With the Demon Squadron,
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This is the third of my explorations into the wartime service and experiences of the family of my maternal grandparents. John’s brother George died at the Second Battle of Ypres, in the first major battle fought by Canadian troops in World War One. Having lied about his age, my grandfather spent two years in the Canadian Forestry Corps in the Somme Valley in 1917-18, before being transferred into the infantry for the last offensive against the Germans in October 1918. Having discovered what I could, it was time to turn my attention to Second World War.
I’m told it was a hard day in the house at Pioneer Mine when the word came of Tom Main’s death in 1943. The youngest of the Main clan, all accounts suggest Tom was a most likeable young man. While it is still difficult to get access to the service records of Canadians who served in the Second World War and who survived that service, the records of the fallen are readily available. Tom Main is in living memory still, and those memories need to be shared.
A note: While Unit Diaries for the First World War are easily available via the internet, squadron diaries from the Second World War are not. A few are accessible through old-fashioned retrieval; provided one visits the archives where they are held (the help of the Librarian at the Royal Canadian Military Institute was invaluable in this regard). Sometimes, there might be a published history of the unit – as there was for 407 Squadron.
Unfortunately, individual log books where aircrew catalogued all their experiences were mostly destroyed in 1960 and only a few rare examples are in circulation.
“A Good Looking Cheerful Lad…”
Born in July 1921, Thomas Main was the youngster of the Main clan, and a favorite uncle to the Conn girls. He had graduated from Mount View High School in Victoria in 1940, and like the best of his contemporaries, sought to join up in the war effort. He was an avid baseball and basketball player, and enjoyed working with his hands as a machinist and carpenter.
Tom impressed a lot of people; not least the recruiting office of the RCAF in January 1941, when he made his second attempt to enlist after the jammed offices of 1940 had a chance to deal with the initial rush. In the meantime, he had worked as a carpenter. The recruiting file describes him as a “Good looking, cheerful lad. Keen and alert. Possesses intelligence, observant. … Well recommended.” He was also described as “confident, mature and pleasant” of a “tasteful, clean and neat” appearance. His medical forms reveal a fine healthy young man in excellent shape. The Air Force wasted no time in getting him into service.
Tom Main’s initial recruiting documents identified him as a potential wireless air gunner – an airman who could operate electronics and handle a machinegun as a member of a bomber crew. Summarizing his service record over the next two years:
With the Demon Squadron
Formed in 1941, 407 Squadron was fast becoming a legendary group of Canadian airmen in southern England. There is the old joke that fighter pilots make movies and bomber pilots make history; 407 Squadron existed to make trouble. It was a part of RAF Coastal Command – aircraft assigned to maritime functions such as anti-submarine patrols, anti-shipping strikes, maritime reconnaissance and rescue.
When Tom Main joined 407 Squadron, they were based in Bircham Newton in Norfolk. At this time, the focus of the squadron was attacks on German shipping in the North Sea, particularly off the Dutch coast. The squadron, then equipped with Hudson bombers, was christened “The Demons” for their particularly aggressive attacks.
Soon called “Tommy” for his cheerful demeanor, Sgt Main was in a crew led by their pilot, Pilot Officer Beverley Wayne Pritchard of Chatham, Ontario. The two other members of crew were the observer (handling navigation and bombing) Pilot Officer Harold Melville Tarver, an older married man from Toronto. The other Wireless Air Gunner Sgt. Allan Andrew Johnston – also around 30 – was from Winnipeg.
The Hudson Bomber was a small aircraft, developed from the Pre-War Electra passenger plane. It was a workhorse of a plane, small and nimble but not fast (a top speed of 260mph/410 kph). It carried 7 .303 calibre Browning machineguns, and a modest bomb load of 750lbs/340 kgs. It was not a spectacular warplane by the standards of the Second World War, its greatest redeeming feature in 1942 was that it was available in some numbers. As a wireless air-gunner, Tom would have worked as the radio-operator with the beam machineguns at either hand; or in the dorsal turret.
