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Halifax air gunner had bird’s-eye view of D-Day


Russell Hubley had a bird’s-eye view of the chaos and carnage that was D-Day.

“We saw the troops going into the water and some of them never got to shore,” said Hubley, a sergeant and air gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“There were machine-guns up on the hills and a lot of the troops were mowed down. A lot of people who were not too tall, the landing barges couldn’t come all the way in. If you were short and you were carrying ammunition and all the stuff you had to carry (a full kit), a lot of the soldiers drowned because they couldn’t get ashore. They were weighed down. I saw that.”

The landing craft were also destroyed by German mines off the coast of Normandy, killing the troops on board outright or pitching them into the water injured and defenceless.

Hubley was a mid-upper gunner on a seven-member Halifax Bomber aircraft crew, part of the 431 Squadron and the Pathfinders, an elite group that located and marked bombing targets with coloured indicators.

“We opened D-Day,” Hubley said. “We went over there and we were involved right at the very start. We bombed a heavy gun emplacement in France farther in.”

Flying over the churning ocean water near Normandy, Hubley said it was also his crew’s job on D-Day to fight off any enemy planes in the area, “in case any fighters attacked us.”

“Unfortunately, there weren’t any (enemy) fighters around, but it was quite a sight.”

On June 7, D-Day plus one, Hubley’s unit “strafed the German trenches.”

The Normandy invasion sorties were part of the 60 missions Hubley flew during the Second World War, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Legion of Honour medal.

Air force over arts college

 Russell Hubley flew more than 60 Second World War missions as a gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force, including the early-morning D-Day assault on June 6, 1944. - Francis Campbell
Russell Hubley flew more than 60 Second World War missions as a gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force, including the early-morning D-Day assault on June 6, 1944. - Francis Campbell

Hubley had a keen interest in flight from a young age.

“I was born in Halifax, brought into the world by my Irish grandmother on Argyle Street, close to the (Herald) newspaper,” he said proudly.

In high school, he won a scholarship to attend the Nova Scotia Arts College.

“Instead of taking that, I went to work at the air force headquarters here in Halifax,” Hubley, 97, said during an interview conducted in his room at the Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building, his home for the past four years.

Hubley worked at the headquarters for about a year before he and a buddy decided to join the air force in the early 1940s.

“I was offered the chance to become a pilot but I turned it down because he wanted to be a bomber. My idea was to go over (to Europe), do a tour of operations, re-muster and then take pilot training. That didn’t happen.”

The two friends joined the air force as air gunners, took basic training at Lachine, Que., and went on to additional training at Quebec City in a former orphanage.

“That’s where I learned how to strip guns, machine-guns. We learned how to do those blindfolded.”

While initially flying in Lancaster aircraft with the same crew that he worked alongside during each of his 60 missions, Hubley got his chance to pilot a plane.

“We had a pilot who had been in the Toronto Scottish Highlanders,” Hubley recalls. “He re-mustered and came into the air force. He was a great believer in making sure that everyone knew what they were doing. He took every one of us in the crew and taught us how to fly. I have seven hours flying a Lancaster. He would take you up and set you in his seat and he would teach you to fly the plane straight and level. You didn’t do any smart tricks or turn it or anything like that. His thought was that if he got wounded, one of us might be well enough to fly the plane straight and level to England and then bail out. Don’t try to land the plane because we’d kill ourselves. That was his theory. It was a good one.”

Bombing of Dresden

A Lancaster releases the main part of its load over Duisburg in 1944. - Wikimedia Commons
A Lancaster releases the main part of its load over Duisburg in 1944. - Wikimedia Commons

One of his last active flying duties took Hubley to the German city of Dresden, near the border of Czechoslovakia.

Dresden had been considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities because of its art and architecture. During a mid-February raid in 1945, 800 bombers under the British Bomber Command hit Dresden with 2,700 tonnes of bombs, creating a firestorm that killed tens of thousands of people.

“Each one of those raids were 30 minutes and in that 30 minutes, how many do you think were killed? They tell me between 60,000 and 70,000. … There is not much you can do, knowing you were part of that.” 
- Russell Hubley

“It was a seven-hour trip,” Hubley remembers of the flight from Britain to Dresden. “We went over at 7 at night to mark the targets. When we got there, you could look down and see all the houses, the buildings, burning.

“When we left the target that night and looked down on it, one of the thoughts I had was ‘that’ll teach you for the raid I got caught in in London.’ There was no sympathy whatsoever, not until I found out what really happened.”

Hubley then pauses, his buoyant demeanour turning sad and somber.

“Each one of those raids were 30 minutes and in that 30 minutes, how many do you think were killed? They tell me between 60,000 and 70,000. … There is not much you can do, knowing you were part of that.”

There were better times ahead. Hubley completed his 60 operations two weeks before the war ended in Europe in May 1945. He came back to Canada, worked for a time in a machine shop in Guelph, Ont., but had a hankering to get back to the East Coast.

Hubley came back to Halifax, went to university and took machine shop courses at the Nova Scotia technical college.

“In the air force, we had a sergeant major, and he used to say, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing,” Hubley said.

Hubley’s best landing was in Halifax, where he and his late wife of 72 years, Bernice, raised a daughter and three sons. Hubley has eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandkids.

Russell worked at the HMC Dockyard in its engineering division and was the lead person on several dockyard projects.

D-DAY AT 75: Remembering the heroes and sacrifices of Atlantic Canada:

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