Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
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British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

A World War II Memory - Garnet Robertson, Air Gunner​​

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Ghost Squadron by Garnet A. Robertson
 
This is an excerpt from Garnet Robertson’s oral history, submitted to the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum as a 64 page booklet with the title ``Ghost Squadron.’’ In the excerpt he talks about his life prior to World War II on the farm in rural Manitoba northwest of Brandon, enlistment into the air force and personal stories related to his time in training with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. He ultimately completed his training as an Air Gunner and we follow him up to his assignment to a Whitley aircrew in England. His story is not detailed in the training process, but is filled with insights of a young man on the farm adapting to life as an airman in the Royal Canadian Air Force.   
I was born in Winnipeg on June 12th, 1925 while my folks were living at Grosisle. My father was the CNR agent there. We moved to Isabella, Manitoba when I was one year old. I took all my schooling at Isabella, including Grade XI.
 
We lived in the CN station. It was in poor shape when we arrived. The station was heated with a cook stove in the kitchen, a coal heater in the living room and a coal heater in the waiting room. The train went through at 5:30 a.m. twice a week and on those mornings it was fairly warm, as my father stoked up the heaters when he met the train. The other mornings were very cold. Usually we laid out our clothes at night so we could get into them as quickly as possible in the morning. After we were there for a few years, the CN insulated the station and stuccoed the outside. My father built on a kitchen and put a small basement in with a coal furnace. Then the building was quite comfortable.
 
Isabella had a population of about one hundred people. There was a general store, post office, hardware, blacksmith shop, lumber yard, two garages and two elevators. The nearest large town was Birtle, about eighteen miles away. Most of the farmers did their business in Isabella. There was also a rink with one sheet of curling ice and a skating rink. This was the main center of entertainment during the winter months. The rink was also used in the summer as a livestock bam for the local fair. During the winter the rink was not open on Sundays, so we kids would go in through the window and play hockey with a rubber ball so we could not be heard.
 
Things were very tough at this time as the depression was on. No one had any money and most of the older guys could not get a job. During summer holidays and the fall, I worked on a farm. All of the work was done with horses as there were very few tractors at that time and nobody could afford fuel for them. I would get up at 6:00a.m., feed and clean five horses, have breakfast, and hitch my outfit to a plow or cultivator and work until noon. I would have dinner and go back out at 1 :00 p.m. then work until sometimes dark. In the fall, I stooked while the boss cut the grain with a binder and four horses. This was tough work, but I enjoyed it.
 
At that time most of the farmers would load their own grain, usually about 50 or 60 bushels at a time, into the box car. This was done using a team and wagon. It all had to be loaded by hand and unloaded by hand. They would get us kids in the box car to shovel the grain to the back at each end. We would work all day and earn about twenty-five cents each. It was hard work, but we did not mind. Usually, we had a lot of fun jumping around in the grain.
 
My dad kept hackney horses that we showed in the summer fairs and also at the Brandon winter fair. My brother and I each had a Shetland pony and we would haul water for those horses. We 
 
 

  
Grain elevators at Isabella Manitoba
Mt. Joli Quebec train station.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley aircraft – Wikipedia
Airmen install Browning machine gun in Whitley rear turret.
also hauled out the manure and brought in straw for them after school.

When the well in Isabella went dry in the dry years, I would pick up cream cans around town with my pony and wagon, and haul water from a farm two and one-half miles away. I would do this every morning before school. I was paid five cents a can and thought I was really making money!
 
My dad used to get his hay hauled from the Birdtail Indian Reserve, west of Buelah. It was usually Soo Ben who brought it. My mother would feed him before he started back. All us kids were scared of him because he was supposed to have been at 'The Little Big Horn.' He would have been only a baby then and he was an old man when he hauled our hay.
 
The Indians at this time always left the reserve in the spring and wandered
around the country all summer. They set up their tents wherever it suited them. They lived off the land and also sold baskets and mats that they made out of willows. When the Indians came to Isabella, they used to camp near the nuisance grounds. The horses would be hobbled so they would not wander too far away, and we kids used to feel sorry for them. We would sneak up to them and cut their hobbles. Luckily none of us were ever caught!
 
