Don Walz -- Spitfire pilot

Moose Jaw's Don Walz, who served in the RCAF during the Second World War as a fighter pilot, spoke to the Roland Groome Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society on December 12, 1996. Sadly, Don passed away in May 2004. This page is dedicated to him.

Don Walz looked to one side and saw an FW-190 coming from 90 degrees ... Don was a perfect target. An explosion behind his armored seat quickly signalled that his SpitfIre IX's fuel tank had blown up.

What to do?

How he came to be in this undeniably tight spot in the summer of 1944 was the subject of his December 12 talk to the Roland Groome Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society .

Wa1z was somewhat of a rarity among airmen of the Second World War, having earned a private pilot's licence prewar, when he owned a half-share in a deHavilland Puss Moth and logged 37 hours flying.

Although Don's work on his father's farm in the Moose Jaw district could have exempted him from military service, "1 told my dad I HAD to go" and enlisted in the RCAF in early 1941, though he was not called up until later that year. He wanted to become a fighter pilot, of course, but because he had previous flying experience, he was designated as a flying instructor, passing through schools at Moose Jaw and Trenton before being sent to instruct at High River, Alberta. Because so many BCATP schools were operated by civilian contractors, he was also given long-term leave from the RCAF.

Don instructed for about 18 months before he and a few other instructors were returned to the RCAF, sent to Toronto (for a little "square-marching") and then to Dunnville, Ont., for training on Harvards. "I got to love aerobatics," he recalled. " And I still wanted to be a fighter pilot."

He went next to the RCAF Home War Establishment's 127 (Fighter) Squadron at Dartmouth, N.S. -- though his arrival was delayed by a visit to an old girlfriend in Toronto, after which he missed his train! To Eastern Air Command headquarters in Halifax he wired that he had been "unavoidably delayed", which did not exactly sit well with the officer who received his message. "The first thing he told me was that there is no such term in the air force as 'unavoidably delayed’!"

127 Squadron, equipped with Hurricanes, did fighter patrols over Halifax and its approaches, plus formation flying, fighter attacks "and just messing around like that" until it was sent to the remote RCAF station at Gander, Newfoundland, which turned out to be "a pretty good base, actually ... everything you'd want out there."

The squadron commander was an expatriate Texan, whose eccentricities included wearing cowboy boots -- even on parade. Various misdeeds got this officer("a nice chap, but he was pretty wild") removed from the service, with 127 was taken over by S/L P .A. "Paddy" Gilbertson, a Canadian veteran of the Battle of Britain. The squadron went back to Dartmouth, then returned to Gander, where Walz and another flight commander once found themselves wandering across the tarmac near a pair of Norsemen light transports left by Ferry Command crews.

Shouted Gilbertson: "Have you fellows ever flown a Norseman?"

"Yeah! " they lied.

The other pilot, soon bound for St. John's, found himself forced to land, ignominiously, on a beach.

Walz was assigned to take a doctor to a rural settlement in a ski-equipped Norseman that, upon landing on a frozen lake, proved difficult to stop. "I just hollered at the doctor, 'Jump! You're going to have to jump!"' He did -- and Don eventually got the aircraft stopped after soaring over a dock. "That was the end of my Norseman flying."

Another close call on ice came when Walz let Gilbertson fly him, in a ski-equipped Tiger Moth, to a downed Hurricane. Upon touching down, Don (in the biplane trainer's back seat) was horrified to see water coming up behind the skis -- because the ice below them was cracking!

"Water was pouring over the skis," he said. "That was the last time I went with him! "

Christmas 1943 saw Don home on leave -- that was cut short by a call to return to Dartmouth; 127 Squadron was being sent overseas. Alas, on the troopship, he got mumps, so that when it docked in Liverpool, the other airmen went to Bournemouth -- while Don went into hospital. "I was in the hospital for two, maybe three, weeks. When I got out of the hospital, I still had the mumps. A lady doctor asked me if I still had swollen glands; I said 'no!" even though I still did."

