LQ-M For Mother Featured Article

Air Force Magazine – “M For Mother” – by Ted Barris

The valour of a soldier’s, sailor’s or airman’s war gets much attention in the histories of regiments, the publication of memoirs and the wording of citations. Recently, letters found in a small suitcase, saved from being auctioned off, came to the attention of regular contributor Ted Barris. He offers a rare view of courage and trauma on the home front as reflected in the correspondence among a group of mothers awaiting official word on the fate of their sons missing in action.

At 23.26 hours, on July 25, 1943, pilot Paul Zorner received orders to scramble his Bf110 fighter-bomber. Eight minutes later, he and his radio operator Heinrich Wilke were flying west from the Luftwaffe base at Wittmundhafen. Zorner later wrote that at 6,600 metres (about 22,000 feet) altitude he found clear skies and with unusually bright Aurora Borealis he had excellent visibility. A Halifax bomber, evidently part of a stream of attacking Bomber Command aircraft, had just altered course over the North Sea from the Frisian Island of Borkum and was headed his way.

“The thought of having to approach the bomber out of the bright Northern Lights was very worrying,” Zorner reported. He throttled back both his Daimler-Benz engines and even lowered his landing gear to accentuate a steep gliding descent to 5,600 metres. Zorner’s aircraft was now 300 metres astern of the bomber and off its starboard side.

That’s where the bomber’s RCAF tail gunner Michael Smyth spotted it and opened fire, according to No. 405 RCAF Squadron accounts. The burst from the Halifax’s Browning machine guns didn’t initially alter Zorner’s course. But at 150 metres distance from the bomber, P/O Smyth’s continuing fire forced the night fighter to take evasive action downward.

“The bomber rose against the brighter sky,” Zorner noted in his log. “I moved sideways … until I was directly beneath it. I raised my aircraft and let him fly through my line of fire along its starboard wing.”

RCAF Mid-upper gunner F/S Edward White reported to his fellow-Canadian skipper, Marcel (Mickey) Tomczak, that both starboard engines were ablaze. But the pilot was already struggling with the loss of power.

“(The bomber) started to burn immediately,” Zorner wrote, “and went down in a steep right spiral.”

Minutes later, Zorner noted a rainbow of explosions on the ground as more than 14,000 pounds of green, red and white flares in the bomb bays and wing compartments of the Halifax ignited in the crash. He deduced that this bomber was evidently a pathfinder loaded with flares used to mark the night’s planned target farther inland. By shooting that pathfinder down, Zorner recorded his 10th victory that night over the village of Ten Boer, northeast of Groningen, Holland. And while he didn’t know it, he sparked a wartime saga that would engage the home-front families of all seven Halifax bomber aircrew members; meanwhile, the night-fighting operation would soon after nearly cost him his own life.

That July night in 1943 marked a significant change in RAF bombing tactics. With Allied efforts beginning to turn the tide of the war, Arthur Harris, the C.O. of RAF Bomber Command, had put industrial targets of major German cities in the crosshairs of his strategic bombing campaign. Repeated 1,000-bomber raids had substantially damaged German war production plants in Cologne, so Hamburg and Essen had risen to the top of Bomber Command’s priority list in the Battle of the Ruhr Valley. On July 24/25, 1943, nearly 800 aircraft had struck Hamburg (with a loss of 1.5 per cent or 12 aircraft), and the next night, July 25/26, 1943, just over 700 attacked Essen; the sustained 50-minute assault, according to Hitler’s Propaganda Minister JOSEPH Goebbels, “caused a complete stoppage of production in the Krupps works.” It also cost Bomber Command 3.7 per cent of its attacking force, or 26 aircraft.

Three days later, J.E. Johnny Fauquier, Wing Commander of No. 405 RCAF Squadron, stationed at Gransden Lodge, England, dictated a letter for Catherine McCracken, the mother of F/O Alex Purves McCracken, the navigator of the Halifax bomber shot down en route to the Essen target, that July 25 night. The C.O. of the Canadian Path Finder Force squadron, himself a decorated pilot (DSO and Two Bars on three operational tours), first explained he was following up on an Air Ministry telegram reporting Alex McCracken Jr. missing with the rest of his crew as a result of air operations.

