Recently, as I read the history of the WWII era on the webpage of the Cambridge Gliding Centre, which operates out of the Gransden Lodge Airfield, I was reminded of my great uncle’s fun-loving spirit. The page read:
“Despite the grim business of the war being waged, there was also a lighter side to life at Gransden Lodge, with many sporting events, parties, concerts and film shows being organised, along with the inevitable pranks carried out by the boisterous Canadians.”1
I don’t know what pranks they were talking about, but its likely my uncle Charlie fell among the pranksters. He served at Gransden Lodge for six months in 1944.
Uncle Charlie, officially known as Sgt. John Charles Mathieu, worked three different jobs from the time he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on January 8, 1940 until he went missing just before Christmas 1944.
Each job got closer to the action, with the first assisting officers, the second serving as a Spitfire flight mechanic and the third as a tail gunner in a Lancaster.
In many ways, his personal development matched the development of Canada’s Air Force.
Canada founded its own Air Force in 1920, just after World War I ended. King George V gave it the Royal Canadian Air Force title four years after that. For a while, it controlled civil aviation in the country, but that ended in 1927. It then re-established recruitment and training in 1939, as part of the build-up to the British effort in World War II.
The Royal Canadian Air Force created Squadron 405 in Driffield, Yorkshire, on April 23, 1941. It became operational as part of Britain’s Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command a month and a half later.2
Canadian and British crews tried to hit German and French targets individually as best they could, but the bombs dispersed too widely.
Captain D. C. Bennett came up with a plan to send a small group of bombers ahead of the others. These Pathfinder bombers would drop green and red short-burning flares called “sky indicators” on targets so that a bigger group of bombers would know where to aim.
Just as this new strategy was developed, the Royal Canadian Air Force created its own Bomber Command. It assigned the 405 Squadron to the pathfinder role and moved it to Gransden Lodge. The squadrons originally based there researched the use of radar. As the use of that technology expanded, they had to be moved to larger, more secretive locations.
Meanwhile, Charlie began training as a tail gunner just before Christmas 1943. His two-and-a-half month journey ended with a mark of 76.1%. I think this is a pretty good grade, but his course instructor P.W.H. Walker clearly expected better. Walker wrote in Mathieu’s log book that he was “a pupil who would have done better had he devoted more time to his work.”3
He worked harder after that, training from March until May in a Wellington in Wellesbourne Mountford and then from the 9th until the 24th of June in a Halifax. For that last training session, his instructor gave him a mark of 91% and assessed him as “average.”
Then it was off to the Navigational Training Unit, which used the new safer, faster bombers known as Lancasters. The Lancasters also marked a vast improvement in technology. After successfully prototyping by the A.V. Roe Company in Chadderton, the manufacture of some Lancasters moved to Canada. Charlie told me that plane saved him and his crew multiple times.
Charlie’s study habits by then had vastly improved; he and his rear gunner came in second and third in the class. Together, they got assigned to the elite squadron 405, something that shocked Charlie.
The rest of the crews were all experienced, some with two tours of ops to their credit; we didn’t even have one flight.4
Charlie arrived in Great Gransden, a tiny hamlet in Sandy, which was part of Bedfordshire in Huntingdonshire County, 11 miles west of Cambridge in early July 1944. He got a welcoming pamphlet from his predecessors that said in part:
“We old die-hards, some of whom you will have the pleasure of meeting later in this booklet, began our P.F.F. life just as you are, with few clues but a willingness to learn. We settled down and soon became enshrouded with the spirit, that we not only had a job to do well, but one which was to be done far better than was expected, no matter how small it proved to be. That spirit and responsibility is handed down to you by the older crews as they end their tours.”5
Charlie’s log shows eleven-and-a-half hours of day flying and two-and-a-quarter hours of night flying over a three-day period that ended on July 10, 1944.6
That same day, Charlie got a new “class A” driver’s license that gave him the right to drive “heavy locomotive, light locomotive, motor tractor, heavy motor car, motor car, or motor tricycle equipped with means for reversing”7 for a year.
He wouldn’t need the last six months.
Read my other stories about WWII service at:
Last flight (this is more about Uncle Charlie)
Difficult holiday for two families (this story features the death of a crew member on Charlie’s last flight)
Sad death (this story features one of the women who served)
Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer (another story about a woman who served)
Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII (Charlie trained in Dunville, but the site was similar to this one)
1https://www.camgliding.uk/about/airfield-history/, accessed January 29, 2020.
