Down At Christmas

My name is Roy Patrick, and this is my tale of what happened to me on Christmas Eve, 1942.

At the time, I was an 18-year old recent recruit to the Royal Canadian Air Force, where I'd trained as a radio operator with the intention of serving in Bomber Command, operating over France and Germany. However, because of the way the war was being fought, I ended up being attached to the much less glamorous but hugely important Ferry Command. Our job was to fly aeroplanes built in the USA and Canada over to Britain for the war, and I'd been on four flights already. I hasten to add I didn't enjoy this, as it was winter, and winter over the North Atlantic is not kind to man or machine.

The flight on Christmas Eve was not an unusual one. Just a couple of days before I had been sitting, waiting, stuck at an airfield in the middle of England as snow fell, keeping our plane back to Gander in Newfoundland in a hangar. All I really wanted to do was get in the plane, and get home to see my Mom and my friends. I knew the snow would be as bad there, but we Canadians deal with it more than the Brits, it seemed!

We were given permission to take off at a little after seven in the morning, but we were delayed first because of a bad weather report, and then again because the navigator wasn't happy with the altimeter. We did a circuit of the airfield, refuelled, and in pretty good time we were in the air, headed back to Newfoundland, where in no time I'd be headed home to Ontario to see my family for Boxing Day. It would have been nice to be home for Christmas Day, but the reality is that war doesn't celebrate Christmas, and with the bombardment of Germany constant, the RAF needed those planes badly.

Everything seemed fine as we took off, and I settled into the rough seat of the Wellington bomber and confirmed the flight plan with the pilot and navigator. From where I sat I could see another of the Wellingtons ahead of us, and in good time we had radio contact to confirm that all four returning aircraft were in good shape and all was well.

We were a little over the Irish Sea when the navigator expressed his deep concern at the readings he was getting from the altimeter. It was clear from my calls to the other aircraft that we were at our optimum altitude, but this did not match with his information, and adjustments he made didn't correlate with what our colleagues were telling us. Since we had another crew on board we were absolutely certain: the navigator's initial assessment had been right. We had a fault with the altimeter and would have to return to England.

My heart sank. The weather reports had not been good, and I feared now that I wouldn't get home to see my folks before the New Year. There were grumbles around the crew and some quite unsavoury language, but we confirmed with the other three aircraft that we were heading back to England, specifically to the RAF training base at Ashbourne.

That's the last thing I honestly remember.

I can tell you now that RCAF Wellington CV266 did not make it to RAF Ashbourne. With our altimeter problem we ploughed into the hillside of the Dark Peak hills on our approach to the base. How it happened, and at precisely what time is a matter of irrelevant record set out for me some time after the fact.

I awoke with the sensation of someone applying a massive and stifling pressure to my right leg. I couldn?t see anything, and I wasn?t entirely sure I was awake. For a moment or two I thought perhaps I was in Heaven, for all around me was bright white light. This light faded, and it became clear to me that there was much grey to my surroundings. I remembered being in the Wellington?

I tried to move, and it seemed as though someone reached into my ribcage and squeezed my lungs. I cried out in pain, but this seemed to achieve no more than to make the pain worse. I may even have blacked out, but I knew two very simple and devastating things from what was happening around me. I was no longer in the bomber. I was very badly injured.

Moving caused pain I had never imagined. I cried out again and again, becoming increasingly aware that the aeroplane must have hit the ground at quite some speed and thrown me clear of the wreckage because in the blinding wind and thankfully reasonably gentle snow I could see nothing to suggest I was anywhere near the aircraft or any of the crew. I was simply devastated by the knowledge that I may be the only survivor, lost, alone, wounded, and with no idea where I was, or if rescue was coming.

I tried to find comfort in the fact I was alive. I wasn't a religious man by anything other than upbringing, but the fact that God or fate had spared me just didn't seem to lift me. What cruelty was it that set me here at such a time of joy and celebration as this? I couldn't stop myself from crying. I cried like a child for the terror and the pain and the sadness.

And then I heard the call.

At first I thought I was imagining things. The wind was something fierce, and I was fully aware from my upbringing and training that I was almost certainly entering the latter stages of hypothermia. But I was sure I wasn't imagining it: there was a voice calling out "Helloooo!"

Rescue? Rescue! Perhaps I was going to be alright after all! I tried to call out, but the words died in my mouth as another burning stab of pain in my chest tore into me, and I was forced to cough so ferociously I swore the snow around me turned faintly red.


Was I imagining it? I was sure I must have been, but I tried to cry out again, unable to manage even two syllables. "Help!" I called, panicked, weak, and in severe pain.

A dog barked. I couldn?t believe it. Out here, on these hills, I could hear someone with a dog? I was ready to dismiss it again as my mind playing tricks, when a figure?s outline became apparent before me and the barking became insidious.

"Can you hear me?" said a voice that seemed ridiculously young for where I thought we must be: some remote moorland in the middle of snow-blanketed England.

"Help me!" I said, my voice fractured and tremulous. "Please. Help me. Help the crew!" 

I heard the voice make a short order to the barking dog, and all that was left for a few moments was the whistle of the wind. I became aware of movement around me, and then of something moving over me in a gentle manner that left me feeling a little more protected against the harsh elements than I had done for a moment. Something touched my face, seeming to adjust my flight helmet.

"Who are you?" I asked, aware of how weak my voice must be.

"My name is Abraham. I'm from a farm in nearby Derwent. What's your name?"

I was delirious. Was I really hearing this? I had no idea where Derwent was, but this was the voice of a young teenager! Certainly I was feeling a little more secure in my chances of survival by the sound of his voice, but I just didn't know quite how to think, let alone what to think!

