Don Laubman, who died in Red Deer, Alta., on June 20 at the age of 96, was one of the top air aces of the Second World War. Remarkably, he shot down 15 German aircraft, even though he only arrived in England in 1942, three years after the start of the war. He was the fourth-most successful Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot of the conflict and the highest-scoring Canadian fighter pilot after the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
He stayed in the RCAF after the war, becoming a lieutenant-general and commander of Canadian forces in Europe. A proficient handyman, in retirement he ran three Canadian Tire franchises, ending with one in Red Deer, where he lived for the last 40 years of his life.
Donald Currie Laubman was born in Provost, Alta., on Oct. 16, 1921. He was the eldest in a family of seven sons. His interest in airplanes was piqued at the age of 6, when he saw the famous Canadian bush pilot Wop May at a local airshow.
“I was hooked on flying,” he said in an interview when he was 90.
Mr. Laubman graduated from high school when he was 17 and went to work in a grocery store in Edmonton. There was an RCAF recruiting centre across the street, and he enlisted on his 18th birthday, in October of 1939. No training facilities were available at the time, so he wasn’t called up until the following September.
He trained in Alberta and Trenton, Ont. On May 4, 1941, he got his wings – Air Force speak for the wings on his uniform marking him as a pilot. Now Flight Sergeant Laubman, he went back out west as an instructor, although he was frustrated and wanted to go overseas. An opportunity came up when a group of pilots drew straws; No. 1 would go overseas right away, each successive number three weeks later. Mr. Laubman drew No. 26, which meant a wait of a year and a half.
“I traded with No. 25, telling him it was only three weeks, and kept on trading until I was No. 2,” he recalled.
He arrived in England in 1942. He didn’t like the twin-engine plane he was assigned to so he bargained again and ended up in a squadron flying Spitfires, the best British fighter.
In advance of D-Day, he and his squadron went on flights of opportunity over France, attacking any vehicle on the road – few, if any, French civilians could drive in northern France – and trains, always thought to be carrying war materiel.
On Sept. 24, 1944, he destroyed four German fighter aircraft, including a formidable Focke-Wulf 190, and damaged two others.
He was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on Oct. 24, 1944. The citation stated that ”through his determined efforts [he] has destroyed at least 40 enemy vehicles in the last five days.”
Around this time British forces, helped by Polish, American and Canadian soldiers, failed to hold the bridge at Arnhem in the Netherlands, a battle portrayed in the movie A Bridge Too Far. Now the RCAF’s job was to support troops on the ground as they fought to hold the bridge at Nijmegen, as recounted in the citation for his second DFC, awarded on Nov. 24, 1944.
“Flight Lieutenant Laubman has led his flight with such ability that they have accounted for sixteen out of twenty-six enemy aircraft destroyed by his squadron and he was responsible for the destruction of eight and the damaging of two in three days, bringing his total to thirteen enemy aircraft destroyed and two damaged.”
On April 16, 1945, Squadron Leader Laubman attacked two German oil tankers travelling along a road on the German side of the Rhine, at a time when Allied forces occupied the western side. “I attacked them when I was no more than 20 feet off the ground. They exploded in a ball of fire and I’m right in the middle of it,” he recalled.
He climbed to 7,000 feet and could see the Allied lines, but his engine stopped and he had to bail out. He was captured by a group of Hitler Youth. All the POW camps had been moved east because of advancing Allied forces, so he was kept in a hospital in a large army base. In early May, a British armoured vehicle arrived, and the Germans surrendered. The British left, and all of a sudden Squadron Leader Laubman was the senior Allied officer. He ordered the Germans to put their arms in storage and confined them to barracks before he returned to the hospital.
He soon returned to Canada and almost right away went to a reunion in Banff. He was walking down the street in uniform with his commanding officer, Wing Commander Dal Russel, when they bumped into a group of six women. One of them was Margaret Gibson, his future wife.
He briefly left the military but re-enlisted. In 1949 he led the RCAF’s first jet aerobatic team, the Blue Devils, flying the de Havilland Vampire fighter jet. Over three years they performed at 45 air shows in Canada and the United States.
He continued in many posts, including as the air force liaison in the Avro Arrow fighter jet program. He rose through the ranks and at the time of the unification of the Canadian Armed Forces in 1967 was an air commodore, the equivalent of a brigadier-general.
As a high-ranking officer, he was posted to Germany twice and got to know German pilots who had flown against him during the war.
“They acted, thought … exactly the same as we did. They were good guys; I liked them,” he said in a postretirement interview. “I think in their eyes, as ours, it was just a game. We’re one up on you, we got one today.”
During the war, however, he and his fellow pilots were taught that the Germans were evil, he recalled.
“We were imbued that they were Hitlerites, and I accepted that. I didn’t particularly like the idea of killing another individual, so I rationalized that I was shooting at the thing he was sitting in. I could live with that,” he said. He was not a man who revelled in the glory of war. “War is a stupid way to settle differences of opinion.”
When Mr. Laubman commanded the Canadian Armed Forces in Europe in 1970 and 1971, he used to go flying to relax. According to his nephew Jim Leech, who was stationed in Germany as an army officer at the time, he would take off in a CF-104 Starfighter for an hour or so. Only a very experienced pilot could relax in a CF-104. It was so tricky to fly that it was dubbed “the widow maker.” Mr. Laubman said he left his worries behind when he was flying the plane.
He quit the Canadian Forces in October, 1972, with the rank of lieutenant-general. He and a fellow senior officer decided they wanted to go into the retail business and approached Canadian Tire about opening a franchise.
“They presented themselves to Dean Muncaster, the head of Canadian Tire at the time, who told them they didn’t take on franchisees over the age of 40. They left but heard back a few days later, and they were given a Canadian Tire franchise in Thompson, Man., one of the first west of the Ontario border,” Mr. Leech recalled.
Mr. Laubman and his partner operated the Thompson Canadian Tire for a couple of years, then moved to a franchise in Saskatoon. Mr. Laubman then went out on his own and acquired a franchise in Red Deer, which he ran until 1986.
“My mother was from Calgary, and my father from Edmonton, so Red Deer was a perfect compromise. They both loved it,” said Mr. Laubman’s daughter, Leslie Marchant.
Mr. Laubman was active in the local community, acting as chairman of the hospital board and a member of the chamber of commerce and raising money for a hospice, among other things.
“I felt obligated. I had a fair deal of success. The country was good to me, and I felt I should give something back,” he said.
Mr. Laubman leaves his daughter, Leslie; son, Rob; brothers Wally, Ken and Jim; and five grandchildren.