Joey Jacobson’s War

In the spring of 1940 Canada sent hundreds of highly trained volunteers to serve in Britain’s Royal Air Force as it began a concerted bombing campaign against Germany. Nearly half of them were killed or captured within a year.   This is the story of how one of those men, Joey Jacobson of Westmount, Quebec, was transformed from a raw volunteer to a deadly serious yet idealistic warrior, as told through his own letters and diaries as well as those of his family and friends.

Air observer pupils and Anson trainer, No 3 Air Observer School, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1940. (L. to R.) Mac Keswick, Joe Jacobson, Cliff Chappell, Les Jupp. (Courtesy Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives)

Joey Jacobson was my mother’s favourite cousin.  He trained as a navigator and bomb-aimer in Western Canada, and was sent to England in the spring of 1941.  After a period of operational training, he was posted to 106 Squadron of Bomber Command.  He completed 23 bombing sorties over enemy territory.  The fatal crash of his aircraft in Holland in January 1942 galvanized local resistance to the Nazi occupation.

Joey recorded in detail what he saw and did, what was happening around him, and what he thought. He wrote about why he enlisted, his life in air force training and combat, the purpose and conduct of the war, his understanding of the strategy, tactics, and the effectiveness of the air war at its lowest point, and how he responded to the inevitable battle stress.  He wrote about what all this meant to him as a Canadian and as a Jew, and his idealistic hopes for the post-war world. He communicated much of this to family and friends, in 240 letters, and he kept some of it to himself in several diaries and notebooks. His father Percy also kept a diary throughout the war: a record of events on the home front in Montreal and of his own hopes and anxieties.  Their written record reveals a deep and maturing relationship between father and son in an uncertain and dangerous time.

I have set Joey’s account in the context of the early war years in Canada and England, and of Bomber Command’s operations at that time, based on my research in Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands.  My book is at once biography, social history, and military history.   Nearly 10,000 Canadians died serving in Bomber Command.  Joey Jacobson’s story is also their story.  He did not survive to write a war memoir, but his personal account, written in the moment, brings Canada’s war-time experience to life.