Veterans Canada online resource helps piece together soldiers’ stories
Do you have an ancestor or relation who was lost in any of the conflicts or peace-keeping missions Canada has been engaged in? Veterans Canada has a remarkable body of resources online that allows for research into military records. The Tribune searched through files for West Nipissing, and found 21 files from WW2 for Sturgeon Falls alone. This story centers around the information found in the file for Rhéal Robineau. While some of the scanned files are difficult to read, much information can be gleaned.
Joseph Gilbert Euclide Rhéal Robineau was missing in action and presumed dead on his first mission after a bombing run over Augsburg, Germany, February 26th, 1944. He was just 23 years old. Born in Sturgeon Falls, his parent were Leonel Robineau and Leda Mallette. Rhéal was born on August 31, 1922 in the Paroisse Sacré-Coeur. Details from his files reveal that Rhéal completed Grade 9 in 1940 at Sturgeon Falls. In civilian life, he worked as a “second cook” at McNamara Construction in Timmins, 1940-1942, and as a “car loader” at the Levack Nickel Mine, 1942-1943. He quit early in 1943 and enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force on March 3rd. His application form indicates he wanted to be on an air crew. His hobbies are also listed as hockey, softball, and swimming. Rhéal played violin, guitar, and piano. Rhéal had 8 siblings, two of whom died young (Henri and William). The others were Adrien (also enlisted with the RCAF in Goose Bay, Labrador), Leopold, Leona, Gilberte, Alice, and Clairette.
Following enlistment, Rhéal Robineau went for training to Brandon, Manitoba for 3 months. In June he went to Mont Joli in Quebec, then to Halifax in October. He left for England on October 30th, 1943. He received his Air Gunners badge and was subsequently assigned to 432 Squadron. The type of aircraft he trained on was a Wellington, and type of air guns were Browning. Rhéal was on his first mission on February 25-26 when his plane was shot down. The original reports implied that he may have survived the crash and later died in a German hospital, but this was later clarified upon further investigation by the RCAF. When his plane was shot down, two men were killed, 5 survived and became POWs.
After finding this information in the VA files, the Tribune contacted Sturgeon Falls resident Yvan Robineau to ask for permission to proceed with the story. Mr. Robineau is a cousin of the deceased, and had many more details, compiled by another cousin, Roger Robineau of Toronto. Roger Robineau is the nephew of Rhéal, son of Adrien, and the family archivist. He is also the vice president of the Ontario Genealogical Society.
In the VA files was an official letter of condolence written to an R. Leger of Cornwall, ON, who evidently was Rhéal’s sweetheart. Yvan Robineau provided the Tribune with a letter written by Rhéal Robineau to his brother Adrien 25 days before his death. In that letter he asks his brother to encourage Rita so that she does not worry, and mentions he sent her flowers for Christmas. He also talks of his crew, “des bons gars”.
Sgt Robineau and Sgt Thompson (English) were the two who were killed in the mission. The survivors were pilot Lt. Lubold (American), F/O Richards (Canadian), Sgt Cannon (English), F/O Torton (Canadian) and Sgt Bean (English). After the war, investigations were conducted for casualties that were assumed not to be dead. RAF investigators were sent to find out if there was any evidence concerning the casualties in the crash. There was only one incident recorded at Frankenhofen, the crash site, in the town files. One Herrn Eierstueck reported, “About 02:00 hours on the night of 25/26.2.1944 I was standing outside my home watching the air attack against Augsburg, when suddenly I noticed an aircraft approaching me in flames, flying from the direction of the target. When over our village it commenced to make large descending spirals… circled Frankenhofen three times before it finally plunged into the woods… Search parties immediately went out to look for any flyers who might have parachuted in our parish and also to visit the scene of the crash… There, lying among the widely scattered wreckage two badly mutilated and charred were found but not removed. Within an hour of the crash, three flyers were brought to my house, all three having been captured in the immediate neighbourhood of the village… These men spent the night in my house… next morning they were taken to the Rathaus (town hall) where two of their comrades joined them.” Later the five prisoners were removed to the airfield at Ersingen, then to Stalag Luft III, where they spent the rest of the war. (Stalag Luft III is the same POW prison from which there was a major prisoner escape that was enshrined in the movie The Great Escape). It was revealed that this was the only aircraft to crash during the night. The plane was a Halifax L597. Both air gunners, who operated from a turret, were killed, and it was also reported they were likely killed before the crash.
Roger Robineau discovered there was a book written in 2013 about the event, by Frankenhofen historian Otmar Gotterbarm, which has a photo of the crash on the cover – Rhéal’s plane. In his book, Gotterbarm describes the bombing of Augsburg on February 25th and 26th, 1944 and the crash of three Canadian bombers on their return flight over the Swabian Alb. Written in German, it combines the original reports of the crew members and the memories of a defense worker who was buried during the attacks, along with the descriptions of the rural population. The title translates as “The Crashed Ones”. On February 25th and 26th, 1944, the Allies carried out three air raids on Augsburg. The Americans first attacked the city during the day with 196 Flying Fortresses, and later the British bomber command directed 594 Lancaster and Halifax bombers there for two devastating night attacks. The book description notes, “In the Augsburg Night of Terror, almost 800 people died and 90,000 became homeless. Three bombers that were involved in the night attacks are shot down by German night fighters over the Swabian Alb on their return flight to England; only seven of the crew members who crashed survived [5 of them from Rhéal’s plane]. Although the villages of the Swabian Alb were only overflight areas, the air raids determined the everyday lives of their residents, and in the villages where the bombers crashed, people still talk about their encounters with the enemies who literally fell from the sky.”
Otmar Gotterbarm researched for around ten years to trace those who crashed from England and Canada. Roger Robineau says his uncle Rhéal’s photo is featured in that book. “I was not aware …that there were other crew members who survived. In fact, two of the surviving crew members lived until 2007 and 2010 respectively. One of them, R.A. Richards, lived no more than half an hour from our house.” He expressed regret that he never had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Richards.
On Remembrance Day, it’s our time to remember that each person who gave their life has a story.
If you have a family member who died in service, and you wish to research, start with the Canadian Archives, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/how-to-find-service-records