The 'Herd' is Born...
At the beginning of the war, 404 Squadron's future command, Coastal Command, had the principal duty of trade protection, reconnaissance and co-operation with the Royal Navy. At that time, the importance of the German Navy or "Kriegsmarine" and the attacking of enemy shipping were considered but no specific plans were actually put in place. Maritime interdiction was thought to be the duty of the Navy.
For the first years of the war, the Command flew obsolete aircraft such as Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers and Handley-Page Hampdens, a twin-engined bomber. Early missions could only attack vessels that were identified as warships, and were not allowed to attack enemy merchant vessels, even when they fired on the Coastal Command aircraft. As German advances in Holland and Norway continued, this policy was to loosen and enemy mercantile shipping became a fair target. Still, the Command was to be saddled with having to fly obsolete aircraft on dangerous missions, usually in marginal weather conditions.
As a direct result of employing inappropriate aircraft and poor tactical training was the fact that between April and September of 1940 the Command was directly responsible for the sinking of only two small vessels. Still, mines dropped by Coastal Command dealt a much harsher blow, accounting for 56 enemy vessels.
Even though the response to enemy shipping opportunities seemed weak, military leadership fully understood the need to interdict the shipping into Germany. The highest-grade iron ore available to German foundries was mined in neutral Sweden, and was shipped from the ports on the country's east coast. German and German-controlled ships carried the ore south, through the Baltic to northern German ports. This, however, was not possible in winter when the Baltic froze over. The ore was then transported by rail to the Norwegian port of Narvick, which, being on the Atlantic coast, remained ice-free all winter. This source of ore, and the importance placed on it, was evidenced throughout the war by the efforts to protect convoys with valuable Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe assets sorely needed to assist the war effort elsewhere.
Looking at a European map, it is readily apparent how difficult it was to interdict convoys amongst the leads, islands and fjords. Once the rail and canal systems of Germany had sustained considerable damage as the war progressed, more raw materials had to be shipped. Narvik, in northern German-controlled Norway, was the launching point of many of these lifeline convoys. Following close to shore, the convoys were relatively safe until they reached the southern coast of Norway. If the vessels safely reached the vicinity of the Skaggerak they were relatively safe until they reached Kiel. It was in these open waters as well as amongst the islands, leads and fjords of Norway that 404 Squadron was to see the bulk of its anti-shipping actions.
Later in the War, the squadron continued its maritime interdiction missions from bases in England, concentrating on the French coastline before returning to Scotland to finish its wartime service.
404 (Coastal Fighter) Squadron Formation
Authority to form 404 Coastal Fighter (CF) Squadron of the RCAF was granted by Headquarters, Coastal Command on 15 April 1941. It was to be part of No. 16 Group of the Royal Air Force Coastal Command. The new Canadian squadron was to take the Command's motto, "find the enemy, strike the enemy, protect our ships" to heart.
This is the first official photo taken of 404 Sqn, in August 1941. Showing a group of officers, it was taken in the Officer's Mess. (LtoR) F/L D MacKenzie of Sarnia, Ont; S/L PH Woodruff of Edmonton, F/L KK Hay-Roe of Toronto, P/O Observer AWC Tustin of Niagara Falls, Ont; F/L EH McHardy (DFC) of Waypawa, NZ (PL 4783)
Through its four years of wartime existence, the squadron was to face many challenges, such as 18 moves to different bases, exult in breathless victories, such as protecting the west flank of the D-Day invasion by taking on three deadly destroyers, and suffer cruel tragedy, such as the loss of 6 of 11 aircraft during a mission on the infamous Black Friday; 9 February, 1945. The squadron was to inscribe 116 names on the Roll of Honour, commemorating fallen comrades and celebrate the awarding of two Distinguished Service Orders (DSO), one George Medal (GM), sixty Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC) and ten Distinguished Flying Medals (DFM) by the time the Squadron was disbanded in May, 1945.
