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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."