A Flyer's Remembrance
Table of Contents
- D-Day - The Invasion of Normandy
- Return to Normandy - June 2004
- High Flight
- The Beer Run
- Mistaken Identity
- Accident - March 3, 1944
D-Day - The Invasion of Normandy
"Operation Overlord" the great Allied invasion of German-held Fortress Europe, began in the wee hours of June 6, 1944.
The plan called for heavy naval and air attacks to knock out German defences so Allied troops could then cross the English Channel and land along 80 kilometres of Normandy coastline in France.
British troops landed on beaches code named Sword and Gold to the east while Americans landed in the west at Omaha and Utah. Canadian troops landed between the two British thrusts at a beach code named Juno.
About 15,000 Canadians from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, supported by ships of the Royal Canadian and Royal Navies, attacked Nazi strongholds along a stretch of about eight kilometres of French coastline, code named Juno Beach. Overhead Canadian Spitfire Squadrons of the Second Tactical Air Force provided air cover from dawn until dusk.
Paratroopers, including the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, jumped from aircraft or landed in gliders at key German defence points. They destroyed important enemy installations at Merville and bridges over the Dives River while capturing the strategic bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal to prevent Nazi troops from reaching the invasion area.
However, most German gun positions were not knocked out by the bombing or ongoing naval gunfire. The Nazi defenders made the Allied attackers pay for every inch of territory they claimed, producing heavy casualties.
Despite those losses, the tactics and bravery of Allied Troops on that Longest Day, secured the Allied success, and they had their foothold in Europe. The Allies poured huge amounts of men and materiel across the Channel, first to secure their foothold, and next to begin the arduous task of pushing the Germans back to Germany and ultimately into history.
Canada suffered 1,074 casualties including 359 dead on D-Day. Heavy as these losses were, they were far less than planners had feared.
Return to Normandy - June 2004
I was pleasantly surprised to be included in the detailed list of Veterans to attend the 60th Anniversary commemoration of D-Day in France in June 2004.
The Canadian Fighter Pilots Association and the Air Force Association of Canada recommended my participation. The War Amps Association, the co-ordinating body for Veterans Affairs, included me in the "Back to Normandy" delegation as part of the RCAF contingent.
Of course when the full weight of the recommendation hit home, that I would be one of only 60 Veterans invited to comprise the Official Delegation, and only five would represent the Royal Canadian Air Force, I was both deeply proud and humbled.
My experience as a Spitfire fighter pilot in the Second Tactical Air Force during World War Two, in the cause of restoring freedom and justice, has been a compelling influence in my life. Sixty years after the invasion of Nazi Europe, the 11-day journey back to Normandy in June 2004, has served to cement that belief.
This, then, is the objective in providing this compilation, an opportunity to organise my thoughts on a profoundly humbling series of events both then and now. It is done in the hope it will evoke a better appreciation of the enormous role played by our country in achieving victory by the Allies in World War Two.
D-Day was the largest sea borne invasion in our history. As Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight David Eisenhower carried the weight of his responsibility with him on that day in the form of a note he would have released in the event of disaster on the coast of France.
"Our landings have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have ordered a withdrawal of the invasion force," it read. "Our troops, air force and navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."
General Eisenhower did not need those words but they hint at the burden of responsibility he must have felt on the eve of the invasion.
Return to France
The logistics required for our June 2004 pilgrimage to Normandy seemed to mirror those of the 1944 invasion itself codenamed "Operation Overlord." General Eisenhower himself would have been proud at the efficiency and skill in which Veterans Affairs Canada carried out our operation.
Four huge buses brought from England, where they are used daily by Chunnel travellers, were needed to transport the 60 Veterans, 30 youths and a dozen or so Veterans Affairs Canada personnel. Sixteen Veterans were in wheel chairs, including Ernest (Smokey) Smith, Canada's lone surviving recipient of the Victoria Cross. Others carried canes and portable oxygen. Each day we had a lengthy bus ride from our hotel to the various ceremony sites spread out across Normandy.
Ceremonies attended by our group were largely restricted to that area of the Normandy invasion code named Juno Beach covering some eight kilometres of the 80 kilometre breadth in which the Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944.
It was in these specific areas in which the 3rd Canadian Division had been given strategic objectives.Back to Top
Tuesday, June 1, 2004
My journey to Normandy began under a storm darkened horizon in Burlington, Ontario, a city of 150,000 and my home for many years. I took a short drive to Mt. Hope Airport in nearby Hamilton for a flight to Ottawa scheduled for departure at 5:30 p.m. All Veterans were slated to be in Ottawa by evening to ensure full attendance at a briefing session in the morning and our subsequent departure on a Government of Canada airliner in the late afternoon of June 2.
