Veteran Stories:
Russell M. McKay

Air Force

  • Operations Board in the control room at RAF Tholthorpe, England, June 5 and 6,1944.

    Royal Air Force
  • Photo of Dusseldorf, Germany taken through open bomb doors during a flying operation on April 23, 1944. Every target was photographed at the picture was developed immediately upon return. Crew captains were told the results of the bombing, and if the results were poor, it meant more practice on the bombing range.

    Royal Air Force/Royal Canadian Air Force
  • Russell McKay (back row, far left) with his air and groundcrews in front of a Halifax Mark III, in RAF Tholthorpe, Yorkshire, England in April, 1944. Says Mr. McKay, the Halifax Mark III was "our favourite aircraft, we flew more ops with it than any other. "

    Russell McKay
  • Russell McKay's crew, sitting on the Halifax Mark III - nicknamed "X-Terminator" - which they flew for most of their operations . From left to right: Jerry Pelletier (Air Gunner), Bill Lynn (Wireless Air Gunner), Doug Moe (Air Gunner), Roy Irvine (Bomb Aimer), Harry Anderson (Navigator), Russell McKay (Pilot), Barry Ashby, (Engineer).

    Painted on the side of the plane is Alley Oop, a popular comic book character from the 1930s and 40s.
    The X's on the side of the plane were crossed bones, each bone representing one operation. In 1944, when this photo was taken, The Terminator had completed 49 operations.

    Russell McKay
  • Message from the Supreme Command before D-Day, June 6, 1944.

    Russell McKay
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"So I was faced with the dilemma of, well, what was I going to do, was I going to bail out, be a prisoner of war, or was I going to try and land in the Channel, or what was I going to do?"


Eventually, they shipped about a dozen of us down to the east coast to join [No.] 119 BR [Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron, RCAF] at [RCAF Station] Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. We were sent down there and we were to train as air gunners with the squadron. My training was a bit different than everybody else’s. I trained right with the squadron and we went out on patrols out over the Atlantic on convoy patrol business.

One of the first things that did stand out, there was a very, very bad accident there shortly after I arrived. I was up flying in the morning in this aircraft. It was a [Bristol Fairchild] Bolingbroke [maritime patrol aircraft]. My feet were very, very cold; and I wanted to get a warmer pair of socks and new shoes, so I asked the pilot to let me off. He did, and another air gunner took my place. The aircraft took off and was doing circuits and bumps as we call them; and he had an engine quit on landing and the aircraft crashed in the woods. It went in and when the aircraft went in, it blew up. There were three onboard: two pilots, and the air gunner at the rear.

They were blown in bits and pieces; and we all rushed out there to the woods to see the aircraft, see what had happened and see if we could be any help, but goodness, they come out with body bags to pick up the crew. And there was a sergeant major there and he grabbed a helmet. It happened to be my helmet, and he took that helmet, it was just reeking of blood, and he threw it at me. He says, McKay, here’s your helmet. I was sick to my stomach and I returned to the base; and boy, from then on, any crashes or anything, I never went near them, I stayed away.

Another occurrence that I remember down there is we were out on a patrol and we got lost. We were out most of the afternoon, it would be, and we didn’t know where we were. We eventually found our way back to land near Halifax and we ended up making a forced landing and landing in the water in St. Margaret’s Bay [Nova Scotia]. And we were very, very lucky to get down at all.

A fellow by the name of McDonald and myself, we went out and we helped the pilot who was injured; we helped him back to the aircraft. The aircraft was still floating; we brought him back, got him onboard the aircraft and we sat there until the fishermen come out and picked us up, and rescued us. That got me a remuster to train as a pilot. I was a very meek and mild guy, and that gave me enough courage to go before our CO [commanding officer], who was a rather fierce lad at the time, a man by the name of McGregor, Shirts McGregor, you know, the famous shirts people? He was the commanding officer there and everybody stood in fear of him. But anyway, I went in before Shirts McGregor and told him that I didn’t enlist to ride in the backseat of any aircraft, that I wanted a remuster. And my goodness, the man, he seen that I got a remuster to come back and train as a pilot. And that was the greatest, one of the greatest days of my life.

I flew 38 operations [with No. 420 (Snowy Owl) Squadron, RCAF]. I think one flight that really stands out for me was Stuttgart [Germany]; and it was towards the end of my tour and we were on that to bomb Stuttgart. And that night, we had a real strong, over 100 miles an hour tail wind behind us. And my wireless operator, he failed to pick up this wind and we failed to, no, we knew there was a wind, but we didn’t know the strength of it. As a result, we overflew the target and we went way down into southern Germany; and we were way beyond it before we discovered the target opened up behind us. So we were about a half an hour late coming in. So what I did, I turned around and came back, and we bombed the target. We bombed it alone. Well, you can imagine the reception we’d get.

So when we went in there, we got a tremendous reception over the target from the ack-ack [anti-aircraft weapons] and I don’t know, to this day, I still don’t know whether I lost petrol or what, but you could hear the flak [anti-aircraft fire], you could hear it making a tremendous noise on metal, on the aircraft. And we had to get back to England; and I was short, I was low on petrol as we called it, gasoline, and we were alone. And the most dangerous thing of anything was to be over Germany alone because they had fighters with radar; and they had all the radar devices, they could pick you up. So what I had to do was I had to get down low; and I got down as low as I could just over the rooftops and flew back. It wasn’t very long and my engineer told me that we didn’t have enough petrol to get us back to England. We were running extremely low.

So I was faced with the dilemma of, well, what was I going to do, was I going to bail out, be a prisoner of war, or was I going to try and land in the [English] Channel, or what was I going to do? And that was a big decision. Myself, I feared going into the water because I had already ditched in the water off in the Atlantic once, once was enough for me; and I didn’t want to do that, and particularly at night. But anyway, I asked for a course for the Normandy beachhead and thank goodness at this time, the army, D-Day had come and gone and our army was on the Normandy beachhead.

So we headed for the Normandy beachhead and I got down as low as I could get. When the tail on my aircraft went down, my engines cut out, quit. I was out of gas. So there I was: I was on the Normandy beachhead and out of gas. I decided that if I could get some gas, I would get enough gas to get me across the Channel and get home. But the army came along, there was a whole string of them, and they had these little jerry cans. They were about two gallon cans. And here they come up to my aircraft, the big aircraft, and they gave me enough gasoline to get across the Channel. That’s all the gas they could spare.

When I landed at [RAF] Tholthorpe, [No.] 420 Squadron [Royal Canadian Air Force], they have a Tannoy [public address] system there to announce announcements. The Tannoy blasted out: "welcome home, McKay, welcome home, McKay." Amazing. Imagine, can you imagine wartime, welcoming you home? Well anyway, I was welcomed home.

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