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Ruhr Express

Introduction

1942 was a critical year in the war against the Axis powers. With the United States' entry into the Second World War in December of 1941 and the victories at Midway, El Alamein and Stalingrad during 1942 the tide of the war looked to be turning against the Axis and victory for the Allied powers seemed to finally be possible. The Allied bombing offensive against Germany and occupied Europe was also at a critical phase in this year. With America's decision to pursue a daylight precision bombing strategy, it was left to Britain and her Commonwealth nations, led by the new commander of Bomber Command Arthur Harris, to continue its ever-expanding large-scale night bombing campaign. This would require a massive commitment of men and resources and aircraft equal to the task.

In February 1942, the same month Harris assumed the leadership of Bomber Command, Avro (A.V. Roe and Company) introduced their newest heavy bomber, the Lancaster, into operational service. It was soon decided that this new bomber would be the backbone of the RAF (Royal Air Force)'s heavy bomber force, so measures were immediately put into place to maximize the construction of this aircraft. The biggest initial problem was a shortage of Merlin engines, of which the Lancaster needed four. Considering the engine was already being used in aircraft vital to the war effort, such as the Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito, and later, the Mustang, the need for expanded engine production was critical. Along with subcontracting the production of Merlins to some British companies, in September 1940 an agreement was signed between Rolls Royce and the Packard Motor Car Company in the United States. Production of the Packard Merlin engine began in August of 1941. It took some time for production of the engines from all sources to catch up to demand, leading to the short-lived Lancaster Mk. II variant powered by Bristol Hercules engines, but by 1943 production was finally start to meet demand. The need now was to increase production of the Lancaster itself. As with the Merlin engine, Avro subcontracted production the Lancaster and its components to British companies; but this was still not enough, so solutions outside Britain were considered. Throughout the war many "shadow factories" for production of British military equipment were set up outside the United Kingdom to help increase production and keep production active in case the companies in Britain were damaged or destroyed. Due to its relatively safe location and proximity to the production of the Packard Merlin engines, it was decided that a shadow factory for production of Lancaster bombers would be set up in Canada.

Victory Aircraft

National Steel Car Corporation Limited (originally Imperial Steel Car) was founded in 1912 with its head office in Montreal (Quebec) and a factory in Hamilton (Ontario).  The company's main product was rolling stock for the railroads, but when faced with financial problems during the Depression the company diversified its production and began to build products such as motor trucks, bus bodies, and outboard motor boats in order to maintain the company.  Then, with the spectre of another great war looming in Europe in the mid 1930s, the company decided to set up an aviation division to continue to diversify production and to help with the rearmament of the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces.  After receiving a contract to build Westland Lysanders for the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force), National Steel Car chose Malton for the site of its new factory, which was completed in June 1938.  After the war began, the aviation division joined with five other Canadian companies to form the Canadian Associated Aircraft Limited and the factory in Malton was expanded for the first time.  Between 1939 and 1941 it would be involved in the production of aircraft and aircraft parts (Avro Ansons, Handley Page Hamptons (wings), Hawker Hurricanes (wings)) along with aircraft assembly and modification (North American Yales and Harvards).  At one point there were rumours that the company would be given a contract to produce Short Stirling heavy bombers, but that was soon dispelled when a contract was received to build 300 Martin Marauder medium bombers.  Retooling began at the factory but ended in November 1941 when the order was cancelled.  Finally on December 18, 1941 another contract was received to build the new Lancaster bomber, and work began in earnest on the monumental task of upgrading the relatively small factory to start large-scale production of one of the most advanced aircraft of its time.

