February 23, 1923 - June 6, 2011
William C. J. Clifford was the youngest of five, having two brothers and two sisters, the oldest of whom was twelve years his senior. His father was a real estate broker who died before Bill was born. Bill's mother brought the children up without much help. She worked periodically and all the children had odd jobs during the depression.
Before the war, Bill played All Ontario Lacrosse and competed as a rower in the Henley Regatta.
He was sixteen years old when the war started. He was determined to become a fighter pilot. In 1941, he turned 18 and started his training with the RCAF in Ontario, close to home. Then he was sent overseas.
Bill wrote a memoir for his family as well as to honour the pilots in his squadron who gave their lives so valiantly during the time he spent on 440 Squadron from early October 1944 through to the end of hostilities in June 1945. It was a tribute “to the ones we left out there, as well as to all the pilots who flew under these circumstances, knowing full well how slight were the odds in their individual favour.”
He discovered as he wrote how ominous the hazards were. “I did not purposely intend to accentuate so many set situations, it just seemed to come out that way. The assigned role of the type of aircraft committed us, the pilots, to accept these conditions. Fifty some odd years ago, we were keen young adventurers with a common purpose, dedicated to putting down an aggressive maniacal force. Subconsciously we were certainly aware of the many hazards involved in our pursuits but did not dwell upon them...At the time, it was an invigorating experience and we all felt that we’d survive.”
Bill Clifford wrote, “When I left Canada for Europe, I remember taking along reams of paper with the idea of writing a diary which might be later translated into a readable transcript. This never happened, but somehow or other the recollections of some of the experiences are fairly well intact in my mind. The following is the way I see it, looking back after more than 50 years.
“July 1, 1943, I finally arrived in England, disembarking from the Louis Pasteur at Liverpool... It was a fast transport with twin screws capable of 32 knots, outrunning any U-boats that might cross its path; the convoys and escort ships were not used for the crossing.
“Back in 1941, I had set my goals: being a Sergeant Pilot flying a Spitfire. So far I was on track, but it would be another whole year before flying a Spitfire became a reality.
“In the meantime, I was attached to the RAF and completed a non-operational tour before my goal was achieved, however during this time I acquired some valuable flying experience for the tasks that lay ahead. Finally flying a Spitfire at 61 Operational Training Unit at Rednal, just outside of Shrewsbury, was indeed a dream come true, though short-lived. After completing the course, we were posted to Aston Down at Gloucester for a conversion course on the Typhoon. By that time, the D-Day invasion had happened in the advance toward Belgium, Holland, and eventually Germany was underway. The role of the Typhoon, being part of 2nd Tactical Air Force of the British Liberation Army, was close ground support. There was a demand for replacement Typhoon pilots due to the heavy casualties of all the existing squadrons...
“Before long, Flight Sergeant ‘Pop’ Dewar and myself were bouncing along the runway in an Anson, headed for 143 Wing, currently working out of B78 Eindhoven in Holland, he to the 438 squadron and I to 440 squadron; the other unit on the Wing was 439. After crossing the Channel, the pilot hedgehopped across parts of France, Belgium, and into Holland. Eventually the old ‘Annie’ rolled to a stop in what appeared to be a big muddy pockmarked (with bomb craters) field in the middle of nowhere, dumped us off and was gone.
“Before long, a Jeep rolled up, driven by a squadron leader from engineering and maintenance, who, recognizing our plight, graciously turned his Jeep over to us along with directions to our particular squadrons. I hadn’t even had a driver’s license before joining up and the Jeep was a foreign object as far as I was concerned. But I jumped right in, turned on the ignition and clutch and bounced off to ‘Pop’ Dewar’s new squadron. I bid him farewell and then headed for 440 dispersal. The dispersal was in a tent under some elaborate German camouflage netting.
“I was warmly welcomed by the pilots who were there, and they were very apologetic about not meeting me on arrival. Operations had advised that I was on the way, but they didn’t know when.
“I soon discovered that Jim Beattie from my hometown of St. Catharines, was on 440, and I was really happy to see a familiar face. Jim and I were in high school together; we both had evening paper routes and played a bit of interchurch basketball. As it happens, Jim was Flight Commander “A” Flight, to which I was assigned.
“The airfield had been a vital Luftwaffe fighter base, and it was from here that they intercepted British bombers at night, and the American bombers on their daylight raids. That, along with the fact that the Philips radio works in Eindhoven was producing vital materials for the German effort, made this facility one of the priority targets for the RAF bomber attacks before the invasion. As a result, every building and bunker was totally demolished, along with some help from the German demolition units, as they had retreated. The only standing building was the detention center. After it was checked out and cleared of booby-traps, the pilots moved in, and there was just enough room for two to a cell. My bunkmate was Flying Officer Jack Reilly, as it turned out, a very friendly and compatible guy.
“On the squadron and in the mess there was no distinction between officers and noncommissioned officers. After the years of segregated quarters, and preferential treatment given to the commission ranks, it was gratifying to see that barrier lifted, and be treated as equals. After all, the enemy anti-aircraft fire was known to hit any aircraft regardless of the pilot’s rank. Being on an all-Canadian unit was a welcome change after the treatment the RAF dished out to noncommissioned Canadian pilots in particular."
