-- and more
Jack Ambler looks back
Jack Ambler was born in England in 1922 and worked in Coventry during the bombing blitz, after which he joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot trainee. He trained at, among other places in Britain, the famous Marshall’s flying school at Cambridge, soloing on Tiger Moths. Selected for further training, he arrived in Canada in April 1943, and eventually went to 31 EFTS at De Winton, Alberta, which also used Tiger Moths, "the best aircraft" that he ever flew." Incidentally, he admitted to getting lost in Moths two or three times, solving that problem by landing and checking his location. "You didn’t get into trouble for landing, you’d get into trouble for not waiting there for an instructor to come and tell you your way home."
He logged another six or seven hours there before the Moths were replaced by Cornell monoplanes. After about eight weeks there, he was posted to 32 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Moose Jaw for 12 weeks on Oxfords. "We did all of things ... circuits and bumps and those bombing runs over the camera obscura; you just flew over it and when you got to base, they’d tell you how you scored." He recalled being over one with a sergeant instructor with a reputation as a "hothead" who yelled at students in the air. Ambler once responded by punching him in the shoulder and roaring, "Shut up and let me do it!" This grinch not only shut up, but "he never reported what I’d said."
He added, "The Oxford ... I had good experiences on it. They were very easy to fly on instruments... they were very easy to keep steady on instrument flying.’ Also, "in the 12 weeks that I was there, there were 20 flying accidents and 19 airmen were killed; that included both instructors and students."
The parallel runways at Moose Jaw were a big problem with aircraft apparently assigned to land and take off from both without any order. "This was the big problem that we had there: they never did, in the time I was there, establish one runway for landings and one runway for takeoffs, as I would have thought they would have done."
He graduated as a sergeant pilot from 32 SFTS. An odd historical note: the airmen spent plenty of time at Moose Jaw’s famed Temple Gardens ("that’s where most of us met our girlfriends") and when he graduated in October 1943, it was very difficult to find that necessity of military life called "beer". An extensive campaign of scrounging was undertaken by the students from local bars and "we finished up with enough for a fairly good party."
He did operational training on Dakotas ("a little slow, but rugged") and flew with the 1st Allied Airborne Army. Jack served in the European Theater until VE Day, and then served in India, Burma, Malaysia, Siam and French Indo-China, as those countries were then known. He married a Moose Jaw girl and immigrated to Canada in 1949.
In September 1993, he was given a Life Membership Award by the Royal Canadian Air Force Association after 42 years service, culminating with membership on its national executive council. He was commanding officer of No. 40 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Cadets, in Moose Jaw in the early 1960s and was executive director of the United Way of Regina from 1967 to his retirement in 1988. Jack received the Canada 125 Medal in 1992 and the Governor General's "Caring Canadian" Award in 1996 for his volunteer work with the Air Force Association of Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. He has done volunteer work with First Nations in Canada and overseas in Bolivia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. He has three children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Jack's own words:
My life has been a very ordinary sort of existence; even in the air force it did not occur to me that my service was any different from the thousands of others who served during the war. I did have one good piece of luck during my teen years: as an air cadet, I was selected to participate in one of the first air cadet gliding courses in the summer of 1938. It was this course that convinced the recruiting officer that, if I was given the opportunity, I might make the grade as a pilot. As any wartime serviceman knows, aircrew were the "Brylcream boys" who went to bed every night between clean white sheets; I sure wanted that ... in preference to slugging it out in the front line. Besides, the pay was better. I believe it was one and threepence a day, instead of the standard shilling a day.
On looking back through my logbook to try to find something that might be of interest, I came across the entries that were made in September 1944 in reference to Arnhem, the town made famous in the movie "A Bridge Too Far". The "lights went on" and I remembered having some material pertinent to that event and so, after putting some of it together, like it or not, I have it here for you tonight.
In the late summer of 1944, the war on the ground had come to a halt more-or-less at the Siegfried Line and the border between Belgium and Holland. The high command of the Allied forces were looking for a way to shorten the war and move around the German defences onto the northern plains of Germany.
A general advance was out of the question. The Allied ground forces had covered almost 200 miles in two weeks and had outrun their supplies. We in RAF Transport Command had been ferrying from England fuel in five-gallon jerry cans and spare parts for the tanks all through the month of August.
A narrow thrust up through Holland to cut the German supply line and allow time for the port of Antwerp to be cleared for supplies to be brought in by ship appeared to be the logical choice.
