The first time I met Archie Pennie, he was 92 years old—a tall, slender and boney man in a blue on blue argyle sweater and powder blue trousers. His face was long and narrow, full of anticipation and a touch impatient, topped by wisps of thin white hair, clearly resistant to combing. Accompanied by family, he was paying his first visit to Vintage Wings of Canada and I, a friend of his escorts, had the good fortune to tour him about the hangar.
This was the occasion when I first witnessed the powerful age reversing effect that a hangar full of vintage Second World War aircraft has on airmen from that age. Archie, flanked by grandson and former son-in-law, took careful steps up the walkway and through the front door, which I was holding open for him and his entourage. The moment he stepped into the hangar, though, his spine straightened, his eyes widened and a broad smile rose up across his wary face. Despite sight fogged and hampered by macular degeneration, his ninety-two-year-old eyes of watery blue took in everything, and missed nothing. The forms and shapes before him he knew very well, even if they were not very clear. Their bodies reflected in the polished floor, the evocative forms of a Spitfire, Hurricane, Harvard, Tiger Moth, Corsair, and Mustang stood clearly in his memory—exquisitely maintained examples of the most important aircraft of the Second World War. Archie then strode into the hangar a much younger man.
To this point, Archie had not said a word, save “Hello” with his handshake, but when he spied the familiar form of our Westland Lysander, he exclaimed in a happy, boyish and incredulous voice, “Oh my, where did you get the ‘Lizzie’?” Right then I knew this would be a tour that I would remember for a long time.
A smiling Archie Pennie explains to his family how the rudimentary air speed indicator worked on the Tiger Moth during our first meeting with him in 2007. Photo: Frank Charette
Archie Pennie was a veteran of the Second World War, a Scotsman, an educated man, an aviator and instructor and a man with a magical ability to reach deep into his past and recall the ordinary as well as the extraordinary details of his life during his period as a pilot of the Royal Air Force. Archie’s service to the war effort was committed, wholehearted and selfless, but his true gift to the world we live in was the fact that he remembered the experience in shining detail and that he shared these memories with those who would listen.
Every man and woman who served during this greatest of all wars was affected by their experience—some so deeply that they could not speak about it. Many saw suffering, obscenities and terror; all experienced deprivation, loneliness and hardship. Many of these combatants and participants, if they survived the immediate dangers, took their memories with them to their graves, unwilling to speak about their experiences for fear of opening old wounds or perhaps of sounding boastful and in so doing dishonouring the memory of their comrades who did not make it home. But mostly, it was simply because no one really asked them about it. It was a time to forget and move on… and everyone did, some carrying heavy weights for decades. Today, we call it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and we now know talking about your experiences is important to recovery. Back then, talking about them was anathema.
Every man and woman who was drawn into that war had memories both terrible and beautiful, both sorrowful and joyful. The way into their souls; the one door that still remains open; the route to discovering the true history of these days is by accessing those joyful stories, the details of everyday life for a soldier, a sailor or an airman. Indeed, the movements of armies and generals, the political shifts and alliances, the vast statistics of the war are all well known, told by the great historians from Churchill to Ovary and Beevor to Atkinson. But the war experience of the single man, the ordinary soldier or airman is told not from the great height of the traditional academic historian where the chess moves are seen and analyzed in hindsight, but down on the ground, in the barrack buildings, in the messes and pubs. The experience of the fighting man is told, not by historians, but by the fighting man himself, in vignettes, dinner table reminiscences and the personal memoir. This was Archie Pennie's extraordinary ability and passion.
