Jack Widdicombe: From combine to Lancaster and back

Jack Widdicombe, 97, Lancaster pilot, with an Avro Anson Mark 5 like one he used to fly on “staff jobs.” The plane is part of the collection at the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon. Stephen J. Thorne/Legion MagazineLancaster pilot Jack Widdicombe was a wide-eyed Prairie farm boy about to be thrust into the inferno of Second World War Europe when he boarded a double-decker bus and toured London shortly after arriving in England.

The 21-year-old native of Foxwarren, Man., and a pal set out to see the sights and instead encountered block after block of rubble. Twenty-three bombing missions over Nazi territory and 1,200 hours of combat and other wartime flying lay ahead of him.

“We drove for an hour and it was total destruction,” Widdicombe recalled in a recent interview at the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon. “I said ‘how in the world can people do that to one another? Why don’t people refuse to do it?’ Then a year later, I was doing it.

“It took me a long time to get my head around that.”

Memorial wall at the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon. It lists all 18,039 aircrew killed while serving in the forces of Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand during the Second World War. Some 131,553 aircrew, including pilots, wireless operators, air gunners and navigators from all four countries were trained at 151 schools across Canada between 1940 and 1945.

Stephen J. Thorne/Legion Magazine

Now 97, the lifelong farmer remains sharp as a tack and has no regrets. He hitched a ride to the museum from his longtime home in Russell aboard a small four-seat plane, bent on watching an airshow by vintage training aircraft while his wife of 71 years, Florence, 95, was off indulging in her passion, singing.

Widdicombe talked of flak-filled skies, attacks by Luftwaffe night fighters, and pressing home a bombing run on three engines. He recalled with affection the tight bonds and lifelong friendships he shared with his six-man crew, and reflected on the fact he is the last of them alive.

Flight Lieutenant Jack Widdicombe was among 131,553 aircrew—pilots, wireless operators, air gunners and navigators—from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to train at 151 schools across the country between 1940 and 1945.

Lancaster crew of VR.N KB857 No. 419 Moose Squadron, the black and white picture clockwise from top right: rear gunner Gord Cotter, bomb aimer Lew Andrews, navigator Hugh Church, pilot Jack Widdicombe, wireless operator Fred Trigg, mid gunner Steve Kranyak, engineer Cliff Moore.

Penny Menzies

He earned his wings in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, starting out in a Tiger Moth biplane and graduating in a twin-engine Cessna Crane. He spent another year training on Wellington and Halifax bombers in Britain before his first Lancaster mission with 419 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force.

On that first raid, they hit Chemnitz, an industrial city and railway hub near the Czech border, “a long trip” of eight to nine hours return. The target? “In those days, it was the town, more or less,” said Widdicombe. “It was always a priority, what you tried to hit, but. . . .”

His voice trails off, then rises again as he announces that his tail-gunner, Gordon Cotter from Oshawa, Ont., shot down a Me-210 fighter that night. Both Cotter and mid-upper gunner Steve Kranyak from Hamilton were “firing like crazy” as the Luftwaffe twin-engine aircraft attacked from behind.

Staging out of a chain of bases in northern England, 419 Squadron flew 4,325 wartime sorties, according to the squadron website. They lost 129 aircraft and 618 crewmembers. Another 197 crew were captured, two escaped and 25 evaded capture.

Its flyers included Victoria Cross recipient Andrew Mynarski, killed in June 1944 at age 27 while trying to save a trapped crewmate as their bomber went down over France.

A 19-year-old Widdicombe chose the air force after signing up for the infantry. Just five-foot-seven, he concluded during his first bayonet drill that he was at a distinct disadvantage. His commanding officer, however, denied his request for a move.

That didn’t stop Widdicombe. He sashayed over to the RCAF recruitment office, where he was accepted without hesitation: “If you want to hide from the army, the best place to go is the air force,” the recruiting officer told him.