Horses on the Payroll (RCAF Journal - SPRING 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 2)

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By J. E. (Jerry) Vernon, CD

Reprint from the Evolution of Air Power in Canada: 1916 to the Present Day and Beyond Volume 1 – Papers Presented at the 1st Air Force Historical Conference, 18–19 November 1994 Air Command Headquarters Winnipeg, Manitoba

Editor’s note: The author’s spelling and punctuation conventions have been maintained.


In this paper, Jerry Vernon examines a unique part of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) history when, among other things, horses were used to help deliver airplanes from the United States (U.S.) to Canada. When war was declared on 10 September 1939, the RCAF was in the middle of deliveries of Harvard and Hudson aircraft, and was about to start receiving Douglas Digby Bombers. These deliveries were threatened to be terminated due to changes made to the U.S. Neutrality Law which forbade the shipment of arms to belligerent countries. Within a matter of days, RCAF personnel, in conjunction with sympathetic American authorities, took steps to circumvent these laws.

The result was a variety of unique subterfuges which allowed this, the vital flow of aircraft, to continue to the RCAF. In certain cases the ex-American aircraft were arriving in Canada by means of “horse-power” that had nothing to do with their engines.



For those of you who are my age or older, the phrase “Horses on the Payroll” no doubt brings to mind headlines referring to the scandal of several decades ago … I think it was at Camp Petawawa … when an innovative contractor did some creative bookkeeping with the Department of National Defence (DND), and managed to have a number of horses paid as labourers on the job. My paper is not about this at all, but rather about the efforts to bring military aircraft into Canada at a time when war had broken out in much of the world, but the United States was still attempting to remain neutral, while continuing to manufacture and ship arms to “friendly” counties. The process involved landing aircraft on the U.S. side of the border and pushing them across into Canada, to be flown off again on our side. In the case of the larger aircraft, it was necessary to rent horses or tractors to pull them across.

This paper is based mainly on the contents of a very interesting wartime RCAF file. In 1990, I had stumbled across this file in a box at the National Archives, while researching the purchase of Grumman Goose aircraft for the RCAF. That was another process involving much innovation and deceit to get Goose aircraft from the U.S. into this country in the early 1940’s. If time permits, I may discuss this briefly at the end.

Less than a year ago, I came across another historian, James McClelland, of Emerson, Manitoba, who was also independently researching the subject, with particular emphasis on the activities at his home town.

I have since located an old article by Gerry Beauchamp, Co-Editor of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) Ottawa Chapter Newsletter, covering some of the aircraft brought into Canada via Maine and the Maritimes for shipment to France and Belgium. Lastly, I was able to locate and interview Group Captain (G/C) Alf Watts, who had been the young Flying Officer originally tasked, in late 1939, with locating a suitable pair of border fields in Western Canada. Alf Watts is now a retired judge living in West Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.).

For many years in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the United States was gripped by the powers of isolationism and pacifism. Even as war was breaking out in Europe in 1939, the U.S. remained neutral. In fact, many Americans still believe that World War Two started on the 7th of December, 1941!!

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When war was declared in 1939, the U.S. found itself in the embarrassing position of delivering arms—particularly hundreds of aircraft—to counties at war, such as Britain, France, Belgium and Canada. As a result, on 4 November 1939, the U.S. Government passed the Neutrality Act which, among other things, forbade the delivery by air by U.S. pilots of aircraft to a belligerent country or the flying of military aircraft within U.S. airspace by citizens (either military or civil) of a belligerent county. Although U.S. pilots could not ferry these aircraft within Canada, the manufacturers were allowed to send mechanics to Canada to carry out repairs or warranty work. The Act did not forbid the shipment of crated aircraft by sea, road or rail, so the flow of aircraft to Europe was not greatly affected.

This action, less than two months after the Declaration of War, caught the RCAF just as aircraft deliveries were starting from the Lockheed, North American and Douglas factories in California. The first 15 Harvard trainers, out of an order for 30, had been delivered by air in September, as were the first 10 Lockheed Hudsons, out of 28 diverted from Royal Air Force (RAF) orders. Also, the first of 20 Douglas B-18 Digby bombers was about to be delivered in November, 1939.

The aircraft were urgently needed, and the contracts had been priced on the basis of direct delivery by air. This was long before the days when large cost overruns were routinely accepted and shrugged off, and the RCAF could not tolerate any delays or extra costs caused by having the aircraft dismantled and delivered by road or rail. Quick action was required, and this is detailed in a most fascinating file in the National Archives, entitled “Delivery of Aircraft from USA Under US Neutrality Law, 1939–41” (Record Group 24, File 1021-1-117), which I reviewed in detail on one of my last Ottawa business trips before retiring.

I have over 60 pages of research notes, but I will skim quickly though some of the highlights of the file, which covers the period from November of 1939 to mid-1940, when President Roosevelt managed to sort out his end and have the Neutrality Act provisions revised or repealed. Later, the Lend Lease Act made the export process quite legal.