While historians can shine light on the broad strokes of the Second World War and the lovers of minutia can spew the deployment records of every single Spitfire, they cannot help us understand the feelings of the fighting man. Without insight into the lives of the men and women who fought in this war, we can learn nothing, relate to nothing, and in the end feel nothing for their sacrifice and devotion to duty. Thanks to men like Bill McRae and Archie Pennie and their decades-long work for the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, we would be missing the most important indicators and ingredients to understanding our heritage—the longings, frustrations, fears, traumas, loves, joys, behaviours and pride of the ordinary participant. Though most men closed the doors and windows to their war experiences, preferring to open the memories only in the presence of old comrades at reunions, there was a very small percentage that found a voice with which to tell us the truth of those days. Of that small group of men and women, one stands out among the others—a man with a humble and joyous voice, a man whose prodigious memory allows us to experience his war experience in extraordinary detail—the colours, the smells, the tastes and the sounds of life out on the windswept Canadian prairie on a lonely base dedicated to training young men to fly and feeding them into the maw of the beast. His name was Archie Pennie and we owe him a lot.
Archie’s stories were not the tales of a braggart or a line-shooter, full of derring-do, personal risk and death-cheating. They are the luminous revelations of the ordinary life of a young man from Scotland, besotted by aviation, who journeyed far from home to a distant land and there, became a superb flyer. Then, when asked to teach others to become the same, he put aside his personal desire to fight, and became the best instructor he could.
Archie’s stories are numerous… enough to fill three volumes… each, a vignette coming in no particular order, of his life in Scotland, his fight to enlist (being a chemist, he was deemed an essential worker), his journey to Canada to train, his instructor’s life on the frozen prairie and his release to become a Mosquito fighter-bomber pilot in Europe at the end of the war. They were fed, one by one, to the Ottawa branch of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) and their Observair newsletter. Month after month, year after year, Archie would bring to life a memory in his beautiful voice—a memory that stood on its own, or when combined with all the others, gave us a picture, or rather a mural, of the experience of a Royal Air Force volunteer in the Second World War. Individually they sing brightly, but together they are a resounding chorus that, for me, is the soundtrack of history.
Leading Aircraftman Archie Pennie (right) and a fellow RAF flying cadet, William Denzil Livock, at No. 37 Service Flying Training School in Calgary—a study in opposites, yet great friends. Given his 98 years on the planet, Archie (right) likely gave up smoking after the war. Sadly, the charismatic and flamboyant William Livock did not survive the war. He died when his Mosquito fighter-bomber crashed into the sea near his Scottish base whilst making a single engine landing. Archie Pennie never knew what happened to his close friend of his training days, until the 21st century. It was then that he learned of his friend's death and felt that pain. This resulted in one of Pennie's wonderful stories which, for your enlightenment, we have copied below. Photo via Archie Pennie Archive
I don’t really know how Archie was able to mine the veins of memory deep in his soul, but I like to imagine him sitting in his office, closing his eyes and letting his heart take his mind where it may… back to where it once beat so fiercely. I imagine him, with eyes closed and a wistful smile on his face, casting a line back more than 70 years, to drop into a pool of memory, long quieted, but deep as history. I can see him smile wider when a memory hits his line and the bobber ripples the surface. Then, and this is not reality—just a metaphor that lived in my mind all these years I have read Archie’s work—I see him slowly reeling that memory in, his old, slender hands slowly rotating that crank as more and more of that memory comes to the surface, fresh and alive after having lurked for so long below.
Archie’s love of history, whether it was his own personal experience in the Second World War or the wonderfully colourful history of his Gatineau Valley community, resulted in a substantial œuvre that filled several books. His three-volume work entitled “An Airman Remembers”, published by his proud daughter Sheena, is a collection of most of the stories Archie wrote for CAHS’s Observair. If one wants to take a time machine back to 1942 and the cold Canadian Prairie bases where thousands of young men were seaming the sky with their snarling Ansons, Cornells, Harvards, and Oxfords, there is only one way to do it… through the generous heart, elegant voice and cinematographic memory of Flight Lieutenant Archie Pennie.
