So much owed to so few: Albertans in the Battle of Britain

Written by: Ron Kelland, MA, MLIS

On August 20, 1940, Sir Winston Churchill, recently named Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, gave a speech to the House of Commons and uttered one of his most well-known statements: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Churchill was referring to the efforts of air personnel fighting in the air war over the United Kingdom, an air war now known as the Battle of Britain. This week will see ceremonies and events in Canada and throughout the Commonwealth marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. 

In 1940, Germany began an air offensive on British cities and military installations, attempting to force the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the skies and soften Britain’s defences enough to allow for an invasion. As the Battle of Britain occurred early in the Second World War, the majority of Allied air personnel that took part were British. However, pilots and other aircrew from many Allied nations took part, including a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadron.

Some members of the RCAF also served with the RAF, with a number of Canadians enlisting directly with the RAF in the years preceding the war. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, but sources suggest that up to 112 Canadians and one Newfoundlander saw action in the skies over the British Isles during the months-long air battle. Many of those men lost their lives either during the Battle of Britain or in other engagements in the weeks, months and years that followed.

Following the end of the Second World War, there was an effort to commemorate the military personnel that made the ultimate sacrifice. This commemoration took many forms, one of which was to name geographical features and places for war casualties. In Alberta, three geographical features and a railway point were named for pilots that lost their lives in the air force operations around the time of the Battle of Britain.

The Airmen

Squadron Leader Lionel Manley Gaunce, DFC – Mount Gaunce

Lionel Gaunce was one of Canada’s flying aces of the Second World War, being credited with 5 ½ confirmed enemy aircraft shot down (a ½ credit is an enemy aircraft shot down by two pilots) with an additional four unconfirmed. Gaunce was born in Lethbridge in September 1915. In the mid-1930s, he made his way to England where he trained as a pilot in Coventry before joining the RAF in 1936.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Gaunce was attached to the 615 Squadron and was posted to France. He was withdrawn to Kenley, England in May 1940. Over July and August 1940 he shot down three Luftwaffe fighters and damaged two others, with an unconfirmed fourth shot down as well. He was himself shot down on August 18, suffering some burns. A few days later, on August 23, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his skill and bravery in July and August 1940. The text of his DFC citation reads:

This flight commander has displayed excellent coolness and leadership since the return of the squadron to England. In July his flight took part in resisting an enemy air attack on Dover when three of our aircraft were attacked by forty Junkers 87s. At least two of the enemy were shot down. Flight Lieutenant Gaunce has shot down three enemy aircraft since returning to England.

After recuperating, Gaunce returned to service and shot down another fighter before the end of the month before being shot down again, this time over the English Channel. In October 1940, he was promoted to Squadron Leader and given command of 46 Squadron, stationed at RAF Station Stapleford-Towney. With that squadron, he was confirmed to have shot down an Italian fighter, with two other probables, all in a single engagement on November 11. After a lengthy period in hospital being treated for ulcers, he returned to his squadron in 1941 and, in August and September of that year he received credit for damaging four Me109s, with another probably shot down.

On November 19, 1941, he led his squadron on a raid over St. Lo, France, during which his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire off the coast of Normandy. His Spitfire was last seen, stalled and plunging nose first into the English Channel east of Janville. His body was never recovered. Squadron Leader Lionel Gaunce is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial, which is dedicated to 20,456 air force casualties who have no known grave.

Lionel Gaunce at Buckingham Palace to receive his Distinguished Flying Cross medal, 23 August 1940. Source: Canadian Virtual War Memorial (Ottawa: Veterans Affairs)

Pilot Officer Reginald Torrance Gerry – Gerry Lake

Reginald Torrance Gerry was born in Lethbridge, although his birthplace is often stated as being Lacombe, where his parents were living by the Second World War.

Reginald Gerry served with 115 Squadron of the RAF, a bomber squadron flying long-range Vickers Wellington bombers. On August 2, 1940, aircraft from 115 Squadron left RAF Station Marham on a bombing mission against the oil refineries at Hamburg. Amongst these aircraft was R3202 with Pilot Officer Reginald Gerry, the only Canadian member of the crew, at the flight controls. On the return flight, the aircraft reported engine problems over the North Sea. Just after 2 a.m., radio contact with the aircraft was lost. A search was mounted, but no sign of the aircraft or crew was found. Nearly three weeks later, the bodies of the crew began to be recovered. Pilot Officer Gerry’s body washed onto to beach of Rottumeroog, an uninhabited island off the northern coast of the Netherlands. The bodies of Pilot Officer Ronald William Pryor, Pilot Officer John Scott Wilde and Sergeant James Dempsey were also recovered at different points along the Dutch coast in mid-August. Dempsey’s body was found with two unidentified bodies that may have been Flight-Sergeant Richard Ruffell-Hazell and Sergeant Jack Croft. The condition of most of the bodies suggested a controlled water landing and death due to dehydration and exposure, rather than impact or drowning, suggesting that Gerry performed a water landing, leaving the aircraft intact and afloat long enough for most of the crew to launch a life raft, only to die days or weeks later at sea.

