World War II

Leonard Birchall

Thanks to Dad – I know of Leonard Birchall – one of our famous Canadians who most young Canadians know nothing about.  But those who know burst with pride and admiration.  Birchall was honoured in 2009 as one of the 100 most influential Canadians in aviation and had his name emblazoned directly behind the starboard roundel on the fuselage with the others on the 2009 CF – 18 Centennial of Flight demonstration Hornet. (Lee, Mary. “Centennial Heritage Flight – Precision and Flight Safety.”, 2009 Issue 2. Retrieved: 14 August 2010.)   But those who knew him bust with pride and admiration.

This photo was taken at the graduation ceremony for one of my “Duff” cousins at Royal Military College in Kingston.  Dad, as I recall, got a terrible sunburn on that day – but he was bursting with pride over Kent’s graduation. It was a very happy day.

I spoke about Birchall in a earlier post in Dad’s voice:  Catalina Flying Boat.


Please have a peek at one of Canada’s “historical figures and moments”.  Birchall is also known as the Saviour of Ceylon.

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WAG the Tail

One of my postings during WWII before I went overseas was in Bathurst New Brunswick.  

We were flying Ansons at the time.  There were usually four of us in the Anson and two students in training – making a total of six.   We all got to know each other quite well – sometimes too well. 

On one of our flights over PEI, my wireless air-gunner (WAG) asked me if I’d land because he wanted to see his girlfriend.  Of course, we couldn’t just land – we were working.   I said, “no”.  He wasnt’ too happy, but accepted and understood my decision. We had respect for one another. 

A bad habit we both had, however, was that we both smoked.  You have to remember that smoking in those days was much more acceptable as the hazards were not well known.  Everyone smoked.  And if you were in the Forces, even more of us smoked.  Anyhow, since even then cigarette smoke was bothersome, we needed to open the windows in the Anson we were flying.   My WAG opened the window so far it actually slid right out.   That wasn’t the biggest problem we had.  You see when it slid out it flew to the back of the plane and hit the tail.  It made one hell of a bang.  I didn’t know what kind of damage the window had done and, wouldn’t you know it, I felt the best thing to do was to land the craft.

I radioed in an emergency landing – guess where – Prince Edward Island.  The landing went well – the plane was checked over – but we couldn’t get back up into the air until the morning.  We didn’t know what to do with ourselves – so we decided to go downtown for a couple of drinks.  My buddy arranged to meet his girlfriend afterall.

We were back in the air the following morning – the plane was fixed and my buddy’s heart too.  I guess some things are just destined to be – with a little help from lady luck.

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To and From India… with love…

It is a long way between India and Yorkton, Saskatchewan.

During the war, there was really only one way to communicate with loved ones and that was through snail- mail, or what was known then as, postal services.

It was through letters, many, many letters that I kept in touch with Paula – and she with me.

The mail, however, was very unpredictable.  Often, I would receive a dozen or so letters all at once.  And sometimes, I would receive no letters at all.

The mail arrived every day.  There was never any fixed time when it would come.  It came by boat.  We never knew when it arrived – but we all believed we had some sort of special mental telegraph as we could “tell” when the boat came.

Everyone rushed to the post office anxiously awaiting to hear news from home.  Letters were very important and when they came – you’d feel elated.  When they didn’t come you would feel pretty down.

The good thing was that all the letters came at the same time for everyone – so no one was really left out.

I saved my letters.  But Paula, before we were married, burned hers.  She often wished she had kept them as they were somewhat like National Geographic in that there were many times I wrote about India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

When the letters arrived I was over-joyed.  But can you imagine answering 15 letters at once?  I tried to sort them by date and answer the most recent ones first.

We could get recordings of the latest songs just s fast from Dumdum, India as we could get letters from Canada.

Imagine a Dumbum delivery service better than Canada’s postal service?  I guess some things never change.

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Memories of Koggala Beach

Squadron 191 RAF was stationed in India on anti-sub patrol – that was my squadron.

Although I was hired to spot submarines the only thin I ever saw was water.