The stormy weather delayed our departure from Hamilton by about four hours. After a 45 minute flight I finally I arrived at my hotel in Ottawa at 8:30 p.m. and I headed down to the Lord Elgin bar to welcome my old friend and 412 Squadron comrade Barry Needham, who was coming from Wynyard, Saskatchewan.
Unbeknownst to Barry, I had arranged through Veterans Affairs to assign our accommodations together. This turned out to be most satisfactory as we were able to spend hours discussing the many aspects of our time in Normandy and the countless memories of so many fellow pilots flying Spitfires in the famous Falcon Canadian Squadron in World War Two.
Delays of all the incoming Veterans, caused by the same bad weather I had waited out, caused significant difficulties for Veterans Affairs personnel.
Barry had not yet arrived when I finally turned out the lights. However, a banging on the hotel door, brought me to fling it open, to have my old friend Barry Needham standing there in person.
We had much to talk about, not the least of which was the experience we shared just getting to Ottawa. I threw on some clothes to gain entry to the hotel bar so we could continue our reunion; however it had closed an hour earlier.
Not to be so easily defeated we ventured up the main street of Ottawa to a piano bar. It was about to close but when the owner learned we were on hand as Veterans going to Normandy for the 60th anniversary celebrations of D-Day, he kept it open for an extended period and joined our discussion.
Barry and I didn't know then of the incredible experience that lay ahead.
Wednesday, June 2, 2004
The first of our daily wake-up calls occurred at 6 a.m. and shortly after we arrived for breakfast with John McCallum, then Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Veterans Affairs staff, who were to play a most important role throughout the entire trip.
Unveiled during the session was the commemorative stamp to be issued by Canada Post on June 6, 2004, to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy.
Prior to arriving in Ottawa the Veterans had been provided details surrounding a delegation of 13 secondary school students who would accompany us. One student had been chosen from each Province and Territory in Canada. We were to indicate our willingness to meet daily with the 13 student representatives to respond to their questions as well as meet with them collectively upon request.
In recent years I have had the pleasure of participating annually in Remembrance Week activities by speaking to students in various schools about the incredible sacrifices of Canadians in general, and in the military in particular, during World War Two. It is a legacy bestowed upon successive generations of our people by a huge number of volunteers which should inspire young people across this great land of ours. So, along with commending the government for initiating this process I looked forward to participating.
Before leaving the hotel I took the opportunity to meet Jim Johnston, an Education Officer with the Department of Veterans Affairs. I spoke to several of the students sitting at his table, congratulated them and assured them of my desire to make them more conversant with Canada's Air Force involvement in the Normandy invasion.
Thursday, June 3, 2004
We touched down at about 8:30 a.m. local time at Evreux Air Force Base in Normandy after a seven-and-a-half hour flight from Ottawa. We were greeted individually by French officials at the end of the runway. A little groggy from the overnight flight, I recall a gentleman shaking my hand while introducing himself as French Ambassador to Canada. That made for a most amiable arrival!
We took our time walking the short distance to a nearby hangar. I waved to a small group of four people and received in response a sharp standing to attention and a very proper salute. Clearly it was an expression of appreciation so indicative of what we were to experience from the French people.
Evreux's story, like that of so many towns in Normandy, is a lengthy chronicle of fire and destruction. From the sacking of Evreux by Vandals in the 6th century to Luftwaffe air raids when the Nazis invaded the city in 1940, the city had undergone several transformations. Luftwaffe bombing had caused the centre of the community to burn for nearly a week.
Yet by 2004 the population had grown to nearly 60,000 and Evreux had become both a religious and administrative capital of Eure, the largest province of Normandy. It is also a military base for the French Air Force.
Some two hours later we arrived at the hotel L'Amiraute and our luggage was already in our designated rooms making it easy to freshen up before a welcomed lunch.
Friday, June 4, 2004
The day got underway with another 6 a.m. wake-up call which commenced a week of arduous, and for the best part joyful, commemorations to honour the anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.
The first scheduled event was a parade of Veterans representing the Canadian military at Saint Aubin-sur-Mer, a small community situated on the eastern end of Juno Beach. The assembly area for all those participating in the parade was a mile or so outside the town. At this mustering point there were a large number of World War Two era transport vehicles parked aside the road. Much to our surprise we learned that the Veterans would ride into Saint Aubin in style aboard these lovingly restored jeeps and trucks.
I climbed aboard with my two buddies, F/L Charley Fox DFC and Bar, from London, Ontario, and F/L Barry Needham from Wynyard, Saskatchewan, and joined three army Veterans as we entered the town to a wonderful surprise.
