The First and the Last

During the Second World War, more than 70 million people died worldwide as a result of the war (training, combat, civilian casualties, war crimes, as well as famine and disease related to the war). The numbers are numbing, the tragedy literally incomprehensible. The death machine ground away twenty-four hours a day for nearly six years, spewing inhumanity, obscenity and tragedy unchecked around the world. It was a time of incredible creativity in the pursuit of death—ballistic missiles, new flying machines, new tactics, gigantic factories for death that ran like Swiss timepieces and finally nuclear weapons. In the end, it was blood and flesh and young lives that made the difference. War’s opening gambit is death, and it’s not over until the killing is finished.

To die in war is a tragedy of immense proportions. Each young life is a story of potential squandered, of beauty consumed by violence, of unimaginable grief for mothers, fathers and spouses. To have died in that horrific war is tragic and a sacrifice that for many millions of people in Europe and the Far East is, today, largely forgotten on an individual basis. For a country with a small population like Canada’s during the Second World War, the numbers were tiny fractions of the loss felt by countries like Russia, Poland, Japan, Germany and nations in Europe and the Far East, but none the less, the pain for our country is felt to this day. All these deaths are tragedies, but to be the first or the last of these numbers carries a certain extra tragic significance. To be first, to be taken out of the fight in the opening gambit, to die in the first action, is akin to the first pawn taken in a chess game... gone, forgotten and out of the game. To be last seems the greater tragedy—a death by crushing misfortune. After years of risking one’s life, having it taken with the finish line, not just in sight, but literally underneath you, carries with it an eternal sadness.

The first Canadian-born combattant to die in the Second World War was Sergeant Albert Stanley Prince, a bomber pilot of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. He was killed within 24 hours of Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany and while attacking cruisers of the Kreigsmarine in Wilhelmshaven, the German Navy’s main base on the Baltic. His death came a full two years and three months before America entered the war, and was the first Canadian death of more than ten thousand to die in the service of Bomber Command alone. Albert was dead and Eliza Prince became the first of nearly 45,000 Canadian mothers who would carry that sacrifice in their hearts until their dying days. Winifred, his wife, would have to suffer the loneliness and deprivations of war while carrying her grief for all but 24 hours of a war that lasted more for 52,000 hours. 

The last Canadian to die in the Second World War was Lieutenant Gerald Arthur “Andy” Anderson of Trenton, Ontario. Andy, a member of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, was a Corsair pilot serving with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. The circumstances of his death are particularly heartbreaking as we shall see. One can imagine that his mother Annie was excited that her son would soon be coming home, for news of the atomic bombs which struck the final blows against Japan would have reached her before the news of her son’s death. He died the same day that the last nuclear weapon was used in a war—9 August 1945.

It is of particular interest to note that the first and the last were both pilots—a testament to the rising importance of air power in the waging of a war. In previous wars and campaigns, the first to die might have been a charging cavalryman and the last to die a mud-covered infantryman in the trenches. But the new war meant a first strike by air power and an even greater form of air power was there at the end to bring Japan finally to her knees.

Prince was married and had two children when he died. Anderson was just 16 at the time. He could never have imagined that he would die in that same war but nearly six years later, and against an enemy that was not part of Prince’s conflict. Here now are two stories, six years apart.

Dave O’Malley

 

The First of Ten Thousand by Dave Birrell, Bomber Command Museum of Canada

The fifteen young men of 107 Squadron sat in their flying gear as the message from the King was read. It was meant to inspire patriotism and confidence. “The Royal Air Force has behind it a tradition no less inspiring than those of the older Services, and in the campaign which we have now been compelled to undertake you will have to assume responsibilities far greater than those which your service had to shoulder in the last war. I can assure all ranks of the air force of my supreme confidence in their skill and courage, and in their ability to meet whatever calls may be made upon them.”

By the end of the day four of the five aircraft which set out from RAF Wattisham on the squadron’s first operation of the war had been destroyed and one of the pilots had become the first of almost ten thousand Canadians to be killed while serving with Bomber Command during the Second World War.

