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Lieutenant Woodburn Thomson, father of author R.H. Thomson, stands on the bridge of HMCS Lunenberg in 1945.From the collection of Leonard Hare

R.H. Thomson is the author of By the Ghost Light: Wars, Memory, and Families, from which this essay has been adapted. He is also the creator of The World Remembers, a project seeking to name each of the 9.5 million soldiers lost in the First World War, no matter the army in which they fought.

Nov. 11 parades and prayers were seldom to my father’s liking. The Battle of the Atlantic, which governed his life for three years, bore little relation to the remembrance politics that came after the war. The war deaths in 1917 and 1918 of two of his uncles, as well as another two who died in the decades afterward from the war’s effects on their lungs, had stayed with him. Yet he rarely attended a Remembrance Day ceremony. At the dinner table, we often heard tales of North Atlantic convoy duty between St. John and Londonderry: of winter storms; how corvettes corkscrew in heavy seas; ocean crossings at the speed of the slowest freighter; and, in 1943, being hunted by U-boats.

In his 70s, he tried unsuccessfully to find the names of the Liberator aircrews who had flown a thousand miles out from Iceland on Sept. 20, 1943, to help rescue the convoy his corvette, HMCS Sackville, was escorting westward across the Atlantic.

The four-day sea battle south of Greenland had been going badly when 49 men in six aircraft appeared out of the low-hanging clouds to attack the German submarines that were sinking warships like my father’s. One after another, HMCS Sackville and the other escorts were being hunted down by a pack of 21 submarines. My father, Lieutenant Woodburn Thomson, felt that the battle only turned in their favour after the arrival of the 49 young flyers. After the loss of nine ships, the combined convoys ON 202 and ONS 18 eventually survived and sailed on to Halifax and New York.

He had described seeing the trails in the ocean of the U-boats’ acoustic homing torpedoes as they locked on to the vibrations from the corvette’s propellers. The “smart” torpedoes were a new variation of an old weapon. My father told of the hard turns Sackville took to try to avoid being hit. The escorts were having their sterns blown off because the German navy’s revised strategy was to first eliminate the escorts and then turn their guns on the merchant ships. By the time the Liberators appeared, a British destroyer and a Canadian corvette had been sunk and others had been hit and were limping home. On the fourth day of the battle, a frigate was sunk but HMCS Sackville was spared – and with it perhaps my father’s life. He wanted to know the names of the aircrews.

History’s headlines make no space for the details wherein lie the humanity of the events being reported. But our lives are only specifics and details. Grieving and graves are specifics. How do we reconcile the tension between needing to know the broad strokes of history, which help us navigate the road ahead, and knowing the details about how the road may have been lethal to humans in the past? A broad-stroke account is that six VLR (very long range) Liberators loaded with depth charges appeared out of the clouds on the third day of the battle south of Greenland. Does that mean the names of the men inside those fuselages aren’t important? Does that mean that the thousand miles the crews had flown over the ocean, just to join the battle, are of no interest? Of course, to understand significant events in history we prioritize the information we are told, but the inhumanity appears when the details are dismissed. Perhaps there are just too many of them. Perhaps the details are not strategically important. Or in this case, perhaps, like the Liberator aircraft’s parts, the aircrews and their lives were also considered replaceable.

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At British Public Records Office, R.H. Thomson managed to track down logs to explain how the Royal Air Force had rescued his father's convoy.Courtesy of R.H. Thomson

A number of years ago I decided to take up my father’s search at the British Public Records Office outside London. He had assumed that it was an American squadron, since the Liberator was a U.S. aircraft. But, digging through the Royal Air Force’s 1943 records for Iceland, I saw no Americans and wondered if instead the young men were part of a British weather and patrol squadron that was flying an assortment of aircraft, including the VLR Liberator IIIs. Then, in a flurry of ineptitude in the Records Office, I found the names.

Having only a vague idea of how to research who exactly had flown out to assist the convoys ON 202 and ONS 18, I had resorted to speed-scrolling through aircrews’ debriefing notes from September, 1943, which were stored on what seemed like kilometres of microfilm. The notes were from every aircraft in every squadron that had flown from Reykjavik at that time.

Squadron by squadron I loaded box after box of microfilm into the viewing machine and spooled through entry after entry. Nothing about a battle. Next roll of microfilm. Nothing. Next squadron. Nothing. Next roll. Nothing. No battles and no actions. I knew there was nothing because the entries were short, three sentences at most, because crews were only reporting on their weather and reconnaissance patrols.

