In 2016, the RCAF is commemorating the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, one of the largest air training programs the world has ever seen. By the end of the Second World War, the BCATP had graduated 131,553 aircrew for the air forces of Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand.

By Major Bill March

In September 1940, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), anxious to recruit additional pilot applicants for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), decreed that recruits up to the age of 31 would be considered. This simple administrative decision allowed David Ernest Hornell, just three weeks shy of his 31st birthday, to join the RCAF on January 8, 1941. Just over three and a half years later, he would be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).

Born on January 26, 1910, in Mimico, Ontario, then a Toronto suburb lying along the shore of Lake Ontario in today’s borough of Etobicoke, and educated at the Western Technical School in Toronto, the gifted athlete turned down a university scholarship and took up employment in the research laboratories at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Despite a possible service exemption due to his work in a critical field, Hornell volunteered for the RCAF and, like many of his contemporaries found himself at No. 1 Manning Deport in Toronto.

Although Hornell’s progress within the BCATP was typical of most trainees, one can only imagine how the experience would have been different for someone who was more than a decade older than the average recruit. Undoubtedly, there would have been a few eyebrows raised, and the occasional application of a nickname such “Pops” as the tall, lanky, quiet man took part in his share of “square bashing” (drill) and air training. On February 4, 1941, Hornell reported to No. 1 Wireless School in Montreal, Quebec, for general duties while he waited for a slot to open up at an Initial Training School (ITS).

Over the next several months, Hornell moved through No. 3 ITS, in Victoriaville, Quebec, No. 12 Elementary Flying Training School, in Goderich, Ontario, and No. 5 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), in Brantford, Ontario. Because the pilots at this SFTS were slated to operate multi-engine aircraft, flight training was done on the Avro Anson. Hornell completed this phase of his training on September 22, 1941, and received his wings during a graduation ceremony three days later.

After a short course at No. 31 General Reconnaissance School (GR), a Royal Air Force (RAF) unit located in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, he was posted to 120 Squadron of Canada’s Home War Establishment, Eastern Air Command (EAC), on December 23, 1941.

For the next two years, Hornell served as a line pilot conducting anti-submarine patrols and as a staff officer at EAC Headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In October 1943, he was sent to 162 Squadron just across the harbour, in Dartmouth. He arrived mere weeks before the squadron, operating Consolidated PBY-5A Canso amphibious aircraft, received orders to proceed to Reykjavik, Iceland, after being seconded to RAF Coastal Command. For the next five months, Hornell flew with various crews over the North Atlantic. Then, toward the end of May 1944, three 162 Squadron Cansos began operating from Wick in northern Scotland to prevent German submarines from leaving bases in Norway to attack the Normandy invasion fleet.

On June 24, 1944, Hornell and his crew of seven prepared for their third flight during this special stay at Wick. The experienced, all-Canadian team got airborne about 9:30 in the morning. After almost 10 hours of unproductive searching, with the aircraft being well north of the Shetland Islands, the Canadians turned for home. At about 7:00 in the evening, two members of the crew spotted a surfaced submarine not more than eight kilometres off their port side. Hornell swung the aircraft around to attack. The crew of U-1225 opened fire on the Canso and Hornell took what evasive action he could without deviating too far from his attack heading.

Accurate fire destroyed the radio aerials, ending any communication with base. Other shells tore chunks from the starboard wing, shattering the engine which burst into flames. Hornell, using every bit of his skill and every ounce of his strength, struggled to keep the aircraft on track. At 1,100 metres the Canso’s gunners opened fire, trying as best they could in the bucking plane to silence the German guns.

Hornell brought the burning aircraft above the U-boat at an altitude of fewer than 16 metres, bracketing the enemy vessel with depth charges. The bow of the submarine was thrown aloft in a mountainous plume of water before settling back down, mortally damaged. Although some of the German crew managed to flee their sinking boat, eventually all 56 officers and men perished.

The attack over, Hornell’s only concern was the safety of his men. Pulling hard on the control column, he forced the heavily damaged Canso to climb, clawing for every extra metre of possible attitude. The angle of climb proved too much for the fiercely burning starboard engine, and it tore away from its mounting, releasing fuel and oil to feed the fire on the wing. At a height of fewer than 80 metres, with smoke filling the cockpit and fuselage, Hornell turned the aircraft into the wind and prepared to ditch.

Twice the aircraft bounced while trying to land on the rough water before coming to rest, its starboard wing a mass of fire. Within five minutes, all of the crew safely evacuated the sinking Canso, but they had only one four-man survival dinghy. As darkness descended, the crew took turns either resting in the dinghy or half-submerged in the frigid waters clutching its side. The seas grew steadily rougher, and the crew crowded together aboard the raft struggling to stay warm.

At midnight, by the remotest of chances, a Catalina from 333 Norwegian Squadron passed nearby and, alerted to the Canadians’ plight with signal flares, sent an urgent call to Air-Sea Rescue (ASR). Hornell did what he could to keep up his crew’s spirits. Sadly, before the night was out, Sergeant Fernand St. Laurent, the 26-year-old flight engineer from La Point au Père, Quebec, succumbed to exposure. His friends gently placed his body into the sea and watched it drift away.

After 16 hours adrift in the ocean, an ASR Warwick aircraft arrived and attempted to air-drop a lifeboat. The release mechanism malfunctioned and the lifeboat landed almost 500 metres away from the Canadians. Weak, blinded by the salt and crippled by the cold, Hornell nevertheless attempted to swim towards the Warwick’s lifeboat but was restrained by his crew. Three hours later, Sergeant Donald Stewart Scott, the 22-year-old second flight engineer, from Pakenham, Ontario, died, and his body was committed to the sea.

Another 90 minutes had passed before a Short Sunderland flying boat came roaring across the sea, guiding a high-speed rescue launch toward them. The launch crew gently hoisted Hornell and two other members of the crew aboard while the remainder, somehow, had the strength to board on their own. Hornell was unconscious and unresponsive; despite everything the rescue team could do, he died during the 14-hour voyage to the port of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands.

The surviving aircrew was decorated for their actions during, and after, their successful attack on the German submarine. St. Laurent and Scott, in accordance with the honours policy of the day, were Mentioned in Dispatches.

Hornell, one of the older graduates of the BCATP, was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation reads, in part, “By pressing home a skilful and successful attack against fierce opposition, with his aircraft in a precarious condition, and by fortifying and encouraging his comrades in the subsequent ordeal, this officer displayed valour and devotion to duty of the highest order.”

He was 34 years old.

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