The Lancaster production line at Victory AircraftThe Lancaster production line at Victory Aircraft. CANADIAN WARPLANE HERITAGE MUSEUM

Retooling and expansion of the factory and the hiring of a much larger workforce began in January 1942 with blueprints and negatives arriving from Britain along with a technical expert from Avro (Alf Stewart) and Rolls Royce (Fred Morral), and in August 1942 Lancaster Mk. I R5727 was ferried to Canada to be used as a reference template. Unfortunately, from 1940 onwards National Steel Car's aviation division encountered a number of personnel and production problems that caused concern within the Canadian government. Many of them were associated with the incredible stresses and complications that can occur when a small company expands at the speed it did while taking on ever more complex and demanding projects. As the retooling of the factory and the training of the vastly expanded workforce continued through 1942, the concerns did not abated in the eyes of the federal government. The fear of production problems and delays became even more acute when the RCAF formed 6 Group on October 25, 1942, its own all-Canadian formation within Bomber Command. The government and military were pushing to have large independent Canadian formations within the British military system, so the success of the new group was vital. Six Group would need a steady supply of aircraft to function effectively and the government also wanted to have as many of the aircraft flowing to the group to be Canadian-built Lancasters. Finally with delays and personnel issues still plaguing the company, Minister of Munitions C.D. Howe decided to expropriate the company on November 4, 1942, making it a Crown corporation and renaming the company Victory Aircraft Limited.

Squadron Leader R.J. Reg Lane and his crew visiting the Victory Aircraft before their departure for EnglandSquadron Leader R.J. Reg Lane and his crew visiting the Victory Aircraft before their departure for England. NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA

Even with all of the problems and changes the now-Victory Aircraft had experienced, by the beginning of August 1943 the first Lancaster was about to roll out of the factory. It had been only sixteen months since the blueprints had arrived in Malton, which was an incredible achievement. The Canadian-built aircraft were given the designation Lancaster Mk. X, the equivalent of the British Lancaster Mk. III, the designation given to British-built Lancasters equipped with Packard Merlin engines. Lancaster Mk. Xs also differed from their British counterparts in a number of other areas, mainly involving the electrical system and US/Canadian built instruments which were the cause of many maintenance problems with ground crews who had trained on British versions of the aircraft. As the first Lancaster, KB700, neared completion ceremonies and celebrations were being prepared. She was even given some simple nose art, a falling red bomb over which was painted a yellow arrow and the aircraft's new name: Ruhr Express. A documentary by the National Film Board of Canada called Target Berlin was already in production, a christening ceremony was planned soon after the initial test flight, and a series of publicity and press event were planned before and after her arrival in Britain. Victory Aircraft employee George Sines, even wrote a poem that would be read at the christening ceremony:

The Ruhr Express

May the Gods above you ever bless,
And keep you safe the Ruhr Express,
Many you and do your job and do it well,
And blow the Axis clean to hell.
We saw you born you wonderous thing,
We watched you grow and then take wing,
May you fly long through war-torn days,
And give us cause to sing your praise.
The job is hard you have to do,
But, we have faith you'll see it through,
May we have ever cause to bless,
Our new ship born, the 'Ruhr Express'.
We have waited long to see the day,
When you would take wings and fly away,
At last you roar a thunderous tune,
And Hitler too will hear you soon.
So here's to you the 'Ruhr Express',
Speed on your way, may Heaven bless,
Your every effort this war will cease,
So once again we live in peace.
Here's to the men your gallant crew,
The RCAF who will see you through,
God Save the King, may Heaven bless,
Your crew and you, the 'Ruhr Express'.

Ruhr Express

Ruhr Express now needed a crew. Due to the importance of the aircraft and the various events that would accompany her as she went to war, an experienced crew with a decorated captain was selected. KB700`s skipper would be S/L (Squadron Leader) R.J. Reg Lane DSO, DFC a veteran of two complete 25 operational tours in Bomber Command which included attacks on the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the battleship Tirpitz. After completing his second tour Lane had been transferred from 35 Pathfinder Squadron to the Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit before returning to Canada to ferry Ruhr Express across the Atlantic. His crew were also all Bomber Command veterans and included P/O (Pilot Officer) Johnny Carrere (navigator), Sgt (Sergeant) Ross Webb (wireless operator), F/Sgt (Flight Sergeant) Reg Burger (mid upper gunner), P/O Steve Boxcar (second pilot), F/Sgt R. Wright (bomb aimer) and Sgt Mike Kaczynski (flight engineer). They arrived in Canada in July and would be involved in all of the ceremonies and publicity events before and after they ferried KB700 to Britain. They would then be reassigned after Ruhr Express was assigned to an operational squadron.

