Ladies’ Day with the 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney, 16 November 2014

Some three decades ago, the 463-467 Squadrons Association (NSW) (Inc) needed to find a new venue for their Annual General Meeting. One of the squadron veterans was a member of the Killara Golf Club in what’s usually described as Sydney’s ‘leafy’ North Shore, and suggested that the salubrious surrounds of the art deco clubhouse there might be suitable. So they tried it, and it was. After a few years the meeting would be followed by lunch at the club and eventually wives and partners were invited along too. The gents had their meeting in the Billiards Room while the ladies got stuck into drinks in the Dining Room. And then they would all share lunch together.

Such were the origins, says veteran 463 Squadron wireless operator Don Browning, of the now-annual ‘Ladies’ Day’ luncheon. AGMs are no longer required following the winding up of the official body some years ago but the loose association continues to hold the lunches on the Sunday nearest Remembrance Day each November. This year’s edition took place yesterday. And I was there, one of about 55 people in the crowd.

There was a little shuffling of the seats happening at Table 3 when I arrived to stake my claim. No fewer than three Bomber Command veterans were at the table so I cunningly found a spot in between two of them. Don Southwell apologised as he took his seat on my left. “Sorry you got me,” he said. “I thought you’d want to sit next to someone interesting!” I raised an eyebrow. Sitting next to me on my right, was Ron Houghton, who flew a full tour as a Halifax pilot on 102 Squadron and after the war had a long career flying Constellations and B707s with Qantas. To his right, Keith Campbell, a bomb aimer who was the only survivor when his 466 Squadron Halifax was shot down over Stuttgart in June 1944. Keith wore the little gold caterpillar badge that denotes a member of the Caterpillar Club. Don Southwell himself, of course, flew nine operations as a 463 Squadron navigator.

Don Southwell (right), Ron Houghton and Keith Campbell

Don Southwell (right), Ron Houghton and Keith Campbell

I reckon I’d have a hard time finding anyone more interesting than this trio.

I was, in reality, extraordinarily lucky to have three veterans at my table. In all there were nine present, down three on last year, mostly through illness both short and long-term. Most obviously missing for me were Tom Hopkinson, who hd to cancel at short notice, and Harry Brown, who is still recovering from complications after breaking a hip a few months ago. Even some of those who were there have been a little in the wars lately. Keith Campbell got the most points for effort though. He’s had a hip operation recently but managed to wrangle a leave pass from hospital for the afternoon.

After a superb meal at which, as you’d expect in this company, the conversation was free-flowing, it was time for some speeches. Don Southwell welcomed the reasonably significant number of visitors, and proposed the traditional Toast to the Ladies:

SOLD! To the man in the blue suit!

SOLD! To the man in the blue suit!

Annette Guterres responded on behalf of the Ladies, both present and not:

14Nov-LadiesDay 031

Annette Guterres

The day’s main speaker was Bill Purdy. Before he spoke, however, Don Browning shared a story about him:

Don Browning

Don Browning

Following his tour of operations, Bill was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Wigsley as an instructor. Returning from a training sortie one day Bill found himself close to Waddington and decided it would be fun to buzz the control tower there. So he did. Word of his indiscretion, of course, made its way back to Wigsley, where the Commanding Officer there happened to be the former CO from 463 Squadron, Rollo Kingsford-Smith. Kingsford-Smith gave Bill a good dressing-down and told him that Group Captain Bonham-Carter had demanded an apology in person.
“You are to go to Waddington”, Rollo said.

No problem, Bill thought. It’s only about nine miles away as the crow flies, a short hop in a Lancaster. No sweat.

But Rollo wasn’t finished yet.

“…by bicycle!”

Bill says he hasn’t forgotten that bike ride.

Apart from Phil Smith, of course, Bill was the first Bomber Command veteran I had met who actually flew on the Lille raid of 10 May 1944 from which the crew of B for Baker failed to return. He’s also the only Bomber Command airman I know who still has a pilot licence, flying around in a Tiger Moth from Luskintyre, north of Sydney. But this talk was about his experiences in June of this year, when a delegation of seven Australian veterans went to France to take part in the official 70th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings.

