John Leon Turner in uniform speaking during one of his many stops on the War Bond circuit through Ontario and Quebec, Canada
I received an e-mail last month from Terry Marshall of London, Ontario (Canada). He wrote, “I would like to add one more name to the prisoner list which currently appears on your excellent site. The name to be added is that of my late father-in-law, John Leon (Lucky) Turner RCAF (Air Gunner) attached to RAF 99 squadron.”
There are several references to Canadian servicemen on the Camp 59 Survivors site, but I have detailed information on only one other Canadian at this time, Laurence Barker (see “Laurence Barker—Died for His Country“). Laurence, like John Turner, was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In his notes to me, Terry referred to his father-in-law as Leon. I asked him about this and he replied, “As far as I know, he always referred to himself as Leon, although to those who knew him well, he was Lucky (a reference to his skill and success at cards I believe).”
Therefore, I will refer to John on this site as Leon.
Here is a timeline of Leon’s service:
Enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) June 7, 1940 (Niagara Falls, Ontario)
Sent to No. 1 Manning Depot (Toronto, Ontario)
Wireless training, St. Mary’s Road (Montreal, Quebec)
Final training at No. 9 Bombing and Gunnery School (Jarvis, Ontario—on the north shore, eastern end of Lake Erie)
Sent overseas to RAF training pool in June 1941
TOS operational training unit numbers 4 and 20 onto RAF 9
“TOS” is the acronym for taken on strength, “SOS” is struck off strength. In the RAF sense, TOS is to become a member of the squadron and off course, while SOS is to no longer be part of the squadron. These terms were used for both people and operational equipment. When an aircraft is no longer useful for the intended purpose, it is SOS. Conversely, new aircraft arriving, to replace that which has been SOS, is TOS.
Transfer to RAF 99 on January 19, 1942
Terry explained, “January 1942, RAF High Command decided to relocate RAF Squadron 99 to Digli, India; squadron aircraft was flown by ferry operations down the length of the Mediterranean to Egypt and on to India, while the remaining kit was shipped by sea to Durban and then on to India.
“This is very close in time to what has been described as the Siege of Malta and, of course, Gibraltar and Malta would be necessary stopovers for aircraft flying from Britain. As a result, both German and Italian air and naval forces were be active in intercept attempts, and in many cases bogus weather and navigational information was broadcast.
“Wellington DV 510 departed Portreath Airbase in the UK on February 26, 1942. From here, things get a little murky as to just what transpired prior to capture.
“Wellington DV510 with crew of six—apparently caught up in poor weather condition, low fuel, and bogus information—was forced down.
Pilot Officer G. A. Kennedy, Captain
Sergeant R. H. Watton, 2nd Pilot
Sergeant R. Jefferson, Air Observer
Sergeant T. Bell, Wireless Operator
Sergeant M. H. C. Berrie, Air Gunner (mid-upper)
Sergeant J. L. Turner, Air Gunner (tail)
“Leon was reported missing on or about February 26, and he was reported a POW on or about February 27. He was captured near Ragusa, Sicily, interrogated in Rome, and then sent to Camp 59.”
Concerning Leon’s civilian life, Terry wrote, “Leon married Eileene Kingsley on March 1, 1941 in Outremont, Quebec, before continuing and completing required training and heading overseas.
“On repatriation to Canada at RCAF Rockcliffe, Ottawa, Leon was assigned to No. 9 Bombing and Gunnery school at Mont Jolie, Quebec, where he stayed until struck of charge on June 12, 1945.
“On release from the RCAF, Leon and Eileene moved to the small village of Brights Grove, Ontario. Leon took a short-term job working in the petrochemical industry in Sarnia, Ontario, but left to begin a career as a reporter-photographer in the Sarnia bureau of the London Free Press.
“During the years spent in Sarnia, Leon and Eileene raised three daughters—Susan, Elizabeth, and Meredith—before relocating to London, Ontario, where Leon continued to work for the Free Press as a copy editor until his retirement.
“Leon died on his 65th birthday, 1983.”
Terry added, “I managed to sort through my files today and came upon some very yellow newspaper clippings. They serve no useful purpose tucked away in a file folder in the back of my closet, and I am quite happy to share them with all who find an interest in those who lived through some of the most difficult times of their generation.
“I do not have any dates on the clippings. What I do have are letters of thanks from various organizations who provided the venues for the war bonds presentations. The first piece of correspondence is dated November 1944, while the remainder seems to be 1945. The majority of these letters are from Montreal-based service clubs, so I would suggest that the newspaper clippings are likely from the English language newspaper, The Montreal Gazette.”
The following two articles are on a talk Leon gave to the Kiwanis Club of Montreal. Two more articles will follow in separate posts.
