An Air Navigators War Chronicle


by Wing Commander H A (Harry) Forbes via Dave Lyon

  War is a cataclysmic event that affects everyone touched by it and changes forever the direction of many lives. So it was with me. When war was declared in September 1939 I was preparing to enter Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By the following spring the war was intensifying, and having completed my first year in engineering, I volunteered for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force and was called up on 18 July. I was selected for training as an air observer* and posted to units of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on the Canadian prairie. I learned the principles of basic and astronomical air navigation using Avro Anson aircraft and was instructed in bombing and gunnery using Fairey Battle aircraft. The use of an open cockpit for gunnery exercises in the middle of a prairie winter was more a test of stamina than of accuracy!  

Following a short leave at home, I sailed from Halifax on 30 April 1941 on board HMS Circassia, an armoured merchant cruiser converted from an Indian Ocean passage ship. There were only twelve passengers and we were berthed in the ship's nursery. The Circassia provided the only escort for a sixty-ship convoy, sailing to Britain at a speed of seven knots (the speed of the slowest ship).

  Sextant Parctice at Rivers Manitoba  
  After two weeks the escort duties were passed to Royal Navy destroyers and the Circassia left its passengers at Reykjavik, Iceland.  

Sextant practice at Air Navigation School, Rivers, Manitoba 1941

  Ten days later we boarded The Royal Ulsterman, built for ferry service in the Irish Sea, for a stormy four-day passage to Greenock, Scotland, where we landed 30 May 1941. I was sent on by train to 3 Personnel Reception Centre at RAF Uxbridge.  

Sgt Harry Forbes

  By the middle of June, I was at 10 Operational Training Unit at RAF Abingdon, near Oxford, for a concentrated twelve-week course consisting of classroom study and cross-country air exercises on the techniques of Bomber Command.

It included training on the Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley aircraft.

Less than three months later I was judged ready for operational duty and was posted to 78 Squadron at RAF Middleton St George, a bomber squadron of a 4 Group equipped with Whitley Vs.


Sgt Harry Forbes

  Later in the war, crews were formed up at the Operational Training Units and on arrival at the Squadron were sent out on so-called 'easy targets' to gain experience, but I arrived in the afternoon of 6 September 1941 and was on the crew list for my first operation the following day. The target was Berlin, 'the big smoke', which in the lumbering Whitley, popularly called the 'flying coffin', meant a flight of about ten hours. In the following weeks I flew on eight operations to targets including Stettin, Essen, Nuremberg, Bremen and Kiel.  
  At this time the new four-engined bombers were coming into service and 76 Squadron, the sister squadron at Middleton St George, was being re-equipped with the new Handley Page Halifax IIs. In November, after a two-week conversion course, I was posted to this squadron. On 12 February 1942, we were suddenly pressed into service and sent out in daylight into a lowering sky, over a very murky North Sea to 'find and destroy' the German cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisau, and Prinz Eugen, which had made their dashing escape through the channel from Brest.

We were among the many crews who failed to locate the ships in the appalling weather although we had ventured to within sight of the Dutch coast.


Sgt Harry Forbes and friends


Sgt Harry Forbes & Friends

  In April, 76 Squadron resumed regular bombing duties. These included two attacks on successive moonlit nights on the warship Tirpitzin Norway's Fjord from RAF Tain, an advanced base in Northern Scotland. In May our operations included two notable attacks: Hamburg on the 3rd and Warnemunde on the 8th.

That same month, 405 (RCAF) Squadron based at RAF Pocklington (Yorkshire) was being converted from Wellington aircraft to Halifax IIs. As a Canadian with some experience on Halifaxes, I was posted to this squadron.

  Harry Forbes & Mosquito

Wing Commander Johnny Fauquier, a well known Canadian bush pilot was the squadron commander and I flew on several operations as his navigator. On 30 May, 405 Squadron resumed operational duties by participating in the three 'Thousand-Bomber Operations': Cologne (30/31 May), Essen (1/2 June), and Bremen (25/26 June). In August I completed my first tour of operations.


