By Jenn Watt
Don Ross never met the uncle after whom he is named, but after spending countless hours working on the book In Defence of Home and Country: The Story of World War II Pilot Donald Alexander Ross, the Haliburton cottager said he feels like he knows him.
The story of Donald A. Ross, a Canadian pilot who died in the Second World War, was “extraordinary because it’s not unique,” his nephew said, seated on his dock overlooking Grass Lake. “In other words, there’s thousands of stories like that.”
And that’s why it’s important to document, he said. His uncle’s decision to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force – for which he paid the ultimate price when his plane crashed over Germany in 1944 – was not uncommon.
“What I tried to do was illustrate in the book the story – because he was a rather remarkable man, he was an all-round sportsman, he was the eldest sibling – the impact he had in a short period of time. He trained hundreds of pilots to fly, he made a huge contribution before he died at 29,” Ross said.
Donald A. Ross of Toronto enlisted with the RCAF in 1940, determined to become a pilot. Because he was colour-blind, he initially wasn’t approved to go overseas, but that decision was reversed not long after. “Whether he had finessed a way to clear the way for an overseas posting, we don’t know, but clearly he himself reapplied,” Ross writes. “Or perhaps the RCAF was desperate for good pilot material and bent the rules. We’ll never know!”
In the intervening years, he taught as a flight instructor, with the chief instructor noting him as “an above average pilot … steady and calm … Good personality.” He instructed for two years in Alberta and Saskatchewan before being posted overseas, arriving in England Feb. 15, 1944.
Flight Lieutenant Ross’s story is complicated by the intricacies of human life. He wasn’t just an airman, he was also a devoted husband to his high school sweetheart, Kay, and a beloved son in a family with four other siblings, including Don G. Ross’s father, Gord. When Flt. Lt. Ross left for England, his wife was four months pregnant with their daughter Beverley. He would never get the opportunity to meet his child.
During his time overseas, Flt. Lt. Ross wrote to his family members, including his brother Gord. It was the discovery of six of those letters that spurred Don G. Ross to begin researching his late uncle, initially with the intention of writing short stories.
“When my mother passed away, in her effects I found six of those old, blue airmail letters that my uncle Don … that he had written to my father, Gord, when he was overseas,” Ross said. “He was a very neat writer and he was very informative. There were six letters and I had the idea that I might be able to write something [like a] sort of short story that would give insight into the life of an airman overseas during the war, from what he did.”
He started to talk to his cousin, Bev, Flt. Lt. Ross’s daughter, and found that she had been collecting information and artifacts from her father’s life.
“The more I started into this, the more I thought, nobody in this family knows about this family member who sacrificed his life for his country. … I’m going to try to write his life story in a readable fashion that would illustrate what it was like to be an airman, what kind of sacrifices they had to make, what the family had to go through because his plane went down and he was killed in it on a mission.”
Flt. Lt. Ross’s Lancaster bomber crashed on March 5, 1945 likely after colliding with an escort fighter aircraft on its way to Chemnitz, Germany. Only the rear gunner survived; he parachuted to the ground where he was captured as a prisoner of war.
Don G. Ross highlighted the brutal nature of war in his passage about his uncle’s bombing mission and death: “Bomber Command lost 7,449 bombers and 47,130 aircrew during operations [in the Second World War]. Seventy German cities were devastated by air attacks. Five hundred thousand bombs rained down on Germany and caused between 500-600,000 deaths and destroyed 3.5 million homes. … Given a choice, many would have refused to kill thousands of innocent women and children by firebombing their homes. But no one gave them that choice. The brutality of strategic bombing was on an impersonal military level. No wonder that many soldiers who survived the war didn’t want to talk about it!”
One of the secrets Flt. Lt. Ross kept from his wife and parents was that he was engaged in operations, instead telling them he was training. The knowledge of his real work was divulged to his brother Gord in letters.
“Please don’t mention anything to Kay or Mom about Ops [operations], as to them I’ll still be in training … they might worry,” he wrote.
In a letter to Kay in December 1944, when he had already been engaged in ops for nearly a month, he wrote, “I can’t see an earthly chance of getting in Ops before the war’s end! Just train and wait.”
Today, his nephew wonders what effect that secret would have had on his family when news of his death was delivered. They thought their loved one was safely training, unlikely to encounter many dangerous situations. On top of their grief, the shock must have been immense.
“Along with the fact that his remains were never found,” Ross said, “so you wonder and his daughter still wonders 75 years later what happened. Might he have survived? Because one crew member did.”
Don G. Ross, who previously wrote a memoir about his own life including a harrowing life-threatening illness and lengthy hospitalization, said that collecting information on his uncle and producing a book has been fulfilling on many levels.
“I had some great material to work with, once I identified it. So, it was personally gratifying to write it and have it come out in a way that I was happy with it and that his family in particular was happy with it and [they were] thrilled and most appreciative,” he said. “Bev kept saying I can’t believe you’re doing all this for my dad and for us. I said hey, I’m lovin’ it!”
He encourages anyone interested in family history to consider writing it down in a format that can be shared. Writing your own history – and there are memoir courses you can take for assistance – will also be of interest to your friends and family, and potentially future generations.
“I believe everybody has one good book in them, because they can write about their life, their lessons learned, people have been through marriages, divorces, deaths, children, career successes, career failures, illness,” he said.
Don Ross has a few copies of his book, In Defence of Home and Country: The Story of World War II Pilot Donald Alexander Ross, which you can purchase by getting in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also intends on donating copies to the Haliburton County Public Library.