70 years later, family travels to Cowichan crash site

It was a reunion more than seven decades in the making.

It was a reunion that was more than seven decades in the making.

Some of the key figures behind the loss and rediscovery of Avro Anson L7056, chronicled in Cowichan Valley filmmaker Nick Versteeg’s documentary Seventy-One Years, got together in July when members of the family of one of the victims of the plane crash made a pilgrimage to Vancouver Island.

Avro Anson L7056, a multipurpose aircraft based at the Patricia Bay airfield in Victoria, disappeared during a training flight in 1942 and was thought to be lost for good. It wasn’t until the fall of 2013 that loggers for Teal Jones stumbled across the wreckage near Port Renfrew.

Four men died in the crash, including one Canadian and three British officers. One of the British airmen was Pilot Officer Charles George Fox. His son, Peter, and granddaughter, Kim, had the opportunity to visit the crash site before a massive reunion the following day with other people who had roles in the discovery and identification of the plane and the documentary that told its story.

Also at the gathering, hosted by Shirley Berg at Captain Morgan’s at Genoa Bay were Dennis Cronin, the logger who first laid eyes on the plane’s wreckage, and his wife, Lorraine; Laurel Clegg, a casualty identification coordinator with the Department of National Defence; and some of the key figures behind the film, including Versteeg, co-producer Robert Stitt and executive producer Allan Scott.

This wasn’t the first visit to Canada, or even Vancouver Island, for Peter and Kim Fox, but it was the first chance they had to visit the site where Charles Fox’s plane crashed. Almost exactly a year to the day before they found the aircraft, they were in Ottawa for Remembrance Day and attended the Canadian military museum. The UK Ministry of Defence also flew the family — including Peter’s younger brother Chris and their wives, children and grandchildren — over for the interment in Victoria last November.

Peter Fox was surprised by his own reaction to visiting the site where his father’s plane had crashed.

“It wasn’t as emotional as I expected, because I’d had a year to get used to it,” he said. “I was more interested in the scientific aspect: what caused the crash, how it happened, and getting in to see it. Over the last year, we’ve learned a lot more.”

Kim’s response to seeing the wreckage was more in line with what she anticipated.

“For me it was more emotional,” she said. “I didn’t know my granddad, but I knew what happened. I wanted to be here, and it was amazing to share that with my dad.”

Peter was just three years old when his father signed up for the Royal Air Force, and four when he died. Peter’s younger brother was born while their father was away, and never even saw him.

The Foxes found out in May 2014 that the Charles’s plane had been found, and the revelation changed their lives.

“As a family, we’ve spoken a lot more in the last year than we had in the last 50,” Peter said.

Peter’s mother died 15 years ago, and left a box full of letters she received from Charles while he was in Canada. Peter always figured he would get around to reading them one day, but the discovery of the wrecked plane pushed him to finally do it.

“It’s funny how one event perpetrates another,” he said. “I learned a lot about mom and dad. He wrote home to mom at least three times a week. I’ve had time to read the letters time and time again, and to get a picture of him as a man and his relationship with mom.”

Before he read the letters, Peter knew a scarce few facts about his father. His mother remarried and rarely talked to her sons about Charles.

“The only things I found out from mom came via my wife,” Peter said.

Kim believes her grandmother was grieving for Charles until she died.

“I think she was angry that he went away,” she said. “Obviously, she was the love of his live, and she never got over him dying. And from the letters, you can see it was the same the other way. He quite desperately wanted to get home.”

Before the war, Charles was a dispatch clerk at the Peek Frean cookie company, and volunteered despite having two exemptions from service: at 30, he was over the draft age, and he was working in food production. He signed up for the Home Guard first, then enlisted in the Royal Air Force.

“He decided to volunteer because he had to,” said Peter, who shared an interest in technology and mechanics with his father, and spent a couple of years with the RAF as a radar fitter, then worked for 40 years in computing.

Peter carries with him a few personal effects of his father’s that were recovered from the wreckage of Anson L7056: a silver bracelet with Charles’s name on it, a handful of coins, cufflinks, and a cigarette lighter. Peter’s life has turned a corner since the plane was found.

“It’s given him a whole new focus,” Kim said. “Before, it was just one of those things: Dad went missing in the War. He didn’t talk about it much. Now, it’s all he talks about. He’s made wonderful new friends.”

Someone else whose life has changed as a result of the discovery of Anson L7056 is Allan Scott. It started when he read an article about the plane in the paper shortly after his wife died. His own father had been based at Pat Bay as ground crew, working on Ansons. He thought the story had the makings of a documentary and went to Versteeg, who in turn brought in aviation historian Robert Stitt, and the project took off.

“It’s a wonderful Vancouver Island military history story, and I thought the story should have been told,” Scott said. “It was really good for me to be involved in something like that.”

Scott went to the site of the crash with the Fox family members, his fifth visit to the location, and one of the most striking.

“To be up there with the family of one of the crew members who were killed was a tremendous experience,” he said.

Versteeg had met the Foxes when he travelled to England to film parts of the documentary, something that stayed with him.

“For Robert and me, that was the highlight of making the production, going to England and meeting the families,” Versteeg said.

The film, which was released in late 2014, has been shown on British television, and Versteeg is hoping the CBC picks it up for a future Remembrance Day airing. In April of this year, it won the Platinum Remi Award at the annual WorldFest Film Festival in Houston, Texas as the best historical documentary. And that’s not the only honour it has received. A copy of the DVD is in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, and a Lady-in-Waiting wrote to Versteeg’s production company that Buckingham Palace loved the production.