Post written in 2011!
I wrote this post one month after meeting Greg Bell who had so much to share about his grandfather Walter Neil Dove.
Next post will be post no. 400. Read what I wrote back in 2011 about the pilot with his eyes closed on this picture.
Collection Georges Nadon via André Nadon
Stephen Butte is most probably in Greg’s photo album which belonged to his grandfather.
I have not seen Pilot Officer Butte yet in the pictures Greg sent me.
I found this one on the Internet.
Pilot Officer (Retired) Stephen Butte, DFC, P.Eng., hcol
An Honourable Journey
Steve Butte, DFC, BSc, PEng
by Dean Black
A legendary life has come to an end. Steve Butte passed away on Remembrance Day, 2010, near Perth, Australia. The name might not be familiar, but Steve is a Canadian veteran worth knowing.
The year 1944 ended relatively quietly for Pilot Officer Butte. Like many fighter pilots, Steve preferred being alert while at the controls. A Spitfire was hard enough to handle sober; a fuzzy head at altitude was the same as a foot in the grave. Anticipating an early morning launch, Butte steered clear of any big New Year’s Eve celebrations, choosing instead to down a couple of glasses of kummel before getting some shut-eye. Of course, he had no inkling of what was in store for him the following day.
Steve Butte had joined the ranks of 403 (Wolf) Sqn at Tangmere in southern England on Saturday, June 10th 1944. He and another pilot, Ron Forsyth, reported to the squadron in good spirits. They were joined by Ken “Red” Harvey who joked he was going to enjoy working in 403, because all the squadron’s Spitfires sported his initials (KH)!
Steve Butte was born in Waugh, Alta in November 1923. He graduated from high school in Michel, BC, in 1941 and then tried to join the RCAF. “The recruiting officer told me to come back after I turned 18,” he recalled. “When the time was right, I signed up and then underwent initial training in Belleville, Ont, elementary flying training at St Eugene, Ont and service flying at Camp Borden, Ont.” With initial training behind him he sailed for England in March of 1943 to undergo operational and gunnery training.
On June 16th, 10 days after D-Day, 403 Sqn deployed to airfield B2 in Bazenville, Normandy. His first assignment saw him flying as No. 2 to F/L Andy MacKenzie. Andy quickly befriended Steve and years later would often claim he felt as “safe as a church” with Steve on his wing.
Things were quiet for some time. To keep busy, Steve Butte recalls conducting something for which Spitfires were not ideally equipped – armed reconnaissance. “The aircraft were susceptible to damage to the air cleaner while low-flying,” he said. One day in July 1944 while on patrol, Steve’s flight discovered what appeared to be German fuel bowsers – big tanker trucks – hiding in the woods. “I think I’ve spotted something big down there,” he called to his wingmen soon after catching a reflection. He ordered the others to follow him down. The flight circled around and, like Steve, dove in at the bushes where Steve had been directing his cannon fire. Together, the Spitfires wiped out a number of the huge bowsers – leaving a towering plume of smoke and flame blasting to great heights as the Spitfires dashed away at tree-top level.
Back in the bar his fellow pilots mused about how Panzer tanks near Caen had probably been waiting for that fuel because they couldn’t travel during the day due to the danger of air attack.
Steve Butte recalls that towards the end of the war he was somewhat alarmed the day he encountered a number of German Me-262 jet fighters – one of Hitler’s new secret weapons. But he also remembered how they could be terrifying to those on the ground. “They would fly at 30,000 feet so no one knew they were up there,” he explained. “All of a sudden one would hear a “poof” meaning that you had about seven seconds to find cover because the 262 had just dropped an anti-personnel mine which would scatter up to 69 softball-sized bomblets at 1,000 feet which, upon hitting the ground would explode.” One day the squadron padre was sitting in the latrine when he heard the “poof.” The padre considered his options, but only for a millisecond. He quickly jumped into the pit and lived to tell his unsavoury story.
One cloudy day, Butte was up on a reconnaissance flight over Aachen, Germany and encountered three Me-262s. His flight of 403 Sqn Spitfires was being led by the commanding officer, S/L Jim Collier. They were underneath the 262s that were in a right-hand turn. Steve and Jim engaged the enemy aircraft. Afterwards, Collier claimed the kill, explaining that the enemy pilot had bailed out and the aircraft crashed. However, Steve’s gun-camera clearly showed that he was still firing at the 262 before and while the pilot was trying to exit the aircraft. As many as four more kills were shared this way, because it was so difficult to prove who should receive full credit.
