From decorated boxer to one of Canada’s leading fighter pilots, George Hill made his hometown proud
As many a veteran has observed after a visit to the cemeteries in Normandy, “It’s hard to believe we were that young.” Yesterday’s heroes. Faded photographs and fading memories.
Young they were but few looked as young as 21-year-old George Urquhart Hill from Pictou, NS. With a boyish face and disarming smile, he graduated top of the lot from Pictou Academy; he was a hockey player, baseball player and award-winning boxer and, like so many contemporaries, adrift in the Great Depression with big dreams and little hope of fulfilling them.
His bachelor of arts from Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, cut no ice—jobs were not just scarce, they were practically non-existent. He wanted to go into medicine but his family couldn’t afford to pay for this education. So in September 1939, just as Germany invaded Poland and Canada entered the Second World War, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as a pilot officer, the lowest commissioned rank, and was trained at No. 2 Service Flying Training School at Uplands, in Ottawa.
George received his wings March 23, 1940. He was an outstanding student and as a result was hit by the one punch all fighter pilots dreaded: he was made an instructor. He taught flying and navigation at Uplands, as well as Camp Borden in Ontario and Summerside in PEI. Just for a lark one day, he flew a training aircraft from Summerside to Pictou, nearly scaring the townsfolk to death—particularly his grandmother, whose house he “buzzed” at chimney-top level. Most Pictonians were not amused. He was reported and received a royal blast from his commanding officer who decided that George Hill would be of better use to the Allied cause and the RCAF in general if his constant pleadings for a transfer to active duty overseas were paid immediate attention.
His first operational flight was over the beach at the Battle of Dieppe, on August 19, 1942. This as we know was a disaster for the Canadian soldiers below as well as a disaster in the air—the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the RCAF lost more than 100 aircraft that day. George claimed his first aerial victory and returned to base in one piece.
Soon after, he was posted in command of No. 111 Squadron in Tunisia. “Treble One,” as the Brits called it, was a famous RAF squadron with an enviable record during the Battle of Britain two years earlier. Hill was apparently welcomed by his British mates and in 1943, his Spitfire was damaged in action over Sicily. He was forced to make a belly landing on a primitive airfield that happily was just behind the British 8th Army lines. Unhurt, George was back in action two days later, and soon found himself posted to Malta with the destruction of four enemy aircraft to his credit—as well as his first Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in April that year.
Malta was bombed, strafed and starved for months on end and defended by a few Spitfire squadrons and a fiercely dedicated bunch of pilots, half of which were out of action at any given time suffering from varying degrees of “Malta Dog,” a severe intestinal affliction brought on by contaminated water and poor diet. Even if they were fit enough to fly they often couldn’t because many of the Spitfires were undergoing “Operation Patch Up.” A fighter pilot’s life on Malta was reckoned to be rather short no matter how experienced he was.
But some had more luck than others and George Hill was one of them. While there he destroyed another enemy aircraft. He was posted back to England, where he was promoted and in May was awarded a second DFC, adding a bar to the first one. He led one of the squadrons commanded by Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson, the top scorer in fighter command with 38 aircraft down. In his book Wing Leader Johnson had high praise for George, citing his flying skill, leadership qualities and his affable personality.
He received the second bar to his DFC in September, the month before his 25th birthday. By now the signs of battle fatigue—irritability, sleeplessness and a compulsion to fly and fight—were becoming apparent. He was ordered to stand down and get some rest at home in Pictou.
No one knows how many people got off the train in Pictou that fall day, but as far as the town was concerned there was only one passenger, Squadron Leader George Hill, DFC and two bars. Children got the day off school, the local sea cadets formed a guard of honour and someone asserted that the King himself wouldn’t have had a more enthusiastic welcome. Rest and recreation went out the window as fellow Pictonians let George know how much he was admired. Speeches, parties and presentations were the order of the day. An engraved wristwatch was a gift from the town. All he wanted to do was sleep, and eat as much of his grandmother’s home cooking as he could.
Once when asked if air crews got better meals that the average Briton, a fellow pilot replied: “No, we’re like everyone else, we manage to survive on fish and chips, brussels sprouts and beer!”
George eventually got caught up on his sleep, got re-acquainted with the few old friends who weren’t serving somewhere else and went back to Britain, ready to leap into the fray again. He went back on operations commanding one of the squadrons led by Wing Commander Johnson. By now his official tally was 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, three probably destroyed and nine damaged.
On his last operational flight in April 1944 the long-range gas tank on his Spitfire became unhooked, and damaged his propeller. He was forced to make a belly landing again, this time in occupied France, where he tore up a large piece of hayfield. With only a few scrapes and sprains he crawled out of the wreck and ran into a nearby wood. He was put in touch with a member of the French Resistance and, with a fellow pilot from the US Air Force, roamed around France for about three weeks. In May, they boarded a train in Paris that they hoped would get them to Spain. They were barely in their seats when the Gestapo appeared out of nowhere, and arrested them. George suspected they were betrayed by the underground agent who was supposed to help them get back to England.
Because of George’s rank—Squadron Leader—his German captors thought they had a special prize on their hands with possible knowledge of plans for the invasion of France. The fact that he knew nothing of the High Command’s plans didn’t stop his guards from subjecting him to constant interrogation, solitary confinement and a diet of one bowl of thin soup once a day for many months. He lost so much weight, his captors transferred him to a regular prisoner of war camp where Red Cross food parcels literally saved his life.
The war ended; George and his fellow POWs were liberated and returned to their various homes. He enrolled in Dalhousie Medical School and realized his dream of becoming a doctor, graduating in 1950. He had married Thelma Sanson in 1943, whom he met at Mount Allison. They had six children. Thelma died in 1957 and George married Louise Dickinson; they had four children.
He was a busy family man and family doctor, practising in Orangeville, Ont. One night in November 1969, after a hard day at the hospital, he was making a left turn into his driveway when his car was broadsided—and he was killed instantly.
After two years of stress and danger in Europe, the battles in the skies of England, North Africa, Malta and France, torture and starvation, crash landings and the luck to have survived all of that… he died in a traffic accident at his own front door. He was 51.
George had let it be known that when he died he wanted to be buried in Pictou. The whole town mourned their famous son. A Neptune aircraft from CFB Greenwood made a low pass over Haliburton Cemetery in salute, and Pictou bade him a sad goodbye.
George Urquhart Hill, DFC and two bars—the first of only two RCAF personnel to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times—seemed to typify the dedication, the patriotism and the courage of all who served Canada in the First and Second World Wars, the Boer War, Korea, those on peace-keeping duty all over the world, and those currently on the peace-support mission in Afghanistan. All of them make a town, a province, a region and a country immensely proud to claim them as “ours.”