Anti-shipping missions involved sorties with strafing and low-level bombing attacks on barges, freighters, and their escorts. It was a dangerous task, as the attacking aircraft faced a lot of anti-aircraft fire from machineguns and automatic cannon; while flying low and fast presents hazards even without hundreds of bullets and cannon shells arcing towards you. It was not unknown for 407 Squadron Hudsons to be damaged from debris from their own bomb hits, or to clip off antenna and mast parts from vessels they attacked. One of the Squadron’s Hudsons once left its bomb-bay door impaled on a German ship’s radio mast.
On the night of June 19th, 1942, Tom’s aircraft located and attacked a 2,000 ton ship off Texel without significant result and scored hits on two 3,000 ton ships on the night of 26 June 1942. While they flew many missions after this, they had poor luck in acquiring targets. Their aircraft was used in a ‘1,000 Bomber’ raid on the German port of Bremen in June, acting as a conventional bomber; and did the same on Cherbourg later.
Occasionally, 407th Squadron aircraft might encounter German fighter aircraft, whose speed and firepower presented a dire threat to larger and more rugged bombers than their Hudsons. The usual counter was to head out to sea at top speed, as the German Messerschmitt fighter did not have the fuel to venture too far away from their bases. Moreover, German pilots never knew if the Hudsons might be running towards fighter protection of their own. In an attack on a 6,000 ton Italian ore carrier off Cherbourg on September 4th, 1942, Tom’s Hudson spent five anxious minutes twisting and turning away from a trio of German fighter planes before the Luftwaffe pilots broke off their attack.
One other exciting episode occurred in the middle of a night training exercise on their own airfield when a real German raider snuck in and bombed the field (without result) on July 21st 1942.
However, it was clear that the Hudson bombers were second-rate aircraft even in their prime in 1942, and they needed to be replaced. The pilots on anti-shipping strikes were running enormous risks in frail planes without the firepower needed to really suppress flak guns and the bomb-load to guarantee sinking their targets; and much tougher and more heavily armed aircraft like the Beaufighter were slowly becoming available. In September 1942, 407 Squadron was moved to St. Eval in Cornwall and no longer had access to the more target rich environment of the North Sea. German convoys were rarer, and as winter commenced, days spent grounded because of weather were much more common.
In February 1943, 407 Squadron was moved to Skitton, near John O’Groats in Northern Scotland to begin their conversion to Wellington bombers configured for Maritime operations. Two months later, they were moved to Chivenor in Devon in April 1943 to resume operational flying but their new focus was on submarine hunting.
The Wellington had begun the war as a bomber and had done Yeoman service in 1940-42, but as bigger bombers like the Lancaster entered service; it was time to move the Wellington into other roles. New and converted old bombers were upgraded to the VIII and XII models with more powerful engines and new electronics; and were sent out to hunt submarines and surface ships. The Wellingtons of 1943 had a top speed of 300 mph/480 kph and could fly out twice as far from their home airbases as the old Hudson – a radius of action with a 1,500 b/680 kg bomb load was usually around 2,200 miles (3,540 km). It had a defensive armament of 8 .303 Browning machineguns, and could also carry torpedoes or depth bombs for submarines. The Wellingtons that 407 Squadron received were also equipped with radars to search for ships and submarines, and had a retractable Leigh Light to illuminate targets.
By the Spring of 1943, Coastal Command aircraft were engaged in a much more scientific war, and 407 Squadron was usually out hunting U-Boats in the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, when not out over the Atlantic Approaches to the UK. It was during these days, with more aircraft, better sensor systems and more escort warships, that the threat of the U-Boats became much diminished. German submarine losses soared during this time, and they never again became the menace that they had been earlier.
The Wellingtons of the squadron usually roved in the night, and hoped to pick up a submarine running on the surface with their radars. Then they would glide into the attack, switching on the Leigh Light at the last minute to both identify their target and bedazzle it, while the gunners would strafe the boat and the depth bombs would be released to crush its hull. Other times, a Wellington might be called in to support other aircraft and ships in ‘prosecuting’ a located U-Boat; keeping it submerged and under attack until its electric batteries (and the crew’s air supply) were almost out, forcing it to surface and face destruction. Most patrols, however, found nothing and weeks would go by without making contact with the enemy.
