Vale Ross Pearson

When I was growing up it was always tradition that my parents would give each of my sisters and I a book for Christmas. In 1996 mine was a large-format paperback with a blue cover and a picture of a scared-looking bloke in the rear turret of a Stirling bomber. It was called Australians at War in the Air 1939-1945, Volume One*,  and it was in fact the first book about Bomber Command in my now not insignificant collection.

Twelve years old at the time, I would not have even considered that one day many years later I would meet the book’s author, and indeed would come get to know him quite well. Sadly, Ross Pearson OAM, a 102 Squadron wireless operator, died on 13 June 2015.

Ross Pearson as a sergeant wireless air gunner. Taken from his book Australians at War in the Air 1939-1945 Vol One

Ross Pearson as a sergeant wireless air gunner. Taken from his book Australians at War in the Air 1939-1945 Vol One

Ross started collecting stories in the form of recordings, diary excerpts and written reminiscences when he began attending reunions with the Air Force Association’s Halifax Branch in the late 1980s. Based entirely on primary sources – direct from ex-servicemen living in Australia and only lightly edited – those stories formed the basis of two books that were published in 1995. One of them, concentrates on Coastal Command, the Middle East, South-East Asia and the Pacific, and the 2nd Tactical Air Force, and the other – about training, the journey to war, Bomber Command and PoWs – was the book that I was given that Christmas.

Like many eventual aircrew, Ross was in the Army first and his time in the bush, perhaps, influenced his decision to join the Air Force. That and, as a Sydney boy, “training at Bradfield [meant] being able to see my girlfriend regularly”, he wrote to me in January 2014. As usual, though, the Air Force had other ideas and Ross ended up at 1 Initial Training School, Somers – in Victoria. “Picture my feelings of disappointment,” he wrote.

Told he could not become a pilot because he had not attended Morse code classes while on the Reserve, he was selected instead (and somewhat ironically) as a wireless operator and sent to 2 Wireless Air Gunners School in Parkes, NSW. Here he decided that, because of his self-described lack of technical ability (“I’m all thumbs…”), he would put in for training as a straight gunner… until he spoke with a few operational gunners who were on leave. “They’re hosing them out of the turrets up north”, he was told.

Cue a rapid change of mind. Ross suddenly found a new enthusiasm for his studies, eventually passing out at 30 words per minute in Morse and with a top-level assessment.

“And so”, he wrote to me, “to the UK and finally a Squadron.”

In Ross’ case, it was 102 Squadron, flying Halifaxes. Ross remained an extremely proud Halifax man throughout his life and I well remember the banter each year at the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Meet & Greet functions, when Ross would defiantly put on his Halifax cap and from the lectern poke fun at the majority of the veterans present who flew “that other four-engined bomber”, an example of which, of course, was over his shoulder at the time.

Ross Pearson (before he pulled out his Halifax cap) speaking at the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Meet & Greet, Canberra, June 2012

Ross Pearson (before he pulled out his Halifax cap) speaking at the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Meet & Greet, Canberra, June 2012

Ross was a story-teller. I received a very good letter from him a couple of years ago in which he covered many of his wartime adventures.

“I had some instruction from a very arrogant pommie instructor who claimed he could fix anything,” he wrote:

What a mistake he made so boasting. Someone (I won’t say who) tampered with the Morse key by going back one evening and doctoring the instructional key – pulled it apart – put a little varnish on the contacts and painted over this. Next day our boastful instructor was called to help find a key fault – he couldn’t and spent considerable time searching for the fault.

They had to return early from their first operation, Ross said, because their “Gee” set went on the blink. Ross had to use his equipment to get “QDM” bearings to find their way back to base, and they were in the circuit when their R/T radio also broke. Ross’s pilot was not happy, wanted Ross to fix it and gave him what Ross called a “vivid set of advice”. Predictably, the pilot’s transmitter was jammed on and all the colourful language was relayed to base.

