Remembering those who served

The Oak Bay News asked readers for Remembrance Day memories to share. Here are your stories

LAC Franklin Garfield Whitmore holds his RCAF crew’s mascot

LAC Franklin Garfield Whitmore holds his RCAF crew’s mascot

Dear Margaret, In this snap I am holding our mascot, a baby rabbit; his name is Louie. We found him one day in a field by himself and when we called, he came. He’s got 1 hour, 40 minutes flying time. Doing all right for a rabbit, isn’t he!  Garry

– Letter from LAC Franklin Garfield Whitmore to his future wife, July 24, 1943, Portreath, Cornwall.

LAC Franklin Garfield (Garry) Whitmore joined the RCAF in June, 1941, applying to air crew but he was colour-blind so became an air frame mechanic. He was shipped overseas aboard the Queen Elizabeth in November, 1942.

For the next 19 months he worked at a dozen different airfieds with Mustang and Typhoon squadrons as they shot up trains and bridges in France.

Garry arrived on Sword beach D+20 to be pinned down in the Normandy beachhead.

When they broke out, the squadrons moved quickly through bases in France, Belgium and Holland.

There, at Grave, they were caught in the failed attempt to capture a Rhine bridge and took many casualties, including one of his home-town buddies.

German planes dropped bombs while squadrons struggled in unrelenting rain. “It was so muddy the pilots didn’t dare throttle back,” Garry remembers. “We’d have to jump on the tail or they’d put the nose in the ground. Once my aircraft spun me into the path of another plane and I stopped just short of the propeller.”

Pulled back to Heesch, they were in the path of the last German push. On New Year’s Day, 1945, “We were standing around a fire barrel, keeping warm, when suddenly a large number of aircraft appeared over the trees. I thought they were American Thunderbolts at first but, almost immediately, they were in front of us and I could see the big, black crosses. Boy, we headed for the bushes! But our squadron, preparing for take-off, flew up behind the ME-109s and gave them a blast. I was a ‘rigger’ and looked after one aircraft so you waited for your plane to come back. But this time a shell exploded behind the cockpit, fragments hitting my pilot in the back. He cranked up the oxygen and headed for home, passing out after safely landing, the engine still running. Fortunately, I never lost a pilot.”

On VE Day, Garry was in Wunsdorf, Germany, grateful to see the end of hostilities and happy to return to family and friends by summer’s end.

He will be 93 next month and has resided in Victoria since 1945, says son Brian Whitmore.

As for Louie, he lived on lettuce and leftovers at the Portreath airfield until the squadron moved on and was last seen bounding over the broad reaches of Cornwall, Brian says.

The sinking of HMCS Esquimalt

Among the many memories Oak Bay’s Maurice (Migs) Turner has of his service during the Second World War is the sinking of HMCS Esquimalt on the evening of April 16, 1945 by U-boat 190 near Sambro Light Vessel near the entrance to Halifax Harbour. Esquimalt was heading out to patrol the area prior to a convoy sailing from Halifax to the UK the next day. HMCS Sarnia was scheduled to accompany Esquimalt but was delayed in harbour due to an engine problem.

“The torpedo entered the ship, passing through the unoccupied lower bunk of a cabin and proceeded to the far side of the ship where it exploded,” Migs recalls. “My friend and classmate from Kings Naval College in Halifax, S/Lt Mike Kazakoff, was asleep in the upper bunk and managed to crawl out through the hole the torpedo had made, onto the side of the sinking ship as Esquimalt rolled over and sank within a couple of minutes.

“Mike eventually climbed into one of the Carley floats the crew managed to launch. The explosion knocked out the power and thus the ship did not get any distress signal away. The crew remained in the frigid water overnight with eventually 40 of the crew members dying. Mike was one of the survivors picked up by Sarnia the next morning.”

Protecting Britain

Oak Bay’s Marilyn Little and brother Donald Bales honour their mother, Private Lily Bales, and father, Leading Aircraftman Melvin Bales – both Second World War veterans. Now 91 and 92 and living in Oak Bay, the two have been married 70 years.

In 1939, Lily, “a shy 15-year old, heard those dreadful words: Britain was at war! By 1941, London was devastated.

At age 17, Lily enlisted in the British ATS (Auxilliary Territorial Service).  She trained for something very hush-hush called Gun Laying that we now realize was a form of radar in its infancy. She joined 493 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, attached to the 141 Royal Artillery Regiment, on a gun-site using heavy ammo. Her team of women located enemy planes, relaying the information to the male gunners who fired at the approaching bombers.

“When the German planes approached, two women cranked the huge flywheel until the large diesel generator started. Then they ran to the transmitter that emitted radio waves, and to the important receiver that rotated 360° to gauge the height, bearing and range of the target. This information was transmitted to the predictors, and then to the gunners to fire.

“During the final expected invasion, Lily’s Battery was secretly sent to the southeast coast of Britain, akin to being on the front lines, sheltered by tents pitched on stubble, with nearby mobile guns and falling shrapnel. They were very brave, inspired by the words of Winston Churchill: ‘Give us the tools and we will finish the job!’”

Leading Aircraftman Melvin Bales joined the war at age 17. Being mechanically inclined, he was assigned to aircraft maintenance and was posted to Britain with Squadron 407 of the RCAF Coastal Command, to maintain the Wellington Bombers that protected the coast of Britain from enemy submarines. One memorable story concerned an airplane on fire on the tarmac. To save a plane beside it, Melvin, along with others, moved it to a safer spot. Their reward for disobeying orders to stay back was to be confined to base!

His squadron moved around Britain frequently following U-boat activity in coastal waters.

“Our parents met in Britain, fell in love, and married. We are immensely proud of their contributions, and are pleased to honour them on Remembrance Day.”

On to France and Holland

Toni Fish honours her grandfather, Frank St. John, who signed up along with his two brothers in Saskatchewan.

Frank “went across the water” in the summer of 1944 at 20 years of age. “We took a truck through Caen. It was a big place – lots of Americans and Canadians who fought in the town.”

Making the trek up to Vierrieres, Frank took a “shower, got new clothes, and then was good for another few months. It was the only shower that I really had. That was in France.”

Then they walked, moving in as far as Holland. “I thought it was a long haul in, but it wasn’t. The only time we got a ride was when the waterways were as high as the land (and) there was a few feet of water. We did ride tanks too. We rode in them, a half turret, bullets hitting at the side.”

Frank was shot in Holland, spending two days in the hospital before being flown to England where he spent more than three months in the 24th General Hospital.