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BACK ROADS BILL: Remembering aviators killed in the area

Bill revisits a Remembrance Day story with new information

There are key elements to every story: plot, setting, characters, point of view, and conflict. We naturally include all these elements when we’re telling a story; we try to have flow and anticipation to excite the reader or listener.

Too many have died in wars. Their efforts are not forgotten through Remembrance Day. And there were many who died not in foreign lands but are buried in Northern Ontario; in places not their own.

Each casualty has a story and the details are in the digging. Each time I revisit this event it becomes more than a biographical sketch. It truly becomes a contextual story.

Cemeteries undoubtedly have some of the most beautiful statues and monuments, and amazing artwork. Cemeteries are a bevy of historical facts and cemeteries remind us of the dedication of those who gave their lives for freedom.

Look for the war graves icon it is the introduction to this story. A visit to our local cemeteries may be a different way of participating in this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony. There are mini cenotaphs there with specific insignia.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission honours and cares for the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars, ensuring they will never be forgotten. Funded by six-member governments, work includes the building, and now maintaining, markers at 23,000 locations throughout the world.

A good example is in North Bay where two young men lie far from their homes – Flying Officer Leslie William Laurence Davies, pilot, Catford, London, England; and Flight Sergeant William Gribbin, radio operator, Camelon, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

The men and women, the non-Canadians, are commemorated by special headstones maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The Commission was started by a Royal charter in 1917. Its duties are to mark and maintain the graves of members not buried within their own countries.

Around the world, the Commission commemorates more than 1,694,947 members of the forces in 145 countries. In Canada 18,214 war dead are commemorated at 2,871 cemeteries.

All headstones are uniform in size and inscription. At the top is an engraved emblem identifying the specific nationality, rank, unit, date of death and age, along with a religious motif. That explains part of the setting.

Flying Officer Leslie William Laurence Davies and Flight Sergeant William Gribbin

Something went wrong on the Saturday morning of April 28, 1945. They would have been going home soon, as the story will tell. WWII started Sept. 1, 1939, and ended Sept. 2, 1945. The Royal Air Force pilot, Davies, was landing his Mitchell bomber at the North Bay Airport when it crashed.

The North Bay Daily Nugget reported, “…its nose, engine and cabin are a tangled mass of wreckage. Part of the fuselage, including the mid-upper turret, is fairly intact. The falling plane clipped off trees for a considerable distance before it struck the earth.”

Doug Newman, Captain (retired), 22 Wing, Heritage Officer, Canadian Forces Base North Bay, knows his military history. He says the base at North Bay was not a base for ferrying aircraft overseas during that time.

You rely on research to make a story credible and the setting has to be understood.

“The Royal Air Force established a flying school at the airport, not a base, a school, that taught Allied aircrew how to fly and navigate over the Atlantic, a fine art in those days," Newman said. "The RCAF set up a seven-man team (including one driver and one vehicle mechanic) who looked after servicing and maintenance of military aircraft passing through North Bay en route to other parts of Canada, as well as Europe. In essence, the RCAF operation was a kind of highway truck stop for military aircraft.”

Pilots would ferry Hudson, B-25, Mitchell, Dakota and Lancaster bombers overseas. Their destinations would take them via Newfoundland and Iceland to Great Britain, Gibraltar and Egypt.

“Prior to the war’s start about 150 flights had been attempted across the Atlantic—one-third didn’t make it. Getting new warplanes to the war overseas was a priority, hence the school," Newman added. 

"Civilian as well as military aircrew from 23 countries trained here. The course was three to four weeks long," he said. "Thereafter they went to Dorval and were given a check ride—a flying exam. If they passed, they entered the aircraft ferrying program.

"Illustrating the dangers, about a year and a half before the North Bay school, the first ferrying flight lost crash-landed in Newfoundland. Among the killed was Dr. Frederick Banting, co-Nobel Prize winner in medicine for his work regarding insulin. Banting suffered a severe concussion, was hallucinating and incoherent.

"While the pilot was away looking for help, he wandered out into the surrounding winter and died of exposure. And even after the North Bay school was established, the dangers of trans-oceanic flying were ever-present.“

Both were instructors. Davies trained pilots. Gribbin trained radio operators.

“In those days radio operators--wireless operators in Brit speak--worked apart from the pilots and navigators in the larger air force aircraft, like bombers and sea patrol planes, since the radio machinery was bigger and more involved than in smaller warplanes," Newman said. "In the smaller aircraft, the navigator or pilot operated the radio(s).”

“By the way,” Newman added, “Only 2- or 4-engine aircraft were ferried over the ocean since they had an extra engine if one failed.”

The radio operators/wireless operators were crucial to the flights, more than transmitting and receiving messages.

“With regards to flying the Atlantic, for example, they used their sets to pick up radio beacons from military bases and the like as they closed in on land; from these, the crews were able to home in on airfields to land and/or establish where they were over the Earth--very important when you have nothing but ocean underneath you and are heading into a war zone.”

One in three attempts to cross the Atlantic failed

Newman explains the contextual plot.