Airbourne Reykjavik 10.00.A. S/c for area. 12.40. On Patrol. 16.50. Off Patrol. Owing to poor weather to East. Scattered Icebergs and what was thought to be ice edge sighted. 18.35.A. Landed Reykjavik.

The references to ice made me wonder about the frigid ocean and the survivors of those sea battles, floundering in the water while waiting for a rescue boat that perhaps would never come.

With microfilm boxes and despair piling up beside me, I heard the Public Records Office give its final notice for visitors to pack up and leave, since they were closing for the day. With few hard facts on which to focus my search, I might have been looking for phantoms. “This office closes in 15 minutes. All documents must be immediately returned to the main desk in your area. Please return tomorrow,” the public-address system said. But I couldn’t return, since my flight home to Canada left that evening.

And then, there before me on the screen was a long entry. If S/c meant set course, C/v meant convoy, D/d meant destroyer, R.T. meant radio transmission, A.A. was anti-aircraft, M.G. was machine gun and D.C. meant depth charge, then I was reading the battle, as described from the air, that he had seen from the sea. And there were the Liberators, and there were names of the aircrews who had looked down on the convoy, the attackers, my father and the cold of September’s North Atlantic Ocean. And there in the typed debriefing notes was a reference to Sackville, just as he had told me, being “homed” so he could sail back to help rescue survivors:

Sighted town class D/d. Down by stern, and homed rescue ships.

I’d moved closer to my father and his life. It was Flight Officer Kerrigan on Liberator R/120 who had seen the HMCS St. Croix from his cockpit “down by stern,” having been hit by two torpedoes and about to be finished off with a third. Kerrigan ordered his radio operator to signal Sackville and the other escorts the co-ordinates of where the St. Croix was sinking. At just past 9 p.m., my father, standing on his corvette’s bridge, might have made out the R/120 painted on the side of Kerrigan’s Liberator. As Sackville set course in the growing darkness for the rescue, did he consider the fate of the Polyanthus, the corvette that had exploded after being hit several hours before? That sinking had left only one survivor. The fires onboard Polyanthus that night might still have been visible before being extinguished by the ocean closing over them. Of the 19 escorts, two had been sunk or were sinking and two more were so damaged they had left the convoy for base. I know that those dying in battle are details and that military training keeps soldiers and seamen from dwelling on them. I know my father was well trained, since during the four-day battle the situation was critical, sleep was scarce and clear thinking was needed. But I also know that he wanted the names of those who had helped his crew survive.

TIME UP: 10.30/20 REY | TIME DOWN: 02.55/21 REY
CREW: F/O. Kerrigan. Capt. Sgt. Weiner. Co-Pil. P/O. Rackham. Nav. F/O. Hartrick. Engr. F/Sgt. Foy. 1.W.Op. Sgt. Chapman. 2.W.Op. Sgt. Hunt. 3.W.Op. Sgt. Grassam. 4.W.Op. Sgt. Levinsky. 5.W.Op.
DETAILS OF SORTIE OR FLIGHT: Airborne Reykjavik 10.20.A. S/c for C/v. 13.30. Began Homing Procedure B – Unsuccessful. 14.36. ONS.18. Carried out escort on request from SNO. Searched for, and located C/V ON.202. Both C/v.s. joined at 18.00 hours. 20.10. Witnessed attack on U-Boat by N of 120. 21.04. Sighted town class D/d. Down by stern, and homed rescue ships D/d. 22.33. Left C/v. 02.55.A./21. Landed Reykjavik.

This was a remembrance I could live with. The debriefing notes of the 49 men were the best gift I was able to get for my father – to give him my understanding, much like the warmth shared when, having completed a long night drive home with the family, my six-year-old self tumbled sleepily from the car and felt his hands tuck me into bed, both son and father glad to have arrived. His determination to find Flight Officer Kerrigan, Co-Pilot Green, Sergeant Weiner and the others was what later led me to search for the millions who were killed during the First World War. The World Remembers was a commemoration I wanted to build in which every soldier who died in the war would be named. In addition to the 68,000 Canadians who gave their lives, The World Remembers now names 4.2 million others. Since that is barely half of the 9.5 million killed in the war, I have more work ahead.

