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Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett C.B. C.B.E. D.S.O.

by Frank Tibbo

It is questionable whether enough thought was put behind the naming of some Gander streets. It is too bad that all of the streets don't fit in the same category as Bennett Drive. It was one of the best names that could have been selected.

Bennett's connection with Gander came with the challenge of getting bombers to Britain by flying them across the Atlantic. In 1967, Gander acquired an aircraft now envied by aviation museums all over the world. The aircraft, a Lockheed Hudson Bomber, now the property of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum, Gander, has the same paint scheme as the first one delivered overseas by Bennett. Bennett was the pilot, navigator and leader of a flight of seven.

Bennett was an Australian who, like his fellow countryman Harry Hawker, immigrated to England. He had joined the Australian Air Force in 1930; however, after completing his initial flying training, he left for Britain on transfer to the RAF. His first posting was No. 29 (Fighter) Squadron flying the Armstrong Whitworth Siskin. His next assignment was to No. 210 flying boat squadron whose Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader A.T. Harris (later wartime Commander of Bomber Command).

He was said to have a phenomenal memory – a factor which helped make him a whiz at navigation. He became a lecturer at the Navigation School at Calshot and later an instructor at the Flying Boat Training School. He seemed to have an insatiable appetite for anything connected with flying because he also studied radio and engines becoming a qualified radio operator as well as a ground engineer. In 1935 he left the RAF and the following year joined Imperial Airways, becoming captain of Short Calcutta, Kent and Empire flying boats on the Brindisi to Alexandria leg of the air route to India.

Don Bennett was hired by the major British airline, Imperial Airways, and was soon doing double duty on week-ends as a flying instructor for the airline – voluntarily – without pay. Bennett

Capt. Bennett became interested in transatlantic flight and was selected by Imperial Airways to fly the 'Mercury,' a small seaplane, launched from atop a large airborne flying boat 'Maia,' flown by Capt. A.S. Wilcockson. This was one of the experiments designed to increase the range and payload of aircraft. According to the Guinness Book of Aircraft Records Facts and Feats, Bennett holds the record for distance in a straight line for seaplanes. It was established by Bennett and First Officer I. Harvey in the Short-Mayo Mercury during 6-8 October 1938 at 5997.5 miles (9652 km). The flight which began in Dundee, Scotland, ended at the Orange River, South Africa. It also lists another record for Bennett: the first commercial – piggy-back flight across the Atlantic.

He re-joined the RAF in mid-1941 and was given command of No. 77 Squadron, which flew AW Whitleys in Bomber command. In 1942 he was given command of No. 10 Squadron equipped with the Handley Page Halifax.

Lord Beaverbrook, Canadian-born press magnate William Maxwell Aitken, Churchill's minister of aircraft production, was front and centre during the time when the British desperately needed bombers during World War II.

The idea of getting planes across the Atlantic by flying them across was NOT a popular idea. Bennett wrote in his memoirs that Air Marshall Sir Frederick Bowhill, when he was in charge of Coastal Command, had been emphatically denouncing the idea of the creation of the Atlantic Ferry Organization. He maintained that it would be absolute suicide to fly aircraft across the Atlantic from the American continent in winter. The Air Ministry and the RAF consistently fought against the creation of the Atlantic Ferry. Bennett wrote, "It was the Beaver and the Ministry of Aircraft Production who established it."

Beaverbrook knew of Bennett, now one of BOAC's foremost captains, and called him to his office. "Can you air-ferry planes from Canada to Britain?" asked Beaverbrook. Bennett didn't take long convincing Beaverbrook; then Beaver put him in charge of organizing the transportation of American and Canadian aircraft to Europe. (BOAC – British Overseas Airways Corporation was formed from the former British Imperial Airways.) Bennett asked for three other BOAC captains, A.S. Wilcockson, R.H. Page and I.G. Ross to be sent to Canada to set up the aircrew training program while he headed for Lockheed's plant in the USA to supervise modifications to Hudson Bombers that would give them extra range. Bennett told Beaverbrook he needed pilots and suggested that he recruit them in Canada and the U.S. Beaverbrook asked Trans Canada Airlines to engage 100 civilian pilots from North America between the age of 20 and 35, with not less than 350 hours of flying experience.

Bennett set up the Atlantic Ferry Organization (ATFERO) headquarters at St. Hubert in Montreal with bases established at Gander and Aldergrove in Northern Ireland.

The first group of Hudson aircraft were being prepared for the risky experiment. There were no extra navigators; therefore, Bennett decided that he would be the sole navigator in the lead aircraft and the other six aircraft would follow him. He also personally tested all of the pilots and radio operators – he was determined to prove Air Marshall Sir Frederick Bowhill wrong and justify the Beaver's (Lord Beaverbrook) confidence in him. On November 10, 1940, the seven Hudsons departed Gander led by Captain D.C.T. Bennett, and they arrived safely the following day at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland after a flight of 10 hours, 17 minutes. Of the 878 gallons of fuel in Bennett's tanks at take-off time, 250 gallons remained. The six other Hudsons of the flight followed Bennett – all landing safely in Ireland.

That small fleet composed the first of thousands of military aircraft to pass through Gander during the war years. The Hudson which Bennett flew on that first mission was christened 'Spirit of Lockheed-Vega Employees.' The final formation (four Hudsons) to Aldergrove was led by Capt. Bennett, arriving on December 29 in T9465, "The Spirit of Lockheed and Vega." By then more navigators had been trained and single-ferry flights were made, and the destination was changed to Prestwick due to its better weather record and the proximity to the preferred transatlantic air routes.