As we reached the outskirts of St. Aubin, it became clear the entire community was determined to make us welcome. The joyous, enthusiastic, wildly cheering citizens were unbelievably boisterous and friendly. Almost every home we passed was flying a Canadian flag and every youngster in St. Aubin was waving our red Maple Leaf obviously enjoying the opportunity to let Canadians know how much they are appreciated.
The experience was certainly more than we anticipated and yet there was more. As we arrived at the beachhead itself, a large group was awaiting our arrival together with the mayor and officials from the town. Another assembly of young people were anxious to demonstrate their vocal talent by singing a selection of tunes which they obviously had been practising for some time.
The Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, arrived and very eloquently expressed the appreciation of all Veterans to the townspeople.
To commemorate the occasion the mayor insisted on meeting every Canadian in attendance and presenting a very special medal. For me the entire affair was beyond belief and I could hardly wait for the opportunity to shake hands with as many youngsters as possible and to give each of them a little Canadian flag pin to remember us by.
Our buses arrived for our return to Deauville and it became apparent the residents were aware of our timetable for they were very much in evidence to bid us farewell as we passed through St. Aubin.
Saturday, June 5, 2004
Our first stop on this day was for a commemorative ceremony at Courseulles-sur-Mer, one of the three landing sites for Canadian Forces on D-Day. Royal Canadian Mounted Police representatives in their brilliant and immediately recognized uniforms accompanied us and on this occasion were joined by an official French contingent with their distinctive chapeaus. For me especially, a performance by the well-known Burlington Ontario Teen Tour Band was a treat.
A pre-arranged group luncheon followed, again dutifully arranged by Department of Veterans Affairs staff that was always on the job distributing cold water and making sure everyone was aboard the buses before departure.
Courseulles-sur-Mer is the site for the Juno Beach Centre, a distinctive museum which highlights Canadian involvement in World War II. It also is but a short distance from Beny-sur-Mer, a place of special significance for me. That is where 126 Wing, comprising three Canadian Spitfire Squadrons were stationed in Normandy beginning June 19, 1944, just shy of two weeks after D-Day. Our airstrip, code-named B-4 was our base for 51 days while the Battle of Caen raged on, a scant four miles away.
We were to take part in a commemorative ceremony at the Canadian War Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer. Few if any of the Veterans were aware of the special meaning that place held for two pilots, including myself.
In June 1944, there were 14 air bases in Normandy comprising for the best part the total offensive capacity of the 2nd Tactical Air Force including Spitfires, Mustangs and Typhoons, a fighter-bomber.
In the interval June 6 to June 18, 1944, 126 Wing was located at 10 Tangmere (near Southampton) co-incidentally also the location of the main plant for production of Spitfires.
We flew across the English Channel three times daily from dawn until dusk to provide cover on Juno Beach for the Canadian 3rd Division and the British 2nd Army. Operations ended at dusk as Spitfires were day fighters not suitable for night fighting.
On June 19, 126 Wing departed Tangmere and arrived at our first base in Normandy, code named B-4 and located near Beny-sur-Mer some four miles from the Juno beachhead.
At our new base we moved into tents, all numbered, each with a slit trench aside, which we used regularly no matter who was doing the bombing.
Everything was under canvas including normal maintenance requirements on our aircraft. In all there were approximately 1,000 officers and men at the airfield, larger by the way, than many communities in Normandy. Our strip was simply wire mesh, 60 yards in width and 1,300 yards in length. From that area 36 Spitfires, three squadrons with 12 planes each, were regularly taking off and landing several times each day.
As the Canadian First Army moved on the western flank through France and the low countries so did the Spitfire Squadrons comprising 126 and 127 Wings which were assigned responsibility for air cover. It is fitting to note our troops were not attacked by the Luftwaffe at any time. The Wehrmact cannot make the same claim.
By mid-September we arrived at Evere Airfield near Brussels for a short period. Then we moved to Holland were we were back in tents for the winter.Back to Top
What is a day fighter?
At this juncture I should point out differences between day fighters and other commands in the air force, particularly after the invasion of France. Pilots of single engine fighters were totally responsible for both landing and take-off. It was essential to be a competent navigator as often you would experience radio breakdown, negating any assistance of securing a bearing for base.
Map reading was essential for reaching your target and for low altitude flying to avoid anti-aircraft flak locations. This anti-aircraft fire cost us many Spitfires and indeed pilots. Combat flying required a dexterity gained largely from experience in manoeuvring the aircraft successfully and being proficient in air firing, which we practiced as much as possible. Being very lucky helped!
As day fighters we also contributed useful data for military intelligence. After every flight we were obliged to report to our intelligence officer anything of importance that we might have seen, which added to the assembly of valuable information.
Bomber air crews seldom viewed the English Channel or the area being attacked. The same applies to intruder or night fighters and coastal command.
