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The Flying Duddridges of Hanley

The Flying Duddridges of Hanley

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The Flying Duddridges of Hanley

376 pages
6 hours
May 31, 2011


Lew and Len Duddridge hadnt planned on entering an occupation that made death their partner. They had dreamed of working as farmers, teachers, bankers, or civil servants, but instead they became wartime pilots.

In The Flying Duddridges of Hanley, author Lew Duddridge narrates the story of how he and his brother Len, two brothers from Hanley, Saskatchewan, served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. They were the only two of the thirteen young men from this small town who would live to tell their story. This memoir relays the Duddridges many flight experiences, such as making their first solo flights in a Spitfire aircraft and crash landing a burning Spitfire after a German FW 190 damaged the engine and propeller.

Interwoven with tales about their farm upbringing and their personal lives, The Flying Duddridges of Hanley, brings World War II to life from the perspective of two brothers who became men while experiencing the terrors and tragedy of WWII.
May 31, 2011

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Lew Duddridge joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1950. He logged 10,000 flying hours and flew airplanes continuously for sixty-five years until retirement. After his service in the RCAF, Duddridge owned a Massey Ferguson and Ford dealership for thirty-two years. He and his wife, Hilda, have four children.

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The Flying Duddridges of Hanley - Lew Duddridge


Chapter 1


The Duddridge brothers, Len and Lew, had earned their pilot’s wings. We had come from Saskatchewan to Great Britain together and now Len was flying the famous Spitfire fighter aircraft in North Africa and I was flying the Lancaster bomber in Britain. Len and I had seen a lot of each other until Len’s posting to North Africa became official. He was off to fly in support of General Montgomery’s troops who were attempting to defeat Rommel’s troops in North Africa. Len had been able to catch a ride on one of the supply squadron aircraft and holiday back in London. After over a year in the misery of the desert he was entitled to get to what he called civilization again and Len knew the holiday would be short and sweet.

The Duddridge brothers were able to compare notes and neither Len’s nor my notes made a pretty picture. Back on the farm with dad, in Hanley, Saskatchewan was the place to be. There was no doubt about that, but it just didn’t make sense. If every young man and woman in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc., had stayed home — Britain would have been left alone. Hitler would have crossed the Channel and we would all be learning the Goose Step. The Jews of Britain would be heading for death camps. The picture would not be a pretty one.

Hitler had bit off more than he could chew. Time would prove this statement right. Hanley was only a small town in the Saskatchewan farming community, but it would send close to 150 young women and men into uniform. Eleven young men from the Royal Canadian Air Force would never see Hanley again. Would Len and I be next? Despite all of this, the war had to be won. Hitler had to be defeated. This was justified.

Each young Canadian had to be his brothers’ keeper. Len and I knew as we talked that the two Trask boys and the Hunter boy, the Harbour, Isralson, Kilpatrick, Mason, Popplewell, Parks, Strouts, and Billy Watts were the bitter pill that Hitler had forced Hanley, Saskatchewan to swallow.

Len and I knew and went to school with almost every one of those boys. Popplewell, the least known, worked for Grandpa Hamre’s General Store. Chet Popplewell died in his Halifax bomber as it was shot down over Germany. Kilpatrick a navigator on a Lancaster bomber was shot down and buried at Pornic, France. Each death is indelibly etched in my brain. When Len and I get back to Hanley, if we get back to Hanley, Woody and Marion Trask will not be there, none of them will be there, but the world will go on. We will win this war but Len’s worries could come true. One of those massive German tank guns could bring his Spitfire down and Charles and Ethel Duddridge will get one of those terrible telegrams — The British Air Ministry regrets to inform you that R17008, Warrant Officer L. J. Duddridge, was killed in action in North Africa on the 22nd of June, 1942.

Yes, Len and I did talk about these things. Yes, it was gloomy but we had youth on our side, we would not be casualties. Yes, we were indestructible. There was no question: to fly in this war whether fighter pilot or bomber pilot was to fly into Death Valley.

