RCAF veteran remembered as Ad Astra “stone gardener”

News Article / March 3, 2017

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Colonel (retired) Cy Yarnell, died peacefully at Hastings Manor in Belleville, Ontario, in his 97th year on February 25, 2017. His funeral is being held today. In peacetime, his life was filled with his wife, Phyllis, his siblings and his children, and then his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By Ruthanne Urquhart

In Toronto, Ontario, in the autumn of 1940, a young man stood outside an air force recruiting office, wondering if he could become a mechanic.

The 20-year-old was born in Carlow in southern Ireland. His family immigrated to Toronto in 1927 and when Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, he joined the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps.

But he’d had a change of heart since then. Although he’d only seen an aircraft once or twice, and had never touched one, he decided to give it a shot, and went into the recruiting office.

After his physical, Cyril “everyone knows me as Cy” St. Clair Yarnell underwent elementary flying training in Victoriaville, Quebec. There, trainees were sorted into streams – pilots, navigators, air gunners, et al. Yarnell was put in the pilot stream. He trained at St. Eugene, Ontario, on Fleet Finch biplanes, and graduated in Aylmer, Ontario, on Harvard aircraft.

And somewhere along the way, he fell in love. With flying. With aircraft. They say wartime romance is the strongest, the most lasting of all. For Cy Yarnell, it lasted a lifetime.

A joy to fly

After graduating Flying Training School in Aylmer, Yarnell instructed there for about a year, and then went overseas to serve in England. He flew Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires.

“Well, the Hurricane at the time had been the hero of the Battle of Britain, and it was a larger aircraft than the Spitfire,” he told The Memory Project, an Historica Canada undertaking that provides Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans the opportunity to share their stories with Canadians online and in classrooms and community forums. “The Hurricane was not as fast, not as manoeuvrable, and the Spitfire, of course, was a delight to fly, extremely manoeuvrable. And you could have different configuration of your wings. You could have the standard elliptical wing or you could have the elliptical wing cut off and have a clipped-wing Spitfire, which would roll much more easily. Or you could have a pointed wingtip, which would give you control at much higher altitudes.

“A joy to fly.”

But no matter where his love would carry him, he also never forgot his roots. In Italy, he served with No. 601 County of London Squadron. “Very famous; very proud,” he said. “My flight commander, who was a bit unreasonable on this occasion, suggested that the three Canadians might be advised to remove the Canada badges off our uniforms because we were now flying with the Royal Air Force. Our response was less than polite. And he never mentioned it again.”

Yarnell served in the skies over Italy and over the Anzio beachhead. He said he's glad he served but there were moments of “stark raving fear at times. Anyone who says they weren't scared from time to time are liars or nuts. Anytime I took off on a trip I said a little one, as I was running down the runway, to the man upstairs. As I was landing, I'd say a little thank-you."

He served in North Africa, and flew missions over Holland, Belgium and Germany.

In the final days of the war, near Hamburg, Germany, the powers that were “even stuck a 250-pound [113.4 kilogram] bomb under the belly of our Spit and had us, if you can believe, dive bomb the Kiel Canal in the Spitfire, which is ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t think we hit anything. We probably scared a lot of people and especially they scared us, too.”

Yarnell’s squadron was stationed south of Hamburg in May 1945 when the Allies declared victory in Europe. He and a few squadron mates visited the Bergen-Belsen prison camp, where Dutch teenager Anne Frank, writer of a famous wartime diary, died a prisoner. Yarnell still shakes his head at the memories of the camp.

“My God, that was bad news,” he said. “Some of the inmates were still staggering around. They had German civilians from the local town in, burying the bodies. They were under armed escort."

Younger wings

Colonel Yarnell retired from the RCAF in 1974.

From 2003 to 2011, he travelled to from Belleville to Ottawa every September to read the Air Force poem, “High Flight” at the RCAF’s national Battle of Britain ceremony. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he said at the reception following the 2004 ceremony.

He was a member of the RCAF Association, 418 Wing in Belleville, Ontario, and a member of Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 99 in Belleville.

He also served as a member of the board of the National Air Force Museum of Canada, located at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, and was a co-founder of the Ad Astra stone program, which, for a small donation, places a commemorative stone in the stone gardens along the paths around the museum. RCAF veterans or their families can choose a verse, a quote or other text to be engraved on the stone.

“The museum has lost a true gentleman,” said museum executive director Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Chris Colton. “Cy’s devotion to the Air Force, and the humour that he brought to every discussion, was infectious. As our Ad Astra spokesman, his quatrain faithfully describes his feelings each day he was present here working with his ‘stone masons’ in the Air Park.”

Colonel (retired) Yarnell’s Ad Astra quatrain reads:

Let me pause here a while where traditions, memories and old friends of flight consecrate this happy place; and where, with each passing day, younger wings now fly the skies above us with dedicated pride and grace.

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