Rainy River Roots
Philip Pochailo was born on November 19, 1920, in Rainy River, Ontario, to Polish immigrants Anna and Joseph Pochailo. Raised in a poor family during the onset of the Great Depression, Philip was the youngest of seven children. Although he recalls being the weakest, he also remembers he was better cared for than his siblings.
Philip attended Alexandria Public School in Rainy River. However, as the full impact of the Great Depression made it more challenging for his parents to care for a large family, Philip moved in with his sisters in Fort Frances. Philip went to high school in Fort Frances and, upon graduating, took jobs at grocery stores. At the age of 20, he was hired as camp clerk at J.A. Mahieu’s logging camp, where he was paid $97 a month, including room and board.
By this time, the Second World War was well underway and the call for personnel was escalating. Philip enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1942 and completed his basic training in Edmonton, Alberta, at the No. 3 Manning Depot.
Basic Training and Joining the Royal Air Force
Like so many other hopeful young Canadians, Philip Pochailo wanted to be a pilot. The air force sorted its recruits into different aircrew positions and training programs after Initial Training School. Those who failed became ground crew. The air force taught Philip basic aviation, measured his academic aptitude, and tested his flying talents on the Link Trainer, an early flight simulator.
The air force assigned Philip to be an observer and sent him to the bombing and gunnery school at Dafoe, Saskatchewan. He spent six weeks training with drogues to practice firing at moving targets that were being towed behind an aircraft and aim bombs. Afterwards, he spent six more weeks at No.1 Air Navigation School in Rivers, Manitoba.
Once he was overseas, the Royal Air Force (RAF) assigned Philip to a British crew. Commissioned as an officer by the RCAF, Philip found bonding with British aviators difficult at first because he could not join them in the sergeants’ mess. He solved this problem by joining his comrades at the local pub. Together, the crew made it through operational training at RAF Station Hixon, flying the Vickers Wellington bomber. Later, the crew took on a new Pilot Officer, James “Jock” Reilly. Philip now had a crewmate with whom to share his meals in the officers’ mess.
Assigned to a Mission
Along with his crew, Flying Officer Philip Pochailo joined 166 Squadron RAF in early May, 1944. As part of Bomber Command, the unit flew Avro Lancaster heavy bombers and was in involved in preparations for D-Day, the landings in Normandy. Philip and his crew flew their first mission on the night of 19-20 May, attacking a railway yard at Orléans, France.
Two nights later, their target was Duisburg, Germany, an industrial city at the junction of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. Philip’s Lancaster took off from RAF Station Kirmington at 10:30 p.m. They joined 500 other bombers over eastern England and set out across the North Sea. After they crossed the Dutch coast, one of the first bombers in the group was struck and went down in a ball of flames. The German air defence network consisted of a deadly combination of night fighters, radar stations, searchlights, and anti-aircraft or flak guns.
The crew reached their target without difficulty. As bomb aimer, Philip released his Lancaster’s payload of one 4,000-pound high capacity blast bomb (a “Cookie”) and hundreds of smaller incendiary bombs. Falling through the clouds, Philip’s bombs joined thousands of others, wreaking fire and destruction on the south end of Duisburg and its inhabitants.
With his “bombs away,” Flying Officer Pochailo cautiously rested as his pilot, Jock Reilly, flew the Lancaster back to base. Flak continued to burst around the bomber and German night fighters occasionally ventured close. But the Lancaster’s gunners, Sergeants Arthur F. Patmore and Bill Rankin, managed to fend off some attacks. Suddenly, as Philip was in the midst of a conversation with navigator Flight Sergeant Len Clutterbuck, two cannon shells ripped through the Lancaster and exploded.
Three crew members, Flight Sergeant Clutterbuck and sergeants Rankin and Terry Meehan (wireless operator), died in the attack. Flames engulfed the right side of the aircraft as the German night fighter pilot, Hauptmann Martin Drewes, peeled off to the right. The Luftwaffe crew had used the Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4’s Schräge Musik (strange music) autocannon. These guns fired upwards (at a 45° angle) instead of forwards, allowing the night fighter to attack from below and slightly behind the target, where the Lancaster’s gunners could not see their foe.
Philip watched as the enemy fighter departed in full view. Drewes had gotten sloppy and and strayed inside Lancaster’s defensive arc. The Canadian could do nothing to take advantage because he had left his gun position right before the attack. In any event, Pilot Officer Reilly had lost control and had already told the four survivors to abandon the aircraft.
Philip reached for his parachute and found it was missing. As the Lancaster tumbled across the sky, the life-saving device had flown across the fuselage and became lodged under the flight engineer’s seat. Philip retrieved his chute and put it on, making for the Lancaster’s front hatch. Opening the little door, he saw Sergeant Dave Dickson (flight engineer) helping the pilot out of the aircraft. Philip steadied his nerves and leapt into the night.
