Through one aviator's photographs we glimpse the shared memories of hundreds of men caught in the roulette of war.
Laid across John Bennett’s dining room table, like memories strewn across the decades, are dozens of yellowed photographs, some notes written for some purpose now long forgotten and an aeronautical chart with a pilot’s penciled course drawn across it before I was born. I am 57 years old. John is 87.
The first group photo is John Bennett's class picture from B Flight, No.1 Squadron, No.9 Initial Training Wing at Stratford-on-Avon. The class was billeted at the sizable hotel which serves as a backdrop to the photo. John, an RAF corporal at the time, is 3rd from the left in the back row. Not long ago, John had the opportunity to visit the same hotel, and remembering the exact room he shared with his mates, had a confused concierge escort him to see the spot. Photo: Thomas Holte, John Bennett Collection
John travels "across the pond" to train in America. John (at right) poses with three members of his training squadron and a civilian flying instructor (centre) at No. 5 British Flying Training School, Riddle Field, Clewiston, Florida. John trained on the Boeing Stearman PT-17 Kaydet and then the North American AT-6 Texan as can be seen here. Photo: John Bennett Collection
While not a group photo per se, this threesome of bare metal US Army Air Forces AT-6 Texans from Clewiston are on a formation training mission over Florida at the time John Bennett was training - a rare glimpse into a little known (at least in Canada) piece of training history involving the RAF. Photo: John Bennett Collection
It is the photographs however, that draw me closer to the table, that reach out to me across the years since they were taken. From the surface of John’s dining table, the faces of the young men that meant so much to him so long ago, smile and shine forth like the specks of starlight from distant suns long ago extinguished by time, yet whose light still streams down to us. Amidst the numerous snapshots and formal photographs, I notice something – that John was never alone during these dark days of European cataclysm.
According to the photographs arrayed before me, John was always a member of a course, a class, a flight, a squadron or even a team. There are no pictures of the man as a single person - at least none that he has included in the group of photos laid out on the table. I am immediately reminded of what the retired physician had said to me on my first visit to his Ottawa home – “ I am uncomfortable talking about myself, but I don’t mind talking about my squadrons.” It is clear to me, looking at these images that he has cared for all these years, that those days are a powerful time in his memory, not because they are concurrent with gigantic moments in history, but because he shared them with groups of men like himself – groups that cared for him, that gave him cause to push through the constant fear and stress, that gave him solace in their presence, their kibitzing, and their shared hardships. At my first visit, after drawing out of him a few stories, I had offered that I didn’t think I had the courage to face a war like that. He scoffed at that saying “Of course you would have. We were all young and invincible at the beginning. We were able to do these things mostly because we didn’t want to be seen to falter by our friends and in the end we fought for each other, determined not to let each other down. Everyone is the same.”
On this darkening evening in mid September, I stand alongside John and stare down at hundreds of faces of men in groups and I am moved by something. It takes me a while to understand what that is. I see a formal photograph of more than fifty young men – all part of his Initial Training course at Stratford-on-Avon and wonder how many made it through flight training, how many had been lost on ops, how many in careless accidents and in the end how many lived to be, like Flight Lieutenant John Bennett, alive tonight. Their faces are as scrubbed and shining as their boots – the world is about to come apart around them and they will need the strength of groups in the days ahead. John beams out beneath his cap in the back row - unaware of the future that lays before him.
Another photograph catches my eye – a group of 26 relaxed looking men and one dog, both seated and standing, in front of a Harvard. “Was this when you were doing your flying training?” I ask. John explains that it was much later when he had left regular flying status with the RAF and was studying at St. Mary's Hospital, University of London. Most major universities had RAF auxiliary squadrons where former military pilots could maintain flying status and younger students could learn to fly. It was a photo taken on a summer camp - at Hawkinge or perhaps Shoreham. Then it hit me like grit thrown up by a Spitfire’s prop wash. I was looking at the bookends of his flying career - two photos, two groups, separated by more than a decade of upheaval, but both with the same aura of hope and beginning.
I see that if I line up all the group photos, they represent a sort of chronological scale where the ticking of time is the clicking of photographers' shutters in some sweeping metaphorical clock of upheaval, war fighting and redemption. So here they are, the images John shared with me this night, in close to the order they were taken. John Bennett is not some unique character from that time whose story is worth more than others, his is just the story these photos tell. In dusty albums, dark closets and war chests from Victoria to St John's, there are similar pictures and different stories waiting to be told. We must find them and capture them before the man in the second or third row or sitting on the wing is no longer here to help us get it right.
A more experienced Flight Lieutenant John Bennett (5th from right in front row) with pilots and ground crew of B Flight, 611 Squadron. A squadron Spitfire and the bleak landscape of RAF Sumburgh, Shetland Islands make a powerful backdrop. Photo: John Bennett Collection
611 Squadron pilots and ground crew from B Flight pose for a group photograph at RAF Station Sumburgh, Shetland Islands where they were stationed for a time. John Bennett sits fourth from the right in the middle row. Photo: John Bennett Collection.
