Category Archives: WWII

Spitfire Service Socks

My grandmother, Grace Hunter, used to knit, read, and watch television at the same time. She sat in her well-worn high-backed armchair, with her Women’s Own magazine or her Harlequin romance flattened open on the wide armrest, and watch her soap opera or a game show. I realize now that she was reading when the commercials were on but when I was a child, it seemed to me that she could follow the television and read simultaneously. Her lips moved silently to the beat of the clicking knitting needles. Every so often I heard her take in a deep breath as she concentrated on her knitting rather than the television or her book.

My memories of Nana knitting were more than thirty years after the end of World War II. She was a volunteer knitter for the war effort. This well-worn knitting instruction sheet for Spitfire Service Socks suggests that it was used often.

Spitfire

It is most likely that Nana learned to knit as a young girl. She came from a modest working class family so knitting would have been a necessary skill. During World War I, Grace’s father, John Hunter, was stationed in France. Knitting for the soldiers was an act of patriotism and is was highly likely that Grace, thirteen when her dad went off to war, would have knitted so that the care package that the family sent overseas would contain some warm socks and other knitted clothing.

My mom told me that when World War II broke out, my grandmother was active in the war effort. She belonged to the women’s auxiliary in the church and they held knitting bees, held fund raisers, and catered parties for the men on the eve of their departure for war. Knitting socks and other clothing was one way, among many, of doing something tangible for the men who had gone to war.

During both World Wars, the Canadian Red Cross issued knitting instructions to civilians so that they could contribute to the war effort.  Below is a picture of a booklet published during World War II. 1

Red Cross

The Red Cross was also in charge of collecting and distributing the knitting. Before sending the knitting overseas, the Red Cross inspected all items. Volunteers also helped with the quality control inspections and some knitters corrected mistakes made by others, such as taking out knots in heels of socks. Some volunteers would take the knitting completely apart and redo it, if needed. 2

The Canadian Red Cross estimated that 750,000 women knitted more than 50 million garments for the military in World War II.3

Even the style of knitting underwent a transformation. Continental-style knitting was popular in Germany but it fell out of favour in English speaking countries during World War II. Knitters changed to English-style knitting. The difference between the two styles is the hand in which the yarn is held. Continental-style knitters hold the yard in the left hand, not the right. Nana always had her yarn in the right hand, as her reading material was on the left armrest of her chair.4 She needed her left hand free to turn the page.

 

 

  1. Canadian Red Cross, WWII Civilian Knitting Instructions, https://www.redcross.ca/history/artifacts/wwii-civilian-knitting-instructions, accessed April 26, 2020
  2. Canadian War Museum, An Army of Knitters in Support of the War Effort, March 10, 2014, https://www.warmuseum.ca/blog/an-army-of-knitters-in-support-of-the-war-effort/, accessed April 26, 2020
  3. Idem.
  4. Weightman, Judy, More Knitting History, World War II, October 9, 2012, https://judyweightman.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/more-knitting-history-world-war-ii/, accessed April 26, 2020

My Grandfather, North Yorkshire and Discobulus

VenusandAdonis

Venus and Adonis by Titian. This Renaissance painting is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles but it once graced the Hall of Duncombe Park in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. I know this because of a precious little volume from 1829 I found on archive.org, A Description of Duncombe Park, Rivalx Abbey and Helmsley Castle.

As it happens, my father’s  paternal ancestors are from Helmsley, today a picturesque market and tourist town on the River Pye in the Ryedale District.

helmsley

Duncombe Park  was once an imposing structure in the Doric style built in 1718 overlooking Helmsley Castle not far from Thirsk where the vet who inspired All Creatures Great and Small worked. It was the seat of the Earls of Feversham.

My grandfather, Robert Nixon (1890-1967), was born to Robert Nixon Sr. and Mary-Ellen Richardson.

helmsleynixonhouse

This stretch of very unimposing row houses is where the Nixons lived in 1911, according to the UK Census.

abbott'swellcottge

Mary-Ellen was from nearby Rievaulx, a village famous for its cathedral ruins. She was born in this quaint cottage, Abbot’s Well. Her dad was a tailor.

