A frozen moment in time
A watch recovered from a downed plane in Germany during the Second World War puts the past in perspective for Marcus Gee
In January, 1946, Howard and Annie Gould of Maryfield, Sask., received an upsetting delivery. It was a broken watch belonging to their late son Howie, a bomber pilot in the Second World War. His plane had been reported shot down over Germany on the night of Oct. 18, 1943. The hands of the watch were stopped at 8:29 p.m.
Objects often convey a meaning deeper than words. It's why we gaze at Isaac Brock's tunic, with the neat hole on the breast from the American musket ball that killed the British general at the Battle of Queenston Heights in the War of 1812. It's why schoolchildren gather round, rapt, when they are shown Hana's suitcase, a tangible, physical link to a young Jewish girl, Hana Brady, swallowed up in the Holocaust. What a power these simple objects hold.
To me, the object that best illustrates that power is Howie's watch, showing a frozen moment that sums up all the pain and loss of war. With Remembrance Day coming up on Friday, the 11th day of the 11th month, it seems a good time to tell its story.
The watch is in Toronto now, stored away in my uncle's apartment. I am looking at it as I write this. One end of the leather wrist strap – the end with the holes in it – has been torn off. The frame around the rectangular face is dented and the face itself is pushed in. Howie's name is inscribed on the back.
Howard James Gould was the older brother of the man I admire most in the world, my uncle George. George is the husband of my mother's late sister, Joan Anne. Our families – the sisters, their husbands and kids – spent golden summers together at rented cottages in Ontario's Muskoka lakes when I was young.
Howie and Geordie, as his family called George, grew up together in the Prairie village of Maryfield.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Their father, Howard senior, immigrated from England in 1905 at the age of 18, married a local woman and raised six children, first three girls, then three boys.
Howard and George were very different in looks and temperament – Howie outgoing, athletic, a big success with the girls; Geordie slimmer, quieter, more studious – but they were pals all the same. "As a younger brother," remembers Uncle George, "I came in for a good deal of pushing and shoving."
They shared chores such as looking after the cow, calf and chickens, weeding and hoeing the garden, picking potato bugs, melting snow for washing and running errands to the lumber yard managed by their father. As the family struggled through the Dirty Thirties, they earned a little money delivering the newspaper, unloading lumber and working at the grocery store. Because their father was English, Howie was known as the "the big bloke" and Geordie "the little bloke." As Uncle George puts it in a moving memoir he wrote about his brother and the watch, "I always felt very secure when Howie was around, and his nickname reinforced that feeling."
When war came in September, 1939, Howie was 18 years old. Though he had not yet completed his Grade 12, he applied to join the Royal Canadian Air Force on Dec. 18, 1939. His training took him to Toronto, where he got to see his beloved Maple Leafs in action at Maple Leaf Gardens. He earned his pilot's wings on Dec. 4, 1942 and shipped out for England. Uncle George remembers how handsome he looked in his new uniform with Pilot Officer braid. He was engaged by then, to Vera Gough from Calgary.
After more training, he joined the bomber offensive against Germany as part of 9 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. He flew a Lancaster, the most famous of the British heavy bombers. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war. Uncle George, who would soon join the air force himself, notes that in 1943 the navigational and bomb-aiming equipment was still pretty basic and the German defences still strong. Air crews "were open for hours on end to attack by fighter squadrons who were fighting above their own ground within minutes of home base, as well as by intense anti-aircraft fire over the target."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
The Bomber Command Museum of Canada, located in Nanton, Alta., reports that of every 100 airmen who joined the Command, "45 were killed, six were seriously wounded, eight became prisoners of war and only 41 escaped unscathed [at least physically]. Of the 120,000 who served, 55,573 were killed, including more than 10,000 Canadians. It is a loss rate comparable only to the worst slaughter of the First World War trenches."
