by Dave Birrell [ Dave Birrell is Stew Robertson’s son-in-law ]
On the golf course one afternoon I overheard one of Stew’s friends ask him, “You were in the war weren’t you?” Stew replied, “Yes. You know it probably sounds strange, but I rather enjoyed it.”
At least outwardly, like most veterans of Bomber Command, Stew focused on the good times -the camaraderie, the funny experiences, and the fellowship. If his children or grandchildren heard anything of his experiences, it was light-hearted stories of humourous events, the humour generally being at his own expense. There was little or no indication that he had lived through an adventure that was extremely challenging and at times terrifying, or that he had played a significant role in what was probably the greatest event of the Twentieth Century. Nor was there any indication that he had risen to a very high rank in the Royal Air Force, retiring as an officer commanding a Royal Air Force Station and responsible for two or three thousand airmen and support staff and several dozens of aircraft.
Losing good friends on a weekly basis, flying a bomber over blacked out enemy territory for ten hours and forty-five minutes with the constant possibility of being attacked by enemy fighters, searching for a hole in the fog with fuel tanks on empty, diving 4,500 feet in a four engined aircraft after having been attacked, landing a damaged heavy bomber on three engines, flying through thunderstorms at night over the Alps, and standing in a control tower as a bomber crashes into it are not the types of experiences he readily talked about. Through this summary of his wartime career, I hope that his family and friends may better appreciate both the wartime experiences that he didn’t talk about and a very successful military career.
Training and Pre-operational Flying
Stewart Robertson was born in Ogema, Saskatchewan. The family moved to Calgary where Stewart was educated. After graduating from Western Canada High School he was employed with the Royal Bank of Canada for almost two years. The bank thought highly of him and in a letter dated May 8, 1937 he was referred to as, “a young man of excellent integrity, and of good ability, and his character and habit are of high order.” But Stew was leaving for England with the hope of joining the Royal Air Force. Three weeks after the letter was written he had been accepted by the RAF.
His flying training began on July 12th at #2 Flying Training School and he soloed eleven days later in a Blackburn II aircraft. Completing his initial flying training on September 4th, he entered advanced flying training on the Hawker Hart. On January 3rd, 1938, he was awarded the coveted Royal Air Force Wings.
Over the next year Stew flew eight different types of aircraft in a variety of roles and acquired a great deal of experience. This included target towing for #6 Armament Training School, numerous air tests at a maintenance unit, fighter attack training, and air firing.
His association with the Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley began in February of 1940, and he soloed in the twin-engined bomber on February 24th. The first out of the ordinary event noted in his logbook occurred a month later when he force landed in a Whitley at Upavon following an engine failure.
Although war had been declared on September 3rd, 1939, it began as the so called “phony war” with very little happening. But in March of 1940 things were about to change. Before the end of the conflict some 55,000 bomber aircrew, including 10,000 Canadians, would be killed. Of those like P/O Robertson who were flying at the beginning of the war, fewer than 10% would survive.
In April, 1940, Stew was assigned to No. 10 Operational Training Unit at Jurby to be prepared to fly bombing operations in the Whitley aircraft.
Operations with 51 Squadron
On May 20th, 1940, after completion of his operational training, F/O Robertson was posted to 51 Squadron that was operating out of Dishforth in Yorkshire. He flew with “B” Flight which was commanded by Willie Tait who would go on to become one of the most renown pilots of Bomber Command, eventually leading the famous 617 Squadron when they sunk the Battleship Tirpitz. He completed the war as a Group Captain with the DSO and three Bars, DFC and Bar.
Stew remembered Willie Tait well, and in particular how he would handle the stress of operational flying by “going into a trance” once he was in the aircraft.
Stew’s first operation was to Dusseldorf on May 24th. On this, and all his operations with 51 Squadron, he flew as second pilot with S/Ldr. Richard K. Wildey. They completed thirteen operations with 51 Squadron during the following twenty-seven days. Most of the flights were in the six to seven hour range, requiring a lot of very demanding flying.