In addition, our home at the end of the day was the country in which we were operating. We knew the beaches of Normandy because we flew over them every day, more often than not several times daily.
As such we were very aware of the trauma under which people were living and in every sense attempted to be courteous and mindful of the tragedies they had experienced under the Nazi yoke.
I want to emphasize the special meaning that Beny-sur-Mer has for both Barry Needham and me.
Within a day or two of our arrival after D-Day a temporary cemetery was established at our base. Indeed, it was so close that we regularly viewed the arrival of army trucks bringing Canadian troops to their burial site in Normandy. We never spoke about it but it was a constant reminder of the gravity of our task and the tenuous hold we had in Normandy.
Now 60 years later, I was within minutes of visiting the site which had been the centre of my air force experience, for so many reasons including the two months of observing the slaughter and carnage . . . the reality of warfare.
The Canadian and French ceremony at the Canadian War Cemetery, Beny-sur-Mer where 1,050 Canadians are buried, was most impressive with our Governor General and the French President speaking eloquently about our fallen comrades and the Canadian military.
It was on our agenda that the Vin D'Honneur was to be hosted by the Mayor of Reviers, that being the community in closest proximity to the cemetery.
To be sure it was becoming hot, particularly in our uniforms. We were obliged to walk a long distance from the cemetery, where, arriving at an old barn, the Mayor extended a cordial welcome and offered an array of refreshments. It was typical of what we were experiencing in France, and the timing was perfect.
It was late in the day and we were glad to see our buses arrive, for tomorrow was the actual anniversary day.
Sunday, June 6, 2004
At the time of the invasion I doubt very much that many participants looked upon their involvement in these events as having the historical consequence which it obviously has achieved. The passing of time has nevertheless highlighted the importance of dedication to our responsibilities and in this sense being a part of a supreme effort, of being a part of history if you will, has been amply reinforced on Veterans everywhere.
Upon getting a 5:30 a.m. wake up call to prepare for the formality of the occasion, I couldn't help but recall that by this time of day, 60 years earlier, I was in one of 36 Spitfires flying over Juno Beach.
There were two major ceremonies scheduled this day. The first was a Commonwealth ceremony at Courselles and the second was the Allied International Ceremony at Arromanches.
A few hours after waking we arrived at Courselles and I was climbing the huge outside bleachers to await the arrival of the dignitaries, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and the Prime Minister of Canada Paul Martin among others.
As I reached my vantage point I heard my name being called and turned to recognize Muriel Williams of Veterans Affairs who was beckoning me to return. Retracing my steps, and concerned I might lose my place in the bleachers, Muriel asked me to read "The Act of Remembrance" during the ceremony.
"Muriel," I responded, "Thanks, but I don't know it verbatim."
"Don't worry," she said, "Just get to the dais and I'll have a copy for you."
And that's exactly how I came to be sitting with the dignitaries, immediately behind Queen Elizabeth II. Upon introduction by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, John McCallum, I had the honour of reading this compelling and solemn portion of the ceremony to all Canadian Veterans and to the thousands in attendance. My wife, sitting back in Burlington, and watching quite by accident on TV, was flabbergasted. So was her husband and yet, it turned out very well indeed.
The service was replete with addresses by the Queen, Governor General and the Prime Minister together with the laying of wreaths by each. At its conclusion there was a fly past by a World War Two Lancaster bomber and two Spitfires which served as a reminder of the vital part played by the air force throughout the war and particularly the invasion of France.
Before D-Day, King George VI observed, "The invasion of France will be made by the air force backed up by the army."
It was an insight more realistic than most believed. Despite the important advantages the Allies possessed, it is certain the Normandy invasion would not have succeeded without air supremacy. Not a single historian of World War Two has failed to arrive at this conclusion.
After the service virtually every Veteran spent some time alone on the beachhead they last visited 60 years before, to reminisce in their own way, their personal recollection of that dramatic and emotional experience.
During the battle, along with all the units in the Second Tactical Air Force, 126 Wing pilots saw the area from a vantage point of 5,000 feet or so above the beach head while fully anticipating the arrival of the Luftwaffe. We witnessed it all, including the amassed armada of Canadian Naval vessels, and other Allied ships, troops and the ongoing bombardment the two weeks before moving operations to Beny-sur-Mer, Normandy.
The Normandy Medal 2004 was presented to each of the 60 Veterans by the Canadian Government and is something we shall each treasure. We departed for another visitation a few miles away at Arromanches for the International Ceremony produced by the French government.
The assembly included the Heads of State from virtually all Allied countries including the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Canada, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition, Gerhard Schroder, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany was in attendance.