RobertCENSUS

According to this census, Robert Nixon Sr. was a delver in a quarry in Rievaulx in 1911.

The same census page says my grandfather, Robert Jr.  21,  was a footman, likely at Duncombe Park. Robert was a strapping 6 foot 4 inches tall. The gentry liked their footmen to be fine physical specimens, but this was not always a good thing if Nixon family lore can be counted upon.

According to an English ‘auntie’ of my  father’s, the daughter of ‘the local earl’ went ga-ga for young Robert back in the day, so the love-struck girl’s powerful father sent him away, far away to Malaya.

I have no picture of Robert, but I recall seeing one decades ago and he looked like my dad, Peter.  So here’s a picture of Peter in 1958 holding our new puppy, Spotty, a coonhound. My father was also 6 foot four inches tall.

father

This myth might be true, as employment in Malaya was only offered to young men from well-off families, not delver’s sons.

I see that the sitting Earl of Feversham had four daughters, but they were much too old for Robert. Maybe it was Feversham’s granddaughter who fell in love with my strapping grandfather. I hope so, because I like this family myth. This is a Vanity Fair pic of the Earl from Wikipedia.

Lord Feversham 1829-1915

According to travel records, my grandfather, Robert took a boat to Malaya (willingly or unwillingly) in 1912 to work at Batu Caves Estate in Selangor, just outside of Kuala Lumpur.

He returned to England after WWI to marry my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, from County Durham, whose father was an itinerant Primitive Methodist preacher posted in Helmsley between 1912 and 1914.

MRsDOROTHYNIXON

Dorothy followed him to Malaya in December, 1921 and my dad was born ten months later on October 24.  Robert later became Manager of the estate. Both my grandfather and grandmother were interned at Changi Prison during WWII.

According to the 1829 book, Duncombe Park was  home to a treasure trove of classical paintings, among them the Titian shown at top, but also a Da Vinci, a Reubens, a Rembrandt  as well as Discobulus, described as ‘the finest statue in England.’

My grandfather never did get to see these great works of art in person because most were burned in a fire in 1879.  Back then, some of these paintings were worth five thousand pounds.

The Discobulus and the DaVinci work were lost in the fire but Titian’s Venus and Adonis was saved to eventually find its way to California and the Getty Museum.

Duncombe was rebuilt in the Baroque Italianate style and used as a backdrop to the 2012 British mini-series Parade’s End, with Benedict Cumberbatch.  I love that mini-series, so it is all very appropriate.

Duncombe

Dunscombepark1

Lancaster Days in Gransden Lodge

Recently, as I read the history of the WWII era on the webpage of the Cambridge Gliding Centre, which operates out of the Gransden Lodge Airfield, I was reminded of my great uncle’s fun-loving spirit. The page read:

“Despite the grim business of the war being waged, there was also a lighter side to life at Gransden Lodge, with many sporting events, parties, concerts and film shows being organised, along with the inevitable pranks carried out by the boisterous Canadians.”1

I don’t know what pranks they were talking about, but its likely my uncle Charlie fell among the pranksters. He served at Gransden Lodge for six months in 1944.

Uncle Charlie, officially known as Sgt. John Charles Mathieu, worked three different jobs from the time he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on January 8, 1940 until he went missing just before Christmas 1944.

Each job got closer to the action, with the first assisting officers, the second serving as a Spitfire flight mechanic and the third as a tail gunner in a Lancaster.

In many ways, his personal development matched the development of Canada’s Air Force.

Canadian Air Force Development

Canada founded its own Air Force in 1920, just after World War I ended. King George V gave it the Royal Canadian Air Force title four years after that. For a while, it controlled civil aviation in the country, but that ended in 1927. It then re-established recruitment and training in 1939, as part of the build-up to the British effort in World War II.

