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

One Mystery Solved

Operational Record Books are fantastic historical sources. They are extensive chronological records of everything that happened, day by day, to a squadron in an operational sense. They cover information like targets, aircraft and crews, and usually describe details of any operational flying carried out. Very useful, then, if you’re trying to trace the lives and times of a particular Lancaster crew.

But they do not yield all the answers. The documents are seven decades old. They are faded, smudged, illegible and fragile, either on paper or (shudder) a microfiche machine. The information that was once there can sometimes disappear.

And sometimes the information was left out, mistyped or never even there in the first place.

The Monthly Summary (the so-called ‘Form 540’) in the 463 Squadron ORB records that Pilot Officer ‘Dud’ Ward received word on 9 May 1944 that he had been awarded an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross. The summary shows that the decoration was for a “grand effort” during an operation, but the date of that operation is smudged. It could be 6/7 April, or it could be 26/27 April. It’s unlikely that it was the earlier date because on that night nothing happened. The Form 540 entry for 26 April does however relate a story which is a possible candidate for the action that resulted in Ward’s DFC.

After losing two engines on return from a raid on Schweinfurt and ordering his crew to man ditching stations, Dud Ward managed to coax his aircraft across the Channel and land at Tangmere. The problem is, however, that the sortie list (or Form 541) has no record of Ward or his crew having flown that night. So while it appears most likely that it was indeed the Schweinfurt trip on which Ward won his DFC, there is contradictory evidence and thus some doubt remains.

I came across this quandary while I was writing my 467 Postblog series. Being early May at the time, I was pushing the deadline to publish the post so I had no time to find other sources to swing the balance one way or the other. I had to make do with a short description of the problem, and moved on.

And there the not-quite-satisfactorily-resolved issue remained, largely forgotten. Until I recently started to dig into the large pile of stuff that has been accumulating on my desk (and on my hard drive), waiting patiently for me to find time to go through it properly.

A not insignificant part of this pile is made up by one of the better collections of wartime letters I’ve seen. It’s from Arnold Easton, a 467 Squadron navigator who was at Waddington from mid February 1944. His letters, provided by his very proud son Geoff, are in places extremely detailed and I have been finding interesting little nuggets all through them. Including this, from a letter written on 9 May, 1944:

By the way George Jones’ pilot was notified today that he has won the D.F.C. for a very good show he put up on the return trip from Schweinfurt on 26.4.44.

Jones was a good friend of Arnold’s, and his name appears frequently in his letters. Reading this line set off a small bell in my memory. Could George Jones’ pilot have been ‘Dud’ Ward?

He most certainly was. The crew list is in the ORBs (though not for the Schweinfurt raid!). And, sadly, both Jones and Ward are buried at Forest-sur-Marque in France, just a few miles east of Lille, the city they were attacking when they were killed two nights after Easton wrote his letter home. “George Jones – best pal gone”, wrote Arnold in his logbook the next day.

So, satisfyingly, the ambiguity in the ORB was solved by another primary source, one that came from an entirely different place. I still have almost a hundred of Arnold’s letters to read – what else might I find?

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

 

Flying over Lezennes

Five miles south-east of the centre of Lille is an airport. With an instrument landing system, VOR/DME and a main runway 2825m long it is now more than capable of handling aircraft up to about Boeing B767 size, and indeed today you can catch a flight direct from Lille to some 70 destinations around France, Europe and northern Africa.

But in 1944 it was the Luftwaffe air base known as Flugplatz Vendeville. Based there between April and September of that year was Fliegerhorst-Kommandatur E (v) 220/XI. On the north-west of the base was a battery of three heavy 88mm flak gun positions and it was this battery which probably shot down a 97 Squadron Lancaster, JB708, during the raid on the marshalling yards to the north on 10 May. [1]And after his own aircraft, B for Baker, was hit attacking the same target, Phil Smith landed nearby:

Not long after [being shot down and landing safely], I came to a heavy barbed wire fence, which I took to be the boundary of the fighter aerodrome to the SE of our target. Basis the guarding of English aerodromes, I reckoned that it would be better to walk across the aerodrome rather than make a long detour around it. Accordingly I started to look for a way under the wire but as soon as I did this, shots rang out. I had not been challenged but felt sure that they were meant for me. I changed my mind immediately and crept off as quietly as possible in a North-Easterly direction…        -Phil Smith, ‘Recollections of 1939-1945 War’

About ten hours short of exactly sixty five years after Phil Smith stumbled onto the boundary fence of an airfield near Lille, I was in a car being driven by my friend Olivier Mahieu across the boundary of the same airfield. We had spent the morning at the graves of the crew of B for Baker and Olivier had organised for me to go flying in a light aeroplane with a local instructor. His sister Sylvie came along in the aircraft to act as translator.

The aircraft was F-GKVV, a TB-9 (a French design, unsurprisingly), a type I had never been in before so I enjoyed the chance to fly something a little different.

F-GKVV, the TB-9 we flew over Lille

F-GKVV, the TB-9 we flew over Lille

Though English is the international language of aviation, the local air traffic controllers use French if you’re flying in a French-registered aeroplane. Which is fair enough, but can present some problems if you don’t speak French. The instructor pilot – whose name was Frank – had English as non-existent as my French and I could barely hear Sylvie’s translation over the headset, but with much gesturing going in both directions between Frank and myself we managed reasonably well.

Flying, particularly in a weird aeroplane in a foreign country, is always good fun. But this flight was memorable for more than just this. Because this was the same area where, sixty five years before, the crew of B for Baker had been flying in a Lancaster.

Not long after taking off we were already over Lezennes. The cemetery where we had spent the morning was clearly visible down below.

Lezennes Communal Cemetery from the air

Lezennes Communal Cemetery from the air

And not all that far away I could see the petrol station and hotel that are now built on the site where B for Baker crashed.

The crash site of LM475 B for Baker - between the motel and service station at top centre.

The crash site of LM475 B for Baker – between the motel and service station at top centre.

And also visible, a mile west of the crash site, were some of the big sheds and railway yards that formed part of the target that night. The Fives marshalling yards are the further set in this photo, just above centre.

Part of the Lille marshalling yards

Part of the Lille marshalling yards

Though the passage of time has unavoidably altered the landscape as more areas have been developed and the suburbs have sprawled, from the air the relationship between the target, the airfield and the place where the aeroplane crashed stands out clearly. They really did crash very close to the target area.

Flying over the same area where my great uncle Jack and his crew were lost was for me a profoundly moving experience. It can never come close, of course, to exactly what it was like that May night in 1944. The weather was good, we were flying in daylight and, critically, no one was shooting at us. At 1,500 feet we were also considerably lower than where the Lancasters would have been flying. But to be in the air, over the same railway yards, was to feel for a moment just a little closer to the crew of B for Baker.

F-GKVV passing a church in Hellemmes - snapped by a friend while we were flying

F-GKVV passing a church in Hellemmes – snapped by a friend of Olivier’s while we were flying

 

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

 

[1] Jozefiak, Richard 1995. Crash of a RAF bomber occurred on the airfield Vendeville (Lesquin) during the Second World War. Unpublished typescript translated by Peter Harvey



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