The day the war came to Britannia Beach

The day the war came to Britannia Beach

Posted on July 4 by Peter Pigott
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As they do every year on November 11, members of the Britannia Yacht Club in Ottawa’s West End remember those who lost their lives in defense of our country. Facing Lac Deschenes, standing bareheaded before the flagpole, they unsuccessfully attempt to shelter against the biting wind while the Sea Cadet bugler plays “Last Post” and the Commodore recites “In Flanders Fields”. If one listens carefully, out on the water, the sound of a World War II flying boat taking off can be heard.

Almost seventy years ago, on July 23, club members looked up to see an RCAF Canso flying boat thunder directly over the clubhouse. The Canso then bounced down on the Ottawa River, taxied towards Britannia Beach, and took off again. Little attention was paid to it as during the war; the lake had been used as a practice area for “touch and gos” by RCAF aircraft from the Rockliffe air station. Six years of war ended that May and the onlookers’ thoughts must have been on family and friends who had survived the conflict and would soon return to sail at the club.

The flying boat they were watching was the last of the RCAF’s 162 Squadron, a home defence unit that had been posted in January 1944 to Reykjavik, Iceland, and later Wick, on the very tip of Scotland. Tasked to cover the mid-ocean portion of the North Atlantic where German submarines were expected to break through and attack the Allied D-Day invasion fleet, during June and July that year, the squadron had sunk five U-boats, shared in the destruction of a sixth and damaged a seventh. An unforgiving North Atlantic and diehard enemy had exacted their toll and in desperate battles against both, forty-two squadron personnel were killed, thirty-four while on operations. Because of what had occurred in one of these engagements, Flight Lieutenant (F/O) D.E. Hornell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the Empire’s highest award for valour, one of only two won by members of RCAF squadrons during the war. Nine of the squadron’s flying boats had been lost, three to enemy activity, five to accidents, and one had disappeared completely without trace.

With VE Day, the squadron returned to Sydney, Nova Scotia, in June. If burdened with a sense of loss at those comrades who were buried in Iceland and Scotland — and the seventeen who had no known grave, like millions worldwide — the airmen’s relief at making it home alive must have been enormous. For just over the horizon, they glimpsed victory parades, proud parents, impatient fiances and wives, “civvy street” jobs — and the Canada they had been fighting for.

But there was to be a final mission. One of the Cansos was chosen for a photographic survey of Baffin Island and its pilot, Flying Officer (F/O) Stanley Martin Olson and crew flew it to Rockliffe to be outfitted. Olson had grown up in Wynndel, British Columbia, a tiny village in the Kootenays where his parents Christian and Stella Olson awaited him — as did his wife Thelma in Vancouver. All three must have been relieved that the 24-year-old had made it back home unscathed.  

It was when they were practising water landings on that sunny afternoon within sight of the Parliament buildings that Death’s scythe reached out to them. Touching down on the river, the Canso stalled on takeoff and its wing tipped into the water to tear away. Onlookers at the Club watched in horror as the aircraft then flipped over and began sinking. Holed in the fuselage and so close to the rapids, it went to the lake bottom within minutes, trapping the crew inside.

By the time boats from the yacht club got to the scene, it was marked by floating log books, oil slicks — and bodies. Killed were F/O M. Olson, F/O R.G. Murphy, the navigator, W01 P.E. Bulley, WAG, W02 S.W.R. Brown, WAG, and W02 LM. Whitehead, flight engineer. Injured were F/0 A.F. Gerding and F/L J. Beattie, an observer from Rockliffe.

The pair were rescued by club members and brought to the clubhouse, dazed, bloodied, and in their underwear.

What was left of the Canso was dragged up onto Britannia Beach and sent to Trenton. Because it was still wartime, there is no record of an inquiry or cause of the tragedy. For attempting to rescue F/O Murphy, who had been trapped in the sinking aircraft, Olson was recommended for the George Cross but somehow this was not followed through. The 24-year-old was buried in Mountain View cemetery in Vancouver. The squadron was disbanded on August 2 and in the euphoria of VE Day soon after, what happened that summer afternoon on the Ottawa River fell through the cracks.

A highlight of the yacht club’s Remembrance Day ceremony is the flypast overhead the clubhouse of two CF-18s. That the RCAF is once more defending our freedoms, the Canso crew would have understood was commemoration enough.


 Told of this incident one November 11 , Peter Pigott was inspired to begin his latest book Brace for Impact: Air Crashes and Aviation Safety. Appropriately, the book’s launch on was held at the Britannia Yacht Clubhouse. At the launch, there were two speakers — one of whom, as a ten-year-old boy, witnessed the Canso crash. The second was the Chief Air Accident Investigator for the RCAF.

Peter Pigott

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014

Peter Pigott

Peter Pigott is Canada’s foremost aviation author. Among his accomplishments are the histories of Air Canada, Trans Canada Airlines, and Canadian Airlines. He is the author of From Far and Wide, Sailing Seven Seas, Canada in Sudan and many more books. He lives in Ottawa.