26.08.1940 No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron Hurricane I P3874 F/O. Robert Lesley Edwards
Date: 26 August 1940 (Monday)
Unit: No. 1 Squadron (RCAF)
Type: Hurricane I
Code: None until 1941
Base: RAF Northolt, Middlesex (temporarily at RAF North Weald, Essex)
Location: Crashed at "The Hydes", Little Bardfield, Essex
Pilot: F/O. Robert Lesley Edwards C/903 RCAF Age 28 - Killed
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The above photographs featuring Robert Lesley Edwards and his wife, Ruth Beaton Edwards née Brownlee were provided courtesy of the Ruth Beaton Marshall collection.
No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron RCAF
Created at RCAF Trenton, Ontario in 1937 from the Fighter Flight of No. 3 Bomber Squadron No. 1 Squadron RCAF absorbed 115 Squadron (a Montreal-based auxiliary unit), personnel from three bomber reconnaissance squadrons and further personnel from a Toronto manning depot in order to bring it up to a wartime strength in excess of 300 members.
The squadron had been re-equipped with Hawker Hurricanes in February 1939 whilst stationed at RCAF Calgary and the week after the outbreak war was mobilised at Saint-Hubert, Quebec and on 5 November 1939 moved to RCAF Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to be joined eleven days later by the recently promoted Flying Officer Robert Edwards.
On mobilisation at Saint-Hubert command of the squadron was passed to Squadron Leader Ernest Archibald McNab a very experienced pilot having joined the RCAF in 1926 and would lead the squadron during its participation in the Battle of Britain.
On Tuesday 11 June the personnel of No. 1 Squadron boarded the steamship Duchess of Atholl for the transatlantic voyage to the United Kingdom. The ship arrived at Liverpool at 15.30 on 20 June and within an hour the squadron members were on their way to RAF Middle Wallop where they arrived the following day. Since the squadron needed time to organise and undergo operational training, Middle Wallop being in Hampshire and therefore reasonably remote from the expected main area of conflict was an ideal location for such acclimatisation. Additionally, the Hurricanes that the squadron had brought from Canada needed to be brought up to full UK standard.
On 4 July the squadron moved to RAF Croydon where operational training continued with pilots flying on a daily basis for training at RAF Northolt in the sector that was soon to bear the brunt of battle. Robert Edwards left RAF Middle Wallop the following day arriving at RAF Croydon at 19.00 hours but the very next day was posted to RAF Uxbridge on a four day R/T course.
On 13 August the Luftwaffe shifted the emphasis of its attacks from shipping and ports to RAF airfields and installations. On 23 August 1940 Göring ordered ceaseless attacks on the aircraft industry and RAF airfields in an attempt to force the RAF to use its fighters thus luring them into the air where they would be destroyed.
Photo: Courtesy Ruth Beaton Marshall collection
In the above photograph Robert Edwards can be seen fourth from the left
No. 1 Squadron RCAF remained non-operational until 17 August when it moved to RAF Northolt little more than 2 miles distant from RAF Uxbridge in Hillingdon. At the time the squadron comprised 27 officers (21 pilots) and 314 airmen.
Now operational and despite being scrambled on several occasions up to 23 August the squadron had not engaged the Luftwaffe
And then the following day 24 August, the squadron, believing they were attacking Ju 88s, brought down two British aircraft. The pilots concerned and indeed the whole squadron were understandably and much saddened by the incident but the Battle of Britain, as it later became known, was not about to grant them the luxury of time to dwell on their fatal mistake. Two days later, their time came and rising to the challenge, the squadron was not found wanting.
Photo: Courtesy Ruth Beaton Marshall collection
REASON FOR LOSS
Monday 26 August 1940 was a mild dry day: bright with high cloud affording good visibility, it was ideal flying weather and from first light German reconnaissance patrols were evidenced by radar in the Kent and Sussex areas. As they were posing no threat they were left well alone.
No. 1 Squadron RCAF meanwhile was sent to temporarily relieve an exhausted RAF unit at RAF North Weald in Epping Forest and having just arriving were very soon scrambled; the patrol however turned out to be uneventful much to the chagrin of the pilots who were becoming increasingly anxious to prove themselves in action. They would not have long to wait!
In the afternoon a large formation of enemy aircraft was detected over the Channel and heading towards the Thames Estuary. This formation consisted of about 50 Dorniers from 1/KG2 and 11/KG3 escorted by 120 Messerschmitt Bf109s and Bf110s.
The flight path of the enemy bombers could give them a possibility of three targets. The aerodromes of RAF Hornchurch and RAF North Weald, or another attack on London. RAF Debden could also be a possibility but was located just a little to the north of the flight path. At 15.15 hours 10 squadrons of fighters were scrambled including No. 1 RCAF Squadron from RAF North Weald.
