My Father’s Museum

May 1, 2007 by Harry Bruce
A montage showing Canadian war correspondent Ross Munro at his typewriter, and wartime editor Charles Bruce.
PHOTOS: FRANK ROYAL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA136201; COURTESY HARRY BRUCE; ILLUSTRATION: SANDOR SIPOS

Like heaven only knows how many other older Canadians, I have my own tiny war museum. I inherited it from my father, Charles Bruce. He was not a fighting man during World War II, but he saw some action.

As chief of the London bureau of the Canadian Press wire agency, he edited, rewrote and relayed home the dispatches from CP correspondents closer to the front lines. His work was important, but he itched to see more of the war and, after supper on Sept. 21, 1944, a kindly, sorrowful, white-haired gent from CP’s Canadian headquarters brought terrible news to my mother at our house in Toronto.

He gently revealed that my father, 106 days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, had hitched a ride aboard a Lancaster bomber during a mission to drop supplies to Allied troops. Just as the four-engine aircraft turned for home in England, German flak crashed into the plane, and it plummeted toward earth. After 24 hours, no word of the crew’s fate had reached London. At worst, my father was dead. At best, it seemed, he was in a Nazi prison camp.

On the morning after we got the bad news, the Globe and Mail newspaper declared on its front page, “C.P. Executive Overdue From Flight To Holland”, and it ran a photo of his familiar, bespectacled, earnest face. His hair was short and wiry, and he wore a bow tie. The bottom half of the story explained that he was born in Port Shoreham, N.S., and attended Guysborough Academy and Mount Allison University, and described his CP career in such detail that the piece read like an obituary.

I was 10 years old at the time. During recess that morning at Brown Public School, I sat outside on cinders, with my back to a wooden fence, while tears streamed down my face.

As it turned out, I bawled too soon.

No one outside Belgium knew it, but Charlie Bruce was in tip-top shape. “Our pilot, Doug Robertson of Vancouver took his big plane straight and low over the drop zone, through a literal hell of flak,” my father wrote. “The bomb aimer, Norman Roseblade of Toronto let go the canisters, ‘bang on.’ Robbie pulled her nose up and to port, heading out of the area. In a moment the navigator, Lem Prowse of Bengough, Sask., would be calling in a course for home. Then the flak slammed into us. It smacked ‘P for Peter’ with the shock of a giant fist. For a split second, the aircraft seemed steady on course. Then she went into a screaming nosedive.”

The Lancaster was too low for the men to parachute. My father jumped up from the co-pilot’s seat, and raced aft to trade places with Roseblade. The bomb aimer then helped Robertson gain control of the plane. Robertson muscled the plane out of enemy territory, nursed it along for an hour, and then made a perfect belly-landing on a Belgian airfield. Nine men scrambled out of the hatch. “We ran a few yards in case the ship caught fire,” my father wrote, “and then knelt down and kissed the earth.”

Robertson sent a message to his home base that everyone was safe and Charlie wired to his office in London both a story on the “P for Peter” adventure, and assurances he would hitch a ride across the English Channel to Britain. But, war being what it was, all of these messages simply vanished.

On Sept. 23, my father made the front page of the Globe for the second day in a row. By his colleague Douglas Amaron, the story began, “Charles Bruce, London superintendent of The Canadian Press, walked into CP’s London office…after being reported missing from an airborne operation for 36 hours and discovered the staff searching files for biographical material to answer London newspapers’ requests for his obituary.”

In search of this material and a photograph, Ross Munro–whose scoops during the Normandy invasion had already earned him fame as Canada’s top war correspondent–was rooting around that day in my father’s desk, and said, “I wish Charlie would walk in right now, and order me to get away from his desk.”

Five minutes later, Charlie walked in.

“A look of astonishment grew on the 38-year-old superintendent’s face as staff members, Alan Nickleson and Ross Munro, jumped from their desks, clapped him on the back and shook hands with him. Then, when Charlie learned he was reported missing from a flight to Holland he voiced a hearty newspaperman’s ‘damn.'”

Charlie Bruce lived for another 27 years.

