Lucky Alex

Lucky Alex coverSynopsis

Lucky Alex is the story of Group Captain A. M. Jardine, AFC, CD., who was born in Vancouver in 1914. His parents had little money and many children – six of them arriving by 1923. For a while, his father built houses in Victoria but, when times got tougher in the late twenties, Harold went to look for work in bush camps, came home increasingly rarely and, though at first he sometimes sent money, his wife Agnes eventually had to bring up – and provide for – Alex and her five daughters on her own.

Though loyal to his father’s memory all his life, Alex was desperately anxious to ease his mother’s load. He insisted on leaving school at 15 and before his 16th birthday had gone to sea as a bridge messenger aboard the Empress of Canada. 1930 was not the best year to start a career with only a Grade 8 education. After sailing the Pacific Ocean for nearly three years, during which he pushed himself to acquire every bit of seamanship or navigational skill that he could, he outgrew his role as messenger and signed as a deck-hand aboard SS Gracia, a merchantman sailing out of Glasgow. For three years he would return to Victoria and his family every four months. During those years he grew up the hard way and when he passed his mate’s certificate in Glasgow in 1935, he had succeeded himself out of a job – unless he was content to remain a humble seaman, there were no longer jobs open to him at sea.

By good fortune the RAF, spooked by Hitler, was recruiting pilots and Alex’s navigational ability recommended him. So he joined the RAF, took to the air and quickly demonstrated natural ability as both pilot and navigator, graduating with distinction from his initial training. He chose to become a flying boat pilot and, after another successful course, was posted to 205 Squadron in Singapore, where he arrived in 1937. The squadron flew Catalinas, considered very modern at the time, and their role was long-range reconnaissance. For two years Alex was marooned in Singapore, doing very little but sometimes making interesting flights through the offshore archipelago and northabouts to India. Meanwhile, despite obvious danger from the Japanese, a complacent empire ignored the need to prepare for a possible attack. Alex hoped, eventually, to be granted a leave to BC, but such hopes were dashed by the outbreak of war with Germany.

Life immediately became more interesting, however. Thanks to the long range and reliability of the Catalinas, the squadron explored and set up a network of island bases in the Indian Ocean to be able to locate German ships, eventually reaching as far south as Mauritius. It was dangerous flying over huge distances with no room for navigational error. For his courage and success in this, Alex was awarded the AFC. In 1941 he was also promoted to Squadron Leader.

When war with Japan came the fall of Singapore was inevitable. With no modern fighter aircraft to protect them, 205 Squadron Catalinas were easy targets for Japanese Zeroes, yet they were assigned both reconnaissance and bombing missions. Alex’s crew was witness to the fateful dispatch of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse from Singapore and later the same day to their disappearance, bringing the news to disbelieving superiors. The squadron’s base at Seletar having become untenable, they were moved to Sumatra, then Java. After continuing the fight from there, and after the fall of Singapore, the squadron was again moved, this time to Australia, leaving Alex and his crew to follow as soon as dilatory Dutch mechanics had repaired their aircraft. When the Japanese arrived first Alex had to destroy it.

For two months he led a band of desperate men along the south coast of Java looking for a boat to take them to Australia. It was a time of high drama, suspense and final frustration as they were eventually rounded up by the Japanese. There followed three years as POWs that became increasingly terrible. Relatively easy at first, their lives became measurably more tenuous as the likely outcome of the war became apparent to their captors. While their camp escaped the worst inhumanity with which the Japanese treated prisoners, their treatment was sufficiently terrible for two of their guards to be executed later for war crimes. Amongst the prisoners, and in some ways their guardian angel, was the South African author Laurens van der Post, who spoke good Japanese and gave good advice to his fellow prisoners. His mysterious role in the overall scheme of things – a British army colonel with no military records – adds intrigue to the story, as do the brilliant cartoons of Sid Scales, a young Kiwi pilot in 205 Sqn., that bring their experience into sharp focus.

Like most survivors of POW camps Alex was damaged goods when he came home in 1945. He quickly shook it off, however, and began the daunting task of carving out a peacetime career in the RCAF, which had accepted his transfer from the RAF. He had some startling handicaps to overcome – a (relatively) senior officer with a grade 8 education, absolutely no knowledge of radar or jet aircraft and no friends in the RCAF. However, he also had three important things going for him – the RCAF had become far too big for its boots during the war, the Soviet threat meant that nobody until Diefenbaker was keen to cut it down to size and Alex himself was the world’s best self-educator.

The result was remarkable. He learned the mysteries of radar, as he had once learned his navigation and he became qualified to fly jet aircraft in short order. Meanwhile his human relations skills, learned in Singapore and Java, made him stand out, as did his organizing abilities. He rose though the RCAF on his merits. From command of the RCAF detachment at the National Research Centre, Arnprior, to a job at Canada’s largest airbase at Trenton, to a spell in the ministry, to command of RCAF Rockcliffe, and finally, the best job of all, command of RCAF St Hubert at the height of the Cold War. St Hubert was home to two squadrons of CF100s, Canadian-built and -designed twin-engined interceptors. As the Soviets increased their threats of airborne delivery of H-bombs to North America, these interceptors from St Hubert were the first sign of opposition that the giant Russian bombers encountered as they cruised south outside territorial limits.

His four years at St Hubert, 1955-59, were the peak of his career. Always conscious of the responsibility of a married man to provide a stable home – so neglected by his own father – it was only at this time that he would allow himself to propose marriage. His love-life until then had been enormously romantic, though almost certainly platonic, and he had broken hearts on four continents as female companions realized he would never pop the question. Now, in February 1957, he set his cap at Ann Johnston of Vancouver. His wooing of her was dramatic in the extreme – done by creating genuine operational reasons for him to fly a single seater jet trainer from St Hubert to Calgary, in order to visit Ann in Banff, where she was working at a ski lodge. She accepted him and that summer they were wed.

After St Hubert, the remainder of his career seemed anti-climactic in his own mind, though to others the job of Canadian Air Attaché in Prague would have seemed its peak. Alex had no time for the diplomatic dishonesties of Cold War politics and he loved nothing better than ruffling Soviet feathers at receptions whenever opportunity offered. He had made very heavy weather of learning Russian before leaving Canada and nobody was more delighted than he when his tour was over and he could get back to flying at his final airbase at Penhold in Alberta.

His life and career were joyous affairs. He was fun to be around, was much loved in every RCAF mess he ever entered, could be relied upon to treat people equally, to have no truck with pomposity and on many occasions to be willing to make a public spectacle of himself in the interests of the general good and people having a good time. Although he had minor physical problems as he aged, he remained the same ‘hail fellow, well met’ character until he was 94. And then, sadly, he died – of heart failure, quite quickly and with no messing about. It was just the way he did things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *