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Navigating and living on the waterways of Continental Europe and news of canal developments.
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TOPIC: The MacKenzie Memorial La Neuvillette

The MacKenzie Memorial La Neuvillette 21 Apr 2020 09:26 #115403

  • Lynn Woods
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Researching cruise itineraries can throw up some moving stories and I hope given the approach of ANZAC Day no-one minds me sharing this one.

In December 2018 whilst cruising the Aisne-to-Marne summit canal just north of Reims I moored-up briefly to go find provisions in a local shop. Close to the main-road bridge over the canal in La Neuvillette I stumbled across a memorial placed by the local people to mark the loss of Ian MacKenzie, the Australian pilot of a 408 (Goose) Sqn Royal Canadian Air Force Halifax bomber out of Leeming in North Yorkshire, shot down by a night fighter over Reims in April 1943. The aircraft was returning from a bombing mission over Stuttgart.

With his aircraft crippled and on fire, MacKenzie ordered his crew to bale-out while he attempted to steer it clear of housing. He was killed in the ensuing crash, and in marking his loss the Memorial expresses “homage to all flyers killed for liberation of the French Territory during the War 1939-1945”. The street alongside the canal is also named after him. He was interred at the Clichy Northern CWGC Cemetery in Paris.

All of MacKenzie’s crew survived the evacuation, some with injuries, and all but one were captured and spent the rest of the war as POWs.

The story now turns to the co-pilot, Sgt Wilfred Lloyd Canter. Originally from Ukraine, Canter migrated to Canada as a child and settled in Toronto. He enlisted as a pilot, was awarded his wings in 1942, and next April he was alongside MacKenzie in Halifax JB909 on the mission which was to end over Reims. Despite breaking a leg on landing, Canter was able to lay-up for 9 days with the help of a local family, and he was subsequently sheltered by the Resistance as he was smuggled first to Paris, then south to Bordeaux, over the Pyrenees into Spain, and thence onwards to Gibraltar. From there he was repatriated to England where he received the Distinguished Flying Medal from King George VI. A remarkable story.

There’s another tangent to be pursued in researching the story of the Resistance in Reims and especially the family which took such grave risk in offering this (Jewish) airman their help. But Wilfred Canter’s own story is far from over.

After a short leave back in Canada, Canter returned to his bomber squadron in England, only to be shot down again over Dusseldorf in April 1944. This time he was captured and subjected to torture by the Gestapo, before being detained in Stalag Luft III, the prison camp notorious for the earlier “Great Escape”. As the Germans retreated from the Soviet advance, Canter found himself being marched westwards, whereupon he escaped again only to be briefly recaptured by a fleeing German Officer, himself shot dead by Resistance forces who handed Canter the officer’s Luger as a memento. Finally he was free.

Canter was surely deserving of a long and happy post-war life, but sadly it was not to be. Volunteering to serve in the fight for Israeli independence, he was lost in a Dakota crash whilst on a re-supply mission out of Tel Aviv in October 1948, aged just 27. There is much more about his life at www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/dakota-fighters-of-israels-war-of-independence

Last week marked the 77th anniversary of the loss of Ian MacKenzie over Reims and the start of Wilfred Canter’s own “Great Escape”. Next weekend it is ANZAC Day where the exploits and losses of Commonwealth Servicemen in both the World Wars would be marked by solemn ceremonies at the great battlefield sites. This year those great commemorative gatherings cannot take place, so perhaps it is via small contributions like this that we might reflect on the collective heroism and sacrifice of those days. We will be honoured to leave a wreath at La Neuvillette whenever any of our cruises passes the MacKenzie Memorial. He was only 20.
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