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A story to 'make your blood run cold'


Pete Flett's last flight began from the tiny French aerodrome at Luxeuil-les-Bain in the early afternoon of April 14, 1917.

The Ontario-born fighter pilot was flying a legendary Sopwith biplane, one of four taking part in an Allied bombing raid on the university town of Freiburg, about 110 kilometres away in Germany. The raid was a reprisal for the U-boat torpedoing of a British hospital ship a month earlier in the English Channel.

Mr. Flett tells the harrowing story in an eight-page letter to his older sister, Ann, just days after his brush with death, a call so close that it might have curled the crew cut of a newly shorn cadet.

As he says in the first paragraph: "Well, it's all over little girl & I am O.K. I have a story to tell you [that] would make your blood run cold. I had the luck of a Texas mule."

At 29, Walter (Pete) Flett was old for a First World War pilot, most of whom were cavalier youths barely out of their teens. He already had a lot of living under his belt, captaining the Toronto Argonauts and leading the fledgling Big Four football league in scoring in 1907, and later working on the construction of many of the city's early tall buildings. By the time he signed up to be a flier, he was married and soon to be a father.

Mr. Flett was a good correspondent. Once he went overseas in 1916, he wrote faithfully to his young, pregnant wife, Eloise, back in Toronto. In those letters, he was always doing fine. There was nothing to fear. He would be back in her arms in Canada in no time.

But that was not what the hard-nosed flying ace really thought. When Mr. Flett wanted to confide his true feelings about what was going on, he wrote to his sister. He could not bear to worry his wife as she coped with her pregnancy and then the birth of their first child alone.

Once, after crashing a training plane, Mr. Flett writes Ann: "I don't tell Eloise these little adventures but [you] may as well know what the life is like."

Nearly two dozen of these candid letters survive in the Flett family. They provide a vivid portrait of life in France and on the training fields of England, complete with slagging of the home side.

"The Englishmen are awful. The good ones must all be dead," he tells Ann. "They keep us grinding at stuff that will never do us any good in flying. They still drink their tea at 4 p.m. no matter what happens. ..... I am not having much fun."

Like many early pilots, Mr. Flett had a bit of bravado about him, a healthy cynicism toward his superiors and a dark sense of what was really happening on the blood-soaked battlegrounds of France.

"I don't think this summer [1916] will see the end of the war," he writes. "There will never be a big drive as people talk about. If there is, the losses will be in the hundreds of thousands."

Mr. Flett shows a sensitive side too. "We had the most glorious sunset last night. Green, yellow, red, all blending together of the most vivid hues. It was the most wonderful sight I ever witnessed."

His letters were discovered by his granddaughter, Peggy Olive, as she cleared out her mother's house. Like many of her generation, Ms. Olive has now become drawn in by the far-off conflict, transcribing every one of Mr. Flett's letters and circulating them to other family members.

Nothing prepared her for Mr. Flett's final dispatch, about the deadly raid on Freiburg. "It was like an amazing novel, reading to the end to find out what happened," she said.

Mr. Flett begins the letter to his wife, then thinks better of it. "My Darling" is crossed out and "Dear Sister Ann" written instead. He explains to Ann: "I think it is too strong and might upset her."

At first, everything goes well. The bombs are dropped and the fighter planes head for home. Then, all hell breaks loose.

"I was just thinking this is going to be pie when crack crack crack went the machine guns & six Huns were on my tail. ..... [They] came up from behind and under my right wing," he writes.

"One went in a loop over my tail and a roar from my gunlayer's Lewises brought my head around to see a Rowland flash over not 20 feet off with our tracer bullets paring into the fuselage." (Gunlayers, as they were known, manned the plane's Lewis machine guns from a separate seat behind the pilot.)

A Fokker biplane suddenly shows up under his tail. "Down went the two Lewises into him at point blank range. ... He simply crumpled up and went down, but not before he riddled me with bullets cutting my tail about off & cutting my elevator control wires. I was then practically helpless," Mr. Flett tells Ann.

Somehow, he manages to stop his plane's topsy-turvy rolling.

"On we went and back came two Huns and whir went the machine guns again and Mr. Hun came on no more." Yet another German plane dives into sight. "I gave up hope again but he did not come close." The crippled Sopwith lumbers on at 12,200 feet. "Then whoof whoof we were in shell fire again - that meant the lines & I sogged through it, getting some too near for my health."

With his tail nearly shot off, controls gone and stuck at high altitude, Mr. Flett wonders how he will ever be able to descend without going into a death dive. He has no idea where he is.

Far off, he spots a tiny airfield. "I started to come down, not knowing where my tail would fall off. That meant instant death. ..... Down we came. I spotted the French marking on a plane. Thank God. In we came & I landed her."

French fliers rush toward the plane. Mr. Flett is unhurt, but his gunlayer is badly wounded. "There's no use telling you the different parts where the machine was struck. I was simply riddled with bullets & shells, or part of one, had gone through my tail."

"P.S.," Mr. Flett writes. "The three other fighters with me are all missing."

For his miraculous flying feat and the downing of two German planes, Mr. Flett was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the George Medal and the Croix de Guerre. "A French general kissed him on both cheeks. I'm not sure my dad liked that too much," his son, Jack, recalled.

Pete Flett loved to fly. His first daughter was named Avro, after the Avro 504 he trained on in Canada. After the trauma of the Freiburg raid, however, he never flew again.

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