Prairie Wings

Prairie Wings

The air Battle of Britain in 1940 created a shortage of trained pilots and ground crew. Service Flying Training School #34 Medicine Hat opened April 23, 1941 and included personnel who had served during that life and death conflict.   Emergency landing fields were built at Holsom and Whitla. When the base closed in November 1944, 2,000 pilots and ground crew had graduated from what is now the Medicine Hat airport.

Fifty air crew from this field died in training accidents and lie buried in the Field of Honour, Hillside cemetery.

Training school Medicine Hat's personnel came from Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand, Belgium, France, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Poland and the Caribbean. They were a multifaceted 'invasion'.   Across town 12,500 German prisoners of war and their guards were quartered on the present Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede grounds.   To the West at Suffield the secret Defence Research Facility was established. From 1941-1946 Medicine Hat was inundated by this 'deluge' for at the time the Gas City's population was less than 10,000.

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Prairie Wings

This rare and detailed account of operations is unique - it is the only British Commonwealth (BCATP) air station to be covered in detail. Sales world-wide have made PRAIRIE WINGS a 'collector's item!

Britain's declaration of war against Germany in 1939 demanded swift action to train air and ground crew.

Prairie Wings (Back Cover)
This water colour by Eric Bliss, ex R.C.A.F, North Vancouver, has a "connection" to the worst crash involving personnel, from #34 S.F.T.S., which occurred at Rose Lynn, Alberta. March 23, 1943.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan evolved. Ultimately 107 flight schools at 231 sites in Canada were constructed within an incredible six month period.

The air Battle of Britain in 1940 created a shortage of trained pilots and ground crew. Service Flying Training School #34 Medicine Hat opened April 23, 1941 and included personnel who had served during that life and death conflict. Emergency landing fields were built at Holsom and Whitla. When the base closed in November 1944, 2,000 pilots and ground crew had graduated from what is now the Medicine Hat airport.

Fifty air crew from this field died in training accidents and lie buried in the Field of Honour, Hillside cemetery.

Training school Medicine Hat's personnel came from Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand, Belgium, France, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Poland and the Caribbean. They were a multifaceted 'invasion'. Across town 12,500 German prisoners of war and their guards were quartered on the present Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede grounds. To the West at Suffield the secret Defence Research Facility was established. From 1941-1946 Medicine Hat was inundated by this 'deluge' for at the time the Gas City's population was less than 10,000.

PRAIRIE WINGS Includes the following...

  • The historical background leading to the formation of RAF bases in Canada
  • The "secret" diary of the Medicine Hat station forms the basis for the book
  • Attractive coffee table format. Full color covers featuring Harvards over the Hat and Ansons flying past grain elevators
  • Over 80 photos, most previously unpublished
  • Listing of all who died in the flying accidents at #34 SFTS Medicine Hat
  • Listing of all who died in flying accidents at #39 SFTS Swift Current
  • Listing of all courses which passed through #34 SFTS Medicine Hat
  • List of many marriages involving RAF personnel from #34 SFTS Medicine Hat

From Gus Bacon                    

Hello David:

I have just spent several hours reading through your Prairie Wings. I think you have done a masterful job in compiling all the detailed activities that comprised the life and function of 34 SFTS. As you know I was intimately involved in the first two years of the unit's operation and your narration of those events was, to me, quite a revelation. I thought that after an interval of sixty years the memories of that significant portion of my life would be just a hazy memory, but now I feel that much of it happened only yesterday.

I was particularly alerted by the names of personnel and your descriptions of their activities. Purkiss-Ginn (we graduated from SFTS on the same course), Reg Nutter (I was an usher at his wedding), John Rhodes, Bob Sears, Ron Bartlett, A. MacLean, Peter Vincent, Ginger Shaw and many others.

I was pleased to read your reference to Chas. Grayson. We were quite close, possibly because his wife Toni and Doreen hit it off so well. Chas had joined the RAF, pre-war, and was serving in France in the early period prior to Dunkirque, flying Hurricanes. He was a Sgt. Pilot then. He was a quiet, modest person who rarely discussed his operational flying. But on one occasion when describing the German break-through and the advance on Paris he mentioned a hassle his section had with some German fighters. I asked him if he had shot down any aircraft. He told me that the pilots had been briefed on the importance of breaking off an attack immediately after firing a burst at the target a/c because that was when one was most vulnerable to attack from behind. He executed this maneuver three times and on each occasion on coming out of the very steep turn he found another enemy a/c in range. He said he did not have time to see the results of his shooting but when the fighting ceased there were several burning a/c on the ground. One can assume he was partially responsible, but he did not make any further claim.

I am looking forward to many more hours of nostalgic reading, David, and once again I would like to thank you, and compliment you on a job very well done.

Best Wishes

Gus Bacon R.C.A.F. - R.I.P. 2011

From John Rhodes:

Dear David,

I have now finished reading Prairie Wings and it gave me a lot of pleasure and revived many memories. Once again I am full of admiration for the amount of hard work you must have put into such a task with all the research necessary and I would thank you again for letting me read it. I was also flattered that you felt some of my contributions were worthwhile

I have to say that I was amazed to find the number of flying casualties which occurred at No 34 SFTS. Either my memory is poor or, apart from my own friends, I was quite unaware of some those occurrences. Of course a number did happen after I left the Station.

I am also at a loss to understand the number of "wheels up landings", other than, of course, those which were deliberate. I had to land with one engine in a very small field near Edmonton and had my hand on the undercarriage lock ready to fold up the undercarriage had the grassy field proved to have been wet and swampy. However it was a cardinal rule during my time to follow a set procedure before landing at an airfield. On the downwind leg the pilot had to close the throttle(s) at which point a light shone and a horn blew. You then opened the throttle(s) and lowered the undercarriage. When down and locked you then closed the throttle(s) again and neither the light would show nor horn blow indicating that the u/c was safely down and locked.. When this procedure was carried out as ordered you could not land with u/c up. I saw that a wheels up landing was also carried out with an Instructor present. Oh dear!

With All Best wishes for the New Year.

John Rhodes R.A.F. - R.I.P. 2016

The Battle of Britain 1940 - Alberta Aces

The air battle of Britain held incredible significance in that it prevented any possibility of an invasion of the UK by German forces. All of the men who formed the initial draft of personnel to Medicine Hat had some experience of what it was like to be under fire. One of the famous RAF pilots was legless, Douglas Bader. He didn't fly in the battle over France however about 80 Canadian pilots in the RAF, including two from Alberta fought over France and Dunkirk. Hiram Peter 'Cowboy' Blatchford was the son of the mayor Edmonton. He made the first kill by a Canadian in the Second World War when as part of a flight of three Spitfires he shot down a Heinkell 111 on October 17, 1939. After the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk Blatchford would become an Ace during the Battle of Britain where while now flying Hurricanes with # 17 Squadron he destroyed a total of five enemy aircraft. For his efforts he received a Distinguished Flying Cross.

William 'Willie' Lidstone McKnight
William 'Willie' Lidstone McKnight

William 'Willie' Lidstone McKnight was a Flying Officer who would earn the DFC and Bar while flying with the RAF. Like Blatchford, McKnight became an Ace. Within five days he shot down ten enemy planes over Dunkirk. Before his death in January 1941 he had sixteen and one half enemy aircraft credited to his score. Following is a list of victories: May 29, 1940 shot down 2 ME-109's and 1 DO-17; May 30, 1940 shot down 2 ME-109s; June 1, 1940 shot down 4 Stuka dive bombers: August 30, 1940 shot down 3 enemy bombers; September 8 shot down 2 ME-109's; September 18, 1940 shot down 1 and half ME-109s; October 17, 1940 shot down 1 ME-109.

Quite a number of battle tested, battle weary Canadians who had survived the fighting over France and the Channel were assigned to Douglas Bader who met his rumpled, rebellious crew, reluctant to submit to authority and leery of having a Commanding Officer with no legs. Bader stomped out to a Hurricane, humped himself into the cockpit then took off for a half hour of aerobatics and low flying to show he could fly a fighter aircraft. The Canadians took grudging notice. When Bader assembled his motley crew the next day he asked them about their relaxed even slovenly appearance. They told him they had escaped France with what they wore. Bader directed them to his tailor in nearby Norwich and had them properly kitted up with him standing as guarantee to their line of credit. Bader also passed out some of his own shirts and ties to tide them over until their new proper kit arrived. He soon won their confidence and introduced them to his own new theory of fighter tactics which were to prove successful.

