For Gallantry – Leading Aircraftman Karl Mander Gravell

News Article / March 16, 2016

By Major Bill March

Karl Mander Gravell, was born in Norkkoping, Sweden, on September 22, 1922. He and his family immigrated to Canada in 1937, settling in Vancouver, British Columbia. In September of that year, Gravell, by then a naturalized Canadian citizen, attended both Kitsilano and King Edward secondary schools, graduating from the latter in 1940.

An avid model builder with a keen interest in aviation in general, Gravell joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on March 15, 1941. His air force career would last less than eight months. One of 856 British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) students who lost their lives, Gravell would be awarded the George Cross for an act “of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”

Recruits were sent to one of the Manning Depots where they were given instruction in drill, military customs, dress, deportment, etc. – in other words, everything that was required to turn civilians into members of the RCAF. As well, young men and, eventually, women, were brought “up to snuff” physically and academically before being subject to a battery of tests to determine where they could be best utilized in the air force. The staff at No. 2 Manning Depot in Winnipeg, Manitoba, determined that Aircraftman Second Class Gravell should be trained as a wireless air gunner.

Having been at the Manning Depot since March, where he was under close supervision for almost every minute of every day, he experienced his first real taste of freedom when he was posted to No. 12 Service Flying Training School in Brandon, Manitoba, on May 16, 1941. Normally, a wireless air gunner trainee would have been sent to a wireless school, but the steady influx of candidates often resulted in a waiting period for an available course, in which case individuals were sent to various stations and employed as required. For Gravell, this meant standing guard duty at Brandon until posted to No. 2 Wireless School in Calgary, Alberta.

In very many ways, Aircraftman Second Class Gravell was a typical Canadian teenager. He sometimes had difficulty getting up for work (he was confined to base for three days on October 22 for “failing to arise at Reveille”) or staying awake while at work (forfeited seven days’ pay for “being asleep on sentry duty”). He resented giving up his free time (seven days confined to base on September 16 for failing to appear at defaulters parade) and would sometimes sneak out without permission (120 hours detention for “breaking out of barracks” on September 5 while on defaulters).

Nor did Gravell always follow the rules (three days confined to base for smoking in an unauthorized area) and did not welcome confrontation with authority (charged with “Conduct to the prejudice of good order and Air Force discipline in that he concealed himself, well knowing the…authorities were looking for him”). One can just image the station warrant officer looking up from his desk at the by then Leading Aircraftman Gravell and growling “What, you again?!”

His little run-ins with the RCAF aside, Leading Aircraftman Gravell started his flight training on September 23 in a short, one-hour flight in a Norseman aircraft. Over the next several weeks, he would go aloft on a fairly regular basis, conducting various exercises designed to familiarize him with the duties expected of a wireless (radio) operator. On November 10, 1941, Gravel was to undergo a direction-finding training flight on which he was expected to be able to locate and identify a radio beacon signal.

His pilot for the day, Flying Officer James Robinson, had served in the Royal Flying Corps / Royal Air Force during the First World War. Leaving a career as a lawyer in Jasper, Alberta, he enlisted in the RCAF on November 4, 1940, and underwent about 50 hours of refresher training at No. 16 Elementary Flying Training School, Edmonton, Alberta, before being posted to No. 2 Wireless School on January 7, 1941, as a staff pilot.

Robinson collected Gravell and the two men proceeded to a de Havilland DH-60 Gipsy Moth trainer aircraft for what would be anything but a routine flight.

Partway through the flight, the Moth crashed near the Big Springs School in Simmons Valley, not far from Calgary. The aircraft burst into flames on impact. Gravell, severely injured and having lost an eye, managed to get clear of the wreck, albeit with his clothes afire. When he realized that the pilot was still trapped inside the burning aircraft, he immediately fought through the flames to try to rescue his friend.

Badly burned, Gravell was pulled from the blazing aircraft by Ms. Frances Walsh, the local school teacher, who later recalled that Gravell’s last thoughts were of his friend, causing him to ask, “Did I get Jimmy out?” He succumbed to his injuries shortly thereafter.

Instituted primarily as a civilian award, a George Cross may be awarded to military personnel in circumstances for which “purely military honours were not normally granted and actions not in the face of the enemy.” It is considered to be second only to the Victoria Cross among gallantry decorations.

Leading Aircraftman Gravell was one of only ten Canadians who received the George Cross during the Second World War. The citation for his reads:

“In November, 1941, a training aircraft crashed and immediately burst into flames. Leading Aircraftman Gravell, who was under training as a wireless air gunner, managed to extricate himself from the wreckage and get clear. In spite of the intense shock caused by the loss of one eye and severe burns, suffered at the time of the crash, Leading Aircraftman Gravell's first and only thought was for the welfare of his pilot. The pilot was still in the aircraft and Gravell ignoring his own serious injuries and the fact that his clothes were ablaze attempted to get back to the flaming wreckage to pull him clear. He had barely reached the aircraft when he was dragged away and rolled on the ground to extinguish the flames which had, by this time, completely enveloped his clothing. Leading Aircraftman Gravell subsequently died from his burns. Had he not considered his pilot before his own safety and had he immediately proceeded to extinguish the flames on his own clothing, he would probably not have lost his life.”

He is also remembered and revered by the corporals and master corporals at the RCAF Academy at 16 Wing Borden, Ontario. A member of each graduating flight of the Primary Leadership Qualification Course receives the LAC Gravell Award in recognition of her or his exceptional abilities in leadership, building team-work, and esprit de corps.

Leading Aircraftman Karl Mander Gravell is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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