Longest three minutes of your life: 405 Squadron relives past with former Lancaster airman

News Article / February 9, 2017

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By Lieutenant Evan Fay

Though three minutes may not seem like a long time in our day-to-day lives, it was an eternity for Second World War Lancaster bomber aircrew.

When it was announced that a bombing run had begun, the clock was set. The aircraft flew straight and level inbound to the target while being showered by flak and peppered by German fighter fire. The incessant pounding of heavy shells exploding around the Lancaster crew could be seen, heard and felt, and they watched as aircraft around them burst into flames, and men bailed out. All the while, they would pray to hear “Bombs away!”, signifying the end of their bombing run.

The memories of Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Russell Hubley, DFC, CD, are in stark contrast to the bright, sunny sitting room in the Camp Hill Veteran’s Memorial Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But the six members of 14 Wing Greenwood’s 405 Long Range Patrol Squadron who are visiting him are seamlessly transported to another world by the descriptive, thrilling, funny and at times haunting stories of the times Hubley spent in the war-torn skies of 1940 Europe.

405 Squadron’s Second World War service

405 Squadron was the first RCAF bomber squadron formed overseas and the only RCAF Pathfinder squadron.

The squadron was formed at Driffield, Yorkshire, on April 23, 1941, and flew the RCAF's first bombing operation ten weeks later, on June 12-13. It flew Wellingtons until April 1942 and then converted to Halifaxes, becoming operational with the latter in time to take part in the historic 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne. Late in October 1942, the squadron was loaned to Coastal Command to strengthen air defences in the Bay of Biscay at the time of the North African convoy movements. Returning to Bomber Command at the beginning of March 1943, No. 405 flew with No. 6 (RCAF) Bomber Group for a few weeks before being selected for No. 8 (Pathfinder) Group, with which it served until the end of the war. Through the last 20 months of the bomber offensive the squadron was equipped with Lancasters.

405 Squadron Pathfinder Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Hubley is in his 96th year, but you’d never know it by his appearance. Wearing an old CANEX jacket plastered with RCAF badges, with a rack of miniature medals extending across the full breadth of his chest, he is beyond proud to be affiliated with the RCAF.

Though he earned many honours, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and received the French Légion d'honneur, presented to him on June 20, 2014, at 12 Wing Shearwater, Nova Scotia, his most prized possession is his Pathfinder Wings badge, which, he explains, was hard to earn and easy to lose. To retain Pathfinder Wings, you were required to complete an entire tour comprising 45 sorties over Europe. Given that the life expectancy of bomber aircrew was notoriously short, completing 45 was a significant achievement. Lieutenant-Colonel Hubley and his crew completed 60.

One day, before a flight, he accidentally picked up his parachute pack by the rip cord instead of by the handle. Distraught, and worried he’d have to pay to have it repacked, he looked inside and found that, instead of a parachute, the chute pack was full to the brim with dirty laundry. Despite this, he completed his mission and turned the pack in when he returned home – just one small example of his dedication and bravery.

He told us how the reward for returning aircrew following a bombing run was milk and eggs. He said they were always excited to get home so they could have their post-flight meal.

American bombers would sometimes fly in circles over a nearby airbase. Everyone was confused as to why they would spend an hour or two doing this at relatively frequent intervals. One day, he ran into an American who worked at the base and asked him why. It turned out that they were using the difference in temperature at altitude to freeze their ice cream.

But some of Mr. Hubley memories and stories were not so lighthearted. He spoke about the bombing raid on Dresden, one of the Allies’ most successful – and destructive – of the war. The raid took place in two parts, a day raid involving 500 aircraft and a night raid involving the same number of aircraft. He was on the night raid. He told us that about half an hour before they arrived over the city, it looked like the sun was rising. The whole sky was a bright orange-red from the fires already burning in Dresden. And when they conducted another raid the following night on another German position, the sky was still orange.

During one leave, he visited the south of England with a friend, and they went to the bar that Dick Turpin, the famous highwayman, visited to scope out his victims. Mr. Hubley found it amazing to be in a place with such a rich history.

His best memory of all was actually created before he left for England, when he visited a friend’s parents’ home. There, he met his friend’s sister and, after talking with her for about half an hour, he told her, “I’m going to marry you.”  They stayed in touch through the war, and were married for 71 years.

Mr. Hubley is incredibly humble, almost nonchalant. He cites his groundcrew as one of the most important factors in his success. Without their dedication and hard work, the aircraft could not have flown and the mission could not have been achieved, he says. He feels to this day that groundcrew have never received the recognition they deserved for their round-the-clock efforts to accomplish the mission.

Although 405 Squadron members spend several hours with Lieutenant-Colonel Hubley, we know we barely scratch the surface of his experiences. Our veterans contain a wealth of knowledge that, regrettably, is untapped. Hearing his stories, gaining a small appreciation of what life was like for a 405 Squadron member during the Second World War, is an honour and a privilege.

Given the opportunity, serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces should take the time to speak with veterans.

Lieutenant Evan Fay is a member of 405 Long Range Patrol Squadron. This article originally appeared in the February 6, 2017, edition of Greenwood’s base newspaper, The Aurora.

References: Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, RAF Bomber Command

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