Jack Hobbs on lost friends, bombers in the dark, and the healing power of music
Jack Hobbs doesn't talk about medals awarded or speak of the courage it must have required as he piloted the Ansell bomber from Middleton, England to targets in Germany and Norway. His story is about the friends he lost daily as one hundred bombers took off - in the dark - with only radio signals and a navigator – and flew for hours to the designated target, before heading back to base.
"The average daily loss was ten per cent," he remembered, "and we were one hundred planes each time we were sent on a bombing mission. So, you can imagine many of the friends you made often didn't return."
Jack Hobbs grew up in Asbestos and joined his father at the CJM Asbestos plant when he was sixteen and fresh out of high school.
"We had the 7-11 Hussars Squad then, but joining up didn't begin to tempt me and my friends for a couple of years. But by 1940, the idea took hold and off we went to Sherbrooke to enlist. We sure didn't have any idea what we were getting into then," he says ruefully.
With the determination to learn to fly, Hobbs made the transfer from the Hussars to the RCAF and his adventure began almost immediately.
"We had to pass basic training in Sherbrooke, at the old fairgrounds where the camp was situated. From there, we went to Moncton, then, as we completed various stages of pilot training, to different camps across Canada."
He remembers his first flying instructor, who showed him the versatility of the single-engine training plane.
"He 'looped the loop’, flipped sideways, and did all kinds of scary things and I suppose it was a test of courage and determination for us young fellas who at the start had no idea what would be expected of us."
Once in England, the Canadian pilots, navigators, and wireless operators were welcomed into the RAF where bomber plane crews were in short supply. This was 1941 and development and production of efficient war planes had barely started. The Ansell was a large, bulky, four-engine machine; capable of long flights, but not known for speed and agility. Missions could sometimes take up to ten hours, flown in darkness, definitely not in any particular formation.
"They were long, tiresome flights with anti-aircraft flak coming at us as we approached our target."
Hobbs doesn't talk about seeing other planes being shot down beside him. But he hesitates to remember all the friends he lost every time they went out.
These days, this almost-ninety-nine-year-old veteran fills his time with keeping in touch with family members. Nephews, nieces and lots of cousins keep him occupied with phone calls and visits. These days Hobbs practices the piano, his instrument of choice since childhood when 'Mother', who was a musician herself, insisted on piano lessons.
"But, I had a friend who played popular music and by watching and listening and with a little instruction I was soon playing the favorite songs of the day."
Hobbs formed a small band and is still remembered for his music at local dance halls around Danville and Asbestos.
"I play every Saturday morning here in the solarium,” he explained, and soon
"Has Anybody Seen My Gal", a popular hit in the forties, was ringing out, catching the attention of a few residents as they gathered at the elevator to go down for supper. "I have to admit music has been my good medicine. After 18 missions, I couldn't take the stress anymore and had a breakdown. At the time, the average bomber crews suffering from mental stress and fatigue was after 13 missions and they were almost always done as bomber pilots. I guess I outlasted many of them but getting back on my feet wasn't easy. Music played a major role in my recovery."
These days Hobbs, now a bit hard of hearing and with eyesight failing a bit, is getting ready to celebrate his ninety-ninth birthday November 24th at the Home.
"Oh yes, they're all coming and we'll have a great party up on fourth floor,” he said, surrounded by photos and souvenirs, “It's not the first time the family gets together here for my birthday which is actually November 26th.”
Time was slipping away as Hobbs stories unfolded and he remembered the tough times and the good times. Our conversation was coming to a musical end as he played the songs even I remembered as a child. Memories of Armistice celebrations in Sherbrooke flooded back to me as well, recalling my Dad, in uniform, mingling with Army, RCAF and Navy veterans and, of course, Jack Hobbs and I found friends we had both known as memories flooded back. Talking to a veteran whose participation in WWII, his account of bombing missions over Germany and Norway, brought to life the importance of remembering these veterans and underlined the privilege of meeting and talking to one of the last survivors of that part of our history.
Hobbs in front of the photo of an Ansell bomber, the type of plane he flew on 18 missions.