David Hornell “Ordeal by Fire, Ordeal by Water”
Sunrise – the beginning of a new day. For David Hornell and his crew, sunrise is a reminder of how long they had been floating in the Atlantic Ocean after their Canso was brought down during a battle with a German U-Boat.
Hornell and his crew had been afloat at sea for over 21 hours. Hornell encouraged his men to stay the course and hang on for their lives. Cold, blinded and exhausted, he practiced what he preached, clinging to the raft as he himself clung to life. He died shortly after he and his crew were rescued.
Darkness, with just a hint of pink at the bottom.
CAPTION: JUNE 24, 1944
The darkness lightens. The pink blossoms to red and orange.
HORNELL (CAP): DENNIE? SUN’S COMING UP.
DENOMY (CAP): S-S-SKIP?
Sunrise. It’s glorious.
HORNELL (CAP): SUN’S COMING UP, LADS. SO BEAUTIFUL…
DENOMY (CAP): YEAH… IT’S GONNA BE… A FINE DAY, SKIP.
Grey skies stretch horizon to horizon over grey seas. From far away, the twin-engined Canso amphibious flying boat cruises at 500 feet.
CAPTION: ONE DAY EARLIER…
The Canso cruises in level flight. Grey, grey, grey…
CAPTION: NEAR THE FAROE ISLANDS, HALFWAY BETWEEN SCOTLAND AND ICELAND.
DAVID HORNELL flies from the left seat of the Canso while co-pilot BERNIE DENOMY sits in the right seat.
DENOMY: THAT’S TEN HOURS ON PATROL SKIPPER, AND NOT SO MUCH AS A SEAGULL.
HORNELL: OKAY DENNIE, LET’S TAKE HER HOME.
JOE BODNOFF peers out his port side blister window at the cold North Atlantic.
Ahead and far to the left of the aircraft, something dark and angular is partially obscured by the swell.
BODNOFF (thought): HMM…?
Bodnoff jumps into action, hands on his twin .303 machine guns.
BODNOFF: U-BOAT, 1200 YARDS! TRAVELLING HIGH SPEED ON THE PORT BEAM!
CAPTION: FOR YEARS, U-BOATS USED TO DIVE AND FLEE WHEN THEY WERE SPOTTED.
CAPTION: BUT NOW, ARMED WITH AN EFFECTIVE ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUN, THE U-BOAT CAPTAIN CHOOSES TO FIGHT THE CANSO.
From the POV of the U-boat in the extreme foreground, we see German sailors manning the deck guns while the distant Canso turns to attack in a banking dive. The captain, ERNST SAUERBERG, gives the order.
CAPTAIN : FEUER!
Shells and flak rake the fragile Canso. The Canso’s twin machine guns in the nose open up but one quickly jams, leaving only a solitary gun to fight the U-Boat’s gun crew. A shell from the German gun scores a hit on the Canso’s starboard engine, leaving both wing and engine on fire.
Germans sailors spasm as gunfire rains down around them.
CAPTION: A SINGLE U-BOAT COULD CHANGE THE FORTUNES OF THOUSANDS WAITING FOR THE CRITICAL SUPPLIES BEING BROUGHT BY THE CONVOYS.
Within the Canso, Flight Sergeant Cole recoils as a shell bursts alongside the airplane.
CAPTION: FOR THIS CANADIAN CREW, THE UBOAT MUST BE SUNK — NO MATTER THE COST.
Within the cockpit, Hornell hunches over the yoke straining for control, the windshield crazed with cracks, the aircraft shuddering with terrible vibration. The deck of the U-boat looms in the windshield of the cockpit.
Only 50 feet above the U-boat, the Canso drops its depth charges in a perfect straddle on either side of the bow of the submarine.
The starboard wing in flames, the Canso pulls its nose up sharply as the depth charges detonate in the water, lifting the bow of the submarine out of the water.
The plane’s crew cheers.
THE CREW: HUZZAH!
At 250 feet, the sub sinking in the water beneath the Canso, the airplane’s starboard engine falls away from its mount.
Within the cockpit, Hornell and Denomy fights with the control yokes, the pilots turn the Canso into the wind and deliberately stall her.
HORNELL: THAT’S FOR IT THEN LADS. I’M SETTING HER DOWN INTO THE WIND. GET READY TO EVACUATE!
The flaming Canso skips lightly off the tops of the waves…
…before settling into a heavy swell!
The Canso, now smoking from the fire, begins to sink in the twenty-foot waves. The men toss two small inflatable dinghies, one on either side of the aircraft. After eight minutes only the wings of the sinking Canso remain above water.
HORNELL: SAINT, GIVE US A HAND. PROFESSOR’S HURT.