For Tom Main, I suspect, this sort of flying demanded more endurance and concentration than the adrenalin required of the Squadron’s earlier roles. But, after many months of wartime flying, he was a highly seasoned airman, which is reflected in his promotion to Warrant Officer 1st Class in May 1943. His crew was joined by two new men: A co-pilot, Pilot Officer Nicholas John Tuchtie from St Catherine’s Ontario; and Flight Lieutenant Allison George Tatton of New Brunswick, as a designated bombardier. Pritchard was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and Tarver became a Pilot Officer and the navigator.
The first week of May proved to be exciting. On one mission, far out in the Bay of Biscay, one of their engines flamed out and Pritchard had to nurse their Wellington back to England on a single engine. The crew spent several anxious hours jettisoning anything that could be spared to lighten the load. On the night of May 4/5th, their radar picked up a submarine and they closed to attack just as the conning tower was slipping beneath the waves. Their bombs bracketed the target and possibly caused some damage but did not destroy the boat. The submarine was a large one, possibly a Type XB or XIV ‘Milch Cow’ and there are four potential U-Boats that it might have been, all were sunk later that month.
May 1943 was the month in which the Battle of the Atlantic turned, and the U-Boats took enormous losses largely due to the Wellingtons and Sunderlands ranging all around the German U-boat Bases in northwestern France, and the new escort carriers accompanying Allied convoys.
One of the last entries in Tom’s records before the end was a month attached to a Ground Instructor School in June/July 1943. One thing that militaries like to impart to seasoned NCOs is basic teaching techniques, so that they can learn how to pass their experiences to others. Possibly, as Main’s months of operational flying stacked up, he was being prepared for a new existence as an instructor, either in the UK or back in Canada. Regardless, another fate awaited him.
A Collision over Kent
On the night of 12/13 August 1943, Tom’s Wellington was returning from another nine hour patrol over the Bay of Biscay when their home airbase at Chivenor became fogged in, so they were diverted to Beaulieu in Hampshire. The next day, they took off in the late afternoon to return home but collided with a Halifax bomber in patchy cloud conditions at 1715 hrs. Both aircraft were destroyed.
The men who flew and died with Tom were:
- Flight Lieutenant Beverley Wayne Pritchard, age 23; J/7746 of Chatham, Ontario.
- Pilot Officer Nicholas John Tuchtie, age 23; J/2180, of St. Catherine’s, Ontario.
- Flying Officer Harold Melville Tarver, age 31; J/8433 of Toronto. He left a widow, Isobelle Tarver.
- Flight Lieutenant Allison George Tatton; age 24; J/15699, of North Head, New Brunswick.
- Flight Sergeant Allan Andrew Johnston; age 30; R/87222, of Winnipeg.
It was a hard loss for the Squadron. The crew was a popular one, while Tom, Pritchard, Tarver and Johnston had been flying together since the end of May in 1942. All six are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Heanton Punchardon (in the church yard of an Augustinian church) near RAF Station Chivenor. Burial was on 16th August, and the war went on without Tom Main.
407 Squadron continued operational flying in their Wellingtons right up until the end of the War. The urgency of their missions lessened with the passing months as the U-Boats became scarce. After D-Day in June 1944, German shipping diminished and then disappeared altogether. In June 1945, the squadron was disbanded with the end of the war in Europe. Altogether, in four years of intensive operations, the squadron lost 233 dead, 14 men wounded or injured and eight became POWs (with another six being shot down and evading capture). During this time 42 of 407 Squadron’s aircraft were lost on operational flights (including Tom’s) and 14 in training flights.
Seven years later, 407 Squadron was reconstituted in Comox, British Columbia and returned to its old job of flying maritime patrol aircraft. They hunted submarines (Soviet boats rather than U-Boats), flew search and rescue missions, and generally kept an eye on Canada’s ocean space. Fifty six years later, the Demon squadron is still there and still flying.