"Roy," I said weakly. "My name is Corporal Roy Patrick."

I felt his touch on my face again, and it seemed to warm me, to make me more alert. I was incredibly comforted by the fact there was someone here with me. Especially at this time where I thought not so many moments earlier I was going to die.

"Stay with me, Roy," Abraham said. "My Mum has a farm near here. I will get you home safe. What happened to you?"

I didn't know, so I said so. All I could tell him was that one minute we were flying back from the Irish Sea with a problem, and the next I was waking up cold and in terrible pain. I tried to explain more, but he stopped me.

"Just rest," he said, his voice still sounding so young I almost doubted I was hearing it right. "Help is coming."

I tried to rest, but the pain kept surging up through me and I couldn't stop myself from coughing. I thought of my Mom, back home. She would be cooking right now, getting my younger brothers and sisters ready for Christmas Day. I thought of my Uncle John, who'd be down with the other Veterans paying tribute to his brother, my father, and the fallen of the last war. I thought of my friends, and I thought of log fires, and ice rinks, and snowmen.

I tried to open my eyes against the driving snow. My word, I seemed half buried in a drift! I could only see the outline of Abraham as he knelt above me, but in that moment I could see his face, and it was as I suspected. He was young, perhaps twelve or thirteen, and shivering considerably against the cold despite being better dressed for it than I. And every now and then I could hear a piercing whistle emanating from his lips.

"What's that you're doing?" I asked, him hearing me on the second time of asking.

"I've got sheep up here, lost," he said forlornly. "I'm hoping they'll come. If not, maybe someone will come for us if they hear."

I wanted to believe him. I wanted so much. He seemed to be closer to me as the snow came harder, and I even felt the wet and warm touch of his dog's tongue as it too snuggled to us as we fought against the elements. I felt so weak. So very weak.

"We're going to die here," I said. I didn't realise I'd said it, but I heard Abraham's voice rise in stern concern.

"We'll not die here, you and I. This is not our time. You trust in me, Roy. We'll have you back in Hamilton in no time!"

I admired his confidence, if not his sincerity. He just didn't sound that convinced, and his poor dog had fallen silent, perhaps consumed by the weather or maybe lost in the blinding blizzard that had cruelly now set about us. The pain was now almost unbearable, and I knew in this cold I could not even cry, for the tears froze before they were formed. I couldn't even muster a word of admitted defeat.

"Stay with us, Roy. You'll be home safe." 

Was I hearing this right? There was talk of home? I'd heard Abraham say I'd be home safe, against all evidence to the contrary. And now, was I hearing this right? There were other voices? Male voices? And more dogs? There was more barking? Was I imagining this? And in an instant that seemed to last for an eternity, I heard Abraham urge me to call out as loud as I could to help me be found.

When I awoke once again, I was warm, and I felt in a comfort that was not entirely natural to me. There was a moment where I thought again I may be in some Heavenly place, but then the hacking cough and base profanity of another serviceman snapped me back to the here and now.

I was in a hospital bed, and in my asking I'd obviously alerted a nurse, because soon a plain but pretty face smiled above me, tilting slightly, clearly examining me, but also touching me comfortably on the cheek.

"Hello there," she said in a thick accent I identified only as North English. "You had a lucky escape there!"

Through the strange sensations coursing through my sedated body I remembered the brief but real bond I'd known in my trauma before this apparition, this angel, appeared before me.

"Where's Abraham?" I asked. "Is he okay?"

"Abraham?" she countered flatly, her voice unchanging. "Was he in your crew?"

I coughed, but the pain seemed distant and subdued. "No, he was the boy. The boy with the dog, who found me." 

The nurse stared at me, then she frowned, and said "I'll just get the doctor for you."

I don't know what time passed, but the next thing I knew I had a bearded middle age gentleman standing beside me.

"Roy?" he said, his tone gentle and fatherly.

"Yes, sir?" I replied.

"You told Nurse Hitchin that you were on the moor with a lad by the name of Abraham?"

"Yes," I whispered. "He found me. I was freezing. He helped me." 

"Interesting." the man went on. "Did he say what his last name was?" 

I fought to recall, but I had no idea. Still, eager to help I added all I could. "Not that I remember. But he had a dog. They were looking for their flock." 

There was a sharp intake of breath, but it was not the breath of just one individual. At least two people in the room did the same thing at the same time.

Again the bearded man appeared by my side, and this time he introduced himself, and his introduction and his subsequent monologue left me with a curious yet satisfying chill. He said:

"My name is Malcolm Lowe. Many years ago, my great-great grandfather lost his uncle on Back Tor, a place not far from where the wreckage of your plane was found. His name was Abraham. He was up there with his dog, looking for his mother's flock of sheep that had been caught in a blizzard. He never returned from his winter search. But in the spring that followed, another shepherd found Abraham's remains next to his faithful dog, with the words LOST LAD scratched onto a rock nearby."

The doctor looked hard into my uncomprehending expression.

"I am not saying you were rescued by a young boy who died over 70 years ago," he said. "But I am saying that if this is not the case, what you've just told me about your saviour is the single biggest coincidence of all my years as a medical professional. I am truly astonished."

And rightly so was he. And because of that astonishment and the certainty I have that it was indeed the ghost of young Abraham Lowe that saved my life that day, that every year I make a donation to a British childrens charity in his name. Because the significant thing that always makes me certain that Abraham was real and knew exactly what he was doing was this:

How did he know, when keeping me alive, that I was from Hamilton, Ontario? I certainly never mentioned it!

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