Escape and Evasion
Philip must have blacked out briefly because the next thing he remembered was floating peacefully through the night sky, suspended below his parachute. Philip landed amid a herd of Holstein Friesian cows. He was greeted by a chorus of moos and startled grunts as the cattle scattered in all directions. Although he didn’t yet know his precise location, Philip was on the island of Voorne, west of Rotterdam in Nazi-occupied Holland.
Flying Officer Pochailo had been lucky. He later learned that Pilot Officer Reilly came down close to Rotterdam and the Germans quickly captured him. Sergeants Dickson and Patmore had also escaped the aircraft, but landed in the water, possibly the North Sea, and both drowned.
Philip had been trained and equipped for escape and evasion. He removed the distinguishing features of his uniform, hid them and his parachute in a swamp, and left the cows behind. At dawn, he noticed a farm and managed to get his bearings using his escape map and the help of the farmer. Philip continued to a second farmhouse. The woman of the house took him in, fed him, had her sons hide him in a haystack, and contacted the Dutch resistance. From there, the Resistance vetted Philip to ensure he wasn’t a German plant and gave him instructions on how to meet up with Frans Braal, a family man who worked for the local water utilities board and led the Dutch resistance movement in Oostvoorne.
To Liberation and Rescue
Frans Braal led Philip Pochailo to his home in Oostvoorne. Both men rode bicycles, with Philip following some distance behind so that Frans could get away if the authorities stopped the Canadian.
Philip spent the next seven months with the Braal family and 25 Jews, resistance fighters, children, and others hiding from the Nazis. He had hurt his ankle and sustained burns during the crash, leaving him unable to travel along the escape routes to England the Resistance maintained for downed airmen. By the time Philip became well enough, those escape routes were closed due to the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Philip followed the war by listening to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on a radio — forbidden by Nazi forces attempting to control what the Dutch knew about the conflict. He took a Dutch name — Henk Poldervaart — and began picking up the Dutch language from his hosts. Miel Braal, Frans’s wife, and their four young children shared what food they could scrounge with their guests. Philip recalled that they ate scraps of leftover food every day.
One day in December, 1944, word came that Nazi searches were becoming more intense. Philip had to leave. The only safe way off the island was the bridge at Spijkenisse, but it was closely guarded. Frans gave Philip his travel pass (the Nazis also sought to control Dutch travel around the country) in the hope that the German soldiers wouldn’t look at it too closely.
Philip made the crossing on Christmas Eve with the help of a Dutch resistance fighter named Jan Van Meer. The pair convinced the drunk German guard that Philip was crossing to do a job on the mainland. Philip stayed with the Van Vliet family in Rhoon and the Bloklund family in Rotterdam until the Resistance ordered him back to Oostvoorne. He was still with the Braals when word came that the Canadian Army was closing in on Rotterdam. Frans and Philip drove across the bridge, now under Dutch control, past throngs of people celebrating their pending liberation, and into Rotterdam, where they found the Canadian troops.
Philip Pochailo spent ten days watching the Dutch celebrate their liberation and punish those who had worked with the Germans — women accused of collaborating were forced to have their heads shaved — before the air force transported him back to England for his return to Canada.
Home At Last
Shortly after the war, Philip briefly owned a grocery store in partnership with his nephew before moving to Vancouver in, what he thought would be, a temporary stay before going to work in the South American oil fields. While in Vancouver, however, Philip ran into a friend from the RCAF whom he had met during training in 1943. This friend worked for the Department of National Revenue Taxation and offered Philip a job to help process tax returns that had been completed but, due to work shortages, never processed during the war. Philip accepted this job offer in December, 1947, and, in the same month, married a nurse named Juliette. She worked at St. Paul’s Hospital until their first child was born on Dec 11, 1952. They had their second child two years later. The Pochailo family lived in Vancouver from 1948 to 1958, and moved to Ottawa thereafter.
Philip went on to work with Revenue Canada. Philip stayed in touch with the Dutch families he interacted with during the war and returned to Holland 25 and 50 years after the conflict to commemorate his fellow airmen. He spent the remainder of his life doing philanthropic work, gardening, and travelling the world with Juliette. He died at age 95 in Ottawa on May 21, 2016, the 72nd anniversary of the day when his aircraft took on its last sortie.
- Video interview with Philip Pochailo from Veterans Affairs Canada.
- Obituary for Philip Pochailo from The Globe and Mail.
- “Aircraft Crash Records and Crash Sites” from informal historical hobbyist website WWII Netherlands Escape Lines.
- Informal historical hobbyist search engine/website WWII Allied Aircraft Crashes in the Netherlands and North Sea.
- “International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive” from The International Bomber Command Centre.
- “Crew Photographs – Missing or Lost: Plt. Off. James William Reilly and Crew” from RAF 166 Squadron.
- “Crashes in and around the Netherlands” from RAF 166 Squadron.