Five squadrons were ordered into the attack and they succeed in drawing off some Messerschmitt 109s whilst others were shot down or turned back leaving the Dorniers with only the Messerschmitt 110s as escort. The other five including No.1 RCAF were kept back on standby.
At 15.30 hours the German bombers and escorts were flying at 14000 feet over the area between Clacton and Colchester and shortly afterwards the Canadian Hurricanes attacked.Squadron Leader McNab led his squadron into action in line astern before changing formation to sections of three in echelon to starboard. His was Blue section and he had Robert Edwards flying as Blue 2, his right hand man.
Diving from 16000 feet the Hurricanes fell upon the German bombers and McNab attacked and destroyed the bomber on the left wing of the formation but not before he himself had suffered damage from return fire that forced him to return to base.
Robert Edwards following in behind McNab opened fire from extremely close range on the next Dornier in line and shot off its tail section. The enemy rear gunners however hit the Hurricane with lethal return fire sending it spiralling down, out of control and crashing with Robert Edwards killed.
The air battle took place over the Thaxted area: Robert Edward's Hurricane crashed at The Hydes, a 16th century house and grounds at the village of Little Bardfield 3 miles east of Thaxted. He was recorded as having died from multiple injuries and extensive burns.
In a newspaper article, following his return to Canada, Wing Commander Ernest McNab DFC told of going into action for the first time.
The following is an extract from the article.
'Two days later we ran into our first fight and it was a big one. We came up over London and met more than 60 German bombers over the Estuary. It was certainly an awful and awe-inspiring sight to see those ugly black bombers in rank after rank stepped up in layers with the lowest layer foremost. We flew right into them with all guns blazing and broke up their formation. I think our score was four destroyed for certain and three or four most certainly damaged and perhaps destroyed.
We were outnumbered five to one and had some losses ourselves. Flying Officer Leslie [sic] Edwards of Toronto was fatally wounded.
Flight-Lieut. Hartland Molson* of Montreal was in a bad spot on that day. Edwards, [Flight-Lieut. Jean Paul] Desloges and I were in the first section and naturally bore the brunt of the enemy fire in that first moment behind of collision [sic]. Molson flew along behind us and the first thing he knew he was right in the middle of those 60 German bombers. There were bombers below him and bombers in front, behind and on either side. They were as much surprised as he was and hadn't the wit to fire at him. He shot up out of the top of that formation as fast as the Hurricane would take him.'
*Hartland de Montarville Molson OC OBE OQ (May 29, 1907 – September 28, 2002) went on to enjoy a long career with both the family Brewery business, the Montreal Canadiens hockey club, and as a Canadian Senator (see Wikipedia) .
A tattered map showing the intended target of RAF Debden was later found next to the Dornier shot down by Robert Edwards: it became a prized trophy of No. 1 RCAF Squadron.
The following excerpt appeared in an Alberta daily paper April 1942.
By Louis Hunter (Canadian Press Staff Writer)
A Royal Canadian Air Force Station Somewhere in England March 31 - (CP) - Messroom Chatter:
A map found beside the wreckage of a German bomber, shot down by a Canadian during an attack on an airdrome [sic] in Sussex during the Battle of Britain is one of the prized trophies in the officers' mess on the station. The Canadian was Flying Officer R. L. Edwards of Cobourg Ont., who was killed during the action.
The tattered map, showing a course to Debden airdrome hangs over the fireplace in the mess and beneath it is an inscription which reads:
'Debden was first day-bombed on the 26th August 1940 by 14 Do 17s escorted by 20 Me 110s.
This map was found in the wreckage of the leading Dornier shot down at Thaxted by FO. R.L. Edwards of No. 1 (Canadian) squadron stationed at Northolt. He was himself shot down and killed when his Hurricane crashed beside the Dornier. The line showing a course to Debden was on this map when found.'
On that day No. 1 Squadron RCAF came of age and though many more honours, victories and indeed losses were to follow, the three Dorniers destroyed and the four damaged proved that the squadron's pilots were some of the best; a credit to Canada, Great Britain and their allies.Being the squadron's sole casualty that day Flying Officer Robert Lesley Edwards had the dubious distinction of being the first combat death suffered by a member of the RCAF while serving with a Canadian flying unit.
In a letter of condolence to Robert's widow Ruth the Minister of National Defence for Air, Charles Power acknowledged Robert Edwards’ “fine courage and marked ability” and regretted “that so promising a career should be terminated in such sad circumstances.”
Robert Edwards was buried on Friday 30 August 1940 at Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey in grave Plot 3a, Row C, Grave 1A.
