(This article is culled from a videotaped interview with Doug Matheson, conducted in 2005.)
Written By MAURICE TOUGAS
Doug Matheson described himself as the world’s worst student. In fact, he never graduated high school.
But he was pretty darn good at flying.
Matheson (1921-2009), a born-and-bred Edmontonian, recalled his remarkable Second World War years as a pilot in an interview conducted in 2005.
Matheson remembers rushing down to enlist in the Air Force the day in 1940 when Italy joined in the war on the German side. He went downtown to the Tegler Building, where he found a lineup around the block of young guys eager to join the Air Force.
Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.
When he was called for his medical, “horror of horrors”, he says, he was told his eyes were not good enough.
“I rode my bike home, crying my eyes out. Couldn’t believe it. Ever since I was five-years old, I was an aviation nut.”
He recalled being at the Municipal Airport when Wop May came back from his famous flight to take diphtheria meds to the North. He used to just hang around the airport with a friend, watching flights come and go.
“Suddenly, I was told I would never be a pilot.”
Later, he retook the test. It turned out that he just got the instructions on the test wrong, and that his eyes were, indeed, perfect.
“They even nicknamed me Hawkeye because I had the best eyes in the unit,” he said.
To start his air career, he was shipped to Toronto via train, then to St. John, N.B. to a little airfield with only two Lysander aircraft.
“Those two Lysander were the sole defence for the Bay of Fundy area against the invading Hun,” he said with a laugh.
He was not fond of his “jackass” squadron leader, who acted like “he was conducting the entire Luftwaffe operation.”
In February 1941, he was back in Toronto, where everything was “spit and polish” compared to the experience in New Brunswick. But he ran into a problem – he was terrible at mathematics, not an ideal situation when you’re navigating.
“I had a terrible time working out navigational problems, and that sort of thing, because numbers are just not my bag.”
But with the help of a friend, he got by, and he was “absolutely thrilled and delighted to be learning to fly.”
And he was good at it, having his final flight test after about eight hours of flying time.
From there, it was onto Dunville, Nfld., for the British Air Training Plan.
He learned to fly on a Yale, a low-wing single piston engine monoplane advanced trainer aircraft that was built for the French Air Force and French Navy. It was, he said, “a terrible aircraft”, but good for instrument training, which he got to be quite good at.
While the aircraft was lousy, he had nothing but good things to say about the British-led training program, which was a “miracle” of efficiency.
He got 80 hours of training, and then it was off to war.
He was shipped overseas, a voyage that took five days. It was surprisingly luxurious, he recalled, with “the biggest bathtub I’ve ever seen” and a steward serving him tea.
The Canadians ended up in the receiving centre in Bournemouth, England, in September 1941.
The rookie pilots didn’t know what plane they would fly, but Matheson lucked out. “Eureka!” he said, when they found out they would be flying speedy and agile Spitfires. Their instructors were all “Battle of Britain guys”.
But before the Spitfires, there was more training, this time on the Magister, a wooden, two-seat monoplane basic trainer aircraft designed and built by the British aircraft manufacturer Miles Aircraft. They had a 1,500 hp engine, with “so much torque you’d take off sideways.”
After that training, it was onto the Spitfires. And it was love at first flight.
“We climbed in that old Spitfire and from the moment you sat in it, you’re at home. For a guy of my stature, it just fitted.
“I fired this thing up. It just started like a Ford car, just, vroom. That mighty rumble ahead of you there.”
And he immediately got lost.
“I didn’t know where the hell I was. But fortunately I knew the number of the runway, and just by an absolute fluke I ended up over the airfield.”
It was a love affair from then on, he said.
“A Spitfire never ever would hurt you. Most airplanes, if you mistreat them, they’ll mistreat you. You could mistreat a Spitfire, but it never hurt you.
“And so it was a, yes, a beautiful airplane.”
But, to fly at night in a Spitfire was quite an experience.
“When you open the throttle, you’re enveloped in fire” from the engine.
The idea of flying at night was “lunacy of the first order,” he said.