Harry Forbes & Mosquito

  Following an operational tour (normally of 30 operations) aircrew were usually posted as instructors at training units or to supervisory positions at operational stations or headquarters. As the war continued, the need for experienced aircrew in the Pathfinder Forces and in other squadrons engaged on special duties brought many gain to active squadron duty.  
  My first posting following my operational tour was as station navigation officer at RAF Leeming. This was a station of 4 Bomber Group, slated to be part of the new 6 (RCAF) Group in January 1943. Early in April I became navigation officer of this new group at Allerton Park (near Knaresborough). At Leeming, as station navigation officer, I was responsible for all training in navigation, for advising the station and squadron commanders on matters of navigation, for supervising the performance of the squadron navigators and ensuring that the procurement and maintenance of navigation equipment and charts was adequate. At 6 Group Headquarters, my duties were similar, but I was now overseeing the navigational matters of all stations of the Group. In addition, I was on duty in the Operations Room one night in three and expected to attend, when possible, the debriefing at one of the outlying stations as the aircraft returned from operations, usually in the middle of the night. I seemed to be busy almost twenty-four hours a day, even days a week, with no time off for nearly a year and a half other than Christmas Day.  
  Although the enormous pressure of daily exposure to the stresses of squadron operational duty was partially lifted, Leeming was an operational station, and my work with the aircrew of two operational squadrons kept me closely involved. I had realised soon after going on 'ops' that the chances of survival were low.

Bomber Command was prepared to accept losses of up to five per cent every time the planes went out, a rate we knew was often exceeded.

  Bomber Command Window at Ely Cathedral  

Harry (front right) visits Bomber Command Memorial Window - Ely Cathedral


Almost nightly, friends and acquaintances failed to return. The aircrew were under the pressure of operational duty seven days a week for six weeks, followed by a week of leave, before returning for another six weeks of constant duty. This was the routine until they completed a tour of thirty operations. Little wonder that nights of 'stand-down' were marked by boisterous spirits, usually at local pubs.

My 'rest tour' coincided with that long period from 1942 to mid-1944 when the war seemed endless. Everyone knew that 'Fortress Europe' must be breached and conquered. But how and when could this be done? There seemed little more than hope to go on. The steadfast confidence of Winston Churchill and the indomitable courage of the British people were invaluable at this time.

  PFF Badge / Pathfinder Force Badge   D-Day, 6 June 1944 found me in Warrington (Lancashire), waiting for a troopship to Canada, the authorities having decided that I should have home leave before going back to squadron duty. Suddenly news of the Normandy landings broke upon the world. I felt that I was running away, side-tracked at a crucial stage of the war. The news out of Europe during the next few weeks was exciting, raising real hope for the future. I knew that my older brother would have landed in Normandy with his regiment, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, and that my younger brother in the merchant navy would be on the North Atlantic. I was restless and had an unrelaxing holiday.  

Pathfinder Force Badge

  Back in England in early August, I reported to RCAF Headquarters at Lincoln's Inn Fields in London for orders. I remember discussing my future with personnel officers and saying that I would be happy to serve again in RAF units. A few days later I was posted to 139 (Jamaica) Squadron, a unit of the Pathfinder Force of Bomber Command at RAF Upwood (Huntingdonshire, near Cambridge). This was the marking squadron of the Light Night Striking Force. I spent two weeks at the PFF training unit at Warboys, followed by a concentrated course at Newmarket in the use of H2S, an aid to navigation and target identification used by 139 Squadron.  
  Between 10 September 1944 and 27 March 1945, I flew on forty-five operations, an average of one every four or five nights. On most of these, my pilot was Reserve Kapitein-Vlieger Andre A.J. van Amsterdam of the Royal Netherlands Navy. Together we flew on thirty-five operations. Our busiest period was in February and March when Bomber Command was over Berlin for thirty-six nights in succession. On the last of this series, 27 March, after leaving the target, my wartime flying career was brought to an abrupt end by a German jet fighter, an Me 262, the only jet aircraft in service in the Second World War. Tragically, Andre did not survive and his fate remains unknown  
  Our aircraft, a Mosquito Mk SVI (MM131) code XD-J, was hit without warning and went into an uncontrollable spiralling descent. Andre, as captain, gave the signal to bail out. The lower hatch, the normal emergency escape, was jammed and I motioned him to go out the upper hatch above his head. He did; I never saw him again. I followed, hesitating momentarily on the edge before sliding backwards off the wing. Much sooner than I expected I was on the ground, unhurt, in an open field.  

In the darkness, I removed my harness, gathered it up with my parachute and stashed it under nearby bushes and began to move away from the vicinity. Andre had lived in Germany and knew the language well. My presence could be a liability to him. Finding each other in the dark would be a matter of luck. Feeling very much alone I started off across some fields and came to a road that I followed. At some point I stopped to remove the badges and insignia from the jacket of my battle dress and put them in my pocket. After a time I came to a long straggling village that seemed asleep, except for what appeared to be a small army post. Through an open door I could see some uniformed soldiers. My passing did not arouse attention.

