Through Adversity to the Stars
Canadian airmen overseas, in fighter cockpits or bomber turrets, live their motto day and night, grimly, tenaciously
H. NAPIER MOORE Kditor, Maclean’s Magazine
EARLY on a Sunday morning we drove through the silent streets of London. The odd A.R.P. warden or fire-watcher was coming off all-night duty. The odd policeman, tinhatted, serene, stood on the odd corner. Barrage balloons, shimmying in protest, were being hauled down to lower levels. Otherwise, the streets were deserted. The sun tipped the roofs of drowsy buildings; glinted on water stored in basements above which there is now no superstructure; or in the steel tanks which, at intervals, straddle roadway and sidewalk. During the night the Wailing Willies had sounded an alert. There had been bursts of distant gunfire. The long, sustained blare
of the “All Clear.” The equally sustained rumble of a seemingly endless truck convoy methodically plodding its way through the ink of the blackout. Now it was quiet.
We emerged from the suburbs; swung round the inevitable roundabout, with its pillboxes covering each converging highway, with iron tank traps and concrete obstacles lying on the grass beside the road (you see them along every highway and lane), and we were on the Great North Road. We had 250 miles or more to do before five o’clock that afternoon. That was the hour of our rendezvous with the Air Force. In all our wanderings with the Canadian Army, Al, our bus driver, had never once been a second late. This time it was to a strange country that he and our motor-bike outrider were heading. At the northern end there must be some leeway in which to find a sequestered inn which was to be the meeting place. They stepped on the petrol.
All day we sped along strangely deserted highways. Occasionally we would meet or overtake a military convoy; pass a lone, crawling tank; see a crash-helmeted dispatch rider whiz by. But there are no private cars to be seen on English roads, and passenger buses are few and far between. We weaved through the crooked streets of villages and towns. On the streets there would be a few women
and children. Old men, at cottage doors, sat basking in the sun. A glimpse, now and then, of a youth in uniform. But of middle-age men there were none to be seen. We found out why. It was Sunday. They were all away on Home Guard exercises.
Out into the country again. As in every part of England, the larger fields are crossed with taut wires, stretched between poles which range the sides. Along the edges of long, straight stretches of highway stand concrete posts. These, to tangle or block any enemy troop planes or gliders which might attempt a landing. Then, over the top of a hedge there would be visible the wings of a giant bombera Lancaster, a Halifax, a Stirling, a Wellington. Then another, and another, and another. We were passing dispersal points of an airdrome, its buildings, hangars and runways invisible to the passer-by. Then the wicked snouts of Spitfires, peering from under trees. A fighter squadron in there somewhere. A mile or two more. Airmen on bicycles. Then more bombers, fighters, bombers, fighters. Bombers, bombers, bombers. For the English countryside is patchworked with airdromes. Sometimes you can spot them easily. Sometimes you think you can and you really can’t. And sometimes you know you are quite wrong in your guess when you really aren’t. Camouflage can be so very confusing.
At a quarter of five we halted at a junction, covered by pillboxes sunk in the hedges, while our escort enquired of sentries and military police as to where our rendezvous lay. They were most apologetic about it. They didn’t know. It seemed there were half a dozen inns in the same general area bearing the same name. You can see how difficult it is to invade England.
AÍ, the bus driver, went into a sort of divining trance. He got back into the juggernaut. At precisely five o’clock he pulled up in front of an inn. A flying officer stepped up. “At the first turn across the bridge you will find a service car waiting,” he said. “You will please follow it.”
Never Sure of Whereabouts
FOUR MILES more, through curly lanes, and suddenly, there we were, before our first R.A.F. mess. You get to know these messes. They have identical design; identical interior arrangement. But you never quite knowr just where you are. Place names are used sparingly in operational areas. This was a satellite station; a bomber training station. To it was attached a FrenchCanadian squadron of the R.C.A.F., under sparkling young Squadron Leader Roy, son of Hon. Philippe Roy, former Canadian Minister to
France. And with Roy, and Padre Michaud, and a groupof laughing-eyed young Quebeckers, we dined.