My brother and I had to exercise the hackney horses every night and we had to do it by walking them. We finally told dad that we were going to ride the horses to exercise them and he agreed as long as we did not gallop them. We would trot them until we were out of sight of him and then we would start a race. There was one horse that was not a very good hackney but it was a real good saddle horse. We decided to make a jumper out of him and set up a jump in a bluff just north of town. When we had him really jumping well, we told dad. He was not very happy but when we showed him what the horse could do, he decided to take him to the winter fair in Brandon and show him as a jumper. The horse won his class and dad sold him for a good price.
 
About this time, my brother and I thought it was time we took the horses on the fair circuit. We would drive two and lead the rest behind. We would show in a town one day and drive to the next fair, often as far as twenty miles away, that night. It was a hard grind but we enjoyed it and nearly always brought home the first prize and championship ribbons. There were about five other families from Isabella, showing at this time. As a result, we had some good times!
 
It was about this time that I wanted a bicycle. I only had four dollars. I went to see the hardware man about buying one and it was going to cost me twenty-six dollars! He agreed to sell the bicycle to me with the four dollars down and I could pay him whenever I made any money. It ended up that I was paying him ten cents and twenty-five cents whenever I earned it. I imagine that he was a happy man when I finally paid it off!
 
We had a midget hockey team that was managed by a local farmer. He used to give us a turkey every year to raffle off in order to raise money to pay for our uniforms. In the end we were called the turkey team. We played in the school tournament at Hamiota and though we were all a lot younger than the rest of the teams, we always gave them a scare. Our manager liked to imbibe, so we usually played in bigger towns where there was a beer parlor. We stayed together until about 1942, when a lot of the guys decided to join up. I went to Brandon and got a job in the CN express. They used to hook about three express carts together fully loaded and expected you to pull them out to the train. After a while, I figured  there must be a better way to live than this, so I quit.
 
I decided to join the air force, but being only seventeen, I had to have my parent's permission. My dad said he would not give it to me, but I said that I would go anyway. He finally signed a paper giving his okay. I enlisted in Winnipeg in the RCAF and was sent to manning pool in Brandon. I did not know anyone when I arrived there. We were kept in quarantine for two weeks and during that time, I met a few guys.
 
One of them decided that we should go up town, so he borrowed an "ID" card from one of the fellows who had been there for a while. He got out and then threw the card up to me and I met him outside. We saluted everybody in a uniform that night just to be on the safe side.
 
We were training in the old Brandon arena at that time. I met some guys that I knew after I had been there a few days. One was from Arrow River and one was from Beulah. I also met Ray Reid from Isabella. He was a few classes ahead of me, so he was not around too long. We were then training at the summer fair grounds.
 
One day we were doing a lot of marching and it was really hot. To the guys from Arrow River and Beulah, I suggested that we duck into the hedge when we were going by and then go up town. We were the last in line, so we ducked in and hid until the troop got a good ways away and then we headed up town. We thought that we would really be in for it when we got back, but we were not even missed!
 
One Saturday morning we got a bunch of needles (vaccinations) and then were taken out on the parade square to drill. When the guys started to pass out left and right, they broke the drill off and gave us the rest of the weekend off. We were not supposed to leave camp, but a guy from Decker and I decided to hitch hike home.
 
By the time I arrived home, I was really sick. I told dad that he would have to drive me back first thing in the morning. He was not too happy about it and took his time getting there, stopping at my uncle's place in Crandall. It was about 8:00p.m. that night when I checked into the doctor's office. He wanted to know why I had not come in sooner. I sure did not tell him the truth. He checked me over and said I had the measles and sent me to the hospital at #12 (Service Flying Training School in Brandon) which is now the Brandon airport. I was really sick for about three days and then felt fine. They kept me in for two weeks. When it came time to be discharged, the guy ahead of me, who had been the doctor's ski instructor at Banff, got two weeks leave. I guess the doctor thought he had to give me leave because he had given it to the other guy, so I got one week.
 
When I got back after leave, I was scheduled to be shipped out to Vancouver. All the guys I had known were already gone. I caught the train in Brandon along with about fifty other guys. We had a good trip out. There were a couple of musicians in the crowd, so it shortened the trip. When we arrived at Vancouver, we were to take a refresher course at Vancouver Tech and were to be billeted out in private homes.
 
I had met a couple of guys on the train so the three of us boarded at the retired chief of police's home. We went to school from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and had the weekends off. We were there for six weeks so had a real holiday. The only time we saw an air force personnel was on payday. The lady where we stayed really used us well, but I think she likely was glad to see the last of us. We managed to break her daughter's bed that we were using.
 
