Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia's 'ace of aces' took down his first enemy plane 80 years ago today

Over the skies of Dieppe, Frances, 80 years ago Friday, George Hill of Pictou, N.S., scored his first aerial victory. It was the first of many for the decorated fighter pilot, who became a legendary figure in his hometown for his prewar and war exploits.

But what the Pictou boxer saw in a German PoW camp turned his hair white

George Urquhart Hill from Pictou, N.S., was a distinguished Second World War pilot who was credited with destroying 16 enemy aircraft. He also commanded squadrons during the war. (CWM 20080029-048/George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

Growing up in Pictou, N.S., Murray Hill was well aware of the legacy of his uncle, George Urquhart Hill, a decorated veteran of the Second World War who received the Distinguished Flying Cross three times.

"He was somewhat of a legend in my community when I was growing up, and for a number of reasons," said Hill, 70.

George Hill's prewar life was filled with scholastic and athletic achievements, including being the Maritime intercollegiate boxing champion in the featherweight category.

But it was 80 years ago today, on Aug. 19, 1942, in Dieppe, France, that the legend of Hill's exemplary military career was born. His actions that day during the disastrous attack on Nazi-occupied France and later in the Second World War led the press to dub him "Nova Scotia's ace of aces" and "Pictou's hero of the air."

Jeff Noakes, the Second World War historian with the Canadian War Museum, said it was "the single-worst day for casualties for Canada in the Second World War."

Hill, a fighter pilot, was among the 80 Allied squadrons who took to the air that fateful day.

A Spitfire 5 is shown in this undated photo. George Hill flew a Spitfire during the Dieppe Raid on Aug. 19, 1942. (Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-)

At Dieppe, the majority of the Allies were Canadian — around 5,000 — supported by about 1,000 British troops and 50 Americans.

Dieppe wasn't an invasion, but a raid. The objective was to capture the French channel port for several hours, said Noakes.

Different reasons have been floated for why Dieppe happened, such as trying to obtain an Enigma machine, a device used by the Germans to encode and encrypt signals, or to redirect German resources from the war's Eastern Front, said Noakes.

Regardless, the raid on the ground didn't go as planned, with around 70 per cent of the Canadian forces becoming casualties. Around 2,000 Canadians were captured, 1,154 were wounded and 907 died, said Noakes.

Members of the Royal Canadian Medical Corps evacuate Allied soldiers from the beach after the failed Dieppe, France, raid during the Second World War. (The Canadian Press)

The Allied air forces had some successes, though. At Dieppe, their tasks included laying smokescreens to block the view of the defending German forces, protecting the Allied flotilla from German air attacks, and drawing the Luftwaffe into air battles.

"There are not, for instance, heavy losses of troops to German air attack or heavy losses of ships," said Noakes.

At Dieppe, Hill flew four sorties and was credited with his first aerial victory when he destroyed a German aircraft. He was also credited for damaging another German plane and for sharing in the destruction of another one, said Noakes.

But in a letter to his mother at the time, Hill said he took down the two German planes all by himself.

"Contrary to what the papers said I shot down two Focke Wulfs (confirmed) and damaged another, but I may have to share one of them with my number 2 man," he wrote. "However, I think it was a very good start."

By the end of the war, Hill had destroyed 16 enemy aircraft.

Arrested at a Paris train station

One of the tactics he used in North Africa was to hang around German-controlled airports. This was described in a June 14, 1945, Pictou Advocate article.

"Hill and his companions would call over their intercoms that they were almost out of gas," said the article. "The Nazis rose to the bait and were slapped into the Sahara sands."

Hill may have downed more if he hadn't served the final year of his service as a prisoner of war.

Allied prisoners of war in German custody after the Dieppe raid during the Second World War. Around 2,000 Canadians were taken prisoner of war during the Aug. 19, 1942, raid. Hill would later join them. (The Canadian Press)

In April 1944, Hill was forced to land his plane in France, said Noakes. It's unclear whether it was because of enemy fire or a mechanical problem.

The forced landing happened in a field; Hill fled into the woods. He made contact with the French Resistance and travelled to Paris with the hope of getting to neutral Spain, said Noakes. From there, he planned to make his way back to the U.K.

But at a train station in Paris, Hill was arrested by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

Hill speaks to workers at a shipyard in Pictou in late 1943. Jeff Noakes, the Second World War historian at the Canadian War Museum, says it was normal for servicemen to give speeches and make public appearances in their hometowns while on leave. 'This helps them rest and recover from what they've been through, but also because it helps make the public feel more connected to the war effort,' he says. (CWM 20080029-040/George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

"Because he's a relatively senior officer, he's interrogated for a number of months, so largely held in solitary confinement, limited food, interrogations again and again about the upcoming Allied landings that the Germans know are going to happen, but they don't know where," said Noakes.

"But of course, Hill doesn't know anything about this."

At one of the prisoner of war camps, Hill had somewhat of a celebrity sighting, the July 26, 1945, edition of the Pictou Advocate reported.

German heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling returns to Berlin to a hero's welcome after defeating American boxer Joe Louis in 1936. While George Hill was in a prisoner of war camp sometime in 1944 or 1945, he encountered Schmeling. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"One day Max Schmeling, the German boxer, came through the prison," the article said. "He was greeted by some of the Americans, but Hill would not speak to him. Hill, former Maritime intercollegiate champion, felt like taking a poke at him."

Hill, who fought at featherweight, was reported to have lost 70 pounds while living as a prisoner of war.

The experience left Hill with another identifiable trait.

Hill, right, is shown with two other Allied airmen prisoners of war at Stalag Luft 1 in Germany in an undated photo. (CWM 20080029-035/George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

"The thing that struck me about him was even as a young man, he had snow white hair, and that's an artifact of being a prisoner of war," said Murray Hill.

After the war, George Hill enrolled in medical school, which was his goal before the war.

Murray Hill said his uncle married, although his first wife died. George Hill remarried and had around 10 children in total with his two wives, according to his nephew.

Noakes says public speeches by service members were meant to encourage people to buy more victory bonds or work harder to support the war effort. (CWM 20080029-049/George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

George Hill settled in Orangeville, Ont. He practised medicine there until his death in 1969 at the age of 51 after a car accident outside of his home.

"The irony of being a fighter pilot and an ace and then dying in a car accident was prominent with everybody at the time," said Murray Hill.

But his legend would outlive him. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Woodbury is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team. He can be reached at richard.woodbury@cbc.ca.

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