Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Honouring My Cousin, RCAF Pilot Officer George Howard (Geordie) Fleming, Killed in Action, August 15, 1941

Note One:  Several family members gave me the go ahead to write about Geordie.  They also provided useful background information.

Note Two:  Kudos to David Alexander for his valuable insights.  And thanks to Laura Stirling, public services assistant at the Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library, for helping me find newspaper articles.

Note Three: Photo of Ray Fleming (no relation) included with permission.  Appreciated the help he gave me with this post.

Introduction

When I was growing up, my mother Jay (nee Fleming) Peterson (1920-1976) frequently mentioned how sad she was that her cousin, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Pilot Officer, George Howard (Geordie) Fleming, lost his life during the Second World War.



Geordie Fleming, 1940


On September 30, 1940, Geordie joined the RCAF.  He trained at various locations in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.  On March 17, 1941, he received his wings and was overseas by mid-April of that same year.  Two months later, he was participating in operational flights over enemy territory with the First Canadian Bomber Squadron.  After a few weeks, he became captain of his bomber.  The crew conducted regular forays, including at least one over Berlin.

On the night of August 14-15, 1941, the bomber was returning from a raid over Germany, and was within a short distance of the Pocklington, Yorkshire base, when it was attacked by either an enemy air or naval craft.  It came down in flames over the east coast of England, killing all six men on board.  Investigators were able to confirm it was the aircraft, based on objects found in the wreckage.

Geordie's tragic passing had a negative effect on not only my mother, but also her siblings and cousins.  It particularly upset Mom that Geordie was engaged to be married to fellow Owen Sounder, Louise McCormick, yet he was shot down by enemy fire before the wedding could take place.



Jay (nee Fleming) Peterson, ca. early 1940s


On the Canadian Virtual War Memorial (CVWM) site at Veterans Affairs Canada, there is an entry for Geordie, which includes details about his commemoration at Runneymede Memorial, Surrey, United Kingdom.  This memorial includes the names of 20,000 "airmen who have no known grave."

Geordie's 275-page service file can be downloaded from the Second World War (SWW) Military Heritage section of the Library and Archives Canada site.  This is where you will find such documents as his attestation paper, correspondence and last will and testament.

Geordie's Pre-Enlistment Life, 1917-1940

Geordie was born Jun 7, 1917 in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada, to Howard and Martha (nee Tipper) Fleming.  My Great-Uncle Howard's younger brother Stuart was my grandfather.


Howard and Martha (Mattie) Fleming, ca. 1945-1953


Geordie completed his schooling at the Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI) in 1935.  In June 1937, he graduated from Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario.  Then he found employment in the Folding Paper Box Dept. of Fleming Publishing Co. Limited in Owen Sound.  (Fleming Publishing was established by his grandfather and father in 1916.)

Much can be learned from reading Geordie's service file on the LAC site.  He was described by his superiors as "tall," "slender," "healthy," "refined," and "of high intelligence."  Sports and community work took up much of his spare time.  He was a member of the Church of Christ (a.k.a. Disciples Church), like his parents and many of his other relatives.  Found among his possessions at the time of his death was the New Testament.

Fleming Family Involvement During the War Years

It is not surprising that Geordie joined the RCAF because many of his immediate and extended family supported military intervention to protect Canadian soil.  His uncle George (1889-1971) served in the First World War, rising to the rank of colonel in the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles regiment.

In 1913, his grandfather, C.A. Fleming (1857-1945), his father Howard (1883-1956), his uncle George and his uncle (my grandfather) Stuart (1892-1989) invested in Richardson, Bond & Wright (R B & W), an Owen Sound printing firm that was originally established in 1853.

This Fleming business team helped guide the company through both the First and Second World Wars.  C.A. was president, 1917-1945, and Howard was vice-president, 1917-1947.  George held a number of different positions during the war years, including president, vice-president and general manager.  My grandfather Stuart was secretary-treasurer, 1913-1926, and general manager, 1917-1926.

The federal government authorized R B & W to publish an extensive amount of material used by the armed forces and government agencies during the Second World War (SWW).  Millions of sugar, meat and butter ration books were produced.  From 1945 to 1947, the firm also printed code books for the Allies, and received a citation for doing so from the United States and Canadian commands.

The company's SWW work is documented in a 125th anniversary (1853-1978) book that was published in 1979.  (In June 1978, the company changed its name to RBW.  RBW was acquired by TC Transcontinental Printing in 1992.  The Owen Sound branch is called TC Transcontinental RBW Graphics.)

Howard's prominent role in the Owen Sound communications field also contributed to the SWW effort.  In 1904, his father C.A. and he invested in the local newspaper business, with their efforts leading to the creation of the Owen Sound Sun-Times in 1918.  The Sun-Times provided extensive coverage of the SWW, including local casualties.  In fact, Howard was the Sun-Times publisher at the time of his son's tragic death.

Because of the difficulties involved with delivering newspapers during the war, Howard realized that providing SWW coverage over the airways was also important.  Consequently, he helped establish the local radio station, CFOS, in 1940.

Geordie Among OSCVI Former Students Who Died During the SWW

Detailed information about former Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI) students who lost their lives during the Second World War can be found in David Alexander's 2017 Master thesis.  It can be downloaded from the University of Waterloo website (see the bibliography for further details).  Alexander is eminently qualified to write about this topic because he is a former student who spent his entire teaching career at OSCVI.

Alexander contends the OSCVI's SWW dead had different experiences from their First World War (FWW) counterparts, but their legacy has been overshadowed by the FWW "traditional methods of remembrance."  He points out that former students like Geordie came of age during the 1920s and Great Depression, at a time of increased technological advancement and globalization.  Consequently, they need to be viewed through this unique lens.


Geordie Fleming with hockey stick, ca. 1930


In terms of the OSCVI war dead, Geordie was the "first recorded fatal combat casualty as a result of direct enemy action."  Royal Air Force (RAF) or RCAF airmen accounted for 37 of the 60 who lost their lives.

I agree with Alexander that FWW flying ace Billy Bishop (1892-1956) may have had an influence on former students like Geordie joining the RCAF.  Bishop attended the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute (which became OSCVI when the vocational wing was added in 1924).  In addition, he was appointed Director of Recruiting for the RCAF in January 1941.  Most people associate this flying ace with the FWW, but he also played a major role in the SWW.

Bishop had a cameo role in a 1942 picture (by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz) that was filmed mostly in Ottawa, Ontario.  It was a joint production of Hollywood, the Government of Canada and the RCAF.  Captains of the Clouds--a phrase Bishop had used in a speech--was the title.  Production started in July 1941, so shortly before Geordie was killed.  It is very possible that Geordie would have been aware of not only Bishop's role in recruiting, but also his cameo in the film, particularly since the RCAF was involved with the film production.

Billy Bishop "Borrowing" My Grandfather's Suit, ca. 1912-1913

Geordie may also have been privy to an unverified piece of family lore.  My Grandfather, Stuart Fleming, attended Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario (graduated in 1913).  At the same time, Bishop was at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC) which is also located in Kingston.

Bishop entered the RMCC in 1911, but failed his first year.  The second year he did much better, but during the third he was caught cheating.  He was not known for his academic abilities, so it is not surprising that, in 1914, he left the RMCC to join the Mississauga Horse cavalry regiment.

Prior to 2017, RMCC cadets were required to wear their uniforms when off-campus.  Bishop would reportedly feign a family crisis, and go out on the town for several days.  But in order to avoid detection as an RMCC student, he would, as my family understands it, sneak into my Grandfather's boarding house room and "borrow" Grandfather's suit without him knowing it.

Retired RCAF Captain Ray Fleming and Heritage Fair, February 15, 2020, London, Ontario

On February 15, 2020, I attended a Heritage Fair hosted by the London Heritage Council.  The theme of the fair was "Remembering Their Sacrifice: 75 Years After the Second World War & Battle of the Atlantic."  Retired RCAF Captain Ray Fleming (no relation) was an appraiser at this fair.  I showed him a 11" x 17" binder of material I have collected on Geordie, which includes many of the photos that appear in this blog post.

