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The following reflection, by St. Paul's faculty member Claire Lussier, was presented at the school's Remembrance Day ceremony on Friday, November 10, 2017.
This year of Remembrance is a notable one, as it marks the hundredth anniversary of a number of important WW1 battles, Vimy and Passchendaele not least amongst them. These battles, leading into the last Hundred Days of Canada’s contributions in the First World War, have been marked, advertised and memorialized in a number of ways by the country since the start of the year.
Over 400,000 Canadians served in the First World War, a huge commitment of men for a nation of less than 8 million at the time. It was the war to end all wars, a conflict so vast and so devastating that, once over, it was impossible to believe it could ever happen again. One of the thousands sent overseas as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was a young man named Edgar James Casey.
Casey survived the war, miraculously by his own accounts, and set about building a life full of fun and joy for himself and others to wipe away the horror of the last four years from his mind.
He became the founder of the E.J. Casey Shows, initially a low-level local travelling circus of sorts, with a midway, rides and concessions. Animal acts and wild-west type attractions came later, complete with a lion cub named Goldie, and a side-show with tattooed strongmen and sword-swallowers.
He and his French war-bride, Emmeliene, settled down in the prairies to start a family and run their fair, which would bring a flash of bright colour to a Depression-weary populace and later, a war-weary west.
With what pride Edgar must have watched his young family grow to include five healthy children, and with what anxiety must he have stood by when his eldest son, Ted, rushed to enlist in 1941, as the world fell into yet another, more destructive war.
Ted was similar to many of the young men St. Paul’s has today, in many ways. He was Catholic-school educated, he went to Holy Cross school in St. Boniface, and then here to St. Paul’s. His summer job was also working for his father, as many of our current students do. In the E. J. Casey shows he worked selling hotdogs in the midway and worked as a showman for some of the features. He fully expected after the war, to continue in the family business, and perhaps, one day, to take it over. That was certainly the goal of his father, to have his sons carry it on.
But Ted was anxious to prove himself, to get to the war before it was over, perhaps to get away from the small-time prairie circus life and see something more of the world than small town Western Canada. He was only 18 when he signed up, and was set on the Airforce—an occupation a world away from both his father’s wartime experience and peacetime ken.
What must Edgar have felt, after he himself had survived the greatest War the world had ever seen, some of the bloodiest battles, the worst horrors. And now his son, only 18, was signing up to go out again on the great Crusade. Whether there was encouragement or anxiety from home we’ll never know, but Ted set out to enlist with the Airforce almost as soon as he was of age.
When Ted was interviewed, he was described as sincere and alert, with an easy approach and quick responses. He was best fitted, the Airforce recruiter determined, for service as part of an aircrew---specifically as a Wireless Operator on board a bomber.
By the time Ted had been trained and deployed to England, the type of bomber he would serve on was already becoming famous in its own right.
The head of RAF command, Arthur “Bomber” Harris had said of the German Luftwaffe that through their attacks on Great Britain “they (had) sowed the wind, and now they (were) going to reap the whirlwind.”
That whirlwind had four Rolls Royce Merlin engines and was called the Lancaster. 33 feet long, with a top speed of over 480 km/hr, it far outstripped its predecessors in speed, and it carried a bomb load bigger than any other aircraft in the war.
The Lanc, as it was affectionately known, was to make 156,000 sorties during its service, and deliver nearly 609,000 long tonnes of bombs. It was the most famous and successful of all night bombers and lent its versatility to the service of carrying incredible payloads of destruction. Bombs called the ‘Cookie’ or ‘Tall boy’ hide the horrific reality of what these diabolic creations were capable of. The Tall boy bomb, at 12, 000 lbs, or later, the Grand Slam Earthquake Bomb at 22,000 lbs wiped hundreds of acres of Germany off the map, razing whole city blocks in Hamburg and Dresden, and collapsing wartime factories into man-made craters 80 ft deep and 100 ft across.
This was total war, and it was up to teenagers and young men on both sides to deal out death from above and below with as much care and coldness as one could muster. Between 1939 and 1945, 125,000 young men of the RAF faced this most dangerous task—taking the war to the enemy. Nearly half of them, 55,000 would be killed in this undertaking, the highest casualty rates of all arms of service. These were the bomber crews, who were taking on Hitler when the air war was the only way of striking back against Nazi Germany.
Ted was one of these young men—one of a team of seven air crew who lived, fought and died together. A band of brothers in the air, who did their job with a mix of endurance, teamwork and understated heroism.
One had to appreciate that it was dangerous to fly, apart from engaging the enemy. A bomber was an airplane that was loaded with high-octane aviation fuel, lots of compressed, highly explosive oxygen tanks and of course, lots and lots of bombs.
Lancasters were manned by a crew of 7. Seven men in charge of 8 .303 Browning machine guns and thousands of pounds of bombs.
The most forward position was the bomb aimer, who was laying down in the front, and if necessary manned the front gun; the skipper or pilot was on the port side; next to him was the flight engineer’s position; then there were curtains, and the navigator sat behind those so he could have his lights on his charts-no GPS in those days; the wireless operator was behind him; then you went back over the main spar to the mid-upper gunner; and then you had the tail gunner.
The main escape hatch in the event the crew needed to bail out was under the cockpit by the bomb aimer’s position. In that set of unlucky circumstances, it would have been a hell of a scramble to get out, especially for the wireless operator and navigator, who were farther back in the plane. The rear-gunner, “Tail End Charlie,” who, in addition to experiencing the entire mission alone, without his crew members around him, would bail out alone, from the back.