EINDHOVEN: “My arrival at B78 at Eindhoven introduced me to a way of life that was of necessity, devoid of lingering remorse, or any show of sentimentality or loss, as inevitable casualties continued on the Wing on a daily basis. Squadron Leader Bill Pentland was killed just prior to my arrival. He had been killed while attacking ground targets around Falaise, just as he was completing his second tour of combat. In the same week, Flying Officer Aistrop was also killed in action.
“One of the first pilots to make me feel welcome and less apprehensive was Flying Officer Ron Doidge. He was killed in action a few days later. A bright spot was Jim Beattie being tour expired on October 17, 1944, an enviable goal for all the pilots. Squadron Leader Cody Monson replaced Bill Pentland as commanding officer of 440. The constant change of personnel went with the territory. Squadron strength at of the end of October: 19 pilots, seven less than full strength.
“On October 27, we moved our facilities to a convent school in south central Eindhoven. The nuns very graciously moved up to the second floor of their building. We set up bunks in classrooms, opened a bar in the reception area, and took over the kitchen and dining room facilities. The courtyard was used for parking and the airmen dug pits for fires to heat oil drums full of water for our daily ablutions. They’d just empty a 5-gallon jerry can of high-octane petrol into the pit and throw in a match. Before long, the water would be warm enough to wash and shave. We all had our own canvas pails and a basin mounted on a wooden tripod. After a hectic day, it was always nice to come home, get cleaned up, then saunter over to the bar for a little scotch, or whatever. Our messing officer was a real wheeler-dealer, and he often had unexpected treats which helped make up for the tinned stew or fried spam, which was most often the fare. A couple of times I remember eating raw oysters of all things in the bar before dinner, and nice big juicy steaks for the main course. I don’t know where he got the goodies and no one asked. I know there were many bloated cattle carcasses in the field after battles, but we didn’t consider that possibility.
AIRBORNE TANK: “The role of the Tiffy was close army support. Because we performed at low levels, where we were most vulnerable to enemy fire, extra armor plating was added to protect the fuel tanks in the wings and belly of the aircraft. We carried a bomb load that far surpassed any other single engine aircraft at the time: two 1000-pound bombs, one under each wing, along with 4 20 mm wing cannons. We were actually an airborne tank. The extra armor plating, bomb racks, and sometimes reserve tanks for long hauls, cut down on maneuverability, to a point where it was not possible to engage enemy aircraft in aerial combat; sometimes, of course, it was unavoidable. It was also important that we be located as close to enemy lines as possible, since our radius of operations was not much beyond 150 miles without using reserve tanks. After disposing of the bombs, then cruising around a tree top level, firing on targets of opportunity, the enemy action during the day was slowed considerably.
“Flying the Typhoon with 143 Wing most of the time was a blast. [No pun intended.] During the winter of 1944 and 1945, at times the weather socked in, it was even too dicey to take off for vector bombing. We were always looking for some kind of diversion and to occupy the time. One thing we did was build a nissen hut under the German camouflage that was still hanging in place, around the now bombed out Control Tower, for our squadron dispersal. It was a nice refuge from the inclement weather.
“There were other things to do, such as getting checked out on the 3 tonne trucks, and 1500 weights, in case we had to sometime, of necessity, be qualified for that. If we had a 300-foot ceiling, we could check out in the Auster aircraft. Another thing: shooting rats in the bomb craters with Lugers or P38s retrieved from captured German soldiers, was another popular pastime. The dispersal was always a popular spot, with a nice wood fire going, for letter writing or playing a poker game etc. If we happened to get a call from OPS, and released from standby, someone would invariably pull a bottle of cognac out of his metal parachute bag and anything could happen after that.
“One late afternoon, someone said, ‘I wonder what “Baby Paris” is doing in Brussels tonight?’ That was all anyone needed and within minutes, transport involving some of the ‘acquired liberated vehicles’ and even a convertible Mercedes-Benz with red leather upholstery, was arranged and Brussels was the ‘target for tonight.’ It was a long drive down and back, especially in the dark. Most of the guys who went on that particular occasion were scheduled to fly the following morning. They were on the line, ready to go at first light, but fortunately for them, the weather was socked in".
“A pocket of Jerries was holed up in the woods at the end of the main runway at B78, having been left behind when the bulk of their troops got out and across the Rhine as we advanced. These troops were sizable numbers and fairly well supplied, as was evidenced by the flak we were getting just after liftoff, small arms fire mostly. Our armament section together with the service police, inexperienced though they were, has the job of routing the Bosch from their lair.
“The pilots of 143 Wing were to be the shock troops in their planned ground assault. Fortunately, the RAF regiment was moving through the area at this time and they cleared the woods for us.
“Some weeks later, another batch of the Huns was making their presence felt in the Reichswald Forest. We showered them with anti-personnel bombs quite effectively.