The water, mind you, was beautiful.

We lived in marquis tents only several hundred feet from the water front.  Even though the water was fantastic, we preferred to swim in the pool at one of the “exclusive clubs” RAF members were granted membership to.

Why did we not swim in the river?  Well, across the river was a pitch of burning ghats.  A ghat is a series of steps that lead down to the Red River.  A departed loved one would be placed on a float  in the river and then the entire vessel was set afire to cremate the body.  It was a very reverent service.  I could never get over the image of that cremation as the body – when it burned – would contract and sit up.  This is not one of my favorite memories.

It was hot there.  When we landed in Bombay on Christmas Day it was 105 degrees.  We sweat a lot and since we’d lose a lot of salt, we had to take salt tablets or a tablespoon of salt dissolved in water.  You’d just add salt to your water glass from a cruet – since salt shakers didn’t shake well in the humidity.

We also had to take methyl quine to protect ourselves against malaria.  These were little yellow pills.  When you sweat, the yellow would come out your body into your clothing.  Our socks quickly turned yellow.

There was once a tornado that came through and sucked up several of our aircraft.  We were able to salvage the auxiliary power units (AVUs) from the sunken Catalinas so that everyone had their own generating units.  We used these units to help light our tents.

We had to be pretty handy in those days and able to improvise.  Catalinas, the craft we so loved, truly “lit up our lives”.

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Homeward Bound

I was still overseas in Ceylon (today it is called, Sri Lanka) when the war ended.  Well, at least the German part of the war. I remember the boys and I were so happy – we did was every normal, red-blooded Canadian would do – we tore down the roof of the building were were in.  Seems silly now, but at the time we were pretty excited to do that.

The Japanese were still a threat.  In fact, it was at this time we were sent to England (note from Stacey:  I’m not clear on this location as it was difficult for Dad to get the words out today) for bomber training.  We were being trained to bomb Japan.  I guess I was excited about the fact that I was going to learn how to fly Liberators (4 engines) and I really didn’t think too much about what I was really going to be doing.   We were in England for only a short time at the Operation Training Unit when we heard the Japanese war was over too.

Once again, we were thrilled.  Everybody knew the war was over.  Everyone wanted at that time to get back home.  Me, I couldn’t wait to see my Paula!  I never made it into the plane to train but that was okay because we had so much fun celebrating the fall of Japan.  Little did we know the devastation caused by the nuclear bombing.

When the war was ever everyone  was given their walking papers.  The money didn’t matter.  We were happy.  The plane-ride home was just like a bus route – there were so many of us leaving at one…. so many people getting out.  This was something we had been looking forward to for a long time.  We would first stop in our old barracks in Toronto until everyone and everything was “sorted out”.   The St. Lawrence Seaway was lined with people celebrating our return.  It was quite a sight!

We took a train and marched into the old barracks that we had vacated four years earlier at the Manning Depot in Toronto.  The Horse Palace was the name of the old barracks if you can believe that!  There, we stayed there until we were sorted out to head home.  It was definitively a “hurry up and wait”.

The telegram of my arrival arrived before I did and I guess I was quite surprised but very delighted to see my parents when we arrived in Toronto.  They were happy to see me  believe it or not.  (grin)  I got a big hug from both of them.   We all went together to Aunt Sophie and Dan’s house in Toronto.  There was a big sign at their 140 Edwin Avenue home, “Welcome home Billy”.   Aunt Sophie cooked a big celebration dinner with lot s of beer.  (I used to drink beer then).  I don’t remember what I ate, but I remember being quite happy to be eating home cooking again.

I made arrangements to go to Yorkton, where Paula was still training to be a nurse,  as soon as possible.

She couldn’t meet me on the day I arrived in Yorkton.  Uh-oh! She couldn’t get off duty.  She said two of her nursing friends who were off at the time would come to the station to meet me – which they did.  They took me to the  George Hotel where I would be staying.  Paula met me at the hotel.  A good reunion?!  You bet,  “Yum- Yum! “.

