Veteran Stories:
John Harris

Air Force

  • John Harris in the uniform of the Royal Canadian Air Force. His hat bears the signature white stripe of an airman in training.

  • While overseas, John Harris made time to visit family in Belfast. He posed for this photo with his cousin Eric, Reg Gray and Uncle Willie with his best friend and crewmate, Frank

  • The official telegram from the RCAF Casualties Officer that John Harris was missing after air operations

  • Family snapshots that John Harris' mother sent to him in the POW camp Stalag Luft III

  • Mr. Harris kept this photo of his fiancee, Violet, in his bunk in the POW camp. Right: John and Violet were married on September 15, 1945

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"Who knows at twenty-one what sort of reasoning directs you, so I joined the Air Force."


This is John Harris speaking. I would like to give you a brief account of my participation in the Second World War as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. I joined up in 1941 at the stage where it looked as though things were pretty grim in Europe, and I decided if I was going to make a contribution I had better get into it even though I had hesitated, partly because my father had filled me with such stories of how grim the First World War was. I didn't wish to fight in trenches with the rats running over me and German shells bursting all around, but the Air Force was another matter. I knew that the possibility of a short life existed there, but at the same token it was a life that would end in a hurry and in the mean time you'd have a bed to sleep in. Who knows at twenty-one what sort of reasoning directs you, so I joined the Air Force. After passing a fairly stringent medical for air crew I began training first of all at Initial, and there they decided that my night vision was not too good because I was having trouble flying the light trainer. I was doing well in math and navigation – I'd better go out, if I was going to make a contribution, as a navigator. I went overseas in 1942. Did some further training there. Received a commission back-dated to my graduation, so I became a Pilot Officer. I was crewed up with some of the six nicest lads you'd ever want to meet, including my Australian pilot. We trained for operations and began operations in the month of July 1943, and for the next six and a half weeks we were out over… mostly they were German targets. Berlin several times, Hamburg several times, and in the process witnessed many of our comrades being shot down. Naturally, we wondered when our turn was going to come, which it did on the 5th of September. On that night over Manheim, our plane was hit in the air, suddenly started to shake, and before I could really put my parachute on and get out the hatch, the plane had gone completely out of control and I thought it was the end of the road for me. Suddenly I saw the stars over my head and I knew I was out of the plane, but how, I could never tell you. I pulled the ripcord and shortly after hit the ground. The rest of my crew were all killed. When the Germans picked me up, I spent time in prison camp from then until the end of the war, most of it in Stalag Luft III, where I became involved in the 'Great Escape' as one of the watch dogs keeping an eye on the German (?) that were supposed to be detecting any sort of escape efforts that were going on. Needless to say, they didn't catch the tunnel connected with the Great Escape. Because of my work there, I drew a number – number one hundred and seventy-nine – and I was waiting inside the barrack block for my turn, later on to escape, but since we got only seventy-three out, there was no way I was going to make it. Other than that I suppose prison life… you've seen enough pictures to know that it can be a pretty gloomy and dismal place. The worst part of course was as the Russian army advanced near the end of the war, we were evacuated in the minus twenty degree temperatures on the 28th of January 1945. We entered a forced march that took us about one hundred miles over several days. Pretty grim conditions, and then were taken from Spremberg by train to Bremen on the coast to another camp there. After ten weeks the British army came up from Holland and we hit the road again. This time we were marching to Hamburg across the river and wound up outside of Lubek, and there, on the 2nd of May, the British Army liberated us and I was flown back to Britain by the Canadian Army, who treated me very nicely.
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