Warren Twins – The Complete Story

Douglas “Duke” Warren sent a letter to the Nanton Lancaster Society in November 1989. At that time the Lancaster Bomber was still outside and the Society operated the local tourist information booth in which we had placed some displays related to the aircraft. The first thing we saw when we opened the envelope was a photograph of two little boys, perhaps three or four years of age, and they had a dog hooked up to pull a wagon. They were obviously identical twins.

Duke had written, “I was recently sent a clipping by a friend and the clipping told about the Lancaster aircraft and your museum in general. I have a print from a painting which was done by John Rutherford, a well-known aviation artist, and have enclosed a short article about a time in the Warren Twins’ careers. This may be of interest to you, for the Warren Twins were born in Nanton in 1922.”

Until the arrival of Duke’s letter, the members of the Nanton Lancaster Society knew nothing about the Warren Twins and they had been virtually forgotten in Nanton. However, we were to find out they were revered in the world of those who knew the history of the Canadian fighter pilots in World War II.

A few weeks after we received his letter, Duke and his wife Melba came to Nanton with the print that continues to be displayed at the museum. This was the beginning of a wonderful relationship between this highly respected gentleman, his hometown, and the Nanton Lancaster Air Museum.

Duke has returned to Nanton numerous times since then. He was Master of Ceremonies at the dedication of the museum’s Lancaster to Ian Bazalgette VC and at our “Salute to Those who Served” event in 1996. In 2001 he and his family were present an the dedication of a memorial garden to his twin and in 2003, Duke inspected the local air cadet squadron.

Arguably the most renowned of the hundreds of Nantonites to have served in Canada’s armed forces during times of need, the Warren Twins have been reintroduced to their hometown through Duke’s association with the museum.

Identical twin boys were born to Marie and Earl Warren of Nanton, Alberta on May 28, 1922. Although Earl farmed east of town, the family’s home was in Nanton for the first six years of the twins’ lives. Earl spent much of his time on the farm but came home on weekends and occasionally during the week. Duke has clear memories of attending the Anglican church and grade one at the local school. He also remembers that there was a lumber yard on the town side of the railway tracks near their house that he and his twin used to play in although their parents did not approve. Nor did they approve of Douglas and Bruce visiting the grain elevators. In 1928, their father decided to move the farming operation to the Wetaskiwin area.

From boyhood, the Warrens were known as “The Dukes.” This term arose when a teacher, using them as an example in order to broaden the vocabulary of the class, explained that they were “duplicates.” The other students then started calling them “dupes” for short. Understandably the Warrens didn’t like that name and gradually had it changed to “dukes.” The twins began referring to each other, and to themselves as well, by the name “Duke.”

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Bruce and Douglas Warren

While young boys, the twins were regular visitors to the Wetaskiwin Library where they were exposed to “Flight” and “Aeroplane,” two flying magazines. They were enthralled with aviation. When war broke out and they became eighteen years old, the twins joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Enlisting in Edmonton in March 1941, they had every intention of staying together during their air force careers.

Their flying training began at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School at High River, just north of Nanton. Duke recalls that, “For most of our young lives we had this overpowering wish to fly. Now we were on the way and we were terribly enthusiastic, about the thrill of flying, actually learning to handle the controls, and becoming confident that we would qualify as pilots.” The primary trainer at High River at that time was the De Havilland Tiger Moth and the twins were both assigned to the same instructor, a Mr. Dusenbury. He sent them solo at about eleven hours each. According to Duke he, “just couldn’t tell us apart, and he was never able to tell us apart all the time we were at High River.”

The Warrens were then posted to No. 34 Service Flying Training School at Medicine Hat and were thrilled to know that they would be flying Harvards. Those who were trained on the Harvard generally went on to become fighter pilots. Again they were assigned to the same instructor, in this case F/O Cherrington who, according to Duke, “When he realized that we were twins, and identical twins looking very much alike, there was some discussion as to whether we should be ‘split up’ and one of us sent to another instructor. In the end, we were both kept as students of Cherrington’s and, as it was customary to use only the last name, he called my twin ‘Warren Mark I’ and I was ‘Warren Mark II'”.

