Airman navigated his way through Second World War

Bob Middleton at his home in Scarborough. Middleton, a Canadian airman, grew up on Ashbridge Avenue and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942. PHOTO: Phil Lameira

In this year’s Remembrance Day issue, we honour a Canadian airman, Robert James Middleton, who flew on 33 operations over Germany in a Lancaster bomber when he was 21 years old.

Bob grew up on Ashbridge Avenue, a street that vanished when the Dundas Extension was added between Coxwell and Kingston Road. His family home was where the parking lot for 55 Division is today. He attended Duke of Connaught School and Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, where he specialized in machine shop. He graduated in April 1942, and two months later was accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force at its Bay and Wellington recruiting office. He hoped to become a pilot and “was nuts about planes.”

On August 3, he reported to the Manning Depot at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Coliseum to pick up his uniform. At the Reception Wing he passed his medical which included seven inoculations, and began to learn the rules and regulations, as well as the fundamentals of drilling. The next Sunday, he was among five flights (30 men to a flight) that marched from the CNE to Sunnyside and back. He was amazed at how quickly he learned to keep in step and at the same time swing his arms up to shoulder level.

Early on he learned two important rules for survival – never volunteer and never complain. When his sergeant asked who could play the piano, those who raised their hands were sent to carry a piano from the CNE East Gate to the Coliseum, and back again after a concert. When one recruit complained about rind on his breakfast bacon, he was given a pair of scissors to trim it off all the rashers in the Mess for the next week.

Bob’s education as an airman began in earnest when he was sent to a base in Quebec City where for six weeks he learned arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry, subjects he never understood at Danforth Tech, but now was motivated to master. He moved on to training in Belleville and studied airmanship, armaments, and aircraft recognition. The daily phys-ed put him in the best shape he had ever been.

He was posted to #10 Pendleton Elementary Flying School in Quebec to begin flying in a de Havilland Tiger Moth, a small two-passenger bi-plane, that was “great to learn on but you had to concentrate all the time to fly it.”

“Now, I want you to go up alone, make one circuit and come back in,” said the instructor. So Bob opened up the throttle, the tail went up, and soon he was aloft. He could hear the trainer’s voice in his head. “If you lose the engine on take off, go straight ahead. You can’t turn back. Glide down and keep your fingers crossed. Don’t try to land from a lousy approach: fly around then try again.” He brought the Tiger Moth in on the second try.

His next move was to RCAF Uplands in Ottawa for advanced training on a Harvard, a plane that helped pilots make the transition from a low powered aircraft to a high performance front line fighter. The Harvard was a powerful mono plane, “noisy but nice to fly.” It came in to land at 120 miles per hour (the Tiger Moth was at 65 mph), but Bob could not judge his plane’s height for landing. He could not tell precisely how high he was above the ground. All hope of a career as a pilot plummeted. His commanding officer recommended that he become a navigator. He found out what was wrong years later when he was 50: he was 5 per cent cross-eyed and had no depth of vision.

He joined another 30 dejected young men who would never be allowed to fly a fighter plane or bomber. They were sent to the #4 Air Observer School in London, Ontario, from where he graduated as a navigator in 1943.

After two weeks leave, he sailed from Halifax to England on the Cunard liner, the RMS Mauretania, travelling south into the tropics and back up to Liverpool to avoid German submarines in the North Atlantic. From there he went to Bournemouth and trained for a week of naval ship recognition, followed by a month of commando training where he learned to use a rifle and bayonet while charging up and down hills. This toughening up process was to acclimatize him to escaping and surviving if he were shot down. Then he moved on to Stafferton to practise navigating in a four-crew small bomber, the Avro Anson.

By 1944 Bob was at Honeybourne #24 Operational Training Unit, south of Birmingham, and the war was getting a lot closer. All the trainees were put into a large room and told to “crew up” by circulating and finding themselves a crew: a pilot, a navigator, a bomb aimer, a wireless operator and a gunner. These men, who came to believe they had the best crew in the RCAF and RAF, would bond as brothers and serve together until the war ended, or as long as they lived. The new crew practised flying a Wellington, a two-engine bomber together.

