The sound of approaching German planes was unmistakable to Joe Lowis and his anti-aircraft gun crew.
All too familiar was the din of exploding bombs that followed that morning in France in 1944.
“Two or three went off,” the 97-year-old Lacombe veteran recalls of the attack.
“One landed about 100 feet from our gun. But it didn’t go off.”
Understandably not comfortable manning a gun pit a stone’s throw from an awfully big piece of unexploded ordnance, a battery member phoned headquarters for permission to move their 40-mm Bofors gun.
Headquarter brass did helpfully give them the go-ahead to build a sand bag wall around the unexploded bomb.
Lowis still shakes his head at the memory.
At 27, he was older than a lot of the young men under his charge in the 112th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery.
Raised on a farm in the Coronation area, he joined the army at 24, signing up in a hotel room at the Coronation Hotel.
“At the time, when I joined, our side was losing pretty badly. I thought maybe one more guy would help.”
After training in Lethbridge, and Ontario’s Chatham and Petawawa, he was shipped to England on the Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted to a troop ship and would carry 750,000 wartime passengers, as many as 10,000 at a time.
For Lowis’s journey, there were six men to each tiny room, sleeping in hammocks.
Posted to Colchester, Lowis and the other gunners trained, and took turns manning gun emplacements along the English Channel coast to relieve British crews.
“They were pretty exhausted in England,” he says.
On July 8, 1944, his battery was sent to France as reinforcements following the D-Day invasion the previous month.
One of his most vivid memories was surviving an attack by their own planes.
“We could see these planes break off formation and start coming in.”
An officer happened to be cycling by and Lowis warned him.
“I said, ‘Sir, you better get in our dugout because we’re going to get bombed by our own planes!’
“Sure enough, we got it.”
The planes were close enough there was no question whose markings they bore — and they weren’t German.
“I could see the guy in the cockpit, who drove the plane.”
One anti-aircraft gun crew member, who was a little slow in being convinced he was going to be attacked by his own side, suffered a minor shrapnel wound to his back as he leaped into the dugout. But the others came through unharmed.
It later emerged that there was some confusion among the airmen over flare colours used to identify friend from foe.
Lowis dodged injury that day, but would not emerge from war unscathed. His hearing was irrecoverably damaged by the din from his guns, and his nerves were affected, he says.
As the one in charge of the anti-aircraft gun, he could not wear ear protection because he had to take targeting and firing orders over a field telephone.
Lowis served right to the end of the war in Europe — and beyond. In the Army of Occupation, he found himself guarding a German hospital.
When someone swiped his knife, he substituted one from the hospital kitchens. That swastika-embossed souvenir became his wife’s tool of choice for digging out dandelions back in Canada for many years.
Lowis had met his bride Dorothy during his service in England. She had been born in Canada but had followed her family back to England.
Joe and Dorothy married in Basingstoke, England. It would be a short honeymoon. The couple were only married a week when Joe was sent home.
Almost a year went by before his wife could join him, as she waited her turn for ship passage with the thousands of other war brides.
Joe and Dorothy farmed in the Poplar Ridge area until retirement. They had been married for 61 years when Dorothy died in 2007.
Lowis’s wartime uniform and Dorothy’s wedding dress are on display at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.