423 Squadron is Reborn
The Eagles of 423 were not long from the skies. Once more, they were called upon to serve their nation in times of tension. The post-WW II period had seen the world go from hopes for world harmony and European democracy, to the rise of the Communist Bloc and the blockade of Berlin. The disarmament process, which was so quickly undertaken with the closing days of the war, was now hastily reversed. Canada was a key power in the world, finishing the war with the fourth largest air force in existence. It was expected that Churchill's "Aerodrome of Democracy" would fulfil its part of the NORAD and NATO agreements. Canada was in a position to meet its "contractual obligations" in the early 1950's in every sense of the word. At the end of the war, aircraft production was Canada's fourth largest industry. Despite subsequent drastic cutbacks, the RCAF was still able to make its wishes known and expect results. As the Cold War worsened, the RCAF knew it needed an all-weather interceptor of premium quality to accompany its impressive Canadair-built Sabre day fighters. AV Roe Ltd. responded to the call, and the Avro CF-100 Canuck was born. The air force also knew that it needed the best of units to operate the aircraft and 423 Squadron was reborn, this time as an All-Weather (Fighter) Squadron.
A New Start in St. Hubert
The squadron was resurrected on 1 July 1953 in St. Hubert, Quebec, as the nation's second All-Weather Fighter Squadron. Just as the wartime squadron had started with only one man and an empty room in 1942, this new beginning also had a strange start. Three men met in an empty hangar on that special day, one of them in a body cast. The unfortunate pilot had ejected from a T-33 Silver Star a short time before; now, he had come here to take command of the unit. His name was Wing Commander RJ Lawlor, DFC.
In short time the unit fleshed out, receiving its first two Canuck aircraft on 20 July 1953. The squadron was originally equipped with the Mk 3B version of the fighter. The first official flight in a 423 aircraft came four days later when F/L SK Woolley took NQ+149 (18149) out for an air test. Squadron aircrew had already taken part in operational flying, however, just as their World War Two predecessors had. Borrowing aircraft from No. 3 Operational Training Unit, several crews had participated in OPERATION TAILWIND ten days previously. This exercise, designed to test the air defences of NORAD, brought into play all the RCAF's airworthy fighters in Eastern Canada in addition to large fighter and bomber formations from the USAF.
It was only a month after the exercise that 423 Squadron had its first Canuck accident. On 11 August, Aircraft 18160 crashed just after take-off in Ville Jacques Cartier during an acceptance flight, killing Flying Officers Alan D Wright and Allan Miles. The Eagles continued preparations for their first public performance. The highlight of the month was their appearance at the Canadian National Exhibition, followed by the National Air Show in Toronto on 17-19 August. Four aircraft took part, operating from AV Roe's Malton airfield.
By late September 1953, the squadron had received its full complement of aircrew and "Clunks", allowing training to begin in earnest. The program was carried out in three stages. First, the normal flying practices were stepped up, with emphasis being placed on Airborne Intercept (AI) and Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) exercises to work each crew up as a fighting unit. On the fifteenth of October, the second stage began with a night flying program. The fledgling crews began their third stage of training with gunnery practice at the air-to-ground range at La Baie on 12 November. The latter would become a regular event in the unit's training schedule. The squadron also worked up an air display routine, which was first seen in a special airshow for the Minister of National Defence, along with a group of fifty Senators and Members of Parliament, on 24 November.
The year would not be complete without a grand exercise to test the freshly-sharpened talons of the new unit. NORAD was all too happy to oblige. Early on 5 December 1953, the ringing klaxon announced scramble after scramble, as OPERATION DUST DEVIL I took place. Over two days, 423 Squadron showed its stuff by "killing" seven bombers over fourteen sorties, a very impressive performance for a unit scarcely out of the nest.
Another fine performance was by F/O Thompson on 23 December. While on a local flight in NQ+172, Thompson experienced an engine failure. Successfully landing the big jet, he became the squadron's first pilot to carry out a single engine approach and landing. His crew was one of the ten two-man crews which, along with nine aircraft, made up the squadron strength at the end of 1953.
The new year began quietly enough, with all squadron aircrew attending the High Altitude Indoctrination Course (HAI) in Toronto at the Institute of Aviation Medicine. Flying rates continued to rise, and were further boosted when the unit began flying over the first weekend of every month in support of Quebec City's Auxiliary AC&W Squadron, starting in February. The end of the month saw the Eagles once again involved in a large-scale exercise, this one being EXERCISE HEATWAVE. In this operation, large numbers of USAF B-47 bombers carried out a simulated attack in the squadron's air defence sector over 18-20 February.
Four weeks later, the squadron would have a chance to redeem itself in another similar exercise. This one, DUST DEVIL II, was originally planned for a forty-eight hour period (20 - 21 March) but was largely cancelled due to poor weather. Still, in the one day phase which did occur, 423 Squadron flew twenty-three hours of interception flights over twenty sorties, and bagged three of the invading bombers.