Early 1941 was a cruel time for the Allied cause. Though the Battle of Britain was past, and the skies over Britain were relatively safe, the Battle of the Atlantic was raging, with U-Boat attacks inflicting horrible losses on Allied shipping, and the enemy still holding air superiority over most of Europe. The USA was yet to join the cause, and Russia lay in quietude far to the east. It was during these dark and uncertain times that the nucleus of the newly formed 404 Squadron started to coalesce in southern England. The squadron was formed and commenced training at RAF Station Thorney Island in Southern England.
As a unit in Coastal Command, it was to serve in the anti-shipping role along with two other RCAF squadrons: 407, flying Hudsons and 415 flying Beauforts. Even though they fought within the same Command, these units would not fly together on operations at any time through the duration of the War. 415 Squadron eventually transferred to Bomber Command in 1944.
The original plan for the manning of the Squadron called for as many Canadians to be posted in as was possible, with the original squadron strength to be 66 comprised of ten pilots, two observers, six wireless operators/ air gunners, and ground staff. The Canadian identity was hoped to be a result of taking on Canuck aircrew graduating from the Empire Air Training Scheme (later the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan - BCATP). Though other RCAF Squadrons were able to quickly develop this Canadian character, as will be seen in this history, 404 Squadron would take a much longer time to achieve the same goal.
(L to R) P/O DH Inglis of Vancouver; F/O FJ Kelch of Kent, Eng; F/L TE Kirk of Montreal; S/L Ian Watson of Winnipeg, Man; P/O JW Hoadley of Kamloops, BC; P/O JG Dunlop of Gronlid, Sask; F/O C Fletcher of Toronto. (PL 4784)
Squadron records note that the first member of the new unit was F/O Albert Edward 'Doc' Ward who arrived on 25 April, ready to begin his duties as Medical Officer. You can imagine his dismay at finding nothing to practice his medical skills on other than 18 Mark IV and one Mark I Blenheim aircraft which had been delivered to the Station in allotment to the unit.
The Blenheim was a somewhat old, though sturdy, aircraft from which the squadron was to see yeoman service. The twin-engined Blenheims were originally designed to be a light bomber but were modified by adding four fixed, forward-firing .303 caliber machine-guns beneath the fuselage. With a 260 mph top speed, it would be no match for pursuing Luftwaffe fighters, and it was understood at that time that the Blenheim would not be able to provide adequate protection to convoys. The aircraft taken on strength by 404 Squadron were in essence 'hand-me-downs' from an RAF Squadron that was being outfitted with Beaufighters. The first entry about the aircraft in the Operational Record Book (ORB) notes ".owing to their condition, Z5693, Z5740, N3542, P4845, N3526 and N3600 had been put up for disposal by the Station CTO (Chief Technical Officer)", thus, in essence, would not be available for flying training.
So it was with a slightly reduced fleet of aircraft that F/O Doc Ward met his new Commanding Officer who arrived during the first week of April. Squadron Leader Patrick Henry Woodruff (right) was posted to Thorney Island on April 4 to command the Squadron. A native of Edmonton, Woodruff had originally joined the RAF in 1937 on a short service commission.
Along with newly arrived Adjutant, P/O Raymond Crump, S/L Woodruff made arrangements for the unit to take up permanent residence in No. 4 Hangar. Three days later, the CO was off to RCAF Headquarters to talk to the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Air Commodore LF Stevenson, and the Officer in charge of Personnel, Wing Commander Foss. The new squadron now had a home and aircraft, but what were urgently needed at this time was personnel to fly the Blenheims. The AOC suggested 'that as the Commanding Officer, No. 404 Squadron, is a fully qualified Coastal Command twin-engine Fighter instructor and that as the Squadron is starting from scratch, it might be reasonable in this instance to post aircrew straight from P(ersonnel) R(eception) C(enters) to the squadron ' A signal to this effect was sent to the Records Office in Gloucester and slowly but surely the official wheels began to turn and ground crew began to trickle in. It seems that it took a significant amount of time to get crews to fill the billets due to the Coastal Command OTU being full, and Fighter and Bomber Commands were not willing to give up their graduates.