Bennett wasn't finished his heroics yet. The British, and everyone else it seemed, had an atrocious record of bomb accuracy, or at least they were not destroying very many targets. The solution was to have a good navigator lead the bombers to the target and then drop parachute flares on the target. Bennett's reputation as a top-notch navigator made him the prime candidate for the job, and he got the nod as the leader of the new RAF unit called the Pathfinder Force (PFF) based at East Anglia. The PFF was a group of skilled navigators flying stripped, unarmed machines which could race ahead of heavy bombers to pinpoint and mark target areas. Pathfinder became No. 8 Group in Bomber Command, and Bennett led the first bombing run on August 18, 1942, in a raid on a German submarine facility at Flensburg.

He was awarded the DSO after being shot down while leading a bombing attack on the German battleship Tirpitz in Aasfiord on the northernmost Norwegian fiords on the night of April 28 and 29, 1944. His aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, but he managed to evade capture and reach neutral Sweden, returning to Britain a month after being shot down. The strike force made up of Barracuda bombers of the Fleet Arm (Royal navy) scored fourteen hits and put the huge ship out of action for three months. By war's end the Path Finder force had expanded to a strength of 20 squadrons, equipped with the highly effective four-engine Avro Lancaster and twin-engine DH Mosquito. The force had flown a total of more than 50,000 operational sorties and had marked over 3400 targets for the main force.

Air Vice Marshall D.C.T. Bennett of the British Royal Air Force retired and entered politics for several years, but later he returned to civil aviation. In 1948 he was involved with the Berlin airlift. Bennett died September 15, 1986, one day after his 76th birthday.

The Hudson Bomber, T9422, located at the North Atlantic aviation Museum, civil registration CF-CRJ, was obtained from Kenting Aviation of Oshawa, Ontario. Kenting had been using it for photographic purposes. It arrived in Gander on May 14, 1967, flown by Captain Marsh B. Jones and co-pilot Hyderman. It was mounted on a pedestal near the end of Runway 09 as a memorial to Ferry crews. The Hudson Bomber was hoisted onto the pedestal by Ches Pittman operating the "Paul Bunyan."

The Hudson Bomber was there for 23 years until it was removed from the pedestal July 1990. It underwent extensive repairs and is now located at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum.

The inscription on the plaque:

ATLANTIC FERRY
PILOT MEMORIAL
AIR VICE-MARSHALL
D.C.T. BENNETT, C.B. C.B.E., D.S.O.
WAS THE CAPTAIN OF A LOCKHEED HUDSON BOMBER
WHICH DEPARTED GANDER 2233 GMT ON THE NIGHT
OF NOVEMBER THE TENTH, 1940, AND LANDED AT
ALDERGROVE IRELAND, 0845 GMT THE NEXT MORNING

THE AIRCRAFT HERE IS IDENTICAL TO THE ONE THAT
MADE THIS FLIGHT WHICH WAS THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL
TRANS ATLANTIC CROSSING FROM GANDER.

IT IS MOUNTED HERE ON THIS SITE IN COMMEMORATION
OF THAT EVENT AND THE MANY THOUSANDS OF MEN
AND AIRCRAFT WHO HAVE FOLLOWED SINCE THEN

BETTER BE NOT AT ALL THAN NOT BE NOBLE

There was no one more important and arguably no one as critical to the success of the RAF Ferry Command as Australian Donald C. Bennett. When the Town of Gander named Bennett Drive in his honour, it recognized the man that many regarded as a genius. He was pilot, navigator, radio officer, aero-engineer, and tactician all rolled into one.

And so it was quite fitting and appropriate that on October 26, 1967, he was invited to be the guest speaker when the Hudson Memorial was dedicated to the airmen who died in the service of ferry command.

Many will remember that prior to the Hudson Bomber being located on the grounds of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum, it was placed on a lovely rock pedestal on the airport’s ‘Burner Hill.’

The following is what Air Marshall D.C. Bennett said at the ceremony to dedicate the Atlantic Ferry Memorial:

“Nobody had ever flown the Atlantic in wintertime. It was quite impossible. And so we started the first flight just as winter set in – and set in it did. Because you know we arrived here – I can recall very clearly, on the ninth of November, to leave the same night. But when I saw the ice on the aircraft wings, heavy snow, we chipped and chipped for hours with hammers and odd tools and screwdrivers. We took a great deal of paint off the upper surfaces of the wings of our Hudsons, but it was quite impossible. And so we waited until the next night, the tenth, which of course, gave Mrs. Pattison the opportunity to present us all with poppies.

“Anyway, it was a great occasion, and strange as it may seem, everybody got over. It was a pity because it made Lord Beaverbrook more determined that we should continue to fly formations across the North Atlantic, and I can assure you in spite of Mr. McTaggert-Cowan here at Gander, the Atlantic weather was just not suitable for formation flying. And we carried it on only for a few months before we introduced the individual flights, each one carrying a navigator trained in the Canadian Air Training Scheme for navigators. A wonderful scheme, a wonderful contribution to our war effort, which ultimately made the major contribution in the defeat of Hitler. So Canada’s part in this venture was a very, very major one.

“Now my wife and I are terribly conscious of the enormous honour you are doing us today, to be selected to come to this great occasion, and we do appreciate it very, very deeply. But I would like to stress that we were just a tiny part of the whole. There are people here today, I’ve already mentioned of Gander Airport but there are others; in fact, there is at least one here who flew in these things and took part in the operations. So I am purely representing them here today. I admittedly have known Gander for a very long time. In fact, I seem to remember seeing it in the very early morning light one morning when I was flying in the seaplane Mercury. And what I have seen today has impressed me so much. I believe it is only the beginning of even bigger things to come.

Thank you all, ladies and gentlemen, for the honour you have done us, your kindness and hospitality, and congratulations on this great memorial. Thank you.”

Editors Note; See Book Review - Pathfnder by D. Bennett

Submitted by F. Tibbo

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