Alex Uydens is a friendly, unassuming gentleman in his 90s who lives a peaceful life on the Saanich Peninsula.
He’s a bit lonely these days as his wife passed away some four years ago and he lost his driver’s licence a while ago, making it difficult to get out to meet his friends at the Air Crew Association.
But this time of year, with Remembrance Day just around the corner, Udyens is often asked about his service during the Second World War. The reality is that there are fewer WWII vets every year as the men and women who fought to preserve our way of life fade from the world.
Still, it’s important that we speak to men like Alex to remind ourselves of the astounding bravery they demonstrated during those dark days.
“I was 19 when I joined the army in Belgium. I was Belgian, you see, although I was born in China and didn’t speak the language or know much about Belgium,” explained Uydens.
“What I really wanted to do was be a pilot and about six months later I got transferred to the RAF and went for training, first in Canada and then in England.”
Uydens was assigned to the Second Tactical Wing of the RAF and was one of the Spitfire pilots who regularly ran raids across the channel into France, Holland and later, Germany.
“We had 500-pound bombs strapped to our belly and we did what we called ‘skip bombing’. That’s where you fly at about 100 feet and drop the bomb and it skips across the ground to your target,” recalled Uydens.
It was a risky business, as soon as Uydens crossed into enemy territory, the anti-aircraft guns would open up on him and his counterparts and every mission was a touch and go affair.
“I remember one day a group of three Spitfires took off from our base and they just never came back. That’s the way it was,” said Uydens.
“Another time we were flying bomber escorts when the plane we were escorting was hit by anti-aircraft fire and went down below us. I saw some of the crew bail out and saw parachutes, but I never knew what happened to them after that”.
Uydens was actually shot down near the end of the war and crashed in Holland.
“A Canadian tank crew saved my life that day. I was unconscious in my plane and the plane was upside down. They dragged my body out and got me back to the hospital in Antwerp.”
When asked about his motivation for joining in the fight, Uydens still tears up and his voice breaks as, after a few moments, he again finds his voice.
“I had a twin brother. He was in the Merchant Marine and was killed at the start of the Waar. He was just 18. It was a bloody waste,” said Uydens.
“I guess I felt I had a score to settle.”
When asked whether he feels that young people today remember the sacrifices of men like his brother, Uydens becomes philosophical.
“It’s just history to them now. It’s like when I was a boy we learned about WWI but we didn’t really understand. I had two uncles who fought in WWI and experienced the gas and the trenches, but I didn’t really understand. Still, it’s important that we try to make them get a sense of what people sacrificed so they can have the world they have.”
After the war ended, Uydens returned to England where he finished his Engineering degree at Loughborough and went on to a career in the aircraft industry.
He ferried newly designed flying boats to customers in India, Pakistan and around the world. He later took a contract flying into Africa where he sprayed cotton crops in Sudan.
During all that time, though, he still recalled his time in his Spitfire.
“It’s not something you forget,” he said.