Albert Stanley Prince was born in Montréal, Québec on 22 November 1911, the son of Eliza and Harold Braithwaite Prince who had seen service with the Royal Highlanders of Canada. Following the Great War, the family moved to Neston, in England. Albert’s late grandfather had operated the waterworks for the town which is near the Irish Sea, just north of the Welsh border. Albert’s father took over his duties as waterworks engineer for the local Council.

Known as “Nab” to the family, Albert attended Caldey Grange Grammar School. A tall, athletic looking young man, he played tennis and captained the Nestor Nomads football team. After completing his schooling, he spent seven years working for the Neston Council, performing various clerical duties. Highly thought of by his employers, he was presented with an engraved gold watch and cufflinks upon his resignation in 1935 following his decision to join the Royal Air Force.

After initial training at Bristol, he attended the Martin School of Air Navigation at Shoreham-by-Sea where he trained on the twin-engined de Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft. He married Winifred Mary on 21 November 1936 and the couple had one son, William.

Two photos of Sergeant Albert Stanley Prince—as a student pilot (right) and as a Sergeant pilot. He was born in Montréal in 1911 and, following the end of the First World War, he moved to Great Britain with his family. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada

During his time at the Martin School of Air Navigation at Shoreham, young Albert Prince (right) takes a sighting through the window of a de Havilland Dragon Rapide. When the RAF was expanding, there was an increased requirement for pilot training and the Martin School of Air Navigation was contracted to train pilots for the RAF Volunteer Reserve. The facility became No. 16 Elementary and Refresher Flying Training School (E & RFTS). The school was initially equipped with Tiger Moths and then Hawker Harts and Hinds and Battles as well as Dragon Rapides for navigation training. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada

As a pilot with “B” Flight, 107 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Sergeant Prince was based at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk. Granted leave on 15 August 1939, he returned to base on 2 September, listened to news of war being declared on the 3rd, and was ordered to fly on the first bombing operation of the war on the 4th. The squadron operated the Bristol Blenheim IV aircraft which, with its distinctive scalloped nose, was one of four twin-engined bombers that were ready for action at the beginning of the war. Together with the Vickers Wellington, Handley Page Hampden, and Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, they would carry the load for Bomber Command until the four-engined Stirlings, Halifaxes, and Lancasters took over.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IVs of No. 13 Operational Training Unit (Buckingham, Oxfordshire) in formation. From the earliest operations such as those of 107 Squadron until early 1942, the Blenheim IV served in a variety of roles. The Blenheim enabled Bomber Command to carry on offensive operations over Europe for almost two years before they were replaced by superior aircraft. Blenheim IV’s also served in North Africa, the Middle East and in the Far East against the Japanese. Photo: RAF

Flying Officer Andrew McPherson and crew were the first members of the RAF to fly into enemy airspace. Their reconnaissance flight in a 139 Squadron Blenheim on the day war was declared had observed the German “pocket” battleship Admiral Scheer, light cruiser Emden, and other warships anchored at the German naval base at the entrance to Wilhelmshaven on Germany’s north coast. Flying at an altitude of 24,000 feet, the crew also confirmed that the ships were well away from shore so that there was no risk of enemy civilians being injured or killed, an important consideration during the opening stages of the war. No. 2 Group of Bomber Command issued orders that fifteen Blenheims were to attack the warships, five from each of 107, 110, and 139 Squadrons.

The morning of 4 September 1939 was cloudy over southern England and, as the message from the King was read, the skies had become heavily overcast and stormy with a strong northwest wind. Shortly before the scheduled takeoff, deteriorating weather required changing the already loaded bombs to 500 pounders with 11.5 second delay fuses so that the crews could attack at a low level and by doing so, ensure that no bombs would fall on land where civilians might be injured. Together with the other four crews from 107 Squadron, Sergeant Prince took off from RAF Wattisham at 16:00 hours. His aircraft was serial number N6240 and carried the squadron code markings OM-K.

