Roughly 44, Canadian service members died in the Second World War, and more than a third of those were in the Air Force, including many of the men with whom my grandfather served. Only in , after years of rebuffing inquiries into his wartime experiences, did my grandfather finally start opening up to me, asking me to help research Canter for a Toronto war memorial for Jewish vets. My widowed grandfather remains relatively vibrant at age 97, with four children, nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren as his lasting legacy.
All I know for sure is that he was a navigator in the Lancaster and Vickers Wellington bombers, and he flew missions over Europe from his base in England between and He had a family, and he started a clothing business in Toronto. After retiring, he spent his winters in Florida, playing golf and bridge and regaling his grandchildren with jokes and Yiddish sayings. But there was one chapter of his life that remained perpetually sealed: He would never tell us, or anyone else, what he endured during the war.
When given the chance, my grandfather would talk about almost anything besides himself or deflect with a joke. Have you heard of that one? The vessel that carried him across the Atlantic was the Queen Elizabeth, then the largest passenger ship in the world. It was during this journey to war, on a luxury liner converted into a packed troop transport, that my grandfather and Canter met and bonded. Canter and my grandfather were each born in and grew up in downtown Toronto, each graduating from high school before enlisting, earning their wings in training and heading off to battle.
They exchanged letters throughout their time in combat. The paths they followed after the war diverged significantly. My grandfather, the youngest of seven children, returned home and never looked back. Canter eventually made it to Toronto, but he never reconnected with my grandfather, and he struggled to find his way after the war, I learned from his family. He had energy and drive, but he had trouble finding a job in which he could apply it.
He worked for a while as a draftsman, but he must have longed to fly again, and when he heard, through word of mouth in the Jewish community, that there were aviation opportunities in the new state of Israel, he went. In , as Israel prepared to declare itself a sovereign nation, it sought foreign assistance to fight the Arab nations moving against it.
Thousands of mostly Jewish volunteers from around the world with combat experience made their way to Israel — often in clandestine fashion, to avoid running into trouble with their own governments.
Canter arrived in Israel on Aug. Late on the night of Oct. Just minutes after takeoff, the right engine began to overheat and spit out flames. Canter redirected for an emergency landing, but the engine exploded within sight of the airfield, breaking off a wing and sending the Dakota spiraling to the ground. Canter was 27 when he died. By that time, my grandfather was already a struggling young salesman and father in Toronto. He had balls, but he cried at the drop of a hat. Between March and February , the period when my grandfather was deployed, members of crews that ran a full tour of 30 bombing operations had a grim 16 percent survival rate, according to the Bomber Command Museum of Canada.
Unlike their American counterparts, the Canadians and the Royal Air Force flew their missions at night. Their aircraft had no belly gunners and were at the mercy of Luftwaffe fighters that attacked from below.
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Whenever they lifted off on a mission, they departed with the knowledge that this sortie could easily be their last. He told me about his second cousin, Alfred Brenner, a Canadian pilot whose three-man crew met a convoy of 12 German merchant ships accompanied by five destroyers and took one of the freighters out with torpedoes before being shot down.
They were picked up after drifting for two days in the North Sea near the English coast.
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Brenner was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Stephen expresses hope that he will be home soon for the weekend. Just a line to [let] you know that I got the fags on Tuesday. I thank you very much for sending them… They have stopped the weekend passes as there are a lot of absences, but I shall ask the Captain for permission to come on [a] pass.
We are going to the front on the 19 of November. Give my love to Lillie, Kitty and Freddie and tell him I will come and see him by and by. Give my love to all… This is all at present.
November: The process of mobilisation continues and, after moving to Sheerness in November, Stephen is sent to join the 4th Battalion, which had returned from India to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. Shortly before his departure, Stephen writes a cheerful and positive letter. Just a line to let you know that I am alright.
I am enjoying myself… I will soon be home. December The 4th Battalion arrives in France. Stephen is at the front. He sends a postcard home, still enthusiastic about being in the Army. Just a line to let you know that I am quite well. I am for the front on Tuesday. But if you write to the Commanding Officer and say I am only seventeen it will stop me from going. Get it here before Tuesday for I cannot get a pass to come and see you. April The trail goes cold until April 6 when Stephen says he is soon leaving hospital, apparently having fallen sick.
But he is now to re-join the 4th Battalion. Shaken by his earlier experiences, he appeals to his mother. April: Perhaps his mother wrote too late, or did not write at all. No letter was apparently received. Just a line to let you know that I arrived quite safe. I hope you are quite well as it leaves me the same.
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Give my love to all at home. April In a couple of days he is cheerful again. From the base camp in Rouen en route to rejoin the 4th Battalion, he sends a postcard. Just a line to let you know that I sent you all a photo of myself outside a tent door with two of my mates. Hope you will get them safe. Hoping you are in the best of health as I am myself.
Goodbye for the present.
I remain yours truly,. May: After one more card from Rouen, he returned to the 4th Battalion. On May 4 he was mortally wounded, his body being discovered six days later. Who was to blame for the First World War? Steven Brown's final correspondence stands as a documentation of endearing naivety and passionate values. Harold Macmillan may have seen action in Parliament, but it was the taxing frontline environment that sculpted his fiery character.
Terms and Conditions. Style Book. Weather Forecast. Accessibility links Skip to article Skip to navigation. Tuesday 09 July Mother, tell them I'm only Soldier's last letters home A documentation of endearing naivety, Steven Brown's final correspondence stands as a poignant reminder of the terrifying responsibilities shouldered by inexperienced troops Dear mother: Inside the First World War brings you the poignant letters sent home by soldiers.
Dear Mother Just a line to let you know that I am getting on all right in the Army. I remain your son, Stephen Brown Early July, He appears to have received forgiveness from his mother by his next letter, written in early August, as it describes other reservists being called up.
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