I had intended to write this before November 11th, which is Remembance Day here in Canada or Veteran’s Day in the US but my schedule got disrupted with this thing with polar bears.
I had long wanted to write about somebody who had fought in the World War 2 as the number of living survivors is exceedingly small. In the past I did know some veterans but time has allowed those opportunities to slip away. I have a friend whose father was a fighter combat pilot in the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) but before I had a chance to meet and interview him, he too slipped away.
So this is but a fragment of the story pieced together from a son’s recollections and written accounts of others.
Chuck Darrow was from Toronto and at the age of 20 went to flight school in Eugene, Quebec in 1942 as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) where at its height over 130k Allied pilots from many parts of the world were trained in Canada, including 72k of her own citizens. He later went onto Camp Borden (just west of Barrie, Ontario) to train on North American Harvards (known as the Texan in the US), nearly 3000 which were built under license by Noorduyn Aviation of Montreal. This is the company made famous for its C-64 Norseman, the original bush plane renowned for ruggedness and the ability to operate in the most remote regions of the world. In September of 1944 newly minted Sergeant Pilot Darrow was assigned to RCAF Squadron 416 (City of Oshawa) of 127 Wing to fly Spitfires.
At the start of WW2, the RCAF expanded enormously to become the 4th largest air force in the world in 1945 with 232k men, 17k women and 86 squadrons of aircraft. Squadron 416 was formed in 1941 and was one of the Spitfire squadrons of 127 Wing. The Royal Air Force’s 2nd Tactical Air Force was made up of RCAF Wings 126, 127 and 144, each with three squadrons of one dozen Spitfire fighters each, with a mandate to carry out air to air combat and air to ground attacks in support of British and Canadian army once they landed in Europe on D-Day. By mid July 1944, Wing 144 was disbanded and Wing 126 and 127 each gained an extra squadron of Spitfires.
The Wings would move forward with the surging front relocating new airfields many times. Metal tracked runways were unrolled by ground crews and pegged down at each new location. Planes were arduously and slowly refuelled with individual jerry cans of aviation fuel.
The biggest headache was breaking down and re-erecting the massive canvas maintenance hangar use to house aircraft undergoing more extensive repairs because it also served the double duty of movie theatre and venue for travelling concert performers as well as a chapel for worship. Engine out service and replacements were performed in the open with mobile machine shops built into trucks. There was even a truck for the field dentist complete with foot powered treadle to operate the belt driven drills. Throughout the year spent in Europe, men would have to sleep 2-3 to a tent in all weather conditions.
Darrow would fly the Spitfire Mark IX with the improved Merlin 60 engine and later the Spitfire Mark XVI which was the last of the Merlin powered models using the American Packard built Merlin 266 engine. Finally, all traces of Browning 0.303 machine guns were gone (0.303 being the standard ammunition for the Lee Enfield infantryman rifle and not at all suited this late in the war for front line fighter aircraft) replaced with a pair of Browning 12.7 mm (equivalent to .50 calibre) and two Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannons. Rounding out the modifications was a bubble canopy for increased all around visibility and clipped wings which increased roll rate at low altitudes. Sadly this did blemish the beautiful elliptical wing shape that the Spitfire was well known for. His missions were primarily ground attack against trains and road transport. During the month of April 1945 the squadron claimed 220 mechanical enemy transports damaged, 85 destroyed. 5 horse drawn transports damaged, 28 destroyed. 15 locomotives damaged, 28 destroyed. 9 buildings damaged, 3 destroyed. 2 ship damaged. And 1 cyclist destroyed. Although all Allied pilots were instructed to destroy any moving target I find it difficult to believe somebody felt a cyclist was a legitimate target even a Wermacht uniformed cyclist. Perhaps this was in reference to a motorcyclist, a dispatch rider carrying orders or action reports back to HQ which would be quite different.
Darrow also found it similarly difficult to believe that somebody had stolen his parachute and replaced it with blankets … and that he had flown without one for the past three missions. Silk was a valuable commodity on the black market for making women’s stockings and this incident reads like an excerpt from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 when the protagonist discovers to his utter disbelief that the mess officer, Milo Minderbinder, has stolen the emergency morphine stocks and CO2 cartridges (used to inflate the life preservers) from his bomber to supply his criminal black market syndicate.
Facing the expensive prospect of having to replace the parachute personally, he was able to claim it was destroyed during a New Year’s raid by the Luftwaffe!