April Fool's Day is also the birthday of the RCAF, and 423 Squadron received a present that day in 1954. The unit took a dual-seat CF-100 on strength, which allowed pilots to fly with other pilots, making the learning of new skills easier. One pilot was forced to learn new skills in a hurry. F/L Don McNichol had just set down 18170 when both starboard main wheel tires exploded. By the use of some fancy footwork on the rudder pedals, he was able to keep the aircraft on the runway. In another notable event, a crew "burned up the sky" on a flight from Rivers, Manitoba to St. Hubert on the last day of the month, covering the distance in two hours thirty-three minutes, quite a feat in the early fifties. Two days later, the "burning" continued when an aircraft from 423 Squadron blew out its tires (and burned out its brakes) on an aborted take-off. The squadron historian at the time was kind enough to leave the crew unnamed.
Air Show Season
Ground training continued to advance and improve as needs were identified. Once such advancement was in the dissemination of Intelligence at the squadron level. Rather than mass lectures, 423 Squadron aircrew were initiated to a new system where each officer would be channelled through an Intelligence library at the unit every week. "Know Thy Enemy" was to be taken seriously.
In addition to significant training demands, the squadron found itself in air show season with an aircraft that was very much in demand. On 11 May, 423 Squadron put on a "private" air show for the Minister of Defence and his party. On the following day, the Dutch aircraft carrier KAREL DOORMAN arrived in Montreal, to be greeted by a low flypast of 423 Squadron Canucks in tight formation. One week later the squadron began practising for the annual Station Air Force Day, with the performance on 12 June featuring a high-speed low-level pass.
Some of the best shows put on by the squadron were never seen by the viewing public. In the first week of July, the crew of S/L GJ Zaleschuk and F/O JM Arsenault flew from St. Hubert to Argentia, Newfoundland, in what was described as "unofficial record time," averaging a speed of 590 miles per hour. A few days later, the squadron participated in one of the largest detection-interception exercises ever arranged, known as Operation Checkpoint. The scope of the exercise was huge, encompassing the entire fighter strength of the RCAF's Air Defence Command, and a great deal of the USAF's Strategic Air Command. Over the three days and two nights of 9-11 July, the Eagles of 423 really showed their stuff, "destroying" twenty-four enemy aircraft in twenty-three scrambles, truly an exceptional performance. The squadron ended the month by performing at an air show in Newfoundland.
August held two more air shows for 423 Squadron, one being a four-plane formation flypast for the Royal Navy cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD as it left Montreal on 5 August. With that bit of work out of the way, the squadron prepared to take its show "on the road."
Operation Prairie Pacific
From 12 August to 11 September, the squadron embarked on a public relations project of unparalleled proportions. Known as OPERATION PRAIRIE PACIFIC, the aim was to show Western Canada the front-line interceptors of the RCAF. The aircraft involved included seven Canucks from 423 Squadron, along with six Sabres (from another squadron), and six T-33's, with three C-119 "Flying Boxcars" and a loudhailer-equipped Canso for support. Included in the associated ground crew who accompanied the show were two female technicians, Leading Air Women (LAW's) Susan Soucy and Roddie Koehn. Although many units had female technicians, it was unheard of, in those days, to allow them to accompany deployed aircraft. Some of the aircrew who flew in the displays were: Squadron leader P Bing; Flying Officers Cole, Pratt, L Parakin, PA Hawkes, EE Hesjedahl and E MacFarlane; and Flight Lieutenants DW McNicholl and S Woolley.
Altogether, the show went to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, Portage la Prairie, the Lakehead (near Thunder Bay) and Toronto. The squadron flew a total of 188 hours five minutes, giving their four-plane performance to record-breaking crowds and rave reviews.
The crowds were not as large when four aircraft from the squadron put on a flypast over Molson Stadium in Montreal, a scant week after the return of the PRAIRIE PACIFIC aircraft. Given, however, that the display was to support the annual charity football game for paraplegics, it was well worth the effort.
Gains and Losses
423 Squadron gained more aircraft on 21 September, when two T-33 Silver Star types were added to the unit's inventory. The two-seat aircraft would be used for pilot instrument training and liaison flights. On the same day, the Eagles strutted their stuff for a crew from the National Film Board. The fly-by sequences shot were to be featured as clips in several films that the NFB put together over the 1950's.
The beginning of October 1954 saw the squadron make gains in the operational field. As of the first of the month, a programme was instituted in which four crews would hold daily stand-by on twenty-four hour readiness.
Misfortune struck the squadron in October. Flying Officers SJ DesBrisay and P Hawkes departed on 2 October for a routine flight to Bangor, Maine, in one of the newly-arrived T-33's. At destination, the aircraft crashed, but both aircrew escaped injury. The following day, Expeditor 1526 of the Communications Flight at St. Hubert flew down to Maine to pick the men up. Upon return to St. Hubert with their passengers, this aircraft also crashed, this time killing F/O Hawkes along with one of the pilots of the Expeditor, F/O GG Singh. In addition, F/O DesBrisay was seriously burned and another passenger seriously injured. Ironically, Hawkes and DesBrisay survived their own crash, only to fall victim to their relief aircraft.
With the squadron stood down from 20-24 October for runway repairs, S/L LPS Bing took over command of 423 from W/C Lawlor.
Additional acquisitions, in the form of crews and aircraft, ushered in 1955. Two new crews joined 423 in the first week of the year and were followed by Mark IV CF-100s in February. Unfortunately, these gains were accompanied by a number of incidents and more losses.
The first incident, on 7 March, was handled with skill when F/O Howlett managed to "dead-stick" his jet into Dorval airport after a rare dual flame out. On 29 March, however, F/O Armstrong experienced aircraft problems on take-off from St. Hubert and was also forced to land at Dorval. This aircraft was damaged on landing. The very next day, Armstrong undershot the runway at St. Hubert in another CF-100, the undercarriage collapsed, and the aircraft was destroyed by the ensuing fire. Crashes of a T-33 and CF-100 in April and June, respectively, resulted in four fatalities. F/Os Carter and Allen were lost when their T-Bird crashed near Hamilton during an air-to-air firing deployment. S/L Zaleschuk and F/O Arsenault were killed when their CF-100 crashed at La Touque, Quebec. July and August were relatively quiet months but September brought a change of direction with W/C JHL Lecomte, DFC taking the helm of 423 Squadron.
The flying routine during the Fall of 1955 included the air show circuit and CF-100s were featured performers, once again, at the Canadian National Exhibition. Pilots and planes of 423 teamed up with 425 Squadron in October to form a joint formation team. On the twenty-seventh, they impressed the Canadian Preparedness Association at St. Hubert, along with Sabres and Vampires.
A trend toward more flying coincided with the arrival of the new CO. The squadron flew 405 hours in November, twice the normal monthly average, and exceeded W/C Lecomte's 500 hour goal for January. During this time, the squadron participated in OPERATION CRACKERJACK, achieving nine B-47 intercepts over six scrambles. With the addition of "twenty-four and seven" servicing (twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week) and round-the-clock alert crews, 423 was clearly adopting front-line status in the Cold War. 1956 would bring the squadron to the very front.
Early in the year, meanwhile, the unit continued to participate in several routine exercises. Airborne intercept (AI) missions were interspersed among "harlequin" exercises. It is believed that F/O Millar introduced a new type of two-plane hunter-killer system in April. One aircraft flew an identification run on a suspected hostile contact, and if the contact was enemy, the other aircraft on lead collision course would finish the job.
The squadron flew another record-breaking 509 hours in May, most of the time being accumulated through basic training. 423's operational experience for the month was gained in OPERATION PAYDIRT, another set of scrambles against B-47s from England. 423 and 425 Squadrons had been the first all-weather units to be fitted for rockets, but an inadvertent firing incident in May saw the removal of these systems for investigation.
June 1956 was a busy month with the ferrying of aircraft to AV Roe in Toronto for modifications, the T-33 being replaced by two CF-100 Mark III trainers, and the deployment to Cold Lake, Alberta for air-to-air weapons practice. Some of the Cold Lake graduates were sent on brief exchanges to fighter bases in the United States and were given the chance to prove the superiority of the CF-100. The remainder of the summer and autumn period saw a return to air shows, and in October, more scrambles on EXERCISE CHANGE LIGHT. While the squadron conducted live firing exercises at Chatham's gunnery range during the same month, the first hints of an overseas move surfaced.
F/Ls Middleton and Pridmore left St. Hubert on 18 October for temporary duty with 445 Squadron. Their part in EXERCISE NIMBLE BAT I, the first Atlantic crossing of a CF-100 unit, was to note the route and facilities for 423 Squadron. On 8 November, S/L Biddell ferried a camouflaged and tiptank-equipped CF-100 to St. Hubert from Toronto. The final indication of impending movement was the change of command, on 20 November, from W/C Lecomte to W/C Handley.
As expected, the word was given to send 423 Squadron to the Canadian Air Division in Europe, thus adding to the night fighter capabilities in that theatre. From 12-17 February 1957, the squadron delivered twenty-one CF-100 Mark IV B aircraft to its new home at Grostenquin, France as part of 2 (F) Wing. After a brief familiarization period, the never-ending training process began.
Along with the usual close control AI missions, RCAF all-weather fighters maintained the night alert. There were very few "real" targets as such, but crews could usually count on one scramble before the end of their standby shift, just to break the monotony. The CF-100 appeared in Europe at the height of the Cold War, and everyone recognized the demanding defence realities imposed by the proximity of the Eastern bloc. For instance, the city of Metz, France, headquarters of the Canadian Air Division, lay only twenty-five minutes away for a Soviet bomber at 40,000 feet and 600 mph.
A great deal of flying training was carried out during the day, given normal work routines. It was every man for himself in daylight hours. One always expected to be jumped by aircraft from any Allied air force and no one flew without his head "out of the cockpit." Although not designed for aerial hassling, the CF-100 Mk. IV B could still hold its own against the lesser and greater day fighter types at home in European skies. Occasionally psychological games were also played on the Russians. East bloc air exercises would invariably result in CF-100s dragging contrails up and down the border, requiring matching numbers of fighters on the other side and, thus, effectively reducing those available for the exercise itself.
Most records of the squadron's activities were destroyed in a fire on 25 November, 1960. The story goes that a corner room of the squadron's Dispersal Area Headquarters building was being converted into a "Ready Room" for "Zulu" crews awaiting the call to scramble. Part of the decoration for this room involved painting converted egg cartons, which were to be affixed to the ceiling. It is thought that a pile of freshly painted cartons underwent spontaneous combustion and caught fire, leading to the total destruction of the building. In any case, the fact is that no squadron records of the Grostenquin period survived. Therefore, the following history has been reconstructed from the accounts of 423 Squadron activities found in the records of 2 Wing, coupled with the recalled memories of those who were there.
423 Squadron managed to get one flight in on their third day in Grostenquin, but the squadron was still experiencing "serviceability and organizational problems" associated with the move. It wasn't until 25 February that the unit began flying in earnest. The following day, crews from the Eagle squadron witnessed their first TUESDAY SCRIMMAGE. This was a weekly air fighting exercise between Canadian Sabres and French Mysteres, which normally ended with one group visiting the other's base for some professional "liaison". The Canuck crews would have their own opportunities to work with their NATO counterparts in due time.
Normal flying in local exercises occupied the squadron well into the next month, with the Eagles participating in their first full-fledged exercise on 26 March, known as EXERCISE SCAN PLAN. The day also saw the unit's first incident since its arrival in France. "Handcuff 58", piloted by F/O Jory, suffered a complete hydraulics failure; fortunately, he was able to recover the aircraft safely.
The third milestone achieved by the squadron in March occurred the following day, when 423 Squadron assumed the "Zulu" alert watch for the first time. This meant that fully fuelled and armed Canucks, along with their crews, were ready to take-off within seconds of notice. The squadron reassumed the alert state the next afternoon when foul weather with clouds up to 36,000 feet closed in, despite the fact that the CF-100 fleet was to be grounded "for technical reasons" (except for "live" and "hot" aircraft). The "Sword" pilots on the station saw, for the first time, the real advantages that the all-weather Canuck had over their daytime-only Sabres.
Standing the "Zulu" duty became routine for the Eagles over April and the following months. In keeping with their operational role, a great deal of flying was now done at night, with lesser amounts carried out during the day. The squadron was soon committed to providing two crews on five minute alert, with an additional two crews on one hour standby.
On 8 May, the squadron received its first distinguished guest. The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Slemon, paid a quick visit to Grostenquin on his way to London. He toured the unit's dispersal area and inspected the guard of honour, who, according to the Wing staff, "looked very nice." Despite the demands of the visit, the squadron still maintained its Zulu posture, right into the following day when it was called upon to launch four aircraft in ten minutes for EXERCISE ARGUS.
Tragedy struck the squadron five days later. General Lee, Commander of the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force (4 ATAF), was visiting the station, and 423 Squadron was tasked to provide an air display. F/O Ray Komar, with F/O Sherratt as navigator, embarked in aircraft 18337 for the aerobatic performance.
The aircraft took off, but throttled back and circled to the left to come around for landing, possibly because of an onboard problem. Komar made a normal circuit, dropping gear and flaps, and turned "fighter-style" onto final approach. However, the aircraft was still very heavy with a full load of fuel, which Komar evidently realized too late. Despite full power, the aircraft fell prey to a "final turn stall," pitching over forty degrees and impacting the ground just short of the runway.
W/C Handley, along with two technicians, LAC's Lariviere and Myles, beat the fire trucks to the scene in the squadron's pickup truck. Komar had ejected prior to impact, with his 'chute opening just before he hit the ground in front of the sliding aircraft; Sherratt was still strapped in, finding himself with nothing in front of him except open space. The three men released Sherratt, putting out flames on his flying suit in the process. He was put in the ambulance and rushed to the US burn unit at Landstuhl, Germany. Unfortunately, it was too late for Komar, whose body was found pinned under the starboard wing. The aircraft itself burned into the next day.
F/O Komar's death in 1957 struck the squadron hard. He had been a member of the unit almost since its revival, and had over 1000 hours on the aircraft. He was buried two days later on 16 March, the first fatality the squadron would suffer in Grostenquin.
Rain, Rain, Rain...
Despite the loss, the Eagles soon picked up the operational pace. On 25 May, the unit found itself heavily involved in EXERCISE VIGILANT, where CF-100s had the opportunity to be the attacker for a change. The squadron flew a total of ten raids over two days, simulating high-speed bombers attacking the United Kingdom. Although high cross winds and heavy rain attempted to interfere, the Canucks continued to fly through the adverse conditions, which persisted up to the end of the month.
The poor weather did manage to score a partial victory on one squadron aircraft on 12 July. S/L Biddell was attempting to land in a heavy downpour when his aircraft hydroplaned off the end of the runway. Fortunately, the only damage to the aircraft was to the gun camera mount.
The same month saw several other interesting developments. On 16 July, word was received of an incipient pay raise, good news to anyone's ears. The following day, one lucky crew had the chance to "scope out" the gunnery range and facilities at Decimomannu, Sardinia. 421 Squadron was deploying to that area, and had requested that a CF-100 lead the way as a weather-check aircraft.
A different Canuck crew had the chance to experience the weather more intimately a few days later. On 29 July, F/O Carroll, as "Handcuff 72," inadvertently lost his canopy in the early hours of the morning. He was able to land the aircraft safely despite the heavy rain falling at the time. The weather in the Moselle valley continued to affect flying throughout the summer, often stopping even the Canucks from operating due to heavy thunderstorms.
It seemed sometimes that, even if the weather cooperated, the aircraft wouldn't. Such was the case on 12 August, when the weather, which had knocked out teletype circuits two days earlier, finally let loose with clear skies. Unfortunately, the entire squadron fleet of aircraft were grounded because of suspected hydraulic fluid contamination. Not to be kept from fair weather, the squadron racked up fifty flights over the next two days on borrowed T-33's.
It is perhaps due to operating in so much rain that the Eagles placed second in swimming and diving events in intersection competition on 15 August, being narrowly beat out by Wing HQ. LAC Brau was the hero of the squadron, missing out on first place honours in the diving event by a mere 6/10ths of a point.
Fall weather in 1957 did not prove to be any more relenting than it did in the summer. A review of entries made in November reads much the same over many days: "High cross winds gusting to forty knots . . . Restricted flying washed out at noon because of lowering visibility in haze and fog . . . weather started out quite poor all over with visibility down to one mile, later down to 5/8ths of a mile . . ." and so on. Despite these conditions, the CF-100 was still able to get up on a regular basis and do its job, much to the chagrin of its Sabre rivals who were forced to watch from the ground.
EXERCISE SYNTHEX/ARGUS on 8 November was just one of many cases where the "Swordsmen" were delayed or cancelled while 423 Squadron was still able to send up its warriors. In all fairness, it must be admitted that the conditions that particular day were still bad enough to force a Canuck off a taxiway and into the mud; however, the squadron was still able to get seven aircraft up as "Argus" raiders, landing later at Volkel.
First Visit To Deci
The first week of 1958 saw the squadron carry out only test flights in anticipation of its three-week deployment to Decimomannu, Sardinia, and the weapons training facility found there. Leaving on 8 January, the deployment was anything but uneventful.
Upon arrival, the T-33 which F/L Brickenden was flying refused to lower its landing gear and he arrived for his first visit to Italy on his belly, with the wheels still in the wells. Four days later, F/L Hennel in aircraft 18404 had his port oleo casting break and collapse, leaving his aircraft on the taxiway with Brickenden's T-bird nearby in the background. More accidents occurred in the last week of the firing camp, when two different aircraft hit the target flag, causing minor damage to each.
Despite the rough beginning, the time spent at Deci over the next four years would prove to be the a highlight for many Eagles. Conditions could only be best described as "spartan," with the sanitary facilities gaining particular notoriety. The station had only been opened on March 1st of the previous year, replacing the range at Rabat in French Morocco. It consisted of an old WWII Italian Air Force camp, whose modern-day Army descendants guarded the area with snub-nosed machine guns, probably more to keep the Canadians under control than the local populace. Indeed, the camp was fairly accessible to civilians, with the nimble fingers of the children of Cagliari carrying off many a valuable item or pay-laden wallet. Outside the gates the Canadians had to fend (or perhaps defend) for themselves. Muggings were, in the early years of the camp, fairly common. After a member of a another Canadian squadron was stabbed to death, the station authorities looked the other way when Canadian personnel sought to arm themselves better than the competition. Photographs taken at Deci at the time show many personnel sporting knives or holstered pistols, a display which went far to decrease the crime rate of the area. Despite the possibility of trouble, most Eagles greatly enjoyed the sightseeing trips to the nearby towns, Roman ruins, and caves, which the area had to offer.
The operations carried out on the ranges were as interesting as those off-base. The first two weeks were normally spent in sighting-in the guns and gunnery practice, with the last week reserved for rocket practice and qualification. Crews attempted to get in two trips in the morning, followed possibly by a third in the afternoon, before the heat became unbearable. The final results of the qualification shoot were used to rank the squadron first amongst all in the Canadian Air Division. The squadron returned from its first gunnery camp on 28 January, arriving in the late afternoon with twelve aircraft.
All Quiet On The Western Front
In the springtime, 423 Squadron carried on with its usual menu of training and alerts, with only the change of command on 13 April as a diversion from the normal pattern of events. W/C RB Murray now took command of the Eagles. June was a typical month, where the squadron participated in several exercises, including ZULU and TRACK TOIL, and worked on its shooting skills through cine camera missions against T-33's towing the usual target flags.
The Eagles headed back to Deci in early August, in what would be the normal pattern of deployment to Sardinia. This time there were no accidents; instead, a happy story marked the occasion. A padre who was visiting the deployed squadron discovered an orphanage in the area which was in dire straits. He approached W/C Murray with his concerns, proposing to hold a special Sunday service in which the returns of the collection would be used towards the impoverished home. The suggestion received the widespread approval of all ranks in the squadron, and 160,000 lira was raised. The donation turned out to be the largest ever given to the charity. This typically Canadian act of charity led future visiting units to undertake similar actions for other worthy causes in the area.
Tragedy Strikes Again
The squadron had not been back from Decimomannu for more than a couple of weeks when a major accident took the lives of not only 423 Squadron aircrew, but of helpless bystanders as well. The accident, which occurred on 25 August 1958, was the worst in the squadron's post-war history.