Half of the Canso is already submerged. Sergeant Scott launches the port dinghy, and Bodnoff, Hornell, Matheson, and Denomy climb aboard followed by Campbell and Cole. As the group links up with St Laurent in the Starboard dinghy, the second dinghy explodes.
Only the surface of the Canso’s wing is visible above the water now, leaving eight men and one dinghy suitable for four in the cold choppy waters of the North Sea.
The four men in the water cling together to stay afloat. The men in the other dinghy paddle around the drowning airplane to help them.
HORNELL: BLAST! CO2 TANK RUPTURED! BOYS, LET’S GET MATHESON OUT OF THE DRINK.
MATHESON: I’LL BE ALL RIGHT, SKIP.
The men in the dinghy help Matheson aboard while Hornell, St. Laurent and Denomy cling to the outside.
CAMPBELL: SKIP, WE’LL MAKE ROOM. THE WATER’S TOO COLD FOR YOU!
Hornell closes his eyes and rests his head against the dinghy.
The dinghy is far too small for the entire crew. Six men jostle for space, clinging together for warmth and precarious safety while Hornell and another cling to the outside in the water.
HORNELL: ALL RIGHT. FOUR ON THE GUNWALES, LEGS OUTSIDE, TWO MEN IN THE MIDDLE. AND I WILL TAKE FIRST SHIFT IN THE WATER.
The men and their dinghy are dwarfed by the surrounding ocean and rain.
CAMPBELL: SKIPPER? WE’RE TAKING TOO MUCH WATER.
With white fingers, Hornell works free his belt buckle. He holds up his frozen pants with a grim smile.
HORNELL: SYD, KNOT THE TROUSER LEG AND SET TO BAILING.
CAMPBELL: SKIPPER, YOU’LL–
HORNELL: DO IT. I’LL BE DANCING BACK IN TORONTO ONE DAY.
The men huddle against the sides of the raft while Syd Cole bails water.
The men look up at the cloudy sky in all different directions.
BODNOFF: YOU MEN HEAR THAT?
SFX (quiet): …RRRRRRRRRRRRR…
Bodnoff points to a Norwegian Catalina flying near them.
BODNOFF: THERE! WHAT IS IT, NORWEGIAN?
HORNELL: GOOD EYES, GET THE FLARES OUT. FIRE THEM ALL!
Campbell pulls five flares from the flare-box.
He raises the flare gun and pulls the trigger.
Campbell: COME ON! COME ON!
He fires a second and third flare.
He fires the fourth flare.
Campbell: DAMN! LAST ONE…
He aims the fifth flare and fires it in a high arc, the men holding hands, their eyes wide with hope.
The flare hangs in the sky. The men watch the Catalina.
The Catalina is farther away.
The Catalina banks its wings and homes in on them. The men cheer, their arms around each others’ shoulders.
HORNELL: HELL OF A FIGHT, LADS. WE LIVED TO TELL OF IT. WE’LL MAKE IT YET. YOU’LL SEE.
The crew waves at the oncoming plane.
The men huddle together best they can.
CAPTION: FOURTEEN HOURS IN…
CAMPBELL: WE’RE TAKING TOO MUCH WATER!
Capsize! Arms and legs spreadeagle! All their supplies are lost.
Sputtering and soaked to the skin, with diminished strength the men drag each other back into the tiny dinghy.
The men’s faces and uniforms are encrusted with salt and ice-rime. The waves have risen to 40 feet in response to freezing wind and rain. The men, their faces frozen with grim determination and despair, all lean against the swell as they ride down the slope of a wave…
CAPTION: THE NORWEGIAN CATALINA CIRCLES LOW FOR EIGHT HOURS, UNABLE TO HELP THE MEN OTHER THAN RADIO FOR A RESCUE LAUNCH.
ST. LAURENT: I-I-MISS…
…then they lean the other way to ascend from the trough to the crest.
ST. LAURENT: M-M-MISS THE…
A Warwick aircraft flies low and drops an airborne lifeboat 500 feet away even as St. Laurent closes his eyes and falls backward into the water.
Hornell and Campbell hold St. Laurent’s head and shoulders above the water.
HORNELL: SAINT! C-C’MON, SAINT! S-STAY W-WITH US.
CAMPBELL: H-HE’S DEAD, SKIP.
Hornell closes his eyes, rests one hand above St. Laurent’s heart and one hand on his own.
HORNELL: LET HIM GO. SCOTTIE, GET IN HERE. ONE MAN IN THE WATER NOW. I’M GOING AFTER THAT AIR DROP.
DENOMY: S-SKIP! IT’S 500 FEET AND DRIFTING FARTHER! YOU WON’T MAKE IT!
