The Biggs' Boys

By Ken Stofer

Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

Biography of Robert V. Ostler, DFC

Aircrew, 151 Sqdn, 409 Sqdn RCAF, 15 Sqdn, 218 Sqdn, RAF/RCAF

   It was during the Depression and times weren't too good. I had left high school and was working for Hoyle Brown a wholesale distributor on Wharf Street in Victoria, B.C.

    I had always had in the back of my mind the desire to fly. At that time it wasn't possible to become a pilot in the Canadian Airforce unless you had a university degree. Nearly every week there were names and photographs in the Daily Colonist newspaper of guys leaving Victoria to go and join the R.A.F. It mentioned they were going through the help of Captain Henry Seymour-Biggs.

    Upon inquiry I learned that if you had matriculation one could certainly become a pilot in the RAF. I guess one thing led to another. Joe Brown, a school friend, and I used to pal around at that time. He lived over on Quadra St. We talked a lot about the RAF and it all sounded so romantic and everything. Joe wasn't working anywhere and I wasn't that enthralled with my job at that time so we decided to go and see Biggs.

    I first met him in an office he had on Government Street. Later, one Sunday, he invited me out to his home, which was in Oak Bay at that time. I went there a very naive kid and talked to him. It sounded great.

    My parents scraped together enough money to pay my fare from Victoria to Seattle by CPR steamer and then by rail from Seattle to New York. Joe and I boarded the S.S.Deutschland, destination Liverpool, England. War with Germany was imminent. At sea we had the unique experience of being told by the ship's captain that we were going straight to Germany to dock in Hamburg where we would probably be interned. A great way to start my RAF career I thought. Luck was with us however and for some reason we docked at Liverpool as was originally intended.

    An emissary from the RAF came aboard and we were taken in tow. The next thing I knew I was at Uxbridge getting all of my hair cut off.

    I did my square-bashing there, after which I was sent down to St. Athan, South Wales, to do my flying training. I was eventually posted to 151 Hurricane Squadron stationed at Northweald. They had just come off of operations and went to Digby on rest. I was with them at Digby for a couple of weeks and then posted to Colby Grange. to join 409 Canadian Squadron which was being formed overseas. We lived in tents. Colby Grange was a grass field, a satellite aerodrome while Digby had runways. It was a bloody mud hole.

    There wasn't anyone there to speak of, just myself, a Flying Officer Barris, the Engineering Officer, and the adjutant, whose name escapes me. Eventually however people started to trickle in; ground crew staff people and what not. Then the C.O. arrived; a big, tall, good-looking Canadian named Wing Commander Peterson. He had been Chief Flying Instructor in Canada at one time. He was a real nice guy. Then we started to get our aircraft, Beaufighters Mark V. Then the aircrew came in and we commenced our training killing a lot of guys in short order.

    The Beau V had a very serious defect. Handled improperly it used to go into a flat spin and if you were under 5,000 feet you couldn't get them out in time. Guys were going in all over the place, so they grounded the aircraft and did some tail modifications. They actually turned out to be the mod version Beaufighter Mark VI which were far superior and didn't have that problem.

    The Beau was primarily used for nightfighting - heavily armed with 20 mm. cannons in the nose and four machineguns in one wing and two in the other. The observer hand-loaded the 20 mm cannon with drums stowed inside the aircraft. My time here was uneventful.

    I was posted to #27 air flying school in Johannesburg, South Africa, for about 18 months. I still kept in touch with 409 because I had made many friends there. I think they later went on to Mosquitoes and became quite a famous squadron.

    A strange incident occurred while I was in South Africa. My mother didn't receive any mail from me for over a year and was going frantic. I learned later it wasn't being forwarded as arranged with our postal system at the camp. Strangely enough my mother had gone to a fortune teller who read her tea cup. She said don't worry about your son, he is perfectly okay. He is in a place where there are native people. They are very short and they wear conical hats... and, I was. These were the Bantu people and they wore those conical woven hats. It was just so bloody accurate, incredible...I met this woman fortune teller after the war.

    On my return from South Africa I was posted to 16 M.U. at Chester. I was there about six months air testing beat up aircraft that had been rebuilt. I flew everything. I would fly singles in the morning, Hurricanes, Spits or whatever and multi-engine in the afternoon. I became a little intrigued by this.