The solution to the problem was to find a pair of landing fields, located a few feet apart on either side of the Canada/U.S. border, to circumvent the law as it stood. You will see that, within a period of several days a pair of fields was located and the aircraft began to flow again within a week or so. How fast would today’s bureaucrats and politicians react?

Since all of the initial aircraft were coming from California factories, a search was started for a suitable location in the West. North American Aviation suggested a spot near Coutts, Alberta / Sweetgrass, Montana, and an RCAF pilot was sent there to set things up and start to receive the Harvards. A second location was arranged near Emerson, Manitoba / Pembina, North Dakota, and later a third site on the Maine / New Brunswick border.

The first batch of Harvards had been delivered in a normal manner in September of 1939, with American pilots flying them up the West Coast to Vancouver, where the RCAF took them on charge. The first item in the file refers to the delivery of more Harvards to Western Air Command via a site yet to be found near Sweetgrass/Coutts, although a handwritten marginal note from the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Vice Marshal (A/V/M) Croil, suggests that he favoured the Pembina route.

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A signal dated 13 November 39 identified the RCAF officer in charge initially at Coutts as Flying Officer (F/O) Alf Watts, a pilot with No. III Composite Army Cooperation (CAC) Squadron at Vancouver. Watts was a young Vancouver lawyer, in the RCAF Auxiliary, and he had been sent over the mountains by Wing Commander (W/C) Roy Slemon, Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) at Western Air Command, to survey the situation and to meet with the local U.S. Customs Broker to sort out the “rules of the game.” Minute(1) from the CAS asks “Is F/O Watts competent?” Western Air Command responded that he was!

Watts noted in his initial report that the aircraft could not be turned over to a Canadian military person on the U.S. side of the border. That is, a civilian had to accept each aircraft, push, roll or tow it across the border, and then turn it over to whomever he pleased! A Canadian Customs Broker was used to accept, check and move the aircraft across the line. Then an RCAF pilot would fly it as soon as possible to Calgary.

The U.S. pilot involved, from North American Aviation, was Waitt who worked with Watts to pick out the pair of fields to be used, and who later turned a profit for himself by tying up the lease on the U.S. field. Watts, as a member of the RCAF, could not cross into the U.S. to meet with Waitt, so the discussions were carried out in his hotel room at Coutts.

The strip on the Alberta side was 500 yards [457 metres (m)] long, on Federal Crown Land, into wind, and with a few gopher holes. No major work was required, apart from a white lime centreline and windsock. North American arranged for gas to be brought in from Great Falls. The Canadian field was 774 yards [708 m] North of the strip on the U.S. side, and it would be necessary to cut down a Crown-owned border fence for access.

Watts estimated that two days’ work would be required to prepare the field, by which time Waitt would return with the first Harvard. He also requested a parachute, a fitter, some Emergency Purchase Orders and $100.00 for casual labour. Security during handover would be initially provided by the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Detachment, although later a platoon from the Saskatchewan Regiment [sic] guarded the airfield and aircraft.

The wartime diaries for No. 6 Bomber & Reconnaissance (BR) Squadron, Jericho Beach, B.C., note that a Sergeant, a Corporal and an Aircraftsman 2nd Class (AC2) were despatched to Coutts in November of 1939, to assist with the Harvards.

Since no RCAF funds had been advanced, Watts had to pay the civilian work crews out of his own pocket. He later had to apply for reimbursement of $500.00, which was much more than the tightfisted and never-smiling Roy Slemon had ever expected the job to cost.

Arrangements were to be made by telephone so that Waitt would not take off from Great Falls unless the weather was suitable right through to Calgary. The RCAF had to accept the aircraft “as is” at the border, since the RCAF pilot could not fly as a passenger in the U.S., and the North American ferry pilot was forbidden to fly within Canada. Deficiencies, if any, were to be sorted out at Calgary. Watts relates, however, that the U.S. ferry pilots on the first batch of Harvards were unable to locate the airfields, and flew blithely overhead, to the accompaniment of much fist-shaking and expletives from the ground. After flying well into Alberta, their leader realized his mistake, and they returned to land at the Montana field.

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The ferry pilots on the first five Harvards were Flight Lieutenant (F/L) Berven, F/L Peterson, F/L Waterhouse, F/O Martin, and F/O Hodgson. Harvards 1336, 1337, 1338, 1339, 1340 came into Canada at Coutts on 19 November 39, and were then ferried “in bond” to Uplands (Ottawa) for Customs clearance. Once the ferry pilots had been provided, Watts did not have to ferry any Harvards himself, although he notes that he did in fact ferry one of the second batch up to Lethbridge, as a favour to F/L J. D. Blaine, who wanted to visit his parents in Alberta.

Watts remained in charge of the operation at Coutts for several weeks. He says “I hung around there until they started bringing the Digby’s through. I was a little worried about that, because the Digby didn’t have all that much bloody power, and the field wasn’t all that bloody long. They flew them out of there and there was no problem. Shortly after that, I went home, because my wife was about to have a baby. They carried on for a little while, flew some more Digby’s out of there, and then they transferred the whole operation to Winnipeg.”

