Category Archives: Canada

Wolves (the animal not the football club)

When I wrote about the Beast of Gévaudan, I came to the conclusion that the ferocious creature was a previously unknown type of wolf:

bete-du-gevaudanzzzzzzz

For some unknown reason, it was being forced westwards from its normal habitat of the Polish or Russian primeval forests such as Białowieża. If ancient bison could live there, so could something even more prehistoric:

rejigged bison

At the time I did research the likelihood that the Beast was an ordinary wolf or wolves but I rejected that as a theory because I did not think that wolves would eat human beings.
It would be dishonest, however, not to make it patently clear that in the past, wolves certainly have eaten people but they don’t seem to now. Why should this be?
Firstly, extremes of weather centuries ago, more severe than what we have now, may have lead to a situation where wolves either ate any available prey items or just died. This would account for the Wolves of Paris which I have previously discussed:

wolf bounding

In actual fact they may also have acquired a taste for human flesh by eating corpses. Apparently, until as late as 1820, corpses in France were frequently thrown into open charnel pits. Presumably, these were paupers, drunks, stillborn babies, in short, anybody dead without the money for a funeral. And it is not outrageous to presume that this lovely way to dispose of the late dearly departed might have taken place in neighbouring countries too. An unfortunate situation that taught wolves to associate the scent of Man with a full belly.
If the hungry wolf wanted a better quality of prime human meat, young, and blood drippingly fresh, the best place was the battlefield straight after the battle. Once the local peasantry had stripped the bodies of everything valuable, they were not buried, but were gradually eaten by the ravens and other corvids, the eagles, both golden and especially white-tailed, and most of all, the local wolf pack.
This association of human flesh, its scent and taste, with a full stomach, was a recipe for disaster when wolves came across, say, lone travellers or children picking berries deep in the woods. And don’t forget. In France the peasantry were forbidden to own firearms to reduce the admittedly tiny risk of a blood spattering revolution.
Nowadays, the situation is completely different. Admittedly France had 7,600 fatal attacks by wolves between 1200–1900 but there has been nothing since. Italy has a population of wolves but without any fatal attacks on humans since 1945 and no attacks by wolves since the eradication of rabies in the 1960s.

wolf pack one

In the Baltic states, where rabies is still allowed to exist, just under a hundred people were bitten between 1992-2000 in Latvia and Lithuania, although the statistics are muddied somewhat in Estonia by the locals’ love for wolf-dog hybrids and keeping wolves captive on their properties.
And what about North America?

wolf baby

Well, in 2002, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stated that there had been no human deaths in North America attributed to wild, healthy wolves since at least 1900. Concerns were caused though, when, on April 26th, 2000, a six year-old boy was attacked by a wolf in Icy Bay, Alaska. He was not killed, but then, on November 8th 2005 the body of Kenton Carnegie was found in northern Saskatchewan. He had died from “injuries consistent with a wolf attack.” The local wolves had apparently lost their fear of him because he fed them regularly.

Kenton_SKxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

To increase the risk, natural food was scarce in the area at the time and four wolves had been feeding on rubbish tips in the previous weeks. They were no longer scared by human activities. On November 4th, two of Kenton’s fellow campers clashed with two extremely aggressive wolves. Zoologists have now said that this was probably an “exploratory attack” just to see how difficult it was to kill a human being. Another perhaps more serious attack was imminent.
On the day of his demise, Kenton ignored warnings from his companions and went for a walk in the woods. It took the Coroners’ jury two years to rule out Black Bear, but their eventual verdict was “Death by Wolf”.

Iberian Wolf alpha male feeding on deer, its mouth tinted with f
On March 8th 2010, Candice Berner, a thirty two year old special education teacher who had only been in Alaska since the previous August was killed by two, perhaps three, wolves as she jogged along a road outside Chignik Lake. It was late afternoon.

Candice_Berner12

This was the first ever fatal wolf attack in Alaska. David Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey has studied wolves for more than fifty years. He said:

“There have been about two dozen nonfatal attacks in North America in the past century or so. Most involve wolves that have become habituated to people who have been feeding them at campgrounds, dumps and other sites near wolf habitat.”

Ms Berner was only 4 feet 10 inches tall and weighed just over eight stones (c 112 pounds). David Mech said that her slight, almost childlike build, and the fact that she was running may have attracted the wolves, who, after all, are predators by nature:

“Wolves are very much like dogs in a lot of respects. Things that are running, they have tendency to want to chase them,”

 

DogChasing

Ms Berner was thought to have been listening to music on a headset, but Dr Mech discounted this, as in his experience wolves move so silently that the wind is enough to mask their presence completely.

