When you talk about the Second World War with 97-year-old veteran Victor Mulhall, it’s not the easiest interview.
“I try to think as little as possible about the war. … It’s not pleasant. Why spend your time thinking about something that drives you nuts sometimes.”
The Red Deer senior seems to prefer focusing on the accomplishments of others, and not so much on himself.
But this rather spry gentleman does admit how pleased he is about recently receiving France’s greatest honour — the National Order of the Legion of Honour, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
“I felt very proud. Actually I was very, very proud, yes. It’s their highest decoration, and it’s a beautiful medal by the way.”
Mulhall, a Royal Canadian Air Force navigator during the war, received the award, along with two other veterans, at a ceremony in Calgary in October.
There are five degrees of distinction for the award. They received the Knight (Chevalier) degree.
France is giving the award to former Canadian soldiers who helped free the country from the Germans between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and Aug. 31 of the same year.
But this is not the first time Mulhall has been honoured for his war service. On Dec. 7, 1943, he was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross at Buckingham Palace.
That year is important, said Mulhall, who was stationed in England then, because there were far fewer DFCs being awarded in the early war years.
When I talked to him last week, he chuckled a bit when asked how he was. ”I’m fed up. I went to the Golden Circle and I had the beef meal. It was good.” One wonders if that dry sense of humour helped get him through the war.
He said the other two veterans who received the French award included a man who went ashore on D-Day and on “D-Day plus one” was seriously wounded and a fighter pilot who had survived a serious flying accident.
“The only thing he mentioned about me,” he says laughing “was Vic Mulhall flew a lot of bombing missions. And he had a second tour.”
In fact, Mulhall, who enlisted in 1940 after three years with the RCMP, flew two tours with Bomber Command, surviving an incredible 55 sorties. The survival rate for those in Bomber Command squadrons was only about 40 per cent.
In his profile with The Memory Project, which shares veterans’ stories: “Regardless of the terrible odds, bomber crews buckled on their parachutes and began each mission with determination. They fell prey to the hazards of fog, icing and lightning, and they perished amongst the bursting shells of anti-aircraft guns. However the greatest number died in the desperately unequal combat and the overwhelming firepower of tenacious German night fighter defenders. Over 9,900 Canadians in Bomber Command died.”
He tells me, “You come back from very few bombing operations without holes in the aircraft … Those are pretty big shells and they’re bursting not too far from you. It’s quite normal that some shrapnel will reach your aircraft.”
On one sortie when they were dropping mines into the water at the French seaport of Lorient, they sustained 104 holes in their heavy bomber Stirling.
On a different bombing run to Italy they were struck with shrapnel over France. Unbeknownst to the crew, the shrapnel had severed the lead connections to the bombs on the plane. Only two bombs dropped despite the efforts of the pilot who “threw the aircraft around the sky” trying to get the bombs to release. In the end they couldn’t get back to base and had to land at a short runway airdrome with almost a full bomb load.
Mulhall said later they made two more sorties in the plane and each time the bombs would not drop. He was being blamed for the failure because when the plane was tested on the ground, the bombs released.
It turned out that when the bomber returned to base, ground crews had repaired shrapnel holes and so no one could see the leads had been severed. Later, Mulhall also figured out the bombs came off the plane when the plane was on the ground because its tail was lower. In the air of course the tail was raised. “We made three useless trips because the wing commander didn’t take my word for it.”
Mulhall started out at the low rank of Air Craftsman Second Class (AC2) but rose through the ranks to become a senior officer, a squadron leader.
He was recognized as a top navigator.
“Getting the wind right is extremely important because the wind will cause your aircraft to drift. … if you know accurately what the wind is, you can properly plot out your course.
“But if the information is in error you have to find what the wind is …if you don’t find the wind correctly then you’re liable to be anywhere. That’s why bombing errors occur.”
“On my seventh operation, I remember that my legs were like jelly. I instinctively knew that I was going to die that night. … And yet it turned out to be one of the easiest trips I ever made. So that kind of reassured me. If I was so convinced that I was going to die, and yet it turned out to be just an easy trip, then from now on I won’t have the same fears.”
After the war, still with the RCAF in London, England, he became the Casualty Liaison Officer in the Missing Research and Enquiry Service for a few years. That job involved determining where missing soldiers had died and where they were buried.
Every year Mulhall has helped sell poppies for the Legion at Costco. Even though he’s just three years shy of being 100, this year is no different. He was at Costco on Saturday and was to be there again Monday.
Mulhall’s doctor recently asked him if he ever has memory lapses: “I said I was seven years at war and yes I do forget, but that’s something I want to do, so I don’t mind those memory lapses.”
The doctor also asked if he has panic attacks? “Not since the war ended.”
He will participate at Wednesday’s Remembrance Day ceremonies in Red Deer by placing a wreath for the RCMP. The ceremony starts at 10:30 a.m. at the Red Deer Arena at 4725-43rd St. People are asked to please be seated by 10:20 a.m.