RCAF Station Alliford Bay
Western Air Command’s 1938 plan for the defence of the west coast called for an advanced bomber reconnaissance squadron on the Queen Charlotte Islands. The location for the seaplane base was decided upon as a result of the search carried on by the B.C. Recon-naissance Party in 1937. The site chosen was Alliford Bay which was located in Skidegate Inlet opposite Queen Charlotte City. RCAF Stn Alliford Bay had the distinction of being the most westerly and the most isolated of all the West Coast Flying Boat Stations but having the reputation of being the happiest, most colourful and most self-contained station.
Construction at this base had begun in 1938 but as the war clouds gathered construction was speeded up and continued through 1939. On the outbreak of war a detachment was dispatched at once to protect this base from possible damage or capture. On 27 April 1940, No.6 (BR) Squadron, stationed at Jericho Beach, Vancouver, received orders to move to its war station at Alliford Bay. The move began on 13 May 1940. The Shark aircraft on the strength of the squadron flew to the new base and the personnel were transported by H.M.C.S. “Sans Peur” and coastal steamer.
When the squadron arrived work was being done on the hangar and a pier and on some equipment buildings. Accommodation buildings had already been erected. The first few weeks were spent in preparing the station area and setting up the technical equipment. It meant a lot hard work and many discomforts but it was at this point that “the spirit” was moulded. The personnel at Alliford Bay accepted the hardships and worked to make the unit a good one. They succeeded brilliantly, and the atmosphere which they initiated continued.
The Y.M.C.A, posted a representative to arrange and supervise entertainment for the men. This consisted of movies and athletics, using equipment supplied mainly by the Y.M.C.A. The closest pocket of civilization was a Haida Indian village across Skidegate Inlet which they discovered had a number of ardent baseball and soccer fans, so a series of games were arranged. It was noted in the daily diary that the Indians won most of them.
On 26 June 1940 the Irish Fusiliers took over the duty of ground defence for the seaplane base and thereafter the rotation continued semi-annually. On February 19, 1941 the Rocky Mountain Rangers arrived to relieve the Irish Fusiliers in the defence of the station. They were in turn relieved On 29 July 1941 by the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Scottish. On the 3rd March 1942, the Edmonton Fusiliers replaced the Canadian Scottish for aerodrome defence duties and so on until the end of the war.
The first operational flight was carried out on 30 May 1940 when F/L Gill in Shark 524 made a reconnaissance flight around the north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. On several occasions the squadron was able to lend assistance to the inhabitants of the island by undertaking mercy flights or search missions
The first flying accident occurred on 19 July 1940 when Shark 525 overturned while making a fast landing on glassy water. The crew were not injured. Another accident occurred on 27 July, this time fatal. Shark 517, pilot F/0 Robert M. Halpenny and two crew members were carrying dive bombing practice. It was seen to enter a steep dive then, the top wing broke off and the aircraft appeared to disintegrate, crashed into the water, burst into flames and sank immediately. The use of Sharks in dive bombing practice ended with tragic finality
As dependents were not allowed to live on or near the station Western Air Command adapted a policy on January 1, 1941 whereby Alliford Bay and other isolated locations would exchange personnel after 6 months in isolation. This policy was greeted with enthusiasm and resulted in a positive injection into the Station’s morale. Forty-seven airmen from Alliford Bay were exchanged with Vancouver and Patricia Bay, followed in February by a further twenty-three.
Canada entered the war wholly unprepared in its possession of first line aircraft. The best that could be said for the Stranraer and Shark was that they were there, and both aircrew and groundcrew did a magnificent job of doing their best with what they had. By the end of 1941 the squadron received Stranraer Flying Boats which allowed the squadron to carry out the long seaward patrols which Japan’s entry in the war made so necessary.
On 7 December 1941, W.A.C. ordered the station to adopt Alert No. 2 on receipt of the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Later that day, Alert No. 1 was adopted and a complete blackout of the area including ‘the village and Queen Charlotte City was enforced. Patrols were intensified, Station personnel reacted swiftly: aircrews went on immediate standby, and maintenance crews worked all night to ensure that every plane was ready for service; aircraft patrols were intensified, the station defences were manned, and surprise drills were called to test the men’s efficiency in dealing with a gas attack. The Squadron’s one Stranraer, which had been taken on strength in October, was on patrol throughout the next day, while the Sharks waited patiently – all bombed up but nowhere to go.
The Lieutenant-Governor of B.C. arrived on board the HMCS “Prince Rupert” on 19 July 1942. He inspected the station and Sandspit and was entertained in the Officers’ Mess and later that summer No. 6 (BR) Squadron took part in a search for sub sighted and attacked by Thomas of 7 (BR) Squadron, Prince Rupert.
