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War Memories from FLOYD WILLISTON



Sunday, November 10, 2002 Back The Halifax Herald Limited

Five failed to return

Of the seven Nova Scotia men in this 1941 photo, taken upon their graduation from flight school, five were dead within two years. Author and historian Floyd Williston tracks down what happened to them. By Floyd Williston / Special to The Sunday Herald

THOUGH ERNEST Le Blanc and Ken Byer served in different squadrons overseas, they did take their final Canadian training together. In the fall of 1941 they graduated bombing and gunnery school near Belleville, Ont. A few days later, a group photograph, captioned: Nova Scotian Air Gunners Graduate, appeared in The Chronicle-Herald.

Though it has now turned brown with age, copies of it have survived for almost sixty years among the wartime memorabilia of the Byers and Le Blanc families. It shows seven young men, ranging in ages from 20 to 29, sufficiently trained to be sent off to war.

The five others in the photograph are: Edward (Gerald) Samson, Cornelius MacLean, Basil Yorke, Neil MacDougall, and Ralph Baillie. They came from L'Ardoise, Stellarton, Fox River, New Aberdeen, and River John.

Within less than two years, five of the seven were dead.

On the night of June 19, 1942, 194 bombers took off from various British bases for another raid on Emden. Compared to previous raids on this German city, Bomber Command losses (9 aircraft) were relatively minor. To the military strategists this was just one more raid, but for the MacDougall family in New Aberdeen, Cape Breton, it was the worst ever as they mourned the loss of their 23 year-old son.

Known to his former school mates, and childhood friends, as Buddy, Sgt. Neil MacDougall graduated from Glace Bay High School. The son of Alex A. and Katie MacDougall, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940, just as the Battle of Britain was in its final stages.

After graduating as an air gunner, MacDougall was posted overseas in November 1941. Six months later, after intensive training in Wellington bombers, he began his tour of duty with 101 Squadron. His pilot was Sgt. F.J. Keen, from Middlesex, England. MacDougall was the only Canadian in the crew.

When Sgt. Keen lifted off from Bourn, Cambridgeshire, on that June night he had no way of knowing that this would be his final raid. However, several hours later their names appeared on the crew board at Bourn showing that they'd failed to return. The aircraft was never found and only four bodies were recovered. It was presumed that they crashed into the sea off the coast of The Netherlands.

Sgt. MacDougall was interred in the Bergen Op-Zoom War Cemetery, Nord Brabant, Netherlands.

July 29/30, 1942. The Target: Saarbrücken. Two hundred ninety-one aircraft participated: 9 losses, 396 buildings destroyed, 153 civilians killed.

After Ernest Le Blanc's family, in St. Joseph du Moine, received the telegram informing them that their son was missing on operations over Germany, they waited in vain for more details to arrive.

Le Blanc, a wireless operator, was one of three Canadians in a 149 Squadron Stirling bomber that took off from an airfield in Lakenheath just slightly after midnight. In command of the cockpit was Flight Lieut. Frederick G. Neate, 24, an Englishman. The navigator was Richard Graham, 21, of Livelong, Sask., and one of the air-gunners was Jim Avedisian, 25, of Brantford, Ont.

This was only their third trip over Germany. Their first mission, to Duisburg, Germany, was just a week earlier when one of their squadron's aircraft was shot down with no survivors. Their second mission was dropping leaflets over Hamburg. On his return to base, Jim Avedisian wrote a letter to his sister, Victoria (Vicki), who now lives in Cambridge, Ont:

"I'm on an operational station now and have done two ops already. Hamburg was hot and it burned. Our duty is to load up heavy bombs and take them to Germany and let go. It's like the trucking business. You transport "goods" on schedule, get there no matter how, and deliver the goods and get the hell out, in one sweet hurry."

Their target on July 29 was Saarbrücken and on the return leg they were shot down, and their plane crashed at Regniowez, Ardennes. The six crew members who were killed are buried in a collective grave in the Choloy War Cemetery. Only the co-pilot survived and spent the next two years in a POW camp.

Visitors to a small museum in St. Joseph du Moine, Cape Breton, can view Ernest Le Blanc's medals and other memorabilia. Its curator is Ambrose Muise.

Elsewhere in Nova Scotia, his sister, Elizabeth Buckles, remembers the cross her mother received from France that was made from the metal of Ernest's Stirling bomber.

