Hidden Hero: Jewish Ace of the Battle of Britain

F/O William Henry Nelson, DFC, was a Canadian Jewish pilot from Montreal who joined the RAF directly in 1937. He served with distinction until he was shot down in November 1940. Nelson was recognized as the highest scoring Canadian Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain.

Nelson’s story is told in my book “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII” (2019).

Double Threat tells the story of how 17,000 Canadians of Jewish faith put on a uniform in WWII, and helped defeat Hitler, despite grave personal danger should they be caught by the Nazis and their Jewish identities discovered.

F/L. William Henry Nelson

Nearly 6,000 Canadian Jews in the Air Force

Of these personnel, nearly 6,000 Canadian Jews volunteered for the air force, mostly in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but also in the U.S. Air Force and, also in the RAF, during WWII.

I had five air force volunteers in my family, in WWII,

My grandfather’s cousin, Group Captain Abe Lieff, of Ottawa, was in charge of all aircraft equipment. My great Aunt’s brother Sgt. Jack Brovender, was.a wireless operator and air gunner. He was born in Timmins, Ontario. He was killed in England on active service in 1942.

Also serving was my Great-Uncle Hymie Lieff, of Ottawa, and two Montrealers: one was my uncle Leo Guttman, who served overseas as ground crew in England and France and Germany, repairing the wheels on Austers which did reconnaissance photography.

And my father-in-law Irving Friedlansky, who served in England and then went over to Normandy after D-Day working with aircraft parts and playing soccer.

Canada sent over 100 men to the Battle of Britain, although some say it was 112, while others say 117. It is about 4 per cent. Of those, about three or four dozen airmen (32-43) were members of the Jewish faith, according to Martin Sugarman, a London-based archivist and historian, in his book Fighting Back.

However, the Battle of Britain Monument in London, England and the other monument in Capel- Le-Ferne, near the White Cliffs of Dover, only lists ONE Canadian Jewish airman as having been a part of The Few in the Battle of Britain.

F/L William Henry Nelson. DFC.

Willie was born in Montreal to immigrant Jewish parents. Their name was originally Katzenelson, but like my family and many other immigrants to Canada, they changed it when they arrived in Canada to sound less “Greener” as it was called.

Willie had three sisters. When he finished high school, his classmates at Strathcona Academy, where my Dad went, called him Orville Wright.

His parents operated a small grocery store. His mother Serafina was probably a Communist supporter, as many immigrant Jews were in that period. They couldn’t afford to send him to university so he went to work at a Fairchild aircraft factory south of Montreal, in Longeuil.

Willie also started taking flying lessons there.

He applied to join the RCAF in 1936 when he was 19, but was not successful. His family says it was due to a bit of colour blindness. But Hugh Halliday, the historian, says it was because the RCAF at that time was so tiny in the interwar years they were barely accepting any new personnel.

With England poised for war, Nelson decided to work his way across the Atlantic on board a merchant marine ship, apparently it was a cattle boat. When he landed, he applied to join the RAF in 1937.

It was during this time, he met his British war bride. A Red Cross volunteer, Marjorie Isobel Mcintyre. The couple was married literally right before the war broke out, at the end of August 1939, in a church.

William Nelson and Marjorie Nelson, wedding portrait.

They had a short lived celebration. As Nelson was already an experienced RAF pilot, he was on the first British bombing raid of the Second World War. It was to Germany, on Sept. 8, 1939.

He was captain of a Whitley bomber with No. 10 Squadron’s first wartime operation, which was doing leaflet dropping over northwest Germany.

This is what the raid may have looked like. Please watch the video.

How Nelson Won the D.F.C.

Nelson spent the next eight of months of the war bombing German-held installations in occupied Europe.

He took part in the Battle for Norway, which is where he won his Distringuished Flying Cross.

Here is what the citation read:

“On 20 April 1940 severe weather was encountered during an operation over Norway. Oslo Fiord was completely covered, so this aircraft flew to Stavanger and attacked the aerodrome as an alternative target given by the Station Operations Officer. The attack was successful, hits being registered on the runways.

A balloon barrage was encountered to the west of the target after the attack, a report of which was transmitted to the Base in sufficient time to enable following aircraft to be warned.”

Nelson’s radioed warning is credited with saving the lives of the other British aircrews in the vicinity, who were able to avoid the deadly metal cable so hazardous to attacking or strafing airplanes

Air Commodore Alan Coningham said:

“This Canadian officer has carried out many flights over enemy territory, during which he has always shown the greatest determination. His reports and results generally have been successful above the average.”

