remembrance of the war brings back memories

At midnight, August 23/24, 1943, the flight crew was over the heart of Berlin when it was hit. It had been “coned” by the searchlights…

At midnight, August 23/24, 1943, the flight crew was over the heart of Berlin when it was hit.

It had been “coned” by the searchlights and pilot Warrant Officer Smith attempted an evasion manoeuvre.

He pulled the Halifax Mark II  L.Q.V. bomber around and up, and then dived straight down into the centre of the cone of searchlights, a move so violent that some of the crew blacked out.

When they came out of the dive, rear gunner Flick was looking down the gun barrels of a Messerschmitt 109 German fighter.

The spray of bullets from the enemy plane a mere 100 metres behind them went by both sides of Sergeant Flick, but took out their fins and rudder.

Flick fired back at close quarters while mid upper gunner Gates was engaged with a second ME 109 as it came down across the rear turret with guns blazing.

The ME 109 off the bomber’s tail, let off another burst of gunfire and the barrage burst through the glass of the tail turret, wounding Sergeant Flick in the shoulder.

Having done their damage, the German fighters disappeared.

The bomber was out of commission, and down to 1,500 metres right over Berlin so they headed north-northwest out of the target area.

The electrical system was damaged, and the aircraft still had its target indicators aboard.

Flight engineer Sergeant Catling reported that they did not have enough fuel to return to Gransden Lodge on Yorkshire, so the pilot steered the tired and damaged old V-type Halifax bomber out over the Baltic.

Of the 727 aircraft that took part in that raid, 56 didn’t return.

Of the 68 Canadian bombers that participated in that mission, five were lost.

Though some of the bombs fell on their target with great effect, many of them landed on empty fields outside of Berlin.

The mission was considered a failure.

To reduce weight, the Halifax dropped its target indicators into the sea, but still carried two bombs on each wing. The durable and sturdy Merlin engines kept the injured aircraft aloft until it reached Sweden near Ystad.

Five kilometres off the Swedish coast, it splashed down and the crew evacuated the plane.

After six hours of floating in the Baltic in their inflatable dingy, the seven-man crew was picked up by the Swedish coast guard and the flyers became prisoners of war.

It could have been worse: it could have been the Germans who captured them.

That crew was Canadian; one of them was my father, Sergeant John Gates.

Dad never talked about the war; he didn’t like it. But from time to time, he would let slip a little reference to what happened while he flew with the 405 Squadron, and the 432.

Most of what he recounted were funny anecdotes about life in wartime England, such as how he came to hate eating brussels sprouts, or had a good time with his crewmates on a night out.

Once or twice, he let the veil slip.

The first time, we were visiting a neighbour who had a friend regale us with stories of what a wonderful time he had during the war.

Dad became uneasy, and no sooner had we left, when he stopped me, in the alley to talk to me. I was 12 years old.

He bent over to speak. His voice was soft and low, but what he said never left me.

People who talked like that man did, he said, never saw any action.

During my university years, when the United States was escalating the conflict in Vietnam, he talked to me again about war.

There was nothing glamorous about war, he said, nothing good.

These remarks came as a surprise to me as the older generation was supposed to support the war.

A young, rebellious student without sympathy for the war in Vietnam, I was bowled over by an adult admitting that there was nothing good about such violence.

It was decades before we talked about the war again.

Dad had invited me to one of the regular gatherings of the air gunners association.

We joined the others in the noisy, smoke-filled parlour of the Hillhurst branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in Calgary.

I felt like an intruder, a voyeur. Here was a side of my father that I hadn’t seen before. 

Amidst the hubbub of the Legion hall, with some of his wartime contemporaries, they spoke a language I was unfamiliar with, a language of long-abandoned airbases and near-forgotten missions.

It was a coded language that only those who shared the experience could understand.

The war didn’t come up again as a topic until after my father died.

At his funeral, many of those who served in bomber command during the Second World War attended the sombre gathering.

One of them approached me with his condolences.

Four out of five of those who flew in bombers, he said, never came home.

I felt fortunate that my dad was one of the 20 per cent who survived, or I wouldn’t be here to tell this story.

My father has been gone for more than 15 years.

Every Remembrance Day, I pull a box off the shelf that contains the tangible mementos of his life, and ponder their significance.

Dad was no hero: the medals we received posthumously confirmed his service overseas, nothing more.

He was a survivor, and it was his role to make me understand the value, or lack of it, of war. His words were few, but the impact on me was great.

Family at home in Canada must have worried; missing in action could mean anything.

As a prisoner of war in Sweden, though, he had it easy.

He and the rest of his crew were placed in Internment Camp No. 4, outside of Falun, 258 kilometres from Stockholm.

Eventually, there were so many interred airmen that they were moved to ski lodges in the country.

A Swedish reporter saw them doing a very Canadian thing: playing hockey. He sponsored them to put together a team to tour Sweden and play a Swedish team.

They travelled across Sweden, all expenses paid, and played 24 games. It was a great way to fight a war.

Dad was returned to England March 16, 1944 and after five weeks of leave, he returned to duty.

His tattered dark green air gunner’s flying log book contains the story of his service: Bourge Leopold, Mont Couple, Metz, Stuttgart, Brussels, Breme, Osnabruck, Calais, and many more.

Despite the brutal interruption and interment in Sweden, he lived to complete his tour of duty: 35 “ops.”

It is not the mission of every man to be a hero.

Every individual’s encounter with war was different.

For most it was doing their duty, living the daily hardships associated with war, with the uncertainty of whether they would see another sunrise always hanging over them.

It is an assignment no one wanted, but which was served dutifully.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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