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Courage and Tulips

 Silver, Blue and Gold

George Langille poses for a photograph in Europe - undoubtedly to send home to his gal Mickey in St. John, New Brunswick. Photo: Langille Family Archives

This weekend past was the first weekend of the Canadian Tulip Festival, a two week long celebration here in the city of Ottawa.  Parliament Hill, the banks of the Rideau Canal and the shores of the historic inner city waters of Dow's Lake were blanketed by millions of brilliantly coloured tulips swaying in the cool spring air. The Tulip Festival is now in its 64th year and is the time when Ottawans shake off the yoke of winter, the layers of misery from dark winter days and climb out of their holes into the bright sun of a new year, a new life. All along the pathways and through the gardens of the city's public parks, young and old stroll, families laugh and smile, children play and immigrants breathe a sigh of relief for their good fortune to be in a country where freedom reigns.

The tulip, a flower originating in Turkey, is not native to Ottawa, so why such a large festival in its honour?  These tulips come to us as a beautiful gift from the people of Holland to the people of Canada for allowing the Royal Family of the Netherlands sanctuary during the Second World War and for liberation of their country from Nazi tyranny - a gift from Canada that cost thousands of Canadian lives. 

In 1943 Princess Margriet Francisca, the younger sister of the current Queen of the Netherlands, was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital - the only royal ever to be born in North America. The Dutch Royal Family had fled to Canada in 1940 after the Nazi invasion of their country. There was a small problem - the expected royal child needed to be delivered on Dutch territory to be a Dutch citizen. So, Canada ceded this one hospital maternity room temporarily to the Netherlands.  In appreciation, in the fall of 1945, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands presented Ottawa with 100,000 tulip bulbs. And now each year for 65 years Ottawa receives 20,000 tulip bulbs from the Royal Family and the Dutch Bulb Growers association, to which Canada adds millions more to make Ottawa's spring festival one of the biggest festivals in Canada.

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Hundreds of thousands of Ottawans, Canadians and tourists come out to take part in the spectacle of the Canadian Tulip Festival. Only a fraction know why the festival even exists.  Photo: Chelsea Smith Via the Canadian Tulip Festival

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The entire downtown of the city of Ottawa is resplendent in a spectacular coat of tulips. Everyone of these bulbs is a tribute to those Canadians who welcomed the Royal Family of the House of Orange and then sent their own sons to fight and die for the liberation of the good people of the Netherlands. Photo:
Chelsea Smith Via  the Canadian Tulip Festival

Today, as I ride my bicycle along the beautiful Rideau Canal running through the heart of Ottawa, everything is beautiful, peaceful and full of bright promise.  But 65 years ago the hearts of many Canadian families were wounded and broken, grief reigned supreme across the land and over the sea in Holland, where many Canadians were dying, privation, starvation and even death stalked the Dutch people. The depravity of the Nazi domination of a hard working and gregarious people coupled with the abject destruction of their lands and infrastructure gave powerful impetus to the Canadian troops beating back the Master Race - back across the flooded lowlands of the Netherlands and back across their own devastated land to the darkness whence they came.

The joy and appreciation felt by the Dutch people at their deliverance from evil and depravity by young Canadian men is alive and well to this day. Holland is a land with a long memory and many Dutch today celebrate the sacrifices of Canadian and Allied servicemen in many ways. There are many societies across the country dedicated to preserving the history of this terrible period, to remembering these bright young men who fought on their behalf, to preserving artifacts, uniforms, vehicles and memories. They hold annual parades and torchlight processions across the country, invite veterans from Canada to come and be honoured and in the case of airmen killed in action, find and recover artifacts from crash sites. They build memorials to single airmen and aircrews. They tend graves of the fallen and never, never forget. They do this not just on major anniversaries, but every year and in the cases of some Dutch people, every day. It's sad for us to say, but there is so much we must learn from these appreciative people.