“Squadron Leader Bob Coffey was leading the show and after the drop, several ME 109 aircraft jumped us and he ducked into the clouds. His No. 2 hadn’t formed up yet and everybody scrambled. Someone called up and said, ‘Where are all those Jerries? Have they f---‘d off?’ Coffey answered, ‘I don’t know, but I have.’ “After another such show with anti-personnel bombs, I was approached by a reporter who was representing Combat Diary. He did an interview on me and dialogue was made up and recorded in the form of Allied interview, with appropriate background noises. These recordings, in time, were played for the public on radio in the United Kingdom, Canada, and United States. The final take was going reasonably well, even though I felt less comfortable reading answers that I did in the initial interview. In describing the bomb, I was supposed to say, ‘The canister itself weighs 540 pounds and contains 26 20-pound bombs.’ What I did say was, ‘The canister contains 20 6-pound bombs.... [silence]...oh shit! I f----‘d that up!’ End of quote. End of interview. The reporter left the end result with me, and it was played back for a good laugh in some of those quiet dull days in dispersal.
“Around this time, I was summoned for an interview with Air Vice Marshall Broadhurst at his secluded quarters to confirm my commission. It was really just a formality. He asked to see my flying logbook and chatted casually, asking how I liked the Typhoon and did I ever hit anything. I said, ‘Oh yes sir, on my second trip I remember making a direct hit on a vital rail intersection.’ He was satisfied and I was glad to get out of there. I later checked out my logbook to discover that on my second trip, we were actually doing fighter cover work for some US Air Force Marauder medium bombers."
HAZARDS: “With an accumulation of hazards, some of which were beyond our control, it couldn’t help but cause one to think that the old recruitment posters that were used to lure keen young would-be adventurers into the Air Force should have stated THE SURVIVAL OF THE LUCKIEST rather than what was printed on large billboards throughout the country. It showed a young pilot gazing up at the picture of a fast fighter aircraft. Printed in the space below was the following: 2200 Horse Power -- Are You Fit to Handle It? The Survival of the Fittest
“My motivation to get involved in the conflict was ... 75% attributable to patriotism. I always listened to radio news and read our local newspapers as well as listening to Edwin C. Hill and Lowell Thomas giving their impressions and commentaries on world affairs. And as always, I shared the general opinion that the Nazi menace was a real threat, and could eventually seriously affect the way we live right here in this country. Even though we had just been exposed to a long devastating depression, I valued our lifestyle and the freedom enough to want to defend it.The other 25% of my motivation was from a keen interest in airplanes. We had an airfield just east of the city [St. Catharines] and whenever I heard the sound of a plane, I had to run outside and see it....When the Commonwealth Air Training Plan got under way, our local airfield was selected for an elementary flying training school [#9 EFTS]. This meant of course, that there were aircraft in the air all day and at night too, for that matter. As a result, when I was old enough, it was PER ARDUA AD ASTRA, which in our terms means, ‘through adversity to the stars.’
“The Typhoon aircraft was really a high tech machine for its time. It really was an honour to be able to fly it. It performed beautifully and did the job it was designed to do. Like any aircraft I ever flew, I developed an attachment and a love for the aircraft that was pretty hard to explain. It was just the job that we were assigned to do that made it intrepid to say the least...
“In our dispersal, either waiting for a call from OPS or weather clearance, most of the time we had a radios tuned into the American forces station and listening to the disc jockeys.... Just about every morning the German broadcasting system would cut into our frequency and put on “Arnheim Ann.’ She spoke very good English and had an appealing voice, she did the same routine that ‘Tokyo Rose’ did in the Pacific Theater. She was always speaking directly to the Allied troops, urging them to give up the ghost, get out of those muddy trenches, and come over to the German side and enjoy the comfort of a nice warm bed, regular hot meals, and have a company of beautiful Fräuleins who were apparently anxious for their company, and just wait until the war’s and, when they could return home safe and sound to their families. She thought she was tempting the troops, but this is the farthest from anyone’s minds. Her sexy voice is more appealing than anything she had to say...
NOVEMBER: “The dispersal was really the focal point of our activity... The masterly ability of the German war machine at camouflage was a popular subject during our strategy sessions. It vitally concerned us, since in our day-to-day quest was to seek out strategic targets, such as troop concentrations, supply dumps, V1 and V2 launching sites, marshaling yards, auxiliary airfields, etc...
“Flying Officer Frank Crowley was killed in action November 11. He was one of the originals when the Wing was formed in the UK prior to D-Day. He had survived a bailout and rescue from the Channel, more than one crash landing after being hit by flak, suffering burns to his face and hands. Frank attended mass every morning he was off duty, and became a confidant of Padre Bellanger. Father Bellanger told me he had appealed to the WINCO to have Frank’s tour expired, because he has certainly done more than his duty. As usual, the pilot shortage was the stumbling block. Frank’s bravery was exemplary. On November 11, his aircraft blew up just after releasing its bombs.
“Flying Officer Jack Reilly was killed in action November 18, after reporting a hit on Hilforth Bridge, which was a vital supply line to German troops in the Belgian Bulge. In the short month that I knew Jack, we became good friends. He had been married just before leaving Canada. Flying Officer Jack Cordick was killed in action November 19. His aircraft blew up in a dive before bombs were released due to a direct hit by anti-aircraft fire.