Finally on August 1, 1943, KB700 rolled out of the Victory Aircraft factory and departed on her first test flight. The christening ceremony was slated for five days later and the aircraft was to depart for Britain on the same day, so there was little time for comprehensive testing. The flight test was completed without incident and Ruhr Express was deemed ready. On August 6, 1943, in a ceremony attended by almost the entire Victory Aircraft workforce and broadcast on radio Canada-wide with commentary by Lorne Greene, KB700 was officially christened Ruhr Express.

KB700 Ruhr Express rollout at Victory AircraftKB700 Ruhr Express rollout at Victory Aircraft most likely taken at the official christening ceremony on August 6, 1943. CANADIAN WARPLANE HERITAGE MUSEUM

Once the speeches and spectacle ended, the arduous task of ferrying the aircraft to Britain began. Lane, his crew, a Rolls Royce representative, and the crew's mascot (a white poodle puppy named "Bambi") departed Malton for Dorval, Quebec, the first leg of their journey. Unfortunately, the ferry flight was marred with technical problems and delays. All of the aircraft's instrumentation failed. Once the aircraft arrived in Dorval, Victory Aircraft was ordered to complete performance tests before she departed on the next leg of the journey. During these tests one of the engines failed and required a replacement to be sent from Malton. It would be August 31 before Ruhr Express was able to depart on the next leg of her flight, by which point press releases already had her in England preparing for deployment. Technical problems like this were not uncommon in new aircraft, especially in the first aircraft off the production line of a new factory that had gone from blueprints to production with such speed, but such problems would continue to plague KB700 throughout her service life. By September 9 she was in Gander, Newfoundland ready to for the flight to Britain but weather delayed her again. Finally after a thankfully uneventful Atlantic crossing, Ruhr Express was welcomed to Britain by High Commissioner Vincent Massey. Another series of ceremonies, celebrations, press conferences and publicity flights to other RCAF squadrons followed. A.V. Roe representatives also inspected KB700 and certified her fit for service. Ruhr Express, Reg Lane and the ferry crew then parted company for reassignment, with Lane briefly returning to the Pathfinder navigation unit before being assigned to command 405 Pathfinder Squadron. He would finally complete his service in Europe just before D-Day, having completed 65 combat operations, and be assigned to the planning staff for Tiger Force. Lane remained in the RCAF after the war and retired with the rank of Lieutenant General. Ruhr Express was also heading off to join 405 Squadron, arriving on October 5, 1943. Her baptism of fire was soon to follow and it would be to one of Bomber Command's most dangerous and deadly targets: Berlin.

Squadron Leader R.J. Reg Lane DSO, DFC and the crewSquadron Leader R.J. Reg Lane DSO, DFC and the crew that ferried KB700 Ruhr Express to England. BOMBER COMMAND MUSEUM OF CANADA

405 Squadron had formed on April 23, 1941 and was the first RCAF squadron to participate in a bombing raid ten weeks later. After being part of both Bomber and Coastal Command during the next two years, including a short stint with RCAF's 6 Group, the squadron was transferred to Bomber Command's elite 8 Pathfinder Group in April 1943. When Ruhr Express arrived at 405 Squadron in October 1943, Bomber Command was about to begin a bombing campaign that was soon dubbed the Battle of Berlin. ACM (Air Chief Marshal) Harris and Bomber Command hoped the campaign would break German resolve and bring an end to the war through repeated, concentrated attacks on the German capital. But the long flight time to Berlin combined with the heavy defences the aircraft had to penetrate would cause heavy casualties to the RAF over the long campaign.

