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Tragedy when priorities collide

On 13 June, 1942, my uncle, Sgt Roy Thomas, was killed while practising to drop bombs from the military version of a civilian passenger plane fifty feet above a target ship.
This was nine days after USN dive bombers sank three Japanese aircraft carriers near Midway Island and a full six months after Japanese aircraft sank the British battleship, Prince of Wales, off the coast of Malaya.

I blame his training death on poor equipment, poor doctrine and failure to learn from the combat experience of friend – and foe. The continued use of civilian aircraft when bombers were available and successful was a tragedy, and offers a lesson for when doctrines and priorities clash.

In two months as a member of the RCAF’s 407 Demon squadron, my uncle had survived eight missions in a Lockheed Hudson attempting to sink Nazi shipping off the coast of Holland. Fifty per cent of his 407 comrades were casualties during this period.

Neither the Royal Navy nor the Royal Air Force espoused the use of dive-bombers, a curiosity considering the German success with their already obsolete Stuka off the coast of Norway in 1940 and Crete in 1941.

This is partly the result of having no policy about how to attack shipping from the air. Inter-service rivalry may be blamed for leaving the question of dealing with enemy merchant ships to the RN but it is obscene to note that a twin-engine civilian airliner derivative was being used to attack freighters at the same time other nations were using dive-bombers with success even against warships.

To complete a bombing run and penetrate ship decks with the size of bombs the Hudson could carry, the Lockheed plane had to fly in level flight 50 feet above the water. Torpedo bombers had to make a similar level flight approach but could release their torpedoes some distance from target and avoid any on board anti-aircraft weapon systems.

All Lockheed Hudsons came from the US. Delivery from neutral Americans is another story. A Lockheed Electra similar to the Lockheed Hudson can be seen in Canada’s National Aviation Museum. A Lockheed Hudson variant (IIIA, A-29) can be seen at Gander, Nfld.

Ironically, Canada manufactured over 800 dive-bombers in Thunder Bay for the US Navy. Unfortunately, none of these SB2C Helldivers are on display in Canada. Of course, any questions that Canadians might have raised were lost, in the first few war years, in the fight to create a Canadian air force entity.

By 1943 a Strike Wing concept had evolved in Coastal Command, which utilized higher performance aircraft equipped not only with more effective bombs but also with rockets.

To be fair, it was a question of priorities. Coastal Command was fighting for resources for its primary anti-submarine role. Bombers with the range to reach the mid Atlantic were being shot down over Germany while flying for Bomber Command.

One can only hope that in the future the CF will not face such questions about equipment, concepts and doctrine at the intersection of the land, air and sea component responsibilities.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) is a retired Armour officer with service in UN mission areas on Cyprus, the Golan, South Lebanon, Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sarajevo and Haiti. He is recipient of a Meritorious Service Cross (MSC), an UNPROFOR Force Commander’s Commendation, and an UNMIH Force Commander’s Commendation.

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