Grostenquin France

Grant Armstrong


I was born in 1914 in Govan Saskatchewan and brought up on a farm. and lived there until 1936. Drove a horse and buggy/cutter 3 miles to a one room school with 8 grades, no phone, no electricity, outdoor out- houses and one teacher. Then drove to high school (7 miles with a horse and buggy/cutter) Dropped out at grade eleven and worked on the home farm during the Depression and Drought and as a farm hand until Oct 35. As I was very mechanically inclined I had an opportunity to attend an Auto Mechanics 6 month course at Balfour Technical School in Regina. The Principal came in one day and asked the class if anyone wanted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Of course we had never heard of it. He read out what they offered such as Training, Food, Clothing, Pension and Pay. I sent in an application in January 1936. In June a telegram came and asked me to report to the Armouries in Regina the following morning. After an interview and a medical I was on the train that afternoon for Trenton Ontario.

I was sworn into the Royal Canadian Air Force on the 3rd of July 1936 in Trenton Ontario. After 3 months boot camp I was trained as an Aero Engine Fitter in Trenton Ontario. After training I was transferred across the road to the School of Army Co-op. The Squadron was flying Atlas Aircraft powered with a 14 cylinder Jaguar and a big wooden propeller. Fabric covered with a scarf ring on the rear seat that held a machine gun. Tail skid and no brakes. Our function was to train army members in surveillance.

In September 1938 I was told to report to the orderly room at about 18.30. The Sergeant showed me a telegram that had come in that said I was to proceed to Halifax immediately. He told me that I could take my car, a used 1934 Chrysler Airflow that I had recently purchased, and he gave me 3 cents a mile plus money for meals. I filled the car with gas and took a couple of cans of oil and put everything I owned in the car. After picking up a map from a friend who had just returned from the Maritimes I was on the road east by 22.00. Finally arrived in Halifax about 21.00 the following night. The police didn't know of an Airforce base but did arrange for me to stay in an army barracks on citadel hill. The following morning I reported to the police again and was referred across the harbour to Dartmouth and a flying field east of there. Sure enough it was an RCAF station. The adjutant didn't know why I was there but gave me a room and meal tickets until he found out.

Finally the problem was solved. Airforce Headquarters had received word from England of a possible war and Canada was to have a patrol for submarines on the east cost. Our Squadron was the only one available and were told to be ready. As I was the only single person qualified for Atlas Maintenance they sent me ahead to look after the aircraft as they arrived. Mr Chamberlaine, Britains negotiator, met with Hitler and sent word back to England that Hitler did not plan to go past Poland-so the danger was over. The only problem was that they forgot LAC Armstrong on the road. Finally got back to Trenton!!

Almost to the day, In Sept 1939, Our Squadron received word to fly to Halifax ASAP. We left by air the following morning at dawn. After many stops for fuel we landed at the Chebucto Rd airport in Halifax which was little more than a gravel field at the south end of the city.. We had $1.10 added to our pay to cover room and board wherever we could find it. I was lucky and found a room with a policeman's family within a block of the airport. The following morning we had two aircraft on Patrol for submarines. Each aircraft carried 4- 20 pound bombs. There were no hangars and we had to learn how to operate outside through the winter. This was 3 weeks before Canada declared war.


Canada declared War early in October 1939 while I was in Halifax..