The first of the Douglas Digby aircraft was to be available about 20 November, and Douglas began to request urgent sorting out of the port-of-exit, detailed arrangements, etc. Douglas had some concern about the temporary Sweetgrass field. They preferred Pembina, located some 70 miles [113 kilometres (km)] from Winnipeg, as it was already a “proper” commercial airfield, but it was 3 miles [4.8 km] south of the border, and there was no matching field on the Canadian side at that time.

For Pembina, the initially suggested solution that seemed to satisfy the letter of the law of the Neutrality Act was to establish a special zone, with a 10 mile [16 km] radius around Pembina, where Canadian pilots would be allowed to fly the aircraft on “checkouts” with Douglas factory pilots, and for Douglas to deliver them to Pembina with only one hour’s fuel in the tanks. This would get them only as far as Winnipeg. A precedent for this was the 10 mile [16 km] circle around the Douglas factory where foreign military pilots were already allowed to fly for checkouts, dual training, acceptance testing, etc.

Later, there was some concern about the Pembina proposal—too much time needed for pilot checkouts on site, potential for sabotage, need for any maintenance or corrective repairs, etc. It was considered better to have the RCAF pilots checked out by Douglas pilots at the factory, while the aircraft were still the property of the Douglas Aircraft Company—this only needed Department of Army clearance, temporary Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) pilot licences, etc. They could fly within a 10 mile [16 km] zone around the Santa Monica factory … then travel commercially to Pembina to meet their aircraft, as they still could not legally ride in them as passengers over U.S. territory.

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On l8 November 1939, the RCAF arranged for two Bolingbroke crews—four pilots and eight groundcrew—to be sent to Winnipeg to accept and pick up the first of the Douglas Digby aircraft. They were ordered to bring both uniform and “civvies,” in case they had to cross the border. The Digby acceptance and ferry pilots were R. C. “Bus” Gordon, A. G. Kenyon, Claire L. Annis, and K. Birchall, plus 15 RCAF groundcrew. Several of these pilots were later well-known RCAF senior officers in the 1950’s. The following excerpts from archival files detail some of the entire project.

19 November 1939 correspondence started between the Woodstock Board of Trade and the Honourable Noman Rogers, Minister of National Defence, on the possibility of exporting U.S. aircraft via Houlton, Maine and Woodstock, New Brunswick. There was an existing airport at Houlton, only ¼ mile [402 m] from the border, and their pitch was for building a matching airport at Woodstock, ½ mile [805 m] onto the Canadian side. This proposition was put into effect in early 1940.

A file item on 21 November noted that the delivery of the first Harvards had gone smoothly, but expressed some concern regarding the use of the Coutts field by larger aircraft. It also noted that yet another site had initially been considered (and rejected) for delivery via Grosse Ile, Michigan, near Detroit.

22 November 1939 – the RCAF was advised that 10 more Harvards were at Great Falls, awaiting delivery. After some scrounging around, ten ferry pilots were loaded into a Lockheed and sent from Camp Borden to Coutts for the pickup.

22 November 1939 – a very detailed inspection report was prepared by F/O Watts, on the status, condition, possible future expansion, etc. of the field 3½ miles [5.6 km] West of Coutts. The U.S. field was 50 yards [46 m] South of the border, and the 774 yard [708 m] taxiway between the two fields dropped 25 feet [7.6 m] downhill into Canada. The initial Harvards were being taxied across the border here. The weather here was considered better than that at Haskett, Manitoba—yet another different site which was also being considered, 15 miles [24 km] West of Emerson and Pembina.

In more detail, the Coutts field was 1500 x 150 feet [457 x 45.7 m], at an elevation of 3480 feet [1061 m], with the capability of being extended to 3000 x 400 feet [914 x 122 m]. The field conditions were described as “uneven, caused by old buffalo wallows, buffalo trails and badger and gopher holes,” which could be easily filled. It was suggested that the field could be oiled with locally available crude (then only 90 cents a barrel!), and there was space for a second crosswind runway if necessary. Winter snow conditions were not considered to be a major problem.

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Alf Watts asked me if the file referred at all to the RCAF’s unofficial popular name for the field, “Watts’ Wallow.” He went on to say “We had the horses there, but there was a pretty good grade down. As I recollect, we just pointed the old Harvard over the border and gave it a push, and let it roll down to our particular piece of property.”

22 November 1939 – Douglas advised that delivery of the Digby aircraft was scheduled for December 1939, January and February 1940. They felt that the Sweetgrass strip was big enough (1500 x 250 feet [457 x 76 m]), but were concerned about snow and winter operations. They suggested that they could initially deliver some here and move elsewhere if the strip was snowed in. Also, Lockheed had apparently agreed to try the strip soon with a Hudson.

One day later, Douglas had second thoughts about field conditions at Sweetgrass. Also, they had heard that the local Customs Broker (on the U.S. side) had leased the field, in cahoots with the North American pilot (Waitt) and was charging an “exorbitant” landing fee of $190 for Digby or Hudson sized aircraft.

