Lest we forget: Robert Holmes shares memories of the RCAF

By Robin McCormick
West End Correspondent

Retired Sergeant Robert Holmes joined the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) when he was 18 years old, and retired when he was 48 years old.

Although he is 87 years old now, his memories, passion and pride for his time spent with the RCAF are still so “ alive” in his mind and heart, that it was a sheer delight to interview this fine gentleman.

He greeted me at the door, of his comfortable home, with dress trousers, white shirt and the tartan tie (which was a treasure from RCAF).

Robert started sharing sharing memories with me by telling me he joined RCAF January 6 1953, he along with best friend Bill Lenox, left Fort Frances for Winnipeg.

Both men passed all the requirements. Robert fondly remembers both him and Bill swearing into the Alliance to protect Canada and the Queen. Two weeks later they were on their way to St. John’s Quebec where they attended boot camp. It was in St. John’s Robert learned his trade as an aircraft refinisher.

While in the RCAF Robert spent 2 1/2 years in Winnipeg, 2 1/2 years in Portage La Prairie and 2 1/2 years in Gimli, Manitoba.

In 1954 Robert was send to Zewbruken Germany. He spent 3 1/2 years in Germany working on Sabre Fighters. At this time there were about 6,000 Canadians (men and women) sent to Germany. All were trained for airforce and ground battle. All were trained on ACK ACK (artillery used to shoot down airplanes). There were many positions to be filled for the Canadian troops, airmen, medical people, secretaries and many other needed positions.

Retired Sergeant Robert Holmes shows the commemmorative book he recieved from the British Monarchy after the Queen’s death, as a thank you for his service. He served in the military for 30 years. – Robin McCormick photo

In 1957 Robert was sent to Langre England , he was told he was the last person, to be trained in his trade from Canada. His trade was needed there, once again performing mechanical work on Sabre Fighter Plane. Robert thinks Sabre Planes were built in Canada. Every plane had six M3 Browning 50 calibre machine guns on them (located in the nose, a Sabre was equipped with a capacity of 1600 rounds.

Each base had three squadrons of airplanes. Every time a Sabre would return from a mission, Robert would clean the guns, make sure the engine was running okay, machine guns would be reloaded.

When the RCAF would get word (by radar) that the Russian Bombers were coming over Eastern Germany, the RCAF would fly beside the Russian Bomber. The pilot would make motions (there finger over their neck) to show they would shoot them down if they didn’t go back.

Robert worked 7 1/2 years in England. He also worked for Bristol Freighters on transport aircrafts.

Robert remembers after WWII Germany asking for help. Canada send over three squadrons to France and Germany. When I questioned Robert if they were scared during their time in RCAF, he said, “Only once. I was in Africa, with airplanes. Target practice had been performed during the day. A huge white canvas with a red circle for a target was dropped for Sabre pilots.” Robert remembers after the excruciating 104 F heat, he and the six guys he had been with during the day decided a cold beer would taste really good. While enjoying this time together, a car drove by shooting off a machine gun. Robert and others tossed over the table and chairs and jumped behind them. The bartender called the police, who were able to apprehend the shooter. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

One of Robert’s highlights of his time spent in England was being an Honour Guard for the Queen and other dignitaries from 1965 to 1968. This is a position he will always hold close to his heart. He has total respect for British Monarchy. The day Queen Elizabeth II passed he cried and watched his T.V. for every bit of news he could get. The Queen’s funeral touched him deeply.

In 1952 Robert married Janet Copesteak, while in England. The couple lived in P.M.Q’s (public married quarters) for 11 years, returning to Canada in 1963.

Robert continued with his RCAF career once returning to Canada. At 48 years old, his squadron leader informed him, “You’re going to work in Quebec.” Robert had 25 years of active service in RCAF, but he did not know the French language. So he said I’d like my release, he smiled as he said, “My walking papers.”

In 1998, Robert, Janet and their son Paul bought a house on Christie Ave. in Fort Frances. Sadly Janet passed in 2019, leaving a big loss for Robert.

They enjoyed life there immensely as a family.

Robert Holmes

Paul has moved to Thunder Bay. He received his pilot license at age 16, in Edmonton. Robert’s grandson Lucas, 21, is also in the military. He’s an officer in the Armed Forces with the Ambulance Corp.

Once retired and settled in Fort Frances, Robert owned A#1 Boat Repairs in Crozier. He did this for six years, doing repairs on aluminum and fibreglass boats. He also made boat canopies. Robert remembers helping Leon Wells build a two-seater airplane.

Robert shared with me, “I strongly recommend young people to join the military. Don’t worry if your not sure what position you go into. After doing the testing, the results will show you where you’re best suited. It’s an amazing way to see the world, and you will have an early retirement.”

His words of wisdom for youth today if going into the military, “just do what you’re told, don’t question, or argue. Just trust what you are learning”.

This year Robert will attend Remembrance Services at the Couchiching First Nations cenotaph.

He will pay respect to his life long friend Bill Lenox. Since the two have been 18 and joined the military, they remained friends. The two lived near each other in Fort Frances.

Bill passed this year. And Robert knows as he hears the bag pipes or trumpet play TAPS to salute the soldiers who have left this world, he will salute, and probably have a tear in his eye. The ceremony touches his heart. He will cherish his many happy memories with Bill, the RCAF and most importantly he knows without a doubt all his years with the RCAF helped make him the man he is today After meeting with Richard and sharing many a memory with him I know the world is a better place because of this dedicated, kind and humble man. Thanks for your dedication Robert!