Howie's first mission was an attack on Hanover, Germany on Oct. 8, 1943. He flew as second pilot. His next mission, on Oct. 18, was to Hanover again. Howie was captain this time, his first combat flight as chief pilot. A day or two later, his parents back in Maryfield got a telegram. Howie was missing in action.
Uncle George, away from home learning to fly, heard the news in a telegram from them. "Sorry to have to send you this word son. Howie reported missing Oct. 19. Keep hoping with us. Will be looking for you this weekend. Love from Mum and Dad."
Only a week or so after, his mother came to George's base to see him become a pilot. She even pinned his wings on his uniform. The year before, she had lost her youngest, Gordon, who at the age of 8, drowned in a pond on the outskirts of Maryfield. Now she was sending her surviving son off to war. "I find it hard to believe that I was so insensitive as to let her go through with the plan," Uncle George writes in his memoir.
Letters mailed by Howie before his last flight kept arriving in Maryfield. Letters sent to him in England returned in the post, marked "missing." Another telegram confirmed the worst: "Regret to advise International Red Cross quoting German information states your son pilot officer Howard James Gould lost his life October eighteenth but does not give additional particulars STOP." His clothes and other stuff – "2 screwdrivers, 1 pr. broken cufflinks, 2 unexposed films, 1 tablet soap" – arrived from the Department of National Defence, tagged "deceased airman's personal effects."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
The surprising postscript came after the war was over and more than two years after Howie's final mission. The arrival of the watch in Maryfield came as a great shock to his mother. His parents had given him the stylish Elgin watch for his 18th birthday. The damage to it suggested he was wearing it when his plane fell to Earth, but there were no details of how it was found.
The watch came into Uncle George's possession in the early 1990s, passed onto him by his brother-in-law. Until then, he had not known of its existence. He guesses that his parents didn't want to disturb him with the news of its delivery. When they received it, he was back from the war and starting school at the University of Manitoba.
Here was "a direct and moving link to the death of my brother," he writes. "But how could it possibly have found its way from the crash site back to Mother and Dad?"
He decided to investigate. He wrote to the National Archives, then the Ministry of Defence in Britain. Ministry historians wrote back: "H.J. Gould was the pilot of Lancaster Bomber no. ED499 which took off from RAF Bardney, Lincolnshire at 17:43 hrs. on 18 October 1943 for a raid on the German city of Hanover, and was one of the eighteen bombers that failed to return from an original force of 360 Lancasters." It was believed to have been hit by enemy fire. ED499 crashed near Isernhagen, 10 kilometres northeast of Hanover, "at 20:30 hours on 18 October, resulting in the loss of the entire crew."
The time – 20:30 hours – is essentially the same shown on the watch: 8:29. To my Uncle George, this confirmed the family's understanding that Howie was wearing it on his final flight.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Pressing further, Uncle George wrote again to the National Archives to see if they had anything on how the watch came home. The archivists reported that, according to German records, it was discovered at the crash site by a special body of investigators gathering information about aircraft lost over continental Europe. Through the U.S. Army, the watch made its way first to the RCAF in Bournemouth, England, then to London, England, then Ottawa and finally to Maryfield – "an amazing trail," writes Uncle George.
George himself had a lucky war. A math whiz, he trained as a navigator as well as a pilot. He flew light bombers, then the air force put him to work taxiing generals and admirals from place to place, important work but not the meat grinder of Bomber Command.
George is 92 years old now and long retired from his job as a top actuary for Manulife, where he helped pioneer the use of computers in the insurance business. When I visit him in his North Toronto retirement home, he often talks about his wartime adventures. Howie and his crew are buried in the Hanover Military Cemetery in Germany. Uncle George has never visited, but, then, he has the watch to remember his brother by, "a direct link," as he writes, "to the end of this young life so many years ago."
It sits in the case lined with velvet that it came in when Howie's parents gave it to him on his birthday. Turn it over, gently, and you can see the inscription in ornate script on the back: "H.J. Gould. 1939." Howie, to those who knew him.