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UBC Archives Audio Recordings Collection

[Interview with Albert Laithwaite, Armed Forces at UBC Project, Part I] Specht, Allen 1974-04-20

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Albert Laithwaite
April 20, 1974
Interview 504, Tape 1, Side 1
Mr. Laithwaite: ...our friends the enemy from across the Pennines. The pennines being a mountain chain that go down the centre of Britain.
Mr. Specht: So where you come from is Lancashire which is on the west side?
Mr. Laithwaite: Liverpool, where the Beatles came from.
Mr. Specht: Is that were you were born, in Liverpool?
Mr. Laithwaite: About twelve miles from there, in Lancashire, St. Helens.
Mr. Specht: What year was that Mr. Laithwaite?
Mr. Laithwaite: 1915.
Mr. Specht: What was your father's occupation?
Mr. Laithwaite: My father was a lumber merchant and had been a plasterer by trade and when I was born, he was operating a plastering business in St. Helens in Lancashire with the beginnings of a lumber yard and what they called a jobbing business. In those days house repairing business which if you wanted a new chimney on your house, you'd phone him and he'd quote a price and do the chimney or build you a house.
Mr. Specht: Where did your father import the lumber from?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well I think most of the lumber in Britain was from Scandinavia in those days. We had a considerable amount of plywood and I think that probably came from Canada or from the United States.
Mr. Specht: You mentioned when I was talking to you before that your father had immigrated to Canada. When did he come?
Mr. Laithwaite: I think in 1911 and he went back to join the army for the 1914 War.
Mr. Specht: Which regiment did he join?
Mr. Laithwaite: I can't recall, I don't know.
Mr. Specht: He joined the Army though for the war years?
Mr. Laithwaite: The Army, yes.
Mr. Specht: And he remained in England after the war?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes he didn't come back. He had intended to come back to Canada, but never did. He bought the beginnings of the business then and the firm is still in operation. My father gave the business then and the firm is still in operation. My father gave the business to my elder brother who died quite recently and the business is now being run by my brother's son and his widow.
Mr. Specht: Where did you go to school?
Mr. Laithwaite: I went to school at Cowlie School, in St Helens in Lancashire. It's an old endowed Grammar School. A boy's school.
Mr. Specht: Where did you go to take your training to be a teacher?
Mr. Laithwaite: I started as a teacher in the old plan as a pupil-teacher and I did, I left high school, I did two years student teaching as a pupil-teacher with the St. Helends local educative authority and then I went to College. I went to Chester College and after Chester I went to specialist college and took physical education which was a branch of Leeds University. Carnegie Physical Training College it was called in those days. It's not Carnegie College oh Physical Education, but it's still int he same location. It's in Leeds and is on the same grounds as the city of Leeds Training College for teachers.
Mr. Specht: Why did you specialize in physical education?
Mr. Laithwaite: I don't know really. I'd always wanted to be a physical education teacher. I was a fairly good athlete I suppose and played a lot of rugby football and I was just crazy about things athletic.
Mr. Specht: How many years did you teach before the war?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well I graduated in 1938 and I taught 1938 and the beginning of 1939 and 1940, until July, 1940 and then I was allowed to get into the armed forces in July, 1940. Until that time we had been in a reserved occupation and I believe when I did finally get in I was still in a reserved occupation, but someone at the air ministry must have been able to pull strings to get us in.
Mr. Specht: Why did you choose the Air Force?
Mr. Laithwaite: I suppose it was the new thing. I didn't, I was a little less than steeped in tradition about the armed services. My father was in the Army. I probably felt that the Air Force was a new thing. Flying was a new idea that was probably what attracted me, I think.
Mr. Specht: So what were the steps which led to your being sent to Canada during the war?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well the formation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the lack of space in England to do all the flying training. I suppose the second consideration was the weather in Canada was very much more suitable for flying training than it was in Britain and particularly in places like Moose Jaw, to which we came. Our flying training school at Moose Jaw could operate right round the clock with not too much worry about the weather. I think that was the main consideration... the Royal Air Force in getting all these flying stations in the Commonwealth countries, the weather was better.
Mr. Specht: What year did you come to Canada?
Mr. Laithwaite: Oh, in November, 1940.
Mr. Specht: What was your main activities with the Air Force?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well I was a member of the Administrative and Special Duties branch...My main duties were as a physical fitness officer for most of the time. We did as I say, various administrative job as well.
Mr. Specht: What physical qualities were desirable for a pilot? How did this relate to the training which you would have undertaken?