24 November 1939 – Douglas allowed that Coutts was okay, but that Haskett had greater long-term potential for development of more runways, longer runways, etc. On the other hand, using Coutts allowed the aircraft to be stored inside large hangars at Great Falls, awaiting suitable weather.

24 November 1939 – a high level diplomatic telegram covered the “Catch 22” situation that existed. The Neutrality Act insisted that title to the aircraft must pass from the factory to the Canadian Government before they left the U.S. However, international law then prohibited aircraft of a belligerent nation from flying over a neutral country, ie: the U.S.

26 November 1939 – Harvards 1341–1350 were ferried through Coutts. The pilots were Hendrick, McBurney, Procter, Reynolds, Blaine, Mellor, plus four others not named.

28 November 1939 – a report in the file from Northwest Airlines Inc. described the fields two miles [3.2 km] from Pembina as consisting of two Quarter Sections—one on each side of the border—perfectly level and smooth, ploughed and dragged and solid enough to operate aircraft with 2500 feet [762 m] clear in all directions. The fields were separated by a 50 foot [15 m] border strip of level sod, and the farmer on the Canadian side would supply horses for towing at a cost of $3 to $5 per takeoff. The fields were located one mile [1.6 km] West of the Customs crossing.

28 November 1939 – a letter to Ottawa from Caribou, Maine, made another suggestion reference delivery of aircraft, using an ice runway on the Saint John River between Van Buren, Maine, and St. Leonard, New Brunswick, with the international boundary as the centreline of the runway.

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29 November 1939 – yet another letter to the Minister of National Defence, from a U.S. contractor at Alburg, Vermont, proposed building and operating airports on both sides of the border (Alburg, Vermont and Noyan, Quebec). He claimed that he could do it all within 30 days of a contract award!! Alburg is a tiny town at the top of Lake Champlain, where Vermont, New York and Quebec all come together.

In another letter two days later, yet another group suggested a crossing point a few miles East of Alburg on the Quebec border at the town of St. Alban’s, Vermont, on Lake Missisquoi, adjacent to Phillipsburg.

30 November 1939 – the first two Digbys were scheduled for delivery on 8 or 11 December. Title to the aircraft was to remain with Douglas until they reached the Port of Exit, and there was now no objection to RCAF pilots riding as “passengers” from the factory to the border.

1 December 1939 – correspondence referred to the squabble between North American, Douglas and the U.S. Customs Broker over charges for using the Sweetgrass field. J. H. “Dutch” Kindleberger, President of North American, felt the charges were not exorbitant, in light of the work required to erect a “handover shed” (for the paperwork), staffing for security, crowd control, etc.

4 December 1939 – Douglas Aircraft agreed to try the Sweetgrass and Coutts fields for the first two Digby aircraft, but reserved decision on further deliveries.

5 December 1939 – Squadron Leader (S/L) Gordon and S/L Carscallen arrived at the Douglas factory, with a detachment of airmen. The aircraft were to be accepted without radio transmitters, due to unavailability, and delivered via Coutts, weather permitting. The RCAF would hold the first two aircraft at Winnipeg, since the missing radios were to arrive on board the third aircraft (but didn’t!!).

5 December 1939 – it was reported to DND that Northwest Airways were taking out options on landing fields on both sides of the border near Emerson. Was this for the RCAF Digbys or RAF deliveries?? Later, it was stated that Northwest had leased the land on behalf of the Douglas Aircraft Company. This land was apparently 2 miles [3.2 km] from Pembina, on the Canadian side.

8 December 1939 – DND met with Department of Transport (DoT) to suggest that DoT operate a suitable airfield for the import of aircraft, to avoid high landing charges from a private owner on the expected future hundreds of aircraft. It was agreed that the Pembina area was the best location.

Another option suggested was to use the existing Pembina Airport, and then just tow the aircraft across the fields or down the roads to the border, to the Canadian airstrip, thus eliminating a new field on the U.S. side.

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11 December 1939 – Douglas agreed that the two pilots and groundcrew could ride as passengers on the aircraft to Sweetgrass, re-enter Canada legally, and then fly them from Coutts to Winnipeg. These aircraft were RCAF 738 and 739, and they apparently crossed the border on 18 December 1939.

12 December 1939 – a letter from Lockheed referred to a shortage of RCAF ferry pilots to move 18 Hudsons to Canada. Deliveries were set to start the next week, but Canada wanted Lockheed pilots to ferry the aircraft all the way to Ottawa. Lockheed now preferred to go via Pembina, not via Sweetgrass. So did Douglas.

Alf Watts doubts that any Hudsons were in fact delivered via Coutts, as this aircraft required a longer takeoff run than the Digby.

21 December 1939 – Douglas planned to deliver two more Digbys via Sweetgrass (RCAF 740 and RCAF 741), on 3 January 1940, and requested the same two RCAF pilots as before (S/L’s Gordon and Carscallen), due to familiarity with the Sweetgrass/Coutts fields, aircraft type, etc. A Douglas mechanic, Mr. Bouse, would accompany the aircraft to their unit to carry out warranty work and would spend 10 days familiarizing RCAF maintenance personnel.