The Warrens graduated on December 19, 1941, Bruce being ranked as eighth out of the class of thirty-seven, and Douglas ninth. This created a crisis for the twins. The first eight students were granted commissions (became officers) so Bruce became Pilot Officer Warren and Douglas became Sergeant Warren. This would have led to real difficulties for the twins who were determined to keep their RCAF careers in step. They went to No. 4 Training Command Headquarters in Calgary to plead their case. According to Duke, “The gist of our argument was that our academic marks and the results of our flying tests were remarkably close, and that the arbitrary ‘cut-off’ would not have resulted in this problem had we not been twins. Furthermore, we argued, if it was not possible to rectify the situation by granting me a commission, we would be satisfied if the RCAF would cancel my twin’s appointment and make him a sergeant.” The Warrens received a sympathetic hearing but were told that by the time anything could be done about the situation, they would be posted overseas.

Regarding what it is like to be one of identical twins, Duke recalls, “From our first awareness of the world around us, there always existed an ‘us and them’ feeling -the special feeling that identical twins have for each other. My twin was always of paramount importance in my life, and others were secondary. I know that he felt the same.”

Initially the Warrens were separated as they sailed from Halifax. However Bruce, after explaining the situation to the other officers in his cabin, received their permission for Douglas to sneak his gear into their officers’ quarters so that the twins could bunk together. Later they were really separated for the first time as Bruce was posted to No. 8 Advanced Flying Unit at Hullavington. Three weeks later Douglas received word that his commission had come through and, after some delay, P/O D. Warren was posted to No. 17 AFU at Watton in Norfolk. Both were to be trained as Spitfire pilots.

The Supermarine Spitfire was Britain’s premiere fighter throughout World War II and one of the classic aircraft ever designed. Pilots found it to be agile and dependable, a fine air-combat plane capable of great speed and superior high-altitude performance. It was continuously upgraded so that it would match or better the best German fighters at the time. Only late in the war when jet aircraft appeared was the Spitfire made obsolete, although even then pilots in Spitfires shot down Messerschmitt Me262 jets.

Upon the completion of his training, Bruce was posted to No. 165 Squadron flying Spitfires at Heathfield near Ayr, Scotland. Douglas then began to try to get himself posted there as well but his flight commander was opposed to this, citing previous bad experience with brothers on the same squadron. So he had Douglas posted to No. 403 Squadron. Eventually however, Bruce was able to have his commanding officer use his influence to have Douglas transferred to No. 165.

“It was a great thrill for both of us when I arrived,” Duke recalls, “for this was the culmination of all our hopes of the past eighteen months, to be on a fighter squadron together and, equally important, here we were. . . physically together again, a wonderful feeling which is hard to understand if you are not a twin.”

No. 165 was flying convoy patrols and scrambling after unidentified aircraft. “After a short time on the squadron,” Duke recalls, “Duke and I became a more or less permanent section of two. This was the smallest fighting section of a squadron; a flight might be four aircraft, two sections of two, of maybe six, three sections of two. Generally the squadron put up twelve aircraft in three flights -red, yellow, and blue. Often it happened we flew as Yellow Three and Four. Duke was considered the most experienced since he had arrived first on the squadron, so he flew as Yellow Three and I as Yellow Four.”

In August, the squadron became part of 11 Group, Fighter Command, the famous Biggin Hill Wing. They moved to Eastchurch near London where most of the fighter combat was taking place. “Eastchurch was one of the old permanent peacetime RAF stations,” Duke recalls. “Flying had been my chief interest in life since I was a boy, and I had often read of Eastchurch in ‘Flight’ and ‘Aeroplane.’ It was a thrill just being stationed there. From circuit height, the French coast was visible on a clear day. On August 17 and 18, 1942, the squadron carried out sweeps near Le Touquet. On the evening of the 18th,we were briefed about a forthcoming action at Dieppe (where Canadian troops were to undertake a ‘raid in force’ -landing in occupied France but with no intention of staying). Part of the Royal Navy’s briefing was that any aircraft below 7000′ would be fired upon. While near our ships we were to remain above 8000′. Following the briefing we were confined to the station where security was tight.

“My twin brother and I were both on the same flight in No. 165 and were especially interested in the Dieppe operation as we were the only Canadians on the squadron. We were in the air at first light, and could see the battle area alight with tracers, with many fires on the esplanade of Dieppe. Several landing craft were grounded offshore. There was little Luftwaffe activity at this time. Enemy aircraft would appear, attack the ships, and quickly turn inland. On my first patrol I flew SK-M for 1:40 hours, a long patrol for a Spitfire. My next sortie was about lunchtime. Now there were many dogfights, and Dornier 217’s were dive-bombing our ships. Our section of four attacked a Dornier from astern and rear quarter. It appeared that the pilot bailed out while the rear gunner was still firing at us! There were only two parachutes. We also engaged in many inconclusive dogfights and there was a general melee of aircraft from both sides. In the harbour below a destroyer was seen ablaze. Many landing craft were sunk or uselessly beached. We noticed our troops pinned down or dead along the ocean wall. We had no trouble appreciating what our troops were going through down below.

