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Tony Cashman: Life as a Halifax Navigator

Author and journalist Tony Cashman is famous for his lifelong contribution to the history of Edmonton, Alberta — but less known for the significant role he played in World War Two, completing a full tour of thirty operations as the navigator in a Halifax bomber.

I was delighted to receive a telephone call from noted historian, Tony Cashman of Edmonton, Alberta. The 93-year-old author of sixteen books and ten plays, and the recipient of many awards, Mr. Cashman wanted to tell me how much he enjoyed my wartime novel.

(My wartime novel Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction, the story of a Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force and serves in England as a photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.)

He doesn’t use the computer, so I asked him how he found my number. “I did it the old-fashioned way,” he said dryly. “I called directory assistance.”

Since I was planning to visit Edmonton, Tony invited me to lunch at his neighbourhood club, The Derrick Club.

Over a long lunch, he checked me up on a few errors I had made in my novel, in spite of all my research and fact-checking.

For example, the boys in my novel called their bombing runs “missions.” According to Tony: “The term mission was an American term, but we thought it was pretentious. We called it either a trip or an op (short for operation).”

And when one of my characters is almost struck by a flying bomb, she yells: “It’s a bomb! Run!” Nobody ran from a flying bomb, said Tony, because nobody knew where it would land when the engine cut out. Instead, my heroine would have yelled: “It’s a bomb! Get down!”

There were several other points that only someone who was there would know. However, Tony’s endorsement of the novel was high praise indeed coming from such a recognized author.

And I seized the opportunity to interview Tony about his own wartime experiences. (You will notice that I was merely the note-taker, as Tony himself is a master story-teller and my own writing skills were superfluous).


The Early Years

Anthony Cashman was born in Edmonton on April 29, 1923. His father was a veteran of World War One and a mining engineer involved in installing electric tramways in mines. The family lived in various towns in the United States from 1927 to 1934, to be closer to their father’s work. Here’s Tony, at the age of six years.

Tragically, when Tony was 11 years old, his father died of dengue fever while on a trip to the Philippines. His mother moved Tony and his two younger brothers back to Edmonton.

Tony was only sixteen when the war began, and he was afraid it would end before he was old enough to participate. When he was nineteen, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. “My plan was to become a Spitfire pilot, like everyone else.”

He was sent to Initial Training School in Saskatoon, then Elementary Flight Training School in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. “That lasted long enough for the instructors to decide I should try something else, so I went to No. 2 Air Observer School in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, to train as a navigator.

Here’s a photo of Tony in uniform, on his embarkation leave in Edmonton in December 1943, before heading overseas. “I look happy because I was being paid $187.10 a month, and I had never seen so much money in my life!”


Tony Heads Overseas

Tony sailed from Halifax in February 1944, on a converted cruise ship called the Andes. “There were 3,500 of us on a ship designed for 900. They could produce only two meals a day. After 10 days on the Atlantic, when it was at its least appealing, we arrived at Bournemouth in the south of England. Spring was busting out all over. I never had such a case of spring fever. It was marvelous after the dark, hungry days at sea.”

From there Tony went to Wigtown, Scotland by train to begin advanced flying. “That was to see whether people who could navigate in Canada, where the terrain is laid out in squares, and where lines run north-south or east-west, and the town lights are on, could adapt to navigating in the blackout, using only radio signals and the occasional star.” Three of the twenty guys in his course couldn’t adapt, and were sent back to Canada.

The next step was operational training at Lossiemouth, Scotland. “At this point we had been training as individuals, and now we began working together as a crew. Sixty of us arrived, enough for ten crews: 10 pilots, 10 navigators, 10 bomb aimers, 10 radio operators and twenty gunners.

“It was all very informal. The chief of flying operations told us: ‘Sort yourselves out into crews and be ready to fly on Friday!’

“The Brits realized that that people who were compatible seemed to find each other in a crowd. They had been at this a long time, and knew what worked. We were typical aircrew, average age 23. Our crew would be together for 11 months. Four of us were essentially straight out of high school.

Our crew was composed of pilot Frank Plumb from Toronto; Wireless Operator Ernie Morris from Peterborough, Ontario; Tail Gunner Bill Warner from Osnabruck Centre, Ontario; myself from Edmonton; and two old-timers: Mid-Upper Gunner Glen McMillan, a CNR brakeman from Sioux Lookout, Ontario; and Bomb Aimer Larry Edge, a rancher from Cochrane, Alberta. Later we would add Royal Air Force Engineer Harry Braithwaite from the Lake Country of northwest England.

“We would be together until the end of the war in Europe – through the worst of times, and yet the best of times.”