“It is the sincere wish of all of us that they are safe. We lost one of our best crews when this aircraft failed to return,” the C.O. wrote. Fauquier added that there was every likelihood McCracken was a prisoner of war and that Air Ministry and the Red Cross Society would notify the parents shortly. The letter, dictated, typewritten and signed by Johnny Fauquier himself, was written another six times for each member of McCracken’s downed crew (modified to describe the role each airman had played aboard that aircraft). Fauquier completed similar letters to the mothers of nine other Halifax crews shot down that night – perhaps as many as 60 letters of acknowledgment, commendation and hope, for that one night’s operation alone! And each letter ended with the same heartfelt apology for “how very sorry I am to have to write this letter to you.”

The following day, like clockwork, W.R. Gunn, the RCAF Casualties Officer, at the Department of National Defence for Air, in Ottawa, issued a letter to Catherine’s husband, Alexander McCracken Sr., on behalf of the Chief of the Air Staff, confirming the same telegram about their son reported missing on Active Service. The typewritten letter offered that navigator Alex Jr. might well have become a POW, but that his name would not appear on the official casualty list for another five weeks.

“You may release to the Press or Radio the fact that he is reported missing,” the letter went on, “but not disclose the date, place or his unit.”

The otherwise formal letter delivered a few other seemingly innocuous bits of information. “There were five other members of the crew also reported missing. Since you may wish to know their names and next-of-kin, we list them.” And the department gave the McCrackens the names and addresses of the parents of the pilot, bomb-aimer, wireless operator, tail gunner and the mid-upper gunner of the lost Halifax bomber crew.

“May I join with you and Mrs. McCracken in the hope that better news will be forthcoming in the near future,” Gunn concluded.

Of course, the letter from Ottawa – referring to five missing crew – therefore suggested two other aircrew were unaccounted for, but more important to the McCrackens for peace of mind, it seemed an invitation to try to reach the families of the other aircrew members aboard their son’s missing Halifax. The first evidence of that contact among the mothers of the downed airmen arrived in the mail at the McCracken’s Outremont (Montreal) home, in November 1943, when Rosalie and Clifford Kettley, the parents of wireless operator Sgt. Cliff Kettley Jr., in Mission City, B.C., wrote a thank-you note to the McCrackens for their letter of condolence. Rosalie Kettley and her husband had received German confirmation that “our son lost his life July 25 and is buried in Ten Boer cemetery along with Eddie White (the mid-upper gunner). This, as you will understand, is a great blow to our hopes, unless some horrible mistake has been made.” Indeed, Air Ministry officials told the Kettleys that they didn’t believe enemy sources.

Whether she believed the Germans or not, Rosalie Kettley had sent off to Ottawa for any and all official photographs of their son Sgt. Clifford John Vosper Kettley. And in the note to Catherine McCracken, she offered to make copies and forward them to Montreal. She wrote that she was thinking of creating a composite photograph of all seven crewmen. And in the last paragraphs of her letter of Nov. 28, 1943, Rosalie promised to stay in touch. She hoped it would be possible “to meet the parents of each member of ‘The Crew,’” of the bomber with registration letters “LQ-M.” Then, finally she quoted her lost son.

“The last our boy mentioned his plane,” she wrote Catherine McCracken, “it was ‘LQ-M for Mother,’ as Mother took good care of us when we were young and we hope (our aircraft) will continue to do so.”

Since Air Ministry had confirmed their son Edward killed in action by November 1943, Theresa and Harry White began to share among the parents what they knew about the actions and attitudes of their son’s crew. They enclosed, for example, an account that mid-upper gunner F/S Edward White had recorded of a close call two months before the Essen attack. On May 23/24, LQ-M for Mother had joined a stream of more than 800 bombers en route to Dortmund. White explained that the trip to the target was bad enough, but on the return leg, when their bomber was virtually alone in the sky, it was coned by ground searchlights and pounded by anti-aircraft guns.

“We were in that hell for about 10 minutes,” he wrote, “which seemed like a lifetime.”

Despite pilot Mickey Tomczak’s best efforts, zigzagging the aircraft away from the anti-aircraft fire (White said his skipper’s skills were “magnificent”), the bomber sustained numerous flak hits. White reported in his letter home that shrapnel had smashed through the navigator’s station in the bomber and severely cut up Alex McCracken. “We took care of his wounds (but) he kept going and brought us home. He was a strong and brave fellow, as he had lost quite some blood.”

Mid-upper gunner White continued his narrative by reporting that searchlights had coned their Halifax yet again as it passed over heavy coastal batteries. Fortunately, he said, he managed to score some hits on the offending searchlight and knocked it out. Still, they limped home to Gransden Lodge station, arriving long after other returning aircraft. And when they landed, he said, the brass was waiting for them and couldn’t believe they had survived.