Upon her arrival at 405 Squadron, KB700 was given the unit designation LQ-Q for Queenie. Once pre-operational testing and training was completed Ruhr Express was deemed ready for service. November 22, 1943 would be her first operation and a crew captained by FSgt Harold Floren was assigned to the aircraft along with a reporter and photographer to document Ruhr Express' mission to Berlin. But once again the weather and mechanical problems conspired against KB700. Weather over most of Western Europe was atrocious, causing over half of the Pathfinder force to abort. Floren tried to continue onto the target but engine problems that had began as the aircraft crossed into enemy territory continued to worsen and finally forced him to return to base. Even though Ruhr Express had failed to reach Berlin a fake briefing of the mission was held for the press for publicity's sake. KB700 was quickly readied for another mission to Berlin and on November 26, Floren, who had just been promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer, piloted Ruhr Express on her second trip to Berlin. Fortunately her second mission was free of weather and mechanical problems and she returned from her first successful mission unscathed. The mission was not without technical issues; the cameraman found that his camera had frozen up during the flight so no photos had been taken during the mission. But this first successful mission would end up being her last for 405 Squadron. The unit was equipped with Lancaster Mk. Is and the differences in the engines, electrical system and instruments between them and the Mk Xs would make maintenance and logistics problematic. KB700 would need to be transferred to a squadron that would be equipped with Canadian-built Lancasters. 419 Squadron would soon be one of those units as they were about to begin the transition from Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers to the new Mk. X Lancasters that were now regularly emerging from the Victory Aircraft factory. Harold Floren would remain with 405 Squadron, but while flying Lancaster LQ-A for Apple on a mission to Braunschweig (Brunswick) on January 14, 1944, his aircraft received a direct hit and the aircraft exploded. Floren and his crew were posted missing and later listed as presumed dead on October 6, 1944.

Pilot Officer Harold Floren sitting at the controls of KB700 Ruhr ExpressPilot Officer Harold Floren sitting at the controls of KB700 Ruhr Express around the time of her first operation, November 1943. CANADIAN WARPLANE HERITAGE MUSEUM

KB700 Ruhr Express during her serviceKB700 Ruhr Express during her service with 405 Pathfinder Squadron from October to December 1943. NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA

419 Squadron was formed on December 15, 1941, beginning combat operations in January 1942. It was the third RCAF bomber squadron to become operational in Britain during the war. The unit joined 6 Group when it formed on October 25, 1942 and was just beginning to transition from Halifaxes to Lancasters when KB700 was taken on strength on December 26, 1943. Ruhr Express was given the squadron designation VR-Z for Zebra and would spend the next six months as a training aircraft helping 419 pilots and crews transition to the new Lancaster Mk. Xs. She would be fitted with duel pilot controls, the H2S radar navigation system and the `Boozer` fighter warning system. These conversions, along differences in the Packard Merlin engines and the Canadian electrical systems and instrumentation, caused maintenance nightmares for the ground crews, many of who had trained on the British aircraft and systems. This, along with the continued mechanical failures Ruhr Express had become known for, added to her reputation as a difficult and unpopular aircraft and would earn her the unflattering moniker of "The Ruhr Whore" by crews who drew the assignment of flying her on combat operations.

419 Squadron flew its first operation in which the majority of their aircraft were Lancasters on April 27, 1944 and had completed the transition to the new aircraft in early May. In the months leading up to D-Day, Bomber Command had been re-tasked from its attacks on German cities to targets in France in preparation for the invasion of Europe. 419 Squadron had been involved in many of these attacks. Finally, with all of the squadron's crews fully trained on the Lancaster, Ruhr Express returned to combat service on the day of days, June 6, 1944, with her first operation against the coastal defence batteries at Merville-Franceville in the early hours of the invasion. From June to late August the majority of 419`s operations would be against targets in France in support of the Normandy campaign and against V1 flying bomb launch sites as part of Operation Crossbow; however, it would be on one of the few operations that the squadron flew against Germany during this period that Ruhr Express would first face attack from the enemy directly. On Ruhr Express' seventh operation in mid June against a synthetic oil plant in Sterkrade, she was attacked by a German night fighter that her skipper F/O W.F. Dix managed to evade after performing a corkscrew manoeuvre and escaping into cloud cover.