It was during dinner that we learned there were to be big doings that night from the mother station not far away. Doings in which an operational Canadian night bomber squadron would participate. Wre were “lucky.” We were to be in on it. In the dusk we drove there. In the mess we hung around till the zero hour; chatted with Wing Commander Len Fraser of Vancouver, reminiscing over his days as a bush pilot with Dominion Skyways and Canadian Airways. With Flight Lieutenant Bert Jost, who had come from the bottom of a mine to nurse engines over the clouds; who used to be night superintendent of the Buffalo Ankerite mine in Timmins; who had been night superintendent of a bomber in that devastating raid on Cologne. With Flight Lieutenant J. F. Hammett, former Vancouver schoolteacher, now, at the time of our visit, the only Canadian Senior Flying Control Officer in England. Flight Lieutenant Hammett didn’t stay long. He had work to do. Work that was to keep him up all night and far into the next day. Vitally important work. For the senior flying control officer on an operational station is what the train dispatcher is to a railway. It is he who must know that every bomber about
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to take-off is functioning perfectly in every respect. It is he who gives them “go.” It is he who sits throughout the night in the watch office, ready at a second’s notice to clear distant airdromes for a returning cripple, to communicate directions to its pilot. It is he who directs the return, the landing, of each bomber as it wings its way back from the night’s work over Germany. It is he whose eyes are glued upon the watchroom blackboard; eyes which are radiant when he chalks in figures under the heading, “Time Arrived.” Eyes which are tired and sad when under that heading, there remains a blank.
It was this flying control officer who came from the blackness of the night into the cheerily lit mess, and to us, sitting round a cosy fire, said: “Gentlemen, it is time for us to be going. The cars are outside.”
Pride of Ground Crews
I HAVE already told the story of that night, the longest night in all my memory, and of the dawn that followed it. It appeared in the October 15 issue of Maclean’s. It was written late the following night, as other bombers roared overhead. There were omissions. It should have told of the ground crews whose pride in the serviceability of their charges is thrilling to behold; who are as much a part of the aircraft as those who fly it; who are so intensely concerned about its air crew that, apart from regular night duties, by voluntary rote stay up, till in the dawn they may see their plane come back.
It should, that story, have told of the W.A.A.F. There is a whole article in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. They are wireless opera-
tors, telephone operators, drivers, cooks, waitresses, in the dental and medical branches, they repair the fabrics of planes, they are mechanics, parachute packers, balloon operators. They are in twenty-eight trades. But the story of the W.A.A.F. was that of the small, slim girl who waited on us at belated breakfast after the bombers had come back. She looked tired. I asked her if she had been up all night. She said she had. I wondered that she should still be on duty. “Oh,” she said, “I wasn’t on duty. Some of us are on night duty, of course. The air crews have got to have warm food when they come back. But I wasn’t on duty last night.”
“Well?” I asked.
She said, very simply: “You
can’t sleep when operations are on. You’ve seen those boys go off, haven’t you?”
Southward to the Midlands we journeyed, to visit an R.A.F. station from which operated those incomparable giants—the Lancasters. There were Canadians there, too. Pilot Officer G. W. Lancey of Toronto, with sixteen operational flights under his belt. Cologne, Essen, Hamburg and a dozen other enemy cities had been his targets. And Pilot Officer A. D. Walker, also from Toronto, with nine operational flights up to that date - Bremen, Hamburg; all the names that are pronounced hot stuff. Excitement? Oh, so-so, you know. But others told me that Walker, after a collision in mid-air, had ordered his crew to bail out and then in some miraculous fashion landed his damaged plane. Just nothing worth mentioning.
And there must be a word for
Flight Sergeant Merrick. An American from Indiana, with a rich sense of comedy, he exhibited the Lancaster’s gun turret, plaintively described the difficulties encountered by a gent of his build in getting into it. He asserted that in nine operational flights he hadn’t once been able to take a deep breath. He said that when his heart got into his mouth, as it invariably did, it stayed there until the flight was over, because he couldn’t expand sufficiently to let it slide back into place. But on the fuselage of that Lancaster were two small, neatly painted swastikas. Flight Sergeant Merrick didn’t mention it, hut from his little turret he had shot down two Nazi planes.
“They’re going to take you to the poultry yard to see some eggs,’’ said the Flight Sergeant. We went. The eggs were for shipment to Germany that night. Technically, their storage place is termed a dump. Behind antiblast protection, row after row, there they lay. Bombs. And such bombs! Earlier we had seen some German bombs, 540 pounders, which hadn’t exploded and which had been rendered harmless by calm and breezy men who race joyfully across the landscape to manipulate their deskunking gadgets with a bland disregard of the possibility of their being blown to fragments. The Germans, of course, have dropped heavier stuff than the 540 pounder. But compared with what were then the latest British models, they were cream puffs. What we saw were the R.A.F.’s 8,000 pounders. Four tons. We all sat on one. We autographed it. Signatures from Saskatoon, New Glasgow, Toronto, Brampton, Granby, Montreal. Silly? Well, just looking at a four-ton bomb knocks you silly. That particular bomb fell in Germany that night.