“Flying Officer Jack Duncan crash-landed November 21. His home was in Detroit. In this case, he became a POW. Flying Officer Tony Frombolo, another American, was from Alameda, California. He was shot down and bailed out, and became a prisoner of war as well.“
“After target briefing and synchronizing watches, making note of the ‘tit’ time (the start up), it wasn’t uncommon to see a pilot losing his breakfast before getting into his aircraft, but once you got the oxygen turned up and the engine started, with the use of a high-powered cartridge into the cylinder, the adrenaline started flowing and the apprehension was left behind.
TAXIING: “Taxiing the Tiffy was a bit of a problem since the nose created a blind spot, the aircraft being in the three-point position. Normal taxiing could be done by zigzagging with the combined use of the throttle and foot brakes. But the perimeter track at B78 was very narrow and the aircraft had a wide span between the wheels. If you deviated off the perimeter, you were mired in mud or even in a bomb crater. This problem necessitated having one or two of the reluctant, but ever-willing ground crew to climb up on the wing, sit on the leading edge straddling and holding onto one of the 20 mm cannons while keeping one arm free to direct the pilot along the track to the runway.
“I’m sure this must’ve been a frightening experience, especially with that big four bladed prop whirling away, egged on by the powerful 2250 horsepower Napier Sabre 24 cylinder engine. If your brakes were sensitive or you hit a rut, the airman was sometimes catapulted from his perch and would have to remount quickly. I hated to see this happen but it was unavoidable. These guys deserve a lot of credit. One of these people was Tommy McLachlin, a friend from my school days in St. Catharines.
“The first thing you did entering the cockpit in before startup, was to fasten the oxygen mask into place, and turn the oxygen tank on full, otherwise the carbon monoxide from the engine was very lethal.“
“In November, the enemy launched an all out attack in the Ardennes, officially referred to as the Belgian Bulge. Their strategy was to cut through the American line, from an area around St. Vith and advance across to Antwerp thereby cutting off the entire British and Canadian occupied territory north to the Rhine River. This included our airfield...
“General ‘Blood and Guts’ Patton put an urgent request in to the 2nd Tactical Air Force for ground support from the Typhoons. As a result, much of our action for December and January was cutting German supply lines, dropping anti-personnel bombs on troop concentrations, strafing armored columns and causing havoc to and frustrating the invaders. Before this mess was put to rest in late January, it is estimated that there were 75,000 American and 125,000 German casualties. It was also costly to our personnel and it was particularly worrisome for us having been attacked by American Thunderbird and Mustang fighter aircraft, whose pilots consistently mistook Typhoons for the FW 190 enemy aircraft.
“Quite often, weather restricted our standard dive-bombing approach, which basically was as follows: the leader lines up the designated target, changes the formation from battle formation to echelon starboard. He’d generally say, ‘Bomb switches on, going down in 10 seconds,’ then rollover, hock the stick back to his stomach and execute a vertical dive onto target from 8000 feet. Everyone else followed down the same shoot. German radar was of course tracking us all the way and they seemed to know in advance what our target was, because there were generally 88 shells bursting at our height above the target, even before we were in echelon bombing formation. This was a bit unnerving because once we got past the 88 blasts in our dive, the 40 mm and 20 mm, along with the frightening tracers, would be keeping us in their cone of fire, as we individually lined up the target during the vertical dive. Quite often 10/10 cloud and low base prevented us from exercising standard procedures. Those times we’d try to execute a steep a dive as possible to improve the accuracy of the bombing. It didn’t give you much time.
“On one of these occasions, November 29, while low level bombing the railway line at Laabreck, I was just going over the target when I flew through the blasts of 2000 pounds of bombs from the lead aircraft. The concussion was jolting and my aircraft was riddled. Two days later, with my nose still bleeding, I was sent to a specialist in Brussels, along with another pilot. He was the new arrival at 440 and was having a lot of trouble coping, was terrified of the aircraft and wanted to be reassigned. He was a really nice guy, felt bad about his apprehension, but couldn’t handle it. My problem was treated with medication, but I was grounded for three weeks. ‘Red,’ on the other hand was okayed for active flying, and we both returned to B78.
“We were, as usual, desperately short of pilots. The Wing decided that I should be posted to the UK for the three weeks so they could get a replacement pilot and then hopeful I would come back when fit. I waited too long to get on a squadron and I was prepared to do anything just to be allowed to stay. I asked the CO to let me do duty pilot every day until the time was up. That way, I got to stay calm and at the same time, it would free up the designated duty pilot to flying status..."
DECEMBER: “Pilot Officer Al Sugden was KIA December 3rd. He had arrived early in December, actually two days before this. On his first trip with squadron he had to make an emergency down wind landing just after takeoff. He overshot and flipped into the canal of the end of the runway and drowned. Before joining us, he had been on another operational squadron...
“My 21 days of being grounded went by pretty fast, and I was back in the breach, as we called it, on December 22. The Belgian Bulge in the Ardennes was in full swing by this time. The Germans were making a desperate effort to stop the Allied advance by counterattacking. Intelligence supplied us with vital targets and in some cases, the Army was able to pinpoint specifically with red smoke flares. Anti-personal bombs were very effective, attacking the troop concentration. After the drop, we had free range in the hills at anything mobile. This resulted in many flamers when our 4 20 mm cannons hit motor transport loaded with ammo and petrol.