The crew began their training on twin-engine Wellingtons, which had been the RAF’s front line bomber at the start of the war, and then moved to Riccall in Yorkshire to train on the four-engine Handley Page Halifax.

Sixty percent of Canadian aircrew who went overseas were assigned to RAF squadrons, from the United Kingdom to the Middle East, to India and to Burma. Tony’s crew was assigned to 78 Squadron at RAF Breighton, twelve miles southeast of York.

The other forty percent of Canadians flew with Canadian commands – fighter, coastal, transport, and the well-known 6 Group of seven RCAF bomber stations based in Yorkshire.

Here’s an old newspaper photo from The Northern Echo in Yorkshire, showing the Halifaxes at the station. Tony sometimes flew in the one in the background, with the letters EY-X.

Here’s a photo of his briefing room, where the men learned about their target. “The wooden chairs were arranged in groups of seven so each crew could sit together. The wooden chairs creaked, and there was a lot of shuffling, so the whole room sounded like a wooden sailing ship in a storm. And almost everyone was smoking, so the air was blue.”


Tony’s First Mission

I asked Tony about his first trip, and because he has such an excellent memory, he remembered it in detail.

“On the damp morning of November 30, 1944 we heard we were on ops. Our target was Deuseberg. There was no fear, just intense curiosity. We would get the answer to the question we had been thinking about. All through training, we were all wondering what it was like to get shot at.

“Winston Churchill said that after a cavalry charge, it is exhilarating to be shot at without result. He was certainly right on the first trip, but it became less exhilarating on each trip.

“My first encounter with acute fear happened on my approach to Deuseberg. On newsreels the flak appeared as soft white puffs, but it didn’t look very important. In reality you can see red needles flying out of the flak, shards of red hot metal!

“On each trip there were always some moments of acute fear, which built up into residual fear. Every trip there were 30 seconds of acute fear while we flew straight and level across the target, and the camera clicked over seven times. If we had had pulse meters attached to our wrists, I’m sure the speeds would have been startling!”

After each raid, the crews were debriefed by an Intelligence Officer. Here’s a photo of Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer Pam Finch talking to one of the crews. “Pam was an older woman of twenty-six,” Tony recalled. “We became friends, and after the war my late wife Veva and I used to visit Pam on our trips to London.”

This photo, and the one of the Halifaxes and the debriefing room, were taken by a photographer from The Northern Echo newspaper in Yorkshire.

Between raids, Tony spent some time cycling around the countryside on this odd contraption. “I bought the bicycle in Scotland for one pound. A blacksmith made it from assorted scraps and painted it green, so I called it The Green Hornet. It was often borrowed by other people, and if they were riding home late at night they sometimes didn’t make the turn and ended up in this pond, which we called ‘Dogpatch.’”


Two Memorable Incidents

Tony also recalled two other memorable raids:

“On December 26, 1944, in support of the Americans, we were caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. St. Evith in Belgium was a marshaling yard used by the Germans. The American bombers in East Anglia were socked in. It was overcast in Yorkshire as well, made worse by the coal fires burning in the buildings. You could see pillars of black smoke rising and being absorbed into the clouds. It was like taking off at night. Only ten of us got off before the murk enclosed our airport. We bombed the rail yards, but then we had to land in Scotland and we were stuck there for two days.”

“On January 2, 1945, we went on a raid to Ludwigshaven. The bombing height was 18,000 feet. We started to climb but couldn’t get above 11,000 feet because of the electrical system. So we flew three miles to the left and below the main bomber stream.

“Suddenly there was a huge blue flash that rose as high as 15,000 feet in the dark. A chemical plant had exploded! We had a side view, but the people above couldn’t see it, so we had a private viewing of this phenomenon.”

And Tony remembered that he once broke the rules without consequence. “My brother John was in the Canadian Army when he came to visit us. Our seven-man crew was scheduled for a radar training exercise. Our mid-upper gunner was sick, so we fitted John out in our pilot’s spare uniform. For each trip we had to sign for our parachutes, so John signed the mid-upper gunner’s name and we took him on a ride over the North Sea! Looking back from the perspective of 2016, John and I agreed this was not the smartest idea of all times!”


A Narrow Escape!

Like all bombing crews, Tony had his share of “near things,” as close calls were termed in the RAF.

“We had a ‘near thing’ taking off on one trip. The takeoff is always dramatic, because 26 aircraft with call letters from A to Z would have to get off in 15 minutes, so it was very crowded. The planes had to keep fairly close.

“In the control tower, we had a great controller named Nobby Clark. He had a voice like a BBC announcer. (By the way, all Clarks were called Nobby. All Wilsons were called Tug, and all Sloans were called Tod.) Nobby was nearsighted but he could visualize where all twenty-six planes were at any given time.