14Nov-LadiesDay 044

Bill had been on the raid on the morning of the invasion against Pointe du Hoc, a very large German gun emplacement, and it was in this capacity as a veteran of D-Day that he was selected. Interestingly another one of the seven was present at Killara: my lunch companion Ron Houghton.

In any case, Bill gave a good talk. Security on the French trip was tight, he said, with multiple checkpoints to negotiate on the way to the official ceremonies, and traffic was a nightmare with half a million people in the area. But it was one of the best-organised events he had ever been part of and a most memorable occasion, particularly seeing first-hand the damage their 1,000-pounders had done to Pointe du Hoc. Having been there myself a few years ago, he’s right – there are craters everywhere.

Bill was wearing his medals, and they included a particularly impressive-looking one hanging from a red ribbon. While the veterans were overseas the French presented each of them with the Légion d’Honneur, one of the country’s highest honours. It’s the one hanging from his left thumb in this photo:

14Nov-LadiesDay 045

Following the talk there was one more bit of official business to take care of: the group photo. Once again, all we were missing was a flight engineer… and a Lancaster, otherwise I would have suggested they all took us for a fly.

Back row L-R: Don Southwell (463 Sqn Navigator), Bill Purdy (463 Sqn Pilot), Hugh McLeod (49 Sqn Rear Gunner), Max Barry (463 Sqn Mid Upper Gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Sqn Bomb Aimer). Front Row L-R: Don Huxtable (463 Sqn Pilot), Don Browning (463 Sqn Wireless Operator), Ron Houghton (102 Sqn Pilot) and Keith Campbell (466 Sqn Bomb Aimer).

Back row L-R: Don Southwell (463 Sqn Navigator), Bill Purdy (463 Sqn Pilot), Hugh McLeod (49 Sqn Rear Gunner), Max Barry (463 Sqn Mid Upper Gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Sqn Bomb Aimer). Front Row L-R: Don Huxtable (463 Sqn Pilot), Don Browning (463 Sqn Wireless Operator), Ron Houghton (102 Sqn Pilot) and Keith Campbell (466 Sqn Bomb Aimer).

I really enjoy the company of these ‘old lags’ and I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to make the trip up from Melbourne to catch up with them a couple of times a year. May it continue for a good few years yet.

Max Barry

Max Barry

Roy Pegler

Roy Pegler

Don Huxtable

Don Huxtable

Ron Houghton

Ron Houghton

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Keith Campbell

Hugh McLeod

Hugh McLeod

Keith Campbell and Ron Houghton

Keith Campbell and Ron Houghton

"How do you work this thing anyway?"

“How do you work this thing anyway?”

Hux and his 'Top Gun Hands". Once a pilot, always a pilot...

“There I was, nothing on the clock but the maker’s name…” Once a pilot, always a pilot…

Keith Campbell, Ross Browning and Ross' socks

Keith Campbell, Ross Browning and Ross’ socks

14Nov-LadiesDay 070

Text and images (c) 2014 Adam Purcell

 

Smoke and Mirrors at the Shrine

One of the things that impressed me the first time I visited the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne was one of the most symbolic architectural features in the building. When the Shrine was built in the 1930s it was designed with a small hole in the roof, in just the right position and at just the right angle that it would catch a ray from the sun and funnel it down such that it would fall on the Stone of Remembrance that is sunk into the floor in the Sanctuary, the main commemorative area.This would happen at 11:00 on 11 November each year in recognition of the time and day when the guns on the Western Front finally fell silent in 1918.

The stone is inscribed with the Biblical phrase, ‘GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN’. And for about four decades, at the appointed hour on the appointed day, a sunbeam would come through the hole and rest lightly on the word ‘LOVE’.