Bader flew with Albertans Blatchford and McKnight and supplies a brief account of the death of McKnight in his book 'Reach for the Sky'.

Rhodes 1941 - The Beginnings

John Rhodes 1941

Let us return to John Rhodes and one of his experiences in a Harvard. 'Whilst doing aerobatics with a pupil on a Harvard over Holsom the pupil asked how one went into an approach to dive bomb a target. I rolled the Harvard onto its back and pulled the stick back until the plane was in a vertical dive. Dive bombers have air brakes, the Harvard did not and within seconds the revs were of the clock and the propeller giving a tortured scream. I closed the throttle and pulled out rather quickly causing a black out with the increased G force and at that point there was a loud BANG followed immediately by a cloud of dust and a voice shouting 'shall we bail out sir?'

She was coming up onto a level fight and the revs came back to normal but there was an awful lot of light in the cockpit due to the entire side panel for the length of the plane having pulled. I said 'No she's all right now' but I was not sure how she would behave at slow landing speeds as that sort of thing can effect the aerodynamic stability of a plane.

I slowed her down to landing approach speed and she flew all right so next I lowered the wheels and then the flaps and she was still OK. I circled down from 5,000 feet around the field and came to land a little faster than normal and she sat down without any problems, but there was a little crowd of spectators gathered to see the fun as they had heard the engine noise and the bang, and then seen a large object fluttering towards the ground and thought someone had bailed out. It was of course the missing part of my plane.

John Rhodes

February 28 was a Sunday and after church services in the station chapel as conducted by the Reverend Canon Butcher of St. Barnabas, 34 SFTS entertained a very special visitor. Flying Officer George Beurling, DSO, DFC, DFM and Bar. 'Buzz' was acknowledged as being a bona fide war Ace. The station diary reported, the Canadian Air Ace, gave a very interesting talk to the officers and men and air cadets.

Most Canadians have no knowledge of this man who was one of our Second World War aces. George Frederick 'Buzz' Beurling was born in Verdun, Quebec in 1921. He took his first flight at age 9 at LaSalle Road airport Verdun. He was only interested in flying; books of WW1 aces, tactics and aerial battles. He took the controls of an airplane at age 12...

John Rhodes wrote, I was sent to be a member of a three man Court of Inquiry on the prairie between Calgary and Edmonton, I believe. An Anson from another training school had made a forced landing at this tiny hamlet, and another plane had been sent out with a mechanic and replacement battery. By the time it was fixed the instructor and pupil had been entertained and boarded by the local inhabitants with whom they had made friends. After taking off the instructor, to say farewell, beat up the village by diving low over it, too low as it happened, and his tailwheel went through the roof of the local store. The result of this can be imagined, it was as though a giant hand had smacked his tail from underneath, tipping the nose into the ground, and before he could recover, the plane crashed on the railway line and burned out killing instructor, pupil and unfortunate mechanic. We had to examine officially, in the neighboring larger town about 25 miles away, the charred corpses, and I remember the mortician putting his hand on the charred flesh saying 'Such a shame. Such fine young fellas', then finding him sitting next to me in the drug store eating his sandwiches with the black still on them. our three man Inquiry took reams of evidence from local eye witnesses who saw the crash. The Anson crash at Rose Lynn was certainly the one to which I was sent as part of the Court of Inquiry. I remember the visit to the funeral parlour and also, clearly the grain elevators and the friendly operator. I also still see clearly in my memory the hold in the edge of the building roof an exact cut out of the tail wheel assembly.

Hurricane

The Housewife's Dream

My Saucepans have all been surrendered,

The teapot is gone from the hob,

The colander's leaving the cabbage

For a very much different job.

So now, when I hear on the wireless

Of Hurricanes showing their mettle,

I see, in a vision before me,

A Dornier being chased by my kettle.

Elsie Cawser, Staffordshire.