Rather than escorting the mighty bomber formations that were pummeling the Third Reich in the last year of the war, Canadian Harry Hardy flew nearly 100 ground-attack missions on a combat tour that took him from Falaise to the Rhine.
Captivated by the exploits of “the Few” as they fought the Luftwaffe Harry Hardy dreamed of taking to the sky in a Supermarine Spitfire. To fulfill his wish, in 1941 he enlisted in the Royal in the skies over England during the Battle of Britain, Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Although the 19-year-old eventually earned his coveted pilot’s wings, it was not at the controls of a Spitfire that Hardy made his greatest contribution to Allied victory but in the cockpit of a Hawker Typhoon, where he took part in some of the most intense ground-attack operations of the war.
World War II: Can you describe a little bit of your background and events leading up to your enlistment?
Harry Hardy: I was born in Virden, Manitoba, on May 30, 1922. My father was a farmer and a World War I veteran. He was in the army and was wounded and evacuated to the hospital at Blackburn, England, where he met my mother. She was a nurse. When the Depression was on, my father moved from the farm to Ontario and he got a job in the mines. All us kids did was fish and hunt until I joined the air force.
WWII: Why the air force?
Hardy: I always wanted to be a pilot, preferably a fighter pilot. All the stuff that was going on at the time…the fighter pilots were doing their thing in Britain.
WWII: Ultimately, however, you did not become a fighter pilot. What sort of preparations did you undergo for becoming a ground-attack pilot?
Hardy: I was trained on the [de Havilland] Tiger Moth and then the Cessna Crane—a twin-engine aircraft. You can imagine how disappointed I was when they didn’t send me on the [single-engine North American] Harvard. I got my wings on November 6, 1942. After I finished on Cranes, they gave me a choice. I could go to Nova Scotia in an army cooperation squadron as a pilot officer, or if I insisted on going overseas I had to go as a sergeant. I went to the army co-op school in Debert, Nova Scotia, and took a course that dealt with army photography. They started up an army cooperation squadron in Vancouver with some of us pilots from Nova Scotia. I was in that squadron until I went overseas. We had Hurricanes and Kittyhawks in Vancouver, so we were well trained on fighter-type aircraft.
WWII: How did you feel when you finally received your orders to go overseas?
Hardy: I was posted overseas on January 1, 1944. I was married by that time, so I guess I had mixed feelings about leaving. My wife accepted it. We all knew it was coming.
WWII: You were posted to No. 61 Operational Training Unit at Rednal, England. You were now getting pretty close to the war. Can you describe what conditions were like at your first overseas base?
Hardy: It was a Spitfire base. All the pilots took their fighter pilot training on Spitfires. It was nice to get on fighters after I thought I had lost it. Nothing spectacular happened there, except I had a midair collision and lost a Spitfire.
WWII: What happened?
Hardy: We were practicing dogfighting. One guy would take the lead and the other would follow. You were expected to do everything that you could to shake your opponent, and he was supposed to hang on. On this particular occasion I was out in front and being chased. In an effort to break away, I whipped my Spitfire into a tight turn and dropped a little flap to tighten up the turn. He wasn’t watching and he flew right into me. My Spitfire exploded. His was still flyable so he got it down. I was just left there in the seat and there was no Spitfire. I got rid of the seat and opened my parachute. I remember how quiet it was going down. There was fog on the ground. I went down through it and landed in a farmer’s field. I wasn’t hurt at all. They put the two of us in a hospital and checked us all over. They endorsed my logbook and said it was partially my fault.
WWII: What were your impressions of flying the Spitfire?
Hardy: Of the 13 types of aircraft I flew, the Spitfire was the prettiest, the nicest handling and the nicest flying. I didn’t like flying it at night. We all had to take night flying instruction. It was only five hours, but that was enough. You have all that engine at the front and you can’t see anything. The whole country was blacked-out, and you had to fly from beacon to beacon and then find the aerodrome. I had quite a few hours on the Hurricane. The Spitfire is pretty similar. Once you fly a British airplane, everything is the same in the cockpit.