But then in the 1970s Daylight Saving Time was introduced in Victoria. Clocks went forward an hour. And the sunbeam made its grand entrance  at midday, too late for Remembrance Day ceremonies. For four or five years the Shrine made do with an artificial replacement, simulating the beam with a theatrical spotlight, but, well, it just wasn’t the same.

Enter Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology surveyors Frank Johnston and Rod Deakin, who came up with a beautifully simple solution. They installed two mirrors to catch the sun’s light from its ‘new’ 11:00 position and bounce it into the original shaft leading to the Stone of Remembrance.

Genius!

In the days leading up to Remembrance Day each year, the pair, along with their understudy Steven Sheppard, go up into the roof of the Shrine and take observations to recalculate and adjust the mirrors to make certain that it will work. And in the 32 years that Deakin has been involved, clouds have ruined the show on only five occasions (nothing to be sniffed at given Melbourne’s notoriously changeable weather).

They were up there again this week, and Bridie Smith from The Age newspaper wrote an article about them. You can find it, with a short video showing the surveyors at work, here. And there will be the annual Remembrance Day service at the Shrine, next Tuesday from 10:30. Two hours later the brand new Galleries of Remembrance will open to the public for the first time. Details here.

 

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

Google Earth

The internet is full of tools to make the life of a Bomber Command researcher easier. There are forums to connect like-minded folk from across the globe. There is the National Archives of Australia website to view digital copies of original personnel and casualty files (among many many thousands of others). And there is Google Earth, which has for me proven invaluable in giving some sort of an appreciation of the geographical setting of the events I’m investigating from the other side of the world.

I made heavy use of the program while I was researching and writing my 467 Postblog series over the last couple of years. I pulled the approximate routes flown by the bomber streams on various operations from either logbooks or the Night Raid Reports, then stuck those ubiquitous virtual yellow pins into the map. Then I could plot the locations of casualties, nightfighter attacks or other interesting events in relation to the nominal track flown by the bombers. I could even, in some cases, locate the exact aiming point and trace the unfolding bombing operation in close detail.

As an example, take the Tours raid of 10 April 1944 (on which the crew of B for Baker did not take part). I wanted to find potential reasons for why the second wave of the attack was not as accurate as the first had been. I started with the Night Raid Report[1], which says that “the first red spot fires fell near the roundhouse and the bottleneck between the two yards”.

Off to Google Earth I went, where it was easy to find railway yards at Tours with a bottleneck between them and (though this image is quite low-resolution) a roundhouse visible just under the ’o’ in ‘Approx’. Excellent, I thought, and inserted a fire icon.

tours

What next? “The Master Bomber therefore ordered crews to bomb 500 yards to the E”, continued the Night Raid Report. So I picked an appropriate icon (a bullseye), and placed it some 500 yards east of the spot fire icon. It’s pretty close to the bottleneck – smash that and the entire marshalling yard complex will struggle to function effectively. So things are beginning to make sense.

The bombers approached the target roughly along the line from bottom right to the target pin (which is probably slightly displaced from the actual aiming point because of limits in the resolution of the coordinate system used by the aircrews). This image has been rotated slightly towards the east to fit the text in comfortably so the line of approach should actually be only slightly north of west.

While most crews were carrying high explosives only, the 463 and 467 Squadron Operational Record Books reveal that a number of crews also dropped incendiaries, the fires from which caused a lot of smoke to rise over the target. The ground wind, according to Wing Commander Willie Tait’s report on the 467 Squadron ORB, was coming from the west. One look at the target area on Google Earth reveals that the smoke would have been blown back along the path of the second wave of approaching bombers. It’s easy to see why the second wave had trouble identifying the target and thus, one reason for why their attack was not as accurate as the first had been.