“I think it is important to stress the remarkable achievement of the Royal Air Force school one out of every three attempts to fly across the Atlantic Ocean resulted in death or the aircraft vanishing, never to be seen again.

“The odds were so bad that when the United States Navy gave it a try in spring 1919, from North America to the Azores, they positioned ships all along the route as an emergency response measure, and tackled the Atlantic with not one but three flying boats (aircraft designed to take off and land on water).

“All three got lost. Of the three, two had to force land in the ocean because of mechanical problems. One crew was recovered by a Greek freighter after the ocean waves grew so high that their flying boat couldn't take off. Three days later, their airplane went to the bottom.

“Nothing was heard from the second for two days, its fate a mystery. The airplane was too damaged by the landing to fly. They could receive radio messages, but not transmit them. 

"Finally, in a masterpiece of improvisation--taking advantage of their navy training--its crew turned their machine around and, using the tail assembly like a sail, managed to sail more than 330 kilometres over the pounding ocean into a port in the Azores.

“The third, last U.S. Navy flying boat was able to reach the Azores, but only got there after becoming so hopelessly disoriented in fog that the pilot almost put their airplane into a spin--which would have had the aircraft whirling round like a top and crashing into the ocean. Luckily the crew spotted the Azores in a brief window in the fog and were able to reach their destination--just minutes before the fog swallowed up the port they had landed at.

“Technically the Americans weren't the first to cross the Atlantic. They flew to an island--a stop partway across--then continued on to Europe.

“The first to make a full, non-stop crossing were two Brits in the RAF, John Alcock and Arthur Brown. In June 1919, a mere few weeks after the American flight, they departed St. John's, Newfoundland and landed in Ireland. (Nearly a decade before Charles Lindbergh caught the world's attention with his own transatlantic flight, the flying duo made history.)

“The crossing took 14 1/2 hours. And it had its own moment of terrifying drama.

"Unknown to the two, while flying in clouds, the instrument which told whether they were climbing or diving froze. The crew thought they were flying straight and level when, in fact, they were ascending. Surrounded by clouds they could not tell the difference.

"Finally, like a skateboard rolling uphill, their aircraft ran out of speed. It plummeted out of the sky like a rock.

"Only when they emerged out of the clouds did the crew make the horrifying discovery that their airplane had flipped upside-down. Alcock, the pilot, was able to right the machine and get it on its way again, but it had been a very near thing.

He said the point behind these two stories is that little had changed in flying the Atlantic when the Second World War began.

“In fact, when seven warplanes took off from Newfoundland for Ireland in November 1940, as a test by the Allies whether or not ferrying aircraft over the ocean was viable, critics jumped on the venture as suicide--even some proponents remarked that the test would be declared a success if only three aircraft made it. Happily, all seven completed the voyage, and the ferrying of warplanes from Canadian and U.S. factories to war zones began.”

With respect to the Royal Air Force's North Bay trans-Atlantic flying school, its training was so superb that the successful crossing rate shot up to over 95%. Both Davies and Gribbin were integral, as instructors, in this success. We need characters in every story.

Newman added an additional punch line to this story.

“Many of the North Bay students, post-WW2, went on to become aircrew in airlines around the world, using their North Bay training and wartime experience to pioneer flying the first trans-oceanic routes, over the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as the Atlantic.”

From the Nugget article of April 30, 1945.

“Both airmen, killed instantly, were buried with full military honours accorded to them with an attending military escort and firing party.”

All a part of the conflict that was to end in just more than one week in Europe, Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, with the official ending on Sept 2 (Japan surrenders). Is this the point of view?

Davies would not have been in North Bay if not for a broken ankle

And there’s more, an interesting sidebar, Newman has discovered through emails with Dr. Sally Davies. She is now the UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

“On path to Oxford University, in 1942, (Flying Officer Leslie William Laurence) Davies joined the RAF instead. In 1944, while posted in the Bahamas, ferrying aircraft in Transport Command, he broke his ankle. During his convalescence, he visited friends in Canada, including at the North Bay RAF school, and through either his request or the impression he made on the staff was posted to the school.

"In essence, if he hadn’t broken his ankle, he would not have visited North Bay, been posted here, and subsequently killed in the crash.”

The climax of this story is the tragedy.

Flying Officer Leslie William Laurence Davies and Flight Sergeant William Gribbin are far from home. They have the sad distinction of being the first air fatalities of any kind, military or civilian, in the North Bay area.

And here lie our two characters, Gribbin is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery off of Golf Club Road and Davies is buried off of O’Brien St. within Terrace Lawn Cemetery. See the map.

The epilogue then, our many homegrown sons and daughters, were ready for war and became causalities because of it.

Maybe visit your local cemetery for our heroes. We can salute their lasting contributions.

We don’t know if these two families ever visited their beloved sons but thoughts and memories can travel great distances. You may see the distinctive Canadian maple leaf or associated military motif on the cemetery marker.

You will see small rocks at some of the headstones from the grounding of the visits, a Hebrew tradition. 

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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