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A Tremendous Achievement: The "Snowball" Route

Penworthy Note Book
Grenier to Goose
Greenland to Iceland

In one sense the North Atlantic route had its beginning as a major dependence of the U.S. armed forces with the BOLERO movement - the flight delivery to the United Kingdom between June 1942 and January 1943 of some 366 heavy bombers, 150 medium bombers, 183 P-38 fighters, and the same number of transport aircraft. Except for a relatively small number of replacement aircraft delivered by ATC crews late in 1942, the planes were flown by their own combat crews, the men who were destined to fly them later in combat over Europe or in Africa. The pilots had, except in rare instances, no experience to equip them for a transatlantic flight. They depended upon transient facilities on northern bases that were unequal to the demand and upon weather forecasts in an area where weather constituted under the best circumstances a major hazard to flying, which depended in turn upon the reports of half-trained radio operators scarcely able to translate the dots and dashes they laboriously received. Only the exigencies of war could have justified the risks assumed by the AAF.

By all existing standards, their passage across the North Atlantic represented a tremendous achievement, one for which any one of the pilots very recently could have anticipated a parade up Broadway and a complimentary speech by the mayor of New York City.

"You are now leaving the United States, God Bless You."

This was the last radio contact they had with
the States as they were passed off to RCAF control.

First Stop: Goose Bay AAF (Goose Bay Air Base, Goose Air Base) in Labrador, a dependency of Newfoundland which was a British crown colony at this time (Newfoundland became the tenth province of Canada on 31 March 1948.), through an agreement made by Canada. Construction of the base started in 1941 and 79 days later three 7,000 foot runways had been completed. This facility was leased to the US government as a Strategic American Air Force base. The first plane ever to land at Goose came in on 9 December 1941.

Here they were shown pictures of the Greenland coastline with its many fjords leading to its interior and thoroughly briefed how to recognize the proper fjord to enter. This was extremely important for if you entered the wrong one, there would be no way out and you might not have enough fuel left to climb the 12000 feet necessary to clear the ice cap at your ...

Bluie West One on Final Approach.

Second Stop: Narsarssuak Air Base (code named Bluie West One BW-1) in Narsarsuaq (new spelling), Greenland. On 9 April 1941, the U.S. obtained rights to build bases in Greenland, secured in a pact which provided for American defense of Greenland as a Danish colony. In July 1941, work began on the base and the first plane set down on 24 January 1942.

Bluie West 1, or BW-1, stands out in the memories of the many Air Transport Command pilots and combat replacement crews that landed there en route to the UK. It wa primarily used by these ferrying groups in the events of emergency or bad weather on the leg from Newfoundland to iceland. The landing strip, which was located inside an inverted L-shaped fjord, was carved into the base of of a mountain at sea level.

The base was located near the Southern tip of Greenland identified by a kidney shaped island called Simiutak at the ocean entrance of the Tungdliarfik Fjord. From there it was about 100 miles up the fjord which is one to five miles wide lined with mountains ranging in heights to 5000 feet. At one point the fjord is but one half mile wide as it passes Sugar Loaf, a monolith jutting out into the fjord from the Western range of mountains. This creates dead man's gorge that is the grave site of several airplanes. About 20 miles from there the fjord seems to end as you enter the big basin. Going straight would put you right into the live glacier that rises from sea level to 4000 feet in two miles. At each side mountain peaks rose to 5000 feet. Behind them was the ice cap. When you look right, there was another mountain range. By looking left, West, you found a clear path extending about twenty-five miles with an opening on your right, North. By making a sharp right turn at that opening you found the comparitively short runway going up hill into Narsarssuak AFB.

Runway, looking south toward the fjord
Bluie West One looking south toward the fjord.

The base was situated between mountains on both sides and the fjord and a mountain range at the south. In the west and north was a dead glacier. The Northern end of it reaching into the Greenland ice cap. The approach end of the runway at the water's edge, made of perforated steel matting (one of the earliest U.S. Army airfields, if not the first, to make actual use of steel matting in runway construction), slanted upward from the fjord causing the glacier-end to be 100 feet higher. Pilots and crews were disconcerted by the large chunks of ice floating in the water, wrecked aircraft beside the runway and there was no going around for a second pass.

Weathered in, with "gale" force winds outside, the men were bunked in the theatre where for several days they watched "To Have and To Have Not", Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the only movie in the house. Dad said on the third day somebody stood up and unloaded his .45 into the roof just to break the monotony.

Using the same single runway for take off, downhill and out over the fjord, you flew on to the ...

Nissen huts on Main Street

Third Stop: Meeks Field (Patterson Field) Keflavik, Iceland (about 50km/30m from Reykjavik). The Army Air Forces, GHQ, and the Iceland Base Command had for some time been united in favor of an additional bomber field in Iceland. During November and December 1941 site and soil surveys, reports, and recommendations had been made, every one of them favorable, but authority to proceed with the preliminary clearing and grading had not been forthcoming. In the meantime, while the pros and cons of a bomber field were being studied, Colonel Morris, commander of the Iceland Base Command's air forces, had been unobtrusively getting the construction of a new fighter field under way as part of the basic defense mission. As soon as the bomber field received official approval, the fighter field was fitted into the project as a satellite field. Thus, considerable progress had already been made by the time the first civilian construction gangs arrived in May of 1942. They were set to work on Patterson Field, as the satellite airfield was soon named, and when the first planes of the Eighth Air Force began coming through on their way to England, early in July, two of its three runways were in use. Construction work on the main airfield, Meeks Field, was started on 2 July 1942, and was taken over in August by one of the first Seabee units organized. The first plane landed at Meeks Field on 24 March 1943.

After a couple of days, depending on the weather, you were on your way to the UK and the ...

This is the 24 Dad flew to England and had to give up.

Fourth Stop: RAF Valley. Turned in the 24, changed the money to pounds and shillings and become thoroughly confused.

Royal Air Force Valley, situated on the south-western tip of the island of Anglesey in North Wales, was opened in February 1941 and was first used as a base for day, and latterly, night fighters. In 1942, the base took on a training role and a year later detachments from the United States Army Air Force arrived to set up a trans-Atlantic reception facility for aircraft routing both to and from America. Throughout the War years, Valley acted as a welcome landing ground for aircraft operating on combat missions and patrols over the Atlantic. From this role, RAF Valley gained its motto:- In Adversis Perfugium - A Refuge in Adversity.

By war's-end approximately 11,000 aircraft had short-hopped along the North Atlantic Ferry Route. Considering that during the winter months the sun never got far above the horizon with only 2-4 hours of daylight on Greenland and Iceland, relatively few, approximately 150, encountered tragedy along their way to the British Isles.

Principal Foreign Transport and Ferrying Routes
Army Air Forces - 30 June 1942

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Army Air Force Technical Training Center | Academic Training | Spartan School of Aeronautics | Basic Flying School: Strother Army Air Field | Cadets Assigned To Twin-engine School | Class 44-F: Wings Aloft | All Training Led To Combat | A Combat Crew Was Assembled At Westover | A Night Of Reminiscing | Chatham Field, Savannah | A Staging Area For B-24 Liberator And Crews Before Being Sent Overseas | Transport Route For Aircraft Departing For Europe Via Newfoundland And Greenland | A Tremendous Achievement: The "Snowball" Route | The Army Air Force Was A Step Up For Some
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