I must admit these videos freak me out a little. Check out the formation flying in the first one. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Terminator movies.
Frank Gibson was my mother’s elder brother, and this photo was one that I discovered amongst the many albums and photos that my Mom had with her at the assisted living facility where she spent the last few years of her life. I scanned the small snapshott, enlarged it, and put it in a frame on her dresser, on the belief that it might prompt some good memories of her youth. I never knew Frank, as he had died in WWII seven years before I was born. I’m not sure his name came up a lot when I was a child (and it certainly did not later, as the years passed) but I do recall several times my Mom mentioning him with the phrase “you would have liked Frank”. In any event, I was certainly aware that Frank was a big part of my mother’s early life, and I believe he became pretty close to my father as well.
Frank had graduated from a RCAF Air Observers school (No. 7, Portage La Prairie) on March 20, 1943, and was on his way to England when the ship he was on was torpedoed. I seem to remember my Dad (I think) offering up a disparaging comment to the effect that the ship that he was on was a “banana boat”.
That was about the extent of my knowledge of Frank, other than the fact my older brother (born in 1944) was given Frank as a middle name, until I went through my mother’s personal items and photos (from which I had taken the photo above). In that material there was a letter that Frank had written to his parents just prior to his embarkation from Halifax, dated April 11.
In his letter he tried to downplay the danger he was going into, remarking that his tour of duty would be over swiftly, in a year or so, and he would be back home. He alluded to sitting for a portrait, but that the proofs were not yet ready. I’m pretty sure that picture was this one, as I remember it being displayed prominently by my grandparents.
I recalled that one of the old photos I had looked at was an obvious blow-up
which suggested to me that this photo may have been the last time that my grandparents had seen Frank, on a train taking him back to his RCAF unit prior to his deployment.
Looking at the other photos of Frank and his family as he grew up, and of a wife that became a widow in 1943, together with his letters, made Frank’s death less academic and much more personal.
At the very least, I wanted to get some better understanding of the details of what had happened to him, and of course the first resource was simply to search on Google.
After trying a number of searches ( Atlantic / WWII / troopships / convoys, etc) I discovered this site. Listed by date of departure, the site’s intent is to identify all allied ships that carried troops (anywhere in the world) during 1943, and reading down the page it lists a ship named the Amerika that left Halifax on April 13, carrying 52 RCAF aircrew officers, and that it was “torpedoed and sunk 120 miles SSE of Cape Farewell, Greenland”. The entry also has an ‘arrival date” of April 21, which I took as the date it was lost. With the name of the ship in hand, further searching gave me this page, giving details of the ship, and identifying the U-Boat (U-306) that sank the Amerika, including mapping the location of the sinking and that the corvette HMS Asphodel picked up survivors. This corvette has a website devoted to it, and within those pages there is a newspaper clipping describing the sinking of the Amerika, which figured prominently in the ship’s history. (See also a similar clipping from the May 3, 1943 edition of the the Winnipeg Evening Tribune here).
On that site there is also a letter from a survivor transcribed here, and tells of how he was on the last lifeboat to be leave the ship (the ship sank out from under the boat), and how a number of those in boat were lost to the high seas. I also found one other survivor’s story (part of a book Fragments of war: stories from survivors of World War II), an RCAF pilot who recalls being in a poker game with other RCAF flight officers when the ship was struck. He managed to get to a lifeboat, but of the six in the poker game, he was the only survivor. Only 16 of the 52 officers were picked up by the Asphodel.
Investigating this tragic episode is like peeling layers from an onion, as one piece of information leads to another, and would require much more than a single post. For now, however, I want to mention a few things.
My Dad’s assertion that the ship Frank was on was a ‘banana boat’….
The Amerika was capable of 14.5 knots, and was built to carry passengers (as well as freight). During the war it had one prior crossing of the Atlantic with RCAF aircrew. There were several other similar ships that were used by the RCAF throughout the war, crossing as part of a convoy (speeds of 9+ knots). Many, if not the majority of aircrew, however, crossed on single ships, with speeds in excess of 20 knots. Fate plays a hand, as such a ship left the same dock a couple of days prior to the Amerika.
Was Frank at more risk on the Amerika? Yes.
Was the risk excessive? On that I am less sure. Losses to U-Boats in the preceding month (March 1943) were one of the largest in the war, so I would think decisions made to transport troops/aircrew in April had to be taken with this in mind. The March losses stemmed partly from a week long breakdown in the British decodes of the U-Boat radio traffic (‘Enigma’), so the convoys could not be diverted from known U-Boat patrol lines. There was no similar problem in April, and efforts were made to run the convoy (HX-234) north of the patrol lines in place. (One report mentions that pack ice was visible on the horizon).
Allied defensive capability had recently improved, with land based air cover (American PBY Catalinas) finally becoming operational south of Greenland (referred to as ‘the Gap’). For convoy HX-234, however, this cover did not become continual until two days after the Amerika was hit, but was credited with driving off the following U-boats.
The chances of an individual ship in a convoy being sunk was fairly low, but the fact that the Amerika was the last ship in one of the convoy’s columns surely did not help, and I wonder at the decision to place her there, given her human cargo.
Reports of the sinking note that the Amerika was a couple of miles behind her station (i.e.was a ‘straggler’). The convoy had altered course that evening in an attempt to shake the U-boats that had been detected earlier in the day by the escorts. That change, taking place in the very heavy weather, probably contributed to the Amerika becoming separated.
A few final notes.