Available in England was an "airborne army" comprising two American and one British airborne divisions, a Polish parachute brigade and an infantry division capable of being airlifted. All of these were fresh troops and ready for action. The only limitation was that the operation would have to be within range of the transport aircraft based in England. There was only one part of occupied Europe that those aircraft could reach from their existing bases -- and that was Holland.
Holland is divided by rivers and canals all more-or-less crossing from the eastern border with Germany to the sea coast on the west. The key to a successful operation was the capture of the bridges across these rivers and canals before they could be destroyed.
The 4th Parachute Brigade, with the Polish Brigade attached, was to land ahead of the advancing ground forces and seize the nearest bridge over the Maas near Grave; the glider-borne 1st Air Landing Brigade, the Poles' Divisional Headquarters. were to land in the centre, around Nijmegen, and capture the bridges over the Waal, and the IVth Parachute Brigade was to drop in the north near Arnhem and capture the crossings over the Rhine. This plan was named "Comet" and was to have taken place beginning on September 8. Circumstances caused it to be postponed for 48 hours and then, at the last minute, it was cancelled. It was not dead.,however. It was about to be transformed into a much larger venture with important changes. The original force was supplemented by the two American airborne divisions. So "Comet" became "Market Garden" and Sunday, September 17th, would be the start date.
The American divisions were given the task of capturing the major bridges over the rivers Maas and Waal at Graves and Nijmegen, as well as a series of smaller bridges over a canal between the two rivers. The 1st British Airborne Division, with the Polish Brigade attached, was to capture the main road bridge, a railway bridge and a pontoon bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem. It was obvious that the British would have to hold out the longest before being relieved by the ground forces.
A total of 33,971 men would go into action by air: 20,190 by parachute, 13,781 by glider -- together with 5,230 tons of equipment, 1,927 vehicles and 568 guns.
If the whole operation was successful, it was hoped that the British at Arnhem could be reached in three days or less and that a further advance would cut Holland in two by reaching the northeast coast at ljsselmeer (better known as the Zyder Zee) on the fifth day.
The whole of the US 101st Division was to be taken in one lift, the US 82nd in two lifts, but because of the allocation of aircraft, the British and Poles would require three lifts. The actual allocation of aircraft to divisions for the lift was:
-101st US, 502 aircraft;
- 82nd US 530 aircraft;
-1st British Airborne 475 aircraft.
But then, there was trouble. The powers that be decided that no more than one lift should be flown each day. This was a major disadvantage to the British and Poles as it meant that it would take three days to get them all in to their positions.
More trouble was on its way, General Urquhart, in charge of the British, found that the dropping and landing zones allocated to his division were too far distant, almost four and a half miles, from the Arnhem road bridge. In the end, this proved to be the undoing of the Arnhem portion of the operation.
At the time, I was a co-pilot on a Dakota crew stationed at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire with No. 48 Squadron, RAF. We were a part of the 1st Allied Airborne Army that had been formed only six weeks before. Based on the same airfield were the crews and aircraft of No. 271 Squadron and a few miles down the road was Blakehill Farm, the base for No. 437 Squadron, RCAF and No. 233 Squadron, RAF, all flying Dakotas (or DC-3s) Mark III versions with Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines. Each capable of carrying 28 fully equipped paratroops or 5,000 lbs of freight or towing one fully loaded Horsa glider.
(Just as an aside, I have made one flight in a Horsa and never wanted to do it again. The angle of approach is so steep it scared the living daylights out of me!)
We were called in for briefing early on the morning of September 17th. In addition to the operational briefing, we were given instructions on the use of the long-range fuel tanks that had been installed in the fuselage. They looked just like nicely painted 40-gallon oil drums, one on each side of the cabin behind the bulkhead, each one set on two wooden chocks.
These tanks were necessary as we would be towing a fully loaded Horsa glider for almost 300 miles. Prior to that operation, we had never seen these tanks -- and following the operation we never saw them again.
The gliders and aircraft had been marshaled at the south end of runway number 4, which had a heading of 030 degrees. They were two abreast along the runway and the aircraft were on each side of the runway on the steel matting facing the glider they were to tow at 45 degrees. This was the longest runway, 2,000 yards, with only one obstruction, a farm, just off to the east of the north end. With a fully loaded Horsa glider in tow, we would need all the runway we could get, and the climb away would be slow. As the first aircraft and glider began its run down the runway, the next aircraft would pull onto the runway in front of its glider and taxi forward to tighten the tow rope -- and then off it would go, with the next aircraft following the same procedure.
