Legacy Series Episode 1 - Going to War
In Episode 1, RCAF and Polish Air Force veterans describe what it was like to go to war. From breaking the news of their enlistment to parents, to flying solo for the first time, their firsthand accounts are shared with self-deprecating humour, bringing history to life in an engaging and often moving way. Topics include the Polish Air Force, the key role played by the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, choosing between a fighter or a bomber, and how it felt to make the cut as a pilot.
The interviews are interspersed with archival photographs and film footage. Scenes between Cadet Andy and Captain Johnny C provide context and additional information on what it was like to go to war.
I found out there was a Photographic Branch there.
I didn’t know what they did other than photograph, but I said there’s where I want to go.
So, I wanted to go to Ottawa to take a course.
In 1940, I was twenty years old, so I knew I was going to have to go in something, and
the Air Force was the thing to go in, because that was the preferred service, as far as
young people were concerned.
It’s very glamorous to fly.
I’ve got uncles and aunts that were in the First World War.
There’s pictures of mud and trenches and dirty old mud—phew, I don’t want that!
Then there was this “Oh, we’ve got the Navy.”
Up and down, and up and down.
No, thank you.
I don’t want any of that—no up and down.
So that left the Air Force.
So that’s why I joined the Air Force.
I remember training in one of these babies back home.
Thought I was going to be a fighter pilot, but it wasn’t in the cards.
Why did you picked the Air Force Johnny?
Well I guess you could say it picked me.
You see my father joined the Royal Naval Air Service in the Great War
the First World War.
So it’s in your blood.
You could say that, but it’s much more than that.
Back when my father flew his Bristol F.2B fighter in 1917, airplanes had only been around
Just think of that Andy.
From the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, to aerial dogfights over the western
front by early 1916!
My father and his fellow pilots set the stage for the role of the aircraft in the Great War
and I wanted a part to play in ours.
Alright, but what if you couldn’t cut it with the Air Force and
they sent you off to the the Navy or the Army?
Well, I guess I’d be fighting on land or on sea.
Personal choice doesn't figure in when it comes to war.
You go where you're told, you follow orders, and do your best.
Sounds like a real lack of options there.
Many times that’s what war boils down to Andy…a lack of options.
Seeing what happened during the war in Poland
the terrific destruction, and the cruelty on the part of Germans who attacked us—I decided
to switch over the branch, and decided to join the flying personnel.
The government was asking for help, because they needed help badly.
So as my father was all that old, I felt like it was my duty to volunteer.
So I did volunteer.
And went over to to England.
I’d have me a Pole or a Czech as part of my crew anyday.
No questions asked.
Why, what was so special about them?
Are you kidding?
Polish pilots are some of the best trained.
And unlike us Canuks, who sailed over the Atlantic to fight in this war, they have
been fighting it to kick out the Nazis from their homeland.
You could say they have a way bigger stake in this than us.
But weren’t you putting your life on the line just like them?
But it’s a little bit different, don’t you think?
If some palooka walked into your home and said it's his home now.
And if you don’t like it, he’ll kill you and your family.
What would you do if that happened?
The Commonwealth people, they came to Canada
to learn how to be pilots, or whatever, in order to help fight the war.
I think there was over 200 stations across Canada.
They could be gunnery schools, they could be flying schools for pilots, air gunners,
navigators, whatever, wireless operators.
And a lot of the schools also taught the Women’s Division and the ground crews.
Canada was picked for the Plan against other Commonwealth places because of its large area.
We were far enough away from the war—and a good atmosphere for training purposes.
What’s with the yellow?
Why did the trainers over here look like flying mustard containers?
So that the pilot trainees don’t hit one another.
So that they can easily be found if a recruit has to do a forced landing or even crashes.
And with all those yellow trainers filling the skies above Canada, US President Franklin
D. Roosevelt calls us the “Aerodrome of Democracy”.
BCATP, or “The Plan” is the single largest aviation training program
In the history of war!
With close to 130,000 recruits in Canadian schools and airfields across the country
We are doing our part and then some.
But why did they pick Canada?
Isn’t it a bit of a stretch from here to Europe?
That’s exactly why.
We’re top dog because of our good weather, wide-open spaces and lack of any real threat
from the Luftwaffe or Japanese fighters.
But still, wasn’t this … this “Plan” bringing the war a little too close to home?
You know what they say, “In for a penny.
In for a pound.”
What the heck does that mean?
It means you can’t just stand on the sidelines Andy.
Sometimes you got to go all in and run with the ball.
They asked me if I wanted to go in Fighter Command or Bomber Command.
And they said, “Oh, of course you know in Fighter Command there’s six months waiting!”
At twenty years old, you don’t want to wait six months.
So I took Bomber Command.
Well, he says, “Well, right now we’re looking for Bomber pilots.”