Ken McGeorge Byers was the oldest of the wireless air-gunners in his course. He was born in New Anan on Aug. 23, 1912. Ken attended high school at Colchester County Academy in Truro and was a talented musician and pianist. He played the organ in the local United Church and entertained at wakes and weddings. He was also a well known all around athlete. Together with his other siblings he helped out on the small family farm but is remembered by many in the area as that nice young man in R. H. Byers and Sons General Store.

Ken had four brothers: Allison, Gerald, Ronald (killed in Cambrai, France, in 1918), and Robin (who died at 10). His two sisters, Geneva and Marjorie, lived in the United States. Marjorie's daughter, Betty, now lives in West New Anan. She recalls that her uncle Ken taught her how to whistle.

Byers enlisted at Halifax and trained in Montreal. He sailed to England in November 1941 and sometime later was posted to 58 Squadron at Wick, Scotland. While on a non-operational flight on Aug. 3, 1942, the Whitley bomber in which he was a wireless air-gunner burst into flames, just as they were landing at Wick. All on board were killed, including Byers and his pilot, Sgt. Ken Dunn, 20, a New Zealander.

Ken Byers was buried with full military honours in the Wick Cemetery, Caithnesshire, Scotland.

In 1985, Ken's niece, Betty Byers, visited her uncle's gravesite in Wick, Scotland. A brief memorial service was held where a pre-recorded arrangement of Falling Waters Reverie, one of Sgt. Byers' favourite piano pieces, was played.

The death of Basil Yorke, 26 year-old son of Harry and Gertrude Yorke, of Wharton, Nova Scotia, was a terrible accident. On Nov. 3, 1942, a Wellington bomber was readying for takeoff at a training base in Jeswang, Gambia. For some unexplained reason, Yorke, who was attached to 200 Squadron, wandered into the path of the swirling propeller. He is buried at Fajara, Gambia. His wife, Martha, lived in Toronto.

July 29/30, 1943: Exactly one year after Ernest Le Blanc was killed, and two nights after 787 bombers caused a mighty firestorm that devastated Hamburg and its people, the city was hit again. This time, 777 aircraft took to the sky, including Ralph Baillie's Halifax bomber from 78 Squadron. Sadly, 28 failed to return. After 16 operations over Europe, Ralph Baillie's luck ran out.

In his impressively-detailed log book entry for Dec. 20, 1942, Baillie writes:

"Take off time: 16.30 hours in Halifax PT510. Acting as bombardier on ops to Duisburg. Pilot F/Sgt. Hunter. Crashed into sea. Saved life by Mae West. Only two of us saved. Received two broken legs. Four months in hospital."

Two weeks later, from his hospital bed in England, he wrote to his older brother, Jack, an RCAF navigator with stationed in Nova Scotia:

"I have both legs in plaster so can move about fairly well. We were on our way home, about thirty or forty miles from the coast, when something went wrong and we tried to ditch. The sea was so rough the plane broke up when we hit. The crash knocked me out. When I came to I was still in the plane . . . below water . . . sinking. I guess I went (passed) out again for the next thing I was floating on top. I saw the dinghy but couldn't get to it. I went out again. . .the next thing I knew was a searchlight on me. A gunboat heard our crash and came after us. I guess we were lucky . . . For all the miles of the North Sea we came down handy to a boat."

The letter further recounts that the waves were about 20 feet high which caused problems for his rescuers. After four hours in the cold water, Baillie was finally hauled out of the sea. The upper gunner, W.J. Ashworth, uninjured, was also saved. But the navigator, Albert Fox, of Desford, Man., was in such bad shape that he died two hours later.

Four other crew members, including the 23-year-old skipper, James Hunter, of Vancouver, were never found. The crash had taken place 30 miles northeast of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England.

Only two months after receiving this letter, Alexander (Jack) Baillie was killed in a horrific accident at his base in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. He is buried in his home community of River John.

Ralph, the younger Baillie, joined the RCAF on his 18th birthday, in Moncton. After completing his wireless air-gunner's training, he was posted overseas in November 1941. Sent to Abingdon, Berkshire, to re-train as a bomb-aimer, he also received some flying instructions in the Halifax bomber. He was one of the first Canadians to graduate overseas as a bombardier. Then came a brief posting to Driffield, Yorkshire, studying map reading, before finally being assigned to 78 Squadron at Middleton St. George.

