Category Archives for WWII

Lancaster Days in Gransden Lodge

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.

Canadian Air Force Development

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.

Uncle Charlie’s Path

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

Arrival at Gransden Lodge

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.

For More about WWII

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)

Sources

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.

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Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII

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.

Local businesses rent space

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.

Driving and walking through the park feels like taking a step back in time.

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.” [1]

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.

Heritage Structures Intact

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.

Dreams for a Period Museum

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:

Fairwell Sergeant Himphen

Evening Serenade

Shot Down Three Times

Vincent Massey and the BCATP

 

[1] 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.

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Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer

Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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 Ship Travel

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.[3] 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.[4]

Military Contribution

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.[5]

We need to remember the service of these courageous women, including Mary Catherine Freeman.

Sources

[1] 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.

[2] “Generous legacy supports dietetic and nutrition research, CFDR Keeping in Touch, Fall 2009, p3.

[3] 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.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hospital_ships_sunk_in_World_War_II, accessed September 24, 2019.

[5] “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

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Final Letter to Mr. Baldwin

The final letter to Mr. Baldwin seems so impersonal, despite a handwritten signature.

The RCAF officer signed only his initials “AAG” on the January 4, 1947 letter to John Ansley Baldwin.

AAG signature on Baldwin letter

 

May I again, at this time, offer my sincere sympathy at the loss of your son.”[1]

The initials seem to bely the sentiment expressed, but keep in mind that “AAG” had to write many such letters to parents. As casualty officer for Air Marshall Robert Leckie, Chief of the Air Staff from January 1944 until August 1947, AAG had to write to many parents of the 17,397 airmen who died serving with the Canadian Air Force during World War II.

In this instance, AAG was writing to the father of Flying Officer Air bomber John Moody Baldwin, the navigator on a flight flown by pilot William Coates. Baldwin went missing almost three years earlier—on March 25, 1944—when his plane went down during air operations in Germany with the RCAF. At that point, the 23-year-old had been an air bomber for two years.

This letter was the news firmly announcing his definite death to his family.

“The report from the Missing Research and Enquiry Service in Holland states that the aircraft in which they were flying crashed at about 12.30 A.M. on the 25gh March near Luyksgestel which is located approximately 12 miles South South West of Eindhoven.”

The letter, which was sent to 838 Concession Street, Hamilton, Ontario, goes on to say that the remains of the seven airmen were buried in the General Cemetery, Woensel, Eindhoven. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission indicates that they are now buried in Plot KK. Coll. grave 28-31.[2]

The letter was addressed to John Moody Baldwin’s father. An accompanying death certificate issued by the Province of Ontario identifies his mother as Margaret Moody. Both were born in Ontario.

 

 

[1] Baldwin, John Moody; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 24791, letter J24527 (RO, No. 10. Section), dated Ottawa, Canada, January 4th 1947.

[2] Veteran’s Affairs Canada, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2617623, viewed on May 23, 2016.

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Sad death

One of the first Canadian women who enlisted into the Royal Canadian Air Force committed suicide less than a year later.

Ten days after her 29th birthday, Hazel Winnifred Webb Seymour left a steady job with the Bell Telephone Company of Canada to enlist in the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The unit operated under the motto: “we serve that men may fly.”

Ten months later, she swallowed three bottles of cleansers (iodine, cresol and carbolic acid) while in the hospital for hysteria. She died on September 10, 1942.

When she joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Webb Seymour seemed like the perfect candidate. She was healthy, high-school educated, the right age and height, and well-trained in administrative duties. She was married, and had been for seven years, but the couple had no children as he was deployed overseas.

Her early days in the Air Force reinforced her aptitude for the job. One test resulted in the comment:

“One of the best on the course – always cheerful and will make a wonderfully reliable and good N.C.O. Suitable for a difficult station.”

An “assessment of character” completed in March 1942 also contained high praise: “industrious, capable, willing worker,” “highly resourceful,” and “merits accelerated promotion.”

Four months later, Seymour was admitted to the Station Hospital with something so serious, she stayed for eight days. From then on, she went in and out of hospitals, both civilian and military, until her suicide.

During an inquest about her death, Flight Lieutenant Allan Campbell Blair described what happened in the final three days of her life.

“It was considered that before she should be discharged on the grounds of this nervous disorder that it would be worthwhile to give her another chance and to this end was admitted to Station Hospital again to be kept under observation and the be employed doing small jobs about the hospital which was thought might be of benefit to her. She was apparently responding and there was, in my opinion, no need to restrict her freedom about the hospital. There was no evidence or intentions from her that she was planning self destruction. On September 10, at 1205 hours as Dr. Williams and myself were leaving the hospital we encountered her in the hall holding an iodine soaked stained towel to her mouth and she stated that she had just drunk three bottles of poison….”[1]

After she died, her mother wrote to the military needing help.

“The funeral refund has not been sent to me and I really need that amount to help with my winters’ coal, if I can get any.”[2]

Despite those pleas, the only cheque to the family reimbursed $154.16 they paid for Webb Seymour’s funeral.

 

Note: This story is a mini-version of a chapter in Tracey’s upcoming book: Steady Hands, Brave Heart: World War II’s effect on Canada.

[1] Seymour, Hazel Winnifred; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 28621, testimony, Allan Campbell Blair, C3966.

[2] Seymour, Hazel Winnifred; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 28621, letter, Pearl Web, August 28, 1943.

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