Mossbank's wartime No. 2 Bombing & Gunnery School

Arni Olafson rolled up the note and packed it into the only thing he could find: a box of mints, then heaved it through a window in the Anson trainer he was flying.

Within mere minutes, it had been picked up by his sister on the family's farm near Morden in southern Manitoba.

"Pretty good bomb-aiming, wasn't it?!" Arni joked to members of the Roland Groome Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society at their September 13, 2001 meeting.

How Arni came to be in that trainer makes for an interesting story.

Arni was born and raised on the family's farm near Morden, about 100 km southwest of Winnipeg.

He saw his first airplane in 1929, under strange circumstances.

Morden was mere miles from the American border. His parents awakened Arni, then six years of age, and his siblings around 5 a.m. There soon arrived a biplane that landed in their pasture, "wheeled up to the granary", and soon took off again. Arni isn't quite sure what was happening, but he recalls this was in the days when prohibition was in force in the U.S., but not in Canada.

Moreover, his parents told the children, "Don't tell anybody about this!" -- which children, being children, of course completely ignored.

Which might explains why the kids' walk home from school brought them in conversation with some men -- who Arni recalls as including U.S. border agents -- who asked if they knew anything about an airplane that had supposedly landed nearby.

"We said, 'No! We never saw no airplane!'" he chuckled.

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Life was by no means idyllic. The trials of the Great Depression were followed by an accidental gas explosion on the family's farm that killed Arni's parents and one sister and left him in hospital for four months with burns. He left the farm in 1939 or '40 with $15 in his pocket, heading for Winnipeg and, in August 1940, for Fort William, where he signed on at Canadian Car & Foundry's sprawling aircraft plant.

Working around the clock, CCF in those days produced Hawker Hurricane fighters, about three or four of them each day; Arni was assigned to the "P and D" department, helping with their preparation and departure. Some were crated and shipped overseas, while a smaller number was assembled and flown away for RCAF Home War Establishment units in Canada.

He recalls Fort William and adjacent Port Arthur as being "a crowded and busy place", full of people and with a shortage of accommodation. The CCF factory was in the southwest part of Fort William; he lived in Port Arthur, forcing a long streetcar trip twice a day.

In time, Arni asked his supervisor if he could get time off in order to see if the RCAF would accept him, but was told that, "this is just as important." But nobody controlled what he did with his two weeks of holidays, which he used to enlist in the RCAF in Winnipeg. His reasons for joining up were many: the adventure, leaving behind the sympathy that accompanied his 1936 burns, but also "probably a little bit of patriotism". As he puts it, "as time went on, everybody was joining up!"

He arrived at No. 2 Manning Depot at Brandon in Jan. 5, 1943 (no alarm clocks were needed -- heat in the cattle barn, containing 700 young airmen, was regularly turned off at night and returned early the next morning with gunfire-like cracking of the pipes. ) "Pretty crude," Arni remembered. "Anyway, the food was good." (Like all airmen, he had the ritual haircut and, as per tradition, signed his name in a book provided by the barber. A few years ago, he went to the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum and searched for his signature. No luck. Back he went a second time, this time getting help from a computerized database of airmen’s signatures -- and "Sure enough, there was my name, just about 60 years ago!" I was kinda thrilled to see it again."/)

He went to 2 Wireless School in Calgary six weeks later. From there, he went to 7 Initial Training School in Saskatoon, where aircrew were selected. He remembers going in a decompression chamber that took wannabee airmen to 10,000, then 20,000 and finally 30,000 simulated feet (writing their names at each stage in order to gain an appreciation of the impact of anoxia), plus medical check-ups, physical education, rifle practice and, finally, presentation to a board of four officers who decided their next destination.

Arni's next stop (in May 1943) was No. 23 EFTS at Davidson, where he flew Cornells. "My first instructor, all he did was sit there and yell at us," he remembers with a wince. This instructor was removed and Arni graduated in July, heading to 17 SFTS at Souris, Manitoba, only a short way from the farm operated by his siblings. (It was a planned trip home to the farm, and the goal of informing his family, that inspired the "mint bombing" mentioned earlier.)

On another, supposedly his "first", trip to see the farm, Arni found it with such ease that his instructor "probably figured that I'd been there before -- though he didn't mention it."

His familiarity with the area paid off in another way: on a night so dark that even rivers could not be seen, he flew a navigation "trip" to the north of Souris and was headed back home. The Assiniboine River, the usual nav landmark, could not be seen, but Arni finally picked out Oak Lake, 20 miles west of the Souris, and successfully headed back to the station, landing safely. Another pilot flying somewhat behind him was less familiar with the area. He flew over the international border -- no interceptors in those days, thankfully -- and had to shut down one engine to conserve fuel before finding his way back.

Arni graduated, received his commission as a pilot officer and headed in October 1943 for a flying instructor course at Pearce, Alberta. He spent nine weeks there before being "washed out" and going to Mossbank in February 1944 as a staff pilot, flying the station's Anson and Bolingbroke aircraft. (Near as Arni can determine, the Fairey Battles initially used at the station were retired in 1942, when the first Bolingbrokes arrived. Thus, he never flew a Battle, but from what he heard on the inevitable pilot grapevine, "I think they had a lot of trouble with them; there were a lot of forced landings."

In all, 2 B&G had about 2,200 personnel, as he recalls. In the course of the entire war, 6,241 personnel graduated from it -- many Canadians, of course, but also a substantial number of Australians, Britons and New Zealanders. (Arni said later he understands this remarkable output was bettered only by the bombing and gunnery school at Jarvis, Ont., and then by only 100 or so students.)

