Saturday, November 17, 2007

At The Going Down of the Sun

It was dark and very cold in the cramped rear turret of the Halifax bomber. Dressed in his sheepskin-lined, electrically-heated flight suit, 18,000 feet above the blacked-out French countryside, sat an 18-year old Canadian boy, breathing heavily through his oxygen mask. His feet were freezing, despite the bulky flight boots. He wondered if his frozen fingers could work the triggers of the .303 calibre Browning machine guns if a German night-fighter were to come into view. He had not been told that his guns would be no match for their 20-mm cannon.

Fourteen months previously, this Montreal native, graduate of Verdun High School, and King Scout had left his worried parents standing on the platform of CPR’s Windsor Station. His father shook his hand with both pride and regret and his mother shed an apprehensive tear as their son boarded a train to Halifax to meet the troop-ship heading across the Atlantic. In the months following his enlistment at Number 5 Manning Depot in Lachine he had been sent to the Bombing and Gunnery School at Mont Joli, Quebec. Of course, every young man wanted to be a pilot, but it was gunners that the air force needed in the worst way, and the heavy losses suffered by the RAF meant that many Canadian boys were diverted from the personnel-rich but hardware-poor Royal Canadian Air Force. He was assigned to 578 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command in April of 1943.

For the next year-and-a-half, this young lad would climb into the big bomber with the rest of his all-Canadian crew, and listen on the intercom while the pilot and flight engineer warmed up the four 14-cylinder Bristol Hercules radial engines. As the sun dropped below the horizon on this misty evening the crews waited in their rumbling ‘planes for the three flashes of green light from the Aldis Lamp that signalled the start of another "ops". The twenty or so bombers that were flying this night from their base on the Yorkshire Dales would meet up with hundreds of others, taking off at nearly the same time from airfields all over England.

The target this night in early June of 1944: rail yards in northern France. Unlike the last mission, a raid over the German city of Essen, the usual combination of incendiary and conventional bombs had been replaced by a cluster of sixteen high-explosive 500-pounders.
It would be only a few more hours before the crew of Halifax "C for Charlie" would appreciate the significance of this night’s work.

As usual, clouds obscured much of the rail yards near Amiens, but the Pathfinders in their fast plywood Mosquito fighter-bombers had marked the target well with bright yellow flares. The bomb-aimer did his best and at the call of "bombs gone!" the much-relieved crew turned anxiously for home. They were thankful that the flak had been light and they had seen no enemy aircraft on this dark night, though they avoided the truth – that the Focke-Wulf 190 night fighter could destroy a bomber and her crew in the blink of an eye, without ever being seen. In the tail turret, our 18-year old was getting hungry, his pre-mission meal of bacon-and-eggs only a faint memory.

The sun was just coming up as they flew north over the coast of France, the cliffs of Dover barely visible on the far horizon. Soon they would be sleeping soundly on warm cots in the Simpson hut, or grouped around the pot-bellied coal stove warming their frozen feet. The conversation immediately after the raid would be full of bravado, but very quickly their private thoughts would turn to the next mission, and speculation about how much longer their luck would hold. Every time they went out, their odds of returning grew longer – and they all knew it even if their fears were never spoken.

At 30-years of age the pilot and southern Ontario native was the "old man" in the crew. The skipper saw it first and immediately called to the others over the intercom, "Take a gander at that!" The grey English Channel, now 10,000 feet below their bomber, was full of ships from horizon to horizon. Though none of the boys would know for sure until they landed at their base in another ninety minutes, they guessed correctly that the invasion of France was underway. It was the morning of June 6, 1944 and the lads of 578 Squadron had a bird’s-eye view of D-Day. By the time the bomber crews had de-briefed and were sitting down to breakfast, thousands of American, Canadian, British and other Allied soldiers would lie dying on the beaches of Normandy, but the invasion would be a success and in less than a year the war in Europe would be over.

Against all odds, the entire crew of "LK-C for Charlie" survived the war. Ten-thousand Canadians in Bomber Command, volunteers all, would never come home.

"Skipper" returned to Ontario, hoping to stay in flying, but there were too many pilots chasing too few jobs. Instead, he drove a Toronto Transit bus until he retired in 1976. He had married and raised two children, lived well into his eighties and died peacefully at his home on Harding Boulevard in Scarborough in 2002.

The navigator, bomb-aimer, flight engineer, mid-upper gunner and wireless operator scattered back to their homes all over Canada, never to see each other again.

Our rear-gunner, the boy from 712 Riverview Avenue in Verdun, had become a Warrant Officer and a man in the time he had been overseas. He returned to Montreal, went to work for the Foundation Company of Canada, married in 1947 and eventually raised six children. A long career in the construction industry took the family from Quebec to Ontario, then to Alberta and BC. After post-retirement stints in Rankin Inlet and Baker Lake, he and my mother quietly settled in a modest bungalow in Winnipeg. There, on February 5, 2001, at the age of 74, he died suddenly of a heart attack while shovelling snow.

Like so many of his generation, my father was an ordinary Canadian who did extraordinary things. He was tested by war, just as his father before him had been tested by the Great Depression. It is both a blessing and a curse that my generation, and those that followed, have not been tested as they were.

I fear there is now a younger generation who believe that Remembrance Day glorifies war, and has therefore lost its relevance. It does not glorify war. It does, however, glorify and honour the sacrifice and bravery of the soldiers who kept Canada free from the treachery of an evil regime, and the courage of those on the home front who worked long, hard hours in the war effort, endured shortages and lost loved ones to the conflict.

Mere words cannot express the debt that we owe to our World War II veterans, who are dying at the rate of about a hundred a day. The last survivors, both the soldiers and the ones who battled on the home-front, can now be found mostly in nursing homes and hospitals, their great deeds nearly forgotten by a generation far removed from the horrors and hardships of those times.

"Lest We Forget", we can only hope that the great tradition of Remembrance Day will continue for all time.

Larry

Photo: Leading Aircraftsman Herbert Laurence Whittaker, aged 18-years, air-gunner, 578 Squadron, 4 Group, RAF Bomber Command (right), standing on a wing of his Halifax Mark III, October 1943, Burn airbase, Yorkshire, England.

The young man on the left, identified only as "Stoney" on the back of my father's photo, was probably the mid-upper gunner. I wish I could tell you more about him and the rest of the crew. No doubt they all continued to contribute to this country in peace-time as they did during the war.

"A million-dollar experience that you wouldn't pay a nickel to do again."

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