Many of the operations were in support of the British Army that was retreating through France. On June 9th, the crew was ordered to destroy a bridge. However they could not locate it in the mist but scored direct hits on a main road instead. Railway marshalling yards were attacked, as were oil plants, troop and transport concentrations, and arms dumps. As well, industrial centres in cities as far away as Frankfurt were targeted. One of his first operational challenges was on June 17th when, after experiencing engine trouble on a raid Gelsenkirchen, P/O Robertson returned to base after only an hour and six minutes, landing his Whitley on one engine.
The most significant raid during this period was an attack on Turin, Italy on June 11th. Italy had declared war the previous day and obviously Churchill wanted the Italian leaders to realize there would be consequences. As the thirty-six Whitleys assigned to the raid would be operating at the extreme of their range, an initial flight was made to Guernsey in the Channel Islands.
The runways on the Channel Islands were only 2400 feet in length, less than ideal for the operation of fully laden bombers. The crews were concerned and in order to flag their failing confidence, Wing Commander “Kong” Staton demonstrated a successful take off to them. Those waiting to take off were said to have, “watched with bated breath” as the bombers disappear from sight over the cliff edge at the end of the runway and then finally reappeared flying just above the waves of the English Channel.
Only twenty-three of the aircraft were able to cross over the Alps and bomb due to extreme weather. Stew’s crew reported that they, “encountered extremely bad weather shortly after leaving Gurnsey and as the port engine iced up, were forced to return” before reaching the Alps.
Following this intense period of operations, Stew did not fly for three weeks while he was presumably on leave. On July 19th he and his crew began flying with 78 Squadron.
Operations with 78 Squadron
Stew participated in twenty-five operations with 78 Squadron that, like 51 Squadron, was based at Dishforth in Yorkshire. His logbook, the squadron’s “Operation Record Book,” and other materials which detail Bomber Command operations all note much more enemy opposition than during his flights with 51 Squadron. Stew’s reports often mention “heavy flak, searchlights, evasive action, and flak damage to the aircraft.”
F/O Robertson’s crew remained the same for his first three operations with the new squadron. After that, Stew was “captain” of the aircraft, flying with a number of different second pilots.
His first operation with the new squadron was flown on July 19th, 1940, a raid to Recklinhausen during which a squadron Whitley was attacked by two fighters. Stew reported “very heavy A.A. fire.” During the next four months he participated in raids to a wide variety of locations and targets.
One memorable trip was on July 28th when, on a raid to Wismar, enemy aircraft dropped flares to illuminate the attacking bombers as they made their bomb runs. Five fighters were seen by the four Whitleys of 78 Squadron. The next operation six days later was clearly one of the most memorable of his career.
Upon completing what must have been a gruelling nine hour raid to bomb an oil refinery near Cologne, the three 78 Squadron Whitleys returned to find their base and the surrounding area blanketed by fog. Two of the three force-landed in fields. Stew described flying around in the fog with fuel running out -abandoning the aircraft and parachuting was a real possibility. Finally he found enough of a break in the mists to make a wheels up approach and put the aircraft down in a field, neatly removing a couple of hundred yards of hedge and the Whitley’s port rudder. The aircraft stopped at the edge of the field only twenty feet from a railway track, its front turret’s gun literally projecting over the fence. There were no injuries but the aircraft, which was marked EY-D, was badly damaged. After approaching a farmhouse and having some difficulty convincing the occupants that his was a Canadian accent and he really was on the British side, F/O Robertson and crew were told that they had landed near the village of Pickering. Stew’s longest flight yet was on August 19th, a nine hour trip to attack an electric power station near Berlin. Heavy flak and ‘intense searchlight concentrations’ were encountered.
Searchlights were a real menace to Bomber Command aircrew. When caught, a pilot was blinded by the dazzling light. Often other lights would converge on the unfortunate bomber and follow the aircraft until a fighter attacked or evasive action by the pilot was successful. Stew recalled one night they saved a single bomb for a particularly troublesome searchlight. Although operating regulations did not permit it, they attacked the light at low level and extinguished it.
On August 25th, 1940, Stew participated in what was one of the most significant raids of the war and one that many feel may have changed its course. Following raids by German bombers the previous night, the War Cabinet authorized Bomber Command to attack the German capital, Berlin. Ironically, the bombing of London had been a mistake. German crews were under strict orders to avoid such actions while concentrating on destroying the RAF fighters and their airbases. Thus Churchill was given the heaven-sent opportunity to change the complexion of the war.
