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At 95, Ottawa Bomber Command veteran recalls harrowing night flights, German attacks

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It’s the empty cots that Ron Moyes remembers.

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He’d see them every morning after one of his squadron’s night bombing raids over Germany.

“You’d come back and there’d be maybe 25 people missing,” said the 95-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force veteran. “Then you’d have to wait. Sometimes crews would be diverted to land at another base because of bad weather or because they’d been damaged. And you wouldn’t know for two days what had happened or if they’d been shot down.”

Far too often, it was the latter. More than 10,000 Canadians were killed on bombing missions over Europe during the Second World War. The Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alta. estimates that over the course of the war, for every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, six were wounded, and eight became prisoners of war.

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Moyes and his six-man crew were among the lucky 41 per cent who came home unscathed, at least physically. They would remain bonded for the rest of their lives.

“You made friendships that lasted forever,” said Moyes, who lives in his own apartment at the Perley Health veterans’ home, which is decorated with air force memorabilia, black and white photos of his bomber crew and models of the Halifax and Lancaster bombers he served in.

“We kept in touch, but I’m the only one left now,” he said. “I still keep in touch with their children and their grandchildren. They’re all across Canada.”

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Moyes was only 17 when he convinced his parents to give their consent for him to enlist in the RCAF in 1943. His older brother, Horace, was already overseas and Moyes learned the fastest way to join him was to train as an air gunner. He didn’t realize air gunners had the highest casualty rates.

He arrived in Liverpool in May 1943 and was assigned to 429 Bison Squadron, based in RAF Leeming, in northern England near the city of York. Moyes, nicknamed “Shorty” by his crewmates, was a rear gunner on a four-engined Halifax bomber.

The crew flew its first operation on Nov. 16, 1944, on a daylight raid to an oil refinery in the German city of Jülich. From his lonely post in his rear turret, Moyes watched for enemy fighters and tried to keep warm. Gunners removed the Perspex covering of the turret in order to see better, leaving them completely exposed to the -50 C temperature at 17,000 feet altitude.

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That trip was uneventful, but other times the crew wasn’t so lucky. In a memoir he wrote of his experience titled “Coming Home on a Wing and Prayer,” Moyes describes being pounded by anti-aircraft flak, buffeted by the concussion of exploding bombs, and being hunted by deadly German night fighters. Just as scary were the night sorties when hundreds of aircraft lumbered into the air within minutes of each other, completely blacked out and invisible in the darkness. Collisions were common.

Moyes describes his plane being hit by shrapnel — “It sounded like someone throwing rocks at the aircraft” — and the ever-present danger of being obliterated by a bomb dropped from an aircraft flying at a higher altitude. Once, they were “coned” by ground-based searchlights, lit up as a target for anti-aircraft gunners and night fighters. The pilot sent the bomber into a stomach-turning corkscrew dive to escape.

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Several times they were sent to drop mines to block German harbours. Once they were told to fly low and be sure to drop the mines near shore in shallow water. Later they learned the mines were meant to be recovered intact by the Germans and had been specially fused to confuse enemy explosive disposal teams.

Later in the war, after proving their experience and bombing accuracy, the crew was transferred to 405 “Pathfinder” Squadron, dropping flares to guide other bombers to the target. Moyes’ last operation was to the town of Berchtesgaden on the German-Austrian border, site of Adolf Hitler’s infamous Eagle’s Nest hideout on which American troops were advancing.

“Gen. Patton was coming through and he wanted the thousands of SS troops at Berchtesgaden out of the way,” Moyes said.

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Hitler had left the complex the night before, headed for Berlin, where five days later he would shoot himself in an underground bunker. A week later, the war in Europe ended.

But Moyes’ squadron wasn’t finished. They would fly more missions, bringing freed prisoners of war back to England and dropping food and supplies to starving civilians in the Netherlands.

Moyes rejoined the air force after the war, serving in Canada and Europe with NATO until 1974. After that, he joined the RCMP, working in the firearms section of their crime lab until his retirement in 1989.

He and his wife, Margaret, had two children. Margaret died in 2020 after 72 years of marriage.

On Nov. 11, Moyes will remember his fellow bomber crew — now all dead — and, of course, those empty cots.

“All good men,” he said.

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