From Cylon Raider to Gestapo Hunter…
…or How an accidental hobby led me to the grandfather I never met.
Life takes some very strange twists and turns sometimes and, in the grand scheme of things, this one is really a doozie. A couple of friends have suggested that this would work well on “Who Do You Think You Are?” but, alas, I am not (yet) a celebrity, so this humble venue will have to do.
So pull up a chair, loyal readers, and I shall tell you, in 20 magical steps, the strange but very true story of how a chance birthday gift led me down the rabbit-hole and right to my long-lost grampa.
1. Mid-1980s. I meet my birth mother for the first time. She gives me some photos of her family, including some of her father (my grandfather) during World War II. He flew a Mosquito bomber. Intriguing, as I’ve always loved planes. He lived through the war but died several years before I got these photos.
2. Photos live in a brown envelope for another 25+ years, although I think of “Grampa the Pilot” intermittently and Remembrance Day takes on a whole new poignancy and immediacy for me, removed though it may be.
3. Spring 2012. Realizing I have no hobbies or life outside work, I join a hiking group. One of the leaders, Howard, is a geek like me (although about 4 million times smarter) and we get talking Mosquito Bombers and engines and war/history stuff on many of our walks. My intrigue grows.
4. Christmas 2012. Realizing I still have few hobbies and not much of a life outside work, I build a craft table and work area. My friend K gives me some scrapbooking things for Christmas and I now have a place to do this.
5. My birthday, early 2013. K and her friend D give me a model Cylon Raider kit as a gift. As a Battlestar Galactica fan (and owner of a Craft Area & Table) I am over the moon and they have great difficulty getting me to leave the kit behind and come to dinner.
6. I need glue and paint to build the Raider. The next day, I go to a hobby shop near me to get them. Goggle-eyed at the vast quantity of model planes, cars, spaceships, body parts, tanks, soldiers etc., I ask, on impulse, whether they have any Mosquito bombers.
7. A nice man named Jim chuckles and leads me over to a stack of them. Many types (“marks”), many brands, many scales (1/48, 1/72 etc.). OMG.
8. Jim asks which kind of Mosquito my grandfather flew. WTF? You mean there’s more than one? Oh yes indeed. Somewhere upwards of 30, actually. Jim tells me to go home and look at my photos of my grandfather’s plane, particularly the nose, and tell him what I find.
9. I return to the shop the next day with copies of the photos for Jim, who loves these things, and we determine (from the presence of four telltale machine guns) that the plane is a Mosquito FB Mk VI (Fighter-bomber, mark six). Jim sells me a nice Tamiya-brand model of same, 1/48 scale, and all the paints I will need to get started. After I finish the Cylon Raider, of course.
10. On my way out the door, he casually says, “If you can find out what squadron your grampa was in, we can find you the decals to make his plane completely authentic.”
11. Feeling like Sherlock Holmes, I head home again and sit down to some serious Googling. I determine that only a handful of Canadian squadrons flew Mosquitoes. I narrow these down to the likeliest one and email the webmaster of the squadron’s home page.
12. The webmaster, Chris, mails back promptly with bad news and good. My grandfather did not, alas, fly with that squadron, but Chris is a HUGE history buff and a bit of a Sherlock Holmes himself. “Send me what info you do have,” he says, “and I’ll have a look tonight.” I mail him the scant information I have and the photos.
13. The next morning my Inbox contains an email from him that makes me sit up sharply. “…This Mossie [Mosquito] is from 464 Squadron (as denoted by the letters SB). The most interesting thing is that this is an Australian Squadron (RAAF). It seems that your granddad may have flown as a Mosquito Fighter-Bomber pilot in Europe (England, France and Belgium) with an Australian Squadron!”
14. Chris cautions that this is all just speculation until I can get my hands on either my grampa’s Pilot’s Log or the squadron’s Operational Records Book (ORB). The Pilot’s Log is out of the question, so I decide to contact the Canadian Archives and see whether they have a copy of the ORB. My request is still pending but, as you will see, this is now a moot point.