Pilot Officer Gerry was buried at Rottumeroog. His body was later exhumed and reinterred in the British military section of the Oldebroek General Cemetery in the Gelderland region of the Netherlands. The 23-year-old Alberta flier was among 47 Canadians who died in the Battle of Britain honoured by King George VI in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey in July 1947.

Undated and uncredited photo used on a commemorative interpretive marker about the loss of Wellington R3202. The marker identifies Pilot Officers R. T. Gerry (right) and Ronald William Pryor (left), presumably at the controls of their Wellington bomber. Source: 365 Project.

Flying Officer Stanley Powell Swensen – Mount Swensen

Biographical information about Stanley Swensen has been harder to come by. Various reports suggest he was from either Brooks, Calgary or Duchess. His name is often misspelled “Swenson.” He also flew light bombers with 98 Squadron RAF in France before transferring to 51 Squadron, flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bombers.

On August 14, 1940, bomber P4982, with Flying Officer Stanley Swensen at the controls, took off from RAF Station Dishforth on a bombing raid of the oil depot at Beg D’Ambes, France (near Bordeaux). On the return flight, early in the morning of August 15, the aircraft struck a barrage balloon cable near Langley, Buckinghamshire and crashed, killing the entire aircrew of five. Stanley Swensen’s death came just two weeks after the birth of his son, whom he never met. Flying Officer Stanley Swensen is buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, United Kingdom; his headstone bears the epitaph, “In Loving Memory of a Dear Husband and Daddy.”

Pilot Office Roy Allen Gayford – Gayford (locality)

Roy Gayford was born in Bassano. He flew with 115 Squadron of the RAF, the same squadron as Reginald Torrance Gerry. Gayford had enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1937. Newspaper reports of his death related that Gayford had his first experience with flying when a friend training at the Calgary Aero Club took him on a short flight. Gayford almost immediately travelled to Britain to enlist in the RAF. On December 24, 1939, he was injured after parachuting from a damaged bomber. The pilot, uncertain if he could safely land the plane due to the inoperative landing gears, ordered Gayford and three others of the crew to bail out of a damaged aircraft. Gayford broke his ankle landing the jump. He returned to service in March 1940 as the pilot of his own bomber.

At 11:15 p.m. on April 7, Pilot Officer Gayford’s Wellington bomber N2949 left RAF Station Lossiemouth on a Coastal Command mission to monitor enemy shipping off the Jutland peninsula. Neat the fortified German island of Sylt, Gayford’s aircraft, along with one other from the squadron, became separated from the main group and was never seen again (he was presumably shot down by German fighters). The aircraft was never found and no bodies were recovered. Pilot Officer Gayford is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

Roy Allen Gayford during training, ca. 1937, Bristol Flying School (possibly Yarnsmouth, UK). Source: Glenbow Archives.
Roy Allen Gayford, formal portrait, Royal Air Force. Source: Glenbow Archives.

The Commemoration

In the years following the end of the war, the Geographic Board of Alberta began to commemorate the war heroes of the First and Second World Wars through the naming of geographical features. In that year, eight lakes in northern Alberta were named for decorated air force pilots killed in the Second World War. In December 1947, the Geographic Board of Alberta wrote to the War Office in London seeking information about Canadians who received decorations and were killed in action while serving in the British Army, RAF and Royal Navy.

Geographic Board of Alberta Chair Morden H. Long, a University of Alberta history professor, wrote newspaper articles and gave radio speeches asking listeners to submit names of Albertans that would qualify for the place naming initiative. During the meeting of the Geographic Board of Canada the following February, it was revealed that Alberta was the only province to consider naming features for Canadians that had served in British armed forces. Others were focusing only on those that had served in Canada’s armed forces.

In January 1948 Edna Swensen, widow of Flying Officer Stanley Swenson, wrote to the Geographic Board of Alberta to add her late husband’s name to the list. In February, Mrs. E. H. Gaunce wrote to have her son Lionel included. In April, the Air Ministry, Government of the United Kingdom, provided details about Squadron Leader Lionel Gaunce, his career, death and DFC citation.

Letter about Squadron Leader Lionel Gaunce, R.W. Maddock, Air Ministry, Government of the United Kingdom to Edith Gostick. Source: Geographic Board of Alberta, 9 April 1948.

In January 1949, the Geographic Board of Alberta moved to submit to the recently renamed Canadian Board on Geographical Names, seven new names commemorating decorated military casualties for features on the Moberly sheet (NTS Map Sheet 83 E/09). Mount Gaunce and Mount Swenson were amongst these seven names.

