A history of Lancaster KB882

Backgrounder / September 20, 2017

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By Major Mathias Joost

As part of its effort in providing materiel during the Second World War, Canada produced training and combat aircraft. Wishing to develop a post-war aircraft industry, the Canadian government assisted in the development of Victory Aircraft Limited in Toronto. Starting in September 1943, Victory Aircraft began production of what would eventually be 430 Avro Lancaster bombers, designated Mark X to show they were Canadian-made. Two contracts were let; the first was for 300 aircraft, of which KB882 was one.

KB882 arrived in the United Kingdom on March 4, 1945, and was taken on the strength of the all-Canadian No. 6 Bomber Group. By March 12, she was with 428 Squadron and flew her first mission, a raid against Dortmund. Overall, she participated in 12 missions, being flown by Flight Lieutenant A.L. Ross and his crew on eight occasions. What was unusual about this crew was that it consisted completely of officers, with Flight Lieutenant Ross being on his second tour.

The targets varied from cities to industrial sites, with five of the attacks being conducted during daylight. One mission was not completed; the mission to Bremen was aborted due to bad weather. Flight Lieutenant R.D. Hay, the pilot, dropped his bombs in the North Sea.

Although by that late in the war the German fighter and night-fighter forces had been severely reduced, they were still able to hurt Allied bombers on the occasions when the Luftwaffe did send them into combat. KB882 had a close encounter with a night fighter on the night of April 4. After having dropped their bombs on Merseburg at 10:50 p.m., Flight Lieutenant Ross turned the aircraft for home. Despite the clouds and the fact that German night fighters had not been putting in many appearances, the crew maintained a sharp look-out. It paid off three minutes after turning for home, when the rear gunner, Flying Officer W.H. Watson, spotted a night fighter above the aircraft at a range of 300 yards (274 metres) on the starboard quarter. With a warning from Flying Officer Watson, Flight Lieutenant Ross immediately put the aircraft into a corkscrew, while Flying Officer Watson opened fire on the night fighter. This had the desired effect, as the German pilot veered off after Watson had fired only 100 rounds. No shots were fired at the Lancaster.

KB882’s last mission was on April 25 to the German island of Wangerooge, on the approaches to the port of Hamburg. Squadron personnel knew the war in Europe was almost over and they would soon be going home.

The aircrew of 428 Squadron began flying back to Canada in early June, taking two lucky groundcrew with them in each aircraft. The route was to the Azores, and after a day of rest, on to Gander, Newfoundland. From there they flew to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Before they could fly back, aircraft had to be selected. As the aircraft used by the RCAF in Europe did not belong to the RCAF, the Lancasters that were to be flown back to Canada had to be transferred to Canadian ownership. These aircraft were to be used for “Tiger Force”, Canada’s contribution to the planned bombing campaign against Japan. For this purpose, the aircraft with the fewest flying hours were chosen. KB882 was transferred to Canada on June 1. Fittingly, it was Flight Lieutenant Ross and his crew, with two passengers, who flew KB882 back to Canada, arriving in Yarmouth on June 10.

The war was not over, however, for the members of 428 Squadron and KB882. They were selected as one of eight bomber squadrons to become part of Tiger Force. After a month’s leave in Canada, squadron personnel returned to Yarmouth to begin training in mid-July for the anticipated Japanese campaign. Training had hardly gotten into full swing when the two atomic bombs were dropped and the war ended. Most of 428 Squadron’s personnel were demobilized, returning to civilian life, while KB882 was placed in storage at MacLeod, Alberta.

In 1950, the Cold War began to affect the structure of the RCAF. New squadrons were created as the RCAF began a period of rapid expansion. Lancaster aircraft were pulled out of storage, overhauled and placed into service, having been converted to either maritime reconnaissance aircraft searching for Soviet submarines, or area reconnaissance to patrol over the Arctic archipelago. Other Lancasters served as unmodified photo reconnaissance aircraft.

KB882 was pulled from storage and returned to flying condition. She then went began the modification to an area reconnaissance version in July 1952. The work was performed at De Havilland Aircraft in Toronto, under a sub-contract to A.V. Roe (Avro), which had won the contract to modify the Lancasters but were now so busy with other aircraft production for the RCAF that they could not carry out the modifications.