“The plane was heavily damaged,” he wrote home. “The nose looked like someone on a motorbike had run it off. One hole was so big I could stick my head through it. One shell had entered the plane on one side, exited on the other and exploded about 2,000 feet above us. We counted about 20 large holes. All the instruments of the flight engineer were shot away.”

Catherine and Alex McCracken Sr. later received their son’s Bomber Command file. In it they discovered the severity of Alex Jr.’s wounds during the May 24/25 operation. The report noted that the first-aid shell dressing on McCracken’s hemorrhaging leg had stopped the bleeding. Unloaded from the LQ-M for Mother bomber, the navigator was transferred to a hospital in Cambridge. Medical staff there began by dealing with McCracken’s state of shock. His left leg had sustained a gaping wound that exposed his thigh muscles and another deep cut near the sciatic nerve in his buttock. Surgeons operated to remove remaining shrapnel, stitched McCracken up and reported, “This officer is fit to resume flying duties after 14 days sick leave.”

F/O Alex McCracken was back on the flight line at Gransden Lodge in time for his aircrew’s 17th combat operation to Essen on July 25, 1943.

Throughout the autumn and winter of 1943-44, the parents of the last four missing aircrew from LQ-M for Mother continued to receive requisite letters from Air Ministry, RCAF and National Defence officials assuring them that the search for their sons continued in earnest. Each received photos of their sons that authorities had on file. And each received reminders from the Dependents’ Allowance Board that their sons’ voluntary assignment of military pay would cease until their whereabouts were confirmed. By the spring of 1944, the RCAF’s casualty officer had written the parents that, “the Air Ministry Overseas now proposes to take action to presume (your son’s) death for official purposes.” Letters of sympathy followed from Canada’s High Commissioner in England, Vincent Massey, Air Marshal Robert Leckie and the padre of No. 405 Squadron, J.W.T. Van Gorder.

Exactly a year to the day after the crash of LQ-M for Mother, July 25, 1944, Catherine McCracken’s get-acquainted letter arrived at Annie Tomczak’s home on the east side of Saskatoon. The same day, the mother of the pilot, Marcel (Mickey) Tomczak wrote the McCrackens back, despite the official word, that their sons might yet be found alive. They’d learned that the wife of RAF Flight Engineer Sgt. Albert Wood had confirmation of his death, but because the announcement had referred to “airman” not “officer” the mother of F/O Tomczak figured there was still hope. Despite her upbringing alongside brother Emmett Hall (later Justice at the Supreme Court of Canada) Annie Tomczak apologized for her writing style, spelling mistakes and being a little nervous that day.

“My dear old uncle came in from the country and undertook to give me a calling down for not keeping one son at home with me,” she wrote Catherine. “Of course, he is old and meant well, but I had to take it and not answer back.”

As well as seeing her son Marcel join the air force and become an officer and a bomber pilot, she had given her blessing to two remaining sons – Robert, 19 and Lloyd, 18 – to join the military. By 1944, Lloyd was serving with the Canadian Army liberating northwestern Europe, and Robert was training in Winnipeg for the war in the Pacific. Before the month was over, however, Annie Tomczak received word from Ottawa that Lloyd Tomczak had been severely wounded in Belgium. When the army shipped him home during the summer of 1945, the McCrackens had been there to see Lloyd in Montreal on his way home to Saskatoon. And when she needed comfort in such burdensome moments, it seemed the only one who could understand Annie Tomczak’s trauma was Catherine McCracken.

“I want to thank you very much for the wire you sent after seeing Lloyd,” Annie wrote Catherine in August 1945. She went on to describe the scene at their Saskatoon home, saying that attending her wounded son was a full-time occupation. She sensed his injured limbs were getting stronger and consequently “he is starting to be able to play the piano again.” But the greater challenge were head wounds that had disfigured his face and left him partially blinded. Later that fall, Annie reported to Catherine on Lloyd’s surgeries at a Vancouver hospital. The chance to share her son’s progress with an understanding mother, seemed to lift Annie’s spirits.

“You would not know Lloyd now, if you saw him,” Annie wrote in November. “They took some bone from his hip and built up his forehead. They shaved off his hair, but when that grows all in, you would never know they operated again. His sight is not any better, but there is a hope it may come back a little in time.” She closed her update to Catherine McCracken, commenting on the prairie weather. Anyone else might have complained, but she said there was “quite a wind and a little snow, but it’s not cold. … I hope you are both in the best of health. Yours sincerely, Annie Tomczak.”