4 January 1940 – detailed route and delivery instructions for Lockheed pilots now appeared to allow the Lockheed pilots to take the aircraft across the border, via Pembina, and through to Winnipeg, where they would clear Customs. However, this still required the aircraft to be landed at the border and wheeled across on the ground to the Canadian side, before they took off again for Winnipeg. It was suggested that the ferry pilots land at the main Pembina Airport, and drive over to the border to the transfer strips, if they had any doubts about field conditions.

8 January 1940 – reference was made to a 16 mm film of the Digbys crossing the border, forwarded by S/L Gordon to the RCAF Photographic Establishment in Ottawa. Does this film still exist?

17 January1940 – delivery was impending of the 5th Digby aircraft, RCAF 742.

20 February 1940 – an internal Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA) letter raised concerns about security, gossip and “loose talk” regarding the transportation of ferry pilots from Canada to the California factories. The TCA fare at the time, Winnipeg to Seattle, was $78.05, plus a further $62.93 (Canadian funds) for the United Airlines leg to Los Angeles.

It was also noted in this correspondence that there was a potential for 500 aircraft to be ferried, representing a considerable revenue to TCA for moving ferry pilots.

In March 1940, a DND letter to Mr. Alex H. Milne, Jr., of Emerson, Manitoba, referred to his offer of services in connection with the towing of aircraft across the border. Milne was the caretaker of the International Airport (ie: the ferry airstrip), and claimed that the horses were damaging the runways. Rather than continue to use horses, Milne offered the use of his tractor, which he kept on hand for smoothing the runways.

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It is interesting to note that the old airfield site is currently owned by Robert Milne, a nephew of the late Alex Milne.

16 March 1940 – a letter from S/L Gordon, the Officer Commanding (OC) of 10(BR) Squadron disputed the report that the horses were damaging the runway at Emerson. Reference was made to at least 10 Digbys towed across by horses at Emerson, using a maximum 3-horse team. However, the RCAF did have some concerns about jerking of the aircraft by the horses, if the teamster was not careful.

The local teamster, Joe Wilson, charged $3 per aircraft for the use of his horses. His wife’s tally of the money owing on the contract covers 33 aircraft that used their horses, between mid-January and mid-August.

There is still no conclusive evidence, apart from a few old photos, of how many or which individual Digbys and Hudsons were delivered via Coutts versus the balance via Emerson. The first four Digbys came in at Coutts for sure, and possibly the fifth one as well.

27 May 1940 – more on the Woodstock, New Brunswick crossing, referring to 40 more training aircraft due to come to Canada within the next two weeks. The Woodstock folks still wanted to get a piece of the action, especially for aircraft delivered from Eastern factories. Their suggested method involved putting the tail wheel up on a truck and hauling the aircraft down a back road to a sod field on the Canadian side, for fly-away. The field was offered for rent at $250.00 for the summer.

As a longer term plan, the Woodstock people were still pursuing the idea of extending the Houlton, Maine, runway by 1000 feet [305 m] to the Canadian border. This would provide access to an easily-levelled field on the Woodstock side, which could be turned into a runway within two weeks for an estimated cost of $6000.00. The aircraft would then be delivered on what was later referred to as a “push-pull basis.”

29 May 1940 – reference was made to 38 Stinson aircraft, for delivery to France. France requested that the Woodstock route be used, for aircraft being shipped out by sea. These are thought to have been the ex-civilian Stinson 105 aircraft referred to later.

31 May1940 – a Department of Transport letter covered the agreement back in December to option land and develop a site two miles [3.2 km] West of Emerson. Since “aliens” were not permitted to own land in North Dakota, they used an American, Samuel L. Gwin, to buy the land near Pembina. As Canada couldn’t openly pay for the U.S. land, it was covered by a “service charge,” paid in advance, for a period of 300 days, at $15.00/day—ie: $4,200.00. Other costs cover seeding, weeding, and grass cutting.

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The Emerson land (160 acres [65 hectares]—a Quarter Section) had been bought on 15 April 1940 from Messrs W. R. Forrester and R. A. Johnston for a total of $4,500.00. Messrs Choate, Hall and Stewart were the “sellers” of the North Dakota land, for $4200.00. Legal fees, miscellaneous improvements, maintenance, etc. of $2,000.00, brought the cost for the two fields to a grand total of $10,727.85. Foreign exchange and other unplanned costs later brought the final cost up to $12,189.85.

12 June 1940 – referred to a U.S. Proclamation, which then allowed U.S. nationals to travel in belligerent aircraft over New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. That is, U.S. pilots could deliver aircraft directly to ports or Customs points of entry in the Maritimes, thus eliminating the need for various devious arrangements.