Off he went to Bournemouth, with 127 Squadron (by then redesignated as 443 Squadron) now at RAF Digby. By the time Walz caught up to the squadron, it was flying Spitfire 5s under the command of S/L Henry Wallace "Wally" McLeod, a Reginan who had 11 (some sources say 13) victories in the air fighting over Malta in the summer of 1942.

"He was very rough; a real fighter pilot, a hotshot," Walz recalled. "He was a good man. If you did something wrong, he knew about it."

Walz's introduction to the new CO saw the latter toss him some pilot's notes, point to an aircraft and say, "There's your Spit ... now go out and fly."

The Spitfire, incidentally, was a striking contrast to the Hurricane on which Walz had trained. "I pulled back on the stick, as we did in the Hurricane, the first time -- and 'yellowed out'. There was that much difference in the airplanes," he said of the Spitfire. "You didn't really fly it. You just sort of wore it."

By late spring 1944, 443 Squadron, by now equipped with the Spitfire IX, headed to Britain's south coast. "Our job was to get ready for the invasion. We moved from one place to another. That gave the squadron some practice in moving from one base to another." It also did sweeps into occupied France as well as some dive-bombing -- an avocation that Walz quickly came to dislike. Because of the flak -- Walz likened it to diving into "a field of tennis balls" -- some pilots released their 500-lb. bombs early, sending them past other, still-diving SpitfIres. One of those bombs, indeed, "went right past my nose," Don recalled.

He also remembers being part of an escort for B-26 Marauders that attacked German shipping in the English Channel despite murderous flak and had another close call when he, McLeod, W /C "Johnnie" Johnson (the distinguished RAF ace who was to finish the war with 38 confirmed kills) and three other pilots were on a low-level sweep deep into France. Johnson noticed a German airfield ahead and called for the flight to break left. Flying on the left -- the very inside of the formation -- was Walz, who found himself getting lower and lower -- so low that a French farmer waved at him. He eventually had to climb to get over a hedge, with leaves flying everywhere and almost hit the ground before rejoinimg the others. "I was pretty lucky," he said.

Another sweep involved the entire wing, with 443 on the bottom. Walz spotted some specks on the horizon.

"Don, lead us to them!" radioed Johnson.

Off came the Spitfires' long-range tanks ("if you got them off, you considered yourself lucky because the Spitfire wasn't much of an airplane with them on"). He saw there were six Fw-190s, flying line abreast.

"You take the three on the right," said Johnson, who headed for the others. The Fws broke and the battle was joined.

Don got on the tail of one that flick-rolled and headed down to the deck. He followed, lost him, pulled back on the stick, blacked out and woke up at 20,000 feet -- all alone.

More specks appeared -- more Spitfires. "By the time I got halfway across the channel, I had six airplanes with me. That's how spread out we had all got."

In all, the wing had lost two aircraft while claiming six Germans. "It was a good day for us."

Next came D-Day, more patrols and then 443 Squadron's move to the beach-head -- a trip that, ironically, came after a morning of pubbing. "It was the funniest-looking formation you've ever seen ... they were half-cut." he laughed.

They landed on an dusty steel-plank runway at an airstrip code-named B2. The next day, Don led a patrol of four aircraft to the Cherbourg Penninsula. The weather was poor, with a 500-foot ceiling.

They were heading back to B2 when, through a hole in the cloud, Don noticed German aircraft. "Let's just go up and take a peek" Walz said to his wingman, Gord Ockenden ("he was a good No.2; he just stuck to you like glue").

They climbed and Don latched onto a German fighter's tail.

Nothing came easy. Allied flak was all around both aircraft "They were still shooting at him from the ground and the shots were coming closer to me than to him! " Don lamented.

His two 20mm cannon jammed -- the result of too much Normandy dust entering them -- but his four .303 machine guns still worked, convincing the German pilot to jettison his canopy and bail out. A victory!

Later that same day, Don took out another flight of six aircraft, heading through another hole in the seemingly inevitable clouds --which were sufficiently heavy that day that two of his pilots turned back. South and east of Caen, the remaining four Spitfires ran smack into a large formation of German aircraft. It was later determined, Don said, that they were about 35 German aircraft moving , from one base to another under pressure from the Allied armies' advance.