Fifty-two aircraft including five Whitleys from 78 Squadron participated in the operation. Severe headwinds were faced on the return flight and six aircraft were lost, some probably due to the “atrocious” weather. Stew was flying for over nine and a half hours that night.
F/O Robertson, after the struggle to reach the city, reported that he was unable to bomb due to “10/10” cloud all the way from the Dutch coast and over the target. Instead, “nickels” were dropped. This was the term for propaganda leaflets.
The Berlin raid so infuriated Adolf Hitler that he ordered Luftwaffe daylight attacks to be directed at London. This action removed the pressure from the hard-pressed Fighter Command airfields, enabling them some time to recover and become capable of defeating the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.
On the 23rd of September Stew was over Berlin for the third time, this flight taking an astonishing ten hours and forty-five minutes of flying time. This was a unique raid for this period of the war in that Bomber Command, for the first time, concentrated 129 aircraft on a single target.
During his time with 78 Squadron, F/Lt Roberston managed to complete two of three raids to Milan, Italy. His November 5th logbook entry notes, “Ice; not able to climb over 10,000 feet” and he returned to base after six hours of flying.
This was the period of the war when an invasion of England was a real possiblity. Bomber Command was ordered to attack the enemy’s invasion barges and associated oil installations that were being prepared in occupied ports. Stew participated in three flights, bombing under severe opposition at Bologne but failing to reach the target on two other flights probably due to bad weather.
One of the most unique raids was a nine hour flight to Kiel where F/Lt Robertson and several other aircraft attacked the battleship Scharnhorst.
On November 8, 1940, Stew took off on his last operation with 78 Squadron and his last operation in the Whitley aircraft. Four other squadron aircraft were prevented from leaving as the base found itself under attack by enemy “intruder” aircraft. For F/Lt Robertson this last flight with the squadron was a demanding ten hour and fifteen minute raid to Milan.
During his time based at RAF Dishforth, Stew and his crew would have become a close-knit unit and he would have made many friends on the station. One of the most demanding aspects would have been the contrast experienced by all Bomber Command crews between the hours in which they were operating and the remainder of their time. One day Stew and his friends would be enjoying an evening in a pub in the relatively peaceful English countryside, the next experiencing the terror of flak, fighter attacks, and searchlights over Berlin or some other target several hours away.
Upon the completion of his “tour” of operations W/Cdr Whitworth, Officer Commanding 78 Squadron, noted in Stew’s logbook that he was “above the average” both as a heavy bomber pilot and as a pilot/navigator. It was probably W/Cdr Whitworth who recommended the awarding of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) which was presented to F/Lt Robertson by King George VI on February 8, 1941. This award is presented for “acts of valour performed in active operations against the enemy.” The recommendation and citation refered to, “Gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations” and as well, “This officer has completed 29 operational flights over enemy territory at night. In all circumstances he has exhibited a high degree of resolution and skill. His determined and cheerful demeanour have set a valuable example to other members of the squadron.”
Joining Stew on that special day was S/L Richard Wildey with whom he had flown with on his first sixteen operations and who was quite likely a good friend.
Stew had survived a tour of some 38 operations. Most of his friends had not. He once told me that, “When I left the squadron, of all the chaps there when I started out, there were only three of four of us left -all the rest had got the chop.”
Instructing in Africa
Just two weeks after his final operation with 78 Squadron F/Lt Robertson was back in the air, flying twin-engined Avro Ansons at #10 Operational Training Unit at Abington. After spending two weeks at a “Beam Approach” training course flying Whitleys, he was again flying Ansons at #2 Navigation Instructors Course at Cranage. Like most who had completed a tour of operations, Stew was being prepared to become an instructor and on August 8, 1941 he made his first flight at #24 C.A.O.S. at Moffat, Rhodesia.
For the next fourteen months he trained pilots using the reliable Anson, referred to as “Faithful Annie.” During one period however, there is a three month gap in his logbook. It was during this interlude that Dorothy Kreller arrived after a long and hazardous journey from Calgary. Stew and Dorothy were married on November 15th.
During his service in Africa, Stew’s leadership ability became apparent. He left Rhodesia on October of 1942 with the rank of Squadron Leader, having been assessed as, “exceptional in staff pilot duties” by the officer commanding the station.
