Barbara More (left) shows a wartime image of the women’s air force to Claire Fairbairn. Both More and Fairbairn served in the women’s air force during the Second World War. More served in Scotland while Fairbairn served in Canada. The two women

Rare kinship lives on

Two air force women who lived through high drama during the Second World War now swap war stories from the same Red Deer seniors home.

Two air force women who lived through high drama during the Second World War now swap war stories from the same Red Deer seniors home.

Claire (Hall) Fairbairn and Barbara (Mckenzie) More, both 92, tracked and relayed the positions of enemy vessels and planes during the 1940s. They worked in air force operation rooms on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The two women have a rare kinship. Given advancing age, there are few women left who share their experiences.

Fairbairn, a native of Mortlach, Sask., served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, women’s division, from 1942 to 1944.

She relayed the positions of German submarines that threatened convoys of troops and freight along the East Coast of Canada. Fairbairn was stationed in St. John’s, Nfld., and Sydney, N.S.

Until her arrival at St. John’s, she was unaware there were enemy submarines in Canadian waters.

Fairbairn was part of an effort to protect the critical North Atlantic shipping lanes between Canada and Britain from invading boats.

More performed similar spotting duties in an operations room at Dyce near Aberdeen, Scotland, to provide protection from German bombing raids. A native of Yorkshire, England, More served with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force from 1941 to 1945.

At the time, women did not pilot planes in active combat, but they faced the same dangers working in operational war zones.

More recalls during the Battle of Britain “we were bombed almost every single night.”

She remembers being jarred awake by sirens that sent them racing to the underground air raid shelters.

Fairbairn recalls giving up her seat on a plane to an officer only to watch in horror as the plane went straight up in the air, burst into flames and came crashing down.

“Everyone was killed. Fire everywhere. It was terrible,” Fairbairn said.

En route to one of her postings, Fairbairn describes a gut-wrenching ship ride during high seas when there was a loud crash.

Sirens signaled an enemy torpedo. They were about to be lowered to lifeboats below when the all clear sounded.

They learned that the hit was from a giant wave. After arriving safely at their destination, they learned an earlier ship was lost to an enemy hit.

Both women remember having huge respect for the pilots. More said: “When the pilots went up, you didn’t know whether they were going to come back.”

Fairbairn said there was a lot of secrecy about work in the operations room, where messages had to be coded and decoded. “You were sworn to secrecy.” Fairbairn could not even tell her parents her location or what she was doing.

More points to an image of an operations room in a book on the Royal Air Force given to her by one of her sons. It shows more than a dozen women in uniform with long sticks moving magnetic pieces on a huge table map.

“We had big maps on the table. We used metal arrows. We were connected by headphones to the radar station. They would tell us the position of the aircraft. We would tell the officers and they would relay it to our pilots,” More said.

Fairbairn said in her operations room, the big maps were on the wall. They were constantly being updated with positions of Canadian convoys and enemy submarines.

More and Fairbairn remember other traumatic war incidents shared by family in the service. More said her oldest son was 14 years old when she first heard her husband, a medical student in the army, was in the operating theatre when the hospital was bombed, killing a man they had worked three hours to save. “When I think of all the horrible things he must have seen,” she said.

Fairbairn said it was only a year before he died that her brother Eric told her that he recalled running beside a fellow soldier who was shot dead beside him. He also remembered the grim task of collecting the ID tags from dead soldiers so families could be told of their deaths.

More ponders the losses and the dangers. “You wonder yourself, how did we survive? I guess we were tough,” said More.

Today Fairbairn and More are confounded that two women with such a rare history would end up in apartments in the same Red Deer seniors home, Symphony Senior Living — Aspen Ridge.

Fairbairn and More share a lot of common ground. They were both born in 1922. Each joined within a year of women being allowed in the air force in their respective countries. Both performed spotting duties in air force operation rooms. Each woman rose through the ranks to supervise others. Fairbairn left the forces as a flight sergeant. When the war ended, More was a corporal.

Both Fairbairn and More married servicemen. Each woman left the air force to become wives and later mothers. Both are now widowed. Fairbairn has a daughter and a son. More has three sons and a daughter.

Each woman said a need for adventure and a sense of patriotism made them enlist.

