YARMOUTH, N.S. –
It was an experience that moved Tracy Hatfield to tears.
The Yarmouth resident was in Europe recently and his trip included a visit to a German cemetery where he got to see the graves of three members of his father’s bomber crew from the Second World War.
In late May 1942, their Wellington aircraft was shot down during a mission over Cologne and three of the plane’s six-member crew were killed.
Hatfield’s father – also named Tracy – survived, but he easily could have been one of those who perished. In earlier operations, Hatfield had served as front gunner, but on more recent ones he had been wireless operator. On this particular night, when their plane was brought down by enemy fire, the plane’s front gunner was among those who died.
The younger Hatfield, who travelled overseas in September – a trip that also included a visit to a former prisoner-of-war camp where his father spent almost a year – said seeing the graves of his father’s fellow crew members was an emotional time.
“Just to realize, you know, one of them sort of traded places with Dad in a sense,” Hatfield said. He isn’t sure why or how the decision was made that his father again was wireless operator that night instead of front gunner.
He was shot down almost two years to the day after his older brother, Jack Hatfield, was killed when he was shot down May 28, 1940, while flying over the North Sea. Jack Hatfield was the first Nova Scotian and the third Canadian to die in aerial combat during the Second World War. During his trip overseas earlier this fall, Tracy Hatfield had a chance to visit his uncle Jack’s gravesite too.
Jack Hatfield was 27 when he died. His brother Tracy died in 2005 at the age of 85. Both had been born and raised in Tusket.
After his plane was hit over Cologne on that late-spring night in 1942 – during the “thousand-plane” raid on the German city – Tracy Hatfield parachuted into a large wheat field. Eventually, he found a haystack, where he went to sleep. He later awoke and saw a farmer pointing a gun at him. The younger Hatfield says his father told him he was glad to be captured, knowing his injuries – including a fractured neck – would be treated and he would be given food.
He spent two months in the hospital, the doctor telling him he was very lucky to have survived. The pilot who shot his plane down went to visit him, but Hatfield refused to see him. The younger Hatfield says his father told him he always regretted that decision, having come to realize the German airman was only doing his job that night when Hatfield’s plane was shot down.
“’He was just doing what I would have done,’” the younger Hatfield said, recalling his father’s sentiment.
Hatfield was interrogated for 13 straight days by a German officer, and, despite uncertainty about what might happen to him, he only offered the basic information a prisoner of war was required to give. In an interview with Don Pothier, who wrote a book about the history of Tusket, Hatfield recalled that at the end of the last day of interrogation, the German officer shook his hand and told him he was a fine soldier.
Hatfield also spoke to Pothier about the first prisoner-of-war camp where he stayed, Stalag Luft 3, saying it was huge. “It seemed like as far as you could see there were prisoners,” Hatfield told Pothier. “It was difficult to believe there could be enough soldiers left out there to fight the war.”
The younger Hatfield recalls his father telling him they were treated fairly well in the camp. The food could have been better and more plentiful, he said, but the prisoners ate as well as their German guards and, thanks to Red Cross parcels, sometimes better. Hatfield spent almost a year in this camp (the focus of the 1963 movie The Great Escape). Where this camp was located is now part of Poland. Hatfield was then moved to another camp in what is now Lithuania.
Hatfield had worked for the Royal Bank prior to the war and, once he returned home, he had a chance to return to the bank, but he chose not to. Instead, with his brothers Garth and Paul, he started a wholesale business in tobacco and confectionery called Gateway Jobbers.
Referring to his trip overseas earlier this fall, the younger Hatfield said it was something he had thought of doing for a number of years.
“I was over in England in 2008 and I visited the airbases over there where my father flew out of and where Jack flew out of,” he said. “I had worked it out by 2009, 2010, where I was going to go and how I was going to get there, but it just seemed like a very daunting task at the time, so I kept putting it off, but I knew some time I would go, and I thought, well, if I don’t go now, I’m never going to go.”
Hatfield was reflecting on his trip just a few days after the season of remembrance had begun and the local poppy campaign was underway. In recent years, since the death of his father, he said his Remembrance Day routine has changed.
“I don’t go to the ceremonies,” he said. “I used to with Dad, but what I do (now) is I go to Dad’s grave in Tusket. I go there about a quarter to 11 and I stay until about 10 after 11. Just by myself ... just think about everything.”
For more on Tracy Hatfield and Jack Hatfield:
Yarmouth resident Tracy Hatfield wrote about the wartime experiences of his father Tracy and his uncle Jack for The Argus, the quarterly newsletter of the Argyle Municipality Historical and Genealogical Society. His piece on Jack Hatfield appeared in the winter 2007 edition (volume 19, number 4). His two-part article on Tracy Hatfield appeared in the summer 2008 (volume 20, number 2) and fall 2008 (volume 20, number 3) editions.