The crowd of military personnel, veterans and spectators, assembled on the lawn in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, fell silent in remembrance. For two minutes the only sound was the whisper of the breeze and the distant sounds of the city on a Sunday afternoon.
They were there for the national ceremony observing the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – the first Allied military victory of the Second World War and the first in the history of the world to be won by air power. It took place under clear blue skies on Sunday, September 20, 2015, and featured remarks from Governor General and Commander in Chief of Canada David Johnston, British High Commissioner Howard Drake and the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lieutenant-General Michael Hood.
“It’s an honour to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and to do so in front of our Parliament – the seat of our Canadian democracy for which so many fought and died in the Second World War,” said the Governor General shortly after the two minutes of silence.
“The leader of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 1 Squadron was a pilot named Ernest McNab. He was from Rosthern, Saskatchewan,” he continued.
“Here’s what he said it was like to fight over Britain 75 years ago: ‘Your mouth dries up like cotton wool. You lose all sense of space and time. We fought far above the clouds in a world of our own – a world of freezing cold, of limitless space traced with white plumed trails of wheeling aircraft as they fought. It was like skywriting gone mad.’
“Look up, and think about what it must have been like to fly through skies ‘gone mad’. We’re so fortunate for the incredible bravery of those pilots.”
As the ceremony got underway, after the Governor General, High Commissioner Drake and Lieutenant-General Hood received and returned their respective salutes, the Governor General, accompanied by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance; Chief Warrant Officer Kevin West, chief warrant officer of the Canadian Armed Forces; Lieutenant-General Hood; and Chief Warrant Officer Gérard Poitras, chief warrant officer of the RCAF, inspected the men and women on parade, as well as the veterans’ contingent seated in front of the parade.
Loreena McKinnett, a renowned Celtic singer-songwriter and honorary colonel of the RCAF, then sang a spell-binding rendition of “O Canada”. Squadron Leader (retired) Lloyd Hunt, a Second World War veteran, read the Air Force’s poem “High Flight”, followed by reading of “The Airman’s Prayer”, by Cadet Sergeant Riley Carson, and the blessing of the parade and audience by the RCAF senior chaplain, Lieutenant-Colonel Barbara Putnam.
“On this day of remembrance… we pause to give our thanks once more for the liberty which was preserved for us as a result of the valiant and heroic efforts of the allied Air Forces during a perilous time in history,” she said. “With gratitude, we commend the resolve of the pilots and groundcrew, without whose acts of heroism, we would not fully appreciate the agile and resilient RCAF gathered here today.”
The Act of Remembrance came next, followed by the Commitment to Remember. “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old,” recited Squadron Leader Hunt. “Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
“They were young, as we are young,” responded Cadet Sergeant Carson. “They served, giving freely of themselves. To them, we pledge, amid the winds of time, to carry their torch and never forget. We will remember them.”
The haunting strains of the Last Post flowed across the hill, followed by the two minutes of silence, which was brought to its conclusion by the invigorating notes of the “Rouse”. A piper played “Flowers of the Forest: (also known as the “Piper’s Lament”) and, as the lament drew to a close, the first fly past – of Second World War aircraft – rumbled overhead.
In the lead was the Mynarsksi Avro Lancaster bomber, also known as VeRA because of her identification letters “VRA”, from the Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. Flying in formation with her were four more Second World War fighter aircraft, from Vintage Wings of Canada located in Gatineau, Quebec: a P40-N Kittyhawk, a Hawker Hurricane Mark IV, a Supermarine Spitfire XVI and a North American Mustang Mark IV.
High Commissioner Drake spoke about the relationship between the air forces of the United Kingdom and Canada. “[The airmen of the Battle of Britain] were young men once, many too young to vote, but those that remain today in the twilight of their years and scattered across the globe are inevitably dwindling in number. Wherever they are on this tremendous occasion, I extend my personal gratitude and that of the people of the United Kingdom for their achievements and sacrifice.
“It is also true that the spirit of cooperation between our two Air Forces, evident in 1940, remains as strong as ever. And as I speak, our men and women remain deployed alongside each other on operations across the globe to protect our way of life and all that we hold dear. The Battle of Britain was a crucial victory for the allied Air Forces and in this, the 75th anniversary, we remain as ever, in the debt of the few, but I also extend my heartfelt thanks to the men and women serving in our Air Forces and indeed, all of the armed forces today.”
“The Battle of Britain was the first allied military victory of the war, and it was won by air power,” said Lieutenant-General Hood in the final remarks of the afternoon. “During that battle, Canadians worked as part of a coalition air operation and were agile and integrated, employing reach and power to achieve victory. These principles continue to guide the Air Force of today.
“Of the more than 100 Canadian pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain, 23 gave their lives that summer and autumn of 1940. Around 35 more pilots died before victory was won in 1945. In other words, more than half of those Royal Canadian Air Force Battle of Britain pilots never came home.
“As we honour their bravery, we must remember that our freedom is built upon their valour, and give thanks for their courage and their sacrifice.”
The Governor General returned to the dais as the ceremony neared its end to receive and return the salute as the parade, including the veterans’ contingent, marched past. As they marched, the second fly past roared overhead. First came a CH-147F Chinook, accompanied by two CH-146 Griffons. They were followed by a CC-177 Globemaster III and then a CC-150 Polaris, flanked by two CF-188 Hornets. Last came the nine CT-114 Tutors of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, flying the “missing man” formation.
“This is a long-time Air Force tradition that we use to honour those who passed away in the service of their country,” explained the Snowbirds’ team lead, Major Patrick Gobeil, before the ceremony. “As the formation approaches, you will see an aircraft depart our formation as a salute to the brave men and women who served their country during the Battle of Britain.”
A reception for veterans, serving members and invited guests took place in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill following the ceremony’s close.
“The ceremony was excellent,” said Honorary Lieutenant-General Richard Rohmer, honorary advisor to the Chief of the Defence Staff, after the ceremony. “All the performances of the people in the aircraft were as planned. Doing this is really significant. . . . The symbolism of it was magnificent.”
Honorary Lieutenant-General Rohmer, a retired major-general, is 91. He flew Mustang aircraft during the Second World War as a fighter-reconnaissance pilot and took part in the D-Day invasion of 1944.
For Major (retired) Bob Tracy, who served in the Canadian Armed Forces from 1949 to 1983, the heroism of the Battle of Britain inspired him to join the military, “I grew up as a teenager during that period. I just sat on the edge of my chair, listening to the radio and the reports coming in about the Battle of Britain. It enticed me to go into the air cadets and from the air cadets into the RCAF.”
“So many memories come flooding back.”
Major Doug Keirstead, a currently serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces, was among the spectators on Parliament Hill. The ceremony was “a fitting tribute to our treasured veterans and today’s serving members,” he said.
“Indeed a proud day for the RCAF.”
By Joanna Calder