Stepping back in time
Memories come flooding back for bomber crewmen who reminisce about 30 missions
Having a chance to step inside an old Avro Lancaster bomber for the first time in 71 years was a treat two old veterans never thought would happen.
And for Roy Morrison, 94, and his former navigator Henry (Chick) Hewett, who will be 96 on Nov. 13, the experience rekindled old, long-forgotten memories of the 30 bombing missions they completed together over Europe during the Second World War.
“It was the first time I was in a Lanc in so many years. It brought back a lot of memories and being inducted into the little group of sort of rare people nowadays, I feel very honoured and humbled really,” Hewett said, of his recent induction into the Lancaster Living Legends project.
“But it brought back lots of memories that’s for sure,” he said. “Sit and reflect is about the best way to describe it. It was just a fantastic opportunity and I was so grateful for it.”
Although Hewett appears in remarkable shape given his age, he has had problems with his hips, which made it difficult to explore the navigator’s position he manned during the war.
“But just looking down the tunnel as it were and remembering all the times we had to climb over the main spar with all our gear on, of course. And then I had an additional piece of baggage, I had a big bag with all my charts and equipment. It brought back memories of sort of creeping up there in the dark, particularly on a night trip, getting into the aircraft to get set for take off.
“But it brought back lots of memories that’s for sure, ” Hewett said. “And to my mind, great reminisces, even though sometimes they weren’t the greatest of occurrences at the time.”
One such event was when the escape hatch blew off just after takeoff. Located just above the pilot and close to Hewett’s position, the open hatch caused some immediate havoc inside the bomber.
“Papers started flying all around in the aircraft and then the decision, what to do?” he recalled.
Not wanting to land a plane loaded with both bombs and fuel, the pilot proceeded with their mission while other crew members conducted a “crude repair job”.
“And we had a rather cool trip that day,” Hewett chuckled.
Sitting at the glassed-in turret at the back of the plane, rear gunner Morrison was rarely privy to what was going on in the rest of the plane.
“We didn’t have much communication when we were on a flight because the enemy could pick the conversations up. So we weren’t allowed to do much talking unless it was a real emergency,” he said.
And stepping inside a Lancaster after so many years “gave me a strange feeling,” he said. “I used to think it was very big when you crawled in there. But I found it very small when I got in this time. I was surprised how small it was. It gave me a funny feeling.”
But both men said they will always cherish their reunion and the chance to look over the type of plane in which they once spent so many hours together during 30 bombing runs.
“It was a great visit. It was wonderful really,” Morrison said.
The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest honour.
Introduced in 1856, it is awarded for gallantry in combat, often posthumously. When that happens, instead of a medal proudly worn on a veteran’s chest, the initials ‘V.C.’ are prescribed to the recipients on their community’s cenotaph.
James Peter Robertson is one of those recipients.
Born in 1883 in Stellarton, N.S. – then known as Albion Mines – Robertson’s family moved to Springhill where he grew up with familiar last names like Brown, White and Macdonald. In time, his family moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta, and when the First World War broke out Robertson – then 32 years old – joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Two years later he would be dead, but not before distinguishing himself in the heat of battle and saving the lives of his colleagues.
On November 6, 1917, during the final assault at Passchendaele, Belgium, Robertson and his platoon were pinned between a rock and a hard place. Behind them, barbed wire prevented retreat. Ahead of them, a German machine gun was doing it’s best to mow them down. Nonetheless, Robertson found an opening in the enemy’s flank and rushed the gunner. It wasn’t an easy sneak attack.
In a desperate struggle, Robertson killed four members of the German gun crew before wrestling away control of the machine gun and turning it on the remaining Germans. With the enemy in retreat of Robertson’s fire, his platoon advanced and joined his position.
The Second Battle of Passchendaele was now moving in the allies’ favour, and most of the units had reached their goals. As Robertson’s platoon advanced towards theirs, two friendly snipers fell injured in front of his trench. Robertson went out and carried one of them back to safety under heavy fire, but when he tried to skirt enemy fire a second time an enemy shell exploded, killing him.
Robertson remains rest in the Tyne Cot Cemetery, five miles north of the Belgian town Ypres. His marker was dubbed “Plot LVIII. Row D. Grave 26,” but his name is still remembered today by both his community and his nation.
The first Canadian hero-class vessel built for the Canadian Coast Guard and launched in May 2012 is named the CCGS Private Robertson V.C. It now patrols the Great Lake.
Here in Springhill, however, it is the community cenotaph which holds Robertson’s name for us to remember and those of the Browns, the Whites, the Macdonalds and all the other families whose loved ones paid the ultimate price.
The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Private Robertson V.C. on the St. Clair River at Sarnia Ontario August 20 2017.
Henry (Chick) Hewett, left, and Roy Morrison found themselves aboard an Avro Lancaster again for the first time in about 70 years. The two flew 30 bombing missions together in the Second World War.
Pvt. James Peter Robertson