If our parents knew the casualty rate of aircrew in Great Britain, even though we had completed our Canadian training, they would be horrified. Len and I understood and we knew the reason for a high accident rate. It was simple! How can you compete with a well-trained enemy if you don’t practice to the level of competence that the enemy has reached? Practicing for war is like practicing with death. A tiny error and death is waiting.

Who were we before we became wartime pilots? We had planned on being farmers, teachers, bankers, and civil servants. We had not planned an occupation that made death your partner. We didn’t want to go to war but it did sound exciting and we feared Nazi Germany.

When we joined we were ready for the air force, but not necessarily for what we could experience while we served in it.

Collectively, we along with millions of other airmen, soldiers, and sailors from the Allied countries, defeated Germany, but it took five and one-half long years.

When we came home after the war, many veterans did not talk about what they had endured. Some were wounded; some lost limbs or an eye. Many had seen their friends die.

We knew that this war had been forced on us and it wasn’t glorious. To some degree we were all wounded by the horror we had seen and the terror we had felt. For many, to talk about the war was to recall that horror, that terror! We wanted to be left to live our lives in peace, to raise our families, and to develop our careers.

Today, of course, the teenagers who were at those Wings Parades during WW II are in their 80s or 90s. When they attend a Remembrance Day service, they know they will see fewer comrades than the year before.

The passage of time will never erase what they saw and felt, but it has enabled many veterans to discuss their ordeals more easily with younger people, in many cases their children and grandchildren. They want young people to know what they experienced during the war.

We should know what they did, and we should express appreciation, but we should not just look at the veterans as if they are characters in a history book. The veterans have something to say to us about the future. They know that obstacles arise that are difficult to surmount, no matter when or where you live. They also know these obstacles will be different from the ones they faced — the type of challenges described in my Who Cares Now book. The challenges young people face may be personal, educational, financial or occupational.

Overcoming these challenges requires the same traits the airmen displayed: courage, initiative, determination — and some luck. This is the legacy presented to us by the survivors of the air war against Nazi Germany.

This story is the true-life story of two wartime pilots and it does move as our spirit moved us. The previous paragraphs certainly have thought-provoking comments but you might have felt the same under the same circumstances. We were generally very upbeat and not this melancholy. At this particular period the death count among aircrew was already atrocious and the Germans were so fearless, their equipment was so amazingly efficient and their operators so brazen. All of this for sure, but Len and I never wavered from our We’ll be Victorious stance.

So life went on for the Duddridge Royal Canadian Air Force pilots. It was about this time that Len warned me to be careful. His words were: Be very careful Lew, I want one of us to get back to Hanley. I do not believe that I will see Hanley again. I do not like this posting — I do not like flying in North Africa.

Brother Len did return to North Africa. The same tenacity that kept Len and his Spitfire flying, found him a way of spending his leave with me in London. As mentioned, a bit ago, our friend Ray Burgess, who flew his Halifax out of Shawbury, would along with his squadron mates be making plenty of supply and VIP trips to Gibraltar, Malta and North Africa. Len got his ride and returned safely to North Africa. WW II had done something for the relationship between the two flying Duddridge boys that family life had never done. I suppose we were plain ordinary siblings. We got along fine at times and oh sure; there were those other times. I’m sure that as the story unfolds those differences will be disclosed.

The pressure and stress of wartime flying had changed our relationship. We now needed brotherly support — gone was the silly squabbling that in our youth could so easily change to wrestling and fisticuffs. Now there was no question in our minds about our future or the lack of it. The hour-by-hour or day-by-day casualty rate could not be ignored and yet we did ignore it. I have mentioned the indestructible attitude of our aircrew. If we lived and got back to Civvy Street, would we return to the old ways? Would it be me first again? For the moment a terrible war needed us and we needed each other.

