Squadron 420 “Snowy Owl” (RCAF) of Bomber Command: A Postal history connection

March 14, 2018

As a collector of postal history I search for interesting mailings during World War II. I’m especially interested in both world wars because I have relatives including my father who served.

7c BCATP Airmail-Military-RAFMarsdon-30c rate-1943

Airmail to a Canadian serviceman in England

Recently I obtained an interesting mailing, or cover, as we collectors call them (see scan above). The mail was to a Canadian serving overseas with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as part of the Allied Bomber Command. What I like to do is research the individual service members to see what history lies behind the mail. The cover was postmarked September 6, 1943 from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The serviceman and address on the cover read,
P/O Len B. Greenhalgh (the P/O stands for Pilot Officer)
CAN – J-25735Royal Canadian Air Force
Overseas
(the Overseas is stroked out by pen and redirected to “RAF Long Marston”)

The sender and address on the reverse is,
Mr & Mrs Greenhalgh (likely his parents)
Ste 410 Pringle Apts 3
Saskatoon, Sask
Canada

Postage on the envelope consists of four 7c War Issue airmail stamps plus two 1c War Issue King George VI regular issue stamps. Total postage is 30 cents. The airmail rate from Canada to England at this time was 30 cents per 1/2 ounce so it was properly paid. Mailings from this period are frequently damaged as this one is, but still interesting.

Bomber Command sustained heavy casualties during the war so my first thought was did Pilot Officer Greenhalgh survive. There are several sources for finding those who were killed in the service of Canada and the Commonwealth (I’ve listed them at the bottom). A search showed he wasn’t killed.

Next I did a genealogical search using Ancestry and found several hits on Leonard Greenhalgh, an entry in a high school yearbook, a couple of entries in the Voters List database and finally a newspaper article from the Lethbridge Herald of March 13, 1944 titled “RCAF Makes Up Half of Force Raiding Le Mans”.

From these searches and sources I learned,
– Leonard Greenhalgh went to high school at City Park Collegiate Institute in Saskatoon. The yearbook of 1943 contained an Roll of Honor listing him as a member of the Air Force. It also gave his age of 23 years.
– the newspaper article from March 13, 1944 reported on the bombing of rail yards in France. It quoted Leonard Greenhalgh from the Snowy Owl Squadron saying the raid had gone well and they suffered no losses on this occasion.
– the Voters Lists showed him in Saskatoon in 1949 listed as a custom officer, and in Burnaby in 1962 listed as a business manager.

Using this information and good old Google, I located information on Squadron 420 nicknamed the “Snowy Owl” squadron as being part of No. 5 Group of Bomber Command. I knew he was part of the squadron in 1943. I also found out the squadron was flying Handley Page Halifax III bombers at the time. I even found a website containing logbook entries showing the raid on Le Mans taking place on March 7, 1944. These raids on rail yards were precursors to the Normandy Invasion of June 6, 1944. The intent being to hinder the Germans sending up reinforcements via rail during or after D-Day.

handley-halifax bomber

Halifax bomber in flight. Photo: RCAF

Squadron 420 (Snowy Owl) was based at Tholthorpe, England about 12 miles northwest of York. They were there from December 12, 1943 until June 1945 when their mission in England ended. Later they returned to Canada and prepared to be part of a Canadian contribution to the war against Japan, but Japan surrendered before they were deployed. Much more can be read about the squadron but I focused on the time Leonard Greenhalgh would have been part of it.

Now I have another connection to the history of the Second World War, another appreciation of the sacrifice those young Canadian men made.

Further Reading
Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Books of Remembrance

Canada at War

Bomber Command Museum, Nanton, Alberta

Squadron 420 Snowy Owl Blog

RCAF Squadron 420, Snowy Owl

RCAF History – World War II


War Horses in World War I

February 22, 2018

World War I saw the use of trucks, tanks, machine guns and airplanes, but it also relied on the horse. An estimated 8 million horses were used by all combatants during the conflict from 1914-1918. This is considered the first and only time horses were widely used in a global conflict.

