The Mail Birds Of Ottawa

RCAF aircrew with a B17 mail plane from Rockcliffe, Ottawa

RCAF aircrew in the desert pose with a B17 mail plane from 168Squadron Ottawa.

The thunderous sounds of radial engines, chirping tires and the activity of a bustling airport have since been replaced by a museum and the chirping of birds at Rockcliffe, but the remnants of this important World War Two airport still remain. In October of 1943 Rockcliffe airport became the site of 168 Heavy Transport Squadron which was formed to handle the large quantities of mail that needed to be delivered to personnel serving in the European and North African campaigns. 168 Squadron Rockcliffe became the site of a bustling hub of mail from across Canada that needed to be delivered to the troops and service personnel overseas. Love letters, family correspondence, birthday and holiday gifts as well as freight were all transported to the men and women far from home, boosting morale and keeping them connected to loved ones back home.

An overseas aircrew member removes mail from Canada out of the belly of a Rockcliffe B17

An overseas aircrew member removes mail from Canada out of the belly of a Rockcliffe RCAF B17

From the time it was created in 1943 to the time it was disbanded in 1946, Rockcliffe aircrew had delivered almost ten million letters and 2.5 million pounds of freight across the Atlantic to the European and North African theatres of war.

When the RCAF Rockcliffe mail service began, 168 Squadron was handed six well-worn, ex-United States Air Force training B17 bombers. These tired, old, used training planes were stripped of armour and modified to carry mail instead of bombs. Painting over the old USAF markings with new Royal Canadian Air Force paint schemes, the B-17s were then loaded with letters from families, wives and sweethearts from across the country. The mighty Flying Fortresses then carried their important morale boosting cargo across the Atlantic to the war raging in Europe and North Africa to their eagerly awaiting recipients in the field.

After unloading the thousands of letters overseas, the planes would re-load with return mail from the service personnel and head back to Rockcliffe for distribution across Canada. These Air Mail Birds made Rockcliffe a busy airport, with B17s coming and going week after week, through sleet and snow, the mail got delivered. After each successful mail mission, a mail bag “kill” was painted on the side of the fuselage.

RCAF aircrew paint a mailbag "kill" on the side of the B17 after another successful mail mission from Rockcliffe to the war in Europe/North Africa

RCAF aircrew paint a mailbag “kill” on the side of the B17 after another successful mail mission from Rockcliffe to the war in Europe/North Africa and back again.

However this mail run was not without danger, and tragically one day in December 1944 one of the B17s and its crew from Rockcliffe met an untimely end, just days away from Christmas….

CHRISTMAS TRAGEDY: B17-9203

In researching the history of 168 Squadron and its planes, I discovered that they operated a total of six B17 Flying Fortresses out of Rockcliffe. I managed to trace the serial numbers of each of the B17s and learn what happened to them. Most were either damaged or scrapped, but one in particular, #9203, went missing. This is the story of the missing B17, #9203.

Having delivered a load of Christmas mail to the troops in North Africa through an air base in Morocco, B17-9203 from Rockcliffe loaded up with return Christmas mail on December 15 1944. Pilot Horace Hillcoat and his crew of eight prepared the B17 to return home for the holidays with their precious Christmas cargo. Throttling up the four radial engines, Hillcoat lifted the mail-laden B17 into the Moroccan skies, heading for the Azores, then over to Newfoundland before reaching its destination at Rockcliffe, Ottawa. Leaving the African shoreline, Hillcoat powered the B17 across the Atlantic for the islands of the Azores some 1,500 km away. B17-9203 and its crew were never heard from again.

Map showing the flight path of Hillcoat's B17 heading back to Ottawa and where it was presumed to have disappeared.

Map showing the flight path of Hillcoat’s B17 heading back to Ottawa and where it was presumed to have disappeared.

After contact was lost with Hillcoat’s B17, a search and rescue mission scoured the area of the ocean where the plane could have disappeared. No signs of wreckage, survivors or debris were ever found, and there were no distress calls or radio contact made before the plane unusually disappeared. B17-9203 had simply vanished. Hillcoat and the crew were classified as “Missing”.

Was Hillcoat and his crew ambushed by attacking German Luftwaffe aircraft, sending them to a watery grave? Did the well-used B17 suffer a mechanical malfunction and Hillcoat had to unsuccessfully ditch his plane in the Atlantic?

