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Young airman awarded George Cross during WWII

June 2018

The George Cross is a bravery award in the British Honours System, second only to the Victoria Cross. It may be awarded to any person, military or civilian, regardless of military rank, for heroism not in the presence of an enemy.

One such recipient is Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) Kenneth Spooner, a Royal Canadian Air Force student navigator training at No. 4 Air Observer School at RCAF Station Crumlin (now part of London), Ontario, only the second RCAF serviceman to receive the prestigious award.

Spooner joined the RCAF in the summer of 1942 in Montreal after being rejected for service in Toronto due to nerve damage in one of his legs that he sustained working for the Canadian Pacific Railway.  He did initial training at No. 5 Manning Depot in Lachine, Quebec, No. 4 Manning depot in Quebec City and No. 5 Initial Training School in Belleville, Ontario, before heading for training at No. 4 AOS.

On 14 May 1943, Spooner was a passenger on an Avro Anson for a training exercise, along with Sergeant W.J. Brown, Leading Aircraftman R.H. Bailey, a wireless air gunner, Leading Aircraftman J.A. Curtis, a student bombardier, and the pilot, Flight Sergeant (F/Sgt) Dana Nelson.

About 2 and a half hours into the flight, F/Sgt Nelson suddenly passed-out at the controls, and the others were unable to fully revive him.

Despite having no pilot training, Spooner took the flight controls as the aircraft rapidly began losing altitude. Radioing an emergency signal back to Crumlin, he was able to level the flight long enough for Bailey, Curtis and Brown bailed out to bail, with the Anson rapidly running out of fuel.

Tragically, the Anson crashed into Lake Erie about five kilometres southeast of Port Bruce, Ontario, killing Spooner and the still unconscious Nelson. Spooner was 21 years old.

Brown landed in the lake and tragically drowned before the RCAF Marine Unit could rescue him.

Spooner’s body was not recovered until 17 August, three months after the crash.  He was posthumously awarded the George Cross, based on testimony from Bailey and Curtis.

LAC Kenneth Spooner was buried with full military honours in Hillcrest Cemetery in his hometown of Smiths Falls, Ontario.

F/Sgt Nelson’s body was not recovered at the time either.  Two months after the crash, the remains of an unknown RCAF serviceman were recovered from the shores of Lake Erie and buried in Fairview Cemetery in Dutton, Ontario.

In 1949, a new elementary school in Smiths Falls was named the Spooner Memorial Elementary School in his memory.

Spooner was further honoured in October 2017 by 443 (Rideau Wing) of the RCAF Association, who re-named their building the Spooner Memorial Hall.

RCAF Station Crumlin stayed open after the war ended, renamed RCAF Station London, but ultimately closed in 1958.

Today the former RCAF station is the London International Airport and bears very little resemblance to the Air Observer School that Spooner left of that final flight.  He would hardly recognize the place today.

One of the two WWII-era buildings that remain today is something that Spooner would indeed remember:  the Airmen’s Canteen, which is now occupied by 427 (London) Wing RCAF Association and the Spirit of Flight Museum.

On 14 September 2002, 427 (London) Wing dedicated the Spooner Memorial Garden outside the main entrance to their building to the long-lost airman.  The garden consists of a memorial walkway, a curved wall with flags of the countries that took part in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), seven plaques giving brief histories of the BCATP training units that were located in and around London during WWII.

Right next to the entrance to the building is a large commemorative stone telling the brave and tragic story of Leading Aircraftsman Gerald Kenneth Spooner, GC.

In 2017, the mystery of what happened to F/Sgt Nelson’s remains was finally solved when the unknown remains buried in Fairview Cemetery in Dutton were positively identified as Nelson by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with help from the Federal Library and Archives Canada. A new headstone with his name inscribed was erected in the summer of 2018.

Sources: Airman hounoured at ceremony renaming Air Force Association Hall as Spooner Memorial Hall, Smiths Falls Record News, 17 October 2017, VC & GC Association web site – https://vcgca.org, the Secrets of Radar Museum web site – www.secretsofradar.com, Profile of Courage: Leading Aircraftman Kenneth Gerald Spooner, RCAF News, 3 June 2016, 427 (London) Wing web site – www.427wing.com, http://pspborden.com/CitizenOnline/not-all-heroes-served-overseas-heros-de-guerre-sans-meme-avoir-franchi-la-frontiere/?fbclid=IwAR2dg3bhyEJxtEobPHINRlccL74i9QyX-G1n4zI-GTRoa3Ioux7kvMNj_18, https://lfpress.com/news/local-news/after-75-years-lost-air-force-pilot-finally-gets-a-headstone, https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2622916

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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