Whatever you think about wolves, the truth is that the inhabitants of the tiny village of Chignik Lake have lived alongside wild animals since time immemorial:

chig

This one attack has spooked all of the 73 inhabitants of the area, so remote that it can only be reached by aeroplane. The school’s stuffed wolf mascot had been there a good while, but now it has been kicked well into touch. The wolf badge of the school will also have to go if Virginia Aleck, a local woman, gets her way.
She said that everyone felt trapped in the village. None of the surrounding hills were considered safe anymore.  Nobody walked on their own and everybody carried a rifle.
Is this an over-reaction? Or are wolves just a part of living outside the big city? I’ll try to answer that question in a future article.

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Filed under Canada, Cryptozoology, France, History, Personal, Science, Wildlife and Nature

The Christmas Truce of 1916: my Grandad was there.

When I was a little boy in the late 1950s and 1960s, my Grandad used to mention to me how there had been a Christmas truce with the Germans during his time with the Canadian Army. The most famous truce of all had already taken place at Christmas 1914 of course.

Trucecigarette

Having accessed my Grandad’s war records in later years, I knew that he hadn’t joined the Canadian Army until 1916, far too late for the famous Christmas Truce. I was also aware that he had fought at Vimy Ridge. How did I know that? Well, fifty or more years ago, he had told me so. Here are some Canadians at Vimy Ridge during the battle. Theoretically, my Grandad could be one of them, but I do know that he spent most of his time in the artillery. That was probably why he was so deaf when I knew him :Vimy_Ridge_-_Canadian_machine_gun_crews

And so it all remained a bit of a mystery, until I read in the media that:

“Evidence of a Christmas truce in 1916, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents.”
In his book Hitler’s First War, Dr Thomas Weber, a historian at the University of Aberdeen had previously recorded various attempts at a Christmas Truce in 1916. None of them, however, were thought to have been successful, Dr Weber’s book explaining that that this wonderful goodwill gesture had been a complete failure. A war diary from Adolf Hitler’s own Brigade reported:
“Attempts at initiating fraternization by the enemy (calling out, raising of hands, etc.) were immediately quashed by the snipers and artillery men who had been ordered in and had stood ready to fire.”

On the Canadian side, the official version of events, which was reported in the diary of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry tells the other half of a very similar, and very pessimistic, story. The Germans had made efforts towards a ceasefire but nobody on the Canadian side had responded to it.
The entire situation changed radically, however, in November 2010, when the historian, Dr Weber, whose great-grandfather fought with the German army during the Great War, travelled to Canada. After a public lecture, he was approached afterwards by a member of the audience whose uncle, Ronald MacKinnon, had been deployed at Vimy Ridge at Christmas, 1916:

_50437465_ronald_mackinnon

Having heard from Dr Weber during the lecture how there had been only an unsuccessful attempt at a truce in 1916, the man had in his possession a letter from Ronald MacKinnon, a 23-year-old soldier from Toronto which proved that both the Canadian and the German soldiers had put down their weapons on Christmas Day and obeyed the phrase from the Gospel, “on earth peace, good will toward men”. Christmas greetings were shouted across no man’s land and presents, just as in 1914, were exchanged between the two sides.
Dr Weber immediately announced, quite rightly, that this letter was a “fantastic find” and offered proof of a hitherto completely unknown Christmas Truce, an impromptu break in the hostilities by German and Canadian troops. The letter also clearly demonstrated that the top brass had made extensive and determined efforts to downplay any Christmas truces subsequent to the first one in 1914. Dr Weber explained that, as officers always had to report significant events to their higher chain of command, they always had a personal interest in downplaying what might be viewed as negative events when they wrote the official version in their war diaries.
Private MacKinnon’s letter home was to his sister who also lived in Toronto, and it certainly does not downplay the significance of what happened on that Christmas Day 99 years ago:

Dearest Sister,
Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. I had long rubber boots or waders. We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was “tray bon” which means very good.

mackinnon

Do you ever write to Aunt Minnie in Cleveland? If you do, see if she can give you the address of any of our mother’s relations in England. Aunt Nellie was saying that some of them lived in Grangemouth, which is not far from Fauldhouse. If you could get me their address I would be very pleased to see them when I am in Blighty again.
I am at present in an army school 50 miles behind the line and am likely to be here for a month or so. My address will be the same, No. 3 Coy., PPCLI. I left the trenches on Xmas night. The trenches we are holding at present are very good and things are very quiet.
I have had no Xmas mail yet but I hope to get it all soon. How is Neil getting on in the city? I’ll write to him some of these days. Remember me to all my many friends at home.”

