Canada's War in the Air
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 29 Apr 1943, p. 506-520
Parker, Squadron Leader Stuart C., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The Royal Canadian Air Force. How the Canadian boys are doing overseas. The overseas R.A.F. Stations. Some details of daily life, food, entertainment, activities, etc. The difficulty of leaves and how the Canadians spend their time. Their envy of the local English boys who can spend their leave time at home. The physical and mental strain which these young men are bearing. A detailed description of what happens in a Station in Bomber Command from the moment orders come in for an operation. Understanding war in the air, or a battle which takes place both in the air and on the ground. The recent devastating raid on Essen. Details and figures of the air offensive against Germany. The Second Front in the air. Some concluding remarks about why these young men are fighting.
Date of Original
29 Apr 1943
Language of Item
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text

DR. SIGMUND SAMUEL: Mr. President, Gentlemen A very pleasant duty devolves upon' me today in introducing my friend, Squadron Leader Parker. As a mat ter of fact, he doesn't need any introduction to a Toronto audience. He is so' well and so favourably known that it is quite unnecessary. At the same time, I appreciate the fact that I am permitted to introduce him just the same, and I do it in all sincerity.

It= is almost impossible because Dr. Parker, as everybody knows, is a native of Scotland, to introduce,a Scotsman without yielding to that tremendous urge to tell a Scotch story, but I realize that my time is brief. Yet, I can't help telling at least one story. Possibly you may have heard it before, but it is worthy of repetition.

It is the story of the Scotsman who had saved sufficient baubees to take a long expected trip to London.

After he returned his friends gathered around him and said to him, "Now, Sandy, what did you think of the Englishman?" "Englishman," said Sandy, "why I was only in London three days and I only had time to see the heads of the Departments". So there you are.

And also, in introducing a native of Scotland one is reminded of that old saying--it was by, I believe, Dr. Samuel Johnson, that the promotion in all Scotland was the road to England. But our guest of today made another choice. He thought of, I think it was Adams who said "Westward the star_. of Empire hold the sway", and furthermore, ultimately, he decided to hitch his wagon to that star, so he has attained an elevated position.

Lastly, I must confess I am not one of his congregation, but as sky pilot, both for this life and hereafter, I don't know that I could have made a better choice than Squadron Leader Parker, and I am sure I am only expressing the good will of everybody present' when I say that L hope he will realize that my time is altogether too short to express to him my feelings of gratitude for his speech, and would like to rehearse something of his past achievements, but I trust that he will realize that you, like myself, are hungry to have from him an autobiography, so to speak, of some of the accomplishments he has been so successful in attaining.

It is a very unusual thing, indeed, for anyone to leave the pulpit and' ascribe to such a high position as Squadron Leader at one jump, so to speak, but there must have been something more than the ordinary background for him to attain that position, and I know and feel that he richly deserved, and that he will carry on those responsibilities without hesitation and will add to his honour and glory.

I feel that already I have overstepped the limit, but I do wish to say this, that as a Minister of the Gospel he has attained a very, very high position. He is almost half way to heaven, and I hope he will not attain the complete goal at heaven, which is awaiting him, for many, many years to come. (Applause.)

SQUADRON LEADER STUART C. PARKER: Thank you very much, Dr. Samuel. If I don't say any more by way of gratitude, it is because there is so little time for the address which I have to give. May, I say, however, at the outset, that it is very pleasant to be back, in The Empire Club of Canada, and that I appreciate more than I can tell you, your kindness in giving me the opportunity today to speak to you.

If I look very frequently at this manuscript which I have, I would like you to understand that it is because I can't talk freely to you, as I would, but must keep faith, with the censor, and say only, since I am in the Service' what I have undertaken to say.

An R.A.F. Station Commander in Northern Ireland, who was trying to get authority to do a certain thing for me, bawled over the telephone to a faraway superior of his the information that "this officer is here to see and do all he can, and then go back and sell the Air Force to people in Canada". That was his interpretation of the letter of introduction I had handed to him, and it was not worthwhile to criticize it. You could read my credentials that way if you liked. But I knew, if he didn't, that nobody in Canada--certainly very few--required to have the Air Force "sold" to them. It was sold to them long ago, as far back at least at 1940, when it held the soil of our Motherland from the pollution of enemy feet, and did it in face of such odds as the history of warfare seldom has recorded. The Royal Canadian Air Force inherits the glory of that epic defence, and by its own particular exploits since has added to it. And since all Canada knows these things, I shall never, I hope, make the mistake of speaking to Canadians as if I were trying to sell them their own R.C.A.F.!

