Vernon ConnellyVernon Connelly
Interviewed by: Zoe D.
[Parts of the following interview are paraphrased~ not word for word.]
Q. (We'll start with your name and your Birthday.)
Vern Connelly. 17 December 1923
Q. (Where were you born?) July 31, 2019
A little village called Amblesidei, in Northwest England. It's a national park, with mountains and lakes.
Q. (What was it like growing up?)
For me it was good because my father used to take us for walks on the mountains ... so I became a naturer. I enjoyed it really.
Q. (Were you drafted or did you enlist? Why?)
No, I enlisted. Volunteered. Well I was young and w~en the war's on people ... When I was in the reserved occupation, which meant you couldn't go in the army, air force and navy because you were required to stay home and do the things. You could only get out of that reserved occupation by becoming a pilot or a navigator and of course young teenagers in the war wanted to volunteer and become a pilot. Everybody wanted to be a fighter pilot. That's how I started, you're young and you want to get into the war.
Q. (Where were you living at the time?)
Q. (Is that why you choose the air force? Because it was exciting?)
Because of the fact that I wanted to be a pilot. Every young fellow wanted to be a fighter pilot.
Q. (Do you remember your first few days or training? What was it like?)
Well the term days ... It's weeks and months you got to put on that one. I remember them all. It was good, lots of things; they sent you here, sent you there. You had to learn all kinds of things like the normal marching and all that kind of stuff in the beginning. Then we went to a place called Brighton, on the south coast of England to learn Morse code. But I didn't have any problem with that because you had to get six words a minute, but I could already do thirtythree because I was in the Home Guard. The Home Guard was the volunteers. You know the towns and villages ... they got a uniform but they did normal work~ tradesman work or whatever they did, office work. Sometimes in the evening when they met for a meeting, and always once a week everybody got together in their uniforms and how were going to try to save our country if the Germans invaded. So, they called it the Home Guard. But they were issued ... my little village were issued six rifles amongst about sixty people, so there's shot guns and all kinds of things. It was just an effort to boost our moral because untrained people in uniform against a fully trained thing like the Germans!
Q. (Which War did you serve in?)
Just World War 2
Q. (Where did you go during your service?)
It was training places for different things ... You see in England, to train as an air pilot, everyone wanted to be a pilot, however when the things are chosen, I was chosen to train as a navigator, Bomb-Aimer gunner.ii They had to get navigators from somewhere, so ill go straight to that where the major training, not the minor stuff. In England you couldn't train as a navigator because you're flying in training planes, which travel about 150 miles and hour. It only took the Germans about 20 minutes to cross the Channel, shoot us down and go back over, before our panes could get up and try to beat them. So, consequently, any air crew or pilot navigator training were in Canada or South Africa. I came over to Canada to train as a navigator, Bomb-Aimer gunner. I was in Mountain View, Ontario for five months on a bombing and gunnery course to train as top ready the guns and drop the bombs and there was six months in St. Johns, Quebec. That's just outside Montreal, for a six-month navigational course. Then I went back to England to training stations for operations over Germany.
So now I'm in England, I'm training and I got the gunnery course I took didn't apply because I was in a mosquito bomber. It was a twin-engined and if you look in the books, they were made of plywood, very fast 300-350 miles and hour. On board we'd have no guns, there's two in the crew; there was a pilot and the navigator. I went to training stations and then you go to another training station, then you got to get a pilot. Now you have a pilot. You train together before you · go in operations over Germany.
My pilot was a Norwegian and I understood he was a professor at the university. Back then, university students were pre-war. The only people who could fly were classified as university students because they supposedly were the brainy people. Which really was a lie in a sense; the only people going to university were the people who could afford it, rich people's children. Whereas the real brainy ones couldn't afford it. That didn't apply to when the war, because university students ... wasn't very many of them. They were training in all planes, so when new planes came along, they needed more and more pilots and navigators. So, I got this pilot from Norway who could hardly speak any English and he was a Leftenant, that was their ranks over there and I was a Warrant officer. I was in the other ranks, so he and I never got together like normal air crews did, because when ... The only time I got together with him was when we're briefing to go over Germany and when we landed, he went to the officer's mess; I went to the other mess. So, we never even talked. The only speech was ... he new all the commands like ... one of them was "prepare to jump". If you're in trouble you need to bail out, so he knew how to do those simple things.
