February 19, 1941
The roaring of the four massive Rolls-Royce Merlin engines had finally stopped bothering the young pilot. He pushed up the lever to raise his landing gear and tried to relax in the cramped space. The leather of his chair did nothing to improve his comfort, although he appreciated the effort.
He glanced back at his ‘cargo’. They were even less comfortable than he was. One sat forwards, next to the navigation table. The other was in the back, trying to look inconspicuous with the radio operator. They needn’t have worried; all of his crew was loyal to him. There was no need to worry about discovery.
And then there was the final man. He hadn’t even been part of the plan originally. He was an officer, an ace in fact. Despite this he looked like he was barely over twenty. He’d been shot down over Britain, and was being transported to a POW camp when he’d escaped. It had been pure luck when he’d stumbled out of the woods into the clearing where they’d set down their plane. After convincing them he wasn’t a spy, he’d begged to be taken along. The man was sitting in the aisle next to his seat now, a tattered camouflage blanket wrapped over his head. Even though he couldn’t see his face, he could easily picture his boyish features, shock of blond hair and the beard he’d grown to hide his identity. With the dim lighting of the cockpit, the man was almost invisible.
He looked back to the horizon. The moon was shining bright over the February night. Smith’s Falls was in blackout mode. There were almost no lights. All the pilot could see was the silhouette of the few buildings back dropped on the pure white snow. It was twenty below out there, and was scheduled to get even colder. The lake was iced over and looked like it belonged in the North Pole. It was beautiful, he thought as the plane roared overhead.
The pilot was so caught up in the beauty of the night he barely noticed the sound. It was a sound he’d been trained to listen for. A sputtering, choking noise; something akin to a smoker clearing their throat resounded through the cockpit. The pilot snapped his head down to his controls. A red light was flashing at him from his console. The third man ripped the camo blanket off his head and stared at the pilot with eyes wild from too much time on the run. “What the hell’s going on?” He asked in a voice thick with an accent.
“Engine trouble,” the pilot spat back. “Ridley!” he barked to the radio operator. A head poked in from the back. “Boss?” “Check the wings. Look for any traces of smoke.” “Yes sir,” Ridley said, folding his six-foot-one frame into the narrow confines of the cockpit and opening the window on the right hand side. The pilot glanced left. Both of the engines were fine, turning in a blur of motion in front of the moon. “Engine three on the right hand side, Sir!” barked Ridley. “There’s flames coming out.” The pilot cursed their luck. They couldn’t even radio for help, because their mission was so confidential. “You,” he said, pointing to the third man. “Get off your lazy ass. Look for white amongst the dark of the forest – that could be a place to put this bird down.” The man didn’t respond. He just stood and began scanning the horizon.
Suddenly that dreadful sputtering sound grew stronger. Ridley glanced back at the pilot, eyes full of terror. “Engine four is on fire, sir!” he yelled, voice cracking with fear. The pilot glanced over. The cockpit appeared to be lit by candles because of the fire. The green and brown camouflage paint was visibly melting, the once proud RCAF roundel disappearing in the fire as it spread. Suddenly the third man cried out. “I can see a clearing – large enough to land on!” He cried excitedly. The pilot glanced over and saw he was right. A large rectangular clearing was visible in the vicinity of Westport. They had passed Big Rideau Lake, the pilot realized, and were now over Upper Rideau.
The pilot glanced down at his controls and his heart sank. The altitude meter read 580 feet. “We’re not going to make it,” he said, seeing that they were descending at a rate of 100 feet per minute, with little he could do to stop it. He looked at his crew, silent around him. “I’m sorry, friends,” He said. The pilot turned back to face the front of the plane, now falling towards the lake. “FOR THE HOMELAND!!” he screamed, punching the air with one fist and white-knuckling the control column with the other. His traveling compatriots echoed his cry and made the same gesture.
A little more than five minutes later, the aircraft impacted the ice on Upper Rideau Lake just to the north of the Sisters’ Islands and sank into the murky black depths.