WEST Vancouver's oldest living Spitfire pilot, Roman Roy "Wozzy" Wozniak, came closest to being shot down on June 2, 1942.
It was the second sweep of the day for 403 "Wolf" Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force following an uneventful early-morning diversionary sweep over northern France when German fighters attacked it. Wozniak's squadron was split into three sections of four planes- blue, red and yellow - each flying "finger four" formation.
The next harrowing moments are recorded tersely in his logbook:
"Flying Red 4 position when attacked by at least 45 Fokker Wolfe 190s and ME (Messerschmitt) 109s. Huns came from all directions trapping us inside of France. No escape. Sqdn. had to fight it out. I received cannon fire through fuselage, bullets in wings, engine and fuselage. Came home by myself and landed at home base." The entry notes the names of six pilots out of 12 who failed to return home as well as one who was rescued from the English Channel.
In fact, four of the six were captured by German troops after bailing out or crash-landing and spent the rest of the war as prisoners, a fact recorded in Peter Caygill's book Spitfire Mark V in Action. Even so, it was a low point for Wolf Squadron: six pilots and eight aircraft lost.
Wozniak's brief log entry "came home by myself and landed at home base" doesn't tell the whole story. The cannon shell that knocked his Spitfire Mark V into a spin left shrapnel in the armour plating of his seat and the heel of his shoe. When he came out of the spin, he had three German fighters on his tail. Twice, Wozniak broke sharply into the attacking fighters, the second time almost colliding with their leader, which was enough to make them break off the attack.
But his troubles weren't over. When he reached his Kenley (Surrey) base, the wheels on his plane wouldn't drop. When this happened, pilots were instructed to dive and pull up, using gravity to release the wheel assemblies. But that day, Wozniak tried rocking his aircraft with the rudder first, and that did the trick. It turned out to be a lucky decision: If he had tried the dive, he likely would never have pulled out of it. Shrapnel had sheared one of the two cables that ran from his joystick to the elevators on the Spitfire's tail wing, and the other was partially sheared and stretched.
Fortune then gave Wozniak a third pass that afternoon. Worried about the possibility of a stall because of the excess play in his controls, he flew straight in for a high-speed landing. But he came in too fast and realized he risked overshooting and hitting another plane at the end of the field. As he tried to add power to go around for a second landing attempt, his engine died. Wozniak didn't know it, but a bullet had taken out one of the engine's 12 cylinders.
Out of choices, he touched down with almost no room left to avoid a collision, but as his wheels hit the ground, his aircraft suddenly swung itself around and came to a quick stop as if controlled by an unseen hand. Another German bullet had passed through his wing and punctured his right tire, causing his plane to dig in and turn of its own accord.
As Caygill records Wozniak: "When I got out of the aircraft the medical officer asked me if I was OK. I said, 'Just a moment,' and looked up my pant legs to see if it was blood or sweat. Thank goodness it was sweat!"
Recounting the landing 70 years later, Wozniak shakes his head and says, "Lucky, lucky."
He pauses. "You had to be lucky. I lost a lot of friends."
. . .
Born June 29, 1919 in Saskatoon, Sask., Wozniak says his childhood was as normal as could be: two sisters, friends and lots of sports. His father was a maintenance worker for CN Rail. "We lived through the Depression years of course. The only trouble we got into was when we raided a neighbour's garden for carrots or something like that."
Wozniak planned a career in pharmacy that, at the time, required a three-year apprenticeship and two years of university.
He was in his second year of that apprenticeship with Ford's Drugstore in Saskatoon when war was declared in 1939. He had recently taken his first commercial flight from Saskatoon to Regina with Air Canada in a plane "that held about six people." The short trip had enthralled him, and he immediately volunteered as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force. "The fellow at the recruiting office said to me, 'We really want university grads for pilots. After all, we have the Maginot Line. I'll take your name, and we'll call you if we need you.
"After Hitler walked around the Maginot Line, I got a call-up."
However, the RCAF was ill prepared for training pilots, lacking both facilities and planes. Wozniak was eventually posted to RCAF Manning Pool in Toronto and then to guard duty at Hamilton airport. Elementary training finally began on March 29, 1941 at Fort William (Thunder Bay), where the instructors were mostly bush pilots and the planes mostly Tiger Moths.
After 64 hours of dual and solo flying there and 100 hours of service flying in Manitoba, he graduated Aug. 8 - one of a few with a commission - and was earmarked for posting as a flight instructor. However, a friend of his was about to get married and Wozniak asked that his friend get the Canadian posting and that he should go to England.
Wozniak was subsequently posted to #59 Operational Training Unit at Crosby-on-Eden, Cumberland, England, where he received six more weeks of training before being posted to RCAF 416 Squadron in Peterhead, Scotland in December.
"So I get to Peterhead, a new airport that has a couple of strips of asphalt and a muddy field that's a quagmire. I come in the adjutant's office and there's this beautiful blond WAAF officer behind the desk. I give her a snappy salute and report for 416 Squadron.
"She asks where I was supposed to report, and I say Peterhead. 'Well,' she says, 'this is Peterhead, but there's no 416 Squadron.'
"Anyway she gets the CO (commanding officer), and he says, 'I don't know anything about 416 Squadron.'
