“Imagine you are a pilot, shot from the sky, alone in enemy territory where no one speaks your language. It is winter, and soon will be dark. You could freeze to death, starve or be captured by the Nazis. And you are a Jew. This is David Goldberg’s predicament on March 8, 1944. An Ordinary Hero is Goldberg’s account of how, assisted by the French Underground, he made his way through occupied France and Spain and evaded capture by the enemy. He returned to combat in ground support as a dive-bomber to become the decorated (Distinguished Flying Cross) commander of the only Canadian fighter squadron in Italy.”
Reviewed by Gord McNulty
Aviation fans will enjoy this riveting narrative of how a 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 is a lively, fast-moving account. The book covers the challenges of mastering the Harvard in flight training, the thrill of flying the Spitfire, and the ever-present horrors of war facing fighter pilots. Goldberg was tested to the limit by the emotions and loneliness of being a wartime commanding officer, but he won his personal battle of attrition. He had empathy for the pilots under his command and inspired them with his combat leadership. Goldberg’s vivid memory and thought-provoking observations make for a compelling book from start to finish.
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 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 didn’t leave any margin for error.
Ironically, Goldberg never downed a single German aircraft. A sensitive man, he abhorred killing. Only once did he claim a life and it left a painful memory. He was firing the guns of his Spitfire at a construction site for V-1 “buzz bombs” when a man stepped out of a building directly into the line of fire and was killed instantly. “That starkly vivid image would remain with me for the rest of my life,” he recalled. “Never again would I be able to kill even a rabbit, never again take life of any kind.” Goldberg observed that pilots on both sides respected, rather than hated, the enemy. “The movies often seem to glorify killing, but you won’t find many soldiers, sailors or airmen, on either side, who want to kill another human being. We were at war with war, not against other men.” Goldberg flew a total of 233 operations, more than double the normal tour of duty. He lost 12 pilots and never forgot them.
After the war, he flew P-51 Mustangs with 424 Auxiliary Squadron and was commanding officer of 16 Wing at Mount Hope. He once made a successful dead-stick landing in a 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. Though he saw the cruelty and chaos of war, Goldberg felt the esprit de corps and camaraderie of the air force made all the difference.
The joys of being a pilot gave him the experience of a lifetime, many times over. Goldberg never looked back once he mastered the ups and downs of the Link trainer, “the closest thing to living hell” he had ever experienced. Goldberg’s first solo in the Fleet Finch at No. 12 EFTS, Goderich, was a thrill.
Then he went to Saskatoon to master the Harvard, an aircraft that was “unforgiving of youthful high jinks” and required no small amount of courage to fly in formation flying with wingtips only a few feet apart. Goldberg accidentally crash-landed a Harvard after forgetting to lower the undercarriage, but he retained his status as class leader nonetheless. Posted to Dunnville as a flight instructor, Goldberg flew an aerobatics show in a Harvard on Labour Day, 1942, and flirted with disaster when he was too low on his final pass. Goldberg’s talent for drawing in the reader leaves a strong impression. Consider, for example, his excitement when flying the Spitfire. What an adrenalin rush it was as he started the engine of the legendary British fighter for the first time. “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.