In point of fact, I interpret the assignment given to myself and three others as being simply this: I should enter the Service, live in it and take part in it for six months, and then in the succeeding six months carry to listeners in Canada some news of how our boys are getting along in the R.C.A.F., how they feel about things, what they are doing, and what success they are finding in the doing of it. I imagine there are plenty of folks at home who want to hear news of that sort, general though it must be, from an unprejudiced observer--especially about the boys who are already overseas fighting Canada's War in the Air. Everyone would agree that they should be taken first, if it were only for the reason that they are farthest away from us in body, and that the censor can't let them tell in their letters all the things they would like to say. It is true, of course, that there are some things he won't let me tell either! But rest assured, they are things which wouldn't add anything to the picture we are interested in, in any case.

Well, I suppose the first thing the mothers and wives at any rate would like to know is how their men are behaving over there; and what they get to eat, and what sort of places they live in;, and whether they are happy or not! I can't, of course, particularize. But I can tell you about, the enormous majority of the men, and I have no fear that anyone who knows the Service would tell any different story. The vast majority are behaving very well indeed, have a good name with the Old Country people, are pretty well looked after, and as happy as men can be who are separated by an ocean from the folk they know best and love best.

They have, for the most part, good quarters on well-built R.A.F. Stations. These Stations don't look so smart as ours in Canada, which are frame-built, and very attractive with their red roofs and white paint. They are mainly of brick construction, and the walls and roof are dingy with camouflage colouring. But, they are solid and substantial and comfortable to live in, both winter and summer. So no one need think our airmen are roughing it, in that respect at least. Everything consistent with war conditions is done to make them comfortable. Where it is possible the boys of Air Crew, who have to go out and do battle with the enemy, are housed in specially quiet buildings--sometimes an adjacent country mansion situated in its own grounds--so that they may get undisturbed sleep in their off periods. In the more recently constructed Stations the buildings are more widely dispersed, so as to make the Station less vulnerable from the air. That increases the distance men have to travel from one but to another, and is sometimes a nuisance. But if the Hun should take it into his head again to Blitz Great Britain in force, as in 1940, I don't think anyone would grumble at being on a Station where most of the bombs would fall, not on closely clustered buildings and hangers, but on vacant ground.

The food also is good and plentiful. Occasionally it may not be cooked just "the way mother does it", for good cooks are not too numerous in any of the armed Services. But, if I may speak for myself, I much preferred living in a Station to living even in an expensive hotel. Some things, of course, are scarce,. and others completely unobtainable in Britain today. Our boys miss their oranges, and milk, and such like, and eggs are so scarce that the hen may yet become a sacred bird in Eng land! But the, normal fare is good, and on occasions can rise to the point of being magnificent--as on one of our R.C.A.F. Stations at Christmas when in addition to innumerable turkeys, there was served up a gigantic cake, covered with almond icing, and measuring--believe it or not!--8 feet by 3 feet by 12 inches deep! Some of the Stations, too, have taken over adjacent farms, and are running them so that our airmen may have their own potatoes and vegetables in plenty, and sooner or later, their own pork chops and real sausages besides.

