Published: 12 November 2008
Air & Space Power Journal
Ocean Bridge: The History of RAF Ferry Command by Carl A. Christie. Toronto University Press, 340 Nagel Drive, Cheektowaga, New York 14225, 1995, 306 pages, $50.00.
In this age of international air travel when hundreds of aircraft traverse the worlds oceans each day, it is useful to recall that as late as 1939 there had been less than one hundred successful air crossings of the Atlantic. Yet, if America was to serve as the Arsenal of Democracy and supply the tens of thousands of aircraft needed by the Allies during World War II, such crossings would have to be made commonplace. Carl A. Christie, an official historian with the Canadian Defence Department, tells the story of how the Atlantic was conquered by the Royal Air Forces (RAF) Ferry Command.
The great distances, miserable winter weather, lack of airfields, and inhospitable environment led many to believe regular flights across the North Atlantic were impossible. Indeed, the RAF thought the entire scheme "suicidal" and refused to countenance it at first. But the pressures of war forced a reconsideration. Fortunately, the man selected to establish Ferry Command was Donald Bennett, one of history's great pilots who later won fame and a Victoria Cross as head of Bomber Commands Pathfinder force. Bennetts vast experience, high standards, and leadership were instrumental in getting Ferry Command off the ground. The foundation he built was sound, and between 1940 and 1945 over 11,000 aircraft were delivered across the ocean, most departing from airfields at Gander, Newfoundland, and Goose Bay, Labrador. The cost, however, was not cheap; approximately 150 aircraft and 560 personnel were lost in ferry operations. Of interest, although Ferry Command was a RAF unit, the Canadians played a major role, if only because they supplied the bases and ground personnel. Understandably, the author displays sensitivity regarding this issue of national pride.
Significantly, Christies excellent and detailed study notes how often questions of sovereignty, business competition, domestic politics, and alliance relations took priority over operational considerations. Canada, Britain, and the United States were well aware that the facilities built, procedures developed, and experience gained would fuel the rivalry between the countries postwar airline companies. Wartime decisions regarding Ferry Command were thus made with an eye fixed on the peacetime future. By the end of the war, the crossing of the Atlantic had become routine, catapulting air travel into a transportation dominance it has never relinquished. The three North Atlantic allies were determined to figure prominently in that dominance.
Christie has conducted prodigious research in the British and Canadian archives to unearth this largely forgotten history. Although not as glamorous or glorious a story as that of a combat command, he is able to lace his account with a host of flying yarns that give the reader a true feel for the Ferry Commands mission. Related, for example, are the tales of young pilots with only a modicum of flying hours crashing on the Greenland ice cap and surviving hardship and deprivation until rescue, and of seasoned veterans encountering an unexpected ice storm over the bleak waters, hundreds of miles from land. It is a good story. One would have liked to have seen more discussion of the vital part played by the ground crews in this whole effort. Only four pages are devoted to the subject, but this is a minor omission. Overall, this is a sturdy and workmanlike account of an operation that was critical during the war but had an even greater impact on the postwar airline industry.
Col Phillip S. Meilinger, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.