“I understand the WAAF operator learned a few new words…”

After 34 trips Ross was posted to 27 OTU, Lichfield, as a “screened” instructor. This, he reckoned, was almost as risky as ops. “Indeed, I was on the verge of requesting to go on a second tour.” When on training flights over the Irish Sea, the procedure was to report in every 30 minutes to confirm everything was ok. Instructing the trainee to do this on one occasion, he said, he then retired to the back of the aeroplane to have a snooze. But 40 minutes later the trainee woke him up to tell him that he had not been able to make contact because the frequency was so congested by other callers.  So Ross sent his message at ten words per minute, much slower than the usual, thus indicating to the ground operator that this caller was clearly not a wireless operator and needed priority, so he got straight through.

I later heard that the trainee told his colleagues of this great Aussie WAG who could get through almost immediately despite the crowded channel – great for the ego.

In recent years Ross was one of the original group of veterans who conceived of and then established what we now know as the Bomber Command Commemorative Day. Indeed he was the President of the Foundation that was set up to organise the event each year. So it was especially sad that he suffered a stroke on the morning that he was to leave for Canberra for this year’s event.

I, and I think a great many more people, will deeply miss hearing Ross telling more of his stories.

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*Kangaroo Press Pty Ltd. Kenthurstn NSW 1995. ISBN 0 86417 708 9

© 2015 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command Commemorative Day in Melbourne 2015

“Here they come!”

The cry went up among the crowd waiting outside the Shrine of Remembrance in the blustery winds of early last Sunday afternoon.

And there they were, right over the target and bang on 1:00pm as briefed. Five aeroplanes from the RAAF Museum’s Historical Trainer Flight – two Harvards, a Winjeel and a pair of CT-4s– swept down St Kilda Road and roared over the crowd. The ‘Sound of Round’ echoed off the buildings. The formation continued south, made a big left-hand turn and then came back across the Shrine again, this time from east to west. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause.

The RAAF Museum Flight passing the Shrine of Remembrance

The RAAF Museum Flight passing the Shrine of Remembrance

A few minutes later the second formation appeared, out of the south this time and made up of seven Warriors and a Cessna from the Royal Victorian Aero Club. Flying lighter aeroplanes than the Air Force pilots, these guys were copping the full force of the windy, bumpy conditions as they turned to the west from dead over the Shrine. But it looked and sounded fantastic. The old flyers on the ground certainly appreciated the dedication and commitment of the pilots from both formations.

The Royal Victorian Aero Club formation passes the Shrine of Remembrance

The Royal Victorian Aero Club formation passes the Shrine of Remembrance

It was a fitting conclusion to the Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremony which had finished in the new Auditorium inside the Shrine just a few moments before.

The Auditorium was only officially opened last year and this was the first time it has been used for ceremonial purposes. With cold and blustery conditions outside it was certainly a much more comfortable venue for the estimated 140 or so people who packed it to the rafters for the service.

The MC was the unflappable Brian Smith:

Master of Ceremonies Brian SMith

Master of Ceremonies Brian SMith

Squadron Leader Ron Ledingham, Shrine Governor and Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) committee member, opened the ceremony by discussing its importance to the Shrine and to the Bomber Command community.

Shrine Governor Ron Ledingham

Shrine Governor Ron Ledingham

John Brownbill RFD KSJ, an Army chaplain, looked after the religious aspect of the service and set the scene with a few words on Bomber Command and its part in the Second World War:

Chaplain John Brownbill

Chaplain John Brownbill

Committee member Jan Dimmick – her late husband Frank was a 460 Squadron navigator – read the Epitaph from a poem called Requiem for a Rear Gunner:

BCCDF (Vic) Committee Member Jan Dimmick

BCCDF (Vic) Committee Member Jan Dimmick

 My brief, sweet life is over, my eyes no longer see,

No summer walks, no Christmas trees,

No pretty girls for me.

I’ve got the chop, I’ve had it.

My nightly ops are done.

Yet in another hundred years, I’ll still be twenty one.

                -R.W Gilbert

 

The guest speaker for the ceremony was former Victorian premier and current Chairman of the Victorian Centenary of Anzac Committee, the Hon Ted Baillieu. He picked up on Jan’s “21 years” theme, remarking that WWII started 21 years after the Great War ended. We commemorate anniversaries like Anzac and the end of WWII, he said, for three reasons: to honour those who served, to educate current generations, and to pass the torch of remembrance on to future generations.

The Hon Ted Baillieu

The Hon Ted Baillieu

Then came the wreathes, including one from Carey Baptist Grammar School, which has now officially adopted this ceremony as part of the Shrine’s ‘Adopt an Ex-Service Organisation’ initiative.