Going back a little way in our lives, it never entered our minds that we would learn to fly in the Royal Canadian Air Force together. It started off in almost amazing fashion. Len had the education (required to be accepted) in aircrew and I did not have the required education. The Royal Canadian Air Force provided me with upgrading classes and I made the grade. At the same time, Len was accepted in the RCAF in the aircrew category. That also meant that Len and I arrived at the Initial Training School together. We both did well and were both chosen as suitable for pilot training. We were posted to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to take training on the wonderful but old Tiger Moth. We also made the grade in P.A. and were then posted to Dauphin, Manitoba to learn to fly the twin-engine Cessna Crane. The Crane was a very suitable aircraft in that it had all of the features such as retractable undercarriage flaps, variable pitch prop, etc., that we would find in the squadrons overseas. An unbelievable change from the Tiger Moth, which had none of these features.

As the story unwinds it becomes even more unique, we both made the grade and our mother was invited to Dauphin to pin our pilot’s wings on our jackets. We would never again see such pomp and ceremony as we saw and were part of that day. Our mom was the first Canadian mom to pin the wings on two sons at the same Wings Parade. We could now fairly and honestly call ourselves the flying Duddridges of Hanley.

We were given two weeks embarkation leave and after a glorious and unbelievable send-off we were on our way to Great Britain and the war.

Hanley had already lost Ray Hunter, the champion track star, the best baseball pitcher in the country, and last but not least the guy that the young gals went ga ga over.

Never mind the casualties, Len and I were indestructible. We would be back. That is what all men thought. We would be back to pay the Hanley citizens for the free meals, the free beer and the all around wonderful send-off that they gave us.

Len recounted: "After a shaky and memorable voyage on the Isle de France, a voyage that saw the German subs sink one of the ships of our convoy, we made it to Liverpool and then by train to Bournemouth.

"It didn’t take us long to get to like Bournemouth. Yes, it was wartime and we felt the impact immediately. Everything except the girls and beer was rationed. The selection of food was acceptable to the British because they had been forced out of grim necessity to become accustomed to it. If we, the Allied visitors, had a brain in our heads, we would quickly accept it as it was, and most of us did just that.

"Back to the girls and beer — Bournemouth was a famous holiday resort and people were still finding ways to get there. Maybe the hundreds and hundreds of Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, etc. airmen were an attraction to the girls. We thought so.

I didn’t always have a chance to discuss things with Lew, and here’s the reason. The strange ways of the military unfold, and in so doing they had quite an immediate impact on my brother.

Here is the story, as Lew told it to me: I was called into the Posting Officer’s office soon after I arrived in Bournemouth. You recall that I was in the RCAF — 12 months ahead of you and during that time I was sent to St. Thomas, Ontario to take a 6-month mechanic course. When I graduated, I was posted to #4 SFTS in Saskatoon and became a LAC Mechanic. The course at St. Thomas was very extensive and so as a Leading Aircraftsman I studied many aspects of multi-engine aircraft. The promised remuster to aircrew came through and now I had my pilot’s wings added to my credentials. The interviewing officer explains that the Royal Air Force started a project titled Airborne Cigar, at RAF 101 Squadron, about 18 miles east of Lincoln. The station name was Ludford Magna. The crew had been increased to eight and the eighth man must speak German. Among other things the aircraft was fitted with electronic counter-measures equipment. The key to the whole interview was that they were temporarily short of flight engineers and that I with my pilot’s qualifications and aircraft mechanic’s qualifications could fill the position nicely until flight engineers became available. There was no way around it; I was off to Ludford Magna.

Len continued: "Meanwhile at Bournemouth I wait for my name to appear on a posting list, but in the second week after Lew left, I got a telegram from him saying that he would try to get some time off and would I try to get time off. I wired back OK and ended up in hospital with something close to pneumonia and in so doing missed a draft to Scotland to fly Oxfords.

"After I was out of the hospital I got time off to go to see Lew in Lincoln. His telegram came stating his crew was stood down for the weekend. So he had visiting time.

