Documents related to the
Officer commanding Ferry Command

Some time ago I came across an extremely interesting envelope related to the history of Gander. It was sent from Gander during World War II to Air Chef Marshall and Lady Bowhill in Dorval.

As most well know, Sir Frederick Bowhill was the commander of the Royal Air Force Ferry Command from July 1941 to May 1943. His wife, by the way, worked in the Signals code office in the RAFFC headquarters in Dorval. The RAFFC of course was responsible for ferrying airplanes across the Atlantic from Gander, and from some other airports, to re-supply the Allied air forces in Britain.

This envelope is very peculiar for a number of reasons. First of all, it did not go through a military censor, as was the case with just about all mail coming from wartime Gander.  As well, it did not go through a military post office (Canadian Army Post Office CAPO #4 for Canadian mail or Army Post Office APO 801 for the Americans) but is simply franked Gander.   It has no return address, which would pretty much have been a must for military mail.  Also it is a bit smaller than the usual envelope, only roughly 5 ½ x 3 ¼ and looks like the sort of thing that would be appropriate for a small card.

The date can be seen as Dec 25 so it would have been sent on Christmas day 1941 or 1942.  The simple Gander franking suggests it might have been by a civilian. But a civilian in Gander who was familiar enough with the Bowhills to send a card to both husband and wife would logically have sent it before Christmas day. A very likely hypothesis is that it was sent by some high-ranking person, perhaps a personal friend of the Bowhills, travelling through Gander during the Christmas period.

There are surprisingly few photos of Air Chief Marshall Sir Frederick Bowhill to be found on the Internet and practically none showing him with his wife, Lady Bowhill, even though as s Royal Air Force officer, a cipher specialist, she generally worked in offices in his organization.

I was therefore happy to purchase the photo below showing him and his wife in Dorval during the war. It is a News Press Wire Service photograph. The size is 9" x 7".  It was part of a 5-part series on the RAF Ferry Command by a correspondent from the World Wide News service, Don Whitehead.

On the back of the photo is the following :

Title :“Checks Ferry Command Flights

Text:  “In a sunny corner room of the administration building of an airport somewhere in Canada, Air Chef Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, who is in charge of the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, looks over some of the routes that American-made bombers are flying for delivery in all parts of the world. His command extends to Britain, India, Africa, South America and Australia. At his side is Lady Bowhill who is working under his command as a Flight officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force which she joined in England two years ago. She has a score of WAAF’s under her direction."

No year is given for this photo, only a date of release as Tuesday, July 21.  And herein lies the mystery.

As is well known, the first ferry flights were made in November 1940 by a fairly informal group of civilian pilots. This became the civilian Atlantic Ferry Organization (ATFERO) in early 1941 and was replaced for a very brief moment by the RAF Atlantic Ferry Service. This group became RAF Ferry Command headed by Bowhill on 20 July 1941.  One possibility therefore is that his photo was released a day later, on 21 July 1941, for security reasons.

However, Ferry Command was responsible uniquely for the North Atlantic and not for the other parts of the world as mentionned in the text. It was Transport Command  formed on 25 March 1943 which became responsible for world-wide operations. Therefore the photo should date March 1943 or later. 

But all this historical speculation about 1941 and 1943 is for naught.
 From 1941 to 1945, the only year when a 21 July is a Tuesday is 1942 !  Your guess is a good as mine.  The most probable reason for any confusion by the reporter is that Ferry Command was absorbed into Transport (as 45 Group) and Bowhill stayed on to command the whole shooting match.

In any case, ACM Bowhill (1880-1960), known as “Ginger” to his close friends, was quite a chap!  He started his career as a sailor. He sailed round the Horn in windjammers and worked his way up to a captain's berth. He was qualified as “Master Mariner”, certified to command any ship of any size anywhere in sail or steam.

But when in World War I the Royal Navy drafted him at 32, he was given another job than running a warship. Instead, he found himself on the cockpit of an openwork biplane, learning to first fly and then the dangerous art of taking off from the deck of a merchant ship. From this kind of makeshift carrier, the then Flight Commander Bowhill flew on the first bombing run against the German Navy in World War I.

Before taking over the RAFFC, he was commander of Costal Command in England which played a crucial role in the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, which, in company with the Prinz Eugen, a heavy cruiser, posed the most serious surface threat that convoys yet faced.  In May 1941, the Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic sinking the HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, on the way. Ships of the Royal Navy chased the Bismarck for several days but lost contact on 25 May. Bowhill, being both a flyer and an experienced mariner himself, put himself in the place of the commander of the Bismarck and redirected the air search for Bismarck on to a south-easterly course. He was rewarded when a Catalina of 209 Squadron found the Bismarck on 26 May, enabling Royal Navy Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers to attack and sink her.

It is interesting to note that while he was head of Ferry Command, Bowhill generally wore two watches. One was on local time and the other on Zulu (London) time.  Just about every day he would start of his work by a visit to the Signal Center to check the time, with friendly but brief chat much appreciated by the Signals staff.

There was a Bowhill Boulevard in old Gander in the RAF side (near the present day hangars 21 and 22).  And those interested, there is short RAFFC video by British Pathé  (with a quick shot of AFC Bowhill) at this address: 

Here is a list of his decorations:

•    Grand Cross of the Order of theBritish Empire- July 1, 1941
•    Commander of the Order of the Bath- 3 June 1935
•    Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George –
     December 22, 1919

•    Distinguished Service Order – 22 February 1918
•    Barra – June 3, 1919
•    7 Mentions in Dispatches
•    Star 1914-15
•    British War Medal 1914-20
•    Victory Medal 1914-1918
•    General Service Medal (1918)
•    Star 1939-45
•    War Medal 1939-1945
•    Medal Silver Jubilee of King George V 1935
•    Coronation Medal of King George VI 1937
•    Order of St. Vladimir 4 th Class with Sword and Bow (Russia)
•    Commander of the Order of the Savior (Greece) – April 1, 1920
•    Grand Cross of the Order of Orange-Nassau (Netherlands)
     24  September 1943

•    Commander of the Legion of Merit (USA) – 27 March 1945
•    Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olaf (Norway) – 12 June 1945
*    Poland Restituta Order 1 st class – 12 June 1945