Mr. Laithwaite: I think, speaking technically, general good health, but to be highly specific, I don't think that there's any one particular component of fitness that one could say is necessary for a pilot any more than the other except perhaps a component of abdominal strength. If you got right down to fine details of what particular component could you point to, I'd say a pretty good stomach and stomach well to maybe hold the blood in the right place while you're doing flying maneuvering. I don't think there's anything else. You see, virtually that's what a pressure suit is now in high speed or high altitude or even the astronaut work, they have a pressure suit which, when you're under large forces of G, holds the viscera and the general structure of the human body in the same place while you're under the great stress. So if... I suppose the earliest flying suits, pressure suits were, that was the main reason they were so successful. They stopped the force of gravity from displacing various organs or making those organs fill up with blood and emptying other organs of blood. For instance, when you pull out of a dive, you blackout because the blood flows towards the bottom of this large belly receptacle you have and lots of people who have a large belly have a big receptacle there and the legs and so on and the blood flows away from the brain and the reverse happens in an inside loop. You can get red-out.
Mr. Specht: Let's change the topic now to something a little more general. While you were in Canada during the way years, what was your impression of Canada during the war effort?
Mr. Laithwaite: Of course I enjoyed it very much. I was a little bit influenced by my father telling me what a great spot it was and what a good country and the idea of people not being to hidebound in tradition or by tradition if that's one of the functions of tradition, I don't know. But there was generally an air of freedom in Canada which I liked and above all I found that the people were very much more interested in your ideas, in Britain it was a slower process to try and get things done. One could ask people for help and they probably might say "Well you can't do that, Old Boy." Rather than the Canadian attitude which seemed to be "Come on let's see what we can do to help." This is what I found interesting.
Mr. Specht: That's an interesting observation. I understand the last years of the war you returned to England?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes. I spent approximately six years in the service and three years I spent in Canada and three years in England. I was on training stations all the time. I suppose I did what I'm doing now in a sense, training young leaders to be teachers or leaders in situations very much like teaching I guess.
Mr. Specht: What kind of leadership training were you specifically involved in? With the forces?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well the physical fitness officer was, as it sounds like, responsible for the fitness training of the students plus the skill training, instruction in sports and the skills of sports. In addition to that we'd give some instruction in the physiology of high altitude flying, that kind of think which interested the flying trainees very much. The psychology of the young flying officer's job, things like that. The admin duties were very interesting and were a great experience I thought. For instance, one would run a track meet and have only a small number of people to of it. We had command track meets that were quite a challenge to a young flying officer, as it was then. You went into the service and someone said "could you run a track meet, the whole command is sending people and your station will house, feed, sleep them, and entertain them while they're here. They'll be here for a week to do this track meet and there'll be trials and there'll be practices and have you got enough knives, forks, and spoons for them?" And so on and so on, it was a most interesting training in just general administration as well.
Mr. Specht: Where were you discharged?
Mr. Laithwaite: I was discharged in London?
Mr. Specht: What year?
Mr. Laithwaite: Now what was it?...almost July, 1946. Almost went six years, well I did go six years.
Mr. Specht: What did you do right after the war?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well I was bound by my agreement with the St. Helens education authority to go back to teach for them for a small period, I don't remember specifically what it was, but a certain number of months to give my notice that I was leaving. In Christmas 1945, I was asked if I would come back and go to Ridley College in St. Catherines, Ontario, to run the physical fitness programs and run the cadet corps.
Mr. Specht: Air cadet corps?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes.
Mr. Specht: For school-aged cadets?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes, secondary school. Well actually the Ridley College is a large private school in Ontario and has a junior school as well as a senior school so the boys virtually are from the age of six right through to eighteen in grade twelve, and grade thirteen. The school is very, very well equipped. We had a swimming pool even in 1946. An indoor swimming pool, heated and a very modern gymnasium building and very, very fine playing fields all around the school.
Mr. Specht: What brought you to U.B.C.?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well I found that the program at Ridley College was little bit traditional and the idea of the physical education teacher did not suit my idea of what should be done and I resigned tor that reason, that I did not like the job. I knew that my particular training would be more useful at U.B.C. because of things like English Rugby being prominent and my particular background in schools would be very useful and I thought perhaps that there wouldn't be too many applicants tor the job say of English Rugby coach at U.B.C. So I wrote to U.B.C. and said I was in Canada and was available and did they have any openings and by luck there an an opening at U.B.C. and it was understanding that there was a short list of about six and I got the job.
Mr. Specht: Can you give me the date?
