It was late 1944 and snow covered the French countryside. Germany's last offensive of the war, known as the Battle of the Bulge, was only weeks from being launched. For the men of the 2nd Tactical Air Force time passed beneath the solid overcast skies in the traditional manner of all warriors who'd gone before - by engaging themselves in games of chance. It was here, in a plush French villa that served as the temporary residence of 410 (RCAF) Squadron, that Pat Anderson sat down to join a game of poker. Only after pulling up his chair and asking to be dealt in did Pat notice his partners were playing with hundreds, even thousands of dollars on the table. In that moment he'd stumbled onto a successful black-market smuggling ring.

War has always presented opportunities for enterprising individuals to make money. Who could forget their fictional representatives, like Milo Minderbinder and his syndicate in Joseph Heller's novel, Catch 22, or the countless supply sergeants that hoarded everything from toilet paper to jeeps and autoclaves on the long-running M*A*S*H television show?

In France the Canadians of 410 Squadron had discovered a pent up demand for freshly roasted coffee beans. Hundreds of cafes and countless patrons had gone without a decent cup of coffee since 1940. Now, thanks to the hard work of the merchant marine, a solution was available. Tons of green, unroasted coffee beans were being carried across the ocean for the troops but the English were teetotallers who left the coffee beans to fill up space in warehouses. In fact, a kilogram of unroasted beans could be bought for a mere fifty cents. Enterprising servicemen, once they'd learned of this advantageous situation, would buy their limit of the innocuous bean and bring them back to the continent, where cafe owners were willing to pay up to fifteen dollars per kilo - a price easily recouped once the wafting scent of fresh brewed coffee began luring customers through the door.

Making the most of the situation, every serviceman, upon receiving leave in England, loaded up on perfume or stockings; to an enterprising young man looking for a little excitement in the pubs or dancehalls, such luxuries were as good as gold. Soon, 410 was being referred to as "the trading squadron."

Everyone in the squadron was in on the secret, or so it seemed, because the squadron headquarters had been set up in a high class country villa. This however presented another problem - heating. According to Pat, a nearby railway stationmaster was bribed to stop a coal train and when the crew left to investigate the delay a team of workers scrambled onboard and shoveled coal into a string of waiting supply trucks. It took weeks for the authorities to discover the shortage, but eventually they started weighing all the freight cars before and after their journey to see where the shortage was coming from.

In the midst of all this, the authorities were doing their best to combat such activities. At first, they raided the squadron barracks to confiscate stockpiles of coffee beans. During one raid, which Pat was absent from, his roommate buried Pat's bag of beans in the field to keep it safe. To combat the participant's padded billfolds the authorities also limited the amount of money a person could exchange. Every time the men moved to another country the paymaster would have their Air Force pay records and exchange only as much money as their normal Air Force salary should have allowed. Of course, if you were enterprising enough to run a smuggling ring, you were also in a position to find others willing to help you overcome your problems. While enjoying a ski trip in the Alps Pat enlisted the services of 'Doc', who took a break from smuggling antique furniture and changed Pat's French francs to British pounds.

As with gambling and smuggling, war also brings with it a demand for liquor - lots of liquor. Pat proudly proclaimed that thanks to their financial position, his squadron had amassed "the greatest bar in any squadron." In fact, even after the festivities and heavy drinking following VE-Day there was still enough liquor left over to give every man in the squadron several bottles as a parting gift for their return home.

Joseph Heller never told us what happened to Milo Minderbender or his ever-expanding syndicate, but for Pat and his squadron mates, peace brought with it an end to their activities. Back home they settled into the peaceful lives of ordinary people. Looking back on his escapades, Pat said, "We didn't see it as a racket. We looked at it as having a good time."

Trevor McTavish


Interview with Pat Anderson, December 2011.