Lancaster Tire Evokes Memories of War

This article originally appeared in the November 11, 1999 issue of the Calgary Herald

by W.E. (Bill) Dowbiggin [ F/O, 431 Squadron, No. 6 Group (RCAF) ]

Remembrance Day is a time to recall old comrades.One former RCAF bomber pilot from the Second World War,Calgary Herald Columnist Bruce Dowbiggin’s father, Bill, recently experienced a most unique reunionwith an old friend on a visit to Calgary from his home in Burlington, Ontario.He tells his own story:

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Who would believe it? The coincidence is so overwhelming that I must get my feelings down in writing to satisfy the stream of memories that suddenly flashed into my consciousness.

Here I was in Nanton Alberta, just before Remembrance Day 1999, my hand on a front port tire at the Lancaster Lancaster Air Museum. The display reads “An actual tire from KB-773, P-Peter”

According to my pilots log book, the last time I saw KB-773, P-Peter was on June 14, 1945, when I landed it at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia after flying the old kite from Croft, Yorkshire, to Canada. The flight took 19 hours, 45 minutes, via Cornwall through the Azores and Gander to home. Boy do I remember the pleasure of being back home in Canada after 17 months of rotten food, cold blankets, rain, and generally being away from home.

You can well appreciate the emotion of the moment when you find the fate of the aircraft you flew on operations 55 years ago with the 431 Iroquois Squadron of No. 6 (RCAF) Group out of Croft.

According to the “Story of a Tire” in Nanton, KB-773 had flown more than 30 operations against enemy targets. On 13 of those operations, I had been the pilot and captain of the seven-man crew. I look at the pictures of my scrapbook of the famous tire surrounded by the crew, and I can vividly remember each name and face in the aircrew, as if looking in the mirror.

In particular Roy Green -my navigator boy from Calgary -sticks in my memory.

I also remember our ground crew, Sgt. Tubby Butt and Cpl. Tommy Thompson and the rest, who never failed to greet us when we landed -whether from an operation over Germany or only from a training flight. They were always anxious for the condition of ‘their’ aircraft.

The crew have long since lost track of each other, which leads only to regret.

My emotions were further stretched when I read that after I went on demarcation leave, “Piddling Pete” was flown to Alberta after V-J Day, first to Claresholm and later to Vulcan, consigned to war surplus. In 1948, it was sold to two local farmers for $350 and towed home by its rear tail wheel to be used for the spare nuts, bolts, rubber and wiring that had been made rare by wartime rationing.

“P-Peter” was later repurchased by scrappers who left a few unwanted parts and this exact tire in a rubbish pile. Those scattered remains of KB-773 were later acquired by the Nanton Lancaster Society in 1986.

I could not know this, of course when I returned to Dartmouth in 1945 to prepare for the trip to the Far East to fight the Japanese.

I only heard that my aircraft and the rest were to be decommissioned and that they had gone somewhere out west. Over time, I scoured reference books to find out what might have happened to my “kite”, but with no luck.

So nothing can describe my pleasure and excitement standing in front of the aviation-museum display in Nanton. I had learned that “P-Peter” was no more. It wasn’t enshrined here or in a similar showplace, such as they have in Hamilton, Ont. (That is what KB-773 truly deserved.)

Yet, what a series of coincidences: Of the approximately 200 Lancasters from No. 6 Group that flew home from Britain in 1945, my aircraft was to be the only one left to be remembered by a port front tire kept half a world away from Croft in Nanton.

And that I – who flew almost half her operations over Germany – was there to see it on a casual visit with family.

I am 76 years old, being transported back with a torrent of vivid memories, moved emotionally by a non-descript aircraft tire that has meaning only to me.

If only the rest of the fellows – my aircraft and groundcrew -were with me once again to share this wonderful experience with an old “friend”.

Who knows, maybe they have already.