Later in the war, John was with 74 (Tiger) Squadron flying in support of Allied troops as they advanced through France and Belgium. 74 Squadron “Tigers” were credited by the Canadian 4th Armoured Brigade as providing the ‘closest air support to date”! Here squadron pilots pose at an airfield in Antwerp, Belgium. John stands third from the right in the back row - sporting a nice air force mustache that he claims was long enough to reach his ears. Photo: John Bennett Collection
John Bennett (left) with a flying boot full of maps, poses with four friends (L-R John Bennett, Geoff Lambert, Allan Griffin, Hugh Murland, Laurie Turner), prior to a sortie in his Spitfire. The Spit can be seen with a 250 pound bomb under each wing and a 500 pound bomb on the centreline. 74 Squadron operated many close support and interdiction missions in this configuration but also used rockets. John chuckles when he recounts how they were never sure whether the rockets would track on target or simply just blow up on the rails. Photo: John Bennett Collection
In this group photo, 12 men of 74 Squadron, now truly the "Tigers" of their squadron nickname, depart for a sortie in 1944 after forming up over the field. You cannot help but wonder whether all returned safely. John Bennett cannot recall whether he was part of this particular sortie but the inset photograph is definitely John landing in his Spitfire "D" for Day at a forward airfield near Schijndel, Holland in 1944. Photos: John Bennett Collection
A photo of 74 Squadron Tigers at USAAF base at Venlo, Holland, awaiting the arrival of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whom they have been given the task of escorting back to England after he visited the troops. (L-R Tony Reeves (CO), Geoff Lambert, “Taffy” Reese, Des Senneville, Johnnie Johnson (not the more famous one), Paddy Dalziell - the fellow looking away cannot be identified). Churchill and his Tiger escort, including John Bennett flew from Venlo to Northolt Airport, West London where, to their dismay, they made a quick turn around and headed back to the battle. Photo: John Bennett Collection
As the war pushed on into Germany, 74 "Tiger" Squadron was close to the front even in their spare time. Here John and three fellow pilots are inspecting some RAF handiwork - a destroyed bridge across the Weser River in Bremen, Germany. While posing for this photo taken by a mate, sniper bullets started ricocheting from the bridge work. John smiles widely as he recalls the speed at which the four pilots scrambled down from the ruins. But it may not have been that funny at the time. Photo: John Bennett Collection
Immediately after the war, 74 Squadron converted to the jet age and the Gloster Meteor Mk 3. Here John Bennett (leaning casually at left) and his fellow Tiger pilots pose like true veterans at RAF Colerne in the southwest of England, near Bath. John recalls post war missions along the south coast of Wales, helping coastal defences calibrate their guns for the new speeds of the jet age. He also remembers breaking right at the end of the last run and heading for his home town 40 miles inland where he would make his presence known so many times, that the Mayor lodged a formal complaint with the RAF. Photo: John Bennett Collection
Later still at RAF Colerne, John (right) poses with friends - most of whom shared the stress of war with him. There seems to be a casual air of relief in these two pictures - men who know their worth, know they have met the test, know that they have survived the roulette of war and know they are still at the cutting edge of aviation, flying the hottest aircraft of the day. Photo: John Bennett Collection
John (5th from left in back row) admits to being a decent athlete back in the day. Here he poses with other squadron mates from RAF Colerne's rugby team after the 1945-46 season. Photo: John Bennett Collection
Around 1950, John (seated second from left) is still a committed athlete but he is no longer in the regular RAF. Now at the St. Mary's Hospital, University of London, he continues to fly with the university's auxiliary squadron and play on its soccer team, but John is now at the beginning of a new career - one where he will bring babies into the world, a world made safer by his classmates and squadron mates of the past seven years. Other notables on the team are Dennis Kelleher (seated left) who played for the Irish National Team, Professor Stanley Peart (standing second from right) who was knighted for his contributions to medicine and Graham Sullivan (seated second from the right) who played International Rugby for Wales. Photo: Oliver Gorrod, John Bennett Collection
Towards the end of his RAF career, John (front row, second from the left ) was selected to lead the RAF component of the parade in honour of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Each of the six men in the front row (with Wilkinson swords) represented a different command of the Royal Air Force - Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command etc. As John was now at St. Mary's Hospital, University of London Air Squadron, he was chosen to represent Training Command.
John (second from left - front row) leads hundreds of airmen past the offices of Thomas Cook near Pall Mall, London. John vividly recalls the rainy and humid day of the Coronation parade. The dampness was such that their swords, at first brilliant and polished, became pitted by the end of the long day's march.
This picture of the St. Mary's Hospital, University of London Air Squadron Summer Camp is perhaps the last image John Bennett has of his flying days - possibly taken as late as 1955. John (4th from right in middle row), a veteran of years of war, seems much older than we remember him in earlier pictures - and much different than the youthful cadets with the white-banded caps in the back row. Full-time regular force RAF instructors sit in the front row, while seasoned veterans turned university students serving as flying mentors to the cadets stand in the second row. Normally the squadron operated Tiger Moths and Chipmunks from RAF Fairoaks, west of London (later moving to RAF Booker near High Wycombe, Northwest of London), but when on two-week summer camps at places like Hawkinge or Shoreham, they made use of RAF Harvards like the one they are posing with. We leave John at this point to meet him again more than sixty years later after a life of medical practice and family building - to share his memories. Photo: R.L. Knight, John Bennett Collection