They moved on to the Heavy Conversion Unit near Leeds where they flew four-engine bombers, the Halifax Mark V, and the Lancaster. They took on extra crew needed for the larger crafts, a flight engineer and a mid-upper gunner. The seven men were all Canadians. Bob said of the planes: “The Halifax climbed like a homesick angel but glided liked a brick, and it was a brute compared to the Lancaster, which was a lady. Both were terrific planes.”

After 1942 Lancasters became the mainstay of the heavy bomber fleet. They were 69.5 feet long, and in Bob’s experience, flew at 18,000-20,000 feet with a cruising speed of 165 mph, and a range of 1,000 miles. Some 430 Lancasters were built at the Victory Aircraft Company in Malton, where the first one off the production line was called “The Ruhr Express.”

On Sept. 10, 1944, about two years after Bob stepped into a recruiting office, the crew assisted in its first operation, which was to Le Havre on the French coast. They were scheduled to complete 30 operations, most of which were dropping incendiaries at strategic sites in Germany. They never discussed the number of flights, just ticked them off as one less to go. They knew it was dangerous but they were not terrified. They never talked about being shot down. They concentrated on doing the job they had been trained for and getting back. They nonchalantly called an operation “only a milk run to the Ruhr.” Sometimes they were given “wakey wakey pills, which worked like a charm.”

When they were briefed before an operation, Bob was given a map with a thin red line indicating the route. They were served spam sandwiches and tea, and everyone made at least a couple of trips to the washroom, then took a truck out to the tarmac, carrying a parachute and a Mae West (a life jacket). They stood by the plane having a last cigarette and chatting before climbing on board. Space was tight for everyone. Bob settled into his “office” separated from the pilot and flight engineer by a curtain to allow him to use a light. He faced port side with a chart table in front of him. Above the table was a panel showing airspeed, altitude and other useful information. Overhead was the astrodome providing him with a view of the sky for celestial navigation. Later if he drew the curtain aside to see what the pilot could see, there would be complete darkness below except for the target “which would be lit up like a Christmas tree with searchlights, photo flashes and bombs going off.”

By the time they settled into their positions on board, adrenaline was running high and everyone was organized and psyched up to take off. The worst possible news at this point was that the operation was scrubbed. Bob said: “We were madder than a wet hen and our tension showed. Most of us would climb out, go back to the Mess and have a beer.”

Once as a spare crew they were told to leave the Lancaster as another crew, whose plane had radar problems, would be using theirs. They watched it take off. That aircraft and crew were never seen again. “Was it the plane, was it the crew, or was it bad luck?” Bob mused. “We were well trained but luck played a role in all we did.”

The crew survived 33 bombing raids in seven months, the last one in March 1945. Just before the war ended Bob was pedalling along on his bike when he saw a plane on fire with men taking shelter in a ditch. The plane was carrying a blockbuster bomb (a 4000 pounder) which exploded. Bob had come through the war unscathed and now was blown off his bike.

Back in Civvie Street at 22, he missed flying and his crew, but emphasis was on having a steady job. He began his 39-year career with Bell Canada, starting as a draughtsman at $100.64 a month (which included $22 for his war service), and moving up the line in the installation, construction and plant departments.

He is now 94-years-old, and the last one of his crew left. He has two sons who will soon be retiring, five grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren. His wife Patricia died almost four years ago. He is the lifetime president and current treasurer of the Telco Community Volunteers – Scarborough Branch, a group of retired Bell employees who work with the Heart and Stroke Fund, and have made over 25,000 heart pillows for the cardiac ward at Sunnybrook Hospital. Next month he will be the club’s guest speaker, relating some of his wartime experiences. Allowing me to interview him has been a practise run.

There are two Lancaster bombers that still fly. One of them is in the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum near Hamilton. Before it flew to Britain in 2015 to join the other plane in celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the museum assembled a symbolic crew from men who had flown in a Lancaster bomber in the war. They demonstrated what it had been like. Bob represented the navigators, and was interviewed on CBC, CTV and CHCH.

You too can feel what it is like to fly in a Lancaster bomber, but without the danger that Bob and his crew experienced. The National Warplane Heritage Museum offers 60-minute flights for $3,500. The fee includes membership to the museum and a partial tax receipt. There are also 20-minute flights available on other planes for $100 – $650. Google the museum for details.

Author Sheila Blinoff retired from the Beach Metro News in 2013 after 40 years of service. She’ll be back again next issue, Nov. 14, with a look at the history of the area’s “Bomb Girls.”

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