Minnie Simcoe was a hand-crafted doll who became the mascot of No. 431 Squadron RCAF. She was taken into battle by a number of different crews and always brought them home safely.
No. 431 was nicknamed “The Iroquois Squadron” and had the motto, “Warriors of the Air” and nose art on their aircraft often featured the head of an Iroquois Indian. In some cases tomahawks were painted on the aircraft after each successful operation. The squadron is now No. 431 Air Demonstration Squadron -the renown Snowbirds.
During the last eighteen months of the war, the squadron was adopted by the City of Simcoe, Ontario and its citizens showed their support for the airmen’s efforts by ensuring that they received comforts that were in short supply. A steady stream of cigarettes, chocolate, candy, gum, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and knitted garments were forwarded as a volunteer effort by Simconians. As a tribute to this support, the airmen painted the town’s name on many of their Halifax and Lancaster Bombers.
The Simcoe Chapter of the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire took the relationship to an even higher level by sending the squadron a doll modelled after Princess Pocahontas. The identity of the IODE member who made the doll is not known. It seems that she was received with much enthusiasm by the aircrew on the squadron and became known as “Minnie-Simcoe.” They took turns taking her with them on operations, likely to bring luck and hopefully ensure their safe return.
Minnie’s operational record was recorded in the squadron’s ORB (Operational Record Book) that listed the crews and other details of each days operational flying. The book records that Minnie first flew into battle on 2 November, 1944, a raid to Dusseldorf. Details, generally including the name of the pilot and the particular aircraft she flew with, were recorded for 18 operations (although it is believed she likely flew some that were not formally recorded) -statistically more than was the case for many Bomber Command aircrew, only a fraction of whom survived their tour of thirty operations.
On 14/15 January, Minnie Simcoe flew with the squadron’s commanding officer, Wing Commander Eric Martin “Marty” Mitchell following which she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
On 31 January, 1945, Minnie Simcoe was screened from further operations (grounded) and presented to Wing Commander Mitchell who had received a posting to other duties. Her travels after that and her whereabouts in 2008 were not known to Clarence, our museum, or anyone in Simcoe.
Clarence Simonsen, a member of the museum, first heard about Minnie in the late 1980’s through his research into the nose art that was painted on No. 431 Squadron aircraft. He expected to be able to locate images of the doll painted on some of the squadron’s aircraft but could never find any. However he has continued to be fascinated by the story of the doll, her relationship to the City of Simcoe, and the doll’s connection with the World War II airmen. Clarence believes that this history is important. In January 2008, he decided to try to do something to ensure that it would not be lost.
Through the museum, Clarence had come to know Marg Liessens of London, Ontario who has a special relationship with the Nanton Lancaster Air Museum. The museum was created to honour the Canadians who served with Bomber Command and at its entrance, Canada’s Bomber Command Memorial Wall lists the names of 10,643 airmen who were lost. One of these was Marg’s father, Albert Dorey, who was killed in action while serving with No. 431 Squadron. Clarence assumed, correctly, that Marg would be interested and that London was not that far from Simcoe. Perhaps she could somehow find the name of the lady that made Minnie in 1944. Perhaps another Simconian might make a replica of Minnie Simcoe for the museum.
Marg took the idea from there and contacted her friend Christine Brutin in Simcoe, whom she had met during a visit to Vimy Ridge. Christine then contacted Leighton Peach, a columnist with the Simcoe Reformer. Leighton published the request and although the creator of the original doll has yet to be found, Myrle Smith stepped forward and volunteered to make a Minnie Simcoe replica for the museum.
As a nine year old, Myrle recalled, ” . . . going to school one day and the teacher had written on the chalk board in big letters, ‘We Are At War.’ It was very sad.” During the weeks she was making the doll Myrle never told a soul she was making it -not even her family. “When I read your article,” she told Leighton Peach, “I thought it would be really cool to make it. The doll represents Simcoe and I’m a real Simcoe person.” Myrle completed the new Minnie Simcoe on March 28, 2008.
Marg Liessens personally escorted Minnie to her new home at the Nanton Lancaster Air Museum but, en route, Minnie went for an incredible flight with her Squadron’s current c/o at the Rocky Mountain House Air Show.
Marg presented Minnie to the museum during our special event on August 23, 2008. We thank the City of Simcoe, Christine Brutin, Leighton Peach of the Simcoe Reformer, Myrle Smith, Capt. Jones and Major Mitchell of the Snowbirds, and Marg Liessens for their support. We think that the Nanton Lancaster Museum is the perfect facility within which to display this very special doll and tell her compelling story and that of the No. 431 wartime aircrew.
Following the Canada-wide publicity generated by the Minnie Simcoe replica’s flight with the Snowbirds, the original Minnie was located in a trunk in the home of W/C Mitchell’s daughter, Kathy Mitchell.
