Skip navigation

Wednesday November 11, 2009

He played a role in The (real) Great Escape

RCAF pilot helped dig a tunnel under Stalag Luft III, then survived by being in the hospital when his buddies started to crawl

In a sky as azure as a line from High Flight, a Lancaster bomber, its port engine cut and propeller stilled, flew in the sunlit silence over the playing fields of Upper Canada College in midtown Toronto on a sunny afternoon in late September.

Chased by a perky canary-yellow de Havilland Chipmunk, the flypast was an idiosyncratic but moving tribute to F/O John (Scruffy) Weir, a veteran of the Second World War, a pilot who loved to restore and own heritage planes and a man who had thwarted his German captors during nearly four years as a prisoner of war.

Above all, he was a survivor - and that includes The Great Escape from the infamous Stalag Luft III and a forced march across Germany in the dying days of the war.

Few people knew better than John Weir how to cherish life.

John Gordon Weir was born less than a year after Germany signed the armistice ending the First World War, a war that had scarred the life of his father, Colonel James Gordon Weir.

The elder Weir, a Presbyterian of Scottish descent, served on the front lines in the trenches in a machine gun battalion. By the time the guns stopped firing, he had been gassed twice, awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, and risen, literally through the ranks, from trooper to colonel.

After the war, he married a Canadian nursing sister, Mary Frederica (Freda) Taylor, and settled in Toronto, where their son John and daughter Nancy were born.

Col. Weir went back to his former trade as a bond salesman, eventually helping to found McLeod Young Weir, which became part of Scotiabank in 1988.

Unlike his father, John grew up in an affluent household and went to Upper Canada College.

School was a humdrum part of a much larger education, orchestrated by his father: How to survive in the natural and political wilderness. As the 1920s turned into the 30s, Col. Weir was convinced that fighting a second world war against the old foe was inevitable.

He wanted his son's survival and strategic skills honed, as Blake Heathcote illustrates in a forthcoming biography of F/O Weir.

As a youngster, John spent time in Algonquin Park under the tutelage of an Ojibwa fishing guide; as a teenager he was sent to France during school breaks to learn the language and customs; and every couple of years his father took him along on European business trips, where he observed the rise of Nazism in the mid-1930s and, on a couple of occasions, carried covert messages to desperate clients who were trying to escape from Germany.

Finally, Col. Weir sent his son to Timmins in northern Ontario in July 1938, to work underground in the gold mines to earn tuition money for university and get toughened up with hard physical labour.

On Sept. 4, 1939, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, Mr. Weir, barely 20, enlisted in the nascent and ill-equipped Royal Canadian Air Force. He was called up in November, sent to a civilian flying school in Winnipeg and then shipped back east, eventually being posted to Trenton, to train on fighters. After appearing on dress parade wearing a uniform stained with glycol, a visiting RAF group captain observed that F/O Weir was "rather a scruffy looking individual." And "Scruffy" he remained.

About this time he met Fran McCormack on a blind date. "We just hit it off; it was quite magical," she said nearly 70 years later. They danced together like champions and she brought out the playful side in him - although it was never far from the surface. On at least two occasions, he "bombed" her with notes dropped in handkerchiefs from training planes over her Forest Hill neighbourhood, a courting ritual impossible to imagine being overlooked by aviation authorities today.

F/O Weir shipped out in August, 1940, arriving on the south coast of England in the middle of the Blitz at the apogee of German invasion fears. He was posted to Squadron 401, which had sustained heavy losses in the Battle of Britain, and had been re-assigned to Thurso, Scotland, to regroup while protecting the skies over Scapa Flow, the main British naval base.

By October, 1941, Squadron 401 had been posted to Lancashire and re-equipped with Spitfires, which were faster than Hurricanes and more agile than Messerschmitts. F/O Weir, who had accumulated 1,000 hours of operational flight time, had far exceeded the life expectancy for new fighter pilots - approximately six combat hours. His luck was about to expire.

Back to top