About two years ago, we were contacted by a man named Jaap Vermeer who just wanted to tell us at Vintage Wings of Canada that our website and the work we were doing was much appreciated by his group of Second World War historians and re-enactors called Groene Groep. To have a group of Dutch enthusiasts write to us and tell us we are doing a great job of telling the story of Canadian heroes before ever getting a letter from a Canadian was telling indeed. We've since been told many times by many hundreds of Canadians, but we have never forgotten the good people of Holland reaching out to us.

Recently, Jaap Vermeer wrote to me to tell me about a project of theirs to pay homage to a Canadian Typhoon pilot who lost his life in their area of operations - known as the Gelderland. In late November of 1944, 22 year-old Flying Officer George Langille of St. John, New Brunswick was on an armed reconnaissance with members of 193 Squadron, Royal Air Force. Their target that cold winter day was  the railhead at Amersfoort-Zwolle, which would be undoubtedly heavily defended by anti-aircraft batteries of the Luftwaffe. The lot of a Hawker Typhoon pilot in the Second World War was to fly through ground fire to destroy assets of the enemy such as trains, vehicles, convoys and aircraft on the ground. There were no more dangerous flying jobs in the European Theatre of Operations.

On that terrible day, Langille (whose nickname was "Pete") was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire and his wounded Typhoon slammed into a farmer's field alongside the Zuiderzeestratweg road.  Local citizens rushed to the crash site, but all they could do was watch the young man from New Brunswick burn in his cockpit.

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George Eugene Langille poses with his new flying gear beside a Fleet Finch trainer of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. In a short while, the young Langille would become a veteran fighter pilot in the skies of Europe. Photo: Langille Family Archives

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George and his girlfriend Mickey, the namesake of three of his aircraft including the Typhoon pictured in the opening photograph. Photo: Langille family archive


A dashing, square-jawed fighter pilot, Langille poses for his official photo after his commission. In 1943, he was a man of courage and greatness. He was 22 years old at the time of his death - today we would call him  just a kid. It was indeed the Greatest Generation.  Photo: Langille Family Archives

Like much of the death in World War Two, it was a terrifying end to the short life of one of Canada's beautiful sons. Langille's career in the Royal Canadian Air Force was short. He signed up in early 1943 and flew his first flight in a Hurricane in England at his Royal Air Force OTU in August of the same year. On the 14th of October, 1943, Langille, now with the Royal Air Force made his first solo in the mighty Hawker Typhoon. Things were moving fast in the young man's life and by early January of the following year, he made his first operational strike with 193 Squadron, the target being near Cherbourg, France.

For the months leading up to D-Day, Langille and his squadron flew continuous and very dangerous dive-bombing, strafing and weather recce flights over enemy territory. On D-Day, he flew strike missions in and around the beachhead battlefield. Following D-Day, George and the boys of 193 flew non-stop low level missions against German targets including the 70,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops trapped in the famous Falais Pocket. With all pilots flying multiple missions each day, the Germans were under constant  attack from the magnificent "Tiffies".

As the war moved away from the coast, 193 pushed with it into the interior of France. It was only a matter of time that they would reach north to the border of Holland. On the 9th of October, Langille flew his first combat sortie into Holland, the beautiful country in which he was soon to die a horrible death. Over the next few weeks he flew numerous sorties in places with names once well known to Canadians -  Utrecht, Deventer, Arnhiem and Eindhoven. It was an exhausting and extremely dangerous time, wearing steadily on the souls of these young and courageous men.

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A Hawker Typhoon of the RAFs 193 Squadron is bombed up and prepared for a mission supporting Allied ground troops in Europe. Photo via Jaap Vermeer

On November 4th, with just a few weeks left in his life, George Langille was given a few days off the line and he hitched a ride in a DC-3 back across the North Sea to Northolt for some rest and relaxation in the city of London. It was a short-lived respite and by the 9th, he was in a Typhoon over Holland flying with his mates. Two weeks later in rural Gelderland, Langille's broken body was consumed by fire still strapped into his seat while witnesses watched helplessly. He was 22 years old.

