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  • Claire Jordan

Honest and Honourable

Born at Montreal on 11th December 1919, little Cliff Byrd survived measles aged five and then scarlet fever aged six which left him with joint issues requiring his hip to be encased in a plaster-cast for a whole year.

His American Dad had died of pneumonia at the age of 30, leaving his English-born mother Elizabeth with Baby Cliff and two older boys.

But when the Second World War came, the youngest Byrd was a healthy blue-eyed, black-haired 19 year old diamond-driller for the Pamour Porcupine Gold Mine at Timmins, Ontario. Out of school, he’d spent two years as a clerk and store-keeper but he left this position, in his own, endearingly-honest words, ‘to obtain more money’, and had arranged with the Gold Mine to return to his position there after the War.

Perhaps knowing his call-up was imminent – at this stage in the War, eligible young Canadian men were conscripted for Home defence only - he married his Finnish-born girl Elsa Peltoniemi, at Timmins on 17th March 1941.

After exactly one month of marriage, his call-up came through and he reported as instructed to Army camp for basic training.

Though now in uniform, he could yet have stayed home in Canada.

And he would have had good reason to do so, for Elsa was not well.

By June 1941, his new bride was staying in a sanitorium, suffering from TB.

But Cliff wanted to join the fighting proper, and he wanted more than anything to fly.

“Air Service”, he wrote on his enlistment forms, when asked which branch of the Armed Forces he wished ultimately to join: “preference for Air Crew.”

For us, knowing (as he could not) what was coming, it is devastating to see that he proudly gives his hobbies when asked as: “model airplanes and wood-working and boating.”

He submitted several letters as references to the Royal Canadian Air Force, one from his old high school, Strathcona Academy at Outremont, Quebec, which he’d left in 1937; the Principal wrote him a glowing report for the Air Force, concluding that Cliff was always “honest and honourable.”

Encouraged, the RCAF recruiters at Toronto that August had a good look at him and recorded the following observations:

Approach: Confident

Carriage: Upright

Dress: Neat

Speech: Clear

Response: Deliberate

Manner: Alert, Confident, Sincere

Considered suitable for commissioned rank? Possibly, when trained.

Best fitted for: Air Gunner.

And so his course was set.

Cliff passed his month-long Air Gunnery course at the RCAF Bombing & Gunnery School at Mossbank, Saskatchewan in February 1942, when his OC remarked that he was “very smart and neat, [with a] friendly disposition and desirable personality traits. Honest, conscientious, and energetic.”

Finally in mid-March 1942, he sailed for England to join the fight of his life.

There would be more training in Anglesey with the RAF Air Gunners School before finally, he received his first posting, to No.420 Squadron, in the final days of June.

Precisely when he was posted on to the Lancasters of 83 Squadron is not recorded, but on 20th August, he was promoted Flight Sergeant after six operational flights, and in the late-summer gloaming of 24th August 1942, he climbed into his Mid Upper Gunner’s turret in Lancaster R5623 with his six crewmates at Wyton, Cambridgeshire. Fellow Canadian 20-year-old Lloyd Truman Goodfellow was pilot.

The weather had not been great, but the show must go on; that night, a 200-bomber raid was planned on Frankfurt and 83 Squadron contributed fourteen crews for the pioneering Pathfinder-led operation.

The leading Pathfinders, detailed to go on ahead to mark out targets for the main force following swiftly on behind, were hampered in their efforts by thick cloud over Germany.

Many bomber crews had to make a stab at alternative targets and others dropped their payloads into open countryside.

Sixteen aircraft of the 200-strong attacking force were downed by enemy defences, including two of the fourteen Lancasters contributed by 83 Squadron. One of them was shot out of the sky by a night-fighter, but three of the crew survived this crash and the pilot actually evaded capture.

Cliff’s Lancaster (designated OL-C) was not so lucky.

A few miles out of Frankfurt, R5623 was caught by enemy anti-aircraft fire and exploded in the air over Kalbach. All seven crew died.

OL-C failed to return from the mission and her crew were all posted as Missing.

Eventually, it was reported by the town authorities at Kalbach that seven bodies were found and taken away in seven coffins to Oberrad Cemetery, from which after the War they were exhumed at reburied in a row, side by side, in the CWGC’s Durnbach War Cemetery.

They are our Cliff and his pilot Lloyd from Saskatoon, along with 28 year old Derek Howe from Ipswich, Suffolk, 23 year old Eric Hurlstone Renfree of East Malvern, Victoria, Australia and then John Mathieson of Scarisbrick, Lancs, Yorkshireman Ernie Webster and Harry Young from Sheffield, all of whom were only 22.

They were all volunteers for Bomber Command.

Back home in Ontario, Elsa won her own battle with tuberculosis and lived on to almost 90, though after her single month of being Wife in 1941, she never remarried. Cliff had left his estate to Elsa, but made sure his Mum Elizabeth was also taken care of.

So this is Cliff Byrd, the newly-wed who could have stayed home; the honest and honourable, father-less boy, confined by childhood illness and plaster-casts, who’d made his model airplanes and dreamed of one day flying.

We Will Remember Them, always and then some.

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