On the New Year’s morning of 1945 mentioned earlier, Steve Butte’s wing commander, W/C James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson was having breakfast with G/C William “Iron Bill” MacBrien when approximately 40 enemy aircraft attacked their airfield at Evere, Belgium. Steve and his wingman had been scheduled for a patrol and weather-check. Minutes earlier, fellow flyers Dick Reeves and “Mac” Reeves (no relation) had launched for a similar patrol. That section reported the runway usable, so Steve Butte and Keith Lindsay started their aircraft. Just as they got airborne a few minutes before 9:00 am, the enemy force attacked. Steve tried to shake-loose his auxiliary fuel tank” to no avail. It was just as well since he later recalled being directly over the entranceway to the Officers’ Mess. Johnson and MacBrien were standing at the entranceway to see what all the commotion was about.
Before he could raise his landing gear, Butte had managed to shoot one of the attackers down. He continued to spray the formation of enemy aircraft, while he raised his landing gear, downing two more before running out of ammunition. Jim Collier recognized Steve for his courage by writing a recommendation for a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on Jan 20th. By Jan 29th word had come back confirming the award.
It was a painting of the action that New Year’s morning 1945 that brought the memory back to Steve Butte. That day, war-artist Don Anderson, was enjoying the post-New Year’s Eve celebration walking down Sabina Street near Evere. “The Americans are flying funny today,” Anderson quipped. Then he realized they weren’t Americans at all. The black Maltese crosses painted on the aircraft convinced him that something was not right. He hurried back to the airfield, only minutes away, but by then the action was all but over. He estimates about 40 enemy fighters had attacked. He witnessed a section of Spitfires returning to the airfield, and began to sketch the scene. The pilots, he assumed, had seen the smoke from the attack, and were returning to join the donnybrook. The lead aircraft turned out to be flown by Steve Butte. “Steve,” Don Anderson recounted, “downed two of the enemy and some of the wreckage littered the very street I had been walking down moments earlier.”
On March 10th 1945 Steve Butte’s tour of operations ended. Upon repatriation to Canada he applied to the University of BC, to take up civil engineering, graduating in 1952. He married the former Marie Smith from Truro, NS. Lieutenant Smith had served as a Canadian Army nursing sister at Bramshot Military Hospital in London. After the war she worked in Vancouver and was personally chosen by Dr Ross Robertson, a pioneer in pediatrics who helped develop successful medical procedures for “blue babies.” Sadly, Marie passed away in 1974.
Steve Butte’s first engineering assignment was to the Kemano Powerhouse Project in British Columbia. Alcan, the aluminum corporate giant, was building a huge smelter for which they needed power, and the Nichako-Kitimat Project was initiated, of which Kemano was a part. The end result was the availability of two million, two hundred and forty-thousand horsepower of hydro-electricity for the production of aluminum.
Steve Butte worked for nine-years in the power phase of this project before transferring to the smelter phase. During the process he contributed to the building of a city for 14,000 people in Kitimat. He built an 80-kilometer transmission line using some of the largest conductors in the world. Thereafter he was employed with Alcan as a field engineer for nine years. He was the resident civil engineer on the Mica Dam project from 1961 to 1966. In the same capacity, he also worked on the Aishihik Project in the Yukon. This project called for another dam and underground powerhouse.
Steve Butte finally retired from engineering in 1974, the year his wife died. Relishing the backwoods lifestyle, he kept himself busy by mining for gold in the Hixon area of BC and raising donkeys and llamas. His tiny log cabin, 12-km east of Hixon, was protected by stray dogs which friends from the village would leave him, to help fend off the bears.
In 2000 Steve decided to settle with his daughter Marlene, in Bedford, NS. The work he had done with the local Legion in branches near Revelstoke and Dawson Creek back in BC encouraged him to reacquaint himself with similar groups in Halifax. He soon became affiliated with the Air Crew Association on the East Coast where he learned of the upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations scheduled for July 2001 at 403 (Helicopter) Operational Training Sqn, CFB Gagetown, NB.