We witnessed the inspiring message from the President of France, Jacques Chirac, and viewed a two hour presentation including a march past by Veterans, a fly past and a naval display in the nearby Channel.
We heard the musical memories from our wartime past with haunting melodies while viewing a panorama of dancers depicting the history of World War Two with audio accompaniment.
In his closing remarks Mr. Chirac commented, "You Veterans must know that in this country, there will always be someone to remember you." It was a moving acknowledgement much appreciated by all.
Perhaps the one constant in war are the problems inherent with maintaining adequate supply routes. The Battle of the Atlantic perhaps best symbolizes the life or death reality of the challenge. In addition, the Mediterranean experience where for several years it required a two-month, 12,000 mile trip by water to supply the British Army in Egypt. The Nazis never did overcome their supply problems in North Africa or in France where an estimated 80 per cent of the rail system was destroyed by Allied Air Forces.
As Canadians moved through the low countries it was imperative that a substantial port be freed to allow supply to flow onto the continent. Canadians played a key role in the capture of Antwerp in Belgium.
Before Antwerp was captured the Allies employed two artificial harbours, known as Mulberry's, one in the American sector and the other for the British and Canadians at Arromanches.
The Mulberry in the U.S. sector was destroyed in storms shortly after D-Day but the one at Arromanches supplied the Allies for 10 months until Antwerp was freed.
Two and a half million men, a half million vehicles and untold tons of supplies landed in Normandy through the artificial harbour at Arromanches. Remains of the structure can still be seen today.
These two days of remembrance were both especially tiring and emotional.
Juno Beach - June 6, 1944
Sandwiched between the British beaches Gold and Sword, the Juno Beach sector was occupied by coastal villages which had become pretty seaside resorts by the end of the 19th century.
The task of capturing Juno Beach fell to Major- General Keller's 3rd Canadian Infantry Division supported by tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and backed up on the left by No. 48 Commando of the Royal Marines.
Despite mines and beach obstacles, bad weather and hazardous reefs the Canadians came ashore at about 8 a.m. Tanks were late in arriving and infantry troops faced enemy fire unaided.
The Canadians managed to smash the German defensive wall to get off the beach. The villages were difficult to clear thanks to narrow streets but by the end of the day Canadians had taken Saint-Croix,Reviers, Tailleville, Basly, Pierrepont and Fontaine-Henry, and controlled a beachhead about 12 kilometres deep.
More than 21,000 Canadians made the landing joining up with British troops on their right flank from Gold Beach.
Monday, June 7, 2004
It was fitting that a complete day be spent in the Caen area as it turned out the capture of that city was essential to the defeat of the Nazis. For them it was a key communications and supply route in Normandy.
It would take at least two days just to appreciate the entire Caen Memorial Museum let alone the adjoining Battlefields Foundation at the Memorial Garden, and nearby Place d'Ardenne where ceremonies were held.
Now with 200,000 people, Caen is a lively city with a distinctive identity, and is the cultural capital of Basse-Normandy. The bombs which fell here in 1944 could have left Caen lifeless for all their violence, because there was little left standing after the battle. However, Caen citizens were able to draw on the strength of their history to rebuild and recreate the city.
The Battle of Caen lasted for two agonizing months. On June 6, 1944 there was a heavy bombing raid and fire raged for 11 days. The central area was burned out, and people sought refuge in St. Etienne Church. During the battle more than 1,500 refugees camped out in the abbey church. An operating theatre was contrived in the monastery buildings and the dead were buried in the courtyard. Another 4,000 people found accommodation in the Hospice at Bon Sauver nearby.
During their attack the Allies were warned by the Prefect and the Resistance and these buildings were spared. The quarries at Fleury, one mile south of Caen, provided the largest refuge. Despite the cold and damp whole families lived like troglodytes until the end of July. During this period we lived in tents with a slit trench nearby.
The Caen Memorial
The people of Normandy, by their sang-froid, disregard of danger, without complaint or bitterness, endured hardships as great as any suffered by those from whom they awaited deliverance. Since 1945 there has been a continuing tie, with those who gave their lives for freedom and a special remembrance of the all too many and often too young who came, and died on their shores.
The Caen Memorial erected by the city takes the form of a museum for peace. It is primarily a place for commemoration and of permanent mediation on the links between human rights and the maintenance of peace.
The façade of the building of Caen stone facing Dwight Eisenhower Esplanade, is marked by a fissure which evokes the destruction of the city and the breakthrough of the Allies in the Liberation of France and Europe from the Nazi yoke. It stands on the site of the bunker of W. Richter, the German General who on June 6, faced the Canadians.
