The story of how Canadians invented the PBS airstrip which has revolutionized Allied airfield equipment in European battle areas
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Marlran's War Correspondent
DURING the last week of May, 1944, the line was busy everywhere in Southern England. From the Wash to the Bristol Channel, from
Brighton to Birmingham, private military wires and public trunk lines hummed and crackled 24 hours a day. Without a high priority you couldn’t get a call through from London to Basingstoke or Guildford. If you beseeched the phone people on the ground that your girl friend was running off to marry the son of Frankenstein, and you simply had to get through to argue her out of it, they would try to put you through, only to get you snarled in a dozen busy lines, all of them emitting some gibberish like “Abel six zebra Baker 17 love Charlie X-ray.”
The lines were filled with code messages as assault formations, loading ship for the great D-Day gamble, made their urgent requests for last minute items before they cast off on the supreme adventure. The phone calls were for the most part routed in an orderly fashion American formations to American headquarters, British formations to British headquarters, Canadian to Canadian, French to French. There were only two cases of a convergence of phone calls. One was to General Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters; the other to Canadian Army headquarters.
Anyone getting accidentally snarled in the concen-
tration of calls to Canadian Army headquarters might have been puzzled by the gibberish of American southern drawls, clipped Oxford accents and rolling Scottish tongues chanting almost in unison the letters, “PBS -PBSPBS.”
What was PBS? What made it so urgent? Why were all these calls directed to Canadian headquarters? The explanation has its beginnings in March, 1943. “Exercise Spartan” code name for the biggest military manoeuvres ever held in Britain—was under way. Huge forces of Canadian and British troops were scrambling all over Southern England in an exercise designed to rehearse an advance from a beach landing the same sort of advance which might take place if the troops were one day landed on a stretch of flat French coast like Brittany or Normandy.
The exercise was conducted on as realistic a scale. Air fleets were allotted to both advancing and defending forces. So were airfield construction battalions. These fields had actually to be built, and planes were assigned to take off from them. Many a Sussex farmer woke up to find that his evenly plowed field had been transformed overnight into a miniature Croydon.
In command of the troops advancing from the imaginary beachhead was Canada’s General McNaughton. He studied the problems raised during the exercise, and when it was over he summoned to his office Lieut.-Col. (now brigadier) Douglas Storms, Toronto.
McNaughton was particularly concerned about the airfield problem. Although the air section of “Exercise Spartan” had been adjudged a success by a horde of high-ranking military observers, McNaughton was not completely satisfied. True enough, the temporary airfields had been constructed speedily, and fighter craft had been able to take off from them in close support of the advancing troops. But McNaughton thought this test had not been conclusive enough. Well-drained dustless fields of Southern England lent themselves splendidly to the current system of temporary airfield construction, which consisted simply of laying a Somerfell track over levelled ground.
This track was a carpet of reinforced chicken wire held in place by a hemstitching of iron rods.
Used extensively in the desert, the Somerfell track had already revealed one weakness. Planes landing or taking off raised so much dust that engine trouble became a serious problem —a problem which was laboriously solved by having the planes land or take off singly, and holding up the following plane until the dust had settled. With an eye on the western European battlefield, McNaughton foresaw another more serious weakness—mud. Chicken-wire track would be useless in the Low Countries he knew so well from the last war.
Other military leaders had long thought about this problem, but none seemed to think that nature could be successfully thwarted. Many thought it patently impossible to render an open field waterproof and dustproof. McNaughton felt it was distinctly possible. That’s why he summoned Lieut.-Col. Storms to his office.
“Storms,” said McNaughton, “you saw the airfields we constructed in ‘Spartan.’ What did you think
The weather-beaten face of the gangling middleaged engineer grimaced with disgust. “Not worth a damn,” he said. “Do you think you can develop something better?” McNaughton asked.
“I can try,” was the quick answer.
A building contractor in Toronto before the war, Storms drew on his civilian experience as a guide to solving the problem. He knew that his task was to waterproof an open field; if he could waterproof a field it would automatically become dustproof. In his contracting days he had waterproofed hundreds of building roofs, and he saw no reason why a field should not be waterproofed by the same means, if not by the same methods. He therefore applied himself to the task of developing a material not dissimilar to ordinary roofing, but which was hardy enough to withstand the take-off and landing of thousands of fighter planes and which could be firmly and rapidly laid over open ground.