15. I put my findings, and a request for help, up on a Facebook page dedicated to Mosquito afficionados. I get some nibbles and a lot of “Wow!” from the others: 464 Squadron was also known as “The Gestapo Hunters,” and apparently still carries a lot of cachet, as you can imagine!
16. Late last week, a man named Steve messages me that his godfather was actually a gunner with 464 Squadron. Better yet, Steve has (be still my heart) a copy of their ORB in his possession, as well as access to the online version at the Australian Archives. He’ll have a look when he gets home from work.
17. I send Steve the pix and info about my grandfather. (This has been nothing if not an exercise in trust, believe me!)
18. A few hours later, Steve messages me: “Right. Got the pics. It’s definitely 464 Squadron. The SB code letters [on the plane] tell me that. I’ll check the record book; that will tell me which particular aircraft he flew and on which operations and dates.” It’s well past my dinnertime by now, but all bodily needs fade into the background. This is incredible.
19. A few minutes later, an email arrives from Steve with copies of the pages of the ORB that refer to my grandfather’s missions. There in meticulous typewritten script is my grampa’s name, his service number, and his squadron leader’s writeup of his activities and those of his mates: Bombed railway junction. Bombed gun position. Bombed and strafed train. The names of cities and rivers near which I actually lived when I was working in Germany. At the bottom of most of the reports are the unexpectedly moving words “Usual tactics. All a/c [aircraft] returned to base.”
20. Using the URL Steve sends me, I head to the Australian Archives website and open up the ORB for 464 Squadron. Thanks to Steve, I have all the pages that refer to my grandfather, but over the next hours (dinner, schminner) I now place him in the larger context of the Second World War and all the events that previously I knew only by name — if that. The Battle for Berlin. The death of Adolf Hitler. The surrender of Germany. I was indifferent to history in high school but now you couldn’t drag me away from my computer screen, and these stories, for love or money. I am hooked, drawn in, mesmerized, exhilarated, and oddly humbled. I read on, late into the night.
…And so ends the story — for now. The Mosquito model is complex and will take time to assemble, but something this monumental is worth all the time and patience I can muster. This is fine by me; for someone who famously has no patience for fiddly projects (and who has been known to throw bits of partly assembled IKEA furniture across the room in frustration), I seem to have tapped into an infinite wellspring of focus and concentration here. Hours pass as I painstakingly clip, trim, sand, glue, prime, paint, and press together tiny little parts of the model of my grandfather’s plane.
When it is finished, I will hang it in a place where I can see it and be proud.
As I said, I never actually met my grandfather. He died a few years before I met my birth mother, of cancer, apparently, and the photos and the Mosquito model, and now the ORB entries, are all the link I have to him.
But it is a powerful link, and thanks to the kindness of strangers, and a few lucky twists of fate, I now have a window — some might say a magic portal — into the world that shaped him, and the countless others who served with him, and a new and ferocious pride in having this man’s blood flowing through my veins.
- Documentary on the DeHavilland Mosquito (DH98). Part 1 and Part 2
- Documentary on Mosquito raid on Amiens Prison
- Documentary (History Channel): “The Mosquito Raiders“
- The Shell House Raid (movie/documentary about “Operation Carthage” to bomb Gestapo HQ in Copenhagen)
- Movietone News footage of Operation Oyster (attack on Philips Radio Works, Holland, Dec. 6, 1942)
- Neat demo by Airfix (model makers) of assembly of 1:24-scale Mosquito model
- British Pathé Newsreel, 1943: “Mosquitoes with Many Stings“
- 633 Squadron – 1964 movie about a Mosquito squadron. YouTube, Part 1 (subsequent parts clickable at side). Recommended by my chum Laura Nagle (@HardAspie) — thank you!
** If you find any errors in this piece, or have any more links to add (books, documentaries, movies, etc.) please contact me and I will add them here.