My Dad was overseas for almost two years, but the way the timing worked out he only spent one Christmas away from Canada, leaving Halifax harbour in May of ‘43 and arriving home on Xmas day 1944.
As luck would have it, he and his four crewmates (Bob McWhirter, Bob Bayne, Malcolm Dingwall and Teddy Rutherglen) would spend their only Christmas Day overseas in about the worst spot imaginable for an RAF bomber command crew, short of a POW camp. Not at a squadron Sergeant’s mess, warm and cozy among friends, with beer and music. Not on leave at a comfortable hotel in London. No, as luck would have the Coffey crew were at Battle School in the lonely Yorkshire Moors (at RAF Dalton) in December of 1943.
As related in The Job To Be Done, Battle School was a sort of four-week long commando course, where aircrew would learn escape and evasion techniques and practice hand to hand combat. Most thought it was a waste of time, but pretty much every RCAF aircrew took part in it, it was one of the components of their training deemed essential before commencing operations with a front line squadron. December on the Yorkshire Moors was wet, cold and dreary, and the Battle School records relate that the buildings were so cold students were burning anything they could get their hands on to try and warm up. They spent their days charging about the Moors in the rain, staging mock attacks and thrusting bayonets into straw dummies.
As Christmas Day approached, I am sure many of the young Canadians grew morose with thoughts of home and loved ones far away.
About 17 miles away from Dalton, also training on the Yorkshire Moors, were two battalions of Guards, stationed at Duncombe Park. The 1st Armoured Battalion Coldstream Guards and the 2nd Armoured Battalion Irish Guards were originally trained as infantry, but were now learning to fight with Sherman Tanks instead of rifles in preparation for the Normandy invasion. The two units had been at Duncombe for months (and therefore likely had better “connections” for food and beverages than the RCAF airmen) so I am betting their mess was comfortable and well stocked. The commanding officers of both Guards units kindly invited any of the airmen at Dalton who did not have anywhere to go to come and visit them at Duncombe for Christmas Day. It was a kind offer, and well over a dozen young Canadians (and one Kiwi) accepted the invitation according to the Battle School records.
All the young airmen enjoyed their day, remarking upon their return about the warmness and hospitality of the British tankers. I am betting that rides on the Guards new Sherman tanks were part of the festivities, as well as food and drink that was likely a big step up from what was on offer at the Sergeant’s mess back at RAF Dalton. None of those attending knew it, but I’ll wager that some of them were to “meet” again, far away and in much different circumstances.
Eight months later, in July of 1944, both Guards battalions were in the thick of the fighting in Normandy, locked in savage combat with the Waffen SS, who had been ordered by Hitler to defend every foot of Occupied France to the death. Bomber Command was tasked on many occasions that summer with assisting the Army by pummelling German defences. It was a risky undertaking, with Canadian and British forces often only a few hundred yards away from the aiming point. Dad and his crew took part in many of these attacks at places like Villers-Bocage, Caen and Falaise.
I like to think that maybe at some point some of the lads who hosted Dad and his friends that Xmas dinner might have looked up at the sky from their Sherman tanks and cheered the Lancasters on as they made their bombing runs on the Tigers and Panthers of the Waffen SS. A flight of fancy on my part perhaps.
I wish you all a wonderful Christmas season. I am not a Christian, but as we look at tragic events around the world, from Ukraine to the Middle East, I hope we can all agree with Jesus when he declared “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
Clint L. Coffey is the author of The Job To Be Done, available now through FriesenPress. Check back soon for new blog posts