This analysis came from a careful study of the data found in the Night Raid Reports and the 463 and 467 Squadrons Operational Record Books, combined with a Google Earth satellite view of the target area as it was in 2010. Perhaps a map of the area may have afforded a similar conclusion but it’s unlikely that the detail of the bottleneck and the roundhouse, which stick out clearly on the satellite photo, would have been on a map. I used a similar technique throughout the Postblog series, including tracing Phil Smith’s evasion as he walked south through France – I could even pinpoint the farmhouse where he spent a couple of nights in Orchies two days after his aeroplane crashed.

I visited the UK in 2009 on what was essentially a pilgrimage around various sites associated with the crew of B for Baker and with Bomber Command in general. However much they have changed in the intervening decades, there is nothing quite like seeing first-hand places I had, to that point, only read about in logbooks and diaries. But, when trying to trace these events from the other side of the world, if you can’t be there in person Google Earth comes closest for giving an impression of how everything fitted together.

 

[1] No. 576 – see here for full citation

A modern-day ‘Escape from Colditz’

Colditz Castle, in Saxony in Germany, is of course most famous for housing Oflag IV-C, the supposedly escape-proof prisoner of war camp during WWII. The prisoners held there all had a demonstrated history of escaping from their previous camps and so describing their new home as escape-proof surely had the same effect as would waving a red rag at a bull. Consequently the prisoners had in place significant secret ‘escapist’ infrastructure and numerous attempts were made to abscond – some 30 of them successful.

Playing an important part in that escaping effort was an unassuming Australian man named Jack Millett, a Lieutenant of the 2/11 Battallion who had a knack for drawing maps. His talent was considered so valuable that the Escape Committee wouldn’t let him escape himself. I was alerted to his story in an article by Tony Wright in yesterday’s The Age newspaper here in Melbourne.

Millett’s wartime adventures inspired another Australian man, 51-year-old Mike Druce, to attempt a modern-day walk from Colditz to Switzerland, retracing as much as possible one of the routes used by escaping prisoners. He walked more than 600km over 17 days in September and October this year, and last Tuesday crossed the Swiss border at Ramsen, just as escapers Airey Neave and Pat Reid did, aided by Jack Millett’s maps, some seven decades ago. Mike had a copy of one of the maps with him as well on his journey.

Mike wanted to use the walk to raise funds for the Fred Hollows Foundation, a non-profit aid organization based in Australia that focuses on treating and preventing blindness and other vision problems, particularly in less-advantaged parts of Australia and the world. He wanted to raise $15,000 – enough money to save the sight of one person per kilometre that he walked.

At the time of writing he has just cracked $10,000 (up $2000ish since Wright’s article was published yesterday).

Mike’s just finished an inspiring walk. The physical challenge was not insignificant. The Fred Hollows Foundation is a very worthy cause. And, by walking across Germany unassisted he has experienced, at least in a limited way, some of the difficulties that faced wartime escapees, alone in a strange and hostile land, and ensured that their exploits are not forgotten. At least the locals were friendlier this time.

Well worth your support, if you can spare a few bob. You can donate to Mike’s cause through his page at Everyday Hero, and read the blog he wrote while he was on the road here.

 

 

Visiting Hux

Don Huxtable has featured on this blog before. A Lancaster pilot, he remains one of the living legends of 463 Squadron.

He and his crew flew 32 operations between between September 1944 and April 1945, earning Hux a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process. He has been a little in the wars in the last few months with a recent extended stay in various hospitals and rehabilitation centres. I made a mid-week dash to Sydney a couple of weeks ago and, with the prospect of a few hours to spare before my flight home, decided to see if I could arrange a visit.

The first step was to find out where he actually was. And when I rang his daughter a week before my trip I was most pleased to discover that Hux had returned home again. So on an unassuming Thursday morning I caught a train to Hornsby, on Sydney’s upper North Shore, and walked up the hill from the station to a simple weatherboard house on a quiet tree-lined street.

The importance of the ‘crew’ is one of the central themes of the Bomber Command experience, and in Hux’s case it was no different. In the words of Peta Fitzgerald, grand-daughter of Hux’s mid-upper gunner Brian Fallon[1], they had “[flown] together, lived together, drank together, prayed together, and on more than a few occasions saved each other’s lives… they became as close as brothers.” In the years immediately following their return from war, the four members of Hux’s crew who were from Sydney stayed together as they settled back into normal life.

They built four houses on adjacent blocks in the same street. Hux’s own house was the second to be finished. “We built that one first,” he told me, pointing through a window towards next door. Well, not that one, he corrected. “We built the one that used to be there!” And he raised the blind to reveal the solid brick wall of a huge McMansion now pressing up against his fence. Today, Hux is the only one of the four who is still there. The rest have all died.

When I first arrived Hux had just begun making a simple salad for lunch, but after pondering it for all of, oh I don’t know, two and a half seconds, he suggested we instead went to “the Club” for lunch. I readily agreed.

I thought about it as we waited for the taxi. I’d seen the Hornsby RSL Club as I walked up the street from the station. Hux has been involved with the club for a very, very long time. In fact, the last time I spoke to him on the phone, when he was still in hospital and it appeared likely that he would need to move into full-time care, his main comment about it was that he did not mind whatever facility he ended up in if “at least I can still get to the club!” Knowing how special the place is for him I realised the honour implicit in an invitation to lunch there with him.

After a stimulating conversation about the quality or otherwise of the refereeing in the previous weekend’s rugby league semi-finals, the taxi driver dropped us off at the downstairs entrance. ‘When I first came here,” Hux told me, “the club was in a little tin shed about there,” pointing to what is now a large car park. “Look at it now!”

It soon became clear just how well-known Hux is at the club. Every corner we turned was someone who said a cheery “morning, Mr Huxtable!” as we went past. I was given the grand tour, then we ended up in the bistro for a classic RSL lunch: simple, cheap and lots of it. I drank beer; Hux had his usual scotch and soda. We chatted about all sorts of things: Hornsby, Hux’s post-war career in the meat trade, the recent tour of England by the Canadian Lancaster, the perils of shift work, life in Melbourne, the future of Bomber Command commemoration in Australia… I even found time for a quick portrait:

Don Huxtable at Hornsby RSL, October 2014

Don Huxtable at Hornsby RSL, October 2014

And on the way out we made a short detour. As if anyone needed any more proof of the importance of Hornsby RSL to Hux, or of his importance to them, there’s a room named after him:.

Don Huxtable outside the roon maned for him, Hornsby RSL, October 2014

Don Huxtable outside the roon maned for him, Hornsby RSL, October 2014

“I thought they only named rooms after people when they died,” he said gruffly, though even as he said it I’m sure I could detect a touch of quiet pride in his voice.

We shuffled out into the Sydney spring sunshine, and Hux bade me farewell. When I looked back, I saw the old pilot waiting at the street corner for the lights to change.

Slightly stooped as he leant on his walking stick, he still towered over the rest of the crowd.

 

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

 

[1] Fitzgerald was writing in the preface to Brian’s posthumously-published memoirs, Press On Regardless: Memories of Bomber Command, which she edited. Privately published.

Event: Ladies Day Lunch with 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney, 16 November 2014

Details have now been released for this year’s Ladies’ Day Luncheon, held by the 463-467 RAAF Lancaster Squadrons Association (NSW Branch) in Sydney:

  • Sunday 16 November 2014
  • 12:00pm for 12:30pm
  • Killara Golf Club, Pacific Highway, Killara
  • $55pp covers three-course meal with wine/beer/soft drink

Speaking will be Bill Purdy, a 463 Sqn skipper who travelled to France in June as part of the official Australian Delegation to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

For more info, or to book, please contact David Southwell at PO Box 692, Pymble Business Centre, NSW 2073 or david(at)villageconcierge(dot)net.

You can read my post about the 2013 event here.