Pack Horses at Vimy Ridge-LAC PA-001229

Pack horses taking ammunition to front at Vimy Ridge April 1917. Photo Library & Archives Canada, PA-001229

Horses and mules proved more reliable than mechanized transport and it took far less to look after them. They served as pack animals hauling food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to troops at the front. Horses proved invaluable moving artillery pieces around in the mud and slime of the battlefield.

The Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) Veterinary Services tended to sick and wounded horses. They had a Mobile Services group to look after horses in the field. There was even an evacuation station at the rear where sick or wounded animals could be taken for care. The British and the Germans also had units assigned to tend to horses.

At Vimy Ridge for example some 500,000 horses pulled artillery pieces into position, brought supplies, ammunition and shells from the rear to forward positions in preparation for the attack. To keep the horses going about 600,000 gallons of water per day was required.

Conditions faced by horses in World War I were harsh, Many died from starvation, disease and exhaustion while many died from artillery fire.

The British Army used over 1 million horses and mules during the war. More than 400,000 of them were killed. In one day at the Battle of Verdun more that 7,000 horses perished.

Horses became more difficult to replace as the war went on. In order to meet the need horses were purchased from Australia, Argentina, Canada and the United States. In Britain horses were conscripted from farms but that supply was soon exhausted.

At the end of the war many horses were put down as too ill or too old. Many were sold to slaughterhouses or to locals in the war zones. Quarantine restrictions also prevented many from being returned to their countries of origin.

Cavalry units did exist and were used at various times. It became clear horses were vulnerable to trenches, machine guns and barbed wire. Soldiers on horseback were dismounted and fought as infantry.

The British mounted a cavalry charge early in the war near Mons in 1914. It was a disaster. Later in 1918 they charged at the German lines once again it was unsuccessful. Out of 150 horses only 4 survived the charge the rest cut down by German machine gun fire.

730px-Alfred_Munnings_-_Charge_of_Flowerdew's_Squadron

Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron. Photo of painting by Alfred Munnings. Photo Canadian War Museum.

Canada’s most noted cavalry unit was the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Most of their war was spent as infantry, but they did mount a charge in the Last One Hundred Days of the war with minor success. At the Battle of Moreuil Wood mounted cavalry of 100 horses and men charged the German lines defended by roughly 300 enemy. The Germans surrendered but three-quarters of the cavalry were killed or wounded. The success of the attack was due to the complete surprise of the Germans seeing the mad charge of the horse soldiers bearing down on them at breakneck speed. This became known as the “Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron” after the commander who was killed in the attack. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.

“War Horse” a 1982 book by British author Michael Mopurgo and later made first into a stage play and then a movie by Steven Spielberg depicts the life of a war horse quite graphically. It also shows the love and affection many of the soldiers had for these valiant beasts.


Fighting the Spanish Lady of 1918: Remedies, Cures and Preventatives, Part 2

January 16, 2018

Here is Part 2 of blogpost on the Pandemic of 1918.

Poster Issued Board of Health-1918-na-4548-5

Living in the 21st century we take the scientific and medical wonders of our age for granted. Let us return to the year 1918 when the deadliest influenza pandemic in history, the Spanish Flu, rampages around the globe killing in massive numbers.

The “Spanish lady”, as it is morbidly nicknamed, focuses its attack on young adults age 21 to 34 years of age and children. The elderly escape for the most part, seemingly because of some immunity from previous flu viruses.

The Influenza of 1918 is a killer virus that attacks the respiratory system and saps the immune system. Most deaths result from complications such as pneumonia. An affected person exhibits symptoms in the morning, is sick by noon, and dies before nightfall.

The healthcare system of 1918 is drastically different than the one we live in today. Hospitals are small and located in larger centers. Few doctors and nurses are available especially in those smaller communities. Antibiotics to fight infection from flu complications such as pneumonia do not exist. Flu vaccines do not exist. The initial first step in the creation of a vaccine, the isolation of human influenza viruses, does not occur until 1933. Even if the vaccines existed in 1918, the public health system did not have a distribution system to deliver vaccine to the populace.