The work on KB882 was completed by December 1953 but the aircraft was not required for active service. KB882 was placed in stored reserve with No. 6 Repair Depot at Mountain View, near Trenton, Ontario, in January 1954, where she would remain for more than two years. As a stored reserve aircraft, KB882 could be put into operations with only minor maintenance. On November 23, 1955, the aircraft was put into workshop reserve, a category that indicated that more significant work would be required before she could become operational.

In June 1956, KB882 was again taken out of storage. She would become a test-bed at the Central Experimental and Test Establishment (CETE) at Rockcliffe, near Ottawa, where she would be used to test a night photography system.

At CETE, KB882 was fitted with the required camera, the APS 42 search radar, an electronic counter-measures (ECM) suite and other minor equipment. This installation took time as equipment was unavailable, while flight testing in the new configuration could not be conducted as ballasting for the aircraft was a problem. When the aircraft was ready in November 1956, Air Maintenance Command grounded the aircraft due to problems in the Lancaster fleet. But KB882 was soon flying again, with the flying characteristics tests in the new configuration and the day photo testing being completed by the end of November. The night photo testing and the test of the ECM gear was initially expected to be completed by November, but was now expected to be completed by February 23, 1957. To this was then added icing trials.

Finally, after eight months at CETE and numerous delays, the trials were completed and the aircraft released for operational service on February 28, 1957.

KB882’s new squadron was No. 408, operating out of Rockcliffe. The squadron was tasked with tactical photo reconnaissance in support of the Army, aerial photography for map-making, area reconnaissance, and SHORAN (“SHOrt RAnge Navigation” using a precision radar beacon) testing.

The operations involved ice reconnaissances (recces) during the shipping season, at which time Lancasters from the squadron provided reports on ice conditions for the American and Canadian ships resupplying the northern weather and radar stations. The forays into the north also included “Air Romps” and “Apex Rocket” missions.

“Air Romps” were normal flights over the Arctic to assert Canadian sovereignty and to conduct inspections of Canadian territory. Usually there were 15 of these a year.

“Apex Rockets” were flights to inspect and photograph Soviet vessels and other items of interest in areas in and adjacent to Canadian territory. Soviet trawlers sporting masses of antenna but not catching fish were common on the east coast – watching the movements of NATO warships, monitoring the radar system, listening to communications and attempting to track submarines. The ECM and electronic sensing equipment on the Arctic reconnaissance Lancasters was very useful in monitoring the activities of these vessels and other Soviet activities in the Arctic, including stations on ice islands.

However, before KB882 could become operational, she required modifications that were conducted at Fairey Aviation in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The work included fairings for the forward looking camera on the port side of the nose and replacement of the APS 42 radome. This work again required several months; however, by the autumn of 1957, KB882 was finally operational after 12 years of storage, modifications and testing.

KB882’s operations did not get off to a great start. On November 1, 1957, she was grounded in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, due to serious vibrations while airborne.

The next year did not start very well either. On January 1, 1958, the aircraft suffered a constant speed unit failure while in flight, on April 4 she had a supercharger failure while in the air near Frobisher Bay, Nunavut, on June 2 she experienced a major oil leak while returning from Resolute Bay, and, on November 1, an overspeed of No. 2 propeller.

Thereafter, KB882 settled down and provided reliable service with only four incidents over the next five years. One reason was the regular maintenance performed on all the Lancasters. From November 1957 to October 1958, KB882 was in the hangar for 51 days undergoing the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-hour periodic maintenance inspections.

The years 1957 and 1958 were mainly operational missions for KB882. These included Air Romps and Apex Rockets, sometimes with interesting missions such as photographing a Soviet ice island in the high Arctic with a Badger aircraft on the ice.

During 1959, KB882 was mainly used for training and local photographic operations, with fellow area reconnaissance Lancasters KB839 and KB976 receiving the lion’s share of Arctic flights. KB882 conducted five Arctic flights and one special mission off Newfoundland, ranging as far as Northern Alaska for one Apex Rocket in June. While the pilots on these flights were mainly RCAF, Captain E.J. Nash, an exchange officer from the United States Air Force (USAF) flew at least eight missions and Flight Lieutenant Dinnes of the Royal Air Force flew one mission.