WWII: After some time with No. 61 you were posted to No. 3 Tactical Exercise Unit in Scotland. What did you do there?
Hardy: We took our fighter pilot course on Spitfires, and when we finished that they sent us up to Scotland to take a dive-bombing course on Hurricanes. That was fun because I had flown the Hurricane in Vancouver. When we finished the course, we had a choice: We could go on Mustangs or Typhoons. All the Americans went on Mustangs, and all the Canadians went on Typhoons.
WWII: The Typhoon had originally been developed to replace the Hurricane but had experienced some really difficult teething pains. It did not come into its own until it was utilized more frequently as a ground-attack aircraft. Was there any special training you received on this powerful plane?
Hardy: You had to do 20 hours before you were qualified to go on op[eration]s. The pilots in the Battle of Britain had nine hours on the Spitfire when they went on ops. The first thing we had to do was learn how to fly the thing. It was quite a brute of an airplane. It was very hard to take off. We did takeoffs, landings and aerobatics. We were already qualified as fighter and dive-bombing pilots when we qualified on the Typhoon.
WWII: You graduated from Typhoon training on June 7, 1944. When did you finally join a combat unit?
Hardy: We went from the Typhoon conversion course down to 83rd Group at Bognor Regis. They held the pilots there until they were needed at the beachhead in Normandy. We had Typhoons there to play with. I went to France on August 10, 1944. Number 440 Squadron was at Lantheuil and our strip was B9. The squadron was part of the RCAF’s 143rd Wing, which consisted of three squadrons of Typhoons: 438, 439 and 440.
WWII: What were the operational conditions like in Normandy that summer?
Hardy: We were billeted in tents. It was hot and dusty, and hornets ruled the mess tent. Our runway was 100 feet wide by 1,000 feet long and had a steel mat on the surface for us to land on. We swam on Juno Beach and toured the sights around Bayeux Cathedral on our motorcycles.
WWII: When you arrived in France, the Canadians and the rest of the Allied invasion army were still fighting in Normandy. The German counteroffensive around Mortain was being beaten back, and the Canadian II Corps was advancing down the Caen-Falaise road trying to meet up with the Americans and trap the remnants of the German Seventh Army battling to escape encirclement. When did you enter the fray?
Hardy: My first operational mission was on August 12. I flew a dozen ops from our strip near the beachhead as the wingman to the Blue Section leader. I stuck right with him. He told me not to take any chances until I had learned the system. The battle to close the Falaise Gap was raging down below. There was so much smoke and dust down there, I didn’t know where the hell I was going. I never did see the target. We just headed down, and when he dropped his bombs I dropped mine. You’re really keen the first time out. Then you slowly get to know better. The farthest trips on the beachhead were from our aerodrome to the Falaise Gap—37 miles. You’re doing five miles a minute, so it didn’t take long to get there.
WWII: Four No. 440 Squadron pilots were killed during your first 10 days at Falaise. How did these losses affect you?
Hardy: You discover it’s a little more dangerous than you think after you see a guy get knocked off. Only one of those guys was a friend of mine. We just got to be friendly in those 10 days. The other guys, I didn’t even know them.
WWII: How did you select your targets?
Hardy: We’d sit up there and circle. We had an air force guy on the ground with the army. If they wanted a certain target hit they’d give us the map reference. The boss would take the order and then we’d go down. We were close support, I’ll tell you. We were right there.
WWII: Can you run us through how your missions were assigned on a daily basis?
Hardy: We’d start off in the morning by going into the intelligence tent. The intelligence officer had a large map on the wall. He’d draw a black line on the map called the bomb line. That was the farthest position the troops reported being in overnight. We never fuzed our bombs until we crossed that line. If the soldiers got a little ahead of themselves, they’d put red markers on the ground so we’d know they were our troops. The officer would then tell us the target for the day. Usually we had a primary and a secondary target to bomb. The flight commander would have us synchronize our watches. He set the “tit time” that we’d push the starters on our planes, so that we all knew what time to start. Then we’d go out to our airplanes. At tit time, nine guys would start up their engines. As soon as the boss started to taxi, we’d all follow him out. If the eight planes were all working properly, the spare would shut down. If not, the spare would take the place of the malfunctioning aircraft. We’d climb up to around 12,000 feet and head straight for the primary target. We were high enough just to be above the light flak and a little bit too low for the heavy flak. Mind you, the heavy flak would bust all around us anyway, but it wasn’t very accurate. On the beachhead we’d just get up high enough to dive-bomb, 8,000 feet.
