Compiled by Brook Reid Durham for Aircrew Remembered:
Harold William Reid was born in Belmont, Ontario on 3 February 1919, the eldest of James and Gladys Reid's four children. Harold's youngest sibling, David Malcolm Reid, was my grandfather. A few years after Harold was born, the Reid family moved across Elgin County to nearby Aylmer. It was here that James Everard Reid established the family business: J.E. Reid Coal, Coke and Wood. As a child, Harold was interested in photography, woodworking, bicycle riding, soccer, and baseball. He also showed an interest in aviation from an early age. If the Second World War had not intervened, Harold might have inherited his father's business and raised a family of his own.
Like most children in rural towns across Ontario during the 1930s, Harold was expected to grow up fast. He spent his summers working on local farms, finished school by the eighth grade, and started working for his father on his thirteenth birthday. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Harold visited a local military recruitment office in the summer of 1940 and enlisted with the 2nd Elgin Regiment based in St. Thomas. Facing increasing pressure from recruitment officials to join the Canadian Army fighting overseas, Harold traveled to London, Ontario to enlist in June 1942. He evidently made a good first impression on the enlistment officer, who remarked that Harold was “a very bright, intelligent chap who should go a long way in the Army. Should make a good NCO. Desires to enter the Infantry (rifle).” The medical officer, however, was not as flattering: “Intelligence standard,” the doctor noted, “(Harold) has had little schooling and is not the scholarly type. Self-assured, rather noisy type. Should be good pilot material.” While it probably was not the medical officer who convinced Harold to change his mind about joining the infantry, Harold nevertheless joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in December 1942.
Around the same time Harold joined the RCAF, Sir Arthur Harris was ascending to Commander-in-Chief of the British Royal Air Force's Bomber Command. The commander, whose critics labeled “Butcher” Harris, was the chief architect of the RAF's controversial strategic bombing campaign between 1942 and 1945. As a pilot for Bomber Command, Harold was tasked with carrying out Harris's strategy of using swarms of heavy RAF bombers to degrade German morale by bludgeoning their cities and citizens into submission and destroying critical infrastructure. Coincidentally, the same year that Harris assumed control of Bomber Command and Harold joined the RCAF also saw the debut of the Avro Lancaster, which soon became the most capable heavy bomber in both RAF and RCAF arsenals. The Lancaster, powered by four massive Rolls-Royce Merlin engines and requiring a crew of six capable airmen and an experienced pilot, could deliver more larger bombs and greater numbers of incendiaries, across longer distances, than anything that had come before it.
The RCAF transported Harold to Quebec City for pilot training and general education. His test scores in science, math, and English were initially terrible. Nevertheless, Harold applied himself after the mid-terms and raised his grades from mid-50s to mid-70s, achieving a “pass” and eventually graduating. It was very unusual for someone with such a limited education to gain admittance to the RCAF pilot program, but Harold succeeded despite the odds. Perhaps his success stemmed from a natural affinity for aviation: Harold had already logged fifteen hours of flying experience before enlisting with the RCAF. While in Quebec, Harold learned to fly Wellingtons, Harvards, Oxfords, Tiger Moths, and the Lancaster Mark III.
Harold was shipped overseas to England and was assigned to the RAF's 626 Squadron in Wickenby, Lincolnshire on 3 March 1945. Over 1,080 airmen stationed at Wickenby lost their lives and 190 Lancaster bombers were lost during the airbase's brief period of operation. The war diaries of 626 Squadron's contain a list of Harold's missions. In spite of his natural gift for aviation, and over two and a half years of pilot training, Harold survived only six sorties. This was the risk that every airmen took whenever leaving Allied soil for enemy territory. Over 8,000 Canadian airmen were killed in action during the Second World War and another 2,000 were taken prisoner.
