We are only a few miles away, and for the last few days we have seen and heard the planes arriving as they passed directly overhead. Absolutely thrilling!
My father’s birthday was two days ago. Born in 1920, he volunteered for the RCAF in WWII, but was not sent overseas because… can you believe it… he had “fallen arches”. Such humiliation… only the perfect, in mind and body, could be sacrificed in the war machine. So Dad was spared and I am grateful!
Instead of his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, he was an airplane mechanic at the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base at Jarvis, Ontario. There he worked on the planes used for bombing and gunnery training… the Anson, Battle, Bolingbroke and Lysander. I am not sure how much even Canadians in our area remember about the BCATP airbases in rural southern Ontario, many of which have now become modern commercial airports… including Pearson in Toronto! No matter how unglamorous, the RCAF’s role in the BCATP was incredibly important, and it pleases me to remember Dad’s role in it.
Like the merchant navy, the aircraft training personnel deserve to be remembered and given much more respect. When you read of Canadian involvement and investment in the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, it is clear that the Battle of Britain could not have been won without the participation of the men like my father who also served “at home” !
When my boys were younger they went once or twice with their father and grandfather to Mount Hope for the airshow… but it was almost as much fun to avoid the inevitable traffic jams and just lie on blankets and recliners in the back garden… Gramps, beer in hand, could provide his own commentary, identifying the planes and telling his stories. He was a born raconteur, and looked back with fond nostalgia on those years of excitement and involvement.
We have all seen movies and newsreels that include dog fights and air raid attacks, but the full horror and breathtaking suspense were brought home to me recently in a powerful novel, A Gathering of Saints, by Canadian author, Christopher Hyde. Set in London, during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, it is summarized here in Publisher’s Weekly:
A maniacal serial killer known as Queer Jack stalks London during the dark days of the Blitz…. Detective Inspector Morris Black, widowed, brilliant, introspective and Jewish, is “seconded” to MI5 for the duration of the murder investigation. Black’s diggings must remain top-secret, because the killer always commits his grisly crimes in locations that are immediately bombed by the Germans. While Black deduces from the evidence and reviews his own haunted past, London turns to smoking ash around him…. Hyde’s scrupulous research and deep knowledge of the political realities surrounding the Blitz make his story utterly convincing….The procedural elements are perfect, however, with scenes of ghastly carnage rendered so crisply that one can almost smell the fear and death…. Readers who relish the raw truth of human, and inhuman, history will find here what they are looking for.
The novel was also described as “well-researched, relentlessly grim, and remarkably evocative of its time and place.” I must confess to paying scant attention to the spy-vs-spy frame story and the grisly serial murders. What held my attention was the astonishingly detailed accounts of what was happening on the ground, in London in particular, as ordinary people tried to keep carrying on with their daily lives amidst the horrors of the Battle of Britain. The novel describes the bombing of Coventry and concludes with an extraordinary attempt to prevent the destruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral in a one on one combat between the killer and his stalker… from inside the dome itself!
This book is not easy reading for the squeamish, as the serial killings are described in graphic horror. But I am glad I read it. So many literary and film treatments emphasize the heroic military combatants; Christopher Hyde balances the story by showing what was happening to civilians during the Blitz. As a “war story”, it is not to be missed.
Before you go, look at the images in this article about The Battle of Britain monument... they are based on photo images and depict real individuals, each panel telling its own incredible story.
The famous photograph of St Paul’s still standing amid the smoke and flames of London during the Blitz was used by both the English and the Germans for propaganda purposes – the Germans used it to show their people how close London was to total destruction, and the English used it to show resolve. Paul Day explains how he used this iconic image in his monument: St Paul’s became the symbol of resistance during the Blitz having remained standing while all around was demolished. The famous photo collage of the Cathedral inspired this sequence. Although, not part of the Battle of Britain as such, the Blitz was the direct result of Dowding’s successful strategy to save the RAF and keep fighters in the air at all costs. German attack passed from airfields and factories to almost any other legitimate and less legitimate target.
Clearly, the Battle of Britain London monument glorifies nothing, but lays down an honest account of what Englanders endured – death, horror, and stress. The sheer depth of perspective of this panel is breathtaking. The artist explains: “I think one of the most troubling aspects of the Battle was the bombing of heavily populated areas using inaccurate means and the subsequent horrors that befell certain cities. The suddenness of loss through bombardment is dramatically portrayed in Guy Weston’s film version, “The Battle of Britain” (1968). That people could wake up the morning after a bombardment and find their home blown away is terrifying. Of course some weren’t to wake up at all. This scene is in homage to the rescue services and a reminder that, although the British people were tried by fire, the Nation was never to be put through occupation and the trauma that entailed. In any case, had we lost this battle, the war in the West would have been definitively lost, and probably the War.
It is important to remember those awful times, especially the young men who left families behind or never had the opportunity to father a family… and my own father who contributed to the victory in the only way available to him.