Veteran Stories:
Cyril St. Clair “Cy” Yarnell

Air Force

  • Cyril Yarnell (fourth from left) and other flight instructors. Date and location unknown.

    Cy Yarnell
  • Cyril Yarnell receiving his pilot's wings from Wing Commander Norman Irwin, Aylmer, Ontario, 1941.

    Cy Yarnell
  • Cy Yarnell (left) and Don Lamont (right), June 29, 1942.

    Cy Yarnell
  • A Spitfire handle salvaged from the beach at Anzio, Italy, after a crash landing.

    Cy Yarnell
  • Cy Yarnell's flight helmet, circa 1942.

    Cy Yarnell
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"It was an indescribable camaraderie, sparked with occasional moments of indescribable excitement."


Cyril St. Clair Yarnell, but everyone knows me as Cy, short form for Cyril. In Toronto, I was working and in the fall of 1940, I found myself standing outside the air force recruiting office, went in, thought I would get an opportunity to become a mechanic. But after the physical examination they gave me, they said I qualified for air crew and they assigned me then for air crew training. At that time, I had never touched an airplane. I saw one, once or twice, but I knew nothing about it. But they gave me training at elementary school in Victoriaville, Quebec, where they sorted out those who were going to be pilots, navigators, air gunners, and then they put me in the pilot stream and I trained at St. Eugene, Ontario, near Hawkesbury, on Fleet Finches, biplanes, and then graduated in the fall in Aylmer, Ontario, on Harvard aircraft.

I instructed there for a while, for about a year, and then went directly overseas. And after selection over there, ended up flying [Hawker] Hurricanes and [Supermarine] Spitfires. Well, the Hurricane at the time had been the hero of the Battle of Britain and it was a larger aircraft than the Spitfire. It was not as fast, not as maneuverable and the Spitfire, of course, was a delight to fly, extremely maneuverable. And you could have different configuration of your wings. You could have the standard elliptical wing or you could have the elliptical wing cut off and have a clipped wing Spitfire, which would roll much more easily. Or you could have a pointed wingtip, which would give you control at much higher altitudes. A joy to fly.

During the war, in Italy, I was with [No.] 601 County of London Squadron of the Royal Air Force [RAF]. And my second tour was with [No.] 403 City of Calgary Squadron. The Royal Air Force County of London, very famous, very proud. My flight commander, who was a bit unreasonable on this occasion, suggested that the three Canadians might be advised to remove the Canada badges off our uniforms because we were now flying with the Royal Air Force. Our response was less than polite. And he never mentioned it again.

One of the most interesting ones, when we were in Italy, we were supporting the 8th Army and amongst the 8th Army was the Belleville Regiment, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, the Hasty Pees. And we were about four days there, we were doing very close support on the bomb line, protecting the bomb line against enemy aircraft attack and then, after that, we would dive down and do strafing and things of this, against enemy convoys. We would return right on the deck, no more than 100 feet off the ground. And we would return that way. The boys, our guys on the ground, would see these dots coming, they didn’t know if they were good guys or bad guys, so they had a nasty habit of just holding their rifles in the air and firing. As a result, we flew through their bullets and I got hit several times. And I have since been to the regiment in Belleville and chastised them for having not only hit me, but scaring the hell out of me on more than one occasion. They were delightful about it. That to me was one of the most enjoyable experiences.

The experience of providing escort to the invasion on the Anzio beachhead [Operation Shingle], near the mouth of the Tiber [River], was a magnificent experience, to provide top cover as these thousands of troops went in on the ground onto the beachhead. And then later, of course, in Germany, the flying operations there, we ended up just south of Hamburg, just as the war was over just south of Hamburg, and a week before, they even stuck a 250 pound bomb under the belly of our Spit and had us, if you can believe, dive bomb the Kiel Canal in the Spitfire, which is ridiculous. I don’t think we hit anything. We probably scared a lot of people and especially they scared us too. But we got out of there. But there are many, many experiences like that.

One of the biggest thrills I got was, right after the war, within a day or two, I was ordered to escort four aircraft. I took four Spits and escorted some of the peace delegation into the airport at Copenhagen [Denmark]. When I got there, I decided to land, which I did, with my number two, to find that the Luftwaffe were still there. They had been disarmed and the war was officially over, but it was a bit frightening to fly, land the Spitfire onto a base where the Luftwaffe was there in its numbers. They came out and inspected the aircraft, they were very respectful and that night, some of the Danish Underground took my friend and I into town and gave us the biggest party I have ever had, all night long. And the next morning, we sucked oxygen to clear our heads, took off from Copenhagen, went back to base. That one I’ll never forget.

The Danish people were so happy to see us there that they just were just effusive and clearly excited about the war being just about over. The whole thing was indescribably joyful. Really, let’s face it, we were young at the time and hey, it was a good life. You’d almost have to be a graduate of philosophy, you’d have to have a Ph.D. in something to understand that. I can’t. It was an indescribable camaraderie. It was an indescribable camaraderie, sparked with occasional moments of indescribable excitement.

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