By Roger Kent
This is a story of whiskey and remembrance.
Scotch, especially the single malts of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich and Bowmore, drew me to Islay, the most southerly of the islands of the Hebrides. With eight active distilleries, Islay is home to some of the best single malt Scotch on the planet. My eleven year-old son Alexander and I toured five distilleries, learned about the burning of peat, which gently heats the barley that was germinated in peaty water. When combined by a master distiller, this distillate makes one of the best products imaginable, especially given what they have to start with. Pure Scottish genius! We also discovered that one of the reasons these single malts cost so dearly is because of the long aging process in wooden wine or bourbon casks. For every year of aging, 1% to 2% of the alcohol evaporates and this is known on the Whiskey Trail as the “Angels’ Share”. This may be why the southern shore of Islay, with all its storied distilleries, is known as the “Coast of Heaven”.
Islay’s main town is Bowmore, located on the eastern shore of a long ocean bay (called a sea loch) known as Loch Indaal. At the very top of the main street, overlooking the town and the sea, is the famous Round Church, built in 1767. On a mid-summer’s day, while enjoying the unusually sunny, hot weather, Alexander and I, for a change from distilleries, decided to visit the Round Church. Some locals say that the round form prevented the devil from being able to corner you, while others say it gave him no place to hide. From the church, we wandered into the surrounding graveyard, where we came upon dozens of headstones, mostly of nameless WWII merchant navy sailors. Their bodies were found along Islay’s coast, the victims of U-boat attacks in the sea approaches for Glasgow, Belfast and Liverpool - the 17 mile-wide strait between Islay and Northern Ireland.
Facing the headstones of the sailors we came across the graves of several Royal Air Force crew and to our surprise, three Royal Canadian Air Force pilots. Pondering the headstones of RCAF Flying Officers A.N. Book, age 24, K. B. Thomas, age 25 and Pilot Officer W.A. Johnston, age 20, in this quiet cemetery, on an island far off the west coast of Scotland, we couldn’t help wondering how they came to be here? All three RCAF pilots died on different days in 1943 and 1944 but we noticed two sergeants of the Royal Australian Air Force, Jabour and Palmer, died on the same day in January, 1943, as Pilot Officer Johnston. This was intriguing. How did they come to die on the same day?
The grave markers of the two Sunderland Wireless Operator/Air Gunners, Ernest Geoffrey Palmer and Roy John Jabour, stand against the ancient stone wall that surrounds the Round Church graveyard. Photo: Roger Kent
Young Alexander “Xander” Kent stands on Bowmore's Main Street with the famous 18th century Round Church in the background. Photo: Roger Kent
In the graveyard behind the Round Church, there are many graves of merchant seamen, whose unidentified bodies washed up on the shores of the Inner Hebrides. It was the sinking of merchant shipping by U-boats that brought the sub-hunting, Sunderland-equipped 246 Squadron to RAF Bowmore. Photo Roger Kent
Early on Sunday morning, January 24th, 1943, the crew of the four-engined Short Sunderland flying boat, DV979 of 246 Squadron, RAF, dropped by the Imperial Hotel in Bowmore to pick-up hot tea en route to the motor launch which would take them out to their aircraft, anchored on the grey waters of Loch Indaal. In the gloom of a cold dawn, the young men sang the recent hit song “You Are My Sunshine”, determined to make themselves happy “when skies are grey”.
The crew of twelve was airborne at 07:24 on an operational U-boat search patrol, to the west, out over the North Atlantic. Sunderland DV979 was commanded by Eric “Soapy” Lever of the South African Air Force and co-piloted by RCAF Flying Officer Wallace “Wally” Johnston, from Wardsville, Ontario, where his father was the United Church minister. On their return, the airmen knew the sea conditions at RAF Station Bowmore were far from ideal. The weather had deteriorated during the day and, by early evening, it was raining and a strong southerly was freshening to gale force. Their ETA was 1810 hours, but when they finally made radio contact they were 50 minutes late. Flying Control said if they had sufficient fuel they were to divert to Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, about 95 miles southwest. Unfortunately, they had only 45 minutes fuel remaining and were unable to divert.
A Royal Air Force Short Sunderland flying boat readies for take-off on the cold grey waters of Loch Indaal during the Second World War. Photo via IslayInfo.com
The flare path, consisting of three boats in a line on the loch, was lit and when DV979 arrived over Bowmore at 1926 hours, twelve hours and two minutes after take-off, they were over an hour late and in total winter darkness. The pilots were told they could not overrun their water landing as the landing area ended close to where other Sunderlands were moored.
In Bowmore, they could hear the Sunderland make a couple of approaches and then go around for a third attempted landing. In town, young Mattie Winnard was going out with Captain Lever and Flora MacColl was seeing Pilot Officer Johnston, both pilots were expected for dinner that night at the MacColl’s home on Shore Street. On the ground they were becoming anxious and Flora went indoors as she couldn’t bear to watch another failed attempt to land. On their final approach, the RAF’s report states “the aircraft undershot the landing area and struck the ground at the water’s edge”.