Load For a Lancaster
WE MOVED to where Lancasters were being loaded. The bomb doors were down, and, pigmies that we were, we gazed upward into the mammoth caves wherein death rides the winds. Bearing the cargoes, lowslung trucks slid under the bomb bays. The armorers went to work. They hummed. They whistled. From winches up above, wire cables dropped. Swiftly they were attached to those incredible four ton bombs. Slowly the bombs rose; were snapped into place. And then followed rack after rack of other types of bombs. What the Lancaster can carry is just nobody’s business. Up above, in the fuselage, long, long belts of machinegun cartridges were being loaded. We stood there with mouths agape. The bomb doors closed. “Well,” said the leading armorer, “she’s all set. Nice little package, eh?’’
We dropped in to say hello to an R.C.A.F. fighter squadron attached to the R.A.F. It was a quiet day for the fighters. But I found it interesting, talking with Flight Lieutenant Buck McNair, D.F.C., of North Battleford. He had been to Malta. His score there was eight Nazi planes. And there, too, was Flight Lieutenant Dave Ramsay of Calgary, whose mother is an Alberta member of the MacLean Company family. Ramsay
had spent three months in Russia instructing in the flying of Hurricanes. He thought the Russian pilots were smart. Since then he had been in a number of scraps over the Channel, including Dieppe. So far as the fighters were concerned, Dieppe, he thought, was a swell show.
So far as our next stop is concerned, I have been scooped. Scooped completely by one of my own contributors. For in that same issue (October 15) in which I told of the night bomber squadron, D. K. Findlay described in detail, and splendidly described, the operations of a Canadian night fighter station. Night fighter! Those sleek, lethal Bristol Beaufighters, so equipped, so guided that they can seek out hostile craft in the blackness of the night and blast them out of the skies. Later we were to see them being built. They have the finesse of a fine wrist watch ; the bite of a shark. In relays they patrol from dusk to dawn. They are the terror of the German night marauder.
It was to the station described by Mr. Findlay that we went; to the squadron whose diary records the amazing career of Timoshenko, the cat, who, amidst scenes of great solemnity, was awarded the D.F.M. (Dam’ Fine Mouser). It was the squadron led by that grand Canadian, Wing Commander Paul V. Davoud. Graduate of Royal Military College and Queen’s University, bush pilot to head of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s air transport service, Davoud is considered by his squadron to be a prince among princes. With a Welsh radio-observer wdth whom he wouldn’t part for an Air Vice-Marshal’s job, Davoud climbs to the clouds outsearching his men for trouble. On the ground he is their confessor and friend. He takes them on at volley-ball. They try to outkick him in football. It’s a happy squadron, and an efficient one. Its mess is an old, overgrown farmhouse. Above the mantel of its living room there is the battered metal propeller of a German Dornier 217, shot down by the squadron. The propeller and an oxygen tank were all that was left of it. And on one of the prop’s blades are scratched the little crooked crosses which denote the squadron’s toll. At that date it was five confirmed, three unconfirmed, ten damaged.
There were lads from Canada, England, Scotland and Wales on that station, in pairs, fighter pilot and radio observer, they had taken off night after night, fought, and come hack. They had spent their leaves together. They were pals.
As I walked into the mess, a khaki-clad figure arose and came forward to greet me. It was Garnett Radcliffe, the author whose stories frequently appeared in Maclean's until three years ago. Radcliffe hasn’t had much time for writing since then. In the last war he was an officer in the Indian Army. At the outbreak of this one he enlisted again; became a corporal in the Royal Air Force Regiment, which looks after the security of all air force establishments. Recently he
got his commission and the R.A.F.R. command at this station.
Choice of An Egg
IN TIME for a late dinner we had arrived in an old, Midland, cathedral city. The bedrooms in the hotel were comfortable. The beds looked soft and inviting. There was even a small piece of soap in the bathroom. Luxury, indeed. The dinner was good. The head waiter, overwhelmed by the presence of twelve Canadian editors, insisted on talking to us in French. We were all set to relax, for we had had several hectic days. It was at that moment that F/O John Clare and Lieut. Bill Austin, public relations officers of the R.C.A.F. and Canadian Army, who had been with us throughout the entire trip, went into a huddle. They emerged looking somewhat fearful, but determined. Mr. Clare is a gentle fellow. But he comes from Saskatoon, is tall and well built, and can look very fierce. He spoke. He said: “Tomorrow’s
program calls for a visit to the famous Demon Squadron, in Coastal Command. We have just learned that, the Air Ministry wants to give you a reception in London at 6 o’clock tomorrow evening. We have long distances to drive. It. will mean getting up at five o’clock in the morning.”
