The Ice Girls

In Military History

Some of you might have caught a news story a couple of weeks ago telling the incredible story of Glacier Gal; nearly 65 years ago this P-38 was one of eight planes to ditch in the dangerous environs of Greenland as it attempted to make the incredible journey from the US, across the northern tips of the Atlantic, to Great Britain to reinforce the war effort there. After over fifty years trapped in the ice and numerous salvage operations, she has finally been freed, restored and flown. The plan was to complete her original mission and fly her all the way to Britain to take part in the Flying Legends Air Show at IWM Duxford.

Unfortunately, technical malfunctions meant she could never complete the journey but her story has highlighted a forgotten corner of the war. Not many people realise that the US had bases in Greenland as part of Operation Bolero - an operation designed to resupply bases in Britain with warplanes via what was fondly known as the "Great back door of Europe". Nor has the recent press coverage focused on the equally incredible stories of the rescue crews who risked their lives to save their fellow airmen when they all too frequently had to ditch on the ice. One of the most incredible rescue stories of the war is that of "My Gal Sal".

My Gal Sal was a B-17 bomber which crash-landed onto an ice cap in June of 1942. Located by a PBY plane, food and supplies were dropped to the stricken crew but the real problem was how to get them off their new icy base. With no suitable plane equipped with skiis it seemed like an impossible task. Luckily for the crew Lt Col Balchen was in charge of one of the key Greenland bases in the region. Balchen, born in Norway, was an expert Artic survivalist and had even taken part in Antartic expeditions. He instilled a confidence in his men that they could achieve the impossible, whatever the conditions. This was never more true than the rescue operation for the crew of "My Gal Sal".

Blachen himself led a ground crew rescue team on skiis across hundreds of miles while a PBY protectively circled above when possible, directing them and dropping supplies. Eventually the PBY was able to land amidst some of the melted ice, forming a temporary lake, and the entire crew was rescued over a week since first crashing. I can't even begin to imagine the relief of these airmen once they realised that they would soon be taken somewhere safe and warm! There is an excellent website which details the story of My Gal Sal in more detail, while our own Osprey title Combat Aircraft 65: PBY Units of the Atlantic War also tells this story and many more.

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