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Saturday January 15, 2011

Pilot hand-picked for risky evacuation of British scientists from Antarctic

Peter St. Louis braved fierce weather and lack of spare parts, earning a rare postwar decoration for Operation Corkscrew

Special to The Globe and Mail

Pilot Peter St. Louis helped make aviation history in 1950 when he flew a Canadian-built Norseman aircraft across some of the most dangerous and inhospitable terrain in the world to evacuate British scientists working in the Antarctic.

The scientists, who were based on Stonington Island, just off Graham Land, part of Britain's Antarctic territory, had been searching for minerals and studying the weather for the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey.

The polar ship John Biscoe tried to get to them in 1949 but had been forced back by impassible pack ice. Five of the men had been there since 1947, while the other six had arrived the next year.

Although the scientists had plenty of supplies, the British authorities were anxious to get them out, and St. Louis, a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force who had experience flying as a bush pilot in Canada's North, was hand-picked for the job by the governor of the Falkland Islands, Sir Miles Clifford.

Contending with the Antarctic's unpredictable weather and fierce storms, an acute lack of spare parts, no radio navigation aids and inaccurate charts, St. Louis accomplished his mission well enough to earn a rare postwar decoration.

He died in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2010, from complications following emergency cardiac surgery. He was 87.

For his service on Operation Corkscrew, he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in King George VI's birthday honours list. It was one of only two MBEs awarded to RCAF members from 1948-68.

The citation stated: "Flying Officer St. Louis successfully evacuated five members of survey party from Stonington Island in two lifts. Flights carried out in conditions of considerable hazard and difficulty are a testament of his skill and determination reflecting great credit on this officer and the force to which he belongs."

He also received a letter of appreciation from prime minister Louis St. Laurent, who wrote him on June 10, 1950: "The courageous and self-sacrificing spirit which prompted such a deed of bravery has won for you the deep admiration of your fellow Canadians. I should like to extend to you my warmest congratulations."

An assignment of a lifetime

Corkscrew was a plum assignment for St. Louis, who had been flying for almost 10 years, both as an instructor during the Second World War and during peacetime as a bush pilot. It was high profile and covered by British reporter Douglas Liversidge for Reuters News Service. He also published a book on it in 1951 entitled White Horizon.

The mission seemed simple: Fly in and evacuate the scientists, but anything could go wrong in the Antarctic and often did. The weather could turn vicious in an instant while the ice was unpredictable at the best of times, St. Louis wrote in a family memoir.

"It comes and goes on the whim of the wind, tides and current, so that at times when movement seems impossible a lead may appear quite suddenly or the ice might solidify and grip the ship even more viciously."

A few other things made St. Louis uneasy, wrote retired colonel Morris Gates in his 2006 two-part story on Corkscrew. "First, the provision of spares for the Norseman was inadequate for such an operation so far from any support facility. There was no way to provide support if the aircraft became unserviceable beyond the Auster's range from base." The Auster was Corkscrews' second aircraft.

Even a punctured float would be beyond repair, wrote Gates. "Spare parts were not available. There was not even a spare propeller."

After assembling his Norseman Mark V aircraft on the beach of Deception Island, a thousand miles south of Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, at the beginning of December, 1949, St. Louis and his crewmen waited patiently for the weather to improve. They ate penguin eggs and seal liver - neither was popular - and coped with the boredom.

After several trial flights, he took off to get the scientists on Jan. 30, 1950 - "a beautiful warm, sunny day" - from his base on the Argentine Islands halfway up Graham Land.

Flying south, he eventually spotted a clear lead in the ice covering Marguerite Bay. "I went down to take a closer look and sure enough the lead was ice free, no bergy bits or anything. We landed on the water and taxied back until we came against the more of less solid pack ice."

After struggling for three hours to propel their boat through the pack ice, the two scientists finally climbed into the Norseman and St. Louis took off. But he had to wait a week to rescue the other three. There were also two emperor penguins destined for the London Zoo. The Biscoe ship later took the other six scientists home.

Childhood in China

Peter Borden St. Louis was born on Oct. 6, 1923, in Camp Borden, near Barrie, Ont. His father Archie, a captain in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, commanded the Signals school there.

Family lore states that on the day Peter entered the world, Billy Barker, the legendary First World War fighter pilot and winner of the Victoria Cross, ran the wheels of his aircraft on the roof of the St. Louis home to celebrate his birth.

In 1929, the elder St. Louis, a pioneer in telecommunications, moved his family to China. For the next six years, the family lived a comfortable life in Shanghai complete with servants. From the Chinese boys who taunted Peter as a "foreign devil" to watching the Japanese bomb the city in 1932, life there was an eye-opener.

After spending three years in Britain studying at Scarborough College, St. Louis joined the RCAF on Nov. 27, 1941, shortly after his 18th birthday.

He'd always been interested in mechanical things like cars and airplanes so he applied for pilot training. Fifteen months later, he was awarded his pilot's wings and an officer's commission. Then the brass decided to keep him in Canada as a flight instructor. He finally reached Britain on Feb. 10, 1945, but the war was winding down and he never saw combat.

Once demobilized, St. Louis attended the University of British Columbia, but he missed flying so dropped out and got a job with Peace River Northern Airlines, one of many tiny outfits struggling to carve out a niche for itself in the competitive, postwar aviation world.

He enjoyed the life, much of which was spent refuelling, maintaining, loading and unloading his Anson aircraft before flying it.

The company's finances were shaky, though, and when it collapsed St. Louis was out of his bush-flying job.

Fortunately, the RCAF was recruiting and he got back in without any trouble. The force was preparing to enter its postwar golden era - it reached 56,000 men and women and 2,000 aircraft by 1958 - and St. Louis made the most of it.

At home in uniform

Getting back into uniform was "like coming home," he said later. After instructing at Rivers, Man., followed by his Antarctic adventure, St. Louis was back in Canada by July, 1950.

After a promotion to flight lieutenant the next year, he spent four years with the Ottawa-based 408 Squadron. He flew all over the Arctic and played a major part in installing Shoran (short-range navigation) ground stations across the Northwest Territories. They helped in charting Canada's North by using radar to establish the accuracy of aerial photos for mapping purposes.

St. Louis, who was quick with a joke and who had an easy way with people, was reborn as a fighter pilot in 1960 when he was posted to the RCAF's No. 3 (Fighter) Wing, based in Zweibrucken, Germany. Commanding No. 427 Squadron and its F-86 Sabre jets, he and his pilots were the sharp tip of the NATO spear, ready should hostilities ever break out with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

In 1962, 427 was disbanded and St. Louis moved on to command 439 Squadron at Marville, France, until it was also disbanded in November, 1963.

St. Louis's final command appointment was in 1966 when he was sent to Canadian Forces Base St. Hubert, Que., to take over the Electronic Warfare Unit. Leonard Jenks of Victoria served with him there. "Without a doubt he was an outstanding commanding officer. Patient, perceptive and professional, he encouraged his officers and enlisted personnel alike to achieve the highest standards. Everyone enjoyed working with [him], they would not let him down."

After retiring from the Canadian Forces in 1972 as a lieutenant-colonel, St. Louis spent two years instructing at Ottawa's Rockcliffe Flying Club before working at the Canadian Transport Commission's Air Transport Committee and the Department of Transport. He retired for good in 1982 and devoted himself to his family and golf.

He leaves his wife, Frances; his children Margot, Archie and Paul; brothers John and Charles; and eight grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter Brenda.

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