By WILL CHABUN
What had gone wrong? Why didn't the air force call? Through the spring and summer of 1940, these thoughts preoccupied young Barry Needham.
He'd gone to the RCAF's recruiting office in Regina the previous January, accepted an officer's advice to quit smoking and gain some weight, endured a medical examination -- and passed.
And then no call.
Frustrated, he went back again, taking his father, who pressed recruiters to search their records until they found the reason. Barry's medical classification, A1B, had been inadvertently misfiled as "ATB", meaning "not fit for immediate service".
"I’ve often wondered ... if I'd just kept quiet, maybe I'd have been able to sit out the war!" he quipped to the January 2001 meeting of the Roland Groome chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society in Regina. "But think of the fun I would have missed!"
Thus it came to pass that Barry was inducted into the RCAF on Sept. 30, 1940, along with his friend Rod Smith.
Barry was sent to the RCAF manning depot at Brandon, Man.., then was posted to guard duty at the new RCAF station at Prince Rupert, B.C., which was being built because "there was some concern that the Japanese were going to invade the west coast ... they sent us there to stop 'em!" (Coastal Prince Rupert was noteworthy for two distinctions, he added: it rained on an average of 300 days each year and contained what was then believed to be the only legal red-light district in North America.) Weatherwise, "our salvation was that it's mostly rock, so you're not in the mud all the time. The first [clothing] issue we got was rubber boots, sou'westers and Ross Rifles left over from World War One!"
Release from this duty in December, 1940 brought a train trip across the northern Rockies via Jasper, where the townspeople thoughtfully took the small unit of airmen into their homes. "Some of them even cooked our Christmas dinner a little early," he recalled. "And that afternoon, we played a little hockey game against the local team. I forget who won, but it was a great place. I'll always remember that."
Barry's next stop was the RCAF's No. 2 Initial Training School in Regina's Normal School (teachers’ college), where selections were made for aircrew trades. "How and why they decided I don't know," said Barry, who was posted as a pilot trainee on Feb. 1, 1941 to 15 Elementary Flying Training School at the nearby Regina airport, where he made his first flight (in a Tiger Moth). After 6 hours, 35 minutes of instruction, he went solo on Feb. 15. "I don't recall a great deal about it except that I was probably scared to death."
After graduation, he was sent to 11 Service Flying Training School (11 SFTS) at Yorkton, where he was part of the new school's first class. He logged 77 hours of dual time on Harvards and 73 solo. He graduated June 30 as a sergeant pilot. "And with a total of 150 hours, they sent us overseas," he said. "I imagine that it was just a year after the Battle of Britain and they were still short of fighter pilots."
He was posted to Halifax to await transport overseas and, with another young pilot named A.P.L. "Apple" Smith, he played a hunch and volunteered for an unspecified assignment. Instead of heading to Britain with his friends from Yorkton, "first thing we knew, we were on a train on the way back to Montreal." They were taken to the waterfront, and then to a rather small ship. "I thought, 'This is the one that's going to take us out to the big ship!"
Instead, it was the ship that was to take them across the wartime Atlantic: a 3,000-ton Norwegian freighter, the captain of which joked that it was so tiny that "the Germans would never waste a torpedo on us ... that's how small we were!"
With the captain's blessing, a handful of airmen "did the town" and crawled back on board in time for sailing. Barry celebrated his 21st birthday aboard the little ship.
A couple of days at the aircrew reception centre at Bournemouth were followed by a posting to an operational training unit (OTU) at Heston, near London, adding 33 hours, 50 minutes to his logbook in the Spitfire II fighter. He and Smith were posted in September, 1941, to the RCAF's 412 Squadron, which had been formed the previous June at RAF Digby. The squadron's CO was "Chuck" Trevena, a prewar RCAF reservist from Regina (where he had worked in The Leader-Post’s accounting department) who also had fought with the RCAF’s No. 1 Squadron in the Battle of Britain.
