Heroes in Our Midst
Once every year, men, women, and children, both within and beyond the Commonwealth of Nations, pause for a few moments to mark the anniversary of the armistice signed in 1918, ushering forth the end of hostilities in the First World War. In ceremonies across the world, memorials marking the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month honour the sacrifices of service personnel over the course of nearly a century worth of conflict. The respect observed on that day is virtually universal in these countries, regardless of creed, ethnicity, or political inclination.
For some of us, the story is much more personal, as is the reason for which we remember those who have fought for us overseas, and not just on 11 November. This may be for any number of reasons – perhaps you, yourself, have served in such a capacity, or know a friend or family member who has served, and have been fortunate enough to hear even a shred of such experience told to you in the years since. For me, this last point rings especially true and that is my reason for remembering throughout the year.
A dear friend of mine, a man who I am proud to say is family, is Mr. Cal Taylor of Cobalt, Ontario. Cal served mostly with the Royal Air Force (RAF) through much of the Second World War and with the RCAF in the post-war years. At the age of 98, Cal tells me of his past adventures, yet-developing experiences, and still-ongoing passions. We sit in his comfortable bungalow, which overlooks the rocky, and hilly town centre, enjoying the smooth jazz melodies of Jackie Gleason’s first album, a little bit of Grant’s blended scotch for a refreshment, as he recounts his early flying service during the siege of the island of Malta.
Located off the North African coast, aptly named during that conflict, “the most bombed place on earth,” Cal points out, he was there, with almost no operational experience up to that time.
After arriving in secrecy by convoy at the British colony of Gibraltar, he recounts how, at the last moment, he was chosen from a list of spare pilots to fly off the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Eagle in a brand new Spitfire Vc – as a young man in his early 20s.
As I listen intently, he explains that about 32 of the new fighters were being ferried from the aircraft carrier to Malta unarmed, while German and Italian fighters would be hunting them as they tried to land. They needed to carry extra fuel to give them four full hours of flying time, which meant they could not carry the heavy gun munitions to defend themselves.
Flying with him on that mission, was his friend and fellow Canadian, Pilot-Sergeant George “Buzz” Beurling. The two had grown closer since leaving Britain, and during their stay in Gibraltar.
While the preparations were being made for the departure of the carrier and its escort group, the pilots mostly slept on deck under their aircraft, and would be up before dawn for their first and only carrier take-off, without the benefit of a catapult – or even carrier training, for that matter.
Although other such resupply missions had their fatalities, this mission was uneventfully thanks to a heavy haze hanging over the island as they quickly made for their three assigned airfields, and landing with almost empty tanks.
Within two weeks, Cal’s RAF squadron was transferred to Egypt to join the Battle of El Alamein to support the British 8th Army, fighting against the German Afrika Korps. This was not before his Spitfire was badly shot up by an Italian fighter, forcing him into a dead stick landing while his airfield was again under attack, and getting wounded in the leg from shrapnel in the process.
Following heavy involvement in the North African deserts (where he specialized more and more in ground attack, bomber and ship escorts), he also served in the defence of Palestine and Cyprus before being transferred back to England.
He regularly flew tropicalized Spitfires and cannon-equipped Hurricanes in that theatre of war.
On D-Day, Cal served as convoy support, providing overwatch to the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers mounting the beaches of Normandy. Over the following summer, bombing missions, using Spitfire IXs against German V1 flying bomb emplacements and other ground targets of opportunity, were the order of the day over France. He did mention that there was hardly any threat at all from the German Luftwaffe at this point in the war, but that Allied pilots did indeed have a healthy respect for their anti-aircraft artillery defences. He and his squadron were once at the receiving end of a V1 flying bomb attack in England, as he and other pilots intently watched from the field as another Spitfire pilot pursued and destroyed this flying menace in a low level, high speed chase, only to make it crash and explode next to the airfield’s dispersal hut, making for a very close call.
Cal recently came to Ottawa from Cobalt to be awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government at the National War Museum in November 2014, The event was an impressive presentation in honour of the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy and Provence, and for which roughly a dozen WWII veterans were being inducted into this special order of knighthood created by Napoleon Bonaparte, himself.
A French general standing before him, the master of ceremonies read out a storied – and yet still impossibly modest – outline of Cal’s service:
“Flight Lieutenant Taylor was assigned to the Royal Air Force as a Spitfire pilot in 1942. His first assignment was to Malta in the Mediterranean and later he flew in the western deserts against the German Afrika Korps. In April 1944, his squadron moved back to England just in time to prepare for Operation Overlord – the Invasion of France. There, he provided air cover on D-Day and ground attack against targets in France and Northwest Europe.”
Adorned with campaign stars and service medals from his time in the Air Force, both during WWII and in the peace that followed, Cal remains the same humble, earnest, and smiling gentleman that he was in the photos taken during his first operational posting in Ireland, his deployment aboard the HMS Eagle, or when walking the scorched sands of North Africa, when not flying Spitfires with 601 “City of London” Squadron.
The Gatineau, Quebec-based charitable collection of historically significant aircraft, Vintage Wings, in fact operates the very same P-51 Mustang Mark IV that Cal regularly flew during the post-war period, including live bombing mission training near Calgary. These facts, and many others, are aptly illustrated in his many flight logbooks as a civilian, RAF, and RCAF pilot, in the fascinatingly understated fashion that such pilots most typically employ.
After the war, Cal flew Mustangs with the RCAF, as part of 403 “City of Calgary” Squadron as an instructor. He left the Air Force in the 1950s after qualifying on jet aircraft, but continued his lifelong passion of aviation through flying bush planes in the remote Canadian Arctic, as well as northern Ontario and Quebec. Today, he spends much of his time in Cobalt, meeting and talking with those friends and family who share (if not, revere) his unassuming passion for flight.
Together, we talk about a numbing myriad of topics, ranging from his wartime service and the technical aspects of flight to geopolitics and interplanetary colonization. Ever the humble pilot, Cal perhaps embodies the trope of modesty that, by nature, will not overtly acknowledge the hero we all know he is.
Remembrance Day is an annual event that observes the courage, honour, and humility of men and women like Cal Taylor, who have served Canada far away from home, at young ages when it was neither easy nor safe to do so.
For me, Cal epitomizes the notion that Remembrance Day is more than just the recognition of a single day’s anniversary of a conflict long past. Rather, it is the idea of acknowledging the virtue that lurks under a sometimes rough, but always humble, outer shell, and for which we give thanks to those veterans who make this history one worth remembering, throughout each and every year.
And so, for that, I thank you, Cal.
Casey Brunelle is a graduate of the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. In 2015, he completed an internship at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, specializing in humanitarian response. Casey is currently an intelligence advisor with more than five years’ experience in both the public and private sectors.