Canadian Bomber Command vets endure a final snub from Ottawa

Steve Mertl
Canadian Bomber Command vets endure a final snub from Ottawa

Two news item this week related to Canada's oldest veterans struck me as an indication of the governments hypocritical attitude (and by extension, ours) towards the country's revered warriors.

After seven decades, Ottawa is finally getting around to recognizing the heroism of Canadian airmen who served in Bomber Command, one of the most dangerous arms of the Allied effort in the Second World War.

But in honouring the the surviving Bomber Command vets, the Conservatives ensured they got maximum PR bang for their buck, apparently at the expense of some of those very men who were forced to wait to get their awards because it didn't suit the government's photo-op schedule.

Meanwhile, the last surviving veteran of the Canadian fighting unit that challenged fascism in Spain on the eve of the Second World War died in unhonoured anonymity earlier this month after a lifetime of official non-recognition.

The Conservative government gets criticized regularly for wrapping itself in the flag when it comes to Canada's military history — witness the millions spent to commemorate the Canadian militia's contribution to defeating American invasion attempts in the War of 1812 — while short-changing living veterans of Canada's modern wars.

[ Related: Vets angry as federal lawyers argue Ottawa has no social obligation to soldiers ]

To be fair, this isn't the first government to be castigated for its treatment of veterans. But the treatment of Bomber Command veterans, in their eighties and nineties, seems particularly egregious given their history.

WWII's Bomber Command a continued source of controversy

Bomber Command, led by Britain's Royal Air Force but including airmen from Commonwealth nations, occupies a controversial place on the history of the war.

For years, aerial bombing of Germany and occupied Europe were the only means of striking back at the triumphant Nazis. Air Marshall Arthur "Bomber" Harris was a staunch advocate of the pre-war doctrine that vast air fleets could bomb an enemy into submission.

But bombers lacked the technology to target military and industrial locations with precision, so the RAF resorted to area bombing that wiped out whole neighbourhoods and eventually entire cities, causing an estimated 600,000 civilian deaths.

The strategy was contentious even during the war, especially after the Allies had landed in Normandy and, in conjunction with the Red Army, were pushing into Germany. Even Winston Churchill was having second thoughts.

"It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed," Britain's war leader wrote in 1945. "Otherwise, we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land."

Harris was unapologetic for destroying cities such as Cologne, Hamburg and Dresden, arguing it helped save Allied soldiers from the slaughter of the First World War.

(My family was on the receiving end. My mother passed through Dresden the day before it disappeared in a firestorm in February 1945, and her family's apartment was destroyed in a raid late in the war.)

Regardless of the morality of the bombing campaign, the airmen who had no part in making the policy faced unimaginable danger. More than 57,000 died out of 120,000 who served, ironically a casualty rate comparable to First World War infantry units, and eclipsed only by the German navy's U-boat service.

One third of all Bomber Command aircrew were Canadian, according to the Canadian Bomber Command Museum web site. By the end of the war, the RCAF had 15 of its own squadrons in the campaign. Some 10,000 Canadians lost their lives.

After the war, while other units were showered with honours, Bomber Command vets were largely ignored both here and in Britain, reflecting post-war ambivalence about the campaign.

But after decades of lobbying, the federal government announced earlier this year that Bomber Command vets would receive a bar to add to their campaign decorations in recognition of their hazardous service.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino gave out the first of the awards last month, the department announced in a news release.

But CTV News reported Wednesday that many of the 1,500 veterans due to receive the bar by mail were being forced to wait while Fantino completed a round of ceremonies with small groups of vets. The delay was apparently on instruction from the minister's office.

Peter Glazier, whose 93-year-old father Cecil is waiting to get his award by mail, told CTV News he was upset these public ceremonies were taking precedence over getting the award to other elderly vets.

Glazier said he spoke to to a “very compassionate” Veterans Affairs staffer “who was quite sincere but somewhat embarrassed these awards were being held up while the politicians got more photo-ops.”

Fantino initially defended the photo-op ceremonies as educational but after CTV News contacted his office he instructed his department to mail out the awards as soon as possible.

It remains unexplained just why the minister's office thought simultaneously mailing out the awards while Fantino made the rounds would undermine their messaging.

Unsung hero of the Spanish Civil War

An explanation of Jules Paivio's largely unmarked death is a little easier to explain.

Paivio, who died earlier this month at age 97, was the last surviving member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, one of the International Brigades that flocked to Spain to defend its socialist government against the ultimately successful rebellion by fascist general Francisco Franco.

The Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936 and ended in April 1939, four months before the outbreak of the Second World War, became a testing ground for the German and Italian war machines while the appeasement-oriented Great Powers stood aside.

More than 30,000 volunteers for International Brigades, including the Canadian Mac-Paps, were recruited from left-wing groups and organized by the Comintern, the Soviet Union's organization aimed at advancing international communism.

[ Related: Veterans' benefits letters slammed by ombudsman ]

More than 1,500 Canadians went to Spain, including the 19-year-old Paivio of Sudbury, Ont.

According to the Georgia Straight, Paivio sailed to France and made his way to Spain on foot to take part in the bloody prelude to the global holocaust to come.

In 1938, Paivio and other members of his patrol were captured by Italian troops. They were being lined up against a wall to be shot when an officer realized the foreigners could be exchanged for fascist prisoners. Paivio would be held for more than a year before being released after Franco's victory.

He returned to Canada, where he joined the army on the outbreak of war. But the combat veteran, like most of his battle-tested comrades, was not allowed to travel overseas because of his connection to the Soviet-backed International Brigades, even though the USSR would become an ally against Hitler in 1941. He spent the war training Canadian soldiers how to read maps, the Straight said.

After the war, Paivio studied architecture and taught at what is now Ryerson University in Toronto.

The federal government never recognized the Mac-Paps' contribution to the fight against fascism and Naziism. In fact, the Cold War brought them under scrutiny from the RCMP as potential subversives.

Paivio was finally honoured by the post-Franco Spanish government two years ago, receiving Spanish citizenship for his service, the Straight reported.

In a commentary in the Ottawa Citizen this week, novelist Terrence Rundle called the official silence over Paivio's death "unconscionable."

"Seventy five years have passed, yet the Mac-Paps still get no respect," wrote Rundle, who spent time with Paivio while researching a novel set in part in 1930s Spain.

"Jules’ story is not unusual for the Canadian veterans to Spain. They stuck together over the decades, longing for recognition. Now the last of them is gone but their families remain, and the bitterness lives on.

"It’s been 75 years. Time for our government and the National War Museum to recognize them at last."