Percy Tinling and I were posted to Quebec City and Hank Misenheimer was posted to Alberta. It was a seven day train trip from Vancouver to Quebec City and we spent most of it playing poker. When we got to Regina, Percy and I were both broke, so I phoned the folks and told them when I would be going through Brandon. They met the train and we had a short visit. I put the bite on dad for a few bucks, so Percy and I were back in the poker game! By the time we got to Winnipeg, we were nearly broke gain. His folks met him at the train and he bummed some money from them. We lasted until we got to Montreal.
 
We laid over in Montreal for a half a day and we got to see quite a bit of the  city. One of the guys on the course and I each had a dollar and he wanted to go to the house of prostitution. We matched to see who got the two dollars - and he won. We asked a policeman the directions and he showed us. Once there we were taken to a room where six fat and forty women in kimonos were lined up. He told them that he only had two dollars, so they showed us the door very quickly. That was one day I was glad that I was broke.
 
We arrived in Quebec city and were marched to Lower Quebec where we were billeted in an old orphanage that was six stories high and had been condemned. We had fire drills day and night the entire time we were there.
 
There had been a big fight between the air force and the local Frenchmen just before we got there, so Lower Quebec was out of bounds to us. We had to take a direct route to Upper Quebec without stopping at any of the stores or pubs in Lower Quebec. Tinling and I were on kitchen fatigue one night and when we got finished we decided to go over the fence to a pub in Lower Quebec. No one could speak English, but they used us well. They bought the beer all evening.
 
The Mess Hall at Quebec was just that, "a mess." The grub was terrible and the flies were so thick you could hardly walk through them. It did not seem to bother some of the guys though, as they ate everything in front of them. One day we were having spaghetti and the ceiling was covered with fly stickers. The guy across from me was wolfing down the spaghetti and pushing the flies, that had fallen from the fly stickers, to the side of his plate. I ate most of my meals in the canteen.
 
Bob Carnegie, the guy from Beulah that I was in Brandon with, played the bagpipes. One night I heard them being played a couple of floors above me and I figured it must be him. He had just arrived and was a couple of classes behind me. We had a good visit. He was later killed over Germany.
 
For the most part we did studying at Quebec City plus a lot of drill. We also did some machine gun training on old World War I Vickers machine guns. We graduated from Quebec as LAC's and were then able to wear our white air crew ribbon in our caps. We thought that we were really something!
 
After graduation, a bunch of us went to the Legion in Upper Quebec for a party. You could get quart bottles of Black Horse beer really cheap, so we tied a good one on; me especially. The guys had to get a cab home as I could not walk. When we got to the gate, the CO was just coming out. The guys tried to get me walking and told me to be quiet as the CO was coming. I said F--- the CO. All he said was "Get him to bed, boys."
 
The next day we left for Mont Joli Quebec and boy was I sick. Tinling  brought me a couple of pints of milk and it got me on my feet. Mont Joli was a modern airport, but miles from anywhere. We had lots of time to study as there was nothing else to do except play basketball.
 
A few of us went into the town of Mont Joli one night, but the people did not use us well. You would have thought we were in Germany.
 
We started our flying at Mont Joli and flew in Fairy Battles. They had been used in the evacuation of Dunkirk so were not in the best of shape. Two gunners would go up two at a time. One gunner in the turret and one sitting on the floor near the engine cooler. You would get the fumes from the engine and would usually come down feeling lousy. One plane would fly along with us towing a 'drough' (drogue) which was a canvas affair something like a parachute. We shot so many rounds at it and they would count the holes when we landed to see how we had done. Sometimes our own plane would pull the drough. We got smart and started pulling it up close behind the plane. We got a much better score this way!
 
We used to be trucked away up the Coast of the St. Lawrence to a gunnery range for all kinds of gunnery training such as machine guns, rifles, pistols, and skeet shooting. These were long cold days as it was October and November. There was no place to get warm because everything was outside. We trained on aircraft recognition, fighter affiliation, how to unassemble a machine gun and re-assemble it in so many seconds blindfolded.
 
We would be up at 6:00 a.m., have breakfast, train until noon, have dinner and be back training at 1:00 p.m. We would break for a physical training class at 5:00 p.m. and have supper at 6:00 p.m. Sometimes after supper we would play poker, but we usually studied until about 9:00p.m. and then went to bed.
 
