Animals in War
During my time researching my Dad’s time in the RCAF, I read about a wide variety of subjects, from Atlantic convoys to tank warfare on the Russian front, from Nachtjaeger squadrons in France to the building of airfields on the Canadian prairie. One character popped up at every location and situation I read about: the animal.
Innocent animals have always been caught up in the human insanity we call war, whether pressed into servitude, caught in the crossfire as their habitats became battlefields or kept as companions. WW2 was no different, and from cats on battleships, dogs on guard duty, horses pulling artillery (the German army used in excess of 3,000,000 horses from 1939-45) to pigeons flying messages, animals were there in the front lines.
Bomber Command made use of homing pigeons until early 1944, and all aircrew took a pair of them in a cage on every operation, usually in the care of the Wireless Operator. If they had to ditch in the North Sea, a message with their location would be tied to the leg of the birds and they would be sent on their way. A surprising number of aircrew were rescued from near certain-deaths by these humble birds.
The British even had a medal for brave animals, the Dicken Medal, which was awarded to heroic deeds by dogs, pigeons and horses (and a single cat, in 1949.)
One of my favourite stories from WW2 is from the wonderful (and not widely known) book Six War Years by Barry Broadfoot. Broadfoot travelled Canada in the 1970s, sticking a microphone into stranger’s faces and asking simply “what did you do in the war?” The stories cover everything from being a kid on the home front to harrowing memories of combat in places like Italy and Normandy and are transcribed almost verbatim, without commentary.
The story I recall so fondly took place in the middle of the North Atlantic. An unarmed repair ship itself broke down halfway to England and the convoy it was part of had to leave it behind. While the small crew worked frantically to fix the problem so they could try to catch up, the conning tower of a German U Boat suddenly broke the surface of the ocean not far away. Much to the crew’s amazement, the hatch opened, a dingy was inflated and several German sailors began to row the short distance towards them. When the dingy came alongside, the captain of the repair ship was astonished to see that the German officer in the dingy was holding a large fluffy cat.
“The captain of our submarine wishes to know if you might have some milk for his cat?” asked the officer.
The captain of the repair ship immediately sent one of his men below to the galley to fetch some condensed milk. A net bag with several cans was duly passed to the German officer, who gave his thanks and had his men row back to the U Boat, which then peacefully submerged and went on its way...
Apparently the Coffey crew, in Tholthorpe in the spring of 1944, shared their home with a small menagerie of birds and animals. The 420 Squadron Operational Records Book notes on May 29th, 1944 that “...the Squadron is getting to look like a zoo more and more every day. The following is the strength of pets: 1 fox, 2 dogs, 3 cats, 2 rabbits, 8 ducks 2 geese and one hen.”
The entry appears lighthearted, but it doesn’t have a happy ending, and it continues: “...the killing order was given. Now the old hen lies well roasted on its back in the Officers Mess kitchen to be devoured at noon. No more eggs for the batman!”
War is hell, as they say.
Escape and Evasion Photos
Six tiny black and white “headshot” photos of my Dad have, in an odd way, bracketed my time as the temporary caretaker of my Dad’s WW2 memorabilia. Four I inherited in 1990 (shown above) when Dad passed away and two arrived in my email inbox just last week, just days after The Job To Be Done was finally published. These mugshots, taken around the same time and location, and for the same purpose, took eighty years to be reunited in my files.
The two I received recently I had worked hard for – I had seen the tiny 35mm negatives among the hundreds of pages of scanned documents that the Canadian government had sent me when I requested Dad’s service records. Only the negatives were shown – I could tell they were of a man in civilian clothing, but I would not have known for sure it was Dad if he hadn’t been holding a sign, helpfully reading “COFFEY”. See below.
At any rate, a year or two after first seeing the negatives, I decided to ask the Library and Archives Canada if it would be possible to get them developed and sent to me. It turned out that it was, although due to the Covid pandemic the bureaucratic wheels turned very slowly. They finally arrived last week, and they are delightful.
All six of the photos are examples of escape and evasion photos. You can see in one that the chalkboard Dad holds says “51 Course” - this indicates it was taken at the No.22 Operational Training Unit, which Dad and crew attended in September 1943.
