Remembrance and Revision: Recovering An Historic Halifax Bomber Aircraft
One man’s crusade to recover a historic Halifax bomber aircraft.
Canada’s wartime history was rewritten when three Canadian air crewmen listed as missing in action became war dead with names and a story on September 6, 1997. That day, an off-duty airline pilot led a salvage expedition at the crash site of a Second World War bomber, near Geraardsbergen, Belgium. Shot down the night of May 9, 1944, Halifax bomber LW682 took all eight crewmen to their deaths. German troops quickly removed five of the bodies before the Halifax vanished into the mud, it seemed, forever.
But when the families of the three MIA Canadian Halifax bomber crewmen approached Karl Kjarsgaard, an Air Canada pilot and recognized military aircraft retrieval expert half a century later, he agreed to investigate. He secured a grant from Canada’s Heritage Minister and encouraged civilian and government groups to co-operate on the retrieval. Then he watched as the Belgians drained the swamp down 20 feet to allow the dig.
“It was one of the most moving moments of my life,” Kjarsgaard said.
With Belgian coroners supervising and streaming their work on the Internet, the excavation team unearthed bone fragments and personal belongings of the three Canadian crewmen entombed in the Halifax for 53 years. In the mangled aluminum that had been the mid-upper gunner’s turret, for example, they found Pilot Officer Jack Summerhayes’s remains and a wallet.
“I was standing there in gumboots in the swamp,” Kjarsgaard remembered. “I got on the phone to Canada—and I got to say to Summerhayes’s son, ‘Doug, we just found your dad.'”
For the boy from Moose Jaw, Sask., it proved a seminal moment. He’d only seen wartime bombers in movies and in his Jell-O “Famous Aircraft of the World” plastic coin collection; he ate so much gelatin that he accumulated all 200 coins. But nowhere in the 200 was there mention of the plane that had carried nearly three-quarters of Allied bomber crews in the Second World War. Nor, he learned, was there an intact “Hally” to be found.
“This is a hidden gem, the most important airplane in the history of Canadian military aviation,” he said. “But there was not one to be seen.”
As a young man, Kjarsgaard pursued a career in aviation. During the 1960s, the Canadian air force was downsizing, so he co-piloted float planes along the Pacific Coast, then bush planes into the Arctic and, by the 1980s, he was piloting Air Canada jets. He accumulated thousands of hours in the cockpits of contemporary aircraft but, in his spare time, he never stopped gathering the stories of Halifax bomber crew veterans. Around 1990, in an Ottawa museum, Kjarsgaard spotted a neglected piece of metal sheathing that displayed the nose art from a Halifax that had flown with RCAF 432 Squadron in Bomber Command. He borrowed the chunk of metal—depicting an avenging angel—and asked to speak to the 432 Squadron’s dinner at the annual Allied Air Forces Reunion in Toronto. When he pulled the Halifax nose art out of a cardboard box, Kjarsgaard was approached by Leo Loppe, a former RCAF bomber pilot.
“That looks just like the nose art from Avenging Angel,” Loppe said.
“Leo, that is Avenging Angel,” Kjarsgaard told him as he watched the veteran’s eyes light up.
Loppe turned the metal sheet over to verify Kjarsgaard’s claim, spotted its rivets on the reverse and shouted to his former wartime navigator George Ewing, “George! George! It’s the Angel!”
Kjarsgaard spent hours listening to Loppe, Ewing and scores of other former air crewmen, trying to discover if any Halifax bombers still existed. No, they told him. They’d all been cut up for scrap after the war. During one of his Air Canada layovers in Britain, Kjarsgaard travelled to the Yorkshire Air Museum to look at the centre fuse-lage section of a former Halifax. He signed up with Ian Foster’s U.K-based Halifax 57 Rescue group, who’d spent years tracking down landing gear, instruments, wing and tail sections (each Halifax part is labelled with the manufacturer’s number 57). He never stopped dreaming: if he could just find one Hally intact, bring it back to Canada and make the whole nation sit up and take notice, then Canadians could never deny his contention.
Kjarsgaard sensed the Holy Grail was within his grasp. He had a pic- ture. He had LW170’s flight log. He had pinpointed within three kilometres the bomber’s resting place in 5,000 feet of water. All he needed was backing. Experience told him he faced a salvage that would dwarf the Norway dive. Deep-sea sonar imaging vessels—normally doing oil exploration or ocean floor topography—can cost $40,000 to $50,000 a day. But experience also convinced him that he needed veterans, Canadian civilians, government and industry leaders to help procure a deep-sea image of LW170 and then accumulate the funds to bring home “the most historic combat aircraft in Canadian aviation history.”
In 2009, the Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) group commissioned a painting of LW170 in its heyday. With 500 prints of the painting in hand, Kjarsgaard flew 10,000 miles in two weeks to meet with 11 surviving Canadian air crewmen who’d all served aboard the former RCAF 424 Squadron bomber. Each veteran, including pilot Russell Earl, had vivid memories of his wartime aircraft, then designated QB-I. On his first operational flight—June 7, 1944—Earl and his new Halifax and crew were diverted away from Normandy targets to a U-boat harbour on the coast of France. QB-I, then completed a “gardening” operation, dropping parachuted mines to block the U-boat shipping lanes.
“One U-boat got through the mines we laid and was sunk by a British frigate,” Earl said, “but three of the other four subs were damaged so badly by the mines they had to retreat.”
Earl flew 10 more operations at the controls of QB-I against industrial sites in Germany and V1 and V2 rocket sites in France. He completed 35 missions in all and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for meritorious service. Flying Officer Earl loved the Hallies for their power and speed.
“Like going from a Chevrolet to a Cadillac,” Earl said.
When Kjarsgaard visited Earl in Estevan, Sask., the veteran was wheelchair-bound from a stroke. It took two days, but Earl signed all 500 prints while prodding Kjarsgaard.
“When are you going to get my airplane?—I just hope I live long enough to see her in Canada,” he said.