Ronald MacKinnon, like so many soldiers in the Canadian Army, had very strong connections with Great Britain. His father was a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian. Ronald was to meet his Scottish relatives for the first time while he was engaged in his basic training in Britain, before being sent to the Western Front.
Not long after he wrote his amazing letter back to his sister at home in Toronto, Private MacKinnon was killed at an unknown time between April 9th-10th 1917, during in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a bloody but successful attack up a strategic height of land in the northern French countryside, a great victory often remembered as Canada’s national coming of age. Here is the monument to the brave Canadians. It is at the top of the ridge:

Vimy_Memorialxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Nowadays, you can drive up the ridge effortlessly in a tour bus. There are no Germans around. Nobody shoots at you. Everybody is friends:

P1090648xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Ronald is buried in Bois-Carré British Cemetery in Thelus, in the Pas-de-Calais in northern France:

bois thelus zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

For some reason, his parents’ details are not listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
One last postscript is that, according to Dr Weber, Adolf Hitler’s own unit actually faced Canadian troops on Vimy Ridge throughout the period that I have been describing. Ever the sour fanatic, Adolf Hitler, of course, would never have participated in any truce, although as many as half of his fellow soldiers are thought to have done so. The Führer’s views on the previous Truce of 1914 were recorded by one of his fellow soldiers, Heinrich Lugauer, and there is no reason to suppose that he would have changed his ideas in two short years, filled, every moment, with hatred and anger:

“When everyone was talking about the Christmas 1914 fraternization with the Englishmen, Hitler revealed himself to be its bitter opponent. He said, ‘Something like this should not even be up for discussion during wartime.”

What a bitter loner Hitler was. More extreme than his colleagues, who were only too happy to fraternise with the young Canadian lads for a day. What a pity my Grandad didn’t have the chance to shoot the bugger:

hitler-giovane2
Last words should always be positive though: back to Dr Weber:

“The Christmas truce of 1914 involved 100,000 British and German troops on the Western Front in an exchange of gifts and food, to the horror of their commanders. But these displays of common humanity were much more frequent than suggested by official military histories, with evidence of similar festive get-togethers in 1915 and 1916, involving the Bavarian regiments. No doubt there were Christmas truces in 1917.

Soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents during Christmas.

This puts to rest the long dominant view that the majority of combatants during the Great War were driven by a brutalising and ever-faster spinning cycle of violence.”

I could not have written this article without accessing these websites.

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Filed under Canada, France, History, Personal

Off to the Great War (Part Two)

I wrote about my grandfather, Will Knifton, in a previous blog post:

A1 hard man

When he first joined the Canadian Army in Toronto, he was soon sent across the Atlantic to receive his initial training in England. He started at  Shorncliffe Training Camp in Kent, learning how to be a Canadian soldier from late July 1916 until the end of November. There was a Canadian Training Division at Shorncliffe and I suspect he was stationed there. Will seems to have enjoyed his stay in Kent, the so-called “Garden of England”. I have already shown you some of the post cards he sent to his fiancée, in an article imaginatively entitled “Off to the Great War (Part One)”.

At this time, Will’s fiancée, Fanny Smith, lived with her family in Woodville, a little village in South Derbyshire. Will sent Fanny many postcards. This one is of Sandgate, a little seaside resort in the area. It shows the High Street East:

sandg high st

The message reads:

“Sandgate is about 5 minutes walk from Ross Barracks. Love Will”

five mins ross back xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Ross Barracks were themselves part of Shorncliffe Camp.

This next postcard was posted at 10.00 am. on August 4th 1916. It shows the low cliffs in this small village near Shorncliffe Camp and close to Folkestone:

sandgate cliff xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Here is the back of the postcard:

baxk of snadgate c;liff xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The message reads;

baxk of snadgate c;liff eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Once again, Will is able to retain an almost surreal quality in his writing:

“It has been so warm today and we walked 18 miles. Send me lots of news dear. Love to all. Yours Will”

This postcard was franked at 11.00 pm, on August 20th 1916, and had been posted in Folkestone, perhaps after a visit by train to the famous cathedral, only some twenty miles away in Canterbury:

camterbury cathedrzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Here is the back of the postcard:

back cathedralzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Here is the message enlarged:

back cathedra jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj

The message reads, as far as I can decipher it….

 “Sunday 1pm

I didn’t get my pass yesterday so couldn’t see Stacey. (name slightly illegible) May go next week. Trust you are alright. Fondest love, Will ”

This postcard shows the Lees and the Shelter at Folkestone:

folstone colour

The message reads:

“Yours to hand love (?) A letter is coming. I wish I were too. wont be long Fondest love Will”:

back folkstome colour

Here is the message enlarged. This seems to be in his more florid style of handwriting:

back folkstome colour enlarged

 

In retrospect, this next postcard may perhaps seem a little insensitive. Just a few short weeks after being asked to join the blood soaked antics of the Western Front, and due to depart on November 17th for the trenches, Will sent his fiancée a postcard of the large convalescent home in Folkestone. Presumably, the lone soldier on the seat is the only one left after “The Big Push”:

convalaecscnt home

This is the reverse of the card:

back hospitasl

Can you decipher the message, written in best quality pencil?

