On August 18, 1943 Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Flight Sergeant Colin Angus was posted as missing and presumed dead following a devastating air raid made on the missile research laboratories at Peenemunde, Germany. Forty one bombers and one fighter plane were lost that night. Colin’s plane did not return.
Peenemunde was Colin’s second mission. He was initially rejected by the Air Force on medical grounds – a damaged mastoid bone, the legacy of a childhood illness. As the war took its toll, the physical requirements were downgraded. Colin was accepted and trained as a navigator.
The target of Colin’s first mission was Cologne, Germany’s military command center. Other comrades and other aircraft did not return that night. “We can only hope for them”, Colin wrote in a letter to his brother Ian.
Two days before Colin flew his second and final mission, he wrote in another in another letter that should he “take a cropper”‘ would Ian, also a RCAF pilot stationed in England, send from his personal effects “such stuff as should go home”.
The family of the missing exist in a liminal zone. How long did my grandparents hold out hope that their son would be found? They may have reasoned that he lay wounded and yet unidentified or that he would soon be listed as a prisoner of war.
How powerless they must have felt during the days and weeks and months that followed. When Colin had hovered between life and death as a child, they could hold him, soothe and tend to him. Now they could do nothing but wait. Did they rant at the unfairness? Did they make pacts with God? How did they get through the long nights when daytime activities could no longer offer a sense of normalcy and hold the pain at bay? Were they able to share their fears and support each other, or did they suffer alone, neither willing to expose their despair to the other?
It took seven months for the RCAF to confirm their son’s death. On April 30th, 1944, a memorial service was held providing the family a semblance of closure. There was no coffin. His body, along with those of his crew members, had been buried in German soil far from loved ones.
“Such stuff that should go home” eventually reached my grandparents. It was a very small package that included Colin’s watch and glasses.
When I was sixteen, my grandmother was chosen to be Mother of Honor at the annual Armistice ceremony in Quebec City. The night before the event she carefully unwrapped the package. As I watched, she stroked each item, tears streaming down her cheeks. I was yet too young to fully understand her grief. I could only fixate on the glasses, so very fragile, and marvel that they could survive the crash that killed the uncle I would never know.
Yet that uncle left me a treasured gift. The bond I had with my grandmother was forged because of his death. I have since come to understand that her joy in the birth of a grand-daughter the year following her son’s death enabled her to move beyond her sorrow. I believe that I was her salvation and the reason she held me close all her days.
Service Record of Sergeant David Colin Brodie Angus, Library and Archives Canada
Personal letters between Colin and his brother Ian – on file with author, Ian’s daughter
Service Held for Colin Angus, Quebec Chronicle Telegraph, May 1, 1944 – clipping on file with author