The man who witnessed the horror of George's death still tends his grave to this day some 65 years afterward and Langille is still remembered by Jaap Vermeer and the men and women of Groene Groep. This society and many like it in Holland and across Europe are dedicated the memory of the Allied servicemen who gave their lives in the liberation of their homeland. Years ago, the group found the crash site of Langille's Typhoon and managed the excavation of some artifacts from George's aircraft including some cannon rounds and the armour plating that once protected George from flak and bullets coming from behind. These sad reminders of a once-virile young man were returned to Canada to George's sister who lived in Prince Edward Island.

How many Canadians today would search for the wrecks of aircraft crewed by foreign servicemen who crashed and died while training in our country and upon finding them, collect artifacts and return them to  the families of those that died - Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Brits? None I would suspect. But that is what the Dutch do, and for that we are forever grateful at Vintage Wings of Canada.

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A photograph of Langille's squadron mate Jim Darling showing Darling leaning against the wing of Typhoon DP-J, which Langille was flying the day he was shot down.  Photo: Jim Darling Tribute website

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Through the modern technology of Google Earth, Jaap Vermeer of the Netherlands can show us the exact spot where, on November 25th, 1944  "Pete" Langille died in the wreck of his Hawker Typhoon - on the farm of the De Keivit family in a place called Putten, Gelderland. A local citizen who witnessed the crash that day still tends Langille's grave to this day in the nearby Putten General Cemetery. Image via Google Earth and Jaap Vermeer

So, there I was last weekend sitting on the green grass along the shores of Dow's Lake in Ottawa with my beautiful 26 year old daughter Merrill. The sun shone with the light of a new spring. Our bikes we leaned against a tall maple tree and we sat with our backs to its wide trunk. Not more than a kilometer away the baby Princess Margriet of the Royal House of Orange was born nearly 70 years ago. Around us streamed hundreds of children and families, new Canadians in hijab and pyjama, seniors holding hands, young people in love, dogs and strollers with newborn babies. Merrill and I talked in the sunlight, munching on spicy Italian and German sausages from a street vendor. Around us in every direction were waves of millions of tulips swaying in the breeze. Tulips from Holland.

With the golden light of a late afternoon slanting across the wide lawn, I could not help but think of young George Langille, whose bright young life he gave so that my daughter and I could have this day.  So to George Eugene Langille who would have been 87 this year, I say... Thank you Pete. Thank you

The Flying Career of George Langille

Thanks to Hugh Halliday, author of several books about Canadian airmen during the Second World War and in particular Typhoon and Tempest, The Canadian Story, we have material about the career of Langille:

LANGILLE, F/O George Eugene (J85756) - Mention in Despatches - No.193 Squadron (deceased) - Award effective 14 June 1945 as per London Gazette of that date and AFRO 1478/45 dated 21 September 1945. Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, 15 November 1922. Home there (store clerk). Enlisted in Moncton, 8 January 1941 as a clerk. Attended No.1 Manning Depot, Toronto, 10 January to 19 February 1941. Served at No.8 SFTS, Moncton, 20 February to 3 July 1941; at No.21 EFTS, Chatham, 4 July 1941 to 23 May 1942. Remustered to aircrew. Trained at No.3 ITS (graduated 17 July 1942), No.13 EFTS (graduated 6 November 1942) and No.2 SFTS (graduated 19 March 1943). To No.1 OTU, Bagotville, 3 April 1943. To "Y" Depot, Halifax, 20 June 1943; to RAF Trainees Pool, 22 June 1943. Disembarked in Britain, 1 July 1943. To No.55 OTU, 27 July 1943. To No.193 Squadron, 17 September 1943. Attended No.12 Armament Practice Camp, 6-11 April 1944. Commissioned 17 May 1944. To No.146 Squadron in France, 20 July 1944 but returned to No.193 Squadron almost at once. Killed in action 25 November 1944 (Typhoon MN912); buried in Holland. No citation. 

