Flight Sgt. Thomas Norrie was taking part in his first bombing raid of the war – a mass raid on the industrial city of Essen, Germany – when the vast formation was struck by a pack of German night fighters.
It was June 2, 1942, and the dark sky suddenly filled with searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, machine gun fire, and cannon fire.
Norrie, 24, an airgunner known to everyone as “Tommy,” would neither live to see his first operational assignment nor the birth of his only son, Robert. His young wife Phyllis was five months pregnant at the time of his death.
“I never met my father. I just visited his grave,” Norrie’s son, Robert Cadwalader, 78, a retired pilot, said Wednesday in an interview from his home in Maryland.
The Citizen is today telling the story of Flight Sgt. Thomas Norrie because his name has continued to be issued
from a Twitter account, @WeAreTheDead, which was created as an online memorial nine years ago. It posts at 11 minutes past the hour one name from the list of 119,531 uniformed Canadians who have done so
her life in the service of this country.
Norrie’s name appeared at 11:11 a.m., a fortuitous event that made him the subject of a day’s reporting to uncover the facts of his life and death.
Research conducted on Wednesday with the help of Citizen readers revealed that Thomas Lloyd Joseph Norrie was born on May 5, 1918 in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
He was one of three children of Mary Blanche Campbell, the daughter of a tavern owner in Charlottetown, PEI, and an American father, Joseph Noury, a factory foreman. The marriage produced three children, Earle, Thomas and Rita, but the union was not a happy one.
By 1920, Campbell had returned home to PEI with her children and had changed the spelling of the family name. Thomas and his siblings grew up believing that their father had died in the US Army during World War I. (Campbell, a devout Catholic, did not divorce.)
In Charlottetown, Thomas Norrie attended Queen Square School, then Saint Dunstan’s University, now the University of Prince Edward Island. He loved sports: hockey, soccer, baseball and swimming. In his spare time he repaired radios and was a member of the Cadet Corps and later the PEI Highlanders.
“He liked poetry and roamed PEI with his brother Earle: they were close,” Cadwalader said. The brothers would enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force together.
Thomas Norrie joined the RCAF in October 1940 as the Battle of Britain raged over the English Channel skies. His certification papers describe him as healthy, robust, clean and confident.
He was reported to be 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, with blue eyes and brown hair. His only flying experience, the recruiting officer noted, was as a passenger on two flights. He smoked 15 cigarettes a day.
“A great guy who has had a significant amount of military training and is a very good sport. Should be an excellent shot,” the recruiting officer concluded.
Norrie was sent first to Toronto, then to a radio school in Calgary and a bomb and gunnery school in Paulson, Man. In September 1941 he was sent to England.
At the Personnel Reception Center in Bournemouth, England, he met the young Phyllis Jane Clegg, who was serving as clerk in the British Army’s Women’s Section. Clegg had used her cousin’s ID to enlist in the army when she was 16.
Norrie and Clegg met at a military dance and were married two weeks later on November 29, 1941 at Sacred Heart Church in Bournemouth. She was 17 years old.
Norrie’s granddaughter Heather Schwartz, a history professor in upstate New York, once asked her grandmother Phyllis about her decision to marry so quickly. “She said, ‘Well, it was wartime. Why would you wait?” Schwartz said.
The young couple’s life together was short.
In March 1942 Norrie was posted to Operational Training Unit No. 23 at RAF Pershore near Worcester, England. The unit trained night bomber crews on the Vickers Wellington aircraft, a long-range twin-engine bomber.
Three months later, Allied Bomber Command prepared a “thousand plane raid” on Germany to boost morale on the home front. But there was none
enough fully trained crews to pull off a raid of this magnitude, so Bomber Command relied on training sessions
for dangerous night operations.
Norrie, an American citizen, was the air gunner aboard the Wellington R1266, which was crewed by two Canadians, one British and one Australian. The bomber took off from RAF Pershore at 11:05 p.m. for the 600-kilometer flight to Essen, site of the Krupp iron works. As the bombers – 956 in all – poured across the English Channel over Nazi-occupied Europe, German night fighters rose to meet them.
According to research by the Dutch Airwar Study Group, one of these fighters was a twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf110 flown by Lt. Hermann Reese was flown.
Norrie’s bomber was “butted” by a series of searchlights that singled him out for attack by Reese, a veteran fighter pilot with four confirmed kills under his belt. Reese’s attack crippled the Wellington and she crashed on the Dutch town of Kerkriel, about 60 kilometers southwest of Amsterdam.
Norrie was the only crew member who managed to eject from the stricken plane, but he did not survive his parachute jump, likely because he had been too close to the ground when he jumped.
His body was found on the rim of an impact crater by a night watchman at a nearby brick factory. He was buried the same day as an unknown airman in the courtyard of a Catholic church in Uden.
Norrie’s granddaughter Heather Schwartz said her grandmother was in a bomb shelter when she heard the announcement that the second attack involving thousands of bombers had taken place. Somehow Phyllis knew her husband had died in the robbery. “She said she just knew,” Schwartz said.
The Essen raid gave Bomber Command its propaganda victory, but like many night bombing raids, it had modest results. Cloud obscured the target and a follow-up report concluded that the raid had destroyed 11 homes and killed 15 people. (Analysis of the Allied night-time bombing raids on Essen between March and June 1942 showed that 90 percent of the bombs fell between five and 100 miles from their targets.)
Bomber Command abandoned the 1,000-aircraft raid concept at the end of June.
Norrie’s son Thomas Lloyd Robert was born on October 16, 1942. (He was adopted by Phyllis’ second husband and changed his name to Robert Cadwalader.) Months later, Norrie’s widow Phyllis received a “war service allowance.” ” from $252.94.
Norrie’s body was exhumed after the war in 1946. Identified by his watch strap and Airgunner emblem, he was reburied in Uden War Cemetery.
Cadwalader visited his father’s grave in 1973. “The care that the Dutch took with the graves of the Allied soldiers was impressive,” he said. “The cemetery was like a golf course, nicely tended.”
Schwartz continues to maintain his memorial cross.
“I grew up hearing about my grandfather and our family’s ministry,” she said. “It means everything because he didn’t have to do it, he didn’t have to go … I can’t put into words how impressive this is to me, how incredibly tragic it is and how important it is to remember.”
With additional research by Liisa Tuominen
A Yank in the RCAF: More than 9,000 Americans served with Canada
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