At the first sign of approaching daylight, I began to look for somewhere to hide. I needed time to rest and to think. I found a haystack that could be reached without going close to houses and hid myself there. A dog barking furiously nearby wakened me. Very quickly a farmer appeared who made unmistakable signs that I should get up and go with him. There seemed no practical alternative, so I walked with him past his house and onto a street through a small village. He attempted to speak to me, but I had no knowledge of German, though one sentence was easily understood and remains with me: "Es ist kalt." He took me to what appeared to be a police station, where I was made to wait for some time until a staff car and driver arrived with three Luftwaffe Officers and picked me up. Before long the car turned into a lane through open fields to the top of a rise, from which we could see far over the low country around. Alarmed at first, I soon realised they had driven out her to watch what they told me was an attack by the USAAF on Spandau, just west of Berlin and about 30 miles from us.


139 (Jamaica) Squadron Group Photo


139 (Jamaica) Squadron group Photograph 1944

  Before long we drove back to the road and continuing on we reached a railway station where I was left under the escort of an NCO. He led me into the cafe, raising my hopes of something to eat as I had not eaten since leaving England the evening before. My hopes were dashed when the corporal, selecting a full meal, ate it all while I sat and watched. We waited on the station platform until eventually a crowded train arrived, which we boarded. It was dusk when we left the train at Spandau and walked through the town, still in chaos from the bombing attack a few hours before. I was nervous, fearing that I might be recognised and branded as a Terrorlieger by the local people. The streets were badly littered with debris and many fires were still burning. We reached Spandau Prison and I spent a long night sitting on a wooden bench in a room by the prison entrance. Soldiers were coming and going continually. After daylight, Thursday 29 March, I was put on an open truck with a group of about a dozen POWs, both Commonwealth and American. We spent most of the day travelling in the truck. My clothes were inadequate for the cold March winds of Northern Germany. An American POW, noticing that I was cold, insisted that I put on his brown woollen cardigan which he said he did not need. I have been grateful ever since and still regret not having been able to thank him properly for it.  

  Eventually we arrived at an interrogation camp at Luneburg, where I was put in a cell about six by twelve feet. It was completely bare except for a wooden bench about three by six feet at the end of the room by the door. At the other end was a small window overlooking a large courtyard. The window was so high that the courtyard could only be seen by standing on the bench at the opposite end of the room. I was left to myself. On arrival I had been relieve of everything except my clothes and identification tags. There was not much to confiscate: my issue watch, the air force escape kit, and the insignia I had removed from my jacket. The routine was basic. I was escorted to a washroom two or three times a day. In the morning and in the afternoon, a bowl of thin watery soup was brought, in which were a few little pieces of vegetable and rarely a small piece of unidentifiable meat. Usually a small slice of dark, sour, rye bread accompanied it. These meals, though very unsatisfying, were welcomed as marking the passage of time; I have never forgotten how slowly time passes when there is absolutely nothing to do. The next day, Friday, someone came to my cell to enquire about my comfort and asked if there was something I needed. I replied that I would most like something to read. Work parties of soldiers marched through the courtyard from time to time. They were usually singing and it was a delight to hear them.  
  HMS Circassia   On Saturday I was taken for my first interrogation. On Easter Sunday morning, an escort arrived again to take me for my second interrogation.  

Passengers on HMS Circassia (Harry Forbes back row left)


A raw cold wind was blowing off the Luneburger Heath. My escort, an older soldier probably invalided back from the Eastern Front, spoke a little English.

"This is a strange Easter Day," he remarked. "It is indeed," I replied. "But never mind," he said, "for you the war is over. In a few weeks you be home and we will be the prisoners." The interrogator, a Luftwaffe officer, tried to impress me with the amount of information he already had about me. It was impressive. He had undoubtedly linked me up correctly with our aircraft, he knew the squadron number, where we were based and he told me that we were shot down by an ME 262. I resisted the strong temptation to ask questions and thus be led into a discussion. I confined my remarks to the stipulated limits of my rank, name and number. I did not learn what I most wanted to know: what happened to Andre? The interrogation was over and I was escorted back to my cell. Later that day a soldier brought a paperback copy of 'How Green was my Valley', which I immediately read through three or four times. It as a life-saver! Life was otherwise uneventful and I began to lost track of days.

On Thursday or Friday, with a group of about twenty other prisoners, I was taken to a railway station where we waited for some time until a train arrived going in the right direction. Twice that day we left the train for a further long wait. This seemed to be the pattern of railway travel in Germany at that time. Finally, before dark, we reached Barth, and after a short march the gate to Stalag Luft I. We were taken to a small building to be sorted. First the Amerikaners were called out and led off. Then the Englanders were led away. I was left alone. When asked, I said I was Canadian. The response was immediate: "Englander!" he growled, waving me off, and sent me after them before they were out of sight. We were taken to a large room, with many showerheads high on the wall, where we enjoyed a warm, much needed shower. Finally we were assigned to our respective huts and I met my new room-mates.