Baillie's first operational flight, on Sept. 19, 1942, was aborted. He was now based at Linton-on-Ouse His next, to Flemsburg, was also scratched because of problems with the rear turret.

But on Oct. 2 the Hunter crew completed a trip to Krefeld with 187 other bombers. They had an uneventful raid on Aachen before an Oct. 6 mission over Osnabruck, when their Halifax bomber was attacked by night fighters. On returning to base, Hunter claimed a damaged German fighter. Two nights later he wrote a detailed letter to his sister:

"We have been pretty busy lately. One night we were attacked by three enemy fighters over Osnabruck, Germany, but (we) got away. Over the Dutch coast we met another but our rear-gunner beat him to I think he was shot down. We have no way of proving it. Minelaying is not as bad as bombing, we have no searchlights or flak to bother us."

Many a tale has been told describing how bomber pilots lived in mortal fear of being caught in the web of the anti-aircraft searchlights. Aircrew veterans can never forget the sight of these floodlight beams dancing all over the night sky, above major cities and military installations. Sgt. Hunter's letter continued:

"Over Krefeld I was coned in 30 searchlights but I gave the old Halifax some wicked tossing around and luckily got out before the flak got our range. You never have a dull moment, always sure to have a full evening's entertainment."

From Oct. 12 until Dec. 20, when he almost drowned in the North Sea, Baillie made seven more trips over Germany and Italy. Then, after making a complete recovery from the injuries he sustained in the crash, he joined a new crew.

Their first mission took them over Mulheim with his new skipper, Peter Fraser. That was June 22, 1943, and was followed by four more operations, including the Hamburg firestorm raid on July 27.

It all ended on the night of July 29/30.

A native of Killara, Australia, Fraser, already an experienced and war-hardened pilot at 22, waved confidently to the controller as he prepared for liftoff. Later, after most of the other aircraft from 78 Squadron returned to Brighton, two were reported missing. It was later learned that Fraser and Baillie's aircraft had been hit by flak and crashed near Lubeck, Germany. There were no survivors.

A few days after the crash, a knock on the door in River John brought that dreaded telegram: "We regret to inform you that your son, F/Sgt.R.C.Baillie, R seven three zero two seven, is reported missing on operations over enemy territory. Letter to follow."

Ralph and his crew, including two other Canadians, were buried in the Ohlsdorf district of Hamburg.

One of Ralph Baillie's brothers still lives in River John. James is well into his eighties now and kindly shared not only the letters Ralph wrote from overseas, but also the logbooks of his two brothers.

Edward Gerald Samson, of L'Ardoise, also served overseas. When he returned to Canada he married Patricia, who still lives in Nova Scotia.

Unfortunately, her health is failing and she cannot recall much about her husband's Air Force career.

In the postwar years Gerald and Pat lived in the Montreal area. He died on May 27, 1989. His only daughter, Corinne, is a very successful businessperson in Nova Scotia. She recalled that her father rarely spoke about his overseas experience in the Second World War.

"My father had a successful career with Bell Canada for several years while residing in Montreal. He then pursued a career in Ottawa, for a prominent developer, Campeau Corporation, as property manager. My father inspired and motivated me to achieve the level of success that I now enjoy."

Cornelius MacLean, of Stellarton, is a bit of a mystery. I recently spoke with Doug Stallard, a pharmacist in the New Glasgow/Stellarton area, and a Second World War Air Force veteran himself. I recalled that Doug had published a comprehensive list of all Nova Scotians who died while serving with the RCAF/RAF in the Second World War. But would he know anything about someone who survived?

"Cornelius was well known in this area. His family lived on Red Row, in Stellarton, a street consisting mostly of row houses built by the coal mining company. He used to help out in his father's corner store. People around here still talk about the tragic death of his father, during a robbery of the store one night."

Mr. Stallard further recounted that Neil, "as he was called around here," served overseas with Coastal Command, but he wasn't certain which squadron he was with. He stayed in the RCAF after the war and held the rank of flight lieutenant. Later, he settled in Hamilton, Ont.

Floyd Williston is the author of Through Footless Halls of Air. He lives in Winnipeg.

Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Cornelius (Neil) MacLean can contact Mr. Williston care of The Sunday Herald.