My great uncle joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1939, the year that the war began. He was 17 years old, the only child of a senior federal official, and almost every young man he grew up with was enlisting. Don learned to fly in the Fleet Finch, a biplane with a wooden airframe covered with stretched cotton. He soon realized that his fighter pilot ambitions would not come to pass – instead he was streamed into the bomber-pilot program, training on a heavy, twin-engine Cessna called the Crane.
By 1943 he was in England, where he transitioned into the Wellington, and finally the Lancaster, a gigantic machine powered by four Rolls-Royce engines. As Pilot-in-Command, Don presided over a six-man crew, and flew from a tiny, cruelly exposed greenhouse cockpit that left no room for a co-pilot.
Bomber crews had a short life expectancy. Don and his crew were instructed to write their wills, which were kept on file. Many of Don’s friends died when their planes took direct hits from the Germans’ new radar-guided flak systems. Others were shot down by Messerschmitt fighters. Some died when they ran out of gas coming back from missions over Europe – the Lancaster was a heavy plane that needed power to keep flying, but the long missions pushed their fuel reserves to the limit. On one flight, Don’s Lancaster ran out of gas the moment the wheels touched the runway.
Many of Don’s logbook entries were written in red ink, which signified a night operation. Don described flying thousands of miles in pitch black, using guidance systems little different than the ones that Christopher Columbus once had. Don’s planes were shot up so many times he lost count. Engines failed. The cockpit filled with smoke. On one mission, his tail gunner bailed out, assuming that they were about to crash. (Don and the crew made it back to England in their damaged plane, but the gunner landed in occupied France, and was taken prisoner.)
In February, 1944, Don was asked to join 617 Dambuster squadron, a unit known for innovation, precision, and brutal risk – the Dambusters got their name by dropping skip-bombs on German dams, which required them to fly just 60 feet above the water at night.
Don’s assignment was to drop Tallboys, massive, torpedo-shaped bombs that fell at supersonic speed and penetrated through hundreds of feet of earth or concrete before exploding. Tallboys had to be delivered with pinpoint accuracy from an altitude of several miles – Don had to keep the Lancaster perfectly straight and level on the final bomb run, which made his airplane a sitting duck.
On Aug. 5, 1944, Don took off on his 40th mission. Against all odds, he had suffered only a single injury so far, when a tiny, red-hot fragment of German shrapnel ripped through the Lancaster’s aluminum skin and hit him in the ankle, knocking his foot off the rudder pedal as he flew. Don said it felt like a bad bee sting. Don always made it back.
Now his luck was about to change. The mission that day was to drop a Tallboy on the Nazi U-boat pens at Brest, on the coast of occupied France. As they made their final approach to the target, the air was filled with flak shells that exploded around them like giant black cauliflowers with flaming centres. Don gritted his teeth and followed the bombardier’s instructions – to hit the submarine pens, they had to go straight through the worst of it.
Their bomb hit the target, but Don’s Lancaster took at least half a dozen direct hits. One of the engines blew up. The wings were filled with holes, and the fuel tanks were on fire. The airplane nosed over into a dive. Don knew that the wings would probably rip off soon, their structure eaten by fire. Or the entire plane might go up in a final ball of fire.