The air battle between the Path Finder Force bomber from No. 405 RCAF Squadron and Paul Zorner’s Bf110 night fighter did not end with the fiery crash of Halifax LQ-M for Mother. In memoirs he composed later, Zorner admitted, following the engagement over Groningen on July 25, 1943, that some of Michael Smyth’s return fire had found its mark. Moments after he witnessed his prey spiral to earth, Zorner’s starboard engine was suddenly ablaze. It stalled, and while he was able to extinguish the fire, setting the pitch of the propeller to a glide setting didn’t help. The strain on the Bf110’s port engine proved too great and he was losing altitude rapidly.

Zorner jettisoned the canopy and ordered his wireless operator Wilke to bail out. Then with the fighter-bomber diving vertically, Zorner tried to get himself out. But his parachute got hung up on the cockpit support beams. Zorner had no choice but to clamber back into the cockpit, where he lowered the plane’s flaps, brought the Bf110 into a more horizontal glide, bailed out successfully and landed beside a road in the Dutch countryside. According to author David P. Williams, “This was the only occasion during his entire combat career, 272 missions, (when Zorner) was forced to take to his parachute.”

The only other survivor of the air battle that night of July 25/26, 1943, F/O Alex Sochowski, also endured a rough parachute jump. Within minutes of his landing, despite an injured left ankle, bomb-aimer Sochowski began burning any papers that might be valuable to his captors. A Dutch doctor arrived on the scene, helped airman into his car and gave his broken ankle first aid. As he smoked a cigarette, Sokowski asked if he was in Holland. The doctor confirmed he was, but warned him.

“Take care,” he said. “Police. No good.”

“I am a Canadian,” Sochowski said, “in England quite a while.”

Neither did the Dutch attempt to hide Sochowski, nor did he try to evade. German soldiers arrived quickly, took him away to a hospital in Groningen and thence to the officers’ prison camp, Stalag Luft III, in Silesia. In his only letter to the family of his lost pilot, Mickey Tomczak, from Stalag Luft III prison camp, on Feb. 10, 1944, Sochowski wrote:

“Dear Mrs. Tomczak… I hope and pray by the time this letter reaches you, you will have had some word of Mickey. … I was taken P.O.W. by German soldiers, later taken to hospital and to this day I haven’t seen nor heard of any of the crew.”

Following his liberation from German prisoner-of-war camps AFTER VE DAY in August 1945, Alex Sochowski made his way home to Saskatchewan. Having paid his respects to navigator Alex McCracken’s family in Montreal, he felt he should do the same for his skipper Marcel Tomczak. In a letter to Catherine McCracken on Aug. 27, 1945, Annie Tomczak explained that Sochowski had visited her and that she would try to replace all of the crew photos that Sochowski had lost during the war. To end the letter, she described the demeanour of her son’s air force comrade.

“What a change. He is not the same boy he was three years ago,” she wrote. “He feels it very much being the only one left, and I don’t think he is very well.”

Alex Sochowski continued his pilgrimage of tribute to his fallen air force brothers. He travelled to B.C. and visited the families of mid-upper gunner Edward White, tail gunner Michael Smyth and wireless operator Cliff Kettley. Sochowski finally returned home to Saskatchewan and married locally; all he ever told his family was that as the bomb-aimer stationed in the nose of the Halifax, he’d survived the attack on July 25, 1943, by jumping through an escape hatch in his forward compartment. He died of a heart attack prematurely in 1961.

The six graves of his lost aircrew comrades are faithfully attended by the grateful citizens of Ten Boer, Holland. They’re the only military plots in the village’s cemetery. A graveside ceremony will take place in the spring of 2016 in memory of the crew of LQ-M for Mother. One hopes those paying tribute to the dead will also honour the airmen’s mothers, who, as Cliff Kettley wrote in his last letter home, “took care of us when we were young.”

Author’s note: This story is based on the letters stored in a suitcase owned originally by Catherine and Alexander McCracken Sr. They are the letters received by the McCrackens from the mothers of their son Alex Jr.’s aircrew comrades from 1943 to 1945. The author is indebted to Canadians Frank Moore and Jeremy Van Dyke who recognized the importance of keeping the contents of that suitcase from being scattered to the wind. Theirs was the idea to preserve and tell the story of LQ-M for Mother.

Ted Barris is a journalism professor at Centennial College. His book – The Great Escape: A Canadian Story – is a bestseller and won the 2014 Libris Best Non-Fiction Book in Canada Award.

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