RCAF fliers from Quebec remembered at Carreg Goch, Wales
Photo helps Welsh villagers trace family of Montreal airman Bill Allison, killed in training in 1944
Every Remembrance Day, scores of people from Glyntawe and other nearby Welsh villages hike up Carreg Goch in the Brecon Beacons mountains, to pay tribute to the six Canadian airmen who died there when their Wellington bomber MF-509 crashed on a training flight on Nov. 20, 1944.
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This year, on Sunday, Nov.10, a local amateur historian and avid hiker, Arwel Michael, 72, made the seven-kilometre trek up to the site early in the morning to plant a Canadian flag in the wreckage. The flag is a gift from Phyllis Burns, a Montreal woman who journeyed to Wales with some of her family last July to see the spot where her brother Bill Allison, a bomb aimer, was killed on that misty November day 69 years ago.
Nov. 10 this year was a cold, clear day on the mountainside, and the Canadian flag flapped briskly in the wind as about 60 people gathered to lay a wreath, observe a moment of silence and then sing a Welsh hymn before sharing a picnic lunch at the site — now preserved as a historic monument by the national park authority.
"Ever since I was a teenager, I've been going up there," said Michael. "It's in a lovely, remote place in the mountains."
"I was always wondering whether or not I would, at some time or another, meet somebody who wanted to see the crash site. And lo and behold, years have gone by and out of the blue, came Phyllis and family."
"It was an immense, immense occasion to take them to the mountainside."
McGill sleuth tracks down flier's sister
Until 2005, Phyllis Burns, now 83, had no idea her big brother Bill, 14 years her senior, had died in Wales. He and his five crew mates, all from Quebec — dubbed the Alouettes — are buried in Chester, England.
In 2005, a Welsh woman named Carolyn Davies began searching for the identity of a flier in a photograph her grandfather Eric Price found at the site two days after the 1944 crash.
Armed only with that photograph and the names of the six RCAF crewmen, Davies embarked on an internet search that led her to the McGill Remembers web history project. There she came across the name of William Allison. The site's founder, history buff Wes Cross, tracked down Allison's only surviving sister, Phyllis.
"I felt as if my brother had died all over again," Phyllis Burns said in a Remembrance Day interview on Montreal's Radio Noon. Thus began her correspondence with Arwel Michael and others in Glyntawe, Wales.
Eight years later, following her recuperation from a lengthy illness, Burns made the decision to travel to Wales with her husband, Bob, three of her seven children and two of her grandsons.
They've been extraordinary keepers of that place that I now call a shrine,- Phyllis Burns, 83, sister of RCAF airman Bill Allison
"Finally I said, 'I am going to go there, even if I don't get to the top of the mountain,'" Burns says. "I just felt very connected to this man and his family, and I still do. They've been extraordinary keepers of that place that I now call a shrine."
When they arrived, the Welshman had a jeep at the ready to take Phyllis and her husband Bob, 80, up to the site. The younger Burns family members made the hike on foot.
To the Burns' family's surprise, a Canadian soldier posted in Bristol, Nicolas Parent, had been invited. National park wardens, the official guardians of the site, were there, along with the many local hikers who have helped care for the crash site and protect it from collectors who Michael said were eager to "hoover everything up."
"I didn't know what exactly the hike was going to entail and how emotional the experience was going to be," says grandson Adrian Smith, who turned 18 during the visit to Wales.
"Everybody had their own perspective of why the mountain and that spot was important to them," Smith says. "It was really powerful to see that all these people care so much about the story (of the RCAF crash.)"