Air Observation Post

This article was prepared from Second World War veteran Cliff Ashfield's talk in the late 1990s to the Regina chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.


Cliff Ashfield needed a little help.

It was the summer of 1944 and the young officer had found himself yanked out of an artillery regiment and dispatched, because of his family's experience with weekly newspapers, to the army 2 Public Relations Group in the Mediterranean.

The unit was half military and half civilian; attention was turning to the "second front" in Western Europe.

Desperate to escape this post, he was able to get the help of another artilleryman with roots in eastern Saskatchewan, Major. E.M. McNaughton, senior staff officer, air, for the army's I Corps in Italy -- and eventually landed in a little-known corner of Canadian aviation history.

Sketching the history of what has come to be called "army aviation", Ashfield took those at the Oct. 13 meeting of the CAHS back to the First World War, when spotting and artillery observation was done by tethered balloons, armored platforms atop tall, telephone pole-like platforms ("artillery captains used to go up like telephone linemen and observe from that perch") and, of course, the rickety aircraft of that war. "Out of that came the Billy Bishops and the Manfred Richtofens". Arguably, this was the very genesis of military aviation.

Between the two world wars, the young RCAF, emulating the RAF, took over "spotting" duties from the Canadian army, using the Westland Wapiti and Lysander.

"It was called army co-operation -- and it didn't work," said Ashfield. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, there were "scraps" between the services over how this work was to be done. "This went on for years with the result that nothing was done at all.

The army knew what it wanted, but the air fore said that anybody who piloted had to be from the air force."

In August 1941, the British Army set up its own unit, No. 651 Squadron. Two officers were assigned to train as pilots, but they didn't get their "wings" until the following spring. (A sidelight: one of these officers, a chap of considerable curiosity, decided to use his Auster lightplane (a British- built Taylorcraft) to answer an age-old question: can a hen fly?

One of the fowls was taken up to 5,000 feet, then dropped out. "It got into a tight spiral and landed safely," reported Ashfield.)

In November 1942, 43 Operational Training Unit was formed at Old Sarum under an RAF group within Army Co-operation Command. The following April, two operational AOP squadrons, 658 and 659, with Auster 3s, were formed. Each cost 1,000 pounds sterling; given that the pound was pegged at $4.47 Canadian, "for under $4,500, you got an aircraft", Ashfield said.

The Canadian Army sent three artillery captains back from Sicily to train with the Brits, who "were daring and, technically, they were very good".

Alas, they were sent back to their regiments, where one was killed. A second group of Canadians was selected for flight training in the summer of 1944; among them Ashfield, who trained as an artilleryman in the non-permanent army (militia) in the late 1930s and later joined the wartime army. "Everybody was excited and every artillery officer up to colonel would give both arms to go on this course."

Training began with a two-day medical in London, where Ashfield and some Canadian colleagues found themselves listening to the "darndest noise" while Englishmen dived for cover. The noise was the sinister pulsing of a V-1 "buzz bomb", which delivered its one-ton warhead nearby, shaking the school.

"The next time they came over, guess who was the first people on the floor?" asked Ashfield.

Next, they went to 122 Elementary Flying Training School at Marshall's Flying School at Cambridge. As for uniforms, they wore an inner, quilted, flying suit, and a heavy, canvas outer one, plus bomber crew-type lined flying boots. "The parachute, you sat on.

It's wonderful to think of this: the thing is supposed to save your life; you sat on it." Silk gloves fit into beautiful, kid leather gauntlets. The finishing touch: an eight-foot white silk scarf. Marshalls' airfield also happened to be home to a maintenance unit that handled Manchesters, Albemarle glider tugs and Mosquitoes. Wherein a lesson: "We, who thought that we were pretty big, tough, manly and sharp, would stand there when these Mosquitoes swooped in -- and out would step a tiny female ferry pilot."

Ashfield was able to solo in 2:30, well below the 12 hours allowed to rookie pilots. He was lucky; the weather over Cambridgeshire was generally poor and aborted training flights could be counted against that limit.

"Some of the fellows were sent home unfairly -- and it was the fault of the weather, mainly." Another batch of trainees were later sent back to their units, sadistically, on the very morning of their "wings" parade.

For those who soloed, the next stop was 43 OTU and three months of training, split between flying and "shooting" -- directing artillery fire from the air.

"We had such tasks as sharp turns around a bush for an hour.

You had to learn to be precise in your flying so you would not slip out." He remembers being dispatched to "satellite" airfields in the area, landing and taking off not on the runway, but on the perimeter track.

The key to AOP survival was flying low. One pilot, flying down a ravine on the Salisbury Plain, failed to rise and was met by a car. Banking away from it, his wing hit a tree "and tore off everything outboard of the strut...and he managed to get it back to Andover," said Ashfield. "Now that was one aircraft that could fly!"