12 June 1940 – 33 planes had been flown out via Woodstock between June 1st and 4th, plus three Curtiss bombers on 11 June, and 95 more Curtiss bombers were reported to be enroute from Boston. This would have been the Curtiss SBC-4 Cleveland biplane dive bombers for France, that were put on ships in the Maritimes, and were later dumped off in Martinique to rot, rather than let them fall into the hands of the Germans or the Vichy Government in France.

Gerry Beauchamp’s article notes that the French had 90 Curtiss Clevelands on order from the U.S. However, due to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Europe, they persuaded the U.S. Navy to release 50 of its own aircraft for immediate use. These aircraft were serving on the United States Ship (USS) Lexington and USS Saratoga. They were taken ashore, flown to Wright Field (Dayton, Ohio), painted in camouflage markings and modified to French standards with new seats (to fit the French style back parachutes), French machine guns, French instruments, and, I presume, the “backward” style of French throttles. They were then assigned U.S. civil ferry registrations and flown to Houlton, Maine, where they came across into Canada. One aircraft, NX-21, was lost in a fatal crash at Houlton, killing a U.S. Navy Lieutenant.

By 15 June 1940, 44 SBC-4 aircraft had been loaded onto the French aircraft carrier Bearn at Halifax. Five other Clevelands were not loaded onto the carrier, due to lack of space, and were later diverted to the Fleet Air Arm.

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The Bearn had arrived in Halifax in company with the cruiser Jeanne D’Arc and a cargo of 194 tons [176 tonnes] of gold, which was shipped by rail to the U.S. In addition to the 44 Curtiss dive bombers, a further 52 aircraft were also loaded onto the two French ships—21 Curtiss H-75A-4 Hawks, six Brewster Buffalo fighters (for Belgium) and 25 Stinson Model 105’s. The Stinsons had been bought up from private owners all over the U.S. and ferried to Halifax by civilian pilots.

No. 10(BR) Squadron at Dartmouth was involved in crating and loading these aircraft. In the end, six RCAF personnel, under the command of S/L (later A/V/M) Adelard Raymond, sailed with the ships, still engaged in this work. Unknown to them at the time, they were embarking on a long and roundabout journey.

16 June 1940 – the two French ships sailed for Brest. However, due to the further rapidly changing situation in Europe, they were diverted, first to Bordeaux, then to Casablanca, and finally back across the Atlantic to Martinique in the West Indies, where most of the aircraft were off-loaded and towed out into a field. The balance of the shipment was unloaded at Guadeloupe. The RCAF contingent did not arrive back home until 29 July 1940, having been further routed via several Royal Navy vessels and a freighter ride from Bermuda to Canada.

Following the French–German Armistice, the British tried to claim the aircraft, but this was rejected by the Vichy Government. The U.S. were concerned that Vichy-controlled aircraft would be within flying distance of the Panama Canal. They offered to take the aircraft back and give a full refund. Still being neutral, they maintained friendly relations with France, and were allowed to discretely send in naval personnel to mechanically disable the aircraft. In the end, most of the aircraft were either burned, blown up or simply allowed to fade away into a state of uselessness.

To complete this aspect of the story, additional aircraft arrived across the border into Halifax, but they were too late to get on the French ships. These included 33 ex-United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) Northrop A-17A Nomads and more Brewsters for the Belgian Air Force. The Northrops were taken over by the RCAF as target tugs, while the remaining miscellaneous leftover aircraft went to Britain.

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Meanwhile, back at the border …

15 June 1940 – RCAF Headquarters (HQ) advised Trenton of a group of eight used civil aircraft, consisting of four Boeing 247D’s, one Lockheed 10B Electra, one Lockheed 212, one Lockheed 12 and one Beech 18D, which had been bought in the U.S. and were expected to arrive at Pembina on 17 June 1940. These were to be ferried by civilian delivery pilots from Emerson to Trenton for Customs clearance.

Note that in this time frame, the RCAF bought at least 26 used airliners and light twins, plus a number of Grumman Goose amphibians, from U.S. sources. As these were ostensibly non-military aircraft, the Neutrality Act was easily circumvented by buying them on the U.S. civil market, issuing temporary Canadian civil ferry registrations, and then transferring them to the RCAF later. The Boeing 247D’s were United Airlines hand-me-downs, bought from various smaller operators. They became RCAF 7637–7639, and were later transferred to Canadian Pacific Airlines for use on priority routes. The Lockheed 212 was an obscure bomber-transport version of the Lockheed 12. The file does not specifically mention any others besides these eight, that came in via Pembina.

16 June 1940 – an internal RCAF letter stated that “… the number of aircraft brought across the line at Pembina to be used for Home War Establishment purposes was so small that the total amount of this encumbrance should be chargeable to the Joint Air Training Plan … .”

We now have the “bean counters” starting to argue over which account pays for this operation.

19 June 1940 – a letter from Eastern Air Command referred to an inspection visit to Houlton, Maine, and Woodstock, New Brunswick, by Mr. J. A. Wilson (DoT) and F/L Z. L. Leigh, two well-known names in Canadian aviation. Reference was also made to an earlier inspection by Wilson and Major Dodds. It was noted that it would be necessary to build a 1 ¼ mile [2 km] towing road uphill through the bush and across the border and construct a 2500 foot [762 m] airstrip in Canada.

