Home  |   Museum  |   Bomber Command  |   Aircrew Chronicles  |   Aircrew Losses  |   Nose Art  |   BCATP  |   Lancaster  |   Media

Bomber Command Aircrew Chronicles

An Airman's Love Story

by Noel Lewis-Watts

His name was Desmond and he was born on April 18th, 1916, in Toronto, to George and Ruby. He was the oldest of 4 boys. There had been an older brother and a younger sister, but they both died in infancy. His early years were quite normal. He had a great love of music, outdoor sports and Canadian poetry. He was an excellent pianist in both classical and jazz, although he preferred classical. Desmond also had a great singing voice and he loved to put on CBC's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera as he did his household chores. His love of singing lead to an audition with the Mendelssohn Junior choir and he was accepted. He stood just under 6 3. tall with wavy light brown hair and green eyes. And because of his love of the outdoors and sports he was in excellent physical shape.

As with all of us, there were several pivotal points in Desmond's life. Some of them were when he was in his mid-teens and his mother became crippled with arthritis and required a wheelchair. A short time later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a result of this he dropped out of school to look after the house and his mother with the help of two of his brothers. After a while he was able to go back to school and finish his grade 13. His mother's condition worsened and she died at age 44 when Des was 21. Two years later his Dad broke up the family home and Des and his brother Aub. had to find places to live, while his two young- er brothers went to live in boarding houses with his Dad.

Then came the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939. In 1940 he married a lovely young lady named Lois. And finally what turned out to be the major change in his life was in 1941 when he joined the RCAF -the Royal Canadian Air Force. Despite the upheaval and hardships of basic training he continued on with his singing. In 1943 he was shipped overseas with the rank of Flying Officer as a bombardier, or bomb aimer and flew with the 419 [Moose] Squadron. He was nick named Gramps by his crew because of his age, he was 27.

While he was stationed in London he decided to record two of his wife's favourite love songs: 'Where You Walk' by George Fredric Handle and 'Brown Bird Singing' by Haydn Wood and Royden Barrie and send them to her for Christmas. This he accomplished with a great deal of difficulty. He had to schedule his prac- ticing and recording between missions over enemy territory. He also had to find an accompanist and a re- cording studio, very difficult in war torn London. He finally met his accompanist, 15 minutes before making the recordings. The recording studios, because of the bombings, left a lot to be desired but in spite of all this he was able to make the recordings, adding a little love message at the end and ship them to Lois for Christmas 1943. She would not receive them until much later.

On the eve of his 28th birthday April the 18th, 1944, Des took off aboard Halifax bomber JP202T for Tara on a mine dropping mission over the east coast of Denmark . On the 21st of April of that year Lois received a telegram from the War Office saying Desmond was missing in action. Four days later the love songs that Des had recorded arrived. Not only was she able listen to him singing her favourite love songs but listen as he told her how much he loved and missed her and his hope to spend Christmases together. Lois played these records over and over again.

Six agonizing months after the first telegram a second one arrived from the government stating "Desmond was missing in action and presumed dead." His family expected his widow received a posthumous medal of honour and his log book recording all his flights but they never saw these items and their whereabouts are still a mystery.

However the records survived and were passed on to his youngest brother on Lois's death in 1987. Lois never remarried and is buried with her mother and father in a little cemetery in Carnarvon, Ontario. This was the end of Des's story, or so it would seem. In 1999 CBC started a program on Radio 1 called 'Lost and Found Sound', hosted by Dick Gordon. Dick asked on the air if there was anyone who had old records, tapes or cylinders that they thought might be of historical or human interest to the listening audience, please call him and he would interview them and play the interview along with the recording on the air. Des's niece heard this in December 1999 and got in touch with the youngest brother and suggested he contact Dick Gordon. Dick was interested enough that he came to the brother's home to interview him.

On January 28th 2000 they played the interview over the air and CBC and Des's brother received phone calls from all over North America. Some callers in tears, thanking them for the story. Again that seemed like the end of Desmond's story. However in July of 2000 CBC played the story again and 15 minutes later Des's brother received a long distance call from a Richard Petrina in O6awa. He said, "That was a very interesting story but it wasn't quite accurate." When asked why, he said, you see, my Uncle Michael Petrina was the flight engineer on that same Halifax bomber when it was shot down. He continued on to say they found his uncle's body washed up on the west shore of Denmark and 50 miles south of that they found the body of the pilot, Joseph Quinn.

After a great deal of research, Richard was able to find the diary of the officer in charge of the gun battery that shot down the plane. And through that, they knew the exact date and time Des's plane was shot down. Since Des's body was never found there is no grave marker. Only his name inscribed on a memorial at Runnymede England honouring more than 1400 men and women from that airfield alone who lost their lives. Almost 900 still listed as missing. So that in fact was the end of Desmond's story, but his memory lives on in the love songs he sent to his wife for Christmas those many years ago. How do I know so much about Desmond? You see I'm the youngest brother.

Bomber Command Museum of Canada