“During this takeoff period, with 104 Hercules engines roaring, there was a tremendous noise. Each aircraft would crawl up to the end of the runway. In quick order, our Q-Queen was third in line, then second, then first, and then we were turning onto the runway, waiting for the smooth voice in the tower to say: ‘Q-Queen cleared for takeoff.’

“The front of the aircraft rested on the big wheels with the nose pointed upwards, and the tail wheel was small. The aircraft would make a slithering motion like a dog sliding around on ice on his hind legs, until it straightened out and began to move forward.

“We were rolling, hauled forward by four engines spinning the propellers at 2,400 revolutions per minute, aware that our “kite” was carrying four tons of TNT, plus incendiary bombs, plus 2,000 gallons of volatile aviation fuel, some of it carried in tanks on the wings. The pilot controlled the direction, and the bomb aimer sitting in the co-pilot’s seat controlled the four throttles.

“I was sitting half-way back, looking through the window on the left side. We were accelerating smoothly, when I saw that we were in trouble. We were away from the runway and onto the grass field. An engine on the left wing was running wild – up to 3,600 revolutions per minute, forcing us into a curving path to the right.

“Our pilot Frank Plumb, aged twenty-two, had seconds to make the decision which enabled us to live to ripe old ages. He recognized that it was too late to stop the takeoff. If he shut down the engines, three would respond – but the wild one would keep running, forcing the plane into a ground loop, a violent swing to the right. The strain would collapse the undercarriage. A wing would hit the ground. The tanks carrying aviation fuel in the wing would rupture, and the sparks would set off a spectacular fireball. Then our bombs would explode.

“Our only chance was to continue the takeoff. Through the intercom I heard Frank tell Larry Edge, who was controlling the throttles: “Leave ‘em open!”

“The critical seconds of the episode seemed to move in slow motion. Others have described this sensation as well. You’re curious about what you’re seeing, but emotionally neutral. With detachment, I saw that we were on a path to hit the control tower. Then, we were missing it!”

Tony provided a sketch of the station, with the red line showing where his aircraft left the runway and headed towards the control tower.

 “I felt the plane lift, brushing a hedge below, then climbing – to a thousand feet, when the rogue engine settled down. Real time came rushing back, and we completed our assignment.

“When we got back to base, we heard the other side of the story. Nobby Clark stood his ground as we bore down onto the control tower, but the deputy dove down the stairs and cracked his wrist. When Frank and I came into the mess afterward, he didn’t seem glad to see us. He was sitting there with his arm in a sling, and gave us a very sour look.

“By the next day, of course, the whole episode was hilarious. That was the way of ‘near things!’”

Here’s a photo of Frank Plumb, taken on a street in York, the young pilot who saved all their lives.


The Dresden Firestorm

Tony noticed something unusual on the night of February 13, 1945, but didn’t realize the significance until later. This was the night of what he termed “the alleged firebombing” of Dresden. Following this bombing raid, a massive firestorm lasted several days and destroyed the city centre.

“Our target was thirty miles from Dresden, a synthetic oil plant at Bohlen, Germany. On our approach to Bohlen, I noted that the outside air temperature was minus one degree Celsius, rather than the normal temperature of minus twenty to minus thirty. Looking out the window, I noticed an unusually luminous sky and saw that the leading edges of the aircraft showed white with light rime ice. The outside air was warm and moist. We were flying through a temperature inversion, in which warm air slides over the cold air on the ground.

“After the war, when stories of the ‘firebombing of Dresden’ started to appear, I deduced that the firestorm was caused by the temperature inversion.

“There are two misconceptions about Dresden – that I had no military significance, and that it was attacked with firebombs. In fact, Dresden was the centre of the German optics industry and all firing mechanisms – land, sea, or air – depended on optics.

“There were no “firebombs” – only the usual mix of high-explosives and incendiaries which ignited on impact. The firestorm didn’t begin until forty-five minutes after the raid was over, forming miniature tornadoes. Heat normally dissipates upwards – the chimney effect – but I believe the heat was confined by the heavy, damp inversion.

“The next night our crew bombed Chemnitz, sixty miles away. The temperature at bombing height was normal, and there was no firestorm. It wasn’t until seven years later that I was reading about the firestorm over Dresden, and all became clear.”


Bomber Command Defended

To this day, Tony Cashman remains a staunch defender of Bomber Command. “I never had any personal difficulty with bombing. It’s a pity that German civilians were being killed, but the country itself seemed to have so little regard for human life that they were systematically killing their own citizens, as well as millions of civilians in neighbouring countries, including a fifteen-year-old Dutch girl named Anne Frank.