Students from Carey Baptist Grammar School laying a wreath

Students from Carey Baptist Grammar School laying a wreath

This was their first involvement with the ceremony, and it’s a partnership we hope can continue long into the future – first-hand evidence of the passing on of Mr Baillieu’s metaphoric “torch of remembrance”.

On the way out following the service we just had enough time to take a group photo of all the veterans present:

Bomber Command veterans following a commemorative ceremony held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne

Bomber Command veterans following a commemorative ceremony held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Left to Right: [Unidentified], Jim Cahir (466 Sqn), Laurie Williams (460 Sqn), Alan Day, Gerald McPherson (186 Sqn), Jack Bell (216 Sqn), Arthur Atkins (625 Sqn), Colin Fraser (460 Sqn), Don McDonald (578 and 466 Sqns), Don Southwell (463 Sqn), [Unidentified] at rear,  Steve Downes (467 Sqn – seated), Maurie O’Keefe (460 Sqn), Peter Isaacson (460 Sqn), Lachie McBean (467 Sqn)


And then the roar of radial engines heralded the arrival of the flypast.

Afterwards afternoon tea was served in the foyer area. And it was here that something remarkable happened:

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On the left of this photo is, of course, Don Southwell. He’d come down from Sydney with his son David for the ceremony, representing the ‘national’ Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation. He’s talking to Steve Downes, centre, and Lachie McBean, right. Steve, a wireless operator, and Lachie, a pilot, were on the same crew. The only two Australians in the crew, they were posted to 467 Squadron right at the end of the war so they never flew any operations. But they had gone through training together. Then the war ended and everyone was posted away or discharged from the Air Force entirely. “We were best mates while we were on the same crew”, Lachie told me, “but we never knew much about what each other had done before the war, and then we were all posted away and lost contact.”

Until recently, Lachie thought that Steve had been killed in a post-war car crash. But about three months ago Lachie’s wife died.

Steve – very much still alive – saw the death notice and recognised his old pilot’s name. He contacted Lachie through the funeral director, and their respective daughters conspired to arrange a meeting at the ceremony– and so the two old crew mates saw each other again on Sunday for the first time in seventy years.

I was lucky enough to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall as the two old men chatted. Seven decades simply melted away as they just picked up where they had left off.

It was a lovely moment to cap off a most memorable day.

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight taxis at Point Cook prior to their formation flypast of the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo courtesy Alex le-Merton

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight taxis at Point Cook prior to their formation flypast of the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo courtesy Alex le-Merton

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight turns towards the Shrine, Melbourne. Photo from one of the CT-4s in the formation courtesy Matt Henderson

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight turns towards the Shrine, Melbourne. Photo from one of the CT-4s in the formation courtesy Matt Henderson

The Shrine Guard

The Shrine Guard

Bomber Command veterans assembling for a group photo

Bomber Command veterans assembling for a group photo

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee

Many thanks to Matt Henderson and Alex le-Merton, the crew of one of the RAAF CT-4s, for the airborne photos.

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee sincerely thanks both the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Victorian Aero Club for their critical parts in making the commemorative flypast happen.

© 2015 Adam Purcell.

Bomber Command in Canberra 2015

The cabbie who picked me up from the airport couldn’t work out why I would be coming to Canberra for non-work reasons.

On a weekend.

In winter.

He perked up, though, as he drove me down Fairburn Avenue and through a big roundabout, pointing to a big domed building up the hill.

“That War Memorial. You must go there.”

Don’t worry, I said. I’ll be going there alright.

The Australian War Memorial, that big domed building on the hill in front of Mount Ainslie, is the traditional and spiritual home of much of the activity associated with the annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The weekend just gone saw the 8th edition take place, under blue skies for once.

It began, though, with sad news. While preparing to leave for the commemorations, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation President Ross Pearson suffered a stroke. As I write it is still too soon to know much but the early signs are, I hear, not good. The knowledge of Ross’ illness cast a dark shadow on the weekend, and he remained in the thoughts of many of those present. But the show, as they say, must go on, and in the best spirit of Bomber Command, we pressed on regardless.

