Remembrance Day services always bring me to tears.
My childhood was spent in the shadow of World War II. My father, Douglas Ian Rankin Angus, and my uncle, James Oswald Stewart Angus returned home from overseas but they left an older sibling in a grave in Germany 1. My grandparents grieved for the rest of their lives.
My earliest memory of Remembrance Day is of my father parading down Quebec City’s Grand Allee to the cenotaph with his head held high, so handsome in his RCAF uniform. No tears then, just a stiff upper lip.
The first tears I remember were shed when I was fifteen. On the way home to Canada from a contract in East Pakistan, my father took his family to Hong Kong. At the Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery, my dad stood by the graves of many of his high school classmates who had served with the Royal Rifles of Canada in the defense of Hong Kong and sobbed. It was the first time I had seen my father cry and I was shocked. 2
In school that September my history teacher was one of the men who survived the horror of a Japanese POW camp. “He was never the same”, claimed my grandmother. Was my father also not the same man who joined the air force in 1940?
Dad never spoke of his war-time experiences. When discharged from service he returned to his old job at Price Brothers in Quebec City, bought a house and started a family. I often wonder how he and my mother were able to resume a marriage after four years separated by war. Dad spent additional periods of time in a military hospital following his discharge. All I knew is that while hospitalized, he made wonderfully big stuffed felt rabbits for my brother and me.
Every year without fail Dad took part in Remembrance Day services. He joined the Canadian Legion and sold poppies; he presented scholarships to the children and grandchildren of veterans at graduation ceremonies ; he attended squadron reunions and, following several medical procedures, convalesced at the Veteran’s Hospital in St. Anne de Bellevue .
I struggled to push my father’s wheelchair over the bumpy lawn at the Field of Honour in Pointe Claire on what would be his last Remembrance Day. Tears streamed down his face throughout the entire service and he sobbed uncontrollably during the Last Post. At his funeral seven months later, at age eighty- three, friends and colleagues who had also served overseas hobbled up to the altar in tears and laid poppies on his urn.
It was only after his death that I learned of dad’s war time service. I found his Pilot’s Flying Log Book, his service file, his discharge papers, a scrapbook of newspaper clippings my mother had complied, various certificates and a bundle of letters.3
Dad began his military service as a Wireless Air Gunner and was discharged to the Reserves as a Flight Lieutenant. He was trained to fly Hampdens, Elbacores, Wellingtons, Tiger Moths, Ansons and the Link C. He served in the Swordfish Squadron #415 and, when deployed oversees, he was assigned first to the RAF Costal Command and then to Bomber Command. He flew out of air force bases at Thorney Island, North Coates and St. Eval in England, Tain and Leuchars in Scotland, and Sumburg in the Shetland Islands.
The average expectation of life for nine crews out of ten was less than six months.
In one of the articles my mother clipped from the Quebec Chronicle Telegraph, Dad was listed as a Dambuster having participated in the 1943 bombing of the Mohne Damn and the Eder Damn which destroyed the heart of Industrial Germany in the Ruhr Valley: the factories, roads, railroads, mines, bridges and power stations.4.
One journalist attempted to interview a returning Dambuster and was told that the men had been ordered not to talk about it. It would seem that Dad never disobeyed order. In the his book Bomber Country, Daniee Swift refers to the “forgetting” by the bombers, “For in the place of a full record of the bombing, there is a curious absence.” 5
More than 500,000 German civilians were either killed or drowned in the raids on the damns. Immediately following the war the politicians of the day argued that to honour Bomber Command for their enormous contribution and sacrifice towards defeating Hitler was too politically charged because of the deaths. It was not until 2012, sixty-seven years “too late” that a memorial to Bomber Command was unveiled in Green Park, London. By then, Dad had been dead for nine years and with him the loss of the stories he never told.
And of the Remembrance Tears? They are shed for the bombers and for the bombed.
1. Service Record of Sergeant David Colin Brodie Angus, Library and Archives Canada
3. Documents on file with author
5. Daniel Swift. Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010