As the incumbent commanding officer of 403 Sqn, I was “over the moon” when I learned that two Spitfire veterans had chosen to join us for the celebrations – Steve Butte and Aurel “Amigo” Roy. Steve showed tremendous interest in the squadron and both he and Aurel were well-received by squadron personnel. We realized that a tremendous opportunity had presented itself; our honorary colonel, James Stewart, DFC was ready to step down after having served three years in that capacity. This left the door open for us to seek someone who had served with 403 Sqn during the war. Art Eggleton, minister of national defence, and Col Marcel Duval, the commander of 1 Wing, approved our nomination and Steve was invested during a very respectable ceremony in April 2002 followed by a formal mess dinner held at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel in nearby Fredericton. Capping off the night, squadron personnel were invited to meet Steve Butte while he autographed print reproductions of Don Anderson’s wartime watercolour depicting the scene at Evere minutes after the 1945 Operation Bodenplatte raid when Steve earned his DFC. Steve was not aware the painting existed, but had no difficulty recognizing that he could be the only possible pilot flying the lead Spitfire depicted in the painting.
In May 2002, Air Command granted me permission to travel to the Spitfire Museum at RAF Manston near Ramsgate, England along with our new honorary colonel. Local authorities had been planning a tree-planting ceremony honouring 403 Sqn personnel who had perished during the war. Honorary Colonel Steve Butte’s presence was the icing on the cake. The museum’s curator invited Steve to climb into their 403 Sqn Spitfire – KH-Z – TB752 where he spent almost an hour in the cockpit, leading me to fear we might not ever get him out. It was the first time in over 55 years he had been inside one of the iconic fighters.
On our last night before leaving England Steve asked if I could take him to Trafalgar Square in London. It became clear to me shortly after our arrival that he was reaching back to a time that for him carried great personal meaning. His wartime service, while brief, defined him in his earliest days. He had lost his father when he was only five-years-old, then his wife. Between these tragedies Steve’s service in the RCAF, culminating in his receipt of a DFC, underscored the courageous man he had obviously become. It is difficult for those of us who have not been through similar circumstances to understand how profound the impact of wartime service was on men and women of that generation.
Steve Butte and I wandered around Trafalgar Square for a while before he admitted he wanted to take a piece of it home. I managed to kick loose a small corner of the sidewalk, and it quickly disappeared into his pocket. I have often wondered if that small piece of concrete might have been worth more to him than any of the gold he might have found near Hixon, BC.
Before I relinquished command of 403 Sqn, I asked Steve if he would consider a posthumous honour for his former wing commander, Johnnie Johnson. I explained to Steve that Johnnie had been wing commander (flying) to the squadron in the days leading up to the Dieppe Raid of 1942. So impressed with Johnson were the Canadians that their commanding officer, S/L Syd Ford marched unannounced into Johnson’s office one day and tossed a couple of “Canada” flashes onto his desk. “The boys want you to wear these,” Ford explained. Johnson was visibly moved by the unusual vote of confidence. Despite the fact he was an RAF officer, he would not take the flashes down for the next two years. This story was enough for Steve to agree to my request seeking a posthumous appointment of Air Vice-Marshal James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson, CB, CBE, DSO, DFC as honorary group captain of 403 Sqn. Steve presented the idea to Paul Burden, DFC, James Stewart, DFC, and retired Col Ralph Annis, CD – his predecessors – and they supported the idea. During the formal ceremony the squadron’s boardroom at CFB Gagetown was also named after Johnnie Johnson. Final approval for these honours came from Johnson’s two sons, Chris and Michael, who responded to our letter which had been written on the anniversary of their father’s 2001 passing.
When I reflect on these events I realize I have been blessed with a rare privilege. Meeting a veteran is itself a unique opportunity; winning their trust such that they share their stories is something special indeed. But I have struggled to understand the message underpinning Steve’s life. I finally understood what that message was, when Steve explained that not all fighter pilots were the same. Without exception, he explained, one could not help but be proud of those who mounted their aircraft each and every sortie. However, when the time came, a very small number would find some way to avoid a fight. Steve emphasized this point by saying, in this respect Johnnie Johnson was the greatest of leaders. Like Andy MacKenzie and others, Johnson would “get into it” without hesitation. Steve Butte learned from these mentors; he jumped in with both feet each and every time. It was this element of courage that defined some, placing them head-and-shoulders above the few who could not for whatever reason muster the strength. Perhaps the words of Mark K. Wells, author of Courage and Air Warfare, said it best: “…the correct blend of practical leadership characteristics demonstrated what was universally known as ‘guts.’ At the operational and tactical level of air combat, courage – and tenacity – often outweighed pure intellectual abilities”.