I says, “No, I want to be a fighter pilot.”
He says, “Why?”
I said, “If I make a stupid mistake in the air, I want to be the only one to go down
Not with a plane full of crew!”
No regrets about not being a fighter pilot?
Like “Buzz” Beurling…that screwball.
He’s flying pretty high as Canada’s top ace right now with 31 victories.
Nah, he can have the glory.
He can sell war bonds back home.
I’ll take my Lanc any day of the week.
But what if you were the one that made a mistake up there and because of it,
Some of your crewmembers were killed?
How would you get over the guilt of that?
If it were me, it would beat me up.
Mistakes happen all the time in war, Andy.
Being afraid of making one is the biggest mistake of all.
When I got in that airplane the first time,
I pictured myself getting in my model airplanes.
You know, that was the feeling I had: “At last I’m getting into an airplane.”
The first aircraft?
It was a Fleet Finch, which was a trainer biplane.
Looked like a First World War fighter aircraft.
That was a great aircraft to train in.
It was thrilling!
We had Tiger Moths, lovely Tiger Moths.
The Tiger Moth was an aeroplane that somehow just grabbed your heart.
She could bite—boy, she could hurt you!
She could kill you, if you let it.
Do you remember your first flight, Johnny?
It’s like your first kiss Andy.
You never forget it.
My father taught me how to fly when I was 16-years old in his old, rickety,
De Havilland Moth.
He bought it for a song at an air show.
And when he hopped out of that plane and he told me to take it up on my own,
it felt like…like I was free.
Free as a bird, just like that sayin’.
You were 16?!
Yeah I started late, but I caught up quick.
They agreed to take me in the RCAF.
I wanted to be like these flyers you see: floating around in the air and shooting at
each other, and everything other than that.
And that was just fine.
Everybody wanted to be a pilot and do this.
But, of course, everybody couldn’t be a pilot.
All during your training, you were subject to being “washed out” if, you know’—
You were always on observation as to your ability.
If at any time they figured you’re not quite “with it” to be a pilot, you know, then
you would be called in to the CO and he would say, “I’m sorry, but you are not progressing
the way we’ve hoped you would be, to become a fighter pilot, and therefore I have to turn
you back in to the Air Force to become some kind of a tradesman or something.”
I started out to be a pilot, but I was washed out, flying Tiger Moths.
The guy that washed me out, he said, “Jim,” he says, “I’ll let you go on, but,”
he says, “you might be better doing another part of the air crew”.
So I became a navigator.
I did my navigation course; it took six months.
And I graduated the latter part of ‘43.
When I went to the recruiting depot, I said I wanted to be a pilot.
They gave me a medical.
The doctor said, “I’m sorry to tell you, son: you cannot be a pilot at all, because
your eyes don’t converge.”
And that’s what allows you to have depth perception, which you can’t land an airplane
So, when I was on guard duty, I was standing for hours with a rifle with a bayonet on it,
so I practised, bringing this bayonet up to my eyes.
And at the ground school, they had another examination, and the doctor checked my eyes,
started to write something down, “Hey, there’s something wrong here.
These numbers aren’t anything like the first time you were checked.”
I was all ready for that.
I said, “Oh, it must be a typographical error!”
How could someone get washed out?
Crashing is always a good way.
Physical reasons like bad eyesight, bad hearing or bad attitude.
They get rid of the BAD eggs pretty quick.
Did you get a flying licence when you passed?
A flying licence?
Like a piece of paper?
That’s a real knee slapper.
No Cadet, you get your wings.
And getting your wings is one of the proudest days in any pilot’s life in the military!
They had bales of hay in the field, like a
convoy, or whatever.
And you had live machine-guns in your wings; and you went, flew down and strafed them,
you know, as though you were in battle and you were strafing German convoys or whatever—ships,
I was so keyed up about this single-engine airplane.
Miles Master was the name of the aircraft.
It was a two-seater, something like the Harvard, which has a front seat and a back seat.
The thing about the back seat was that the instructor, in order that he could see to
land the aircraft, had the canopy, which would raise up like a windscreen.
And he could raise his seat up, and he could fly away like that.
And it was great fun to go a little too fast, and slam the instructor on his head
with this thing.
But I got seventeen hours on a single-engine aircraft and it was . . . spiritual (laugh).
Went up with another fella on a tail-chasing exercise, where he flies and does everything
he can do to shake me off his tail, then we’d switch.
Well he didn’t shake me off.
But when we switched, I did one manoeuvre and lost him.
And when I pulled out of my dive, looked around; I didn’t know where I was.
I hadn’t brought a map with me.
I’d flown in close formation with this fella, out to where we were exercising, and I hadn’t
watched where we were going.
The visibility was so bad that, when you looked down, all you could see was a little circle
of the ground.