2 Skaarup, H. (n.d.). Canadian Wings: The History & Heritage of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.canadianwings.com/Squadrons/squadronDetail.php?No.-405-Squadron-64.
3Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943, December 12, 1943 to February 26, 1944.
4Mathieu, John Charlie. All this Heaven Almost, private manuscript.
5 No. 405 Squadron Operational Books, Library and Archives Canada, microfilm reproduction copy number C-12272.
6Log book, Personal documents, John, Charles Mathieu, Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943.
7Huntingdonshire County Council Road Traffic Provisional Driving Licence No. A6430.
One-time Verdun resident Fred Christie took on racial injustice in Canada in 1936. The crusader is in the news again this week thanks to Jonathan Montpetit, from the CBC. Montpetit’s article features the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) campaign for wider recognition for Christie.
He chose to take the owner of the York Tavern to court after he refused to serve him.
Christie initially won $25, but he lost on appeal. The case took three years to get to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, Christie lost again.
The Supreme Court decision was rendered on December 9th, 1939 and published in 1940. It said in part:
the general principle of the law of Quebec is that of complete freedom of commerce.” Specifying further, the judgment states that “any merchant is free to deal as he may choose with any individual member of the public […] the only restriction to this general principle would be the existence of a specific law, or, in the carrying out of the principle, the adoption of a rule contrary to good morals or public order.”
After losing his case, Christie left Montreal.
His efforts initiated a series of events that eventually led to the 1975 Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
According to Kristian Gravenor in Coolopolis, Christie lived at 716 Galt.
The NFB included Christie in their Journey to Justice film. (The Christie segment begins at minute 9.46.)
On February 4, 2016, the borough of Verdun and the official committee for Black History Month in Montreal paid hommage to Mr. Christie and set up a page in his honour. That page has since been removed. The borough’s overview about that evening and an article in the Suburban both mention that event.
*Please note: a previous version of this post included a photo of activist Hugh Burnett instead of Christie. Apologies for this error.
Today, let’s remember Barbara-Maria Klucznik-Widajewicz.
Barbara and 13 other women died during the École Polytechnique Massacre on this date, December 6, 1989.
The 31-year-old nursing student got shot enjoying a cheap meal with her husband in the cafeteria. Newspapers ran a photo of her collapsed in her chair for days afterwards.
She and her husband had emigrated to Canada from Poland two years earlier looking for a safer life. A failed referendum left little room for solidarity activists like them.
Klucznik-Widajewicz spoke five languages and held degrees in engineering and economics when she arrived. She worked as a nanny and her husband worked overnight in a nursing home before they had enough to go back to school.
While he studied to be a psychiatrist, she studied nursing.
The Berlin wall came down a month before she died. The cold war ended. Europe was safe again. Would they go home?
We’ll never know where their dreams might have led. They died with her on December 6, 1989.
Her husband Witold Widajewicz spoke of his shock examining her body to a Gazette newspaper reporter a year after her death.
I opened the zipper and I found a hole in the left breast, the breast that I had kissed that day — one hole that finished everything, the American dream in this country,” said Widajewicz, then 30 years old.
We all empathized with his plight. Many of us remembered the photo of her slumped in her chair. The multiple bodies on stretchers rolled out of the school. All of it so horrific.
Poland repatriated Barbara’s body after she died. Her husband and all of Canada faced an enormous loss.
Too often, stories talk about the gunman, giving him a notoriety he doesn’t deserve. I’d much rather commemorate Barbara and her contribution. She’s the one who deserves to be famous and remembered.
Or, if we must say a man’s name today, why not weep for then engineering student, Sarto Blais? Sarto was at the Polytechnique that fateful day, but was unable to stop the shooter. The graduate killed himself in remorse in August 1990. His parents killed themselves ten months after their only son’s suicide. He and his parents deserve to be remembered too. We need to combat the mental illness that stems from trauma like the massacre.
Montreal, Quebec and Canada lost too many wonderful people 30 years ago today. On this, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, let’s remember them.
In addition to Barbara, Sarto and the Blais, we also remember:
Geneviève Bergeron was a twenty-one year old second-year scholarship student in mechanical engineering that year. She sang in a choir, played the clarinet and loved swimming, gymnastics and playing basketball. Then Mayor Jean Doré knew her as the eldest daughter of Thérèse Daviau, who then served as city councilor for the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. As a teenager, Bergeron went door-to-door in 1984 to help Doré win his first election. She also babysat Doré’s 3-year-old daughter.
