100 years ago, in June, Teddy Caban was born. Most people know him as a gents hairdresser on Brandon’s High Street, but during WW2 he was a highly regarded RAF hero.
Born in June 1920, Teddy enlisted when he was eighteen and was thrown straight into war when aged 19. By his 21st birthday he had flown over 40 missions. His 42nd mission saw his plane crash land in a Rotterdam street, with all three crew being taken prisoner. Full details can be found here.
CABAN, Edmund George. 611679 Sergeant, No.18 Squadron L.G. 7/3/1941. Wireless Operator / Air Gunner Air2/8839.
Teddy Caban died in November 2006 and many will recall he ran a gent’s hairdresser in the High Street for many years. Some may be aware he was a RAF hero in WW2, held in high esteem by townsfolk and comrades alike and was decorated with a bravery medal by the King at Buckingham Palace. I doubt there are many who know about his wartime exploits; trust me they make for a fantastic read. While Brandon residents will know him as ‘Teddy’, it seems to his peers in the RAF he was known as ‘Ted’, which is the name used in the source material about his RAF exploits, so I shall keep with the latter.
It is important I acknowledge the source for Ted’s RAF exploits (training, operations, crash, and POW life), without which I would not be able to share much of what happened to Ted during the war. All paragraphs starting with an asterisk are extracted from what Rusty Russell, has stated in his book ‘Mast High Over Rotterdam‘ (lodged with the RAF Museum, Hendon). Rusty has kindly given permission for me to reproduce his research about Ted from his fascinating book, which has been comprehensively researched over many years, so please respect his copyright. Anyone wanting to read the full version should visit the excellent RAF Watton website, run by Julian Horn (https://www.rafwatton.info/mast-high-over-rotterdam/)
BACKGROUND. Ted’s story begins before he was born. His father, John, was a hairdresser in Brandon, married to Emily Talbot. John began his hairdressing career in Brandon by sharing the premises of Talbot’s cycles – roughly where the carpet shop is today; so perhaps he met Emily there? Sadly, during WW1, Emily’s younger brother Edmund George Talbot, was killed in action while serving in Greece, and is remembered on Brandon’s war memorial. When Emily gave birth to a boy four years later she named him Edmund George. Edmund Caban would be better known as Ted or Teddy. https://www.rafwatton.info/mast-high-over-rotterdam/
RAF – THE BEGINNING. Ted’s RAF career began in 1938, when he turned eighteen and joined No. 23 Squadron at RAF Wittering. He was given the service number of 611679 and had completed 121 hours of flying Bristol Blenheim bombers, Mark I, by the time war was declared the following year. By then, he had transferred to 18 Squadron and was flying the upgraded Blenheim Mark IV bombers. The Blenheim was a light bomber, designed for attacking a target at low altitude, before the enemy knew what was upon them. The aircraft had a crew of three, the pilot and observer/bomb aimer would sit next to each other at the front, while the wireless operator would sit behind them, near the gun turret which he was trained to use when under attack. Ted was the wireless operator and air gunner. At the outbreak of war, 18 Squadron relocated to France, with Ted flying reconnaissance and eventually attacking the German army when they advanced into France. So rapid was the enemy advance that Ted had to relocate to two other airfields until they were ultimately overrun in May 1940, in the lead up to evacuation from Dunkirk. At the time, the Bury Free Press reported that Ted had carried out thirty-two sorties. However, Ted’s log book was lost in the evacuation to Britain, so his missions in France were not carried on to his new log-book. The newspaper reported he had,
“…always displayed coolness and judgement under harassing conditions, never failing to maintain contact with base.”
This coolness under fire was recognised by his RAF comrades, some even recalling it when meeting up after the war.
AFTER DUNKIRK. *Upon returning to Britain, Ted spent time at RAF Watton and RAF Warmwell, the latter being the Central Gunnery School for the RAF. Ted seems to have been a gifted gunner and flew through gun training, but his lack of attention at lectures let him down, probably not helped by his evenings spent partying with other trainees. Most telling was when Ted had to deliver a ten-minute lecture in his final week. He stuttered through and retold a dirty story, much to the displeasure of the staff he was lecturing to. Nonetheless, Ted’s practical skill got him through training and he was posted to 139 Squadron at Horsham St Faith, Norwich, again flying Blenheims. Now he was the Gunnery Leader of the squadron, meaning his main task was to manage the firing of all gunners during a raid, such as targeting an enemy fighter if it came too close. He enjoyed some luxury when he was billeted twenty minutes down the road, at Blickling Hall, and achieved notoriety when, in April 1941, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal by King George VI. News of his award spread through Brandon in the month prior.
