Lee Brown

Lee Brown

Lest we forget: Air gunner reflects on WWII service

In 1944, Lee Brown served as an air gunner on Lancaster bombers in Europe.

Though 70 years have passed since the end of the Second World War, the memories of that global conflict still remain with Canadian veterans who served.

Lee Brown, a Cranbrook resident who entered the military when he was underage six months shy of his 18th birthday, trained and served as an air gunner on a Lancaster bomber.

Brown enlisted in 1943 and was shipped over to Europe early the following year, where he was part of a crew that did bombing missions on Nazi targets mainly in Germany and up the coast of Finland.

Brown flew 33 trips in the Lancaster with two different crews before coming back home to Canada when the war ended in 1945.

For Brown, Remembrance Day is a time to honour the sacrifices of veterans who served and to reflect on the tragedy of war. Even though the war was decades ago, some things are unforgettable.

“It wakes me up. I’ve been dreaming about things that happened all this last week,” said Brown. “I’m not trying to tell anybody what they should do—that your poppy and my poppy makes people think of what happened and what could’ve happened if the boys hadn’t have gone over.”

Life of an air gunner

Brown’s military service consisted mostly as an air gunner on bombers, flying mainly in a Lancaster aircraft, doing trips into Germany and up and down the Finnish coast from 1944 until the end of the war.

Stationed in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England, Brown was part of a crew that served together until one fateful day.

Brown was coming back from a trip, but developed a headache after his ears wouldn’t clear from the air pressure of descending to the ground level high altitude.

He went to see a doctor and was promptly grounded for three days.

“They called a spare gunner to take my place and I’m sitting there feeling sorry for myself and my ears, and they went out and got shot down,” Brown said. “They crashed in France, they weren’t all killed, but three of them were.”

The same night his crew was shot down, another plane came back to base that was missing a tail gunner who was killed in an aerial dogfight.

Being that crews were tight-knit group that stuck together, Brown talked with the group and volunteered to take the gunner’s place, subject to approval from a commanding officer.

At the time, Brown had two more bombing trips to his record that his new crew, so they did a few more without him to catch up.

Some of his missions included flying up the coast of Finland to bomb German naval ships, while other targets included military manufacturing plants in the Ruhr Valley in Germany. Another trip was an attack on the entire German naval fleet that was anchored in Kiel harbour.

“They sent four or five hundred of us in there. It was no trouble at all getting there,” Brown said.

“…We came in over the water, we stayed off the shoreline quite a bit, and they heard us coming. We were in the first wave and all those destroyers had huge search lights on them, plus the ones on the shore.

“The guns they had—we’d never saw a sky like that in our life. It was just like the 4th of July magnified.”

However, the crew was able to deliver their payload and return home unscathed.

Military tradition

Military service was not unfamiliar to Brown as his father served in the First World War in the British Army. After the war, he came over to Canada and settled in small community of Big Valley, AB, where the Lee Brown was born and raised.

He got his first taste for aviation when he was around 12 years old, after a barnstorm—commonly called a flying circus—came through town, offering rides for $3 on a small homemade plane.

“So I scrounged three dollars from my mom, my sister and my dad and I went down with my friend and he took the two of us in the plane,” Brown said.  “You could take two adults or three kids, but we had a ball.”

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, some of his childhood friends enlisted in the various branches of the Canadian military. However, Brown couldn’t join them because he wasn’t old enough.

By the time 1943 came around, he was just under a year away from the minimum enlistment age of  18 years old, but went up to Edmonton go try and slip through the screening process.

When it came to choosing which branch to serve in, Brown went to all the recruiting offices—Army, Navy and Air Force—to get a feel for what he wanted.

“I went to the Army recruiting office and visited with them. I didn’t take medicals or anything, just wanted to look around,” Brown said. “I didn’t like what I saw or the way they talked. I went to the Navy but I don’t like water; I’m a poor swimmer, so I went with the air forces.

Brown passed all medical and written exams, but when it came time to swear the oath to serve King and country, he didn’t produce a birth certificate, and so, without a way for the recruiters to verify his age, they turned him back.

He returned home for a few months before getting a call from the air forces recruiters, who promised to pay for transport back up to Edmonton to officially enlist.

Even though he wasn’t technically 18 years old, he had permission from his parents to serve and—depending on how long it would take until his birthday—the government had the discretion to accept him or turn him away.

But this time, despite being a few months shy of his 18th birthday, Brown was accepted.

From the Prairies to England

From Edmonton, Brown headed east to the Quebec and the Maritimes to familiarize himself with few different types of aircraft, but it wasn’t until he got to Britain that his training began in earnest.

From Canada, Brown shipped over to Britain in a trip that normally would take just under a week, but ended up lasting 12 days as his vessel had to zig-zag over the Atlantic to avoid German U-boats.

He was posted with 626 Squadron, One Group, which was under the command British military leaders under the Royal Air Force and began training with Wellington and Halifax bombers before ending up with the ‘Lancs’.

Liverpool was the first stop, where he saw sunken British ships in the river—the first time he had seen the destructive power of bomber aircraft.

While stationed up in Bournemouth in south England, he had his first encounter with a German aircraft while strolling through a park on a pathway near his hotel and mess hall.

“I was just looking, and I heard a plane and I turned around and here’s a fighter plane—it was a Junkers 88, I recognized it—so I just stood there with my mouth open and he came down and started strafing,” Brown said.

“I think he knew very well that there were some of us standing on the path, but he strafed the ground, turned around, same thing out again. We just stood there looking at him, and that was our first encounter with a German plane.

“I think he wasn’t going to shoot us standing there. He could’ve.”

The war ends

By the time the German military forces surrendered in May 1945, Brown had exactly 33 bombing runs in his service.

When a crew member hit 30 trips—one tour—they were rotated out to serve as instructors for incoming recruits.

“That’s what we are all prepared for. Tell them what to do, what to expect, because now we had the experience,” Brown said.

However, 30 trips came and went for Brown, and the crew completed three additional runs before the authorities caught on.

By that time, the war was essentially over, and Brown was shipped back to North America, landing in New York, but had to stay on the ship for two days because there was nowhere to stay in the Big Apple.

Upon getting back to Calgary, he volunteered to serve in the Far East—the war against Japan didn’t end until August 1945—but then that front soon surrendered to Allied forces.

Even though he put himself forward, the air gunner position was being phased out anyway with the advancement of new aircraft and technologies anyway, Brown added.

After his graduation in early in 1944 as a flight sergeant, he ended his military service at the rank of flying officer, which he received five days after his discharge in 1945.

He returned to Alberta to see his parents, who were living in Medicine Hat and got a job working for CPR. He eventually took a transfer to Cranbrook and retired in 1986.