Born as children of the Roaring Twenties and growing up as adolescents of the Dirty Thirties, they were men mostly in their late teens or early twenties when World War II broke out. They enlisted in the air forces of the British Commonwealth. Their reasons were as individual as they were, for some, it was a way to escape the joblessness of the Thirties, for others it was patriotism and a chance for adventure, for some it was peer pressure, or it may have been a combination of any of those. After completing their basic training in their homeland they were sent to Canada to train in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Of course, the vast majority of these young men went on to serve in various theatres of war after completing their training in Canada. Sadly, too many of them never returned to their homes. The British Commonwealth Air Training Program had an extremely good safety record and 131,553 aircrews were trained. Most of the accidents that occurred were minor, but some were serious, and some fatal. 856 trainee airmen were either seriously injured or killed. At #5 Bombing and Gunnery School near Dafoe, Saskatchewan one hundred and twenty-three accidents were recorded, most were minor.
Because those who were killed were not casualties of theatres of war their sacrifice is sometimes forgotten. Nevertheless, they gave their lives in the service of their countries. Like those who gave their lives overseas, those who died in training accidents in Canada left their families and homes voluntarily to serve their countries. The ultimate sacrifice is still the ultimate sacrifice whether it happened in Canada or overseas.
The community of Dafoe, Saskatchewan, is located on the south shores of the Quill Lakes region of South Saskatchewan. This community is only 4 km west of Kandahar.
In 1940, this was a very remote part of populated Canada. Unlike most airfields which are located fairly close to their namesake towns, the Dafoe base was situated more than 20 kilometers from the town itself. Opened on January 7th, 1941, No. 5 B&GS closed on January 11th, 1945. Aircraft used at the base include the Westland Lysander, Bristol Bolingbroke, Avro Anson, and primarily the Fairey Battle.
These schools were more than just military establishments; they were places where everyday human activity played out. These training schools were communities of their own, and all of them forged some ties with the local civilian communities as well. In short, the training schools were human places too. The streets of #5 BGS were named after the Dionne quintuplets who were quite famous in Canada at the time. There was Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Yvonne Streets. The base had a band made up of members of the school’s staff and they played noon concerts in the airmen’s mess as well as for dances on the base. There was an indoor swimming pool where swim meets were staged with teams coming from other bases to compete. The pool also served as the emergency water supply in case of a fire on the base. Only the bombing and gunnery schools at Dafoe and Mossbank, Saskatchewan had pools. There was a library, and #5 BGS had its own magazine, the Digest, which was published quarterly. The staff put on plays and hosted traveling shows. There was a bowling alley and sports grounds for baseball and soccer in the summer and for hockey in the winter months. #5 BGS was not all work and no play, though the trainees seldom had time for leisure activities.
The base also had its own hospital, and it sometimes served the local civilian population when winter conditions did not permit them to travel to their own hospital. #5BGS was a complete small town of its own except for one thing – there were no quarters for married personnel. Some of the permanent staff were older and married so this lack of accommodation presented a bit of a problem. Dafoe itself, being only a small village, offered very limited opportunities for housing. This situation was at least partly solved by the boomtown that sprang up outside the gates of the base. Some small shops also sprang up there. Life in the boomtown was primitive. There was no running water; the shacks were crude, uninsulated, drafty and frigid in the extreme cold of Saskatchewan winters. There were outdoor toilets, coal oil lamps, wood, and coal stoves, washboards, and hand-operated washing machines. Furniture was often makeshift, made from old crates.
While wives struggled with day-to-day chores in the boomtown, husbands were engaged in the deadly serious business of #5BGS. There were 41 fatalities from the time the training started on May 26, 1941 until its closing on February 17, 1945. Some of these were the result of mechanical failures. The aircraft, particularly in the early years, were obsolete and had been heavily used prior to becoming training aircraft. Some aircraft were just not suited to the Saskatchewan environment and the particular demands placed on them. Some aircraft, like the Bristol Bolingbroke for example, had idiosyncrasies that could be deadly if not respected by the pilot. Other accidents were the result of human error, even though all of the pilots had been well trained at other bases in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, or were military veteran pilots. The pilots were human, and sometimes made errors in judgment that had disastrous consequences.
One example of the kinds of accident that occurred during training is as follows.
The winter of 1941/42 was the first taste of a Saskatchewan winter for #5BGS. The weather played a key role in two fatal crashes.
The first fatal accident at #5BGS occurred on Monday, December 1, 1941, with the tragic crash of Fairey Battle 2068. The Fairey Battle was a single engine light bomber that had a dismal service record and was withdrawn from active service early on in the war. It was low and slow and an easy target for the much faster and more agile enemy fighters. It was retired to training duty. It, like other bombers of the day, was designed for long missions with cool down time between them. However, in the training environment, the missions were short and there was little cool down time before the next one. The constant cycle of cooling and heating resulted in engines cracking and losing coolant, resulting in overheating, fires and spraying crews with scalding hot glycol.
On this day the pilot of Fairey Battle was Sergeant Joseph Cote, R.C.A.F., who had already flown this machine twice that very afternoon. After each flight, he had reported that the plane was in satisfactory condition and fit to fly another exercise. Two gunnery students, Leading Aircraftmen Colin Coles and Ronald Crothers, both members of the Royal Australian Air Force, climbed aboard for their turn at live firing exercises. The air temperature was just above freezing and the sky was clear as the Battle ascended into the sky heading for the target area at Big Quill Lake.