"Lew couldn’t tell me much except that it was a new project and they did have an eighth crew member that could speak German. He claimed he could be court-martialled if he yakked about the project that they called Airborne Cigar. He did say that coming into missions with so little advance training was a challenge but his big job was keeping track of the four Rolls-Royce engines and his training as a pilot and as a fitter seemed to do the job. Peter Limo the pilot was experienced and a solid type of guy but despite that they had their hands full and Lew was happy to get some time off.

"My trip to hospital had caused me to miss a trip to an advanced flying unit somewhere in Scotland, where they flew twin-engine airspeed Oxfords. The Oxford is a British aircraft and the emphasis at AFU is on instrument flying.

"Just over two weeks after seeing Lew in Lincoln I was on my way to Banff in Banffshire, Scotland.

Well the Duddridge brothers had not yet run out of surprises. At the very first roll call the names Leonard Duddridge and Lewis Duddridge were called and after each name the word ‘present’ came out loud and clear. By another strange turn of events Len and Lewis are together again.

Lew explained it to me this way: I was called in by the flight commander and told that flight engineers had now appeared and I would be placed in the proper stream and so I would be posted to an AFU. Lew continued, "We had no idea that luck of the draw would put us together again in Banff, Scotland, where we would have been two months ago, if the Royal Air Force had not temporarily run short of flight engineers.

How could all this happen? We both realized that Len’s trip to hospital caused him to miss a course in Banff but all of that was not going to matter because strange new challenges were about to appear for me. So now I’m in the spotlight.

Chapter 2


We, the flying Duddridges, came to a distinct turn in the flying road at Banff. The Oxford had a unique braking system; so unique that I had never seen it before or since. To apply braking pressure to a port or starboard wheel you had to press a small black lever with your left thumb on the left side of the control column. Len did not have a left thumb. Len’s logbook totalled 18 minutes taxiing the Oxford. It stands to reason if you cannot taxi you cannot take off or land the aircraft.

Len never missed a beat; he was off to North Wales. He was given five hours time on the Miles Master, which was the RAF single engine aircraft that you trained on prior to flying the Spitfire fighter. He passed the five-hour flying test and was posted to Wrexham in North Wales, where he would fly a further 75 hours of very advanced training on the Miles Master. I visited him there and I could tell he was going to make the grade. My young brother was going to become a Spitfire pilot. Spitfire pilot! Man oh man, how many WW II pilots would have given almost anything to fly one of those beautiful machines. Trust my brother. He did it, and all he had to do was lose a thumb and forefinger.

Here is his description to me of his first solo flight in a Spitfire: I remember the strange heart-throbbing moment when I graduated from the Miles Master to the Spitfire. My instructor had appeared at the door to the flight room. ‘How do you feel, Duddridge?’ he asked.

"I feel fine, sir. — It was the only thing to say, of course, but in truth I felt nervous. As my instructor pointed at an aircraft bearing the markings ‘TAS,’ I realized that I was about to have my first real contact with a Spitfire fighter. Before putting on my parachute I took a moment just to stand and stare at it. It was the stuff of every pilot’s dreams: a machine as beautiful as it was deadly, the clean lines of the fuselage matched by the elegant simplicity of the Rolls-Royce engine nacelle. Most important of all there were no dual controls. After many hours of dual instruction on the Miles Master my instructor had deemed that I was ready to fly alone. My God, I asked myself, could I really fly the Spitfire? Never in my life had my nerves played so many games with me.

"My instructor’s voice snapped me out of it: ‘You have one hour. Good luck.’ I adjusted my helmet, did up my harness, and sat dazed in front of a massive array of instruments, trying desperately to remember what my instructor had said when we flew the Miles Master the day before. Certainly this was not the first time I had sat in a Spitfire. But all the dials, contacts, and levers rammed into such a confined space seemed unfamiliar and confusing at that moment.

