MEMORIES OF DON LANCTOT
I first met Don Lanctot at 1664 Heavy Conversion Unit at Dishforth, Yorkshire in June 1944. He was already crewed up with Flying Officer Larry Blaney,
flying as his Rear Gunner in Witleys at 23 Operational Training Unit at Honeybourne, in company with Don Hanna, the Navigator, also from Montreal,
and Andy Kindret, the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner from Dauphin Manitoba.
This was my first posting as a newly qualified Flight Engineer and I felt privileged to have joined this crew as we were to fly in four engined heavy bombers.
Soon afterwards, two others were to join the crew. Phil Owen, Bomb Aimer from North Bay, Ontario and Ray Altham, Mid Upper Gunner from Winnipeg.
Although I was English and quite the “baby” of the crew, all of them made me very welcome and looked after me. A remarkably strong bond between us
was very apparent and we became an efficient and close knit crew.
Don Lanctot particularly made a very strong impression. I was not aware of any trace of a French accent but his smile and good looks made him
a favourite with the girls. I never knew much about his family back home.
In training Don proved himself to be an excellent marksman, using his skill at skeet shooting to get the right deflections. The training at Dishforth ended in
early September 1944 and together with seven other crews we were posted to 419 Squadron at Middleton St George where we had a fairly short spell of
training where we converted from Halifaxes to Canadian built Lancaster Xs. Our aircraft was KB 721, E Easy although Andy has painted a figure
called “Esky” underneath the Pilot’s window.
We started bomber operations in October 1944 and it was on our seventh trip in KB 721 that all hell broke loose in the night skies over the German town
of Bochum where a synthetic oil refinery had been built. In total we had five fighter attacks and during the first attack Don hit a Me 110 [German night
fighter aircraft] which he claimed as a “possible” whilst Ray saw strikes on a Me 109. However the last attack was the most deadly and Don’s rear turret
took the brunt of this. We knew that we had quite serious damage and there was no voice contact with the turret [all crew positions in a Lancaster were
linked by an intercom system].
We managed to escape the fighter by going down in an almost vertical dive, reaching a speed of about 300 mph [quite unheard of in a Lancaster] and
somehow or other we managed to level out at 2000 feet, take stock of the damage and set a course to the nearest bit of England.
It fell to my lot to go and see what had happened at the rear. Shining my torch I was horrified to see that Don had lost an eye, his leather helmet
was soaked in blood, he also had a severe wound in his left arm and minor wounds to his chest though his Mae West [life jacket] and parachute
harness had somewhat absorbed the worst of the shell splinters.
All this time Don was conscious and in considerable distress though outwardly calm and somehow I managed to get him out of the turret, then on
to the rest bay [midships] and carry out what limited first aid I could.
Soon after that I had to go back to the front to check on fuel supplies and prepare for the landing at Woodbridge in Suffolk, a large emergency
landing strip [and very close to the East Coast so used by damaged bombers unable to make their own airfields].
The Pilot had quite a difficult job with both the return journey and particularly with the landing when we finally came to rest and an ambulance
had taken Don away, we inspected the damage and found that most of the starboard fin and rudder had disappeared as well as the starboard elevator.
That was indeed the worst night of my life. The rest of us had escaped injury but we were very concerned about Don’s well being.
That was almost the last time I saw Don but he turned up at the squadron on 18th February 1945, complete with eye patch, a Distinguished Flying Medal ribbon
and the same cheeky smile. We had a whale of a time that night but the very next night, the 19/20th February 1945, out target was Dortmund and a German
Night Fighter hit us and set us on fire. Five of us managed to escape and become POWs but Don Hanna and Larry Blaney did not survive.
On returning to England in May 1945, I immediately received contact with Don by letter and he was quite anxious for me to go out to Canada where
a job would be waiting etc but my health at that time was not too good and the RAF were not keen to release me so the opportunity passed.
We continued to correspond and the last letter I received would have been September/October 1945 saying that he had to go into hospital
as he still had cannon shell splinters in his head. I wrote again but nothing ever came back and I presumed, wrongly as it happened, that Don hadn’t made it.
Through Mark ( my son) we have found that Don did at least survive, had moved to the States but was killed in an auto accident.
My apologies for being so wordy but that crew, Don in particular, made such an impression on me that although there were tragic circumstances
I feel proud and honoured to have served with a Canadian crew.