I suppose I should have attended this unveiling by our Queen, on 28 June 2012, if only to honour the incredible bravery and sacrifice of the hundreds of cherished friends I lost, but emotions run too deeply. Joan, my partner of 70 years, and who had shared my war, had suffered two falls, seriously impeding her mobility, and preventing her from accompanying me.
Besides, I was not a happy warrior in Bomber Command. Even in my high school days I was a history buff and knew enough about our WWI peace treaties that allowed Hitler and his Nazi party to be such a scourge on us as well as the German population. I knew my responsibility was to assist in Hitler’s defeat, but deplored the means. I joined the RCAF and trained as an Observer (Navigator, bomb aimer, gunner). But, on being posted to a Bomber Command Operational Training Unit (OTU) I was channelled into the Bomb Aimer stream as it had now become a separate trade. With inadequate navigational aids I would have to find and bomb assigned targets in utter darkness illuminated only by flak and exploding bombs. Defeating the guilty by killing the innocent pained me deeply. Circumstances gave us no other way, compounding our sacrifices.
While at this OTU, near Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, 20 July to 20 September 1942, my pilot, Pat Porter, and I frequented on our nights off the local dance halls. One night Pat and I were surveying the girls seated along the walls facing the band and dance floor when Joan and her girlfriend arrived. I nudged Pat saying, "That’s for me!"
These dance halls were ideal for meeting scores of the opposite sex. Most went stag and the music was soft, encouraging the art of conversation. The agreed practice was to ask a girl for a dance, dance 3 numbers, and return her to her seat, then select a different partner. If there was one you particularly liked you would try to get her in the home waltz that permitted you to ask if you could walk her home. No problem on the way home as she knew the way but getting back was often a nightmare as all street signs had been removed to thwart invasions of Germans who did not invade but Canadians did and we were thoroughly confused. However, I did get her in the home waltz, walked her home, did not find my way back to base until 0400, but was still a very happy boy as I had her agreement for future dates.
Soon I had to stand her up. The base was sealed, no phone calls out. Bomber Command had launched its "Thousand Bomber" raids, but to attain this number they had to use still-under-training crews from OTUs. To us, it was another Charge of the Light Brigade. Our 2-engined Wellingtons were old and discarded by squadrons that had later models as well as 4-engine bombers. Our targets were heavily-defended cities in the Ruhr Valley. My first target was Dusseldorf. Our ageing Wellington would climb to only 9,000 feet, could carry no more than one ton of bombs, and refused to go faster than 135 knots, so we were a lifetime in that very impressive flak that stretched all the way from the coast to our target. Somehow, we bombed it and got home. Two of our OTU crews were among the 32 that did not. We were to lose a hundred good boys and a dozen instructors before this misguided policy was dropped. It was a frightening introduction to Bomber Command so Joan’s arms were a miraculous tonic.
Ten days after my posting to 419 RCAF Squadron in Croft, Yorkshire, my cold Nissen hut that had held 12 officers when I arrived had two survivors. So, squadrons also had high loses.
We knew it was stupid, and potentially cruel, to marry during a war, but we did. Pat Porter was best man. My CO, Merv Fleming, allowed me to live off base so, after bombing Germany, I would cycle in the rain the mile to the single room we rented in a home owned by a widow who lost her husband in WWI. We continued to frequent the dance halls, this time in Darlington, where Joan met and danced with many squadron members who were soon to be shot down to drown in the cruel North Sea, plough into the ground, or be blown apart. This existence continued until one morning Joan awoke to find my side of the bed empty. Alone, she had to raise our first daughter and wait 800 days for my return. Knowing they were there for me gave me a burning desire to survive.
Assessing my contributions to Bomber Command: When the average life expectancy was 5 operations I survived 17 but it took me 6 months due to lots of bad weather during the winter months, our conversion from Wellingtons to Halifaxes, and being selected for the month-long Bombing Leaders’ course. On my 3 mining trips I was able to plant six 1500-pound mines exactly where the Royal Navy wanted them and was informed that they sank two German ships. I often think of their crews. Of my 14 bombing operations I managed to find and bomb the docks in Kiel, Lorient, and Saint Nazairre. Over Wilhelmshaven, the Ruhr, Hamburg, and Berlin, in spite of dangerously lingering amid the flak, I could see no ground detail so, with heavy heart, bombed the cities as ordered. During these 17 raids I was on we lost 128 aircraft and 768 aircrew. Only 17% survived to become POWs.
A great friend to Joan and me was Pat Porter from northern British Columbia who sacrificed his life 28 March 1943 by staying at the controls to fight the plunge to permit his crew to cut our way out of a burning and plunging aircraft with an axe. I was the last out. Pat did not make it. He is buried in Hamburg.
Post War we Bomber Command veterans were shunned because the politicians who gave us this nasty duty were now ashamed of what had to be done to win the war.
Joan lived through all this so there was no way I could go to the London unveiling alone.