As a “service brat” moving from base to base, Keith Ogilvie said his father’s past was not of particular interest to him.
“I had kind of always tucked that away, never more curious than any other kid would be,” said Ogilvie, now a resident in North Saanich.
When he was eight, that began to change.
“There was a public speaking contest in school and I had nothing to talk about. My mother said, why don’t you talk about your father’s experiences in the Great Escape?”
Decades later, he wrote The Spitfire Luck of Skeets Ogilvie about the remarkable journey of his parents, Skeets Ogilvie and Irene Lockwood. He will be reading at the SHOAL Centre as part of the Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival on May 11.
While his father’s name is in the title, Ogilvie said the book is really about the two of them.
Skeets was rejected from the Royal Canadian Air Force, so he went to England instead, where the Royal Air Force accepted him. In short order, he was in the cockpit of a Spitfire and flew in some of the most intense days of the Battle of Britain, shooting down six enemy aircraft.
There, he met Irene Lockwood, another Canadian living in London. Irene was a censor with British intelligence before becoming a photographer for the Royal Canadian Air Force, one of the first women to do so. She documented social occasions like funerals and weddings, but also “The Guinea Pig Club,” a group of pilots badly burned in airplane crashes, all treated by pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe.
In June 1941, Irene secured tickets to the opening of the American Eagle Club. It was a home away from home for American ex-pats in London. She spent all her clothing coupons on an outfit for the evening, but Skeets never picked her up that night.
Hours before, he was shot down, wounded, and captured in France.
He was lucky to have lived, and his luck did not end there. He was sent to a hospital meant for German officers, so he received very good care. He was also lucky to be sent to be a Luftwaffe-run prison (Stalag Luft III), not a Gestapo prison. It was the site of the Great Escape of March 1944, when a daring plan would have had over 200 men escape through tunnels under the prison. Only Skeets (the second-to-last man out of the tunnel) and 22 others managed to survive the attempt.
After the war, Skeets helped repatriate RCAF personnel, including Irene. They has exchanged letters while he was a POW and when she stepped off an ocean liner in New York, he was there to greet her. They married the next year.
When asked if his father’s character had anything to do with his extraordinary life story, Ogilvie said it is something he has wondered himself.
“On the one hand, he was someone with a great sense of humour who was extraordinarily resilient, but not somebody that held feelings strongly or with conviction,” said Ogilvie. “He knew a war was coming, and he was concerned, but his father saw it as a way to learn to fly, an opportunity for adventure.”
Skeets died in 1998, and Ogilvie did not start this project until about a decade after.
Working part-time, it took Ogilvie about 10 years to complete the book. He regrets not interviewing his father more extensively while he was living, but he could at least interview his mother, who died in 2014.
“For me, the most memorable of that whole process was getting to know them as young people, as if they had been my peers instead of my parents,” said Ogilvie.
“That, to me, was a really nice thing to be able to do, and I don’t think many people have that opportunity to get to know their parents. It’s really worthwhile. It’s really worth exploring.”
Keith Ogilvie will read alongside Ron Norman at the SHOAL Centre on May 11 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at Tanner’s Books or at sidneyliteraryfestival.ca. Proceeds will support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.