Thoughts for Remembrance Day

“5/6 June 1940: 1 Hampden and 1 Wellington lost …”:

In the history of the epic drama of the Second World War, this cryptic entry in the Bomber Command War Diary of Britain’s Royal Air Force seems little more than an inconsequential footnote. As those words were penned, two million German soldiers were facing the combined armies of France and Britain in the struggle for France. Adolph Hitler’s armies had trampled across the futile neutrality of Belgium and Holland in a matter of days. Neutral Norway had been taken with apparent ease. France was to fall to the Nazi onslaught within less than three weeks. When studying such momentous and overwhelming events, it is well to remember that such little footnotes are enormously momentous in their own right for the individuals to whom they refer.

On that moonless night, just after crossing the Dutch coast at 10,000 feet, about 25 miles south of Rotterdam, the Wellington with its crew of six had been caught in the glare of searchlights and the port engine set ablaze by the anti-aircraft guns below. The pilot held the crippled aircraft steady as he ordered his crew to bail out. The tail gunner swung his turret around, opened the rear door and tumbled backward. The second pilot and mid-gunner dove through the nose hatch, followed by the wireless operator and navigator. As the wireless operator tumbled out, still face upward, he watched the aircraft explode as the flames ignited the full bomb load, the pilot still at the controls. His parachute opened with a jerk and, as stillness replaced the chaos, he watched the blazing wreckage plunge to earth, still illuminated in the searchlight beams from the ground. There was only one other parachute visible – because it was on fire. He learned later that it had been the navigator’s, but soon he was to have parachute problems of his own. Nearing the ground, he looked up and in the darkness could see the centre of the canopy being pushed downward as if by a giant fist, perhaps by wreckage from the aircraft. The landing was understandably hard and when he tried to stand, he collapsed. The impact had injured both legs, shattering his left foot.

Unable to walk, he concealed his parachute and began to crawl toward the edge of a grassy field. Later he was to laugh at the effect that pain and shock can have on an otherwise rational mind. He had decided that he ought to crawl backward, carefully straightening each blade of beaten-down grass so that his location would not be evident to search parties. By dawn he had managed to reach a roadside ditch where a passing Dutch milkmaid signalled him to remain out of sight. Before long, two men arrived to help him into a nearby farmhouse.

It was evident from his injuries that there could be no hope of escape, so his tearful Dutch rescuers had no choice but to inform the Gestapo of his presence. A young German officer and driver soon arrived in an open staff car to take him away. The officer greeted him with an English expression commonly used by German captors: “For you the war is over”. He was carried gently into the back seat while the officer and driver took the front. As the car pulled away, he felt something hard in his back. Reaching under the folded-down roof, he discovered the bulky pistol that the officer had removed for comfort and tucked into the folds. With his injuries, there was no question of exploiting the opportunity for escape. The officer turned in response to a tap on the shoulder, only to look down the barrel of his own gun. With a smile, the wireless operator turned the butt toward a visibly embarrassed captor.

He was to spend five years as a prisoner of war, keeping a meticulous diary of an odyssey that took him from a hospital near Frankfurt, through a series of camps from central Germany to the Lithuanian border and then back again, ahead of the advancing Soviet Red Army. Detailed as the diary may be, there is much that it does not contain, not least that he put his technical skills to good use operating a secret radio receiver. He drew strength from the conviction that he would return to the lovely bride he had married just six weeks earlier; would follow an indistinct but insistent calling to become an ordained Christian minister; and would sire a son. He did all three. I am the son.

My father and mother are both dead now, buried in a quiet cemetery outside the little Nova Scotia town of Louisbourg. In Holland, the pilot and navigator who did not survive that dreadful night rest in a peaceful churchyard at Simonshaven, watched over by a lovely Dutch family who hosted me gracefully some years ago, taking me to the places where the events of that June night took place. Each year on the Netherlands’ day of remembrance on May 4th they lay flowers on the graves; a tradition now in its third generation. Meanwhile, on Canada’s Remembrance Day of November 11th I remember and am grateful to them too. May we never forget, and may we continue aiming for the vision of the first line of the United Nations Charter: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”