Remembering Philip Gray

How likely is it that the funeral of a ninety-one year old man who died without family in a land to which he immigrated in his late sixties would be attended by two hundred people? The unlikeliness of this outcome shows the esteem to which Philip Gray was held in the community he had adopted as his own.

Gray was a Scot who served as the pilot of a Lancaster bomber in World War Two, flying sixteen missions with his entire crew emerging unscathed. He subsequently married and moved to New Zealand where he worked as a public servant. After the death of his wife and his retirement, he moved to Canada. Gray was a great story-teller and published a superb book about his wartime experiences in the RAF, titled Ghosts of Targets Past. (I discussed its “gritty realism” and thick description in my blog post of November 8, 2010.)

The Canadian Air and Space Museum, based in Toronto, inherited a dilapidated Lancaster that for decades had stood on a plinth at the Canadian National Exhibition. A group of devoted machinists were restoring the Lancaster. Gray came to the museum every weekend to sell his book and to serve as a link between the shell of a machine and the events decades ago in which it, and the men who operated it, played such an important role.

The point repeatedly made in the eulogies at Philip’s funeral yesterday was that service was an essential aspect of his life. Bearing witness at the Museum was an act of service. Volunteering at Traveller’s Aid at Pearson Airport was an act of service. Attending his church every Sunday and writing for the church newspaper were acts of service.

Philip had a great story to tell, and he told it. But he did so with precision and modesty. People were drawn to him. I met him when I began taking my young sons to the museum. He was the guest of honour when we had a birthday party there for Alexander, our older son.

The most moving speaker at the funeral was Wayne Short, another person who met Philip at the Air and Space Museum, and then invited him over for one Sunday dinner. Philip became a close friend of his family, and the Shorts ultimately became Philip’s surrogate family at the end of his life.

Thus, it was in recognition of his service and his friendship that so many of us came to Philip’s funeral. Occurring just before Remembrance Day, it reminded us that that, while Remembrance Day marks a collective national experience, that experience itself is the sum of hundreds of thousands of individuals’ stories. And Philip Gray’s was a truly inspiring one.



  1. I am deeply saddened to learn that Philip Gray is dead. I met him at Duxford in the summer of 2006 and possess a treasured autographed copy of his GHOSTS OF TARGETS PAST. To me, an aviation bug and the son of one, reared on THE DAM BUSTERS and ENEMY COAST AHEAD, it was an unforgettable experience to me to meet in the flesh one of the fabled men who flew Lancasters in the night skies over Germany. I was bowled over by his simplicity and approachability.

    I hope he found pleasure in the belated righting of the grievous wrong done to Bomber Command men by the award of the Bomber Command clasp to his 1939-45 medal, and the setting up of the Bomber Command memorial in London.

  2. I am very sorry to hear of The death of Philip Gray. I also have an autographed copy of his “Ghost of targets past”, which I purchased from him when I visited the Canadian Air and Space museum in Toronto back in 2012. I had been brought up on bomber command, my father was an engineer and spent the whole of WW2 in that command and it was a great thrill for me to chat with someone who had actually flown and gone into battle in the magnificent Lancaster.
    I am sure he is greatly missed by all of his friends, what a shame he never got to see Vera and Thumper in the sky of England last year.
    RIP Philip a true gentleman

  3. Sad to hear Philip is no longer with us, I just went to wish him a Happy Christmas via email and found this site after his email bounced. I was lucky to have spent an entire day with him, enjoy lunch and a pint together at the end of the day at one of his visits to Duxford. His book was an amazing account of his experiences and I felt humbled that he was so keen to spend so much of his time with me that day and to speak frankly. My Great Uncle was a Lancaster Pilot in 195 Squadron, went to Canada as Philip did, then came back to fly over Europe. Sadly I never knew my Uncle but Philip told me so much about his and his crews lives in those times. Husbands Bosworth one of the airfields mentiond in his book I visited many times. Farewell Philip, your commitment amazing as were all your Crew and Ground Crew, the time we had together unforgetable, the picture you signed for my Son will always be cherished. One of the Bomber Boys for ever, fly high, fly safe Dear Friend.

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