Bob Ferguson -- nightfighter pilot

In the inky blackness above England's east coast, two blacked-out aircraft played a deadly game of tag.

It was the night of September 6, 1942 and the game involved a Luftwaffe Ju-88 bomber and a pursuing Bristol Beaufighter of the Royal Canadian Air Force's new 410 "Cougar" Squadron.

When pilot Bob Ferguson squeezed the trigger that night, he fired the first shots in the history of 410 Squadron, a unit that would end the war with a particularly notable record.

It was on this night that Ferguson found himself on a ground-controlled intercept (GCI) exercise with observer P/O Don Creed. A target had entered their area at the mouth of the River Tees. Guided by vectors from the ground radar, Ferguson and Creed came within airborne intercept (AI) range. When visual contact, against a clear patch of night sky, was obtained of the Ju-88, Ferguson closed to about 150 yards astern. He fired two bursts from his four big cannon and six Browning machine guns.

Vivid explosions of several cannon strikes were seen on the mainplane and fuselage. The Ju-88 then made a tight turn and dived out to sea, where contact was lost.

At long last, after more than a year of watching and waiting, the Cougars had opened their scorebook with a damaged Ju-88 claimed by Ferguson.

Ferguson reports that RAF radio operators later told him their Luftwaffe counterparts repeatedly called for the aircraft throughout the night and got no reply, suggesting that it had in fact been destroyed.

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Raised in southern Saskatchewan, Ferguson studied agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan and had begun farming near Edgeley when the Second World War broke out.

The nephew of a First World War member of the Royal Flying Corps, he followed many other young men from this area into the RCAF in the fall of 1940. He went through Manning Depot in Toronto, before being posted to the ITS at the Eglinton Hunt Club in Toronto. He then headed, in the late winter of 1940-41 to 2 EFTS at Fort William (what is now Thunder Bay).

There, flying training was held up while the snow from the roller-packed runways of winter, thawed and the ground dried sufficiently for the school's Tiger Moths to be used.

Ferguson remembered once being out practising solo aerobatics when he observed a localized thunderstorm near the base. He decided he should stay in the practice area until the storm passed and then return home. Upon his approach to base, he found that the wind had changed direction and that everyone else had already returned, presumably before the storm.

He executed a perfect landing and taxied toward the hangar line -- only to be met by his instructor, who advised him to take his parachute quickly to the locker room and disappear. Apparently, the chief flying instructor was on the lookout for Ferguson, hoping that he would make a mistake on landing and threatening to tear a strip off him for staying airborne during the storm.

After logging 82.5 hours dual and solo time there, he advanced to 10 SFTS at Dauphin in June 1941, this time being put in charge of sixteen happy, fun-loving New Zealanders who nearly drove him crazy.

 His charges would walk down the street backwards and out of step. At the first sign of an officer Ferguson would look back at them and find everything was perfect. When the officer disappeared, they would be back to their old tricks again.

Ferguson was asked to remain as an instructor (but declined the offer as he wanted to go overseas.) When his posting came through, he found himself heading to Britain on a New Zealand ship named the Akaroa with thirty-five other Canadians and thirty-five New Zealanders. The ship was transporting mutton, among other things, but the passengers continually dined on roast beef.

Ferguson passed the time on the Akaroa playing pontoon and quickly learned the intricacies of making change with British money: pounds, shillings and pence. After losing his limit of £2, he stopped gambling.

The convoy took seventeen days to reach Belfast, and during a violent two-day storm crockery could be heard breaking in the galley from the deck.

From Belfast, the Canadians made their way to Boumemouth, from which Ferguson (promoted to pilot officer in September 1941) was posted to 60 OTU at East Fortune, near Edinburgh.

There, in December 1941, he began flying the Boulton-Paul Defiant, one of the most unusual single-engine fighters of the Second World War in that it had a four-gun turret behind the pilot, but no guns firing forward. His roommate was a young RAF officer named John Aiken, who went on to become an air chief marshal.

Of the much-maligned Defiant, Ferguson remembers that it was slowed down by the drag and weight of its heavy gun turret, and could only obtain any speed by diving! More significant was the lack of radar in the Defiant. That meant a pilot needed to get a visual contact on an intruder.

"The only place where that worked was down in London, where in the light of large areas of fire you could see the aircraft flying over. You had to be within about 400 feet to get a visual. You knew what the chances of getting up there and getting close in on them were."

To complicate things, the Defiant’s lack of forward-firing guns meant it had to get below or beside an enemy aircraft because the gunner had to fire upward or horizontally.