Take-off was scheduled for 09:55 and the first unit was airborne at 09:57 with others following at approximately 45-second intervals. Our crew, with F/O Bermuda Smith as captain, was the 22nd out of 23 to get airborne.
The plan was to turn west, gaining height to 1,500 feet, then turn and head for Hatfield, just north of London, where our squadron would rendezvous with all the glider tugs and proceed to Aldebourgh, code named "Antigua". Here, we were joined by the aircraft scheduled to drop paratroops. As we headed out over the North Sea, the sight of 469 aircraft with 320 gliders in tow, all traveling at an airspeed of some 120 miles per hour, was impressive. Low cloud over England had forced us to fly below 3,000 feet.
Everything had gone well up to now, but for our aircraft and glider, things began to change rapidly.
First, the starboard engine cut and I immediately called the glider crew over the intercom and asked them to hang on, as we would attempt to restore power to the failed engine.
We had gone through the single-engine procedure and activated the wobble pump when the port engine cut. Without any power and already down to 2,000 feet, the glider began to overtake us and lift our tail. They were forced to release and prepare to ditch. Meanwhile, we were frantically trying to restore power to the starboard engine and, at about 500 feet, we were successful. With one engine restored and the glider gone, we were able to maintain height while we worked on getting the port engine going. It was not long before full power was restored and we breathed a sigh of relief. Now we could concern ourselves with the condition of the glider crew.
They had made as good a landing on the water as it is possible with a glider loaded with six men, a jeep, a trailer and a small field gun. We located them and all six men were standing on the wings of the glider and it appeared to be in a good floating position. The morning briefing had informed us that air-sea rescue launches would be stationed at intervals along our route, so we took off to find one of them. It did not take long as one of them had seen the whole performance and was already on its way to pick up the glider crew. We circled around long enough to make sure they were all rescued and then returned to base.
A similar incident occurred to three other gliders. The problem was with the overflow fuselage tanks and the angle of attack of the aircraft when towing a glider. The fuel in these tanks flowed to the back while the feed pipes were at the front, thus causing airlocks in the feed lines. At least that was the explanation given to us later.
Meanwhile, the air armada had carried on with its mission and of the 320 gliders taking off from England, 283 arrived at their destination north of Heelsum and a little over four miles from the road bridge at Arnhem. Of the 2,283 parachutists, only four refused to jump and one was killed when his chute did not open -- a 99% success rate, better than most exercises held at their home bases. They dropped on Ginkel Heath, to the west of the glider landing zone.
All the aircraft in the Arnhem lift except one returned safely to base, and that one made an emergency landing so close to its base that the crew were able to walk in. The Americans' airlift to Eindhoven, Graves and Nijmegen did not fare so well: they lost 35 C-47s, mostly due to heavy anti-aircraft fire after leaving the dropping zone near Eindhoven.
On Monday, September 18th, the second airlift (in which I did not take part) was much the same as the first lift except that take-offs were delayed. They had been scheduled for 07:00 hrs, but due to an early morning fog the earliest lift-off was 11:00 hrs.
The extent of the delay was not communicated to the ground forces already in Holland because wireless contact had not been established.
Landing Zones S and X were used again for the glider landings. Landing Zone Z was not used and Landing Zone L was used for a supply drop by 31 Stirling aircraft. Dropping Zone Y on Ginkel Heath was used for the parachute landings.
86 tons of supplies were dropped by the Stirlings, but only 12 tons were gathered in by the ground troops as the area was under fire from the Germans. A despatch was sent off to England asking that future supply drops be made closer to the Hartenstein Hotel at Oosterbeek.
The battle on the ground was not going at all well. It is not known exactly how many men reached the road bridge in Arnhem. The estimated number is 800, with about 400 surviving, 280 of whom were injured. All of these were eventually taken prisoner.
These troops had established a perimeter of defence that extended no more than 300 yards in any direction from the ramp approach to the north end of the bridge.
The 10th SS Panzer Division whose zone of operations included the bridge were ordered to re-open the bridge and their commander attempted to get the airborne men under Col. John Frost to surrender. This move was unsuccessful.
