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A Brief History of the Canadian Artillery Air Observation Post1



A significant problem faced by artillery observers was how to bring fire quickly and accurately on to a target that was obscured by natural features or the smoke and dust of the battlefield. For many years it had been apparent that some form of air observation was needed to supplement what could be seen from the ground. In 1911, the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed, and this unit, with the primitive aeroplane of that day, was used for reconnaissance and observation of artillery fire. Although most of the air observation duties of the first World War were carried out by balloons, improvements in aircraft and techniques gradually took place until by 1939 there were Army Cooperation Squadrons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) whose duties were to provide the following types of reconnaissance: Tactical (Tac/R) Artillery (Arty/R) Photographic (Photo/R) Contact (Contact/R). These squadrons were equipped with Lysander aircraft and did valuable work during the Battle of France, 1939-40. The aircraft were mostly engaged on Tac/R sorties, but were flown by RAF pilots trained to do Arty/R shoots. Because of the nature of their equipment and the tactics employed, losses were very heavy. One could not fly a slow flying aeroplane at 5000 to 6000 feet over enemy territory without running a great risk of being shot down. Moreover, these squadrons were based on RAF airfields, resulting in a considerable time lag between the initiation of a request for a sortie and the appearance of the aircraft in the forward area. In spite of many experiments conducted with the RAF no practical solution was discovered and it became obvious to many Gunners that some form of aerial observation, under the control of the Artillery, was an absolute necessity. But a solution to please both the RAF and the Royal Artillery was not easily reached.

In 1942 a compromise was made with the RAF who agreed to equip 12 squadrons with Auster aircraft, loan ground crews to maintain them and train artillery officers as pilots. Administration of the squadrons was to be such that it permitted the Army full Operational Control. This set-up was contrary to all RAF doctrine, for here were Army pilots, in slow and low flying aircraft, carrying no armament, relying on natural features for cover, landing anywhere, and not even wearing a parachute. The first of the new squadrons went into action after the First Army landed in North Africa: 651 Squadron assembled its aircraft at Algiers, flew up to the front near Medjez and successfully operated under difficult and hazardous air conditions, proving that Air OP was practicable, even when the RAF was having a hard time maintaining air superiority. 651 Squadron was soon joined by 654 Squadron, which quickly proved its worth in support of the Eighth Army in North Africa and again in the Italian campaign. Air OP had proven their value on the battlefield and was now here to stay.

The first indication of the intention of forming Canadian Air OP squadrons came in September 1941 when RCA officers, Captains D.R. Ely, R.R. MacNeil and R.A. Donald, were sent on a nine month Air OP training course . After completing the course, Canadian military authorities decided against the formation of Canadian Air OP squadrons and the three trained officers were

1 For a full account of the genesis and history of the Canadian Air Observation Post – see Canada’s Flying Gunners: a history of the Air Observation Post of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, Fromow, ISBN 0-9730055-0-5.

2 Air OP in fact had its roots from WWI. See Canada’ Flying Gunners, p21 and RCHA – Right of the Line, note that on 15 June, 1916 both batteries of the RCHA Brigade stationed near St Pol in France, trained with observers spotting from aircraft, the RCHA’s first known instance of working with a flying OP.