A few months later I and another Regular Force Tradesman were transferred from Halifax to a Reserve Squadron from Montreal, which was mostly French speaking, to St. John NB. While there I arranged and paid to have my car shipped from Trenton as we all lived out and some distance from camp. Transportation was provided but it meant long waits in the cold for a ride. A short time later I was selected with another crewman and 2 pilots to go to Rockcliffe, in Ottawa, by train. The next morning we went to the hangar and saw two new Lysander aircraft. The pilots had a flight each and we received a little bit of instruction on what to check and I did a start and run up. That afternoon we took off for Saint John NB but had to stop at Rimouski for fuel. The airport was on the top of a hill and it was well below Zero the following morning. The Lysander's had Mercury 14 cylinder sleeve valve engines and when we tried to turn them they would just move After some time we got them loosened a bit and finally by renting some extra batteries we got the engines started and off to Saint John. Time was required to train 411 Squadron Pilots and Ground crew on the Lysanders while still flying the Atlas We were still operating outside off a gravel strip with supplies and offices in tents. Later that summer I and a Corporal were transferred to Jarvis Ontario. We were the 25thand 26th persons to arrive at a new Bombing and Gunnery School. Buildings and hangars were up but nothing in them. I was put in charge of the Target Towing Drogue Flight and shortly after I was promoted to Sergent. At that time the CN and CP railroads had arranged to ship airmen's cars if there were 2 or more tickets to the same destination if we bought a third ticket for the car. Within a week I had my Chrysler Airflow in Jarvis. New trainees from most trades started to arrive. I had engine, airframe, electrical, radio tradesmen plus Drogue Operators and Drogue Packers (which were from the Women's Division (WD'S)) , plus a couple of Clerks to keep records up to date. Some of my staff were a bit older, and had related work experience, so rapidly made the change over to aircraft. Others, mostly young, had to be watched and shown how to do things. I had to depend on the older tradesmen to guide and train this group. This was only a small problem because Fairey Battles started to arrive. No one had ever seen the aircraft or Merlin Engines. There were no instruction books, but the worst problem was that the aircraft were British, which used British Standards for bolts and nuts and fasteners, while we used the SAE equipment. Therefore our tools wouldn't work. We ended up by getting broken car springs from a garage in town and cutting out wrenches with hacksaws and files to fit. My training as an Aero Engine Fitter paid off and I was able to show the tradesmen how to use a hacksaw and file. When finished a local blacksmith hardened them for us. Ground handling and equipment began to arrive and limited flying was able to start. By the end of the first month Gunnery Flight, Bombing Flight, Drogue Flight and Maintenance were all operating. A number of Pilots were Americans others came who had civilian experience but all had to gain experience on the Battle. A bit later we began to receive graduates from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) Training Schools. The Battles were easy to fly but had problems of their own such as Brake Pads and the Merlins with coolant leaks, and electric starters. Parts were hard to obtain and each hangar had an aircraft that was robbed to keep others flying until parts were received to replace those robbed. The Drogues and Towing cables also caused problems which were reduced as experience was gained.

Early the next spring myself and Corporal were transferred from Jarvis BG to Number 5 Bombing and Gunnery Station about 5 miles north of Dafoe Saskatchewan a village of about 50 people. The day we arrived there was a real dust storm mainly from the open spaces between the runways and again we were among the earliest arrivals. At dinner that night we all ate at the same table and someone said something about the dust storm. The CO spoke up and said "The only way the natives called a dust storm was to catch a gopher, throw it out a window, and if it starts to dig before it hits the ground "that is dust storm". We had to fight dust as it could be found everywhere. The dust gradually disappeared when grass started to grow. Before leaving Jarvis I had arranged to have my car shipped to Dafoe under the same arrangements as before. About a week later I got a call from the Station Master at Dafoe that my car was ready to unload. I and a Corporal from my Flight got a duty run into Dafoe and the Freight car was opened. The car was OK but the crew that loaded it had tied down the four corners with many turns of a number 8 wire wrapped around the axles and nailed to the floor of the box car. Thank goodness my tool box was in the car as we had to crawl under and pry or cut the wires. This wasn't the worst but we had hoards of huge Saskatchewan mosquitoes helping. Finally we got the car loose and started to maneuver it out of the car and onto 2 steel plates between the freight car and platform. Finally got it on the platform, started and drove it down to a gas station for fuel and back to camp. As we were on gas rationing and had only a few gallons a month it was necessary to limit any driving. Some of the people had coupons for their car, but didn't have their car on camp, so I used coupons that were volunteered and took the givers if their and my days off came together . We were on a 10 day shift with 3 days off which seldom was part of a weekend. As Dafoe was opened later we did have Instruction Books plus tools and ground handling equipment and began to fly shortly after personnel arrived. Also most of my staff already had some experience on other Stations with only a few new Trainees. Later that year the Officer responsible for Flying dropped in to see me as my Hangar was next door to the Control Tower and asked if I could drop over to the tower. He had just hired a new Secretary and told me what he wanted. He needed to know how many pilots and crews were available every morning. This meant phoning each Flight to get the answers then typing it out and giving the list to him for flight planning. I agreed to train the new girl how to do this, as it was only a short distance from my door, and my Flight was running OK. The secretary and I got along fine and before the week was over she could do most of the work without my help. I was now wearing two hats and shortly after promoted to Flight Sergeant. Later that year the Commanding Officer called me to his office and asked me to sit down. The Station Warrant Officer had taken ill and was in hospital with little hope of a rapid recovery. He said he knew that I was already wearing two hats and asked me if I would be The Station Warrant Officer. He reduced the regular work load, of the SWO, and I just had to spend about an hour and half each morning on Inspections with the Duty Officer and arrange for Station Parades when required. I was now wearing three hats. It worked out well as I was single and living on camp. I was promoted to Warrant Officer 2. I stayed on duty over Christmas to let others with families go home and took New Years off instead. I went to my home about 75 miles away. On Sunday night, while at home, the phone rang and it was my secretary from Dafoe. She was duty clerk but suggested I should get back to camp as soon as possible. I covered up my car, took the battery out and put the car on blocks as there had been snow and the road to the highway was now blocked. Dad took me to the train in the morning and I caught the duty run to camp. Shortly after the Adjutant called and said the Commanding Officer wanted to see me. When I walked in he asked me to sit down and said I was posted to the Aeronautical Engineering School in Montreal and to leave as soon as possible.

