Remember "The Longest Day" and "Rupert", the dummy (decoy) parachutists ? The idea goes back at least a year, as I discovered in an RCAF service file.

Gowan Vernon Gibson was born in Toronto on 2 June 1918 but enlisted in the RCAF in Winnipeg on 15 February 1941. Having trained at No.2 ITS (Regina), No.16 EFTS (Edmonton) and No.10 SFTS (Dauphin), he graduated as a pilot and was commissioned on 24 October 1941. He was posted overseas almost at once, then sent to the Middle East (January 1942) and on 26 July 1942 reported to No.267 Squadron - a multi-tasked unit which operated various types of aircraft on duties that ranged from anti-gas exercises with the army to air transport throughout the Middle East and to whatever Mediterranean sites had been secured by the Allies. Much flying was done on Lockheed Lodestars, but by mid-1943 it had become a Dakota outfit. No.267 had several roles to play during the invasion of Sicily (July 1943).

A court on inquiry convened at La Marsa, Tunisia over four days (12-15 July 1943) dealt with the loss of Dakota FD815 on the night of 11/12 July 1943. The casualties listed were J8415 Flying Officer G.V. Gibson (pilot and captain), J9392 Flying Officer H.G. Spencer (second pilot), 206377 Lieutenant S.M. Yardwyn (SAAF, navigator), 759154 Flight Sergeant K. Patterson (wireless operator), 02210 Wing Commander F.S. Leslie (Air Ministry Observer) and a Major Baxter (15 Army Group in charge of Special Equipment). It was the “Special Equipment” aboard FD815 that was the centre of attention. Gibson was credited with having flown 913 hours 30 minutes as first pilot of which 120 hours ten minutes were on Dakotas by day and six hours 40 minutes were on Dakotas at night. He also had additional flying time on dual and in the second-pilot position. He had recently been assessed as “Above Average”.

The aircraft was one of four Dakotas of No.267 Squadron. It had taken off at 2108 hours from El Aouina, Tunisia and crashed on fire some five miles from the airfield. The preliminary report of the crash read as follows:

“Aircraft made a normal take-off at 2108 British hours and passed out of sight of those who observed the take-off. About three minutes after take-off a light was seen in the sky about five miles distant and in the direction in which it had gone. This light increased and it became evident that it was an aircraft on fire. It was seen to do a diving turn back towards the aerodrome and crash.”

The evidence of the fourth witness, Major R.A. Bromley Davenport, RA (attached “A” Force, 15th Army Group) was detailed and specific:

“I was instructed to provide fifty dummy parachutists and eighty pintails for an operation on the night of 11th/12th July 1943. They were to be distributed amongst four Dakota aircraft of 267 Squadron RAF. I saw one aircraft loaded with thirteen dummies and twelve pintails. The dummies were laid athwartships with head to port and parachutes uppermost. The static lines were secured to the fore and aft with guy running along under the fuselage roof. Each static line could slide easily along the guy. In order to make the dummies ‘live’ it is necessary to slit open the canvas protection to the head and pass another line (which is attached one end to the static line) through two string loops so that when the static line is broken the line to the string loops will become taut and will pull the pins of two pull igniters. The pull igniters ignite two six foot lengths of safety fuse which after three minutes ignite the cordite contents of the dummy. The cordite burns but does not explode, the object being to destroy the dummy completely by fire.

“I demonstrated the procedure to be adopted in the aircraft to the officer from ‘A’ Force who was to be carried in each aircraft. I am satisfied that each officer understood his duties. I was carried in the leading aircraft. As soon as we were properly airborne, say one minute and a half after taking off, I began to arm the dummies. It took about one-half hour to complete. Another officer in the aircraft armed the pintails. The parachute exit of the aircraft had been removed before we left the ground. Although there was a draught in the back of the aircraft as a result, there was certainly not enough to force one of the dummy parachutes to open,

“I consider that it would be impossible for a dummy parachutist to explode in the air, but I agree that if sufficient heat were applied to one it would burn. It takes about six minutes to burn right out. I consider that so long as the officer in charge understands the arming of them, they are a safe cargo. I have been on an operation before using this particular type of dummy. They worked satisfactorily both then and on this particular occasion. To throw the dummies out two persons who are secured by belts to the aircraft pick up each dummy in turn and throw it out of the parachute exit. As each dummy was thrown out, the others were pushed along the fuselage floor.”

Lieutenant-Colonel W.B. Shine, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, also testified. Although he considered the dummies relatively safe, his comments abut the pintails (detonators) were particularly striking:

“As regards the pintails, this when once the pin is withdrawn is devoid of any safety device whatever and could be initiated in a number of ways such as dropping on its nose or on its tail or being flung sideways across the floor of an aircraft. In this device initiation is instantaneous. I consider that the pintail should not be armed until immediately prior to use and I recommend that if the use of the pintail is to be continued as at present constructed, then a withdrawal pin with ring be substituted, but I also consider that a safety device in the form of a slip spring be introduced in any modified design.”

In concluding the inquest, the Court made the following statement:

“The equipment carried was special equipment for the operation. The Court considers that the dummy parachutists are reasonably safe and constitute no undue risk as cargo. The Court considers that the pintails are unsafe in their present form and should not be carried in aircraft until modified as suggested by Lieutenant-Colonel Shine (fifth witness).

“The Court finds that a fire occurred in the aircraft, probably at the rear end of the cabin, shortly after take-off. There is no direct evidence as to the origin of the fire. The Court, however, considers that the fire did not originate in a dummy parachutist, but could have originated by the accidental firing of a pintail.

“The Court does not have any evidence as to the cause of the crash, but considers it possible that the fire inside the fuselage destroyed the elevator controls, or produced so much smoke as to blind the pilot.

“The highly inflammable nature of the cargo would have made remedial action almost impossible once a dummy parachutist had caught fire, which would happen at once if ignited by a pintail. The accidental firing of a dummy on the other hand gives three minutes warning during which the dummy could have been jettisoned.

“The Court considers that Major Baxter was properly instructed and capable of performing his duties. He probably commenced arming the pintails as soon as airborne. This coincides with the outbreak of the fire.”