Hornell struggles to dive into the water while Denomy and Campbell restrain him.
HORNELL: L-L-LET GO OF ME!
DENOMY: SKIP, YOU WON’T MAKE IT! YOU CAN’T!
The men huddle inward. Hornell sinks to the dinghy, staring outward at the impossible lifeboat.
The lifeboat is farther away.
The life boat is gone. Hornell joins his men in the huddle.
From the sky, we see the Catalina depart and the Sunderland takes over. The men and their dinghy are a fragile blip in the water amid 50-foot waves.
CAPTION: THE NORWEGIAN CATALINA, RUNNING LOW ON FUEL, IS RELIEVED BY A SUNDERLAND FLYING BOAT AFTER THE MEN HAVE BEEN IN THE WATER FOR 16 HOURS.
The men have collapsed in their huddle, their coats encrusted in salt and ice. Hornell’s moustache is a crust of icicles.
HORNELL: Y-Y-YEAH SCOTTIE?
Don Scott leans forward, eyes sunken and closed.
SCOTT: F-F-FIGURE YOU M-MIGHT WANNA HIRE ME? WH-WHEN YOU GO BACK TO T-TORONTO?
HORNELL: TH-THAT DEPENDS.
SCOTT: ON WH-WHAT?
Hornell’s eyes are encrusted with ice but he opens one in a wink and cracks a smile.
HORNELL: HAVE YOU GOT EXPERIENCE W-WITH HANDLING D-DIFFICULT SITUATIONS?
All the men smile. Scott too, eyes still closed.
SCOTT: HEH. HEH HEH…
Then Don Scott slides backwards into the water, still smiling.
Hornell lies across the men’s laps, arms outstretched to Scott, already a wave away.
Hornell resumes his position on the dinghy’s gunwhales.
HORNELL: TAKE A MINUTE, MEN. THINK OF SAINT. THINK OF SCOTT. WE’RE GETTING OUT OF THIS. NO ONE IN THE WATER NOW.
A moment of silence as the men ride the waves.
Hornell stiffens, looks across his men.
HORNELL: NO MORE, YOU HEAR ME? WE’RE GONNA MAKE IT. WE’RE GONNA MAKE IT.
The waves have risen to fifty feet. The men lie in a pile. Their eyes are closed, save Hornell’s.
CAPTION: ADRIFT FOR OVER 21 HOURS, THE MEN CLING TO EACH OTHER AND HORNELL TO GET THEM THROUGH THEIR ORDEAL.
Hornell raises a fist in outrage.
HORNELL: P-P-PROFESSOR, I WON’T HAVE IT… YOU HAVE N-N-NO IDEA… HOW TO C-C-COOK A GOOD PRIME RIB ROAST.
Distantly, the mast and cabin of an Air Sea Rescue launch can be seen coming towards them.
HORNELL: G-G-GOTTA SEAR IT F-F-FIRST. I’LL SH-SHOW YOU. COOK FOR Y-YOU ALL WHEN W-W-WE GET BACK…
SFX (quiet): …RRRRRRRRRRRR…
Cole and Denomy help each other up.
COLE: R-R-RESCUE L-L-LAUNCH…
DENOMY: S-S-SIR, IT’S A B-B-BOAT! WE WE’RE S-S-SAVED!
The ASR launch looms closer. Hornell sits up, faces the wrong direction. His eyes are white and sightless.
HORNELL: DENNIE? SUN’S COMING UP.
The launch is hard against the dinghy, Cole clinging to a Jacob’s ladder dangling over the side as strong arms help him up. Denomy cradles Hornell in his arms.
HORNELL: SUN’S COMING UP, LADS. SO BEAUTIFUL…
DENOMY: YEAH… IT’S GONNA BE… A FINE DAY, SKIP.
From the Sunderland’s POV, we see the men getting carried to the rescue launch, blankets waiting.
CAPTION: DAVID HORNELL LAPSED INTO UNCONSCIOUSNESS UPON RESCUE. DESPITE VIGOROUS ATTEMPTS TO REVIVE HIM, HE DIED 15 MINUTES AFTER BEING RESCUED BY THE LAUNCH.
Higher now, the cloud cover obscures much of the launch and the crew, the Sunderland orbits immediately below us.
CAPTION: HIS SKILLFUL FLYING AND INDOMITABLE SPIRIT ARE CREDITED WITH KEEPING HIS CREW ALIVE THROUGH THEIR ORDEAL.
High above the clouds now, where the sun shines brightly from a low angle.
CAPTION: FOR HIS STRENGTH AND FORTITUDE, DAVID ERNEST HORNELL WAS AWARDED THE RCAF’S FIRST VICTORIA CROSS.
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