In the early hours of May 8, 1944, a Wellington bomber attacked a railway bridge on the Romanian frontier. Anti-aircraft fire killed the plane’s air bomber and crippled the craft. The surviving crew parachuted into the darkness over enemy territory in Serbia.
Norman Reid, the bomber’s navigator, who has died at 94, lost his flight boots during the descent, landing in stockinged feet in a pasture. He buried his harness and silk parachute in the hard soil before taking shelter overlooking a dirt road.
At dawn, he spotted a patrol of four armed men with bandoleers of bullets, grenades and knives across their chests. Noting they weren’t wearing German uniforms, Mr. Reid offered himself for surrender, quickly finding himself staring down the barrels of four automatic rifles.
It turned out the men were Serbian partisans known as Chetniks. Before the mission, the airman had been briefed by British intelligence that the guerrilla bands were no longer considered a trustworthy ally. Mr. Reid feared being turned over to the German occupiers of Yugoslavia.
He convinced the patrol he was an Allied airman, an uncertain assessment as the Germans had been planting fake flyers in the countryside to expose resistance cells. The next task was to retrieve his buried parachute lest the enemy find it. The silk was later used to make a gown for a Serbian bride, making Mr. Reid something of a local hero.
The navigator travelled for days on foot and horseback, sometimes hiding beneath straw in an ox-cart.
After one day’s long trek, the airman and his Chetnik escorts settled at a table in the rear of a restaurant’s dining room only to have the sympathetic owner race in to warn them of arriving German soldiers. The men fled out the back door to hide in a nearby maize field. The Germans, seeing unattended place settings, searched the field without success before returning to the food and drink at the restaurant.
“We went to sleep hungry,” Mr. Reid later recalled, “but happy to have avoided capture once again.”
He finally reached the headquarters of Gen. Draza Mihailovich, the bearded leader of the Serbian royalists. The navigator was impressed by the general’s “modest manner, humble relations with the peasants and abstemious personal habits.”
Over time, hundreds of Allied airmen were sheltered by partisans in Yugoslavia, separated from their forces in Italy by enemy soldiers, the inhospitable terrain of the Balkans and the Adriatic Sea. They had Chetnik radio operators send messages couched in air-force jargon, but the pleas went unheard by suspicious Allied operators. One day, Mr. Reid looked over his shoulder as a Serbian wireless operator typed a reply message: “Help will arrive.”
The radio traffic also alerted the Germans, who sent patrol flights overhead but never attacked the Chetnik encampment. Finally, an American officer agent of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, arrived with equipment and radio operators.
Peasants removed stumps and filled in depressions to build a small grass landing strip outside the Serbian village of Pranjani. It was feared the strip was not long enough and the first DC3 transport plane to risk it clipped treetops on takeoff, though the pilot managed to maintain control.
Soon after, at dawn, four transports escorted by P51 Mustang fighters landed in the field. Mr. Reid and other evading airmen raced aboard.
“I’ll never forget the takeoff in that lumbering transport from that oh-so-short, tiny pasture,” Mr. Reid later recalled for the book Aircrew Memories “and then the feelings of exhilaration in the DC3s as the squadron of P51 fighters closed in protective formation around us.”
After 98 days under Chetnik protection, Mr. Reid returned to his base in Italy.
The secret American campaign, known as the Halyard Mission or Operation Halyard, lasted throughout the summer, rescuing hundreds of stranded Allied airmen.
After the war, the Chetnik general was put on trial for treason and war crimes by Yugoslavia’s Communist government. Mr. Reid and his crew’s pilot, Tom Bradshaw, also from Edmonton, offered to testify for the defence. The Yugoslav government refused to grant a visa. In their campaign demanding a fair trial, the pair flew to Washington, where they presented their case to Canadian ambassador Lester B. Pearson, the future prime minister. Mr. Reid gave a sworn statement to the U.S. State Department about his favourable treatment under the Chetniks. In the end, Gen. Mihailovich was convicted and executed by firing squad at a Belgrade golf course on July 17, 1946.
After a war spent destroying bridges in Europe, Mr. Reid wanted a peacetime career building bridges in Alberta. He became one of the province’s most prominent engineers.
Norman Leslie Reid was born in Edmonton on June 6, 1923, to English immigrants Lily (née Marsh) and Harry Reid, a boilermaker who also repaired railway cars. After graduating from Victoria High School, where he showed an aptitude for mathematics, the young Mr. Reid enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he was trained as a navigator and posted to No. 40 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, based in Tunisia and, later, Foggia, in southern Italy.
He earned a civil-engineering degree in 1949 followed two years later by a master’s in structural engineering at the University of Alberta. He designed bridges for the provincial-highways department and was a sessional instructor at the university.
In 1965, he was the founding president of Reid Crowther & Partners Ltd., which opened project offices around the world. The firm was responsible for many interchanges and over- and underpasses along such major arterial routes as the Deerfoot Trail and the Crowchild Trail in Calgary, as well as the city’s 14th Street Bridge and Bonnybrook sewage treatment plant. For all his many credits, Mr. Reid was especially proud of a subway taking 4th Street SW beneath railway tracks, a modest project but one of his first in changing the face of the city.
In retirement, Mr. Reid engaged the federal government in a prolonged battle over a pension benefit for those who evaded capture during the war. The benefit was introduced in 1976, but he only became aware of it 23 years later. In 2005, a Federal Court of Canada justice awarded him a retroactive payment of $45,000.
Mr. Reid, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, as well as arthritis, chronic kidney failure and other ailments, died at Saanich Peninsula Hospital, near Victoria, on April 25. He leaves his wife, the former Theresa Helen Franta, known as Tess, as well as a son, two daughters, four granddaughters and a great granddaughter.
In 1996, Mr. Reid indulged a yearning to return to the sky. He purchased a Tiger Moth, the biplane on which he and thousands of other Commonwealth recruits had trained. Joined by fellow RCAF veteran Ray Scott, who served as pilot to Mr. Reid’s navigator, the pair flew from Brockville, Ont., to Victoria, a journey lasting 12 days as the vintage aircraft had a top speed of 160 kilometres per hour and could only stay aloft for two hours at a time. The men wore leather helmets and goggles. The only enemy then was a tornado in southern Alberta around which they successfully navigated.