Here it is enlarged:

back hospitasl wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

And notice too, how the young prototype Canadian, once again, says “I will write you”, rather than the more usual English of “I will write to you”. In actual fact, the message reads……

“I will write you again tonight. Trust you are well. Love to all. Fond love to you. Will”

The postmark of 9.oo pm on September 5th 1916 reveals that Will could not have been convalescing at the hospital, as he had only just arrived in England from Canada on July 25th 1916, and he did not set off to join the Great War until November 17th 1916.

I am fairly sure that this was Will’s last card before he moved on in his Canadian Army career. I suspect that it was sent from Folkestone in Kent, just before Will embarked for France and the Western Front. The reverse, unusually for Will, is blank. Perhaps what faced him in the future was enough to take away his inspiration temporarily:

old sldier channel

The inscription on the front of the card reads:

“Crossing the Channel was quite a thrilling thing. But an old B.E.F. man rather spoiled the trip by swanking without his life belt, and otherwise showing everyone that the entire thing was far from new to him.”

On November 17th, Will left Shorncliffe, Folkestone and Kent to sail for France and the “3rd D.A.C.” He was “taken on strength” with the “3rd D.A.C.” on November 23rd, and could now be considered a fully fledged soldier.

Like many soldiers on the Western Front during the Great War, Will was shot by a German machine gun on at least one occasion. He had two wounds in the legs, and I believe that he may have gone back to Kent to recuperate. The position of his wounds was doubtless because German machine gunners were trained to sweep their guns backwards and forwards close to the ground:

a23_world_war_1_german_machine_gun_1

They were told to try and imitate a man cutting down grass with a scythe:

giphy

Germans, machine guns, bombs, mud, trench foot, sudden death, whatever. Will survived it all:

old age

 

 

 

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RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Three

I have now written two articles about RAF Elsham Wolds. I intend to carry on with this series of articles by firstly looking at the fate of just one single aircraft, an Avro Lancaster Mk III with the squadron letters “PM-I” and the serial number “JB745”. It took off from Elsham Wolds at precisely one minute past midnight on February 20th 1944. It was going to bomb Leipzig, which was a very, very long way involving an eight hour round trip, much of it over the Fatherland. Lancaster “JB745” was far from being a lone bomber, and the setting-up of this raid shows just what enormous levels of organisation and man power were involved in bombing a city more than 800 miles away:

A_Lancaster_Mk_III_of_N

A total of 823 aircraft set off, comprising 561 Avro Lancasters, 255 Handley Page Halifaxes and  seven De Havilland Mosquitoes.  A diversionary attack was arranged, with 45 Short Stirlings on a mine laying raid on Kiel with four Handley Page Halifaxes as Pathfinders marking their targets for them. This is a Halifax, with its square tailfins and wings and its radial engines:

Halifax-mk3xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

In addition to these aircraft, 15 Mosquitoes attacked Berlin, 16 Mosquitoes equipped with Oboe attacked German night fighter bases and 12 Mosquito patrols went out over Germany using Serrate to find and shoot down German night fighters. Three more Mosquitoes attacked Aachen as a diversion and three more Mosquitoes attacked flying bomb sites in France:

Mosquito_Fighter-bomber

This was a total effort of 921 aircraft over Germany. Every single one of these bombers needed a huge number of people to fill it with fuel, load the bombs, replenish the ammunition in the gun turrets. and so on. The fuel and bombs can certainly be seen in this picture. Even what appears to be the refreshment van can be seen at the top right:

_the_personnel_required_

The losses on this particular raid over Leipzig were the highest of the whole war so far, with 78 aircraft lost out of the total of 921, a completely unsustainable loss rate of 9.55 %.  The previous worst total had been the 58 aircraft destroyed while bombing Magdeburg on January 21st-22nd 1943.
Some 44 Avro Lancasters were lost along with 34 Handley Page Halifaxes. The main problems were that the Germans were not fooled by the mine laying raid on Kiel. Only a very few night fighters were sent out there, and those that had been were soon summoned back to attack the real bomber stream. The bombers had been detected by German radar, operating as part of the famous Kammhüber Line, as soon as they crossed the Dutch coast. Here is the Great Man, Nachtjagdgeneraal Josef Kammhüber:

Josef Kammhuber

The very capable operators in the Luftwaffe control rooms were extremely efficient, and quickly summoned large numbers of fighters to attack the bombers. In actual fact, the RAF bombers were under continuous attack every single second of the 1500 + miles of the round trip between the enemy coast and Leipzig.