I now realize that “guts” defined Steve Butte; this was especially the case on the morning of Jan 1st 1945. His only regret was not being more judicious with his ammunition. “I think I just pressed the triggers and never let go,” he admitted. The main point is he didn’t run; he fired and kicked the hell out of his rudder to take out as many enemy aircraft as possible.
After the war the enormity of Steve Butte’s engineering projects speaks to a special kind of courage and tenacity. He literally moved earth and sky bringing power to British Columbia, fulfilling his wide-ranging duties with the same kind of determination that brought him great credit during the war. He truly is a remarkable Canadian, well worth getting to know.
At his most generous request I traveled to Perth, Australia, in early December 2009, to meet up with Steve once again. We spent a week together, before I had to return to Canada. His daughter revealed to me that Steve was not well, and wanted to reach out to those who, according to Steve “made a difference in his life”. Steve left behind a wonderful woman – Rona. To Steve, we extend thanks from today’s air force for setting a great example for all Canadians.
Click here for more information about this pilot.
If the link should become broken…
THE EXPERIENCES AND OBSERVATIONS OF
A CANADIAN SPITFIRE PILOT IN WORLD WAR II
By Mr. Stephen Butte, DFC, B.A. Sc., P.Eng, and Honorary Colonel of 403 (Helicopter) Operational Training Squadron CFB Gagetown
This is a transcript of an address given by Mr. Stephen Butte, DFC, B.A. Sc., P.Eng as a guest speaker at a Remembrance Day ceremony and dinner held at Halifax Royal Canadian Legion Scotia Branch 25 by the Nova Scotia Aircrew Association on November 6, 2001.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Since the end of World War II, I have had little contact with previous wartime acquaintances and have always worked as a Civil Engineer on construction. Summertime was always the busy season and not the time to attend reunions and to make visits back to Europe, hence I literally disappeared from the reminiscing scene. My work took me to isolated areas of BC and the Yukon, usually starting from a wilderness setting to a completed project and/or industry, and when completed it was time to move on to another wilderness setting in pivotal resident engineering positions.
Some of my projects were: Alcan`s Nechako Kitimat and Kemano Hydro Electric Development: BC Hydro`s Mica Dam and associated works: [Mica Dam is the eleventh highest earthfill dam in the world]: Aishihik power development in Yukon: Denison Mines [Quintette] Northeast Coal development at Tumbler Ridge: BC Hydro’s Site C investigations on the Peace River for further hydro-electric development, and studies relating to development of possible power projects on the McGregor, Stikine, Atlin, Taya and Taku rivers in North West British Columbia and Yukon .
I moved to Nova Scotia in July of 2000, and had my first involvement in ex air force activities when I joined the Nova Scotia Air Crew Association and met the members who were primarily ex bomber crews, some of whom had been prisoners of war under the German regime. They graciously accepted me as a member although I was a bit of a rarity in these parts, a surviving Spitfire pilot; and my story unfolds as follows:
Some of the Nova Scotia Air Crew Association, consisting of Pilots, Navigators, Air Gunners, some of whom were Prisoners of War in WWII.
Aircrews in the RCAF evolved from extensive training under the British Commonwealth air-training plan that took place in Canada. In 1942 the academic pre-requisite to becoming a navigator or pilot was a University entrance certificate. I acquired this in May 1941 but had to wait until November when I reached the age of 18 to be eligible for enlistment. In January 1942, I enlisted in Calgary and then started the training plan program of manning pool, initial training school, elementary and service flying schools, which ended with the awarding of wings in March 1943. A fast trip to the United Kingdom via the Queen Elizabeth (I) from the Cunard Terminal in Halifax was made in 1943 along with about 18,000 other members of the forces. At Advanced Flying Unit in the United Kingdom, Miles Masters were flown as the transition aircraft between Harvards and Spitfires, which were the aircraft flown at Operational Training Unit, also in the UK.
Spitfires are a single engine aircraft with no provision for dual instruction in the air. They were considerably more powerful than any aircraft heretofore flown by any of the students and novice pilots were usually miles from base before they got the undercarriage raised.
