Mystery aircraft buzzed Wellington County in WWII

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Nothing seems to breed speculation and conjecture like aircraft flying low or in peculiar patterns during wartime.

Wellington County experienced a rash of such reports in 1944 and early 1945. Self-proclaimed military experts immediately identified these as either enemy raids or reconnaissance missions.

This talk moved few people, if any at all, to hysteria. Obviously, no German or Japanese aircraft of the 1940s could possibly penetrate this far into Canada. And even if they did, there was nothing of military importance for them to see or destroy in Wellington County.

The first of those aircraft reports came from Cumnock at about 9pm on March 2, 1944. Several people heard a low flying plane, and looked outside to see a twin-engine craft, apparently on fire. Over the next half hour, additional sightings were made in Fergus and Salem.

Several people claimed to have seen the plane drop a bomb. North Nichol farmers did not experience a carpet-bombing raid. It was a flare. The light produced by the flare was visible for miles: several motorists on Highway 6 south of Fergus saw it.

The more reliable accounts provided additional details and helped dispel the speculation. These observers identified the aircraft as an Avro Anson, a popular twin-engine model used for training aircrews. One of its engines had caught fire. The flare attracted the attention of a second Anson, which approached the first with its lights on.

Both aircraft were out of sight in less than 20 minutes, though the theorizing continued for a couple of weeks. Local papers could discover no reports of a crash that night, so presumably the crippled plane limped back to Mount Hope or Clinton, the nearest air bases. The Air Force would neither confirm nor deny any details of the incident.

Four months later, on the afternoon of July 11, the residents of the Speedside area in Eramosa spotted a low flying aircraft. This was no spy flight to observe the details of the Speedside Church. The plane, another Avro Anson, was in trouble. One of its engines had conked out, and a major thunderstorm was advancing quickly from the west.

The pilot determined that the best strategy was to land. He selected a field across the road from Lister Benham’s farm. As the pilot straightened for his approach, the second engine quit. Despite the loss of power, he was able to keep the Anson under control. The only damage resulted when it smashed through a fence.

The crew stepped out of the plane, shaken but unhurt. The incident created considerable excitement in the area. Young boys picked up small pieces of wreckage as souvenirs before officials arrived.

I found no reports of the means used to remove this plane from the field, or the reason for the failed engines. The Anson may simply have run out of fuel.

I recall that a couple of years ago I read a story by Campbell Cork of Mount Forest concerning yet another crash landing of an Avro Anson. That one ended up in a Grey County barn yard, just north of Mount Forest. I am not aware that Ansons were prone to problems; my impression is quite the opposite. Some airmen nicknamed them “Faithful Annies” for their reliability. However, my expertise is with locomotives, not military aircraft. Perhaps a reader with flight experience in Avro Ansons can comment on this curious cluster of incidents.

Reports of a mysterious single-engined aircraft, with no markings of any kind, cropped up in the summer of 1944. Most came from the Drayton and Glen Allan areas, and from Minto and Arthur Townships. The plane was invariably reported as flying low, engaging in manouevres, and even landing in hay fields.

Reports soon reached the RCAF authorities. Officers of the RCMP stationed at Guelph and Kitchener received instructions to watch for the plane. By early 1945 they had a thick file folder of reports, but no identification, or even a good lead. With so many officials spending so much time on the case, it obviously involved espionage in the minds of those easily alarmed.

Dozens of farmers in north Wellington knew better. The plane belonged to Andrew McKimmon, a mechanic who worked at the Kitchener airport, near Breslau. It had been involved in yet another incident in the spring of 1944, when it was reported flying erratically in the Belwood area. The pilot/owner eventually crashed into Lake Belwood.

On impulse he sold the partially submerged craft to McKimmon, who fished it out, hauled it away, and rebuilt it to his own design. It flew superbly.

McKimmon enjoyed flying over the countryside in north Wellington, and eventually took to landing. Soon he was offering the locals brief rides for $2. Farmers to a man enjoyed the running joke on the humourless and officious RCMP and RCAF personnel. They chuckled as the officials knocked on doors to ask questions and drove up and down concession roads in their futile attempts to spot the plane. The mysterious aircraft was the subject of news reports and editorial speculation as far away as Hamilton, Toronto and London.

The joyriding ended when McKimmon pushed his luck. On Feb. 11, 1945, he buzzed a country church in Maryborough, flying so low that the engine’s vibrations rattled the windows and shook the soot from the church’s chimney. Inside, the minister was about to make the key point of his sermon. He was furious at the desecration of the Sabbath, and at the interruption of his sermon in particular.

The minister knew the identity of the pilot, and before he sat down to his midday repast, the RCMP knew as well.

Summoned by the minister’s long distance call, the Mounties were waiting at the Kitchener airport when McKimmon landed.

They charged him with flying an unlicenced aircraft, carrying passengers without a licence, and operating a passenger service without a commercial pilot’s licence.

Andy McKimmon had his day in Guelph Police Court a week later. The magistrate found it difficult to hide his amusement at the elaborate case developed by the prosecution. McKimmon received total fines of $100 plus costs for his six-month adventure.

The final aircraft incident of the war years occurred on March 26, 1945, and unlike the others, it resulted in a fatality. At about 11:30am, farmers in North Pilkington spotted a Yale trainer flying at less than 200 feet.

As it passed over the farm of Wesley Witzel on Concession 3, the landing gear tangled with the upper branches of a maple tree beside the lane.

The plane spun to the ground, crashing into the ploughed field beside the lane. The impact produced a small crater. Though travelling at slow speed, the impact broke the engine into pieces and tore the wings off the craft. These came to rest some distance from the fuselage.

Wesley Witzel witnessed the crash, along with a visitor to his farm, Sam Pattison of Elora.

The men immediately attended to the crew. Hurried phone calls summoned local medical men. Within a half hour, Doctors O’Brien of Elora and Kyle, Sutherland and Craig of Fergus were on the scene.

The pilot, a man from Sidney, Nova Scotia, died on impact. The doctors rushed the navigator, Helmut Welske of St. Marys, to Groves hospital in Fergus. A few hours later, military surgeons from Camp Borden operated on him. Welske had broken both legs, an arm, both collar bones and suffered head injuries. Two days later he was in Hamilton General Hospital, under the care of specialists.

Meanwhile, several hundred people drove out to see the crash site, but patrols of RCMP, RCAF and OPP officers prevented the people from getting close to the wreckage.

Those aircraft incidents, ranging from the comic to the tragic, provided a little excitement as the war ground into its fifth and sixth years. To those not in the armed forces, the war years meant a dull routine of work and worry. The sightings of mystery aircraft and the occasional crash landing brought a sense of immediacy to the war effort.

And the more perceptive of Wellington County’s residents realized that, with the increasing range and size of aircraft, there might be no such thing as a quiet home front in a future war.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 5, 2002.

Thorning Revisited