The Canadian Board on Geographical Names responded, accepting some of the names, but raising concerns with others, including some names that had apparently been previously proposed by Alberta. Federal naming authorities noted that the names were not on lists of decorated war casualties previously agreed to. The Geographic Board of Alberta responded that one of the names—Mount Gaunce—should be adopted because Lionel Gaunce had received military decorations prior to his death. The board also argued that exceptions should be made for two other names—Mount Swenson and Gerry Lake—as even though those men had not received decorations, they were killed in the Battle of Britain. The Canadian Board on Geographical Names relented and all three names received recognition as official names for those geographical features.

  • Mount Gaunce was adopted on March 3, 1949
  • Mount Swensen was adopted in March 1949, but with the incorrect spelling of Swenson. The spelling was corrected to Mount Swensen on February 3, 1950
  • Gerry Lake was adopted on April 7, 1949

The commemoration of Roy Allen Gayford is a slightly different story. In March 1941, the Canadian Pacific Railway announced that it was renaming its station known as Swastika, Alberta due to the use of the swastika symbol by the Nazis. The railway point of Swastika had been established in 1911 on the CPR line between Bassano and Irricana. The CPR announced that the name was being changed to Gayford in commemoration of Pilot Officer Roy Gayford. The change of the station name came into effect April 27, 1941, although the name change was not recognized by the Canadian Board on Geographical Names until January 20, 1955.  Today, little remains of Gayford aside from the name. The rail line was decommissioned in 1976 and the tracks have since been removed.

Mount Gaunce is located in the Wilmore Wilderness Park, approximately 50 kilometres northwest of Hinton, 65 kilometres southeast of Grand Cache and 10 kilometres northeast of Mount Swensen:

  • NTS Map Sheet: 82 P/03 – Moberly Creek
  • ATS: LSD 8-12-53-3-W6
  • Lat/Long: 53°34’42”N & 118°17’57”W

Mount Swensen is located in the Wilmore Wilderness Park, approximately 60 kilometres west-northwest of Hinton, 60 kilometres southeast of Grand Cache and 10 kilometres southwest of Mount Gaunce:

  • NTS Map Sheet: 83 E/09 – Moberly Creek
  • ATS: LSD 14-6-53-3-W6
  • Lat/Long: 53°33’10”N & 118°25’58”W

Gerry Lake is located in Clear Hills County, approximately 20 kilometres east-northeast of the hamlet of Hines Creek and 25 kilometres north of Fairview:

  • NTS Map Sheet: 84 D/08 – Deer Hill
  • ATS: LSD 7-20-84-2-W6
  • Lat/Long: 56°17’50”N & 118°16’17”W

Gayford is located in Wheatland County, approximately 20 kilometres north of Strathmore and 34 kilometres northeast of Chestermere:

  • NTS Map Sheet: 82 P/03 – Strathmore
  • ATS: LSD 1-28-26-25-W4
  • Lat/Long: 51°14’37”N & 113°25’39”W

Sources:

356 Project . “The Crew of Wellington bomber R3202.”. https://365project.org/ivan/365/2017-11-12

Alberta Geographical Names Database. Culture. Multiculturalism and Status of Women

Aviation Safety Network. Flight Safety Foundation “ASN Wikibase.” https://aviation-safety.net/

Battle of Britain Archive, “The Airmen: The Battle of Britain London Monument.” https://bbm.org.uk/the-airmen/

Geographical Board of Alberta. “Meeting Minutes, March 21, 1946 to November 19, 1949” [documents], held by the Alberta Geographical Names Program. Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women

International Bomber Command Centre. “Losses Database.” https://losses.internationalbcc.co.uk/loss/210225

Lost Over Holland . “Wellington R3202 – 3 August 1940.”. https://www.lostoverholland.nl/wellington-r3202-3-august-1940/

Low, Al. “The Airmen’s Stories – F/Lt L M Gaunce,” Central Alberta Historical Society Newsletter. (Winter 2010). http://centralalbertahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/WINTER-2010.pdf

March, William. “Battle of Britain.” The Canadian Encyclopedia [online]. https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/battle-britain

Royal Air Force Commands. “Databases.” http://www.rafcommands.com/database/

Traces of War. https://www.tracesofwar.com/default.asp

Veterans Affairs Canada. “The Battle of Britain.” https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/canada-and-the-second-world-war/batbri

Veterans Affairs Canada. “Canadian Virtual War Memorial.” https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial 

2 thoughts on “So much owed to so few: Albertans in the Battle of Britain

  • “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few!”

    Not “the history”

    IC

    Sent from Ian’s iPhone

    >

    • Ian, It is my understanding that on August 16, Churchill visited an RAF operations centre. During that visit he said “Never in the history of human conflict…” However, on August 20, when he arose in the House of Commons he restated the line, but substituted “field of human conflict” for “history of human conflict.” So, you are correct. The information has been corrected above. Always a pleasure Ian, Thank you! RK

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