Veteran Stories:
Howard Leyton-Brown

Air Force

  • Saskatchewan Order of Merit.

    Howard Leyton-Brown
  • Map of Bombing raid over Dusseldorf, Germany.

    Howard Leyton-Brown
  • Howard Leyton-Brown medals, including the Order of Canada- Officer, the Distinguished Flying Cross, 1939-1945 Star,The France and Germany Star,The Defence Medal, The 1939-1945 War Medal, commemorative Bomber Command Medal, 125 Anniversary of Confederation Medal , Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal, Saskatchewan Centennial Medal

    Howard Leyton-Brown
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"I know I must have been responsible for losses of life and I have no apology to make. I think we had to do it and we did the best we could."


In the air force, you were in stations near London and at least I’d be able to get back to continue my music from an airfield or even had my violin with me. So I joined for that reason. I practiced for one hour a day every day. And that was whether I was on a bombing mission or what, I never missed a day of practice during the war. As soon as we got to reasonable height, the navigator tested one of our navigation systems, the GEE Set [radio navigation system], and it wasn’t working. So I called up and asked for instructions, and after a wait of a few minutes, back came the message, carry on with exercise as planned. And I said, well, okay, I do what I’m told, but I was furious because very quickly, we discovered that the wind directions were different from what we had expected and we were very rapidly lost. We were attacked by fighters. We went obviously way off track; and I don’t know what we bombed. We eventually bombed three towers, just a conflagration on the ground. We didn’t know if was the real target, or what. After that, I said to the navigator, give me a direct route straight back to base from here; and we didn’t fly the convoluted route that had been planned, which went way down south and so on. So we flew straight back to England and landed about three hours before anybody else. And immediately, I was called up to the control tower where the air commanders for the group and so on, were all gathered around and they looked around at me and said, screamed at me, what the devil do you mean coming back over the North Sea like this? You’ve had all the Home Guard [British civilian defence organization] called out. And anyways, they were screaming at me. And I said, well, what do you expect, our GEE was U.S. and we couldn’t use the proper procedures. And he said, what do you mean, your GEE was U.S.? You had left your charts in the bus. And I said, no, we didn’t, those were somebody else’s that were left, sir, on a training commission. And he said, oh. And that was all. It was a suicide mission they sent us on. They had no business doing that. And that’s typical of what some of the senior officers were like. So that one I remember. It was ridiculous. You know, they were risking the crew and a plane and everything, just because of discipline. And we were doing a raid on Jesteburg and it was about 7:00 in the morning that we were flying. And you know the way your car window can sometimes frost up in the morning when you go out to drive, well, the same thing happened to our planes and the windscreen with the plane had frosted over. So I was flying by putting my thumb on the window, melting a spot and I peered through this and I could see this, a little ahead of me well enough. So we were approaching Jesteburg and the system was that when you got to a certain distance, you opened the bomb doors. You had a handle beside the fire pilot’s cockpit; you pushed down on this handle and the bomb doors came open. And until then, the bombs could not be fused, so that they wouldn’t explode. That was the theory. Well, as I pushed this down, my head went down and so the angle at which I looked through this little hole changed and up ahead of me was a [Handley Page] Halifax [heavy bomber] ̶ and not far away, about 100 yards in front of me and above. And as I went down, I saw his bomb doors open and as they opened, the whole plane exploded. They were hit by shrapnel, like flack [anti-aircraft ammunition], at that particular moment. And we flew through the debris from this plane. In my one case, for example, I had a brother and a sister. My sister was killed. She was a nursing sister on a hospital ship which was torpedoed in the Pacific Ocean, and everyone was lost. My brother, an older brother, was in the army. He was a tank commander during the Normandy invasion and was wounded, a shell exploded near the tank and blew the trap door shut, and hit him on the head. He suffered a serious injury as a result and he died from those injuries, not immediately, but about two years later. I on the other hand was on a squadron, [No.] 576 Squadron [Royal Air Force]. We were on a station where there were two squadrons with 21 planes each, 21 crews. And I was only the second crew to complete it. All the others were lost. I wanted to just sum it all up by saying that I have no regrets about having done what I did. I know I must have been responsible for losses of life and I have no apology to make. I think we had to do it and we did the best we could. We had chaplains and so on, who said God was on our side, so did the Germans. It’s funny because some of this applies to my life in music. You know, you think it’s separate business, but it’s not. All your life experiences have importance. Though I remember saying to one of my students once, you remember what the air raid sirens sounded like and then I suddenly thought, but he wasn’t even born when we were at war. So you get confused a little sometimes, but it’s still meaningful.
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