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    Leonard Hardie Wilson

    Early Years (1923-1943)

    Leonard Hardie Wilson was a native son of Stratford, and although his life’s journey took him far and wide, his early life incorporated some important themes that influenced his path. He was born in 1923 and grew up on Manning Avenue, right beside the cemetery where he also played and later worked as a teenager.  His father was a Master Printer, a native of Kirkcaldy, Scotland and his mother worked as a tracer of ships drawings in a shipyard in Jarrow on Tyne, England. His parents came to Canada in the early part of the 20th Century and arrived in Stratford just before Len was born.  He was the youngest of a family of 5 children.  He attended St. Johns United Church for Sunday School, although he was also a member of the choir of The Lutheran Church where his father was the choirmaster. His love of music started at an early age. Cast as The Cabin Boy, he became the youngest member of the cast of possibly Stratford’s first production of the HMS Pinafore, directed by his father, who was a self-taught musician. It was performed in the auditorium of the City Hall – this production may also have been the beginning of two important themes in Len’s life; an appreciation for music and for the beauty of Stratford’s architectural heritage. Len would later in life play an important role in preserving and restoring the beautiful, unique Stratford City Hall.  As for music, Len loved the satirical lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, the words and music of Cole Porter, the rhythms of Gershwin, the dancing and vocals of Fred Astaire, and the big band sound of Glen Miller; and he loved the Broadway musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe.

    At Sunday School Len met lifelong friends in the Young Crusaders, a church youth group led by Mr. Ellicott who encouraged his young charges to make a positive contribution in their community – another theme that Len took with him into his adult life.   The Crusaders created and maintained an ice rink at the old Fairgrounds which offered local young people a fun place to congregate and keep out of trouble.

    In later years, his pen became his sword when he offered his unique commentary on local issues through compelling letters to the Beacon Herald. In 2003, in his submission to the governing body of the Royal Canadian Legion, he mounted a winning case for the return of the World War I memorial altar to its rightful place in the Stratford Normal School. Len’s family struggled during the 1930’s depression and his father lost his business. Like many young people of his age, Len left school before graduating to take up a job briefly as a file clerk with the CNR in order to earn income at a time when he was the last sibling living at home.  The silver lining for this unique generation was that the enforced frugality brought about by the depression shaped realistic expectations without dampening aspiration.

    Meanwhile, gathering storms churned on the global stage.

    Postwar (1946-1952)

    On returning to Canada in 1946, Len completed High School, and then went on to the University of Western Ontario where he graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce. This was followed by Teachers College at University of Toronto and then a high school teaching job in Kitchener. In this period as well, he bought a Tiger Moth, (which he named Winnie-the-Pooh) and barnstormed locally out of Jim Camden’s field on Erie St (until a friend and soon-to-be Mayor of Stratford cracked up his airplane). Winnie-the-Pooh 2 was soon acquired and the barnstorming continued. In November 1950 Len became a member of 420 Fighter Squadron (Reserve) City of London flying Harvards and Mustangs. During the summer of 1949 while working as an Ice Delivery Man he met the woman who would become his wife and lifelong companion, Mary Sophia Myers. They were married in October 1951.

    The Cold War (1952-1969)

    With the Korean War in full swing, Len re-joined the Air Force in 1952 and was posted to RCAF Station Centralia as a Flight Instructor. In July 1958 Len arrived at 405 Maritime Patrol Squadron assigned to fly C-45 Expeditor and P-22 Neptune anti-submarine aircraft out of RCAF Station Greenwood Nova Scotia.

    Also, at this time the Airforce was rapidly bringing its newly designed and acquired fleet of Argus anti-submarine aircraft into service. The Canadair CP-107 Argus, the most advanced anti-submarine warfare aircraft of its time, was named for Argus Panoptes – a character in Greek mythology. He was a giant with 100 eyes on his body. Panoptes means all-seeing. The Argus had multiple sensing capabilities including the powerful radar (contained in the chin of the aircraft), Jezebel – the sonar detection system launched from the bombay doors of the aircraft, the 70 million candle power search light on the wing, MAD (magnetic anomaly detection) which extended from the rear of the aircraft and looked for electrical distortions caused by metallic objects and “sniffers” that sniffed the air looking for signs of diesel exhaust fumes from submarines!  To be effective (and they were) the aircraft was flown 60 feet above the ocean for hours at a time.

    Len flew the Argus beginning in November 1958 and would continue to fly this operationally and as a check and certification Captain for Argus Aircrew until the end of his flying career in 1965.  In July 1961 he was posted to 415 Maritime Patrol Squadron RCAF Station Summerside.  The squadron became part of the surge of aircraft suppressing Russian submarine activity during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    In July 1965, after 7 years and 4,025 hours flying Argus Aircraft, Len was posted to RCAF Station 1 (Fighter) Wing Marville, France.  After 22 years of mostly operational flying, Len moved to an administrative role in Squadron Operations for the fighter wing of CF104 Starfighters whose NATO role was to provide both reconnaissance and nuclear deterrence to counter the Soviet Union.  When France withdrew from NATO in 1967 the base in Marville was closed and moved to Lahr, Germany.

    Len’s final Air Force Posting came in July of 1969 when he became an instructor at the Canadian Forces School of Instructional Technique. In 1970 he retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force and took up a teaching position at Northwestern Secondary School in Stratford. He had returned to his hometown after an absence of 17 years.