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Starting about this time, there was much correspondence in the file concerning an ongoing “hassle,” over many months, regarding payment of room and board for a group of U.S. Master Sergeants who were in Halifax to dismantle Curtiss P-36 pursuit [aircraft] for shipment to France. These were the Curtiss Hawks referred to earlier, that ended up in the Caribbean. Everybody, including the RCAF, British Purchasing Commission, French Air Commission, Curtiss-Wright and U.S. Army Air Corps, tried to pass this bill to some other country or agency, covering seven men for four nights at $1.00 a night, for total bill of $28.00, owed to Mrs Mahoney’s boarding house!! This was not settled until nearly a year later, when the men involved each agreed to pay the $4 out of their own pockets.

11 July 1940 – on the subject of “Used American Aircraft,” it was noted by the Department of Munitions and Supply that, in the future, it would not be possible for Canadian civil pilots to fly American planes that were definitely registered as military planes. In this case, this meant that only American pilots could ferry the NA-26 and NA-44, these being the two oddball Harvards used at Trenton. The NA-26 was to be pushed across the border at Pembina on 15 July 1940 and taken away by an RCAF pilot, while the NA-44 flew direct from New York to Camp Borden, using an American pilot.

31 August1940 – referred to relaxation of the regulations on the flying of aircraft across the border. DoT had anticipated that the International Aerodrome would now be little used … however, North American and Douglas had been using it continually. North American were taking three to five aircraft per week via Pembina. More bills were coming in regarding seeding, liability insurance and so on.

14 September 1940 – DND felt that further expense should not be incurred, as it was intended to fly all aircraft across the border in future. They considered that it should be up to the Pembina Landing Field Corporation and other parties (ie: North American, Douglas, Lockheed, etc.) to cover costs for any further use they made of this field.

The plan in effect by this time, although not detailed in the file, apparently involved flying the aircraft into Canada with both U.S. and Allied crew on board. Somewhere in mid-air, while still over U.S. territory, ownership would transfer to the buyers, who would, either in fact or in theory, take over control and then complete the flight to a Canadian airfield. The aircraft could then be delivered to the RCAF, ferried overseas to the U.K. [United Kingdom] or whatever. This further subterfuge was used until the Lend-Lease Act was passed in March of 1941.

The main file is very thick, and a second thin file is entirely on the ongoing subject of those 7 USAAC Master Sergeants, still arguing into early 1941 between Canada, U.K., France and Curtiss-Wright over who should pay Mrs Mahoney’s $28.00 board and lodging bill. Some of this stack of correspondence over the $28.00 is so infantile and picayune that I must wonder if the authors knew that a war was on!

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On a more useful note, [the] second file does give a few more details about the aircraft shipped out via Halifax, which were Curtiss and Stinson types for France and Brewsters for Belgium, part of the Belgian order for 40 Brewster Buffalo fighters. A few of the Belgian Brewsters ended up rusting in Martinique, with the French deliveries, but the bulk were diverted to the RAF. Also, there is reference to Northrop aircraft ferried into Canada via Douglas Aircraft for the British.

In summary, it would appear that the Pembina/Emerson route was used for at least 10, and possibly up to 16 of the Douglas Digbys (the first four went via Coutts for sure). Also, it appears that the last 18 out of 28 diverted RAF Hudsons (RCAF 769–786) came via Emerson, with the first 10 being delivered normally in September 1939, before the hassle arose, and the last 18 between December 1939 and March 1940. All 28 of these Hudsons were ferried to Canada with U.S. civil registrations.

Although 15 Harvards came directly to Canada in September 1939 and 15 more were brought via Coutts, it is obvious that North American were making regular use of Emerson later (quoted as being three to five aircraft per week). The single NA-26 came via Emerson, and there were several hundred Inglewood-built MK. II Harvards flown to Canada in 1940 and 1941 prior to the Canadian production start-up, that also may have come via this route.

Finally, at least eight used airliners and twins flew in via Emerson, out of 26 such aircraft bought (plus Grumman Goose, etc. types). Did many (or any?) more of these come via Emerson?

Douglas Aircraft [Company] are also mentioned as bringing more planes in via Emerson, apparently besides the Digbys. The last Digby, RCAF 757, was taken on strength by the RCAF on 22 May 1940. What other types does the file refer to, as Dakotas didn’t start to come to the RCAF until 1943? There was one lone A-20 delivered in 1941, for Suffield, Alberta (also two others in 1943 and 1944). Possibly Douglas delivered RAF aircraft, such as Bostons, by air for shipment out of Canada?? I have no idea.

At least one aircraft brought in via Emerson still exists—Boeing 247D, CF-JRQ, at the National Air Museum in Ottawa was RCAF 7638, one of the four mentioned earlier. Any of the early Inglewood-built Harvards are also candidates for having come across at Coutts or Emerson.