“Flying Officer Dunkeld was killed in action on December 24. He was flying fighter cover along with Flying Officer Dunc (Red) Cumming, also killed in action. The German fighter FW 190 involved was pursued and destroyed by a Spitfire...
“December 25th: my flight was on the first show in the morning: Christmas Day. Intelligence got numerous targets for us in The Bulge and I ended doing two trips, each being armed recces (no bombs) around Ahrweiler, south of St. Vith. There was fresh snow in the hills and this made it easier to track down and fire on anything moving. Back safely in the mess, turkey dinner was being served.
“Life is a roller coaster. Harry Hardy had his controls shot away and successfully bailed out. He was back in time for dinner.
BAILING OUT: “There were two most used methods of exiting a Typhoon in flight, provided of course, that you hadn’t been blasted out on impact from every fire. The first: if the aircraft is responding to the controls you follow bailout procedures as follows: disconnect oxygen, radio headset, and cockpit harness, standup in the bucket seat, trim the aircraft nose heavy, hold the stick back so the aircraft is in the climbing position, then kick the stick forward. The pilot is thereby catapulted into space and clear of the crippled plane.
“When Hardy bailed, he had to use the other method because his elevators were damaged. The second method: he climbed out the right side of the beast, and used the handholds that we use when mounting the cockpit, and pulled himself to the belly before releasing, thereby avoiding hitting the tail.
“Most of the pilots that ‘hit the silk’ ended up as POWs and we didn’t get to discuss their personal choice for departure. Considering our own options, in such an emergency, rehearsing the drill was important so that you would react automatically if you ever had to eject.
“Flight Lieutenant Buck Jenvey was always totally prepared to evade the enemy in case he got shot down and survived. We all carried escape kits with the standard contents: silk maps, currency for any country we flew over, vitamin pills, morphine needles, Benzedrine tablets (in case we had to stay awake for long periods of time), compasses, photos of ourselves as civvies for fake ID cards, etc. We were advised to wear extra warm clothing and instructed on how to contact help.
“Buck Jenvey took every precaution and improvised some of his own. It was almost as if he wanted to play the game. On December 29, a massive explosion resulted from a train he was strafing and his aircraft got hit. With glycol leaking and his engine overheating, he made a nice belly landing in a clearing, got out of the aircraft, waved to us and headed for the woods.
“We all thought he did make it, but we later came across his grave marker. It said, ‘shot whilst evading the enemy, March 21st’. That was to have been the last trip of his tour and the day he went down, his DFC came through, partially as a result of an ME 109 he shot down in The Bulge. I was with him the day he got it (December 27) and I remember him doing a big victory roll around, Harry Hardy and I, then forming up to return to base.
“Quite often we’d catch trains in motion, and on these occasions, bombs on the track in front of the engine would stop the motion pretty fast. Then we’d make passes firing at any likely looking targets. Sometimes they were troop trains. We learned later that Allied prisoners were sometimes moved in boxcars but we had no way of knowing it at the time. With this in mind, we avoided the shoot up as long as the train was stopped. The main purpose in cutting rail lines and stopping trains of course was to cut enemy supply lines.
“Johnny Brown, another St. Catharines pilot, got shot down and was captured. He was given pretty rough treatment by a particular burgemeester. Johnny was liberated by Canadian troops shortly after and came back to the Wing. After telling the story, he returned to the town by road with a posse of enraged fellow pilots to give his capturers their just due, but they had gone into hiding by then. Lucky for them: generally captured Tiffy pilots were not shown much mercy."
MORNING SHIFT: “If you were on the morning shift, the duty pilot would drag you out of the sack in the dark, then you’d have breakfast and the whole flight would be driven into the airfield in a 3 tonne truck. Then you would head for intelligence for briefing and be ready to go at first light.
“If ‘A’ Flight flew in the morning, ‘B’ Flight would fly that afternoon and the next morning, then ‘A’ Flight would be back to doing afternoon and the following morning. So theoretically, it was 24 hours on and 24 hours off, if we were to strength. But we would often overlap. Never at any time were we up to full strength, until after V-E Day at Flensburg when squadrons were being disbanded and pilots posted to us waited for repatriation. After six weeks of this, we were entitled to 10 days leave..."
JANUARY: “New Year’s Day 1945 I wasn’t scheduled to fly until the afternoon shift. I was having a leisurely breakfast when I started to hear ack, ack, ack, fire, a lot of aircraft motors and machine guns. I spotted some low-flying ME109s and FW 190s.
“There was no transport immediately available, so I ran out to the street, hailed down an Army Jeep that was going by, and said to the driver, ‘Take me to the airfield.’ It wasn’t until we got close to the field that I realized that my host in the backseat was no less than a Brigadier General in the Canadian Army. I, a mere pilot officer at the time, had in effect, commandeered his driver and demanded to be taken to the airfield.
“As it happened, we were only able to get within a few blocks of the field. Enemy aircraft were strafing the main road and we ended up in the ditch, and just observed the rest of the action from there.