By the end of May (little more than a month after the Amerika was lost), the U-Boat war (Battle of the Atlantic) appears to be regarded as having been been ‘won’. The Germans suffered such high losses that they withdrew most of their boats from active patrols for six months.
The HMS Asphodel, which rescued the survivors, was torpedoed on March 16, 1944, with the loss of 92 of the its 97 crew.
The U-boat that sunk the ship (U-306) was depth charged and sunk on October 31, 1943. The Amerika was the only ship she had sunk. All 51 crew were lost.
So all three ships involved that April night were sunk within a single year, with most on board lost. What a waste, all around…
On a side note, it is fascinating that individuals become passionately immersed in the minutia of battles and campaigns (aka Civil War fanatics). The websites I visited in researching this point to many more, and the amount of information on some of these sites and the work implied to support them is huge. Where this passion meets German attention to record keeping, the result is the amazing breadth of the information on the uboat.net site. For instance, this page gives daily tracking information for every U-Boat patrol . (There is probably some evolutionary biological foundation for this obsession/interest, but that is for another time, I digress.)
George Gibson was born on September 10, 1879, in Great Doddington, Wellingborough, Northampton to parents John and Emma Gibson (nee Thompson).
As mentioned in my post on Teresa, he (they) were married in August 17, 1908 and made their way quickly to Canada.
This is a photo of the couple in 1914:
While his son and daughters mostly went to Deep Cove to party, based on many photos I have, he went there to fish.
George worked for the Post Office for over 35 years as a letter carrier:
Bert enlisted in the RCAF on March 10, 1942, and was honourably discharged (transferred to reserve) on February 28, 1945 (so his term was almost exactly 3 years).
I have no record of what he did for the first 5 months, but wikipedia suggests that there was a 26 or 28 week basic training program, which makes sense. In late September 1942 he commenced pilot training at No 6 Elementary Flight Training School (EFST) in Prince Albert.
As required, he maintained a flight log throughout his service. His very first fight, with instructor, was on September 28.
Note his aircraft number was 278.
Here is a photo of Tiger Moths lined up on a field, the second nearest is that aircraft (click on to expand and scroll).
He solo’ed on , and flew a couple of hours a day until November 19. His formal graduation was on December 5, 1942 (Class 65). I think this is his class photo. Not great quality as it is from a graduation pamphlet, but Bert is second from the left, on the back row.
He was assigned to No 4 Service Flight Training School, Saskatoon, which was meant for bomber and transport training.
On December 8 he took his first training flight, in a Cessna Crane, which would be the aircraft that he almost exclusively flew for the rest of this service. This is a photo of one that I found in his records:
He graduated April 2, 1942, and was made a Pilot Officer (Special Reserve) effective that date, and assigned to No. 2 Flight Instructors School, Vulcan, Alberta, commencing training on April 20. He completed that training in June and was assigned to No. 10 SFTS in Dauphin, Manitoba, where he instructed in Cranes until the end of his service.
From his logbook, he made an effort to fly the Harvard (fighter trainer) in the last month he was active (January, 1945) and flew solo January 10).
He never talked a lot about the time he spent in the RCAF, but when he did I remember only hearing of the Tiger Moth, and I thought he instructed in that aircraft. He actually spent almost all his time in a Crane, instructing bomber pilots. My mother said to me more than once that “your Dad hated the air force”, referencing the bureaucracy and rules. As far as I know he never flew anything again. Flight instructors were overlooked when the airlines started hiring after the war, but I’m pretty sure he never pursued that option.
Hannah Mary McKay was born in 1879 in Pictou, Nova Scotia (parents Roderick and Janet nee Smith). First daughter (after 3 sons). She had two younger sisters (1883 and 1889), and two younger brothers. As the oldest daughter, I believe she is in following photo (at the bottom):
The women on the left is her Mom, Janet. The others are a mystery. The one on the right is likely Janet’s sister as shown in this:
I don’t know who the one behind is, possibly a daughter-in-law of an older son.
Hannah ‘s family moved from Pictou in 1881/82 and spent at least 15 years in Manitoba, before arriving in the Vancouver area, sometime after 1906. In 1911, she married Charles Lee.
This photo is from 1917, with her children (Lorraine,Doug and youngest Bert in front, and Rod on right). Isabel the youngest daughter was still to come.
Roderick and Janet (nee Smith) McKay, taken sometime in the early 1900’s. They were both born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1837 and 1846 respectively. They were married on August 26, 1872 (as per an Ancestry.com post, I don’t have any source records).
They had eight children….James W (1873), Henry J (1875), Howard E(1877), Mary Hannah (my grandmother, 1879), Alver(1881), Laurette M(1883), Bella(1889), and Charles(1893). The first 3 boys were born in the US (per later census records), so Roderick and Janet must have moved south of the border shortly after their marriage, and the 1881 census has them back in Pictou.
There was a faded photo I found which I believe shows Roderick at a fairground in the US (from the flag flying over the bleachers in the background). The photo, of course, has no date or notes of any kind. He would have been at most in his early 40’s when the family was in the US; he looks older than that to me in the photo, but people tended to look older then. Enhanced and cropped, below:
There are a few more photos of Janet, as grandmother (and her daughter Hannah, with kids). A stern looking lady…click the photos to see expanded versions.
The earliest I have been able to trace the LEE line is to Thomas and Mary Lee, whose son Henry was born October 22, 1806, in Bishops Stortford. The only information I have on Thomas/Mary is a reference on baptism record for Henry.
Henry married Susanne Phillips on July 21, 1833, at St Michaels Church. They moved to Chelmsford, Essex sometime after the 1851 census, as my great grandfather Charles Lee was born there in May 1856.