Sparky MacKenzie loved her time in the BCATP

News Article / August 31, 2016

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Allison “Sparky” MacKenzie served as a wireless operator in England during the Second World War, and was doubtlessly a beacon of hope for bomber pilots returning to England after a sortie over Germany.

By Ross Lees

For nearly three and a half years, beginning in 1942, Canadian  Allison “Sparky” MacKenzie served as a wireless operator and, she says, loved her work.

She was given the best wireless set and the most powerful transmitter in England and sent the time signal to bombers flying missions over Germany.

“I would send out the signal every half hour (BV9QTF, and the time),” she recalls during an interview from her apartment in Belleville, Ontario. “I would repeat it every half hour, then I would listen for SOSs, or “O” for emergency. Otherwise, they couldn’t send [messages] to headquarters unless it was something like that.”

Because her set was so powerful, the Germans could pick it up and monitor it, so messages were kept to an absolute minimum, she says, recalling often getting messages from downed aircraft in the ocean. “It was always in code.” She was trained in Morse code at 24 words per minute. “It went straight up to operations. It was quite exciting, but we kept our cool. It was war,” she says matter-of-factly.

Sparky, whose maiden name was, coincidentally, Sparks, remembers D-Day vividly.

“D-Day was fantastic. We never went off duty. We stayed on duty the whole 24 hours and we could hear and see the bombers. The sky was just black coming from all our satellite stations. We were headquarters for a lot of stations and it was pretty exciting.”

She did not see them coming back because she was in headquarters. “All I saw was the fellows going out. When they came back, it was pretty scraggily,” she recalls hearing. “Some of our girls lost their husbands in the war. Personally, I lost a few boyfriends – let’s put it that way – but no one I was close to.”

Much of her time in the military was recorded in pictures, which she has spread throughout her apartment.

Sparky loved being a wireless operator, and she has stayed in touch with technology over the years, now owning her own computer. “I’ve got Windows 10,” she says, adding she has been using computers for about 10 years.

Married twice, her second husband was Squadron Leader Andy MacKenzie, the hero of Mayhem to Mayday, a book for which she supplied much of the information. A press release about the book described her husband this way:

Andy MacKenzie's dream of flying came true when he graduated as a pilot in the RCAF. He desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot but first had to spend two years as an instructor. Finally overseas, he quickly became an ace when he downed three enemy aircraft in 90 seconds, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was shot down by American 'friendly' fire over the Normandy beachhead. His final count was 8.5 kills before returning to Canada to command a squadron of Kitty Hawks for the Pacific war. The atomic bomb shut down his chance to fight again and he left the air force. Soon after he rejoined, he had ground jobs before taking command of 441 Squadron flying F-86 Sabres. On exchange duty with the US air force in Korea he was shot down by a wing mate and spent two years of torture in a Chinese prison – 465 days in solitary confinement for refusing to reveal military secrets. With the Korean War over, he returned to Canada 70 pounds lighter but still in charge of his ebullient sense of humour.

Sparky describes him as a “wonderful man” and takes every opportunity to talk about him. “He really had a distinguished career. He was the squadron commander of 441 (Squadron),” she says. “He enjoyed himself and never took himself too seriously. The men just loved him. When he went missing, they were really upset. He stayed missing and nobody cared here. His wife said, he isn’t dead and she wouldn’t sign any papers, so she kept getting his pay. She had four children. Eventually, he turned up. She spoke to a diplomat and he spoke to Zhou Enlai, and he said he would look to see if they had him as a prisoner. He let them know they had him and they said they would let him go in due course. Two years to the day, to the hour to the minute, they let him go in Hong Kong.”

When Andy MacKenzie's wife, Sparky’s best friend, died, Sparky married him and they enjoyed several years together. He earned 15 medals, which she still has. She also has a picture of him with England’s leading ace, Johnny Johnston, taken at the last fighter pilots’ reunion at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. She recalls a funny story about Squadron Leader MacKenzie getting his wings, a ceremony that would normally carry some pomp and ceremony it; however, this was not the case for MacKenzie. Upon completion of pilot training, MacKenzie’s instructor said, “You fellas did very well; I think you’ve got your wings. You wanna pick up your wings, they’re on the desk here, but leave 26 cents.”

“He got Royal Air Force (RAF) wings because his instructor from England was in the RAF.”

Sparky met her first husband in England. Married 50 years, they met as wireless operators working alongside each other. Fred (Tommy) Tucker and Sparky were married in an 11th-century church on the station and they went on their honeymoon to Trafalgar Square.  “He was a ‘sparky’, too,” she says, and remembers him getting the badge depicting their trade. Her husband was still in England when she came back to Canada. He was over there almost until VJ Day. “He came home before that, and we went on honeymoon to Niagara Falls on VJ Day. I was out by that time.”

Much of what she recalls from that time period comes from the numerous photographs she still retains from that period of her life. She gave some of her mementos to a museum in Ottawa, but she could take you through her military life with the photos she kept. She has a photograph of Group Captain Weber presenting her with her Sparks badge.

She joined the military at 19, and continued the tradition of her family having someone in every war. “Somebody in my family had been in every war since the Crimean War,” she says. “I’ve got [a picture of] my grandfather in the living room and he was in the Crimean War and his commission is signed by Queen Victoria. I have her signature there. My Dad was in but he had a tubercular gland, so they put him out, but two of his brothers served.

“I was stationed at Uplands,” she says. She did her basic training in Rockcliffe and was unhappy about it because that was home and she wanted to travel. But Sparky and her friends made the most of that period of their careers. “We took part in swimming against other stations in the Montreal Athletic Association, and we played basketball and won over Rockcliffe. We were busy, physically.” She recalls a very long route march through Montreal in freezing cold temperatures, before being shipped overseas. There were 32 in her course and they were the first graduation of women in March of 1943.

Sparky’s career, like everyone’s, spanned high points and low points. “One time that was quite interesting, we were in London on a troop train and we were going north,” she said. “One of our girls saw her brother, who was an officer in the Army, and she waved. She never saw him again. He was killed. There were a lot of sad things like that.” A highlight of her career was a special inspection in England. “The Queen came and inspected us at Topcliffe. We had to spend the day standing around at attention,” she recalls.

She remembers another friend who flew under some wires in Smiths Falls, Ontario, and took the wing off his Harvard aircraft. “He spent a month in jail and he lost his commission,” she says. “But he landed the plane. He brought it around again and landed it on a farmer’s field. They made him suffer and they sent him to India, but that probably saved his life, because most of his contemporaries were killed.”

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