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Remembering music, morale and the RCAF Streamliners’ unique WWII mission


November 11, 2020
By Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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In the Second World War, a group of young Canadian airmen, mostly from this region, became a big band that played with music’s top names — even Glenn Miller approved — and brought a welcome boost and ‘taste of home’ to our troops fighting in Europe. A new book recounts the RCAF Streamliners’ extraordinary, largely forgotten, musical journey. Max Martin reports.

It was three days before Christmas 1944.

Fifteen Canadian airmen had just reached a rundown country church near Nijmegen in the Netherlands, which Canadians soon would liberate from the Nazis.

Getting there was harrowing. They’d been shelled as they crossed the Grave Bridge, a few hundred metres from German lines.

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Three months before, Nijmegen had been taken during Operation Market Garden, a failed Allied airborne assault to seize Dutch bridges and punch an invasion route into Germany, later immortalized in the movie, A Bridge Too Far.

The church was no refuge for the 15 Canadians, all in their 20s, mostly from Southwestern Ontario. It was one of hundreds of places where their Second World War story would play out.

Unlike most of the one-million-plus Canadians serving in this war, their mission was entertainment: blasting brass and booming drums to give Canadian troops overseas a morale boost and “a taste of home.”

But as the RCAF Streamliners struck up their high-energy, big band jazz in that church near Nijmegen, they were on edge.

“We were expecting the whole night that an enemy would come through the front door, but it didn’t happen,” recalled Leonard Coppold, then the band’s 22-year-old guitarist.

When the church doors opened, soldiers’ focus shifted instantly from the show to their rifles, unsure if friend or foe was coming.

“We tried to play with amusement and enthusiasm, but it was hard to do,” said Coppold, now 98 and the band’s last surviving member, in an interview from his Florida home. “We got out in a hurry, I can tell you that.”

Now largely forgotten, the Streamliners’ wartime history is chronicled in Dance Through the Darkness, a new book by Andy Sparling. Sparling’s father, Phil, from Clinton, was a band founder.

From a clutch of friends jamming after hours at a St. Thomas air force training school to crisscrossing Europe with some of music’s biggest acts, Sparling’s book details the jazz orchestra once heralded as one of Canada’s best.

Jazz and swing was the go-to music of the era, dance-friendly, hugely popular — and despised by the Nazis.

U.S. big band legend Glenn Miller, top recording artist of the swing era, once called them “the best jazz band in Europe — next to mine,” kudos that still resonates with members’ families.

They played hits of the time, with titles oddly out of sync with a world at war, such as I Can’t Get Started, Darn That Dream and Stompin’ at the Savoy.

“I was just so amazed by what these guys had accomplished,” Sparling said of researching and writing the book, published as a PDF. “These guys were popular characters and entertainers among the troops . . . They were bringing (to the front) this taste of home.”

In February 1941, Phil Sparling joined the air force and began training as a rigger, a specialist in assembling aircraft, at the RCAF’s St. Thomas Technical Training School.

There, he linked up with fellow Clinton recruit Jack Perdue and Goderich’s Billy Carter to jam in the mess hall.

As the band grew, entertaining trainees and locals alike, they added London bassist Jack Fallon, who’d joined the army and trained in Woodstock. He’d become one of the most famous Streamliners, later inducted into the London Music Hall of Fame.

Many other members had area roots, including trumpeter Fraser Lobban of Owen Sound, Frank Palen of Woodstock, Claude Lambert of Wyoming, George Lane of Windsor and Bill Bebbington of St. Thomas.

Major additions included Torontonians Don Hilton and arranger Pat Riccio.

In September 1943, the Streamliners were posted to Gander, Nfld. After months of practice and adding more players, they were a seriously talented ensemble.

“They get to be a band that is much greater than the sum of its individual parts,” Sparling said. “They all knew each other musically like the back of their hands.”

At an Ottawa gig, the band caught the ear of RCAF music director Martin Boundy, who deemed them good enough to entertain the troops in Europe.

They got to England in August 1944. Between then and Feb. 1, 1946, the Streamliners would perform more than 400 times in the U.K. and Europe, joining some of the era’s biggest names, from violinist Stephane Grappelli and singer Anna Neagle to White Cliffs of Dover superstar Vera Lynn.

“All and all, it was a wonderful experience,” Coppold said. “And what a band.”

During the Second World War, “music was a huge morale booster,” said Jonathan Vance, a Western University war historian and specialist on the 1939-45 home front.

With the conflict came a concerted push for more organized entertainment for the troops, Vance said, involving hundreds of acts at home and overseas.