If I passed the course I would be given a Wartime Commission as an Aeronautical Engineer - Aircraft Maintenance. I had to get cleared and one of crew took the clearance sheet around for signatures while I packed. I left the following morning by train for Montreal. On the way to Montreal I met two or three others around my age who were also on their way to the School. On arrival in Montreal we took a taxi to the school and found that we would be living out and had to find a place on our own. The school provided lunch at noon. The course was very concentrated and required a lot of homework. It included quite a bit of theory plus practical work in the shops to learn about other trades. After graduating I was given a Wartime commission as a Flying Officer and sent to an Administrative School for Officers in Domaine D'esterel Que. After graduating I reported back to Montreal Command which sent me to Mont Joli Quebec in charge of aircraft servicing. Mont Joli was solid french speaking so most of the time was spent in camp. About 4 months later I was transferred back to the Engineering School as staff instructor. I was there about a year when the need for Engineers was no longer required. The Engineering School was then changed to a School for Flight Engineers, now needed for the Bomb Carrier aircraft now in heavy demand, and moved to Aylmer Ontario I was put in charge of Aircraft Maintenance. Two 4 Engine and two 2 Engine Bombers arrived. The Flight Engineer Trainees had to practice with all aspects up an actual operation which required periodic running the engines at full power. The noise in camp wasn't tolerable and due to having only to pilots I was given the authority to taxi the required aircraft to the end of the runway each morning and back after the classes were finished. Then we had to service the aircraft for the next day. I also had a Harvard for the pilots, on administration, to get their flying time in. As the war was winding down I got married while in Aylmer. Cars were in very short supply but one of my crew knew of a 1929 Model A Ford but it lacked 2 tires, another told me he knew were he could get a pair of good used ones that would fit. The car and tires cost me $125. The war ended in early June 1946. Shortly after I was transferred to Centralia, north of London Ontario, in a Temporary position, as I was remaining in the service. We boarded with a farm family near the airport for about a month. I was then transferred to 6 Repair Depot at Trenton. I ended up being the Technical Assistant to the Chief Technical Officer responsible for keeping progress on all Work Orders. Trenton was the place where returning personnel came and both the Main Station and the RD were involved in receiving, bedding, feeding and getting them to their home area or wherever they wanted to go. This involved close cooperation with local transportation people. At the same time we had the Ferry Flight which was collecting RCAF Aircraft, from anywhere, and bringing them back to the RD for storage or disposal by War Assets. Ferry Flight also helped us move returning people when they took crews to pick up aircraft across Canada. The RD also had the Link Trainer repair crews which would fly anywhere to repair Link Trainers. The Depot was a busy place. October 1946 was reversion day for those with Wartime Commissions. I was fortunate and was reduced from Flight Lieutenant to Warrant Officer Class One (WO1) Master Mechanic and transferred across the road to Training Command Headquarters. I was given 30 days off to re-establish my family, remove my Officer rings and have the WO1 Badge put on, which was the same uniform, and report to Training Command Trenton. My Wartime Service was now over.


After reporting to Training Command Technical Section I found that my main duty was processing Unsatisfactory Condition Reports (UCR's). With approval, within the Command, I could answer most. Some I sent on to Ottawa with my comments - which in many cases were agreed to and returned through the normal channels. I also did a bit of checking on various units, that were not meeting the standards, to see where the problem was.

