Cycling with Uncle Jack
At 8:20 P.M., Sept. 10, 1942, my uncle's Lancaster bomber took off from Syerston, Nottinghamshire, on a raid to Dusseldorf and Neuss in Germany. His plane was among the 478 other aircraft from many other stations that took part in the raid. The Pathfinder planes successfully marked the targets – the industrial factories. That night, fifty-two of these factories were hit and put out of production for varying periods of time. Thirty-three planes were shot down that night, including my Uncle Jack's. His Lancaster of 61 Squadron RAF was shot down near Cologne, Germany, on the return flight.
The pilot of Jack's aircraft was Sgt. M.C. Davies, an English boy from Shropshire who, at 19 years of age, was the youngest RAF pilot killed in 1942. All members of the crew are buried in the Rheinburg War Cemetery, Germany.
OTTAWA ONT 14 626P SEPT 14, 1942
MRS G F BLAIR
REPORT DELIVERY 42 BRAEMAR APARTMENTS REGINA SASK
M9723 REGRET TO INFORM YOU ADVICE HAS BEEN RECEIVED FROM THE ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE CASUALTIES OFFICER OVERSEAS THAT YOUR SON R EIGHT FIVE FOUR FOUR FIVE SERGEANT
JOHN LAWRENCE BLAIR IS REPORTED MISSING AS THE RESULT OF AIR OPERATIONS ON SEPTEMBER TENTH NINETEEN FORTY TWO.
So, at thirty-two, the life of my Uncle Jack, came to an end. I never met Uncle Jack, but always wondered what our relationship would have been like if he had returned to his home in Regina, safe, in 1945.
When my Dad was alive, he and I never missed Remembrance Day services at the Cenotaph; however, as I aged, this didn’t seem to be enough. What I wanted was something more, something that would personally connect me with Uncle Jack.
Some years back I started reading Jack’s diary that covered the last eight months of his life. I found some special, happy entries, focussed on his cycling trips in the Lake District in England while posted to the RAF Training School in Millom, Cumbria.
In 2002, I did some bicycle touring in England. Reflecting on Uncle Jack’s diary, I decided to set aside a special part of the tour where I could honour his memory by cycling on some of the roads and going to some of the places that he and his friends cycled those many years ago. Uncle Jack cycled all over The Lake District, but I decided on a limited route that included Millom, Broughton, Coniston, and Lakeside on Lake Windermere.
Six months later I found myself in a B&B at a village called The Hill, just outside Millom, ready to ride through the Lake District in search of a connection with my Uncle Jack. I had no idea what to expect. I knew the physical part of the ride would be challenging, but would I experience any connection to the past?
My journey of remembrance was helped by the fact that almost all the Lake District in Cumbria is a National Park. This means that the landscape, including older heritage structures, are protected, thus restricting unwelcome change by industry or commerce. In this way, what I cycled through and saw was mostly unchanged from when Uncle Jack and his friends cycled there in 1942.
What a disparity between my situation and Uncle Jack’s! I was comfortably nestled in a B&B with a view of the hills and valleys of Furness and the waters of Morecambe Bay glistening in the sun, sumptuous breakfasts, and warm, friendly hosts; Jack lived in the barracks, with wartime rations, a room shared with twenty or more men, and under the command of the RAF officers. I had my holiday to look forward to and then a safe journey back to Canada where I could resume my life; he had to prepare himself for the fight that all soldiers were facing in 1942, with no promise that he would ever see Canada again.