"In my confusion I fell back on the cockpit drill, which I knew by heart. The letters HHTMPFFGGS all meant something. Hood, harness, trim, mixture, pitch, fuel, flaps, gills, gauges, switches. Everything was set. The mechanic closed the hood behind me and I was trapped — This is it, I told myself. Don’t screw it up. I signaled: All Clear Contact. I manipulated the hand pump and the starter button. Slowly the propeller began to turn, and then with a sound like a cannon the mighty Rolls-Royce engine roared to life. Black smoke, streaked with long blue flames, erupted from the exhaust stacks. The aircraft shuddered but gradually settled as the engine tuned itself in. I waved: Chocks Away. The mechanic pulled the blocks from in front of the wheels; I opened the radiator shutters wide. As I felt my aircraft begin to roll forward I checked my brakes and the flight controls for freedom of movement; all was well. So I taxied carefully over to the runway, following the standard zigzag pattern which a Spitfire pilot learns is the only way to see forward. I could see the ground controller in his little shack on the edge of the runway. From here he controlled all aircraft movement with his Aldis lamp. His light flashed green and I continued onto the runway. Another green light followed. I had been cleared for takeoff.

"My heart pounding, and sweat trickling down my neck; I lowered my seat and slowly opened the throttle. Bits of old advice filtered into my brain. ‘Don’t put the stick too far forward; that huge propeller is almost touching the ground as it is.’ The Spitfire surged forward and I corrected the incipient swing, I jockeyed the rudders. And then, as if by magic, the magnificent machine was in the air, the runway markers flashing by on either side. I held it straight and raised the undercarriage; throttled back and adjusted the propeller pitch for climbing. The training I had taken in the mockup of the Spitfire was working! I was doing fine.

"Oh! How light on the controls this unique machine was! The slightest movement of the hand and it virtually leapt across the sky. I was now experiencing what thousands could only imagine. Gradually the speed went to my head and I grew bolder. I eased the stick forward to try a dive. Three hundred, 350, 400 nautical miles per hour. The ground was really hurtling towards me now. Such speed began to scare me and I pulled the stick back. But the sudden change in direction drove my head into my shoulders. My eyes blurred under the enormous strain of ‘G’ forces, I could feel my face being stretched, my lips forcing their way into my teeth. So it was clear that I still had some learning to do.

"As the Spitfire shot skyward once again, I shook off the ‘G’ effect and regained my composure. For the next 30 minutes I worked through my flying exercises. I was still heavy-handed, but time and practice would sort out my problems. For now all I needed to do was return to base and put this lovely machine back on the runway safely.

I went through all my pre-landing checks: brakes, undercarriage, mixture, pitch, fuel and flaps. I opened the radiator shutters wide, throttled back, selected the propeller fine pitch, raised my seat and opened the hood. But all was not well with the approach. I could not see where I was to land; the broad exhaust stacks of the Spitfire’s enormous engine were blotting out the whole runway. And because of the tremendous pressure of on-rushing air, I could not stick my head outside the cockpit for a better view. I was a prisoner in my own Spitfire. I made slight turns to port and starboard, from which I finally caught flashes of the runway. I lowered the undercarriage and flaps. The runway rushed up at me at what seemed an impossible speed. Stick back, back, back, desperately back! Then, with a painful jolt the aircraft touched down. It rolled awkwardly down the runway. A touch of left brake, a touch of right, zigzagging again to get a better view forward. At last I swung off the runway and stopped. I had flown the mighty Spitfire.

Many things were about to happen in Len’s flying career and they would happen quickly. Yes he soloed which was of course a key step — but he had to build up hours on the Spitfire and take operational training on that beautiful bird. The Royal Air Force was, at this period, very short of fighter pilots and they were pushed hard. He did not like pressure of this kind, but he also understood the corner that the Germans had pushed us into. It seemed like no time before Len was on his way to Italy, Malta and North Africa.

Somewhere in this hither, thither and yon story of Len’s fighter pilot days you may see an artist’s rendition of a Spitfire of RAF417 Squadron. The caption read: S. Paul Alexander Coranson watercolour and graphite on paper — and it shows a D1 which is short for daily inspection being done on a Spitfire that brother Len flew from A Flight RAF417 Squadron. The inspection was being done between operations at Macianise, Italy. RAF417 Squadron flew fighter cover over the Anzio Beachhead and Thelmer Stranden a LAC mechanic who I have mentioned before served on that squadron. You will certainly come across short shots of repetition in this manuscript and it can be said here that Thelmer Stranden was from Hanley and returned to Hanley and operated an auto body shop after WW II.