In 1949, while in the same job at Training Command, I was commissioned as a Regular Force Flying Officer and transferred to Toronto as the Engineering Officer for 400 and 411 Reserve Squadrons. We started to receive Vampire aircraft with Goblin Jet Engines. Dorothy and Philip stayed with her parents in Brighton while I drove to Toronto and lived in a boarding house for the week to work and look for someplace to live. Eventually we bought a new home about 10 minutes from the airport and moved into it in early July, 1949.

In November 1949 I and another officer were sent to Edmonton Command Headquarters on temporary duty for 6 months. This temporary duty caused me some problems. As we had just bought the new home we agreed that my wife and son should move to Brighton, where her grandmother's home was available next door to her parents, and that we should rent the Toronto house for six months. Fortunately a couple who lived on the Toronto Islands for the summer wanted to come to the city for the winter. They were good tenants and we had few complaints.

On arrival in Edmonton we received instructions as to why we were there. Basically to plan and arrange for an operation (Code Named Sweetbriar) between the RCAF Reserve and the USAF Reserve Squadrons to be held in January 1950 out of Whitehorse. The USAF had an officer stationed in the same building, in Edmonton for the same operation, and we worked together where possible. The RCAF Squadrons were to be based in Whitehorse with Vampires. The USAF squadrons were based in Alaska and I forget the type of aircraft they were flying. The RCAF Reserve CO's came to Whitehorse and told us what they needed. This included ensuring that land, space, equipment, spare parts, housing (including winterized tents) at various Canadian locations between Whitehorse and Alaska. The two of us had to do a number of things that the Reserve CO's forgot such as parking areas difficult to see from the air and vacate buildings at the airport for our Reserve's to use. We also had to move from barracks to a hotel in Whitehorse. As we lacked considerable cold weather equipment the USAF helped where they could.

The RCAF Reserve Squadrons arranged for the number of pilots and ground crew which had to be limited because of housing space. All this required considerable communication by phone and teletype as computers had not yet been introduced. This involved quite a bit of flying between the various exercise areas, Whitehorse, Edmonton, Trenton and Ottawa. All done with Dakota's and North Star aircraft. During one trip I suffered a burst ear drum going over the mountains to Whitehorse as the aircraft were not pressurized. After the exercise the Doctor sent me back to Edmonton by bus because of my ear, mostly over gravel roads, and a three day trip. We prepared a final report from our point of view and finally back to our home stations. The operation report was prepared by judges who watched all aspects of aircraft serviceability, operations, etc. I never saw the report and I have no idea who won. Very glad to get back in the Toronto home. In May 1952 I was transferred to North Bay Ontario and 430 Squadron. Dorothy and Philip came with me and we lived in a tourist camp for the summer as I found out we were scheduled to go overseas that fall. The Toronto house was sold.

At North Bay we had Sabre aircraft which I had never seen. The trades had all received training so I had to learn from them. In early September we received word to meet in Ottawa with 421 and 416 Squadrons. I and the groundcrew, plus spare parts, followed in North Star's.

On arrival in Ottawa we were told that the Squadrons were transferred to Grostenquin France. I was selected to be the Engineering Officer responsible for moving three Squadrons plus three aircraft for the RAF (63 Sabres) from Ottawa across the Atlantic to Grostenquin. As air refueling had not yet been introduced it meant stops at Goose Bay, Bluie West One Greenland, Keflavik Iceland, and Prestwick Scotland. As it was late September, and our trip was northerly, daylight was limited. Each Squadron supplied a minimum crew to service the aircraft at each stop. We had to move ground crews in advance, to each base, so they could service the aircraft on arrival and ready for the next flight. The first crews had to be at Goose Bay and Blue West One. My own 430 Squadron crew was at Goose Bay before the aircraft left Ottawa and one crew positioned at Bluie. The last crew and myself followed in a North Star with spare parts boxed and marked as to contents and followed the last Sabre to Goose Bay. When the weather forecast was suitable the Sabres and my North Star flew from Goose Bay to Bluie West One and the 430 crew was then moved to Keflavik to service the Sabres as the arrived from Bluie for the trip to Prestwick. The next morning the CO woke me about 0500 and said to get the crew out as the forecast was suitable. At dawn we started the aircraft down the runway with 430 Squadron leading. My CO radioed to stop as he had encountered heavy fog and there were about 40 Sabres airborne circling in the fog to get over the ice cap. The remaining aircraft and the North Star were delayed two days at Bluie because of the fog. Finally the last aircraft and the North Star left Bluie. Bluie airport was interesting -it was a few miles up a Fiord. The Captain invited me up front and showed me that they had to watch for three peaks, or small mountains, make a sharp turn right and land up hill with another mountain straight ahead. The take off was down hill and a sharp turn left to miss the three mountains. On arrival in Keflavik Iceland the USAF CO met me and said he had won a lot of money. He had bet that the Canadians could service and send on aircraft faster than any of their teams. My own crew from North Bay were waiting and when about 40 Sabres arrived they were serviced, radio crystals changed and back on the way to Prestwick in about an hour. I had taught them in North Bay to learn about other trades when they were not busy so most of-my crew could do the jobs needed on a turn around. It was interesting to note that one section of two aircraft going from Iceland to Prestwick Scotland ran into turbulence and decided to go a bit higher and arrived in Prestwick ahead of the other sections. They had encountered the Jet Stream which to us had not been known before. We had a couple of days in Prestwick to check the aircraft while plans were made for NATO Dignitaries to gather at Grostenquin. Finally we got word to arrive at Grostenquin at a specific time the next day. Operations had scheduled take off at one minute intervals. Flying time was an hour and the fuel capacity of a Sabre was slightly over an hour. I saw a major problem. The aircraft needed a pre-flight check so I arranged for the ground crew to check the aircraft and report the numbers, by trade, that each had checked while I sat at the end of the row and signed them all out, as time was limited. When I received word to start the pilots raced to their aircraft, the ground crew assisted the pilots and hooked up starting carts. As soon as the pilot gave the thumbs up we started them rolling as fast as we could. Often there would be a number of aircraft on the runway following each other on take off instead of at a minute each.