Then also, there is plenty of entertainment for the boys on most Stations, though some personnel, unfortunately, are, compelled by the nature of their work, to live in inaccessible spots--inaccessible because the work is so secret. Naturally concert parties and the like cannot be allowed to entertain them. But with most it is otherwise. The Auxiliary Services--Y.M.C.A., Knights of Columbus, Canadian Legion, Salvation Army, and Red Cross--are doing excellent work in this, way, with either canteens, sports, libraries, and so forth. There is a British organization, also of professional entertainers=it is called the Entertainers National Service Association, but is known to the boys as Ensa--and it sends various shows of a vaudeville sort around the Stations. But pictures are the most popular entertainment, and into the providing of good pictures the Service itself has thrown so much energy that a very creditable show may Le seen three or even four nights a week. Beyond all doubt these entertainment services are doing much to keep up the morale of the boys, and to keep them out of mischief in the towns. Everyone is agreed that they are quite happy to stay at home on the Station at night instead of seeking passes, if only there is reasonable opportunity provided for relaxation and amusement. Hockey, of course, and basketball are the great sports and there are a number of excellent teams among our Canadians. On the whole I would say that (with the exception, of course, of the remote and secret Stations I mentioned) our R.C.A.F. over-seas has no lack of entertainment.

The great difficulty is concerned with leave. Not that leave is not freely granted, but because our boys are so far away from the only folk with whom leave would be perfect. How they envy the local English boys of the R.A.F., who can spend their leave at home? Our men have no recourse but to go up to London, or some other centre, and. roam about without many acquaintances, and with the black-out drawing nearer every hour, and limiting the scope of enjoyment deplorably. Of course, now that summer is coming, leave can be spent very nicely in country places, and Scotland, Devon, and Cornwall are easy firsts in the men's estimation. But best of all would be Canada. As one man said to me, "We're 100 per cent as it is; but if we could get a look at Canada again we'd be 200 per cent!" Well, it is out of the question, as we all know and they know too. The best thing to be done in the circumstances is to throw as much as possible of our resources into providing hostels in the towns and cities where the boys are housed cheaply when on leave, and helped to have an interesting and healthy holiday. The Auxiliary Services run some very fine ones as it is. But we could do with more of them, till such time as leave to Canada becomes something more substantial than a lovely dream!

Certainly I would say the boys deserve the best we can contrive to give them, for their life is full of strain--both bodily and mental strain--which they are bearing with marvellous pluck and cheerfulness, but which could so easily get one down. That impresses itself on you particularly if you live among them on an operational Station. I was able to see every type of such Station, and on every one of them the call to action generates an atmosphere that is certainly thrilling, but very wearing too. Take a Station in Bomber Command for example. It is bustle and stir from the moment orders come in for an operation.

(1) First comes the briefing, as it is called, when the crews that are to' go over gather together in the Operations Room, its walls hung with maps and charts, and hear innumerable particulars regarding what they have to do. Those who saw that great film "Target for To-night" will remember something of the scene. There the boys sit with chin on hand, or stand around the room, mostly quiet, but with eyes and ears intent on their instructions. And they hear what the target is to be, and if it is a town--what specific part of the town is to be attacked. The weatherman steps up to his chart and tells them what the conditions are likely to be, at home, on the way, over the target, and again on' returning home. They hear from the Intelligence Officer a mass of other particulars--the route to be followed; the enemy defences to be encountered on the journey, the times and places of rendezvous; the decoys that may await them here and there; the signals and flares the Pathfinder aircraft will use to-night over the target; the dummy fires and camouflaged landmarks that are known to exist on enemy territory; the other raiders of our own that are out to-night, and where they may, perhaps be met; what to do and where to land in all sorts of possible circumstances on returning home--and so on and on, in short, business-like speeches, with a minimum of words. And every face is intent, for lives depend on every man knowing his part and doing it meticulously. For half-an-hour or more, instruction quickly follows instruction in the "Ops Room", and then the crews are off to mull over their orders in the intimacy of their own little groups, snatch a meal, and lie down for an hour to think it all over, or, if possible, snatch also a little sleep before Zero Hour.

(2) At length the hour of Take-off comes, and out on the runways the crews are warming up their great aircraft, adjusting parachute harness, arranging maps and equipment inside--and not once did I see, even in the youngest of these lads, the quiver of a lip or the tremor of an eyelid, as they prepared for their adventure.

