Given a choice between parachuting into the frigid waters of the English Channel or nursing his dying aircraft for as far as he could take it, Flying Officer Douglas Gordon chose what he saw as the lesser evil—and it may well have saved his life.
It was May 3, 1944.
Gordon and 17 other Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers of 440 (City of Ottawa) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, had loaded up with two 500-pound bombs each, then set out to rain down “crap and corruption” on a German destroyer across the English Channel near Cherbourg, France. But the Kriegsmarine gave back as good as it got that day.
“We were supposed to dive-bomb it from 9,000 feet,” recalled Gordon, then 21 years old; now 95. “Well, they didn’t tell us one thing: There were four gunboats around it that had anti-aircraft guns on them. So things got a little warm.
“It was like flying into a goddamn dust storm with the amount of ammunition that they shot at us. It turned out that I was smoking halfway back. I couldn’t tell until all my instruments started going screwy. Temperatures went up; pressures went down. Finally, I gave it up and shoved the throttle fully up until the engine seized.”
The headstrong farm boy from Lachute, Que., was well out over the Channel when the order came in over his headset.
“The CO said to bail out. I said ‘No way; the water’s too goddamn cold.’”
He then set out to glide his way to their destination, a refuelling stop at the Allied airfield in Predannack, near the southern tip of England.
“I wound up landing in a bunch of brush in a field. I was just short of the runway by about a mile. It had stood up on its nose in a ditch. I got out of that one in a hurry in case it blew up.
“They came out in an ambulance to pick me up but there was nothing wrong with me, so forget about it. I got my parachute; that was the main thing.”
He was 320 kilometres from his home base at Hurn, near Bournemouth.
“I was stuck,” said Gordon, who considered taking a train. “Our leader was a Wing Commander [Robert] Davidson, a Canadian. He came to me and said, ‘You know something? You and I are going to fly home together.’
“So he had them open the ammunition bays in the wings and he put his parachute in there. I kept my parachute; I got rid of my Mae West. He got rid of his.”Since the Typhoon has a single-seat cockpit, they lowered the seat as far as it would go and the five-foot-seven-inch Gordon piled in. He was sitting so low he could not see over the sides of the plane. But Davidson had a plan.
“He said, ‘You’re going to run the rudder trim and I’ll sit on your lap.’ So he sat on my lap and put his two feet on the rudder pedals and then cranked the coupe top closed. He had his head stuck beside the gunsight on the dash.
“We got off and flew all the way back to Hurn with the squadron and landed. He was the CO, so a car came out to pick him up. He got out of the aircraft and he was talking to the driver. I got out after—the guy couldn’t see me—and I remember the guy said, ‘Jesus Christ, what are you doing in there?’
“The CO told him, ‘We didn’t have train money.’”
Gordon doesn’t know to this day whether they hit the German ship. They were relatively green combat pilots in May 1944. He heard later the destroyer had been sunk by a torpedo bomber.
Weeks later, Davidson was shot down over France. As he crash-landed, he radioed the rest of his flight a goodbye, promising he would see them again. He survived and lit out for cover after going down. He evaded capture for six or eight weeks.
“When the squadron went through Amiens,” said Gordon, “he showed up dressed in civilian clothes, smoking a pipe and wearing a beret.”The 440 pilots knew something was up after bombing a radar station on the French coast on May 30, 1944. They had flown almost daily for the entire month, taking fire on virtually every mission, often returning home with battle damage. The squadron stood down and, over the next few days, aircraftmen painted black-and-white identification stripes on the wings and rear fuselage of their airplanes.
“Prison stripes,” Gordon called them. They would become known as invasion stripes, intended to distinguish the thousands of Allied aircraft that would be flying over the French coast on and after D-Day.
“We were not told what was going on,” said Gordon. “But we knew something was going to be screwed up when they put the black-and-white stripes on us. I thought we were in jail.”
They were out of bed before dawn on June 6.
“They had us up at 4 o’clock in the morning and they served us breakfast. What’d we have? How could I ever forget? They had a great big platter of eggs, which was [unusual]. It would’ve been as big as [a large tray] and it was covered in fried eggs sitting in white grease. The goddamn things were cold.
“So we got a couple of eggs in white grease. It was not the best thing to have.”
The Channel was “wall to wall boats of every sort. We were over the beach about seven. We didn’t run into opposition in the air as much as the ground [troops] were getting. Our job was to dive-bomb some German pillboxes.