The undercarriages of early Spits did not have motorized hydraulic systems and had to be pumped up using a hand lever. This resulted in a comical performance when the aircraft responded to simultaneous motions of the left arm on the control column and the right arm on the undercarriage lever, giving a departing aircraft a porpoising flight path.
At the time of my induction, we were waiting for D-Day to happen and we spent almost a whole year traversing the United Kingdom getting further training ad nauseam in bombing, gunnery and aerial combat. Finally in June 1944, I was assigned to 403 Squadron, City of Calgary, at Tangmere, and when our airfield B2 at Crepon on the beachhead after D-Day was readied, we moved there and proceeded to support our ground forces by attacking anything that the enemy was attempting to move to the front to support the defending German forces.
We had substantial mastery of the air and the Germans complained that we attacked trucks, tanks, motorcycles, even personnel and they said that trying to smuggle anything to their lines was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster. During the early stages of the invasion, the navy stood offshore and lobbed shells at the enemy lines and over the top of our airfields, so we accessed our airfields by flying low across the east end of the beachhead where numerous swamps had fewer anti-aircraft guns and no navy shells. The Luftwaffe appeared only infrequently but when they did, they arrived in large numbers and half a dozen Spits often had to deal with thirty or forty Messerschmitt 109`s and/or Focke Wulf 190`s. Even at these odds, some of our pilots managed to accrue handy scores against them.
One such pilot was Andy Mackenzie with whom I formed a fighting team. Andy was our Number One and it was his job to shoot down the enemy aircraft when encountered, and it was my job as Number Two, the wingman, to ensure that nobody sneaked up behind us and shot us down. As a team we shot down over four enemy aircraft, but unlike hockey where they give assists, in combat only the guy that does the shooting gets the plaudits, and the Number Two is just an also ran. In one encounter with enemy fighters, I informed Andy that we were being attacked from the rear and he should discontinue his attack on an aircraft. Instead of heeding my warning, he continued to blast away at the aircraft and while delivering a couple of extra bursts at his quarry, a German aircraft that was on my tail was doing the same to me.
Andy did not get his quarry but cannon and machine gun bullets struck my aircraft, destroying my flap and brake systems, and a section of my left wing was blown off when the ammunition in my 20 mm cannon magazine exploded. From the pursuing German fighter, I received a hit in the tail section of my aircraft and a high explosive cannon shell exploded behind the armour plating at my back, and shrapnel fragments penetrated my leather helmet and caused a little bleeding. The ammunition in fighter aircraft was usually loaded into flexible belts with one armour piercing shell followed by a high explosive shell and so on along the belt, or any other sequence, depending on the intended targets if they could be anticipated before flight. Armour piercing shells produce holes, whereas high explosive shells produce shrapnel and fires if there is anything combustible around. Fortunately for me, the hit I received was from an explosive shell and not an armour piercing one, which could have penetrated the armour plating, located behind the pilot’s seat in a Spitfire. Throughout all of this action, the trusty Rolls Royce Merlin engine purred on, and I landed at my base without flaps or brakes.
Andy completed his tour shortly thereafter and I became my own Number One. Andy Mackenzie has the dubious honour of having been shot down twice, once by friendly American flak on the beachhead, and once by a friendly American aircraft over Korea where he spent two years as a prisoner of war. Andy is often seen on TV at the Remembrance Day services on Parliament Hill and other auspicious occasions. Look for him this time. He usually wears a wedge headwear and is accompanied by a silver haired lady who I presume is his wife.
Our daily routine of armed reconnaissances continued when weather permitted. These were armed intrusions into enemy territory to attack anything and everything that might have had military value to the enemy, including tanks, trains, trucks, roads, bridges, even dispatch riders on motorcycles, and other personnel. Before the Allied invasion on 6th June 1944, pressure was applied by the Russians for the Allies to harass the Germans on the western front to remove some of the pressure that the Germans were applying to them on the eastern front. The Allies obliged by sending armed fighter patrols to France, Belgium, and Holland as far as the ranges of these aircraft could be extended, and since these intrusions, then known as rodeos, ramrods, rhubarbs and circuses originated in England, two water crossings were involved in a successful mission.
