Ben Scaman of Banff, Alberta, was flying Spitfires with the Royal Canadian Air Force when the V-1 flying bombs, often called doodlebugs, began to rain down on England in 1944. Remarkably, Ben pioneered the technique in which a skilled pilot could tip one of these murderous missiles off balance, causing it to crash harmlessly into the countryside.
If you have read my novel, you’ll know that my heroine Rose, an aerial photographic interpreter, is involved in the search for Hitler’s V-1 flying bomb, the first jet-propelled weapon in history.
(My wartime novel Bird’s EyeView is fact-based fiction, the story of a Canadian woman who joins the air force and serves in England as an aerial photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.)
So I loved meeting Ben Scaman, now 97 years old, and hearing his first-hand account of attacking the deadly bombs. Last week Ben served coffee and cookies in his comfortable living room while answering my questions about his incredible wartime experiences.
The Early Years
Ben Scaman was born in Claresholm, Alberta, on January 23, 1920 to Garnet Scaman and Lodema Peirce, the youngest in a family of three including brother Sidney and sister Nora. His father owned a butcher shop, a garage and a trucking business before turning his hand to farming, so Ben grew up in town and later on the nearby farm.
Claresholm became the site of a British Commonwealth Air Training base in 1941, but Ben had already joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, at the age of twenty. Here he is in his RCAF uniform, looking very handsome and proud.
Ben did his basic training in Edmonton; Initial Training School in Saskatoon; and Elementary Flight Training School in Virden, Manitoba. There he received a lovely silver trophy for being the top student. The inscription reads: “Madore Trophy, General Proficiency, Class 50, No. 19 EFTS, Virden, Manitoba, L.A.C. Scaman, B.R.”
Ben still has the trophy in his bookshelf.
Ben completed his final Service Flight Training School in Uplands, Ontario and went to the Operational Training Unit at RCAF Bagotville, Quebec where he trained on Hurricanes.
He sailed from New York on the massive troop ship Queen Elizabeth 1 and completed his operational training in England before he was assigned to Royal Air Force Squadron 165, and started flying operations at RAF Tangmere in March 1943.
Located on the south coast, Tangmere was a prime target for German fighters. “We were hit hard and we lost some guys, so we were sent up to Scotland to do convoy patrol, just for a rest,” he explained.
Here’s a photo of the young flyer taken at the air base in Dyce, Scotland, now part of the city of Aberdeen.
German Aircraft Surrenders
While in Scotland, and just two months after he started flying operations, Ben was involved in one of the most amazing incidents of the war which took place on May 9, 1943.
Here is the story, in Ben’s words:
“It was a windy, rainy, Sunday and the squadron wasn’t flying. The rest of the squadron went off to a football match, while I was assigned to stay behind with another guy on standby, meaning that we had to be ready to fly within two minutes.”
The other flyer was Flight Lieutenant Arthur Ford Roscoe, an American serving with the RAF.
“We were sitting in dispersal playing a game of chess when we got a call to scramble – that’s take off immediately – because there was a bogey, an unidentified aircraft, over the North Sea.
“Roscoe was my Flight Commander and I was his number two, his wingman. The control tower vectored the bogey’s position and we flew east of him, so we could intercept if he turned back toward the continent.”
When they drew closer, the pilots recognized a Luftwaffe aircraft, a Junkers Ju 88 combination fighter-bomber.
“As soon as we spotted him, we dived on him. Almost immediately, the aircraft let off a bunch of red flares. So we didn’t open fire, but we closed in, Roscoe on his right and me right under his tail.
“The German pilot started waggling his wings, so Roscoe flew parallel to him, to see what he wanted. He saw two guys inside the cockpit waving white handkerchiefs, indicating that they wanted to surrender.
“The German lowered his undercarriage, his wheels, as a signal that he wanted to land, so Roscoe waggled his wings to indicate that he understood. We started to accompany him back to base. I was right under his tail with my gunsight on him and my thumb on the firing button. Since his guns were facing forward, he couldn’t fire on Roscoe unless he turned toward him. If he had turned toward Roscoe, I would have opened up.
“Roscoe radioed to base and told them to cease firing and have an escort guard ready. He didn’t want to say too much, because the Germans might be listening.
“When we got near the base, a machine gunner on the ground saw a German aircraft approaching and started shooting. It was easy to identify, because of the iron crosses on the wings. I pulled away so I wouldn’t get shot by mistake!”
However, the aircraft landed safely and three men were taken prisoner: pilot Heinrich Schmitt, co-pilot Paul Rosenberger, and engineer Erich Kantwill.
