Veteran Jack Shaw flew bomber in historic moments of WWII

By on November 5, 2014
World War II veteran Jack Shaw shows his medals and a photo of the young men he flew with on bombing raids over Germany. (Richard McGuire photo)

World War II veteran Jack Shaw shows his medals and a photo of the young men he flew with on bombing raids over Germany. (Richard McGuire photo)

When Jack Shaw’s Lancaster Bomber approached the eastern German city of Dresden on a dark night in mid-February, 1945, all he could see of the city was a blanket of red flames.

Dark lines cut through the red where streets once ran in the city that was lit up by incendiary bombs quickly spreading fire through its wooden structures.

“It was a sight to behold, I’ll tell you,” recalls Shaw, who has lived in Osoyoos since shortly after the Second World War and served as the town’s mayor in the early 1970s. “I’ll never forget it.”

Shaw’s bomber, named T Tommy, was part of a second wave of bombs dropped on this industrial and communications centre as Russian troops rapidly advanced on a collapsing Nazi Germany.

There were four waves of raids by the British Royal Air Force (RAF), which Shaw flew with, and the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), from Feb. 13 – 15, 1945.

An estimated 25,000 people were killed and the centre of a city once known as Florence on the Elbe was destroyed.

For Shaw, then just 19, such bombing raids every night or every second night were a fact of the war − a war that wasn’t yet going as well for the Allies when he enlisted more than a year earlier.

How did such an event affect him?

“You learn to detach yourself,” said Shaw. “If you think about it too deeply – or even about your own safety – you go crazy.”

But such wartime experiences still have an impact on Shaw today at the age of 89.

Although the term “post traumatic stress disorder” didn’t exist at the time, and although Shaw managed to survive his experience with psyche intact, he says it did affect him.

“Even to this day I suffer from anxiety when I get into a stressful situation,” he admits, adding that he encountered other RAF members who were scarred and shaken at the time by experiences such as plane crashes.

Every Remembrance Day, floods of memories come back, although these days fewer and fewer veterans of World War II remain.

Although Shaw and other veterans may have tried to get on with their lives, putting war memories aside, they were always there.

Many veterans, he admits, find it hard to talk about their experiences and he is no exception. But the Royal Canadian Legion is encouraging veterans to share their remembrances.

“I think there’s a realization that it’s necessary to continue with Remembrance and it’s a good way if somebody is living in the same community to speak to the youth,” he said.

Shaw was born in Merritt, B.C. in 1925. When the war started, he was too young to enlist. Five other members of his family were already serving with the forces, including his father, who was also a World War I veteran.

After he finally reached the age of 18 in July 1943, he went to Vancouver to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

“I didn’t think too much of the danger of it,” he says. “I was thinking more of the adventure.”

His extensive training meant winter stays in the freezing cold of Edmonton, Alberta and Mont Joli, Quebec. He was trained in Morse code and other communications and learned to recognize various types of aircraft.

There was training in flying, bombing and gunning.

One of the exercises involved shooting from a plane at a drone being towed by another aircraft. Some of the trainees shot a little too close to the towing aircraft, he recalls.

Finally, he was sent across the Atlantic in a convoy on the Empress of Scotland, a ship that had been called Empress of Japan before the war.

It was in winter of early 1944 and Shaw, along with about a dozen others, was assigned to man a large gun to defend against any German U-boats — submarines. They slept in a temporary shelter on the deck and saw little but fog.

At last, he arrived safely in Liverpool and was sent to Gloucester for advanced flight training. While he was there, the June 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe took place, changing the course of the war.

“Aircraft were passing over our heads,” he recalls. “There was hardly any daylight. There were just thousands and thousands.”

He learned to fly Wellingtons and later Halifax bombers, flying from Sandtoft, Lincolnshire, which some in the RAF dubbed “Prangtoft” because the poorly maintained Halifax’s were prone to crashing and “prang” was RAF slang for crash.

Finally, after more than a year of training, Shaw flew his first mission in November 1944 with 103 Squadron RAF Number 1 Group Bomber Command. In total, he flew 33 missions with the squadron.

