By Larry D. Rose
Robert English was a Canadian Spitfire pilot from St. Catharines, Ontario, a bright and personable young man who was killed right at the end of the Second World War in circumstances that are still murky and mysterious.
His warmth and decency shine through — even after all these years — in 75 letters he sent home, kept by his family in a scuffed brown suitcase as weathered as the letters inside it. In his clear and even script, Robert wrote of his progress from the time he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942 to April 1945, when he disappeared while on fighter reconnaissance operations in Italy.
It is a thrilling journey: a young Canadian flying the legendary Spitfire in the midst of the greatest upheaval of the twentieth century. He was helping to make history. He wrote about some exotic travels, mixed in occasional humour but, every now and again, his letters make it clear that he was a long, long way from home.
At the start he was tentative, a bit awkward, every bit a teenager. After his first flight in a twin-engine Avro Anson aircraft he exclaimed, “I was very excited.” At another point he wrote, “Pay day, Oh Boy!” But over time the tone changes to one in which he understood the dangers very well. After being overseas for a year or so, he wrote, “We’ve got to finish this thing” — he was determined to go on.
In the letters Robert Mould English — called Bob or Bobby by the family — invariably referred to his hometown of St. Catharines as “St. Kitts.” While he was born there, he grew up mostly in Edgewater, New Jersey because his father, a plumber, couldn’t find work in Ontario during the Depression. All the letters in the suitcase were addressed to his parents, Richard and Hilda (née Mould) English.
Despite the American connection, Robert always considered himself a Canadian and was determined to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he did, at age 18 on August 24, 1942. His RCAF service records show that shortly after enlisting he was interviewed by Pilot Officer W.D. Gilmore who gave a clear impression of the young recruit. Gilmore wrote, “Just 18 — nice type of lad … intelligent and alert — assertive and well organized … slender build, frank, sincere, and definite in responses … promising material.” That opinion was seconded more than 70 years later by one of Robert’s cousins who lives today in Mississauga, Ontario. Gert Penwill, now 94, described him as “outgoing” and “a good kid.”
Robert was a smaller man, only five feet seven inches and, at this point, just 120 pounds but, with the tough Depression years just ending, that was not so different from many recruits of the time. He had wavy blond hair, and in some of the pictures in a family photo album, a shy kind of smile.
Robert did basic training at an initial training school in Toronto and then took his first step toward gaining his pilot’s wings at No. 20 Elementary Flying School in Oshawa, Ontario. Both schools were a part of the colossal British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) — between 1940 and 1945, some 151 schools were established across Canada — which trained 131,500 aircrew for Canada, Britain, Australia and other Allies during the war.
Students first learned to fly the diminutive but sturdy de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane. For a considerable number of aspiring airmen even this simple aircraft was too much. After only three weeks, 10 out of the original 42 students in Robert’s group had washed out. Robert exclaimed to his parents that, at the rate things were going, there wouldn’t be anyone left by the end of the course.
Romance found its way into the early letters as Robert, rather candidly, told his parents, “I met a very nice girl in Toronto. Don’t laugh.” However, in time it becomes clear that he had been in touch with a young woman he went to school with in New Jersey, whom he only referred to in the letters as “Miem.” Gert Penwill identified her as Emilie Schwehm, a young woman who later became a school teacher. Robert and Emilie became much more serious as time went along and by 1945 Robert was hoping to marry her as soon as the war was over.
Oshawa and Toronto were good postings for Robert because at this time his parents were living in Buffalo, New York and he had relatives both in “St. Kitts” and Toronto. He passed his elementary pilot’s course and in the spring of 1943 was posted to Dunnville, Ontario, west of Hamilton. There, and at 14 other schools across Canada, many students flew the Harvard single-engine trainer, one of the iconic training planes of the war. There are dozens of Harvards still flying today, the mere sight of which still conjures up near-religious fervour in pilots young and old alike.
