Bio / Text:
By Dave O'Malley
On the afternoon of Thursday, 13 July 1944, Squadron Leader Harold James Dowding led his 442 Squadron pilots back home across the French countryside after an uneventful fighter sweep behind enemy lines. According to the Calgary Highlanders war diary for that day, the weather was fair and warm with a slight breeze reported at ground level. The loose formation of battle-worn Supermarine Spitfires rose and fell together in the warm air as they made haste for home. The pilots of 442 were always happy to be returning home alive. The heat of a summer’s afternoon beat down on the young men as they watched each other and the skies around them. They had been in continuous operations over enemy territory for more than five weeks since the massive D-Day landings. Dowding himself had been the first Allied pilot to make a two-wheels down landing in France on the 9th of June—an emergency landing. Returning to England by boat, he would soon lead his entire squadron back to Sainte-Croix-sur-Mer, France to a hastily prepared airfield inland from the beaches. It seemed like a lifetime ago for the men of 442 and all had no illusions about the months of killing and sacrifice ahead.
The Canadian boys had just climbed through a 1,000-foot-deep layer of cloud, breaking out into the heat of a summer sun at 4,000 feet on their way to 6,000. Despite the heat inside their cockpits, the steady beat of their Merlins and the closeness of their base on the Normandy coast, their eyes and hearts were alert and fearful. Though they had established a degree of dominance in the skies over eastern France over the past month, they suffered no delusions about air superiority.
Astern of Dowding, Flight Lieutenant Arnold Walter “Rosey” Roseland, 27, led the six Spitfires of Green Section, spread out behind Dowding like a wake. Rosey was a well-loved squadron pilot, more experienced than most, who had been with 442 Squadron when it was called 14 Squadron and flew P-40 Kittyhawks in an altogether different place against an altogether different enemy—the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands, below the Bering Sea. There, the cold and rain had been constant hardships and the hunting had been poor. Here, over France, the heat was oppressive, and the enemy was always near.
Roseland, like all the rest, was a highly experienced pilot with keen eyes, a bold heart and a strong desire to get the war over with and go home. As a Green Leader, he scanned the French sky above and the cloud below for enemy aircraft. Through a gap in the cloud, the sharp light of the sun glinting from a canopy far below caught Rosey’s attention. In an instant he focused on the light, making out a small swarm of German fighter aircraft below the cloud. Informing Dowding that he was going to take them on, Roseland rolled hard over and led his wingman Flying Officer Hugh McClarty (in Y2-T) and the rest of Green Section (Morse in Y2-W, Wright in Y2-V, Burns in Y2-U, and Campbell in Y2-X) down through the gap. Dowding kept his group above the cloudbank in the hopes of getting any Germans that rose up out of its cloak. They orbited above the battle, prowling and watching through broken cloud.
Below them, 12 grey camouflaged Focke Wulf 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s broke their formation the second they spotted Roseland screaming down from above, and made for the cover of cloud. Roseland attached himself and his wingman McClarty to the tail of one Bf 109 following it in and out of cloud trying to get off a shot. In the course of trying to stay on the tail of the German fighter, Roseland lost his wingman McClarty who remained in the fight. Roseland then lost the German in the cloud and radioed his section to rejoin him above the cloud at 7,000 feet.
However, without a wingman to watch over him, and now alone below the cloud, the German fighters turned on him like a pack of wolves. Roseland’s life was down to just a few minutes.
Below, in the fields and farms near Saint-Martin-de-Mailloc in Normandy, French farmers had watched the 12 German fighters making their way across their land. Four years of occupation by the haughty conquerors had not made them welcome, and the French watched their passage with detached hatred. The Teutonic snarl of their BMW and Daimler Benz engines had become commonplace in the skies above their farms in the past few years, but more so in the past month since the invasion. With eyes shielded against the bright haze below the cloud they followed the hated German machines from the eastern horizon as they made their way west, praying that they would continue and not bring death to their doorsteps. But there was another, more distant, sound that could just be made out over the sound of the Germans—far above through a gap in the cloud a few of the French farmers watched as a flight of Spitfires flicked over onto their backs and dove in pairs to attack the Germans. The Merlin engines of the beautiful Allied fighters howled their battle cry as their pilots pushed their throttles to the detents.
French farmers in the region of Normandy had learned the hard way that a vicious dogfight above their heads was a dangerous entertainment. They quickly warned their families and friends to get indoors. Soon the thump and rattle of cannon and machine gun mixed with the howling engines. Red tracer and dirty smoke slashed apart the sullen sky. Spitfires followed Messerschmitts who followed Spitfires. Across the wide French landscape, aircraft rolled and climbed and turned, engines pushed to the maximum, heavy cannon rounds and streams of spent machine gun bullets thudded into the fields of crops, criss-crossing in seeming random gashes, sending up small puffs of soil. From the sky, heavy brass shell casings rained down upon the fields - still smoking and hot to the touch. It was not good to be outdoors—especially when a fighter lost its battle.