Two weeks ago, Archie Pennie, in his 98th year and still writing stories, was winding the grandfather clock in his home. Being nearly sightless due to macular degeneration, the sound of the chiming of that grandfather clock was how Archie kept and was aware of time… time that was slowly running out. In the process of keeping his time running, Archie lost his balance and the clock toppled on him, breaking six ribs. A few days later, Archie’s time ran out and he succumbed to the metaphoric and physical injuries that were his end. In so many ways, Archie’s was like that clock, a grandfather, meting out time in the form of stories and memories, steadily ticking, month after month. And now that clock has wound down to a stop.
Because of Archie, we have hundreds of sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes achingly sorrowful, always colourful stories of a life fully lived, a duty fully met, a heritage nurtured and recorded. We are grateful for his work, better for his storytelling and now we feel the emptiness of the months and years ahead without his voice.
But you can wind that clock any time you wish, by coming to the Vintage Wings of Canada library and reading his abundant stories, or by joining one of the finest and least appreciated institutions in this country—the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. Thanks to the CAHS and the founders who created it 50 years ago, all those traumatized and silent airmen who could not speak have found a voice—in men like Bill McRae and Archie Pennie.
Thank you Archie.
Archie Pennie, still in his blue argyle sweater, speaks at the time of the dedication of our Fairchild Cornell in his name. Photo: Peter Handley
As Gord Simmons and Francis Bélanger take the Flight Lieutenant Archie Pennie Fairchild Cornell for an evening flight, Archie watches with concern, relating to us all the feelings of trepidation he once had as each of his pilot trainees took to the air solo for the first time. Photo: Peter Handley
At the time we were notified of Archie's death, Chairman of the Board and Yellow Wings Team Lead Todd Lemieux (above) wrote to Archie's family via daughter Sheena to express some important sentiments on behalf of the Vintage Wings of Canada family. Here is that letter:
I have never met you, but I was privileged to fly the Vintage Wings, PT-26 Cornell, that carries your father’s name.
During the summer of 2011 and 2012 I was lucky enough to be one of the pilots that flew the Cornell, literally across the country. The airplane flew from Ottawa, across the wonderful prairies, thru the Canadian Rockies right to Vancouver.
We spent many, hot, summer afternoons explaining the aircraft's significance in Canada's aviation history and talking about your Dad and his time spent flying that aircraft type in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. I grew up not far from Assiniboia, so it was especially nice to relay stories about your father instructing there.
Each time we lose a World War II veteran in Canada, our social fabric suffers a little bit more. It is their humble tenacity that forged a better life for Canadians. I hope that generations subsequent have appreciated this.
I want you to know, that even though your Dad was not with us as we transited the country, his name and his spirit was.
I've attached a photograph that probably comes closest to showing the “passing of the Archie Pennie torch.”
From our family at Vintage Wings to yours, our thoughts are with you at this most difficult time. We won't forget Archie :)
Chairman of the Board
Yellow Wings Team Leader
Vintage Wings of Canada
Archie Pennie's Story about William Denzil Livock
More Writing Feedback, by Archie Pennie
To those of us who write for enjoyment or to jog our memories, feedback from readers of our literary efforts is always of great interest and encouragement. I have commented on this before (the Observair, Vol. 38, No. 5, May 2001) and now another interesting and personal situation has transpired.
Some of my interest in aviation history has spread abroad and I have recently heard from a correspondent from my old home town of Elgin in Scotland. In August 2002, he sent me a clipping from his local paper, reporting that a team of amateur salvagers had recovered parts of a Mosquito that had crashed into the sea about a quarter of a mile from Lossiemouth on 21 December 1944. The team of enthusiasts hope to generate enough interest to erect a suitable memorial to honour the many aircrew from the Banff Strike Force who lost their lives operating from that base. Their wish would be to incorporate the salvaged propeller into the memorial.