“The last sortie of the day was about dusk. Once again the Luftwaffe was quiet. We merely covered the withdrawal of our ships and covered a pilot who had bailed out amongst the flotilla. On the way home, my twin reported his engine temperature rising. We gained height in case he had to glide back. As we approached Eastchurch, his temperature went off the clock. He glided in and as he landed, the side panels of the engine compartment were glowing red.

“Dieppe was the largest air action in Europe since the Battle of Britain. Only later did we learn how big it was. The RAF had flown almost 3000 sorties, the Luftwaffe 945. At the time, it was thought losses were about equal, 100 aircraft on each side, but it was later found that the Germans had only lost 50, whereas the Allies lost 106.”

The Twins flew operations with No. 165 Squadron for eighteen months, conducting sweeps over occupied France, escorting bombers, and upgrading their skills and those of others in various training exercises. At one point the squadron was based at Kenley, another famous Battle of Britain station. “Duke and I roomed together in the old pre-war officers’ mess which was luxurious in comparison with other quarters we had been in. We had a nice room, and the ablutions were just down the hall. This gave rise to a funny situation which, at first, we didn’t know about. A few days after the squadron arrived at Kenley, the station commander, a Group Captain, came to the flight to meet the pilots. He was introduced and said how pleased he was to meet us, for he thought the squadron had a lunatic pilot. Each morning he would be in the washroom shaving, when a Canadian officer would come in, say ‘Good Morning, Sir,’ wash, and leave. A few minutes later the same man would return, say ‘Good Morning, Sir,’ wash, and leave. He couldn’t understand what was going on with this chap. The reason for this was that we had only one electric razor between us, which we shared. One of us would shave first and then wash up, while the other one would wash up first and then shave. Since the Group Captain didn’t realize there was a set of identical twins on the squadron, to him it was just a crazy pilot.”

Whenever the twins flew, they always kept tabs on one another. If there had been a dogfight and they became separated, they would check on each other by one giving a short whistle over the radio, the other answering with a similar whistle.

In January 1944, following 18 months on operations, the Warrens spent some time at No. 58 Operational Training Unit and with No. 1687 Bomber Defence Training Flight, doing fighter affiliations to help train bomber crews in dealing with fighter attacks.

Then in July, the Warren Twins were posted to No. 66 Squadron based at Thorney Island. From there they flew numerous operations providing escort protection to heavy bombers including Lancasters. In late August, the squadron moved to a base near Caen in a recently liberated part of France. From there they took part in the Battle of Falaise in support of the Canadian and British armies. This action extended over several days. Duke recalls, “We Spitfire pilots ensured air superiority as well as doing armed reccee and fighter-bomber attacks. Losses were heavy, both in the Typhoon squadrons and the Spitfire squadrons doing fighter-bomber work. The flak was plentiful and accurate. By their nature low-level attacks are dangerous, and when a plane is hit low down there is very little time to bail out.

“Operations continued. The Germans had left pockets of men in Le Havre, Calais, Boulogne, Ostend and other places. Now the Canadian army was fighting to get them out. We continued to support them with low-level attacks and bombing. We seldom saw a German fighter as they were being held back to intercept bombers or defend against the British army. What we were doing was dangerous, for all these places had lots of anti-aircraft guns, and the gunners had been practicing with live targets since 1940 and were accurate. So we lost pilots all the while.

“On my 44th operational sortie I almost ‘bought it.’ The squadron had been detailed to bomb heavy artillery sites at Calais. We approached at about 15,000 feet and I trimmed for the dive. Then there was a loud explosion under the aircraft and sunlight came through a hole in the left side of the cockpit. An 88 mm flak gun had exploded a shell just under my left wing. A piece of flak drove the trim wheel into my leg, carried on up bending my parachute D ring as it passed, and ended up in a small tin box in my upper left breast pocket.” Duke remembers that the shrapnel was red hot and smoldered away for some time.

