‘One of the lucky ones’

Ac­cent: Sud­bury man re­flects on his ser­vice in the Sec­ond World War and Canada’s sup­port for vet­er­ans and fam­i­lies

The Sudbury Star - - FRONT PAGE - BEN LEE­SON

The tail-gun­ner’s tur­ret was a dan­ger­ous enough spot at the best of times.

Each time Harry Chal­lis and the rest of his crew flew their Avro Lan­caster bomber over en­emy ter­ri­tory, they had to con­tend with search­lights, blaz­ing anti-air­craft guns and deadly night fighters, the lat­ter of which it was Chal­lis’ job to hold off us­ing four Brown­ing .303-cal­i­bre ma­chine guns.

“Now, why we had Brown­ing ma­chine guns, four .303s – we could have used a pea shooter,” Chal­lis said with a chuckle.

One night, how­ever, he came quite close to leav­ing his tur­ret be­hind and tak­ing his chances in the cold, open air.

His Lan­caster had de­scended, dropped their pay­load and come up again. Some­where along the way, he lost con­tact with the rest of the crew.

“I came on the in­ter­com and I asked the rest of them what was go­ing on, but I couldn’t get any an­swer,” Chal­lis re­called.

He feared his crew­mates had bailed out, that the air­craft was doomed. He quickly de­cided to fol­low suit.

“I thought to my­self, ‘I’m not go­ing down on this thing alone’,” Chal­lis said. “So I had the doors open and I started out back­wards. I shoved my­self out of the tur­ret, had my legs just in­side and I was hang­ing out of it, just go­ing to clear my­self and pull that cord and get out of there. Just as I was ready to bail out, I looked up and saw that the in­ter­com jack was out. I’m glad I did.

“That’s how close one call was. There were many calls.”

Chal­lis, a dec­o­rated Sec­ond World War vet­eran and for­mer mem­ber of the Royal Air Force’ s 100 th Squadron, is now 93 and, quite ex­cus­ably, life has slowed down a lit­tle.

The long­time Sud­bury res­i­dent spends most of his time in his Welsh Street home, though he was for many years a fix­ture for many years at Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies, at­tend­ing events at the Na­tional War Memo­rial in Ot­tawa 20 times be­fore his health pre­vented it.

Chal­lis lives with Parkin­son’s dis­ease and re­lies on a wheel­chair and care­giver to get around the house. He oc­ca­sion­ally voices his frus­tra­tion with how the dis­ease has af­fected his mem­ory.

He has very lit­tle trou­ble, how­ever, when it comes to rec­ol­lect­ing those with whom he served dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, in­clud­ing the men who never re­turned.

He’ll be think­ing of them this Re­mem­brance Day, as he does dur­ing much of the year.

“Those thoughts are in my mind quite of­ten,” Chal­lis said. “It’s mind­bog­gling, the num­ber who didn’t come home. I’m glad I was one of them.

“I con­sider my­self one of the lucky ones.”

Born in Sal­vador, Sask., Henry Dick­son Chal­lis was six when his fam­ily moved to Wind­sor, Ont., be­fore re­lo­cat­ing again to Chatham. He joined the Air Force in spring of 1943, at just 17 years of age.

“Back in those days, it seemed like the thing to do,” Chal­lis said. “A lot of the young fel­lows around were join­ing up, so I thought I’d bet­ter go.”

He trained in Win­nipeg with the Royal Cana­dian Air Force be­fore be­ing sent to RAF Don­caster, a sta­tion in South York­shire, Eng­land.

“They put us in a hold­ing de­pot and when they needed new air crews for dif­fer­ent squadrons, they would call this hold­ing de­pot and they would ship us out,” Chal­lis re­called.

He be­came close friends with fel­low trainees and later, his crew­mates.

“A lot of it, to me, was fun, and to oth­ers, the same,” Chal­lis said. “It was the com­rade­ship, I think. If one of your crew­mates, or an­other one in an­other crew, wanted to do some­thing some night, like go to the pub and have a few beers and so on, there was al­ways some­body to go with you.”

Lan­cast­ers, in­tro­duced in 1942, were key to the RAF Bomber Com­mand’s strate­gic bomb­ing ef­forts, along­side the older Short Stir­ling and the Han­d­ley-Page Hal­i­fax. The Lanc, as it was af­fec­tion­ately known, even­tu­ally eclipsed the lat­ter two planes as the prin­ci­pal heavy bomber used by the RAF, RCAF and squadrons from other Com­mon­wealth and Euro­pean coun­tries, tasked with pum­melling the weak­ened, but de­ter­mined Axis pow­ers, Ger­many in par­tic­u­lar.

Chal­lis took part in sev­eral bomb­ing mis­sions over Ger­many in the later part of the war. Though proud of his con­tri­bu­tions to the de­feat of the Nazis, he un­der­stand­ably has mixed feel­ings about his in­volve­ment in such a de­struc­tive con­flict.

“I was glad when it was over,” he said.

Ger­many sur­ren­dered in May 1945, but Ja­pan con­tin­ued to fight the Al­lies. Po­ten­tial des­ti­na­tions for Chal­lis and his com­rades were home, by way of dis­charge, the Euro­pean con­ti­nent, as part of an oc­cu­py­ing force, or the Pa­cific The­atre, as part of the fi­nal ef­fort to de­feat the Ja­panese.

“I had a month’s hol­i­day, then had to re­port to Green­wood, N.S. I was just about to go back to Eng­land, make up a crew and fly east, but the war came to a sud­den end when the Amer­i­cans dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. Then we were pretty well all fin­ished.

“The way they an­nounced it to us was they had a big bar­rel of beer and we all walked around it, had a beer and when it was empty, they gave you an­other one. That was the way I knew the war was over.”

Upon re­turn­ing to Canada, Chal­lis worked for a time at the Chatham Daily News, then em­barked on a 46-year ca­reer with On­tario Hy­dro.

His wife of 59 years, Shirley, passed away in 2009, at age 82. He has three daugh­ters, Cindy, Leslie and Mar­cia.

He stayed in close with many of his for­mer crew mem­bers, the last of whom, wire­less op­er­a­tor Don Cross­ley, died last No­vem­ber.

He at­tended the na­tional Re­mem­brance Day ser­vice in Ot­tawa on a reg­u­lar ba­sis un­til just three years ago.

“It was a way to meet other ex-per­son­nel,” Chal­lis ex­plained. “It’s nice for a ser­vice­man to meet an­other ser­vice­man who was in the war. We’d have a lit­tle bit to talk about.”

High­lights of his jour­neys to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal in­cluded ap­pear­ing on the cover of the Ot­tawa Sun and, even more spe­cial, march­ing with his grand­son, Robert Hums, Cindy’s son and a cap­tain in the Cana­dian Army.

“We’re cer­tainly proud of him,” Chal­lis said.

He cer­tainly ap­proves of ef­forts to rec­og­nize vet­er­ans on Re­mem­brance Day, but be­lieves Cana­di­ans could do a bet­ter job of re­mem­ber­ing their sac­ri­fices dur­ing the rest of the year.

“Af­ter a day or so, it’s all over,” he said.

“We could do a lot more for the fam­i­lies of some of the ser­vice­men who have got­ten killed or in­jured, so much more for them.”

JOHN LAPPA/SUD­BURY STAR

Sec­ond World War vet­eran Harry Chal­lis holds onto his dog, Gizmo, while re­flect­ing on his time as a tail gun­ner dur­ing an in­ter­view in Sud­bury.

Harry Chal­lis

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