DATE: 20th | AIRCRAFT TYPE & NUMBER: LIBERATOR III–X/120 | DUTY: Escort to ON.202 Met. 4 U-boats sighted. U-Boat attacked twice.
TIME UP: 05.07 REY | TIME DOWN: 19.48 REY
CREW: F/Lt. Thompson. Capt. F/O. Green. Co-Pil. Sgt. Davies. Nav. F/Lt. Lewis. Sgt. Lesier. Engr. Sgt. Bacon. 1.W.Op. Sgt. Lund. 2.W.Op. Sgt. Dowling. 3.W.Op. Sgt. Richardson. 4.W.Op.
DETAILS OF SORTIE OR FLIGHT: Airbourne Reykjavik 05.07.A.S/c for C/v. 07.02. Began Homing Procedure B – successful. 10.25. Sighted fully surfaced 500.ton U-Boat. 2 miles distance. Dived to attack, but bomb doors did not open in time. Sighted D/d approaching, and commenced homing D/d to U-Boat by R/T. U-Boat opened A.A. Fire. 11.03. U-Boat sighted D/d and submerged. 11.04. A/C attacked U-Boat in swirl position. 57.49.N 28.26.W. with 3 x 250. lbs. D.Cs. 11.05. Attacked U-Boat with 2 x 600 D.C.s. D/d then arrived and carried out D.C. attack for ½ hour, then lost contact. 12.39. A/C. set course for C/v. 12.55. Met C/v. ON.202. Commenced Cobra Patrol. 15.05. Sighted two fully surfaced U-boats in position 57.45.N. 30.26.W. 1 to Port and 1 to Starboard of A/c. U-boats altered course immediately. A/c. informed C/v, and suggested alteration of course. U-Boat on Starboard was last seen at full-speed with D/ ds. in pursuit, U-Boat on Port was attacked with M/G. A.A. Fire returned by U-Boat. D/d was homed to U-Boat and opened fire at five miles range. A/c left U-Boat with D/d in close pursuit. Attempted to home relieving Liberator to C/v. Unsuccessful. 16.13. S/c Base. 17.07. Sighted fully surfaced U-Boat five miles distance in position 59.45.N. 28.12.W. U-Boat submerged immediately. C/v informed. 19.48.A. Landed Reykjavik.

The co-ordinates 59°45′ N and 28°12′ W are where Flight Lieutenant Thompson in Liberator XIII–X/120 had made his final contact with the submarines attacking the convoy southeast of the coast of Greenland. It is also where my father, Lieutenant Woodburn Thomson, stood on the bridge of HMCS Sackville. Flight Lieutenant Thompson, having informed the convoy that the U-boat “immediately” submerged, then set course for the long flight back to Reykjavik to ensure that he and his crew could land before their aircraft ran out of fuel. I left the Public Records Office, still in disbelief and with little time to make my flight from Heathrow that evening.

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The view from the bridge of HMCS Sackville. For years, Woodburn Thomson would remember how helpless the corvette had been to slow down and rescue sailors while German submarines pursued them.From the collection of Leonard Hare

On westbound flights, the sunset lingers for hours. In the spectacular twilight, gazing down at the ocean sliding by beneath me, I could just make out the foaming crests of the ocean swells 10 kilometres below. My thoughts were with my father, who was 33 when he watched the propeller trails of T-5 torpedoes come at him. After the aircraft appeared from Iceland he’d become hopeful. From that convoy run he’d described men in the water, head and shoulders in the flames from the burning oil of their sinking ship that had spread over the surface, legs kicking in the frigid waters below. He had spoken of the helplessness of Sackville being unable to stop and rescue the burning men, for they’d dared not slow the corvette and present an even easier target for the submarines. The responsibilities of the men in those ships, most in their 20s and 30s, and the choices they faced are incomprehensible to me. The size of the ocean and the rigours of the war are incomprehensible as well.

All this was before 9/11, and on the trip home the cockpit door was left open as the flight attendants went in and out. I had never visited a flight deck, so I asked an attendant if I could. “Certainly,” she said and took me in. The pilots and flight engineer greeted me and motioned to the small spare seat. After a few moments of conversation, I began relating the battle southeast of Greenland and my father’s account of the long-range Liberators appearing from Reykjavik. They listened as I rambled on about the events of Sept. 20, 1943, and the aircrew names that had appeared on the microfilm that afternoon. The flight engineer asked if I knew roughly where the convoy had encountered the U-boats, and I remembered 59°45′ N and 28°12′ W. He glanced at his instruments and paused. He then asked if I wanted to know where we were flying over at that moment.

We were all silent. They were aircrew and I was the son of the man who had sailed. We were there. Our silence was disturbed only by the sound of the engines taking us over the “details” that had been on the ocean far beneath our feet.

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