On 5 April 1945, Harold was sent on a sortie over Germany to target a petrochemical factory located on the edge of a small lake in Lutzkendorf, Saxony. Harold's crew departed from Wickenby air field at 20:55 to undertake what would have been their second night-time mission. Harold's five other sorties were to Bruchstrasse (21 March), Hanover (25 March), Paderborn (27 March), Hamburg (31 March), and Norhausen (3 April). The 626 Squadron war diary entry for 5 April reported simply that “Aircraft [from Lutzkendorf] returned at 05.13hrs with the exception of 'B2' and 'Y2'.” Harold was the pilot of 'Y2' – Lancaster PB411. The plane has yet to be found. The Wing Commander of 626 Squadron remarked that Harold was “...a fearless Captain and very capable pilot in whom could be placed the greatest trust.” The 626 Squadron ceased offensive operations two weeks after Harold's disappearance in preparation for the end of hostilities with Germany. The families of the seven men aboard PB411 soon received terse telegrams from Ottawa informing them of their sons' fates: “Regret to advise that your son...is reported missing after air operations overseas April 5th. Stop.” James and Gladys lost their eldest son, and my grandfather David lost his oldest brother at the age of fourteen.
Full crew details of Lancaster III PB411 UM-Y2
In 1948, Harold's parents learned from Ottawa that the remains of their son had finally been located in a mass grave near Lutzkendorf, along with the rest of the his crew. Interestingly, there was very little evidence to support the conclusion that the bodies recovered at Lutzkendorf were actually the crew of PB411. The British Casualties Officer stationed in Germany at the time believed the mass grave contained the remains of airmen from three different Lancaster crews. One of the bodies in this grave was wearing clothing inscribed with the name of a crew member from PB411. The Casualties Office assumed that, because at least one member of PB411 was located within the mass grave, Harold was likely there as well. The remains collected from Lutzkendorf were transferred to the British Military Cemetery (Heerstrasse) in Berlin and a cemetery marker was erected to commemorate the crew of PB411.
The Reid family's wounds were opened once again in 1951 when the Casualties Officer in Ottawa sent word that Harold's remains had recently been discovered in Weissensee, Thuringia, after the remains of an unknown soldier exhumed there was matched to Harold's dental records. Weissensee is forty miles to the west of Lutzkendorf. The officers investigating the discovery expressed confusion over how such an event could have happened, but they did not reveal their doubts to the Reid family in their official correspondence. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the grave marker under which Harold's remains were discovered in Weissensee was dated 9 April 1945 – four days after PB411's disappearance over Lutzkendorf:
“As a result of working on the report...of 8th September 1947, we decided that the crew of PB411 was buried, with members of other crews at Braunsbedra [the mass grave near Lutzkendorf], some 40 miles east of Weissensee. It is true that the main evidence for identification at Braunsbedra was another clothing clue...but, if both pieces of evidence are correct, how are we to account for the fact that the pilot was buried 40 miles away from the rest of his crew?”
There are several possible explanations for this: if PB411 was heavily damaged, Harold may have evacuated his crew near Braunsbedra and made a futile attempt to return home, before crashing near Weissensee. That seems unlikely. It is also possible that Harold survived the crash relatively unscathed and was heading west, in an attempt to escape to France, when he was captured and killed. This scenario also seems unlikely. The most probable scenario involves Harold surviving the crash and being captured by German soldiers shortly thereafter. He would likely have been suffering from serious injuries resulting from the crash, and may have been travelling westward en-route to a Stalag Luft outside of Frankfurt to receive medical attention before succumbing to his injuries. Regardless of what happened, it is likely that the official date of death inscribed on Harold's headstone by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 5 April 1945, is incorrect because Harold survived the crash of PB411. More work still needs to be done to uncover the fate of PB411, including locating and translating the war diaries from German regiments stationed in the area around Lutzkendorf on the night of 5 April 1945, as well as tracking down the reports filed by the Casualties Officers who discovered Harold's true resting place in Weissensee in 1951.