Christmas 1944 saw a confrontation between the trainees and the school commander, an English colonel who perceived Dec. 25 as just another flying day.

The Canadians conspired to ground themselves via the rule that they could not fly within eight hours of drinking alcohol. The next morning, Christmas Day, saw the colonel and his adjutant glaring at the trainee pilots -- and bluntly ordering them to fly. Which they did. "That was the only time in my life that I ever landed an aircraft and was sick out the door at the same time," winced Ashfield. "I didn't care if we went in tail first, or what."

--- Around this time, the Canadian Army formed three Air Observation Post (AOP) Squadrons: 664, 665 and 666.

Ashfield was assigned to 665, formed at Andover, Hants., and dispatched to Oatlands Hill, Wilts. A huge generator was assigned to the unit.

Ashfield was given a stripped down Auster and sent to an army supply depot in the Midlands for some heavy cables.

"There is about five or 10 miles an hour between cruising speed and stalling speed and it's wartime and I'm over England," remembered Ashfield. With darkness approaching, he finally noticed a flarepath and quickly plopped onto a runway from which Dakotas dropped trainee paratroopers.

Anxious airmen pulled the little Auster off the runway. "There was a whoosh and there was one of these things coming in!" It was RAF Brize Norton and "it was lovely to be in an air force mess after our primitive accommodation." That same night came a reminder of the danger inherent in training: an Albemarle from the base was tugging a glider when it lost power.

The glider pilot cut loose the tow-rope and was able to land with only injuries --but the Albemarle and its crew were lost.

Soon after, 665 Squadron left for northwest Europe. Although Ashfield "could feel 109s and 190s coming out of every cloud", they landed safely at Brussels' "very, very busy airport" one flight at a time. The squadron had 16 Austers: three flights of five each, with one attached to headquarters. Some members of the three squadrons were sent into the field quickly; others went to specialized duties. "My job was to go to 10,000 feet with the meteorological instruments for the [First] Canadian Army.

And some days, I actually got up to 10,000." More often, the little Auster could take him no higher than 6,000 feet.

"Some days, the ice tore the fabric off the wing in little chunks." He carried VIPs and did photographic duties, using a fixed bracket outside the cockpit. This required, of course, the Auster to fly near the front lines (always over the Allied side) steadily and at a fixed height; this would allow the developed photographs to be fitted into a constant-scale mosaic that could be used by the army. A grid was superimposed over the photos, creating a map accurate enough for intelligence work and directing artillery fire.

"You get some very itchy feelings when you're doing this," Ashfield said.

"But you couldn't flinch, because that would mean doing it all over again."

A "shoot" of artillery "was straightforward and generally very accurate." The guns, over the radio, reported, "Shot one". Says Ashfield: "You counted, less the time of flying, went up and made a diving turn -- and immediately gave the correction." The gun would fire again and another correction made. "It just happens: bing, bing, bing, bing and you're on the target."

As the Auster evolved, the amount of clear Perspex around the cockpit increased. By the arrival of the Mark 5, "the whole top of the aircraft was a big Perspex blister," Ashfield said. "A pilot, if he wanted to see something, could bank the aircraft and look out through the roof." Similarly, time and experience moved the gas tank from a point forward of the pilot to the wings. The RT (radio-telephone) was "rather primitive", while the initial British-built Major engine was "very fine".

It was replaced in some models by an American Lycoming four-cylinder horizontally opposed engine.

"They were adequate, but nothing wonderful," Ashfield said.

"They were given to us because the maintenance was handled like a Volkswagen: kinda 'you run it and then throw it away'."

The landing gear legs came straight up into the fuselage and were held in place by a rubber shock cord.

___

The mix of personnel in 665 Squadron mirrored the early disputes over army co-operation work.

"Anything to do with the airplanes was air force; anything to do with the ground was army...cooks, drivers, signallers were all army.

The 'erks' -- fitters and airframe -- were air force.

Supply was both.

We were under the command of the RAF and we were supplied by the army for the job."

"We got great, great support from the RCAF people in our squadron," he added. "They looked after them (the Austers) just like they were babies and they were very, very seldom unserviceable too long."

Ashfield's estimation is that "we really arrived too late to do much good." The book Squadrons of the RCAF says 665 Squadron flew its first operations on April 27, 1945, and the final one on May 7.

664 Squadron logged only one month more of flying and 666 did not fly operations at all.

But this is not to say the work was not dangerous.

Ashfield recalls an armistice under which hostile aircraft could not fly. He interpreted that to exclude the unarmed Auster, so he and his "batman" (assistant), a recycled infantry sergeant, got into the Auster and headed for one of the Netherlands' cities.

