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'You could feel the flak': Lancaster gunner recalls the war over Germany

Blair Crawford, Ottawa Citizen
at Pineland Public School in Burlington, Ont.

At 92, Noel says he’s too old now to lay the wreath.

“I told them I’ll just sit and watch this year,” he said. “I’d probably fall right into it.”

Born and raised in Sharbot Lake, Ont., about 100 kilometres west of Ottawa, Noel and all three of his brothers enlisted to serve overseas during the Second World War. Noel chose the air force “because I wanted to fly.”

He ended up an air gunner, manning the rear turret of a Lancaster bomber in 115 Squadron, Royal Air Force. He flew 29 missions, including two sorties on June 6, 1944 — D-Day — bombing German gun positions and railway stations.

noel shanks third from right with his royal air force lanc

He had a grand view of the invasion fleet from his perch in the rear of the bomber.

“You could see the boats in the water, waiting for the word to go in,” he said. “All you could see were battleships and cruisers … the whole side of the ship would light up as they were throwing the shells to soften up the German positions.”

The invasion had been such a well-kept secret that it wasn’t until later that day he learned what D-Day was all about.

The Lancasters flew their bombing missions at night, wingtip to wingtip in a long stream of aircraft over Nazi-occupied Europe. The other planes were invisible in the darkness and often it was only the buffeting from another plane’s propeller wash that told them another aircraft was close by.

Like many rear gunners, Noel preferred to remove the clear Plexiglas shield of his gun turret. It meant he was exposed to the sub-zero temperatures for the entire flight, but it helped him see better as he scanned the sky for German fighters.

Several times, Noel’s Lancaster returned with holes from bullets and shells.

“You could feel the flak shake the aircraft and you could smell it,” he said. “You could hear the pieces of metal hitting the aircraft.”

Once, Noel’s plane was raked with bullets from a night fighter and the pilot put the Lanc into a steep dive to escape. Noel saw his detached hand floating in front of his face and thought his arm had been blown off.

“I grabbed it and thought, I won’t be needing this anymore so threw it out of the aircraft,” he said. It turned out to be his spare pair of gloves he’d seen.

On another mission, the crew had been ordered to bomb at low level but for some reason was the only aircraft to get the message. As they flew, bombs from aircraft overhead rained down around them.

noel shanks 92 spends remembrance day with students at a s

“It was the only time I ever panicked,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s get out of here!'”

A normal tour for bomber crews was 30 sorties, but Noel and his crew were stood down after 29. Noel would go on to a long career at Air Canada after the war. The others on his aircrew weren’t so lucky: two were killed in a wartime truck crash; the pilot died when the transport plane he was flying crashed on takeoff in Egypt.

The war was good to Noel — something he is careful admitting when speaking with other veterans who came home with physical and psychological scars.

Nor is he troubled by the controversy about the tens of thousands of civilians killed by the Allied bombing campaign: “It was war,” he said. “You didn’t get to choose what you did.”

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