loaned to the British to fill vacancies in squadrons being formed in England. Three months before the entry of Canadian troops in the Mediterranean theatre, the three officers were withdrawn from the British squadrons and posted to the 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. During the attack on Ortona, in December 1943, Captain Donald was killed and Captain MacNeil captured. As the Italian campaign continued, it became obvious to senior Canadian Army officers that Air OP squadrons were a necessary part of a modern army and, in June 1944, the Commander of the First Canadian Army recommended, and the War Cabinet authorized, the formation of Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Canadian Air OP Squadrons RCA. Major Ely was given the responsibility of organizing these units. In September 1944, it was decided to follow British precedent in the command and control of these squadrons. On the recommendation of the Army Commander, the War Cabinet re-authorized the three units as squadrons of the RCAF; Nos. 664, 665 and 666 (Air OP) Squadrons, with the pilots to be drawn from the Artillery. The squadrons were formed under RAF Fighter Command's No. 70 Group and trained at No. 43 Operational Training Unit to observe artillery fire from the air and coordinate correction orders by the manoeuvring of the aircraft. The first group of RCA officers selected for Air OP training came primarily from established regiments in England and numbered about 32. Twenty-six officers passed the RAF medical board in London and returned to Nos. 1 and 2 Canadian Army Reinforcement Unit (CARU) to await further instructions. A one week signal course started at No. 1 CARU on June 18, 1944, and after that the group went to the Canadian School of Artillery (Seaforth, Sussex) for a two week pre-Air OP course consisting mostly of miniature range and ground shoots. Twenty-five officers passed this course and on July 14th proceeded to No. 22 Elementary Flight Training School at Cambridge to learn how to fly. The course entailed approximately 120 hours of basic flying with the Tiger Moth aircraft. Flying was new to the majority and everybody was very keen and interested, if not a little apprehensive. The course ended on September 18th and after a week's leave the officers reported to No. 43 OTU, RAF Station Andover. Training there consisted of conversion to Auster MK 4 aircraft, air strip and field landings, ground and air shoots, and Air OP tactical exercises (the average course length was 85 flying hours on the MK 4). The course ended on December 18th and wings were presented by the AOC 70 Group RAF the following day. The first Canadian Air OP Squadron was now ready to be manned.

No. 664 (RCAF) Air OP Squadron mobilized on December 1st, 1944, to form up at RAF Station Andover effective 9 December, 1944. As previously stated, the units being formed were controlled by the Army but administered and serviced by the RCAF. Details of squadron organization were worked out between an air force adjutant and an army battery sergeant-major. The problems of supply were handled by an air force equipment officer and an army quarter-master sergeant. The main party of RCAF ground personnel assigned to 664 Squadron were loaned to No. 43 OTU to gain experience on Austers pending the arrival of the Squadron's aircraft. None of these personnel had ever worked on Austers before, many of them coming from Lancaster squadrons. To simplify clothing problems, RCAF Headquarters authorized the airmen of 664 Squadron to wear khaki battle dress instead of the traditional blue. Major Ely spent one month with 664 Squadron before relinquishing command to Major D.W. Blyth on 21 January, 1945. On 22nd January 1945, No. 665 Squadron was stood-up with Major Ely taking command for another month, just to get things off on the right foot. He again passed on his job as CO to Major N.W. Reilander on 4 March 1945; he then walked down the flight line at Andover to take command of the newly formed 666 Squadron on the 5th of March.

No. 664 Squadron arrived on the European continent on 20 March 1945. As part of No. 84 Group (Second Tactical Air Force), but under Artillery control, it flew almost 500 sorties during the fighting for Arnhem and the drive through northern Holland and Germany. No. 665 Squadron joined the Canadian Army in April, just in time to get in a bit of shooting in at the end of the war. Unfortunately, 666 Squadron did not arrive in Europe until after the cessation of hostilities and missed out on the action.3