Mr. Laithwaite: It was the first of July, 1947, was the date I Joined U.B.C. It might be of interest to know that the person who interviewed me on behalf of U.B.C. was Colonel Shrum, who had been the Army C.O. at one time, was then Dr. Gordon Shrum, who later was head of the physics department and Dean of graduate studies, and later on Chancellor of Simon Fraser University. Mr. Specht: So you were at U.B.C, in 1947. The following year
was when the Air Force Squadron started on campus, reserve squadron, which you became involved in, could you tell how you became involved?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes, I... I was always very interested in the idea of training young adults after my exposure to it in the Air Force and I had been very keen to get a university job for that very reason, that the adult education appealed to me much more than the high school job. So when I came I was very interested to find out whether the C.O.T.C, idea was carried on in Canada as it was in Britain in the old days, the gentleman soldier idea. I had some experience of that myself in England in the old days when it was customary for the young fellows, men, to join the reserve.
Mr. Specht: Did you... to go back, maybe I missed that, did you, were you in an O.T.C. in England before the war?
Mr. Laithwaite: No. I was a little too young at that time and when I was away at college I went, they didn't have such a unit at my colleges, but I had known a good many young men who had joined the reserve Air Force in England and had been interested in it.
Mr. Specht: Would you continue your story of how you took a post with R.U.F.?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes, well at the particular time I was looking mainly, I suppose at that time, for something to do in the summer time when one was free and I heard that in 1949 there was to be a camp at Abbotsford for the western universities and although there was no establishment for me at the U.B.C. unit at that time, I did make application and was taken on as a special... in a special capacity to help run the physical fitness program and the drill program at Abbotsford in the summer of 1949. After that the establishment for the university squadron was increased to include an adjutant or training officer and I was then able to join the U.B.C. unit. I don't remember the exact date of my joining. but it should be available.
Mr. Specht: Well you were with the unit officially in the year 1949 - 1950.
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes. That would be the tall of 1949.
Mr. Specht: The Commanding Officer was Roy Haines, I believe?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes. Squadron Leader A. R. Haines. Roy had... I don't remember now, but I believe Roy had been in the English Department as a sort of graduate assistant. I'm not sure. I don't think he was officially on the professorial ranks, I don't think he was an assistant professor at that time. I think he was an instructor in the department of English, teaching English 100 type course and the reason Roy did not stay was because, I suppose the lack of advance qualifications which would be necessary and increased as the years went on in peace-time at the university. So Roy went back and took flying training in the Air Force and got his wings I think,
Mr. Specht: How would you account for Mr. Haines interest in the university squadron?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well he had been in the service during the war. And wanted to carry on with it in the reserve capacity when he came out. One must not deny also, the economic aspect. The salaries ware very low. My first salary at the University of British Columbia was $2,600.00 a year and that was as an instructor. My salary was raised to $3,OOO.OO at Christmas as I remember, in Christmas 1947, but it was less than I'd been living on as an officer in the services. It was less than I'd been earning at Ridley College in 3t. Catharines, The salaries were low and... one had to look for extra money.
Mr. Specht: You'd be referring mostly to the summer training wouldn't you, because the winter term was probably not too financially remunerative?
Mr. Laithwaite: No. It was really to find an extra source of income during the term, if you like, the night parade, but that was a small amount, thirty-five days pay at one's rank per year, as I remember. And we were paid at the rank we held, at the pay that we would have received if we'd bean in the permanent force, less marriage allowance. We did not get marriage allowance and, but, otherwise we got tile pay of a flying officer or whatever rank we were. I was a flying officer in those days, no, I don't remember, Flight Lieutenant I think. That's awful, I can't remember.
Mr. Specht: Can you tell me what it was like getting the squadron under way? It had just started off on campus, right?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well, it was pretty easy for us because it was just like stepping out os the war-time and carrying on with our war-time work. I'd been in officer training all the time, virtually and it wasn't a big jump at all it was very nice to come back and do it again.
Mr. Specht: How about organizing your parade night?
Mr. Laithwaite: Well we had the facilities as the university had so thoughtfully provided by the energies of the aforesaid Dr. Shrum, and we had a place that we could parade even in the rain. We could parade indoors in the armouries and we had enough classroom space to do the lecture program. We were better off than most people because we bad an officer's mess and we could have an evening meal together before the parade and that was what happened in the old days, The cadets who wished to could use the facilities of the officer's mess. We had kitchen facilities and we employed a cook and we had an evening meal before the parade in our own officer's mess.
Mr. Specht: How about the syllabus? Was this all detailed from above or?
Mr. Laithwaite: Yes there was a rudimentary type syllabus, but Air Force Headquarters, of course, were governed by facilities the universities had. I must say ours were the best that I heard of. And some of the universities did not have the ability to do some of the training and were not so well off facility-wise as we were. We also had a number of other professors on the campus with service backgrounds, who wanted to carry on and do evening work and come and lecture to the troops. We managed very well.


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