Don got onto the tail of an Fw-190 that went into a diving turn, but he quickly heard his buddy Hughie Russell yelling, "Break, Don!" Break! They're on your tail! For Christ's sake, break!"

He broke -- going into a climbing turn and getting onto the tail of an Me-109.

It was at that point that he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, an Fw-190 coming at him from a 90-degree angle and opening fire. "There was a huge bang and I was on fire," he said. "He'd hit me smack in the gas tank."

Don bailed out "real fast" -- he isn't quite sure how -- and clawed for his parachute ring (he felt a bump in his seat and figured he might have hit his Spitfire's tail. "The next thing I knew, pop, there goes the 'chute."

Sitting beneath it at 1,500 feet, he could see only one remaining Spit, with three Fw-l90s on its tail and a fourth coming toward him. "I swear he was going to shoot me -- which they did every once in a while."

He didn't, though, and Don hit the ground and hid in a pasture while German infantrymen searched a nearby wheat field for him. How near? "They went by me as close from me [as] to the end of that table," he told the meeting. "They were looking in the wheatfield, but they didn't see me."

His observation was that there were no farmboys in the German platoon -- else they would have twigged to the horses that were standing over the downed airman and snorting -- a sure giveaway had anybody noticed.

"I had the wheat field sized up, so I crawled that night through the field. I could see the flashes up at the beachhead where the war was going on."

The next day, though, he heard voices. Reaching for his revolver, he found himself facing a French farmer and his son, who fed him raw eggs and gave him an old jacket. Don got further into disguise by making a crude beret from the lining of his jacket. He bumped soon after into another French farmer and his son, who were cutting hay. Saying "Canadian" and gesturing got him nowhere, though the boy grabbed Don's crude "beret" and replaced it with his own. "That's the last I saw of those two."

After hiding in a barn, Don was confronted by a third farmer ("He nearly died when he saw me!") who gave him a razor for shaving, then signalled him to leave.

The airman settled into a shed for the night, but felt uneasy about it, and was crawling through another wheatfield when he saw orange sparks -- cigarettes.

"What I'd crawled up was the Caen-Calais highway and they (the Germans) had men along it in foxholes."

By the next morning, Don, hungry and burned, was considering surrendering -- until four Frenchmen found him. There was more muttering of "Canada! Canada!" -- until the men told him to wait. Don was sure the Germans were being summoned, but the next arrival was the local gendarme, who started him on his way to a French family in which the father had been an interpreter during the First World War and therefore spoke good English. From then on, when the German soldiers knocked at the outer door and demanded wine, the wife would deal with them, "then come in and laugh to beat the band because they didn't realize there was a Canadian on the other side of the door."

This charade ended when the Germans decided to clear the town of its inhabitants, who found themselves in trucks, Don being paired with a French woman and her child and passed off as deaf and dumb. "It's not the easiest thing to do because you just don't know when you're going to make a mistake," he said.

Adding to the stress was the distinct possibility Allied fighters would mistake the convoy for one carrying German troops.

"I'm not going to be deaf and dumb if I hear the engines pick up speed! " he reasoned -- though this threat did not arise.

Passing through the hands of a number of French resistance workers, Don ended up south of the Normandy fighting, staying hidden for about three weeks on a farm and learning to speak French until the Germans pulled out and he found a nearby American engineer unit that was salvaging tanks and vehicles. Despite a particularly hard grilling by one American officer ("He was just about as bad as the Germans"), Don hit it off with the other Americans, happily using his new facility in French to find wine for them all. "They said, 'we're not letting you go! You stay with us. You're pretty handy ."' he recalled with a grin.

His next dealing with our American cousins was equally entrepreneurial, shall we say.

After returning to 443 Squadron via Britain ("I had to fight like Sam Hill to stay; they were going to send me home.") he found 443 Squadron near Everaux, where off-duty pilots once found an unoccupied U .S. Army jeep near a cathouse, "sitting there, all the rifles and the Tommy guns in it."

Jeeps were in short supply right after the invasion, so this example was quickly driven back to 443's airstrip. When military police showed up the next day, "it was there, but it was a Canadian jeep now, all repainted and such, in the middle of the night."