A four-plane formation was returning to base. In the lead aircraft, 18329, was F/Os Ross Payment and "Baz" Pharoah; the second fighter, 18379, was occupied by F/Os Gus Cooling and "Squeeze" Kirkham. At 1000 feet over the field, the formation did a normal "fighter break." This time, however, it appeared that the Number Two aircraft broke too soon, and collided with the lead aircraft. F/O Pharoah ejected out of the lead aircraft, landing in his parachute almost on the Airmen's Mess. F/O Payment elected to stay with the crippled fighter in order to prevent damage to the base; he was able to direct the aircraft over the fence by the guard house, where it impacted into a field, nose first. Payment did not survive the crash.
At the same time, the aircraft with Cooling and Kirkham onboard crashed into the base hospital. One of the first people on scene was Cpl. Stoneham, an Aero-Engine technician in 423 Squadron. To his horror, he witnessed firefighters removing the body of his wife from the rubble; she had gone to the hospital only that very morning. The Station Pharmacist, F/L Bice, was also killed along with the aircrew, while F/L Chitham and Dr. Jeffreys were both critically injured. All flying on the base was cancelled except emergency flights and air evacuations. The squadron's second major accident in France had cost five lives.
The Beat Goes On
The onset of fall brought the typical poor weather that the Eagles had now come to expect. Routine operations were the norm for the months which followed, with only a few incidents of particular note. On 10 October 1958, 423 Squadron wrote off a CF-100 without, fortunately, loss of life. The Canuck in question overran Runway 15, ending up in the crash barrier. Ground fog, which had dominated the base for over a week, was the probable root cause of the accident. At the end of the month, the squadron took advantage of the poor flying conditions to give its members a four-day stand-down.
The weather did cooperate a week later for the arrival of an extra-special visitor. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker arrived in the morning of 6 November to be greeted by a flypast of twenty aircraft, including eight from 423 Squadron. For the rest of the period, a generic entry covering several days in the Wing's log said it all:
"The weather consisted mostly of very low ceilings and poor visibility in fog and haze. Flying was carried out when possible because of the weather here and when we had alternate limits. . . A few times 2 Wing had acceptable weather but no alternate."
Sometimes, the RCAF radar unit at Metz (codenamed "Yellowjack") could help out by finding airfields within the Canuck's operating area which had weather good enough to act as an alternate landing site; however, often the whole of free Europe would be socked in. The weather did not prevent the squadron from participating in the usual melange of special visits, dances, and sporting events. Although no members of 423 Squadron were directly involved, December 1958 will probably be remembered by those at Grostenquin as the time when a Canadian North Star transport aircraft of 109 Communications Flight crashed in the San Marcello mountains near Pisa. Thus, the year came to a close on a sad note for all in the Air Division.
The new year brought with it the chance to return to Deci once again, which the squadron did from 25 February to 18 March. It was in this outing that the squadron's pious reputation was somewhat tarnished in the eyes of the local inhabitants. A large barbecue and cookout took place, and soon the cooks were calling for more wood, as charcoal was in short supply. As the wine flowed more freely, so did the supply of combustible material; it was only in the morning that several barrack block doors and window frames were found missing. The local authorities, perhaps sensing a windfall, were very upset. The squadron was forced to arrange for suitable new replacements to be flown in at great expense.
One of the larger exercises in which 423 Squadron was involved was OPERATION TOP WEIGHT, which occupied the unit for a full week, beginning 12 April. At the height of the operation, the squadron put up forty sorties in one day, and maintained this rate for several days straight. The stand-down at the end of the exercise was a well-earned break for both the aircrew and the maintenance personnel, who worked long shifts to keep the Eagles airborne.
The following month saw the squadron's first accident in almost a year. On 4 June, during EXERCISE ARGUS, an unnamed CF-100 skidded off the runway during a night recovery, forcing four other Canucks to recover at 4 Wing. No record of injury to either aircrew or aircraft exists.
On 9 June, 423 Squadron enjoyed its first exchange visit with a foreign unit since its arrival in Europe. Eight Canucks from the Eagle Squadron departed for Beauvechain, Belgium, with eight Belgian CF-100s coming to Grostenquin in return. Shortly afterwards, Mr. James Edwards of radio station CKUA (Edmonton) arrived on the station with Public Relations personnel from Air Division to interview the visitors and their 423 Squadron hosts. Such cross-training deployments under the Inter-Allied Exchange Program were welcome diversions for both aircrew and groundcrew.
Mid-July brought unheard-of temperatures to Grostenquin. The Station had several stand-downs, when the mercury rose over 95 degrees Fahrenheit. But it still wasn't too hot for the 2 (F) Wing Babe Ruth Fastball Team to go on the road, challenging teams from the various Fighter Wings and other Stations in the area. Things cooled off enough for 423 Squadron to take part in OPERATION MANDATE, where waves of twelve Canucks each were once again used to simulate fast attack bombers going against the UK The exercise took three days and twenty-six sorties to complete.
On 9 September, another contingent of Eagles headed out to Sardinia for the weapons training camp there. Reminiscent of their first deployment to Deci, F/L Leonard had an accident on landing in a T-33 (#587). No further details of the incident are available.
