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Early Canada

Mac, Me, Geordie
"Mac" Myself "Geordie"

Only ex servicemen can appreciate the exhausting boredom that accompanies each move from one place to another. As our Atlantic crossing was drawing to it's close we crowded the rails for a first glimpse of Canada with the occasional reminder over the Tannoy, that U Boats had been detected in the area.

By the time we arrived dusk was removing any trace of colour from the landscape and when the ship was made fast fore and aft there was a ripple of anticipation of descending the gangways. We should have known better, we stood interminably with our stuffed hard kitbags by our sides with half hearted wails of "Why are we waiting" from time to time. (There is no transport!)

Someone must know what was going on but we, 'lowest of the low' felt that we were there for ever, then suddenly all was action and we lined up on the dark quayside; a thin cold rain was starting to fall. An almost falsetto "AH-ten-SHUN' ,Quee-yick --- MARCH" Kitbags over our shoulders we clumped along feeling strange with hard, solid ground under our feet, the rain was more heavy now.

The barracks were welcome but seemed not to be prepared. We felt less bolshie after "wads" (Doorstep sandwiches) and mugs of hot cocoa and slept like the dead. We had been drained of strength by waiting and frustrated anticipation.

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The next day was sunny as we lined up with our mugs and irons (knives, forks, & spoons) and entered a clean dining hall with half pounds of butter at intervals on the tables. Before we could sit down we were sternly sent to tables along the wall with no butter. There was another clatter of boots and Canadian airmen took over the butter laden tables; my Norwegian friends of the trip over were among them.

It was soon made plain to us that we were still on British rations! The sheer unfairness left us deeply resentful; these feelings erupted into impotent rage when one or two idiots among the Canadians seeing our annoyance waved their butter dishes at us. The sheer lunacy of the authorities just added to the deep well of resentment that grows within any serving man and made us more and more determined to "work the system" to our personal advantage whenever the opportunity arose. This has turned the most law abiding citizens into plunderers and thieves since man was first press ganged into military service.

After more standing and waiting we were herded onto endless trains which disgorged us on it's way west according to where and for what we were to be trained. We were almost at the foothills of the Rockies before we were sent north to Bowden which was a spot on the map half way between Calgary and Edmonton.

Bowden view
Bowden

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The rest of the train had carried on to Vancouver. Many of the lads looked at the station which had no platform and the three huge grain silos and correctly surmised that there would be no girls around those parts. My mind was focussed on the distant 'wings'. Looking around we found friends who had been with us since the first billets in St John's Wood, Ground Studies in Newquay, and the first flights at Stoke Orchard. Our barracks were identical to the others across North America. Twenty men to a room, laid out in two stories in the same conformation we recognise in "H Blocks". Each room contained 10 double deck bunks.

Dormitory
This Untidiness could put us all
on a Fizzer [Charge]

Above each bunk was a cupboard for two men, with a space of about 18" between each and the next pair. There was a plain trestle table to each room. It was impossible to see any difference between any two rooms excepting for the names on the kitbags. That was to be home.

We were divided into two flights so that when one was at ground studies the other would be flying so for us flying would start at 05:15 on alternate days. Naturally we could hardly wait to get going. The first surprise was to find that the Tiger Moths we were to fly had enclosed cockpits with a further light proof hood that could be pulled over the rear cockpit for 'blind flying' training.

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First Solo
My First Solo

The next huge step was the first solo flight. Among us was a chap whose uncle had flown the famous Schneider Trophy planes so we were all in some awe of LAC Unwin. (Leading Aircraftsman, just one above the lowest grade!) He was very smart and well turned out, quiet and dedicated. I was most anxious, as were we all, to get this stage over but when it came was sufficiently blasé to take my camera and photograph the airport, all went well. Two circuits and a landing that if not my best was certainly not my worst.

We all gathered to watch our friends make the first solo. Unwin came out and climbed in. His takeoff was impeccable as were his two circuits; he approached for his landing, it seemed a bit fast, his wheels touched half way down the runway and bounced straight back into the air. We all breathed a sigh of relief as he opened the throttle and climbed away again. He tried again but came in too fast again. He made several attempts getting worse each time until finally he bounced far too far, and pulled the stick back and before us all the port wing dropped and he span in.