Another American jeep was shortly thereafter acquired in the same unconventional way, "but the group captain wouldn't let us keep that one," he laughed. "We had to give it back."

By late September, the squadron was well into Belgium. An operation on Sept. 27th saw 443 Squadron and another squadron get airborne and learn over the radio that "there was a lot of action around Nijmegen".

Arriving at the scene, Don spotted an Me 109 through a hole in the clouds and fastened onto his tail. "The guy saw me coming," Don recalled. "What he did was drop his gear and drop everything."

To avoid overshooting, Don did the same and at one point ended up abreast of the German -- who then retracted his gear and headed for a cloud. "I got him just as he started to disappear in the cloud," Don said. "The cloud turned blood red and I had got another one."

Sadly, this was also the fight in which Wally McLeod was killed. Hugh Halliday's biography of McLeod in the 1978 book The Tumbling Sky credits McLeod with 19 confirmed kills, one probable and 9.25 damaged. Other sources give him 22 kills, the differences being explained by, as Halliday points out, unclear records on embattled Malta. Commented Don: "He was quite a guy; quite a fighter pilot."

In a chat after the meeting, Don told me that McLeod "had good eyesight and great determination; he was very aggressive; when he got on to a German, he would follow him clean to Berlin! He did a few times -- not to Berlin, of course. You could always tell what he said ... you'd hear it over the airplane radio: "Take that, you bastard!" He was very, very aggressive."

One of the next stops was Brussels, where the squadron, in an exchange of roles, briefly became the target of German bombing, with Me-262 jets occasionally dropping anti-personnel bombs. A loud bang would signal this newfangled munitions' arrival, then a number of grenade-size bomblets would pop out and explode.

Two stories illustrate that tense period: one saw 443's pilots getting a lecture from a British group captain, who, being unfamiliar with the delayed action of these bombs, declared, "When you hear a bomb, it's too late!" However, when a bomb did arrive, "he was down there before the rest of us!" Don laughed.

Another day found Walz and other pilots sitting in their idling aircraft when they realized a bombing raid was in progress -- and collectively decided the best defence was getting into the air. "Everybody opened their throttles and went over fences, went over everything, but nobody got hit." Don, incidentally, was in Britain on a course when Operation Bodenplatte, the great German air offensive against Allied bases on Jan. 1, 1945 took place.

One "trip" in April 1945 found Don flying with a new pilot and confronted by a strange aircraft. "I could have got it because it was coming straight on. All I had to do was drop my nose and shoot, but I didn't because I didn't know what it was."

Walz and his wingman later realized they had come face-to-face with an Me 262 jet fighter. Disappointed, they had to content themselves with strafing, during which Don had the sensation of twigs hitting his aircraft's wings. It was actually light anti-aircraft fire.

"Red leader, you've been hit!" the rookie wingman told him.

Don didn't think so, but by the time he'd gained altitude, "the gauges were off the clock".

When he radioed that he was bailing out, all he heard was a polite, "Cheerio!"

There was no escape this time. Don was quickly captured, spending nine days in interrogation. One German intelligence officer happened to speak excellent English. "How are you?" he asked the Canuck, who replied: "OK, but it's damned cold in that cellar."

"It would be cold in Canada, too, if you weren't here bombing Germany!" the German snapped back.

Even though Germany was collapsing, Don was sent to a PoW camp, where he became the officer in charge of billeting during a march southward through Germany.

During it, USAAF Thunderbolts spotted the column -- whereupon remarkable things happened.

As German guards vainly shouted for order, PoWs, some of them exhausted only a few minutes earlier , began leaping over fences to get away from the P-47s' attentions.

Early May saw the war's end,"and the next thing, you know, the Germans were the prisoners and we were in charge" -- not only of themselves, but a large number of adjacent Russians.

"I never want to fight these guys," confided Don to a South African buddy, "'cause they're a tough-looking bunch".

With liberation came a flight back to London, the ritual meeting with the Queen and a trip home to Canada. Don, who was officially credited with four confirmed victories, stayed active in aviation, operating a crop-dusting/charter firm at Moose Jaw. But that, as they say, is another story.

-Reported by Will Chabun