“I saw a Spitfire, presumably from Brussels, blow the canopy off a 109 at about 800 feet. The Luftwaffe pilot got some additional height by going into a vertical climb and jumped out of the top of the stall. His chute opened and he floated to the earth, only to be picked off by an overzealous sniper. It was an awful thing to do and if I could’ve caught the offender, he’d have had a lot of answering to do. As well, the pilot might have given us some vital information while being interrogated.
“After the attack was over, I was able to get onto the field, but there were so many fires, with burning Tiffies, red hot bombs going off at regular intervals and crashed enemy planes, that we just had to take shelter until things cool down. Literally.
“438 Squadron, got a couple of planes into the air, but they were outnumbered and terminated quickly. ’B’ Flight from 440 was all lined up to take off and the Germans came in on low-level attack. They weren’t able to get airborne but some of the guys nosed their aircraft into the oncoming attackers and opened fire. Pilot Officer Dick Watson claimed a ‘damaged’ enemy aircraft as a result of his maneuvering and firing, while still on the ground. A unique encounter.
“The German High Command had planned this attack and they just hit about every airfield within range of their fighters. They figured the British and Canadians would be well hung over after New Year’s Eve party and they would catch us asleep at the switch.“
“Several different groups of German planes were assigned to specific targets, and each group had a high flying single navigator. Individual groups came in at low levels so that radar couldn’t pick them out. The navigator directed them to their targets from above. It was a successful operation and really their last large-scale operation of the war. Our Wings lost 26 aircraft and we were just about out of commission. There were lots of funny stories that were told after the shock wore off. Airmen lived on the field and they slept in tents or makeshift bunkhouses or cottages made with whatever material they could scrounge. Some of the units they build were very comfortable. Outside, of course, everyone have their own slit trench as protection against such surprise attacks. The trenches were only dug to accommodate one person, but on this day they were three and sometimes more trying to squeeze in, even piled up above ground level. I even heard one frightened soul hiding under a fuel tank car (or a bowser as we called them). By mid afternoon the runways were made serviceable again and all of ‘A’ Flight climbed into a DC3 and headed for Tangmere in the UK to pick up new planes...
“On January 3, we were driven to Westhampton at and flew our brand-new from the factory Tiffies back to Tangmere, where they were armed and serviced, and invasion markings painted on the underbelly and wings. When the planes were ready, the weather was socked right in, and it was January 4 before we were able to leave; even then the weather was no help.
FUEL TANKS: “I suppose it was psychological, but every time I turned away from the land mass and headed over the Channel, my engine sounded different. I expected it to conk out any minute. On top of that, when we had reserve tanks on, we always had to change tanks in the middle of the Channel since it was done on a timing basis. First we take off on the main tank when airborne, switch to right reserve, then left reserve using them up first, so that if we ran into trouble we could jettison the reserve tanks I still have the full main tanks left. The switching procedure had to be exact. For example, if you were using up the right reserve and you wanted to switch to left reserve, first you leave right reserve on, and turn on main, wait 30 seconds and switch off right reserve, wait 30 seconds, to make sure the lines to the main are clear, and then turn on left reserve, wait 30 seconds and turn off main and hope left reserve caught... All this in the middle of the Channel and snow squalls to boot. If you went down the Channel in January, hypothermia was your fate.
“The snow got heavier as we moved cross country into France and Belgium. Navigation was reduced to trying to pinpoint landmarks. We were supposedly heading for Brussels when we had to turn north and fly a very narrow flak free corridor to Eindhoven. Any aircraft outside that corridor was considered to be hostile and all the Allied anti-aircraft fire would be turned loose. This barrage was set up to cope with steady stream of the V1 buzz bombs the enemy was still sending back as they retreated into Germany. Fortunately, we flew directly over a small single strip airfield (Courtrai), and decided to play it safe and land there for the night. It happened that Courtrai was a small repair and salvage unit and they weren’t equipped to handle visitors. I found a stretcher and sacked out for a couple of hours. We all got airborne early in the morning and visibility was much better for flying up the slot, Brussels to Eindhoven, arriving January 5. Things were getting back to normal at B78 and the new planes were readied for action...
DIVES: “We were basically a close army support unit and dive-bombing was our principal function...the Typhoon weighed seven tonnes, add another tonne for bomb load, now picture that in an almost vertical dive, from a mile and a half above the target. We throttled back in the dive to avoid excessive speed, but a pullout, with over 500 on the clock was not uncommon.
“If the flak wasn’t too heavy, we’d use the zoom climb to get height and observe the accuracy of our bombing, or if the flak was intense, we’d level out on the ground level in the area at tree top level, where we weren’t too vulnerable. Just the sound of the aircraft in the dive was said to have a terrifying effect on anyone on the ground in the area.
“We were consistently losing aircraft in the dive and of course we automatically assume that anti-aircraft fire was responsible. But sometimes, these losses occurred even when there was little or no fire from the target area. Pilots who witnessed these hits, more often than enough reported at debriefing, the aircraft disintegrated for no apparent reason. Our 1000-pound bombs were equipped at the time with instantaneous fusings. Apparently after the pilot lined up the target in his dive, and pushed the bomb release button, the live bomb would ride along with the plane for a short distance, and during that time if the bomb entered the slipstream from the preceding aircraft, the turbulence was enough to detonate the fuse, the resulting explosion destroyed the aircraft. The fuses were changed to 11 second delay and at least that hazard was eliminated...