“Did we do anything good? I don’t know. All we did was get in and get out. They shot at us. They didn’t like us very much, really.”
According to his logbook, Gordon flew two missions that day, the first lasting 90 minutes, the second, one hour and 40 minutes.
“Bombed beach at Lebreche,” reads the first of the two entries for June 6, 1944. “Direct support to 3rd British Army on beaches. Invasion. Second front. Flak hot.”
And later: “Bombed truck. Strafed town—tank, trucks. Allman missing—dead.”This was Flying Officer Leonard Ralph Allman, 24, married, from Toronto. His brother Franklin had been killed on Oct. 4, 1940, while serving with the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. Pilot Allman is buried in Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery.
Juno Beach was “covered with people, tanks, landing craft,” Gordon recalled.
“Everything was a big mess. Some of the [amphibious] tanks sank. The landing craft would drop their ramps and the poor guys would walk off. Were they in two feet of water? Maybe seven. They sure took a beating. I felt sorry for them.
“We couldn’t do anything for them. We just couldn’t.”The following day, he was flying wing to Stan Garside, a big flight lieutenant out of Edmonton.
“We came in sorta low and there were about three different German vehicles on the road. He went in and attacked and dropped 500-pound bombs on them. I was flying wing, which meant I was flying higher.
“The bomb dropped, exploded, and he pulled right up and his left wing was in flames. He pulled her straight up and bailed out. He was too low. The parachute never fully opened. He landed in an apple orchard.”
Gordon turned for home. Garside was 24. He is buried in Bayeux War Cemetery, southwest of the city of Bayeux, France.
“There were a lot of them. June, July to about Aug. 10, [19 Typhoon squadrons] lost 150 pilots killed.”
The Canadians conducted daily operations throughout June 1944, bombing railways, bridges and roads. On June 27, 440 Squadron moved from Hurn to northern France, settling in at Longteuil in tents.In August, 440 played a crucial role in the encirclement of German forces at Falaise, south of Caen—a turning point. The nine-day battle contained the enemy and closed the gap through which German forces were escaping.
Most of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group B west of the Seine was eliminated, opening an Allied path to Paris and the German border.
“It was a mess,” said Gordon. “There were German horses-and-wagons, vehicles. There were all sorts of aircraft in on it, attacking everything that moved.
“I went to make an attack on a vehicle. I had him lined up, I headed in and before I could even do that two rockets went right over the top of my head. A Typhoon behind had shot my target right out from in front of me.”They would move to Melsbroeck, Belgium, outside Brussels, then on to Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Gordon’s last deployment with 440.
He flew his 99th and last Typhoon sortie at 10 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1944. It was supposed to be a reconnaissance mission into the north of Holland, looking for a prospective target, a waterway. He was flying wing to Flt. Lt. Del English. He didn’t know it would be his last mission with 440.
“On the way up, we saw trains moving,” he recalled. “On the way back, I took a whack at this train near the waterway. The Germans weren’t very happy with that.
“When I went in, I went in low. Del came in behind and they switched shooting at me and started shooting at him, so he had to pull up and get out of there. Then we came back and got two more trains…. They blew up.
“That night, the CO came along and said ‘You’ve had the biscuit.’”
His CO put in for a Distinguished Flying Cross for both Gordon and English, but they heard nothing more about it.
Gordon was transferred to the RAF, where he instructed transitioning pilots on Typhoons and flew Spitfires until the end of the war in Europe. He volunteered to go to the Pacific, but the atomic bombs ended the war with Japan before he even reached Canada.
He went to work at a couple of car dealerships around Lachute, working parts departments until he moved to Cornwall, Ont., in 1954. He married his wife of 62 years, Yvonne Annie Bedard, and they had three boys. She died in 2012.
Gordon worked 33 years at the local Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership, retiring as leasing manager in 1987. He was recently named a Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour.
“This distinction represents the profound gratitude that France would like to express to you,” wrote Ambassador Kareen Rispal. “It is awarded in recognition of your personal involvement in the liberation of our country during World War II.
“Through you, France remembers the sacrifice of all your compatriots who came to liberate French soil.”Gordon keeps the medal and the letter packed away in a suitcase with the rest of his wartime memorabilia.
“I liked flying,” he said between serving a peanut lunch to a persistent blue jay keeping vigil at his living-room window. “You could do stupid things.”
But he didn’t miss it: “Too much trouble. I’d had enough of it.”
This is the first of two stories about Douglas Gordon’s wartime experiences flying Typhoons.