In those days, meteorological forecasting was in its infancy, and unexpected high winds meant that many bombers arrived too early over Leipzig. They then had to wait for the exact targets to be marked by the Pathfinders. As they circled around waiting for the Pathfinders to arrive, around twenty of the bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. A further four aircraft were lost in collisions with other circling bombers. The city of Leipzig was wreathed in cloud and the Pathfinders were forced to drop their flares by parachute, the so-called Wanganui method. Given that some aircraft would have found the target using the Oboe radar device, then they were actually using “Musical Wanganui”.
That arrangement worked all right in the beginning but gradually bombs became increasingly widely spread across a huge area:

Attack_on_Hamburg

Few details of the results of the bombing are known, even today. There was no immediate reconnaissance, so very little was ever discovered about the effects of this particular raid. The Germans, of course, said nothing about their losses.
At some point in the operation, Lancaster “JB745” was shot down. Nobody knows if this was by a night fighter, or by anti-aircraft fire (“flak”), or whether it collided with another aircraft. Nobody survived and the crew members, fittingly perhaps, are all buried together in Hannover War Cemetery.
Sergeant William Leslie Bradley was the pilot. He was just 24 years of age and like so many others, had originally served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. From Selby in Yorkshire, his Service Number was 1129431 and he was the much loved son of Mr Wilson W. S. and Mrs Beatrice Bradley. William would never have the chance to lament the lack of shoppers in the modern Selby:

selby
The Flight Engineer was Sergeant Francis James Taylor, a youngster of only 21 years of age. He too had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was the much loved son of Mr Francis James Taylor and Mrs Cathrine (sic) Taylor, of Bolton, Lancashire. His Service Number was 2202861. He would never live to see the modern Bolton, Gateway to the North West:

Bolton modern

The navigator was a little older than that, at 24 years of age. He was Flight Sergeant Thomas Frederick  Johnston who, like many of his colleagues had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.  His Service Number was 1387379 and he was the much loved son of Thomas Frederick and Julia Johnston. They all lived in Coulsdon in Surrey, just to the south of London. Without the Leipzig raid, he would have been in his fifties when this photo of the High Street of his local town was taken:

Coulsdon_in_1983 in fifties

The bomb aimer was Flight Sergeant Jack Luck, who was just 22 years of age. He was a native of Newmarket, which is in Ontario in Canada. Young Jack was a member therefore, of the Royal Canadian Air Force:

220px-Join_the_Team_RCAF

Jack’s Service Number was R/105215 and he was the much loved son of Mr Harold John and Mrs Charlotte Luck. Here is the town hall in Newmarket:

NewmarketO town hall
The wireless operator was Sergeant Ernest Walter Hamilton. His flying had started in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and his Service Number was 1238004. Strangely the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website has no further details that I can find about Sergeant Hamilton.
The two gunners are both named. I suspect that Pilot Officer Arthur Stevens was the mid-upper turret gunner. He was by far the oldest of the crew at an almost ancient 37 years of age. His Service Number was 87717, a lowish number which probably shows more years in the RAF than the rest of the crew. Arthur was the son of Mr Herbert Frank and Mrs Ethel Mary Stevens. He had a wife, Celia Frances Stevens and the family all lived in Richmond in Surrey. Arthur at least though, would not be taking any more books out of the library, or watching any more humorous plays at the local theatre:

Richmond_Theatre_libraryzzzzzz

The young man named last in the crew list, and most probably therefore, the rear gunner, was Sergeant Frederick George Francis Osborne. Frederick was only 19 years old when he was killed. Like many of his fellow members of the crew, he had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. His Service Number was 1395421 and he was the much loved young son of Mr and Mrs Frederick Osborne, of Kendrick Mews, South Kensington, in the City of London:

_Kensington_mews

I tried to find out some background details about these seven young men who so willingly laid down their young lives to defeat the scourge of Hitler’s Germany. I would have to say that I was not particularly successful except for the following extract, which captures brilliantly well why so many people even nowadays, some seventy years later, still want to find out about the wartime heroes in their family.

I would not normally quote somebody else at length in an article, but I think you will see why I have done so when you read it. This is taken from a website entitled “The Wartime Memories Project – RAF Elsham Wold during the Second World War”. It contains a page about Elsham Wolds and another one about 103 Squadron. If you have any information to give Mr Osborne, you can do it via this link here. Anyway, here’s what he wrote:

“Freddie Osbourne was a member of Sergeant W.L.Bradley’s crew, Lancaster 111, JB745 PM-1,shot down en route to Leipzig. He was only 19, whereas his other gunner colleague was 37. Sadly, I have no photograph of him or his aircraft. As a young lad, I used to go out with his Father, Fred Osborne, helping him with his flower deliveries on a Saturday morning, but neither he, nor my Aunt Grace, would ever talk of him, and it has taken a lifetime to find details of him via a good friend with splendid connections, who handed me many details. It appears that both Aunt and Uncle were too grief stricken to ever mention their only child to anyone, even family. If anyone surviving 103 squadron could give me some idea what Freddie was like as a lad of 19 doing a man’s job, and what he was like at the tail end of a gun, and how many German planes did he shoot down? I would love to know, as I am immensely proud of him. If anybody knows of a picture of him, I will gladly pay for a copy and all expenses. He died on the 20th.February, 1944 and I consider it my duty to pay his grave a visit in Hanover, as a mark of respect to him and the other members of the crew.
Sadly, bad health has held me back for some time, but I will get there somehow. Thank you in anticipation.
Terence Osborne”

You may think that this was the worst thing to happen to one of 103 Squadron’s Lancasters during  the Leipzig raid, but you would be wrong. Sadly and tragically, very, very wrong.

One final word. All of the websites I have used can be reached through the links above. I could not have produced this article, however, without recourse to the superb books by W.R.Chorley. Their detail is almost unbelievable and I would urge anyone interested by the bomber war to think seriously of purchasing at least one of them. The books bring home just how many young men were killed in Bomber Command during the Second World War. When the first book in the series arrived at our home, my daughter thought it contained all the casualties for the whole war, but, alas, it was just 1944.

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, Canada, History, Personal

Off to the Great War (Part One)

I have already mentioned in a previous blog post that my Grandfather, Will Knifton, emigrated to Canada in an unknown year before the Great War. Conceivably, he was with his elder brother, John Knifton, or more likely perhaps, John went across the Atlantic first and then Will joined him later on. I have only two pieces of evidence to go on.

Firstly, it is recorded that a John Knifton landed in Canada on May 9th 1907. His ship was the “Lake Manitoba” and he was twenty three years of age. His nationality is listed in the Canadian records as English.

On the other hand, I still have an old Bible belonging to my Grandfather, which says inside the front cover,

“the Teachers and Scholars of the Wesleyan Sunday School, Church Gresley, given to him as a token of appreciation for services rendered to the above School, and with sincerest wishes for his future happiness and prosperity. March 26th 1911.”

Whatever the truth of his arrival, Will lived at 266, Symington Avenue, Toronto. He then worked as a locomotive fireman on the Canadian Pacific Railways, between Chapleau, Ontario, right across the Great Plains to Winnipeg. He also talked many times of the town of Moose Jaw, although he never supplied any details that I can remember:

cab paint

Will joined the Canadian Army on June 12th 1916 at the Toronto Recruiting Depôt. He sailed from Canada for the Western Front on July 16th 1916 on the “S.S.Empress of Britain”:

ss_empress_of_britain

For many years, Will had courted a local English girl called Fanny Smith, the daughter of Levi Smith, a labourer in a clay hole in the area around the village of Woodville, in South Derbyshire, where they all lived. Will wrote to her from Canada and then, during his time in the army, he sent her regular postcards from France. During his leaves from the front, he always returned to see her and they married on July 15th 1917:

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I still have quite a few of Will’s postcards. He had clearly bought this postcard just before he left Canada for England and the Great War:

montrealbxxxxxxxxxxxxx

He used to speak enthusiastically about Montreal and especially about the famous Hôtel Frontenac:

Château_Frontenac_02

On July 25th, Will duly arrived in England, and was taken on strength into the army at Shorncliffe in Kent. He posted his postcard of Montreal soon after he arrived at Shorncliffe Camp in Folkestone, Kent, at 7.00 pm on July 27th 1916. Here is the back of it:

shrncliffe campxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The message reads:

Englands shores   Dearest, arrived safely on the Empress of Britain, a pleasant voyage was free from sickness will write you later fondest love Will”.

Notice how Will is beginning to become a Canadian with his unusual lack of a preposition in “will write you later”.

Shorncliffe Camp was where Will, and many other young men, were to train for France and the Western Front. Having mentioned the idea of being sick in his previous postcard, Will continues the romantic mood with a picture of the men and horses of the Canadian Field Artillery drilling hard on the parade ground:

canadian cannons sepiaxxxxxxxxxx

The reverse is here:

reverse of shoercliffexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Will manages to make a charming juxtaposition of “men and horses at drill with the big guns” and “Fondest thoughts” to his true love. (And she really was his true love.)

Will began his training at Shorncliffe on July 27th and he remained there until November 17th 1916. The schedule for basic training makes interesting reading nowadays. This particular week was the one ending June 5th 1915, and it is difficult to imagine that Will would have done anything substantially different just over a year later:

Monday 

(6.30-7.00 am)                          Squad drill without arms

(8.00-9.00 am)                         Physical Training

(9.00-9.30 am)                          Bayonet Fighting

(9.30-10.00 am)                        Rapid loading

(10.00-12.00 am)                      Company Training

afternoon                                 as for morning less ½ hour squad drill

Tuesday

morning                                   as for Monday

afternoon                                Entrenching  (2 Companies), remainder as for Monday

Night March

Wednesday

morning                                   as for Monday

afternoon                                 Entrenching  (2 Companies), remainder as for Monday

Thursday                                  all day                      Battalion field training

Friday 

morning                                    as for Monday

afternoon                                 as for Monday

Saturday 

morning                                   as for Monday, less afternoon (holiday)

(If this were a restaurant, you would only go there once, wouldn’t you?)

Will’s next postcard continues the hearts and flowers theme with a photograph of the men’s tents.

Will’s own tent is marked with a cross:

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This is the reverse side of this postcard. Firstly, as Fanny received it:

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And here is the message enlarged:

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Will remained at Shorncliffe until November 17th. He sent his girlfriend, or perhaps by now, his fiancée, some more post cards before he left. We will look at them in the near future.

 

 

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A very long way from home

If you cast your minds back what seems now a very long time, my continuing researches about the German bomber shot down in St.Just in western Cornwall on September 27th 1942 , had led me to the cemetery in Penzance:

P1500367 XXXXXX

Of the seventy one Second World War burials in this cemetery, the grave of one particular sailor is very noticeable, because he lies such a very, very, long way from his home.

His name was Earl William Graham. Earl was an Able Seaman in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (R.C.N.V.R):

March 29th 1945 cropped

Earl was born in 1917, the son of Arthur John Graham and Gertrude Graham. He was the husband of Regina Graham, of Preston, Ontario, Canada:

ontario

Earl Graham, aged just twenty eight, was serving on board H.M.C.S. Teme (K 458) not far off Land’s End, in position 50º07’N, 05º45’W. At 08.22 hours  on March 29th 1945, just six or seven weeks from the end of the conflict, the warship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-315. The Teme was hit in the stern and the rear sixty feet of the ship was blown off.
Three sailors were blown into the sea by the explosion, and poor Earl Williams was killed outright. The Teme might well have been thought, perhaps, an unlucky ship. It had already been the apparently jinxed victim of a significant collision, when an aircraft carrier struck her amidships in the Bay of Biscay in June 1944. The Teme only just avoided being sliced completely in half:

Capture

The “Teme” had been escorting the convoy BTC-111 off Land’s End. The Canadian warship had been “sweeping” to the rear of the convoy of merchant ships when it was attacked. Debris was flung some fifty feet into the air, and one man, later ascertained to be the unfortunate Earl Williams, was blown from the quarter deck up onto the after gun deck. He died moments later from his injuries. The three other seamen were never seen again, although they were initially posted as “missing in action”.
My internet researches have revealed their names as Gordon Walter Bolin, Thomas Joseph Hackett and Robert Everett Rowe. Thomas Hackett’s body was eventually found and his remains are buried in Falmouth Cemetery in Cornwall. Gordon Bolin and Robert Rowe, sadly, were never found, and their supreme sacrifice is commemorated on the Halifax Memorial, along with 2,842 others.
On this occasion, it took twelve hours to tow the mortally stricken “Teme” to Falmouth in Cornwall but the ship was so badly damaged that it was declared a Constructive Total Loss (CTL). A legal definition of the latter is…

“Insured property that has been abandoned because its actual total loss appears to be unavoidable, or because it could not be preserved or repaired without an expenditure which would exceed its value.”

The “Teme” was a Frigate of the River class, with a tonnage of some 1,370 tons. It had only just been completed in 1944 at Smith’s Dock Co Ltd, South Bank, Middlesbrough, in the north east of England. The ship was decommissioned and returned to the Royal Navy on May 4th 1945. They sold it to be broken up for scrap on December 8th 1945. So far researches are ongoing but the names of at least eight people serving on the ship are known:

frigate_river_hmcs_teme dertfyThe U315 operated with a grand total of some thirteen different Wolfpacks during its career, in some cases for just a few days. Their names included Blitz, Donner, Grimm and Panther. Launched at Flender Werke AG, Lübeck  on May 29th 1943, the U-315 went on eleven different patrols, and was commanded throughout by Oberleutnant Herbert Zoller:

zoller_herbert

The submarine surrendered at Trondheim, Norway on May 9th 1945. The craft was declared unseaworthy. and cut up for scrap on site in Norway in March 1947. I have been unable to trace any photographs of the U-315, but here is another Type VIIC U-Boat, the U-995, currently on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial near Kiel. Do not fail to click on the link to the German website, and make sure that you try the Panorama views. They are guaranteed to scare you (top of the tower) or make you very seasick indeed. Just look for the three yellow-orange circles on the photograph:

u boat xxxxxxx

The U-315 did not suffer a single casualty throughout its fifteen month career, and sank only two ships, the Teme and the Empire Kingsley, a merchant vessel of just under 7,000 tons:

empire_kingsleyI would highly recommend this website about U-Boats. It has a vast database of the more than 80,000 people who were in the crews of ships attacked by U-boats, as well as the most astounding detail about the U-boats themselves. I was also strongly attracted by the “U-boat of the Day” feature (bottom left).