WWII: American pilots were known for personalizing their aircraft. Did the Canadians have a similar practice?
Hardy: I probably had six ops before I got my own Typhoon. You really don’t get your own airplane until you’ve had a little time. This airplane—I don’t know what happened to the pilot— became available. So I grabbed it. The ground crew or the pilot before me had already named it Pulverizer, so I kept it.
WWII: After closing the Falaise Gap and liberating Paris, the Allies continued their push across Western Europe. For No. 440 Squadron, the next stop was Melsbroek, Belgium. Can you describe how the transfer to the new station went?
Hardy: We had to do an op on the way. They sent us out late at night. It was raining. We were crawling along under this low ceiling. The CO couldn’t find the target. I heard Red 1 ask Blue leader if he knew where we were. He said negative. We knew we were lost.
WWII: You were pretty close to the front, so what did you do?
Hardy: The CO told us to steer 270 degrees and we headed for the coast. I saw the red markers on the ground. I kept flying and eventually came to a large field full of cows and dropped my bombs unfuzed [so they would not explode]. When I was finally running out of gas, I picked a newly plowed field with the furrows going the long way. I put my plane down on her belly in the mud. I was near the village of Bohain. A farmer came running out with his whole family to meet me. When they saw I was Canadian, they were overjoyed. They wined and dined me. I slept in the daughter’s bed that night—minus the daughter, of course.
WWII: Well, you were in friendly hands but still alone. What happened to you next?
Hardy: The underground arrived and took me to a safe house. Donald “Buck” Jenvey [a squadron mate] was already there. They brought a woman in who could speak English, and they interrogated me. When they were finished they put us on bicycles, and the underground took us to the Americans. I arrived at Brussels airport on September 9, 1944, and flew my 13th op the next day.
WWII: Your experience with the Resistance must have brought you and Jenvey closer.
Hardy: He was my best friend in the squadron. He and I used to do a lot of socializing together as well as flying. Buck was an old experienced pilot, the most experienced guy in the squadron.
WWII: He had 97 missions under his belt when he went down with you during the transfer to Belgium. What happened to him after your return to 440?
Hardy: On his 98th mission he strafed a train car and it blew up. He was so close that he had to fly through the debris, and a piece stuck in his radiator. He started streaming smoke out the back. It was probably glycol.
WWII: Did his plane explode?
Hardy: No, he landed in a field in Holland. I flew down to see what had happened and saw that he got out and was running toward some nearby woods. As I was flying over him, he turned around and waved to me. After I landed, I wrote a letter to his wife and told her how he was OK. It turned out he wasn’t OK. Later we’d got the word at the squadron that he had been killed. The Germans said that he was trying to escape. I gather from what happened, the Dutch were hiding him but he grew bored and decided to join the underground. The Germans caught him in March and shot him. If he hadn’t joined the underground, they probably would have just made him a prisoner of war.
WWII: In September 1944, the Allies launched Operation Market-Garden, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s bold attempt to drop three airborne divisions behind German lines in Holland and seize a bridge over the Rhine. Were any of your operations in support of Market-Garden?
Hardy: On my 23rd op we were sent to help the army at Arnhem. It was late in the evening. The battle below was intense, but it was too dark on the ground to see any targets. I got panicky because I had never really flown a Typhoon at night, and I remembered how I hated flying the Spitfire at night. The flight leader eventually gave up trying to find a target, and we headed home. We got back to base before total darkness, and we all landed fine.
WWII: The Typhoon was equipped with four long-barreled 20mm Hispano cannons. What was flying one on a strafing run like?
