SWORDFISH VETERANS OF WORLD WAR II
Flying Officer Robert (Bob) Frederick McBride
Robert McBride was born and raised in Montreal. He spent most of his summers at a family property located at Baie d’Urfe, 20 kilometres west of the city on the shore of Lac St-Louis. Following the death of his mother, Bob was sent to Trinity College, a boarding school located at Port Hope, Ontario. Upon graduation he worked in the family import business, John T. McBride and Company. He enlisted in September 1940 and was immediately sent to the manning depot at Brandon, Manitoba. From there he was moved to Regina, Lethbridge and Calgary for various flight training courses. He earned his “Wings” on 27 May 1941. At this point he was given a three week leave period, which he used to return to Montreal and marry his school sweetheart, Jean Estelle Morrison, on 31 May 1941. Bob was then sent to RCAF Station Charlottetown to attend a celestial navigation course. Since he was married, he was allowed to live with his wife in a local apartment rather than stay on Base in single quarters.
In September 1941, Bob was sent overseas where he received additional training before being assigned to 415 Squadron on 4 November. At the time flying training was severely restricted because of a lack of aircraft. The Squadron was initially allocated Bristol Beauforts; however these aircraft were withdrawn to meet an immediate operational requirement within Coastal Command. To replace the Beauforts antiquated Bristol Blenheims were provided. It was then decided to equip the Squadron with modified Handley Page Hampdens, which had been removed from operations with Bomber Command. As a result of these changes, the first Squadron crews were not formed until January 1942. Bob’s all Canadian crew included Sergeant Alexander Morris Henning (Bud) Robertson the Observer/Navigator and Sergeants Paul R. Ramage and Gordon W. Clubb, who were the Wireless Operators/Air Gunners. As Bob continued his conversion training on Blenheims, the Squadron started its conversion to the Handley Page Hampden. Bob qualified solo on the Blenheim on 18 February 1942 and two days later qualified on the Hampden. The crew then began a period of intensive operational training.
On 7 November 1942, F/O McBride’s and Pilot Officer Cross’ crews were tasked to conduct an anti-shipping operation over the Bay of Biscay. They departed St. Eval and flew 100 miles south-west and then turned south-east into their operating area. This route was followed to avoid being jumped by enemy aircraft. During day light missions such as this, it was standard procedure for the crews to fly the entire mission below 100 feet altitude, without the benefit of an auto pilot - an extremely fatiguing practice. Three 5000 ton vessels with naval escorts were sighted in the Gironde Estuary located close to Bordeaux. Both crews engaged the enemy. During the attack they encountered heavy and accurate flack. Unfortunately McBride’s Hampden, AT241, was hit and its starboard engine caught fire. Bob decided to head for the French coast, which was just a short distance away. Pilot Officer Cross reported that McBride’s aircraft appeared to be under control as it skimmed the water at approximately 20 feet.
Bob succeeded in “beaching” the Hampden safely and the crew only suffered minor injuries; however the beach had been mined by the enemy. The Germans were not prepared to approach the downed aircraft and therefore the crew had to risk their lives one more time and pick their way across the beach in order to surrender to their captors! At the time the Squadron was unaware of the true status of the crew. On 27 November Bob’s wife received a telegram telling her that Bob was missing in action. The 415 Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Bean, also wrote to Bob’s wife advising that he and his crew had gone missing during an operation. In his letter he stated that “conditions were quite favourable to making a forced landing on the water or the beach”. Surprisingly Bob’s wife received the following note in the mail even before receiving official notice from the Canadian Military that he was a prisoner of war (POW). The note written by Bob on 13 November 1942 follows:
Hello Darling – I hope that my disappearance did not upset you too much. I am afraid that this might delay my home coming but do not worry about me. I will soon be up and about as I am only slightly wounded in my left foot. I am being well taken care of and I am treated well. So Darling wait for me a little longer. All my love. Bob
Following a short stay in hospital Bob was sent by train to Stalag Luft III located in Sagan, Poland. The route he followed is depicted by a dotted line in Figures 3 & 4. This was the POW camp at which the “Great Escape” occurred. At the camp Bob was integrated into the “X” team that was planning the escape. There were a number of talented artists in the camp, some of whom who were responsible for preparing the forged documents used in the escape. Bob acquired a number of the sketches produced by these artists and somehow managed to keep them safe throughout his ordeal.