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My Grandad in the First World War

My grandfather had a very eventful journey through the First World War. He joined the Canadian Army on June 12th 1916, and fought at Vimy Ridge, Passchaendale and the Somme. The highlight, though, was when he married his childhood sweetheart, on July 15th 1917,  I am writing this account on his 97th wedding anniversary.

Will has left an enormous amount of material behind him, including a piece of German shrapnel, his leather dog tags, and a piece of camouflaged fabric he cut off the wing of a German aircraft which had crashed in front of him in no-man’s-land.

He was, as can be judged from the surviving photographs, a hard man. He was one of what must have been the thousands of impoverished Englishmen who all set off to make their fortune in the distant reaches of the British Empire

A1  hard man

He lived at 266, Symington Avenue, Toronto.

symington avenue

He was employed as a locomotive fireman on an enormous Canadian Pacific Railways train, number 2528, which ran between Chapleau, Ontario, right across the Great Plains to Winnipeg. In this picture, Will is actually in the cab of the giant locomotive…

cab paint

Will was to join the Canadian Army at the Toronto Recruiting Depot on June 12th 1916. He weighed 123½ pounds, and was considered by Captain J.W.Barton to be fit enough to join the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force.

physical

On July 6th 1916, he made a will, witnessed by the Orderly Room clerks, Messrs Irving and Smith. Judging by the small print, this document was eventually to make Mrs Mary Atkins of 999, High Street, Aldershot, a very rich woman indeed, particularly after the Battle of the Somme.

will

Will sailed from Canada to the Western Front on July 16th 1916 on the “S.S.Empress of Britain”.

ss_empress_of_britain

On July 25th, he arrived in England, and was taken on strength at Shorecliffe in Kent. On November 23rd 1916, he arrived in France and went straight into the 69th Overseas Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery, where he was eventually to become a Gunner.

WWI-C-GBS034

In the early part of his military career, Will seems to have earned some fifteen Canadian dollars per month, which then appears to have risen eventually to thirty dollars in 1917 and 1918. Perhaps the most significant event in Will’s war service was being given permission to marry, back in the sunny and rather more safe, South Derbyshire. The happy day was July 15th 1917…

marriage 2

 

marriage 1

When I was a boy, my grandfather spoke to me not of wedding dresses, though, but of events in the war. He talked of having fought at Bapaume, at either Pozières Wood or Polygon Wood, and above all, at Vimy Ridge.

WWI-B-V023-600x467

Canadian author Pierre Burton writes wonderfully of

“…soldiers, trapped in the horrors of a silly and senseless war and enduring almost indescribable conditions”.

But at the same time, it was the day when a fledgling nation came of age, when a colony became an independent nation……

“On a chill Easter Monday in 1917, with a blizzard blowing in their faces, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps in France did what neither the British, nor the French armies had been able to do in more than two years of fighting.

They seized and held the best-defended German bastion on the Western Front – a muddy scarp known as the Vimy Ridge. The French, who had lost 150,000 men trying to take the ridge, didn’t believe it could be done. Nor did the Germans; even the British were sceptical. But the Canadians triumphed!

They went over the top at dawn. By lunchtime, most of the ridge was in their hands – at a cost of ten thousand casualties. ”                                                                 (Pierre Burton)

canadian_graves b w

This is the Canadian Memorial, at the top of the ridge…

imagesV23ORIUB

Will was certainly a veteran of Passchendaele in 1917, and in 1918, I believe, fought in the Somme area where blood soaked battles had taken place some two years earlier….

Chateau_Wood_Ypres_1917pdale_mud

In later life, of course, Will was to become profoundly deaf. It is tempting to think that the very first steps in this unfortunate process began with the enormous volume of noise he must have experienced in the Canadian artillery during the First World War.

ii-gun-300-cp-861262

Will finally left France for the last time, and proceeded to England, via the French port of Le Havre. He was finally discharged from the army on May 23rd 1919.

From his medical examination, he had put on some sixteen pounds during his time in the army, and now weighed a hundred and forty pounds, a glowing testimony to the quality of the food in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force. He had also apparently grown half an inch taller.

medical after war

Still, at least Will did actually come back home safe and sound. It was not a speedy process, however. It was six months before he was no longer a soldier.

On March 4th and 5th 1919, at Kinmel Park in Denbighshire, north Wales, Canadian troops had rioted against their dreadful living conditions, sick of the constant, apparently pointless delays, and longing to be allowed to go home at last back to their families in Canada. The rioters were fired upon by British troops.

Five brave Canadians were killed and 23 were wounded. It was one of 13 mutinous riots by Canadian troops, all for exactly that same reason.

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Records of Canadian soldiers in the First World War can be accessed online at the Library and Archives Canada website.

For my grandfather, two pages are viewable. I know from my own experience, though, that if you pay your money, you will have access to page after page of  extremely interesting material.

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