“The day that Holland surrendered, the Luftwaffe spent two hours bombing Rotterdam. The blitz of London went on for fifty-nine consecutive nights. Then there were the V weapons – the long-range flying bombs and rockets — aimed at London. An air raid would be over in fifteen minutes, but the V weapons came down 24 hours a day.”

Moreover, Tony said, the post-war criticism of the controversial head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, was unwarranted.

“We respected Arthur Harris, because he was a man who told it like it was. Earlier in the war, sixty-six planes were lost in a raid on Nuremburg. He didn’t hesitate to make the bad news public. You can always trust a man who doesn’t hide unpleasant truths.”

Tony had high praise for the RAF, which he said was better operated than either the RCAF or the American Air Force.

“The RAF knew how to use talented, eccentric and physically handicapped people who wouldn’t fit the mould in the RCAF. A classic example is the way the RCAF wasted the talent of Buzz Buerling, a self-taught genius on how to shoot down the enemy. He was flying with the RAF in Malta and shot down twenty-seven planes. When he transferred into the RCAF, he was rather difficult, so they had him escorting bombers. On the eve of D-Day, he was on his way back to Canada.”

And the Americans suffered many avoidable losses, he said. “They would take off and then stooge around over England, getting their formations together. The B-17s would be up at 30,000 feet and detected by the German radar, so the Germans always knew they were coming. We used to leave England at 2,000 feet and stay under the radar, hugging the curve of the earth.”


Tony’s Final Mission

Tony’s final raid on April 29, 1945, was on Heligoland, a small German island in the North Sea. The war was drawing to an end, but Allied Intelligence had heard that some of the top-ranked Nazis were going to try to escape to Argentina via submarine. Tony’s crew was ordered to bomb the submarine pens at Heligoland, one of 250 bombers that took part in the raid.

The submarine pens were built of reinforced concrete, so one minute after the first bomb fell the area was covered with smoke and dust from the pulverized concrete.

This aerial photo was taken from his bomber during the raid itself.

Tony has this one in a frame, beside a photo of the way Heligoland looks today. It’s now a resort area.

I knew the crews weren’t allowed to possess aerial photos, so I asked him how he came by it. “The darkroom technicians didn’t make much money,” he said enigmatically. Tony arrived home with about fifteen aerial photos as souvenirs.

Some years after the war, Tony also commissioned a painting of his own aircraft, EY-Q, and it hangs in his Edmonton home.

Tony said much has been written about bombing, and much of it is nonsense. The book he most respects is Bomber, by Len Deighton.

(To read about my favourite wartime novels, click here: Best Wartime Fiction.)

And what about movies? The famous Twelve O’Clock High with Gregory Peck is “pure garbage,” he said. “The old guy was brought in to straighten out the young guys. In reality, the young guys knew a lot more – they were the ones flying!”

The movie Memphis Belle, he said, was overly dramatic because “everything that ever happened to a bomber, happened to that single bomber in a single raid.”

The movie he admires most is the 1955 British movie The Dam Busters, with Richard Todd.

(To read about my top ten favourite wartime movies, click here: Ten Flyer Flicks.)


After the War

After his discharge, Tony attended Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, before returning to Edmonton and beginning his career as a respected journalist, author and radio broadcaster.

Tony credits his wife Veva (Genevieve Mary Costello), who died in 2005, for her assistance and advice. They were married on August 30, 1950 in St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Edmonton. Tony’s brother John was the best man, and Veva’s sister Margaret was the bridesmaid.

Tony and Veva raised three sons: Hal, Bernard, and Paul. Tony now lives with his son Hal. His youngest son Paul followed in his father’s footsteps and became an editor for the Edmonton Journal. Here’s a photo of Tony with his boys taken in 1956.

In that same year, Tony published his first history book called The Edmonton Story, based on his radio broadcasts. This photo appears on the book’s cover.

That was just the beginning of a long career. To date, Tony has published sixteen books of local history and ten plays. This photo was taken in 1981 during a stint at the Edmonton Journal daily newspaper. Tony still has his old typewriter.

In 2014, Tony received the Alberta Order of Excellence. It was the latest in a long line of awards including Edmontonian of the Century in 2004, the Historical Society of Alberta annual award in 2010, and having a new Edmonton neighbourhood named after him in 2011.

Here’s a photo of Tony and me, taken at The Derrick Club in Edmonton after a most delightful luncheon.

On April 29, 2016, Anthony Cashman celebrated his 93rd birthday.

Happy birthday, Tony, and thank you so much for your service to your country and your lifelong contribution to Canadian history!

* * * * *


Tony Cashman’s wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in print with the title My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. For more information, check out the book cover image at the bottom of this page.

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