The following is an abridged version of an account written by Jane Pilling-Cormick with William Francis Bessent (Bill Bessent), who also contributed all the pictures.
The Bessent Twins
Bill and Bob Bessent were 17 year old twin brothers who joined the RCAF, in September 1942, along with many other Canadian boys. From the time they were born, Bill and Bob were never apart. That is, until they joined 405 Squadron of the Pathfinders in December 1943.
They were identical twins and unless you knew them well, you could not tell them apart. Bob was slightly quieter than Bill, but otherwise, they were identical. They were born in Windsor, Ontario, but moved to Grande Prairie, Alberta, when they were 2 years old. They had no other siblings. Their father, Bert Bessent, was a commercial traveler in the Peace River country. He was well known in many of the surrounding towns.
Throughout their Air Force training, the twins were inseparable. After joining the RCAF, they trained at Edmonton (Alberta) and Souris (Manitoba). They received their wings at Montjolie (Quebec), before travelling to Britain.
Their two pilots, Ed Drew and Don Patterson, had trained together in Canada at Penfield Ridge. Don already had a navigator, wireless operator, and rear gunner when he arrived in the UK. He chose Bill for his mid-upper gunner. Ed Drew chose Bob for his mid-upper gunner. The crews needed to have training on Lancasters because they had never flown on four-engine bombers. On November 15, 1943, they were all attached to N.T.U. Upwood, Huntingdonshire. There they did cross-countries and fighter affiliation where a spitfire was used to attack them.
Bob was sent with Ed Drew’s crew to 405 Squadron a week ahead of Bill’s crew, in December 1943. This was the first and only time the twins were separated throughout their entire life. They were apart for about a week while Bill stayed at Upwood with his crew doing some more training.
When Bill and his crew did arrive, Bob was already in a separate billet. The billets were just ordinary single story Nissan huts. Cots lined the building with a locker for each man. Some of the airmen who had been there earlier had actually climbed up into the roof trusses and chopped out the wood to burn in the stove. Gransden Lodge was not a permanent station and was built during the war. Being that it was December, it was damp and wet, making the station extremely muddy. Bill remembers wearing rubber boots a lot of the time. There were some paved roads, but there were also lots of muddy ones too. People tended to catch colds quite a bit.
Even though Bill was only at 405 Squadron for a few short weeks, he does remember getting wonderful tomato sandwiches from a farmer’s wife who lived close to the RAF station. They tasted really good, especially after some of the meals the aircrew had been eating. Sometimes they went to the local pub for a drink. Other than that, they spent a lot of their time going to the Sergeants’ Mess for meals when they weren’t training or flying.
Bob went on his first bombing trip from 405 Squadron on December 4, 1943 to Leipzig. He reported in his log book that this was a good trip which lasted for 6 hours and 55 minutes of night flying. He was most likely picked up by another Lancaster crew who needed a mid-upper gunner since he flew with another pilot by the name of Countess. After that, he flew cross-countries with Ed Drew, the pilot he trained with. On December 10th and 11th they did some cross country runs and fighter affiliation. Bill also did training with his pilot, Don Paterson, and his crew. On December 11, 12 and 13th, they were doing cross-country runs.
The twins so closely resembled each other that people mixed them up. One day, Bill was walking with his rear gunner, Lorne Davies, into the main part of the station. Ed Drew, Bob’s pilot, walked by and told Bill they would be flying that day. Bill just said fine. Lorne later asked why he didn’t tell Ed he wasn’t Bob. Bill replied saying it was no problem. He knew he’d see Bob later at the mess hall and he’d tell him then.
On December 16, Bill went to the gunnery to see Bob off, together with their boyhood friend, Gerald Strang. Bob and Gerald were dressing when Bill got there and they had already had their briefing. Bill had not yet been on an operation, so it was rather exciting to go and be with his brother and friend, especially after months of training. It took some time for Bob and Gerald to dress since they were gunners and had to get their heated suits on. The trucks then came and picked up Bob and Gerald to take them with their crews to the bombers. At this point, Bill said good bye and went back to his billet. Little did he know that he would never see Bob and Gerald again and, in a few short hours, his life would be changed forever.