Although the buildings of 2 B&G School have long since been torn down or moved, with 2 B&G's site south of Mossbank converted into a golf course, a commemorative plaque has been erected on the point when the station's borders came closest to Highway 2, which links Moose Jaw and Assiniboia. A Canadian flag is maintained there at all times. As well, the town's museum maintains a fine collection of photos, articles and artifacts from the base, including a magnificent colour mural of the station.

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Work on 2 Bombing & Gunnery School "officially" began in early 1940, though Arni said he once met a man who said he'd worked on the site in October 1939, before the project was officially authorized.

Because it was considered to be relatively remote, facilities at 2 B&G were excellent, in fact, and "one of the best" in the BCATP. Arni said it had a swimming pool, bowling alley, recreation hall, several canteens, theatre and a detachment of WDs (members of the RCAF Women's Division). "I couldn't tell you how many, but there was a whole lot of them."

The Ansons were used for the training of bomb-aimers and "Bolies" (think of them as the Canadian-built version of the Blenheim IV) were used for gunnery training. For example, a Bolingbroke ("I loved to fly it", Arni says) or Lysander target tug would put a drogue or target 300 feet behind it while other Bolingbrokes flew parallel to the drogue and opened fire from their turrets at the drogue -- not the black-and-yellow striped target tug.

Each Bolingbroke carried three trainee gunners, each with their own coloured rounds of ammunition. Matching the holes in the drogue with the colours used indicated each trainee's score.In another kind of gunnery training exercise, two Bolingbrokes would fly line astern while a third attacked them from the side and rear, using a "curve of pursuit." (On one such flight, a young airman aboard Arni's aircraft became airsick and looked around desperately before depositing his lunch into his own boot. Good thing, too, "because they were just about impossible to clean up," Arni said.)

For bombing and air-to-ground firing, the station used drogues or rafts moored in Old Wives Lake, north of Mossbank. Different wind and airspeed data would be cranked into the bombsight for each run over the target. Forty minutes were allocated for each flight, which is less than is sounds when one considers three students were carried.

Practice bombs gave a puff of smoke by day and a flash by night. Students generally spent six weeks at Mossbank.

When the summer of 1944 was at its hottest, Arni's workday would start at 4 a.m., after which he'd fly continuously until 8 .am. -- when he got breakfast, his work day basically over.

Another training flight saw Mossbank's runway closed and Arni's aircraft and another divert all the way to Souris, Man., in order to land.

Once, another pilot's Bolingbroke operated low over Old Wives Lake -- so low that a wingtip caught and brought down the aircraft, forcing the crew to spend the night perched on the upper surfaces of the downed aircraft, calling into the darkness for help. At dawn, they noticed the water was only three feet deep, and walked ashore! (The engine from this aircraft was salvaged in the mid-1980s and "was picked out by an air force helicopter and is now in the museum in Moose Jaw," he wrote to us.) The same kind of wing-catching accident is alleged to have happened to the crew of an Anson, he said.

Arni knows of at least three fatal accidents at the station, one of them killing a pilot, an instructor and three students, two of them Australian. Postwar, one Australian's mother made the long journey to view his grave in far-off Mossbank not once, but twice.

One operation bordered on the hush-hush. It was a flight -- Arni figures it was in the fall of 1944 -- to Suffield, Alberta, by 10 Bolingbrokes to drop (in concert with Bolingbrokes from the B&G school at Lethbridge) mustard gas bombs on the military training and testing area at Suffield. Pilots were briefed to drop from 15,000 feet, to maintain line-astern formation and, above all else, to NOT land with any bombs aboard.

But on the day of the flight, heavy fog was everywhere. The aircraft had no radios and confusion reigned. "It's just a miracle there were no crashes," Arni said.

Most bombs had to be dropped over a special jettison area -- though one plucky pilot defied all advice and brought back his load. Eventually, the entire operation had to be re-scheduled for six weeks later, when it came off smoothly.

On both flights, Arni had the impression that there would be nobody below him, but about 20 years ago, he heard of former Canadian Army soldiers (who'd volunteered to be in the target area, wearing gas masks, in return for money and extra leave) complain about injuries from areas of their bodies not protected from the gas, like the backs of their necks.

Arni also recalled one night bombing instruction flight that took place under the imminent threat of bad weather. No sooner were the bombs away than they headed for base, where the gathering winds had already blown out all but one flare. And as Arni came in to land, a gust of wing caught his right wing, sending it upward and lowering the port wing. He opened up the engines, straightened out, then landed and shut it down. So hair-raising was the trip that "the students came up and patted me on the back ... they'd been pretty scared."

Another evening, he knew that line squalls were coming toward Mossbank, so as he headed in to land, got a red light from the control tower (no radios in those days!) got caught in wind and had to keep one engine wide open in order to keep going straight.

And another time, while taxiing an Anson, he missing hitting a hangar with his wingtip by mere inches.

All in all, "it was interesting and I enjoyed it all. But it was hard work."

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Arni said that 2 B&G School closed at the end of 1944. Arni was transferred to 5 B&G at Dafoe,between Regina and Prince Albert. He left the air force, like many other members, in the spring of 1945. Carried on air force records as a reservist, he worked in construction in Winnipeg. He received an invitation to rejoin the RCAF in 1948, "but my wife wouldn't let me go."

Instead, he eventually bought the International Harvester dealership in -- you guessed it -- Mossbank, moved there in 1953 and still resides there. He retired in 1992, but since then he jokes he's "busier than ever."

  - By Will Chabun

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