    The war had progressed. All the major fighter activity had taken place at the beginning of September/ October through the winter and into the summer of the next year and I missed all that. I thought it would be kind of interesting to fly heavies. I did a concourse on Wellingtons and was posted to 15 Squadron at Mildenhall (Cambridge). Mildenhall was a permanent force RAF Station, in fact it was the take-off aerodrome for the England to Australia air races in better times. This was in 3 Group, the same group as Wing/Co Guy Gibson V.C. of the immortal Dam Busters raid, May 16/17,1943).

    It was a Special Duties group, with Gibson doing all the dams. We bombed a hell of a lot of ball-bearing factories and stuff like that. It was a very good squadron. I flew Stirlings. God, what an aircraft - something like 23 feet to the ground when sitting in the cockpit. A crank-up tail wheel. I couldn't believe those things. I did five trips on Stirlings and then we got the Lancs. I flew Lancs. for the rest of the war.

    I lost Jack Holt, my bomb-aimer on the 13th trip which was bloody unlucky for him. We were doing a run-in on a daylight target in the Ruhr Valley, I think it was Cologne. We were on the bomb run and the bombs didn't leave the aircraft. We didn't get any answer on the intercom from Jack so we had to go around again and I sent the wireless operator down to see what the hell was the matter. He was dead. A piece of flak had gone in the corner of his eye and out the back of his neck and he was killed instantly. This adds to my story because as a result we did 13 more trips than we otherwise would have. I got a new crew guy, who at the end of our tour didn't want to get transferred to another crew to finish up his tour of ops. so we collectively agreed we would fly on with him until he was finished as well. One daylight raid to Leipzig in the summer of `44' I was flying in very tight formation with an Australian. He had just married a WAAF on the station three weeks before. We had "cookies" on board - 4,000-pounders and incendiaries and 500's. He (the Australian) got a direct hit in the bomb bay and just disappeared in the explosion. I was tucked in so close that it blew out both of my motors on the port side and took off one tail plane. We were on the run in and my bomb bay doors were open and remained jammed open. An oxygen mask from one of his crew embedded in my port wing, on the leading edge.

    The concussion split my cooling systems and I lost all my glycol. White smoke poured out the port motors and I had to feather. The whole goddam flight was disappearing in the distance and I was limping along on two motors, getting predicted flak and just getting the hell kicked out of me. I couldn't take much evasive action. All round it was a hell of a mess. One of the crews ahead who could see our predicament turned around and came back. God bless 'em. They were about 1,000 feet above me. I couldn't see any markings on the aircraft.

    They came back over the top of us, turned on to our course and started dropping "window" and stayed with us until they had none left. This buggered up the predicted flak on the ground and got us out of there. Gerry had been zeroed right in and was beating the hell out of us. It was just a matter of time because each burst was much closer than the last. Thanks to that unknown crew we got out. We were too badly beat up to get home. We were continually losing height and I had to land on a soccer field about 30 miles from Vught in Holland. This near tragedy had its funny side. The crew were in brace positions and by this time I'm bringing this thing in on one motor, my starboard inner. We'd had a run-a-way prop on the starboard outer and, luckily, that Lancaster will fly on one motor believe it or not. I'm coming in with wheels up. There was a drainage ditch at the end of the field about five feet deep and four feet wide. We ploughed right through breaking off the perspex in the nose and scooped up the mud until I was buried in the cockpit. I was sitting there yelling "Are you guys alright? Are you guys alright?" No answer - I clear the mud out of my eyes and ooze my way up to sight the area around and I see the crew running like hell down the field. I guess they thought we were going to blow.

    Also funnily enough we had landed in the middle of an artillery barrage between the New Westminster Regiment and the Gerries.

    We used to "mark" a lot of our own targets. We were equipped with all sorts of gadgets like G S and H2S. On this particular night I was target marking. No one was supposed to be over the target other than ourselves and we were about to mark the target with flares. The target was Dresden as far as I can recall. We arrived right over target on our ETA, and prepared to drop flares.

    We hadn't actually dropped a single flare, when all of a sudden all hell broke loose. Evidently a squadron had come in early and 500 feet higher and let everything go on an unmarked target.