The museum has spoken with Ms. Mitchell and with W/C Mitchell’s son, Peter Mitchell, a retired airline pilot who lives in Calgary. We have learned that their father, who went by the name of Marty Mitchell, had a long and distinguished career with the Royal Canadian Air Force and has a very special link with our museum.
Eric Martin “Marty” Mitchell (C175) graduated as an electrical engineer in 1934 prior to becoming the 175th officer to join the RCAF in June, 1935 and receiving his wings in May, 1936. He spent much of the following six years training flight instructors at Camp Borden. During these years he flew ninety-nine different Fleet Fawns and Fleet Finches, accumulating a total of two thousand logbook entries for the Fleet types.
On 5 December, 1939 he made his first of sixteen flights in Fleet Fawn #264, the aircraft currently on display in our museum.
Posted overseas during May, 1943, Marty Mitchell trained for operational flying with Bomber Command at No. 11 SFTS, No. 20 AFU, Nos. 22 and 23 OTU’s, and No. 1659 Conversion Unit. He flew operations aboard Halifaxes and Lancasters with No. 427 and No. 434 Squadrons prior to becoming the C/O of No. 431 Squadron at Croft where he flew with Minnie Simcoe and completed his tour of operational flying.
Following post-war service with the RCAF, Marty Mitchell retired as a Group Captain in 1963, having flown a total of forty different aircraft types.
His DFC citation referred to W/C Mitchell having, “completed…numerous operations against the enemy in the course of which [he has] invariably displayed the utmost courage and devotion to duty.” Other air force documents read, “During this officer’s service career he has proven himself to be a fearless and courageous leader, and at all times has shown outstanding ability in all his work,” “Since his commencement of operations, this officer has displayed determination, fortitude and exceptional tactical ability. Such targets as Hanau, Merseberg, Zeitz, [and] Ludwigshaven have been attacked with outstanding skill and precision, setting an inspiring example to all his squadron. Under his keen and capable guidance his unit has been welded into a strong and determined bomber force,” and, “For his superb captaincy and airmanship, his undoubted courage and devotion to duty and his magnificent leadership of his squadron I recommend the immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
With the cooperation of the Mitchell family the real, wartime Minnie Simcoe doll went flying with The Snowbirds at the 2009 Lethbridge Air Show and spent much of the year on display at the museum.
CONFIRMED OPERATIONS FLOWN BY MINNIE SIMCOE DFC
November 1, 1944 to Oberhausen (W/C E.M. Mitchell KB-808 SE-U)
- November 2, 1944 to Dusseldorf (F/O Rhodes SE-N)
- November 4, 1944 to Bochum (aircraft and pilot not known) *Not in Logbook
- November 6, 1944 to Gelsenkirchen (F/O Rhodes SE-N)
- November 16, 1944 to Julich (S/L H.M. Smith; Lancaster KB-808 SE-U)
- November 18, 1944 to Munster (F/L Chisholm SE-Q)
- November 21, 1944 to Castrop/Rauxel (P/O A.C. Pitzek; Lancaster KB-788 SE-C) *Not in Logbook
- November 27, 1944 to Neuss (F/L R.W. Harrison; Lancaster KB-815 SE-K)
- November 30, 1944 to Duisburg (S/L F.E. Guillevin; Lancaster KB-815 SE-K)
- December 4, 1944 to Karlsrhue (S/L F.E. Guillevin; Lancaster KB-815 SE-K)
- December 5, 1944 to Soest (F/L D.S. Borland; Lancaster KB-809 SE-Q)
- December 6, 1944 to Osnabruck (F/L B.M. Adilman; Lancaster KB-809 SE-Q)
- December 28, 1944 to Opladen (F/L R.R. Haw; Lancaster KB-815 SE-K)
- December 30, 1944 to Cologne (W/C E.M. Mitchell; Lancaster KB-808 SE-U)
- January 2, 1945 to Nuremburg (F/O A.P. Huchala; Lancaster KB-819 SE-J)
- January 5, 1945 to Hanover (F/L J.C. Henry; Lancaster KB-774 SE-D)
- January 6, 1945 to Hanau (S/L H.L. Kay; Lancaster KB-815 SE-K)
- January 7, 1945 to Munich (F/L J.R. Lightbown; Lancaster KB-806 SE-X)
- January 14, 1945 to Mersburg (W/C E.M. Mitchell; Lancaster KB-808 SE-U)
- January 16, 1945 to Zeitz (F/O E.C. Tuckey; Lancaster KB-810 SE-H)
Our thanks to Leighton Peach and the Simcoe Reformer for information and quotations that have been incorporated into this article.
Thanks as well to Clarence Simonsen and Bill Heron for making the results of their research available to us.