The Lanc’s maximum altitude was roughly 25, 000 feet, which brought dangers all its own. The temperature of the air at that height is colder than weather in Arctic Canada, reaching lows of -38 degrees Celsius.
Pilots and crew bundled up in fur boots and electrified suits, and took care not to touch exposed metal, as flesh would freeze to it with minimal contact. The cabins were not pressurized, and the air dangerously thin, which meant men had to wear oxygen masks to breathe.
Inhaling the air without a mask could lead to brain damage or even death. Approaching 20, 000 feet, saliva or vomit turns to ice, clogging oxygen tubes, suffocating men.
These were routine conditions for bomber crews.
Danger in the air came from the environment, and of course, the Luftwaffe defenders. But there was danger from below as well. Virtually all missions were flown by night, as the Allies learned early on that by day, bombers were easy targets for defenders. The Germans in both Europe and North Africa employed eighty-eights an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun, or Ack-Acks. They fired 15 to 20 rounds of high-explosive ammunition, or Flak, a minute to an effective height of 25,000 feet. The great danger for these bombers was being coned in the hundreds of searchlights pointed upwards over every target and city, and blown out of the sky by the Flak.
In 1940, RAF fighters repelled German invasion in the Battle of Britain, but the German Luftwaffe continued to bomb Britain’s cities in the blitz, and with the British army defeated at Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill identified the only way to hit back.
‘Our supreme effort must be to gain overwhelming mastery of the air,” he said. “The fighters are our salvation, but the Bombers alone provide us the means of victory.”
By 1943, the RAF and American planes were bombing cities and military targets around the clock in both daytime and nighttime raids. Industrial and military centers were high on the list of targets, but attacking Germany’s ports was a high-priority as well.
The Battle of the Atlantic was raging alongside the war in Europe, and if the island of Britain was going to remain a safe staging point for all Allied attacks into the continent, it needed to remain supplied by its allies overseas. The shipping lanes that kept Britain afloat, therefore, were under constant attack from the German Navy, especially her U-boats.
Attacks on U-boats was difficult from the air, as they could simply dive out of harm’s way, but attacking them at refueling points or while under repair could prove instrumental in knocking them out of the war. It was the same with the German Navy, which harassed and harried Allied shipping lanes all over the globe. Thus a raid was planned for the night of Feb 11-12 1943 on the Northern German port of Wilhelmshaven. 177 aircraft were dispatched, 129 of them Lancasters. The whole area that night was covered in cloud, forcing the Pathfinders to mark the bomb area with parachute flares using the H2S radar device, the first airborne ground-scanning radar system.
The marking was carried out with great accuracy and the Main force bombing was very effective. Crews saw through the clouds a massive explosion on the ground, the glow of which lasted for nearly ten minutes. Bombs had struck the naval ammunition depot south of Wilhelmshaven, and the resulting explosion devastated an area of 120 acres and severely damaged the naval dockyard and the town.
This was the first blind-bombing success for the H2S radar device, and the raid was heralded as a success. But it came with its losses, of course. Three Lancasters were lost that night, to ground fire and from German Night-fighters defending the port.
Maj Paul Zorner of the Luftwaffe was the only night fighter to report a victory that night, and it was for successfully shooting down a Lancaster of the 57th Squadron over the North Sea in his Junkers 88.
19-year-old pilot Ken Dutton, Mid-gunner Charles Clout, Flight Engineer William Halliday, Bomb Aimer Eric Inwood, Rear Gunner Robert Dignum and two Canadian Airmen, Navigator Lloyd Brayford of Ontario and Wireless Operator Ted Casey of Winnipeg went flaming into the North Sea, never to be found.
It was Thursday Feb 11, 1943. The day before had been Lloyd Brayford’s 24th birthday. Ted had just celebrated his 10-month wedding anniversary with his sweetheart Mary McDermott. All these young men had sat together only the morning before, enjoying their last meal of fried eggs, bacon and bread, laughing and carrying on, going through all the superstitious routines aircrew did before boarding their Lanc for the 6-hour flight across the Channel. It was always going to happen to someone else. Until it didn’t.
The empty beds. The kits packed up. The letters of Missing sent home to the families.
The not knowing must have been the hardest part for their families. The listing of ‘Lost’ rather than ‘Dead,’ would have painfully dragged on the hope of the families that perhaps somehow, some way their loved ones would be found alive. Downed aircrew were sometimes picked up by enemy subs. Surely there was hope. Even a body would have given some comfort—having something to bury to bring peace to the families.
But no trace of the plane or the crew was ever found. Striking the ocean at speed, there was no way anything would have survived to be recovered.
Ted was officially listed as ‘Presumed Dead’ in September—one of the 55,000 airmen lost delivering Bomber Harris’ whirlwind.
As he has no known grave, his name and the names of his crewmen are recorded on the Runnymede Memorial in Great Britain, far from his prairie home.
For his parents and his young bride, his passing at only 20 years old must have been very hard to take. He was just a kid from Winnipeg who liked hockey and roller skating and building model airplanes. He was a son, and a brother and a husband.
For the RAF, the raid that night of 129 Lancasters, 40 Halifaxes and 8 Stirlings resulted in only 3 Lancasters down. A mere 1.7% of the force sent. But for Ted and his crew and their families it was everything.
They had paid the ultimate price so that others might live. Their families wept bitter tears so we might salute them in peace. We must never forget the sacrifice each of these men made, even those who came home. They gave their innocence, their youth and, in the case of Ted and his crew, their lives that the world might be free of tyranny.
‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few.’ Lest we forget.