Young, shy and naive, “We grew up in a hurry,” said More.

Fairbairn said: “It was the adventure of a lifetime.” She was wide-eyed as she made her very first train, boat and plane trips en route to postings on Canada’s East Coast.

Fairbairn and More said that air force women on both sides of the Atlantic were poorly regarded inside and outside the forces.

More remembers the air force men didn’t believe women belonged in the air force. “They thought we would be interfering,” More said. “They adjusted and so did we.”

Fairbairn said many civilians were hostile to air force women, who they regarded as the lowest of the low.

“They were afraid we would steal their men.”

A photograph of Fairbairn taken 70 years earlier shows a pretty woman in an air force uniform flashing an engaging smile.

“We didn’t look too bad in a uniform,” Fairbairn said with a smile.

cmartindale@bprda.wpengine.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Artist Nathan Scott’s The Face-off is one of Red Deer’s most recent public artworks. It was installed at Servus Arena. (Advocate file photo.)
Red Deer city council opts to leave public art selection to a commission

Only projects costing at least $1 million will now trigger art component

Red Deer City Coun. Michael Dawe spoke up about an attempted break-in at his home during a city council meeting that discussed policing priorities. (Advocate file photo).
All crimes should be reported, says Red Deer’s RCMP superintendent

Policing priorities are cracking down on property and drug crimes

The number of active cases of COVID-19 in the province sat at 4,477 Monday afternoon, up 826 from Friday’s 3,651, said Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. File photo
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up Monday

Alberta reported 1,440 new COVID-19 cases on Monday from over the weekend,… Continue reading

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Three Red Deer based dealerships have donated $10,000 to various local organizations including the food bank. (File Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Three Red Deer car dealerships help organizations in need

Three Red Deer automobile dealerships have come together to donate $10,000 to… Continue reading

“Our members have decided they just can’t do this anymore. We’ve protected this province and you’ve treated us like dirt, so enough is enough,” says AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola, whose members protested outside the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre on Momday. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Updated: Hospital workers strike in Red Deer

Some surgeries and ambulatory care clinics postponed around the province

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre could be affected by cuts to Alberta Health Services announced by the government Tuesday. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
David Marsden: Yes, we know how to do laundry

Union leaders would have us believe there’s something special about their members:… Continue reading

Bayern's Alphonso Davies controls the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig at the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany on February 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matthias Schrader
Canadian star Alphonso Davies could be out for two months after injuring ankle

Canadian star Alphonso Davies could be out for two months after injuring ankle

B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts owner, Senator David Braley speaks after the CFL announced Vancouver will host the 2014 Grey Cup championship football game during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday March 8, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
David Braley, owner of three Canadian Football League franchises, dead at 79

David Braley, owner of three Canadian Football League franchises, dead at 79

Alberta alternate Heather Nedohin skips against Saskatchewan during the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in St. Catharines, Ont., on February 21, 2017. Big-game skipping experience. Two national women's curling titles. Two world bronze medals. There's plenty to like about Heather Nedohin's resume. In bringing her on board as coach, Team Kerri Einarson is hoping her knowledge, drive and spirit will help them stay at the top. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Two-time Scotties champ Heather Nedohin to coach Team Kerri Einarson this season

Two-time Scotties champ Heather Nedohin to coach Team Kerri Einarson this season

Wayne Gretzky, left, holds up a banner bearing his number during a jersey retirement ceremony with Joey Mos in Edmonton on Firday, October 1, 1999. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Legendary Edmonton locker-room attendant Joey Moss dies at 57

Legendary Edmonton locker-room attendant Joey Moss dies at 57

Wild caribou roam the tundra in Nunavut on March 25, 2009. Canada and Alberta have signed a deal on caribou protection that gives them years to take action but could allow energy drilling to resume right away on some ranges. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canada, Alberta agree on caribou protection deal that gives them years to take action

Canada, Alberta agree on caribou protection deal that gives them years to take action

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney answers questions after announcing $43 million in repairs and improvements to provincial parks at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. All of the Alberta politicians who came into contact with a provincial cabinet minister infected with COVID-19 have tested negative for the virus.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Alberta politicians in contact with COVID-19-infected minister test negative

Alberta politicians in contact with COVID-19-infected minister test negative

Most Read