On Remembrance Day, Review contributor Shawn MacWha reminds us that not all casualties of war occurred overseas, with his piece on a tragedy that occurred just east of Ottawa during the Cold War.
by Shawn MacWha
The mid 1950s marked a period of rising tensions in the Cold War. Following the consolidation of Soviet influence over Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and the end of the Korean War in 1953, western governments that had eagerly hoped for a peace dividend after the fall of Germany and Japan found themselves in a growing competition with an increasingly powerful and determined communist bloc.
With the establishment of the Warsaw Pact in May 1955 and the detonation of the Soviet Union’s first hydrogen later that year, military leaders throughout the NATO alliance feared an invasion of Western Europe, while those responsible for the defense of Canada and the United States held very real fears of Russian bomber attacks against North American cities.
It was in the context of these grave concerns that two Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CF-100 Canuck all-weather interceptors were scrambled to investigate an unknown aircraft approaching Montreal late on the evening of May 15, 1956. At approximately 9 p.m., radar operators from the Air Defense Command facility in Saint Hubert, Quebec detected an unidentified plane approaching from the north. Fearing a Soviet bomber, aircraft were dispatched from the 445 all-weather ‘Wolverine’ fighter squadron – based at RCAF Station Uplands just outside of Ottawa – to identify the intruder.
At the time, the RCAF operated nine squadrons of CF-100s across Canada, with bases spread from Bagotville, Quebec to Comox, British Columbia. The Canuck was the only Canadian designed and produced fighter jet to ever reach mass production and by the spring of 1956 it – along with 12 squadrons of CF-86 Sabre jets based in Europe – formed the backbone of the air force.
The two planes sent to investigate the intruder intercepted the incoming aircraft 7,000 feet over the Laurentian Mountains and identified it as an overdue RCAF North Star cargo plane that was returning to Dorval, Quebec, from Resolute, in what was then the Northwest Territories. It turned out that there had been a delay in filing a flight plan for this mission, leaving the air defense operators unaware of the North Star’s identity or intentions.
Having confirmed that the unexpected aircraft was not a threat, the two Canucks broke off their pursuit and climbed to an altitude of 33,000 feet to practice interception maneuvers and burn off excess fuel before returning to base. Shortly after 10 p.m. the two fighters separated, with one of them returning to Uplands while the other – a Mark 4B Canuck bearing tail number 18367 – remained circling east of Ottawa. At 10:14 p.m. the crew radioed air traffic control to confirm they were over the village of Orleans and holding altitude at 33,000 feet. That was the last communication heard from the doomed aircraft.
Three minutes later the CF-100 crashed directly into the Roman Catholic Villa Saint-Louis Convent, a three-storey, 70-room brick building constructed only two years earlier at a cost of over $1 million. Situated on the shore of the Ottawa River and surrounded by farms and fields it was, by far, the largest building in the area.
The plane hit the convent at a speed of more than 1,100 kilometres per hour and the resulting explosion could be heard as far as 20 kilometres away. In an instant the pilot, flight officer William John Schmidt of Medicine Hat, Alberta, and the navigator, flight officer Kenneth Densmore Thomas of St. Catherines, Ontario, were killed, along with 13 people on the ground. The dead included 11 Sisters of the Grey Nuns of the Cross, a priest, and a cook working in the convent.
Of the 38 people staying at the rest home that evening, most were older nuns recuperating from medical procedures. Many of them were bedridden and unable to evacuate the building on their own. These unfortunate souls were consumed by a fire fed by kerosene jet fuel, exploding Mighty Mouse air-to-air rockets and the burning building itself, including tons of coal in the basement that had been ignited by the crash’s fireball. According to one survivor of the convent, “the whole building seemed to burst into flames at once.”
Local residents rushed to the inferno to try to help those trapped in the convent, saving 25 nuns from the fire. Of these, several were badly burned, or had been injured after leaping from broken windows. The neighbourhood rescuers were soon joined by firefighters from the nearby towns of Orleans and Gloucester, as well as the RCAF Station at Rockcliffe, just 9 kilometres to the west, but there was little they could do to save the shattered building.
In the immediate confusion surrounding the tragedy., even the very nature of the crash was unclear. Witness accounts of the impact varied, with some people saying that they had seen the plane descending in tight concentric circles before striking the building, while others said it had screamed in over rooftops, trailing flames behind it.
Initial reports suggested that if the plane had had only 15 more metres of altitude, it would have missed the convent entirely and crashed into the Ottawa River instead. However investigations by the air force, aided by aerial surveys of the crash site, concluded that the plane had actually struck the building in a near vertical dive – breaking through the third-floor wall and cutting through the entire structure, before gouging a crater more than 10 meters deep in the basement floor. This assessment was backed up by fact that only three minutes before the crash, the crew had indicated they were almost 10 kilometres directly above the village of Orleans – meaning the plane would have needed to come almost straight down in order to have even hit the convent.
