Reported Missing Believed Killed
The Story of a Canadian Airman in WWII
Erle Milks was my uncle. I never knew him, and for that matter neither did my father, as Erle was the eldest and my father the youngest, born nearly twenty years apart. This article aims to preserve his memory and honour his sacrifice.
Erle was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on July 29th, 1924, to parents Erle Sr. and Helen Christie.
Having been hit particularly hard by the Great Depression, the young couple and their children moved across the river to Hull, Quebec, to benefit from cheaper rent. But as the family continued to grow, and the economy continued to falter, the once well-to-do family eventually went further north to the village of Chelsea, again owing to the need for more affordable accommodations.
Life was difficult for the family, which always seemed to have too many mouths to feed, and not enough money. But Erle made the best of things, and was a typical teenager who loved skiing and playing baseball. He studied at St. Stephen’s school in Chelsea where he completed grade nine in 1939, and then worked at various odd jobs including being an apiarist’s assistant. Though he didn’t know it at the time, it would be one of his last careless summers as a teenager.
In September, Canada joined the allied forces in declaring war on Germany, and embarked on a multi-year journey through the deadliest conflict in history. But for Erle, this was an opportunity in the form of a job with the Royal Canadian Air Force as an office clerk. And that opportunity was really just a way of biding his time until he was old enough to enlist, which he did on his 18th birthday.
To bolster his enlistment package he gathered reference letters, which included one from from Sister Anna Marie, the Principal of St. Stephen’s, which simply read “Erle is an honourable, trustworthy boy and a good student.” The notes made by military interviewer C.A. Summers were less flattering; “Shows average ability to learn — though unimpressive in appearance. Young rural chap who does not look too bright yet. Promises faithfully to buckle down to study if given a chance.” Perhaps his 5,7 and 127 lb. stature contributed to this sentiment, but it wasn’t enough to deem him unsuitable, and he was recommended for an RCAF air crew.
Training doesn’t appear to have gone smoothly either, based on remarks in documents filed during his training: “An alert but nervous airman lacking in confidence and experience. He has an inferiority complex, and badly needs encouragement and the occasional check.”
Yet despite these issues, he successfully trained to be a bomber and earned his flying badge on July 22, 1943, one week before his nineteenth birthday. In the year to come, he and his fellow crew members became great friends — John “Jock” McGarrie (RAFVR Flight Engineer), Simon “Si” Cormier (RCAF Navigator), Harold “Harry” Stell (RCAF Tail Gunner), Syd “Geordie” Wheatley (RAF Wireless Operator) and Clif Beck (RCAF Flying Officer).
He made one last visit to home to say goodbye to family, but his parents, who had opposed his joining the war effort, refused to accompany him to the train station to see him off. He then travelled to Halifax where he boarded a ship bound for the UK, arriving at Greenock, Scotland, on September 1. Soon after the crew joined Squadron 295, 38 Group. They flew together for a year, and had a close call on September 20, 1944, when the plane was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire, which killed a soldier of the Royal Armoured Service Corps (RASC) who was onboard.
On its first flight since having been assigned to Squadron 570, the crew of LJ991 and two RASC soldiers departed for Holland on an important resupply mission — it included beer — on September 23.
Once the craft had reached the drop zone and the panniers and baskets had dropped, it turned and headed for home when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire on one of the starboard engines, with flak penetrating the fuselage as well.
On the orders of pilot Cliff Beck, Wheatley parachuted from the stricken plane moments before Beck rescinded the order to abandon, believing that the crew had a better chance of surviving a crash landing given the low altitude of the aircraft. One of the soldiers who was injured by the flak was “pushed” from the plane and parachuted after Wheatley, landing in a ditch near the crash site.
Once Dutch civilians arrived at the crash site they found a flaming fuselage and the bodies of Milks, Cormier, Stell and McGarrie as well as one of the soldiers, Cyril William Lightfoot. Though severely injured, Beck survived the crash landing, and was later reunited with Wheatley at a makeshift hospital. The four fallen airmen and the soldier were laid to rest by locals at the Heteren General Cemetery in unmarked graves. It is not known if the other soldier survived.
Four days after the crash, a telegram was sent from the RCAF casualties office to the attention of Erle Sr. and Helen in Chelsea.
REGRET TO ADVISE THAT YOUR SON R ONE EIGHT NOUGHT SIX EIGHT SEVEN FLIGHT SERGEANT ERLE MAYNE MILKS IS REPORTED MISSING BELIEVED KILLED RESULT AIR OPERATIONS OVERSEAS SEPTEMBER TWENTY THIRD STOP PLEASE ACCEPT MY SINCERE SYMPATHY STOP
On September 30, his status was reclassified as Killed in Action. Erle left behind his parents, five sisters and five brothers, two of which he had never met, as the youngest were a set of twins born in November of 1943.
In the spring of 1947, the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit of the Royal Air Force issued a request to investigate the graves at Heteren cemetery which were believed to contain 15 unidentified bodies of allied airmen and soldiers, including the crew of LJ991.
In what can only be described as a gruesome report filed by investigators on the very day which would have been Erle’s 22nd birthday, crew members McGarrie, Stell and Cormier were positively identified by their id discs, while the description of grave 15A read “Contained the body of an airman, Canada flash, F/Sgt. “B” brevet. assumed to be E.M. Milks.” The graves now fall under the stewardship of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The surviving crew members, Sydney Wheatley and Cliff Beck, managed to stay in touch, and in a 1994 letter Beck recounted his recent visit to Heteren cemetery. “I was in something of a dream state. It was altogether an emotionally draining, numbing experience and recovery has taken until fairly recently.”
In 2001, thanks to the efforts of Allan Richens and members of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society, a cenotaph with the names and details of the men from Chelsea who lost their lives in World Wars I and II was dedicated at Chelsea’s Pioneer Cemetery.
The cemetery is also the resting place of another Canadian soldier named Richard Rowland Thompson, who has the distinction of being the only Canadian to be honoured with the Queen’s Scarf of Honour.
On November 11 of each year, Erle’s youngest brother Harold, who was one of the twins born in 1943, participates in a Remembrance Day ceremony and lays a wreath in his honour at the cenotaph. In April of 2012, Harold, better known as “Harky”, travelled to Heteren to visit the grave of the brother he never knew.
Special thanks to the late Sydney Wheatley, whose documents and photos were essential in retelling this story, and to his son Philip for sharing them with me. Thank you also to the late Allan Richens, and to Margaret Owen and the GVHS.
You may also enjoy the article about my great uncle René, who also died in a bomber crash in WWII.