Another pilot who joined 412 Squadron around that time was P/O John Gillespie Magee, a young, American-born fighter pilot-writer whose literary output included a poem called "High Flight" that has become a classic. He was an officer, Barry a sergeant pilot; they had little chance to talk. And on Dec. 11, 1941, 412 Squadron and three others were practising operations above the cloud. The CO of 412 Squadron spotted a hole in the clouds, put his squadron into a line-astern formation and led it down through it the hole. Alas, Magee’s Spitfire collided with an Oxford training aircraft. “He bailed out, but he was too low and the 'chute never opened, Barry said."
(An aside: a member of Britain’s Severnside Aviation Society named Ivan Hansen, has been trying to assemble an anthology of Magee's other writings. "Magee's family has given him plenty of material that nobody else has ever seen," Barry said. This includes 50 poems, 21 essays, two short stories, two sketches, two plays and a poem entitled Brave New World, which had won a 1939 poetry award.)
The daily work of 412 Squadron in late 1941 and early '42 included convoy patrols off the British coast and "sometimes, we'd go to Manston or West Malling and do sweeps over northern France." A variation of the latter was a "rhubarb", in which a small number of RAF fighters would “fly low over the Channel (to avoid the radar) and then climb like crazy and come down again". He added: "the deal was to shoot up everything that looked like it was part of the German war effort."
October 1941 saw the squadron re-equipped with the new Spitfire Mark V, which had two 20mm cannon and four .303 machine guns in place of eight small .303s in earlier Spitfires. It also moved to Wellingore, a grass airfield in Lincolnshire. CO Chuck Trevena (a former Reginan) was replaced the next month by Christopher "Kit" Bushell, a senior flight commander and graduate of Royal Military College who hailed from Qu'Appelle. "A very fine pilot, an exceptional officer and a natural leader," remembered Barry.
Tragically, Bushell was killed within mere days. The new CO was S/L John D. “Jack” Morrison, who had previously been with 401 Squadron. On a sweep to Abbeville the next spring, he, too, would be shot down and killed.
There was also practice in flying formation and scrambles. On patrol, Barry once spotted two Dornier bombers, but never got close enough to open fire.
Feb. 12, 1942, was a particularly eventful day. In poor weather, the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisnau made a successful daylight dash through the English Channel to a port in the Netherlands, stunning the British military establishment. "The weather was so bad that we had difficulty even finding the Scharnhorst -- and those that did got beat up pretty badly."
Around that time, Barry was part of a rhubarb that was bounced by "a swarm" of Me 109s. As per instructions, he broke sharply "and went around and around ... when I straightened out, there wasn't another plane around for miles and miles."
March 15, 1942 was another memorable day: the first time he and a number of his buddies had a chance to fire their guns in anger. They had been scrambled to search for reported German E-boats (torpedo boats or gunboats) and indeed some small craft were spotted. But were they German -- or very similar British MTBs?
F/O Bill Napier offered to take a good look, buzzing the ships -- and drawing plenty of flak for his trouble. "He said, 'They can't be very friendly!' and we took turns shooting them up, going around about three times. One sunk, four others lying dead in the water. The navy said that we did such a good job that they sent us a commendation."
By April 27, the squadron was in southern England, leaving behind Barry's buddy, “Apple" Smith. As he flew south later to join 412, Smith's Spitfire began to “porpoise". Like Magee five months earlier, he baled out, "but he was also too low for his chute to open."
Luckier was another pilot, Claude Weaver, an American who'd joined the RCAF. On a rhubarb over Belgium he became separated from Barry and flew in broad daylight over Ostend harbour -- "about the worst thing you could do because just about every flak gun in there opened up." But Weaver survived, was posted to Malta, was shot down and became a PoW, was freed and eventually went back on ops before being shot down and killed.
The tempo of operations was heavy. Between June 4-18, 1942, Barry logged 15 flights. Most were convoy patrols -- "one of them, I notice here," said Barry, consulting his logbook, "was so close to the Belgian coast that we came under fire from the shore batteries." On a sweep over Abbeville, the squadron lost a US Army Air Force colonel named Clark. His presence takes some explaining: about a half-dozen USAAF pilots had been attached to 412 Squadron to gain experience flying Spitfires in combat. Such a senior officer would normally remain on the ground, but the colonel, wanting to gain experience in the air, "went on operations; he was shot down and became a PoW,” Barry said. “I've often wondered what his pay packet would have been like when he got back."
August 1942, was "very busy", too, with 26 flights including three patrols over embattled Dieppe on the 22nd. The Canadian Army took heavy casualties, as did the air force that day. The best Barry managed was a shot at a 190. Another Saskatchewanian in the squadron, Bill Aldcorn, bailed out over the Channel and was picked up by a British ship. There exists a memorable photograph of a grinning Alcorn being pulled aboard. "As he came over the side of the ship, you never saw a bigger smile on anybody in your life. He'd been in the water and he was a non-swimmer."
Post-Dieppe, the squadron moved Tangmere, then to Redhill and continued its fare of convoy patrols, bomber escorts and interception of raiders -- for the Luftwaffe had started “their own rhubarbs” -- a new series of bombing raids against Britain.
Barry remembers being at immediate readiness, strapped into the cockpit of his Spitfire when he and a pilot named "Pipsqueak" Powell were scrambled. Seeing explosions from bombs dropped nearby, they chased a pair of 190s over the Channel. One 190 made the mistake of turning, at which point Powell bagged him.
Barry kept after the other. "I kept pushing it ‘through the gate’, which you were only supposed to do in an emergency. I was able to get close enough to him to get strikes on him, so I made a claim."
There is an interesting sidebar to this incident: about a year ago, Barry got a letter from a British researcher who'd been checking into German records of this era, found Barry's combat report and reported that the German 190 in Barry's sights was indeed damaged, but landed safely. The German pilot's brother, "had a photograph and a letter from the pilot describing this flight; how he'd lost his No. 2, how they'd bombed the gas works and how, when he reached France, he was like a sardine in a can of oil because I'd damaged the oil [system] somehow," Barry said. A photo of the German pilot and his buddies showed that "they looked no different than we did, sitting under the wing of an airplane and enjoying the sunshine. I often wondered [about him] because I'd put in a claim, but I had never any confirmation that I'd done anything."
There was frequent bad weather in the autumn of 1942, but he was able to attack two trains in France ("I never thought about it until much later: those were poor Frenchmen who were running those trains") and did escorts for American B-17 and B-24 bombers on raids over western Europe. Particularly chilling was seeing the occasional bomber crippled and falling out of formation. "It was like watching a big, wounded bird flip-flopping around the sky. Anybody who's a hunter will recognize that. Sometimes, parachutes would come out."
Two more moves and bad weather intervened, but action picked up again in March 1943, when he logged 22 operations. The same month, he was promoted to flight lieutenant and became a flight commander. Around the same time, the squadron moved from the front line in southeast England to the RAF's 10 Group in Wales, where operations consisted largely of patrols over coastal convoys. By the time he finished his first operational tour that month, he had logged 250 operational hours and had a total of 518 hours flying as a single-engined pilot. Between mid-1941 and April 1943, 412 Squadron had moved no fewer than 14 times.
Barry's next posting was a "sentence" to an OTU, where he checked out new pilots on the Spitfire. Some, ironically, were former BCATP instructors with far more flying hours than he. After six months there, he was posted home for 30 days leave, including Christmas 1943.
On Jan.2, 1944, he boarded the Queen Mary in New York for the trip back to Britain. His companions were 8,000 black GIs who'd just had their inoculations for overseas duty and were understandably queasy. The weather was awful and almost everybody aboard became violently ill. Sewage flowed inches deep and, at one point, nobody left their cabins save for a few individuals sent to get sandwiches.
Safe in England, Barry initially was assigned to 401 Squadron at Biggin Hill, where ops included escorting USAAF bombers. On March 16, he rejoined 412 Squadron as a flight commander. The other flight commander was F/L George "Buzz" Beurling, by then a high-scoring ace ("too bad some of his expertise didn't rub off on me!" Barry quipped) with a DSO, DFC, DFM and bar.
As Barry put it, “everything you've heard about Beurling was true!"
For example, the ace didn't smoke or drink, but he did energetically chase women. "On several occasion, I'd been in bed when he'd come in, grab his sleeping bag and go ... he had a WAAF waiting on the squash court!"
Beurling also had a macabre, blood-thirsty streak. When, for example, a damaged B-17 or B-24 would make an emergency landing on 412’s field, "he'd be the first one down to see all the blood and gore. He just lapped it up."
Gone were the doughty old Spitfire Mark Vs that had been outmatched by the FW-190. Of the Mark V, he said, “I was never that confident; I was scared most of the time. The ‘five’ was a good airplane, but it was no match for the 190, that was for sure.”
In its place was the Mark 9 (“a match for the 190”), which also “had a supercharger that kicked in at 20,000 feet and gave you a boost like you wouldn’t believe. We were then able to operate at from 28,000-32,000 feet. It was just fabulous.”
Another addition: 250- and 500-pound bombs below the wings of the squadron's Spitfires, which had been given a new job: dive-bombing "Noball" (V-1 flying bomb) launch sites near the Channel coast. Standard tactics involved entering a steep dive, then pulling out around 1,200 feet and dropping the bomb. "Now, by this time, you'd be traveling at a pretty good clip and you'd just about have to have your feet on the dash to pull it out,” said Barry, who added that "we lost quite a number of pilots and we didn't know why. This was the reason: you'd black out when you pulled out."
There was another challenge of this kind of work. What happened if the bomb didn't release? The answer, the pilots were told, was that a Spit could drop not only the bomb, but the rack carrying it, too.
One of Barry's colleagues had the chance to try this out. The bomb failed to drop, and then so did the rack. Rather than land with a live 500-lb. bomb aboard, he got back to Britain, pointed the aircraft back toward the Channel, and then bailed out. "Well, the Spitfire spiralled down and landed in a farmer's field -- and didn't explode!"
D-Day on June 6 brought plenty of patrols over the invasion beaches and June 14 was the day on which the squadron touched down on an advanced airfield ("a strip ploughed out of a farmer's field)") at Beny-sur-Mer in Normandy. "The dust was so thick off this field that you could spot it for miles and miles. It was like a mushroom cloud."
That first day brought an amusing incident. With several buddies, Barry heard that a nearby French farmer was offering "beer" to all comers. Much enthusiasm was mustered but, on closer inspection, it turned out he had made "beurre" (butter) -- and not "beer" (biere).
Even with the airfield so close to the front line, he still logged 62 hours in June, doing patrols, strafing and bombing.
One op brought "the most intense flak he'd ever seen”. Four of six Spitfires were damaged and Barry counted 17 holes in his aircraft. "I was able to make a landing, but the old [engine] temperature was just about off the clock."
Early in July, he retaliated by shooting up German transport vehicles and tangling with 109s and 190s.
And then came July 7, 1944. "That was the big day."
Barry remembers July 7 well, and not only because it was his father's birthday. It was also "the day I was shot down."
He was part of a section that had spotted and strafed a large German transport truck and dispatch rider. Barry was pulling up from an attack when "a big ball of fire about the size of a beach ball came up between my legs!"
He pulled back the coupe top canopy, undid his belt and stood up. "I popped out of there like a cork out of a champagne bottle!"
He landed, turned and began running. A little French boy pointed to some low bush. A hiding place! Barry dove into it and crawled, but "I was only there for about two minutes when I had a rifle in my ear and a German soldier saying, "Raus!"Raus!"
He was taken to a nearby French village, where a German officer was holding, of all people, the young French boy. Barry told the guards to let him go; he hadn't done anything. "What happened to him, I have no idea. The only thing I can think of was that perhaps he'd tried to hide my parachute. They had no reason to pick him up."
Barry had his own problems. He had been burned, with loose skin hanging from his arms, face and legs, and his vision was blurred. He got cursory treatment before being put into a building, where he had to beg water from a guard, and eventually was taken to an well-camouflaged airfield and turned over to the Luftwaffe –– which didn't seem to know what to do with him.
He gave the standard name, rank and serial number and found himself accused of shooting up ambulances. "I had to deny it -- but I knew other ones had done it, but the funny thing was that when they hit them, they blew up -- which mean ammunition was being carried in them."