However, the 110 Squadron aircraft found the targets. Pilot Officer Selby R. Henderson from Winnipeg, Manitoba was the navigator in the lead aircraft and, as he sat in the very nose of the aircraft, was the first member of Bomber Command into action during the Second World War. His pilot, Squadron Leader K.C. Doran, led the attack as the five Blenheims attacked the enemy warships at low level. Weather conditions were unchanged over the English Channel as the fifteen aircraft of Bomber Command flew just above the wave tops through mist and cloud, struggling to see during periods of heavy, continuous rain. The five aircraft from 139 Squadron jettisoned their bombs and turned back after failing to locate the warships.

The German sailors likely mistook the attacking aircraft for Luftwaffe Ju-88s until the RAF markings became apparent. Clearly surprised, the ships’ crews were later reported, “to have looked up as if watching an airshow.” The Blenheims hit Admiral Scheer with at least four bombs, none of which exploded, probably because of the extremely low altitude of the attack and the battleship’s thick armour plating. Later, Squadron Leader Doran gave an interview in which he described the raid as follows: “We could see a German warship taking on stores from two tenders at her stern. We could even see some washing hanging on the line. Undaunted by the washing we proceeded to bomb the battleship. Flying at 100 feet above mast height all three aircraft in the flight converged on her. I flew straight ahead. The pilot of the second aircraft came across from one side, and the third crossed from the other side. When we flew on the top of the battleship we could see the crews running fast to their stations. We dropped our bombs. The second pilot, flying behind, saw two hit. We came round, and the ship’s pom-poms began to fire as we headed for home. My navigator saw shells bursting almost on the tail of the aircraft.”

Squadron Leader Doran had bombed accurately, two of his bombs hitting the battleship. The first became embedded in the armour-plated deck and the second bounced off, neither exploding. A second aircraft scored a direct hit as well only to see its bomb bounce harmlessly off the ship’s thick armour. The enemy reacted quickly and the remaining aircraft of 110 Squadron came under fire. Blenheim N6199 was struck by flak and crashed directly into the bow of the cruiser Emden killing all four aboard the aircraft. The pilot, by way of a remarkable coincidence, was Flying Officer H.L. Emden. The impact resulted in the German Navy’s first casualties of the war as nine sailors aboard the warship were killed by the impact. As the four surviving 110 Squadron Blenheims headed for their base, Sergeant Prince and the 107 Squadron aircraft prepared to attack.

The Kriegsmarine light cruiser Emden was built by the then Reichsmarine and came down the ways in 1925. She served largely as a training ship before September 1939, but with the war about to be declared she was involved in mine laying on the German coast. In the attack in which Sergeant Prince was killed, she was damaged when another Blenheim from 107 Squadron crashed into her bows. Ironically, the RAF pilot of that Blenheim was Flying Officer H. L. Emden. Neither he nor any of his crew survived. Though nine of her crew were killed in the Blenheim crash, Emden survived to take part in the invasion of Norway and was still operational in May of 1945 when she was scuttled. While she did not survive, part of the propeller blade of F/O Emden’s Blenheim remains on display at the Kriegsmarine Museum at Laboe near Kiel. Photo: Bundesarchiv

The other large warship in Wilhelmshaven, when the five Blenheims of 107 Squadron made their attack, was the 13,600 ton pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, named after the German admiral commanding the fleet at the Battle of Jutland. She was completed at Wilhelmshaven in 1934 and was involved as a bombardment platform during the Spanish Civil War two years later. Admiral Scheer was the most successful capital ship surface raider of the war, sending more than 113,000 tons of shipping to the bottom. Photo: Bundesarchiv

There was no element of surprise when Prince arrived over the target. The German flak was heavy and well directed. Three of the four bombers that attacked were shot down during their low level bombing runs. A German witness reported the fate of a fourth: “The crew of one Blenheim attacked at such a low level that the blast of their own bomb on the warship destroyed the RAF aircraft.” The delayed fuse must have malfunctioned.

