In the early 1980s, I interviewed dozens of World War II Canadian airmen who had flown with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and then put their first-person stories into my first two books; Two Wings and a Prayer in 1984, and Maximum Effort in 1986, both by Boston Mills Press of Erin, Ontario.
With Remembrance Day upon us, I’ve taken five excerpts from the two publications and have placed them here for us to reflect on and help us appreciate what these brave individuals--young men then--under combat conditions went through for our freedoms. These were real people, all Ontario residents at the time, not some phony, fearless characters out of a Hollywood movie.
RCAF Flight Lieutenant Jack Brown flew Typhoon fighters with RAF 193 Squadron:
“We attacked flying-bomb sites, radar stations, marshalling yards and bridges along the Seine in preparation for D-Day in Normandy. After D-Day we became a close support unit for the Canadian Army in the Northwest European Campaign. We attacked tank formations, ammo dumps, troop concentrations and enemy headquarter units.
I well remember what the D-Day operation looked like from the air. On the way over, we saw the incredible sight of a solid line of ships stretching from England to France. Just off the French coast was a formation of the largest battleships in the world, and they were firing shells inland. The whole thing was really impressive.
One of the most satisfying operations I was on was the closing of a tunnel in which a long-range enemy gun was stored. The Germans would take this gun out at night and shell our men on the beachhead. Intelligence learned from the French underground where the gun was kept and six of us in the squadron went over, three planes on each end of the tunnel, and with two 1000-pound bombs aboard our Typhoons we skip-bombed the mouths of the tunnel.”
RCAF Warrant Officer Al Bridgewater was a mid-upper gunner on Halifax bombers with RAF 158 Squadron:
“I was shot down over the North Sea on July 26, 1942 on my thirteenth op and it happened to be my wife’s birthday. A Ju-88 twin-engine fighter equipped with airborne radar snuck up behind us and raked us with cannon fire. It all happened so fast, we never saw it coming. Myself, the navigator, and the tail gunner managed to fall out just after our tanks exploded and came apart in mid-air about 100 feet over the water. The other crew members didn’t make it.
Once the three of us hit the water, we were able to stay afloat for almost 30 hours on one of the wings. By the second day, once the weather was getting pretty rough, a German sea plane found us and dropped onto the water and let out a dinghy. The weather was so bad that the German in the dinghy was throwing up as he pulled us in.
From there, we were taken to a German air base on Norderney Island, the northern coast of Germany, where we were put into some dry clothes. But it wasn’t so easy getting the old ones off. The salt water had stuck my long johns right to my skin and to get them off they had to pluck me like a chicken. All the hair on my body came off with it.”
RCAF Flight Lieutenant Lorne MacFarlane flew B-25 Mitchells with RAF 98 Squadron:
“I had already finished my operations and was at Brussels on a “non-ops” tour. It was New Year’s Day, 1945. The night before we had all celebrated at a mess party, and the next day we were moving around awfully slow. We were just taking our time walking from the billets down to the mess, when all of a sudden we heard strange-sounding aircraft, then some machine gun fire. The airfield was under attack! We were on the edge of the aerodrome and we all scrambled for different dugouts. I got behind a machine gun.
The Germans shot us up real good. They set fire to a beautiful executive Dakota that was all fixed up like you wouldn’t believe. They shot up several Typhoon and Tempest fighter planes that were taking off. Some of them did get off, though. Then I saw a strange-looking enemy plane scream by that had an engine on each wing, but no propellers. And it made a whistling sound. We didn’t know what it was at first, but we later found out it was a jet, a Messerschmitt 262.”
RCAF Flying Officer George Williams flew Lancaster bombers with RAF 61 Squadron:
“It was the night of July 3/4, 1942. We were mining the channel between Helsinborg, Sweden and Helsingor, Denmark, a mere three miles apart, when we took an incendiary shell in the inner gas tank of our Lancaster from the German flak gunners off the docks at Helsingor.
We were at about 600 feet at the time. The wing started on fire and actually began to melt right off. The next thing I knew we hit the water! The aircraft tumbled sideways and everyone was killed except me. Being strapped to the pilot seat probably saved my life. The next thing I knew, I was out of the aircraft but I don’t remember how I got there. I passed out, then came to and realized the skin had been burned off my forehead. I tried to swim for a buoy in the water, but I couldn’t find my arm as it was broken and slung over my right shoulder.
Apparently, it was quite a pastime in that area of neutral Sweden to watch the Allied mining of the channel and the German anti-aircraft fire. At night the flak was quite impressive with its beautiful reds, blues, and yellows. So the people would just sit out on their balconies and watch the fireworks. A man and his daughter were out there that night, not too far from shore. When we hit the water, the daughter ran down to the shore and jumped into a boat to come and rescue me. Then she hollered back to the people on the shore—about 20 people had congregated by this time—that her boat was too small. So about three teenage chaps came out in a pretty-good-sized craft and pulled me in. They rowed me to the dock where an ambulance was waiting. I was then taken to a hospital in Helsinborg.”
RCAF Flying Officer Frank Woodrow flew Hurricane fighters with RAF 261 Squadron:
“I took my training in England and there I met a fellow named Colin Fallon, an Australian. We graduated together, left the UK on December 18, 1942, and were posted to the Southeast Asia Command. On June 27, 1943, our squadron was assigned its first sortie. We were to escort a squadron of Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers to bomb the Japanese-held airfield on Akyab Island, off the Bay of Bengal. Colin and I were to fly in a section of four, led by Australian Flying Officer Norman Rankin. As we ran out to our aircraft, Colin gave me a slap on the back, saying, “Well, Woodie, we finally made it, after all these years.”
The flight to Akyab was uneventful and we encountered some light flak over the airfield. After the bombing was finished, we turned for home. Then I noticed smoke coming from Colin’s aircraft. He entered into a shallow dive and headed out over the Bay of Bengal. Rankin and I followed him, trying to get him on the radio but with little success.
We entered a low layer of cloud and as we emerged, Colin was in a spin and still smoking. We circled his aircraft, trying to contact him. We could see him struggling to recover from the spin, which he finally did, only to over-correct on pullout and stall again. This time he was too low to recover and after three or four turns, he crashed into the Bay! Rankin and I circled the spot. The Hurricane broke up and sank very quickly, leaving behind an oil patch and a few bits of wreckage.
As we headed back to base, I could not believe that it had all ended so quickly for Colin. After all those years of training and yearning for action, it was all over in one hour and 20 minutes, and he had not even fired a single shot in anger.”
These are only a few stories from my collection out of the many thousands who participated in World War II in all the services. Where would we be today as a nation without them?
We’ll never know the half of what they went through for us.