Sextants and Sonnets

When my father, F/L John W. (Jack) Chalmers wrote his memoirs as an RCAF navigator instructor, it was appropriate that he include some of his poetry that was inspired by his service in uniform during the Second World War. But the memoirs were never published.

After he died in April 1998, I began going through his papers and books to see what should be saved and what could be given away or disposed of in other ways. Jack had been a writer and editor all his adult life. Even though writing was never a full-time job for him, he published some 25 books as author or editor. The books ranged from school textbooks for English courses to historical fiction for young readers, from commissioned histories to an atlas, from anthologies to biographies.

Among Dad’s papers were several unpublished manuscripts. Some of those I have since published. Shortly before he died, when he knew the end of his life was approaching, he said there were few things left undone. One, he said, was putting together a selection of his poems to share with family and friends. That has now been done. In 2003, I selected 60 of over 300 of his poems that he wrote from his 20s to his 80s, and published them in a chapbook called Silk Trains and Other Poems, the title coming from my favorite poem in the collection.

Among those poems were a few that were inspired by his service in the RCAF. Dad enlisted at 32 years of age in 1942 when the enlistment age was raised. He would be 10 to 14 years older than his fellow airmen when he trained as a navigator at No. 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton. By then, Jack held three university degrees, had worked as a teacher and school principal and would earn two more degrees, the last when he was 80, the oldest graduate at the University of Alberta in 1990.

No doubt he was destined to be an instructor, and probably too old to be sent overseas. Instead, he spent his war years in Canada as a navigation instructor at BCATP bases in the prairie provinces.

Recruit, 1940

“I’ve come to join the cavalry,”
The eager cowboy said.
“What, don’t you know,” they queried him,
“That cavalry is dead?”

“But we have jobs for men like you,
All found and reg’lar pay.
You’d surely like the infantry.
Buck-thirty every day,”

“Like hell I would,” was the reply.
The cowboy swore some more.
“I’ll be forever damned,” he said,
“Before I walk to war.”

And so he joined the RAF
And learned to fly a kite.
No roan or pinto was his nag;
A Mustang his delight.

 

However, it was not the poetry, but his unpublished memoirs as a navigator that intrigued me more than any other manuscripts left behind at his passing. Then, in an old suitcase in my parents’ garage I discovered all the letters sent home by his brother, Alfred, another wartime navigator in the RCAF. Along with those letters were wartime letters of my grandmother, as well as other family correspondence of the time.

In a letter to his mother from his base at RAF Ludford Magna in Lincolnshire, England, F/S Alfred Chalmers wrote, “We have wonderful aircraft over here so there’s nothing at all to worry about.” Some four weeks later he and all crew in their Lancaster LM479 of RAF 101 Squadron were all killed in action.


This photo shows Alfred Chalmers, kneeling, second from left in the front row. Date and location are unknown, as are names of other airmen in the picture. This was likely taken shortly after enlistment, as none of the men are yet wearing LAC insignia.

Flight Sergeant Alfred Reid Chalmers, the youngest boy of four sons and three daughters born to his parents, flew as a navigator with 101 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

On the night of 30 August 1944, an Avro Lancaster (Serial Number LM479) of 101 Squadron, returning to their base at RAF Ludford Magna from a 600 aircraft raid on Konigsberg and Stettin, Germany was set upon by a night fighter, set on fire and crashed into farm fields near the Danish village of Dejbjerg in Western Jutland. The entire crew of eight airmen perished in the crash.

On board was my father’s brother, and my uncle, Flight Sergeant Alfred Reid Chalmers of the Royal Canadian Air Force and seven others, including Flying Officer Thomas Foster, pilot, RCAF; F/O. Samuel Albert Mackenzie, RCAF; Pilot Officer Cyril Cousin, RAF; Pilot Officer Hubert Joseph Linn, RCAF; Warrant Officer William Owen, RAF; Sergeant George Frederick Gibson, RAF and Sergeant Andrew Stewart, RAF. Their Lanc was one of two dozen Lancasters brought down that night. It was one of those coded “ABC” for Airborne Cigar. The ABC designation was use to identify such aircraft as being specially equipped with three receiving antenna and one transmitter to jam German aircraft radio messages. In order to use the ABC equipment, an eighth crew member, who could speak German, was added to the normal complement of seven. The special equipment operator was 20-year-old Cyril Cousin, the youngest of the crew. The average age of a bomber crew was only 22.

