Harry Furniss donated copious notes and clippings to our Museum. As a result, we’re able to learn about his varied life experiences as well as his journey in the RCAF by reading his own words!
“My entry into the RCAF in 1938 was rather unorthodox.
Prior to WW2, the RCAF accepted only a handful of pilot trainees each year. Competition was keen for admittance to this small, exclusive club. If you graduated head of the class at Royal Military College, or your father was a Senator, you might be interviewed. But if you lacked powerful connections, and your heart was unalterably set on a career in military flying, the next best route was to apply to the Royal Air Force. This could only be done in Britain and many dozens of dozens of poor but aspiring Canadian hopefuls worked their passage to London on the Atlantic cattle boats carrying cargoes of prime western beef (on the hoof) for the kitchens of Europe. It was hard work tending the cattle, but the passage was free and scarce funds saved for an unpredictable wait for the RAF verdict.
In those pre-war years, the RAF offered a short service commission (four years) to all pilot applicants. If you passed the medical and the six-month flying training course leading to your wings, you were commissioned as a Pilot Officer and began the long climb through experience and responsibility to the mastery of service aircraft under any and all conditions.
I set my sights on this route into a career in aviation while I was still a schoolboy. The decision was an easy one, really. In spite of attending Rothesay Collegiate in Saint John N.B. which had originally been set up as a prep school for RMC, there was no chance of being admitted to the RCAF. My father lacked the fees to send me to the U.S. where glowing magazine ads promised eternal (and joyful) employment in commercial flying to all graduates of the LaSalle School of Aviation. But he did manage to get me an RAF application form and an agreement that I could be medically and psychologically examined in Canada by the RCAF before proceeding overseas for training. In anticipation of a trouble-free acceptance, I dug into my meagre allowance for a few private flying lessons at Saint John Flying Club to give me some first-hand knowledge of what lay ahead. It was winter and we flew in skies off the river.
Soon I got a call from the RCAF and was interviewed by S/L Frank McGill in Montreal. This was heady stuff. There were only a few squadron leaders in the whole of the RCAF at that time, and I was greatly impressed by his keen interest in just another sky-dreaming lad. But I was 18 years old then, and had finished school. I received a clean bill of health and I was in. Frank pushed the paperwork through promptly and the RAF booked me on an Atlantic steamer that summer.
Before I could sail, however, the RCAF was ordered to step up pilot recruiting to be ready for the war against Hitler which was rushing closer every day. Frank called me and said something to the effect that if I was good enough for the RAF I was probably good enough for the RCAF, and offered to switch the paperwork between the services. Without even waiting for that to happen, I was sent to start flying training at the Montreal Light Aeroplane Club at Cartierville. As it turned out Frank pinned on my wings months later at RCAF Camp Borden where he had become commanding officer.”
In Camp Borden, Birthplace of the RCAF, Harry Furniss recalls his arrival at the camp for “advanced flying training” in the fall of 1939, shortly after war had been declared on Germany:
“ It was bright and early on a Sunday morning and I went along cheerfully to the officer’s mess for a spot of breakfast.
What a bloody shambles!
While I had expected to find some differences in lifestyle between the country-club elegance of Trenton (where I had been inducted) and the summer-camp casualness of rustic Borden, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I entered the silent, empty lounge in the old grey wooden building.
Armchairs, chesterfields, and rugs had been pushed hither and yon to free up wall space (for one popular game) and afford a free run down the centre of the room (for another). The piano, coffee tables, end tables, card tables, and bookshelves and even corners of the floor were littered with dirty glasses and discarded bottles, many containing the dregs of unfinished drinks into which tidy partygoers, discovering all available ashtrays full to overflowing, had drowned cigarette butts.
In my mind’s eye I visualized the tumult of the night before…Of course, I knew few details of the parlour games when I arrived at Borden, a new and naïve Provisional Pilot Officer numbered C1081. During the day fellow students arrived in a steady stream and when we paraded Monday morning to be welcomed by the CO we numbered 34…As a graduate of Rothesay, a New Brunswick military school which once fed scholars to RMC, I was made OC “B” Flt. I mention this detail because we were an unusual group – the first class of any size of student pilots to train at Borden, which had just been reorganized as No. 1 SFTS. Prior to this time the RCAF had commissioned new student pilots to work their way to England on cattle boats and take Short Service Commissions (four years) in the RAF.
The weeks that followed were exciting and frustrating as glitches were ironed out of the new schedules. By chance I was picked for a small group which underwent psychological testing by academics from Toronto who were trying to determine the qualities a recruit should have to become a useful service pilot. I scored remarkably high marks (which naturally got better with repetition!) on arcane subjects like abstract reasoning for which I have never, to this day, been able to find any use, or even understand.
Our regular classes were long and the winter was bitterly cold. We spent part of each day flying and the rest in ground school where teachers filled us full of Theory of flight, Navigation, Airmanship and Engines, and brushed up our Morse Code and map reading skills for artillery spotting and front line recce work (reconnaissance)…We spent hours taking machine guns apart and then firing them, along with rifles and small arms, out on the range. And not a few scary moments in gas masks, barging around in the evil-smelling fog of the smoke house.