The Royal Canadian Air Force created Squadron 405 in Driffield, Yorkshire, on April 23, 1941. It became operational as part of Britain’s Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command a month and a half later.2

Canadian and British crews tried to hit German and French targets individually as best they could, but the bombs dispersed too widely.

Captain D. C. Bennett came up with a plan to send a small group of bombers ahead of the others. These Pathfinder bombers would drop green and red short-burning flares called “sky indicators” on targets so that a bigger group of bombers would know where to aim.

Just as this new strategy was developed, the Royal Canadian Air Force created its own Bomber Command. It assigned the 405 Squadron to the pathfinder role and moved it to Gransden Lodge. The squadrons originally based there researched the use of radar. As the use of that technology expanded, they had to be moved to larger, more secretive locations.

Uncle Charlie’s Path

Meanwhile, Charlie began training as a tail gunner just before Christmas 1943. His two-and-a-half month journey ended with a mark of 76.1%. I think this is a pretty good grade, but his course instructor P.W.H. Walker clearly expected better. Walker wrote in Mathieu’s log book that he was “a pupil who would have done better had he devoted more time to his work.”3

He worked harder after that, training from March until May in a Wellington in Wellesbourne Mountford and then from the 9th until the 24th of June in a Halifax. For that last training session, his instructor gave him a mark of 91% and assessed him as “average.”

Then it was off to the Navigational Training Unit, which used the new safer, faster bombers known as Lancasters. The Lancasters also marked a vast improvement in technology. After successfully prototyping by the A.V. Roe Company in Chadderton, the manufacture of some Lancasters moved to Canada. Charlie told me that plane saved him and his crew multiple times.

Charlie’s study habits by then had vastly improved; he and his rear gunner came in second and third in the class. Together, they got assigned to the elite squadron 405, something that shocked Charlie.

The rest of the crews were all experienced, some with two tours of ops to their credit; we didn’t even have one flight.4

Arrival at Gransden Lodge

Charlie arrived in Great Gransden, a tiny hamlet in Sandy, which was part of Bedfordshire in Huntingdonshire County, 11 miles west of Cambridge in early July 1944. He got a welcoming pamphlet from his predecessors that said in part:

“We old die-hards, some of whom you will have the pleasure of meeting later in this booklet, began our P.F.F. life just as you are, with few clues but a willingness to learn. We settled down and soon became enshrouded with the spirit, that we not only had a job to do well, but one which was to be done far better than was expected, no matter how small it proved to be. That spirit and responsibility is handed down to you by the older crews as they end their tours.”5

Charlie’s log shows eleven-and-a-half hours of day flying and two-and-a-quarter hours of night flying over a three-day period that ended on July 10, 1944.6

That same day, Charlie got a new “class A” driver’s license that gave him the right to drive “heavy locomotive, light locomotive, motor tractor, heavy motor car, motor car, or motor tricycle equipped with means for reversing”7 for a year.

He wouldn’t need the last six months.

For More about WWII

Read my other stories about WWII service at:

Last flight (this is more about Uncle Charlie)

Difficult holiday for two families (this story features the death of a crew member on Charlie’s last flight)

Sad death (this story features one of the women who served)

Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer (another story about a woman who served)

Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII (Charlie trained in Dunville, but the site was similar to this one)

Sources

1https://www.camgliding.uk/about/airfield-history/, accessed January 29, 2020.

2 Skaarup, H. (n.d.). Canadian Wings: The History & Heritage of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.canadianwings.com/Squadrons/squadronDetail.php?No.-405-Squadron-64.

3Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943, December 12, 1943 to February 26, 1944.

4Mathieu, John Charlie. All this Heaven Almost, private manuscript.

5 No. 405 Squadron Operational Books, Library and Archives Canada, microfilm reproduction copy number C-12272.

6Log book, Personal documents, John, Charles Mathieu, Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943.

7Huntingdonshire County Council Road Traffic Provisional Driving Licence No. A6430.

Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII

Imagine turning a corner and seeing rows upon rows of green painted wooden buildings as far as the eye can see. One minute, there was nothing. The next minute, an entire town appeared in front of me.

For just a moment, I shared a bit of the awe my ancestors must have felt on day one of their military training during WWII.

The experience took place while I was touring wineries near Picton Ontario last summer.

A former airfield and military base on County Road 22 operates as the Picton Airport and Loch-Sloy Business Park. It includes 54 historic buildings and six airplane hangars on 701 acres of land.

Local businesses rent space

The Prince Edward Flying Club offers “prior permission required” landing services for pilots.

Fifteen other business tenants rent space there too. I saw listings for carpenters, furniture makers, glass manufacturers, landscapers, mechanics, and stone distributors. There’s even a yoga studio on site.

Driving and walking through the park feels like taking a step back in time.

The Picton airfield originally opened on April 28, 1941 as a bombing and gunnery school for the war effort.

Canada, with the support of Britain, built new or expanded existing fields into more than 100 such facilities in less than four years.

The effort became known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Looking back it is difficult to grasp the BCATP in all its dimensions,” wrote J.F. Hatch, in his 1983 book describing the project. “In themselves, the statistics are impressive: 131,553 [plus 5,296 RAF and Fleet Air Arm personnel trained prior to July 1, 1942] aircrew trained for battle, through a ground structure embracing 105 flying training schools of various kinds, 184 support units and a staff numbering 104,000. When war was declared the RCAF had less than two hundred aircraft suitable for training, many of them obsolete. In December 1943 there were 11,000 aircraft on strength of the BCATP.” [1]

My ancestors Paul Emile Hurtubise, Jean Charles Mathieu and Richard Himphen all trained at Ontario-based military installations just like this one, although the ones they went to were in Camp Borden, Dunnville and St. Thomas rather than Picton.

Camp Borden still operates as an active military training facility. The ones in Dunnville and St. Thomas are long gone.

Picton is probably the last BCATP centre in existence—with original buildings and triangle airfield layout intact—anywhere in the world.

Heritage Structures Intact

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) used the buildings and hangars for storage and equipment maintenance after WWII.

After that, the Royal Canadian School of Artillery (anti-aircraft) moved in to train anti-aircraft gunners, gunnery radar operators, technical assistants and artillery instructors. The first battalion Canadian Guards infantry unit also used the site for a while.

During part of that time, AVRO Arrow test models could be found in some of the hangars.

In 1969, the Department of Defense closed down CFB Picton and the H.J. McFarland Company purchased the land and buildings.

Loch-Sloy bought the site from the McFarland family in 1999.

Dreams for a Period Museum

That’s when the company began a slow challenging effort of reconstructing the former buildings into a period museum that they hope will eventually open full-time. They produced a fun video describing their dreams in April 2013.

Until that happens, you can arrange private tours of the site or contact them for upcoming public events.

I highly recommend the experience. It connects you to the past in a way that reading documents just can’t achieve.

– 30 –

If you want to read more about my WWII military ancestors and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, refer to the following stories:

Fairwell Sergeant Himphen

Evening Serenade

Shot Down Three Times

Vincent Massey and the BCATP

 

[1] Hatch, F. J. The Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945. Ottawa: Directorate of History, Dept. of National Defence, 1983, 222 pages.

Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer

This week, we commemorate the public service contributions of trained dietitian and Montreal philanthropist Mary Catherine “Kitty” Freeman. Freeman was born in Prescott, Ontario 98 years ago Sunday.

During the war years, Freeman helped feed wounded soldiers using limited rations at hospitals in Liverpool, England and Bruges, Belgium . She described her experiences to Bronwyn Chester in 2004 for a newsletter article.