    To this day I don't know who the hell they were. But the end result was they put two incendiaries inside the aircraft, two 500-pounders through my port wing and one through my starboard wing. I lost 800 gallons of gas. In ten minutes the bloody gauges had flopped. We had two fires burning. I could taste gas in my mouth. But we never blew up. The crew shovelled one incendiary through the rear escape hatch and the other one never went off. I still have the nose cone at home which I intend to have bronzed one day. The arm was taken off my chair, it wiped out our auto pilot and we were in a real mess.

    I could look out at the port wing and there were holes in it that a guy as big as I am could walk through. Why the bloody wing didn't fall off I don't know. We were in big trouble. The plane was still flying and I still had full control, but there was no way I was going to get back to England. I didn't have enough fuel to get halfway back. I'll never forget that date, November 4, 1944. It's indelibly written in my mind.

    Mac, my navigator set a course for a British aerodrome in occupied France called B 26, designated B for British. We started back and about halfway there we were picked up by German nightfighters. I couldn't take evasive action. I knew if I started to corkscrew I would lose a wing. They made two runs at us. The kite got hit but without more serious damage than we already had. Nobody was wounded.

    Without being able to take evasive action we were just dam lucky that's all. Thank God there was a layer of 10/10ths cloud below us and I just slid the Lanc over very carefully into the cloud and evaded them.

    Mac was one of the best navigators you could wish for. He was deadly accurate and got us back on course. What we didn't know was that we had lost our antenna. We could send but we couldn't receive.

    Our call went out "MAY DAY! MAY DAY!" We were "May Day-ing" our fool heads off and getting no response and yet Mac was absolutely certain we were dead over the top of the base B 26.

    We were now down to 1200 feet and running on an oily rag as the saying goes. There was nothing in the tanks. I was just about to bail the crew out. I couldn't leave it any longer or they wouldn't make it. Suddenly there was a light from the ground. I gambled and went around again and saw a second one come on and as soon as the second one was gone I came in and landed. Apparently B 26 had had a power failure. They had received our MAY DAY! and were talking back to us, but without our antenna we didn't receive anything.

    I put the Lanc. down and before we got to the end of the runway all four fans quit turning. They towed us off with a tractor and wrote the aircraft off on the spot.

    I wanted to get back to England as soon as I could. The base commander said I could deliver a DC 3 to an American base in the south of England. I got halfway across the channel and two American DC 3's came in and formatted and I wished to God they would bugger off, but they stayed with us because they were going to the same place.

    The DC 3 flies like a rock. They're a good old aircraft and they have proven themselves, but I never realized they had such a steep approach. I made two overshoots before I landed.

    I had gone down on the 4th of November and of course my parents were notified I was missing. A wonderful thing happened. All my family were sitting down to Christmas dinner when there was a knock on the door. It was a telegram to say I was safe. It was delivered by hand on Christmas Day, which I thought was incredible. I still have that telegram.

    It was that Dresden trip that earned me my citation (the DFC), but I didn't get up to Buckingham Palace for it.

    It wasn't until I was back in Canada in 1945 when the Lieutenant Governor of B.C. presented it to me in Vancouver. I didn't go back to 15 Squadron. They sent me to 218 Squadron. I did a couple of familiarization flights there to get used to the general approaches and what-not, to that particular field. They had the latest version Lancs and everything, but I didn't feel happy at all. I don't know what it was, some kind of a premonition I guess, but I wasn't happy. It was just a feeling I had about the place. I had no idea why. I didn't want to fly for 218 Squadron. It was the strongest goddam feeling I have ever had in my life, that if I flew out of that aerodrome I was not going to make it. I went to see the C.O. At that time I was well over 36 or 37 ops. I could have come off. We were doing these extra ops. now because Ballantyne had taken Jack Holt's place. I told the C.O. I was willing to continue flying ops., but I didn't want to fly from this aerodrome. He asked what's the matter? I said I don't know, I just don't want to fly off this aerodrome. I want to go back to my old squadron. Had he said no, I would have had only two options, either to fly out of there or say I'd had enough, which was something I didn't want to do. He was very understanding. A hell of a nice guy. He arranged it.

    I went back to 15 Squadron and was supernumerary to the S/Ldr who had replaced me in my absence. But they let me fly on until I finished as supernumerary on the squadron which was really neat. I was quite happy to continue there right to the end. It was a good squadron. I guess in retrospect I had a pretty rough tour.