Luftwaffe officers and men, following a “bury on the spot” order from Berlin headquarters, interred the remains of the eight airmen close to the crash site. Feeling this was not respectful of the sacrifice of the airmen, the local population was angry. Local Vicar Hans Pedersen travelled to the town of Skjern to ask local Luftwaffe authorities for permission to give the aviators a proper Christian burial in the local cemetery. The Hauptmann in charge felt that their present grave situation was respectful enough. Vicar Pedersen became extremely angry at this point and told the Germans that regardless of their permission or not, the townspeople of Dejbjerg would take the matter into their own hands and bury them properly and with honour.

Pedersen returned to Dejbjerg and made arrangements with local police to remove the bodies from the crash site. Four white coffins were purchased and two aviators were laid carefully into each. The coffins were transported by wagons to the little town of Dejbjerg where members of the local resistance movement were digging a large common grave. The second, emotional burial and funeral for the eight aviators came on the same day, September 14th, 1944 at the Dejbjerg with the sun setting. Pedersen led the ceremonies, with local people bringing flowers and singing hymns with the sun setting to the west of Jutland.

The Luftwaffe, getting wind of the “unauthorized” funeral, had Vicar Pedersen, local officials and the chairman of the parish council arrested and taken to the village of Stauning for interrogation. After being held for a few days, the men were freed, but the message to families was clear.

In 1945, after liberation, the people of Dejbjerg erected a large monument stone at the grave site. In 1948 the parish further honoured the aviators with four headstones—one over each coffin.

Vicar Hans Pedersen conducts a service on Christmas Day 1945, when the large stone retrieved from the crash site was to be unveiled and dedicated to the men of Lancaster LM479, with their names carved into the stone.

On the official military headstones added later, the names of two crew members appear on each headstone. The internment originally had four coffins with two airmen in each, hence the two names on each headstone. Photo: John Chalmers

Usually a Lancaster bomber had a crew of seven, but there were eight on Lancasters of 101 Squadron. The eighth man was a Special Duty member of the crew, required to know the German language, and his job was to use special equipment to jam enemy aircraft radio transmission. The work exposed the squadron to excessive danger and losses of 101 Squadron were among the very highest in the war.

I had begun work on Dad’s memoirs thinking that they would be basis for publication of a book. But with the discovery of the letters written by Alfred, as well as other family correspondence, I realized the story would be more than I originally imagined. The manuscript doubled in size, eventually being published as the story of not one, but two navigators in a book I called Navigator Brothers. It was Dad’s experience as a navigator that prompted him to write this sonnet.

Astro

Man is not lost! Across the trackless skies
In the empyrean blue, the airman knows
Where he has been, now is, and where he goes
As on his sextant calmly he relies.
Where am I? Here, Denebola replies.
Like a celestial beacon, Mirfak throws
His beam. And here’s the North, Polaris shows.
Look upward, man! the ancient Schedar cries.

Look upward, man! Beyond the farthest star
Seek everlasting wisdom from afar.
Four freedoms are the landfall of our flight,
Of speech, religion, and from want and fear.
Be this our prayer: Our Father, who is near,
Make good our track and set our course aright.


Left to right, the four Chalmers brothers are Fred, Herbert, who became a flight engineer, Jack and Alfred, wearing the white flashes in their wedge caps as air crew trainees in navigation. It was the last time the four were together.

Dad was predeceased by his other two brothers. Fred had an “essential career” in the food and agriculture industry and was a civilian during the war, having been turned down for military service. Herb flew as a flight engineer with the RCAF on maritime patrol on both east and west coasts of Canada. Three sisters were born to the boys’ parents, and none lived beyond two years of age. Although Dad served with the RCAF for just over three years during the Second World War, he continued on as an Air Cadet Officer for many years, and received his CD in 1961. The RCAF always remained important to him, and one of his final requests was to be buried in his air force blazer.