From the centre of the vast entrance hall visitors embark on an unusual five stage journey into the collective memory of events from 1928 to the present day. The main events of the World War Two, the causes and the issues at stake are presented in the light of the latest historical analysis. A particular imaginative display, centred on a spiral ramp, on such themes as the interwar years and the advance of fascism, the use of extensive archive materials including a panoramic projection of D-Day, seen simultaneously from the Allied and German standpoint.
After reviewing the massive conflict which until the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki mobilized enormous human potential, the film Hope uses strong original music to trace the alternating outbreaks of war and peace which have followed.
The Caen Memorial provides a fascinating insight into contemporary history for young and old alike.
(Excerpted from a Caen Memorial brochure.)
The time spent at this memorial site was unfortunately limited. It deserved much more but we hurried off for another ceremony at the adjoining Memorial Garden before proceeding to Place De L'Ancienne Boucherie and the infamous Abbaye d'Ardenne, where 20 Canadian prisoners of war were murdered under the command of SS Colonel Kurt Meyer.
Tuesday, June 8, 2004
Pilot Officer R.D. Davidson 401 Squadron - 126 Wing
On June 27, 1944, 126 Wing of the Second Tactical Air Force was at Beny-sur-Mer where we landed a week earlier. It was the base for three squadrons of Spitfires in Normandy.
On that date I learned that Bob Davidson, a friend from my hometown of Hamilton, had been posted to 401 Squadron on our airfield. I hadn't known Bob intimately, as we grew up in opposite areas of Hamilton, though I got to know him briefly after my family had moved to the eastern area of that city. Regardless, he was the kind of person you liked instinctively and I hustled over to 401 to extend greetings. My recollection is we spent a most enjoyable period discussing things back home and I left him with the assurance of spending more time as soon as possible.
It was not to be . . . for the following day Bob Davidson was shot down and killed in the Argentan area of Normandy not far from our home base. It came as a great shock, yet by the very nature of our involvement, it also was a frequent experience.
In 1994, some 50 years later, a request for anyone knowing of Bob Davidson, posted in our Canadian Fighter Pilots bulletin to contact a Norbert Hureau in Argentan, Normandy. Canadian Veterans were to visit that area of France in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Mr. Hureau had a ring belonging to Bob Davidson that he would like returned to the Davidson family.
I communicated immediately with Hureau who turned out to be not only historian but was also part of the French underground in World War Two who had recovered Bob Davidson's body and undertaken a proper internment during the war.
Upon learning of my inclusion in the 60th anniversary ceremonies in 2004, I undertook to contact Hureau advising my impending arrival in Normandy. Much to my surprise I received a phone call several weeks later and discussed (through a translator) possibilities for meeting at our scheduled visit to the Canadian Cemetery at Bretteville, Normandy, on June 8, 2004. At long last I would be able to pay my respect at the grave site of my long lost friend from 401 Squadron. It turned out to be a most exhausting undertaking.
As arranged, Mr. Hureau awaited my arrival at Cintheau Cemetery and after opening ceremonies, we departed from Bretteville. Unfortunately, without a translator, our driving around Argentan to visit the remote areas where the underground was involved became quite arduous.
We ended up at Mr. Hureau's home twice to examine an enormous amount of historical data before finally arriving at a school site to meet several other people. Finally, we arrived at the exact location where Bob Davidson was shot down in a hamlet named Courteres. Following a brief ceremony we progressed to his burial site in the cemetery of a small church in Lignou. It was a momentous experience for me regardless of how enduring it turned out to be.
There was however a final obligation unbeknown to me. We arrived back at the school we had started from, where a class of youngsters had been waiting over two hours to meet a friend of the Canadian pilot buried in their cemetery.
What a day, despite my arrival back in Deauville at 8 p.m. I can reflect that it was a very special for me to salute my colleague and friend Bob Davidson and to say goodbye.
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
We departed for a return visit to Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery before 8 a.m. The visit provided the opportunity for a more personal moment or two at the gravesite of fallen comrades. The beauty of this immense area undoubtedly would inspire a poet to paraphrase the emotion generated in the minds of so many Veterans that day. The inscriptions on the headstone at each grave evidenced the burden felt by each family in Canada.
Through the decades I am sure that countless parents and relatives have visited Canadian cemeteries throughout Europe. They must have departed with satisfaction and pride knowing the Canadian Government has honoured the final resting place of our comrades in the Second World War. Suffice to say that Beny-sur-Mer in Normandy conjures lasting emotion from June 1944 even 60 years later.
As scheduled, we moved on for a repeat visit to the Juno Beach Centre and museum which understandably details the achievement of Canadian forces in World War Two. By this time it had occurred to all concerned that we had experienced no opportunity to do any shopping before departing Normandy whereupon the four buses diverged at a site allowing those who were interested to undertake some.
