By Steve Hubrecht
On Remembrance Day, the Columbia Valley remembers.
In the weeks leading up to Nov. 11, the faces of local veterans from conflicts old and new grace banners on downtown Invermere’s lampposts as part of the ‘Honour Our Veterans’ Banner Program. Some veteran’s faces and names are very familiar to today’s valley residents. Other veteran’s faces and names are less familiar — the details of life histories having become hazy through the long march of time.
But familiar or less familiar, all these faces have a story to tell. And all should be remembered.
Harold Braathen is one veteran featured on a banner, his name perhaps less familiar to current Columbia Valley residents because the Second World War (in which he served) ended almost eight decades ago and also because the Braathen family moved from the valley decades ago. Even a member of the Braathen family contacted by the Pioneer in Vancouver conceded that the details of Harold’s service, and the family’s time in Windermere, were not well known to her, having faded slightly through the decades; a bit more lost each time a member of the older generation passed away.
But Harold’s story and that of the Braathen family in the Columbia Valley have been revived in recent years, thanks to the connective power of the Internet and the research efforts of a dedicated dad in the United Kingdom and an author in northeastern B.C. The dad — Mike Wainwright — has a personal interest in the Second World War. His own father, John (Jack) Wainwright, served as a bomb aimer with the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during the war. Like many who served in the war, Jack didn’t talk much about it afterwards with his family. One of the few things Mike knew was that Jack was part of a bomber crew that was shot down near the town of Beauvais, France, during a bombing raid on July 4, 1944. Jack survived, was picked up by members of the French Resistance and lived for a time posing as a Frenchman before returning to safety in the U.K.
In 2004 Mike’s son James was given a school assignment to complete over the Easter holidays — to write a 30-page report about the Second World War. James decided to write about his grandfather, who had died in 1978. Mike pulled out Jack’s medals and memorabilia. Then he and James began digging around for other information, finding tidbits in various online records and archives, not just about Jack but about other members of the crew flying with Jack on July 4. The bomber had a crew of eight when it was shot down. Two (including Jack) survived), but six of the crew were killed, including its Canadian second navigator, Harold Braathen.
“We just followed all the various rabbit holes (of information) that popped up,” Mike told the Pioneer. “There was a lot.”
James compiled all the information and got an A+ on his assignment. Then Mike posted it on a website he created. The website attracted attention and additional information from families of the other crew members, as well as people such as British Columbia author Dan Cimini, who was researching a book about B.C. veterans. As more information came in, Mike expanded the website, then later re-launched it.
Harold was the eighth man aboard the Lancaster ME699 when it was shot down. He was originally born in Sweden in 1916. The Braathen family moved to Canada in 1927, while Harold and his siblings were still young, settling in Windermere in the Columbia Valley. The kids attended the Windermere elementary school and then high school in Invermere. After graduating, Harold studied at the University of British Columbia (UBC), taking courses in math and education. He began working as a teacher in Cecil Lake in northeastern B.C.’s Peace region in 1938.
In 1942, Harold enlisted in the military. A reviewing medical officer wrote on Harold’s enlistment form that the young man was joining, with a desire to be aircrew because “he felt it was time he was in it” and that Harold was “pleasant, sincere, co-operative and quite intelligent. From his motivation and apparent lack of aggressiveness he is not too impressive as pilot material but should be alright as a navigator.”
Harold began training in 1942 in Edmonton, with some courses in Regina. In May 1943, little more than a month before being posted overseas, Harold married Cecil Lake resident Audrey Framst in a small ceremony. He arrived in the U.K. in July 1943. There he continued training, finishing on the last day of June 1944. Four days later he joined Australian pilot Bill Young’s Lancaster crew, flying as a ‘second dickie’ (an extra navigator) to get experience before navigating his own crew.
Bill Young’s Lancaster crew had already successfully flown 20 missions over France and Germany. The July 4 flight was their 21st operation together. For Harold, on the other hand, the July 4 raid turned out to be his first and only combat flight. The crew reached and attacked their target (the V1 storage and assembly centre in the Saint Leu d’Esserent caves) and were shot down while returning home. Three members of the crew managed to bail out of the aircraft and two of these (including Jack Wainwright) parachuted to safety and were hidden undercover by the French Resistance. The other five (including Harold) died when the plane crashed and exploded in an orchard near the hamlet of Laversines, close to Beauvais. The remains from the crash site were buried in the Marissel military cemetery.
“Navigator (Harold’s job) was an extremely technical job. You had to be well-educated and pretty smart to do it,” Mike Wainwright explained to the Pioneer, adding that it was not uncommon for members of the Royal Canadian Air Force to be assigned to the British RAF.
Diana Braathen, Harold’s niece, lives in Vancouver, and filled in more details about the family for the Pioneer. The family is originally from Norway, but Harold and most of his five siblings were born in Sweden. Harold’s youngest brother (Diana’s father) Richard, however, was born in the Invermere hospital. Their father Einar worked as a horticulturist in Windermere on the Dominion Experimental Farm. The eldest Braathen brother, Emil, tragically drowned in Lake Windermere in 1935 when he was 20. Emil’s gravesite is still in the Windermere cemetery.
Harold was in fact one of three Braathen brothers to enlist in the Second World War. It was noteworthy enough that the Vancouver Province ran a news story with the headline “B.C. Swedish Family Sends Three Sons to Battle Nazis’. Hans Braathen was, like Harold, in the air force. Hans too ended up being shot down, in Normandy during D-Day. But Hans survived his crash, unlike Harold. Nels Braathen served and was wounded with an anti-tank unit in the Netherlands. When Nels later died, after the war, he too was buried in the Windermere cemetery.
The Braathen family moved to Prince George at some point in the 1940s (Diana is not entirely sure when) where Einar had another horticultural job. From there, the family slowly scattered across Canada, with some living in northwest B.C., some in Calgary, some in Ontario, and some in other parts of the country. Many Braathens died relatively young, outlined Diana, and gradually the various branches of the family began to lose touch with each other. But thanks to digital technology, that has changed.
Diana was amazed and delighted, for instance, to learn that her Uncle Harold is honoured as part of the Invermere banner program. And very grateful to have been able to connect with Mike Wainwright through his website, to find out more about that fateful flight on July 4, 1944, and to fill in Harold’s background for Mike.
In 2006, Diana visited the Columbia Valley with her dad and some cousins. “The family home is still standing in Windermere, so we saw that,” she explained. It’s an old log house facing the lake, not far from the cemetery. They found some old historical photos in the Windermere Valley Museum showing a very young Hans Braathen as a student at Windermere elementary school.
“It is very interesting to see the family come to life again, in some ways, after all these years,” said Diana.
In a final twist to the story, Harold along with the five other crew members who perished in Laversines will soon be honoured with a new memorial, created by a French Second World War research group wishing to commemorate the crash.
The plan is for the memorial to be unveiled this coming summer, on July 6 — almost 80 years exactly since the crash happened.
“Laversines is a very small village. A plane being shot down there would’ve been a major event in the history of the village. A lot of the old people there still remember it,” Mike Wainwright told the Pioneer. “The idea is to honour them and to pay respect to the enormity of what they did.”