General Employment of Air OP

As a general rule, sorties would be ordered only for a specific task: aircraft would not be ordered into the air merely on the chance that they might see something. Sorties were generally of short duration and were flown no higher and no farther forward than was necessary to accomplish the mission. These rules had to be followed to minimize the risk of aircraft being shot down, and to lessen pilot fatigue. Fixed times and distances cannot be rigidly followed, but an average sortie might last 20 to 30 minutes, flown at a height not exceeding 1000 feet, 1000 yards short of the enemy forward lines. Under conditions of air superiority these rules could be relaxed to the point where, as in Korea, Air OP were used at times on a continuous patrol, and sorties lasted up to three hours and were flown at heights up to 12,000 feet. Moreover, until the enemy commenced to deploy light anti-aircraft guns well forward, sorties were often flown behind the enemy lines. One of the most serious limitations to Air OP was weather, since bad weather not only made flying unsafe but also cut down visibility, making observation impossible. For the same reason, sorties were not normally flown at night. However, in good weather, under conditions of half moon or better, night shooting by Air OP could be quite effective. Within a division, the complete flight normally operated from a flight landing ground in the vicinity of HQ RCA. It was possible to detach sections to operate from section landing grounds under command of field regiments. This literally gave the Field Regiment Commander his own Air OP, but it deprived the Flight Commander of a large measure of control of his unit and, more important, it was much less economical in aircraft, pilots and flying time than if all sections were concentrated. Landing strips were usually fields or roads, which, depending on the weather and the nature of the ground, were often usable without assistance from Engineers. If the strip was to be used for any length of time or if there was much rain, it would normally require smoothing and levelling, drainage, and possibly the laying of Summerfelt tracking to prevent the aircraft becoming mired and unable to take off. In general, an Air OP strip was 250 yards long, in the direction of the prevailing wind, fairly smooth, level and firm, clear of obstacles at both ends, with room and cover for vehicles and aircraft.

The role of Air OP was threefold: the observation and adjustment of artillery fire, air photography, and reconnaissance. In its primary function of directing fire, the Air Op was normally flown at tree-top height or lower, pulling up abruptly to observe the fall of shot and then returning to low level to order the correction and to await the next report of “shot” from the guns. The reason for these nap-of-the-earth flying tactics is that the aircraft was most difficult for the enemy to see, either from the ground or from the air. Moreover, if attacked by an enemy fighter, the best defence of the Air OP was to fly at very low level in areas where it was difficult and dangerous for high-speed aircraft to manoeuvre. All aspects of the sortie were performed

3 For detailed employment during hostilities see Canada’s Flying Gunners, Chapter 4.

solely by the pilot; that is, he flew the aeroplane, conducted the shoot, operated the radio and did his own navigation and map reading. Indeed he was often the sole occupant of the aeroplane; however, in conditions of enemy air activity, it was normal to carry a rear observer. This man was usually a volunteer selected from the ground-crew of the section, and his sole duty in the aircraft was to watch for and warn the pilot of the approach of enemy fighters. In the photography role, Air OP was capable of taking both vertical and oblique photographs. This did not in any way supplant the services of the RCAF, but was intended to supplement these services. Vertical photography was not properly an Air OP task, since most of the photographs required were of enemy territory, and it was to say the least, foolhardy for an Air OP type aircraft to fly slowly over enemy-held ground at a height of 5000 to 10,000 feet. Low level oblique photos were a different matter. These could normally be taken from within our own lines and at a safe (i.e. low) altitude. Moreover, the pilot was usually familiar with the ground and understood the problem of the ground forces, and this was often reflected in the quality of the photographs. In the reconnaissance role, a sortie might have been requested for the purpose of gaining information by looking into any area which could be better seen from the air than from the ground. The main limitation was, of course, the depth of observation possible into enemy territory. While carrying out this task, the Air OP normally had artillery on call for targets of opportunity.4

664, 665 and 666 Air OP Squadrons (RCAF)

Although Canada's three Air OP Squadrons had but a brief existence in the European theatre, the action could often be fast and furious. Excerpts from the three Canadian squadron's War Diaries and Daily Logs help to provide an inside view of day to day operations.

  • From 664 Squadron's Diary (The Phantom Auster Story): “April, 1945 B. Flight was seeing some real action with 5 Division south of Arnhem. They were doing a lot of shooting, sometimes having to fly as high as 7000 ft to see over the huge smoke screen we layed. Bill Hagarty had a rather novel shoot, sinking a barge on the river with a 5.5" gun. An incident with nearly disastrous consequences occurred. Bill Hagarty had been shot up by an Auster a/c while doing a shoot. This happened twice. There was an unfounded rumour about that the Germans were flying a captured Auster in the area. Bill got the “wind up” and the Flt Comd, George Nixon, complained to Div and 84 Gp. The pilots decided that the next time they were attacked they would call up the ALG on the radio and then try to lure the stranger over the ALG where someone would be waiting with a Bren gun. The next day Hagarty was again chased. He attempted to shoot the stranger with a .45, through his window, but succeeded in holing his own wing. He called up the ALG on the set and then lured the other kite over the strip at about 300 feet. Capt Mike Henderson had the Bren gun ready and fired a whole 30 round magazine into the bottom of the stranger a/c (whose number was doped over). The a/c faltered but was able to fly away. Hagarty followed him and he landed on a 661 RAF AOP Squadron Strip.