The plane was on fire, but it appeared everyone survived the crash. Captain Lever was injured and RAF Sergeants Hogg and Williams helped him down the slope of the beach below a large boulder. Eight other crew members also got out, including Johnston, but then they realized their tail gunner was trapped. Several men ran back into the burning plane to rescue him... that’s when the anti-submarine depth charges exploded.
Over a mile off in Bridgend, the doors of Kilmeny Church were blown open and the shock wave from the exploding Sunderland was felt 20 miles away. The boulder saved Captain Lever and the two Sergeants, the other nine men died instantly.
P/O Johnston’s commanding officer wrote to his parents recommending a medal “in recognition of his reported heroism”. At the time of his death Pilot Johnston had a total of 271.5 hours flying time, over twelve of those hours that day alone. Alan Deller was Squadron Leader of 246 and long after the war, on a return visit to Islay, he suggested a memorial to the men be erected at Black Rock, near the crash site on the shores of Loch Indaal. A dedication ceremony was held in May, 2010.
An official photo of a very serious and newly winged Wally Johnston with the "R" service number he was given when he signed up. Later he would get a new service number J17427. RCAF Photo found in Johnston's service file.
The explosion that destroyed the aircraft is reported to have caused the slight crater visible in this photograph, the aircraft's base of Bowmore is visible in the background. Photo via Peak District Air Accident Research
What of our other two RCAF pilots in the cemetery?
Flying Officer Kenneth Brant Thomas from Toronto was pilot of Bristol Beaufighter LX946 of the Royal Air Force’s 304 Ferry Training Unit. His Chief Flying Instructor at No. 1 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), Borden, Ontario appraised him as “an above average student and pilot who learns quickly, fine officer material”. He had shipped out of Halifax, Nova Scotia in February, 1943 and was stationed at RAF Port Ellen, which is now the commercial airfield for Islay. The name Port Ellen may ring a bell for lovers of Scotch whiskey for its fabled Port Ellen single malt, though sadly this distillery closed in 1983.
On September 12, 1943, a number of Beaufighters were tasked with a long distance night cross-country exercise. Shortly after their 0335 take-off from Port Ellen airfield, another Beaufighter, LZ146, had crashed. It is speculated the burning Beaufighter may have distracted Pilot Officer Thomas and he failed to climb quite high enough and flew into the top of a hill east of the airport, killing himself and Navigator, Pilot Officer Waldron. At the time of the crash his logbook recorded total flying time, including instruction, of just 270 hours.
Flying Officer Kenneth Thomas had two photos in his service file. Left with an "R" number was taken when he signed up while the other was taken with his new service number and pilot's brevet. RCAF photos
Flying Officer Archibald Neville Book, also of 304 Ferry Training Unit, pilot of Beaufighter NE309, was born in Winnipeg, but enlisted at Montreal. He and Fleur Ange Gauthier were married at No. 9 SFTS Summerside, PEI, his last training base, on March 18, 1943 and two months later he shipped out of Halifax, Nova Scotia for the war in Europe. On New Years Day, 1944, while carrying out a training exercise feathering the port propeller, the plane veered left, lost altitude and flew into Sunderland Hill near Bruichladdich on the west shore of Loch Indaal, across the water from Bowmore. At the time of the crash, Flying Officer Book had just 214 hours flying time, 59 of those hours on Beaufighters. The pilot was killed but the Observer, Flying Officer Osbaldeston, escaped with minor injuries. Four days later, Flying Officer Book was buried with full military honours at Bowmore Parish Churchyard.
As we stood in this very Churchyard, some six and a half decades later, we noticed Australian flags on the graves of the two Australians, Sergeants Roy Jabour and Ernest Palmer, both wireless operators and air gunners and also the Australian flag was on the grave of their Canadian pilot, Wally Johnston. Seeing these flags inspired my son to suggest we place Canadian flags on the graves of the three RCAF pilots and he reminded me we had a small Canadian flag from our Laphroaig distillery tour. As a “registered friend of Laphroaig” we’d toured their distillery and placed a little Canadian flag on our “one square foot of Islay” in the peat bog next to the distillery. Alexander had kept an extra Canadian flag for himself and then and there he decided to draw two more Canadian flags by hand so we’d have three. As Xander drew the maple leaf and coloured his flags, I weeded in front of the headstones of pilots, Book and Thomas. Pilot Johnston’s headstone needed no weeding as it had some flowers growing there and appeared better tended, perhaps by the same person who placed the Australian flags.
In the sunlit Bowmore graveyard, Young Xander draws a modern Canadian flag in a note book. Though the long dead Canadian airmen fought under and for a different Canadian flag, they won the freedom and opportunities that Xander now enjoys under our beloved red maple leaf flag. Photo: Roger Kent
Xander Kent plants a hand drawn Canadian flag at the grave of Beaufighter pilot Flying Officer Archibald Book. Photo Roger Kent
The graves of Johnston (far left with the Canadian and Australian flags), Thomas and Book with their new Canadian flags flying proudly. Photo Roger Kent
Once Alexander finished making our flags, we gathered wild buttercups and daisies in the field next to the cemetery and placed the flowers and the flags upon the three Canadian graves and stood for a minute in silence. In this silence, a line from Rupert Brooke’s poem came to mind, “there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”, but here in Bowmore Churchyard, forever Canada and forever the Angels’ Share.