Chatham, 1942

 

My country called; I answered

                  And learned to chart our way.

By astro and by wireless

                  I earned my flying pay.

Like many thousand others,

                  I won my wingèd N,

Was proud to be in aircrew

                  With other airborne men.

 

I gave no course or distance

                  On any bombing flight.

I flew no hostile mission

                  In daylight or at night.

When posted as instructor,

                  I did as I was bid.

My country called; I answered,

                  And still am glad I did.

 

The book is based on Jack’s memoirs, Alfred’s letters and other family correspondence. Contributions from other airmen who flew with RAF 101 Squadron helped add depth to the story of wartime service. There was a place also for some of Jack’s wartime poetry. A few days before he died, my father told me, “When I die, I will be the last person who knew my brother Alfred when he was just a little boy.”

I realized when he said those words that he carried the loss of his brother all his life, as I am sure thousands of other brothers, sisters and parents have done when losing a family member in the war. In my research in preparing Navigator Brothers, I connected with an elderly woman who had grown up in Virden, Manitoba with my father and his brothers, and she, too, remembered Alfred as a little boy. It would have warmed Dad’s heart to know that.

Eyes Wet with Tears

 

Many years ago

an aircraft fell from the sky,

and so my brother died.

He and all that valiant crew

lie beneath a great stone slab

in Denmark.

 

His girl long grieved for him,

then married another man.

I wonder if she still thinks

of the young airman who so loved her.

 

I know I do.

Sometimes I dream of him,

and when I wake,

my eyes are wet with tears.

But I connected with more than the woman who knew the Chalmers boys in Virden. With a little detective work, I located the sweetheart Alfred planned to marry when he returned home after the war. Ann (née Wade) MacDonald of Kingston, Ontario waited for Alfred to return, and when he never did she eventually married and bore three sons, ultimately losing her husband when he accidentally drowned.

Alfred Chalmers with girlfriend Ann, whom he intended to marry after the war. Photo: Chalmers Family Archive

The Chalmers brothers of the Royal Canadian Air Force. My father, F/L Jack Chalmers, left, served as a navigation instructor in Canada during the Second World War. At centre, is Alfred as a fresh-faced young recruit. At right is his brother Herbert, the first of the three brothers in the air force to be commissioned, and who flew later as a flight engineer. Photos from Chalmers family Archive

I met Alfred only once when he visited Edmonton in 1942, the last time the four brothers were together. I was not yet three years old at the time and so have no personal memory of him. I have wished many times that I had asked my father to tell me about his youngest brother, so when I spoke to Ann I asked what Alfred was like. “He was a perfect gentleman,” she said, “and he loved to dance.”

Alfred Chalmers as an aircrew trainee, 1943, with Ann, before he was shipped overseas.

Eventually I met Ann in person, when she came to Edmonton to see the Brier Cup men’s curling championship and took me as her guest one day to watch the game. She curled herself until well past 70 and is the biggest fan of curling I have ever met, as she had travelled many times to see the Brier event, as well as other major curling competitions.

I had first spoken to her one day while I was working on the book and called her on 11 November. When she answered, I began by saying, “I don’t know where to begin this conversation, but my name is John Chalmers, I am calling from Edmonton, and I need to speak with you.”

“Chalmers?” she said. “I once knew a young man by that name, and I was thinking of him today.” My father would have been so pleased to know that his brother was remembered by her.

 

Remembrance Day

On Remembrance Day
veterans of all the half-forgotten wars
march to the service at the Cenotaph,
looking so old.
As a boy, I used to wonder why
the young men never were sent off to fight.

 
Formalities concluded, they adjourn
to Legion halls and endless rounds of beer,
old raucous songs and oft-told ribald tales,
until at last they stagger home
to wives who scold, “You could at least have phoned.”
 
How can they tell those who were not there
that carouse they must
or weep for pals and brothers dead and gone to hell?

Only the young go forth to war.
Only old men return.