In an era before the use of flight data and cockpit voice recorders, the final moments of the flight were never definitively ascertained, nor could the ultimate cause of the accident be determined. The most likely explanation for the crash is that a problem with the airplane’s oxygen supply caused the pilots to lose consciousness due to altitude hypoxia, losing control of the plane.
Even this theory presents its challenges. While the on-board oxygen supply for the CF-100 was indeed shared by both the pilot and the navigator, each of them also had an independent 10-minute reserve of air intended to allow them to descend to a safe altitude in the event of a failure of the primary oxygen system. Why neither man activated their emergency supply of oxygen or contacted the Uplands airbase to report a problem will never be answered.
Other potential causes for the crash have also been suggested, including an unauthorized aerial maneuver by the pilot that ended in a loss of control of the aircraft, or a case of in-flight vertigo caused by a poorly designed instrument arrangement in the cockpit- a problem that was later found to be responsible for at least one CF-100 crash.
It should be noted however, that the CF-100, affectionately nicknamed the ‘Clunk’, was considered to be a relatively dangerous aircraft to fly and during its service career more than 60 air force personnel were lost in training missions and air defense patrols. Indeed, only a week after the convent crash, another Canuck from the same squadron crashed during an air show in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, leading to the deaths of two more aircrew.
Overall, the crash of May 15, 1956 represented the fourth worst peacetime loss in the history of the RCAF. Two years earlier, on April 8, 1954 an air force Harvard trainer had collided with a Trans-Canada Airlines passenger plane over Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, killing all 35 people on board the two aircraft and one more on the ground. Prior to that, on September 15, 1946 an air force Dakota transport plane carrying military pilots crashed into a field outside of Estevan, Saskatchewan, killing 21 people. On August 21, 1949, a RCAF Canso amphibious plane carrying Inuit polio victims from Churchill, Manitoba, to Winnipeg, crashed, killing all 20 on board.
There was a strong outpouring of grief for the loss of the convent and so many of its members amongst the Roman Catholic community. A week after the crash, more than 2,000 people attended the funeral for the fallen priest – 42-year-old naval chaplain Richard Ward – at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto. Ward, a veteran of the Korean War, was the Royal Canadian Navy’s assistant chaplain at the time of his death.
In Ottawa, the 11 nuns killed in the crash were all commemorated at the Notre Dame Basilica in the largest mass funeral in the city’s history. The Sisters were then interred together in a mass burial at the Notre Dame cemetery. Ms. Aline Lapointe, the convent’s 50-year-old cook, who was also killed in the crash, was buried in her hometown of Masson, Quebec, just a few kilometres east of the place where she died.
Flight Officer Schmidt – the jet’s 25-year-old pilot – left behind a wife and two young children and was buried in the Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg. Its navigator, 20-year-old Thomas, was buried in the Lundy’s Lane Cemetery in St. Catharines.
The site of the convent is now home to the Residence Saint-Louis, a 198-bed long-term care home operated by the Roman Catholic Bruyere Health Care Organization. Behind it, on a path beside the Ottawa River, stands a memorial cross commemorating those who died on that horrific night. It is surrounded by 15 stones pulled from the rubble of the demolished convent – one each to mark the lives of the victims of that sad night.
Unrelated to tragic events of May 15th, at the beginning of November of 1956, Ottawa’s 445 Squadron was moved to Marville, France, where it joined the first fighter wing of number 1 Air Division Europe. These planes were deployed specifically upon the request of NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe to give the alliance an all-weather, nighttime interceptor capacity. The squadron and its CF-100s remained in France until the end of 1962, when the aircraft were withdrawn from front-line operational service and the formation disbanded.
During the remainder of the 1960s the RCAF adopted three different American jets to meet its main air defense needs; the CF-101 Voodoo interceptor, CF-104 Starfighter and CF-5 Freedom Fighter. These aircraft, in turn, remained in service until being replaced by the CF-18 Hornet in the mid-1980s. A few CF-100s remained in active service throughout the 1960s and 1970s in aerial reconnaissance and electronic warfare roles until the last aircraft was retired from 414 squadron in North Bay, Ontario on December 31, 1981.
The final CF-100 flight undertaken by the Armed Forces occurred on February 10, 1982, when an aircrew delivered a Mark 5D Canuck bearing tail number 100785 from Canadian Forces Base North Bay to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. When that flight landed the era of Canadian designed and built jet fighters ended, perhaps forevermore.