by Peter C. Conrad
Robert Steel was a British member of the advance party to arrive at Godrich, Ontario in “tropical gear” on October 26, 1940. Trucks picked them up, “which headed out on the open highway, on the wrong side of the road until we reached a group of buildings under construction in the middle of a field full of mud. Welcome home!” The next morning, the group received “real eggs and bacon, the inevitable porridge, toast, and coffee. As a bonus, each person was given a free Toronto Globe and Mail where we read that we were all ‘heroes of the Battle of Britain’ and that somewhere in our midst was ‘the last man of Dunkerque’.” Steel remembered that: “On complaining to the workmen, who were feverishly working to finish more buildings, about the weather, we were told, ‘If you think this is bad, wait till summer comes’, and that became the stock answer to anybody who complained about anything.”
Robert remembered many events like the community concerts presented by the Male Voice Choir, or the Blue Boys, which he was a member who were raising money for BARF, the British Air Raid Relief Fund.
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Robert Steel was working on the Maintenance Flight as a Leading Aircraftman II (E) in the 48 Squadron at Manston, in Kent England in 1939 as the Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies above him, with his airfield photographed and at the top of the list for bombing by the Luftwaffe. Manston, in the south of England and close to the Front, had a long history in the air support that dated back to the First World War.
Manston proved to be the natural geographic location for a military airfield when the farmland of Manston became an emergency landing site in 1915-16. In response the Admiralty Aerodrome was established at Manston for the Royal Naval Air Service. With the advantages of the location and the Manston Aerodrome quickly became a training school for pilots and crew of the new Handley Page Type O bomber. By the end of 1916 Manston Aerodrome was host to the Handley Page Training School and Operational War Flight Command. In 1917, the Royal Flying Corps, and a continually growing number of men arrived at Manston.
It was not surprising that with the highly valued skills Robert Steel had that he would be at Manston, which was a centre for the RAF during the early days of the Second World War. With such a strategic location it was not surprising that it was targeted by the Luftwaffe, and continuously bombed during the Battle of Britain. As the skies over the airfield emptied of the German aircraft, it became the testing base for Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb used in the Dambuster raid. It was host to squadrons of Hawker Typhoons and Meteor jets. Manston is remembered as a heavy bomber “graveyard,” as it provided long and wide runways and its location that was close to the Front, damaged aircraft used it.
The bombing raids during the Battle of Britain brought a quick dispersal of the staff at Manston with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force moved to the Ursuline Convent in Westgate on Sea.
In the year of 1939, at an RAF station in Manston, Kent, England 48 (GR) Squadron, which was equipped with Avro Ansons (MK I) was operating not only as a General Reconnaissance squadron but also as a Training School for future air navigators.
When the Second World War was declared on September 3rd 1939, the south of England and its RAF stations were prime targets for the Luftewaffe, especially the training stations. Consequently 48 Squadron was bombed on a regular basis until the Air Ministry decided to move the Squadron to a “safe” place They choose RAF Station St. Athan, approximately 19 miles from Cardiff in South Wales and renamed it No. 1 School of Air Navigation, under the command of Group Captain Robertson, AFM, a well loved Commanding Officer, and all aircraft had a yellow circle surrounding the RAF roundels.
The small Avro Anson’s mid-upper gun turrets were left in place allowing each aircraft to be flews with an Air Gunner, just in case. But, it didn’t take long before Herman Goering and his boys caught on and consequently the fireworks started again, so it was then decided to move again and after consulting with the Commonwealth it was agreed to use whatever countries were outside the then war zone so Canada and Rhodesia were chosen.
A busy summer ensued as a Fitter II, Robert spent most of his time with other ground crew dismantling and crating our aircraft labelling the crates to C.A.R.D. Port Albert, Lake Huron, Canada. “Where the Hell is that?” many asked, as all ranks were issues were issued tropical uniforms, including and pith helmets and shorts.