Q. (Were there any casualties in your unit?)
Yeah, there were always planes that didn't come back. I had a good friend training in Canada, Johnny Thidback was his name. when we got to England, I was sent to a Mosquito squadron, iii 571 and he was sent to a Lancaster's squadron; iv big plane, there was seven in the crew. And is first flight was to bomb some airfield, I believe, in France. Just a short trip across the Channel. They don't know where he is, he never came back. They assume he was shot down by the German fighters. My operations were at night time and I believe his were too, but they think he's in the Channel. The plane never came back to England. Casualties there, you know what I mean? If you're a different squadron or a different place.
Q. (Do you have any memorable experiences that you are willing to share?)
My memorable experience is ... okay. This one is on the 17th of April, 1945; My pilot and I went to briefing and we were going to bomb a factory, a big factory in Berlin. And I should mention; my pilot was in Norway at the time the Germans occupied there, so he had an utter hate for the Germans, because he saw things there that weren't very nice. He and three other people came across in a boat, across the North Sea, so he escaped; they were picked up on the Scottish coast by a British destroyer. So that was how he got to... On this, the reason for going on this thing was, he was full of hate. And when we took off on this one trip the little device called a G-box; It was the sole navigational aid, without the G-box you couldn't fly anywhere in the dark. However, when we took off, I switched everything on and the G-box didn't work, so I told the pilot; "we have to go back." You were supposed to return. He says; "no! We go! We go!" and I though to myself; how are we going to go? I can't navigate! You have to make a flight plan before you take off and the flight plan depends on the weather; the direction of the wind is blowing from and what speed its going. You counteract that by changing course. Well I didn't have any aid at all to do that with the G-box the way it was. So, I had to fly on the flight plan, which means I'm flying actually blind not knowing what winds; what storms were going to come into or any weather systems. We flew on the flight plan that I had already drawn up using the winds ... The guessing winds that they gave us and when it came time to bomb, this G-box was so precise you could all do that within a sixty second period.
Normally, what would have happened ... we have a master bomber, we'd be at 25 thousand feet, 29 of us and one would be down there and he had a thing called "oboe" (v) It was this photo radar; he could fly low down above a city and see al the streets and everything on it. That guy down there had a ... once he found the factory, we're going to bomb he dropped a flare. A big flare, red and green and we dropped our bombs on the flare because we couldn't see the factory or nothing at 25 thousand feet.
So, when the time to bomb came; if the flight plan was perfect, which it wasn't because we didn't know the winds ... so, I could see the bombs going down a long way a way, because you know, it lights up everything and their bombs are two-ton. So, you got 29 planes dropping two-ton bombs and you could see everything. The explosions from a distance were a long way from where we should be. So, we flew to the target and according to my logbook we were six and a half minutes behind. So, when we're flying over Berlin, coming over the target, we're going to bomb the fires. I'm in the bomb nose on my knees looking at bomb side. When the target came in, I pressed the bomb tit, a little switch and nothing happened because we had no power! That's why the G-box didn't work! We flew across Berlin at 25 thousand feet, turned and came back; and there's a master switch on the handle underneath the pilot's right knee, a red one and' it's an emergency to discharge the bomb. So, coming back we did it that way and I told him exactly when to pull the handle.
So, here we are flying over Berlin at 25 thousand feet all by ourselves and then we came back on a reverse course; we dropped the bomb on the target. And when we did that, the search lights got us! So, I'm telling him to dive because the search lights; once they come on there's a bluish one which are radar equipped and all the rest come on it. You can read a fine print in the cockpit up there with that. And I told the pilot ... I'm shouting; "Dive! Dive! Dive!" The purpose is you see, when the search lights got you when you dive, the beam goes. It can't reach you any more.
We got away with that; and these are going to be unbelievable! We're flying back on my course and I adjusted the course based on what I thought the winds were because of the position we were when we should have been bombing. So, we've carried on and we flew into a thunderstorm, because you could see the flashing lightning. Next thing we knew we're falling to the ... spinning going down. Because inside a thunderstorm is a cumulonimbus cloud and there are winds in there that can go 200 miles an hour up and 200 miles [down] at the same time and they can break your plane apart. But in this case, it just turned it over and he said; "Prepare to jump." So, I get down on my knees to get my parachute. See the pilot has a parachute harness and the chute on it. That's his seat cushion, he sits on it. But the navigator can't do that because he has to move around, twist and turn with the G-box and all this other stuff. And the parachute for the navigators on the inside the body of the plane, in the beginning of the nose. Held there with bungie cords. So, I dropped down on my knees to get my parachute and I looked out, down through the first pane glass; there's a big fire! I have no idea what it was, so I grabbed his knee and I'm shaking him pointing; "down there." He was able to get orientated, got straight, and level again. Then we flew, down to 5000 feet then! So, we're flying blind at 5000 feet and we came chugging along heading for England. And I saw right in front of us was a big, lit-up square and we knew about it, it was Ruhr Valley.(vi) It was a major German industrial section that had been bombed badly. But they had these searchlights in the square, I don't know why. Whether they were mopping up or what, the enemy? I have no idea. That told me where I was, so I was able to correct it there. So, that was another thing that came to be.