All personnel of the Squadron who could be spared from operations attended. The burial service was conducted by the RCAF Chaplain Flight Lieutenant the Reverend W.E. Cockram.
BIOGRAPHY OF THE PILOT
Robert Lesley Edwards was born on 10 June 1912 at Alnwick, Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada the only child of Methodist Minister Robert Love Edwards and Prudence Elizabeth Edwards nee Ketcheson.
The family lived in the Roseneath area of the township but later moved 15 miles further south to the town of Cobourg. He attended Cobourg Public School (1920-1925) and Cobourg Collegiate Institute (1925-1929). After two years at Albert College, Belleville Robert studied Arts at Victoria College, University of Toronto where he was awarded a BA in 1935. His hobbies and sports were Motoring, Baseball (he was the Pitcher for Cobourg seniors) Rugby, Tennis, Squash and Target Shooting.
After leaving university he was interested in a career in the RCAF but on enquiring found that an Engineering degree rather than an Arts degree was essential
He thereafter went to England where he remained for some time and worked at Sir Arthur Black's lace manufacturers in Nottingham during 1935. After returning to Canada he was first Birks-Ellis-Ryrie, Jewellers as a Salesman during 1936-1937 and by T. Eaton & Co. Ltd, Department Store as a member of the executive training staff during 1937-1938.
In 1938 he learned that two friends had been admitted to the RCAF on the strength of their Arts degrees and immediately submitted his own application for a General List Commission. But to his great disappointment and having passed his medical, he was rejected for no other reason that he was now aged 26 whilst the upper age for such appointments in the RCAF was 25. But after writing an appeal to the Air Commodore of the RCAF explaining the reasons for his delayed application and requesting a re-appraisal of his case he was finally accepted, officially enlisting at Kingston Ontario on 7 November 1938 when he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer.
He reported the same day to RCAF Trenton, Ontario where he began a Flying Training Course. On 1 May 1939 he was posted to RCAF Borden, Ontario and three months later, on 2 September, was awarded his Pilot's Flying Badge. He began his advanced flying training three days later.
He was promoted to Flying Officer (Permanent) (General List) on 26 October and five days later was granted 14 days leave, predominantly to marry his fiancée Ruth Beaton Brownlee which he did on 7 November at Toronto.
On his return from leave he was posted to No. 1 Squadron at RCAF Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and two weeks later he was introduced to the Hawker Hurricane.
While stationed at RCAF Dartmouth he lived with Ruth at 19½ South Street, Halifax but their short time together came to an end when Robert sailed with his squadron for England at 10 a.m. on Tuesday 11 June 1940.
The newspaper report opposite reads:
LIFE FOR EMPIRE - BEST WAY TO DIE, SAYS FLIERS MOTHER
Flying Officer Robert Edwards
First RCAF Casualty of War
"I wouldn't have had it any other way. He was my only son. If he had to go, there's no better way than for your country," said Mrs R. F. Edwards of Cobourg today, in a voice choked with emotion.
Her son, Flying Officer Robert Lesley Edwards, a graduate of Victoria college was killed in action, Monday, the first RCAF casualty of the war. He leaves a bride of nine months, Ruth Brownlee Edwards formerly of Toronto. He was 28 she is 25.
The young widow was in the house of her parents Mr and Mrs A.H. Brownlee, Jackson Ave. Toronto replying to a letter from her aviator husband when the cable arrived announcing he had given his life for his King and country.
"We all had just returned from vacation" related Mr Brownlee "A letter was waiting from Bob. Ruth ripped it open and read it, then re-read parts of it aloud to us. Near the end were a few words for me "Tell your dad, I haven't got a German for him, but I will"
Joined RCAF in 1938
The young flier's mother told how her son quit a promising career as a foreign buyer with a large Toronto store to join the RCAF two years ago.
"He was crazy about flying" she said. "he was stationed at Toronto for a long time. Then when war was declared he was transferred to Halifax. "I saw him last," she said, her voice faltering, "on June 11, when his squadron embarked for England.
That was all Mrs Edwards could tell. She started to answer another question but broke down. Finally in a barely audible voice she whispered "I'm sorry, but I can't talk about him any more."
Flying Officer Edwards saw service with his squadron in its first battle with German bombers and fighters last Saturday. He outflew and outfought the Nazis the second day but was shot down on the third day's operations says an announcement from Ottawa. He piloted a Hurricane and was acting flight leader.
Flying Officer Robert Lesley Edwards is commemorated on the Battle of Britain Monument in London; The Soldiers' Memorial Tower, University of Toronto and the WWII Plaque at Victoria College, University of Toronto.
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - January 2017
With thanks to the sources quoted below.