The war, and its terrible toll of young men in uniform, often came to my father’s mind, especially at times of remembrance like 11 November and Battle of Britain parades, when he recalled his days of service as a navigator.



Jack Chalmers is shown front row centre as instructor of Australian navigation students in their graduation photo for Course No. 94 at No. 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton, 13 June 1944, in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Photo: Chalmers Family Archive

Night Flights

Tonight
an airbus jets south through the dark,
its port and starboard lights agleam.


In 1942,
some nights, when my own class stood down,
I used to hear the Ansons
outward bound on navigation flights,
four squadrons, thirteen aircraft each.
I’d watch them as they flew
almost overhead,
bound for Bittern Lake, then east
and back to base in early morning hours,
carrying students of the occult art
of astro navigation.
Aloft they’d climb into the perspex domes,
shoot Vega, Altair, Deneb, Sirius,
then plot positions, courses, drifts and tracks.


I counted them as pals and brothers then,
but most died long ago.

 

In my research for Navigator Brothers I have visited many archive collections and aviation museums. I have visited the grave of Alfred and his mates in Denmark. Twice my wife and I have attended annual reunions of RAF 101 Squadron in Lincolnshire. Both there and in Canada I have become acquainted with men who flew with the squadron, some even on the same night as Uncle Alfred was killed. The first-person accounts that they contributed to the book added stories that could be told only by men who participated in bombing operational flights.

As well, I have visited many sites of BCATP bases in the Prairie Provinces. In some cases the wartime hangars are still standing, still in use. In other cases they stand empty and forlorn, and in some instances, sadly they have been taken down.

An RCAF Cornell flies over No. 19 Elementary Training School at Virden, Manitoba in October 1944. Photo: RCAF/DND

One of the hangars shown in the previous picture, as it appears today, unused and in a state of disrepair. Photo: John Chalmers

One such visit was in the late afternoon and early evening of a summer day in Virden, Manitoba after searching the local museum and archives for anything that might relate to my research. At the Virden airport, the two wartime hangars were still standing, unused, abandoned and subjected to the climatic vagaries of the seasons. I thought of my own days in the RCAF Reserve in high school and university, spending six summers on air force bases when wartime hangars were hives of activity and flying. I thought of the airmen of my father’s generation who had trained and flown from those distinctive wooden structures. As I thought about all that over dinner in a local restaurant, I wrote the following poem, remembering my father and his brothers who wore air force blue.

 

Lonely Hangars

I have walked the crumbling tarmac
of abandoned wartime aerodromes
where time, and weeds in cracks of concrete pads
try to reclaim the ramps and runways
where once the yellow aircraft of aviation schools
spun their propellers, eager to fly
in prairie skies on cloudless summer days;
and I have wandered through abandoned hangars
where stout timbers and steel rods hold tight
to resist the ravages of climate and time,
and strain to hold these great wooden structures erect
as if they themselves were still at attention
on an empty parade square where a summer breeze
carries the song of meadowlark,
the cry of killdeer and the gopher’s whistle
in a place where once the unmuffled drone
of aircraft engines filled the air;
and I have stood at empty barracks
which once were filled with life and energy
of young men eager to serve and fly,
where their energy, camaraderie and laughter
filled these forlorn structures, now desolate
without the life within their walls that they once knew.

 
Built almost overnight, these reminders of war years
defy inexorable time and weather, still facing open skies
to stand tall seven decades later,
speaking to us of the stories they can tell
and reminding us that we must not forget
the men who served, the men who flew away to war,
and those who never returned.

One of six hangars still standing at the location of RCAF Aerodrome Vulcan, where Jack Chalmers had his last posting as a navigator instructor. Photo: John Chalmers

Author John Chalmers, Jack Chalmers’ son, at the commemorative plaque mounted on a huge rock at the site of the BCATP base that served as home to No. 2 Flying Instructor School and No. 19 Service Flying Training School.

Author note: John Chalmers, of Edmonton, is widely published as a writer and photographer. He serves as Historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame and is a board member of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. Navigator Brothers is now out of print and John hopes to republish it as an e-book available on the internet. If you wish to contact John, email johnchalmers@shaw.ca

Chercher
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