I thought I was southwest of Ottawa, so I flew northeast and I ended up somewhere in
I flew down and read a name off a railroad station, and it was in French, so I knew where
So I turned south.
Then, I saw these long, narrow farms going back from the river.
And I remembered from my history book: the seigneury farm division in Quebec.
I knew where I was then.
But I was just about out of gas.
And I was about to pick one of these fields that looked just nice, just like parallel
runways when I saw a little airplane, a Fleet Finch.
I didn’t know what it was then, but it was a Fleet Finch.
And I followed it home to its airfield, which was at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, just by Three-Rivers.
I’d had maybe ten hours of flying.
And then, I’m in a Harvard.
Well it’s a bit dicey, you know?
Like the first time you get to know how to drive a car — you’re a bit scared about
how to drive a car.
Same thing with a Harvard.
I had a lot of fun when I got to learn.
Doin’ loops and rolls.
The best one of all: when I got up with my friend, in the clouds, and we’d play follow-the-leader,
and up the clouds and around the holes (laughs).
When you graduated, that was the biggest thing in your life up to that time.
When I’d finished my course, my father, who’d just returned from England as a Captain
in the Army, was there to pin my wings on my tunic.
He was a little too enthusiastic: he stuck the pin right through my tunic and jabbed
me in the chest.
I didn’t budge, of course, but it was painful.
You know, when I think of it, it was a very special day in 1942, on Remembrance Day.
And that's when I got my wings.
Winston Churchill said that the British Commonwealth
Air Training Plan was one of the greatest contributions of Canada for World War Two.
Those that didn’t get overseas got really no recognition.
Unless I wear my wings on my uniform, my Air Force Association uniform, you didn’t know
whether I was working in an office, or what.
You had no idea what I did to contribute to the war effort.
Canada should present the training officers with some kind of recognition
for their effort in the war.
Canada was called, “the war in Canada.”
Our dead received no special accommodations.
You were just shipped home to wherever you came from.
I remember one time, about twenty-five years after the war, a Harvard aircraft was discovered
with the skeleton still in it that they had never found when it crashed.
No recognition at all for those of us that served.
The Queen Elizabeth was taken over as a troop ship
At that time, it was the biggest ship afloat.
And we were six days in the boat, in Halifax, and there was troop ships coming in all the time
from different parts of Canada, until we filled up.
We were just ready to sail, when two Liberty ships came in,
and they were full of Yankee troops.
They sprang leaks out in the Atlantic.
So they brought them into Halifax.
There was 6,000 of them, and they put them on our boat, and we were already full.
So there was nowhere to sleep.
You slept on the deck.
And even in the toilets you had to step over these guys when you went in there.
Cause they were sleeping in there.
Anywhere you could get, you could sleep on the floor.
In January in 1942, on the North Atlantic.
The food was so terrible that the potatoes—they took a bag of potatoes,
dirt and all, boiled them and that’s how you got them.
And I went to the tuck shop and bought cookies and lived on that for the trip across.
Since you were a bomber pilot, why didn’t you just fly your Lanc over to Europe?
That’s not, that’s not quite how it works.
You see most combat aircraft built in North America have to take a series of air routes
over the Atlantic Ocean to get to Britain.
Once the planes are here, pilots take them to different airfields.
Some of the pilots are even dames.
Women, Andy. Geez
We call them the “Attagirls” because we say to them, “attagirl”
you delivered the plane in one piece.”
(Johnny laughs) They just love that.
The gals they fly all types of aircraft that I wouldn’t get behind the controls of.
No. Should I be?
Women are fighting in wars now.
Women shouldn't be fighting in a man’s war!
When you first get overseas, you go down to Bournemouth;
and that’s a great place for a young guy.
Dancehalls, and pubs—ohh!
Pubs were very good, and the beer was cheap.
I understand Churchill ordered these breweries to have lots of beer,
to keep up the morale of the people.
And the pubs—we used to go in there, and everybody would sing.
Sing, sing, everything.
You didn't drink that much to excess.
You never got drunk, or anything like that.
You couldn’t buy food like you can now in the pubs; there was very, very little food.
Fish and chips was about the only thing I can think of that you could buy.
And it was always wrapped up in paper, and it smelled real good, and tasted real good!
I was billeted in a private home.
Mrs. Simpson looked after me.
She was a lovely lady. And
every night, when I came crawling home, she would have a glass of milk
and a Scottish scone or something for my bedside.
When we were going overseas, they’d always— The old-timers advised us to take over things
you think the girls or people would want over there.
I knew sugar was a problem, so I took a big ten-pound bag of sugar,
and also silk stockings,
and the idea was: just give them one at a time—just one at a time.
Mrs. Simpson was so nice that I gave her the sugar and the socks! (laughs)