During ‘War Weapons Week, a local news agent (Mrs Green) proudly displayed his photograph in her shop window. His parents travelled from Brandon to Buckingham Palace to see the investiture. Ted’s luck would not hold out for long. Four months later, in July, his Blenheim bomber was shot down over Rotterdam and he and his two comrades were taken prisoner by the Germans.
5th JULY 1941. EYE INJURY. *Ted’s aircraft was one of three involved in attacking an enemy ship. Afterwards, the raiding party were jumped by five German Me110, and it was due to Ted directing all three gunners’ aim at the enemy, that the attackers were fought off. During the melee Ted’s Perspex gun turret was hit by a bullet, blasting a hole and causing a tiny fragment to strike Ted in the eye. Ted’s pilot radioed ahead and an ambulance was waiting at the airfield when they landed. Ted had come close to being killed, and although his sight in one eye was temporarily blurred, he was able to return to flying.
MISSION BRIEFING. *16th July 1941. In a briefing room at Horsham St Faith, Ted and his comrades were told their target would be Rotterdam docks, which they would attack at low level. In fact, the term “Mast High Over Rotterdam” was used as the title of a wireless broadcast immediately after the raid by Pilot Officer John ‘Junior’ Welch. Ted’s aircraft would be in the second wave, consisting of eighteen aircraft, with the first wave made up of eighteen aircraft from RAF Watton. There was some apprehension from the crews of the second wave because they would have to fly through enemy defences awoken by the first wave. The Blenheim was a slow aircraft too, and their anxiety was increased when they were told that wire-cutters had been attached to the wings of their aircraft to defend against barrage balloons, but most knew the aircraft wings would probably be ripped off if one was hit at speed. Add to this the fact that Horsham St Faith was merely able to gather together enough crew to fly this mission, then perhaps it was doomed.
*Ted’s aircraft would be manned by crew who had never worked with each other. The pilot was very experienced: Squadron Leader Sydney ‘Bill’ Smith, had completed his full tour of operations, some during a traumatic defence of Malta, and had been awarded the DFC medal during that time. In fact, Bill should have been non-operational by now and was waiting for that notification to come through, but the squadron needed all hands-on deck. This was much the same for Ted. The RAF could not afford to lose someone of his calibre, so he was restricted to training duties. During the briefing, Ted was called away to answer a phone call. It was Flight Lieutenant Baker, who bellowed down the phone at Ted,
“If you go on this raid, you’ll be court martialled when you get back!”
*It had been Bill Smith who had asked Ted to join the mission, Ted’s forty-second mission, and Ted was not going to let him down, so this threat did not prevent him joining the mission. Pilot Officer Richard ‘Dickie’ White as observer, was the other member of Ted’s crew; he had worked for Lloyds Bank before the war. This would be the only mission this makeshift crew would fly together. It seems Bill and Ted had become best of friends. Bill, learning that Ted had joined his squadron, had written in his diary, dated 28th May 1941,
“Got up to the joys of spring. Sgt. Caban DFM, new Gunnery Leader arrived.”
*After the war, Bill wrote to Ted, proclaiming his thanks to his friend,
“I shall always remember how glad I was to have you as AG/WOP on that last trip, not simply because of your DFM, which was nevertheless a reassuring symbol, but because of your imperturbable and solid air of calm and self-confidence.”
THE ATTACK. *Ted’s plane came in low across Rotterdam docks, looking for targets of opportunity. Pilot, Bill Smith, spotted a loaded cargo ship being towed in front of them. They were flying so low that he had to lift the nose up slightly and as they passed above the ship the Blenheim released its bombs. He immediately put the nose down to continue flying at a low level, but as he did so he realised he was flying straight into the line of sight of an enemy flak ship, moored about 500 yards on the other side of the dock. The ship was lit up end to end with flashes from the flak guns firing at the attackers. The ship’s attention was on Ted’s aircraft which was taking hits all over; the crew inside could hear and feel it. One flak explosion occurred under Ted’s feet, blowing a shoe off his foot and injuring him in his left leg and foot in the process.
