The Chaplain on the Motorcycle
Father Lardie first came to the attention of the Bomber Command Museum as the author of what we feel is a definitive piece of writing that sums up what we have found to be true of the young Canadians who served with Bomber Command during World War II.
“Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name, “Canada,” telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens, fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and if it had to be, to die, for their country and for freedom.
One day, when the history of the twentieth century is finally written, it will be recorded that when human society stood at the crossroads and civilization itself was under siege, the Royal Canadian Air Force was there to fill the breach and help give humanity the victory. And all those who had a part in it will have left to posterity a legacy of honour, of courage, and of valour that time can never despoil.”
These words were chosen to be engraved upon “Canada’s Bomber Command Memorial” that lists the names of the Canadians who were killed while serving with Bomber Command during World War II. They were part of a speech that Father Lardie made in 1985 at the Dedication of a Memorial at Middleton-St. George, the wartime base of No. 419 and No. 428 Squadrons.
John Philip Lardie was born in Hamilton, Ontario on April 13, 1912. Although he volunteered for military service as a chaplain in 1942 it was not until April, 1944 that he was sent overseas to serve as the Roman Catholic padre at the RCAF Middleton-St. George from June, 1944 until June, 1945. His “parish,” as he referred to it, was made up of the Roman Catholics that were serving on the base of three to four thousand personnel. Like the two protestant chaplains on the base, his duties included providing spiritual help to the men of the squadrons and writing to the family members of those lost on operations.
As part of these duties, Father Lardie visited the aircrew at the dispersals as they were preparing to take off, “to say hello to the troops and if some of them wanted to talk, I would make myself available and let them know that the church was with them in their task and then when they returned from the operation, those who did return, it was my job to be there again.”
Father Lardie was well known as the “Chaplain on the Motorcycle.” He recalled, “When I first joined the station I had a bicycle but there was an awful lot of wind around that perimeter and it was hard going -it was a couple of miles around that perimeter and I wasn’t entitled to a jeep. So I went into town, into Darlington one day, and there was a shop full of motorcycles there so I paid 45 pounds for a bike that was in good shape and I drove it back to the station. That served me in good stead -I was very happy with my motorbike.”
Robbie Robson recalled that Father Lardie used to hand out chewing gum and a water bottle laced with rum to air crew being marshalled before an operation. He also remembered that he flew “unofficially” on two operations (Falaise and Kiel) to get an idea of what the crews had to endure. Flying with their squadrons was not the norm for chaplains -quite the contrary. Father Lardie though, wanted to see what the men were going through. . . and he found out. He recalled, “I was scared silly.”
Father Lardie recalled that the flights weren’t really “authorized.” His first trip was a daylight raid. “I was making my rounds on the bike and when I got to F/L Gonyo’s aircraft he asked, ‘Would you like to come on the trip?’ So I parked my bike in the bush and climbed in. It was something that I was glad I had done because I wanted to find out firsthand what these boys were actually going through -not just once or twice or three nights but night after night after night and it was a constant source of admiration that I had for these men that, as young as they were, that they were able to stand the strain of it. It was something that I really appreciated.”
In his highly acclaimed book, “Reap the Whirlwind,” Spencer Dunmore describes Father Lardie’s flight with S/L Jerry Edward’s crew on a raid to Kiel: “Approaching the target, Edwards turned to his passenger and said, ‘You’re going to enjoy this Father,’ as he flew into the dazzle of flares and tracers. After bombing, Edwards banked away. A fighter appeared. The rear gunner immediately called for a corkscrew, whereupon the padre, who had been standing between the skipper and the flight engineer, found himself airborne inside the aircraft. He walloped his head on the canopy roof. A moment later, as the aircraft climbed, he was flat on the floor. Disquieting though the manoeuvre may have been, it enabled the Lancaster to escape in the darkness. Of the sorties, Father Lardie says, ‘I wasn’t looking for thrills but for a better understanding of what it meant to fly on operations -and afterwards I had an entirely different outlook. I felt much closer to the airmen.”
The next evening Father Lardie was in the bar with S/L Edwards’ crew. Lardie recalled that the crew was laughing about his experiences during the flight and that it was, to them, “a great joke. While they were talking about it who walks in but the squadron commander and he took in all that they were saying about this. I was sitting reading a newspaper, very innocently, and suddenly this big hand came down and pushed the newspaper away from in front of me and he stuck his face right up close to mine and he said, ‘Padre, you’re screened. You understand what I’m saying’ and I said, ‘Yes sir.’ So that was it. That settled it and of course there was no more. He could have made trouble for me I guess but he wasn’t the type.”
In summarizing his year working with the aircrew at Middleton St. George, Father Lardie recalled, “I always had the feeling that I was welcome in their company -that I was wanted.”
Father Lardie’s “Mention in Dispatches” award was effective June 14, 1945 and although no citation has been found, the following excerpt from a letter, G/C W.V. McCarthy, Deputy Director of Chaplain Services (RC) Overseas to Director of Chaplain Services (RC), Ottawa, 17 September 1945, explains something of his career.
As this chaplain has now returned home on request from the Director of Chaplain Services (RC),
it is desired to express satisfaction with his one year’s work overseas.
Father Lardie is very sincere and zealous.
Although inclined to be a bit reserved and silent,
it is felt that this priest has wielded a strong influence of good over those confided to his care.
It will be remarked that he is the only Chaplain
who received a “Mention in Despatches” in the Canadian Bomber Group.