film coverage of the flypast and parade were used during the sign off of CBC TV programming until at least 1960. Lots of parties associated with that event. Morgan, Evjen, and Panell as the “Terrible Three” performed their para jump skit for the umpteenth time and we all lived with hangovers.

As there were more pilots than airplanes on each squadron, some had to ride on the North (Noisy) Star for some of the legs. All the squadrons left from their own bases and either stopped in at Bagottville for fuel, or flew direct to Goose Bay. I had the North Star ride from Uplands to Narsarsuaaq in Greenland and then flew two trips on the same day through Keflavik into Prestwick. 421 Sqn pilots weren’t so lucky and got stuck in Bluie for seven days while we suffered in silence around Scotland. (Refer to the Biscuit Factory Tour article)

We flew in sections of four and had just enough fuel to make the destination with 5 or 10 minutes of fuel to spare. Nobody else seemed to worry so we didn’t either. The Americans in Goose, Bluie and Keflavik provided SAR coverage with SA-16s (called Duckbutts) which orbitted enroute and also transmitted a weak Radio Beacon signal. Their bar in Bluie was cheap and efficient. Nuff said.

We were delayed in Prestwick, waiting for 421 so that all squadrons would arrive in Grostenquin at the same time and celebrate the arrival on the continent with due governmental aplomb. Unfortunately for me, one of our aircraft ran into engine trouble and had to dump into North Luffenham. I was on the North Star again and it was diverted to provide support, as we had some of the ground crews on board. Our welcome to Europe was much more subdued than that of our counterparts in France. We did find the bar tho’ and probably didn’t know the difference after 11 o’clock or so.

The next day we flew into 2 Wing and saw our new home. A number of tin huts surrounded by newly started structures for hangars and line shacks, plus acres and acres of mud. I remember eating at the combined mess which had a dirt floor and as there were no lights some smart chap came up with the idea of drinking a quart of milk quickly and using the waxed carton as a candle. It meant we had to finish our meal quickly before it burnt down.

In the quarters, heat was from a kerosene burner with many octopus like, flexible tubes, which were pointed down each of the halls. The last one in from the bar normally pointed it into his own room so everyone else did without. There were a few occasions as well when some rat like animal would crawl into these tubes and die from the fumes. The resulting smell wafted into our quarters and was very hard to remove.

We shared a mess with the Senior NCO’s and for several months learned to drink French beer and gamble with French Francs (About 360 to 400 to the dollar at that time). As “one mille” notes were abundant it was not uncommon to hear the expression “a thousand on a down card” around the stuke tables. The tin buildings were a little flimsy . During the first winter when one of the chapels lost it’s roof the opposite religions Padre was heard to say “Well now you know which is the right religion!” You guessed it. The following week another windstorm blew his chapels roof off as well.

Some ground crew had come over with us on the North Stars and others came by boat. At that time we provided both maintenance and servicing on the individual squadrons. This changed to Central Maintenance several months later. Without hangars or sheds there was no way to maintain or service our aircraft, so we were told flying would be held to a minimum for several weeks or so. This became months. We all got special leave which was of little practical use as all our money had been spent in Scotland. I know I didn’t fly from then (around October 11th) until the middle of November when our squadron was deployed to North Luffenham for aircraft modifications. I flew again on 4th of December returning to GT. Not what you would call maintaining currency. For navigation we had a radio beacon and GCA for approach. It was taken for granted that we could fly IFR to minimums without training or practise and proved them right most of the time. Some hairy stories abound about taxiing in with nothing on the fuel gauge but the makers name.

It was during one of the other squadrons deployment to North Luffenham that an illustrious pilot tried to divert into Sculthorpe and whipped the tent off of a number of unsuspecting Americans based there. Very exciting for them.

Back in GT the mud was still knee deep and our money short but at Christmas when limited decorations were available I remember accompanying a number of our squadrons pilots over to the airmans quarters with a stolen Christmas tree and several bottles of Seagrams plus some cases of beer. We used the cork seal in the beer caps to clip the caps onto the branch ends to decorate the tree. It turned out to be a great party.