Former POW Unfolds Story
P/O. J. Turner Relates Experiences in Italy
Whatever might have been the feeling among Italian Fascists during the war, the peasants were friends of the democratic countries and did all they could to help escaped prisoners. P/O. J. L. Turner, of the R.C.A.F. told the Kiwanis Club of Montreal today at the Windsor Hotel.
Captured in Italy, Pilot Officer Turner told the Kiwanians that for nine months after his escape from a prison camp, he travelled all over the country and only three out of hundreds of poor families had refused to run the risk of sheltering a prisoner.
He told of being trapped by snow in the Italian mountains and how he had led a group of 16 young men to a partisan hideout.
Pilot Officer Turner became a captain of one of the groups of partisans, and recalling narrow escapes, cited the case of one woman who had lost all her sons, but who had risked death to warn him that his whereabouts had been betrayed by an itinerant cobbler. When asked why she had done it, she replied “You may be an enemy of my country, but never of my people. We are freedom loving people who have lost our freedom and will do anything to get it back.”
The speaker was introduced by Martin J. Foley, and thanked by Harold Cross. The president, W. J. Bryant, thanked Frank Roe for sending 600 peonies to the Children’s Memorial Hospital, the Montreal Children’s Hospital, the Woman’s General Hospital and the Grace Dart Home as gifts from the agricultural committee of the club.
Italian Partisans Praised by Ex-POW
PO. Turner, R.C.A.F., Says Europeans in Losing Freedom,
Learned Its Value
Paying tribute to the spirit of the Italian peasantry and to the single-minded unity of purpose which welded men and women from all corners of Europe into one strong and effective partisan force, PO. J. L. Turner, yesterday, addressed members of the Montreal Kiwanis Club at their weekly luncheon meeting at the Windsor Hotel, on the subject, “The Italians were our Friends.”
“During nine months spent behind German lines in Italy,” he said, “there were only three occasions on which I was refused assistance by local peasants, in spit of the fact that death was the Fascist penalty for anyone caught giving this assistance to partisans or escaped prisoners of war.”
Although the peasants were tempted by a reward, which to them represented a small fortune, for the delivery of information leading to the capture of any escaped prisoner of war or partisan, he added, PO Turner was, himself, a prisoner in Italian hands for 19 months after being forced down in Sicily in 1942.
After a mass escape from a concentration camp in September, 1943, he narrowly escaped recapture on several occasions, while attempting to flee Italy by sea and was ultimately prevented by heavy snowfalls from traveling overland to the Allied lines. He spent several weeks, at this time, with an especially heroic peasant family. PO. Turner then established contact with local partisan forces and worked with them for the balance of the winter.
Describing partisan activities, he pointed out that these fell into two main categories; the organized sabotage of German supply lines and the feeding of starving peasants. This latter job, he said, had not received great publicity but had resulted in saving of thousands of Italians from starvation. Pointing out that Italian farms were organized on a feudal system under which the landlord extracts almost 50 percent of the total annual produce from each of his tenants, PO. Turned added that during the autumn of 1943, Fascists working for the German high command had toured the country and confiscated all remaining stocks of grain and other foodstuffs, leaving the farmers destitute for the winter.
Partisans Strike by Night
The work of the partisan groups was the keep track of the Fascist granaries and storehouses and when they were known to be almost full, sweep down upon them in the night, overpower the garrison and open the doors so that people from the surrounding country could enter and take back the grain which had been taken from them.
PO. Turner then described the final battle of his particular partisan group, when a greatly superior force of Germans attacked with mortar fire. It was only due to the heroism of four Italians, three men and a woman, who sacrificed themselves in a rearguard action while the remnants of the group escaped into the forest, he said, that the Germans lost over half of their 500 or 600 men during the attack.
Concluding, PO. Turner told the story of the heroism of an Italian family when, just before his final escape through the German lines, the whole family saved his life at the almost certain risk of losing their own. Asked why they did this, Maria, the mother, replied in these words, “We can die and it will make no difference to anyone; but to us you represent freedom and if freedom dies, then the world is not worth living in for anyone.”
PO. Turner said that this was the dominant feeling all over Europe among people who had learned, by losing freedom, just how precious it could be. He pointed out that what had been done by partisan forces all over Europe had been accomplished only by steadfast adherence to one clearly defined goal. If, he concluded, when we had won the war we can continue to work as one great world unit, to preserve the peace for all humanity, then we will have paid our debt to those men and women, all over the world, who have given their lives to establish the “Four Freedoms.”
PO. Turner was introduced by Martin J. Foley, and thanked by Harold Cross. President W. J. Bryant expressed the club’s gratitude to Frank Roe, who had presented 600 peonies to Montreal hospitals.