I Remember it well: From the poppy days


Many of my early childhood memories are of war in East Yorkshire. Hull was one of Britain’s most heavily bombed cities, and left plenty to remember.

They are surreal. In a dark thunderstorm, a sinister escaped barrage balloon drifts down our street just above the roof-tops, dragging its heavy cable over our homes, shredding tiles and chimney pots. Grown-ups and big kids run after it pointing and shouting. Mam hugged me tight to her bosom, then it was gone, and our world was never the same. I was 4/5 years old in 1939.

Later, when the ‘Big Bomb’ blew down 32 houses a block away on Danube Road, and another lay unexploded at my school. Dad was away with the Rescue, so Mam and I wandered from Aunt’s place to Aunt’s place seeking shelter, only to discover smoke, rubble, and ‘Live Bomb’ barriers everywhere.

It was now a lovely day, blue sky, birds singing …and in unscathed areas, neighbours chatted about the big raid, casting disapproving glances at the dishevelled twosome stumbling along. The camaraderie of a shared war had not yet happened.We were just dirty refugees.

Rebuffed by a barrier at Grandma Swain’s place, out of options, my tearful Mam simply waited amidst drifting smoke at a bus stop.


Eventually a handsome RAF pilot pulled up in a tiny sports car, and gently enquired what we were doing. “Trying to get to my mother’s place at Leven!” Mam replied.

“There are no city buses, the station is destroyed!” said he. “Hop in, and we’ll go to find a proper bus.” He said to hang on as we sped through burning streets, the loud exhaust collapsing teetering walls behind us, and finally, by the City Cenotaph, we found the long distance buses, parked by the curb at Hammond’s department store, itself furiously ablaze, acrid black smoke pouring out of the street level doors and windows!

Our hero dropped us off, wished us luck, and motored off through the blazing city into poignant memory.

Amazingly there was a Leven bus. From the top deck the devastation around us was like theatre, burning bank, railroad station, cinema, and close by, Hammonds. The bus was weirdly normal, the peculiar mixed smell of leather and petrol, the “donga –donga –donga!” of the AEC five cylinder engine, the conductor collecting fares. “One and a half to Leven please?” Ka-ching!

My folks had to work, so I was left with my Mam’s parents for the summer, whilst our blasted out house was made somewhat habitable. I stayed in the sleepy little village, attended school, played in the dump, by the canal, or helped granddad with his chickens, Aunty Molly, the Land girl, run three large farms, and watched Hull burn. It was almost idyllic.

From the back fence one day I watched a bunch of ‘Flying Pencil’ Dornier 17’s bomb the heck out of RAF Hutton Cranswick, about seven miles away. Then, to Granddad’s dismay, passing overhead for home, dropped a complimentary stick of bombs on his old farm, Catwick Grange, just down the Hornsea road.

Aunt Molly was distraught at failing to rescue the crew of a flaming Anson wreck, and we watched in horror as damaged Wellingtons blew up on landing at nearby Catfoss by Brandesburton.

Granddad shouted in his sleep, “There be Zeppelins over’t chetch tower!” and mumbled about Flinders and Wipers whatever they were?

WW-1, when Mam and Molly were teeners, they crawled through a hedge at the army camp to look at some strange boards, and got caught in a volley of fire on the firing range, and ran away screaming. The army thought they’d been hit, and chased them home!


And so it went, and from all this I learnt the ‘why’ of ‘Poppy Day’ known better in Canada as Remembrance Day. On November 11, we remember and thank all those ordinary people world-wide who fought and died for a way of life they loved. They still do, and we must continuously thank them for their endless sacrifice.

In my youth at college, the O.T.C., our Officer Training Corps, held impressive parades on the grand playing fields, marching about and saluting some important General or other. We wore our red poppies proudly, but not so sure what it all meant. That became more real with age.

Today, in our COPA flying world, some of us pilots honour the world’s war dead with group flights over Remembrance Ceremonies at local Cenotaphs. Our formations recall the background hum of battles gone by. I’m told the approaching roar breaks the spell, allowing the tears to flow, and cleanse a Veteran’s heart.

The Western Warbirds vintage Harvards made the proper sound, and, encouraged by Vancouver’s Ryan’s Aviation World, and the Royal Canadian Legions, made the first fly-past in 1981, flying over 11 local ceremonies.

Also airborne were Pitt Meadows Swiftbirds, their vague resemblance to Spitfires creating excitement. It was best not to correct an old Vet about this. You’d be told he knew a Spit when he saw one! Our lovely Harvard, Bessy, flew many of these proud occasions, and hopefully still does in Ontario.

These days the tradition continues with numerous groups. The Fraser Blues Navions, Delta pilots from the RAA 85, COPA Flight 5, Boundary Bay Flying Club, the Harvard Team, Nanchangs, and others, perform a tightly choreographed event.

Afterwards, Veterans, families, and all, head to nearby Legions in Ladner, North Van, where-ever, for refreshment and talk-talk. Traditionally, the Big Debrief is at Vancouver’s Billy Bishop Legion in Kitsilano. It is a recognized museum, with walls covered in historic photos, artwork, Squadron and Battalion crests, and other artifacts.

The Billy’s fireplace grate is made up from the crank rod innards of a Bolingbroke Bomber engine! The Police Pipe band will perform, Bea will play sing-along piano, and there’ll be WW-2 era dancing upstairs. Other legions enjoy variations on the theme.


July last, our good Western Warbird friends, Corsair pilots Blain Fowler and Don McTaggart, went to Jolly Old UK to fulfill their dream to fly a Spitfire. Hey! Hey! Hey! They arranged this with John Romain and Bill Kelly’s Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford.

Their ‘Duty Pilot’ was David ‘Rats’ Ratcliffe, who has over a 100 hours of Spit time, and for a warm up, gave them a tour of ARC’s excellent shops, with three more Spits under restoration. Eventually each logged 30 minutes of sheer wonder in the two-place Tr.9 Spit, and Don swears they broke ground before Rats had the throttle fully open! Actually flying the Spit is every bit as great as generally reported, being so balanced that no rudder is needed for normal banked stuff. You just think ‘turn’, and around she goes. Magic!

If you are salivating to go, the ARC Website is www.arc-duxford.co.uk …and contact ARC Admin.


You may recall that when The Mary and I attended a UK NATO Pilot reunion at Shuttleworth in 2006, our friend Maurice Hammond let us go fly his T-6/Harvard for a glorious jaunt down England’s east coast. In his back shed, we admired his second P-51 restoration in progress. Well, it’s up and flying now and he sent us this great picture by Richard Paver, a top UK air photographer. Photo plane is the Hammond Harvard flown by daughter Leah, over their place, just south of Norwich.


Delta old-timers will be sad to hear that the lady who started Delta’s popular Koffee Port, now the Old Coffee Shop, passed away in August at 88. Corea ‘Corey’ Diston was married to husband Darmel for 68 years. They founded Delta Air Park in the early ‘60’s, now owned by Metro Vancouver Parks, as Delta Heritage Air Park.

Corey’s cheerful personality, famous lemon meringue pies, and homemade vegi soup made Delta popular with the grass roots flying folk, and began the tradition of hospitality we enjoy today. Our deepest condolences to her husband Darmel and the Diston/Embrey extended family.


As the world turns, I’m sorry to say, the muse becomes elusive, and with other calls on my time, I find it hard to do a proper job on a regular column, so Editor Hell and I agreed on my being an occasional storyteller.

Happily B.C. COPA Director Tim Cole was chomping to write stuff about the state of aviation as it affects us in B.C. and the Yukon, and he is in ‘The Loop’ with his column ‘Plane Talk.’ So listen up you guys, and pay attention!
Tony & The Mary, The Old Copaguys in Vancouver. … copaguy@vcn.bc.ca