During the course of the War, hundreds of allied aircrew who had been shot down were able to evade capture, connect with the local resistance and eventually make their way back to England. The numbers were small compared to those who were killed or captured, but it is still an amazing story. To improve the chances of those who found themselves alone in enemy territory, each airman was issued with a pocket-sized escape kit. This usually consisted of items like silk maps, chocolate bars, a tiny compass, some Benzedrine tablets (“wakey-wakey pills”) to boost energy, some local currency and a set of tiny passport-style photos, taken in civilian clothing. Should a downed airman be lucky enough to make contact with the local underground, this last item could be used by their experts to make fake identity papers.
My Dad looks exhausted in all the photos, especially in the one I just received. It’s not surprising: by September of 1943 when the photo was taken, he had been undergoing near-constant (and often dangerous) training for over a year. He had said goodbye to his family, not knowing whether he would ever see them or Canada again. He had crossed the ocean to a faraway land, without a friend, and had been posted into one strange, challenging environment after another. It is no wonder there are bags under his eyes!
As always, thank you for reading.
Two of the oddest items in the box of wartime memorabilia that I inherited from my Dad in 1994 were the pair of red plastic hearts you can see below. Dad had never shown them to me, so I had no idea what their origin was – they seemed so incongruously cute sitting among the pieces of flak shell, dog tags and medals in the cardboard box. It took a few years for me to get around finally to trying to decode their meaning, and it is a touching story. The two hearts are examples of what was termed “sweetheart jewellery”, a common wartime form of (often) homemade trinket, meant to be sent home to wives and “sweethearts”. You can find a wide variety of examples for sale on eBay (which I admit I find rather sad...they meant a lot to someone at some point). During WW2 the British government frowned on jewellery production, as it was considered a waste of resources. However, it seems they turned a blind eye on whoever crafted the tiny silver wings that you can see embedded in the red perspex. The red material was likely salvaged from the navigation lights of a crashed airplane, the hearts then crafted by resourceful ground crew into the finished pendant, and sold to aircrew for them to mail home to loved ones far away. The pendants are just one example of many different kinds of decorative trinkets made during wartime from salvaged material – in WW1 they were known as “trench art” and often made from brass shell casings. I have no idea when or how my Dad sent these home to my Mom....were they both for her, sent at two different times? Or were they sent at the same time, one for his “sweetheart” and one for his son, baby Gary. After I found out a bit of the story behind the trinkets, I had them framed, along with my favourite picture of Mom and Dad, taken just before he shipped overseas in 1943.
Thanks for reading! The final countdown until The Job To Be Done is at last published has begun - I hope to have my hands on some copies and see it available in online bookstores in the next few weeks!
As I look back over the past 7 or so years of writing a book that I never intended to write, I often
ponder the skills I learned while delving into to story of my Dad and his crew.
I have always been a bit of a Luddite – modern technology often seemed to me to promise more
than it delivered (and to sometimes bring nasty and unexpected pitfalls), and I still feel that way about
social media. But there is no doubt that without the internet, this book could never have been written.
The resources available today online mean that anyone can bring to bear research power that would
boggle the mind of a scholar, a whole department of scholars, only 30 years ago.
I can still recall my amazement and delight when I opened up a document I had downloaded from
the U.K. National Archives and saw the original Bomber Command squadron records detailing that
night’s raid. My Dad and his crewmates were each listed, and what they had seen and experienced was
detailed, often in their own words (see an example above). This was real history, and it thrilled me!
Similar discoveries awaited me as I honed my research skills through trial and error, and by watching
YouTube tutorials. Online forums proved invaluable – I joined a community of curious researchers who
valued the past as much as I did. We helped each other whenever we could in our individual areas of
Then there was eBay. I decided to try and find and purchase some original WW2 documents and
photographs rather than just download “stock” images to illustrate The Job to be Done. Bidding on
eBay turned out to be another skill I needed to learn, and at the beginning, I was often “sniped” at the
last second by bidders using purchased software to assist them in the bidding process. Over time,
however, I gained skills, and ended up acquiring some amazing original photos and documents,
including an autographed card from Sir Arthur Harris.
