Article by Rich Thistle ©

We Flew With the Heroic Few By Rich Thistle © A minute. It’s a minute portion of one day out of 365 long days in a year. It’s a minimal time to set aside for remembrance. And yet many Canadians relegate their remembrance of the most cataclysmic Canadian events of our century to a brief sixty seconds a year. As Remembrance Day approaches again, it behooves all Canadians to pause on November 11, not just to remember, but to remember with pride.

During the turbulent years of World War II Canadians acquired a reputation which was dearly won. We were a small country who could be counted on for big things. For almost six years, Canadians fought on battlefronts all over the world. More than one million men and women - this in a country of barely eleven million total population - enlisted in the army, navy, and air force to fight for freedom in what may well have been the last "good’ war, where all could clearly see the necessity of stopping Nazi tyranny.

It was a war which touched the lives of all Canadians without exception. Joining the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, young men and women served their country and their ideals, sometimes against hopeless odds under the worst of conditions. Canadians were there to defend the United Kingdom against imminent invasion during the Battle of Britain. They fought valiantly in a failed attempt to keep Hong Kong from the Japanese. They paid a high price in the Dieppe raid, and, above all they played an important role in two major campaigns, fighting for twenty months through Sicily and Italy, and on the cutting edge of the great battle from Normandy to Germany in 1944-5.

Throughout the war, Canada provided training facilities and instruction to airmen from all over the world in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, graduating almost 132,000 pilots and air crew, over half of whom were Canadian. Our navy and merchant marine played a crucial role in the longest campaign of the war, the Battle of the Atlantic, that grinding struggle against nature and the Kriegsmarine to keep supplies flowing. Meanwhile, those at home fought their own war of sacrifice, disruption, deprivation and loneliness.

Being a young, small country, we gave out of all proportion to our size in all theatres and aspects. Now, all these years later, we are quickly reaching the end of that generation which sacrificed so much. Each year there are fewer among us who have personal memories of these events, and perhaps even fewer who care to keep the memory alive.

As an aviation artist, I am proud that some of my works commemorate the heroic efforts of Canadians in the air during World War II. It is a privilege to meet many RCAF veterans who answered the call to serve. If my work helps to draw the attention of new generations to the honor and respect brought to Canada by those who served in our country’s air force during those historic times, I will feel gratified.

My painting WE FLEW WITH THE HEROIC FEW is a work which salutes Canadian participation in the Battle of Britain. It depicts Canadian Hurricanes of No. 1 Squadron RCAF over London in that fateful summer of 1940. These men of No. 1 Squadron RCAF (Fighter) were the first Canadian fighter pilots to arrive in Britain as a unit. Making the trip across the North Atlantic with them in crates were their own Canadian-built Hawker Hurricanes, some of the pitifully few front-line fighter aircraft in the RCAF at that early time in the war.

Their operational training took place virtually between the air battles raging around their base at Croydon. Its 26 pilots were soon to be tested as No.1 Squadron (later numbered 401) was declared "operational" and thrust headlong into the desperate struggle unfolding over London.

At 2:20 pm on September 15, a date now officially observed as the anniversary of the Battle of Britain, No. 1 RCAF, for the second time that day, rose in their Hurricanes to meet the enemy, this time a flight of 20 Heinkel He 111 medium bombers high over south London. Can anyone who wasn't there even imagine what it must have been like to be suddenly thrown into this air battle of unprecedented proportions?

I knew when I painted WE FLEW WITH THE HEROIC FEW in 1989 that it would be a significant work for me. It was to become the theme image of a Canadian commemorative Battle of Britain poster which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the battle in 1990. It has been published as a limited-edition print, co-signed by one of three Canadians to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross at the end of the Battle, Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) B.D. (Dal) Russel DSO, DFC and Bar. This painting has appeared on the cover of Air force Magazine, the quarterly of the Canadian Air force Association and was the image depicted on one of the six bronze medallions in the Royal Canadian Mint’s CANADA REMEMBERS Medallion Set, commemorating Canada’s contributions in World War II. The original painting is now in the collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Keeping the memory alive is the responsibility of every proud Canadian and there are many ways to remember. On Remembrance Day this year, please spend at least a minute to pay a personal tribute to those who gave everything for the cause of freedom. But don’t just think of the dead. Also contemplate the contribution and sacrifice of those who served and returned to try to pick up their lives somewhere near where they left off. If you love your freedom, thank a vet.

WE FLEW WITH THE HEROIC FEW is in the permanent collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.