The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
It was a time in history when the budgets of most Canadian families were stretched to the limit. A Depression clutched the nation. Many young men dropped out of high school hoping to find any kind of work to increase the family income. Unfortunately in many cases they became a statistic adding to the growing numbers of unemployed. The drop-out and the graduate hoped with time conditions might improve. Rare work that became available was usually part-time or seasonal and young Canadians didn't have much change to jingle in their pockets.
Canada wasn't able to do much for its young men, except feed them in makeshift work camps. Dreams of a future that surely must be better, were reinforced with a Saturday afternoon visit to the local movie theatre, where for ten cents the silver screen glossed the cold world of reality for two hours with romance, glamour and adventure. Outside the movie house real life adventure was brewing in Europe, where political unrest grew from a simmer to a boil. Newspaper offices across Canada pasted news bulletins on their windows amending them several times a day reporting on the Spanish Civil War and later on the advance of Hitler's military might across Europe.
Many out-of-work young men ripe for adventure had already volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. After the war broke out in Europe in September, 1939, war in the air appeared exciting and glamorous for many young Canadians seeking to enlist, but there were frustrations. In the late 1930's and even in the first year or so of World War II, requirements for enlistment in the Royal Canadian Air Force were so stiff that many were rejected.
However, British publications circulating in Canada carried advertisements offering careers in the Royal Air Force, stimulating in many young men a desire to go to England and try for their wings.
A Victoria, B.C., Daily Colonist editorial May 22, 1941, read: "It is possibly no exaggeration to say that there are many, very many men, who have sought to volunteer, who have been so discouraged that they have given up the attempt...there is, as far as the Royal Canadian Air Force is concerned, the definite knowledge that hundreds, possibly thousands, of Canadians, who have failed to secure service with it, have gone to Britain and been accepted for the Royal Air Force."
The story of the Biggs' boys began in 1937 in Victoria, B.C., when 18-year-old Andy Southall went with his father one day to fix the furnace of a Captain Henry Seymour-Biggs, RN (retired). Andy, an amateur radio operator had just graduated from high school. He told Biggs of his dream to become a flier. Biggs (who apparently had "connections"), was so impressed by the young man that he wrote on his behalf to the Royal Air Force in London. The letter brought the desired result and soon young Southall was on his way to England and a career in the R.A.F.
Southall was so enthused that he wrote to several of his friends stating how Biggs had helped him. They too saw Biggs, and, as is often said, the rest is history. Letters and phone calls asking for help to join the R.A.F., came to Biggs from across Canada. Young men flocked to his home at all hours of the day. Most were from British Columbia, but they came from the prairies and as far east as Ontario to seek his help. Biggs' home became so inundated with young men each day that his good friend Eric Marshall, who ran a travel agency for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railway, provided space for Biggs in the agency office on Government Street in Victoria.
Young men visited Biggs' office daily, discussing their plans with each other and with the Captain. They came and went like bees around a honey jar. Support and publicity for Biggs' endeavors were provided by Frank Kelley, a local journalist, with the Victoria Daily Colonist. Several times a month photographs of young men appeared in the local paper with a few words stating they were Captain Seymour-Biggs' boys on their way to England to join the Royal Air Force.
The name Seymour-Biggs became synonymous with the RAF. One young man, Victor Syrett, walked 15 miles from his home in the country, to talk to Biggs. This young chap later served with 242 Squadron commanded by the late Sir Douglas Bader, CBE, DSO, DFC.
The "skipper" as the boys called Biggs when he was not present, demanded respect. Nonsense wasn't tolerated. One was required to stand erect, speak clearly and always address him as Captain Biggs, or sir. Tidy clothes and clean shaven face were a must in the skipper's eyes. He was preparing the lads for the discipline they could expect in the R.A.F. After passing the skipper's interview and subsequent scheduled medical examination, it was just a matter of waiting for a passport and finalization of transportation. A special rate was obtained by Biggs with the cooperation of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul agency. However, many of the lads in those depression years couldn't raise the required $200, and so made daily inquiries at local shipping agents, hoping to sign on a ship and work their passage to England.
Five lads, travelling together, became stranded in New York. A prominent businessman, George Westinghouse, rescued the eager lads, paying their way to England by Pan-American Clipper, via Bermuda and the neutral country of Portugal. Ironically the four cavorted in a Lisbon swimming pool with Luftwaffe pilots on leave. Two of the Canadian lads were later to lose their lives in action over Germany. One was awarded the DFM.
Ellen Hart writing in the Victoria Daily Colonist on June 17, 1951 said: "Of the 719 boys he (Biggs) sent, not one was rejected by the R.A.F. Over 50 per cent trained as officers. Several attained the rank of squadron leader and 10 won the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the Battle of Britain 97 paid the supreme sacrifice."
Journalist Frank Kelley wrote in the Daily Colonist in the early 1950's..."Captain Seymour-Biggs richly deserved some official recognition for the immense amount of work and time, to say nothing of personal expense, he put into a scheme that was to turn out so advantageously for the Mother country and Dominion. In my humble opinion he was entitled to an MBE..."
This story should have been researched 50 years ago. It would then have been much easier to locate the survivors. I have spent the last twelve years searching them out, but alas, time and illness has taken the lives of many of the lads who survived the war.
There were also many young ladies recommended by Captain Seymour-Biggs, who joined the R.A.F. (and other services). Now married, they are, unfortunately, virtually impossible to trace.
The stories of the deceased Biggs' boys are based on military service records, newspaper clippings, and information received from relatives. The stories obtained from the surviving Biggs' boys are not presented as being entirely accurate in every respect, but are in their own words and from their best recollection of those times.
----- Ken H. Stofer
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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