4 Air OP during WWII was considered an Army, Divisional or Corps level resource, consequently the pilot was usually “Authorized” to fire targets that warranted regimental or higher formation (Division, Corps or Army) treatment. It was significant that the Artillery pilot understood artillery fire planning at all levels beyond the simple quick neutralization shoot.

  • Ensuing investigation revealed that the enemy pilot was Capt Len Selva, RA, who had been an instructor at 43 OTU Andover. He was not amused”.

And the other half of the story. ...

From 661 Air OP (RAF) Squadron's Diary: “10 April, 1945 (Capt L.V. Selva, RA (B Flight), whilst on a mission in the ARNHEM area was attacked by CAPT HAGARTY of 664 CDN AIR OP SQN in another AUSTER. Both believed the other to be a phantom Auster rumoured to be in the district and flown by an ENEMY pilot. CAPT HAGARTY fired his revolver and verey pistol at CAPT SELVA's aircraft but failed to shoot him down, or later shake him off his own tail. CAPT HAGARTY wirelessed back to his ALG, Shoot the bastard off my tail with the BREN. This the ground crew proceeded to do and succeeded in hitting CAPT SELVA's machine which luckily remained flyable and was landed safely at the latter's ALG. After apologies all round the incident was considered closed”. Lt "Suds" Sutherland and B Flight, 664 Squadron.

From 665 Squadron's Diary:

  • “5 May, 1945 A Flt were more fortunate in their delegated task and saw a good deal more action and movement than the remainder of the Squadron. From Gilze, Holland, they first moved to an ALG at Papenburg in Germany where they joined 1 Polish Armoured Div. By a succession of moves they eventually arrived near Wilhelmshaven, at Jever Airfield. The station commander officially surrendered to Capt Scandrett as the flight was the first unit to reach this airfield. The officers of the Flt moved into the Officers' Mess, which still housed the German Commander and his officer staff. Hangars filled with German machines were cleared and the Austers trundled in”.

From 666 Squadron's Diary:

  • “May, 1945. As May began, the 1st Canadian Army, the British 2nd Army, various American Armies, and quite a few Russian Armies were busily demolishing the might that was Germany. These armies had swept over the North German plain, encircled the Ruhr, penetrated into Austria, and laid siege to Berlin. During this time 666 (RCAF) (Air OP) Squadron had fought its way into the homes and public houses of Sussex against determined enemy opposition. While the Squadron was making final preparations to proceed overseas, the news which was so anxiously awaited by all the United Nations was at last received. Germany had quit. We will depart from previous performance and will make no at-tempt to be facetious about this event. Surrender, so long awaited with bitterness because it was so senselessly delayed, was received with nothing but great relief. Any personal feelings, which may have been of disappointment that we were unable to get in one blow at least against the enemy, were forgotten in the knowledge that at last the bloodshed was over. We were not inclined to forget the war still to be fought in the East, but for the moment this thought was put aside in favour of celebrations for the victory at hand. The war being over, it was considered timely for the Squadron to participate in some shooting practice. This exercise was carried out with guns manned by personnel from 1 CARU and was beneficial to the officers taking part. The question arose as to just what we were practicing for, but was dismissed as “exigencies of the service”.