Now, within the Control Tower hectic activity springs up, orderly pandemonium, several telephones ringing at the same time, and the radio operators sending and receiving messages between the Control and the aircraft. The ambulance wagon trots into position to be ready for the accident which is always within the bounds of possibility at take-off. But one by one, like giant, winged lizards, the huge bombers sweep along and up into the gathering darkness, and circle the aerodrome once or twice. Maybe one or another of them developed trouble unforeseen till they became airborne, and to the control comes the radio message! "R for Robert--cannot lift undercarriage"--so the message may run. And back go the instructions: "R for Robert: circle aerodrome and report: understood? Over". And if R for Robert remains still troubled, out goes another message finally--"R for Robert: go out to sea by such-and-such route, jettison bombs, and return: understood? Over". And R for Robert is brought in at last, to be met by the engineer who dashes up the runway in a car to wrestle with the problem.

At length all that can go are gone in to the night, and Control Tower, though never quiet, is comparatively peaceful again. The boys are off--to Hamburg, Lorient, Essen, Duisberg, Berlin, any one of Germany's fifty industrial centres of which thirty have already been pounded, or of the 1,500 military targets, on 600 of which, in Germany and Italy, these boys and their like have rained destruction in the past months. .... They are gone .out to adventure again, and I think as I watch them fade into the horizon that many a Hun would be trembling if he could see what we have seen to-night?

(3) You can't rest very well when the bombers are out from your Station. No one can. Everybody is waiting for the sound of the engines coming home. And at last it is heard. Midnight, three o'clock, four o'clock--it may be any hour; depending on the distance travelled. Again the Control bursts into life, and the radio buzzes and crackles. "Z for Zebra returning". Everyone is smiling already, and revitalized. And the answers go out to each as it signals. "Z for Zebra--M for Mother--circle aerodrome and wait for orders: Understood? Over". Then eventually it is "Pancake No. 1 runway", or "No. 2 runway", and one by one our ships come in, some unhurt, some with jagged holes in wings or fuselage. But who cares? The boys are there. Another has limped back on three engines. But who cares? The blow has been struck once again, Germans are cursing and trying to put out fires that will blaze f or days, leaving in ashes the instruments of death meant for our armies. And the boys are whisked away from the aircraft in buses or trucks to tell to the waiting Intelligence Officer their tale of the night's doings.

They sit around his table, crew after crew, each man with a cup of coffee in his hand, and the Interrogation goes on. The questions are searching questions, to many of which the Intelligence Officer knows beforehand what the true answer must be. Did you see the river, at the target? On which bank did you drop your bombs? How did you know it was the east bank? What fires did you see, and what was the colour of them? White? Red? Streaked with green? Or what? Were the dummy fires in the position shown at the briefing? Any other new dummy fires burning when you got there? What was the flak like? How were the searchlights used? Did you get the target squarely in your sights? Or had you to bomb through clouds on to the Pathfinders' flares? ... And so on. It is astonishing how the answers fit into each other, showing how observant the boys have been--how accurately observant--in spite of the hell that has been let loose about their ears. After being at Interrogations; I have great faith in the truthfulness, even the conservativeness of our British bulletins on bombing raids. If they claim anything, be sure that the damage done was, if anything, somewhat more than was claimed.

When it is all finished, this rigorous questioning, there is a meal for the boys, whatever the hour may be, and then it is bed and sleep--sleep or tossing. The lights will burn a long time yet, though in the "Ops Room", where the Intelligence Officer must put the night's story together for the higher-ups, that the higher-ups may finally give the very, very bare bones of it to the press and people. Even he finishes at last. But it is the rising sun that closes his day, not the setting sun. . . .

Yes, surely it is a strain on mind and body, this business of War in the Air, and nothing is too much to do for the boys who so gallantly are going through with it.

And, may I remind you, these are not mere skirmishes, these bombing operations, but battles, major engagements, comparable to land operations involving great masses of troops, or naval operations involving many ships. It is not the easiest thing in the world to get used to this fact, I know it has not been easy for me at any rate. To me war--the really important part of war--has appeared till recently as something necessitating an army on the earth here, opposed to another army on the earth there, or tall ships opposing one another at sea. Frankly, I have been sufficiently un-modern not to understand war in the air--that there can be something rightly called a great battle between two forces both in the air, or one force in the air and the other on the earth. When one force was in the air and the other on the earth, I like many another, spoke of the whole business--not as "the battle of Essen" for example--but as an Air Force operation designed to soften up the enemy's defences in preparation for the real "battle" that would begin later on! But this is battle--this that these boys are fighting from the clouds! It is not just a preliminary to battle; it. is preliminary in point of time, but it is not preliminary if by that word you imply something less big and of less consequence.