Even a minor engine problem or a hit from enemy fire often prevented a safe return to base, and many of our experienced pilots were lost in these raids. The cost therefore was very high and in the final analysis, these raids were of questionable value, except to appease the Russians. When we were established in France after D-Day, the two flights over water were eliminated, but our jobs remained the same. We sometimes carried bombs and I recall one such mission, which lasted a total time of ten minutes. Our bombs were dropped onto a patch of forest where Tiger tanks were sheltered and our target was identified by our artillery using coloured smoke. This operation was performed in collaboration with Typhoon aircraft, which were armed with rockets as well as cannons.
Highlights of our operations occurred in 1944 at Grave, Holland near Nijmegen, when the Messerschmitt 262 jets arrived on the scene. From an altitude of about 20,000 feet, they dropped canisters of fragmentation bombs which were programmed to explode at about 1,000 feet above ground level, emitting a loud “poof”, and at the same time some 69 baseball sized bombs were thrown in all directions which in seven seconds struck the ground, and spewed fragments of hot metal against aircraft, facilities and personnel.
One of the most satisfying of our armed reconnaissances was one that I triggered by detecting a large fuel convoy disguised by camouflage in a patch of forest. The convoy was substantially destroyed by our Squadron (403) and must have been missed sorely by Rommel and his Panzers further up the line at Caen, where a stalemate in the fighting against the British and Canadians had developed. The Battle of the Falaise Gap resulted in the substantial destruction of Rommel`s armour in Normandy. Rommel himself was wounded by a flight of marauding Spits while driving in his staff car on July 17th . While still recovering from his wounds, he was implicated in the bomb plot against Hitler and was coerced by Hitler to poison himself instead of facing a trial. I flew on the 16th and 18th, but not on the 17th.
A humourous anecdote worth telling was the day the interdenominational padre was sitting on the throne of an outhouse privy and one of the “poofs” occurred. With only seven seconds to make a big decision, he chose to go down the hole rather than face his destruction by the anti-personnel bombs.
The ground crews, personnel who maintained, refuelled and re-armed the aircraft, dug trenches near the aircraft so they could duck into them when the “poofs” occurred. Our losses from these bombs and from aircraft taxiing into trenches were becoming excessive so we were relocated to Brussels Evere in mid October 1944. [There were several airfields at Brussels and the one at Evere was discussed in detail in books regarding the German attack on Allied Airfields and also the history of their famous fighter group JG 26]. Another reason we had to leave the airstrip at Grave, Holland [a grass covered field] because heavy rains flooded it and it was not possible to differentiate between a pool of water on the surface and a trench three or four feet deep, and aircraft often taxied into the latter.
On Christmas Day 1944 during the German’s Ardennes Offensive – the famous Battle of the Bulge, we intercepted three of the enemy Messerschmitt Me 262 jet bombers from KG 51 on their way to bomb our airfields and destroyed one. This was another ‘also ran’ performance on my part, and although the film from my Cine Camera record showed strikes against the aircraft and the Luftwaffe pilot Hans Meyer bailing out, others took credit for the kill. [Cine Cameras recorded the action whenever our guns were fired. Hans Meyer died next day from wounds incurred in this event].
During the autumn of 1944, the Germans, in great secrecy, mustered every available fighter aircraft in an attempt to inflict heavy losses upon the Allies by attacking many of the Airfields in Holland, Belgium and France. The attack was planned for New Year’s Day, 1945, when the Allied Pilots were supposedly hung-over from their New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Code named Operation Bodenplatte (the German word for Base Plate); the New Year’s Day attack achieved almost complete surprise at most of the 23 Allied airfields they attacked, and with total surprise at our airfield at Evere. Both sides lost many aircraft and while the Allies replaced their losses swiftly, the Germans could not replace theirs, and especially the experienced pilots lost.
At about 9:20 AM on New Year’s morning 1945, at the ripe old age of 21 years, plus two months, minus six days, I was taking off on a dawn patrol into a total “overcast of aluminum” comprised of hordes of enemy Me 109’s and FW 190’s. Since we were 20 minutes from enemy territory, disbelief in what was before me was erased when I saw the unmistakable black crosses on the wings and fuselages and swastikas on the tails of the aircraft ahead of me, and I saw my cannon strikes on some of them. There was no time to reflect or try to keep score against such tremendous odds. Avoiding collisions and dodging debris from some of my victims kept me fully occupied. I do not know how many of them I might have winged when I fired into this large mass of planes — estimated about 60 aircraft over a small aerodrome going in all directions with guns blazing — and I still wonder how many might have succumbed on the long way back to their bases.
