Seventy years ago, Tom Moffat walked into the mobile recruiting unit in Quesnel with two friends, Billy Winder and Peter Kaiser and signed on the dotted line for the air force air crew.
“There was a 70-year-old nurse from WWI who tried to join but they rejected her,” Tom said with a laugh.
On a more sober note, he said Billy was shot down July 6, 1944 bombing bridges in France. He was a tail gunner.
Tom recently returned from a trip of a lifetime. He was one of 42 Canadians chosen to attend the dedication of a memorial honouring the contributions of Bomber Command during the Second World War, an Allied command with flight crews of English, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and a smattering of American and Polish crew members.
In total, 400 Bomber Command veterans were invited to participate in the dedication.
“I knew nothing about the memorial and if I hadn’t had a visit from another Bomber Command veteran from the east, I wouldn’t have known to apply for the trip,” Tom said.
“I hadn’t been back to England since 1945 and I thought it would be nice to mingle with Bomber Command vets. I was also interested in seeing the monument.”
Formed in 1936 to control and direct all the RAF’s United Kingdom-based bomber aircraft in the event of war, Bomber Command was put on active duty after the outbreak of war in 1939. However, B.C. was strictly prohibited from bombing mainland German territory for fear of reprisal.
Despite the lifting of bombing restrictions after German offensives in the west in 1940, BC didn’t become an effective fighting force until after 1942 when Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris was appointed Commander-in-Chief (Tom said they called him Bomber Harris) and brought drive and vigour and a renewed sense of purpose to the bomber war. He introduced new tactical methods and better equipment. In 1943, the fleet was expanded with the addition of the four-engined heavy bombers, most famously the Lancaster and Harris began dismantling the German war machine. Harris was effective and by early 1944 the German effort was severely impacted but Bomber Command was paying a heavy price – for every 100 BC aircrew who started their tour, only 16 would remain with their squadron at the end of 30 missions. Of the other 84, five would have been wounded, 25 would be prisoners of war and 54 would be dead or missing.
Bomber Command aircrews lost a staggering 55,573 men by the end of the war. However, the 125,000 aircrew of BC achieved many notable victories and were an integral part in the lead up and execution of many battles which made a decisive contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Tom Moffat was part of Bomber Command. Born and raised in Quesnel, he had never been farther than Williams Lake, never used a telephone, but after two years of training on Anson and Bolingbroke aircraft he shipped out to England ready to join a crew.
All Allied forces bomber crews were under the direction and control of Bomber Command and Tom remembers crewing up where service men would get to know each other and pilots would pick their crews. Tom was a bomb aimer (in addition to four machine guns, he was also responsible for the 10,000-pound bomb and various incendiaries) and figured he’d find a pilot with the most hours under his belt.
“When I spied a Warrant Officer First Class, I knew he must have a lot of flying hours compared to some of the pilots with only about 80 hours. I found out he had more than 2,000. He invited me to join his crew. He was British and so was the rest of the crew. I credit him with keeping me alive.”
Tom said he felt his experience with the British crew allowed him to really discover the British culture. Most Canadian squadrons stuck together in the north around Yorkshire. Tom said he went on leave mostly by himself, but knew he was social and would meet people.
“The crew invited me home with them but I knew everything was rationed and I didn’t want to take their family’s rations.”
A member of the 15th Squadron RAF Mildenhall, Tom flew 11 missions as part of Bomber Command. His plane was a Lancaster and aside from the German shell shrapnel that landed on his navigation paper during a mission, Tom never suffered injury or capture.
“The shrapnel from an exploding shell came through the plane and after landing on my paper, burned a hole and when I picked it up, I burned my fingers; it was that hot.
“I put it in my pocket and have it still today.”
Tom is proud to have been a member of Bomber Command.
“I did my part and was very proud to have served with the Royal Air Force, defending against the Nazi regime.”
And as for his participation in the dedication of the memorial, Tom said it was a very fitting tribute.
“I couldn’t believe I had the privilege of being one of only 400 invited to the occasion.”
Queen Elizabeth II dedicated the memorial along with many other dignitaries.
The aircrew sculpture contains seven life-and-a-half size figures in a slightly flattened circle with an opening gap at the front so the viewer can see through to the rear figures.
Through the gap the viewer sees the pilot and on either side of him his crew, mid-upper gunner, navigator, flight engineer to the left, rear gunner, wireless operator and bomb aimer to the right, all in full flight gear. Five of the group look to the sky searching for the aircraft that will not return, this being the essential link between the living and the dead and helps define the sculpture as the central feature of a memorial to the fallen. Two of the group look downwards to give the sculpture a feeling of grief, sadness and pathos. The crew stand close to each other – a band of brothers welded together in the heat of war. The surrounding structure includes a ceiling constructed from aluminium from a Halifax bomber: LW682 from No. 426 squadron, shot down over Belgium in 1944 in which eight crew were killed.
Although the vision of Bomber Command Association, it is now the responsibility of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund to be the guardians of the Memorial.
“The Memorial is both worthy and appropriate. It recognizes the past, embraces the present and will inform generations to come of the cost of war and the price of freedom,” Sir Michael Beetham, Marshal of the Royal Air Force and president of the Bomber Command Association said at the dedication.