Figure 2: F/O Bob McBride
Figure 3: Map drawn by Bob McBride Figure 4: Map drawn by Bob McBride
Periodically the prisoners would receive Red Cross deliveries. These might include letters and packages from home, food, cigarettes and clothing. On a couple occasions small hardboard books were issued to the airman. They contained over 100 blank pages which could be filled with notes, sketches and poetry. The sketches Bob had acquired were placed in this book, which he was able to keep on his person. This book would ultimately form an illustrative diary of his time as a POW.
Figure 10: F/O McBride 1942 Figure 11: Bob & Jean 1980s
415 Squadron Association
Figure 7: Bob as a Penguin Figure 8: The McBride crew at Stalag Luft III
Figure 9: Samples of Bob McBride’s POW Diary
Bob’s contribution to the Great Escape was to play the role of a “penguin”. These were the men who carried soil from the tunnels to designated dump areas. Figure 7 is a sketch of Bob as a penguin wearing the Montreal Canadians hockey tuque that his wife sent him during the winter of 42/43. The sketch is dated February 1944, just a month before the Great Escape - given the caption; he may have been carrying a double load of sand underneath his great coat. Surprisingly Bob also acquired a few photos taken at Stalag Luft III. One of them, Figure 8, shows the entire McBride crew – Bob is at the far left. It is unknown how Bob acquired these photos.
The pages of the log are numbered and sketches appear in chronological order. For example the bunk house picture was sketched sometime after the escape – missing slats had been used in the tunnels. Also contained in the diary was the following poem which Bob wrote.
Day follows day in dull monotony;
The sun hangs heavy in the changeless sky,
Dust devils eddy down the sandy road,
The long drab rows of huts lie mute within
The shadow of the encircling wire –
And this is life.
The hours slip silent to eternity.
The days stretch into weeks, the weeks to years …
Time ages, yet its features do not change;
Time sweeps along on feet that never move –
Feet fettered by the wires weightless bond.
With night comes sleep.
And sleep brings dreams to flaunt these timeless days
And life runs sweetly as it did before –
Bright eyes, sweet lips, cool drinks, good food, soft beds –
The thousand fantasies of vanished peace
Till morning light returns with hopeless hope.
In June 1944 Bob was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. By early 1945 Bob and his fellow prisoners had one more struggle to survive before the war was to come to an end. On 27 January 1945, a forced march westward commenced ahead of advancing Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front. The initial 50 mile trek on foot, from Sagan to Spremberg, occurred in poor weather and below freezing temperatures. From there, the prisoners were transported in boxcars to a camp near Tarmstedt, 80 kilometres southwest of Hamburg, Germany. Later, in early April, the POWs were on the road again, this time marching east to Lubeck in front of the advancing Allies on the Western Front. It was in Lubeck that the POWs were set free. Bobs long ordeal was finally over.
Not wanting to wait, Bob and a fellow prisoner commandeered a car from a German officer. They planned to make their way to Belgium and then find passage to London. This was not to be, and in the end they were conveyed to London by the U.S. Army. Bob then had the satisfaction of being in London at Trafalgar Square for the V.E. Day celebrations on May 8th. He returned to Canada by ship to Halifax and then on to Montreal by train, arriving on the eve of his fourth wedding anniversary, 30 May 1945.
On arrival in Montreal the first order of business was for Bob to settle into married life. Although Jean and Bob had been married for four years, they had barely spent three months together as husband and wife. “There was a certain awkwardness”, Jean is reported as saying, “somewhat akin to teenagers on a first date”. This was resolved by spending some romantic time alone at the Seigniory Club (now the Chateau Montebello). From then on they were kept very busy creating a home for their four children, who were born in rapid succession.