The recent devastating raid on Essen, for example (since that has been mentioned), should really be called something else than a "bombing raid", if we are to get it into perspective. It should be called the "battle, of Essen", or the "storming of Essen", the storming of a citadel which meanwhile could laugh at land armies because none could reach it alive. Air-Commodore Howard-Williams of the R.A.F. was permitted to publish in the London Daily Telegraph a month ago some figures which show the magnitude of this offensive our men are waging, and the forces opposed to them from the earth.

The 1,000 tons of bombs dropped on Essen, for instance, were the equivalent in explosive content of 250,000 field-gun shells. Essen was defended by 300 heavy guns of 3.7 in. calibre and over; 600 light guns of 40 mm. calibre; 200 searchlights; squadrons of night-fighters in the air, and some 50,000 troops manning the defences on the ground. Not much of a "raid", you will admit, if the word "raid" suggests something of a minor kind! It was a battle, and a battle which could be fought no other way from the clouds.

The result of it was, immediately, to pin some 650,000 Germans, underground, dead or alive, and, less immediately, to dislocate the lives and activities of from five to ten millions of the enemy. Measured by results, the storming of Essen is seen to rank with some of the greatest engagements in history. . . . I am confessing to you that it is an adjustment of ideas about war which I, at least, have found it hard to make.

Or take the Ruhr Valley itself, where the battle has been raging for long months. It has been defended by 1,000 heavy guns, 2,000 light guns, 500 searchlights, and hundreds of night-fighters. Surely one ought to speak of the "Battle of the Ruhr", and not in any language that would obscure the first-class magnitude of these historic operations.

I notice that now a book has been published by one, Allan Michie, entitled The Air Offensive Against Germany, and presenting just the point of view which I have found it so hard till recently, to take. Among other things he says:

"With attention focussed on the Battle of the Atlantic, we have been blind to the equally critical Battle of Germany. We have forgotten that locomotives and freight cars are as important to Germany as tankers and freight ships are to us. There is no doubt that Germany is being bombed to defeat. Since March, 194, the Bomber Command has unleased the heaviest air-raids the world has ever seen. By December, 1942, more than seven square miles in nine main German cities had been wiped off the map: Some 700 war factories had been smashed beyond repair, and hundreds of others had been put out of action for months."

This writer estimates that our air offensive is pinning down 3,000,000 men out of Germany's total strength of 22,000,000. The R.A.F. and R.C.A.F. are battling with these. Howard-Williams in addition had already pointed out that our airmen are pinning down to the Western Front three times the number of fighters ever allocated to Tunisia, and twice the number they have ever used on the entire Russian Front.

With such facts as these before us, I imagine we shall not continue under the illusion that we have no Second or European Front! It has been there for more than a year, and the fight is going in our favour--very decidedly so. The fact to which we have to adjust our minds is the fact that it is in the air, that Second Front, not down on the ground., When the armies march on European soil, that will be no Second Front, but a Third.

And so I feel that I have learned something in my six months with the Royal Canadian Air Force, which it is worthwhile trying to pass on to Canadian listeners something I never appreciated before, and which maybe many others appreciated as little as I did. These boys of ours are not just dropping explosives from the skies on to a defenceless earth; they are fighting epic battles with earth-based troops, superbly armed, fighting back with every weapon science can, devise, and able to turn into a shambles the sky in which our boys are flying. Yet they fly, day after day, and night after night. And they know the cost; they know, better than we at home know, what percentage of them must inevitably come hurtling down at last. Yet they fly, and will continue to do so till the victory bells are ringing.

And I believe I know why. These lads, very many of them, are idealists to begin with. They are of an age to dream of things to come, and to believe that the best is not impossible to achieve, even in this confused and tangled world. The blight of hopelessness and cynicism has never touched them. And it is for that world-that-can-be they are fighting, and jeopardizing their own youth. It is not for the love of fighting, for they develop none of the lust of conflict that comes with hand-to-hand struggle. They fight remote in the skies, and they give death and take death without touching an enemy's body, or being touched by an enemy's hand. There is no lust of battle generated in the hearts of airmen-it is in so few of them that that can be said without any exaggeration. They are making war--for an object; it is the object--not any physical passion--that keeps them going; and the object is to cleanse the world of something that now defiles it.