If someone became diabetic, for instance, you’d look after that,” she told Chester. “But mostly you did the best you could with what you had. We had 600 patients at one time, and to break the monotony of meat with a lot of fat in it, along with potatoes and canned and dried food, you’d just go out and buy strawberries.”[1]

Freeman frequently donated to McGill during her lifetime. She also left Macdonald College a million dollar endowment after her death on March 13, 2009. Today, a well-equipped 12-person food laboratory commemorates her contributions. Another $25,000 went to the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research.[2]

Clearly, the study of food and nutrition meant a great deal to her, perhaps because she grew up during the Great Depression.

As a young woman, Freeman pursued a Bachelor of Household Science from Macdonald College and dietitian training at Royal Victoria College.

She signed up for the Canadian Army’s Medical Corp as soon as she turned 21 and became eligible for service.

Freeman told Chester that she travelled from Halifax Canada to Liverpool England as the only dietitian on one of three Army hospital ships.

Hospital Ship Travel

Hospital ships carried wounded soldiers from Europe to Pier 21 in Halifax. There, trained technicians transferred patients to hospital trains sent to hospitals across Canada. Military personnel and soldiers then boarded empty ships, just as Freeman did. The ship then returned to Europe for more patients.

Painted white hospital ships displayed large red crosses on each side to indicate that they should receive safe passage.

You can see a photo of one such ship on Roger Litwiller’s website. We can assume that this photo shows a later probably larger ship than the one Freeman sailed on. The Lady Nelson hospital ship didn’t exist until April 1943. It boasted an operating theatre, x-ray machine and wards for 515 people. The December 1944 Index to British Warships document shows only the Lady Nelson in existence that particular year, only two years after Freeman’s passage.[3] That couldn’t be accurate, however. The Letitia hospital ship was refitted with 200 medical personnel and the ability to ship 1,000 patients in 1943 and continued to sail in 1944.

The Geneva Convention specified that enemy bombers and submarines weren’t supposed to target hospital ships, but there were no guarantees. According to Wikipedia, 25 hospital ships were sunk during WWII.[4]

Military Contribution

The hospital ship Freeman was on arrived safely in Liverpool with its two mates in 1941. There, her expertise became a much-needed commodity. Britain struggled to feed itself. Canadian exports accounted for 77% of the wheat and flour consumed in the country. The following year, rations would be introduced across Canada to ensure that enough food went overseas.

Freeman took charge of the military hospital food service. Later, they sent her to Belgium to perform a similar role in harsher conditions. After five years of service, she returned to Montreal. She immediately joined the staff of the veteran’s Saint Anne de Bellevue Hospital as a dietitian

She moved to Queen Mary’s Veteran Hospital before retiring in 1978.

According to a 2005 Veteran’s Affairs pamphlet, Freeman’s experiences were duplicated by many women of her generation.

No account of military service in the Second World War would be complete without mention of the contribution made by the four special branches of the nursing service – the Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Dietitians and Home Sisters. Also, the sisters who served on the hospital trains returning the wounded to destinations across Canada. The end of the Second World War brought the closure of military and station hospitals across Canada. A total of 80 nurses, 30 RCAMC, 30 RCAF and 20 RCN sisters joined the permanent force and served at military establishments across the country; many more staffed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospitals to care for hundreds of returning Veterans.[5]

We need to remember the service of these courageous women, including Mary Catherine Freeman.

Sources

[1] Chester, Bronwyn, “Fueling the Forces,” In Focus Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, McGill, Spring 2004, p15, https://www.mcgill.ca/macdonald/files/macdonald/InFocusSpring2004.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019.

[2] “Generous legacy supports dietetic and nutrition research, CFDR Keeping in Touch, Fall 2009, p3.

[3] Index to British Warships, Division of Naval Intelligence, December 1944, http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ref/ONI/ONI-201/ONI-201-I/ONI-201-I.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hospital_ships_sunk_in_World_War_II, accessed September 24, 2019.

[5] “The Nursing Sisters of Canada,” Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada represented by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, 2005. Catalogue No. V32-146/2005 ISBN 0-662-69038-9 Accessed September 24, 2019, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-and-war/nursing-sisters#sisterhist3