We had arranged to be married long before then and had decided we would marry when she graduated but she hadn’t  graduated yet.  I bought her an engagement ring the day I arrived back from India.  I was all set.  But Paula wanted to wait.  That was the longest wait of my life!

The war was over and my life with Paula was just to begin.

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Match-Making on Chaleur Bay

Before I was stationed overseas, I was assigned to Summerside PEI, to patrol the area for German submarines.  This area, PEI was called the Garden of the Gulf.  There was pretty heavy war -time submarine activity around there.  The base was very active.  I wasn’t excited about my stint there – but I wasn’t disappointed either.

Several sightings of German submarines had been made in Chaleur Bay, New Brunswick over the course of a few weeks in 1942, 1943.  It was decided that they would institute several dawn patrols by putting a depth charge under each wing off 250 pounds.

I flew Ansons at that time.  Ansons were used in Britain and in Canada during the war.  There were four crew:  pilot (myself), student, navigator, and wireless air – gunner.  They were easy to fly – very forgiving craft.  You never had to worry about much when flying that craft.  It was very modern and had a lot of “automation”.   The 250 pounds of under-water bombs were mostly used by the navy – but we carried them too.   The weight of the weapons, however,  reduced the landing and take-off speed of the poor old Anson.

I will never forget this one particular day.  It was a very calm morning.  As we approached the bay, there lay right ahead of us a wake on the water which appeared exactly like the wake caused by the German submarines.

“Frank!”, I called.  “Arm the depth charges!”

Frank, my wireless air gunner, ran up to the nose and we began the “run-in”.  Seconds later I said, “abort, abort”.  The wake belonged to a tugboat towing logs.

The skipper of that tugboat never knew how close he had come to towing a load of toothpicks instead of logs.

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Lobster Air


When Dad told me this story – just a few months before he passed away – I was shocked.  Of all the stories I had heard growing up, this one had been kept a secret.  Maybe it wasn’t a secret but it had certainly slipped into the back files of his mind.  Dad didn’t really think this was a story at all and “It isn’t really worth repeating.”, he said.   Writing the update to the story, I did some research about the Straits and lobster there – found an article from the Toronto Star which puts another layer to the story about lobsters.  Kind of interesting read for those of you who are lobster fans!  (–new-brunswick-lobster-fishermen-fight-for-higher-prices)

“Oh, my goodness, Dad.  This is funny!”  I replied.  I must confess that I didn’t understand a few aspects of the story since I didn’t really put the story into the context of World War II and the fact that fishermen didn’t have access to much needed fuel.  After a few questions and a bit of research, however, this is the story that emerged.  Enjoy!

Lobster Air (in Dad’s words)

Yes – lobster can fly – at least they did in Prince Edward Island during World War II!   Truthfully, the crustaceans were assisted with their flight and it wasn’t that the pilots were particularly welcoming of their aerial hitch-hike either.

We, members of the RCAF Squadron, were on patrol in the Northumberland Straits watching for German Submarines.  The Straits are located between Prince Edward Island and the “Mainland” – mainly New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  Today, the Confederation Bridge New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island makes the trek between the two locations a little easier.  But, during World War II, the only way to “access” the area was by plane and air surveillance.  Although there had never been sightings in the Straits,  Germans had surfaced and were even so bold as to buy fish in Montreal.  I never did confirm that was the truth, but the rumor was pretty exciting.  Our mission was to criss-cross the Straits to watch for “enemy” subs.  (Funny how some of my best friends today are German.  Was sure is a strange thing!)

The Straits were well known for lobster.  Since my favorite meal was lobster I felt I was not only defending my country, but also my palate!  During lobster season, the fishermen were out in full force – not like today – but still there was many of them.  Since fuel was rationed during the war, the fishermen had to use sailboats to fish.

Some of the pilots – to conduct their patrol- would fly close above the water.  This would make a “slip-stream” behind the aircraft.  This slip-stream would unintentionally (or not) cause the  lobster farmers’ sailboats to tip over.