By the later half of August, Bomber Command was released from supporting the Normandy Campaign and returned to the mass bombing attacks on Germany. Ruhr Express would fly 20 of its final 22 missions against Germany. She would once again face attack from a German night fighter on her 28th operation in the latter half of August against the city of Stettin, with her pilot W/O (Warrant Officer) L.H. MacDonald having to perform three separate corkscrew manoeuvres before he finally managed to evade an attacking Messerschmitt Me 110 fighter. KB700 would also be hit by flak on her 30th operation at the end of August, also against Stettin, which would tear an 18 inch long hole in her fuselage port side below the mid upper turret. But it was on her 27th operation against Brunswick that she came closest to disaster. This was not due to enemy action, but as a result of the mechanical problems that had always plagued her. During the mission she was forced to abort after suffering a major electrical failure that caused all four of her engines to fail at different points during the flight.

By this point KB700 had become an aged and worn-out aircraft. The combat operation and all of the time she had spent on training flights and publicity appearances had taken their toll and that, combined with the continued mechanical issues she had suffered from since she had left the factory, had made her a slow and difficult aircraft to fly. Flying "The Ruhr Whore" had become a badge of achievement for older crews and a right of passage for newer ones within the squadron. A total of 18 pilots flew her during her time with 419 Squadron: P/O G.E. Holmes, F/O (Flying Officer) W.J. Anderson, F/Lt (Flight Lieutenant) A.J. Byford, F/O W.F. Dix (who would complete the most missions in the aircraft), F/Lt W.R. Chalcraft, S/L J.G. Stewart, F/O R.W. Kent, F/Sgt L.H. MacDonald, F/O J.E. Errington, F/Lt W.C. Cameron, F/O G.R. Duncan, F/O W.W. Osborne, F/O R.G. Mansfield, F/Lt A.A. Bishop, F/O C.D.F. Williams, F/O N.B. Vatne, F/Lt A.G.R. Warner and F/Lt J.A. Anderson. Nonetheless, by January 2, 1945 the now-venerable Ruhr Express was still flying and prepared for her 49th operation against Nuremburg with F/Lt A.G.R. Warner at the controls. Rumour had it that once KB700 had completed her 50th mission she was to be returned to Canada for a new series of ceremonies and celebrations and perhaps a well-deserved retirement as a memorial or museum display. After completing the operation and reaching Britain without a hitch, she was on approach to 419`s airfield at Middleton when the undercarriage indicators showed that one of her landing gear had not locked into place even though a visual check confirmed that all the gear was down and locked. Problems continued and it is believed that a failure in the flaps caused KB700 to hit the runway hard, and she was in danger of overshooting and rolling off the end of the runway. Warner managed to stop the aircraft about fifty feet past the end of the runway but now needed to move KB700 out of the way as quickly as possible in case any of the other aircraft that were landing overshot the runway as well. As Ruhr Express turned her starboard outer prop struck a trench digging machine that had been left at the end of the runway by civilian workers. The collision ruptured her fuel tank and within seconds the aircraft was ablaze. The crew all managed to escape but the fire spread to the ammunition stores and KB700 quickly became a blazing pyre. Little of Ruhr Express remained by the time the fire was extinguished. The mechanical problems that had plagued her throughout her life had finally been her undoing--a sad end for the veteran warplane that had been so close to returning home in triumph.