According to the enemy versions of the attack, the attacking pilots had not seen me and my Number Two taking-off. They were concentrating on trying to destroy other Spits that were taxiing to the runway for take off, or those that were parked in neat rows at the various squadron dispersals. We were negligent in not anticipating an attack of this sort and magnitude, and the aircraft on the ground suffered severe losses. In the melee, my extra fuel tank refused to jettison and it probably impeded the performance of my aircraft, but on the plus side it’s refusal to jettison probably saved the lives of our Group Captain, “Iron Bill” MacBrien, and our Wing Commander, Johnny Johnson, who were just leaving the Officer’s Mess after breakfast. The mess was on the flight path of my aircraft and by not being hit by my fuel tank, they were able to record events as they transpired. Our Squadron Leader, Jim Collier, also observed the action from the ground and he reported that I had started shooting before my undercarriage had been retracted, usually the first operation after take-off.
I ran out of ammunition after I shot down three of them, but was then attacked by two Focke Wulf 190 Doras — long nosed versions of the 190`s – with inline as opposed to radial engines — who were bound and determined to get themselves a Spitfire that day. But by some fancy footwork on my part, I was able to evade them. At one stage, I was within 20 or 30 feet of one of the 190’s and contemplated breaking off his tail with my wing but decided against it when I remembered that a second aircraft was back there somewhere. More fancy footwork on my part, and when the two of them were ahead of me, I made my escape. The attack was all over in 10 minutes, but present day historians are still actively researching the records and memories of the still surviving German pilots who were there. Like us, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc have taken their toll, and there are not many left after almost 60 years. Other members of the 403 squadron, returning from patrol, got into the fringes of the battle, and three of us got 6 of the attackers.
For my performance on New Year’s Day, 1945, I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and my citation is recorded in the Air Ministry Archives in London, and may also be seen on the Internet under RCAF Personnel, Honours and Awards, 1939 to 1949. My citation reads as follows:
” One morning early in January 1945, Flying Officer Butte was detailed to fly the leading aircraft of a section on a sortie over the battle zone. Just as the formation became airborne a large force of enemy fighters attacked the airfield. Flying Officer Butte immediately engaged one of the enemy aircraft shooting it down. A second and yet a third attacker fell to his guns before his ammunition was expended. He was himself then attacked by two fighters but outmanoeuvred them. In this engagement against a vastly superior number of enemy aircraft Flying Officer Butte displayed great skill, bravery and tenacity.”
Brussels Evere was a marshalling point from which German aircrews that were shot down or otherwise captured were kept in custody pending being transported to other locations in the western world to serve their incarceration. During my times off while serving at this base, I used to visit with these personnel and shared goodies with them (cigarettes, chocolates or whatever I had), and most of them asked the same questions: “Why are we fighting you people? We should be fighting together against the Russians!”
Spitfire pilots have their moments of glory to be sure, but much credit for winning the war must be handed to the crews of bomber command who endured hours of anguish en route to and from German cities such as Hamburg, Berlin, Regensberg [home of the Messerschmitts], Schweinfurt [ball bearings], Peenemunde [home of the rockets, missiles and wonder weapons], Ploesti [oil fields], Vemork near Oslo [heavy water for nuclear research], and many others, and delayed if not halted the research on and development of numerous ‘wonder’ weapons.
Historians tell us that as late as March 1945, [remember that V-E Day was May 8,1945], Germany had so many potentially destructive weapons being manufactured or planned, we now realize the value of the work the bombers did. The operational concepts of some of these new weapons were validated at least two years earlier. Among these weapons was a long-range Junkers Ju 390 bomber that actually penetrated to within twenty miles of New York City in 1943. The capability of delivering lethal ordnance, [military weapons], to distant targets against which there were no known cures or antidotes was clearly demonstrated. In the case of the V-2 and later multi-stage rockets, they travelled in excess of the speed of sound, reached 60 miles above the earth in their flight and gave no advance warning of their arrival. Towards the end of January 1945, Russian forces over-ran some worked out coal mines in Silesia and discovered secret factories where Tabun nerve gas and its derivatives Soman and Sarin, [the gas that was used in the Tokyo subway a few years ago], were being prepared and stockpiles of 100,000 bombs and one million artillery shells loaded with these gases were found. The Allies were appalled by this discovery, since there was no cure or antidote if exposed to these gases. One can conjecture about the ultimate disposition of these weapons, even to this day. The toxin Ricin, whose notoriety almost 60 years after the war is a threat to the world without vaccines or antidotes, is a derivative of these substances. Development of these weapons was one of the best kept secrets of the war.