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His next posting was to No. 96 (Australian) Squadron at Wrexham. On March 2, 1942, after going solo in a Blenheim, he found himself with 410 Squadron, a new Canadian unit, at Drem in Scotland. Here he met his navigator, Don Creed, who unfortunately died on Feb 25 this year. "He was a great guy: brought me home every time and he kept me alive," eulogized Ferguson.

The Blenheim experience was just a prelude to the Beaufighter, which 410 was flying.

Ferguson's familiarization flight in a Beaufighter was conducted by W /C Peter Townsend, a decorated Battle of Britain pi1ot, who taught him to land the heavy, powerful aircraft fast and hot. "It slowed down pretty quickly when you closed the throttle and it was great for going into a spin if it could," recalled Ferguson.

He once got into a spin while stalling a Beaufighter with flaps and gear down. He got out of it by simply letting go of the control column. After that experience, he thought it prudent to use flaps and gear only when landing.

Ferguson received some quick promotions (to flying officer in October 1942, flight lieutenant three months later and eventually squadron leader in January 1944) while living with his colleagues in a large country house beside a golf course. Maintenance at 410 was excellent and the squadron operated consistently at 65% of its established strength.

Of the doughty Beaufighter, Ferguson notes one version was powered by two 1,750-hp Bristol Hercules radials. When the Luftwaffe bombed the Bristol factory and the supply of Hercules engines was slowed down, the Ministry of Aircraft Production put 1,200-hp Merlins in the Beaufighter. The difference in power speaks for itself.

Most of the Hercules-powered Beaufighters went to squadrons in southern England, and the Merlin-engined substitutes, which Ferguson flew in the north, "were not that good".

In October 1942, the squadron began converting to de Havilland Mosquitoes at RAF Acklington, north of Newcastle. The improvement in performance was dramatic. Ferguson puts the top speed of the Beaufighter at 280-290 mph compared with 350 for the early Mosquitoes and 405 mph for later versions of the Mosquito -- and even better speeds with the PR (photo-reconnaissance) version. The latter aircraft were stripped down to the bare essentials: no armament and only essential radio equipment.

The Mark IV radar on Beaufighters and early Mosquitoes could be distinguished by a nose that bulged out about three feet plus one small aerial shaped like an arrowhead. Intruder Mosquitoes received radar only when the improved Mark VIII radar sets entered service,

while the Mark X Mosquitoes carried the most advanced American-made radar then available. The Mark XXX Mosquitoes could fly along at well over 400 mph.

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1943 yielded one of the most famous pictures of the Second World War: a 410 Squadron Mosquito with most of its control surfaces and markings burned away. Pilot Martin Cybulski had been on the tail of a tightly turning Do 217. He managed to turn inside of the enemy aircraft and, as it came in front of him. he opened fire.

The Dornier blew up and much of its flames came back toward Cybulski's Mosquito. There were sixteen- to eighteen-inch diameter blisters, each sticking out two inches, along the aircraft. The canvas covering the framework (on the control surfaces) burned off. Burning and with only one engine still working (and having trouble with rudder control), Cybulski was told by RAF fighter controllers to land near the coast. But Cybulski thought that if he did that, then he would never get the Mosquito back to home base. So he and his navigator, Ladbrook, took turns on the rudder pedals as they steered the aircraft the 180 miles back home. "He came , in and made a beautiful landing -- Cy was really a natural pilot," reported Ferguson.

Of considerable talent, too, was the squadron CO, Wing Commander Frank Hillock. With his navigator, Paddy O’Neil-Dunne, he was once racing across occupied Europe when they encountered an array of 700-foot radio towers. "They just turned their aircraft on its side and flew right between the towers," Ferguson said, gesturing at a slide of the aircraft. "You can see all this copper cable. There was about 300 feet of half-inch and assorted lengths of quarter-inch [wire]. I’ll bet that was one radio that didn't work after that!"

Upon landing, the copper cable was removed and promptly sold to a scrap dealer -- and the proceeds used to fund a celebration party!

One night in July 1942, yet another crew, Jack Devlin and navigator Jim Tennant, were at about two or three thousand feet when their Beaufighter's engines stopped because the carburetors had frozen. Gliding to a dark crash landing in Scotland, they wiped out "a cow or two" and a number of trees before stopping.

They quickly left the aircraft, but hadn't gone 100 yards before the aircraft blew up. Devlin decided that day fighters would be much safer and promptly applied for a transfer.

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A typical day saw crews sleeping till noon or 12:30 because of their night work. If German aircraft were coming over, then they'd be in the area by 8 or 9 p.m. Patrols would stay airborne until about 2 a.m. If the raiders did not show up, RAF nightfighters would train by following each other.