Her sister spoke to CBC radio reporter Laura Marchand for an article published today.
She was my hero,” Bergeron said, smiling. “I remember her as a sunshine. That’s what we used to call her: our Sunshine.”
Catherine had an article in Le Devoir in 2005 that you can still read today.
Elaine Audet, whose daughter attended FACE with Geneviève also wrote a letter about her.
Finding information about what she believed in is difficult. All I could find is references to three job offers she was considering at the time, including one near Toronto, and her desire to do a masters degree. There’s also a brief statement about her energy from her father Clarence in a book about the events.
That’s all the more reason to miss her now. Who knows what she might have accomplished had she lived.
Her brother Claude Colgan, spoke about her in French on a video.
If you prefer to commemorate today looking at the future instead of the past, join Mary Wells in celebrating 30 successful women in the engineering field who graduated within three years of that time.
Wells graduated from McGill as an engineer two years prior to the Massacre.
Her tribute page “30 years later” gives us just a small sense of what Canada lost when so many women engineer students–and one nursing student and trained engineer–died.
Imagine turning a corner and seeing rows upon rows of green painted wooden buildings as far as the eye can see. One minute, there was nothing. The next minute, an entire town appeared in front of me.
For just a moment, I shared a bit of the awe my ancestors must have felt on day one of their military training during WWII.
The experience took place while I was touring wineries near Picton Ontario last summer.
A former airfield and military base on County Road 22 operates as the Picton Airport and Loch-Sloy Business Park. It includes 54 historic buildings and six airplane hangars on 701 acres of land.
The Prince Edward Flying Club offers “prior permission required” landing services for pilots.
Fifteen other business tenants rent space there too. I saw listings for carpenters, furniture makers, glass manufacturers, landscapers, mechanics, and stone distributors. There’s even a yoga studio on site.
The Picton airfield originally opened on April 28, 1941 as a bombing and gunnery school for the war effort.
Canada, with the support of Britain, built new or expanded existing fields into more than 100 such facilities in less than four years.
The effort became known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Looking back it is difficult to grasp the BCATP in all its dimensions,” wrote J.F. Hatch, in his 1983 book describing the project. “In themselves, the statistics are impressive: 131,553 [plus 5,296 RAF and Fleet Air Arm personnel trained prior to July 1, 1942] aircrew trained for battle, through a ground structure embracing 105 flying training schools of various kinds, 184 support units and a staff numbering 104,000. When war was declared the RCAF had less than two hundred aircraft suitable for training, many of them obsolete. In December 1943 there were 11,000 aircraft on strength of the BCATP.” 
My ancestors Paul Emile Hurtubise, Jean Charles Mathieu and Richard Himphen all trained at Ontario-based military installations just like this one, although the ones they went to were in Camp Borden, Dunnville and St. Thomas rather than Picton.
Camp Borden still operates as an active military training facility. The ones in Dunnville and St. Thomas are long gone.
Picton is probably the last BCATP centre in existence—with original buildings and triangle airfield layout intact—anywhere in the world.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) used the buildings and hangars for storage and equipment maintenance after WWII.
After that, the Royal Canadian School of Artillery (anti-aircraft) moved in to train anti-aircraft gunners, gunnery radar operators, technical assistants and artillery instructors. The first battalion Canadian Guards infantry unit also used the site for a while.
During part of that time, AVRO Arrow test models could be found in some of the hangars.
In 1969, the Department of Defense closed down CFB Picton and the H.J. McFarland Company purchased the land and buildings.
Loch-Sloy bought the site from the McFarland family in 1999.
That’s when the company began a slow challenging effort of reconstructing the former buildings into a period museum that they hope will eventually open full-time. They produced a fun video describing their dreams in April 2013.
Until that happens, you can arrange private tours of the site or contact them for upcoming public events.
I highly recommend the experience. It connects you to the past in a way that reading documents just can’t achieve.
– 30 –
If you want to read more about my WWII military ancestors and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, refer to the following stories:
 Hatch, F. J. The Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945. Ottawa: Directorate of History, Dept. of National Defence, 1983, 222 pages.