I don’t remember the date exactly, but suspect it was in January of 1953 that we were sent on an Oxygen and Altitude Chamber course in Wiesbaden. There, the Americans were still “Occupation Forces” as the formal treaty was still unsigned. We lived cheaply in good hotels and wined and dined ourselves in the interval between lectures. The US troops had a curfew and had to be off the streets by midnight. They also had to wear uniforms all the time so we took advantage of the situation and waited until midnight when all the world was ours, along with the women the Americans had been courting earlier.

In February 1953 the flying finally started up and we began to learn about tactical operations in our new environment. As young bucks we thought we knew everything and had to learn the hard way that just because you had the best aircraft in the theatre you couldn’t ignore the basics of tactics and dog fighting. The Americans were still flying the old straight wing F-84’s but many of them had experience from Korea. We came home with our tail between our legs several times until we learned how to exploit our speed and manoeuvrability to our own advantage. It was during this period that we used to visit the Recce pilots from Toul Rosierre near Nancy. They were flying modified twin engine aircraft from WW II (Marauders I think) and we would bounce them in the air and also at the home base. They had even worse quarters than we, having had to build their own mess and tent floors from old packing crates. They also had a night role using flares for photography and did not take kindly to our daytime beat ups. We spoiled many naps. They retaliated by sending several aircraft over about midnight and took pictures of us staring up at them while the flares went off with accompanying loud bangs. I know I thought World War III was starting. 3 Wing also arrived in March 1953, into their spiffy barracks and neat base at Zweibrucken. They were denied a full arrival party when the Beach 18 Expeditor crashed nearby with some of our senior officers aboard and the mess was closed down. The idea was broached at 2 Wing that we should host them in our old mess in GT and make up for the missing bash!! An invite was sent to the boys in Toul Rosierre as well. Everybody arrived and the party was just getting hot when the Americans arrived en masse and, before saying hello, walked over to the wall and posted the aforementioned photos of Grostenquin at night for our benefit. Needless to say we let up on the beatups after that. As a side note, the 3 Wing pilots drove over in buses and arrived none too sober after making it into a “Pub Crawl” using cafes enroute as a substitute. The next morning we found a full keg of beer that hadn’t been opened yet and, after shaking it around a lot trying to jam it into an old box for stability, knocked out the bung while it was in a 45 degree angle and were all thoroughly drenched as a result. The floor had at least two inches of beer foam all over the room. Another experience for the young and adventurous.

One other item worth mentioning is the fact the airfield was not finished and had not been turned over to the Canadian authorities yet. The French used National Service troops for security and most were trained for service in Morocco or Algeria. They were each allowed 50 rounds of ammunition per day and it was not unusual for us to hear the chatter of their automatic weapons at any time of the day or night. They also had civilian contractors building the base and they used north African natives as their employees. The ditches were dug by hand and the cables laid in them by lines of men pulling the cable from reels. One of the “other” squadrons pilots got annoyed one Saturday morning when he was trying to sleep and recover from a Friday Night special. The supervisors of the cable layers used whistles (like basketball referees use) to pace the steps for cable laying. Two whistles meant pick up the cable and then each whistle after that meant to pull the cable one step. Unable to stop the noise but being clever as hell, our pilot brought out his own whistle and at inopportune times, blew his own sequence of blasts that created consternation among the troops. They would drop the cable and mill around until the super was able to get them organized again. At this point our hero would repeat his signals and the sequence repeat itself.

The guards at the main gate were very taciturn as well and did not show any signs of humour when drunken Canadians tried to enter or leave without the proper procedure. Remember, there were no lights so the old ‘gasoline in sand in a barrel’ was the only light at night and some exciting events were frequent.

My last month was spent in Zweibrucken as they shut down GT for runway repairs in August 1953 and we operated out of tents at 3 Wing. In early September 1953 the boys from 4 Wing arrived and we all bussed down there for the welcoming party. I remember 80 cent Champagne and the long bar. Another bunch of stories there as well.

I could go on forever about our life and times during that first year but I am sure many others could recite their stories in a more interesting way. I only lasted a year in GT as the official policy changed regarding accompanying wives of married pilots. Instead of going home after a year, they were offered three year tours and us single guys were transferred back to instructional or ferry jobs as the new pilots arrived from the OTU in Chatham. I went to the brand new “Overseas Ferry Unit” at St. Hubert and got to fly the North Atlantic route over and over again for the next several years. Guess I didn’t do it right the first time?