by Eric Brown
This is the second article in a three-part series on the life of Second World War veteran Peter Biddlecombe.
Throughout the training program, aircrew candidates were constantly being evaluated. At any stage of the program if the instructors felt the trainee was unsuitable or falling behind and remedial measures were of no avail, he would be removed and re-assigned to ground duties. All candidates agreed, in writing, when accepted for aircrew training that removal for any reason permitted the RCAF to assign them to ground duties at any place of the air force’s choosing. Peter now started the rigorous ten week training regime, learning the technical aspects of flying. Navigation, meteorology, complex mathematics, aircraft engines, air weapons, and the theory of flight were among the subjects covered. He succeeded in all of his courses at the Initial Training School [ITS]. His file bears the annotation that he was of “good appearance,… dependable,… confident”. Unfortunately compliments of this nature were not always used to describe Peter as he worked his way through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan [BCATP].
There were more psychological tests to contend with throughout the training regime. The purposes were several-fold; to measure motivation to serve as aircrew and by implication be a team-player, the likelihood of successfully completing training, and to predict ability to cope with stressful situations and to eliminate the self-centred or those lacking confidence. These psychological evaluations were a means of measuring the maturation and character growth of young men. With 3 ITS now behind him, Peter moved on to No. 11 Elementary Flying School [11 EFTS] at Cap de la Madeleine, Quebec. This eight-week course introduced him to the basics of flying. Readers may find it difficult to imagine the excitement and anticipation of the young men as they were embarking on this new phase of their training. While flying is a common experience in the 21st century, most of the wartime phalanx of aviators had only seen airplanes in flight; they were less likely to have experienced the thrill of flight. Peter now began training to join this exclusive group.
During his eight weeks at 11 EFTS he accumulated 67 hours of flying time, almost all of them in single engined Fleet Finches,[i] with half of his flying hours being conducted at night. Peter’s results were mixed as the instructors were not impressed by his performance and their final assessment was not at all complimentary. He was described as an “[i]ndependent spirit at times,” [but]”… appreared uninterested… [with a] low average ability.” Despite those comments, Peter was allowed to continue his training. About 22.5% of the students were failed at this stage and re-assigned to other duties.[ii]
Peter left the EFTS on 21 February 1943, moving on to No. 9 Service Flying Training School [9 SFTS] located at Centralia, Ontario. During the next twelve weeks he added over 231 hours to his log book. The log book is the official written record of a pilot’s flying career. It is the record of hours flown on a particular type of aircraft, whether the flight was for training or operations, was he the pilot in command or the co-pilot and any note-worthy observations about the flight. Peter added the hours during flying training on the Avro Anson, Mk. V. Designed as a passenger transport, and later used by the RAF for anti-submarine reconnaisance. Fitted with retractable landing gear, it was a bigger, heavier and faster aircraft than any Peter had previously flown. The Anson became the BCATP’s primary twin engined trainer during 1940 and remained in RCAF service until 1952.[iii]
Once again Peter did not warrant much praise from his course instructors. The Chief Instructor [CI] described him as an “[A]verage pilot with no outstanding faults. Inclined to be somewhat lazy but has the ability to become above average.” The school’s commanding officer echoed the CI, describing him as “Somewhat lazy and lacking in initiative. A slow starter but has every confidence in himself and with more flying experience will develop into a high average pilot. This pupil is not recommnded for a commission.” The comments seem to indicate Peter was only putting in the minimum of effort necessary to avoid being dismissed from flying training. At this stage successful trainees were, upon the recommendation of the Commanding Officer of the SFTS, commissioned as Pilot Officers or promoted to the rank of temporary sergeant. Wartime members of the RCAF were not members of the regular air force having signed up for the duration of hostilities, therefore they were granted temporary ranks.
From the records it is clear Peter was neither academically inclined, nor “born” to be an aviator. He met the basic standards set for trainee-pilots at each level of training through determination and knowing there would no second opportunity to prove himself. A further ten to twelve percent of the trainees were removed from the BCATP at this stage. He would not have made it to the end of the SFTS training if he really was uninterested or incapable of mastering the fundamentals of his training. It is impossible to judge his character or thoughts based solely on what is found in his personal file. His courage is unquestionable as by now he would have heard enough from flyers returning from operational tours to training duties in Canada to have some idea of what to expect.
Peter departed from 9 SFTS on 11 June 1943 with a noticeable change to his uniform; his pilot’s wings and sergeant’s stripes on his sleeves. All the graduates were given two weeks leave before reporting to an Operational Training Unit to begin the last stage of training in Canada. Pennfield Ridge, New Brunswick, was to be his home for the next three months. The airfield housed the RAF’s No. 34 Operational Training Unit [34 OTU] from April 1942, until its disbandment two years later. Pilots, wireless operators and air gunners trained here for twelve weeks. No. 2 Air Navigation School was also located at Pennfield Ridge where navigators trained for about twelve weeks[iv] before posting to England. Training at the ITS, EFTS and SFTS level could be viewed as a flyer’s elementary and high schools. University began at the OTU. Temporary Sergeant Biddlecombe started classes on 25 June. Aircrewmen trained on the Lockheed Ventura, Mks. I and II.[v] It began operations in the RAF as a light bomber and reconnaissance airplane, but by 1943 was being withdrawn because it was too vulnerable to Luftwaffe fighters; it wasn’t a nimble aircraft and presented a big target. Peter began his flying training in an 828 kilogram [kg] Fleet Finch and finished his training with the much bigger, heavier, (at 9161 kgs) Ventura. He had learned to fly higher, faster and further adding 100 hours to his log book in an airplane that encapsulated all of his training over the preceding fourteen months. Peter finished his twelve weeks at the OTU on 17 September and proceeded on two weeks embarkation leave.
[i] The Fleet 16B Finch Mk. II. www.canadianflight.org/content/fleet-finch. It was manufactured in Fort Erie, Ontario. The fuselage was fabric and wood covering over a tube-steel frame. Winter flying conditions mandated some modifications to the aircraft, among them a sliding perspex cover over the cockpit. Finches had a maximum speed of 182 km/h and a service ceiling of 3,200 metres. Accessed 28 October 2018.
[ii] F.J. Hatch, Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945. (Ottawa: Directorate of History, Dept. of National Defence, 1983 and Spencer Dunmore, Wings for Victory. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1995).
[iii] National Air Force Museum of Canada www.airforcemuseum.ca/eng/?page_id=495.
[iv] Hatch. Pp.76-77.
[v] Rene J. Francillon. Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1987). Pp. 201-2, 208.