Upon returning to Deauville, and following dinner, I had the pleasure of meeting for a pre-arranged gathering with the students from across Canada who were selected to make the Normandy pilgrimage.
I had not prepared any particular remarks other than providing a brief overview of the life of a fighter pilot in the Tactical Air Force. I spoke of our duties both before and after D-Day and my tenure at Queen Victoria Hospital and my return to 412 Squadron.
I made them aware of various members of the Falcon Squadron. I spoke of John Gillespie Magee, an American from New York, who came to Canada to volunteer in the Air Force and who later wrote the sonnet "High Flight," which now hangs in the Officers' Mess of every Canadian Air Establishment.
I spoke about the achievement and valour of George Beurling DSO DFC DFM, the top Canadian pilot in World War Two, who did his first tour of operations in Malta and later flew with 412 Squadron, and the great influence he had on my life and career. I spoke of his putting me in an ambulance at Biggin Hill airfield upon my fateful return from escorting American bombers attacking a German airfield in France, and regretfully finding his departure upon my return to the Falcons. I spoke of the supreme honour it was to acquire VZ-B, George Beurling's aircraft.
I brought with me a tape of the life of Beurling which was shown on the History Channel and which I had loaned to many people over the years from across Canada and even as far as California. At that meeting Jim Johnston, the Veterans Affairs official who accompanied these young people every day quickly resolved to get every member of the group their own copy. By any measure, having the young people learn of George Beurling, and subsequently receiving wonderful responses to my presentation, was one of the highlights of my trip to Normandy.
Thursday, June 10 2004
Appropriately, our final overture in Normandy proved to be the easiest if not the most exciting. With four buses sitting outside our hotel it was determined that we would re-visit the Caen Memorial providing the opportunity to view any area of particular interest.
With a reasonably early return to Deauville we were able to pack our bags for our return the next day to the best country in the world. There remained what was billed as the Farewell Dinner at our hotel which turned out to be a magnificent presentation of French cuisine replete with an extraordinary selection from the vineyard.
By way of conclusion, the Governor General outdid herself with a heart warming speech, extolling the virtues of Canadian service people on hand and emphasizing we were all volunteers determined to make our contribution.
After dinner we remained to exchange comments about so many aspects of our experience and sample the selection available. After some time the chap next to me left to complete his packing. Without paying any attention I sensed that someone had taken up the vacant chair. Lo and behold if it wasn't of all people - the Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.
Her first words were, "Well, tell me about 412 Squadron."
I responded, "Your Excellency, we were a group with very remarkable pilots and one in particular had the distinction of being the most successful of all Canadian pilots in World War Two. Would you know who that might be?"
Well, she pondered a minute before responding, "Would that be George Beurling?"
Those within earshot marvelled at her, but she said, "You see, I grew up in Montreal, and that's where George Beurling lived."
This completes my story of Remembrance and my "Return to Normandy" as told from my own perspective. To be sure it was an experience I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams and totally fascinating in so many ways.
After my memories from 1944, I could never envisage Normandy to be such a beautiful and exciting area as it is. In fact the one disappointing aspect of the journey is the lack of time available to appreciate the breadth of interesting venues so close at hand.
As an example, I subsequently learned that the coastal community of Honfleur, a mere four miles distance from Deauville, was home port for explorer Samuel de Champlain who set sail for Canada in 1608.
No review of assessing our experience would be complete without first acknowledging the competence, courtesy and respectfulness demonstrated by staff members of Veterans Affairs Canada. They were totally remarkable.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air. Up, up the long delirious, burning blue, I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace Where never lark, or even eagle flew - And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod The high untresspassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
The Beer Run
On June 13, 1944, (D-Day plus seven) number 412 (Falcon) Squadron, along with the others comprising 126 Wing gathered for a briefing by W/C Keith Hodson at our Tangmere base.
We would get details of our now regular Beach Patrol activities, only this one had a slight variation.
The Wingco singled me out to arrange delivery of a sizable shipment of beer to our new airstrip being completed at Beny-sur- Mer.
The instructions went something like this – "Get a couple other pilots and arrange with the Officers Mess to steam out the jet tanks and load them up with beer. When we get over the beachhead drop out of formation and land on the strip. We're told the Nazis are fouling the drinking water so it will be appreciated."
"There's no trouble finding the strip, the Battleship Rodney is firing salvoes on Caen and it's immediately below. We'll be flying over at 13,000 so the beer will be cold enough when you arrive."
I remember getting Murray Haver from Hamilton and a third pilot (whose name escapes me) to carry out the caper.
In reflection it now seems like an appropriate Air Force gesture for which the erks (infantrymen) would be most appreciative.
By the time I got down to 5,000 the welcoming from the Rodney was hardly inviting but sure enough there was the strip.
