This month, the Sault’s Alan and Hilda Fell are marking anniversaries of two highlights of their lives.
On a happy note, the couple will be celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary Sept. 17.
On a sombre note, the Fells will be observing the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the two having survived the Nazi regime’s terror bombing of United Kingdom cities.
After the Nazis conquered western Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe, in an attempt to soften Britain up prior to a cross-Channel invasion, first attacked Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) both in the skies and over its airfields from July 10 to Oct. 31, 1940.
After suffering heavy losses against outnumbered, but fiercely resistant RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighter pilots (accompanied by pilots from Canada and other Commonwealth countries as well as others from Poland and Czechoslovakia), the Luftwaffe switched to terror bombing of British cities and civilians in the subsequent period known as The Blitz, which lasted from Sept. 1940 to May 1941 (Hitler ultimately shying away from his plan to invade Britain and turning most of his effort toward his ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union).
Alan’s father served in the RAF beginning in 1939, returning home in 1945. As a 10-year-old boy during the Blitz, Alan lived in London, England with his mother, grandmother and three siblings.
“The local council installed an air raid shelter in our backyard, in which we spent many nights during the Blitz,” Alan recalled, speaking to SooToday.
“When the raids started, we would dash for the shelter and come out for the all clear. I was 10 years old and built a wall in front of the entrance to the shelter, made of orange crates filled with soil, an oil stove for warmth plus night lights made from Vaseline tins stuffed with paraffin wax, soaked cotton wool and string for a wick.”
“This was normal for kids to do. My friends and I were excited but very scared when the bombs started to fall,” Alan said.
“A stick of five enemy bombs fell across the bottom of our road. The first missed our school, a second hit the road, demolishing several houses and killing an elderly lady, two others fell on open ground and the last destroyed two houses."
“At the top of our road was a park where an aerial mine dropped onto a tennis court, but it was defused.”
“As the raids progressed people started to get angry with the enemy. Our attitude was we will get back at them and never give in,” Alan recalled, describing the mindset of the British people in those days.
“Our family never lost a relative, but my uncle, who was a London bus driver, had a bomb drop in front of his bus. The shock of this caused every hair on his body to fall out overnight, never to grow again (such hair loss having been reported by some after a physical or emotional shock).”
“One neighbour, a young lady, lost her husband, who was shot down and killed over Kent,” he added.
“As I grew older and the war carried on, the German V1 and V2 (the first ever guided missiles) started to arrive and there was a feeling among us the war still had a way to go and the killing wasn’t over. A V2 fell into the playing field of a school close to where I was in 1944, killing 15 boys. Some of them had travelled on the same bus as my friends and I.”
Hilda, who was six years old in 1940, like many other children in British cities targeted by Nazi bombing, was sent to a safe setting through a British government program which evacuated urban children to homes owned by rural host families while the bombing raged on in the cities.
“My older brother and I were evacuated from London, into the country at Berkshire,” she said.
“We were put into this one big hall. They divided you up, but they didn’t want to separate me from my brother, so a gentleman (an evacuation program official) took us to a house and the lady (a homeowner accepting evacuees) said ‘I only really want one evacuee and I don’t want a boy, I want a girl,’ but he said ‘we don’t want to separate them, they’re brother and sister.’ So she took both of us.”
That’s a good story compared to those of many other evacuated British children, who were traumatized through being sent away from their urban homes to live with not-always-kind host families at rural host homes in Britain.
Other evacuee children were sent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
“We were put in a one room school in the country. We were there for just over a year, then we went back to London,” Hilda said.
“One day (after returning to London) I was lining up at the grocery store and an enemy bomber came over, and it was so low I could even see the pilot as it flew over the road,” she recalled.
“I was aghast.”
Alan said it was later discovered that specific enemy bomber was shot down by two RAF Hurricane fighter planes, the bomber crashing near a sewage plant, its crew killed in the crash.
Alan said the nose of the enemy plane fell into a resident’s back yard, the homeowner charging neighbours sixpence (about 25 cents in today’s money) to view it in his shed. The money he collected went to the Spitfire Fund, the British public contributing everything from pocket change to large sums of money to help with production of the legendary Spitfire fighter plane.
“What I remember about the war was going out to the bomb shelters,” Hilda said.
“We had an outdoor shelter at that time, and when the air raid sirens went off, we raced out to go into the shelter. Afterwards, we had an indoor shelter. My house got a lot of damage because a bomb was dropped down our road. Our windows were shattered and the ceiling came in. I was hustled down into the shelter. It was harder on my parents because when you’re a child you just take it in stride,” Hilda said.
Both Alan and Hilda remember the streets were always filled with shrapnel from enemy bombs.
“Later on, a group of men were walking down our street but they were all tied up. They were prisoners of war (used as labourers). They smiled and we waved back, because we didn’t understand (they were enemy soldiers, sailors and pilots), being young children at the time,” Hilda said.