There is not much information I could find about Hillcoat and his B17, however I did manage to discover a photo of his plane in its Rockcliffe 168 Squadron RCAF markings from a United States Air Force photo archive of B17s. The serial number “9203” is clearly marked on the nose of the aircraft.

USAF file photo of Hillcoat's B17-9203 painted in RCAF markings. Note serial number "9203" painted on the nose.

USAF file photo of Hillcoat’s B17-9203 from Rockcliffe painted in RCAF markings. Note serial number “9203” painted on the nose. It was on its way home when it disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean in 1944.

I also found a 1944 newspaper clipping from December 21 that reports the missing plane, with a listing of all those on board. It turns out that the pilot, Horace Hillcoat was actually the only crew member from Ottawa. He and his wife lived on Kirkwood Ave. in Westboro, and the house is still there today.

Newspaper article that reports the missing plane and all aboard.

Newspaper article that reports the missing plane and all aboard.

B17-9203 was never found and with the crew deemed missing, they joined the hundreds of other missing aircrew from World War Two that form the Commonwealth Aircrew Memorial for those missing in action. It is located here in Ottawa on Sussex Drive.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS: This story has a happy ending…another perilous B17 mission to Rockcliffe

On a cold November day in 1944, mere weeks before the disappearance of Horace Hillcoat and his B17, another B17 had a close Christmas call.

The pilot of a Rockcliffe B17, Flight Lieutenant Clark Ready, lifted his plane full of Christmas mail and presents from Canadian troops in Europe from a stopover in Stephenville, Newfoundland. He and the crew began their journey home to Rockcliffe, Ottawa. Without any incident during the long trip across the Atlantic, Ready suddenly found his landing gear was malfunctioning after take off. Without properly working landing gear, Ready and his crew were faced with two options, bail out or make a controlled crash landing without being able to lower the wheels.

Knowing the importance of his Christmas cargo, Ready made a swift decision as he approached Ottawa. Circling the skies above the city, Ready decided to land without landing gear. Burning off as much excess fuel as possible to reduce the chances of a fireball explosion upon impact, Ready braced himself and the crew to land at Rockcliffe without any landing gear down. Dropping in altitude, Ready piloted the mighty B17 down to the surface, screeching the aluminum fuselage across the icy ground, and in a flurry of snow, grinding metal, and bending propellors, the B17 came safely to a rest, with all crew and cargo safe and sound. Merry Christmas. Ready was later commended for his bravery and his decision that saved the aircraft, the crew and all Christmas mail aboard.

Farewell to The Fortress

After 240 flights across the Atlantic from Rockcliffe to to the war overseas, the old, hand-me-down B17s were retired from service and replaced by newer, more reliable and sturdy Consolidated B24 Liberator bombers. Sporting shiny new polished aluminum finishes, these B24s replaced the B17s in August of 1944 and continued operation until 168 Squadron was disbanded at Rockcliffe in April 1946.

A new B24 bomber ready for mail duty at Rockcliffe, Ottawa 1944.

A new B24 bomber ready for mail duty at Rockcliffe, Ottawa 1944.

168 Squadron Rockcliffe aircrew load a B24 with mail on a cold Ottawa day.

168 Squadron Rockcliffe aircrew load a B24 with mail on a cold Ottawa day.

Through sleet and snow, Rockcliffe aircrew made sure the mail was delivered to the troops overseas, and back to families in Canada. Here they work on the engines of the mighty B24 at Rockcliffe.

Through sleet and snow, Rockcliffe aircrew made sure the mail was delivered to the troops overseas, and back to families in Canada. Here they work on the engines of the mighty B24 at Rockcliffe.

Mail trucks load the B24 with mailbags on a winter's day at Rockcliffe Airport 1944.

Mail trucks load the B24 with mailbags on a winter’s day at Rockcliffe Airport 1944.

Same scene as above and how it looks today.

Same scene as above and how it looks today.

The airport hangers, runway and planes are all gone, but the ghosts of World War Two remain...

The airport hangers, runway and planes are all gone, but the ghosts of World War Two remain…

In addition to the 240 flights completed by the B17s, 332 mail missions were carried out by the new B24s. Mail continued to flow in and out of the busy airport, from moms to sons and sons to sweethearts all throughout the remainder of the war. When the war ended, Rockcliffe and its B24s continued to operate, with one very special B24 being modified for a special duty…

PART 2 – Rockcliffe’s VIP B24 – COMING SOON

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