Ed Carter-Edwards, whose exploits in the Second World War made him a sought-after lecturer to younger generations has died at age 94. He was 19 years old when he signed up with the RCAF feeling it was his duty to enlist and stop the Nazis. As a radio operator and gunner for the 427 Lion Squadron, he flew in the famous Halifax bomber—the companion to the Lancaster. “Everybody dreaded Berlin – nobody wanted to fly over Berlin. It ended up that my first trip was…Berlin,” he said.
After nine successful forays over Berlin, the first episode of his incredible story began.
“It was our 10th trip when our plane went into a nosedive over France. We’d been hit from below by a German fighter. Our motor caught fire,” he explained. “I don’t remember putting my parachute on or jumping but I do remember falling to the ground and seeing some woods, a church and some open land. I knew I wanted to be close to the woods so I could run and hide.”
It was the day after D-Day (June 7, 1944) and he knew the best plan would be to escape France through Spain and get back to England. He found a fellow airman while in the woods, but the two men quickly realized it would be safer to split up. When a couple offered to secure safe passage for him to Spain, he thanked God and thought his adventure was almost over. Instead, he was tricked and sent straight into the enemy’s hands.
As it turns out, he was not alone – 168 airmen from Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand were shot down in France. They were captured by the Gestapo and temporarily held in Paris’ Fresnes Prison. Instead of being classified as POWs under the Geneva Convention, they were accused of being spies and saboteurs. In mid-August, they were crowded into cattle cars and sent Buchenwald Concentration Camp – a labour camp.
The young airman witnessed the most horrific of human degradation as they were beaten and forced to use a bucket in the middle of the cattle car as a toilet. “It was humiliating. We were among women and children and expected to act as animals.”
Once they arrived at Buchenwald, they were stripped, shaved and showered in a liquid to kill lice, which burned the exposed flesh severely. It didn’t take long for Carter-Edward to realize this was unlike anything he’d ever imagined.
“We witnessed horrific beatings, hangings, and torture, as bodies were piled one on top of another awaiting the crematorium,” he described. “They were the cruelest most barbaric people.”
The harsh environment eventually took its toll on him and he fell ill of pneumonia. The infirmary did not offer any medicine. Once a day the beds (with the person laying in it) were hosed down making the wet filth drain from the bunks above to those below.
“I really don’t know how I survived it,” he admits. “I was there for a month but the general rule was after one week of being ill, you were killed because it was a work camp and if you can’t work – you are of no use.” In early April word had arrived that the war was coming to an end and the Nazis didn’t want evidence of the concentration camps. This was the time which scared Carter-Edwards the most. “We were being moved around forced to walk in large crowds through soldiers beating us as we passed by and vicious dogs biting us. We all knew our time was almost up. We were going to be executed.”
Buchenwald was liberated on 11 April 1945.
Back in Canada Ed faced incredulity when he told his story about Buchenwald.“What might be the hardest thing to accept is that people didn’t believe I was in a concentration camp when I got home – they thought I was crazy,” he told the students.
After the War Ed settled in Ancaster, worked at Camco until retirement and was active in theatre. Ed is survived by Lois his wife of 70 years, two children and a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren. In his later years Ed Carter Edwards dedicated his life to telling his own story to students across Ontario. His story and the stories of the other airmen is detailed in the National Film Board of Canada’s movie The Lucky Ones.