The hero around the corner

News Article / November 6, 2020

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Original article published in November, 2018.

By Dave O’Malley

Lewis Johnstone Burpee, one of those who died during the famed Dambusters' Raid, was from a neighbourhood called the Glebe in Ottawa and a graduate of nearby Lisgar Collegiate Institute.

A neighbourhood of ghosts

It’s springtime in the Glebe. May 14, 2018, to be exact.

The sun shines with a new intensity. The breeze billows through the screen window of my office, wafting paper across my desk. Tonight is one of those evenings in which it is very good to be alive.

My office is on the second floor of a small building at the corner of Third Avenue and Bank Street in an area of Ottawa known as the Glebe. Bank is what you would call the high street in England, the main street in North America. It draws down from the north near the Parliament Buildings and continues on uninterrupted until almost the St. Lawrence River, 100 kilometres to the south.

I suspect that Bank Street in the Glebe is much the same as it was 75 years ago in May of 1943—save for the nature of the businesses, the highfalutin’ quality of our new-age restaurants and their fancy outdoor terraces, and the style of the automobiles. Today, pricey Glebe housing means that the people of the Glebe are uniformly in a higher income bracket, but in ’43, the Glebe had three distinct layers: the wealthy, the middle class and the working class. I have lived in the Glebe now for 46 years, all of that time in former working-class neighbourhoods. It has been a very happy and welcoming community. A very close-knit one.

Over the past decade, researching and publishing stories about Canada’s aviation heritage, I have come across a few that have intersected with the small community I know so well and love so much. It’s not that I have gone looking for stories of men in my neighbourhood; they just arrive at my doorstep so to speak. These young men are just a fraction of the men and women from the Glebe who served during the Second World War yet, in the small sampling of six airmen that I know of, one was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot and Great Escaper, one was at the Siege of Malta, and one was a Dambuster. It is a testament to the pivotal nature and the emotional power of these four events that major motion pictures were made about them: Malta Story (1953), The Dam Busters (1955), The Great Escape (1963), and Battle of Britain (1969).

If you live in a neighbourhood that was built before the war, there are the ghosts of young men around you—the phantoms of boys who grew up on your street or around the corner. Who went away and would never come home. Grief must have hung black and heavy over its rooftops. Fear also lived here. The fear of families whose boys and girls were fighting in some theatre of war somewhere. The constant gnawing dread of families who prayed that the telegram boy would cycle past to some other door.

This evening, I pay a short, walk-by visit to the former home of a young man from the Glebe whose life held great promise before the war took everything from him and his family. The young man’s family has long since moved away, but the memory of their loss will forever dwell in this house, recognized or not. The house is on a wide, shady avenue in the most well-to-do area of the Glebe. The family was one of means; the young man’s life was one of privilege and opportunity.

His name was Lewis Johnstone Burpee.

I stroll five blocks down Bank Street, turn west into the sun onto Powell Avenue and found Lewis Burpee’s childhood home. In a neighbourhood overwhelmed with fancy and expensive renovations, the house looks much the same as it did 75 years ago—a typical upper middle-class brick pile for which the Glebe is known. I stand for a while and think about the fine evening and the warm lowering sun and the 27,000 such evenings this beautiful young man never got to see and enjoy. I feel exceedingly humbled and sad. I stand there for about a minute, then slowly shake my head, snap a photo and walk back to my office to write down my thoughts.

The Dambusters Raid

Lewis Johnstone Burpee was one of just 19 Avro Lancaster pilots of the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron who took part in one of the most daring and technically complicated bomber raids of the war—Operation Chastise or, as we have come to know it, the Dambuster Raid.

In the seventy-five years since the night of May 16-17, 1943—the night of Operation Chastise—the events that transpired on that spring night have been made into feature films, documentaries, novels, non-fiction books, magazine articles, dramatic paintings, computer games, music and comic books.

On that dark night, lit only by the moon, 133 young men from 617 Squadron took off in 19 specially-modified Avro Lancaster bombers, formed up and flew extremely low over the English Channel across the Dutch coast. Having trained for months to deliver a special weapon, the young men were headed for a date with destiny. The aircraft were to fly low, beneath radar coverage, navigate deep into Germany, locate and attack a series of massive dams on tributaries of the Ruhr River. Behind each of these dams, the Möhne Dam, the Sorpe Dam, the Eder Dam and the Ennepe Dam, were massive reservoirs of water which, it was hoped, would flood factory sites downstream and bring much of Germany’s industrial production to a standstill. The dangers of flying low over heavily-defended German occupied Europe at night meant that not all of them would make it to their targets.

The attacks would be carried out using a special explosive device which, when released from a Lancaster bomber at exactly 60 feet [18.29 metres] above ground level, at exactly 240 miles per hour [386.24 kilometres per hour] and at a specific distance from the reservoir-side face of the dam, would fall to the water and then bounce like a skipping stone, in decreasing bounces, until it fell exactly at the face of the dam. The bombs would then sink down the face of the dam to a specific depth where a hydrostatic sensor would detonate the bomb like a depth charge. And, like a depth charge, the bomb would use the power of compressed water to deliver a devastating blow deep beneath the surface, weakening the dam’s structural integrity. The massive weight of the stored water would then breach the weakened dam wall and roar down the valleys, flooding industrial complexes downstream.

The squadron was made up of hand-picked crews under the leadership of the charismatic 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a veteran of more than170 bombing and night-fighter missions. These crews included RAF personnel of several different nationalities, as well as members of the Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force, who were frequently attached to RAF squadrons. The squadron was based at RAF Scampton, about 5 miles (8 kilometres) north of Lincoln. Most of the crews found their targets and, facing heavy flak and cannon fire from the dams’ batteries of anti-aircraft guns, they pressed home their attack, with only the moon to guide them.