Hardy: A strafing run started by lining up on your target at about a half-mile out, getting it squarely in your gunsight as you approached at about 400- 500 mph, opening fire at 400 yards, fire about 15 rounds from each cannon, which was about a one-second burst, and pull up just missing the top of the target. The Typhoon would slow up as soon as you fired your cannons. You could feel it, because you’d go forward in your straps. It didn’t take too many hits to knock out a vehicle or a train. If you hit, you hit with most of them. We’d report our results as flamers, smokers or damaged. Flamers and smokers are obvious. Damaged means you saw your shells hit the target but it did not catch fire. When you see your tracers, then you’ve finished. The tracers come 20 rounds from the end. We kept those 20 rounds in case we got jumped by fighters on the way home.
WWII: What type of targets would you strafe?
Hardy: We’d drop our bombs and then make about six strafing runs. With our bombs we attacked the targets the army told us. As soon as we finished that, we went after targets of opportunity. Strafing was the fun part. We used to attack tanks, even though we didn’t do much damage. We went after trains, vehicles and gun emplacements. We did two trips to Rotterdam on V-1 sites.
WWII: Were there different sorts of procedures for attacking the various vehicles?
Hardy: We always attacked a train across the track from the sides. The leader shot up the engine first. Once you got the engine, the train was duck soup for the rest of the guys. We’d keep strafing until we ran out of ammo. We attacked motor vehicles from down the road so you’d hit several at the same time. We attacked what was supplying materiel to the Germans. Anything that moved toward the front was what we were after. Trains were the biggest things. Almost every time we went out, somebody cut a track. [The Germans] could fix it overnight, and the next day those trains would be rolling again, moving their stuff up to their side of the Rhine. The days were short, and they had 16 hours to fix everything. They couldn’t move in the daytime because we were all out there.
WWII: You operated at some pretty terrific speeds. How did you ensure accuracy?
Hardy: When you approach your position, you’re doing 280 mph, that’s the cruising speed. When the leader says, “Going down now,” he’s right over the target and you go straight down. If you don’t fall forward and hang in your straps, you’re not going straight down. The straighter you go down, the more accurate you are. If we weren’t expecting any flak, we’d dive from 8,000-4,000 feet. That was our standard dive. By the time you got to 4,000 you were doing 500 mph. It takes a bit of pull to get out of there. You don’t want to black out.
WWII: Were some targets more difficult to attack than others?
Hardy: We attacked bridges from 11,000-6,000 feet. The Germans put a ring of guns around bridges, and they fired them to a cone right in the middle. They knew we had to go down through that cone. They wouldn’t aim at us; they just created this cone of fire that we had to go through. We always lost somebody on a bridge.
WWII: What types of ordnance did you carry besides cannons?
Hardy: If we did a dive-bombing mission on a specific target, it was two 1,000-pound bombs, but when we went out without a specific target we’d carry two 500s, and we’d call that a sweep. The CO would pick out a target and we’d all dive-bomb that target, or maybe two targets and four of us would do each one. Then we’d go strafing.
WWII: How did it feel when the Germans started firing their anti-aircraft at you?
Hardy: You don’t see the tracer bullets flying into it. You were looking at the front end of them. But, as soon as you pull out and start going upward it’s all going past you. Then you see all the thousands of red bullets going past you. It was a lot of work pulling out of the dive and getting out of the range of the flak. When the 88mm was close to you, you could see the red center. When it exploded and you saw that red center, that made you nervous—it was getting too close. If it was just a black puff, then it was far enough away and you didn’t have to worry. I had my bomb rack shot off one day. I was hit six different times by enemy fire. I had some 88mm, 40mm and 20mm fragments go through the wings.
WWII: When were you promoted to Blue Section leader?
Hardy: October 28. When you finally get your own section, you get to choose the target for that section. That was about the only good thing. Blue Section leader was a lot of fun. No responsibility. Not until you are Red leader do you have the responsibility of looking after the squadron.
WWII: With your promotion came the responsibility of having to write condolence letters, though. That must have been pretty difficult.
Hardy: When you lost a pilot, you had to write to the wife or the mother. I lost four pilots after I became flight commander. Some of them were pretty sad. I always wrote and told them exactly what happened.
