Officer in Middle East Sends Plea
O.C. of 417 Squadron Says Members Want People Here to Help Them
During WWII, the vast majority of Canadian Air Force squadrons were based in Great Britain and many were ‘adopted‘ by various cities where packages and letters were sent to the airmen to help them feel connected to home.
There was one squadron, 417 Squadron, that could not enjoy these visitations and packages as it was the only Canadian squadron that fought in north Africa with the Desert Air Force. Arriving there in April 1942, it provided air defense and close air support to the British Eighth Army through the closing stages of the Tunisian campaign, and throughout the Sicilian and Italian campaigns.
On May 6, 1943, a letter was published in the Windsor Daily Star that was sent to Windsor Mayor Arthur Reaume from 417 Squadron Commander S. R. Foster. In it, he asked if the City of Windsor would be interested in ‘adopting’ the squadron as it was virtually cut off from any Canadian contact being the only Canadian force in Africa at the time. The City enthusiastically agreed and the “Windsor Spitfires” name was born. Residents sent packages and letters to all the squadron members until the end of the war.
To honour the men who flew with the squadron, the original Windsor major “A” Hockey Team in 1945 was named the “Spitfires” as the squadron flew various versions of the famous fighter plane throughout WWII.
Following excerpt from the original letter published in the Windsor Daily Star on May 6, 1943:
No. 417 (R.CA.F.) Squadron.
Middle East Forces. “April 6th, 1943.
His Worship the Mayor,
City of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario
During the past year most of the R.C.A.F. Squadrons Overseas have been adopted by some Canadian city or town. Since the R.C.A.F., unlike the army, is recruited on a national and not a local basis, it follows that a Canadian squadron is composed of men from every part of the Dominion, and so the process of adoption does not mean that the personnel of the squadron originate in the city of adoption.
“This squadron is the only Canadian squadron, or armed unit of any sort, in the Middle East, and so is very much cut off from the activities of the other Canadian squadrons. We only recently learned that the other squadrons had been adopted by Canadian cities, but by what process we did not learn.
“Since no city has come forward to claim us, we therefore are going looking for one. A poll was taken, and while most men naturally voted for their own home towns as first choice, the city of Windsor and the City of New Westminster came out on top on the second ballot, after the virtues of each town had been strenuously advocated by home town boys.
MOSTLY WINDSOR BOYS
“You will undoubtedly be interested in why your city came out on top. First, it is the Canadian city with which we have the closest contact, since two-thirds of our squadron transport originated in Windsor. For that matter a great portion of the transport of the entire Eighth Army comes from Windsor. Secondly, the chief proponent of Windsor, Flying Officer J.M. Gibson of Kingsville, stressed the intense civic pride of Windsor and assured us that we would not be forgotten if Windsor sponsored us. The third and perhaps the chief reason is that our sister fighter squadron, No. 416 in England, has been adopted by the City of Oshawa, and we very naturally wish to be sponsored by a bigger and better city.
“Very naturally you will wish to know a little about this squadron. We were formed in England in November, 1941. By this time the Battle of Britain was over, and so fighter activity had slackened off. The squadron therefore volunteered for overseas service, and proceeded to the Middle East in April, 1942. We served in a number of locations in Egypt, protected Alexandria at the time of the retreat to Alamein, and advanced behind the Eighth Army this winter to our present location near the Mareth Line. We have lived in the sand under canvas since our arrival in the Middle East, and by this time are quite innured to the heat of the day and the cold of the night, sand, flies, fleas and mosquitoes, endless bullybeef and hardtack—all aside from the expected hazards of war with the Eighth Army. I may add here that our ground crew are the only Canadian airmen who are real front-line soldiers. While those in England live comfortably and safely in billets, with only a very, very occasional alert to disturb their sleep, our lads are exposed to bombing, strafing and the threat of German commando raids.
KEENEST IN R.C.A.F.
This has but made them the keenest ground crew in the R.CA.F.—since they have a very personal interest in the efficiency of the fighters overhead.
Our normal duties as a fighter squadron are convoy protection, high cover for bombers and interception of enemy aircraft. By the time you receive this letter the war in Africa may be over, and we hope to take a very prominent part in the Dunkirk there will be at Tunis. If we move to some new theatre of war afterwards, we all hope we will still be with the Eighth Army, the finest fighting force in the world today.
Our relaxations are few. Cards and letter writing fill our evenings whilst swimming, when we are near the Med, and soft ball are our recreations. Just as it is possible to follow the route of the New Zealand divisions from Alamein to Aghella by abandoned rugger fields, so our path could be traced by rough baseball diamonds in the sand. No gang of backlot kids ever treasured two bats and three well worn balls as do we. Our other exercise is the immediate digging of slit trenches after each of our frequent moves. Each tent takes as much pride in their trench as a householder does in her garden and brag about the speed with which they dive into theirs when occasion arises.
HAVE SWING BAND
In addition, we have the finest five-piece swing band in the desert, lead by Pilot Officer Johnny Koplitz of Hoboken, former American band leader, and greatly in demand by Army and Airforce units far and near. Lacking movies and concert parties, this band has filled in many a dull evening.
If you feel we are fit for adoption, we will paint the ‘City of Windsor’ on the nose of each of our Spitfires, with the city crest if you forward it to us. If any organization in Windsor wishes to adopt an aircraft and its pilot and groundcrew, that aircraft will also carry the name of the organization into battle. If any of your automobile factories, or sections of them, wish to adopt our Motor Transport section—the backbone of the squadron since we are completely mobile,— then we will carry their name below the big R.A.F. rondel with red maple leaf which identify our transport to aircraft overhead.
In return for this, we would be glad if our sponsors could remember that this squadron is far from the amenities of life in England with the other squadrons, and that cigarettes, playing cards and other such comforts are impossible to buy out here. Our band has only sheet music for the corniest old pieces—and tries to pick up new tunes by ear off the radio. We feel sure that many citizens of Windsor who have been contributing to general welfare funds would much rather send personal comforts direct to a Canadian airman who really needs them, would appreciate them to the utmost and would write back and say so.
LETTERS CHIEF DELIGHT
Letters from home are our chief delight, and I am quite sure this squadron turns out twice the mail of any other Canadian squadron. Our complaint is that we don’t get enough letters nor have enough people to whom to write. No doubt there are many in Windsor who would be glad to correspond with our airmen, provide them with much desired news from Canada, and receive in return first hand news of war in the desert. Any letter addressed to ‘An Airman,’ 417 (RCAF) Squadron, Middle East Forces, will be distributed and answered.
If you do decide to sponsor us, we will supply you with a regular account of the squadron’s operations, and supplement it with photographs, and with tangible souvenirs such as the swastika or lectors sticks of the next Jerry or kite shot down on our side of the lines. If, however, you are already booked, we will go seeking afresh.
F. B. FOSTER, Squadron Leader, Commanding Officer