“The pilot wanted to defect because he had a Jewish fiancée who was taken away to a concentration camp and killed. He never shot down another Allied aircraft. Instead, he decided to defect. The co-pilot was in cahoots with the pilot, and he had his own reasons for wanting to defect.
“The third guy didn’t know anything about it! When he realized what they were doing, he pulled his service revolver but the others told him if he shot the pilot, all three of them would die, so he gave up the idea. He was mad as heck!”
The Germans had devised a clever ruse. Ordered to fly over the North Sea looking for ships to bomb, they radioed back to their base in Denmark that they were having engine trouble and were returning. Then they threw out their rubber dinghy and dropped below the German radar. When German searchers spotted the empty dinghy, the three men were reported missing.
The capture of this aircraft was of great intelligence value, since it was fitted out with the latest Lichtenstein radar set. After examining this radar, the Allies developed a new form of Window radar interference. (Window was the simple method of dropping thousands of strips of foil, which messed with the German radar results). The captured airmen also shared vital data about the tactics of the German fighters.
As Ben explained: “The defectors gave the Allies their radio codes and told them everything they could about military tactics. In fact, they spent the war living in a London hotel, working with the Allies. The third guy went off to a Prisoner of War camp in Canada.”
Meanwhile, there was tremendous excitement back on the base when the German aircraft landed. “We weren’t allowed to look at the kite, nobody was,” Ben said. “It was surrounded by guards with rifles. But that evening, the Air Vice-Marshall, head of the Royal Air Force for all of Scotland, came to Aberdeen to see the aircraft, and he came into the mess and shook our hands and congratulated us.”
Ben’s battered logbook contains the record of the amazing surrender.
Here’s the entry made on May 9, 1943, which reads:
“Sighted Ju 88 13 mi. N. Aberdeen. F/L Roscoe led him to base while I kept E/A covered. Special night fighter B.M.W. Engines. Quite a prize.” (E/A stands for Enemy Aircraft.)
The logbook contains a small photo of the captured aircraft, which was restored and displayed at the RAF Museum at Hendon, England. (Years after the war, Ben and his wife visited the museum so Ben could see his “prize” once more.) Today the aircraft can be found at the RAF Museum in Cosford, England.
The whole fascinating story is told in this book by Robert Hill, titled The Great Coup. The photo on the cover shows, one presumes, the Spitfire in the air being piloted by Ben himself!
Ben returned to his regular duties and was shifted to various fighter bases across Britain. “They moved us around to fool the Germans into thinking we had more aircraft than we actually did.”
For a couple of months, he was even posted to Africa, and served in Algiers, Tunis, Libya, and Oran. After his return to England, he was transferred to RAF Squadron 610, called the County of Chester squadron.
On June 6, 1944, the day that the Allies successfully invaded France, Ben was grounded, completing a training course. “We knew the invasion was about to happen, and I was very angry at my Commanding Officer for sending me on a course,” Ben recalled.
But there was plenty more excitement in store for him.
Hunting Down the Doodlebug
It was just days after D-Day that the V-1, the flying bomb, began raining down on London, causing massive death and destruction. The anti-aircraft guns along the coast weren’t very successful at hitting these small, fast-moving targets.
At first, the fighter pilots tried to shoot down the deadly missiles, each of which carried one ton of explosives. Ben and another flyer managed to shoot down one of the flying bombs on June 30, 1944.
“The first one we shot down exploded right under our noses when we hit it with our bullets, and the explosion rendered our aircraft unserviceable because it punctured our radiators,” he said. The two flyers were awarded one-half of the victory each, because both fired on it simultaneously.
Ben thought there must be a better way of destroying the bombs. “I went to the intelligence officer on my base and asked him for all the information he could provide on the doodlebugs. He said he didn’t know much, but he would find out. He came back and told me their direction was set by means of a gyro compass.”
(The technical description is a non-magnetic compass in which the direction of true north is maintained by a continuously driven gyroscope, whose axis is parallel to the earth’s axis of rotation.)
“Because we had gyro compasses in our aircraft, I knew that if they were knocked off the axis by a violent manoeuvre, they were no good until they were reset. So I thought if I could tip over one of these flying bombs, it would wreck the compass.”
However, it was no mean feat to attack a doodlebug. “They flew 400 miles per hour, and that was the top speed of a Spitfire 14.”
Here Ben paused for a moment to recall his favourite Spitfire model. “We were just transferring from the earlier Spitfire models 5 and 5B to the new 14s. The Spitfire 14 had over 2,000 horsepower motor and a five-bladed propeller. The torque was so high that if you opened up on the runway, the plane spun around. We had to ease the throttle forward when we were taking off.”