One evening in December, 1943, Ferguson accompanied his CO to an RAF radar station, where they watched colleague R.D. "Joe" Schultz shoot down three Do 217's in a row.

"The group captain giving the tour was an old guy (why he must have been 40!); he was just jumping up and down with excitement," Ferguson said. Schultz not only survived the war, but went on to head the RCAF's postwar directorate of flight safety.

410 also dabbled in "rangers" or night intruder operations. Ferguson recalls one in which he and his navigator planned to make landfall over the Dutch coastline, then work their way north along the coastal islands.

Unexpected winds blew them south over a highly defended port. "That was quite an education," he said dryly. "When you see it (flak) drifting up towards you, you see it slightly differently." That underlined the need for better weather reports and inspired Ferguson to develop a technique of flying over the control tower, then heading at a constant airspeed to a predetermined town on the coast. By timing it, they would gain an idea of the wind. With practice, "we might be 400 or 500 yards off where we would like to be."

Another navigational aid was code-named "Gee". It was an electronic system that used a triangulation from three radio beacons in England to pinpoint the aircraft's position. "That was good within maybe ten miles," he says. "but it was accurate enough."

While intruding, Ferguson liked to fly at between 1,000 and 3,000 feet, which he judged to be the best height for map reading. By day, he flew just below any cloud so he could enter it upon sighting an enemy fighter.

 At night, the plan was to start attacks on enemy airfields before the RAF bomber stream arrived. In that way, Mosquitoes would try to catch Luftwaffe night fighters taking off. The aircraft also carried bombs that they would drop on the enemy runways.

Then someone else. from another RAF intruder squadron would follow them up and continue to work over the German bases, sometimes for five hours at a time.

Oddly. the Luftwaffe never tried to intercept the intruders.

In addition to his one Ju 88 damaged in 1942, Ferguson also destroyed some locomotive engines. Ferguson says, "We used to carry armour piercing (rounds) that would go right through the steam jacket. It really slowed the trains down."

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While with 410 Squadron, Ferguson was dispatched to the RAF's Central Flying School branch at Sutton Bridge (Pilot Gunnery Instruction Training Wing) for a gunnery course (#29). There he met the redoubtable George "Buzz" Beurling, the renegade Canadian pilot from Verdun, Quebec, who had risen to fame in Malta. "He got the highest average score in air-to-drogue firing that the school had ever had. He was a superb pilot: never drank or smoked. I thought that he was quite amazing."

Ferguson adds that the colourful Beurling "could see and count 25 aircraft five minutes before the rest of his group could see them."

 He remembers one incident when Beurling taxied to the end of the grass airfield, got about two feet into the air and roared toward some pilots lounging in deckchairs. "He flew the whole length of the runway at these guys. After they rolled out of their chairs, George pulled up and waved to them. It required almost-perfect control and he had it."

Senior officers wanted to make Beurling an officer and put him behind a desk. "All he wanted was to get back on another squadron and get back to the war," Ferguson remembers.

'They wanted to make another Billy Bishop out of him. They gave him authority he didn't want, and he was in trouble all the time."

Beurling "solved" this problem by failing to answer correctly the questions on a written exam. "He wanted to get back to a squadron -- and that's what he did."

It was during this time that Ferguson was on a flight when his engine stopped and he had to land in a farmer’s field. He hit his head on the gunsight, an injury that kept him from finishing the course. Ferguson was "recoursed" with RAF Wing Commander Frank Carey, who began his RAF career as a sergeant pilot. After shooting down 26 aircraft during the Battle of Britain, Carey went on to claim another 26 in Burma. However, on the way back from Burma to be with his ailing wife, Carey's ship was torpedoed and his records were lost. "With his records gone, Carey was unable to get any recognition of the other 26. I always felt that was a pretty raw deal," sympathized Ferguson. Carey was awarded a DFC and bar, and a DFM.

Carey proved his competence by getting the highest ground school marks in the history of the school, and by his computer-like analysis of precisely where and who was in the landing circuit. Ferguson recalls, "I guess that was the kind of eyesight you had to have to survive in Burma."

  At one point, Ferguson had the great pleasure of introducing Carey to Beurling.

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It was at RAF Castle Camp in early 1944 that Ferguson completed his requisite forty-four operational sorties. He left 410 Squadron on January 10 and was posted to 54 OTU at RAF Windfield, where he was to teach aerial gunnery. In May 1944, he was posted to the Central Flying School to help set up a twin-engined air fighting course. This would end the necessity for pilots of twin-engined aircraft to convert to single-engined aircraft before taking the aerial gunnery course, and then go back to their original aircraft. The course involved air-to-drogue, cine camera and air-to-ground firing.

