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
Morning came early at Hebron Academy. At six a.m., I would enter the bathroom, calmly pick up the basin with the snake curled up inside, and walk outside to dump it in the bushes. I was a border and this was not my first brush with snakes.
The school was in the village of Coonoor, high in the Nilgiri Hills of Southern India.1 Most of the students were the children of missionaries but a few like myself were “business kids”.2
Shortly after arriving at Hebron in 1957 I found two names in the front of an old text book: Margery Angus and Kathleen Angus. It was enough of a curiosity that I wrote home about it. Imagine my surprise when Dad wrote back that they were his cousins, cousins he had never met! Their dad, the brother of my grandfather, had been a missionary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Now my curiosity knew no bounds!
How did they travel to Hebron? They could not have come like I did, four days from Calcutta on a train. Had they come by ship across the Bay of Bengal to Madras and then on the narrow- rail train up into the hills? At what age did they come? As teenagers? Or were they Kindergarten age and placed in The Nest? Did their parents join them for the May vacation or were they required to spend the holiday month with the school staff?
How did they feel about the school program? About tennis and field hockey? Art lessons, music, and drama? About being kept busy every minute of the day? In what academic subjects did they excel? I bet they had no trouble memorizing scripture or praying publicly in the daily prayer meetings being the children of missionaries. How did they feel sleeping six to a dorm on wooden beds with straw pallets? Or bathing in a tin tub twice a week in water heated over a wooden stove? Did they like the blue and white checked frock uniform? And the navy tunic and tie on Sundays? Were they as homesick as I, living for the daily mail distribution and letters from family?
This was my first brush with genealogy. Names were insufficient – I wanted stories, not just the knowledge that I walked in steps they had walked. I wanted these cousins to come to life for me! Today I want the same thing. The family tree I inherited from my dad was just a list of names and dates. Who were these people, where and how did they live?
Today the internet allows me to find some answers.
Margery and Kathleen’s father Thomas Angus was an Evangelical missionary from Glasgow.3 His wife was Eliza Simpson and they had five children: David, Robert, Joan, Kathleen and Margery.4. There was an Anglican school for girls in Kuala Lumpur but Thomas likely chose far-away Hebron to ensure that his daughters were educated in their own faith. 5 Perhaps his sons went to Breeks Memorial, Hebron’s sister school for boys. Or they may have been left at a school in Britain on one of the furloughs. Thomas’ final trip home was in 1940.6 He suffered from a heart condition and died in 1948.7 His son David took over his work in Malaysia until his interment by the Japanese during WW2.8
My work on Thomas’ family remains incomplete. I will likely never find answers to my questions about the girls’ years at Hebron. The school is now an orphanage, academic records and yearbooks likely lost to time. I have not yet been able to trace the remaining years of the girls’ lives. What is key for me today, however, is that this long ago first brush with genealogy led to my insatiable quest today for family stories.
Notes and Sources
Hebron Gleanings 1958 (yearbook) – on file with author
Note: The school was surrounded by plantations growing the famous Nilgiri tea.
- My father worked for a Canadian mining company that was part of a NGO in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The job involved the construction and start-up of a newsprint mill in the village if Khulna south of Dhaka on the Ganges River. At the time, Bangladesh was under martial law.
“Mr. and Mrs T.R. Angus arrived to work with the Hakka tin miners and in October 1903 found “a crying need for the gospel on every hand” but few to meet the need. Training locals to serve the Lord proved difficult as the miners led a rather nomadic life and were unable to attend church regularly. Just before the Second World War engulfed the Pacific, the aging Mr. Thomas Angus returned to Scotland and was replaced by his son David Angus.”
- Eliza was listed as the wife of Thomas on his death certificate. To date (February 2015), I have been unable to find any other documentation. The children’s’ names are those provided by my father. The children may have been born in Kuala Lump, indeed Thomas and Eliza may have married there, but I have been unable to access Malaysian records.
- Finding passenger lists (outgoing and incoming) have proven difficult. Angus is not an uncommon name in Britain, there are many British ports from which Thomas may have left, and a Malaysian destination is often merely a port–of-call on the way to a final destination like Australia. The lists I have been able to find sometimes show Thomas travelling alone, sometimes with his wife, or with his wife and children. The children’s names do not all match those given to me by my father. I have found a David, a Robert, a Margery, an Annie and a Frances. I have not found a Joan or a Kathleen. Were they younger than the others or did they go officially by other names?
- Death Certificate: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/
“In 1931 Mr. David Angus joined his father to continue the service the hallmark of which was grace and humility. During the war years Mr. Angus and other missionaries suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese invaders. He survived the horrors of prison with fortitude and emerged with a new understanding of the people in the country of mixed nationalities he had come to serve”