The 17th in a series of posts about my family tree
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
In our family archives we’re fortunate to have many documents that speak to the service and sacrifice of my great uncle, Sergeant Archibald Don Gordon, who was killed during World War II. The brother of my maternal grandmother, Alice (Gordon) McDonall, Archie was just 23 years old when the Halifax Bomber in which he was flight engineer was shot down over the Bay of Biscay during a mine laying expedition. My intention here is to document what I can of his story in the hope that more awareness can be raised with respect to the idea of never again.
We live in an age of digital everything. Old records are, for a variety of reasons, photographed and filed in the cloud for anyone to access, and to help preserve the information for posterity. Still, there’s something almost sacred about holding an old document in your hands. The sight/smell/feel of it underscores a sacred connection to history that’s impossible to sense through the digital screen. This idea was brought home the other day when the 30-year-old manila envelope I was holding filled with Uncle Archie’s military records slipped from my grasp, its contents spilling haphazardly on the floor. As I retrieved these treasured documents and gently replaced them in the envelope I found myself apologizing to him for my clumsiness. These are the only records we have of Archie’s short life. Treasured, indeed.
So, let’s begin …
What kinds of documents are in the archive and what can they tell us?
His Birth Record is no surprise. It shows where and when he was born, who his parents were, what his father did for a living, when his parents married and where they lived at the time of his birth. A valuable resource.
Next, we learn a little of Archie’s character and personality through another important document, his sister, my granny Alice’s, memoir.
Archie ~ Our dear brother. There was something about him from the time he was born. My mother always said it. He was born the 15th December, 1919. The first after dad’s return from the war. He was named for (or after) a superior officer of my dad’s after dad wrote to the family in England and asked permission to do so. The officer’s name was Archibald Don. He was killed. So my brother became Archibald Don Gordon. He was an easy one to raise yet he liked to get into mischief with the other boys. One time he and two pals stuffed a mean old bachelor’s chimney with straw and stuff so that the smoke could not get out. The police came out. The RCMP, but when they saw this small red headed kid they did nothing about it. I cannot go into Archie’s life fully. We all loved him and still do. (I think I’ll come back to this another day.)
Archie was a chubby, sturdy little boy. Red hair and hazel eyes. He grew into a good looking young man with a ready grin. He was popular with everyone who knew him. He had what is called a sunny disposition. When he was angry it never lasted for long. However, he had lots of grit and his temper, when aroused, was something to see.Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
Following in the tradition of his father, Sergeant Major William Alexander Gordon who served in the Black Watch all through WWI, and his maternal grandfather, Major Edward Robson, who served in India in the late 1800s, young Archie volunteered for military service at the beginning of WWII, opting for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). His Attestation Paper provides some insight into his life at that time:
Written in his own hand, the paper includes information on his training and occupation, sports interests and religion. I can’t help but wonder about the emotional rollercoaster he may have been on as he penned this document.
Archie started off as ground crew before seeking certification as a flight engineer. According to his Service Record Sheet he attained his qualification in July 1942. He sent a telegram to his mother to share the news. It’s worth noting there’s no date on the telegram, which I find interesting. The handwriting is that of his sister, Alice.
Archie became a flight engineer in 405 Squadron, Bomber Command, details of his service are outlined in his Airman’s Record Sheet and Record of Service.
And then, on April 6, 1943, less than a year after taking to the air, the unthinkable happened ~ his Halifax Bomber was shot down. The crew were missing in action. The following Circumstantial Report outlines details:
In her memoir, Alice notes:
“My mother was alone when the telegram arrived. She ran to a neighbour who got to my dad at his work. That was a dark day. My mother couldn’t eat or drink anything fearing that Archie was a war prisoner or that he had no food or water. I cannot tell all details here about the agony of it. My mother had been listening the night before to the news on the radio that told of results of raids and which planes had not come back to England. She heard that the Bomber named “P. for Peter” had not returned and she said she sort of knew that Archie had been on it. He was 23. My mother never slept for nights on end. My dad cried, the tears fell down his face as he pretended to read the newspaper. The trips were made to the Red Cross headquarters every day to find out if anything had been heard. Not only my family made these sad trips. There were many families hoping against hope.
Anyway, after 6 months they were all presumed dead. His clothes came home in a box. Not many. No uniforms. All the shirts and socks needed washing. He had had some of his pay sent home each month and deposited in my mother’s name in a bank. She never spent a cent of it for many years. Until my dad urged her to.“Source: Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
The whereabouts of that dreaded telegram is unknown. Like so many of its kind it was probably crumpled into a ball and discarded.
The impact of Archie’s disappearance was felt beyond the family. When his eldest sister, Jean, first came to Canada in the early 1920s she landed in Toronto and worked as a maid in the household of one of the wealthiest and most influential Canadian families of the early 20th century, Vincent and Alice Massey. Upon hearing the news of Jean’s brother’s disappearance Mrs. Massey, who was in London with her husband the High Commissioner to Britain during the war years, sent a letter to their mother, offering her sympathies:
Sergeant Archibald Don Gordon was later confirmed dead. His body and those of his fellow crew members washed ashore in the area where their plane had been shot down over the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France.
Archie was laid to rest twice ~ first at the civilian cemetery St. Eloi in La Rochelle, France, and later in the Pornic War Cemetery, Loire-Atlantique. In the following collection of images we see the first letter written in early 1958 by a close family friend (my mother’s boyfriend at the time) identifying Archie as his uncle. In the letter he asks for photographs of the grave from three different angles to provide some peace of mind for the family. The handwritten response tells that Archie’s body was transferred to the Pornic War Cemetery in February 1953. The first photo is the young airman’s marker in La Rochelle, the second marks where his body is laid to rest in Pornic.
A Final Word …
We’re fortunate to have so many documents that offer insight into a young man whose life ended all too soon. Granny Alice was the family member who later applied for her younger brother’s medals which she received and treasured until her own death in 1994. They now reside with a nephew (my second cousin) who is engaged in his own research of the Gordon family tree.
The lives of so many young men and women have been lost for the cause of freedom. For all our society’s talk of never forgetting many seem to have found it convenient to do just that while crusading for their own agenda. In so doing they endanger the lives of innocents, such as Archie, who believe in a principal of freedom which even today is still somehow up for debate.
I sincerely hope that Sergeant Archibald Don Gordon’s sacrifice, and that of so many others engaged in needless wars, wasn’t in vain or I’ll be apologizing to him for a lot more than a dropped envelope of treasured documents.❦
Note: All images are of documents in our family archives.
Image of Halifax Bomber from the Bomber Command Museum of Canada, Nanton, Alberta
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