Handley Page Halifax under restoration in Canada.
- By J. Douglas Hinton
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
Like many British and Canadian bomber pilots during World War II, Jeff Jeffery flew most of his missions at night to avoid German fighters. He took the four-engine Handley Page Halifax Mk.7 across the English Channel 32 times between July and Christmas Eve, 1944, to bomb German industrial cities along the Rhine. He remembers seeing enormous blue search lights roving the sky to find the bomber fleets for German anti-aircraft gunners. "You had about 10 seconds to get out of that light," Jeffery remembers. "I saw six aircraft go down one night."
More than 50 years later, Jeffery participated in another night operation—actually and all-day, all-night, weeks-long exercise to salvage from a Norwegian lake the aircraft he loved to fly. In 1994, Jeffery, who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and fellow Canadian and Air Canada captain Karl Kjarsgaard formed the Halifax Aircraft Association to recover and eventually restore a Halifax Mk.A7 bomber that local enthusiasts using rented sonar equipment had found at the bottom of Lake Mjøsa, near Lillehammer, in 750 feet of water. The two decided to bring the bomber home to Canada. Of more than 75,000 Halifax missions flown during World War II, 29,000 were flown by Canadians. More than 10,000 crewmen were killed.
The aircraft that the Halifax Aircraft Association is now restoring is serial number NA 337, which left England for Norway on April 23, 1945. The crew found the drop zone and jettisoned the load of supplies for Norwegian resistance fighters without incident, but, turning for home, the Halifax overflew a heavily defended bridge at the southern end of Lake Mjøsa. Flak struck the right wing, starting a fire that took out both starboard engines. A night ditching in the frigid lake was the crew's only option.
The big bomber hit the waves hard, the rear third of the fuselage broke off, and the rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman, was knocked unconscious. Revived by the icy waters, he managed to get a raft out of the aircraft before it sank. He was the only crewman of six to survive.
When Jeffery and Kjarsgaard went to Norwegian salvage firm Dacon Industry Inspeksjon in 1995, they were told the operation would cost $320,000. The had only $250,000 from Canadian government. But because of the wrecked Halifax's mission, the firm agreed to go ahead with the work before the remaining funds were raised. And because Canada had trained many Norwegian aircrews during the war, the Norwegian government donated the Halifax to Canada as a sign of gratitude.
The tail and rear fuselage of the 50,000-pound bomber broke the lake's surface on August 15, 1995. On September 10, the rest was hoisted free. Thomas Weightman was there to see it.
Several weeks later, the disassembled aircraft was flown by C-130 to the Royal Canadian Air Forces Museum in Trenton, Ontario, where it is being restored. The result will be the only complete Halifax of three in the world. Donations to the Halifax Association remains strong, so volunteers have plenty of tools and supplies. However, the Halifax is missing one key piece. Thomas Weightman has his thermos bottle back, which was recovered from the tail turret after had lain at the bottom of Lake Mjøsa for 50 years. Not surprisingly, the coffee was cold.
—J. Douglas Hinton