Then we were heading across the Channel, across the North Sea for England. Back in those days, which was almost at the end of the war; there were no more German bombers bombing England because that's how they lose.(vii) So, all our searchlights on the coast, you see a whole bunch of searchlights pointing straight as a guide for us. This is England. I told you this is hard to believe! We flew into England; now pitch-dark England with no idea where we were and we're down really low. And I'm looking at it out the window; we are all [Vern and his pilot] looking. You have to understand that Europe ... Britain and Europe were in total darkness for four and a half years. It's hard to imagine, total black! And I'm looking out my side window and I saw these three little red lights in a triangle and that's our airfield. The three hangers, just like that in a triangle. The three little tiny red lights that we got low enough to avoid them. I told him to turn I pointed; "Down here." So, we had no radio contact because of the power. What had happened, the generator that powers us broke down. That's why we didn't have any of this electrical power. While he's going around, I get to the thing that's called a Very pistol that's like a big revolver and its got a big cartridge goes in ... I open the little side window and I decided to put in a red cartridge and just start popping them off. We're flying around in a circle; I'm popping them off and then all of a sudden down there the runway lights came on! And now, I got all the way there! To think; come to England, find three little red lights! Now how is this all possible? And so anyway, we landed safely ... Isn't that strange? And to think, I dropped on my knees to get my parachute, there's a fire. You know, all these ... I couldn't understand all that. I call it my guardian angel for sure.
Q. (Did you receive any medals or citations during your service?)
Just the normal medals. The France-Germany Star that's awarded to people who went over from England to another country (viii) and the 1945 ... 39-45. (ix) That's the metal for anybody's who in the war; and the Defence medal. (x) That's because I'm in the Home Guard prior to this joining the Royal Air Force.
Q. (Did you keep in touch with anyone back home? What did you do when on leave?)
This is a question for someone who ·is Canadian .... I go home on leave, so I go home any time. Talk to any one back home? Well, by letters, no telephones in those days. When I'm on leave I go back to this little town of Ambleside in northwest England.
Q. (Do you recall when your service ended? Where were you?)
When the war ended, you got millions of people in the forces. People from France and other places all over and you just couldn't let the millions of people home. You had to release them a few at a time; so, the first whoever came in was the first out and the ones who came in later, like me ... I Couldn't get in because I was too young. In fact, I joined the air force when I was 17 years and 7 months when I went through a three-day medical and everything ... tests. And I passed those but I couldn't go into the air force until I was 18.
When my service ended, I was already in Belgium. To Brussels, Melsbroek; (xi) it was called, the airfield just outside of Brussels. See we moved into there, the war was still on but we moved over to Europe, so I didn't have too far to fly. Then the war's all over so here we are in Brussels, Melsbroek. Then they moved us to a place in Germany called Wahn (xii) just outside of Cologne, to another airfield and that's where I got demobilized from. Because of the amount of people, millions being demobilized, it was 20 months after the war ended that I got demobilized. 20 months extra! That's where I was, I was in Wahn, Germany.
Q. (What did you do following the war?)
Well, I had taken training as an engineer, so I went back to my training as an engineer.
Q. (Did you make any close friends while you were in the service?)
My only really close friend was Johnny Thidback because we're together all the time until we got these different squadrons, different planes. We never had time for that, not really. We're always too busy doing training, training.
Q. (Did you stick to engineering after the war?)
Yeah, I did.
Q. (When did you come to Canada?)
I came to Canada in 1943 to train for 11 months, we passed that [question] already a long time ago. That's when I came in, but I was so impressed with Canada, the fact that I could get further along than I could back in England. But I forgot to mention when the war ended in Europe, I was sent to another airfield for special training because the war was still on in Japan. So, some of us were being sent there, but a different method of navigation of water, overseas. And I was being trained on this Loran, long range. (xiii) Before I even got sent anywhere, well they were going to send me for this kind of training. When the war ended there too, that bomb. Like I said, I wanted to mention because they were going to send me over to the Japanese war; my girlfriend and I got married. Consequently, and now I got married and I got my little girl coming along, so when I got back everything changed because when I was single it was fine. Now I got a wife and a child coming.
That goes back to where I am now. Its time to explain; in 1948 I came back to Canada and going to bring my wife along later. She went to go live with her mother. So, what happened was; six months and I said "I'm already going and I've found a place and a job and all this. "oh 11 she said, "I'm not coming." I said; "why?1' she said; "my mother said you shouldn't go to a foreign country; you should stay home. So, I'm in Canada, she's over there and of course mother's intruding. So, I waited awhile; couldn't change her mind, so I came back. I figured if I do it again next time, keep her away from her mother! So, that's what happened. Came back and I came back in 1957, been here ever since.
Q. (Did you come straight to Alix?)
Oh no, that's another story. One of the conditions that she would come was if we went to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. (xiv) Because one of her cousins married a Canadian airman in Moose Jaw, so she was living there. My wife wouldn't come unless she went to Moose Jaw where she had her cousin, close cousin. And of course, Moose Jaw was no place for a trained engineer. However, I got a position in the National Light and Power Generating station. (xv) And I gradually moved from there, Saskatchewan power. Well they moved me there because they were going to close the plant, so they moved me to Saskatoon. My engineering came in really good. I got both mechanical engineer and electrical engineering. Did a lot of training in that on books and courses.
One thing led to another and I finally finished up in Red Deer. I was in Regina at the time, but I saw a position in Red Deer for an Assistant Chief Engineer in this power plant in Red Deer. And so, I applied for that and went for an interview in Edmonton got back home and the phone call came that said I'd been given the job. So, I left Saskatchewan power corporation and moved into Red Deer as Assistant Chief Engineer. We generated all our power for the huge Alberta School Hospital (xvi) that's all the ... I think it held 15 [mentally ill] people. Big, big place it was. So, we generated our own power, our own steam and everything like that My wife got cancer, so I had a little bit of a problem. My daughter lived in Saskatoon with two children. My son lived in Nanaimo [British Columbia], he had a business; an electronic store. So, they couldn't come to look after her. I kind of prepared for early retirement anyways, I always planned that. I just realized I could do it, stay home and look after my wife. I stayed, I took early retirement when I was 55-57, I can't remember now. At the sae time, I took a job in the Red Deer College and I taught for 5 years there; power engineering to all these students, so we had money on the side. It was close enough that I could zoom home at noon, look after things. After two years my wife passed away. I still kept on teaching and that's it.
So, I didn't go straight to Alix, no. from Canada I came to Moose Jaw. I lived in Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon ... no; Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Regina, then Red Deer.
Q: (Did your service and experiences affect your life?)
Not really, no. It's something you accept as apart of your life. The war was something abnormal. They tend to try and forget the war. You had a lot of experiences during the war. The only ones I remember are the people who never came back. I kept thinking like, I'm going through these scene fires on the ground and all those things like the three little lights. Why I saw all these things, I have no Idea, but it got me back safely.
I had one good friend; he was Australian. One of their trips over Germany, he never came back till a month later. And he was a chubby little guy, good friend. And what happened to him was he had to bail out. The Australian Uniform was a [navy blue] that was the colour of their uniform. Anyways, he bailed out over Germany. He was trying to walk towards where the allied forces were coming. Little bit every day, moving forward and he walked in that direction. He was telling me in the distance he could see some people marching. Fortunately, it was just on the edge of a B troop field. So, he walked about 50 feet or more into the field and got on his knees and started weeding! He said there were Russian prisoners being guarded by German soldiers' ad he was looking like he was working. They were treating him terrible; he was really scared then. So, he had a few close calls like that but he finally ran into the allied forces. He was back in his squadron in four weeks time. So, see he was lucky too! You never know your luck in things like that.
Like my friend Johnny Thidback, his first flight over France and they never found his plane, never found them. The English Channel must be full of history, stories down in there.
[Added following the conclusion of the interview]
My father was Scottish; Scot guys are called "Jacques," have you every noticed that? So, I was called Jacques and when I lived in Moose Jaw people new me as Jacques, because that's what they called me over there. And when we lived in Moose Jaw and got around into the Canadian Legion there, sometimes we get Christmas cards; sometimes Jacque Connelly and other ones; Vernon Connelly.