With its bombs still on board, a single 107 Squadron aircraft returned to base after being unable to find the target, landing safely at Wattisham. A Blenheim wireless operator/air gunner later recalled, “There was tremendous excitement when “A” Flight (110 Squadron) returned and consternation when the lone Blenheim of 107 landed. It occurred to us aircrew that if this was to be the pattern of future operations, we were in for a very short career.”

The aircraft flown by Sergeant Prince was one of the three that appear to have been shot down by flak. In an interview with a German journalist, Sergeant G.F. Booth, the observer (navigator) whose position was in the nose of the Blenheim, was asked, “if he noticed how the aircraft was brought down.” He answered, “We hit something... I was looking forward. I just saw the water and heard the crash.”

A German naval officer inspects the wreckage of Prince’s Blenheim bomber dockside at Wilhelmshaven. Prince’s aircraft was badly damaged, but he managed a successful ditching. All three crew members survived, but Prince succumbed to injuries in hospital the next day. The aircraft was salvaged and craned onto the dock. Photo via Bomber Command Museum of Canada

A painting by artist John Rutherford depicts the events of 4 September 1939. It was unveiled at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in 1999 by Bill Prince, the son of Albert Prince, the pilot of OM-K. Prince had travelled from Stoke-on-Trent, England for the occasion and presented the Museum with the wings and squadron crest worn by his father during his last flight. Image via Bomber Command Museum of Canada

It appears that the aircraft went down quickly but Prince must have had some control as the bomber was ditched in the harbour. All three crewmembers were successful in getting out of the aircraft and were picked up by a pilot boat. But Prince had been mortally injured and died later in hospital. Sergeant Booth suffered a broken foot and the wireless op/air gunner, Aircraftman First Class L.G. Slattery, had his jaw dislocated when his face was dashed against the machine gun in his turret. Booth and Slattery became the first Allied Prisoners of War and remained in confinement until liberated from Stalag 357 by Allied forces.

The enemy honoured Prince and the fifteen other RAF aircrew who died during the raid with full military funerals. Their coffins were draped with the Union Jack and taken by hearse to the gravesite in Geestemünde Cemetery. A naval honour guard stood at attention as they were interred. Later, their remains were transferred to Becklingen War Cemetery at Soltau, Germany.

Initial reports stated that the raid was somewhat successful in that Emden was put out of action for two or three months although Admiral Scheer appears to have escaped unscathed.

However, the raid had provided the British public with the first heroes of the war. The Ministry of Information reported that the Blenheim pilots and crews were, “proud to have been chosen to strike the first blow at the German war machine.” Flying Officer McPherson, the Blenheim reconnaissance pilot, and Squadron Leader Doran were awarded the war’s first DFCs.

The first Canadian serving with Bomber Command to be killed during the Second World War, Albert Stanley Prince was also the first Canadian to die in combat in any of the services. Before the war in Europe ended, over five and a half years later, some ten thousand young Canadian aircrew had been killed serving with Bomber Command in what has been described as the most continuous and grueling operation of war ever carried out.

by Dave Birrell

About the author

Dave Birrell, a lifelong educator, lives in Nanton, Alberta where he is resident historian at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada. Birrell has written numerous books including Calgary’s Mountain Panorama, Baz—The Biography of S/L Ian Willoughby Bazalgette, Big Joe McCarthy—The RCAF’s American Dambuster, and People and Planes—Stories from the Nanton Lancaster Museum.

On the morning of 9 August 1945, Corsairs of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Formidable’s complement attacked Japanese military and transport ships in Onagawa Bay on the island of Honshu. During these attacks, a young Canadian fighter pilot by the name of Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray pressed home a bombing and strafing attack on Imperial Japanese Navy anti-aircraft destroyer Amakusa. With one of his two bombs shot away, he released the remaining one at the perfect moment and it sailed toward the destroyer and exploded near a magazine as he passed over the ship. Amakusa rolled over and sank in less than five minutes, taking with her 71 members of her crew. Gray, likely wounded, died at the same time when his Corsair rolled inverted and crashed into the waters of Onagawa Bay. Gray was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross as a result of this action and his memorial alongside the Japanese memorial for Amakusa and her lost crew is the only one dedicated to an Allied serviceman on Japanese soil.

