It was his 13th flight mission over Berlin, Germany, during the Second World War, which sent a Newfoundland soldier to a German prisoner of war camp.
Harold John “Jack” Gillingham, Royal Air Force, Warrant Officer 1st Class, now 92 years old, spoke to the Ponoka Composite High School (PCHS) Broncs World Tour students on Jan. 13 about his final flight mission, his time in the POW camps and other memories of the war.
Gillingham was a wireless operator on a Short Stirling Mk III and sat near the engine of the plane. On the 13th raid, the lucky raid, he said with a chuckle, his plane was attacked by Germans. He was flying in a group of approximately 1,000 bombers.
Gillingham, who was 22 years old at the time, said the upper gunner on the plane was a close friend.
“He was standing near the upper gunner position when we got struck, and we did get struck.”
The plane, flying at 16,500 feet, went into a nose dive it almost wasn’t able to pull out of. Finally it levelled at 3,000 feet.
Gillingham also recalled the German spotlight that tracked his plane through the sky.
“We were like a pigeon sitting there.”
“One of the gas lines under the engine was broken by shrapnel, I got showered in gas,” he added. Despite its damage the plane managed to fly for another three hours, until it reached the skies above France, without the crew’s navigator, who’d been mortally wounded.
While flying over France they were told by the skipper the plane had only three minutes of fuel left. Their only hope was to parachute to the ground. Three crew members died during that raid. Their graves are marked in Dieppe.
Gillingham said another crew member was able to escape to Paris, where he met up with the underground resistance in a brothel. Before the crew member left Paris he attended a university.
“He was sitting there with a German officer next to him, they didn’t suspect a thing.”
It was after he parachuted that Gillingham was taken to a German POW camp.
“It was close to 24 hours since I last had sleep. I heard people talking in the daylight hours.”
Gillingham recognized the people as French and using his limited knowledge of the language, he told them who he was, what happened and asked for their help.
“They said they would (help). They got the French police and they came and took me to the Germans.”
He was taken by the Germans, interrogated, and put in a bastille. A few days later Gillingham was on a train headed for south Germany, where he was interrogated again. Gillingham said there were more than 1,000 Canadian soldiers who made up their own POW compound.
“It wasn’t too bad. We got Red Cross care packages.
But the Germans used to stab them so they couldn’t be hoarded.” The packages, which were handed out once a week, contained tins of food. However, once punctured the food had to be eaten quickly before it spoiled.
“That went on for a year . . . it was the second of March we were shot down, my brother’s birthday.” The year was 1943. On Jan. 20, 1945 Gillingham was moved.
“They decided to move us to another camp because the Russians were advancing to where the camp was.” The death march started at 6 p.m., in the snow, and the prisoners were marched 31 kilometres. Three to four days later they were put in another camp.
The prisoners started the march with their Red Cross care packages but they were heavy.
“We decided to eat them as fast as we could.”
Gillingham told the students he weighed 180 pounds when he started walking, by the end of the march he’d dropped down to 98. At the beginning there were close to 1,000 men, 200 survived.
It wasn’t until Good Friday of that year, March 30, that Gillingham was liberated.
“At 2 o’clock we could hear the rumbling of the tanks . . . they released us. All the German soldiers disappeared overnight.”
One week later Gillingham and the others of the camp were taken home by the Americans.
“What was left of us,” he added. Broncs World Tour teacher, Ron Labrie, asked Gillingham if he’d ever tried to escape from the camps. While he said many had he wasn’t among them.
“I never tried. I didn’t know my way around (Germany) . . . It was tough.”
During his time at the high school Gillingham passed around a crocheted blanket that was worn but in good shape. In his first prisoner of war camp Gillingham had taken his toothbrush, and using a rock, shaped it into a crochet hook.
“It took me a while but I had plenty of time,” said Gillingham, who’d never crocheted before but used to watch his mother. When the death march started, Gillingham put the blanket in his backpack to take with him. Once he returned home, Gillingham gave the blanket to his mother.
“She just washed it and washed it. She kept it to herself, and when she got sick she gave it to my wife.” Gillingham was introduced to the idea of speaking to the Broncs World Tour class by Ron Mercer, who works for the Town of Sylvan Lake. Mercer works with Gillingham’s daughter, Rae-Anne Ornella, at the town and that’s how he learned of Gillingham’s past. Mercer’s wife works with Labrie at the high school.
“I thought it would be a good idea for him to come to PCHS,” Mercer said.