Innovation was the order of the day. After many soakings on the soggy roadway leading to Ferguson's office (a small shack on a bog) some Italian prisoners of war were brought in to dig trenches that were filled with crushed rock to improve drainage. Another innovation was at the coastal firing range, where the outline of a ship, made from painted rocks, was used for air-to-ground rocket-firing practice. Ferguson continued his work on the rewriting of the manual on twin-engined gunnery procedures

The Mosquito remains his favorite aircraft -- especially the Mark III version with the "split-stick" control. one radio, no guns and a wonderful aerobatic capability. Other versions -- loaded down with guns, ammunition, two radios and other equipment -- "became quite sluggish, but when it was stripped down. it was just beautiful -- it was so light and easy to fly."

He also speaks well of a Spitfire Mark I with a single .303 machine gun in each wing: this aircraft he encountered on the aerial gunnery course. "It was a beautiful aircraft for rolls: it just rolled so easily and so beautifully ."

 But even the best have their bad days. Ferguson recalled taking out an aircraft and finding during the run-up that one set of mags dropped more than the regulation 150 rpm. After having it repaired, he noted the drop was now only 125 rpm. Not wishing to cause further trouble or delay, he proceeded to take off -- only to have the engine cut out.

 Quickly, he throttled back the other engine and rolled off the runway. As he coasted into the grass, he saw the CO's car racing up and concluded that he was in trouble. Quite the contrary: the unit had lost another Beaufighter on take off in exactly the same fashion only a few days before and the CO was "so happy that he didn't lose two aircraft in one week." The previous incident had occurred in much the same way except the pilot had decided to continue his takeoff -- only to have the aircraft stall and drop back to earth, where the wings broke off.

It was shortly after that incident that Ferguson headed home to Canada. Mentioned in Dispatches on Jan 1. 1945 he made his last f1ight on August 5, 1944 in a Beaufighter Mk X. He had accumulated 735 hrs in his logbook. He arrived at New York harbour on Sept 15, 1944, having shared an ocean liner with thousands of German prisoners of war.

His exploits since the Second World War have made him a familiar face in the life of southern Saskatchewan. He has served on many boards and councils and the governing bodies of Saskatchewan's two universities. His many awards include an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Regina and the Order of Canada.

Living too near Regina to make it practical to fly his own airplane, he did not maintain his pilot's rating. However, Ferguson has maintained a keen interest in 410 Squadron, which currently operates out of 4 Wing at Cold Lake as the operational training squadron for Canada's CF-18 fleet.

Note: A 410 Squadron historical booklet, prepared after the Second World War by the RCAF's Air Historian, sheds some interesting light on the RCAF's venerable "Cougar" Squadron.

 Its history can be divided into five periods.

1. A long sojourn in the Scottish Lowlands and northern England from June 1941 to February 1943.

In that twenty-month period, it could only claim one enemy aircraft destroyed and one damaged (Ferguson's Ju 88)

2. 410 moved south to a station in Lincolnshire, from which it did usual defensive duties and from March-October 1943, a period of offensive operations (intruder) into enemy-held territory to attack ground and air traffic.

3. From November 1943 until May 1944 it was again on the defensive as part of the Air Defence of Great Britain, the short lived successor to Fighter Command. This was the period of the "little blitz" and the Cougars came to grips with the enemy, destroying fourteen raiders and reporting five probables or damaged aircraft.

4. From June-August 1944, 410 patrolled over the Normandy beach-head, destroying thirty-one enemy aircraft and another three probables.

5. After that, 410 moved to France. In the eight remaining months of the war, it added another 25 kills and one "damaged" to its record.

410 Squadron's war-time code letters were "RA". The squadron was the top-scoring nightfighter unit in the RAF's 2nd Tactical Air Force with 78.75 enemy aircraft destroyed, two probables and eight damaged.

Of these 85 claims, 60 were made in the eleven month period from June 1944 until the end of April, 1945.

After the war, 410 was reformed as a fighter squadron, flying Vampires out of St. Hubert, then Sabres in the RCAF's European-based Air Division before returning to Canada and a lengthy Air Defence Command stint on CF-100 Canuck and CF-101 Voodoo aircraft.

Describing the markings of 410's wartime aircraft, Ferguson says both the Defiant and Beaufighters were delivered in a matte black finish and remained that way. Photos of 410 Squadron Beaufighters are rare, doubtless because they served the squadron for such a short time (April-November 1942). It was found that green/ grey camouflage was more effective than the matte black, even at night, so the Mosquitoes were delivered in that scheme.

- article prepared by Will Chabun and Geoff Hillier of the Regina chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

 

 

 

 

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