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Bill Swetman in 1944, with the rank of RCAF wing commander. The striped ribbon on his chest is the Distinguished Flying Cross; the darker ribbon next to it is the Distinguished Service Order, a rare honour for a bomber pilot.

Swetman Family

As a bomber pilot, William Swetman flew two tours of duty in the Second World War, surviving 53 bombing missions in one of the most dangerous roles for a member of the Canadian military. In the war's final year, he flew six treacherous missions to bomb Berlin, the most heavily protected target in Nazi Germany.

Group Captain Swetman continued to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force after the war, and was in NORAD headquarters during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the closest the world came to a nuclear exchange during the Cold War.

On his first active mission in 1941, he was almost killed in a freak accident. He was the second pilot on a Wellington bomber when it landed in error in a field after a night mission. The plane could still be flown and Flight SergeantSwetman jumped out to direct the pilot out of some trees. When the plane swung around, it came close to striking him.

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"After that incident, he said he was sure he was going to survive the war," said Robert Fleming, a retired member of the air force who has written histories of 426 Squadron. Flight Sergeant Swetman was so calm that sometimes on long flights to Germany he would hook a bar on the Lancaster bomber's steering column – an early autopilot – and sleep for a while.

Flying bombers over Germany and Occupied Europe was the most dangerous place a Canadian could be during the war.

"The commonly accepted figure is that 44 per cent of bomber crews were killed. Most died during their first tour," noted Steve Harris, chief historian for the Department of National Defence, who wrote the section on bomber command in The Crucible of War, 1939-1945, the history of the RCAF in the Second World War.

Near the end of his first tour, Flight LieutenantSwetman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his performance as "a very courageous and able pilot." Most of his first tour was flying to bomb industrial cities such as Essen in the Ruhr. The second tour meant aircraft with a longer range and more distant and dangerous targets, including Berlin.

"At best it would be a one-in-four chance of surviving a second tour. But not all bomber crew undertook a second tour. I would think that fewer than 10 per cent of bomber crews completed a second tour," Dr. Harris said.

On Aug. 17, 1943, Squadron Leader Swetman flew on the first mission of his second tour as deputy commander of 426 Squadron. It was a raid on Peenemunde, where Germany was developing the V-2 rocket that would later be used with devastating effect against London.

The commanding officer was killed in the raid and the next day Bill Swetman was promoted to wing commander, equivalent to lieutenant-colonel, and commander of 426 Squadron. He was only 23 at the time – the second-youngest commander of a squadron in the RCAF or the Royal Air Force.

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From that point on, he seldom ate or drank in the officers' mess, not wanting to form close ties with men whose lives were affected by decisions he made. The aircrew, gunners and bomb aimers were usually young, 19 or 20; the pilots were 23 to 25, almost all of them unmarried and without children. They all knew the odds. Every night before a big raid there was a large meal, and more than half the pilots would vomit from nerves before getting into their Lancasters.

Bill Swetman, who died on Aug. 30 in London, Ont., at the age of 94, was a modest man. He always attributed his survival as a pilot to luck, but his son, Robert Swetman, said his father made his own luck with his flying skills, especially when engaging the enemy. Powerful searchlights on the ground would find an Allied bomber, then another searchlight would lock on. The plane was thus "coned" and became an easy target for night fighters or anti-aircraft guns.

"Dad was coned more than once. He said [the lights were so bright] it was as if it were daylight in the plane. One time over Berlin, he put the plane into a dive and flew at 150 feet to escape," Robert Swetman recalled.

On March 22, 1944, RCAF Air Vice-Marshall C.M. McEwen was strapped into the jump seat of Wing Commander Swetman's plane on a mission to Frankfurt, a flight the senior officer would never forget. "As they approached the target, several bombers went down in flames around them. Upon return, while circling to land, Swetman narrowly avoided a mid-air collision, then on the ground almost collided with a Lanc landing in the opposite direction. He had to veer off into the mud," Mr. Fleming recounted.

At the end of his second tour, Wing Commander Swetman was awarded a Distinguished Service Order, a rare medal for a bomber pilot, and taken off active duty. The Canadian Press reported on the honour on April 6, 1944: "Swetman, veteran of two complete tours of bomber operations, including six attacks on Berlin and the 14th RCAF man to win the DSO, went overseas as a sergeant pilot and quickly rose through the ranks to wing commander. He won the DFC in 1942 after a series of smashing raids on Ruhr Valley targets."

William Herbert Swetman was born in Montreal on May 6, 1920, and grew up in Kapuskasing in Northern Ontario. There was a Trans-Canada Airlines flight into the local airport every day and young Bill would bicycle out to see it. He was crazy about planes from then on.

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He was attending Sir George Williams College (later Concordia University) in Montreal when he decided to enlist in the RCAF. It was 1940 and he was just 19. He trained in London, Ont., where he soloed in a Canadian-built Fleet Finch biplane, and completed his training in Dunnville, Ont., before going to Great Britain in 1941.

After the war ended, he remained in the air force and was commander of the VIP squadron at the Rockcliffe air base in Ottawa, flying planes for the prime minister and governor-general. Following that, he went to staff college in England and about that time was promoted to group captain, equivalent to a full colonel. He kept that rank until retirement in 1967.

He was commander of the base in Summerside, PEI, for four years and spent another four years as commander of the base at Goose Bay, Labrador. Robert Swetman said his father enjoyed Goose Bay because of the wide variety of aircraft there. "He was checked out on the KC-135, the military version of the Boeing 707, that was used as a tanker. He flew up to the Arctic and refuelled a B-52 [U.S. bomber]," his son recalled.

After retiring from the air force, Bill Swetman took a bit of time off, then became an administrator at Havergal College, a private girls' school in Toronto. His first wife, Kathleen Woodcock, died in 1974. Several years later he married Katherine Gardiner, who also worked at the school. He leaves his wife, and children Robert and Anne and step-daughter Susan Gardiner.

Group Captain Swetman's final military posting was in the summer of 1962 to Colorado Springs, as deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, the joint Canada-U.S. group charged with detecting incoming aircraft or missiles in North American airspace. He was on duty in October, 1962, when there was nerve-racking showdown between President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles based in Cuba.

"I remember it was a tense period," Robert Swetman said. "I knew about what was going on from school and the news, but if there was an impending nuclear confrontation, my father never mentioned it."

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