Oh boy, the fishermen became quite upset but it seemed there was little they could do.. until they figured out how they could retaliate.  When the low-flying pilots flew too low, the fishermen threw lobster up at the aircraft.  Some of the lobsters would become lodged in the wings.  This wasn’t really too much of a problem.  The fishermen felt they had had their “say” and the pilots were still able to fly without hazard.

The funny part of the story happened, though, when the pilots arrived back at base when the pilots took their planes to the maintenance crew for inspection.  The crew were quite surprised to find lobster stuck in the aircraft.  I guess for a while they figured the lobster jumped out of the water.  No one could figure out how the lobsters managed to hitch a ride.

Finally, the story emerged.  The low-flying pilots and their craft had unintentionally become, “Lobster Air”.  I guess we may have been the first to ship lobster into PEI!

Categories: Duff History, Life After Dad, Life's Lessons, World War II | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

The Catalina Flying Boat

During World War II, many Canadian pilots were “on loan” to Britain and flew for the Royal Air Force (RAF).  I was eventually stationed in Madras, India and spent some time on the Nicobar Islands where we were tasked as the anti-Japanese early warning crew.  I also flew north of Bombay.

We flew the Catalina at that time.  (  It was a, how shall I describe it, big boat.  The number of crew on – board depended on how far the journey was.  On a long trip there may have been between 8 – 10 people on board:  3 pilots, a navigator, a nose gunner to begin.  There were no landing gear – unlike the Canso.  We always joked that the RAF was too cheap to include landing gear.

I remember the first time I went up in the Catalina.  It was massive.  The wings had a massive 103 foot wing span.  You had to move the controls around several times  before it would even move – they were slow to react.  The boats were not sensitive at all – lumbering things.

Some of missions included:

– a shipping patrol to Coconada

– recco. patrol to search for unusual explosions at sea

– shipping patrol to RedHills

– Anti-sub sweep to Cocos Islands with several VIPs on May 2, 1945

On March 2, 1945, I was on shipping patrol to Koggala.  The next day, we did a low level bombing on sumersible target.

My first anti-locust patrol was on March 31, 1945 in Baluchistan.  We found the locust alright.  The bugs were so thick they entered the carb. in the port engine.  That was a bit of a problem as they clogged the engines.  You can read the whole story on my blog entitled, “Bug Patrol”.

We were sent to “Carnicobar” (not sure of the spelling) on the coast of Burma – to so some night bombing.  We were using at that time, depth chargers.

Leonard Birchall, who had trained me in North Bay, also flew out of Ceylon.  Birchall came to be known as the “Savior of Ceylon” as he spotted a Japanese advancement and was able to get word out that they were heading for Ceylon.  He was shot down – but able to communicate his message in time.  He was held prisoner of war for quite some time.  ( View YouTube clip about The Saviour of Ceylon at I also sound an article from a newspaper about Birchall.  Here is the link:

Other than the Birchall Cup, held annually in Kingston, Ontario, Birchall is much better known and celebrated overseas.

Flying Boats.  “Only the RAF, you say?  Pity.”

Categories: World War II | 1 Comment

Jealousy (Jalousie)


I have been looking for this song since my Dad told me the story of him singing it with Helen O’Connell on stage!  (I can only imagine how much rum must have been involved in that task).  Dad had a fantastic singing voice and my Mom would always brag to me about his voice.  She had a fantastic voice too, but, while she was the opera buff, Dad was more blues and jazz.

Finally, this morning while re-reading some of Dad’s posts, I came across this story he told me about “Jealousy (Jalousie).  I continued my search for the song and discovered that it was not a song made famous by Helen O’Connell, rather one that was popular and she chose to sing it.  It seems Frankie Laine was the artist who made the song popular in 1951. Correct me, please, if I am wrong.   I was so excited to find it as it just gives me such great context for my Dad – the person.

I am re-posting this story with great excitement.  Here is the link if you wish to check it out:

Frankie Lane (

Caterina Valente’s version (

Here’s the original story, as told to me in my Dad’s words”

“I have always  loved music.  During the war, music played a very important role to connect us to home and to lift our spirits.  I had a couple hundred records.  In those days the records were “78”s.

