Remembrance Day 2020 – 75th Anniversary of the end of WWII

By Douglas Phillips

Remembrance Day is when the country stops for two minutes of silence, to pay respects to those who gave their lives and our veterans who fought for our freedom.  I know many of our readers will be marking this special day at a local memorial. This year on Wednesday November 11, 2020 we will mark the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War Two.  Peace at last. 75 years ago Canadians celebrated across the country, but not everyone.  44,300 Canadians were killed in action or died of injuries related to service.  Families of the fallen grieved for their husbands, sons and daughters that lay buried in faraway cemeteries. 

Flight Crew Stirling Bomber BK716L-R Kennedy, Bell, Campbell, Harris, Farrington, McCaw, Shrubsall. Courtesy of McCaw Family

Unlike World War One, very few new memorials were built.  The names of the fallen were added to existing cenotaphs along with the battles that Canadians had bravely fought in, to bring a new world order that shaped the coming years.  As a country the post-war years would be different.  We shed our colonial past, and the pre-war depression years to become a voice on the world stage.  Canada helped create the United Nations, NATO and we would become peacekeepers to stop future conflicts.

War had brought prosperity.  Returning service men and women wanted a house, a family, and a job in the new industrialized Canada. They married, had children and the baby boom era was formed, including me.  However, dark clouds were on the horizon.  The Cold War began, and former allies became enemies, also the Age of the Atom Bomb began.  

Air Crew Europe Star
Private Collection

The atom bomb was conceived on Canadian soil during the Quebec Conference between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill on August 19, 1943.  An agreement was signed to combine United States and British research to create nuclear weapons of war. Canada would supply some of the uranium along with a secret mine in the Republic of Congo.  The Manhattan Project would produce “Fat Boy” and “Little Boy” bombs that would lead to the Japanese surrender, the nuclear bombing of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima on August 6, and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.   I write this article on August 15, VJ Day.  Seventy-five years ago, Japan surrendered, and hostilities ended in South East Asia.

Looking back over the war years Canada achieved the impossible. A small population of 11 million people that worked together to defeat Germany and Japan. Civilians, more than one million men and women worked in essential war work producing ammunition, 16,000 aircraft, 471 naval ships, 400 merchant ships, 800,000 trucks, large amounts of guns and radio equipment.  Canada supplied aluminum, nickel, wheat, and food production that kept Britain fed. Total war production of $10 billion, about $100 billion in todays dollars.  Everybody pitched in by buying War Bonds and children collected scrap metal for war stamps.  War rationing produced Victory gardens, and everybody did their patriotic part as Canadian Forces battled the enemy overseas. Known today as the “Greatest Generation” Canadians answered the call – 730,000 men and women joined the Canadian Armed Forces. Soldiers of the Canadian Army fought in the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, the Dieppe Raid in 1942, the invasion of Sicily and then Italy in 1943, the Normandy landings in 1944, the liberation of the Netherlands, and the advance into the heart of Germany that ended in 1945. 

Air Force Memorial, 
Runnymede, England
Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Royal Canadian Navy of 95,000 personnel, which included 6,000 women played a critical role in escorting Allied convoys across the Atlantic Ocean.  By 1944, RCN ships also had an increased presence in the Pacific Ocean.  The Canadian Merchant ships completed more than 25,000 trips across the Atlantic. 

The Royal Canadian Air Force ran the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, trained 131,553 air crew, which included 49,507 pilots; more than 70,000 of the 131,553 were Canadian. The RCAF’s contribution should not be ignored, as by 1945 it boasted 86 squadrons and 249,000 personnel (17,000 were women); they played a part in the Allied advance across Western Europe, among other successful campaigns. In addition, thousands of Canadians fought under the banner of the British Royal Air Force, which brings me the story of two missing Canadian Flyers, Flt. Sergeant J. Francis McCaw of Belleville, and Flight Officer Harry Farrington of Niagara Falls.  They were part of a seven-man crew, Squadron 218 (Gold Coast) that took off from RAF Downham Market, Norfolk, England on the evening of March 29, 1943 aboard a Short Stirling Bomber Aircraft number BK716, mission Berlin. This is their story.

Peace, August 15, 1945
City of Toronto Archives

About 9:30 p.m. the Stirling Bomber taxied down the runway and Pilot John Harris eased the heavy plane into the night sky.  The navigator F/O Farrington set the course to Berlin, over the English East Anglia coast, across the North Sea over the north Dutch coast.  Along with 300 other aircraft they approached the German capital.  The weather conditions were difficult and much of the bombing missed the targets. On the return journey rear gunner Flt. Sgt. Francis McCaw and mid-upper-gunner Flt. Sgt. Leonard Shrubsall would be on high alert for German night fighters. As dawn began to break, the Stirling passed over Holland on a direct route to base. German squadron logs record on March 30, 1943 at 4:45 a.m. a Messerschmitt BF110 night fighter with a crew of two piloted by Lt. Werner Rapp shot down a Stirling Bomber that crashed into Lake Markermeer, a lake north east of Amsterdam.  From 218 Squadron log “It was not a good night for 218 Squadron, which posted missing two of its crews. That of Sgt. Hoar all lost their lives when flak (anti-aircraft fire) accounted for BK702 over Germany, and BK716 was lost without trace with the crew of F/O Harris.” Other British crew members on board were Flt. Sgt. Charles Bell Bomb Aimer, F/O John Campbell Wireless Operator, and Flt. Sgt. Ronald Kennedy Flight Engineer. The average age of the crew was 26 years. Their names are engraved on the Royal Air Force Runnymede Memorial Walls in the England and included on the Memorial are 3,050 missing Canadian Airmen.

Recovery of the BK716, 
Lake Markermeer, Holland
The Dutch Stichting Aircraft Recovery Group

Roll the calendar forward 65 years to 22, December 2008.  An alert had come from a Dutch fishing boat with engine trouble on Lake Markermeer.  The Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution boat responded to the call for help.  The fishing boat had dropped anchor and when brought to the surface, had snagged part of a plane’s engine.  The Dutch Stichting Aircraft Recovery Group 40-45 have been investigating the plane since 2009 with the aid of divers.  The Amsterdam Police Forensic Department positively identified the plane as the BK716 wreckage, and all the families were notified.  It is hoped the plane can be raised in the future.

The following videos give more details on BK716 recovery: (also English spoken)

Footnote:  A 1943 Bomber Command Squadron size varied according to the number of available planes, pilots, and crew.  With the high casualty rate planes and crews were often reallocated to other squadrons to cover the losses.  Each squadron consisted of three flights “A” “B” and “C” each 7 to 10 planes.  Each flight was commanded by a squadron leader who was usually a pilot.

For more information on your war dead relative, contact The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

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