KB882 returned to primarily operational flights in 1960. In January she flew her first ice reconnaissance of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, followed by one more in January and another in February. These ice recces were normally flown at 10-day intervals and lasted two or three days. They were credited with improving the safety of shipping in the Gulf, thereby reducing winter insurance rates, and allowing a longer shipping season at the Port of Montreal. KB882 also conducted six northern recces and participated in four airshows.

That year also saw two more interesting missions. In May, Squadron Leader W.P.J. Becker and crew took the aircraft for a six-day over-water training mission. These flights normally involved trips to Bermuda. Then in November, Flight Lieutenant R.W. Manthorpe and crew were one of the escorts for the new De Havilland DHC-4 Caribou flown to Egypt where they were used by No. 115 Air Transport Unit, which was part of the Canadian Contingent to the United Nations Emergency Force.

KB882’s activities in 1961 and 1962 were very similar to those of 1960. The aircraft was again heavily involved in operations, with most flights being area recces and ice recces of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 1962 alone, KB882 conducted seven of the squadron’s recces, or half of the squadron’s total. For the Arctic missions, the main staging bases were Goose Bay, Labrador; Resolute Bay; Frobisher Bay; and Thule in Greenland. These missions could last up to one week.

Perhaps the most interesting and least known of the aircraft’s missions occurred from November 1 to 11, 1962. Flight Lieutenant C.O. Huntley flew what the operations record book indicates as a “special maritime exercise” to Greenwood, Nova Scotia, later operating from Torbay, Newfoundland; Goose Bay; and Frobisher Bay. This was the period shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The RCAF’s Argus maritime patrol aircraft had been heavily involved in searching for, detecting and maintaining contact with Soviet submarines in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. In the period after the Crisis had subsided, American and Canadian forces maintained a high state of vigilance to ensure that the Soviet Union would not renege on its agreement to withdraw its missiles from Cuba.

While KB882 was not equipped to detect submarines, the RCAF did conduct aerial patrols of the waters off Newfoundland, Labrador and into the Davis Strait both to monitor the movements of Soviet “trawlers”, and as insurance against the possible movement of Soviet submarines through these waters. During the Crisis, a large Soviet fishing fleet was located off the northern peninsula of Newfoundland in international waters. The location of certain trawlers within the fleet was a concern to American and Canadian military authorities.

For KB882, 1963 began in maintenance. She and fellow 408 Squadron Lancaster KB839 went to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for replacement of the No. 2 and No. 3 fuel tank stress panels and other minor modifications. KB882 was out of service from  February 7 to April 18. By this time, the RCAF was having increasing difficulties keeping the Lancasters flying. Spare parts, especially the Merlin engines, were becoming hard to find or expensive to repair and overhaul. For 1963, KB882 was used sparingly.

The RCAF made plans to withdraw the Lancasters from service, with an order to this effect being released on December 20, 1963. The Lancasters would be withdrawn from service on March 31, 1964, to be replaced at 408 Squadron by Dakotas on an interim basis.

In its remaining three months of service, KB882 flew four missions. In early January 1964 there was a western photographic mission, followed on January 23 by a three-day ice recce in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when KB976 had an engine failure. On February 3, she departed for another western photographic mission. The next day KB882 had to land at RCAF Station Cold Lake, Alberta, on three engines, when one failed in flight. A second engine was also causing problems.

KB882’s final mission was from March 11 to 17. Flight Lieutenant Huntley flew to Goose Bay to take part in the Army’s Exercise Renard Bleu. This was 408 Squadron’s final Lancaster mission. KB882 was transferred to No. 6 Repair Depot on March 19 and placed into stored reserve. Her final mission was to fly to RCAF Station Downsview in Toronto where she participated in the Lancaster retirement ceremony on April 9, along with FM104, KB839 and KB976.

On May 26, she was sold to the City of Edmundston in New Brunswick.

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