(This story originally appeared as part of an earlier post from December 2013 HERE)
During World War 2, Ottawa’s Rockcliffe air base operated a total of six B17 Flying Fortress aircraft that were outfitted as transport “mailbirds” ferrying thousands of letters and packages between Canada and the fighting forces overseas in Europe. Tracing the serial numbers of each of the B17s I was able to uncover what happened to each of these mailbirds during their wartime mail missions. Most were eventually either damaged or scrapped, but one in particular, B17 Serial#9203, went mysteriously missing. This is the story of Ottawa’s lost B17…a MailBird Mystery.
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 during World War Two. 168 Squadron 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. B17-9203 had just delivered a load of Christmas mail to Canadian troops serving in North Africa through a Royal Canadian Air Force base in Morocco.
On December 15 1944 the aging B17 Flying Fortress from Ottawa, handed down from the United States Air Force, was loaded up with return Christmas mail bound for the Nation’s Capital. 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 of the B17, Hillcoat lifted the mailbird into the Moroccan skies, heading for the Azores, a small group of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. After a brief stop there, Hillcoat would then fly to Newfoundland before reaching his destination at Rockcliffe, Ottawa. Leaving the African shoreline, Hillcoat took the B17 across the Atlantic headed for the island airstrip some 1,500 km away. As they lost sight of the African coast, B17-9203 and its crew were never heard from again.
When contact was lost with Hillcoat’s B17, a search and rescue mission scoured the area of the ocean where the plane may have disappeared. Some mailbags were found floating on the surface of the ocean, but no other signs of wreckage, survivors or debris were ever found. No distress calls or radio contact was made before the plane 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 unsuccessfully ditched his plane in the Atlantic? Another theory is that the ill-fated B17 was shot down by anti-aircraft guns aboard a German U-boat prowling the waters below the B17. A number of German U-boats shot down Allied aircraft in the vicinity of the Azores, a fate that could have taken down Hillcoat’s aircraft. Numerous U-boats were also sunk by Allied anti-submarine patrols in that area with their sub crews taking their secrets and records to watery depths. It is quite possible Hillcoat’s B17 was shot down by one of these sunken U-boats with the story submerged along with it.
A 1944 newspaper clipping from December 21 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 of the eight aboard that was from Ottawa. He and his wife lived on Kirkwood Ave. in Westboro, and the house is still there today.
Hillcoat’s plane and its Christmas cargo were never found and with its crew still deemed missing, they join hundreds of other missing aircrew from World War Two on the Commonwealth Aircrew Memorial on Sussex Drive. The lost Christmas B17 from Ottawa continues to be an enduring mystery that may never be solved.
I am not the type who jumps to the conclusion there was a time warp or an alien abductcion or bermuda triangle mischief.
Great bit of history I like the site it is fantastic to read about the history of Ottawa
As I drove street cars in Ottawa as well as buses it would be nice to see some history of those days on street cars as well as buses if you have any history of them I am eighty years old
It would bring back a lot of good memories for me as well
Thanks a gan for the history
Hello Mr. Smith, thanks for reading and taking the time to putdown your comments…what a great part of history you were involved with driving Ottawa streetcars! If I cover the streetcars I’ll be sure to contact you. cheers -AK
Nice story but I would have appreciated if when you were visiting and photographing my house for the article you would have stopped by and said hello and maybe sought permission to publish it and my vehicle.
Hi Brad, thanks for reading and I’m sorry you did not like that your house was included as a part of history in that story…maybe you are not familiar with Google Maps Streetview that publishes almost every single house in the world on the world wide web…Not to worry, I have removed your part in this great story and when Google stops by your place and asks permission to have your house and vehicle included in Google Maps Streetview, please let me know. Cheerio!
Sad but a great article
Thanks for reading Jim.
I am the grandson of H.B. Hillcoat. Thank you for sharing this account of the events that lead to his disappearance/death. My mother was about 3 years old and my grandmother was pregnant with my aunt when this tragedy occurred. Both daughters grew up to be fine women.
Hi Travis, thanks so much for the kind note and link to the story. A tragic tale indeed and I’m sorry you never got to meet your grandfather. If you happen to have any photos of him and his service with the aircraft I would love to see them! Please email me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is not possible that a German aircraft shot down 9203. By December 1944 the Allies had liberated France and the nearest German air bases, in Bavaria or northern Italy, were at least 2000 km from the route from Morocco to the Azores which 9203 would have flown. The Junkers Ju 88G night fighter, the most suitable aircraft for such a mission, had a range of, at best, 2800 km. This was woefully insufficient for a round trip of some 4000 km, and it would also have needed to carry enough fuel to patrol its assigned patrol area for a worthwhile period of time. Furthermore, the Germans were very short of fuel and disparately needed to employ every night fighter to fight the Allied night bombing attacks on targets in Germany. So there is no way that 9203 was shot down by a German aircraft.
Thanks for taking the time to reply with this detailed report. As mentioned, it was merely a theory as to what happened, and so the mystery continues.
Thanks for releasing my 17 December post. I actually have a second comment on the same article, which your site did not allow me to upload until my first one was posted:
Further to my first comment, it is certainly not “quite possible” that 9203 was shot down by a German U-boat. While a very small number of U-boats did operate off Gibraltar between October 1944 and February 1945 (see http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/ETO/Ultra/SRH-008/SRH008-12.html), and one was located northeast of the Azores in December 1944, none of them appear to have been stationed along the route you give for 9203. Furthermore, a B-17 flying a long distance flight would have flown at a high enough altitude that it would have been beyond the effective range of a U-boat’s 37mm and/or 20mm anti-aircraft guns. (The 88mm deck gun could not engage aircraft.) In any case, U-boats engaged enemy aircraft only if they attacked the U-boat and there was no time to dive. All of the Allied aircraft shot down by U-boats earlier in the war, which you refer to, were lost while attacking U-boats. To sum up, there is no way that 9203 was shot down by a German aircraft or a U-boat.
People frequently post theories about historical events which are later shown to be implausible (I have done so myself), so I’m not trying to be critical of you here, but it concerns me that three years ago Hillcoat’s grandson read your article, may now think that his grandfather died through enemy action, and will not see my comments. He must have submitted his email address three years ago when he posted his comment, so I would urge you to email him now and draw his attention to my posts. Please feel free to share my email address with him if he’d like to contact me.