First up was the Meet & Greet function, in the shadow of the great black bomber named G for George. It was one of the bigger crowds in recent memory I thought, and was quite a good evening.

The crowd at the Meet & Greet

The crowd at the Meet & Greet

A highlight was seeing two old pilots sitting next to each other having a chat. Alan Finch (who I met at this function last year) was posted to 467 Squadron in August 1943 and completed his tour on 19 March 1944. Bill Purdy arrived at 463 Squadron two weeks after Alan left. So while they were not quite both at Waddington at the same time, they were there at the same time as the crew of B for Baker. There are not many men around these days who were operating around that time, so to find two of them sitting next to each other was a special moment for me.

Bill was telling a story when I passed by. After his tour ended in August 1944, he was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit as an instructor on Stirlings. His first pupil, he said, could fly better than he did. “We didn’t even realise we had landed!” His second pupil was even better. But Number Three? There was much swerving all over the sky. “It was a controlled crash every time!”

Once they all got to their operational squadrons, though, it was a different story. The first man was lost on his first trip. The second man lasted three. But the third pilot survived his tour. “Maybe the other two were too good…” Bill mused thoughtfully.

It strangely makes sense. Flying perfectly straight and level in a combat zone could be fatal when flak and nightfighters were around.

There was an attempt to get a group photo of all the veterans present but it was less than successful. But seeing as everyone was gathered near the lectern at the tail end of George, 467 Squadron mid-upper gunner Albert Wallace took to the microphone to tell a few stories about Australians, WAAFs and sugar tongs. He mentioned being one of the last crews to fly S-Sugar, the Lancaster preserved at the RAF Museum in Hendon.

Bomber Command veterans gather to hear Albert Wallace speak

Bomber Command veterans gather to hear Albert Wallace speak

That brought Alan Finch to the front. “We were the first crew to fly Sugar on 467 Squadron!” he said. He wasn’t impressed: “I said it wasn’t fit for operational service…” As we now know, of course, Sugar would go on to fly over 100 operations.

Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

While all this was going on, I noticed Don Southwell sitting on a convenient ledge in front of a painting of a flight engineer. He had some interesting light falling on his face from a set of lamps that were ostensibly there to illuminate the speaker at the lectern.

Don Southwell

Don Southwell

I got an idea…

VETERAN PHOTO BOOTH!

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning

Tommy Knox

Tommy Knox

Alan Finch. What a brilliantly relaxed pose!!

Alan Finch. What a brilliantly relaxed pose!!

As the event wrapped up I also dragged the lights over to get a nice portrait of two of the key organisers of the event, Don and David Southwell:

Don and David Southwell

Don and David Southwell

The ‘official’ hotel for the Bomber Command group had changed to the brand-new Avenue, in the heart of the city. A small group repaired to the hotel bar there following the function for a few drinks. The group was down a little on numbers from previous years, partly because some were still staying at the QT hotel as usual and also because some of the usual suspects were missing (Don Huxtable being a very noticeable absence, being in hospital in Sydney). The ghosts of absent friends were very evident. But it was still a very useful and enjoyable evening. At one point I asked Keith Campbell, who had just been served the biggest ‘little’ beer he had ever seen, what he thought of wartime English beer. Not much, as it turns out. “It was weak and tasteless!” he said.

The grass in front of the Bomber Command memorial sculpture in the western grounds of the War Memorial is the original venue for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day, and given it is a dedicated memorial to Bomber Command it makes sense to hold the ceremony in its shadow. But having experienced the heightened atmosphere and mood in the cloisters of the War Memorial for the last two years, I reckon it’s much better up there. And so I was almost hoping for rain when I awoke this morning. But for the first time in three years the ceremony on Sunday morning was held outside under blue skies, and it went rather well.

1505 BCCDF CBR 123

I’m told there were 600 seats provided, and they were all full well before the ceremony kicked off at 11:00, with other people standing around the periphery. Sitting behind me was Tom Stewart, a Canberra local who was a 77 Squadron (Royal Air Force, not the Australian fighter squadron!) wireless operator. I snapped a quick photo before the ceremony started:

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart

A representative flight of the reformed 460 Squadron ‘marched on’ to open the ceremony. Dr Brendan Nelson, AWM Director, again spoke well and mostly without notes, quoting the words that end Striking by Night presentation in which G for George plays such a starring role. “My memories are of young men, Aussie men,” it goes, “laughing, dancing, singing and enjoying the moment…  Never to be heard of again.”