On Tuesday, the day of the third lift. the Germans set up a defensive line one-half mile west of the bridge. This defensive line was never penetrated by any sizeable airborne force trying to reach the beleaguered troops at the bridge.
Due to bad weather in eastern England, where the planes and gliders carrying the Polish brigade, were to take-off, the third lift was cancelled.
The burden of re-supplying the troops on the ground at Arnhem fell on the six Stirling squadrons of No. 38 Group and six Dakota squadrons of No. 46 Group. These supplies were carried in metal containers in the Stirling bomb bays or in large paniers (like laundry baskets) in the Dakotas. Royal Army Service Corps despatchers were assigned to the Dakotas, four to an aircraft, to push the paniers out of the open doors over the dropping zones. A Stirling could carry 2.64 tons of supplies and a Dakota 1.97 tons excluding the weight of the containers. The aircraft allocated to the next few days could thus carry 390 tons of supplies, equivalent to 130 of the standard three-ton Bedford trucks rolling into the area each day -- if all the aircraft arrived and if all the supplies fell in the correct place.
I was privileged to be a member of a crew assigned to this duty on both the Tuesday and Wednesday.
After a brief delay, we took oft on Tuesday in the afternoon and followed a route from Down Ampney to Marston - Ostend - Ghent, then up the corridor followed by the ground forces. We had been instructed to fly at 1,500 feet in the corridor and we had fighter cover so no German fighters appeared.
On approaching the river near Oosterbeek, we dropped down to 900 feet, the recommended height for dropping the paniers. We were looking for the dropping zone, a clearing in the woods measuring a little more than half a mile square, when the Germans opened up with a veritable hail of anti-aircraft fire. They had brought in a brigade of five flak batteries
from the Ruhr specifically to engage the supply aircraft that they knew must inevitably arrive.
The 16 paniers had been loaded in the aircraft onto parallel lines of rollers with fold-down curved pieces near the door. The despatchers had the port-side rails in position for the first run over the dropping zone and then, if all had gone well, positioned the starboard rail for the second run. More often than not, it required three or four runs over the target to get all the paniers out. We were flying an aircraft with the tail number FZ671 and, on our first pass, our starboard engine cut out and we finished the drop on one engine, unaware of what caused the engine failure as we had not felt any hits. We were able to gain height and returned on one engine to base, where we found what appeared to be small arms fire had cut through the ignition wires.
A message that this dropping zone was not in British hands had not reached England and we had been instructed to ignore all signals from the ground. Down went the supplies -- all into German hands. We also lost four Dakotas that day. One of them piloted by Brock Christie, a friend of mine from Lethbridge, who evaded capture and returned to England.
On Wednesday, we were allocated another aircraft to participate in the operation for the second day. The location of the new dropping point requested by the 1st Airborne had reached England: a road junction 200 yards west of the Hartenstein Hotel, which by now was the brigade headquarters for a much-reduced defense perimeter.
We flew the same route out and ran into the same flak, plus heavy machine gun fire. Behind the Hartenstein was a group of four tennis courts and our crew decided these would be the aiming point. If any paniers overshot the mark, they would still be close to the road junction. We made four passes over the dropping zone and survived without any damage from flak. All of the aircraft from 48 Squadron returned safely.
I did not participate in any further flights to Arnhem, but the squadron lost five aircraft on the Thursday airlift. On the Friday airlift, the crews ran into Fw-190 fighters beside the usual flak and 48 squadron lost an additional five aircraft.
The men on the ground were in a desperate position, so additional supply flights were made from Brussels on Sunday and Monday.
On Monday, September 25th, preparations were made to withdraw the perimeter troops into the grounds of the Hartenstein and, from there, down to the river for a crossing assisted by the Polish brigade manning boats. The Poles had previously parachuted into Driel on the south side of the Rhine.
The evacuation across the river began at 22:00 hrs and was completed by dawn. The official tally of men who made it safely across the river is 2,398.
It was not until May of 1945 that the area of Holland north of the Rhine River was recaptured and the Canadian 1st Army was at that time heavily involved. The week of September 17th is celebrated every year in Arnhem, while the rest of Holland celebrates in the week of May 5th.
One further note: Dakota FZ671 was transferred after the war to the RCAF and returned to Canada. It was retired about 10 years ago and is now at the museum in Comox, BC.
Thank you for your willingness to listen to this description of these events . For me they were a real part of the war and I get quite emotional when I think back on the horror of the situation for those men on the ground.