From Greenhorn to Aviation Legend: Lieutenant-General William Keir Carr

My Master’s thesis was an operational history – that is, it focuses on the air combat formations involved in Operation Husky – and there was little room for personal stories. One of the purposes of this blog is to remedy this shortcoming.

Air power is not simply about applying force to the enemy. It is important that force is applied to the enemy at the right place, at the right time, and – this point is especially salient regarding today’s drone strikes and the RCAF’s campaign in Iraq and Syria – that the force is applied without incurring civilian casualties. One of the critical tasks that has been undertaken by military aircraft from their earliest days is reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. During the Second World War photo reconnaissance was used extensively by all sides to identify targets, to provide cartographers with up-to-date information for the maps they produced for the army, and to conduct air attack damage assessments. The Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies houses an impressive digital archive of aerial reconnaissance photos from the 1944-1945 campaign in Northwest Europe.

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A Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk XI in flight.

The pilots who flew these missions in Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons generally flew photo reconnaissance versions of the Spitfire, its armament replaced by cameras, extra fuel, and/or removed to increase top speed. One of these pilots referred to his mount as “the Cadillac of that unmatched breed.” His name is William Keir Carr.

Bill Carr was born on St. Patrick’s Day 1923 in Grand Banks, Newfoundland. He completed high school at age fifteen and moved to southeast New Brunswick to attend Mount Allison University. During his time in New Brunswick, Bill paid for his education by serving with the local Canadian Officer Training Corps and selling Remington typewriters. He also worked during the summers at places like Sussex, digging holes in the ground, an experience which had a significant influence on his decision to join the air force (perhaps he felt that digging trenches in the army wasn’t for him). He completed his Bachelor of Arts in 1941 and was accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) shortly after completing his final exams.

After completing training in Canada, Pilot Officer Carr made his way overseas to the United Kingdom where he underwent operational flying training before being assigned to No. 542 Squadron RAF. It was here that he first got his hands on a “Cadillac.” Soon thereafter, Carr was given his own Spitfire PR Mk XI and orders to ship out to Malta. Carr was to join the war effort in the Mediterranean, where Tunisia had just fallen yielding over 230,000 German and Italian prisoners of war.

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Flying Officer William Keir Carr in Malta, 1943

Although it was June 1943 there was dreary weather between England and the Middle East on the day of Carr’s transit flight. Nevertheless, the twenty year old pilot officer was released to fly alone, non-stop, and unarmed to Gibraltar. Flying a course over Spain, Carr landed unscathed three and a quarter hours later. He rested briefly before continuing on to Malta where he was accepted into No. 683 Squadron RAF, a photo reconnaissance unit preparing for the Allies’ next step in the Mediterranean – Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.

Of Malta, which had been a target of Italian and German air attacks for three years, Carr later said, “there was not a blade of grass left in the place or a tree left standing or anything.” Thankfully for Carr – and the island’s residents and garrison – Axis air superiority was a thing of the past and only a few attacks were mounted against Malta following his arrival.

Carr also recalls the surrender of the Italian Fleet in the Grand Harbour at Valletta. The loss of Sicily was the final straw for the Italians, who signed an armistice with the Allies in early September 1943. Afterwards he recalled his embarrassment for the Italians, “I can still see those magnificent battleships and cruisers and whatever else […] being led into Malta by this dirty little British Royal Naval corvette or something – the height of indignation.”

As the Allied armies advanced up the Italian boot, Carr and No. 683 Squadron followed in their wake. Carr eventually gained promotion to acting flight lieutenant and was given charge of “A” flight. In December 1944 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). His citation reads as follows:

Throughout a large number of operational sorties this officer both as flight commander and pilot has displayed outstanding skill and courage. He has participated in a large number of photographic reconnaissance [sic] producing results of the greatest accuracy and materially contributing to the success of the 8th Army. – Award effective as of 18 December 1944 as per London Gazette

Flight Lieutenant Carr’s DFC recommendation was penned by the commanding officer of his photo reconnaissance wing in October 1944. By then Carr had flown 132 sorties as a photo reconnaissance pilot. The officer noted that Carr’s efforts had paid great dividends during Operation Strangle, an effort to interdict German lines of communication in Italy prior to the fall of Rome in June 1944. Carr’s flight was also credited with flying all of British Eighth Army’s air cover prior to its attacks on the Gothic Line in late August 1944.

Bill Carr survived the war and stayed with the RCAF into the late 1970s. He reached the rank of Lieutenant-General and became the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff in 1973. Realizing the significant negative impact that unification had on the morale of Canadian military’s aviation arm, Carr was instrumental in the formation of Air Command and became its first commander in 1975. Air Command consolidated all Canadian military aviation under a single headquarters. For his efforts, Carr has become affectionately known as the father of the modern Canadian Air Force. He is a member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

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Lieutenant-General William Keir Carr in the 1970s.

References:

Wayne Ralph, Aces, Warriors & Wingmen: Firsthand Accounts of Canada’s Fighter Pilots in the Second World War (Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd., 2005), pp. 59-64.

The Memory Project, Veteran Stories: William K. Carr, interview transcript: http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/2722:william-carr/.

Royal Canadian Air Force Association, Honours and Awards, 1914-1945 Data, RCAF Personnel – 1939-1945: http://rcafassociation.ca/uploads/airforce/2009/07/ALPHA-CA.html

RCAF Public Affairs, “Lieutenant-General Bill Carr and the Formation of Air Command,” January 22, 2014: http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/article-template-standard.page?doc=lieutenant-general-bill-carr-and-the-formation-of-air-command/hqqdzxqf.

Member Profiles, Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame website: http://www.cahf.ca/members/C_members.php#William.

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