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In Pictures: My great uncle, the war hero

Lest we forget: a long-lost relative of Globe Drive writer Peter Cheney relives the horror in the skies of Europe

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Pilot Don Cheney (bottom row, centre) with the crew of his Lancaster before their ill-fated 1944 mission to bomb Nazi submarine pens on the coast of occupied France. Top row, left to right: Radio Operator Reg Pool, Flight Engineer Jim Rosher, Rear Gunner Noel Wait, Mid Upper Gunner Mac McRostie. Bottom row: Navigator Roy Welch, Pilot Don Cheney, Bomb Aimer Len Curtis. Only four members of the Lancaster's crew survived after the plane was downed by German anti-aircraft fire: Pool, Wait and Welch parachuted from the Lancaster, but died of their injuries. All three were buried in France.

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“Dark Victor,” the Avro Lancaster flown by Don Cheney and his crew on the 1944 bombing raid that ended their World War 2 flying careers. Dark Victor successfully dropped a Tallboy bomb on Nazi submarine pens, but went down in flames after taking multiple hits from radar-guided anti-aircraft weapons.

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Don Cheney receives his pilot’s wings at a 1942 ceremony in Yorkton, Sask. Although he dreamed of flying fighters like the Supermarine Spitfire, Don was streamed into the bomber program, and became a pilot with the legendary 617 Dambuster squadron.

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A page from Don Cheney’s handwritten pilot’s logbook, which documents his flying career from elementary flight training through to his final mission over occupied France, where he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for staying with his burning Lancaster bomber to help an injured crewman escape. Crews left their logbooks at their base in England, since there was a good chance that they wouldn’t return from their risky bombing missions. Crews were also instructed to write their will, which was kept on file at RCAF headquarters.

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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Don Cheney’s Second World War pilot’s logbook, shown with a collection of photographs and documents from his time as a Lancaster bomber pilot with the legendary 617 Dambuster Squadron. Cheney grew up in Ottawa, and went on to win the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944, when he was 22 years old.

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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The graves of the three crewmen who were killed on Don Cheney’s final mission with the 617 Dambuster Squadron. Noel Wait, Roy Welch and Reg Pool all parachuted from Cheney’s Lancaster bomber as it went down in flames, but died of injuries suffered during the aerial bombardment that crippled the plane. The three crewmen were buried in Brest, France. Their graves have been maintained by the French since their burials in 1944.

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Don Cheney’s wartime RCAF identification card.

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Lancaster pilot Don Cheney (right) with his close friend Lloyd Dobson, who was killed in a 1943 crash. Both belonged to the legendary 617 Dambuster squadron, a unit known for precision bombing raids that involved extraordinary risk.

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Pilot Don Cheney at Windsor Mills, Quebec 1942 during his initial flight training. The black steel ball to his right is a weather signal – if conditions were unsuitable for student pilots, the ball was hoisted up a flag pole, where it could be seen from the ground or the air.

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The 1944 letter that told Don Cheney’s parents that he was missing in action. Cheney and his six-man crew parachuted from their burning Lancaster after it was hit by German anti-aircraft fire during a 1944 bombing raid against Nazi submarine pens on the coast of occupied France. Although Cheney was one of the four who survived the crash, he spent the next three months hiding from the Germans. Cheney was an only child. His parents didn’t know whether he was dead or alive for more than a month.

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A declassified military photo shows a Tallboy bomb as it falls away from Don Cheney’s Avro Lancaster during a 1944 raid on a German railway tunnel. The Tallboy was dropped from an altitude of several miles, and fell at supersonic speed. Tallboys could penetrate concrete dozens of meters thick, and exploded deep in the earth, unleashing devastating shock waves. Bombardiers often scored direct hits by employing precision aiming techniques that forced pilots to hold exact headings and altitudes even as they were attacked by German fighters and ground fire. (Their aim was so good that a Dambuster squadron crew sank the German warship Tirpitz by dropping a Tallboy on it as it lay anchored in a Norwegian fjord.)

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A welcome home card prepared for pilot Don Cheney, who survived a 1944 crash that killed three of his six-man bomber crew. Cheney joined the RCAF in 1939, at the age of 17, and went onto become a decorated pilot with the 617 Dambuster squadron. Many of his friends never came home. “If you were lucky, your family at least found out what happened to you,” he said recently. “That was about as much as you could hope for. Cheney, now 89, is still alive and well in Ottawa.

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Pilot Don Cheney arrives back in Canada in 1944 after surviving a crash that killed three members of his crew during a bombing raid on Nazi submarine pens. Cheney spent three months in hiding with the French Resistance after parachuting from his crippled Lancaster. In an odd coincidence, Cheney left Canada for England on Thanksgiving Day in 1942, and returned exactly two years later, on Thanksgiving Day, 1944.

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A forged identification card made for pilot Don Cheney by the French Resistance. Cheney was hidden from the Nazis for three months after he bailed out of his crippled Lancaster over the coast of occupied France.

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The parents of pilot Don Cheney with Aristide Quebriac (center). Quebriac, a leader with the French Resistance during World War Two, hid Cheney from the Nazis for three months after the Canadian’s plane was shot down during a 1944 bombing raid. After the war, Quebriac was awarded the Croix de Guerre by French president Charles de Gaulle. Cheney and Quebriac remained close friends until Quebriac’s death, more than 55 years after the war ended.

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Don Cheney places flowers on the graves of his three Dambuster squadron crewmen at a 1994 ceremony in Douarnenez, France. Cheney was the pilot of a Lancaster bomber that went down in flames after bombing Nazi submarine pens on the coast of occupied France in August of 1944. Cheney won the Distinguished Flying Cross for staying with his burning plane and helping an injured crewman escape. Although all seven crewmembers parachuted from the crippled Lancaster, three died of injuries suffered during the aerial bombardment that crippled their plane.

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Pilot Don Cheney, now 89, holds a photo of himself taken during World War Two. Cheney flew 40 bombing missions over Germany and occupied France, and was a member of the legendary 617 Dambuster squadron. His plane was shot down during a 1944 raid on Nazi U-Boat pens. Cheney won the Distinguished Flying Cross for staying with his burning Lancaster bomber to help an injured crewman escape.

Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail

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