Writing itself was a skill that required honing. I have been a voracious reader all my life, and I
aspired to write as well as my favourite military history writers, people like Robin Neillands and
Martin Middlebrook. No, I don’t feel I reached anywhere near that level, but a wise man once told me
that goals are like the North Star – you can walk for a hundred years and you will never reach it, but if
you keep it in sight you will always be sure you are going the right direction.
It was often hard work – I am positive that every paragraph in The Job to be Done was written and
re-written at least half a dozen times over the years. But often the words just flowed and I am
convinced this is because I felt so passionate about the subject – it was a labour of love and I put my
heart into it.
I think the point I am trying to make with all this is that the days are gone when you had to have a
degree or some sort of professional training to dig into history! If you are curious about someone in
your family’s past, then there are resources out there that will allow you to delve into it. Don’t be
intimidated, if I can do it, anyone can. I am willing to wager that there is an ancestor in your family tree
whose story is waiting to be told. You might not end up writing a book, but I promise you will make
some thrilling discoveries, and learn new skills in the process!
If I can offer any advice or pointers, please reach out, I would be glad to help.
Thanks for reading!
Welcome to the first blog post of the Job To Be Done website, and thank you for visiting the site and for taking the time to read the blog! It is now the end of 2022, and I am looking back down the road that I started travelling so naively in 2014. As I have related in the book, the idea of writing a book didn’t even enter my mind when I started researching my Dad’s logbook 8 years ago....the project seemed to have a life of its own, and grew like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk until it took over a good portion of my life. Back in 2014, I was a Correctional Officer, working at a maximum security provincial jail in Maple Ridge – I was considered a “senior staff”, having about 15 years of experience at that point, and often worked as an acting Supervisor. It was, and is, a tough way to make a living – my coworkers and I faced (and they continue to face) a grindingly negative environment with little or no support, appreciation or recognition from our management or employer. By the time I retired in January of 2022 morale was rock bottom and employee turnover was sky high – it is truly a shame that a job that is so vital for society and so personally challenging is so poorly appreciated by the public or the employer. But I digress... Finding the time to research and write while working shift work was challenging, but in 2018 I won a promotion to full-time Correctional Supervisor and soon found a post with a regular Monday-to-Friday dayshift pattern. With regular “normal” hours, I soon developed the habit of rising early each workday and spending an hour working on the book before heading off to jail for the day. On the weekends I would set aside two hours or so each day to research, write and rewrite. Slowly but surely the manuscript expanded and I grew increasingly confident with what I was producing. At one point I reached out to my co-workers in the B.C. Public Service via the online employee newsletter and explained my project and asked for any stories they might have about family members who might have served in Bomber Command – the response was remarkable. Stories poured into my inbox from people all over British Columbia, and it showed me that there was enthusiastic interest in the story I was trying to tell. Some of the stories shared involved other branches of service, like the army or navy, but the family's pride in their fathers, uncles and grandfathers who served was palpable in each of them. The response also presented a problem: I had asked others for their stories, but I could see from their volume and variety that the book would never be finished if I didn’t maintain a razor focus on telling just one, that of the Coffey crew. So the stories I was told became an inspiration, but they did not become part of the book. There was one, however, that I would like to share in my first post, as its power and poignancy I have never forgotten. My correspondent (I will call him Dan) told me that his father had recently died and been cremated. Dan had his father’s cremains at home with him and was pondering how best to honour his Dad’s memory. He settled on a plan to take a portion of the ashes to Germany. You see, Dan’s father had never known his own Dad. Dan’s grandfather had been a “bomber boy” with the RCAF in 1944 and had left behind his wife and yet-to-be-born child in Canada to head overseas. He had been shot down and killed over Germany and was buried there. Dan wanted to finally reunite, in some way, the father and son who had never met. I am sure you can see how stories like these inspired me to carry on with my project. Thank you again for reading, and I hope you will join me in future, as I share many stories that I was unable to include in the book. Future topics will include “Sweetheart” jewellery, escape and evasion photos, bum compasses, George the autopilot and a story about “wakey-wakey” pills. I would love to hear from you if you have any comments, suggestions, reviews or questions!
The Job To Be Done is scheduled to be published in January 2023. All the best to you and yours, Clint
Clint L. Coffey is the author of The Job To Be Done, coming soon through FriesenPress. Check back soon for new blog posts