“We flew through the Alps in the pitch black. If we flew too high, there would be no air for the propellers, and planes would drop out of the sky. If we flew too low, we’d crash into rock. We were flying blind. Those were some of the longest nights of my life.”
(We all dreaded the doorbell. There was always a chance it would be the war department with a telegram saying our husbands were missing or killed. Our lives revolved around those little blue airmail letters. Once I got thirteen letters at the same time, but then nothing for weeks and weeks. I never got used to him being away. Not ever.)
“Our Hamburg effort last month was a real honey. Boy, we really gave them a pasting. We were very fortunate to get back as our kite was hit in many places by night fighters and flak. Luckily none of us were hit but those cannon shells make quite a hole! Our ‘W for Willy’ looked like a salt shaker after that do."
(Reading through his logbook, you have to think about everything Gord couldn’t say. He had to write just the basic facts – how many bombs were dropped, how far they flew and for how long, and where they were sent. But so much happened up there. So much.)
The vibration of the plane, the noise and yelling and roar. Exploding flak, the concussion as hundreds of bombs found their marks. The fumes, the smell of fuel and sweat. The biting cold of high altitude. And an urgent need to concentrate.
"As a member of the Pathfinders’ Squadron, it was my honour to be among those responsible for the canceling of Hitler’s speech at the Beer Hall on September 9, 1942.”
Caught in searchlights on the way to raid Dusseldorf, minutes become eternities. Riddled with flak, their navigator hit in the abdomen, knee, and leg, and one finger on his left hand shot off, they made a desperate push to make it back across the Channel on fumes.
One up on his mates, Grampa opted out of a routine mission the following day, staying on the ground. On that flight, the plane was shot down. All but two of his best friends were killed.
Gerry escaped a prisoner of war camp through the French Underground, smuggled from farm to farm over several months until he reached England. Jock was discovered in occupied France and taken to a camp in Germany where he spent several years until the end of the war.
(When Jock landed in Toronto he came to our house for a visit. I asked him to get something for me in the kitchen. He opened the fridge and saw steaks, eggs, butter, bacon. He broke down and cried. It was the first time in more than six years he’d seen food like that.)
“As I sit writing this I can hear our Bombers going off to places unknown. The boys certainly are giving old Jerry a pasting these days. It gives on a funny feeling to hear all the aircraft in the sky. I wouldn’t like to be underneath when they lay their eggs.” ~ June 1943
After the loss of his first crew, Grampa anticipated the christening of a second tour upon his return to England. But, as was so common during the war years, he was held up due to transportation difficulties. Grampa’s newly-assigned crew, all as familiar and close in friendship as the first, waited as long as they could but went ahead without him, not knowing that he was landing in Britain that very night.
“Fraser Barron, being a very experienced Pathfinder, led a raid in which he and his Deputy Master Bomber collided over target,” he wrote. “All were killed.”
(Gord felt he should have been on that plane. He regretted that he wasn’t with his friends, if that was to be their fate. He couldn’t believe it happened a second time, losing his crew. He couldn’t understand why he survived and not them.)
With Scotch parents he'd gone to England to enlist, the fastest route at war's first outbreak, and fudged his youth in order to qualify. He stayed for dozens of missions more than he had to over three tours of duty. He had been years abroad when my grandfather went from dropping bombs on the wrecked cities of Milan, Paris, Dusseldorf, and on Hitler’s beer hall itself to bowling in pristine Toronto. To a pretty dress on his wife, cocktails, shingles to paint. And ghosts, too many, that stayed with him always.
(Gord didn’t talk much, especially right afterwards. Later on he opened up a bit, but he never slept well. You can only handle so much. They lost so many friends. But the only time he would really get down was on Remembrance Day. He would sit in the den alone, and I wouldn’t go in to him or ask him for anything. He wanted to be alone. He just wanted to think.)
Notes stray across the album page, white on black. Tailgunner, lost nerve, 1943. Pilot killed in action, 1942. Navigator hit by flak, 1941. Bombardier shot down 1943, P.O.W., whereabouts unknown.
And then simply Darling, home.