Ashfield knew that Dutch civilians protesting the continued occupation by the Germans had been fired upon, "and a great number of them were killed", so he determined to land and talk to some of the locals. His landing site turned out to be an irrigated field.

They might have been stuck there had not the sergeant the presence of mind to jump from the slowly rolling Auster and lift the starboard wing, allowing it to pick up speed before jumping back in for the take-off. A good thing, too.

Ashfield could see Dutch civilians running toward them, plus "people in grey uniforms". "When we got back, there were some holes in the aircraft, but fortunately not in us."

The Dutch underground, identifiable by orange armbands, got revenge on collaborators.

"The men were carted off and the women who had played around with the Germans had their heads shaven and the 'bad' ones were put in concentration camps for a while. But other than that, they weren't abused."

Another flight took him to a German-held airfield within hours of being overrun by a Polish troops under the First Canadian Army. The German officers seemed reluctant to surrender to mere aviators, arguing until Ashfield said, "Major, Hauptman...you don't have to surrender to us, but tomorrow the 1st Polish Armored Division will be here and you don't want to be here' There were about 300 people on that base; the next day, hardly anybody."

___

Life in the aftermath of the war was a strange mix of the challenging and the mundane. 665 Squadron found itself at Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, where one of the visitors was the driver to that country's queen -- "because she liked British beer!" Speaking of spirits, 665's officers became fond of drinking it in fine Belgian crystal and, "in the air force style of the First World War, we never, ever washed it. It went into the fireplace! There was an official party every Saturday night -- and an unofficial one every night."

The squadron was quartered in a lock factory that Ashfield had reconnoitered from the air, then landed and checked out. "That gave you an idea of the ability of the Auster...full up, it could take off in 75 yards and landed in much less." Impressive -- but exceeded by the personal aircraft of Lt. Gen. Harry Crerar, commander of the First Canadian Army, which was also based at Apeldoorn.

It was a Vultee Vigilant, a large lightplane with "lots of flap and a tremendous amount of wing, and slats", and flown by an RAF pilot.

"That man could come over in a high wind and just about hover over the airfield," remembers Ashfield.

"He always made us look so cheap because he hardly ever turned a wheel."

Ashfield and a buddy determined to be in London for VE Day in May 1945.

Armed with two suitcases of booze, they got into an Auster, flew over the Hook of Holland and then, at 50 feet, over the North Sea ("with spray on the windshield") to the American airfield at Colchester, Hantfordshire. "Not a soul around," Ashfield remembers. They made their way to the control tower, "and there wasn't a sober person; in fact there wasn't a conscious person". They reached Colchester, boarded a train and headed for a posh hotel in London, where they announced that Captains Ashfield and his friend had arrived. Were their rooms ready yet?

The clerk couldn't find their (nonexistent) reservations, so our heroes demanded the manager.

"He's out," came the reply, whereupon Ashfield, emboldened, snapped, "We made them with him three months ago!" This impressive bluff got them fine rooms from which they immediately began calling friends all over London.

The British capital that day was, Ashfield said, "something to behold". Recreational bonfires, a trademark of the British people, were everywhere.

Ashfield found himself treated to drinks by an AWOL British paratroop sergeant; nearby a middle aged British woman was performing a dance that ended with her pulling up her skirt.

"The lining of her skirt and the pantaloons were all Union Jacks!"

At one hotel he passed, members of "an American 42-piece band were playing out of each window -- and they were all playing together." "Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus were so full of people that one could be easily picked up by the sheer force of the crowd and moved several steps."

Back to peacetime soldiering.

For example, the German admiral who had overseen the mining of Dutch waters agreed to help in their clearing; he had to be transported.

One enterprising Canadian pilot loaded his Auster with cigarettes and landed in suburban Rotterdam, intending to sell them to civilians --one of whom protested the high prices by finding an army provost, who promptly arrested the pilot.

Ashfield's buddy was assigned to preside over the court of inquiry, flew his Auster all over England and Western Europe gathering evidence ("He had a great time," Ashfield noted), then exercised his powers to exclude most of this evidence and acquitted his buddy. Another pilot showed off before his girlfriend by putting the little Auster-- against orders --into a perfect loop.

Landing, he spied an air force type and asked, "What ya think of that?"

"Technically, not bad," replied the airman. "but I'm Group Captain Such-and-Such and I want to see you in the morning because you're one of my pilots." A sequel: the loop had damaged the Auster's main spar.

Ashfield had to fly it -- carefully -- to a maintenance depot.

There was mail to be flown between division and corps headquarters and an amazing array of people began classifying themselves as VIPS and demanding flights.