Gray’s squadron mates took out their frustrations and anger at the loss of their leader on the other ships in the bay, repeatedly strafing when they were required to do only a single attack. Having vented their anger and reeling from the loss of Gray, they assembled and made for Formidable off the coast. The remaining Corsairs successfully recovered aboard and began immediate preparations for another attack, code-named Ramrod 3.

Shortly after 1100 hrs, while Formidable’s pilots hurried to grab some food and deck crews armed and spotted their aircraft, the pilot of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress nicknamed “BOCKSCAR”, flying high in the unchallenged air over the southern city of Nagasaki, selected “bomb doors open”. The hydraulic doors whined and swung open into the icy slipstream to reveal a single, ugly, black and dangerous shape—the 20-kiloton atomic bomb known as Fat Man. Moments later the bomb shackles were released and the bomb fell away into history. The pilots of Ramrod 3 would not know of this until later, so continued their preparations and launched aircraft to return to Onagawa. Among the pilots of Ramrod 3 were two Canadians—Lieutenant C.E. Butterworth and Lieutenant Gerald Arthur “Andy” Anderson, a 22-year-old from Trenton, Ontario.

It was very difficult to locate a photograph of Gerald “Andy” Anderson. Thanks to Canadian Naval Historian Michael Whitby, I was sent a few scans from Stuart Soward’s excellent book, A Formidable Hero, his definitive record of the life of Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, VC, who died on the same raid as Gerald Anderson. The photograph is pretty poor, but it is the only image of Anderson that I know of. Gerald Anderson, of Trenton, Ontario is on the left with Lieutenant William Bell Asbridge of Edmonton, Alberta on the right. Both were Canadian Fleet Air Arm pilots with 1842 Squadron aboard HMS Formidable. Asbridge, shot down near Tokyo on 18 July 1945, was the first Canadian pilot to die in combat over the Japanese home islands, while Anderson was the last Canadian to die in the Second World War. Scanned from Stuart Soward’s A Formidable Hero, which credits the 1841 Squadron Line Book

The pilots of Ramrod 3 returned to Onagawa Bay to finish the destruction begun by Robert Gray and his 1841 Corsairs of Ramrod 2. As they hammered away at the remaining ships in the bay, they were joined by a gaggle of 40 Hellcats from nearby American carriers. By the time the Corsairs of Ramrod 3 were heading home at 1500 hrs, there was total devastation on the surface of Onagawa Bay. Only one ship, Kongo Maru, remained afloat. The day’s combat operations had been successful, but the loss of the much-liked Robert Gray was a bitter pill to swallow, especially as they all understood the war was winding down.

There was still 150 miles to fly until they were home safe aboard Formidable. Anderson’s aircraft had been hit by anti-aircraft fire during the attack and he was leaking fuel rapidly on the way home. Anderson was given two options. He could ditch his dying and damaged Corsair or elect to recover aboard the carrier. It was possible that Anderson was wounded and a ditching might prove difficult to get out of. He chose to land aboard and so set up for the regulation curving approach from the port rear quarter. It looked like he was going to make it and the batsman standing on deck guided him in down the roiling wake towards Formidable. Just feet from the flight deck rounddown, Anderson’s engine quit on him and the 9,000-pound fighter sank like shotgunned duck. His Corsair slammed hard and flat into the rounddown, angled toward the sky. The aft section of the Corsair behind Anderson broke away and fell backward to the boiling sea and Formidable’s three thrashing propellers.

For several long seconds, the forward part of Anderson’s Corsair lay at the back of the ship. The 22-year-old Anderson was bent forward, unconscious, his head resting against the control panel. The canopy, normally kept open for all takeoffs and landings, had slammed shut from the impact. The batsman at the stern, deck crew and the other pilots standing in “the goofers” (the observation platforms at the rear of the ship’s island) were momentarily stunned, and before anything could be done, Anderson and his wrecked Corsair slid back, pitched up, and toppled the forty feet to the wake and was swallowed instantly by the heartless North Pacific Ocean. One can only pray that Anderson, in his sealed cockpit, did not regain consciousness as his Corsair fell through ever-darkening waters to the sea bottom. There he rests to this day.