The information about the salvage struck a chord with me for the pilot of the Mossie had been one of my closest friends all through my aircrew training. Despite the fact that the crash occurred over 58 years ago, the news made me feel as if it had been yesterday. Bill Livock, the unfortunate pilot, was trying to make a single-engined landing at Lossiemouth and lost control. No doubt, with low speed and the violent torque from the other engine, he was turned over on his back and into the sea. He was one of several of my close friends who suffered the same tragic fate in Mossies under similar circumstances.
I remember clearly my associations with Bill at No. 37 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in Calgary. He was what one would call a ‘daring type,’ and never ceased to regale us in the crew room with the strange and frightening frills he added to our more mundane aerobatics. On one occasion he was on an armament exercise with an instructor who asked Bill to make a ‘small turn’ (this is not a phrase found in the instructor’s handbook). Bill interpreted it as a ‘stall turn’ and proceeded to scare the daylights out of the instructor. Needless to say, they never flew together again, but Bill saw the funny side of it and enjoyed talking about that particular adventure.
For some obscure reason, pupils on Harvards at SFTS were never allowed to have another student as a passenger. At Calgary, the local inhabitants apparently objected to the snarling and rasping noise of the Harvards at night, so we were banished to the satellite field at Airdrie some 20 miles north of the city for night flying and pupils flew over there with their instructors. On one most unusual occasion, I was detailed to carry Bill Livock as a passenger, but was told not to enter his name in my log book. Naturally, it was a unique occasion and all the way to Airdrie I had to will myself into making a first class landing. If I failed, I was sure that Bill, as a critic and one of my peers, would have made the most of a poor performance. As it turned out, the landing was a good one and Bill voiced his approval from the back seat. After I read of his death, I went to my log book and immediately entered his name in the appropriate place and recorded the date of his fatal crash.
Bill’s father was a Group Captain in the RAF and the family were good friends with Air Marshal Breadner, CAS, RCAF. (Perhaps they had trained together in England?) On Wings Day, 13 of our Course were commissioned, but Bill was not one of the lucky ones. Our ways parted there and he was posted to the General Reconnaissance (GR) School at Charlottetown, while I found myself at the Flying Instructors School (FIS) at Arnprior. I never heard about him again after we parted in Calgary and many times had wondered what became of him and the many others who gained their wings that day. It was most upsetting and sad to learn after 58 years that he had made his final take off.
Bill Livock had been a member of No. 248 Squadron – a part of the Banff Strike Force – which was in the heat of the battles in the Norwegian Fiords; in strikes that were fraught with difficulties and serious hazards. There were many squadrons involved in addition to those of the RAF. They were drawn from the RAF, the RCAF and other Commonwealth crews, and included also participation from the Norwegians. They operated all the year round against U-boats and shipping over the unforgiving North Sea and the Norwegian coast. Their efforts resulted in the destruction of more than 300,000 tons of shipping and hastened the end of the war. These sorties were always into dangerous territory and the several squadrons involved suffered serious losses. In fact, between September 1944 and May 1945, 94 aircrew lost their lives. There were two particular days when losses were heavy. On 15 January 1945, the Mosquito squadrons lost six aircraft, and on 9 February 1945, the Beaufighter squadrons suffered the loss of 9 aircraft. This latter date is still referred to as ‘Black Friday.’
On reflection, it does seem an ironic and cruel twist of fate that Bill should have survived all the hazards of these dangerous missions and ended up as a victim of a local flying accident. The whole saga of the Banff operations has a personal interest and effect on me, for I was born in Banff and spent the first 6 years of my life there. It is not surprising, therefore, that I should have a keen interest in the wartime activities that took place in my native homeland.
I have always experienced great pleasure and surprise from any writing feedback that has come my way. However, one must be prepared to accept the bad with the good. This is what transpired with this recent example. Naturally, I appreciated receiving the news of Bill’s death, but at the same time I thought that this was one occasion when feedback was not a welcomed visitor. Despite all that, it did provide the missing link that solved the mystery of a great friendship that started on the Prairies 60 years ago.
the Observair, Volume 40, No. 5, May 2003