To the readers of this wartime life story of brothers Len and Lew it is a good time to touch on the lives of air force men and women who do not get a fraction of the credit they should get. Thelmer Stranden of Hanley is a mechanic and of course it was just mentioned that he serviced Len’s Spitfire aircraft for three or four months. Some will say that a fighter pilot is closer to the men who service his aircraft than a bomber pilot. The very nature of the relationship seems to bear that out. I have great respect for the men and women who for three years serviced the Oxfords, Ansons, Wellingtons and Lancasters that I flew in Great Britain.

Chapter 3


If Len told me where he got the Blair story I have forgotten, but in his stuff was a true-to-life story that I loved to copy, because I can pretend that Blair was my mechanic. As I read the following pages my respect for the guys who kept us flying deepened even more. I wish Len had left me the whole book.

I forget just how it was that Len got so close to a Spitfire mechanic named Blair. Maybe they dated sisters for a few months. That was a distinct possibility, but on top of everything else, there is no doubt in my mind that Blair was one of those many unsung service heroes that kept our aircraft airworthy. Pride in the work they did on our aircraft went hand in hand with the confidence that pilots developed as they flew the aircraft. If you are visualizing a polished hangar floor with an abundance of hoists and jacks — just forget it. These men and women changed engines and repaired engines outside under canvas.

I think Blair’s life and his story is so much a part of the war it should be told. Blair came from a town west of Saskatoon; possibly it was Harris, the town where the Trask family originated. — A family that had already lost both their sons, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, as Blair did. Len let Blair tell his story, that was much like the story hundreds even thousands of Canadians could tell.

Word came in the mail that Blair’s mom had cancer and was in a Saskatoon Hospital for an operation. Cancer in the early ’40s was almost a death sentence. Blair confided: "This was a severe blow to me, being an only child; I was very close to my mother. I could always talk to her when I had problems, now the thought of losing her was almost more than I could take. We were living on Buxton Lane at that time and I walked up and down the lane that night trying to decide what to do. I felt I could get compassionate leave to go home, but I wouldn’t get back and I did want to see this war through. I finally decided to stay, as I could do very little if I did go home. I had written home faithfully every week since I had been away. I wrote again and wished mom all the best and said I would pray for her and I did. Mother came through the operation all right and lived for 10 more years, long enough to see her two grandchildren.

"During the winter and spring we had a generally easy time. We were entitled to a week’s leave every three months and in normal times we got it. Later on we would go over six months without leave, but it was then easy to get a 48-hour pass or an evening off. The Palais Dance Hall saw a fair bit of me and I got to know a few of the girls, in fact one of them, Olive Sheppard, and I went fairly steady for several months. She was good company and a terrific dancer as were most of the girls. How their feet put up with army boots stepping on them is more than I know. There was no liquor in the dance hall and they shut down by 11 o’clock. The reason for this was that the trains and buses all shut down by midnight and service men (unless on leave), normally had to be through the guardhouse gate by 12 p.m.

"The air raids were still a constant worry. Some of the cities like London, Southampton, Portsmouth and Coventry were hit very hard and thousands of people killed. Most houses had some kind of an air raid shelter; in London they used the subway. During the worst of the raids many spent their nights in their shelter with their pets rather than having to get up in the middle of the night when the sirens went. Rationing was very tight; anything that had to be imported was scarce or non-existent like citrus fruits, sugar, tea, butter and meat. The weekly ration for meat was six ounces per person, which included everything but fish. Clothing was all rationed including shoes, towels, bedding, etc. For us in the service we had no ration book so if you wanted a pair of shoes or a shirt you were out of luck, unless you knew someone who would supply the coupons. Weddings were a real headache for the girls and

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