He became the best-loved General Superintendent in the history of CP; won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry; wrote The Channel Shore, a novel that’s still part of Canadian literature courses; helped my mother raise four sons; put me through Mount Allison University; got me my first year-round job, as a cub reporter on the Ottawa Journal newspaper; and every summer or fall returned to the old Bruce homestead on Chedabucto Bay, N.S.

In December 1971, he died in his sleep; in the same Toronto house where his wife had once heard he might never be coming home.

A few days later, my mother handed me a small brown leather box, studded with brass. It contained his modest war collection: three routine service medals; his membership card for the London Press Club; pins that identified him as a war correspondent and a copy of the Handbook for War Correspondents with the Canadian Army in the Field. The handbook warned: “Don’t slouch. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Don’t smoke on a parade square.”

Perhaps it’s just as well my father wasn’t “in the field” very much. He was a heavy smoker and, while he slouched along city streets, kept his cigarette-free hand jammed in a pocket.

I treasure the things in the box, but wish my little home-front war museum included the dress my mother wore when he came home in 1945, the empty bottle of whatever it was they drank to celebrate (probably rye whisky), and a recording of any episode of the CBC’s wartime radio series, L for Lanky. Lanky, a Lancaster bomber, was the hero and narrator of hair-raising and inspirational dramas about the adventures of its own flight crew. It may well have been the only talking warplane in the history of radio entertainment. The show always opened with the drone of the plane’s engines. Then, a male voice–deep, sonorous, and echoing–declared “I’m L for Lanky. I’m a Lancaster bomber.”

A knitted square of wool, six inches on each side, also deserves a place in any good collection of home-front artifacts from 60-odd years ago. In 1943, our school “adopted” a bomb-damaged school in London, and each youngster in my Grade 4 class was supposed to help the Allied cause by knitting squares. Then, we pieced them together to make blankets for the chilly kids “over there.”

The girls in the class churned out squares with assembly-line speed, but I was a knitting fumble bum and, since my mother didn’t want me to look like a slacker, she knitted the only one I submitted. She also knitted socks, and jammed them into ditty bags, along with cigarettes, fudge, playing cards, and other goodies to comfort Canadian sailors aboard pitching corvettes on the North Atlantic. A couple of ditty bags, of the kind assembled in thousands of patriotic Canadian kitchens, also belong in my collection.

So do the scraps of silver paper we youngsters rolled into balls to help build what we believed would be fighter planes; the silkweed pods we gathered as raw material for parachutes; the cigarette cards that showed black profiles of deadly aircraft; a Victory Garden, full of carrots, onions, beets and radishes, all tucked into a downtown backyard; one of the 11 million ration books that the government distributed in 1942; a restaurant sign that urged, “Use less sugar and stir like hell–we don’t mind the noise!”; the gas station warning, “No smoking near gas pumps–maybe your life is not worth saving, but gasoline is!”; and pink war savings stamps. To encourage youngsters to buy the stamps and, incidentally, teach them the joys of earning interest, ads asked, “When do two and two make five?” The answer, of course, was when you buy war savings stamps.

Finally, my intensely personal collection would include a metal pot, with a hole in it. Movie theatres charged children 12 cents admission on Saturday afternoon, but if you could persuade your mother to let you donate a beaten-up pot for the war effort, you could get in free.

On the way home from war movies, my friends and I would “play guns.” It’s hard to imagine vacant lots in what’s now downtown Toronto, but we knew one that offered every battle condition a boy could imagine: the dust of the Sahara, mud of Italy, mountains of Norway, obscene growths of the Burmese jungle. While pretending to shoot enemies, we pint-sized commandos cut our knees, and ripped and dirtied our clothes. Our mothers hated the vacant lot, as all mothers hate war.

Once, when four of us were down in the dirt planning some bloody action, a boy named Dickie came racing across the long grass and rubble. “Churchill’s dead! Churchill’s dead!” he shouted. “My mother heard it on the radio.”

We all looked scared, and I ran home to tell my mother. She said, “Nonsense,” but then she, too, looked scared. My father had just come home from London for good, and she phoned him at Canadian Press. “Well, I suppose that’s bad enough,” she said. I could hear the relief in her voice. Turning to me she said, “It’s all right dear. It’s only Roosevelt.”

I’d like that phone for my collection, too.

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