The following oral history was received at the Commonwealth Air Training Plan museum in June 2001. In the letter dated January 20 2001 that accompanied the donation, a man by the name of Willie Freitag explained that Cliff Shirley, the author of the oral history, met him while teaching Willie’s younger brothers in the school in Alameda Saskatchewan. He said that Cliff taught school for four years before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 and was now 87 years old and as sharp as he was 60 years ago. When Willie told Cliff that the museum was looking for `war stories,’ Cliff wrote his oral history which he sent to Willie who then sent it to us.
I'd like to comply with your request for comments about air force during World War by telling of several learning experiences. I have nothing but praise for what the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (B.CATP) did for me. I graduated with an "Air Observer's Wing" (an "O" ). The air observer course specialized in Navigation and Bombing with a smattering of Gunnery, Wireless and Meteorology in stages of about sixteen weeks each.
Prime Minister MacKenzie King demanded that control of the training plan in Canada be administered by the Canadian government and its Canadian graduates would maintain their Canadian identity when sent overseas. The deal was made on MacKenzie King's birthday December 17/39. I still say congratulations to our former prime minister for that memorable agreement.
In the British Air Manuals, the Canadian Air Observer's training for the handling of a responsible and exacting task, are commended. About 1942 Commander Harris decided that Air Observer (0) be changed to Air Navigator (N) because the task of navigation did not give the eyes of the navigator time to adjust over the target to use the bomb sight
The Distinguished Flying Medal
Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
Canada 150 Vignette 025 of 150
A World War II Memory
Cliff Shirley - Air Observer/Navigator
accurately. I think bombing was my favorite and a very successful part of our training, but later, when new instruments were added to our job, I understood Commander Harris' thinking. The organization by BCATP was superb--it almost seemed our name was on our bunk before we arrived and our plate at a table was waiting to be filled with good food .
During our training we moved about six times and had to pass many tests in the air and at a desk. To tell the complete truth--the best classroom we had was the inside of a bomber; the most useful information we had was from the airmen who had just returned from a bombing raid. To pass all air and ground tests gave our pride a big boost. To look at our insignia gave us a feeling that we could succeed at any job in this new career. In fact, we didn't know what fear was and acted quite "cocky.’’
Next came a posting to an operational training unit in Yorkshire, England. What a difference --larger and faster aircraft (Wellingtons), a crowded and hostile air space and flying at night with little or no visibility of the ground (everything was completely blacked out). The training was quite concentrated and chatter among our airmen involved a bit of casual bravado (to me that word means "fear"). At the end of this course, we were sent to a crewing-up arena or posted to squadrons.
As for me, I saw two uniformed men approaching. The one with the Wings (a pilot) said "We need a Navigator-Bomb aimer", the one with the half wing (a wireless op) said "Our first Navigator was a "clot"· Wow -- my imagination was my enemy, but I was on my way to membership in a real RAF air crew on an RAF station in operational Manchester bombers. These bombers had the reputation for not performing too well at high level - with a heavy load of explosives. The air crew bonded well, the ground crew were talented and all had very visible cheerful expressions. Our pilot turned out to be a superman (we called him "Flash"). Most of our bombing was done between two and four thousand feet and I learned to like to use the bomb sight. All our trips were at night in a dark and hostile sky,
At the end of the first tour (30 trips) I was posted to a test crew job. The crew was RAF, Our tasks were challenging but not too risky. Many of the results were quite useable. In fact, we were treated as sort of "gen" men flying a radial engine Lancaster bomber. Our pilot's name was King Cole and he could play the part with gusty bravado using a cockney accent. To be quite honest, I liked the "King" and he was a talented pilot and captain. I learned a lot about navigation during this six months and what I learned served us well; but – I ran into a problem.
With success and experience came a promotion. I now moved to the British Officer's area. When a young man brought up in a friendly farm environment in Saskatchewan tries to adjust his culture to that practised by British officers, somebody is going to be unhappy. I soon understood why MacKenzie King said Canadian air men would keep their own identity. I couldn't understand how Royalty could inspire men to be arrogant and haughty; I couldn't understand how a rural Saskatchewan school teacher should be regarded as "dim, daft, and difficult". I had chosen freely to join the RAF, and I proudly kept my accent, vocabulary and behaviors. Time cures most problems, and I have to concede that RAF airmen and ground crews were trained very well and made determined efforts to hit their targets!