Pilot Officer Lewis Johnstone Burpee

Pilot Officer Lewis Burpee was the commander of Lancaster “S”—Sugar (AJ-S, ED865), assigned to the final wave of five Lancasters that was to fill in as a mobile reserve in the event of losses or failure to breach the dams. Burpee took off a little after midnight on the 17th and headed across the North Sea towards Holland. While over Holland, near the Luftwaffe airfields at Eindhoven and Gilze-Rijen, his Lancaster came under heavy anti-aircraft fire and was caught by searchlights. It is not known for certain that he was hit by flak or whether he struck the ground trying to get under the blinding searchlight beams. Regardless, Burpee’s Lancaster hit the ground near the perimeter of Gilze-Rijen airfield. The “bouncing bomb” payload, code-named Upkeep, exploded on impact.

Only three of the bodies of “S” Sugar’s crew were ever identified—Burpee’s, and the two other Canadians in his crew: Flight Sergeant Joseph “Gordie” Brady, rear gunner, and Pilot Officer Leo Weller, wireless operator. The remains of the others were buried in a mass grave: Sergeant Guy Pegler, flight engineer; Sergeant Thomas Jaye navigator; Flight Sergeant Jim Arthur, bomb aimer; and Sergeant William Long, air gunner.

When the last Lancaster touched down at RAF Scampton on the morning of May 17, 617 Squadron assessed its losses and its successes. Both were considerable. Of the 19 participating aircraft, eight were shot down, including Burpee’s. Of the 133 men involved, 53 were killed. Of the 53 killed, 15 were Canadian. Of the 15 Canadians, one was from the Glebe.

Two of the target dams were breached and one damaged. There was one Victoria Cross (Gibson), as well as five Distinguished Service Orders, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and four bars, two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, and eleven Distinguished Flying Medals and one bar given out for service on that one night alone. Fifty-three missing-in-action telegrams were later sent to families from New Zealand to Canada. One came to Powell Avenue. None of those missing-in-action telegrams was ever followed up with news of survival.

The telegraphed news of the raid made it to the hometowns of all of the crews before the telegrams did. That very night, the Ottawa Evening Journal carried a front page story about the raids. In a tragic coincidence, it also carried a story about Burpee’s receipt of a DFM and his marriage to an English girl. The piece on Burpee began with “The Air Ministry on London today announced the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal to Pilot Officer Lewis J. Burpee, 25, son of Lewis A. Burpee, general manager and vice-president of Charles Ogilvy Limited, and Mrs. Burpee, 111 Powell. ‘That’s certainly good news,’ said Mr. Burpee when informed of his son’s decoration by the Journal.”

For a day or so, the Burpee family felt comforted with the knowledge that Lewis was safe in England, happily married and highly experienced. Given the secrecy of the raid, it is doubtful that they had any idea their son was part of the historic event. That would change the next day.

Burpee’s father, who was the general manager of Ogilvy’s Department Store in Ottawa, was a pillar of the community and, as such, his son was considered somewhat of a local hero. Still holding the rank of sergeant when he received the decoration, the story of his receipt of the Distinguished Flying Medal came out after he was promoted to pilot officer at 617 Squadron. In a particularly unfortunate twist of fate, the story was published in the Ottawa Evening Journal on May 17, the day of the Dambusters raid. In the very same issue of the paper was the headline “Great Ruhr Dams Smashed!” and a brief story of the previous night’s raid. The family had yet to be informed of the death of their son.

A letter to Burpee’s parents a month after the Dambusters Raid from Squadron Leader H.F. Davidson, the RCAF chaplain for both 106 and 617 Squadrons, implies that his bride Lillian is pregnant with their child and wants to join them in Canada. His words to Burpee’s parents state: “Lillian says that she is waiting for an exit permit so that she can go out to you in Ottawa. I hope she is successful. It is very hard on her in her condition and I’m sure it would be some comfort both for you and her if you could be together just now.”

Burpee’s wife Lillian wrote to his parents’ family, asking to join them in Ottawa for the birth of their grandchild. She sought an exit permit to travel by ship to Ottawa, where she lived with the Burpees until the birth of Lewis Johnstone Burpee Jr. on Christmas Eve 1943. There was no doubt great sadness in the house on Powell Avenue that Christmas day, but it would be tempered by the bittersweet arrival of the baby.

Lewis Junior grew up in his family home until his mother remarried in 1951, becoming Mrs. C. Elliot Kerr. The love that was felt by Lewis’ parents for their daughter-in-law was demonstrated at her wedding when she was “given in marriage” by Lewis Burpee’s father.

As I finish up this story, it’s May 16. I hear the bustle of Bank Street through my open window—the voices of men and women at the Starbucks patio below me, the happy shrieks of young girls leaving the dance academy across the street, the footsteps of Eric my postman coming up the stairs—all living a charmed life here in the Glebe. Seventy-five years ago, young Lewis Burpee walked towards the black outline of a Lancaster in the heavy gloom of a Lincolnshire night. The terrible stress of the upcoming mission lay like a crushing weight on his shoulders, heavier now that Lillian announced she was pregnant.

The sad truth is he would never see another sunrise again. Nor the shady elm-shaded streets of the Glebe.

But his son would.

This is a slightly condensed version of a story that originally appeared on the Vintage Wings of Canada website. It is translated and reproduced with the permission of the author.

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