CRASH LANDING. *Ted, from his position in the gun placement, saw the right engine was on fire and was belching out thick black smoke. He immediately relayed this to Bill, which undoubtedly saved them from going down in flames. Bill flicked switches in the cockpit in an attempt to put out the fire, but then his focus turned to a tower looming up in front of them. It belonged to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. He instinctively pulled back on the yoke and the aircraft pulled up over the tower with inches to spare. The aircraft struggled across Rotterdam, at rooftop height, on just one engine, and Bill knew they were in no shape to escape the town, so he looked for a suitable site to crash land. An open space, about the size of a football pitch, presented itself. The crew were lucky to have stumbled across an area that had been cleared of rubble, debris from when the Germans had invaded the previous year. Bill cut the only engine working and set about putting the aircraft belly down onto the ground. One wing tip ripped into the wall of a house, fortunately not hurting anyone inside. On impact, the aircraft bounced around for a bit and lost both wings, but the fuselage remained intact. It came to rest near the entrance of Rotterdam zoo. Bill received a bump to his head, but was otherwise unhurt.
*Bill undid his restraining straps, noticed a small fire near the gun turret and grabbed a rescue axe located in the cockpit. He then climbed out of the cockpit and made for Ted’s station in the fuselage, aiming to hack at the aircraft and release Ted. The gun turret had collapsed around Ted, trapping him in the wreckage and preventing his escape. Bill shouted to Ted, “Are you all right?” To which Ted replied, “Yes!”. Bill asked again, “Are you sure?” Ted answered, “Yes. I cannot get out because I am trapped.” Bill shouted, “Hold on, I’m going to make a start”, meaning he was about to hack at the aircraft.
*What Ted didn’t know was a large crowd had appeared at the crash scene. A man from the crowd had grabbed the axe from Bill and peered into the wreckage and enquired, “Have you bomb?” Ted’s reaction was to presume the man was enquiring if they had bombed the dock, so he replied, “Yes”. The man disappeared quickly. After some time, he reappeared and asked Ted the same question. Ted understood this time, the man was asking if there were bombs still in the wreckage, so he replied “No”. Now the man began hacking at the wreckage, the vibrations reverberating through Ted. The Dutchman helped to retrieve Ted out of the turret and as a thank you, Ted gave him his camera.
*Dickie had been in the Perspex nose of the aircraft at point of impact and had been catapulted out of the aircraft. He was initially disorientated and stunned, gasping for air, but someone from the crowd reached over and cut his shirt collar and tie to allow him to breathe easier.
*The crowd around the plane was so thick that it prevented Bill from getting to Ted or Dickie White. Bill did manage to see Dickie was being attended to, so could see these people were friendly and trying to help. Bill decided this would be the best time to escape before any soldiers arrived on scene, so made his escape. It seems the Dutch people wanted to help, so one man gave Bill some currency and instructions on how to get to the American Consulate. Bill boarded a tram, but the conductor demanded everyone get off because there was no power on account of the aircraft cutting the wires as it came down. Bill did get out into the countryside, with the assistance of many Dutch people, including a small girl who gave him some bread, but a Dutch policeman on a motorbike and sidecar caught up with him and advised him that the Germans were everywhere looking for him and it may be safer if he allowed the policeman to bring him in. Bill agreed and was turned over to the Germans, but first the policeman took Bill for a beer and a sandwich. In return Bill rewarded the policeman with his cufflinks to acknowledge his kindness.
CAPTURE. *A military ambulance arrived on the scene to tend to the two wounded airmen, they were soon followed by German soldiers firing in the air to disperse the crowd. Dickie and Ted were picked up by the soldiers and put into separate cars. For Dickie, it was an open top car, with one soldier putting a pistol to his ribs as a gesture that he should not attempt an escape. The scene became tense when the crowd jeered, forcing a reaction from one soldier when he stood up in the car and pointed his gun at the crowd. Ted was placed in a small black car, similar to a Model T, and the driver drove off like a madman, over the town’s cobbled streets. It was about 17.30 and the sun was shining hot on this summer’s day. Ted asked his captors if he could wind down the window as it was hot and he was still in shock. He had an ulterior motive. Ted was carrying some classified information on a piece of paper. He carefully tore up the paper, chewing on some pieces and putting others out through the open window! Both men were taken to a Luftwaffe military hospital to have their wounds attended to, then sent to Stalag Luft III to see out the rest of the war as prisoners. Teddy’s crew were the lucky ones. Some servicemen did not survive the raid, while most others would not survive through the war, being killed on some later operations.