Ray was impressed with what I have collected on Geordie, and let me take a photo of him standing beside the type of uniform Geordie would have worn when he was a "RCAF Leading Aircraftsman undergoing" flight training.



Ray Fleming with RCAF uniform, Heritage Fair, February 15, 2020


Conclusion

If it was not for the Heritage Fair, I probably would have put off doing anything to honour Geordie for a few more years.  My assembling of the information in the binder and my review of the images and text has made me acutely aware of why my mother was so saddened by Geordie's passing.  Now I profoundly share her grief, and hope my retelling his story here will remind people we must never forget the "ultimate sacrifice" of more than 45,000 Canadians during the Second World War.

Bibliography

Alexander, D.R. (2017, December 12).  Dum Vivimus Vivamus: The Lost Identity of the Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute Second World War Dead (Master thesis}.  Retrieved from the University of Waterloo: https://uwaterloo.ca

Canadian Virtual War Memorial (2019, November 7).  Pilot Officer George Howard Fleming.  Retrieved from Canadian Virtual War Memorial: https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance

CBC News (2018, December 3).  Ottawa stars in little-known wartime film by Casablanca director.  Retrieved from CBC News: https://www.cbc.ca/news

Fleming, C.G. (December 1994).  C.A. Fleming: Educator, Entrepreneur, Businessman. . .Owen Sound: unpublished.

Library and Archives Canada (2020, February 20).  George Howard Fleming.  Retrieved from Second World War Service Records:  http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/second-world-war-dead-1939-1947

Library and Archives Canada (2020, February 15).  Second World War Service Records.  Retrieved from Second World War Service Records:  http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/second-world-war

London Heritage Council (2020, February 15).  8th Annual Heritage Fair.  Remembering Their Sacrifice: 75 Years After the Second World War & Battle of the Atlantic (brochure).  London, Ontario.

Morrison, K. (July 1991).  J. Stuart Fleming (1892-1989).  Wiarton, Ontario: unpublished.

Owen Sound Sun-Times (1941, August 20).  9 Canadian Airmen Lost Raiding Reich.  Owen Sound Sun-Times, p. 12.

Owen Sound Sun-Times (1941, March 6 or 7).  Arrived in England.  Owen Sound Sun-Times.

Owen Sound Sun-Times (1941, March 18).  Geo. H. Fleming receives wings: Member of Graduating Class of Flying School of Saskatoon.  Owen Sound Sun-Times, p. 5.

Owen Sound Sun-Times (1941, August 16).  Pilot Officer Geo. Fleming is Missing.  Owen Sound Sun-Times, p. 1.

Owen Sound Sun-Times (1942, April 1).  Now Listed as Presumed Dead.  Owen Sound Sun-Times, p. 1.

Owen Sound Sun-Times? (1941, November?).  Hope is abandoned for Pilot Officer G. Fleming Missing Since August 15.  Owen Sound Sun-Times?

Owen Sound Sun-Times? (1956, January 21-30?).  Hundreds pay tribute to Howard Fleming.  Owen Sound Sun-Times?

Powell, J. (2018, July 18).  Remember this? Captains of the Clouds.  Retrieved from OttawaMatters: https://www.ottawamatters.com

RBW Inc. (1979).  1853-1978: 125 years of providing opportunity for people of purpose and skill.  Owen Sound: RBW Inc.

TC Transcontinental (2020, May 8).  Acquisitions and Expansions, 1986-1995.  Retrieved from TC Transcontinental: https://tctranscontinental.com/about-us-/history/1986-1995

Toronto Daily Star (1956, January 20).  Owen Sound Publisher, Howard Fleming, 73, Dies.  Toronto Daily Star.

Wikipedia contributors (2020, March 14).  Billy Bishop.  Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipeida.org

Wikipedia contributors (2020, April 8).  Captains of the Clouds.  Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipeida.org

Wikipedia contributors (2020, April 18).  Royal Military College of Canada.  Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipeida.org

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