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Don Attlee

The following is an excerpt from the memoirs of Don J. Attlee, Royal Air Force (RAF), entitled simply "Canada 1943." It was written shortly after the events it details, as a letter home, and then edited by the author 47 years later.

Royal Air Force (RAF) Station De Winton, Alberta. Home of No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS).It was 3:30 pm on Wednesday, June 23rd, 1943 that we set off from Heaton Park, Manchester for, as yet, an unknown port somewhere in Britain, from which we were to sail from Canada for our training plan as pilots. At about 6 pm, we arrived at Liverpool and boarded the Empress of Scotland, formerly the Empress of Japan, but whose name had been changed upon the outbreak of hostilities with that country. I found myself with hundreds of others on "B" deck. We got a meal almost immediately, and it was a foretaste of what we would get in Canada—white bread, real butter, jam, bacon and eggs. 

Onboard we slept in hammocks that were surprisingly comfortable. Early in the morning we thought we were off, but we moored up at a new pier to pick up some German prisoners who were also on their way to Canada...I watched, along with several others, the Germans come aboard. They were from the Afrika Corps. On the whole, they looked pretty fit. Some were wounded and only a few seemed sad to be out of the war. We slipped our moorings at 4:30 pm and were guided down the river by a couple of tugs. Just before we left, another transport had come in loaded with troops from Africa, just home. We wondered how long it would be before we would be on a boat going that way.

It was a wonderful evening and I stood in the bows, watching the mountains of Wales fade into the background as we passed an out-going convoy. Though it was very calm, the ship was rolling slightly. And, as these boats are notoriously top heavy, the motion of the boat combined with the new food was disastrous for some members of the party.

As soon as we got outside the three-mile limit, the canteen was opened and we discovered we could buy marvelous goods at great prices. Apart from eating, we slept a great deal. We had boat drill in the morning while the skipper inspected the ship. There was a picture show in the evening and the inevitable "crown and anchor" and "solo" schools.

Royal Canadian Force (RAF) Station De Winton, Alberta. Home of No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS).On Saturday, there were not many people up for breakfast. Most seemed to hang over the rail in the fresh air. The ship was zig-zagging continually to avoid detection from submarines. We were circled that day by a Sunderland and a Liberator. Those aircraft were the last we would see for some days, as the next day we would enter the "gap," which is not patrolled by aircraft. It turned foggy in the evening, but the ship kept up her high speed. 

It was still foggy on Sunday and somewhat rougher. A number of us were getting fed up with having so little exercise. We still did not know our destination, but the general rumour, at first, seemed to be Halifax. By Tuesday there was still no sight of land, although there was an unconfirmed rumour that Newfoundland was off our starboard bow. We handed in what was left of our English money for exchange to Canadian. The general rumour now swung to New York as our port of call. One merchant seaman (we had a number from different ships as well as several companies of Canadian soldiers with us) got as far as mentioning at which pier we would dock.

It was very hot and we all wished for tropical kit.  A number of us slept on deck as it was too hot below. By now, we were running on American time, so we knew we must be pretty close. The German prisoners were getting worried. "Why no escort?" they asked, "We were told U-boats controlled the Atlantic." They were asked what they thought of the Rhur bombing, which was much in the news at the time. "Headline propaganda" was the reply.

At the end of our first week at sea there still was no land in sight. It was glorious weather, but very hot. When I closed my eyes, I thought of summer holidays on the south coast of England, but then we never had weather like this on the south coast. Here the sky was absolutely pure deep blue—there always seemed to be a haze on the south coast. 

In the evening a lot of us were on deck as we thought we might see land before turning in. We were watching a little coast-wise tanker cross our bows, when we were aware of something else. This tanker, dirty and black by contrast to its white bow wave, was ploughing across a calm sea which was a deep, indigo blue, picked out in green with occasional flashes of white as the setting sun caught the top of a wave. We were then aware that this picture had a sudden flaming backdrop in the most beautiful colours. Through all of this, unaware of the part they played, flying fish jumped ahead of the ship. With this picture in our minds, we turned in...

It was during boat drill at 10.30 am that land was first sighted. We still did not know where it was, but we knew it was not New York, as there was no Statue of Liberty or skyscrapers. The land grew quickly bigger and we could make out a long, sandy shore fringed by trees looking very peaceful. Little white houses were nestled in among the trees. The customs boat came out to meet us and at 2 pm we were sailing up the wide entrance to Newport News and Norfolk docks in Virginia. The docks were a scene of endless energy. A small escort carrier moved out beside us, manned by British sailors. There were not many battleships in dock, but a few cruisers and destroyers. In the background was the twinkling of welders lamps at work on aircraft carriers and other ships.

At 5.30 pm we were on our way by train through the United States to Canada and Moncton, New Brunswick, where we soon learned that we were late and were only going to be there a short time. This proved to be true and I found myself posted to De Winton, an Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) in Alberta. We were nearly all posted to various schools out west. 

Royal Canadian Force (RAF) Station De Winton, Alberta. Home of No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS).Wednesday, July 7th found us rolling through Quebec, through wooded hills, by beautifully blue lakes and rivers. By afternoon we were going down the St. Lawrence and came into Montreal in the evening. Here we changed trains and stations on to the CPR, and through Sudbury and Port Arthur and round the top of Lake Superior. Then on to Kenora and Winnipeg, where we got a grand reception from ex-airmen from the last war. 

It was terribly hot and the prairies do nothing to relieve the heat. Miles of very flat country of huge fields of wheat gently rippled by the light breeze. We left Manitoba behind and entered Saskatchewan...We arrived at Calgary and encroached for De Winton, which we found was 25 miles south of the city. We got more or less settled down there, having discovered with amazement that Calgary was the nearest town with a shop. A few of us went back to Calgary in the afternoon and went to see the west in the raw at Calgary’s annual Stampede.

Don Attlee remained in the Royal Air Force (RAF) for many years, attaining the rank of Air Vice-Marshall. He retired in 1977. In an epilogue to his memoirs, he writes that "none of the buildings at De Winton remain" and that it is now 12 miles from Calgary, not 25; that the "little settlement of Midnapore, the grain elevators of which frequently provided a useful navigation point, is now within the limits of greater Calgary," and that "very little of the Calgary of 1943 remains," although "the prairies are still wall-to-wall wheat and the Rocky Mountains as majestic as ever."

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