Robert found the Harvard a “hot” aircraft compared to the Tiger Moth, but then the Tiger Moth took off and landed at 40 miles an hour, so anything more than that might have been considered hot. Despite being a trainer, the Harvard was not easy to fly. On landing or taxiing it was very prone to “ground looping,” which meant the plane skewed to one side, possibly scraping a wing in the process. Robert loved the Harvard, saying after his first flight, “What a ship. Really lovely,” but he acknowledged, “it’s no toy.”
During the war, 856 trainees were killed in air crashes and accidents. Pilots got lost in bad weather or just plain lost, there were mechanical failures, and all too often students were killed while attempting foolish stunts. In Robert’s letter of June 25, 1943 there were sobering words that one of the student pilots had been killed, although exactly what happened is not clear. Robert said, “The C.O. gave us quite a talk … and he’s making things pretty tough … He had lots to say, all unpleasant.” The prospect of death had become a sudden reality.
On August 20, 1943, while on a course in Calgary, Robert announced to the family that he had won his wings. A telegram read: “DEAR FOLKS POSTED CALGARY ALBERTA INVITATIONS WINGS PARADE … LOVE BOB.” This was an optimistic time for the Allied forces that were, more and more, reversing years of German and Japanese victories. As Robert’s telegram was being sent, Canadian, British and American soldiers had just cleared Italian and German forces out of Sicily.
* * * * *
Pilot Officer Robert English was ordered overseas, sailing for England on October 12, 1943. He arrived at the Canadian Personnel Reception Unit in Bournemouth, which in sunnier days had been a resort town. At this point, Robert and many others in the RCAF were caught up in an enormous logjam, with airmen waiting to be sent to a training squadron or base. Robert still did not know if he would be a bomber or a fighter pilot.
He wrote a reassuring letter: “I’ve been reading the papers and they sure are optimistic in this theatre … I’m well and fit and eating like never before. Don’t worry.” However, he was bothered by the inactivity. “A nice quiet life. So quiet in fact that I’m about to go nuts ... We are eager to be flying again.”
Soon it was coming up to Christmas, which undoubtedly was the hardest time for anyone away from home during the war. Robert spent two Christmases overseas and from his letters it was obviously emotionally difficult for him. Letters and packages from home meant everything, especially at that time of year. Robert’s family and even his former co-workers at an export company where he worked before he joined up sent parcels packed with cake or cookies, canned fruit, socks and the one thing that almost everyone asked for again and again — cigarettes. Everyone smoked and cigarettes were also often used to repay favours or reward friends.
At Robert’s base there was a traditional turkey dinner and later someone sat down at the piano for a Christmas singsong. “I’ll be thinking of you on Christmas day,” Robert wrote while saying at least he had the company of a good friend, bomber pilot Pat Mahoney. “The only time I got a little blue was when Pat and I sat in a corner and started talking about home.”
In March 1944 Robert was sent to a training squadron while at the same time being promoted to the rank of flying officer. Many Canadian airmen in Britain were being posted to bomber squadrons at this time, but Robert was sent instead to train on “single engine kites,” as he called them.
After a gap of three months, there was a dramatic change. A letter Robert sent home on June 27, 1944 was postmarked, not from England, but Egypt. He had been put on a troop ship to the Middle East. Robert said his impressions were “heat and dirt,” but he was there for only a short time before being sent to what was then Palestine. “We went to Tel Aviv yesterday,” he wrote, “for a swim in the Mediterranean.” Later he spent a short time in Syria, but he does not say what he was actually doing or what squadron he was with.
Then, what he himself referred to as “a milestone,” occurred on August 27, 1944: “After one year as a pilot I flew my first operational aircraft. It was a Hurricane … we’ll be flying Spitfires soon. That will be a happy day.” The Spitfire flight took place only three weeks later, which Robert said went well, and as for Spitfires, “I’m crazy about them.” By this time in the war, the fighting in the Mediterranean theatre had shifted to Italy, where the Allies were pushing German forces north toward the Po River.
On November 1, 1944 Robert reported, “Your son is in Italy.” He was sent to the Naples area and posted to No. 208 Squadron, Royal Air Force, becoming one of tens of thousands of Canadians to serve with RAF squadrons during the war. No. 208 was a photo reconnaissance squadron which had moved to southern Italy in March 1944 and immediately begun operations in support of the British Army’s V Corps, which was made up of three British divisions and one from the Indian Army. The squadron flew Spitfire IX’s, a late model of the aircraft.
