WWII Royal Air Force Veteran Offers Glimpse Back in History to Westfield-Mayville Rotary Club

Norman Shopland (seated) was welcomed by Mayville-Westfield Rotarian Linda Dunn (Standing) to their May 28 Meeting

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Rotary Club of Mayville-Westfield

What do Wellington Bombers, parachute mines, magnesium flares, and carrier pigeons have in common? They were all part of the daily life of Norman Shopland, a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II who was trained as a wireless operator and airgunner. Shopland, who rose to the rank of Warrant Officer First Class, was the guest presenter during the Rotary Club of Westfield-Mayville’s May 28 meeting at The Parkview in Westfield. His program was sponsored by Rotarian Linda Dunn.

Shopland, who was born in Clevedon, England, outside of London, is a former resident of Westfield who now resides in Fredonia. During his program, he played a video interview of his recollections, offered interesting personal accounts of his life during and after WWII, answered questions, and shared some copies of photos of aircraft, maps, and other items.

He stated, “England wasn’t prepared for war. When I was in the Boy Scouts, we played the role of victims so that the ambulance and fire crews could practice putting on bandages during local civil defense drills. At the age of 17 ½, I volunteered for the Royal Air Force. If I had waited to be called up, I could have been put into any service and on any job. I spent time training in England and Scotland as a wireless operator and airgunner. After earning my airgunner badge, my missions were on a Wellington Bomber in Italy and Greece. After being fully trained, we were sent by boat to Egypt, then to what is now Israel, and then to Italy.”

Shopland continued, “London was being bombed 80 to 100 times a night. The bombs were mainly intended for the docks, but there was much indiscriminate bombing with thousands of innocent lives lost. The Bristol Channel was mined by Germans who used parachute mines.” He spoke about his missions in Italy and Greece. “We bombed bridges to stop the Germans from going north. We were on one side, and the Americans were bombing Romanian oil fields. The purpose of our missions in northern Greece and Yugoslavia was to stop the Germans from retreating.”

The Wellington aircraft on which Shopland flew was built with a geodetic fuselage that featured a large crisscross metal mesh which gave it great strength. These bombers, that were covered with canvas, came home with huge holes, but did not break up in mid-air when hit. Shopland said, “I flew 38 missions, mostly as a tail gunner. I was very lucky. If you made it through one to seven missions, you were considered lucky. I was very, very lucky, thanks to God. I prayed when I took off, and I prayed when I came home.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid tribute to the Royal Air Force (RAF) and its efforts during the Battle of Britain, which began on July 10, 1940 and ended on Sept. 15, 1940. Churchill said during his wartime speech of Aug. 20, 1940, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

During black-out times, Shopland said that the purpose of his missions was illumination of specific areas. “We had large loads of magnesium flares. My job was to put them in the trip shoot and flare them. Once we crash landed in Greece. I was in the rear turret, and was fine. I had only a broken arm, and others had broken bones. But the plane did not catch fire.”

Another task assigned to Shopland during his missions involved carrier pigeons. The RAF deployed homing pigeons or carrier pigeons on bombers and amphibious patrol planes to act as a means of an emergency GPS. Shopland said, “I was trained to look after two carrier pigeons. We were not allowed to feed them, or they would never leave. I guess the thought process behind the use of these birds was that if we were bombed, we would be able to take out a capsule with rice paper, write a message, attach it to the carrier pigeon, and send it on its way so we could be found.” Shopland laughed.

This veteran spoke about the lack of communication during the war. “Telephone lines were down, if they even existed. The wireless was not working. We didn’t know much about what was going on in Europe. Someone had a radio, and we had heard about the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. I was in Egypt, when someone who had a radio had heard the VE Day announcement. We celebrated by drinking good Egyptian beer and smoking terrible cigarettes from India.”

In anticipation of victory by the Allied Forces, Victory in Europe Day or VE Day was heard as early as September of 1944. The formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces by the Allies of WWII occurred on May 8, 1945. Both Great Britain and the United States celebrated this event.

“By now, I had been overseas for four years, and I just wanted to get home. By the time I got back to England at the end of 1946, it had been badly bombed, and thousands of people had died. I tried to get a job, and it was very difficult to get into university. I learned that the government of Ontario wanted workers. I didn’t know anyone in Ontario, but I was physically fit and had some skills.”

At the age of 23, Shopland made his way to St. Catherines and found work with Bell Canada for a year and a half, setting up cross bars on telephone poles and stringing up copper wires in northern Ontario in rural areas and tough conditions. He then worked for various companies in several locations. In 1973, Shopland became the plant manager of True Temper in Dunkirk, NY, and was the chief engineer of its plant in Hamilton, Ontario, until it closed in 1985. Shopland was a Westfield, NY resident for many years before moving to Fredonia.

The Rotary Club of Westfield-Mayville proudly salutes Norman Shopland, a valiant member of the Royal Air Force during WWII, as well as all of the veterans and service members who have served and are continuing to serve. Thank you for your sacrifice and bravery in support of our freedom.