    Return to Stratford, Teaching and Retirement (1970 – 2012)

    Having found his way home after a life of action and adventure, Len turned his attention to civic matters.  He served as an Alderman on Stratford’s City Council for two terms in the 70’s. One of his most notable accomplishments while serving on council was his contribution to the Save the City Hall League. A campaign was waged with strong opinions in an intense battle to either save the historic City Hall and its glorious period architecture or demolish it for a prime parking area in the heart of town. A close vote brought this matter to a close resulting in the preservation of this remarkable building.

    Len retired from teaching in 1995 and spent quality time with his family while supporting numerous organizations.  He actively volunteered with the Cancer Society, driving patients to and from London for treatment and was a contributing member of the Legion and RCR. He found the company of men and women who, like him, had spent time in the military and the ensuing camaraderie to be high points in his week. Mess dinners at the armory, dinners in London, lunches at the Army, Navy and Airforce – all were ways to keep in touch with a familiar and comfortable lifestyle.

    Still one more adventure awaited though – a trip sponsored by Veterans Affairs Canada to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day in June of 2009. The trip was filled with a poignancy that recalled the maelstrom of his youth. He once again enjoyed the camaraderie of other men and women who had led that incredible effort to liberate Europe and was surprised at the gratitude still displayed by the communities up and down the invasion beaches. Len was particularly struck by the speech of one elderly French civic leader of a similar age who declared that the young men and women of the Canadian military were, in fact, the architects of modern Europe for, without their willingness to be sacrificed, Europe as we know it today would not have existed.

    A video of 2009 event in Caen commemorating the Royal Canadian Air Force may be found here:  https://youtu.be/DosFfxljSlc

    Leonard Hardie Wilson died in May 2012. Throughout his life, he was a man of honesty, humility, integrity, humour and had an outstanding sense of who he was. His values of civic duty, perhaps inspired by the role his father and siblings played helped inspire his family and community.

    Stories

    The War Years (1943-1945)

    In 1943 Len enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces. He wanted to join the Navy, but because of need he was directed into the Air Force.  He trained with 127 Squadron RCAF Station Dartmouth on Tiger Moths, Harvards, and Hurricanes in Canada before arriving in the United Kingdom in April 1944. Initially assigned to 443 Squadron, Digby Lincolnshire in England with a total logged flying time of 121 hours, he along with his entire contingent of new pilots from Canada were deemed too green to be posted to an operational unit.   He continued his training at Operational Training Units in Rednal, England and Tealing (Dundee) Scotland on MK II and V Spitfires and was posted to 83 Group Support Unit in Bognor Regis, Sussex in early July, 1944.  

    Finally, on July 15, 1944, barely five weeks after the invasion and now with over 200 hours of flying time, Len was posted to 442 Squadron located at B4, Beny-Sur-Mer Normandy. 442 Squadron was equipped with the superior Spitfire MK IX B and E variants of the fighter and his squadron quickly moved across the continent, operating out of France Belgium, and Holland, (airfields B18 Cristot, B68 LeCulot, B80 Volkel, and Heesch Holland) providing close air support to the advancing allied armies in the fall of 1944. Len was 20 years old and didn’t yet have a driver’s license. 

    On New Year’s Day in 1945, the Luftwaffe made its last strategic push of the war with an attack on Eindhoven Holland. (Many will recognize this event as it was chronicled in the book and movie “A Bridge Too Far”) Len’s squadron was engaged in an epic aerial battle and during a ferocious encounter with an enemy Folkwolf 190 his aircraft was badly damaged.  He credited his survival to his Number 2 – wing mate American-born Tex Perie, who shot the FW190 off his tail and proceeded to destroy 2 additional aircraft.  Over the course of two sorties that day, 442 Squadron would destroy 6 enemy aircraft at a tragic cost of 3 pilots lost.

    The flying and fighting continued through early 1945 with the focus of the squadron’s activities now on support of allied troops.  Enemy truck convoys and railroad transportation became their primary targets as the threat from the Luftwaffe diminished. By March 20, 1945 Len had accumulated approximately 152 hours operational combat time flying Spitfires. 

    In April of 1945, Len’s squadron was returned to the UK and posted to RAF Station Hunsdon in Hertfordshire for conversion to the P51 Mustang MK IV.  Their new role was to provide long range escort duties to the Allied Air Force daylight bombing of Germany.  On April 16, while escorting Lancaster and Mosquito bombers targeting Swinemunde, Poland, (V2 Rocket launch site), the squadron swept further south meeting Russian aircraft for the first time east of Berlin.  On the return trip, the squadron encountered 15 FW190’s of which one was shot down by Len and his wing mate, Rocky Robillard.  Escort missions to Munich, Regensburg, Bremen and Flensburg followed as the war ground to an exhausted finish on May 8, 1945.  

    In somewhat of a postscript to combat operations, Len’s squadron was called upon to convince the German Commander to surrender the occupied Channel Islands on May 9, 1945 – the day after the war ended and the last operational combat mission of the war flown by any allied pilots.  This was commemorated in a stunning painting by Rich Thistle, a well-known aviation artist, Stratford native and friend of Len.  The painting, Beacons of Liberty, was presented to the Royal Court House in Jersey in May 1995 to mark the 50th Anniversary of Victory in Europe and the liberation of the Channel Islands.  The story of this event may be found in a YouTube video here:  https://youtu.be/qnI5h2Nf_do (with permission Rich Thistle)

    By the end of combat operations, Len had amassed a total of 183 hours time in Spitfires and Mustangs.  At this point, he had totaled approximately 560 hours of flying time both dual and solo.

    High Flight

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

    of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things

    You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung

    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

    My eager craft through footless halls of air ….

    Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

    Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—

    And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

    Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
    No 412 squadron, RAF

    Bibliography