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Storms gathered a staff of men he knew in civilian life to help him in the work. They were Major George Clarke and Major Harry Duff, both of Toronto, and Captain C. L. Perkins, Halifax—all hard-thinking officers of the Royal Canadian Engineers. He then summoned from Toronto brilliant Charles Baskin, for years an ace expert on rubberized materials.
The five took over a small English factory equipped to manufacture roofing material and proceeded to experiment with a variety of combinations. They “crossed” oilcloth with chicken wire, tarpaulin with slate material — everything and anything which might produce the desired result — quickly discarding the unsuitable and preserving the promising.
After three months of experimentation they produced a tough resilience waterproof material which they felt would provide the answer to their needs. For want of a better name they called it PBS— prefabricated bituminous surfacing.
The next task was to develop a machine capable of laying a carpet of PBS on a field quickly and efficiently. Major Clarke understood this job. He designed a superstructure with a set of rollers which could be applied to an ordinary truck chassis. The PBS ran through the rollers and was laid on the field much like tooth paste from a tube. Storms looked at the first demonstration of this bizarre machine and said it reminded him of an automatic stamp licker.
While the Allies were streaming into Italy through Messina and Salerno Storms informed General McNaughton he was ready to demonstrate a new type of forward fighter airfield.
With consummate faith in his engineer corps McNaughton invited a galaxy of high-ranking officers from all Allied forces to attend the demonstration. Huge catering tents were set up
beside the farmland on which Canadian engineers were to build a serviceable airstrip within 24 hours, using PBS for the first time. The material looked good in the testing laboratory; Storms was praying it would stand up under actual landing conditions.
Storms selected a crack FrenchCanadian engineer company to build the field, and on a rain-swept afternoon the men went to work. The Canadians were worried. Rain not only made the farmland exceedingly soggy, it also complicated the problem of keeping the top layer of PBS firmly stuck to the base layer.
The French - Canadian company worked all night, through driving rain, while staff cars were arriving in droves to a nearby billet, and by noon the next day the airstrip was complete. Fighter planes were already hovering over the field to make the first demonstration landings on PBS.
“I really got frightened when I saw the number of officers who came out to see the demonstration,” Storms relates. “You never saw so many red tabs in your life. The field was covered with red—yes, sir, covered with the stuff. Mister, I was sure nervous.” That’s the way Storms speaks. Obviously he hasn’t the Sandhurst touch.
All eyes were on the first plane that circled and swooped down on the strip. It rolled to a smooth landing, and a hum of approval swept the crowd of observers. Then a second and third landed easily and took off. McNaughton was nodding his head, as though vastly impressed. Then something happened. After a dozen takeoffs and landings the surfacing began to come undone; huge strips of it rolled up, making the field look like a dumping ground for lengths of sewer pipe. The planes circled and flew to their home fields. Heartbroken, Storms rushed out to see what had gone wrong. He was followed by the crowd of observers.
What had happened was painfully obvious. The rain had unstuck the top layer of PBS and it had been rolled
up by the powerful slip streams of departing planes.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Storms says, “that disappointment was the best thing that could have happened. If everything had gone well the bigwigs would have spent weeks trying to discover the faults in PBS. As it was, the fault was plain for everybody to see. We simply had to devise a better system of sticking the two layers of PBS together.”
Within a week Storms and Baskin perfected a new petroleum liquid for sticking together the layers. Another demonstration was held and it proved completely successful. PBS provided a hard airstrip that stood up under any weather conditions and limitless numbers of take-offs and landings.
Storms and his staff had revolutionized all previous conceptions of close air support in a moving battle. The U. S. Army Air Force showed immediate interest in adapting PBS for its airfield construction. Britain asked for it. Canada needed it. The small English factory was patently unable to fill the flood of requisitions that came in for PBS. The material was put into mass production at a network of factories. The India-Burma-China theatre begged for PBS and Storms’ staff flew to India to open the world’s biggest PBS factory.