“One might ask,” Duke continues, “why a fighter pilot would be flying with a small tin box in his pocket. This was a special box used as part of an escape kit. If a person was shot down and trying to evade and hide from the enemy, it was difficult to get safe drinking water. In the small box was a large rubber balloon which you filled with water from a ditch or dirty pond. You popped in a chlorine sterilization tablet, shook it up well, and in fifteen minutes you could drink it. It tasted like water from a ditch, but all the bugs in it were killed. The fragment of shell had pierced the tin box deeply, but had the box not been there it would have pierced my body and perhaps my heart. . . Duke realized I had been hit, but he could tell I still had control, and so proceeded with the attack while I returned to base . . . I kept the fragment, D ring, and tin box for souvenirs.”

Bruce Warren had been appointed “A Flight” commander upon the twins’ arrival at No. 66 Squadron. In early December, Douglas was appointed “B Flight” commander. Duke recalled, “This was a great occasion for Duke and I, both flight commanders in the same fighter squadron. Every senior officer we spoke with said they had never known of such a situation before. Further, the fact that we were Canadians and identical twins at that level in the Royal Air Force was quite unique. There were many in the squadron who didn’t even try to tell us apart, because there was really no need. We were recognized by our rank and position and the pilots followed the orders that came down.”

In mid-December 1944, the Warren Twins were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses. The citations read,

“Flight Lieutenant Douglas Warren: F/L Warren, during two tours of operational duties, has shown outstanding skill and courage. His determination to engage and destroy the enemy in the air and on the ground is worthy of high praise. He has completed numerous missions on heavily defended ground targets and enemy shipping. He has participated in the destruction by cannon fire of twenty enemy vehicles and the explosion of the magazine of a large enemy strong point. By accurate bombing he has destroyed one enemy aircraft and shared in the destruction of another. On another occasion his accurate bombing severed an important rail link in Germany.

“Flight Lieutenant Bruce Warren: This officer has led his flight with such skill and determination in attacks on ground targets that more than twenty vehicles have been damaged and many probably destroyed. During his numerous sorties, he has destroyed two enemy fighters and participated in the destruction of a hostile bomber. His fine, fighting spirit and zeal have set an excellent example to all.”

In mid-February 1945, the twins were declared tour-expired and taken off operations -Bruce having flown 248 sorties and Douglas having completed 253. Prior to leaving for Canada, their DFC’s were presented by King George VI who remarked, “I don’t believe I have ever done this before,” as he invested the identical Warrens.

W/C Johnston had commanded the Warrens, both on No. 165 and No. 66 Squadrons. In his book, “Tattered Battlements,” he wrote, “The Dukes were Canadian twins, known without distinction -for few could distinguish one from the other -by a name which was neither theirs nor that of their parents who had christened them Bruce and Douglas. . . They were the same height to an eighth of an inch, the same weight to a couple of pounds, always dressed alike and, though different in character, were as similar physically as two peas. Everything they did they did together, and everything they had, they shared; even their bank-balance was common to both. As pilots they had the right mixture of determination, discretion, and dash to be successful and formidable.

“On the ground, they both had vigorous enquiring minds and little patience with tradition-bound methods or ways of thought. They had remained together practically throughout their careers in the service, and liked to say that if they had not both joined up, but only one, they could have worked alternate weeks. They were typical of their trade in never taking exercise, but unusual in that they neither smoked nor drank; photography was their main pre-occupation and delight. They represented the New World at its best. And each, with an impartiality and detachment which was sometimes puzzling, called the other ‘Duke.'”

Both Warrens served in the post-war RCAF, but Bruce left to become a test pilot with Avro in the early years of the CF-100 jet fighter program. On April 5, 1951, he lost his life in the crash of the second prototype due to an oxygen system malfunction.

Douglas completed an impressive RCAF career that included flying F-86 Sabre jets in Korea, serving as chief flying instructor at the Sabre Operational Training Unit at RCAF Station Chatham, and flying Sabres in Europe where he assisted in the development of the post-war Luftwaffe and found himself working side by side with Erich Hartmann, the greatest fighter ace of all time with over 350 kills.

Duke was awarded the French “Legion of Honour” in 2007.

Following his retirement from the air force in 1973, Duke has focused his energy on community service. He was granted a “Caring Canadian Award” by the Governor General and a “Paul Harris Fellow Award” by the Rotarians plus Life Membership in The Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Royal Canadian Legion. He has received the Meritorious Service Medal with Palm Leaf from the Legion for his work with the CNIB and 24 years as Legion Padre. Regarding these extraordinary efforts, Duke commented, “My twin and I had planned on doing community work together after retiring. Since he was not with me, I felt I must work for the two of us.”