On a bright spring morning in 1949, disaster struck Winnipeg when a fighter jet from 402 Squadron lost control and hurtled toward a Charleswood suburb. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Vernon Bastable, struggled to avoid homes. He crashed in a snow-covered field nearby – tragically losing his life. Bastable was a war hero; one of only five Canadian airmen to be decorated with the military cross for heroism. This terrible accident continues to be remembered among the most significant losses suffered by 402 Squadron. Bastable left behind a young family who had already suffered through the years he was a POW.
Bastable enlisted with the City of Winnipeg’s 402 Squadron in 1941 and was soon in England flying Wellington bombers in cross-channel engagements. In one such battle over the Rounne Valley in France, the bomber was downed by heavy fire and was quickly surrounded by German soldiers after crashing. Bastable wrote to his wife, Phyllis, as a prisoner of war saying, “This address is only temporary”, which he meant sincerely. After his first four escape attempts, Bastable was transferred to a camp in Czechoslovakia, where he met Czech RAF pilot, Pavel Sloboda; and the two plotted one final escape.
The two were assigned to a work detail, and then slipped away into the countryside. They walked 75 miles to Moravia, where Sloboda’s family lived; eluding German patrols the whole way. Bastable hoped he would be able to somehow find covert passage back to England, but after several months living in a nearby forest – so as not to endanger the Sloboda family – he came to understand the reality of his situation. Bastable was trapped behind enemy lines. While it was possible to live out the rest of the war in hiding, Bastable could not overlook the generosity of his new friends and volunteered with Sloboda to join the Czech resistance.
Bastable learned to speak some Czech, and with Sloboda led a group of 20 men in the resistance, collecting and distributing information on German troop movement and defences. They then moved on to sabotaging unmanned telegraph posts and rail lines. Sloboda remembers Bastable as, “A born leader. He was always first in any action and the last to leave, to make sure that all were safe and accounted for.”
Bastable returned home safely in 1945; one of only a handful of Canadians decorated with the Czechoslovakian cross. Within a year, he volunteered once again to serve with 402 Squadron; this time as a reservist. Bastable’s story reminds us that it is not only important to honour those who have sacrificed in war, but to also recognize the brave servicemen and women who give of themselves in times of peace to ensure our continued safety.