As an Advanced Party of 90 ground crew were picked, which included Robert. The chosen few we were given 48 hours notice and on October 2nd, 1940 at approximately midnight they were marched on a train, which took them to Liverpool where we boarded the SS Duchess of Atholl ready to rendezvous with a convoy of ships on their way to Canada. The SS Duchess of Atholl was a Canadian Pacific Steamship Company ocean liner that had just been requisitioned as a troop ship by the Admiralty. The weeks before Robert boarded the SS Duchess of Atholl it had transported British children to Canada for the Children’s Overseas Reception Board that evacuated the youth to the safe shores of Canada and three other Commonwealth counties. Canada received 1,532 children overall during the war years. The SS Duchess of Atholl had the task of transporting RAF personnel and German prisoners of War, which the journey eventful as everyone was wary of the constant threat of German U-boat attacks.
The Advanced Party that Robert Steel was safely crossed the Atlantic and arrived at Halifax on 25th October 1940 and they allowed us ashore for 5 hrs, which was s a story in itself. Robert’s party boarded ship again and steamed up the St. Lawrence to Montreal where nobody spoke English and they drove on the wrong side of the road. They disembarked and were marched to a waiting train on which we were taken to our mysterious destination.
Nobody could sleep because somebody kept blowing a noisy siren or something on the front of the train, which was by now aptly named: “Screaming Alice,” but when they stopped at 2 AM in a station where there was some activity and people spoke English Robert found on enquiry that we were at a place called TRANNAH, which turned out to be Toronto.
Their journey continued until around noon they arrived at a little place called Goderich, Ontario where they alighted the train and were loaded onto a convoy of Dodge Stake Trucks, which headed out on the open highway, on the wrong side of the road until we reached a group of buildings under construction in the middle of a field full of mud.
The RAF schools were set up as a separate part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that ran in parallel to the schools of the Plan. These schools were set up under the Visiting Forces Acts, with the RAF keeping their own identity. Canadian command had the ability to make changes in the training programmes of RAF school, complete special manoeuvres, or even post RAF personnel to other locations if needed. A full reorganization occurred in August 1941 that made all RAF personnel and equipment the same as all other BCATP schools.
The Advanced Party were duly notified that if they wanted a comfortable place to sleep that night they were to help the builders install windows and doors on the first two partially completed buildings, however the men thankfully found out that the one building that was completed was a fully equipped Kitchen and Dining Room and by 7 PM we were sitting down to a meal of hot meat, fries, peas, potatoes and gravy, with each man given two bottles of Labatts Indian Pale Ale. “Heaven was never like this!”
All personnel, officers, NCOs, and airmen slept in the same building that first night. The next morning it was now the 27th of October 1940 and after a very uncomfortable night sleeping in their clothes on the floor in an unheated building somebody who had not forgotten to bring an inevitably noisy trumpet blowing “Reveille” very rudely awakened the men at 6 AM.
When they went to breakfast we found that we were served REAL eggs and bacon the inevitable portage, toast, and coffee as a bonus each person was given a free Toronto Globe and Mail where the men read that, unknown to them they were all “heroes of the Battle of Britain” and that somewhere in their midst was “the last man from Dunkerque.”
On complaining to the workmen, who were feverishly working to finish more buildings about the weather the new RAF men from Britain were told “if you think this is bad wait till the summer comes!” and that became the stock answer to anybody who complained about anything.
“Wait till summer comes” and they did, and then they all found out why they were issued with tropical uniforms.
Robert quickly settled into the routines of repairing and keeping the schools Fleet Finch in the air until they were replaced with Tiger Moths. As daily life became set, Robert became a member of the Choir at St George’s Anglican Church at Goderich, and occasionally spent time with local families when he was selected in the “Adoption” program that provided social evenings and weekend visits with local families.
There were opportunities for men like Robert who possessed golden voices; he became a member of a male voice choir, The Blue Boys. The Blue Boys were active providing community concerts in aid of BARF, the British Air Raid Relief Fund.
Robert met the young local girl Kloepfer Margerie Liscumb, or Keppy as she was known and they were married in April 1943. She was with him on a Canadian troop convoy on the North Atlantic when she turned nineteen, on February 6, 1944, as Robert was on his way back to Cardiff, Wales. The first of eighteen children Keppy and Robert had was born in June 1944. After a full life, Robert passed away in 1987. Keppy passed away in November 2005.