But in 1942, they started to do night flying, the “most hazardous thing you could do”. It was a “complete loss” as an experiment.
As good as the Spitfire was, the Germans had even better planes, as was evidenced by the Dieppe raid in which he participated, where the German planes dominated.
“Dieppe was one hell of a mess. We came in a very poor second in that performance.”
He escorted the famous B–17 Flying Fortress bombers in their first bombing raids over Germany. When the Americans arrived, things changed.
“You hear a lot of things about the Yanks. I’ll tell you this. They came over and they floundered very briefly. And thereafter, they used to be impressive as hell. They would go to a target and the flak was just absolutely monstrous, they just would keep on going right straight to their target. I just had an immense admiration for those guys.”
In 1942, he was made a Flight Lieutenant and was given command of the B Flight and of 411 Squadron.
As 1943 progressed, the raids became bigger and bigger. He was pretty confident of his flying, until, on Dec. 1, 1943, he got a rude awakening.
“I thought that I was pretty fireproof … until I got into the hands of (a German pilot). And he showed me what flying was all about. He had me in my parachute in no time flat. He sure blew me out of the sky.
“It was from that day forward that I really started to go to war. Because you saw what war was all about.”
He parachuted into France, expecting the area to be swarming with Germans. In fact, there were very few.
He stayed with the French underground for six months. But on April 9, 1944 he was captured by Gestapo officers, and taken to a prison in the French town of Lille. It was there he got a taste of war from the ground.
“The second night we were there, 350 Lancasters absolutely devastated the marshaling yard, including the prison I was in.” He believed that about 480 French civilians were killed.
“I suddenly realized what our air raids were all about.”
While Nazis are always portrayed as evil incarnate, Matheson’s experiences with the enemy were oddly civil.
He was interviewed by the Gestapo, a “guy who spoke good English”. When Matheson told the Gestapo officer that he was from Edmonton, the German replied, “Do you know Redwater and places like that? I told him I used to work in a farm up there, and he said, ‘So did I!’ ”
He was transferred to an interrogation camp where captured pilots were sent to get as much information as possible from the captives. Remarkably, the interrogator knew more about this crew than he did, having collected information while Matheson was in hiding with the resistance.
The interrogators were, amazingly, “very good guys”.
He went to a prison camp, Stalagluft Stalag Luft III, the same one where just months previous was the site of the legendary Great Escape, made famous in the film of the same name many years later. But this camp was “a civilization the likes of which I never met in my life”. His fellow prisoners were Oxford grads, “the most wonderful, erudite men I have ever met in my life”.
He tried to participate in the digging of an escape tunnel, but his claustrophobia got the best of him and he lasted just one day. The other British captives, though, kept working on escapes.
“The Brits were so inventive, and it was everything to do with escape techniques.”
The tide of the war had turned, and the Russians were nearing the camp. The whole camp was moved, and he joined a huge stream of refugees fleeing the advancing Russians, walking for miles in bitter cold weather.
Eventually he was sent to Hamburg, where the intensity of the bombing told him the end of the war was near.
While being moved again, Matheson and another prisoner were getting “out of line”, and a German soldier shot Matheson without warning.
“I saw him, knew it. I knew he was going to shoot me. And he was going to shoot right through the belly, and I jumped up and turned sideways.”
That move saved his life. The bullet went through both thighs, which resulted in him spending the last two months of the war in hospital. There, he saw the destruction the air raids were inflicting on the German soldiers.
On April 30th, English soldiers took over the hospital. He was in the basement, getting “half tight” with a German soldier, when the English came in.
“Any British chaps down there?” he heard.
“I said, ‘Amen!”
His war was over. Not bad for a high school drop out.
Matheson lived the rest of his life in Edmonton. Admitted to the bar in 1952, he and his brother Bob formed Matheson and Company. He was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench in 1985. He was instrumental in the formation of the Reynolds Alberta Museum, and was a director of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, the Edmonton Flying Club, the Churchill Society and the Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown PEI.
Douglas Matheson died in a plane crash on June 15, 2009.