Operations with 149 Squadron
Following his return from Africa, S/L Robertson began training as a Stirling pilot on December 22, 1942. Just one month later he commenced operations with 149 Squadron that was based at Lakenheath in Suffolk. His crew was made up of F/O W. Beardsworth (navigator), F/Sgt W. Diamond (wireless/operator), Sgt. A. Smith (bomb aimer/front gunner), Sgt. L. Arnold (mid-upper gunner), Sgt. J.H. Tales (flight engineer, and Sgt. S.E. Silvey (rear gunner). Stew was immediately placed in charge of “B” Flight, one of two groups within the squadron.
Bombing operations had changed dramatically from what Stew had experienced in 1940. Not only was the aircraft he was flying two and a half times as heavy as the Whitley, the raids now involved several hundred aircraft flying against a single target in a concentrated stream in an attempt to overwhelm the defences with their numbers.
His second operation with 149 Squadron must have been memorable. After the target was marked by the Pathfinders, 263 aircraft bombed Hamburg. Stew’s reported that he bombed on “Sky Marker Flares” which would have been dropped by the Pathfinder Force which at this time in the war was marking targets for the main force aircraft. The crew saw, “red fires under the clouds over an area of twenty miles.” His crew was one of the lucky ones as a staggering twelve percent (eight of the sixty-six Stirlings on the raid) were lost, almost all to enemy night-fighters.
Weather conditions were not good that night and the squadron operations record book reports that six of the thirteen aircraft dispatched by 149 Squadron returned early due to severe icing. As well, the enemy fighters were active and effective. S/L Roberston noted, “engaged Luftwaffe” in his logbook.
The “combat report” filed by his gunners elaborated on Stew’s rather succinct logbook entry. Sgt’s Silvey, Arnold, and Smith reported as follows: “Our a/c was flying at 14,000 feet when attacked three miles east on Maffan. The enemy aircraft was not seen and the first indication of the attack was tracer coming from below and astern. Before, during, and after the attack, the enemy aircraft was not sighted by our crew. The enemy aircraft opened fire at point blank range, as far as it is possible to ascertain, and fired two bursts. It is thought by our crew that the attacking aircraft was right below and slightly to port.”
“Violent evasive action was taken as soon as the enemy aircraft opened fire, consisting of a steep diving turn to starboard whilst at 14,000 feet. The Stirling was pulled out at 9,500 feet. During this action the enemy aircraft was lost.”
“Our aircraft was hit in the port wing, port outer engine, and port outer propeller. Splinters also entered the aircraft around the pilot’s seat. The port outer engine became u/s and the a/c had to return on three engines. There were no casualties on the crew.”
The “evasive action” taken by S/L Robertson would have involved dropping the starboard wing and placing the Stirling into a near vertical dive for 4500 feet. Clearly this must have been a terrifying experience for all on board.
For two and one half hours Stew flew the aircraft on three engines. This, and the recovery from the dive, would have involved a considerable physical effort as the controls were manual with no hydraulic assistance. He recalled that his arms were sore for a long period of time after they returned to base and he successfully landed the damaged aircraft.
W/C Robertson’s aircraft was attacked by a Luftwaffe pilot who exploited the “blind spot” of all of the RAF bombers. The fighters would slowly place themselves in position from below the bomber where the mid-upper and rear gunners could not see the aircraft. The enemy aircraft may even have been equipped with 20 mm cannons mounted on the fighter in an upward firing angle although this technique was not common until later in 1943.
Two nights later Stew flew a ‘gardening stooge’ in the vicinity of the Friesien Islands. “Gardening” was the term used for dropping mines into waters frequented by enemy shipping and a stooge was a diversionary raid which, it was hoped, would divert the attention of enemy fighters away from the main bomber force. Of the nineteen Stirlings sent on the “stooge,” two failed to return.
W/C Robertson’s next operation was on February 26th and again he returned on, and landed with, only three engines operating. This time however it was due to mechanical problems.
On February 28th, W/C Robertson flew on the largest raid in which he had participated when he was one of 437 aircraft which caused widespread damage to an enemy submarine base at St. Nazaire. Stew’s report noted “Visibility good. Red markers in bomb sight, and concentrated fires seen in target area.”