JANUARY 1945: “Around this same time, when pilots were either bailing out or being blown out of their machines, an unusual number of streamers (when a parachute fails to open) were being reported. The pilot was pulling the ripcord and the shroud extended, but the bag didn’t catch the air. Some of the chutes were recovered and the silk was just the hard lump. Parachutes were regularly inspected and repacked and normally this was adequate, but we were doing so much flying, sometimes two or three trips a day, and it was so awkward and difficult climbing in and out of the airplane with the Mae West, seat pack, parachute, and rubber dinghy attached, that more often than enough, the chute was left in the bucket seat. As the plane cooled after switch off, condensation occurred and moisture absorbed into the chute. This would dry out again with the next flight, and eventually the silk was as hard as a rock, hence the streamers...
“Our action in mid-January 1945 was sporadic with bad weather, keeping us on standby or alert a lot of the time. I was about ready at this time for a bit of leave, since I hadn’t had any for some months. A signal came through from 2nd TAF headquarters at a rest camp for operational aircrew in the French Alps had a couple of openings. I jumped at the chance and before long, Currie Gardner and I from ‘B’ Flight were packing to go skiing.... After nine days in the French Alps, we retraced our route, a night each in Lyons and Brussels, and then back into the breach, refreshed, but reluctant to look at the names removed from the roster during our absence. Percy Kearse was killed in action January 21. After releasing bombs, the aircraft received a direct hit from enemy fire and disintegrated. Bugs Byers was killed in action January 23, another victim of intense anti-aircraft fire.
FEBRUARY: “February was a good month for flying. Every day was eventful. OPS provided us with a never-ending succession of priority targets. Early morning flights around the industrial Ruhr Valley were a good spot to be for train busting. One would think that after the constant heavy bombing done by the RAF and USAAF that it would have been shut down by this time, but the factories were still producing war materials, the stacks were belching smoke and the trains were shunting. Flak was heavy over this area and we cruised around the fringe hoping to catch the departing trains loaded with supplies.
“To counteract our efforts, these trains often had two or three flatbed cars, depending on the size of the train, rigged up with intense anti-aircraft emplacements... They ... were very well camouflaged and if you happened to fly over one of these when strafing, you couldn’t avoid getting hit.
“Sometimes we took a turn at patrolling Arnhem Bridge at dusk. It seemed to be a favourite time for the enemy to send over a flight of their dive bombers to put the bridge out of commission and impede the further advance of the allies when the time came, to push ahead. During these flights, it was obvious that both sides were building up, and making their presence known. As it got darker, the artillery blasts became more visible. They sent a continuous barrage at each other and we had a ringside seat. At patrol’s end, we returned to base. Finding the dull gray strip of runway in almost total darkness, knowing that there were bomb craters on both sides, it was a glorious feeling to step out onto terra firma after a safe landing...
“Flying Officer Deke Passmore was killed in action February 2. He got a direct hit while strafing at low level and went straight in. His father was a minister... hence the nickname Deke for deacon. Flying Officer Frank Warrell was killed in action February 3. He was hit by ground fire while strafing a locomotive, and he flicked into the ground. Flying Officer Billy Gibbs was killed in action February 28. He got a direct hit from a radar directed 88 shells, caught fire, and disappeared in the cloud.
“Flying Officer Johnny Flintoff was hit February 24. His engine got hit by ack, ack while bombing rail lines, his engine overheating and streaming petrol, yet he made safe landing in occupied Holland. He later called to say he was down safely. I wished him good luck. Johnny had hidden from capture with a Dutch farm family and was liberated by the Canadian army a few weeks later. It was unusual to get a lost pilot back. Just to say when he visited us in transit to the UK, the revelry took on accelerated dimensions.
“Harry Hardy, my Flight Commander, was tour expired. Harry was the last of the pilots who were on the squadron when I arrived back in October. All the rest had been tour expired, were POWs or KIA. I had completed around 60 OPS trips, well over half a tour, and was leading most every trip. The replacements we were getting most often outranked me but lacked operational experience, having been on non-combative duties as instructors or staff pilots. Some of them had been on OPS in other types of aircraft but not Typhoons. With Hardy’s imminent departure, my rank was elevated to acting Flight Lieutenant, the required rank for Flight Commander. The promotion was an honour considering that I arrived on the squadron as a Flight Sergeant just a few months back. It was not that I held longevity or seniority and certainly not age, over my fellow pilots, it was simply that I had been in the air, flying Typhoons and leading attacks longer than anyone else, with that time, came the experience necessary for ‘A’ Flight Commander. It was up to the CO and the WINCO’s discretion about what constituted a tour of ops. Some guys are credited in the 60s and others went on anywhere up to the high 90s depending on the individual’s ability to handle the tension, and the availability of replacements was an important consideration.
“Being scared went with the territory and I don’t know of anyone who wasn’t ready to admit it. Some people were just more vocal about it.”