By war’s end, Darrow received his commission to flying officer and 416 Squadron was consigned to be a unit of the British Occupation Air Force in Germany. The squadron officially disbanded in March 1946 but not before Darrow had many opportunities to fly the Spitfire Mark XIV with the latest evolution in V12 engine design from Rolls Royce, the Griffon engine. Though physically the same size as the Merlin, it boasted 40% more displacement and dual stage supercharging with a new 5 bladed propeller to give shocking high speed and high altitude performance. Darrow was never involved in any dogfights but then also never had to carry in his conscience the confirmation that his actions resulted in the death of another man. To die while burning alive in a fighter cockpit whilst plummeting towards the Earth is not a pleasant experience to ponder. The squadron ended with 79 confirmed enemy aircraft shot down and the log reports tend to paint a one sided story of the Canadians trouncing the Germans at nearly every interaction. But one has to consider this was in the last year of the war. Germany had lost most of her experienced combat hardened pilots to the Eastern Front. Most of her new pilots wouldn’t even pass the Allies’ pilot school so limited was their training and so scarce was fuel for flying. The quality of the German planes being manufactured was low due to sabotage perpetrated by a slave work force and the need to rush aircraft to combat. Air and ground crews were being diverted to front line infantry units so there was not enough manpower to even maintain air worthiness. Despite having home field advantage, the Germans lost the war because in the end logistics wins wars. The Allies had to ship everything they needed across the Atlantic, but the fact is that they did. Every little thing. Much of it manufactured in North America. Much is still said today of the excellence and quality of German engineering but in war it was the North American standardization of manufacturing, the simplicity of repair and maintenance in design and the continuous level of quality that won the day. And the unsurpassed quantity. Canada alone manufactured 16,400 aircraft. Big cousin US made over 300,000 of them.
Still it was a dangerous job, Darrow had to contend with punishing antiaircraft fire from defended trains during ground attacks and once his squadron was jumped by long nosed Focke Wulf 190s diving classically out of the sun and he felt his Spitfire take hits. When he returned to base, he discovered one round had entered the radio set behind his seat. Another ½” laterally and it would have bounced off the armor plating inside the cockpit and likely entered the back of his seat and killed him.
There are two very interesting and mysterious reports in the 416 logs. On Christmas Day in 1944 Flying Officer A.G. Borland was shot down by an American P-47 Thunderbolt with USAAF markings. Then on March 31, 1945 a lone American P-51 Mustang also with proper USAAF markings approached the squadron and open fired on two Spitfires and both went down although both pilots managed to bail out and survived. It seems almost impossible not to recognize the profile of the iconic Spitfire or have it resemble any German fighter. And how can you miss the large RCAF roundels on the fuselage and wings? This was likely the work of the KG200, a Luftwaffe special operations unit that flew captured Allied aircraft for covert missions with German pilots that could also speak perfect English.
Fortunately Chuck Darrow had what some people referred to as a good war. As oxymoronic as that appears, it was true for many. The war rescued a whole generation of men from the misery and hopelessness of the Great Depression, fed them, trained them with new skills and gave the greatest generation a chance to reap the rewards of a radically industrialized post war Canada. Darrow had survived but not unscathed. He did have to crash land one of the squadron’s brand new Mark XVIs because of a runaway engine and inhaled a lot of smoke while crawling out of the flaming wreckage. I think his real personality surfaced with the war’s end as he was prepared to enjoy life to the fullest. Darrow and a friend were joy flying a captured Blucher 181 when he spied a German farmer shaking a fist in a universal gesture of profanity. He decided to buzz the field at low altitude to correct the farmer’s attitude but on pulling up realized he was about to hit some power lines and managed to fly just under them but clipping the top of the tail off. After being properly disciplined by the Squadron Leader he set off on in another Blucher to get a new tail but ran out of fuel and made a force landing on a narrow Dutch road leaping over several startled Jeeps and coming to a stop just before colliding with a large truck!
Darrow died last year at the age of 99 with his family by his side after living a successful and happy civilian life. The last surviving member of Squadron 416 RCAF.
It is indeed fitting that Chuck Darrow was also a life long watch collector, another intriguing conversation denied.
Most of you will have heard of the incredible new watch produced by Christoper Ward called the “Bel Canto”. It features a very reasonably sized 41mm face with beautiful design featuring the complication of a hourly mechanical chime for the price of well under $5k. Simply astounding. I had never heard of Christopher Ward and my understanding is that they are a UK microbrand that sells reasonably priced watches straight to the consumer. The “Bel Canto” is entirely sold out but still a watch a little too rich for my league so I wanted to see if what the preowned offering from this brand were available on eBay. And fortuitously came across this rare circa 2008 C4 Peregrine model with the Canadian Maple Leaf and the CF18 aircraft on the dial face
World War 2 happened a long time ago, and to some people too long ago to matter. They couldn’t be more incorrect. The wise man learns from the mistakes of his past, as should we all as a collective society here in the West if we want to preserve the freedoms and lifestyle that we have today. In 1938, Hitler manufactured a crisis by claiming the lives of millions of ethnic Germans living in neighboring Czechoslovakia in a region referred to as the Sudetenland were threatened by the Czechs. Czechoslovakia was a tyranny (it was a democracy), it was an illegitimate state, the nation was a fiction. Putin used almost these exact same words to describe Ukraine. The difference is that the West appeased Hitler in an effort to prevent all out war and Hitler annexed that region of Czechoslovakia without a bullet being fired. Czechoslovakia had a capable army, the best arms industry of that period and terrain that could be defended – if only the West had supported her. This time the West chose the correct response and averted the terrible future Putin and any number of other dictators would have inflicted onto the world.
Great article and great pictures !
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