As the Allied armies advanced through Italy the squadron leapfrogged from airfield to airfield behind them, taking part in a number of battles including one at Monte Casino. From September 1944 until April 1945 the squadron carried out as many as 500 reconnaissance flights a month, but it also did some ground attacks. With Robert’s posting to that squadron, it would only be a matter of time until he saw action.
While he must have been absorbed with the task at hand, his thoughts were also turning to the future — after the war was over. In words that are almost aching to read today, Robert wrote in one letter, “When I get back I want to get into something I like and lead a normal happy life. My one big ambition is to buy a house.”
Robert also said there was a lot of anger in his squadron over newspaper reports that Lady Astor, the British politician, had criticized those serving in Italy, calling them “D-Day Dodgers.” She implied that they had somehow angled to avoid the hard fighting in Normandy and had a soft touch in Italy. Today, many survivors of the brutal and costly Italian campaign call themselves D-Day Dodgers as a kind of badge of honour, and commemorate their losses and their contribution to victory each June. If there is any doubt of how costly the campaign was and how long the casualty list is — more than 5,900 Canadians were killed in the 20-month-long campaign — any visitor to Italy is welcome to view the Canadian graves at war cemeteries like Agira in Sicily, Coriano Ridge near Rimini or, for that matter, the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Florence, where Robert Mould English rests today.
* * * * *
Very likely Robert began combat flying about mid-February, 1945. On the ground, fighting pitted determined German troops along with Italian fascist holdouts against Allied troops and anti-fascist partisans, with the partisans having recently managed to kill a Luftwaffe general. In Robert’s last letter home, dated March 25, 1945, he said he had flown 35 sorties. Squadron flights ranged across Italy, but included the Italian west coast, near the port of La Spezia where troops of the American Fifth Army were battling north. All fighting in Italy ended on May 2, when German forces in Italy finally surrendered.
However, to go back a bit, the No. 208 Squadron history said that on April 15 “twenty-eight sorties were flown, [but] three pilots failed to return from reconnaissance missions their fate being unknown.” One of the missing aircraft was flown by Robert English. He either bailed out or crash landed near La Spezia after his Spitfire was hit by ground fire. At first, Robert was listed as missing and only later listed as “presumed dead,” but exactly what happened after his plane crashed was not clear at that time. For some months the only thing the family knew was that he was missing. So what had happened?
There may have been inquiries as soon as the war ended, but they are not in Robert’s service record. However, among his papers is the summary of an investigation the Royal Air Force conducted in 1948. When looking through military records there is always the prospect that something unexpected will be uncovered and that is the case with Robert’s service file. The RAF report is heartbreaking.
The inquiry concluded that Robert English and a second pilot both survived their aircraft being shot down and were taken prisoner. They were put into a local jail, but the report does not say by whom. Three days later, the two were taken out of the jail and shot “while trying to escape.” There can be little doubt that the last part was a fabrication. Most likely the two men, along with an Italian officer, were simply murdered.
The investigation quoted local residents as saying the prisoners were shot by Italian guards, possibly one of the fascist holdout groups, but it is also possible that retreating German troops or the SS were responsible. There is no evidence anyone was ever arrested for the crime and, after all these years, other details remain a mystery and more will probably never be known.
Robert English, the boy from “St. Kitts,” was one of more than 17,000 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who perished during the Second World War. Robert’s parents died some years ago so today the suitcase, heavy with letters, memories and heartbreak, has now passed to Robert’s cousin, Gert Penwill, and her son, Grant.
Also in the suitcase is a book of photos showing Robert as a young boy and then as a young officer in the RCAF. In other pictures he is with some of his pals in London, and then later photos show him in a group at the pyramids. Among the most poignant pictures are the last two in the book: one shows Hilda English and the other her husband, Richard, each beside the gravestone of their only child, Robert, at the cemetery in Florence. When he died he was just 20 years old.