This week, we commemorate the public service contributions of trained dietitian and Montreal philanthropist Mary Catherine “Kitty” Freeman. Freeman was born in Prescott, Ontario 98 years ago Sunday.
During the war years, Freeman helped feed wounded soldiers using limited rations at hospitals in Liverpool, England and Bruges, Belgium . She described her experiences to Bronwyn Chester in 2004 for a newsletter article.
If someone became diabetic, for instance, you’d look after that,” she told Chester. “But mostly you did the best you could with what you had. We had 600 patients at one time, and to break the monotony of meat with a lot of fat in it, along with potatoes and canned and dried food, you’d just go out and buy strawberries.”
Freeman frequently donated to McGill during her lifetime. She also left Macdonald College a million dollar endowment after her death on March 13, 2009. Today, a well-equipped 12-person food laboratory commemorates her contributions. Another $25,000 went to the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research.
Clearly, the study of food and nutrition meant a great deal to her, perhaps because she grew up during the Great Depression.
As a young woman, Freeman pursued a Bachelor of Household Science from Macdonald College and dietitian training at Royal Victoria College.
She signed up for the Canadian Army’s Medical Corp as soon as she turned 21 and became eligible for service.
Freeman told Chester that she travelled from Halifax Canada to Liverpool England as the only dietitian on one of three Army hospital ships.
Hospital ships carried wounded soldiers from Europe to Pier 21 in Halifax. There, trained technicians transferred patients to hospital trains sent to hospitals across Canada. Military personnel and soldiers then boarded empty ships, just as Freeman did. The ship then returned to Europe for more patients.
Painted white hospital ships displayed large red crosses on each side to indicate that they should receive safe passage.
You can see a photo of one such ship on Roger Litwiller’s website. We can assume that this photo shows a later probably larger ship than the one Freeman sailed on. The Lady Nelson hospital ship didn’t exist until April 1943. It boasted an operating theatre, x-ray machine and wards for 515 people. The December 1944 Index to British Warships document shows only the Lady Nelson in existence that particular year, only two years after Freeman’s passage. That couldn’t be accurate, however. The Letitia hospital ship was refitted with 200 medical personnel and the ability to ship 1,000 patients in 1943 and continued to sail in 1944.
The Geneva Convention specified that enemy bombers and submarines weren’t supposed to target hospital ships, but there were no guarantees. According to Wikipedia, 25 hospital ships were sunk during WWII.
The hospital ship Freeman was on arrived safely in Liverpool with its two mates in 1941. There, her expertise became a much-needed commodity. Britain struggled to feed itself. Canadian exports accounted for 77% of the wheat and flour consumed in the country. The following year, rations would be introduced across Canada to ensure that enough food went overseas.
Freeman took charge of the military hospital food service. Later, they sent her to Belgium to perform a similar role in harsher conditions. After five years of service, she returned to Montreal. She immediately joined the staff of the veteran’s Saint Anne de Bellevue Hospital as a dietitian
She moved to Queen Mary’s Veteran Hospital before retiring in 1978.
According to a 2005 Veteran’s Affairs pamphlet, Freeman’s experiences were duplicated by many women of her generation.
No account of military service in the Second World War would be complete without mention of the contribution made by the four special branches of the nursing service – the Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Dietitians and Home Sisters. Also, the sisters who served on the hospital trains returning the wounded to destinations across Canada. The end of the Second World War brought the closure of military and station hospitals across Canada. A total of 80 nurses, 30 RCAMC, 30 RCAF and 20 RCN sisters joined the permanent force and served at military establishments across the country; many more staffed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospitals to care for hundreds of returning Veterans.
We need to remember the service of these courageous women, including Mary Catherine Freeman.
 Chester, Bronwyn, “Fueling the Forces,” In Focus Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, McGill, Spring 2004, p15, https://www.mcgill.ca/macdonald/files/macdonald/InFocusSpring2004.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019.
 “Generous legacy supports dietetic and nutrition research, CFDR Keeping in Touch, Fall 2009, p3.
 Index to British Warships, Division of Naval Intelligence, December 1944, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ref/ONI/ONI-201/ONI-201-I/ONI-201-I.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hospital_ships_sunk_in_World_War_II, accessed September 24, 2019.
 “The Nursing Sisters of Canada,” Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada represented by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, 2005. Catalogue No. V32-146/2005 ISBN 0-662-69038-9 Accessed September 24, 2019, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-and-war/nursing-sisters#sisterhist3