VeRA and the crew of B for Baker

Some awesome photographs have filtered out over the last couple of months as the world’s only two airworthy Lancasters toured the UK. ‘VeRA’, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster, was flown across the Atlantic in early August and joined PA474 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at numerous airshows and other events across the country. ‘VeRA’ was due to leave the UK around the time that this post is published, having participated in sights and sounds not experienced in at least five decades. They even arranged a rendezvous with Just Jane at East Kirkby, where 5,000 lucky people got to experience not one, not two, but THREE Lancasters with engines running at the same time.

The CWHM aircraft is dedicated to the memory of a man named Andrew Mynarski, who was a 419 Squadron mid-upper gunner in June 1944. Remarkably, I recently discovered a direct connection between Mynarski and the crew of B for Baker.

In June 1944 Mynarski’s aircraft was shot down by nightfighters during an attack on marshalling yards at Cambrai, France. [1]The pilot ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft and, after giving them some time to do so, he parachuted himself. But meanwhile the rear gunner – a man named Pat Brophy – was trapped in his turret, with burning hydraulic fluid in the rear fuselage. Mynarski was about to leave the aircraft via the rear door when he saw Brophy. Without hesitation he crawled through the flames and tried to break into the turret with the crash axe. By this time his uniform was on fire and the rear gunner waved him away, but he tried again with his bare hands.

But it was not enough. With time running out, Brophy screamed at him to get out. Mynarski realised it was hopeless and, because there was no space to turn around, he crawled backwards through the flames. He reached the door. He stood up. Still looking at Brophy, he slowly came to attention, clothes in flames, and saluted. Then he mouthed the words, “Good night, Sir,” and jumped.

Mynarski’s clothes were on fire as he fell – and so was his parachute. While he was found by people on the ground he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Most incredibly, Pat Brophy, the rear gunner still in his turret, survived the crash. On his return to England he was able to tell the story of Mynarski’s final act – and Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, gazetted in October 1946. In his memory, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster is named the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, and carries the Victoria Cross insignia on both sides of its nose.

So where is the connection to the crew of B for Baker? Earlier this year I was contacted – through this blog – by Dale Higgins, a niece of wireless operator Dale Johnston. Among other things she sent me a copy of his logbook, which includes this particularly useful page:

Alastair Dale Johnston Flight Log-13

Mynarski’s name, because it is so unusual, immediately set bells ringing. The timing matched. A quick google confirmed that the initial matched as well. But Mynarski was serving on a Canadian squadron when he met his death, and Dale Johnston and his crew ended up at 467 Squadron. And he was a mid-upper gunner at 419 Squadron, though Dale lists him as a rear gunner. I needed some more evidence.

Enter Jim on the Bomber Command History Forum. He managed to pull up Mynarski’s service record[2] (caution: 96Mb pdf) from the Archives Canada website. And there is an overlap.

Dale Johnston, Ken Tabor, Jerry Parker and Eric Hill arrived at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit – Mynarski was already there – in September 1943. Jack Purcell arrived a week and a half later. All their posting dates in and out of 9 Squadron are identical. Their paths diverge again at 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, when Dale et al. joined Phil Smith and went to 467 Squadron on 31 December. Mynarski stayed on, leaving the HCU to a Royal Canadian Air Force depot on 20 January 1944.

So we know that Mynarski’s movements were identical to those of the group of men who made up the core of the crew of B for Baker from September until December 1943. And we have Mynarski’s name in the crew list in Dale Johnston’s logbook.

It would be nice to see a copy of Mynarski’s logbook to be sure (and I have feelers out to that end, but no joy yet), but the available evidence supports a strong case that Andrew Mynarski, VC, was for a few months at least, part of the crew of B for Baker.

And that, if it’s possible, gives even more meaning to ‘VeRA’s recent visit to the UK.

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

[1] The following description of Mynarski’s actions comes from http://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/s,mynarski.html and the citation for his decoration, found in his Service Record (see No. 2, below)

[2] Item Number 26336, via http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/second-world-war/second-world-war-dead-1939-1947/Pages/search.aspx



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