“That was a huge element of it . . . making sure the armed forces knew they were valued and cared for,” he said.

It wasn’t easy work, Vance said. Musicians faced gruelling schedules, travelling daily to different posts to perform and distract troops from wartime terrors — and tedium.

“The army, navy, and air force . . . realized that idleness was a terrible thing for people in uniform,” he said. “If they didn’t have anything to do, they would get in trouble.”

By fall 1944, the Canadian Army had 10 bands overseas and 33 full-time bands at home, says the Canadian War Museum’s Jeff Noakes. By war’s end, the Royal Canadian Navy had 15 to 19 bands and the RCAF, more than two dozen, including the Streamliners.

“The role of musicians is important,” Noakes said. “It’s a diversion, and it helps troops’ morale.”

Though generally kept away from enemy lines, the Streamliners faced their share of danger.

The band got to England at the height of the “baby blitz” in summer 1944. That September, the Nazis began firing V-2s — the world’s first ballistic missiles — at London. Some in the band recounted close calls in the English capital.

Later that year, the Streamliners followed Canadian and Allied soldiers in Europe as they pushed German forces east. They played in France and the Low Countries, including in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, Berlin’s last big offensive in the west that brought U.S. Gen. George S. Patton to fame.

“The Battle of the Bulge was a very active part of the war, and we were in it,” Coppold said. “We were concerned, but we felt strongly that we were doing something for the troops.”

The band’s concert logs from an 11-day run in Holland that December note some brushes with combat, like the bridge shelling en route to the church near Nijmegen.

Then the airfield where the Streamliners were staying was bombed in an early appearance by the Luftwaffe’s new threat, the fighter jet. The next day, Christmas Eve, the airport was strafed and 90 paratroopers captured.

“I can imagine my dad was just scared s—less those nights,” Sparling said.

The band returned to London for another set of shows, then embarked on a second tour of Europe through the liberation.

In November 1945, five months after the British took the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, near Celle, Germany, the Streamliners toured the site.

“It just destroyed me,” Coppold said. “It was so evil and bad and terrible.”

Set up as a prisoner-of-war camp, where thousands of captured soldiers died, Bergen-Belsen became a Nazi concentration camp where more than 50,000 would die. Its liberators found thousands of unburied bodies and desperately ill survivors.

Those survivors would become the first residents of a displaced persons (DP) camp of the same name in a former German barracks nearby.

“God, it was a sad, sad trip. To see the ovens, and the fences with pieces of clothes on them, and the anemic, 65-pound people,” Coppold said. “I’ve never seen scenes like that in all my life. It’s hard to forget.”

“I can’t imagine being 22 years old and it not affecting you for the rest of your life,” Sparling said of his father, Phil.

After the liberation tour, the Streamliners played a few more shows back in England late in 1945 and early 1946, before their final curtain call on Feb. 1, 1946.

Wartime experience fuelled the musical careers of many band members, some of whom won postwar acclaim and played with a new generation of superstars.

Bob Burns would play with Benny Goodman. Don Hilton made a name for himself playing alongside Art Tatum. Pat Riccio became a big name in jazz in Toronto. Jack Fallon, who stayed in Europe, would play with Duke Ellington and the Beatles.

Other Streamliners went back to civvy street and everyday life away from the stage.

“You have this flaming star shooting through the sky for like a year and a half in Europe, and then when they get home after all that, their life is normal,” Sparling said. “There’s addiction, there’s work, there’s family, breakups and so on.”

Sparling’s father, Phil, went back to school and became a teacher, eventually settling in London.

Leonard Coppold returned to his Montreal hometown, playing guitar in jazz bars. He eventually worked in the airline industry, then for an international relief agency.

“(The war) did have a real impact on me, I’m sure for all the guys, too,” Coppold said. “I sure grew up quickly because of the experiences. It certainly helped me to get my head on more seriously.”

“There was this element of being sheepish about what they did, and yet, at the same time, it became clear to them that what they were doing was important,” Sparling said.

All the band members joined the RCAF as regular recruits, not knowing their musical chops would keep them from fighting. But the guilt — knowing they’d performed while others died — lingered.

“That was always a bit of headache,” Coppold said. “You think, `Oh gosh, we’re playing music while my buddies are being shot down and killed.’ ”

But most ultimately came to terms with their wartime role, a sentiment echoed by historians.

“Probably a lot of them felt they were getting off easy playing instruments while others were fighting,” Vance said. “But I think anyone on these bases that saw them play would have been in no doubt they were in the right place doing the right thing.”

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