It was fortunate that we rushed the take off because a few of the first to arrive at the gathering point were low in fuel. As the last aircraft arrived they started the fly past and break to land. One aircraft had to land with a dead engine and a couple didn't have enough fuel to taxi in. I with the remaining groundcrew arrived later in the North Star and we started operations at Grostenquin. The Station was not finished and water, electricity, heat etc., were intermittent. The months of October and November were miserable. Our group had been told that we would be there for only one year unless we decided to stay and that our wives were not to come as living conditions were poor and difficult to find. Some brought their wives to England and some to neighboring towns in France. A few of us heard of an English Company that would ship trailers to Metz France if they were paid for in advance or on arrival. The Airforce said they would tow them from Metz to the station and gave us permission to use a couple of aircraft dispersal areas to park on. I flew home at Christmas and brought Dorothy and Philip back. As my trailer had not yet arrived we lived with other couples in the Hotel at Faulquemont and an Air Force bus brought us back and forth to work. About two weeks later our trailer was on sight and we moved into it. There were five trailers of various makes on that button. All had chemical toilets which required a bucket run to the sewer every evening, and a large garbage can which was filled by the staff every morning. The trailer tanks were then filled with a funnel from the large garbage can. The sink had a pump to bring water from the tank to the sink. We had propane for cooking and lights and also a wee stove that required stoking ever few hours. The trailers had no insulation and many mornings the blankets were frozen to the wall despite the stove. However the women and children enjoyed themselves particularly when warmer weather arrived.

I had not signed to stay in Grostenquin. We and another couple had booked a trip home on one of the Queen ships when Air Movements told us that if we would ride in the Bristol Freighter to North Luffenham in England there was a North Star scheduled to go back to Canada in the next few days and had little load. We had to cancel our ship tickets. We eventually landed in Montreal and got a train back to Belleville where Dorothy's parents met us. I had been posted to 6 Repair Depot and we rented an apartment in Trenton. This was in October 1953. I was again the Technical Adjutant to the Chief Engineering Officer and responsible for keeping track of all work orders and the status of each. In addition the Repair Depot had Ferry Flight and we were involved in ferrying and receiving RCAF personnel returning to Canada and arranging return to their home areas. This required close cooperation of air and train reservation personnel including Ferry Flight who would be flying pilots and crew to pick up aircraft in Canada. The Ferry Flight was also directly involved in the salvage of damaged aircraft, wherever they might be, and the return and storage of aircraft from various areas and stations that were closing down. War Assets were responsible for disposal of surplus aircraft through the Depot's Supply section. The Depot also had a Link Trainer Section who were responsible for the maintenance of all Trainers which were located across Canada. Ferry Flight assisted in moving these crews around where vehicles were not suitable. In 1957 I was promoted to Squadron leader while at the Depot and transferred to Air Force Headquarters - Personnel Branch.

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Updated: December 12, 2002