The camp had just come through a period of near starvation. General Patton's push through southern Germany had cut off the established route used for Red Cross food parcels for POWs. Not until late March was a new routeing through Sweden set up and food parcels were beginning to reach the camp again. In the meantime, food shortages had become acute in Germany itself and supplies allotted to the POW camps were very limited. There were about 10,000 prisoners in Stalag Luft I. Some had been there for five years. In early April 1945 the years of boredom and anxiety were being brightened by hope and the anticipation of the end of the war. The progress of the Allied troops was eagerly followed. Daily, BBC news bulletins were received and passed around clandestinely. 'Illegal' activities such as planning for escapes had now ended and an air of anticipation, not without apprehension, was felt by all the prisoners. We began to hear the distant Soviet guns almost daily as their troops approached. Rumours were rife.

On Tuesday morning, 1 May, no bugle sounded for roll call; no guards came around to count us. A general awareness passed over us that the towers were unmanned, that there were no patrols along the fences, that we were no longer guarded. We were free! The Germans had abandoned the camp! Many tales passed quickly from one to another. We heard that he first contact was with a Russian corporal who declared that having been freed we should leave. We heard that many Americans acted on his advice. Then a message was passed along by the senior British officer, Group Captain C.T. Weir, reminding us that we were 'still officers in His Majesty's Service and as such were expected to conduct ourselves as gentlemen'. This was interpreted to mean that we should remain in the camp. We heard that several hundred American POWs disappeared and that few, if any, of the Commonwealth prisoners had left.



We could see, perhaps five miles away, the main highway from Stralsund to Rostock; which during the first week of May appeared jammed with every sort of military vehicle and marching men moving westward. The Soviet Army was moving in. It was an awe-inspiring sight, bringing to mind medieval tales of invading Mongol hoards out of Asia. We heard stories of atrocities and chaos throughout the countryside and there were pleas from the civilian population for shelter and protection within Stalag Luft I. For our own protection the Kriegic organisation under Colonel Hubert Zemke (an American and the senior Allied officer) and Group Captain Weir found it essential to man the watchtowers to prevent the camp from being overwhelmed by alarmed civilians.

Negotiations were taking place between our senior officers and the local Soviet commander for the release of the prisoners. It was rumoured that the Soviets wanted to take us by train to Odessa, a distressing thought. Generally speaking, our spirits were uplifted by the BBC news now circulating freely, which on 8 May brought news of the German surrender. Shortly after, we were told that arrangements were being made to fly us to England within a few days.

On the afternoon of 12 May, I was with a group of Commonwealth POWs at the Barth airport ready to board a USAAF B17 (number A46308) of provisional Wing X. The pilot was Major E.F. Close of No. 322 Squadron, 21st Group, 8th Air Force. The American prisoners were being flown to reception centres in France, while Commonwealth prisoners were taken to England. We landed at Ford, near Bognor Regis, Sussex. We were back in England, glorious in the late evening sunshine. After going through delousing and showering, I was sent on to the RCAF Reception Centre at Bournemouth. I was most anxious to send a message to my mother in Nova Scotia. It read: "Back in England, safe and sound." She received it before the official word from Ottawa arrived. It was the only news she had had since the official notification that I was 'missing in action' over six weeks before.

It was good to be back in England. I knew that I would be posted home to Canada very soon but I did not feel ready to go. After four years in England, there were many matters to be attended to. It was urgent that I get in touch with Irene van Amsterdam, Andrea's English wife who lived in King's Lynn. Unfortunately I was unable to see her but we had a long conversation on the telephone. My return gave her hope that Andre too would come out of Europe, a hope that was never fulfilled. I went back to 139, my old squadron at Upwood, to tidy up my affairs and I saw many old friends still there. Wing Commander J.R.G. Ralston DSO AFC DFM was still in command. He arranged for me to have a tour of the Rhineland with Flight Lieutenant Taylor at the controls of Mosquito XVI no. PF580. We flew via Boulogne and Mons to Karlsruhe, then down the Rhine to Cologne, and home via Calais. The sight of the Cathedral at Cologne, rising starkly out of the devastation around it, has remained vividly in my memory.

Returning to Bournemouth towards the end of June, I was on travel orders of the Ile de France, sailing from Gourock on 7 July. I arrived back in Halifax on 17 July, five years to the day after joining up.


  *'Air Observer' was a term originating in the Great War and referred to a second crew member who accompanied a pilot to report on the enemy's position line. The term continue in use after the war and the duties gradually encompassed those of a navigator. The observer badge was an 'O' with a single wing. Later, well after the Second World War, the designation was officially changed to 'Air Navigator' and the badge changed to an 'N' with double wings, similar to the familiar pilot's wings.