"Finally, orders come down that nobody would fly without authorization from G- 1 Army."

One of the officers who got through was one who complained all the way to Oldenburg about how much he had done for the war effort, about the army system that gave those serving overseas a certain number of points, with the highest scoring individuals getting home first. Over and over the officer noted that he had acquired 52 points.

"How many have you got?" he asked Ashfield.

"I said, '228, sir!', so he never said anything again." Instead, despite a beautiful, sunny day, the grumbler clutched the structure of the Auster as if Ashfield would try to throw him out. "I was pretty happy to get rid of him," Ashfield confided.

He also carried a senior woman officer -- or tried to. The first day, the weather was bad. Ditto the second.

Talking over the situation on the third day, Ashfield admitted, "I know I can get there: I just don't want you to get hurt." The female officer was willing to take her chances, and they were off -- in the little Auster, which Ashfield (a trifle sarcastically) remembers as being "well equipped " for bad- weather flying, having a compass, turn-and bank indicator and a "rickety" altimeter, and nothing else.

They got into a spin, got out of it, and then, "right in front of me, the clouds broke and there was a forested mountain".

One steep turn got them out of that -- but it had been a close call by anybody's standards.

"The old girl didn't say anything," he recalled.

"She just took out a package of Life Savers and said, "Would you like one?"

Ashfield seems to have made a good impression. Not so long after, he was tracked down by a female captain who was overseeing the repatriation of Canadian servicewomen and needed to travel.

Ashfield, who was not on flying duty that day, demurred. "I'm not supposed to fly. You can check."

"I did -- and I have the authority," she replied. "We're going."

"When?"

"Right now. Here and there and there," she said, laying

out a lengthy trip on a map.

Ashfield figured it would take them about two weeks to cover it.

"I don't even have a change of underwear," he protested.

"It's all been arranged."

"Why me?"

"Because I've had you recommended to me."

___

The German equivalent of the Auster was the Fiesler Storch ("Stork") which "looked like a grasshopper, but despite its looks did a real job for the Germans". It had a 240- horsepower engine, compared with the 130-hp engines in the various Austers. A Storch by was used by German commando officer Otto Skorzeny on one of the most daring operations of the war: landing it on a tiny mountainside field to ferry out deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had held captive by Italian partisans.

Mussolini's rescue gave credibility to the puppet state set up by Germany in northern Italy after the remainder of that country surrendered to the Allies in 1943. "Maybe," said Ashfield mischievously, "if the war had lasted much more, we would have been called on to do the same. But maybe it was just as well!"

___

Cliff Ashfield left the regular army after the war, but remained active in the militia, or reserve army. After working in journalism and public relations, he changed careers and trained as a chiropractor. Living in Whitewood, east of Regina, he was honorary colonel of the 10th Field Regiment, the militia artillery regiment headquartered in Regina. He died in 2002 -- a thoroughly great guy with fine sense of humour and of history.

 -By Will Chabun, CAHS Regina chapter

FOR FURTHER READING: After the Second World War, an AOP unit was formed at Rivers, Man.

Co-located there under the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre was the RCAF's 417 Squadron, which had a mix of Harvards and Mustang fighters. Photos of these aircraft appear in Kostenuk and Griffin's book, RCAF Squadrons and Aircraft.

During the Korean War, one of AOP Flight's pilots, Capt. P.J.A. Tees won the first Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to a Canadian Army officer since the First World War for operations while serving with the Commonwealth Division's AOP Flight. An aircraft painted to resemble his Auster 6, s/n VF582, now resides in the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa. This aircraft was the subject of three-view drawings and an article in the November and December 1969 issues of Random Thoughts, the magazine of CAHS's sister organization, the Canadian branch of the International Plastic Modellers Society. This drawing indicated the Korean War Auster was dark green over dark earth.

CAHS members who subscribe to the society's Journal will remember that the Spring 1994 issue carried an article on the army's three wartime AOP squadrons, illustrated by a color drawing of one of their Austers.

Discussing it, Ashfield noted that the green/dark earth colors seemed correct, if much brighter and well-defined that appeared on the aircraft he flew.

417 Squadron was disbanded in 1948.

The RCAF got out of the tactical fighter business completely until the late 1960s, when the first of 115 Canadair-built CF-5s entered service. Around 1956, the army replaced its Austers with 24 Cessna L- 109 lightplanes that it used until the early 1970s, when they were replaced by CH-136 Kiowa helicopters. For those wanting still more history, he noted the existence of a museum of army aviation at Middle Wallop on Britain's Salisbury Plain, which he visited last year -- coming face-to face with a picture of himself taken some 50 years ago. 

     -By Will Chabun

 

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