My search for Ralph - The Canadian Connection

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Ralph Hassall and John Colton, Bournemouth UK 1943.

Ralph Hassall and I met in 1943 in the United Kingdom, both being members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, having completed our pilots training in Canada and received our coveted wings badge as sgt. pilots. Our meeting took place in Bournemouth, on the south coast of the UK, which was the first stop for aircrew arriving from overseas. We were billeted at the Bath Hill Court hotel which had been taken over by the British Gov. for military use during the war years.


In peacetime Bournemouth is a South Coast resort town so our stay there was very enjoyable. However, we did experience a hair raising event while there, it was a Sunday and we more or less had the day to ourselves. We had had our lunch and were lolling about in the park along with hundreds of other service people when all of a sudden,about 1:15 pm. two German Fighter aircraft(FW 190'S), appeared at low level and started straffing with cannon shells. They also had bombs slung under the wings and they proceeded to drop them, striking a hotel. They concentrated the strafing on the park area which left many wounded and dead. We helped in the clean up which was a trying effort.

 

Leaving Bournemouth we went our separate ways for a short time, meeting again at OTU (operational training unit) where we were flying Hurricane aircraft and then on to conversion to the Hawker Typhoon. Shortly thereafter I was posted to 137 squadron while Ralph awaited his squadron posting. It was at this stage that I lost contact with him, often wondering what squadron he had been posted to.

 

The war ended and demob followed and from time to time I was able to learn what happened to others I had trained with. Some survived while others had been killed or wounded, but no word of Ralph. Over the years I pursued my search via various web sites with "old collegues"sections, Legion magazine, AirMail mag., RAF Aircrew Assoc web and numerous other search efforts. One of my magaziune entries was noted by a Mr.Edward Burnside of Toronto who provided me with a list of approx. 80 addresses and phone numbers for Hassel and Hassal's from across Canada. I seemed to recall that Ralph came from the west and more than likely British Columbia, so I got on the phone but no one knew of him.. Checked the book "They Shall Grow Not Old" and no Hassell so it appeared he had survived,but where was he?

 

Then on reviewing the Last Post List, Legion Magazine Mar/Apr 2003, I note a Ralph Hassall had passed away on Dec 19 2001,age 81, a member of the Legion Lakewood Post, Cleveland Ohio, USA. I further inquired to Legion Mag. as to the address and phone number of this branch which was provided. My interest at this stage was for any surviving relatives who may be interested in photos and info of Ralph that I would be glad to provide. On contacting the branch I spoke with a John Falkenstein who knew of Ralph and would be glad of any memorabilia for thier archives. I further expressed my desire to contact any next of kin. I also forwared photos to Mr. Falkenstein. Reeipt of the photos confirmed that he was the person I had been searching for for so long. This initial contact provided me with some details re. Ralph's death, apparently he had lived alone and had died on a Saturday but was not found until Sunday, his wife having predeceaced him. Funeral arrangements had been made by an unknown, possibly a niece with no advise to the legion branch. Consequently his passing had gone unknown, apparently to the Legion. As Mr.Falkkestein said that these findings would have been left undone had I not enquired about Ralph via my phone call.

J.F's search led him to the funeral parlor that handled the final arrangements,the grave site location and no stone marker.Which stared the ball rolling to have a stone marker placed. It was at this stage that the name and address of what was thought to be his sole survivor,his niece,was found, but several attempts to contact her failed.It was thought that she may have left the area.

On checking legion files J.F. found reference to 3 squadron RAF in Ralph's file documents, which in turn confirmed that Ralph had served with 3 squadron at the same time as Pierre Clostermann, the French ace, which is documented in the book The Big Show, written by Clostermann. Ralph is shown in one of the book photos standing beside Clostermann. Finally I have found out which squadron Ralph was posted to, 59 years later. Irronically when 3 was at Volkel and I was at Eindhoven we were only a few miles apart unknown to each other. JF sent me several photos of Ralph with 3 squadron, which were much appreciated.

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3 Squadron pilots; Standing: Ralph Hassall, Pierre Clostermann, Walker, Peter West, Bruce Cole and Macintyre.
Sitting: Gordon, Dug Worley, Wright and Torpy.

 

Getting back to Ralph's grave and the lack of a grave stone marker which had been brought to light by JF and Patrick McAllister, efforts were made to obtain financial assistance for a permemant marker depicting his service to his country, but to no avail. So, it was decided that local action was required to raise the necessary funds,which succeeded. I was asked to assist in the stone design, which I sketched and sent off to JF, along with Ralph's proper air force title, serial number and badges of 3 squadron and the RCAF, all of which were to be represented on the finished stone. After numerous visits to the stone mason by JF and PM the final design and granite stone were approved and found delivered to the cemetery on 3 May 2004.

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Original grave marker at Mapleshade Cemetery - Indipendence, Ohio, USA.

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Replacing marker stone at gravesite, in May 2005, at Mapleshade Cemetery.

Now that the stone was ready the next step was to organize the dedication date and 12 June was chosen. I planned to attend this service along with a friend Gilles Boulanger from Sherbrooke, Quebec. Our accomadation reservations in Westlake, Ohio, were arranged by JF for 11-12 June. Several days before our departure JF advised me that the service had been posponed due to various uncontrollable reasons and was to be delayed until 11 November, which also had to be postponed due once again to multiple reasons. Finally the service did take place on 25 May 2005 but our presence did not materialize. JF advised me on 28 May 2005 with a reference to the article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which he forwarded to me.


This brought finallity to my of and on search during 61 years for a dear friend who had served his country well. How often I had hoped of finding him and sitting down together to go over some of our memories of our youth in the RAF-RCAF. What a wonderful get together that would have been as we had many memories to go over.

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In closing I would like to mention some of the names that contributed to this endeavour as mentioned by John Falkenstein (prime mover in Cleveland), Dick Conforto, Commaander Stone and Patrick McAllister. I am sure there are many more so to one and all I say thanks for your dedicated support in my quest.

LEST WE FORGET.
John Colton,
Ex 137 Squadron RAF.


 

 

Text and images:
John Colton