    I often wonder what happened to a couple of agents I flew into Norway. I considered it quite an honour. Each agent was delivered to the aircraft by the C.O., prior to the crew going out and would be on board when we came out to the dispersal. I never saw them or spoke to them. We went as a single aircraft on both occasions and did a time and distance run from a little lake in Denmark and into Norway. At a given point the agent bailed out.

    On VE-Day I was standing in front of Buckingham Palace. A day I'll never forget. Months earlier I had applied for transfer to the R.C.A.F., for obvious reasons, the pay for one thing. I had tried for a long time to make the switch. Nothing had ever come of it. I had given up trying.

    Then in May of 1945 a signal came through to our orderly room saying, "Why hasn't this man transferred?"

   I thought, 'Talk about bureaucratic boondoggle,' so I went down to London and got that straightened out and got myself transferred. I wanted to get home. It had been many years since I left home. I volunteered to go to the Far East and this move of course got me back to Canada. I was on my way to a Repatriation Depot in Lancashire. Everything I had accumulated in six years, all of my personal possessions, were in a big tin trunk. There were things I had picked up in Africa. A pair of wooden shoes and a silver bracelet made with Dutch Guilders I had obtained in Holland; all the stuff you would expect a guy in the services to collect - and my prized possession, my log book.

    I boarded the train at Kings Cross with all I owned; a little shoulder bag for shaving kit etc.; a duffel bag; and the tin trunk. My tin trunk and duffel bag went in the baggage car. The conductor assured me it would go right through and I wouldn't have to worry about it. I fight my way into a compartment to find a seat because I didn't want to stand up. I stood up once from Edinburgh to London, and I didn't want to do that again. It was an overnight train trip. I got my head down and went to sleep. I wake up at my destination the next morning to learn that the baggage car has been shunted off at Crewe with everything I own. All I have is what I stand in; my uniform, shoes and a little shoulder bag with my shaving kit.

    I missed three sailings back to Canada trying to find my possessions. My name was on my log book and other things in the trunk that indicated who I was, my squadron, and my home address in Canada.

    After I arrived in Canada my cousin in London spent two years looking for my baggage and it has never been found. I hated to lose it all but the thing I miss most of all is the log book. I guess you could say for any pilot it's his heart and soul - it was my recorded flying life, just down the drain, and of no use to anyone else. If they had taken the mementoes I had collected and just mailed me my log book, that would have been okay by me.

    I went to Jericho Beach (Vancouver). While I was at Jericho the Americans did their thing with the A-bomb and WW 2 was over which didn't displease me at all. My brother was home from the navy, so he and I went down to Seattle for a week. We were there on V-J Day and in uniform which added to another thrilling and emotional experience.

    In 1970 I visited England and looked up some of my crew. Les Hamilton and Bill Hands and I and my two gunners. Jimmy Gibson, the Australian and had gone back to Australia and so he wasn't there. We couldn't find Mac McCullock my navigator or Ballantyne the bomb aimer. But Les, the two gunners and I had a hell of a two weeks.

    We went up to Mildenhall by car. The Americans have the station now and I was shocked. Mildenhall was an absolutely marvellous old station - the mess all covered in ivy and the furniture, beautiful and the ante room, but oh what a change - ugh! The Americans were incredibly nice to us when they found out who we were. They made us so welcome, but oh what they had done to Mildenhall. I couldn't believe it - Slot machines in the ante room and an 18-hole golf course down the runway - skeet shooting - AND, they even had the unmitigated gall to put a modern addition on to the Bird-in-Hand, which was our pub just down the road. It is hundreds of years old. They had put in bloody jute boxes.

    I have fond memories of the Bird-in-Hand. I had fallen heir to an old Humber car. It belonged to a guy who used to room with me. He had been shot down and killed I think. The pact was that this thing was mine if he didn't come back. It wasn't licensed or bugger all else. It didn't have any brakes or headlights. We siphoned gas from aircraft and strained it through gas masks. It was great fun and that's how we got round. We used to go down to the Bird-in-Hand in it with one guy hanging out the window with a flashlight, and when we got to the pub we just ran into the hedge to stop, because there were no brakes on the thing.

    I have extremely fond memories of the R.A.F. and the people I met and knew and the guys that became closer than brothers. It was a period in my life I have never regretted.

----- Robert V. Ostler, DFC

[Ostler was the Mayor of Campbell River, British Columbia until 1990. He now runs a travel office]

Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

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