Wheels down and in we go, three Spits with 90 gallon jet tanks fully loaded with cool beer.
As I rolled to the end of the mesh runway it was hard to figure . . . there was absolutely no one in sight. What do we do now, I wondered, we can't just sit here and wait for someone to show up. What's with the communications?
Finally I saw someone peering out at us from behind a tree and I waved frantically to get him out to the aircraft. Sure enough out bounds this army type and he climbs onto the wing with the welcome . . . "What the hell are you doing here?"
Whereupon he got a short, but nevertheless terse, version of the story.
"Look," he said "can you see that church steeple at the far end of the strip? Well it's loaded with German snipers and we've been all day trying to clear them out so you better drop your tanks and bugger off before it's too late."
In moments we were out of there but such was the welcoming for the first Spitfire at our B4 airstrip in Normandy.
The unbelievable sequel to this story took place in the early 1950s at Ford Motor Company in Windsor where I was employed at the time.
A chap arrived to discuss some business and enquired if I had been in the Air Force. "Yes, indeed," I responded.
"Did you by chance land at Beny-sur-Mer in Normandy with two other Spitfires with jet tanks loaded with beer?" he asked.
"Yes for sure I did," I answered, "But how on earth would you possibly be aware of that?"
"Well I'll tell you," he said, "I was the guy who climbed on your wing and told you to bugger off."
We finished the afternoon reminiscing.
Flight Lieutenant George Beurling, DSO, DFC, DFM and Bar was the top Canadian fighter pilot in WWII with 32.5 enemy aircraft to his credit.
Dubbed Buzz Beurling by the press he achieved lasting fame for his exploits over Malta in the Mediterranean sector. He later flew at Biggin Hill with 412 – The Falcon Squadron.
Beurling, like many fighter pilots, recorded his air victories on the fuselage of his plane with a swastika representing each of his kills. His Spitfire had the call letters VZ-B.
In Beurling's case the number of swastikas painted on the fuselage of his aircraft quickly became a focal point on the ground or in the air.
On one occasion, February 21, 1944 we gathered for a regular briefing at intelligence to get particulars on a bombing raid in northern Holland, which turned out to be an escort mission to provide air cover for U.S. Marauders.
Beurling, to no one's surprise, regarded escort missions as non-productive from the standpoint of challenging enemy aircraft. So he proceeded to remove his name from the board detailing the pilot assigned to each aircraft and put my name as replacement, which was his prerogative as a Flight Commander.
For sure it was a distinction to fly George's aircraft but assuredly I did not anticipate what would occur as we landed at Manston Airfield on the east coast of England to load up on fuel before crossing the Channel.
As a member of the ground crew guided me into position and viewed the 32 swastikas on the aircraft he immediately called everyone within earshot while waving frantically to hurry over and shake the hand of the pilot flying the kite with 32 swastikas. He thought Manston had a distinctive visitor that day.
More than a little embarrassed by the misdirected attention I could hardly wait until my return to Biggin Hill and a chance to convey to George Beurling the excitement he missed by erasing his name from the board.
Accident - March 3, 1944
Only two weeks after my case of mistaken identity the Falcon Squadron was again called upon to escort0 U.S. Marauders, this time to bomb a German airfield in France.
It was a two and a half hour journey, again with a stop for refuelling at Manston Airfield.
However, the gas was hardly what we needed as it turned out as the airfield was protected by substantial anti-aircraft fire.
Spitfires land with a particular nose-up attitude, making visuals of the runway difficult.
Upon my return to Biggin Hill, our base in England, I barely had an instant of warning that another pilot on the squadron had landed and after turning his aircraft 180 degrees had climbed out and left it on the runway.
Immediately on collapse of the undercarriage my aircraft was consumed in fire and as quickly as possible I was able to climb out of the aircraft and stumble to the airstrip.
My first reaction, after seeing several members of the groundcrew running to my aid, was that they would not reach me in time.
Indeed I was fortunate as our Doc prepared me for immediate transport to East Grinstead by removing as much of the burned clothing as possible. It was George Beurling who assisted me into the ambulance.
I never saw him again.
On my return to 412 Squadron, he had left for Canada . . . but his last words I remember like it happened yesterday . . . "Don't worry Lloyd, you'll be okay."
It took four operations. Two unsuccessful ones at Queen Victoria Hospital in the United Kingdom after which I returned to my Squadron at Tangmere.
In all my complete tour of operations at 412 Squadron comprised of more than 200 sorties.
I then had two more operations on my return to Canada, ironically at the same site where I had earned my wings two years earlier at #14 Service Flying Training School at Aylmer, Ontario, which had been converted into a Veterans Hospital.
It took four operations but George was right.
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