We did our second tour in Lancaster Bombers at from 15,000 to 20,000 feet. We. (Flash and crew) did our share of Ruhr Valley bombing and mine laying trips. We had one interesting trip when we bombed near the toe of Italy, landed in Africa and bombed a city in northern Italy on the way home. This seven hour trip was quite different to others.
English Commander Harris believed in concentrated bombing of bombers in a short period of time, with a very large number of German fighters who were dedicated and well trained; their air craft were almost equal to Spitfires. Sometimes they entered our circuit when we were landing or at takeoff.
The next line is hard to write. Good bye to our pilot (Flash ). He was killed four days after completion of our second tour. If God needed a talented, gifted and dedicated Englishman, his choice was perfect, but heart breaking. I still ride my Raleigh bicycle that he liked to borrow. I learned a lot from my ``hero".
Next came a posting to the BCATP at Rivers, Manitoba . This course included instructional techniques, navigation and searches. At the conclusion of this course we (my wife and I) went to Overseas Training Unit at Boundary Bay, B.C., interacting and flying in Mitchells and Liberators. Flying in friendly skies and unfriendly mountain peaks was a big change. The students were mostly men who had completed one or more tours in the European war and were crewed up in preparation for Japan.
I can't say I enjoyed searches for airmen who didn't return from flying over dangerous terrain. Most of our searches were failures. I didn't look forward to what was to be bombing in the Asian area . I had no regrets when peace was declared on Aug 14, 1945. If when reading the honour rolls of Arcola-Kisbey and Carlyle, I think these districts in Sask. lost more than their share of uniformed men.
To go from BCATP as a student and to return to BCATP as an instructor requires a little luck. Whether we call it luck, or that someone had me by the hand, or that BCATP did its job--I say this: Willie, there's a silent "thanks" in every line I write. Writing the whole thing brings back many sad memories. It's too cruel to believe that civilized nations have to resort to war to settle arguments. The next conflict will have weapons that could shake planet "Earth", but I am sure it will never happen.
When we (my wife and family) went to teach school in Redvers, one of the first men I met was Chris Sutter. He had an experience where air space was very crowded. He is the sole survivor from two four engine bombers that collided over enemy territory. He made a successful parachute landing and in spite of a sore back, I am sure this airman also says a few "thanks" and has many memories.
Willie,--I don't think there will be a volume two. I taught school for many years. I hope the World War improved my abilities as a teacher. I taught many wonderful school students. They were always good to me. Those years I wish I could repeat.
The citation for the award of Cliff Shirley’s Distinguished Flying Medal (from Hugh Halliday’s RCAF Honours and Awards database):
SHIRLEY, FS (now WO) Clifford Alvin (R79864) - Distinguished Flying Medal - No.158 Squadron - Award effective 31 December 1942 as per London Gazette dated 12 January 1943 and AFRO 232/43 dated 12 February 1943. Born in Carlyle, Saskatchewan, 1912; home there or in Ladner, British Columbia (teacher); enlisted in Regina, 28 November 1940. Trained at No.2 ITS (graduated 31 March 1941), No.3 AOS (graduated 23 June 1941), No.2 BGS (graduated 4 August 1941) and No.1 ANS (graduated 1 September 1941). Commissioned 1942. Invested with award by King George VI, 16 March 1943.
Flight Sergeant Shirley, as navigator, has participated
in many attacks on important targets in the Ruhr and the
Rhineland. He also took part in two of the attacks on
Rostock, all three 1,000 bomber raids on Cologne, the
Ruhr, and Bremen, the highly successful attacks on genoa
and the daylight raid on Milan. His standard of
navigation has invariably been of the highest order.
Throughout, this airman's conduct and determination has
set a fine example both in the air and on the ground.
Cliff died on May 12 2005 at the age of 92 years. Cliff’s complete obituary can be seen at: