Missing in action no more: a touching letter & a secret mission revealed

With grateful acknowledgement of the following people for their information  and research: Kerry Grady-Vincent; John Marshall Grady; Bill Carver; and Dennis Markson, with Bob Body, and Staphane Muret.

John Bruce GRADY

John Bruce Grady 1918-1944 (photo supplied by K. Grady-Vincent)

As we near the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, memories of our war heroes are turning from living memory into history. Many of their stories have been lost over the years, and some have never been heard. The story of one young man, once dear to the people of Orono, has only recently been uncovered. His sacrifice can only now be fully understood.

John Bruce Grady was the second child of Earle Grady and Mary Armstrong. Mary’s father started the original Armstrong’s grocery store in Orono. According to Mary’s granddaughter Kerry Grady-Vincent of Bond Head, Mary met Earle when the rail line was being built in Orono. The two soon married, settled in Hamilton and raised seven children. At some point, their son John Grady moved to Orono and lived with his grandparents in the Armstrong house. He went to school in Orono and became a part of the community.

When war broke out with Germany, John Grady enlisted in the Orono area with the RCAF, and was eventually stationed in England. His brother Bill served in the armed forces, and his brother Harry joined the navy. “Can you imagine their parents’ worry, with three of their four sons off in a war across the ocean?” remarked Grady-Vincent. She is the daughter of John’s brother, William (“Bill”) Grady, who moved to Orono after the war, married a local girl and lived here for about 60 years. Her father told her about the war.

“My Uncle Harry and my Dad used to relay the story that when they went off to war, their father’s hair was pitch black, and when they returned, it was white,” she said.

Grady-Vincent recently found a copy of a letter written by her uncle John. She found it tucked in between the pages of a book that belonged to John, a book that her father, Bill had kept. Sometime, probably in November or December of 1943, John Grady wrote a touching note home to the Orono Red Cross, a letter reproduced in the Orono Weekly Times for the whole town to read on Thursday, Feb. 3, 1944.

He started the letter (see Letter from John Grady reproduced below), “Hello, everyone.” He had dispensed with the usual formalities, he said, because he knew everybody at the Orono Red Cross and was pleased that they remembered him. Grady thanked those Red Cross workers for the latest parcel they had sent to him overseas, and he also thanked them on behalf of the many prisoners of war whom he knew were receiving Red Cross parcels as well.

He told the Orono workers that he planned to save his parcel for Christmas, and share it with his five crew members. He also wanted to share with them information about the war, but wrote that “detail now just can’t be given for a very certain reason.” He promised, “Some day I will tell you more.” But that day would never come. Grady was shot down over France and reported missing in action along with his crew members in August, 1944. He was 26 years old.

Letter from John Grady pt1

Letter from John Grady pt2

Letter from John Grady, published in The Orono Weekly Times, Feb. 3, 1944.

“My father was given his brother’s flight logbook at some point after the war,” said Grady-Vincent. “I’m not exactly sure when. My Uncle certainly valued the support his community gave him during his days overseas, as you can see in his letter home. Some of your older readers may remember him. Unfortunately, my Uncle didn’t return home and today his name rests on our local cenotaph.” Grady Drive in Newcastle is named after him.

Last June, Grady-Vincent’s cousin, John Marshall Grady (son of the youngest Grady brother, George) of Bradford Woods, PA came across some information on the internet that changed his perception of his uncle and namesake.

“I thought John Bruce Grady was lost over France in the war and never found,” he wrote in an email to the Orono Weekly Times earlier this year. “We were told no body or plane was ever found. Well, I just happened to find some information which suggested otherwise.”

He discovered that his uncle, an RCAF navigator, was part of the British Special Duties Squadrons, which supported the “Special Ops” Agents of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) branch of British Intelligence. Two squadrons, 161 and 138, were stationed at Tempsford Airfield, a secret airbase in Bedfordshire, England. Both Squadron 161 — which formed in February, 1942 as one of the two “Moonlight Squadrons” — and its missions were classified as “Top Secret,” and much of the work of its crew members went unheralded until it was declassified in 1998.

According to the research of Dennis Markson (a relative of 161’s Sgt. Markson, and creator of a website regarding “The Tempsford Special Duties Squadrons”), the squadron flew Halifax and Stirling aircraft. The planes were modified – the top turret was removed, and a hole was cut in the floor – to allow specially-trained SOE Agents and supplies to be dropped by parachute behind enemy lines in German-occupied France.

The aircraft were painted black, and their engine exhausts were covered to conceal engine flash, according to Markson. They were designed to fly low at night, looking for pre-destined drop-off points where underground resistance groups would be waiting. Select instruments were mounted on top of the dash so the pilot could read them without taking his eyes off the ground. Pinpoint navigation was required to find small villages, and then set course for the target area. There was a twin 303 machine gun mounted in the rear turret of the plane. Ground contact was made through a pre-arranged Morse code letter flashed by flashlight.