It seems that every visit the squadron paid to Deci produced some tales. This time around, a US Navy F-11F Tiger was forced by unserviceabilities to land at the Sardinian airfield. Unbeknownst to the hapless Yank, an armourer in the squadron's maintenance groundcrew had designed an unofficial crest consisting of a posterior view of a donkey with his tail raised, looking back at the viewer. This was applied with obvious relish to the visitor the night before his departure, as were RCAF roundels and the number "423." It is not known how the unfortunate soul explained his aircraft's new appearance to the ship's captain upon his return to the aircraft carrier.
The Eagles kept to their routine of changing their CO once a year; this time, 423 Squadron gained W/C JDW Campbell as the new head Eagle. The rest of the fall was routine.
On 11 December, the day began with the presentation of 1000 hour pins to S/L Biddell, and F/Os Appleby and Kinney. That accomplished, the unit quickly swung into EXERCISE QUICK TRAIN, scrambling ten aircraft in pairs.
As Christmas approached, squadron members took the time to relax between maintaining a steady flying schedule. The pilots of the squadron challenged the observers to a hockey match on the fifteenth with the new CO dropping the puck. The pilots won, which cost the losers a fair price in "refreshments." On 19 December, 423 Squadron members and others had the chance to practice their shooting skills in a different manner than that of the cine camera; a hunt on the confines of the base bagged a total of twenty-four hares, who most likely formed the basis of that year's Christmas dinner.
A Close Call
The new year of 1960 began quietly enough for 423 Squadron. The first note of interest occurs on 28 March, when the squadron held an exchange visit with its Belgian counterparts in the same fashion as it had the year previously. The newcomers to Grostenquin were joined by four Norwegian F-86F Sabres, who were on a five-day stay from Rygge.
April was an unusual month in many respects. On 8 April, a mid-air collision occurred between two Sabre aircraft, which luckily both pilots survived. Six days later, a 423 Squadron CF-100 crashed. Fortunately, the crew of F/Os Saulnier and Clark were able to eject safely, and were picked up and returned to the base by a helicopter from Spangdahlem. After the Easter break, the squadron resumed its busy schedule. On 22 April, the Eagles embarked on EXERCISE ROULETTE along with its 430 Squadron partners. The day proved to be a busy one for emergency crews, as four different incidents occurred, including an unidentified 423 Squadron Canuck landing with a cracked windshield.
The Eagles followed up the next day by conducting "Scope Steering" projects all day, then spent the subsequent days preparing to go once more to Deci. The squadron departed on 27 April for their Mediterranean sojourn, only to be recalled by EXERCISE SENIOR SENTINEL on 2 May. The squadron organized the move and made it back to Grostenquin in less than forty-eight hours, arriving in time to take part in EXERCISE BALANCE and SENTRY POST.
The summer passed with the squadron continuing to fulfil its alert and defence roles as the station's only All-Weather Fighter unit. In training, 423 Squadron was working hard to bring up its ranking in the gunnery scores in the face of very strong competition from other Sabre and Canuck units. On 7 October, the Eagles had the chance to visit some of those other units, when it was deployed on exercise to 3 Wing. Fourteen squadron aircraft made the move to trial inter-unit operability.
November provided some change to the squadron's normal routine, some of it unwelcome. On the fourteenth, the squadron was to participate in EXERCISE SILENT SPECTRE, but the event was cancelled due to the region's infamous fall fog. The following day, 423 Squadron sent all of its aircraft away to the other wings for UHF radio conversion. This imposed a lengthy delay in unit operations, which were not resumed until five aircraft returned on 22 November.
Squadron members took advantage of the break to do some needed remodelling to the unit's Dispersal HQ; unfortunately, as mentioned previously, this may have been the cause of the fire which engulfed the building on 25 November. Not to be dismayed, the base held its now-annual "Administrative Battu" the following day, this time producing fourteen rabbits, two ducks and two partridge between the fifteen French and fifteen Canadian hunters.
A Bad Start To A New Year
1961 had an unfortunate beginning for 423 Squadron. A squadron CF-100 crashed shortly after take-off on 27 January, killing the crew of F/Os AR Shelongovsky and MJ Zimmer. No other details of the crash were recorded in Wing records. Funerals were held for the two men on the first day of February, the last casualties the squadron would endure in its Canuck era.
The spring of the year held a long-sought reward for the Eagles. On 7 April, the squadron set a new record for the Air Division AWF Trophy Shoot. Although the latter title graced the mantle of 423 Squadron for only a brief period, it gave notice to its rivals in all four RCAF fighter wings that the Eagles had, indeed, achieved the top roost of all.
The honour could not have come at a better time, for it appeared that the squadron might have to put its shooting abilities to the ultimate test. The year saw the very height of the Cold War, with the world almost teetering on the brink of mass destruction. In early April back in North America, the US was embroiled in the Bay of Pigs fiasco; on 24 April, rising tensions throughout Europe peaked with open revolt in Algeria and terrorist attacks against foreign nationals in France. The station went on semi-alert; all aircraft were grounded pending threatened hostile action from Algeria, and extra security around the base was put in effect.