“I can remember the street parties when the war was over. My mother was playing the piano and singing,” she recalled.
The British held to their government’s ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ coping strategy at the time, buoyed up by Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership, the Royal Family’s resolve to stay in Britain and not depart for safer shores (such as Canada) and by their own resilient sense of humour.
However, do the Fells hold any resentment toward those who attacked them, scared them and disrupted their lives?
“I saw my mother get really mad…(but) I think they (much of the German public) were easily persuaded by a person who could talk (Hitler),” Alan said.
“In 1919 (following the First World War) they (the Allied nations, particularly France) penalized Germany so bad it became destitute and that’s how Adolf Hitler came to power. But when he brought in the SS and Gestapo the German people became very frightened to speak against him, so they became followers.”
In fact, Alan became visibly moved only when discussing civilians killed or wounded in Allied bombing of Germany, and, of course, those who perished in Nazi concentration camps.
Hilda said “I hated Hitler…(but the war itself) it’s in the past for me. I didn’t go through what they went through in Europe, the Holocaust. What those people suffered was horrible…the war was on, sure (at the time, in Britain), but you got on with your life.”
Still, the importance of the RAF’s victory against the German Luftwaffe in 1940 cannot be overstated.
“The Battle of Britain was an important victory to us as it stopped the cross-channel invasion and gave Britain a chance to catch its breath and get its munitions industry organized. Germany invading Russia (in June 1941) helped by easing the pressure on the home front. This was helped even more when Japan attacked the U.S.A. (at Pearl Harbour in Dec. 1941),” Alan said.
The Pearl Harbour attack led to America’s entry into the war, with its military and industrial might, against both Japan and Germany, leading to the Allied invasion of western Europe in June 1944 and the Nazi regime’s defeat in May 1945.
“They (the Nazis) were going to make a seaborne landing in England and they needed control of the air to do that, but they didn’t get control of the air. They took a hammering in September and they decided to go to night bombing and that gave relief to the airfields, it gave the RAF and the RCAF and all the Commonwealth pilots a chance to rest, get fresh aircraft in, it allowed Britain to get her industries working, building munitions, to get the shipyards working...it was a big relief when he (Hitler) decided to attack Russia,” Alan said.
Though Hilda will watch TV documentaries on The Blitz, Alan is a much more avid viewer, very much an historian and familiar with every type of aircraft involved in the Battle of Britain, with a keen eye and ear to spot mistakes documentary producers can make.
Sept. 15 is widely regarded as Battle of Britain Day in Britain and Commonwealth countries, marking the largest Luftwaffe attack on the RAF during the campaign, which resulted in a decisive British victory.
Alan and Hilda, though having been raised in the same district of London (Edmonton), met after the war, and married Sept. 17, 1955.
A skilled tradesperson, trained in interior painting and decorating, Alan served for two years in Britain’s RAF in the early 1950s (serving in the military was still a compulsory matter in Britain from 1947 to 1963, known as ‘National Service’).
Alan worked on several types of RAF aircraft before transferring to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1955.
Alan and Hilda moved to Canada in 1956, Alan serving with the RCAF in the Ottawa region.
He left the RCAF to start work at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa beginning in 1965, retiring in 1990, the last 10 years of his time at the museum as Chief of Technical Operations.
Hilda worked as an administrative assistant at two Ottawa hospitals.
Upon Alan’s retirement, the couple moved to Comox, BC, where he joined the RCAF Association, a not for profit group for air force veterans and aviation enthusiasts, dedicated to advocating for a well-trained and equipped Canadian air force, encouraging young Canadians to pursue military or civil aviation careers and educating the public on the role the RCAF has played in Canada’s history.
“I had free golf there (in Comox) as my sign writing skills paid off working for the CFB Comox golf club,” Alan humorously recalled.
To this day, Alan enjoys golf, but jokingly refers to himself and his golf buddies as ‘duffers,’ just playing for fun.
“We moved to Sault Ste. Marie in August 1998 to be close to family and watch our three grandchildren grow into fine, young, hard working people,” Alan said.
He transferred from the RCAF Association’s 888 Wing to the Sault’s 432 Wing, and is a Royal Canadian Legion Branch 25 member.
He took on Battle of Britain parade duties in 1999, serving as 432 Wing’s president from 2001 to 2008, then as past president and ceremonial advisor before retiring from those duties on his 90th birthday.
“(Now) I just sit there (at 432 Wing meetings) and they wake me up when it’s time to vote on something,” Alan chuckled.
“Hilda and I have enjoyed our time in Sault Ste. Marie, making many friends. Sadly, we have lost a few. We’ve found the people here very friendly,” Alan said.
“Luckily (the people here) have a sense of humour to put up with me,” he added with a smile.
Locally, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 25 will be marking its annual Battle of Britain ceremony at 11 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 13.