As the unknown young men fought for their lives over their heads, the people of Saint-Martin-de-Mailloc, including a teenager named Pierre Behier, watched—some from the safety of houses, some still working in the fields. On the farm belonging to Behier’s future wife, the main house was crowded with 22 men, women and children seeking shelter from the firestorm in the sky. Outside, several men and boys including Behier watched in fear and awe as the battle raged. In particular, they watched as the last Spitfire was set upon by five snarling, black-crossed Messerschmitts.
Round the French landscape, the fight rolled and slashed like a deadly game of crack the whip. Like a moose in deep snow, surrounded by snapping wolves, it was only a matter of time before a deadly blow was struck. The Spitfire pilot was clearly fighting for his life. After several minutes, one German managed to cut the Spitfire with a row of cannon rounds setting it on fire. Now, in its last seconds, it descended in a long sliding fall, trailing smoke—towards Behier, the farmhouse and the 22 souls it harboured. The pilot, according to those that watched, slid the canopy back and seemed to be steering the dying Spitfire away from the farmhouse. At the last second, the pilot emerged from the cockpit and pulled the ripcord of his parachute while Behier watched in horror. The trailing chute caught in the Spitfire’s tail and the pilot followed his burning aircraft over the heads of the young French onlookers and straight into ground not ten metres from the farmhouse. The forward motion from the descent and crash catapulted the dying pilot over the wreckage in the manner of a trebuchet—a full 100 metres further, where his broken body collided with a thick fencepost snapping it in half.
The body, broken and lifeless, came to rest near a cider barn. Pierre Behier and a friend ran to the young pilot who lay warm but lifeless and still attached to his white silk parachute, his eyes staring towards a sky he would never again see. Smoke from the wreck fouled the air. Shocked family and friends streamed from the house, now that the dogfight was over. A small photograph of a beautiful woman was found in the soil of the field that lay between the house and the dead pilot—now surrounded by villagers from Saint-Martin-de-Mailloc. One person found a brass Zippo with the word “Roseland” inscribed upon it.
Within minutes German soldiers, in heavy steel helmets and weapons slung over shoulders rode up on mud-spattered motorcycles to search the body they had seen fall from the sky. They wrenched from it a wallet, ID papers and from the women who had retrieved it from the field, the photo of the beautiful woman. The young German men, who perhaps had witnessed the ferocity with which he had fought his last fight, saluted the body, mounted up and roared off down the dirt lane.
It was surreal beyond words. In the long grass near the barn lay an unknown man, handsome, young, covered in dirt and blood. The sound of songbirds had returned after the black thunder of the Luftwaffe had receded over the horizon. The breeze wafted and billowed his torn and useless parachute. Smoke drifted. Children sobbed. A lock of Roseland’s sandy coloured hair fluttered in the same breeze. A shoulder patch with the word CANADA, a brass lighter with the strange inscription Roseland, and a stolen photo of a woman not yet aware of the tragedy played out in Saint-Martin-de-Mailloc. This comprised the only identity offered up by God for this young man. Whoever he was, he was a long, long way from home. It was not lost on the French people standing there, that this man had died trying to drive the Germans from their land. Little did they know it, but the airman on the ground beneath the sullen French sky on that July afternoon, surrounded by saddened French villagers would not get home for another 55 years. But get home he would—to the son he never knew.
Arnold Roseland was a Canadian, born in a sod hut, the son of Norwegian immigrants in the middle of the last Great War in the middle of the sweeping cattle country of the Canadian prairies. Today, his birthplace Youngstown, Alberta, boasts a population of 170 souls. It was from small rural towns such as Youngstown across Canada that men like Bert Houle (Massey, Ontario), Stocky Edwards (Nokomis, Saskatchewan), and Arnold Roseland came to place their lives on the roulette of war for, as the motto of 442 Squadron said: One God, One King, One Heart.
Pierre Behier would grow up to become Mayor of Saint-Martin-de-Mailloc and spend 50 years looking for first the identity, then the family of that young man whose death he witnessed in 1944. The town would eventually find Ron Roseland-Barnes, the son of Arnold Roseland, in Oakville, Ontario and invite him to attend the dedication of a memorial to that sweet, young man who died on their land so long ago. What ensued was full of friendship, tears of long-awaited grief, happiness and pride in a father Ron was just getting to know.
Ron and his two sons travelled to France and were met and hosted with great ceremony by Pierre Behier and the entire townsfolk of Saint-Martin-de-Mailloc. For the first time in his life, Ron learned the truth about his father and the impact his death had on an entire community. A town was overwhelmed with emotion at bringing closure for themselves and for Ron. Arnold’s body will forever rest in a Canadian War Dead Cemetery in France, but now, for the first time, he is truly home.