Soon after the end of hostilities in May, 1945, these squadrons ceased to be highly specialized units and were reduced to the level of a hire-taxi service. The summer and fall of '45 saw the disbandment of Nos. 665 and 666 Squadrons respectively, while 664 Squadron worked with the Occupation Force until May, 1946, when it, too, was dispensed with. By this time it had been announced that the post-war Canadian Army was to have an aviation section, for it was obvious that the small observation planes, which in the words of one German commander, flew just beyond our reach and directed accurate fire into our own positions, were essential for a modern army. Thus, with the help of the RCAF, the Army had sprouted wings and acquired eyes of its own, setting the stage for the formation of 444 Squadron.

444 Air Observation Post Squadron (RCAF).

444 Squadron was activated at Rivers, Manitoba on 1 September 1947, and was designated 444 Air Observation Post Squadron (RCAF). The Squadron was the direct offspring of the three Canadian wartime squadrons: 664, 665, and 666. And like its wartime predecessors, 444 Squadron provided air-borne observation for the Artillery, and also trained Army aviators for operational light aircraft tasks.5

The Air OP Flight from 444 Squadron was a permanent detachment to Shilo at that time and came under Operational Control of the Commanding Officer, Royal Canadian School of Artillery. Major aircraft maintenance was provided by the Squadron and other requirements were tended to by the Flight's maintenance personnel. The Air OP Flight assisted in the advance training of artillery student pilots by providing aircraft and artillery instructors for artillery firing practices. On 12 July 1948, a two month Flying Instructors course commenced using both the Chipmunk and the Auster aircraft. The purpose of this course was to train a cadre of pilots who would provide flying instruction on future Basic (Chipmunk) and Advanced Operational Flying (Auster) Courses. Operational flying training on the Auster included contour flying, short field landings/take-offs, observation of fire practice, recce and air photography. The winter months of 1948/49 saw the Squadron engaged in numerous activities.

RCHA Air OP Troops

As mentioned in the early history of Army Aviation, the Gunners were the first to appreciate the value of aircraft in support of the land battle. In March 1960 the first three L19 Bird Dog aircraft were allocated to 4 CMBG. In fact the aircraft became part of the First Regiment and later that year the Third Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1RCHA and 3RCHA) as an Air Observation Post Troop (Air OP Troop). This Troop was to serve “the Guns” and the Brigade for the next twelve years until it was incorporated into 444 Squadron. The Troop was initially formed in Fort Prince of Wales, Deilinghofen, West Germany with the barest of facilities. Except

5 For 444 Squadron history see CJATC section on the website. Also see, The History of 444 Squadron 1947-1982 (no published date or publisher reference).

for a single grass strip located in a German Army tank training area just to the rear of the Fort, there were no other facilities and the aircraft were parked on the lawn by the Officers' Mess. For the next ten years valiant efforts by all members of the Troop gradually improved conditions with a hangar being built, additional grass strips constructed, and other essential equipment obtained. As seems inevitable with any new organization, limitations on manpower and equipment were prevalent and, with only three aircraft, thirteen people and five vehicles, the Air OP Troop was not without problems. The Troop personnel consisted of: one Major and three Captain/Lieutenant pilots; one Master Warrant Officer as Aircraft Maintenance Supervisor and Troop Warrant Officer; four aviation technicians responsible for both aero-engine and airframe repairs; three driver operators; and one storeman/clerk. The Troop remained in Fort Prince of Wales until 1970 when the consolidation of Canadian Forces Europe occurred in Lahr and Baden-Soellingen, at which time it moved to Lahr with its Regiment and again began the slow but steady development of its new quarters in Lahr. Soon after settling into Lahr, the Troop was converted to the CH 136 Kiowa helicopter. On 19 June 1972 the L19s were officially retired and the Troop was amalgamated into the Brigade Helicopter Squadron in October of that year. Major W.D.W. (Bill) Lewis was named the first Commanding Officer.

Prepared by LCol (Ret’d) A. Victor Coroy.




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  • 1 Air OP Flight Group photos.
    Assistance would be welcome in identifying personnel in these photographs: View Content.

    Compiled by BGen (Ret'd) R.G. Heitshu.