Honouring veterans on Remembrance Day has come full circle for nonagenarian Tom Burdge.
The Victoria veteran of the Second World War recalls his childhood listening to the Nov. 11 service from Albert Hall on his uncle’s radio.
He would also watch the “Sally Ann band” march up the street followed by First World War veterans.
“I knew a lot of them,” he said. Burdge, who was born in Alberta, grew up on a farm in Somerset, England, and many a veteran was hired for hay-making season.
He last laid a wreath in 2018, alongside his son Mike Burdge and stepson Juan Trescher, both veterans. For 2020, as COVID-19 pandemic precautions created restrictions, he watched the service from the comfort of home with his wife Kathy Campbell. This year, as with many things, remains in the air right up to the day.
Burdge, 98, enlisted with the Royal Air Force in July 1940 when he was 17. However, he was apprenticing as an engineer and electrician at the time and deemed an essential service. In 1942 he finally got into uniform and headed for training in London.
It was training he nearly had to do twice, he recalled with a chuckle.
An avid rugby player at the time, he played about 26 matches a month until a player he described as 200-plus pounds and well over six feet tall landed on him. A broken leg laid him up for nine or 10 days in hospital, but that didn’t stop young Burdge from hobbling into town to complete his exams. Otherwise, he’d be set back three months.
Burdge took the bus, in uniform, from sick quarters to the town hall, and one day an older woman offered her seat, lamenting how young he was to be wounded. A lifetime later, he still feels slightly bad he didn’t explain.
Upon healing, Burdge started flight training. He was sent to Canada in 1943, training in Calgary not far from where he was born and where family still lived. That December he got his wings and headed off to Summerside, P.E.I. for a navigational course. Pilots were dually trained if they would be doing long coastal flights. He trained for twin-engine craft then was assigned to fly “the finest plane they ever built” – the de Havilland Mosquito.
April 1944 saw him sent back to England and he wound up assigned to the 248 squadron of the Banff Strike Wing that flew long coastal flights between Scotland and the Norwegian coast, attacking enemy ships.
The bulk of the flying was done at an altitude lower than 50 feet above the water, to avoid radar detection.
It was quite a rush for a young man, he recalled.
“At that height above the water you’ve got a really good impression of speed,” he said with a chuckle.
Burdge left the air force in 1946 just as the conversion to jets was beginning.
He figures his most dangerous flight came after the Second World War ended.
To celebrate victory, in London on June 8, 1946, 25,000 troops from allied nations were set to march the street while 2,000 planes flew a loop from the north and one loop from the south to the mouth of the Thames, over the marble arch and the Mall toward Buckingham Palace where they would disperse.
Unfortunately, the weather that morning was atrocious and the crew was recalled. They went back and refuelled – both man and machine – before being sent back up.
As they approached the route his radio telephone stopped working, cutting some communications. With cloud cover remaining an issue, the squadron in formation dropped to about 1,200 feet, flying down the Mall to the running BBC commentary over the wireless telegraph.
“Just after we reached the dispersal point, and with the cloud base now at 1,000 feet and with broken cloud drifting below that, the CO (commanding officer) started to turn to port and put his wheels down, so I slid over to echelon starboard, and also lowered my undercarriage, all the while trying to keep No. 2 in sight,” Burdge writes in a story penned to share with family.
“We were continually flying through the broken cloud, and I was not too happy as we had now descended to below 1,000 feet. Then I saw No. 2 pull up his wheels and I could see that the CO’s wheels were also up.
“We were not able to raise any other squadron member on the w/t, so I had no idea of what the orders may have been given, but I suspected that the CO, whose aircraft was equipped with a (radar) set, had decided to make a landing at some airfield, other than base. I was not happy flying in and out of the cloud with so many other aircraft in the vicinity, so I decided to get out of the way, and then climb up through it and try to get back to base. I started a turn to starboard, before climbing, when all at once I was facing another squadron of Mosquitoes who were coming towards me and banked to port at exactly the same angle as I was banked to starboard. It was all over in a flash!”
He can still see and hear the planes as he flew through at a speed of 225 knots.
“Had we been five feet higher or lower, we would have collided with at least one other aircraft,” he recalled.
Burdge still keeps in touch with his navigator, Sid, who continues to live in England. The camaraderie built during wartime continues as a theme in his life today. He’s a Monterey Recreation Centre member who also heads to Broadmead Care for day programs a couple days a week.
A highlight though, are in-person luncheons with the gang at the Victoria Aircrew Association – the group last met in January 2020.
Burdge, who turns 99 on Christmas Day, hopes they’ll be able to gather in person again soon. In the meantime, he plans to write down more of his life stories.