We studied basic military organization, and command and control as laid down in each officer’s “bible” – Kings Rules and Orders (KRO) – and were introduced to service routine during spells as Duty Officer, providing relief for junior OCs on leave, at Courts Marshall, on church parades, and, regrettably, the occasional funeral. We took part in formal public affairs discussions and public speaking debates and absorbed much information about cameras and photo interpretation which had long been of major concern as the peacetime RCAF mapped Canada.
And of course we waited on tables in the airmen’s mess on Christmas Day and participated in the rich variety of service tradition.
I thoroughly enjoyed the service life of those days which for an officer was both gracious and fulfilling…also found satisfaction in the way our daily routine unfolded in a measured well-ordered way which provided a judicious blend of discipline and freedom. We clicked our heels to attention upon entering the lounge as a mark of respect to fellow officers. In the mess, all ranks were considered equal which lead to the creation of strong bonds of trust and fraternity on the basis of freedom of speech and action.
Flying, of course, and the winning of our wings, was our first priority at Camp Borden in 1939. There was tremendous pressure to build up hours in the air quickly and flying was scrubbed only in the face of the most severe conditions. It was common to put in two hours of flying a day in every kind of weather. This was great training for the miserable flying conditions which lay ahead in Europe but it was hard to appreciate at the time.”
Harry’s mother, Bea, wrote of Harry’s graduation:
“There is the realization, sudden and engulfing despite all one’s philosophic preparedness through the years, that I no longer have a son…The papers arrived a few days ago for Guy’s (father) signature, filled out bravely in a hand that has strangely matured in his last year at school. For some time they laid there on the desk, silently urging us to sign away the paltry history of a childhood that is gone. Give this youth the title to his own life, they urged. Don’t try to withhold what is already his. That life you have so painstakingly nourished has now outgrown your mould and impress; it now begins to expand into that freedom which is its own inherent radiance. You can only hold it in your heart by letting it go free. If I must loose my hold, I thought, I must do it happily; whereupon I sat down and cried achingly.”
Following a discussion with her husband, Guy, he asks her if she’d like him to dissuade Harry from flying.
She answered, “You couldn’t dissuade him. Nor could I. We haven’t the right nor the power. He belongs to himself…He must find his own way. Our love couldn’t hold him back.”
When I read this, I thought of all the mothers ( and fathers too ) who likely had similar feelings about their sons heading off to service, having to “loose” their holds…
Furniss’ first posting after winning his wings at Borden was to 112 Army Cooperation Squadron, training at Rockcliffe to become the second RCAF unit to be sent overseas in WWII.
He spent long summer weeks practising how to spot artillery bursts on the ground and to report them by map co-ordinates to the ground in morse code. He found the days “busy and exciting” as they prepared to leave for England. As summer ended, the squadron was trained and eager for their overseas duty. They paraded around Ottawa, took their final leave with their parents and loved ones, and reported back to the airfield. There they got the surprising news: the entire squadron, as well as aircraft, would leave in just a matter of hours…. except for a few of the new, young pilots, including Furniss himself. They were to stay in Canada to help set up the new Commonwealth Joint Air Training Plan. He was off to RCAF Trenton… he instructed on single and twin engines at Trenton, Dunville, and Hagersville. He also ran a night flying school at Cayuga. Then he helped S/L Norm Dryden to take over the new EFTS (Empire Flying Training School) from builders at Oshawa and gave RCAF flying tests to all student pilots, who were taught there by civilian instructors. Then he flew Hurricanes with east coast defence squadrons at Dartmouth and Bagotville before eventually being posted overseas in the summer of 1943.
As you can see, the wait to be posted after training could be quite long. Furniss was able to find a few ways to break up the wait:
“While paperwork and administrative duties increased during the three years I had to wait before being posted overseas for operational duties, there was virtually no limit to the amount of time–fun time—that I could spend in the air…
It was pure luck that I flew the Electra at all. I had been posted on a course and by chance shared living quarters in the officers mess with an American airline pilot who had joined the RCAF to get into WW2. Not only was Johnny older than the usual run of pilots but he had an unusual talent for persuasion. As our friendship grew he included me in his adventures.
Want to take a spare aircraft somewhere to visit a girlfriend? No problem. Stay overnight? Sure, but not too often at the same place. A weekend? Occasionally…”
As was the case with many pilots, Furniss was happy to receive his posting overseas. In this exert from The Flying Game, he describes the ship he crossed on:
“…finally my turn had come and with great high spirits I reported to the embarkation center at Halifax for sea transport to England. It was August of 1943…sailed on the Queen Elizabeth…As we pushed our way along and downwards into the cavernous bowels of the Queen Elizabeth through a seething mass of troops, I felt like a lost bee in a gigantic hive. All 20,000 troops aboard were in full uniform and were in full uniform and wearing (by ship’s order) bulky lifejackets which made them loom twice as large. Thousands of soldiers at any given time were on the move from one end of this thousand foot long ship to the other…
The Queen Elizabeth was like a small city, and offered such amenities as a post office, stores for cigarettes, candy, pocket books, camera film and souvenirs, a lending library, a barber shop, and a host of other services. There were canteens where beer was available at certain times and extra toilets and urinals spotted around to accommodate the overflow. And everywhere, naturally, huge lineups for everything…Hurry Up and Wait was a universal motto.”
Furniss was on his way…
In my next post, you’ll learn about his tour of action and his life as a POW.