Besides, there are sights to, be seen high in the heavens that purge gross passions away, and seem to encourage even the highest idealism--visions to be seen that no one can see and yet remain the same.... On a night last February, I was returning with a Canadian crew from an operation on which I was permitted to go. It was a night of full moon, but a thick layer of cloud hid the light from those on the earth. We climbed through it to 7,000 feet or more, and came into a new world--a deep blue sky with the moon at her fullest riding in it, and underneath us a new land, a cloud-land of hills and valleys. I had seen it before flying in Western Canada, but never so gorgeously as this, and (as it seemed to me) never so opportunely and significantly as this time. "Anew heaven and a new earth"! The old earth sweating blood down there so far away, and we looking upon--almost you might say, living in the world of tomorrow, the world that can be, the world of beauty and peace.... And lest you think I was the only one to sense the symbolism of that scene, let me tell you that it was one of the boys who' first spoke to me about it, after our Interrogation was over, and two others quietly agreed. I was the fourth to speak and agree. . . And so I think I know what keeps these young lads daring death in the air. If we can all live up to their level, we shall make a bold id for that finer world, after all.

DR. SIGMUND SAMUEL: We will now call on Mr. R. A. Stapells to propose a vote of thanks to the speaker.

Mr. R. A. STAPELLS: Before doing so, Mr: Chairman, perhaps the members will permit me to make a personal observation or two. I don't know who is responsible forarranging the head table 'today but I want to express my appreciation and thanks to whoever was responsible. Twenty-five years ago this month, I was elected President of The Empire Club. There were four musketeers at that time, very active in the affairs of The Empire Club, and they are all sitting here at this end of the table. The Chairman of the Reception Committee is still the Chairman of the Reception Committee--our friend Mr. F.B. Fetherstonhaugh. By the way, on that occasion they presented the flag you see on the opposite wall to The Empire Club. The Chairman of the Speakers Committee, my' f Fred Coombs, at my right, and our friend Billy Brooks. So I want to thank whoever arranged the head table for putting us together. We are still active, every one.

Then I think you would like me to say how pleased we are that our genial fellow-member, Dr. Samuel, presided at the meeting today. Almost since the inception of this Club, Dr. Samuel has been a loyal constant, generous supporter.

And now, on your behalf I want to say how indebted we are to our friend, our fellow member, the brilliant, eloquent pastor of New St. Andrew's--Squadron Leader Stuart Parker, for coming here and telling us the story of his contact with our fellows of the Royal Air Force overseas.

You know, we Canadian Britishers get a thrill, and I think rightly so; when we think of the exploits of our men of the Army, the men of the Navy, and the men of the Air Force. But because of tradition--and I have reference to the exploits of Billy Bishop, V.C., and his comrades in the last war, and because of what Churchill said about, "Never has been so much owed by so many to so few", we get a special thrill when we think of the boys of the Air Force.

So we want to thank Squadron Leader Parker for bringing to us such a stirring and comforting review of what he saw, and what he learned of our boys who are battling for us overseas, what they have done, what they are doing and what; please God, they will do before they are through to bring ultimate victory.

So, on behalf of The Club, Dr. Parker, thank you a thousand times for your not only interesting but very comforting message that you have delivered in such a delightful way. (Applause.)

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Canada's War in the Air

The Royal Canadian Air Force. How the Canadian boys are doing overseas. The overseas R.A.F. Stations. Some details of daily life, food, entertainment, activities, etc. The difficulty of leaves and how the Canadians spend their time. Their envy of the local English boys who can spend their leave time at home. The physical and mental strain which these young men are bearing. A detailed description of what happens in a Station in Bomber Command from the moment orders come in for an operation. Understanding war in the air, or a battle which takes place both in the air and on the ground. The recent devastating raid on Essen. Details and figures of the air offensive against Germany. The Second Front in the air. Some concluding remarks about why these young men are fighting.