Navigator W/O John Bruce Grady and his fellow crew members — pilot F/Sgt. Joseph William Nicholls (age 22), air bomber P/O George Edwards Rhead (28), wireless operator Sgt. Anthony Albert Rivers (23), engineer Sgt. Bryan Charles Frederick Dean (27), (newly joined) dispatcher Sgt. Clifford George Bragg (20), and rear gunner Sgt. Ellis Markson (38) – flew Halifax MA-Y LL358. Except for the dispatcher, this crew had flown eight clandestine missions together, and would have been quite skilled at the low-level drops.

On the night of August 8, 1944, the crew left on what was expected to be a four-hour mission along with another Halifax from the 161. This mission was to supply an underground cell in the French countryside with arms and explosives packed in special canisters and packets designed to withstand the drop. This French group had successfully helped over eighty downed Allied airmen escape capture and return to England through its network. Once the target was found, the Halifax flew in nearly at stall speed (145 mph, at 400 to 500 feet) in order to make the drop, according to Markson.

The first of the two Halifax aircraft on the mission made its drop, but Grady’s plane was hit by gunfire from a German night fighter. On fire, the MA-Y LL358 banked, crashed into a field, and burst into flames. All seven crew members were killed, incinerated in their seats before the French could reach them. There had been no time for anyone to bail out from the low-flying plane, which was full of explosives.

Plane Wreckage GRADY

An historical photo of the wreckage, after the Halifax MA-Y LL358 crashed in a field in France in the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 1944.

The next day, the bodies of the aircrew were taken to the little cemetery in the nearby village of Cugny. Despite the presence of the Gestapo, the entire village turned out for the burials, and covered the caskets with flowers. Back at Tempsford, word reached the SOE that the aircraft had been shot down and all the crew killed in enemy territory. Telegrams were dispatched to the families of the dead crew members, stating that they were missing in action. Later, the Red Cross returned some of the men’s personal items to the families.

According to Markson, a roadside memorial was established by the mayor of Cugny in 1971. A stone was inscribed with the names of the crew, and it still stands there today. Each year, the town holds a ceremony to honour the seven airmen. And there is a museum to honour the French resistance in the Picardie area which also documents the events of that fateful mission. But across the ocean, Grady’s family and friends had little idea of his bravery.

Grady was instead remembered for his kindness. “I have been told repeatedly how very kind and humble John Grady was,” said his nephew. When John Marshall Grady contacted his cousin, Kerry Grady-Vincent, with the new information, she remembered the logbook her father had shown her and her siblings years ago. Inside she found the letter from the Orono Times.

“I’m not sure who saved it [the article] – perhaps my Grandmother Grady or their Aunt Lizzie [who also lived in Orono], I really don’t know, but it was important to someone back home.

“My Dad told me that when he took leaves during the war, he and his brother John would meet and go fishing together in Scotland. But he probably didn’t know about this part of my Uncle’s life – if he did, he never shared it.”

Now the extended Grady family, including Grady’s two surviving sisters, is celebrating the heroic deeds of John Grady. And they are not alone. Nephew John Marshall Grady reported that he and his sister Kim will travel to the Tempsford Airbase in England on Remembrance Day for a special commemoration for the 161 Squardron. “We will lay a wreath for John Bruce Grady at the ceremony – on behalf of his parents, sisters, brothers, and the rest of us.”

Last week, the siblings travelled to France to visit their uncle’s gravesite and the memorial in Cugny. Prior to arriving, John Marshall Grady emailed the current mayor, asking for directions. He said that the mayor of Cugny immediately offered to receive the pair at the cemetery, along with the director of the Museum of Resistance. The two Frenchmen further offered to drive the siblings to the memorial at the crash site, and then on to the museum.

“We plan on placing flowers on all seven graves, and on the memorial,” said the nephew, before leaving on the trip. And Grady-Vincent ensured that there would be a little bit of Orono to pay tribute at her uncle’s grave. “I sent a Canadian flag and some pebbles from Wilmot Creek. I was told, by someone who belonged to the Orono Hunt and Fish Club with him in his youth, that my Uncle used to fish there.”

This Remembrance Day, as we honour all of the brave men and women who have served our country, we can reflect on the names on our local cenotaph, and wonder how many more stories of bravery are still waiting to be uncovered.


One thought on “Missing in action no more: a touching letter & a secret mission revealed

  1. I enjoyed visiting this website very much as i have a personal connection to Tempsford. My brother, P/O D.A. Hayman, flew from there and was unfortuately killed whilst on operations over France on the night of June 1-2 1944. I wonder if anyone reading this note could kindly inform me how i could join the Tempsford Vererans & Relatives Association who have regular meetings


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