Quarantine is the normal preventative measure implemented by health authorities. In this case it fails. The mailman continues to deliver the mail, the milkman keeps delivering milk door-to-door effectively circumventing the isolation of the victims and unknowingly spreading the disease from house to house.

People desperately seek remedies or cures. Many of these concoctions are cooked at home on the stove, then dispensed to the family members. Some of the more exotic ones include,

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking opium
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Ingesting tiny amounts of strychnine (a deadly poison)
  • Sipping kerosene
  • Drinking cinnamon with tea or coffee
  • Eating red-pepper sandwiches
  • Drinking something called Bulgarian blood tea
  • A mixture of cinnamon, tobacco, alcohol, goose grease, and turpentine
  • According to one belief, the steel particles in a shotgun placed under a victim’s bed would draw out the fever.

Preventative measures to stop the spread of the disease also involved a myriad of strange steps.

  • The wearing of surgical masks. There was much controversy as to the effectiveness of these. These were just loosely fitting cloth unlike today’s tight fitting sanitary versions
  • Tin drinking cups in public places replaced by disposable paper ones.
  • Smoked herrings worn around the neck.
  • Bags of garlic were hung around children’s necks to keep the disease away.
  • Sulphur sprinkled in shoes.
  • Vinegar packs tied to stomachs
  • Cucumber slices tied to ankles.
  • Carrying a potato in each pocket.
  • Breathing through the nose.
  • Chewing food well
  • Avoiding the wearing of tight-fitting clothes, shoes and gloves.
  • Bodies of victims are buried covered in raw, sliced onions from head to toe.
  • Voodoo charms along with chants of, “Sour, sour, vinegar V, keep the sickness off of me.”

The scientific community of 1918 struggled to provide an answer, so society sought its own solutions, however weird. Statistics are not available concerning the success or lack of success for these cures and preventative measures. In point of fact they did nothing to alleviate the pain and suffering.

Make sure you and yours take advantage of the modern miracle of a vaccine. There is no excuse. It will help protect you and others. Our ancestors living in 1918 died for lack of a vaccine.

 


Alberta and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part 1

January 10, 2018

Author’s Note: This is an important and large topic. For this reason I am presenting it in two parts.

CampFunstonKS-InfluenzaHospital

Camp Funston military base in Kansas where first case documented in March 1918. Photo: original US Military now Public Domain

The misery of the Great War ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of November 1918. Soldiers from Alberta trickled home with the last of them returning by late 1919. These servicemen wanted to come home and pick up their lives where they left off, but nature had other plans.

If you tour older cemeteries in Alberta you will notice in the period from 1918 to 1920 many graves are of young persons. Once you realize this was the time of the great influenza pandemic, these names shout out the impact to the reader of the inscriptions on the silent stones.

In the summer of 1918 influenza ravaged the world with the Spanish Flu. The society of 1918 had no vaccines for influenza, or any other disease for that matter. Influenza is incurable even in the 21st century. The impact on the Province of Alberta and the world was unimaginable. An estimated 20 to 40 million people died of the Spanish Flu worldwide. People could be healthy in the morning, sick by noon, and deceased by evening.

Health officials named this strain the “Spanish” Flu, not because it originated in that country, but because Spain was neutral during the period 1914 to 1918; better statistics and reports emanated from that country due to lack of censorship. Other countries repressed the true extent of the pandemic to maintain morale during wartime. More people died from the flu than soldiers killed in the war.

Symptoms included, severe headache, high fever; chills, aches, and pains in the back and limbs. The flu caused severe problems breathing because it attacked the lungs. Those who didn’t perish in the first few days died later of complications such as pneumonia. Persons between the ages of 20 and 40 were the most susceptible and the majority of the deaths occurred in this age group. To this day no one knows the reason for this.