That is why the phone lines to Canadian headquarters were clogged as D-Day approached. And three days after the great adventure was launched the first PBS airstrip was laid down on the Normandy beachhead. Since then it has been standard for all Allied airfields in western Europe. PBS has stood up under the rain and mud of winter in Flanders. The men who achieved this great advance—Storms, Duff, Clarke and Perkins are the sort of gusty weather-beaten Canadians who get things done without fanfare. It was not until late December of 1944 that Storms was prevailed upon to appear before a conference of war correspondents to tell the story. He was as nervous and uncomfortable as a high-school student delivering a valedictory. He harumphed and stumbled and was generally so ill at ease that a public relations officer was obliged to tell us later all the dramatic things Storms left out.
At one stage of the interview a correspondent asked to see a piece of PBS. Storms whipped out a pocketknife and attempted to cut a piece from the roll he had brought along. He was so nervous he gashed his own hand.
His aide, Major Harry Duff, regarded this episode with a knowing nod of his head. “Just goes to show you,” he said, turning to the correspondents, “what happens when you give a brigadier a weapon.”
This spontaneous remark, I thought, told a very full story of the rollicking hard-thinking, hard-working men who, for the first time in the history of our Dominion, brought some of the most powerful military powers to Canada’s doorstep.
It may be that the story of this development will prove one day to be not the only great contribution of Canada to the science of modern war. There are developments made by Canadians in explosives, in artillery usage and in automotive design which are still shrouded in the secrecy necessary to this continuing battle of scientific wits.
But there are two other distinctly Canadian contributions which can now be discussed. The first is the “Kangaroo,” the conception of the most brilliant military tactician Canada has produced in this war— Lieut.-Gen. Guy Simonds. The second is the employment of heavy bomber
formations in close support of infantry, a combined contribution of General Crerar’s air liaison staff.
Both these developments emerged from the grim fury of the classic battle to close the Falaise gap. Late in July Field Marshal Montgomery foresaw the exact pattern the battle of Normandy would take. He had sent Patton’s Third Army swinging around the body of the German Army in a wide loop from Avranches to Argentan; and now he was calling upon the First Canadian Army to smash through the most heavily fortified position in all of Normandy— the drive from Caen to Falaise. General Simond’s second Canadian Corps was allotted the task of piercing the German positions.
Simond’s problem was this: the
Germans held the higher ground; they had littered these superior positions with pillboxes and 88’s, which swept wide-open fields in perfect daylight visibility. Simond’s divisions had already been severely mauled in the battles preliminary to capturing Caen. He could not afford to sacrifice large numbers of men in an orthodox attack — and yet the ground had to be gained without delay.
The youthful general pondered several days on the problem. He knew if he could get his Canadians into the midst of the German positions they would prove superior to the enemy in a man-to-man struggle in which personal resourcefulness ranked highest. He then conceived a novel plan for spilling his Canadians into the midst of the enemy defense lines.
He had on hand several score of selfpropelled guns—field guns mounted on tank chassis. These had been loaned from the Americans for the D-Day assault and were due to be returned.
It was Simond’s conception that if he removed the cannon from these tank chassis and filled them with infantry he could bring his men into the thick of German positions comparatively free of casualties from machine gun and small arms fire, which could not penetrate the heavy armor plating on these vehicles. The only remaining danger was from 88’s, and this he avoided by sending in the attack on a dark night.
This conception proved to be remarkably effective. Canadian ordnance troops did the almost superhuman job of converting 72 self-propelled guns into armored troop carriers in six days at front line workshops. The attack went in as scheduled; the Germans were confounded to discover Canadians spilling over their positions in the dead of night, and the “Kangaroo” became a recognized weapon of warfare.
In the same action, which raged more than two weeks, General Crerar’s staff worked out the plan whereby British Lancasters and American Flying Fortresses dropped their heaviest bombs in a close support role for infantry. Many details of this plan are still secret; only the result is written in the history books of the United Nations. It provided one of the blackest episodes in a very black summer for the Germans.
These are some of the achievements of Canadians in battle. If this combination of inventiveness, industry and cocksure courage can make miracles in war, who dares whimper over the prospects that lie before Canada at peace?