Stew’s forty-fourth and last operation was his longest Stirling flight, a six hour and fifty-one minute trip to Berlin and back. 149 Squadron sent six Stirlings as part of a 302 aircraft raid that caused more damage to the enemy capital than any previous raid. Stew’s report stated that, “The glow of the fires were visible from Hanover, 150 miles away.” The loss rate, however, was 5.6% including four of the fifteen Stirlings dispatched and two of the six from Stew’s squadron.
S/L Robertson’s last Stirling flight was a formation exercise on March 18th. He was posted to No. 81 Operational Training Unit effective March 25, 1943.
Officer Commanding RAF Station Sleap
Following his operations with 149 Squadron, S/L Robertson was again posted to an instructional role, but with an increasing level of responsibility and management. He was placed in charge of “D” Flight at #81 Operational Training Unit at Tilstock, again flying the Anson aircraft had become so familiar with in Africa. Tilstock was located in the midlands of England in the northern part of the county of Shropshire, considerably removed from the operational excitement of eastern England where the operating squadrons were based. His leadership and management abilities continued to develop and by June 1, 1943 he had been assigned the role of Chief Flying Instructor for the O.T.U.
On July 12, RAF Station Sleap became operational as a satellite station to Tilstock. Stew was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander and became the commanding officer of the station. Together, Tilstock and Sleap were home to some three thousand RAF personnel.
A flying accident at the station occurred on August 26th. A Whitley ran into the Flying Control Tower killing the Canadian pilot and another airman aboard the aircraft and injuring three men in the tower including W/C Robertson. Stew was admitted to Station Sick Quarters at Tilstock. His logbook notes, however, that he was flying again on September 3rd.
On January 1, 1944, RAF Tilstock and Satellite Station Sleap were transferred from No. 93 Group Bomber Command that oversaw aircrew training to No. 38 Group Allied Expeditionary Air Force. It retained the designation No. 81 O.T.U. but its new function was to train crews to tow gliders for airborne troops. The aircraft to be used was the Whitley and Stew’s experience with this type would have stood him in good stead in this new assignment. The gliders were Horsas, and they were to play important roles on D-Day (the invasion of France) and in other battles on the continent including the crossing of the Rhine.
As the commanding officer of the Station, W/C Robertson became more and more involved in the operation of the base but, as was expected of a C/O, he familiarized himself with all the things his staff were expected to do. He learned to take off in the huge Horsas, be towed to altitude behind Whitleys and then land the gliders.
Stew’s desires for flying and adventure continued as well. On July 19, 1944 a Hawker Hurricane, one of the front line fighter aircraft that was operational throughout the war, was on the base. Stew recalled that he decided that since he was the C/O of the station and the fighter was there, if he wanted to, he could take it up. He had not flown a single engine aircraft since his initial flying training days and never one which could perform like the Hurricane.
The following month he made two parachute jumps, landing in water on both occasions. On March 1, 1945 he made the last entry in his logbook as officer commanding RAF Sleap. With the change of command, a ceremony was held at the station and W/C Robertson took the salute as the officers and men of the Station marched past. The war was over for Stew and he was repatriated to Canada.
Postwar Flying With The Royal Canadian Air Force
On March 19, 1949 Stew began flying again with 403 RCAF (Reserve) “City of Calgary” Squadron based at Lincoln Park. He flew regularly with the squadron until December 17, 1950.
The single-engined Harvard was the aircraft in service with 403 Squadron. Stew participated in various training activities including formation flying, and air to air and air to ground combat exercises. These involved visits to Gimli, Manitoba, Suffield, and Penhold. One of his favourite memories of flying with the squadron was racing just above the waves of Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park and scaring fishermen.
His final two flights with 403 Squadron were in the high-powered Mustang fighter.
His final logbook tally includes flying nineteen different types of aircraft and a total of 1,887 hours of flying time, 1,095 of these in multi-engine aircraft.
Stew Robertson’s wartime career was clearly the highlight of his life. Like thousands of others of young Canadians, he lived an adventure that those of subsequent generations can only imagine. Like the others he returned to a successful business career that made use of the determination, work ethic, and many of the talents developed during wartime.