Sometime in the early hours of December 17, someone came to tell Bill about the crash and to share the horrible news that Bob and Gerald had both been killed. Bill doesn’t recall who told him, for naturally he was in shock. Bill does remember walking across an open area on the base where he could hear a church bell ringing. It was daylight, so it was probably on the morning of December 17th.
The funerals of Bob, Gerald, and the other 405 Squadron men who had been killed on Black Thursday lost took place at Cambridge City Cemetery on December 22, 1943. On December 24, Bill did his first and only op from 405 Squadron. The op was to Berlin and took place only two days after he stood beside his brother Bob’s coffin at his funeral.
Before going on that trip, Bill remembers very well being called into Group Captain Fauquier’s office. Fauquier asked him if he was ready to fly so soon after the funeral. Bill replied by saying that if his crew was flying, he’d be flying with them. As Bill recalls, he really found out what war was like on that first operation. The whole crew was nervous because they were going to Berlin. The same target Bob had been to before he lost his life on Black Thursday. Berlin was very heavily fortified by searchlights, guns and fighters. In Bill’s words, if you weren’t scared, you weren’t normal. Everyone was trained to do what they were supposed to do and the crew focused on their individual tasks. It was quite a sight because there were lots of fires, search lights and flak. Bill could see other planes in the bomber stream, up close. And he also saw bombers going down. It was quite an experience for Bill because he’d heard about such incidents, but this was the first time he’d actually seen them. It wouldn’t be his last time witnessing such horrific scenes.
After that first trip, Bill’s crew left 405 and never returned. They were posted to 426 Squadron in Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, where they would go on to do 29 more ops. They completed their tour on August 11, 1944.
Even though Bill only stayed with 405 Squadron for a few weeks, he never forgot the events that had taken place there and how they changed his life forever.
One of the amazing aspects of this story is the connection between Black Thursday and a small town in Northern Alberta called Grande Prairie.
In 1943, there were only 1,645 people living in the town. Surprisingly, five boys from Grande Prairie arrived at 405 Squadron. It was unusual for these boys to actually be posted with people they knew, let alone people they’d grown up with. For some reason, it happened to these five. Three of these five, Bob Bessent, Bill Bessent and Gerald Strang, were mid-upper gunners. And unfortunately, three of these five would die on Black Thursday – Bob Bessent, Sandy Saunders and Gerald Strang, whom Bob and Bill had been at school with.
The Bessent twins and their parents lived on 101st Avenue, about eight blocks from Gerald Strang.
Gerald Strang was about 5’10” and in Bill’s words, was “just a young guy”. He was described as being an outstanding athlete and was a member of both the junior and senior hockey teams. He also played ball. He lived on 108th Avenue, way out on the edge of town, in the north end. His father, Lee Strand, was the local barber. Gerald joined the RCAF in the first part of June 1942 and was called up on July 1st. He trained in Edmonton (Alberta), Trenton (Ontario), and was awarded his wings at Macdonald (Manitoba). He went overseas in July 1943, and was eventually posted to 405 Squadron, where, just by coincidence, he would have the bed next to Bill at Gransden Lodge.
Harold (Sandy) Saunders, another young Canadian posted to 405 Squadron, was originally from McLennan, Alberta, a small town just outside Grande Prairie. His father, L.W. Saunders, was a train dispatcher in McLennan. Before Sandy joined up, he worked at the Northern Alberta Railway station in Grande Prairie. In 1940, he was assistant station agent, part-time. He was also a well known athlete in the town, having played with the Grande Prairie hockey team. He was slightly older than the other boys, but he would also die the same night in the same series of crashes.
Claude Fitzpatrick, also from Grande Prairie (his father Jack Fitzpatrick owned a saw mill business there) was a member of ground crew at Gransden Lodge in the winter of 1943. He was older than the others and would have been about 26 years old. Claude got all the Grande Prairie boys together for a visit after they were first posted to 405 Squadron.
News of the deaths on Black Thursday was devastating to such a small place as Grande Prairie. Three of their boys had been killed in one night. A photo of Bill and Bob appeared in the local newspaper announcing Bob’s death. The town held a memorial service for the boys.