Two days later the threat passed, just in time for the Canadian equivalent to the USO show to arrive in Grostenquin. Instead of Bob Hope, members of all three squadrons were treated to shows by Tommy Hunter, Joyce Hahn, and others in the CBC troupe. The group's departure was held up somewhat by Paris Control, "as the Algerian situation continued to cause problems."
Exercises continued to occupy most of the squadron's non-alert time; unfortunately, a change to the Wing's method of record-keeping made details of squadron activities even sketchier. A unique change to the normal type of operations was that of EXERCISE TALL TIMBER in May, which saw 423 Squadron operating north of the Arctic Circle from Bodo, Norway.
When The Wall Came Up
When W/C WJ Buzza took command of 423 Squadron on 2 August, it must have been with some trepidation. With the raising of the Berlin Wall on 13 August, international tensions climbed to a higher peak. In response to the threat, the establishment of the squadron was raised by thirty percent, with the alert commitment being increased from dusk-to-dawn to that of twenty-four hours. Exercises continued, but at a higher pitch in face of the terrible possibilities. One particular event was EXERCISE CHECKMATE, which covered the September 12-14 timeframe. Designed to fully test the defence forces in Europe, the exercise stretched resources to the limit; 423 Squadron responded by launching an incredible seventy-one scrambles over the three-day period.
The Eagles were still able to attend the weapons camp at Deci, leaving on 11 October. The training took on a more urgent nature considering world events; the Cuban Missile Crisis had the world hanging on the very edge of nuclear war. The situation was so serious that the Station Commander of Grostenquin flew to Sardinia the following day to brief the new CO.
Despite the seriousness of the Cold War, members of the squadron still found ways to laugh at their situation. A Flight Safety Incident was filed on 9 November by F/O Reimer, a navigator in F/O Daley's crew. When reading the report, it should be remembered that the Canuck was notoriously cold in the winter, its heating system known to keep its occupants in a constant state of refrigeration. The report reads:
"On the 9 Nov 61, I was Nav/AI in aircraft 399. After being airborne approximately thirty-five minutes, I noticed my left leg seemed to be paralyzed and felt extremely cold. I remarked to the pilot (F/O Daley) at this point, "Jesus, I can't move my port leg." Shortly after this I discovered that my port boot was frozen to the floor. After a few kicks with my starboard boot, the port came unstuck and I regained full use of all limbs."The unfortunate navigator's Flight Commander, F/L Belval, annotated the memorandum with the wry comment: "Suggest a medal be given to F/O Reimer for his devotion to duty," and forwarded the report to the Squadron Operations Officer, who in turn wrote:
"F/O Reimer is to be congratulated on his presence of mind and of not losing his head (or maybe I should say "leg") over this incident. His pilot should be proud to have such a Navigator who would "stick" with him under such trying circumstances. I concur with your recommendation and suggest the "Hotel and Bar."
The squadron made a claim to fame in the fall of the year. 423 Squadron's prowess for formation flying dated back to its displays at the Toronto International Air Show, and was dusted off to create the "Croix de Lorraine" formation. The formation was first displayed on "Friends Day" at Grostenquin on 9 July. The formation was suggested by F/L Belval and presented to open the air show along with the French national anthem. Apparently it brought tears to some of the spectators. The unique spectacle was demonstrated again for the Grey Cup Game on 18 November, as it was for the visit of the retiring Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Hugh Campbell. The formation was led by the Squadron CO, W/C Buzza.
The Last Year
Very few recorded details remain of the unit's last year of existence as a fighter squadron. The year started with a close call on 23 January, when an unidentified 423 Squadron CF-100 experienced a mid-air collision with an F-86. Although both aircraft were damaged, each landed safely without injury to their crews.
On 15 February, the squadron underwent EXERCISE BLACKJACK, requiring twenty-two sorties. The following day, F/L Cadieux was the lucky soul chosen for an exchange with the Norwegian Air Force, spending a week with the unnamed unit.
"Routine Flying" was the recorded order of the day, with only the briefest of details to hint at unit milestones. For example, on 25 April the squadron deployed to Decimomannu for SARDINIA SALVO. In the Trophy Shoot which followed, 423 Squadron scored an impressive hit percentage of 81.6%. In the month which followed, the squadron was involved in EXERCISE QUICKTRAIN, which saw six aircraft deployed to Laarbruch for ten days.
W/C RD Sloat took command of the Eagle squadron from W/C Buzza on 1 June, but he was not to lead the squadron for the full year, which had become the Squadron Commander's due. The RCAF and the Canadian government had decided to purchase the CF-104 Starfighter in view of its newly defined role for Canadian forces in Europe. The Canadian Air Division would forsake its position as king of air defence in Europe for the job of "strike and reconnaissance support of ground forces." Thus, the Sabre squadrons would be replaced by eight squadrons of the new aircraft, and the Canuck units would withdraw completely in a cost-cutting measure.
The word finally arrived in the late fall of the year. On 17 December, a disbandment parade was held for 423 AW(F) Squadron in Grostenquin, where the Station Commander, G/C McBride, accepted the squadron's Eagle mascot from W/C Sloat. The official date of disbandment was 1200 hours on 31 December 1962, closing yet another chapter in the history of 423 Squadron.
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Updated: May 13, 2003