WWII: At Falaise and over Arnhem you supported Canadian or British troops, but on Christmas Day 1944 you lent a hand to Americans fighting around Saint-Vith. Can you describe the Battle of the Bulge from your perspective?
Hardy: On Christmas Eve, we flew armed reconnaissance around Euskirchen. On Christmas Day, we flew an op in the same area. There were German vehicles everywhere. I went after a tank. I could see the tank’s tracks went into this little tiny round wood, so I knew he was in there. I went down and was strafing into the back end of him, and my tail was partly shot off. I guess a 20mm or a 30mm had taken a chunk out of it. I was already on my way up when I got hit, so I just kept her going up and kept climbing. I got to about 7,000 feet. I kind of simulated a landing on the clouds to see how it would operate, but I couldn’t get below 200 mph before I started to lose control.
WWII: How did you get yourself out of that tricky situation?
Hardy: I flew back to Holland and bailed out over a little town called Heeze, which was not too far from Eindhoven. It was a crawl-out. I pulled the lever. The hood went and the side goes out. I had my plane as slow as I could hold it without it kicking over on me. I looked at the clock—it was 178 mph. I’ll always remember looking at that clock. I crawled out on the wing, slid down it and was lucky to miss the tail, but I pulled the chute a little too soon. It stripped my gauntlets right down so they were just hanging on my fingertips. It really gave me a snap. I was going too fast. I landed in a tree adjacent to a British army camp. They took me in the mess and gave me a shot of whiskey. I was shaking so much I had to hold it with two hands. Typhoon pilots to them were gold. They treated me good. They gave me a driver and a jeep to take me home because it was Christmas Day. He drove me home to Eindhoven.
WWII: How did the fighting in the Ardennes compare to your other campaigns?
Hardy: We lost eight Typhoons in the Ardennes. I was the only guy able to bail out. The other seven were killed. That was a rough league down there. The German vehicles were everywhere. They were all at the crossroads and they couldn’t move. It was easy to pick targets, but we were losing guys. They were pretty accurate with the flak. We were glad to get out of there. My contribution to that battle was six dive-bombing attacks and about 40 strafing runs. I think my efforts in the Ardennes had a lot to do with me being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
WWII: How did it all finally end for you?
Hardy: My last mission was on March 24, 1945. It was my 96th operation and was flown on the first day of Operation Varsity, [Montgomery’s] crossing of the Rhine. Our job was to strafe all the flak guns and be present just before the gliders and the paratroopers were coming down. We strafed all those flak guns up and down the Rhine River. Just as we finished and were coming for home, the gliders and the paratroopers were pouring down, just like you see in the movies. They sent us out at just the right time. I can remember smiling while going across the Rhine on the way home. They told me before I went, “Be careful, this is your final op.” They never do that, but they told me.
WWII: Were you more cautious?
Hardy: No, I don’t think so. We had to do what we had to do.
WWII: The Typhoon never gets the publicity of the Spitfire and Hurricane, but what did you think of it?
Hardy: Oh, yes. It was a great plane. Once you got to master the Typhoon, you had a lot of machine there: 2,400 horsepower, 14-foot diameter four-bladed prop, lots of power.
WWII: What were your thoughts when your flying days came to an end?
Hardy: Once your tour is over, you really realize that we lost all these guys and I’m still here. Everybody had that feeling when their tour expired.
WWII: Looking back, how do you feel about the role you played in the war?
Hardy: Good. Being a Typhoon pilot, that’s pretty elite stuff. There weren’t too many Typhoon pilots. I think there are about 50 of us left in Canada. Harry Hardy worked as a mechanical engineer after retiring from the RCAF. He later took an interest in waterfowl and was inducted into the Aviculture Hall of Fame for his work raising endangered species of exotic pheasants. Hardy currently has 35 species in his aviary. As a volunteer with the Tetra Society of North America, he builds devices to aid people with physical disabilities—he is currently working on project number 182.
David Lesjak writes frequently for World War II Magazine. For further reading, see Aces, Warriors & Wingmen: Firsthand Accounts of Canada’s Fighter Pilots in the Second World War, by Wayne Ralph.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.