With the fall of France by the end of June, 1940, we’d seen the stunning evacuation of 300 thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force back from Dunkirk.

The British Prime Minister Churchill knew that Hitler was planning to invade England in what the Nazi leader called Operation Sea Lion. But before that could happen, Hitler felt he had to neutralize the Royal Air Force. So he ordered his air force chief Hermann Goring to destroy the Royal Air Force. Goring was so confident the RAF was weak, he boasted that his Luftwaffe pilots could do it in four days.

DFC
A Distinguished Flying Cross

The RAF put out an urgent call for fighter pilots. But Nelson was picking up his DFC at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on June 6, 1940. He immediately volunteered and retrained to fly Spitfires. Then he joined Squadron Leader Sailor Malan’s famous No. 74 Tiger Squadron at Hornchurch  east of London, on July 20, 1940.

The RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires and their crews scrambled several times a day to fight back. They shocked the Nazis by refusing to give up. Nelson himself is credited with destroying five and damaging two other enemy planes during the Battle of Britain. This made him an Ace.  He was the highest-scoring Canadian Spitfire pilot of the Battle.

The squadron got a week or so off in August. That’s when his son Bill was born. Then Willie was  back at it with the squadron, moving to RAF Biggin Hill, in October.

“I was Red Two”      

A section of Nelson’s official debrief of one of his missions after he shot down a Messerschmidt BF109 over Maidstone/Gravesend on October 17, 1940.

” I was Red Two of the leading section of 74 Squadron, flying Spitfires, and detailed to intercept sixty “snappers” reported over Maidstone.

We climbed rapidly, and at 26,000 feet saw some bursts from our anti-aircraft guns below, and turned towards them. Two Me 109s suddenly appeared by themselves across our bows. The squadron leader, “Sailor” Malan, DFC, immediately got on the tail of the leading 109, and I closed with the outside one.

They took no evasive action as we came out of the sun, and I fired a burst with slight deflection at 150 yards, down to point blank range. He immediately started a half-roll turn down, white smoke streaming out, obviously glycol.

I followed him easily at first, firing short bursts, and then more eruptions came from his engine, almost blinding me. Diving down to 2,000 feet, he entered some low cloud vertically. Having got up tremendous speed, I had to start to pull out in order to avoid hitting the ground. I found him difficult to hold in the latter part of the dive, as he went well past vertical, and I had my actuating gear wound fully forward.

He was seen to crash near Gravesend. The enemy aircraft was coloured dark on top, with a tremendous yellow spinner, and was sky blue beneath”

– Quoted from “Spitfire 2 – The Canadians” by Robert Bracken

Last Mission

How the British officials calculated things, the Battle of Britain started July 10 and ended October 31, 1940.

Those who Winston Churchill called THE FEW saved Britain from invasion, as they shot down 1,900 German aircraft, which is nearly double the losses suffered on the British side. 

Even though London alone suffered 18,000 casualties, and countless more people were injured in the Battle of Britain period, the RAF didn’t give up. It also didn’t run out of planes  because Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook, Max Aitken, was in charge of the manufacturing project.

We know that by the end of October, 1940, Hitler decided to turn his attention to invading Russia, and gave up the idea to invade Britain. However, the bombing of England did not stop on Oct. 31. The Nazis continued their raids.

Nelson was supposed to be on leave that week,  but he cut his vacation short and decided to come back to the squadron early to help out.

On the 1st of November 1940 he was shot down in a surprise attack, causing his Spitfire to crash into the Channel near Dover. He was deemed killed although his plane and his body were never recovered.

He was 23.

Crush Hitler

Tragically, his mother Seraphina, back in Montreal, would soon receive a letter from her son. It had been written and posted just before he died.

And in the letter, we learn about some of what made Nelson want to be one of The Few.

“I thank God that I shall be able to help destroy the regime that persecutes the Jews. I have never had such a great desire to live as I do now, nevertheless if I leave whilst flying, I am happy in the thought that I am helping to crush Hitler,” Nelson wrote.

You might wonder how the Jewish community responded to Nelson’s sacrifice. Back in Montreal the Canadian Jewish Congress, a national political and social organization, issued an incredible kids comic book about him.

For the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 2020, the Royal Air Force Museum and the Royal Air Forces Association hosted an online lecture about Nelson, and the other Jewish Hidden Heroes of the Battle of Britain. I was the keynote speaker, along with my special guest, Bill (Nelson) McAlister, Willie’s only son. McAlister lives in London, England, and recently marked his 80th birthday.

Please watch the Zoom talk here.

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