|William Gerald Sorel, was born
on July 31,1922 the eldest son of William and Margaret Sorel in Forfar,
Ontario. My father
remembers Gerald, as he was commonly known, as a striking young man with blonde
hair and blue eyes who
was generally a quiet young man that was quite studious.
The town of Nakina is a small northern Ontario community which was founded in
1923 as a refueling point for locomotives of the Canadian National Railway (CN).
Gerald's father, William Sr., was quite respected within the company and as a
result moved his family quite often to various CN postings. As a result of his
intimate knowledge of CN operations he was well versed in morse code and as a
result passed his knowledge on to his children. As it turns out the
family connection to the railway would also continue with Gerald's service in
the air force as Gerald would be teamed with
a crewmember that was also from a railway family when he joined the Collver
crew. Robert Leman, the crew's Mid Upper Gunner from Muirhead/Nanton, Alberta,
had family ties to
Prior to enlistment, Gerald Sorel worked as a telegraph operator for CN, making it a logical progression to betrained as a Wireless Operator/Gunner when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Once in the RCAF ,he excelled at his trade, at one point he was offered a position as an instructor, but turned it down. If he had accepted the position he could have remained at home, instead he chose to go to an active squadron overseas and take his chances.
Further to the south of Nakina, in Fort William,Ontario, the Collver family would also see their eldest son Joseph join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Joseph would be trained as a pilot, the most coveted position amongst Air Force applicants. Joseph Collver, although quite young for a pilot, was also offered a position as an instructor which he too would decline. He explained the rationale for his decision to his father as "wanting to fly rather than instruct."
What may seem like an easy to decision to you or I was anything but that for servicemen during the Second World War. Training positions were often looked upon as undesirable, particularly if those who held the position of instructor had never seen action overseas. Therefore, it is understandable that at the time both men turned the opportunity down and were instead assigned to 431"Iroquois" Squadron of Number 6 Group stationed at Croft, Yorkshire, England.
6 Group was an all Canadian section of Bomber Command which first began operating as its own entity in 1943. RAF Bomber Command wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of the RCAF running its own show but nonetheless relented at the insistence of McKenzie King. Initially 6 Group struggled with its independence but by the end of the war they were a formidable force second to none.
431 Iroquois Squadron was equipped with Handley Page Halifax bombers, large four engine aircraft that were the backbone of Canada's bomber fleet during the Second World War. In the spring and early summer of 1944, 431 squadron was actively involved in operations against V1 rocket facilities and strategic targets along the French coast in preparation for the D-Day landings. The day of the landings, 431 was part of 224 RCAF aircraft assigned to bomb German Coastal batteries at Normandy.
For the most part, most of the operations carried out during the first part of 1944 were against targets in France. Occasionally targets against Nazi Germany were mixed into the daily operations. On the night of July 29, 1944, 6 group would launch an operation against the heart of Nazi Germany, the target was Hamburg. Almost all of 6 Group's operations were conducted at night, the Hamburg raid would be no exception. The target of Hamburg was a very unpopular one with the crews, the city was all but destroyed a year earlier. It was felt that they were putting their lives at risk for something of little strategic importance, history would prove the crew's sentiments correct. What would ensue in the early hours of July 29, 1944 would result in the worst night of the war in terms of losses for 6 Group and 431 squadron.
Sometime during the morning of July 28th, the Collver crew were informed that an "op" was on for that evening and that their crew was on the roster. They would spend most of the day being briefed on the operation and preparing themselves for the mission. The crew was dealt something of a blow before the raid had even begun when they learned they would be flying without their normal Bomb Aimer, Ray White, who was sick with pneumonia. The replacement would be Flying Officer Matthew MacFarlane from Vancouver, British Columbia. The operations officer would at least place them in an aircraft they were well familiar with, Halifax MZ589 coded SE-H. They had flown this particular aircraft just a two days earlier on an operation to Stuttgart.
The Halifax, although a four engine bomber, only had one pilot station, there was no co-pilot. One can only imagine what it must have been like for Joseph Collver being in command of a 60 000lb bomber and six crew members at the age of 19. Also aboard the flight were gunners Pilot Officers Robert Leman and Norman Jermey, Flying Officers, Norman Bailey (Navigator) and Matthew MacFarlane (Bomb Aimer) as well as Flight Engineer Sgt. William Desborough of the Royal Air Force.
On this night MZ-589 was one of 234 aircraft 6 Group despatched against Nazi Germany. Number 1,and 8 Groups of the RAF would also contribute 53 Lancasters (Pathfinder force) and 14 Mosquitoes (Intruders), bringing the total number of aircraft involved up to 307. The weather forecast predicted heavy cloud formations over the target area of Hamburg and the potential for thunderstorms by early dawn. The pathfinder force from number 8 Group would mark the target area for the main force using green target indicators, skymarker flares would also be dropped to serve as aids for the H2S ground mapping radar the aircraft was equipped with.
At 22:15 hours MZ-589 roared down the runway in the darkness of the Yorkshire countryside, as her navigation lights disappeared into the distance, the support personnel stationed at Croft had laid eyes upon her and her crew for the last time. At some point during the operation MZ-589 disappeared without a trace. There were no eye witness accounts as to her fate nor the fate of 6 other crews that were also declared lost without a trace that night.
Randall Whitcomb's Depiction of a 6 Group Halifax on Night Ops over Hamburg.
Night raid reports indicate that there was a large number of German night fighter attacks over the North Sea, catching many of the bombers on their return to Yorkshire.
Undoubtedly losing a son in such a manner caused much grief among the Collver, Sorel, Bailey, Macfarlane, Jermey, Leman and Desborough families. Both, Hugh Collver and William Sorel, the fathers of Joseph Collver and Gerald Sorel respectively, passed long before their time in their 50's, the strain of losing their eldest sons almost certainly was a factor.
Back home in Nakina, Ontario, Gerald's mother and father heard on the radio the following morning about the Hamburg raid and that 6 Group had suffered many losses during the operation. Sadly, soon after they would receive a telegram informing them that their son was missing. For many months they would suffer not knowing what the fate of their son was until he and his crew were ultimately declared as lost. Many years later Gerald's mother would tell her grandson David that when they first heard news of the raid on the radio Gerald's father had a premonition that his son was lost.
To this day not a trace of the crew or aircraft has ever been found.