Bob’s first and only job after the war was selling heavy-duty trucks for the White Motor Company in Montreal. He was very successful at his work and had several major corporations as customers. At various times he was offered head-office promotions in Ontario, which he always turned down. As an interesting aside, two of the former prison guards from Stalag Luft III immigrated to Canada and approached Bob for jobs as mechanics. He hired them immediately and apparently they turned out to be terrific employees.
Bob became a devoted husband and father. Holidays to Maine were the norm each summer as were ski lessons in the Laurentian Mountains during the winter months. In retirement Bob and Jean lived quietly, spending time on their boat in the summer and enjoying the occasional trip to the South in winter. In his spare time, he volunteered for leadership positions in a number of sailing organizations and he always took great pleasure being on the water with his children and grand-children. He never discussed his wartime experiences but he and Jean did attend the Canadian premier of the Hollywood version of the Great Escape in Toronto. Some of the German guards were flown in for the occasion and it is reported that everyone enjoyed the event immensely.
Bob died suddenly of a heart attack while walking his dog at a lakeside park in February 1989. He was 71 years old. Jean passed away in July 2003 at the age of 85.
Figure 6: With the passage of time (unknown artist)
Information for this story was acquired from a presentation that was prepared by Peter McBride one of Bob’s sons. Pictures, sketches and photos were copies of those contained in Bob’s Wartime POW Diary and were provided by the McBride family. Supplemental information was gathered from various websites. Through email collaboration and discussions between Peter McBride and Chris Henneberry, a story was developed, which records Bob McBride’s record of service. The 415 Squadron Association wishes to express its deep appreciation to Peter and the rest of the McBride family for sharing the history of their father Bob. He will be remembered.
Figure 5: Prison camp life
Figure 1: L-R Sgt Robertson, Sgt Ramage, WO McBride and Sgt Clubb
Bob was promoted to Warrant Officer on 03 June 1942. He was popular amongst his NCO colleagues for his cooking skills. According to one account, when food parcels would arrive the NCOs would pool their resources and Bob would prepare feasts for as long as the “goodies” held out. One of his crew members was quoted as saying, “McBride could make toasted Spam taste like ham at Dinty Moore’s on Ste. Catherine Street”.
For almost a year the McBride crew seemed to be constantly on the move. They flew from many RAF Stations including: Thorney Island, Leuchars, St.Eval, Abbotsinch, North Coates and Tain. Home base locations were changed to meet operational requirements. Scottish bases were used to access the Norwegian coast, while North Coates was used for missions to Holland, Denmark and Germany. Thorney Island accessed the English Channel and Northern France, while St. Eval in Cornwall served as base for the North Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay. The crew’s first operational mission was flown on 28 April 1942. Over the next six months they completed 16 missions and Bob was commissioned and promoted to Flying Officer. Figures 3 & 4 depict the various mission routes that the crew flew.
Bob was one of 200 POWs that were slated for the escape. In recognition of the roles they played, the first 30 were provided with forged documentation, indistinguishable from the real thing, civilian clothing, German cash, and in most cases, language skills needed to cross check points. All of this was prepared by incredibly talented and resourceful teams working within the so called “X” organization. This first group of 30 had the best chance, albeit slim chance, of scoring home runs (making it out of Axes held territory), and three of them did. The next 50, which included Bob, were selected for the effort that they put in preparing for the escape, while the remaining 120 were chosen by drawing lots. These 170 would-be escapees were called “hard-arsers” and were given virtually no chance of scoring home runs. Their main goal was to disrupt the Germans – finding freedom was a secondary goal. In the end, only 80 of the 200 men made it out of the tunnel before it was discovered by the German guards. Bob was the 80th and, along with three others who had not yet made it to the woods, was promptly marched to the cooler for two months of solitary confinement. A massive manhunt ensued for the 76 POWs that were on the run. Adolph Hitler issued the “Sagan Order”, which resulted in fifty escapees being shot in the back after re-capture. Bob could have been one of the fifty. Thankfully, the Commander of Stalag Luft III refused to turn the four prisoners caught by the tunnel mouth over to the Gestapo, even though they were intended to be included in the Sagan Order. The Commander was relieved of his duties following the Great escape, and the four prisoners lived on.