In the early 1990’s Canadian scientists located several 1918 flu victims buried in a permafrost cemetery in Norway. Bits of viral RNA from their preserved flesh enabled scientists to reconstruct the virus. Scientists in a Winnipeg lab used tissues from First World War soldiers to restore the virus. All this research occurred in high security medical labs. The goal is to find a vaccine. So far they have been unsuccessful.

Influenza, like the common cold, has no known cure. Advice given by health authorities of the era included, wearing of masks to prevent the spread of the disease. Avoiding public gatherings, and public places like theatres and schools was encouraged. Health officials recommended patients drink lots of water, limit exposure to cold, and get lots of fresh air.

The Spanish Flu came in two distinct waves, first in the summer of 1918, and then the spring of 1919. Remarkably it disappeared as fast as it arrived.

Unknown to them, Canadian soldiers returning home brought the flu virus with them. By the end of the pandemic, an estimated 50,000 Canadians were dead out of a population of about 1,500,00 persons. Some smaller villages were almost wiped out. Alberta had a population of about 500,000 in 1918, over 4,300 Albertans died from the flu. In the United States 675,000 people died from the flu out of a population of around 7,000,000.

The flu terrified the populace of Alberta and the rest of Canada. Almost everyone who went outdoors wore a face mask. In fact on October 25, 1918 the government of Alberta ordered all citizens to wear a mask when they left their homes. Closed communities, like remote villages, were most vulnerable.

Albert Farmers-Sp-flu-alberta-field-PublicDomain

Alberta farmers wearing masks. Photo: Public Domain

Aboriginal communities were some of the hardest hit. The flu decimated the First Nation populations. Their settlements were small and close-knit enabling rapid spread of the disease. Many of them had not been previously exposed to influenza and thus were vulnerable. Medical care did not exist in the settlements, often they were left alone to suffer the ravages.

In Alberta gatherings of more than six people were banned. It was a criminal offence to shake hands. Public areas were closed. These included schools, theatres and any other public buildings or facilities. Throughout Canada hearses filled the streets. Hospitals were overflowing and doctors did not know what to do.

People tried everything and anything to defeat the flu. Some of the more exotic cures were smoked herrings worn around the neck, drinking alcohol, eating garlic, raw onions, drinking mixtures of hot milk, ginger and black pepper. Quarantine was implemented to no avail.

Antibiotics were not available to fight the secondary bacterial pneumonia. This compounded the impact of the flu and many deaths were from complications such as pneumonia.

The reason the Spanish Flu caused rapid death has only recently been explained. It seems this strain of influenza filled the lung tissue with liquid preventing oxygen from reaching the rest of the body.

The question for scientists is, could this happen today? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Science today has technology to develop vaccines for various strains of influenza, but to date they have been unsuccessful in finding a vaccine for the Spanish Flu virus of 1918-1919. Might this virus reappear? There is no reason to think it could not.

Society in 2010 has several advantages over the society of 1918, better hygiene, and the ability, perhaps, to create a specific vaccine for the virus. In addition we have better medical technology and facilities. Lastly, antibiotics are available to battle bacterial complications such as pneumonia.

The impact to Alberta and society in general would be significant. People would still get sick, but it should be possible to minimize fatalities. Health authorities in Alberta and worldwide must remain vigilant.

Further Reading

Wikipedia – Pandemic Influenza History

Alberta in the 20th Century, Volume Four: The Great War and Its Consequences, Chapter Two by Stephani Keer, pp326-341, CanMedia Inc., 1995

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, Gina Kolata, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1999

CBC News Online, 1918 Flu Epidemic, Dan Bjarnason and Robin Rowland, January 16, 2007

Pandemic, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Foundation of Canada, 2009

A City Faces an Epidemic, McGinnis, J.P. Dickin, Alberta History, 24, No.4 (Autumn 1976, p.1-11

Alberta Formed, Alberta Transformed, Vol.2, 1919: A Year of Extraordinary Difficulty, Bright, David, University of Alberta Press, 2006

 


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