One of my favorite artists while I posted in Madras, India was  Ziggy Ellman.  Ziggy played the trumpet. I listened to Ziggy so much and I was such a big fan that my  navigator nick-named my Ziggy.  To listen to my records, though, I had to wind it up… there was no electricity.

I went often into Madras to buy records.  Buying a record then, however, was very different from today.  The way we did it then when you went into the place someone gave you a catelogue.  You’d look through the catelogue for something you’d like played.  A little boy came over and you pointed to the one you’d like to hear.  He had a ladder like the one you see in big libraries.  We’d point out the one – he’d get on the ladder, find the record, and play it for you.  If you liked what you heard, you bought it – if not it would go back into the library of records.He knew where every record was.

One day when I was looking to purchase a record, there was a woman who was in the store at the same time as me.  She was with her daughter.  There was a song playing at the time.  The song was called Jealousy and it was sung by Helen O’Connell.   The lady wanted to know the name of the song – I told her it was Jello- See.  I said it the wrong way just to tease her.  She told the boy she was looking for the song, Jello-See and tried to get him to play it.  There was quite a lengthy exchange while the two of them tried to figure out what she wanted.  The boy had never heard of the Jello song.   Finally he played it on the hi-fi and the lady bought the record.

I sold all my records and gramaphone before I came home – I didn’t need them as  we could just go and see the performer in Canada – we didn’t need the recorded version.

I remember the time when I went to see Helen O’Connell in Collingwood.  .  I motioned her over and told her I heard her record in India – she invited me to get up and sing with her.  So I did.  The song I sang was… you bet…  “Jealousy”.”

Categories: Dad's WWII Diary, World War II | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments


How to start?

Paula and her sister Anne were at a Wing’s Party in the Mess at Yorkton Base in Saskatchewan.

I saw these two girls off in the corner by themselves -behaing themselves. She. Paula, was wearing a white cloche on her head and I thought, boy I’d like to meet her.  It was a quiet night – not the night I was meant to meet her.

A week later downtown Yorkton I went to a dance put on by City Hall and guess who was there… Paula. I went and asked her to dance and said, “I guess this is our dance.”. So we danced.  The music was provided by a juke box (canned music).  I was happy to see her again.  I knew then that she would be my wife if she agreed.

My friend “Menzes” (Pete) McKeller was also triyng to make time with her but I beat him out – anytime I talked to her about why she chose me and not my buddy, she said I was a better talker than him.

Her parents thought I was great – I brought her home early every night – she never hold them and I never told them I had to be in at 10:30 anyhow.

Paula invited me and a friend for dinner to her parents’ home at 181 Victoria Street. I took a guy by the name of Harry Hardy who had landed an aircraft in a wheat field in Manitoba when he ran out of gas.  He had made a good enough landing in the wheat field that he was able to fly home from there.  He was, however, punished and had to wash aircraft every night for a week.  The wheat field was just at a milky stage – not firm yet – he needed to wash all the aircraft so they were clean.

The dinner was an excellent cook – roast beef I believe.  Paula watched her mom cook and turned out to be an excellent cook herself!  BTW

Coal was used in those days to heat the hangers.   The coal “dispenser” was automatic – one didn’t need a fireman to feed it- it was like a cork screw that continually fed the flame.  Paula’s father was in the coal business.

I was busy that same afternoon revving up the planes engines to test the magnitoes which were back-ups for the generators….something like spark plugs.  Every aircraft had one and it  needed to be test before flight.  The pilot had to open up the engine pretty far to test it – open the throttles quite wide to do the checking.  Paula’s dad just happened to be in area of the backwash.

At dinner, Paula’s father was telling us about some young “pup” who had blown gravel and sand all over him that afternoon while he was supervising a delivery of coal to the hangers.  He said, “If I ever get my fingers on him I’ll fix him”.  I must admit I was a bit scared to tell him, but I told Paula and she thought it was funny.

I didn’t tell him for years that it had been me who blew the gravel and sand that day. Years later we laughed about that day together.

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