Shot down twice during war, alumnus is still making the world a better place

    Norman Reid blew up bridges during WWII and built them as an engineer

    By Suzanne Harris on November 10, 2014

    Victoria—Bridges connect. They allow us to overcome barriers, traverse rough terrain. They connect communities, and create opportunities for growth and exploration. They are the legacies of those who had the forethought to fashion them.

    And in times of conflict they become strategic targets, their destruction crippling movement and hampering communication.

    It was 1941 when Norman Reid (Civil ’49, MSc ’51) graduated from Victoria High School in Edmonton. The war was on, and although his parents expected him to go to university, Reid joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to Europe.

    There, he served with the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, where one of his key roles was to locate railway bridges vital to the transport of petroleum, and destroy them.

    During his tour, he survived 42 night combat bomber operations. Twice, the plane he was in was shot down: once over Italy, and once—in May 1944—over Romania.

    “I was on a night operation going after a rail bridge at low level when we were hit by ground fire. We managed to get the burning plane across the Danube River from Romania into Serbia.” He saved himself by parachute and was able to make contact with the underground resistance of the Chetniks, the “Fighting Guerrillas” of Gen. Draža Mihailovi. With their help, he hid from the Gestapo and the SS for nearly four months. The oil refineries near Ploesti, Romania, and the rail bridges that moved this supply were strategic targets during the war and were heavily defended. As a result, there were many downed Allied airmen in the Balkans. Some of them became POWs; some, like Reid, had been saved by the Chetniks. Eventually Reid and a small group of men planned a daring escape that became one of the most outstanding—and still classified—missions of the Second World War, as well as a model for future rescues.

    When the war ended, the RCAF provided a preparation period to help veterans re-enter civilian life. When it came to careers, the vets were reminded that the War Act provided that the employer they left when they joined the Forces must hold their job open for them.

    “I was aware of that, but somehow I didn’t think my Edmonton Journal paper route was going to cut it,” Reid quips.

    It was clear that his skills and experience in the Air Force, all the math capability that one needs to be a skilled navigator and multi-engine pilot, aligned with engineering.

    In his youth, his fascination with planes led him to think he might like to be an aeronautical engineer. But when Reid began classes at the University of Alberta after his discharge, mechanical engineering wasn’t taught there. He went into civil engineering instead.

    “It’s a paradox that during the war I destroyed bridges, and as a career I ended up designing them and overseeing their construction,” says Reid.

    After graduating with his master’s degree, he joined the firm Haddin, Davis & Brown in Calgary as a structural engineer, foremost as a bridge-building expert. He became president of the company. Reid also contributed to some metaphorical bridge-building: Because he saw a need to arbitrate construction contract disputes, Reid returned to university for legal courses and earned the designation of chartered arbitrator. For over 20 years, Reid provided arbitration and technical counsel to government and the private sector.

    He remained involved with the RCAF over the years and served as a director of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society. Reid was retained to lecture combat airmen of NATO, the United States Air Force and RAF on subsistence and rescue preparation when behind enemy lines.

    Now 91, Reid is building bridges of another sort: He and his wife recently established the Norman and Tess Reid Family Graduate Scholarship in Engineering, awarded annually to a graduate student conducting research in structural engineering.

    “Canada, engineering, university have all been very, very good to me,” says Reid. “All my family are university graduates. I am such a firm believer in the value of higher education. We all are.”

    What he really wanted was to establish a scholarship for the postgraduate phase.

    “I was so impressed by what happened when I did my own thesis,” he says. “Con-Force Ltd. in Calgary heard I was going into the research and application of pre-stressed concrete. They were already in casting ordinary reinforced concrete but knew from early advancements in Europe the advantages of pre-stressing concrete. They provided money for some of the equipment and instrumentation that I required for carrying out the research.

    “What interested me was this: I ultimately proved through tests the value of pre-stressed concrete in applications to construction in Canada. And from that, Con-Force was able to advance into pre-stressed concrete units.”

    He acknowledges that it was on a modest scale to begin with. “Nevertheless, it was the beginning of an industry of larger and greater things.

    “I was so impressed that formal education could be coalesced with private enterprise right from the early stages, and in the final analysis, add to Canada’s capability in the production of gross capital and services.”

    The Reid family scholarship has been awarded annually since 2012. Reid and his wife receive cards from recipients sharing stories of how the scholarship helped them do something they were otherwise unable to.

    The couple has recently moved, and though they have no mantel now on which to put them, the cards remain on display, reminders of futures being built, the legacies of connections.