On 16 November 1942 W.A.C. ordered No. 6 (BR) Squadron to move to Bella Bella. The move was completed on 19 November. This was part of a plan to give practice to entire squadrons in mobility in case of emergency. No. 6 (BR) remained at Bella Bella until 3 December 1942 carrying out local operations. 9 (BR) Squadron from Bella Bella took over squadron duties at Alliford Bay.
1943 began tragically with the loss of Stranraer #935 and its crew. On February 14, while on a training flight, the Stranraer crashed in Skidegate Channel between Maude and Lina Islands. P/O DS MacLennan, and crew were all killed. Squadron members sent out to investigate the crash site found a lot of debris and a large number of dead fish floating all over the area. From the evidence they concluded that the aircraft’s four depth charges had exploded after impact.
The station pet, “Kwana” was a deer of that species peculiar to the Queen Charlotte Islands, very small weighing about 90 lbs. on the hoof. The deer became an integral part of station life and was incorporated into the official Station crest. They were absolutely without fear as there are no predatory animals on the islands. On 23 January 1944, Kwana came into contact with barbed wire charged by power lines which had been blown down and died.
During April 1943, the first Canso aircraft arrived. On 10 July 1943, two more Cansos were delivered to Alliford Bay which brought the aircraft attached to three Stranraers and three Cansos. Now it was possible for the station to carry out longer patrols and training that was more consistent with modern up-to-date operational requirements. This station was a very important one in the scheme of defence for Canada’s west coast. It was able to fulfil its service responsibility now that it had proper equipment. By March, 1944, there were 7 Cats, 2 Canso “A”s and 1 Stranraer on strength.
On April 21, 1944 No. 6 (BR) Squadron received orders to begin a move to Coal Harbour on Holberg Inlet on the north end of Vancouver Island. The move was completed on April 23rd. 7 (BR) moved from Prince Rupert to Alliford Bay on 22 April 1944 to replace No. 6 as Prince Rupert was no longer an operational station.
During their year at the Station the Squadron aircrews set several records. On 14 June 1944 a fisherman reported sighting with the aid of binoculars a sub surfaced off Zayas Island in Dixon Entrance. Four patrols were made from 0425 hrs.to 2300 hrs. Although the anti-sub equipment on one of the patrolling aircraft reacted once, the fog was too thick to make visual contact. One patrol lasted 18.10 hrs the longest one made in W.A.C.to that point then on June 24, a Canso completed a night patrol of 20 hours and 40 minutes – the longest patrol in Western Air Command records .
29 August 1944 was a red letter day and one to be remembered. S/0 D.G Gratton-Smith and Cpl. R.M. Harrison of the advance party of the Women’s Division arrived!
Number 7 (BR) Squadron completed its last mission on July 14, 1945. F/O Craddock and crew flew Canso A 10070 from Alliford Bay on an anti-submarine patrol. The Squadron was disbanded at Alliford Bay on July 24, 1945 and the Station was reduced to care and maintenance basis. The site was eventually sold and became a dry land sort.
On May 28, 2016 101 Squadron flew to Haida Gwaii aboard a Buffalo aircraft provided by 442 Squadron, 19 Wing (Comox) to commemorate three WWII RCAF bases; Alliford Bay, Sandspit and Masset. Joining 101 members aboard the Buffalo were senior staff from 19 Wing; A/WComd and Wing Logistics Officer, A/WCWO and the W Pers Admin O. Flight crew on the Buffalo included 442 Ops O, a 442 pilot, and flight engineer. From 888 Wing we were joined by; Bud Wilds – Pac Gp RVP, Ron Western, incoming President of 888, 1st VPresident 888, Ted Gibbon, and Jack Shapka to help conduct the ceremonies. After landing at Sandspit airport we boarded a bus for a tour of Alliford Bay where little evidence of the flying boat station remains. A ceremony then took place at a quiet spot overlooking Alliford Bay where a 30”X30” stainless steel plaque now tells the story of Western Air Command’s most remote coastal station. Nearby is an obelisk 101 Sqn dedicated in past years to Alliford Bay aircrew who perished in crashes during WWII. Joining us from Sandpit were; Bob Ells – Airport Manager CYZP, Peter Grundmann – Canadian Rangers, and Brian Charman, a long time Sandspit resident.
The AWCmdr spoke about the role of Alliford Bay during WWII and acknowledged the importance of keeping the memories alive of those who served in what here on the west coast was largely a forgotten war. He thanked 101 Squadron for their longstanding efforts to ensure those memories aren’t forgotten. Brian Charman provided further background on the impact the RCAF station had on local history. A colour party, bugler, and piper helped honour Alliford Bay’s men and women while those in attendance took part in a poppy ceremony and laying of wreathes.