We glowered at the man. Then he spoke again, and there was seduction in his voice. “If you will get up at five, and if you won’t mind a bit of a drive before breakfast, I give you a solemn promise that at the station you will have an EGG.”
We shocked the head waiter. We shocked all the other guests. We arose and we cheered. We cheered Clare. We cheered the Air Force. We cheered the EGG. We hadn’t seen one since we landed in England. Egg powder, yes. But one of those gorgeous, oval things, encased in a shell, no.
We got up at five. Planes had been roaring overhead all night but the porter said it had been a really lovely night-—there hadn’t been any alarm. Sleepily we stumbled out to our bus. Clare’s “bit of a drive” turned out to be eighty-two miles. Then we had fun finding the station. The escort officer who met us had been there two days previously. He took us to where the entrance had been then. It wasn’t there. We doubled back, got directions, and were guided to a new entry. The usual interrogation from the guard (these precautions make you feel good, secure) and we were passed along to the mess. Breakfast was ready. The EGG was there. A fried egg. An egg with all the splendor of a sunset on the St. Lawrence. Already we knew that the Demon Squadron is a marvellous institution.
It is. A Canadian squadron attached to R.A.F. Coastal Command, flying Hudsons, its main job is that of soaring over the North Sea to attack enemy shipping. Most of its work is done off the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. The enemy’s railways are overburdened. To relieve the pressure he carries food, fuel and other supplies for his northern garrisons by ship from the Ruhr to north-
ern Norway. Via that route he brings back Norwegian products, wood pulp, iron. These convoys are the targets for the Demon Squadron. They used to leapfrog over enemy ships, diving to mast level, raking them with machine-gun fire, showering them with bombs. Intelligence reports said the Jerry was having trouble getting crews for these convoys. Now the ships are heavily armed; powerfully escorted. The Demons are more cautious; fly higher. Yet, night after night, when the weather is right, they get their bag.
Had Been a Good Night
WE WENT down to the flight room to meet the crews who had returned from the night’s operations an hour or two before. They were in high fettle. It had been a good night. They had sunk the largest ship in a German convoy, and probably hit another. Flying Officer Lloyd Ellam of Montreal, skippered the Hudson which sent the Jerry to the bottom. With him vrere Flight Sergeant J. L. Gaucher of Coderre, Saskatchewan; Wireless Sergt. G. Cojocar of Regina, and Gunner Pilot Officer C. W. Woodward of Toronto. Also 1 chatted with Sergt. Pilot Fred Mattison of Toronto, Flight Sergeant Norman Fairhurst of Edmonton, and those remarkable Vancouver twins, Flight Sergeants F>ed and Stan Rowe. Now twentytwo, they joined up together. Their numbers differ by one. They trained together; got their wings the same day; went overseas together, were posted to the same aircraft rescue service; transferred to the same coastal command station. Both are observers. Once, on the same night, FTed’s plane came back from over the Frisian Islands with its undercarriage shot away; Stan’s plane got back from the same target with an engine out. Both landed safely. They take their leaves together and visit the same aunt in Glasgow.
We lunched with the Demons, and AÍ, the bus driver, got us to London in time for the Air Ministry reception. How he did it I don’t know. But he did. It was a very nice reception. Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Air Minister; Lord Sherwood, Under Secretary for Air in the House of Lords; Air Marshal Garrod, Chief of R.A.F. training; Sir Louis Gregg, who was with the Duke of Kent on his last Canadian tour and who was feeling his tragic death most keenly; all were there. They told us of the R.A.F., of things which cannot be revealed until after the war. They told us of what went on during the Battle of Britain. They spoke not only as heads of the Air Force. They spoke as Englishmen. They spoke as speak all men, all women, all children in all stations of life in every part of Britain, whenever the Air Force is mentioned. They spoke with heartfelt feeling; with deep gratitude.
In a certain seaport I was talking to an old friend. He is a North Countryman, not given to emotion. I said to him, “What, if anything, has moved you since the days of the blitz?” He didn’t spend any time thinking. He said, “I was walking along a downtown street the other
day. Ahead of me were three United States sailors. Coming toward us, on crutches, was a young R.A.F. pilot officer. He had one leg. What do you think those American sailors did? They fell into single file. And
as he passed, each of them came to attention and saluted. It was no ordinary, no casual salute. It was one of the most gracious things I have ever seen.”
To be Continued