Once over the frozen lake, the exercises began with each student taking turns firing at a target set up on the ice below. After completing the first pass, the Cote banked and circled the plane as he had done many times before. While making his turn, a stream of white smoke issued from Cote’s plane. Cote straightened the plane out and was flying straight and level at approximately 300 feet of altitude when another pilot in the area saw Cote’s Battle bank over almost vertically, stall and roll over on its back. It then dove onto the ice of the lake at high speed trailing white smoke. Upon impact, the plane caught fire and burned. Cole and Crothers were killed instantly. Cote was gravely injured, badly scalded, and burned, he died shortly after arriving at the base hospital. Snow accumulation in the area had hampered rescue crews attempting to reach the crash site on the lake.
During the investigation that followed the crash, the Chief Aero-Mechanic of #5BGS commented that the Merlin engine, which powered all Fairey Battles, was “not adapted to being used in a climate where the temperature is continually changing”. The constant taking off and landing required during a typical training day caused heating and cooling stresses on the engine components that would lead to glycol coolant leaks. In the course of the crash, the engine of Cote’s plane had broken loose and fell through the ice, sinking to the bottom of the lake. Because of that, any telltale signs of white deposits characteristic of a glycol leak had been washed away making it impossible to determine with certainty that such a leak was the cause of the crash. However, burns on Cote’s face corroborated the conclusion that a sudden, major glycol leak had occurred. The redness of the burnt skin would not have been caused by gasoline, and the fact that the eyeballs had not been damaged lead investigators to believe that these burns to Cote’s face had occurred before the crash and not in the fire that resulted from the crash itself. It appeared that Cote had been scalded by hot glycol streaming from the engine. This, in turn, caused him to lose control of the aircraft. However, the evidence gathered from the crash did not prove this conclusively.
Cote was considered a capable pilot who did above average work. It appeared that the Battle had stalled during a high-speed turn at low altitude and there would not have been enough time to recover. Upon investigating the wreckage, inspectors found that the rudder was in full port position, indicating a hard turn. Investigators considered that this could have aggravated the stall at high speed during the turn. In the end, the Accident Investigation Branch could not draw a decisive conclusion as to the exact cause of the crash.
Given the testimony of the other pilot who was in the area and witnessed the events leading up to the crash, and the medical evidence gathered from the body of Sergeant Cote, it appears that a mechanical failure resulted in the pilot becoming disabled and unable to maintain control of the aircraft at very low altitude with the result that it crashed onto the ice. The cold Saskatchewan winter climate had played a factor in causing the mechanical failure that started the whole tragic chain of events by causing the rapid cooling of the aircraft’s engine between flights, leading to cracking the engine block and allowing the glycol coolant to leak out.
Sergeant (pilot) Joseph Landre Cote was from Montreal, Quebec, age 19. He is buried in Notre Dame Roman Catholic Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario.
LAC Colin Alfred Coles was from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, age 23. He is buried in Humboldt Municipal Cemetery, Humboldt, Saskatchewan.
LAC Ronald Kenneth Crothers was from Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia, age 19. He is buried in the Humboldt Municipal Cemetery, Humboldt, Saskatchewan.
The former station property is now used for farming. The only building that remains is one of the hangars. The only other remnants are the hangar pads, the gun butt, and the crumbling roadways and airfield. The property owner still uses a portion of the old airfield as a private aerodrome.
As recently as this year, however, members of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum’s Flying Committee, organized a fly-in to the Dafoe field to rededicate the airfield to No. 5 Bombing and Gunnery School. From Brandon, Manitoba, where they are based, they flew a Harvard, Cornell, and Stinson (all in BCATP markings) and held a dedication ceremony on the ramp and in the one remaining hangar.
No. 5 Bombing And Gunnery School Remembered
May 1, 2013 by Legion Magazine
A little bit of Prairie history was restored last year when members of Saskatchewan’s Wynyard Branch rededicated the cenotaph at the abandoned bombing and gunnery school in Dafoe.
Dafoe, 150 kilometres north of Regina, was home to the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 5 Bombing and Gunnery School, part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) during the Second World War.
But the base closed when the war ended and was abandoned. “The base continued as a weather station for a while. There was a beacon there. But all that remains is one hangar. A farmer bought that and used it to store farm equipment,” said Wynyard Branch Second Vice Wayne Sandler.
When the base officially opened on May 22, 1941, it had 43 officers, 486 airmen and 69 trainees. It grew into a busy centre, accommodating up to 366 trainees at a time, following a set syllabus of lectures, demonstrations, tests and assessment. Flying exercises were held day and night. The school’s motto was We Aim To Teach And We Teach To Aim.
Supporting the school was a full infrastructure with a station headquarters, service police, hospital, dental clinic and post office. Buildings were devoted to armament and parachute training, photography and meteorology. Maintenance Wing kept them flying. Streets on the base were named after women, such as Yvonne, Annette and Cecile.
The first aircraft used were 37 Fairey Battles. Later Ansons, Bolingbrokes, Lysanders and the odd Harvard were used. Lysanders were generally used to pull the drogues for gunnery practice.
The base had an impact on the community as buildings, supplies, food and services were all needed. The YMCA had a Hostess House and there was a station band and orchestra for many social activities to which both airmen and the community were invited (When The Boys Came To Town, January/February).
By Jan. 11, 1945, when the airfield was disbanded, 131,553 aircrew had been trained for the battle and transferred overseas.
More than 1,200 people attended the ceremony on June 2. The guests of honour included Patti Braun of Raymore, Sask., who was the national Silver Cross mother in 2011 and air force historian Rachel Lea Heide. The government of Canada was represented by Senator Pamela Wallin. Barry Needham, a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War, represented Wynyard Branch.
“We gave the cenotaph a facelift,” said Sandler. “The timbers supporting it had rotted. So we replaced them and shined up the plaque.”