"Then a couple more walk in, so he says, 'Take their names and billet them.'
"I guess you could say it was early days."
The new 416 Squadron became the first line of defence against German bombers from Norway.
As for that blond WAAF officer: "I spoke with her a few more times. Little did she know she was stuck with me."
Margot Martin was the assistant station adjutant and in a few months she would accept Wozniak's proposal of marriage. Canadian Press, reporting on 416 Squadron, dryly noted: "P/O Roy Wozniak of Saskatoon is the first member of the squadron to go from solo to dual, having become engaged to Margot Martin, assistant station adjutant, on April 21. An engagement party was celebrated in the WAAF officers' mess, thoroughly enjoyed by all the 416 officers except P/O Wozniak."
Shortly after the party, Wozniak and two other pilots were transferred to 403 Squadron on May 1 to take the place of other pilots who had been shot down.
Asked what it was like forming friendships while facing the real possibility of being killed, Wozniak says, "In a way, you're good friends and everything, but you don't get too close - family-wise and so on."
Wozniak points to a photograph of himself sitting on the wing of his Spitfire with a small dog on his lap. An RCAF photographer whose job was to shoot "positive" propaganda photos posed it. Dogs as squadron mascots were popular.
This particular little spaniel cross was called Lucy and belonged to fellow pilot Billy Lane. Shortly after the picture was taken, the squadron was briefed for a sweep over France "and just as we were getting out to our aircraft, here comes this soldier walking across the field. It was Billy's brother. They embraced and Billy said, 'I'll be back in a couple of hours and we'll really whoop it up. Look after my dog.'
"The soldier takes the dog and says, 'Say goodbye to your master.'
"And Billy says, 'No, no, not "goodbye," "so long."'
"Wouldn't you know it, Billy was the only one who didn't come back. The CO had to tell the brother. The soldier took the dog and walked back across the field, and I never heard anything more about the dog."
Despite his instinct to remain self-contained, Wozniak would become close friends with another Prairie boy in 403 Squadron, Ed Gardiner, the son of Jimmy Gardiner, former premier of Saskatchewan and Minister of Agriculture in Mackenzie King's cabinet. They roomed together and Wozniak enjoyed being kept up to date on Canadian politics by Gardiner's letters from home.
Gardiner would also survive 403's ill-fated sortie over France on June 2, 1942, but was shot down during the infamous Dieppe Raid of Aug. 19 that same year. Flying two sorties that day to provide air cover for the boats of the landing force, 403 Squadron destroyed six German fighters and damaged three more. It was a better showing than many of the RAF Spitfire squadrons. According to the BBC documentary Dieppe, the RAF lost 106 aircraft that day while shooting down 48 Luftwaffe planes.
Wozniak is convinced that if the Allied planes had not been pawns on a map for Ground Control in England but in direct communication with the troops on the ground, the air support would have been far more effective and fewer Canadian soldiers would have been killed. He believes that was one of the lessons learned from Dieppe and used later by Allied forces in Sicily and at Normandy.
Gardiner was one of three pilot officers lost that day by 403 Squadron. His body and that of his wingman, Norm Moncher, were found by the French, hidden away from the Germans and subsequently buried in Dieppe's city cemetery.
After the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission took over the cemetery in St. Aubin where the Germans had buried the Allied dead. But Wozniak says the city declined to hand over the bodies of Gardiner and Moncher for reburial on the grounds the Canadian pilots were buried as "our heroes."
Instead, the city placed the same headstones used in the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery on the pilots' graves in the city cemetery.
Wozniak has been back to see the graves a couple of times since the end of the war - most recently as one of only a handful of surviving Canadian vets for the 70th anniversary of the raid this year.
"I get more sentimental about it now than I did at the time. Back then, that's just what was happening. They came and went, came and went. So and so didn't come back and someone else would come in and take his place."
By May 31, 1943 on the completion of his first tour, Wozniak's logbook records that he had flown a total of 604 hours and 45 minutes with the RCAF, of which 100 hours were operational sorties.
He was entitled to a Canadian posting but wanted to stay in England with his new wife. "I dug in my heels and said, 'No way. I'm not going. I've got a wife down south and a dog up north.
After a short honeymoon, Wozniak was posted to an operational training unit as an instructor. He was finally posted back to Canada in February 1944, pulling strings to try and get his wife and dog on the same ship to Halifax, N.S.
"They told me I could only take one back to Canada and I used to tell her that it took me a long time to make up my mind which one."
The trip back to Saskatoon with his new wife was diverted to Ottawa, where the couple was surprised with a limousine and a ride to the House of Commons where Wozniak was taken to dinner by Minister Jimmy Gardiner and introduced to Mackenzie King.
As they were being driven back to the airport, Margot asked him, "Who is this Mackenzie King?"
Wozniak finished the war supervising other instructors in Canada. He was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross), which he says were handed out more freely as the end of the war came in sight.
Was it worth it?
"I would say so," says Wozniak in almost a whisper. "I don't know if the young appreciate that war was for them. They don't realize the freedom they enjoy; they would not have had if things had toppled the other way.
"But we were young and at the time, of course, it was exciting. It's funny . . . you enjoy it."