That passed, but Barry antagonized one of his captors a little later when he complained about the food "Yikes! He just blew up. I thought I was going to go up before a firing squad."
As he puts it, "confusion reigned" that July of 1944 behind German lines in Normandy. He was taken to several different places, dodging strafing Spitfires at one point and once riding with a group of German soldiers coming back from leave, one of whom quizzed Barry on what a Canadian was doing fighting in Europe. "He knew what he was doing: he was fighting communism and he wanted to know what I was doing there." He eventually ended up in the impromptu Stalag 221 at Rennes, in a three-story high school. "The Germans posted guards and said to the French, 'Here, you look after them!’"
The French rose to the occasion. There was a school of nursing nearby and an 83-year-old doctor came out of retirement to help the PoWs. Barry, still suffering from his burns, was chloroformed and operated upon. "A couple of the guys who were in the operating room said it took two guys to hold me own," That's 's how much I was fighting when they pulled the skin off."
The food in the impromptu camp was horrible and included large quantities of "stinky, stinky cheese". When a cart lost a single loaf of bread arrived, "you'd never seen such a hungry group of vultures."
"What we did most of the time was sit outside in the sunshine," he recalled. He'd also watch the dead skin on his hand until it was successfully cut away by a skilful French nurse -- who he was able to find, and thank, 50 long years later.
All this ended around the 4th or 5th of August, 1944, when the troops of General George Patton arrived in the area -- at which point mayhem erupted. The nearby SS headquarters was well and truly looted -- beds, desks, wine. One of Barry's pals, an American paratrooper PoW who'd carried on a flirtation with a young nurse in a nearby apartment, disappeared into her building "and might still be there!" Some of the guards came back, but the senior British officer refused to accept them. Added Barry: "It was the biggest party you ever saw. That square in front of that building was just packed with drunken Frenchmen and PoWs."
Barry, however, was not among them. His throat was badly swollen, so he put himself into the care of the elderly French doctor, who successfully lanced his tonsils, generating a torrent of pus and blood, but also a cure. Barry was handed over to a U.S. Army hospital unit, then bundled onto a DC-3 and flown back to Britain. He was hardly recognizable as a Canadian: he was wearing American paratrooper boots, plus a GI shirt and pants. "The only thing I'd kept was my battledress [jacket], which was pretty badly scorched.” Small wonder that when he reported to RCAF headquarters in London, he was required to submit to an interrogation before he got a new uniform and more leave, with which he and a friend "did London” for a week or two".
As a former PoW, he could not go back on operations, so he returned to Canada and was assigned to a ferry squadron at Montreal, flying (among other things) Hurricanes into storage. He then was posted to 170 (Ferry) Squadron in Winnipeg, helping move training aircraft out of small airfields on the Prairies into storage centres.
At one point, he gave an impromptu airshow up and down Regina’s Albert Street. At another, he was in The Queen City (where liquor rationing was still in effect) when the idea of taking an Anson to Crosbie, North Dakota, for booze was broached. $1,100 was collected.
Barry and Co. landed at Crosbie, where they were met by the Border Patrol and made a chilling discovery: a fire had broken out and was threatening the liquor store in Crosbie! That being the case, the owner was more than eager to sell his inventory to his Canadian allies who, with the Border Patrol's help, got the booty back to the Anson.
Their adventures weren't over yet.
Airborne, they noticed that a lit cigarette had been dropped through the Anson's floor. Visions of an airborne fire danced through their heads and there was nothing left in the fire extinguishers "because we'd used them to cool the soft drinks!"
Pouring beer on the fire "would be a terrible waste", so the airmen bravely took turns getting onto their knees and urinating into the Anson's nether regions to extinguish the cigarette. "I hate to think," said Barry, who would return to 412 Squadron one more time (in the Air Force of Occupation in Germany before leaving the RCAF) "of the next guys who had to fly that airplane."
And that night, the ingenious airmen had a party of epic proportions. "We had more friends than you've ever seen."
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For more on the life of John Gillespie Magee, go to:
Saskatchewan airfield named after D-Day Spitfire pilot