LIFE AS A POW. *Ted initially held aspirations of escaping from the confines of his prison camp. He learned the German language and took exams run by his fellow camp mates. He did reasonably well and could even hold a conversation with the guards. However, some prisoners created a committee to oversee any escapes and asked Ted why he was talking to the guards. The committee became possessive over escape attempts, other prisoners needed to seek approval from the committee for any escape plans. It became a clique, so if you were not within the clique then you were unlikely to be allowed to make an escape. This was from his own comrades!
In February 1943, the Bury Free Press reported that Ted’s parents had received a letter from him. He was still a prisoner in Germany,
“It will comfort you to know that I have spent a most enjoyable Christmas regarding food, which was due to the splendid parcels sent by the British Red Cross. We appreciate these parcels very much and wish to thank all concerned.”
He added that the Germans were allowing for each prisoner to receive 2/3rds of a gallon of beer.
During his incarceration, Ted also struck up a friendship with a Dutch girl, named Ans Schipper. They wrote letters to each other and in 2010 Ans’ daughter discovered these letters and sent me a scan of one written during September 1944.
“Sept 3rd 1944
Dear Ans. I was agreeably surprised to receive 4 of your letters dated May 20th, June 12th & 26th, & July 10th ’44. As you must realise I was very surprised, but nevertheless very pleased, as during last 7 weeks have been travelling! So my mail has been absolutely nil, in fact when I received your 4 letters they were the first I had had for 4 1/2 months.
And now for something regarding myself. I am 24 years of age, 5ft 7ins tall, brown eyes and hair. I have athletic tendencies, being able to play football, rugby, hockey, basket-ball, softball, cricket, tennis (which is my favourite), besides being able to swim, cycle, drive a car, shoot and many other things. Do you play bridge?
It is quite true I have been in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. When I was there they were very beautiful cities. Before the war I was a hair-dresser. My father has a business in the small town in which I live, it is called BRANDON, in the province of Suffolk.
My full name is Edmund George Caban, and that I’m afraid is just about all. I should very much appreciate some photos. I’m sorry but in my circumstances I’m unable to send you one of myself. Before I forget, June 18th is my birthday. When next you meet Miss Teer would you welcome her for me, Ken has no mail at all today I must say. Goodbye for now.
Yours sincerely, Ted.”
Toward the end of the war, the Germans forcibly marched thousands of their prisoners, held in camps to the east of Germany, to locations further west. The Germans hoped to delay, perhaps even prevent, their prisoners being liberated by the advancing Russian Red Army. At this time, Ted was a prisoner in Stalag 357, Kopernikus, Poland, allocated the prisoner number of 9621, and one of those forced to embark on the gruelling long march before he was eventually liberated.
AFTER THE WAR. Ted returned to Brandon and, along with Peter Holmes and two other ex-servicemen, drove the Brandon ambulance to the hospital in Bury St Edmunds. According to his wife, Ted’s main concern was that a pregnant woman would go into labour while he was driving the ambulance. One of Ted’s patients was a very young Bill Bishop, who would in later life lead the town council and sit on district and county councils.
*Bill returned to Rotterdam after the war and met up with the policeman, who he learned had served with the Resistance. The policeman still had the cufflinks given to him by Bill. The Dutchman with the axe had kept it polished and sharpened, and was using it to chop firewood. He gave it to Bill. Ted returned to Rotterdam in April 1982, when he was entertained in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour and presented with a book signed by the Deputy Lord Mayor and the Chief of Treasury. While at the presentation he met with residents who had seen his aircraft crash. Ted recalled it was a very emotional meeting.
*In March 1989, Ted went to Papworth hospital for a heart bypass operation. All went well, but two days later he suffered a stroke, leading to memory loss and his wife becoming his carer. By the time I began researching ‘Brandon at War’, from 2001, Teddy’s wife told me he was not well enough to be interviewed and would in any case not be able to remember anything. Fortunately, in 2020 I discovered the research from Lionel ‘Rusty’ Russell.
EPILOGUE. *When the three men were captured, Bill was aged 29, Dickie aged 24 and Ted aged 21. It is hard to comprehend that Ted had been through so much by the time most of today’s students had left college. After the war, following a career of news reporting for the Daily Express, Bill retired in Normandy and died in December 2001. Dickie returned to working for Lloyds Bank, as a bank manager, and died in 2010.
Ted passed away on 27th November 2006. He returned to Brandon and took up gents’ hairdressing, which is what most townsfolk will remember him for. However, it is for his RAF career that we will be forever in his debt.