MARCH: “Port Antwerp, by this time, was cleared of mines and shipping obstacles. The countdown for the final assault, the Rhine Crossing into Germany was on. The massive build up similar to D-Day was underway through this port... On the evening of March 23, all the pilots were assembled in the intelligence tent and we knew that something big was finally in the offing. There was a lot of security around and top brass from the Army and Air Force were there to brief us on the plans for the following day: a massive assault invasion across the Rhine into Germany and our role in the action... Our role was to give the Army support and counteract enemy action.
“After briefing, everyone was charged up and really excited to know that this phase, which we had been building up for, was about to happen. Long before daybreak, we were ready and itching to start engines. On March 24, as far as the eye could see, an airborne armada was moving in on the Third Reich homeland. We were assigned to cab rank operation and supplied with grid maps of the drop zone. I was leading a section of four aircraft and we cruised back and forth from Point A to Point B just above the DAKs that were dropping paratroopers and cutting loose the troop loaded gliders. We were in touch with ground control that had grid maps matching ours. I was given a reference, which pinpointed a German gun emplacement that was knocking down the troop loaded gliders as they were trying to land, and they were picking off paratroopers already in the air. We spotted the guns and all four of us in my section wiped out the troublesome gun crews with our 4 - 20 mm cannons, then returned to base to re-arm.
“Back at Eindhoven, Wing Commander Frank Grant greeted us with the news that the army commander in the drop zone had contacted our base by shortwave radio and wanted to speak to me personally. Since we were still in the air, WC took the message... He said that it was a job well done and the gliders and paratroopers in that area were able to come in safely from then on and thanks. It was rather gratifying to get the spontaneous reaction especially directly from a very hot combat zone. On March 30, we were moved to B100 Goch. We were the first Canadian Wing to be based in Germany.
APRIL: “The Wing moved from B100 Goch April 12 and to Osnabrück B110 until April 20 where 493 sorties in support of the attack on Bremen and against pockets of resistance still holding out west of the Weser River. April 18th came an urgent request from the infantry. A strong German resistance at a local fortification was holding up their advance to the town of Stuhr. Intelligence had a photo from PRU (Photo Reconnaissance Unit) and the target was quite visible. We assembled enough bombed up aircraft and pilots, some from which each of the three squadrons and I led the attack. It was a fairly long haul and visibility was good considering the twilight hour; the flak was light and all our bombs landed in and around the target area.
“On the morning of the 20th, we bombed a rail line just west of Hamburg, destroying several cars in motion on the track. That was my 92nd trip. That same day, the Wing was ordered to move ahead to Celle B150. I led our flight and we arrived late in the day. It was quite dark when we arrived, but the forest fire beside the landing strip provided a bit of improved visibility and the wind was blowing most of the smoke away from our landing area which was a crosswind landing on a grass field; we were carrying live 500-pound bombs as well. I was the first to land and tried to set down as far down the strip as possible in order to clear the way for the other aircraft following close behind. As it happened, I went a little too far and ended up a few yards off the designated area. No damage was done and everyone got down safely.
“The advance party, ground crew, and service personnel, had been on the road from Osnabrück for two days and they were on hand to direct us to our dispersals, service, and gas up our machines ready for business at first light in the morning. The bombs were still on the aircraft. Early morning strafing runs across our new locale by enemy aircraft got to be commonplace and kept everyone on their toes. They didn’t do much damage, but were annoying to say the least.”
Bill Clifford then explained that he was now at 92 trips. “However, being Flight Commander, I was able to keep my logbook out of sight and it wasn’t until many weeks after VE Day that I was tour expired officially.” He wrote about the end of the war and the victory celebrations. He recalled that Wing Commander Frank Grant giving him a “nice endorsement” in his logbook: “Tour expired at 92 sorties. Above average in every respect.” Asked if Bill would like to go to the Pacific, Bill declined. “I had had enough!” He was discharged September 28, 1945, 22 years old, his life changed forever.
Bill wrote, too, that he vowed on every Remembrance Day, he would solemnly remember the 100,000 that gave their lives to accomplish the victory of WWII and recites the names of those men he knew who did not make it home from 440 Squadron. “They shall never grow old,” he said.
Bill Clifford made mention about the 440 Squadron Diaries compared to the 439 Squadron Diaries. "440 is not very well represented. The adjutants were both asleep at the wheel."
A huge thank you to the Clifford family for providing images, video and audio to supplement their father's story.
Bill was the owner of Clifford Real Estate Ltd. He enjoyed painting scenic portraits (oils) and enjoyed his cigars. He was a member of St. Julia Church and was a former Grand Knight of the 4th Degree, Knights of Columbus.
Bill was married to Agnes for sixty years. They had ten children and twelve grandchildren.
More stories can be found in Typhoon and Tempest by Hugh Halliday, pages 59, 118, 76. Because he did not send in a full story to Hugh Halliday, Bill wrote "Reflections on November 11th" for his children, which he gave each of them a copy for Christmas in 1996. He sent a copy to his long time friend, Harry Hardy, hoping that it would bring back memories for him. He wrote, "To Harry Hardy, a Flight Leader who had a unique way of informing us that we had just crossed the bomb line and were in enemy territory." Bill is also mentioned in Wayne Ralph's Aces, Warriors & Wingmen.