It is also possible that the ex-RCAF Boeing 247D now restored and flying at the Museum of Flight in Seattle may have come across later at Emerson, as well as some of the Grumman Goose and Lockheed types that are still with us.

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If we have a few more minutes, I can also mention the Grumman Goose aircraft, several of which appear to have also been brought in by circumventing U.S. neutrality regulations.

The RCAF operated a total of 31 Goose aircraft. Some of these arrived in Canada individually and through devious arrangements, prior to the U.S. entry into the war. Although this is another whole story unto itself, a few words here will suffice for now.

The original RCAF Goose, RCAF 917, was purchased quite legally in July 1938 via the Canadian agent, Fairchild Aircraft Limited. The RCAF soon realized the value of an amphibious aircraft for legitimate general transportation duties, not to mention its ability to access VIP fishing and hunting camps. To complicate matters, the Minister of National Defence had first call on the Goose, and was cited as using it continually. I suppose things never do change in Ottawa!

In August of 1939, a proposal was forwarded for a second aircraft to be purchased as soon as possible or else included in the 1940–41 budget estimates. The proposal particularly noted the economies of using an $80,000 aircraft to do transportation work in Western Air Command currently being done by $250,000 Stranraer flying boats, which were further limited to water operations only.

A few days after war broke out, Mr. J. P. Bickell, a wealthy Toronto industrialist, donated his Goose to the RCAF, thus covering off the need for a second machine. At the same time, two additional aircraft were requested. This was soon amended to read three, and then again to four before September was over. Several former bush pilots, including Hump Madden, were offered immediate RCAF commissions to fly the newly-acquired Goose and Barkley-Grow twin-engine machines.

By late 1939 / early 1940, the RCAF was embroiled in an argument with the Privy Council and other non-flying bureaucrats and politicians over the merits and cost of the Goose versus the Beech 18, a non-amphibious aircraft which offered higher speed and lower cost, but obviously did not have the “go anywhere” amphibious capability the RCAF felt they required.

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After a nearly five month delay, the two new Grummans were eventually authorized, plus a further approval to purchase two more on the used aircraft market, towards a new RCAF Communications Flight establishment for 9 such aircraft.

In the fall of 1939, there was apparently some promise by Lord Beaverbook that he would present a Goose aircraft to the DND, but this never materialized. Negotiations were also carried on with department store magnate Marshall Field and Captain Boris Sergievsky of Sikorsky Aircraft, for purchase of their personal machines, plus the Grumman factory demonstrator, but all three were lost to other eager buyers through foot-dragging in the Ottawa approval process.

In fact, five more Goose aircraft were obtained from various wealthy U.S. owners, namely Colonel Robert McCormick (The Chicago Tribune), bankers Henry S. Morgan and J. P. Morgan, Mr. E. Roland Harriman, Powell Crosley Jr. (Crosley Radio), and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (Chairman of Pan American Airways). A second Goose was also purchased from Jack Bickell, of McIntyre-Porcupine Mines, who was later the President of Victory Aircraft and Chairman of Avro Canada. After disposing of two Goose aircraft to the RCAF, Bickell finally settled on a Grumman Widgeon, a type that was rejected by the RCAF as being unsuitable, despite a hard selling job by Grumman at a price less than ⅓ that of the Goose.

Several of these used ex-U.S. civil aircraft were ferried into Canada prior to Pearl Harbor, carrying Canadian civil markings, presumably due to the continued U.S. neutrality. However, the RCAF Goose files do not confirm that any of these aircraft were imported via Emerson, Manitoba, or the other pairs of border airfields.

After the U.S. entered the war, additional Goose aircraft were obtained, via Lend Lease (for use on the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan [BCATP]) and the U.S. Navy, right up to late 1944. This even included some ex-civil aircraft overhauled by the U.S. Navy for Britain, then sold to Canada on a cash basis.

As a final gesture, by early 1945, with the war nearly over, the bean-counters had caught up with the fact that several of the used ex-civil Goose aircraft had made it up to Canada without benefit of Export Licenses. This, plus arguments over the Lend-Lease aircraft which had already been returned to Britain, kept them busy filling the Goose procurement file with letters until after VE Day.



Jerry Vernon served in the Royal Canadian Air Force with 442 and 443 Squadrons as a Reserve officer, retiring with the rank of major.  He has had a life-long interest in aviation history and is currently the President of the Vancouver Chapter, Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS).  Over the years, he has written numerous articles on various aviation subjects, contributed to many different print and electronic publications and been a “go-to” source for Canadian aviation authors and researchers.

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A/V/M―Air Vice Marshal
B.C.―British Columbia
BR―Bomber & Reconnaissance
CAS―Chief of Air Staff
DND―Department of National Defence
DoT―Department of Transport
F/L―Flight Lieutenant
F/O―Flying Officer
RAF―Royal Air Force
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
S/L―Squadron Leader
TCA―Trans-Canada Airlines
U.K.―United Kingdom
U.S.―United States
USAAC―United States Army Air Corps
USS―United States Ship


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