Many of the furloughs enjoyed by the Allied Forces in the United Kingdom were spent in London, where most of the available amenities could be found, subject to rationing. I recall standing at Piccadilly Circus numerous times and observing American Bombers returning from their daylight raids, [Americans bombed during daytime, British bombed during night time] many of whom were barely above the rooftops. Many were struggling on fewer than four engines to remain airborne and were missing parts of wings, tails and had otherwise perforated fuselages. Unseen to observers was the carnage that must have existed within these aircraft from the wounded, dead and dying. Many of these aircraft must have been oozing with blood. The boys rarely talk about such things but they occurred also when Bomber Harris’s RAF and RCAF crews returned from their night raids to their bases scattered mostly in the rural midlands of the United Kingdom.
It was customary in the UK to listen to BBC radio each morning to be told that last night our Mosquito aircraft bombed Berlin and all of the aircraft returned safely. [Mosquitoes were very fast and usually were able to elude pursuing enemy fighters]. Towards the end of the war, none of the Mossies were returning, having become victims of the faster Messerschmitt 262 jets each armed with R4M rockets, four 30mm cannons and the EZ 42 automatic gyroscopic gunsights. Also a new aircraft type, the Heinkel He 219 night fighter, took a heavy toll of Mossies before its use was discontinued for obscure reasons. Hitler’s intervention against the development of the Messerschmitt Me 262 as a superb fighter helped the Allies` cause immeasurably. In September, 1944, when Germany had only about forty 262’s operational and when six of them destroyed fifteen American four engined bombers in 15 minutes, Generals Spaatz and Eisenhower reported that such losses could become unbearable in the near future. For each heavy Allied bomber aircraft lost there were 10 crew in American B17 Flying Fortresses and B 24 Liberators, and 7 in Lancasters and Halifaxes respectively. On March 31st, 1944, headlines four inches high announced that 95 of our aircraft were missing after a raid on Nuremberg the night before. The actual figure was about 120 lost when aircraft damaged beyond repair are included.
It was necessary to destroy the German war effort in 1945 against the protestations of the bleeding hearts of the day that contended that Dresden and other German cities should not have been firebombed when Germany was supposedly down and out. What happened on the 11th of September this year could have happened 56 years ago. The Germans had the capability to do it and during the last year of the war were probably desperate enough to try it. One can only ponder the consequences of a September 11th type of attack or worse during World War II against America, Britain and other countries whose soldiers were engaged in the fighting in Europe, while their countries, homes, and families were being devastated by deadly weapons of mass destruction which could have been delivered by aircraft, submarine or missile.
The Germans were masters at concealment, and by dispersing and moving their armament production facilities into abandoned mines, forest factories and new underground facilities, they were able in September 1944 to achieve their maximum fighter plane production of the war when 1800 units were built. Shortage of fuel and heavy operational losses of aircrew prevented the building of any significant reserves. Indeed, they were so short of fuel that they utilized cattle to tow some of their jet aircraft from the dispersal area to the take-off point to save fuel that would have been consumed in taxiing. Since the underground works were not vulnerable to bombing, it was necessary to destroy the cities where the workers lived to curtail production.
Why did we do what we did during the war? This is the question often asked by those who were not there. The emaciated faces and bodies of those at Belsen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the experiences of those at various prisoner of war camps or stalags tell the whole story.
Another group that deserves much credit for their contribution to the war effort was the merchant navy who were mauled by the subs and practically ignored by King and country for their efforts.
And for the ladies, tonight’s the night. Give that Bomber boy an extra special hug; he deserves it. And for the rest of us who made it back and as the twilight of our own years approaches, let us give our fallen comrades the remembrance they deserve.
A post war serial on television used the lines:
“There are 12 million stories in the Naked City”.
This has been one of them.