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The fellows sitting waiting in the Blood Wagon cheered and drove to the wreck. We hated them. They sat all day waiting for a job to do and were delighted to have something to do. Their pleasure built an impenetrable wall between us but just think a little and ponder the fact that many of us watch dangerous sports such as F1 racing. After a serious crash attendance numbers always shoot up.

We all possess this unpleasant trait. There was an occasion much later on when an aircraft in trouble was coming in for what was likely to be a crash landing. The Blood Wagon set off at great speed for the runway, the aircraft passed them, making them turn sharply, turning over, killing one and injuring two more. The watching aircrew cheered!

Unwin was lucky enough to live through it but had severe concussion and was in hospital. He was asleep when I went to see him. Whether he knew that I was there I know not but decided not to visit him again. He was there when the course ended and none of us saw him again.

Unwin in bed
Unwin

We were losing tyro pilots that the powers that be had decided would make better Observers, Navigators, airgunners etc: and the lucky ones just carried on and crossed fingers. We were driven hard at studies, physical training and flying duties. We did not have much time off and did not often leave the station. We had Red Deer a little to the North. We were amazed to find, on going to a 'Tavern' that we had to sit at light tables and wait for the waiter to bring glasses of beer. There was a salt cellar on each table. This was shaken into the beer to make the gas bubble out. There was no standing to discourage fighting and the tables were light so as to cause less damage.

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In the adjoining pissoir there was a notice. "All shorthorns stand close - the next Indian may be barefooted." This was ironic because Indians were not allowed in bars!

Considering the great number of intruders the Canadian people were mostly very kind and one man called over to me to join him in the local café where his wife and family were waiting as no women were allowed in a bar. They were charming, unexpectedly simple country people. There was one daughter who would have been quite good looking if only she could look a little less amazed and vacant. They gave me clear directions to their farmhouse about 20 miles west towards the foothills.

"Just waggle your wings if you fly over and we shall know it's you!"

We got on with the course with eyes set on getting our wings in the distant future. There was a fair bit of cross country flying to practice navigation but there was plenty of time to practice aerobatics. It took me to a new level of joy and I got into the habit of taking a few loo rolls with me. Climb to about 6,000ft, take a good sight on a road or railway and chuck it out. As it fell it unrolled, making a wonderful target; the idea being to cut it as many times as possible. I managed to keep my fun private until about ten days before the end of the course. Just as well because when it came out it got to the point where we all had to take our own paper to the loo.

When we arrived in Bowden the station was just getting over the discomfort of one of the instructors. A pupil pilot was overdue and an airsearch was set up. He was found in a small field near the foothills. As his instructor made pass after pass he stood by his aircraft waving his instructor away. Who finally dragged his Tiger Moth over the fence in a powered stall, immediately cutting the throttle. As there was very little speed he did what he could but went on and through the next fence ending on his nose.

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In a blazing fury he walked over to the petrified student. "How the hell did you land in this field?"

"Oh! I didn't Sir. I landed in that one and bounced into here."

Quite a few pilots got lost. On his first cross country flight one friend ended up in a muddy field 50 miles away. Possibly remembering the above fiasco the wings were removed and it returned by road. The only communication between pilot and pupil was by yelling into the tube that led to the others ears and none of the planes carried radio. It was all very primitive but we knew no better.

The inevitable exams heralded the end of the course. All of us still on the course were due for the next stage which was to be on Harvards. I later wondered at the wisdom of sending us on that last flying session knowing that we should not fly Tigers again.

Two of our number crashed on that day. For my part, I went to have a look for my 'friends'. Sure enough, for the first time they were all there and stood outside the farmhouse. I "shot them up" in the best way I knew how. (Idiotic because I could have thrown everything away as we were NEVER allowed low flying.) I was even stupid enough to touch my wheels on their 'lawn'. They loved it and behaved like jumping jacks. Coming to my senses and checking my harness I climbed away. I have always wanted to bail out (Still do) and tried to tear the poor old kite to pieces. It was far too strong for me and when I landed it was in one piece I almost kissed her goodbye. I was not alone, we all loved Tigers.

Edward. Sick with love of flying.

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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002