Some things you never forget
Friends had enlisted and headed off in different directions.
He had heard about what was going on in Europe, with Nazi forces having taken much of the continent, and so in March 1942, a 21-year-old George Braithwaite decided he should enlist to fight in the Second World War.
“I heard some horror stories about the army’s conditions and I wasn’t very fussy about being a sailor either, so I thought I’d try the air force, and they treated me well enough, I guess, as far as military services were concerned,” said Braithwaite.
After training in Western Canada, Braithwaite would find himself flying the skies of Europe, far from his farm home west of Red Deer.
From 1943-45, Braithwaite was a second pilot and bomb aimer in Bomber Command, tasked with softening up German war manufacturing and transportation infrastructure.
“There are some things you never forget. When you’re about four and five miles away and they’re shooting at you with cannons, and you can see them coming and going and you’re just flying right at them, you kind of wonder when your turn’s coming. I was glad when it was over. You kind of counted your luck a little bit,” recalled Braithwaite.
He flew mostly around the Ruhr Valley in Germany, but also bombed targets in France and Belgium.
After the D-Day invasion and the subsequent push through France, Braithwaite said he was regularly bombing “two minutes in front of the army.”
And while Braithwaite came back from his service intact, he remembers a “severe, heavy cost” to the victory.
“(Bomber Command) kind of took the brunt of the attack and softened things up for the others. We had some narrow escapes, but we survived. Some of my friends did, and some of them didn’t.”
Approximately 50,000 Canadians served with the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force in Bomber Command operations; 10,000 lost their lives.
The few that remain to this day are being honoured by the federal government in 2013.
Over the weekend, Braithwaite and nine other Bomber Command veterans were feted at a ceremony in Calgary, where Minister of Veterans Affairs Julian Fantino presented them with a new Bomber Command Bar.
The honour is a bar clasp, to be worn on the ribbon of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal.
Though saying with a laugh that the box it came in was more impressive than the bar, Braithwaite said the ceremony was a very nice occasion.
Turning 92 next month, Braithwaite has lived in the Innisfail area for nearly 30 years, having run a farming operation southeast of town.
While he believes his service was part of a worthy cause, he said then and now, military recruiters don’t always paint a full picture of service, a full picture which can include the horrors of combat.
“One of the things that I kind of resent is the recruiting officers indicating what a wonderful life it is in the services — you make new friends, you travel, you see the world. But they don’t tell you the other side of the story where your life is on the line. It’s a false impression they’re putting out there to get the young fellows to join up. It’s a little deceiving, I think,” he said.
In his civilian life, Braithwaite was the first president of the Red Deer Co-op board of directors and was the founding president of Sunnybrook Farm Museum.
He was named volunteer of the year at Tourism Red Deer’s 2008 Red Hat Awards.