We had airmen from England, Australia, New Zealand, United States and  Poland. We finally graduated as SGT. Air Gunners. It was a great day when we finally got our Air Gunners Wing and Stripes. It really felt worthwhile when your name was called out and you had your wings pinned on by the CO.
 
AI Patterson, who had the bunk above me, was held back because he was having trouble with his eyes. He sewed my SGT. stripes on my 'Great Coat' for me. When I later became a Warrant Officer and removed my stripes, I found a note that he had sewn under them. "Good Luck Robby."- AI. He graduated a couple of weeks later and was eventually killed over Germany.
 
We were given a month’s embarkation leave after graduation. Another gunner and I decided to fly home from Montreal to Winnipeg to give us more time at home. We left Montreal at 11 :00 p.m. at night on a Trans Canada Airline "Hudson" which was the top airline plane at that time. It carried twelve passengers, a pilot and a co-pilot plus a stewardess who also had to be a nurse. The pilot invited us to come up to the cockpit and he showed us how everything worked. We felt quite honored. We arrived in Winnipeg at 7:00 a.m. after stops in North Bay and Fort William. (now Thunder Bay).
 
I finished 23rd out of a class of 142 at Mont Joli, so I did not think that was too bad. We had a lot of washed out pilots and navigators on our course who were a lot smarter than I was.
 
I arrived home in December for my leave, so I managed to get a few hockey games in. I saw quite a lot of Della, and I was also home for Christmas so that was nice. When my leave was up, I was sent to Lachine, Quebec to wait for a ship. I arrived a few days after the rest of my group and most of them had already been shipped out. It meant making all new friends. The ship named "Louis Pasteur" arrived in Halifax with a load of German prisoners of war. It was lousy so it had to be fumigated before the return trip. We were supposed to go on it, but were changed to the "Il De France." We were all happy as it was a much better ship.
 
We left Lachine for Halifax around the 5th of February, 1944, On the train trip down when we were going through the Gaspe area, we had bricks thrown through the train windows. It made us wonder if we should have been staying home and doing some cleaning up in Canada.
 
As soon as we arrived in Halifax, we were marched directly onto the ship. They had taken all the furniture off the ship and each room was full of six bunk beds. There was about twenty-five of us in each room. The bunks were so close together, you could barely turn over. We were each assigned a job to do on the trip over. Some of the gunners volunteered for gunnery helper. This meant they were with a navy gunner on the cannon station. These guns protruded out from the deck of the ship and had little protection from the wind and spray from the waves.
 
We had a very rough trip over, so these guys had it really rough. We were on duty for four hours on and four hours off. I was assigned as a guard on the theater door. I don't know if there was a theater or not as I never showed up. Nobody came looking for me, so I had a relatively easy trip.
 
The mess hall had one long table which had buns and tea on it. We went through in file and had our mess tins filled by navy cooks. There was a barrel at the end of the table to but garbage into and quite often that is where my meals ended up. Usually I ended up with tea and a bun.
 
We were a fairly fast ship, so we had no convoy and we were sailing alone. We had a couple of submarine scares, but nothing came of it. It took us nine days to cross and I was really happy when I saw Greenwich show up in Scotland. The Bay was too shallow to take the ship right to Port so we were taken ashore by barge. We were loaded on a troop train at Glasgow and taken to the south of England, to Bournmouth. We saw from one end of the British Isles to the other on the first day. Bournmouth was a resort city before the war and had been a beautiful place. All the hotels had been taken over by the air force and stripped. All the rooms had steel bunk beds in them. They were still quite comfortable though. We did a bit of training there, but it was mostly just waiting to be posted.
 
The postings finally came through and I was posted to Honeybome. Honeybome was a flight station and they flew Whitleys. These were a four engine plane with just a tail turret, no mid-upper. These planes flew very slowly and flew with the nose appearing slanted downward. All types of crew were sent here except flight engineers. This is where we crewed up. Most of the gunners knew each other so they paired off. I was again the only one from my old course and as a result I did now know anyone.
 
Johnny Dench, a pilot and "Boomer" Colins, a gunner, were both officers and they had gotten together. Terry Sullivan, a bomb aimer, Neil Rubbery, a navigator and "Shorty" Wright, a wireless operator were like me and did not know anyone else on the station. Dench asked us if we wanted to fly with him. We all agreed so we had our crew. Boomer wanted the mid-upper turret and that suited me as I wanted the tail turret.