by Colonel Cliff Black DFC CdeG (Ret’d)
A native of Nova Scotia, Cliff Black enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in June, 1940. Following training at No. 31 Elementary Flying Training School, he served in Canada on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Posted overseas to No. 82 Operational Training Unit in April 1944, he was subsequently assigned to No. 419 Squadron Bomber Command based at Middleton-St. George. From January, 1945 until the end of the war Cliff served as commanding officer of No. 426 Squadron based at Linton-on-Ouse. He continued his careerwith the RCAF following the war. Cliff is a Lifetime Member and longtime supporter of the Bomber Command Museum of Canada.
During my tour operations with Canadian Bomber Command (6 Group) at Middleton-St. George, Yorkshire, I was privileged to meet a young Roman Catholic Padre named Father Lardie who was the Base Padre for No. 419 and No. 428 Squadrons. He was a perfect selection for the job and was highly respected by all the aircrew that were risking their lives almost every day to defeat the German war machine.
Prior to a raid, both squadrons would marshal their aircraft around the perimeter track, leading to the runway in use -419 on one side and 428 on the other. This was done almost one hour before takeoff. It gave the crews a chance to get out of their aircraft and relax, as well as allowing the ground crew to make any final checks on the serviceability of the planes.
This period allowed the Padres to mix with the crews and provide comfort to some who may have been concerned about their particular target. I noticed that it wasn’t only the Catholics that gathered around Father Lardie. He had that exceptional ability to make these young men feel that what they were doing would help to make this world a better place and they should be proud of themselves.
In early October of 1944, we were put on a target in the Ruhr Valley which we knew would be heavily defended. It was the most industrialized part of Germany, surrounded by flak and searchlights. We took off around 1800 hours in marginal weather. We reached the English Channel and I started my climb to our assigned operational altitude. A few minutes into our climb, I felt a tap on my right shoulder. I looked around to see Father Lardie standing there wearing a parachute harness and oxygen mask. I immediately knew that my crew had been in on this plan to let him on board. He was hooked into our intercom and asked me what I was going to do -would I report him when I got back? I can’t remember what I said but it was something about putting his life in the hands of a Protestant pilot when he had all those good Catholic pilots to pick from. I also mentioned that his “special connection” could almost guarantee that we would get back. My comments assured him that I was okay with me if he was willing to take the risk with our crew on a tough target.
We completed our bomb run, dropped our load, and turned out of the target area. The flak barrage was moderate and the searchlights were no problem because of the weather.
My navigator gave me my course out of the target area and we were on our way home. A few minutes into our return flight, Father Lardie came on the intercom and expressed his concern about not being at the door of the debriefing room when the aircrew returned from the raid. It was his practice to greet them and show how pleased he was to see that it was a successful trip. He then asked me if there was some way that we could be the first home. The only way to accomplish this was for us to leave the bomber stream and fly a direct course to our base. I instructed my navigator to alter course for our base and at the same time instructed my gunners to keep a sharp look-out for night fighters. I considered that there was little risk due to the weather and the fact that the German fighter controllers would be busy with the main bomber force, if they had any night fighters in the air. We saw none in the target area.
As we approached the English coast, we noticed the weather was starting to clear. Our return flight was risky because the British gunners could have mistaken us for an enemy aircraft and opened fire. To avoid this happening, we carried an IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) unit which I turned on as we approached the channel. We seldom used it so I was very relieved when it came on and was recognized by our British Gunners.
Father Lardie was at his post on time and later told me that he hadn’t realized that after wearing an oxygen mask for six hours, it left a mark on his face that the airmen were used to seeing on each other. When he asked one of the pilots about the raid, he got a big smile and the comment, “You ought to know Father -looking at your face I can see you were there with us.”
Father Lardie was a very special individual. His sincere dedication to his vocation was immediately recognized when you were in his company. The young men that he served admired, respected and trusted him completely.
To my knowledge, Father Lardie was the only Padre in the Canadian Bomber Command to fly an operational mission over Germany.
I will never forget him.