KB700 Ruhr Express after the landing accidentWhat remained of KB700 Ruhr Express after the landing accident that occurred following her 49th mission on January 2-3, 1945. BOMBER COMMAND MUSEUM OF CANADA

Legacy

Victory Aircraft Limited built a total of 430 Lancaster Mk. Xs during the war, KB700-999 and FM100-229, of which about 100 were lost in combat and due to accidents. One Avro Lincoln heavy bomber (FM300) and one Avro York transport aircraft (FM400) were also produced and the company converted about half a dozen Lancasters to Mk. XXP Lancastrian long distance transport aircraft that were used by the CGTAS (Canadian Government Trans Atlantic Air Service) and TCAL (Trans Canada Air Lines Limited) during and after the war. In 1938 National Steel Car's aviation division had a factory of about 60,000 sq. feet and employed 300 people; by Victory Aircraft's height of production in 1944 the factory was 1,272,005 sq. feet and employed 9,521 people - an incredible rate of growth and a prime example of the massive expansion that the Canadian aviation industry experienced during the Second World War. Production of some of the Lancaster's components was subcontracted to other Canadian companies, including Ottawa Car and Aircraft, Canadian General Electric Co. and Fleet Aircraft Limited. The Canadian aviation industry employed approximately 116,200 people at its height in 1944 and produced 5,874 combat aircraft, 3,787 elementary trainers, and 6,757 advanced trainers including Lancasters, Mosquitos, Hurricanes, Cansos, Helldivers, Bolingbrokes, Lysanders, Ansons, Harvards, Cornells, Tiger Moths and Norsemen, and made a vital contribution supplying aircraft and other military equipment to the war effort. But as with most of the war industries, production at Victory Aircraft was quickly wound down as the war ended and personnel at the factory was cut to a skeleton staff of less than 400. Fortunately the Canadian government was already in negotiation with the Hawker Siddeley Group, and on December 5, 1945 Victory Aircraft was sold and soon renamed A.V. Roe Canada Limited. During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s Avro Canada and its subsidiary companies were considered one of the world's leading aerospace firms, conducting a great deal of research in advanced aircraft design leading to aircraft such as the CF-105 Arrow, the Avro Jetliner and Avro Aerocar. Avro produced Canada's first all-Canadian designed and built fighter aircraft, the CF-100 Canuck; and designed and produced aero engine from their subsidiary Orenda Engines Limited that would power the Canadair Sabre, CF-100, CF-105, and in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the CF-104 and CF-5. Tragically the company would be hit hard by the Canadian government's cancellation of the CF-105 Arrow fighter interceptor program in 1959. By 1962 the company ceased operation and the Malton factory was acquired by de Havilland Canada and Orenda Engines continuing operation within the Hawker Siddeley Group.

Many of the Lancasters built by Victory Aircraft would continue to soldier on in the RCAF after the war. From 1945 to the retirement of the last Lancaster in Canadian military service in 1964 approximately 100 Lancaster Mk. Xs would be converted for postwar service with variants including Mk. 10AR (Reconnaissance), Mk. 10BR (Bomber Reconnaissance), Mk. 10MR (Maritime Reconnaissance), Mk 10MP (Maritime Patrol), Mk. 10DC (Drone Carrier), Mk. 10N (Navigation Trainer), Mk. 10O (Avro Orenda test aircraft), Mk. 10P (Photo Reconnaissance), Mk. 10S (standard bomber with upper turret removed) and Mk. 10U (unmodified). Today there are a total of 17 complete surviving Lancasters in the world and over half of them are the Canadian Mk. Xs: KB839, KB882, KB944, FM104, FM136, FM159, FM212, FM213 (the Canadian Warplane Heritage's Mynarski Lancaster) all of which reside in Canada, along with KB889, which resides in the United Kingdom.

Victory Aircraft was an important part of Canada's war effort that not only supplied the RCAF with a steady supply of vitally-needed front-line bombers during the war, but also left a legacy of aerospace development along with resilient aircraft that have stood the test of time. These aircraft still help to memorialize the history and service of the people and machines that defended Canada and the world during the Second World War and Cold War. As for Ruhr Express, she will always hold a place in Canada's aviation history as the first of many Lancasters that rolled of Victory Aircraft's production line. But just as important is the fact that even though she was always plagued with the reputation as a temperamental and difficult aircraft to maintain and fly, she always brought her crews home alive. That, if nothing else, is a fitting epitaph for the first Canadian-built Lancaster.

Victory Aircraft

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