I showed Ben the below photograph that I found on the internet, but he pointed out that it was an obvious fake.
“You could never catch up to one like that,” he said. “They flew over at 2,000 feet so we flew at 3,000-4,000 feet and dived down on them. That was the only way we could do it without losing speed.”
Even if you could reach one of them, sending it off kilter called for some very skilful flying.
“You couldn’t hit it, because then you might damage your own wing. Instead you had to put your wing under the bomb’s wing and then move your ailerons violently, really hard. Once I contacted a bomb three times before I got it to go over,” he said. (The aileron is the moveable hinged trailing edge of the aircraft’s wing).
Because it was such a difficult task to knock down the V-1s, only a small minority of pilots ever managed it.
Ben managed to tip over four of them!
This page from his logbook has an illustration of the V-1. Under it are the words: “Knocked robot into sea.”
Another page from his logbook shows how many times he went out on “Diver Patrol” in August 1944 in an effort to locate and destroy the flying bombs.
“One time I chased a doodlebug right into a barrage balloon, but turned aside at the last minute before wrecking my plane on one of the balloon cables,” Ben said.
Another page even has a tiny strip of film from his aerial camera, showing the doodlebug increasing in size as his aircraft approaches.
Almost 10,000 V1s were fired on England in 1944, and these were followed by about 3,000 of the faster, more powerful V-2 rockets, against which there was no real defence.
Fortunately, the jet-propelled V-weapons were invented too late to turn the tide of war in Germany’s favour.
(Earlier I wrote about Constance Babington Smith, a British aerial photo interpreter who discovered the very first V1 flying bomb on an aerial photograph taken over northern Germany in 1943. To read more about this fascinating discovery, click here: The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes).
Ben flew over Europe, supporting the Allied advance, for the remaining months of the war. “We attacked shipping on the Rhine, we did ground interception, train-busting, various things.” (Train-busting was the term used for firing on train locomotives, to stop the transport of men and supplies.)
He vividly recalls flying high over the scene below in March 1945 when Allied troops were attempting to cross the Rhine River and meeting fierce resistance from the Germans. “Each DC-3 down below was towing a couple of gliders. I could have gotten out and walked from wingtip to wingtip, there were so many aircraft over the river.”
Happily the Allies were ultimately successful, and Germany surrendered in May 1945. Not long afterward, Ben was shipped home to Canada.
After the War
Ben had known the Amundsen family in Claresholm since childhood, and the two families attended the United Church together. But it wasn’t until he was at a local dance that the beautiful Audrey Amundsen caught his eye.
“Audrey sang to the crowd: If You Were the Only Boy in the World, and I Was the Only Girl. We danced, and from then she was the only girl in the world for me,” Ben said.
The young couple talked of getting married before Ben went overseas, but he was worried about leaving her a widow, so they decided to wait. Throughout the war, Audrey wrote to him every single week.
After Ben returned home, the war came to its final conclusion on August 15, 1945 when Japan surrendered. The couple wasted no time in getting married on August 27, 1945. Within weeks Ben was discharged.
Here is the very happy couple on their wedding day in Calgary. Ben’s groomsman was his brother Sidney Scaman, and the bridesmaid was Audrey’s friend, Fran Stickney.
Ben began working at a menswear store in Torrington, Alberta, but then became the propane dealer for Banff in 1948.
Ben and Audrey loved Banff, a famous tourist resort in the Rocky Mountains, and built their new house there in 1949.
“After our two kids were born, we looked around and realized that practically every young person in Banff was a ski bum. We didn’t want them to become ski bums, so we moved to Edmonton.”
For the next twenty years, Ben had a welding and machine shop in Edmonton. After son Donald and daughter Cheryl left home, Ben and Audrey returned to Banff and moved back into the house they still owned.
His daughter Cheryl lives in Calgary and his son Donald in Vancouver. They blessed Ben and Audrey with seven grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Audrey died in 2009 but Ben still resides in the same house, located on Banff’s main thoroughfare, now practically surrounded by hotels.
Ben’s comfortable home is filled with wartime memorabilia, including photographs, letters, and medals. His favourite wartime souvenir was handmade by his nephew Barry Munson of Edmonton. It shows a model Spitfire in the foreground, and in the background, another wee Spitfire attacking a flying bomb.
It was my pleasure and my honour to meet this remarkable man. Thank you so much, Ben Scaman, for serving our country so willingly.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image of a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division, saluting the Union Jack. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.