Perhaps one of the saddest photographs of the Canadian experience with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War. All that is required of the pilot Gerald Anderson to finish his fighting war is to get his Corsair back on to the deck of HMS Formidable. Here we see Anderson’s broken Corsair slipping back off the round down having almost made it home. The batsman at right is slumped in helplessness as Anderson slides backwards and into history as the last Canadian to die in combat during the Second World War, nearly six years after Albert Prince became the first. The killing ends with this image of “almost home”. Photo scanned from Stuart Soward’s A Formidable Hero, acquired from Alarm Starboard, by G. Brooke

Young “Andy” had survived so much to this point—difficult and dangerous training, the U-boat gauntlet, operations in the North Atlantic, Indian Ocean and the kamikazes of Operation ICEBERG. To have his future snatched away from him as he literally crossed the finish line was a terrible blow to the squadron and a cruel ending for a young and promising athlete. The son of Arthur and Annie Anderson of Trenton, Ontario who grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario, now lies in an icy crypt off the shores of a very distant land. 

Of the seven Canadian pilots attached to squadrons of Formidable’s air group only two, Bill Atkinson and Charles Butterworth, survived the war. As Bill Atkinson, who witnessed the death of Anderson from the “goofers” said, in author Wayne Ralph’s excellent Aces, Warriors and Wingmen, just a cupful of fuel would have made all the difference.” 

by Dave O’Malley

Corsairs and Grumman Avengers warm their engines on Formidable’s deck in preparation for a raid against Japan. The white propeller spinners on these Corsairs indicate they are from Anderson’s 1842 Squadron, also aboard “Formy” during this period. Photo via Mark Peapell

A Corsair from Gray’s 1841 Squadron taxies forward over the wooden deck of USS Shangri-La. There were two squadrons of Corsairs operating from the carrier—Robert Gray’s 1841 Squadron and Anderson’s 1842. The latter had white propeller spinners, to differentiate their aircraft from those of 1841. The letter “X” on its vertical stabilizer is Formidable’s “deck code”. All aircraft assigned to this ship wore an “X” in this spot, while the carrier itself had a large “X” on her deck. This helped prevent aircraft landing on the wrong ship when carriers operated in close proximity to each other. Photo: US Navy

A Corsair of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm launches from the deck of HMS Formidable in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan. Photo: Royal Navy

Anderson survived many things as the war wound itself down in the western Pacific Ocean, including two kamikaze attacks on HMS Formidable off the coast of Okinawa. The first, on 4 May 1945 (seen here), killed 8 men and wounded 55 others as well as destroying a number of aircraft, but it did not put the carrier out of action. Five days later, the carrier was struck again by a kamikaze, and though the casualties were lighter (one dead and four wounded), there remained only four Corsairs and eleven Avengers with which to conduct operations. Photo: Royal Navy

The damage to HMS Formidable following the kamikaze strike on 4 May 1945 during Operation ICEBERG. The snarled wreckage next to the ship’s island is the remains of a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero that had strafed the deck and then crashed into the ship along with a bomb it had just released. Many of Formidable’s aircraft were aloft at the time of the strike and would operate their Corsairs from the decks of other Royal Navy carriers until their ship was operating again the next day. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Five days after the first kamikaze strike, Formidable was struck again. Her complement of aircraft was severely depleted and the British Pacific Fleet withdrew for repair and replenishment. Over a week later the guns of an Avenger were accidentally discharged into a Corsair, igniting a fire on the hangar deck that destroyed most of her aircraft. It was time to come off the line and head to Sydney, Australia for repairs. This would have been Anderson’s last chance for rest and relaxation—enjoying the sights and the pretty Aussie girls of Sydney. Photo: Imperial War Museum

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