Editor’s note: While David Goldberg did not see action in the Netherlands campaign, he is nonetheless one of Hamilton’s great World War II heros. The writer had the privilege of knowing Mr. Goldberg as a corporate lawyer with Ross and McBride. He served for many years as counsel to CHCH TV.
Readers will enjoy this riveting narrative of how a Jewish boy from Hamilton realized his dream of becoming a pilot, was shot down in France and evaded the Nazis to reach Gibraltar, then returned to lead airmen in war.
In a revealing account of his exceptional RCAF career, Group Captain David Goldberg goes beyond typical military history to examine many dimensions of warfare and its psychological effects on pilots. Goldberg (1917-2006) told his story to Hamilton author David S. New in a series of 15 three-hour, tape recorded interviews.
This lively, fast-moving account ranges from the thrill of flying to the ever-present horrors of war.
While Goldberg faced many tense episodes, none were more challenging than being shot down by ground flak at low altitude while attacking a Luftwaffe airfield in his beloved Spitfire Mark IX on March 8, 1944. It was his 80th operation.
As he described it: “The ground comes up fast. There’s an abrupt thud, then prolonged scraping and screeching — the sound of a thousand fingernails moving down a blackboard. My speed drops quickly to a softer skidding sound. Hold on, baby. Hold on. No smoke. No flames. I’m okay! I’m going to live!”
The Spitfire flipped onto its back. Goldberg just managed to inch his way out of the cockpit and burned the aircraft before the Germans could capture it.
Tired, cold and hungry, he avoided detection with the help of the French underground. Life as a Jewish fugitive on the run was a nerve-wracking, cloak-and-dagger ordeal. He encountered a host of characters, from strangers who were willing to risk their lives to a mysterious bearded man “straight out of a Hollywood spy movie.”
Living with the constant fear of being turned over to the Germans, Goldberg fortuitously made it out of France with a larger group of downed airmen over the arduous Pyrenees Mountains to Spain. He finally arrived in Gibraltar two months after being shot down and was able to get word to his family that he was alive.
Goldberg sailed home to Canada for 30 days’ leave and a family reunion. Upset by people complaining about relative trivialities while the war was on, he wanted to “get back to the boys” overseas.
He was worried that he might never again fly in combat. After using the French underground system, Goldberg would be considered by the “brass hats” to be a security risk should he be captured by the enemy.
Goldberg, however, was posted to Italy and the only RCAF squadron in the Desert Air Force. Excelling in dive bombing and strafing sorties, he rose to commanding officer of 417 Squadron. In 1945 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for outstanding courage and skill in dangerous ground attack. Low flying and enemy flak didn’t leave any margin for error.
As the fighting dragged on, Goldberg concluded that “war was becoming a game of cheating death. A matter of survival rather than heroic exploits. The guys called it “juggling with Jesus’…I did know one thing: it sure felt good to get back to base in one piece after an operation. Always.”
Goldberg flew a total of 233 operations, more than double the normal tour of duty. He lost 12 pilots and never forgot them.
As commanding officer, Goldberg watched his men closely to determine if fear was getting the better of them. A few seemed constantly to have colds or some other malady. Others reported engine problems and returned to base before completing an operation. A transfer would quietly be arranged, so as to preserve the man’s pride and self-worth while protecting the integrity of the squadron.
Goldberg went to Osgoode Hall Law School after the war and practised corporate and commercial law before retiring in 1999. A “weekend warrior” post-war, he was in charge of flying with the City of Hamilton 424 Auxiliary Squadron and was commanding officer of 16 Wing at Mount Hope. He once made a successful dead-stick landing in a P-51 Mustang with the gear down and received a letter from Ottawa thanking him for bringing the fighter back intact.
Goldberg didn’t see himself as a hero. He gave the credit to everyone who laid their lives on the line, including those who served in the background: the men and women of the French underground and the merchant seamen who transported troops in the perilous, submarine-infested North Atlantic.
“The war made me more tolerant, expanded my horizon,” he recalled. “I learned that people are more alike than different. I saw people ignore class and ethnic distinctions, disregard stupid prejudices, in order to co-operate and accomplish something.”
“In my mind I was at the Battle of Britain,” he recalled. “…A flash of fire from the exhaust stubs, blue smoke, black smoke, bang, bang…a thundering crackle, the smoke banished as she catches. A tremendous roar, a torrent of wind from the propeller presses the grass back as she catches. She’s alive! And I was alive, more alive than I’d ever been.”
Hollywood could not write a better script.
An Ordinary Hero is available at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum Gift Shop and can be ordered through Nimbus.ca or contacting Bryan Prince Bookseller at 905-528-4508 or firstname.lastname@example.org. It is also available at Coles.
An Ordinary Hero: The Story of David Goldberg WWII Canadian Spitfire Pilot, by David S. New, Pottersfield Press, 255 pages, $22.95