The bombing of Dresden was certainly not the only historic raid Shaw participated in. On April 25, 1945, he was part of a bombing raid to destroy the Berghof, Hitler’s home near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps.

The raid, conducted by hundreds of RAF Lancaster bombers, took place just 12 days before the German surrender.

Faulty intelligence suggested Hitler had left Berlin to flee the advancing Russians and the bombing was intended to finish off the Nazi dictator. In fact, Hitler was still in Berlin, where he committed suicide five days later.

By this time, the Allies commanded the skies and Shaw recalls flying from Elsham Wolds, in Lincolnshire to southern Germany on a sunny day with hardly a cloud in the sky.

By the time Shaw reached the target, Hitler’s home was in rubble.

On other missions, Shaw’s plane often received hits with flak, or anti-aircraft artillery and sometimes T Tommy returned with holes all over the plane.

“We had our gas tank shot out,” he remembers. “That’s a terrible feeling. There are gas tanks on either wing. The one on the starboard side was hit by ack-ack shrapnel and sprung a big leak. Fortunately it didn’t catch on fire. That leak was really bad and it just blinded you. You could smell gasoline.”

Fortunately also, the crew had enough fuel in the other tank to make it back safely to England.

Sometimes the biggest enemy was Mother Nature.

One night over Ludwigshafen, Germany, the plane ran into icy conditions and the crew had to try to keep away from cloud formations. If ice forms on the wings, the plane in effect changes shape and loses its lift. Fortunately for Shaw, there was not enough ice to bring them down.

Shaw sometimes lost friends. One crew he bunked with didn’t return from a mission and Shaw and his crew were tasked with gathering up their lost comrades’ belongings.

Once just after Shaw and his crew returned from a mission, another crew used their plane for a mine laying operation near a port in Denmark.

A German fighter attacked the plane and the man in Shaw’s seat and his partner were both killed as their plane was shot down.

Such twists of fate happened throughout the war as many men lost their lives while others made it home to tell their stories.

Today, as fewer and fewer World War II veterans are still alive, those first-hand accounts have also become fewer.

Shaw goes to Remembrance Day services when he can, although his arthritis has kept him home the last couple of years.

This year again, on November 11, his memories of events 70 years ago will come flooding back.

RICHARD McGUIRE

Osoyoos Times

Jack Shaw at 18 before going overseas. (Photo supplied)

Jack Shaw at 18 before going overseas. (Photo supplied)

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5 Comments

  1. Ian Bass

    August 3, 2015 at 5:04 am

    Great to see this artical
    My partners late father was flight engineer in the same crew

  2. Yvonne Laviolette

    February 22, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    My father is that photograph he’s holding, Albert Laviolette Flight Lieutenant. He was also a Lancaster Pilot. Great story. Thank you.

  3. Bob Cunningham

    October 19, 2016 at 6:37 am

    The story is written as if Shaw was a pilot. He was a rear gunner, the most dangerous position. Enemy fighters took out the rear gunner first, then the mid upper gunner, then the gas tanks–that was considered enough to claim their hit–the fighter then followed the bomber stream in search of another victim. The photo of the Wellington bomber crew is as follows– Front Row, left to right: Bill Allen (London, Eng.) Wireless; Frank Glover (Duncan, BC) Air Gunner. Back Row left to right: Jack Shaw Penticton, BC) Air Gunner; Chuck Ellam (Vancouver BC) Navigator; Ray Todd (Washington, County Durham, Eng.) Air Bomber; Al Laviolette (Pilot) Vancouver BC.

  4. Stephanie Pinhiero

    December 16, 2017 at 12:28 am

    I came upon an old photograph of jack shaw. If you can get ahold of me thatd be great

    • Bob Cunningham

      January 2, 2018 at 1:27 pm

      Hi Stephanie,
      I am doing WW2 RCAF research and would be interested in the photo of Jack Shaw if it is military-related. A scan and an email would be the easiest way to send it.
      Thanks,
      Bob

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