Also from witnesses comes the following:

On 29 November 1944 Flight Sergeant Owen L. Pratt, No.193 Squadron, submitted a report on the loss of Typhoon MN912:

On the 25th November 1944 I was Number 4 with "Black Section", call sign being "Bassett Black".

The four of us had low-level bombed a railway and were flying low in search of transport, etc. We were flying on a northerly course and were in the vicinity of Barneveld and "Black 1" spotted some transport on the road.

We did a steep turn to starboard and went in to attack. I, being on the outside of the turn, lagged behind a little, and as a result of this had rather a grim sight of the following.

Flying Officer Langille attacked whilst the flak was directed at him, in particular a 20-mm cannon firing tracer scored direct hits on his plane. Fire broke out in the petrol tanks and he started to climb. The gunners continued firing at him, and the flames grew to sizable dimension. Reaching the time where he would normally have jumped out, the plane started to descend, more like a comet. Then a large piece of the plane broke off and fell blazing to the ground.

Going down below the level of the tree-tops I lost sight of him and was unable to say whether he bailed out or not.

Dutch witnesses stated the aircraft was named "Mickey". A further report dated 22 November 1945 read:

No.193 Squadron reported that Typhoon aircraft MN912, piloted by Flying Officer Langille, left base to carry out an operational attack against the enemy. Flying Officer Langille had bombed an enemy railway line and then proceeded in search of transport. He was seen to carry out an attack on road transport and his aircraft was hit by enemy flak causing it to catch fire in the petrol tanks. Flying Officer Langille then started to climb in order to gain height to bail out, but the aircraft started descending in flames before this could be done. Immediately after the aircraft struck the ground, a large piece of the plane was seen to break off and fall blazing to the ground. The accompanying pilot lost sight of the aircraft as it was below the level of tree tops, and he was unable to state whether the pilot bailed out. This incident occurred at approximately 1600 hours on the 25th November 1944, about six miles east of Amersfoort, Holland.

Captured German documents state that an English aircraft crashed on the 25th November 1944, at Nulde, the community of Putten, and the body which was recovered from the wreckage was buried at 1500 hours on the 5th December 1944, in the cemetery at Putten.. A ring which was removed from the pilot’s body has been identified by the next-of-kin of Flying Officer Langille as belonging to him.

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"Killy" Kilpatrick, George Langille (centre) and Jimmy Simpson of 193 Squadron "borrow" a jeep and tour the battlefront in France prior to his death in 1944.  The massive hole through the tower in the background was caused by an Allied tank putting a round on the church steeple from which troops were receiving sniper fire. Photo via Jaap Vermeer

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A photo of 193 Squadron pilots taken on August 1st of 1944 in St. Croix sur Mer, Normandy. Langille, second from right in the front row, took part in armed Recce missions before, on and after D-Day. Photo via Jim Darling Memorial website


"Pete" Langille (highlighted) in a formal squadron photo taken sometime between September 18 and October 6th, 1944 when the squadron was at Fairwood Common Armaments Practice Camp in Glamorganshire in Wales. The squadron was possibly taken off the front line to rest or  train new pilots replacing the attrited ones or to practice with new weapons. Photo via Jim Darling tribute website

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When this squadron photograph was taken on October 16th of 1943, Langille (standing third from left) was a brand new ground attack pilot having made his first flight in a Typhoon just two days before . It has long been regarded that the Typhoon pilots of the RAF and RCAF had one of the most dangerous jobs in military aviation. Strafing and bombing at extreme low altitudes resulted in horrendous attrition of pilots and aircraft to AAA, ground fire, fighter opposition and even friendly fire. For a wonderfully written account of Canadian operation with the Typhoon, we recommend reading Hugh Halliday's Typhoon and Tempest, the Canadian Story.

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