June is here and a teenage boy’s fancy turns to beaches, cottages and girls. Imagine it’s 1941 and a brutal war rages in Europe. The Malvern principal gives you the option to sign up for active service and graduate early without writing your final exams. Andrew Carswell was turning 18 and chose to enlist.
In his gripping new book, Over the Wire, A Canadian Pilot’s Memoir of War and Survival as a POW (Published by John Wiley & Sons, Canada, June 2011), Carswell writes,
“I had recently seen James Cagney in Captains of the Clouds, a Hollywood movie about a hotshot Yankee bush pilot who joins the RCAF and proceeds to win the war almost single-handedly, so I decided that I would be a pilot.”
After little more than a year of training, the 19-year-old from the Beach was a ‘captain of the clouds’ – a squadron captain at the controls of a seven-man Lancaster bomber attacking German war industries. On only his fourth mission, the night of Jan. 17, 1943, their plane was shot down in flames near Berlin. Carswell and four of his crew managed to bail out into the deadly cold darkness of enemy territory.
Over the Wire tells the harrowing tale of Carswell’s capture, his time in POW camps, his two ingenious escapes and a nightmarish ‘Death March’ across Germany before he was finally liberated by British soldiers in April 1945. Unlike Stalag Luft 111, site of The Wooden Horse tunnel (Oct. 1943) and The Great Escape of March 1944, Stalag Luft VIIIB offered little opportunity for tunnelling, but lessons learned in the Beach would come in handy for a Malvern boy.
The Carswells were one of the first Beach residents in the late 1800s.
Andrew’s father married the girl next door on Balsam Avenue (99 and 103 – there is no 101). Andy lived on Neville Park Boulevard, Beech Avenue and Spruce Hill Road, attending Balmy Beach P.S. and Malvern C.I. as well as St. Aidan’s Church. Growing up in the Beach helped a tree-climbing, outdoors-loving kid survive the war.
Carswell opens his memoir with a vivid description of his parachute floating down and landing in a tree on a bitterly cold night. His boyhood jogging on the boardwalk (“trained in running by the school bully”) gave him the stamina to endure harsh nights on the lam during two daring escape attempts. Carswell had learned more than physical skills; he knew the values of commitment, loyalty and sacrifice. It was his ‘duty’ to try to escape. He doesn’t see himself as a ‘hero’, just “a boy who got mixed up in a war.”
Hollywood came north to Canada for Captains of the Clouds, the first studio picture to be filmed primarily on location here. (See UTube RCAF clips from the 1941 movie). A scene at the Horse Palace shows the old CNE stadium and grounds. (This was No. 1 manning depot where Carswell first reported.) Air Marshall Billy Bishop, the flying ace who coined the phrase ‘captains of the clouds’, is shown conducting a real ‘wings’ ceremony at Uplands Air Base near Ottawa. Among the new RCAF pilots is John G. Magee, Jr. who later wrote a letter to his parents about the filming and included the poem High Flight which begins…
“I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”
Magee was killed in a mid-air Spitfire collision over England in December 1941. He was only 19. These flyers were so young, too young to legally drink beer. The average age of bomber crews was 21 or 22. Over 125,000 air crew served in RAF Bomber Command, 55,000 were killed and 18,000 were either wounded or taken prisoner. Over 10,000 Canadian airmen were lost in the bomber offensive against Germany. Fifty POW airmen from ‘The Great Escape’ were murdered by the Gestapo. Andrew Carswell beat the terrible odds and survived to tell an enthralling story of courage amidst death and deprivation.
We should always remember the sacrifices made during the war. Over the Wire is a welcome addition to any library and a darn good read. Despite the hardships, Carswell doesn’t lose his sense of humour. On arriving at the POW camp, he heard a shout, “Hey, Andy! What are you doing here? Jack Lyall! Malvern!” The second guy he met was his next door neighbour from the Beach, “George Bariess or ‘Barrel Ass’ as I used to call him.” In a movie no one would believe such coincidences!