Well, Dr Nelson told us, setting the theme for the weekend, “they are to be heard of again: here, today.”

I was most impressed, however, by the speech from Dr Peter Hendy, the Federal Member for Eden-Monaro. It started off the usual way and I was a little worried that it would be a typical politician’s speech, saying the right things but without really knowing or believing in what was being said. But then he veered off into much more personal territory. Dr Hendy, it turned out, had an Uncle Jack, actually a cousin of his father’s, who was a rear gunner in Bomber Command. And so, just like I did, Dr Hendy grew up with stories of “Uncle Jack,” bombers and gun turrets. He said that while it’s tempting to speak of Bomber Command airmen as being superhuman, they were actually ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. “The extraordinary, ordinary Australians”, he called them, and I thought that a most appropriate description.

Keith Campbell (who at breakfast that morning was singularly unruffled by the short notice) gave the Reflections address in place of Ross Pearson. He spoke of the WAAFs who would issue parachutes to the airmen with the old line “if it doesn’t open, bring it back!”, of “the longest ten seconds you would ever know” after the bombs went down, waiting for the camera to tick over, and of listening to a Master Bomber’s voice on the radio over the target one night: “Goodbye chaps, we’re going in – we’ve been hit by flak and we’ve had it.” And he spoke of his demob: “There was no tickertape parade. Just a suit, new hat and best wishes.”

Keith Campbell giving the 'Reflections' address.

Keith Campbell giving the ‘Reflections’ address.

But it was Keith’s conclusion that rang most true for me. He was speaking to the veterans present, urging them to tell their stories while they still can. “Maybe you can pass the torch on to others,” he said. “Make sure that their name lives forevermore.”

Bill Purdy and Alan Finch

Bill Purdy and Alan Finch

1505 BCCDF CBR 099

The Australian Rugby Choir led the singing

The Australian Rugby Choir led the singing

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning, laying a wreath for 463-467 Squadrons at the Bomber Command memorial. Don's daughter Jocelyn providing support.

Tom Hopkinson and Don Browning, laying a wreath for 463-467 Squadrons at the Bomber Command memorial. Don’s daughter Jocelyn providing support.

Bomber Command veterans in Canberra

Bomber Command veterans in Canberra

The luncheon was moved from the War Memorial at quite short notice to the QT Hotel because of high demand. More than 180 people were there.

There was a lot of brass there. The soon-to-retire Chief of Air Force, Air Marshall Geoff Brown, delivered an intriguing address looking at current capability of the Royal Australian Air Force, including some very rare bombing footage of recent operations in Iraq.

Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Chief of Air Force

Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Chief of Air Force

Where in Bomber Command’s day 1,000 aircraft might be sent to one target, these days one aircraft might engage four individual targets on a single sortie. He even showed an example of the requirement to avoid collateral damage, when non-combatant vehicles were observed nearing a target and the laser targeting system was used to push the munitions off target after the weapons were released. A capability, one suspects, which Bomber Command would have found quite useful.

Also speaking was the Chairman of the Trustees of the International Bomber Command Centre, Tony Worth. Tony was in Australia as part of a delegation of IBCC people who are working on “an international story of Recognition, Remembrance and Reconciliation”.

Tony Worth from IBCC

Tony Worth from IBCC

The Centre, in the early stages of being established on a hillside within sight of Lincoln Cathedral, will consist of a Memorial Spire (which was erected last month), steel walls engraved with the names of those who died in Bomber Command, an education and exhibition centre, ‘Peace Garden’ and, most significantly for me, an ambitious digital archive that aims to become a comprehensive research resource – the ‘go-to’ point for Bomber Command information into the future. As such they are looking for people worldwide to scan documents and interview veterans and it’s possible that I may become a point of contact for this in Melbourne. It’s a big project with very lofty goals but it certainly looks like they have an enthusiastic team behind it and it will be very interesting to watch their progress.

Ron Houghton launching a new book, called Severed Wings about a Bomber Command crew who were shot down and bailed out over Germany. Four members of the crew were subsequently murdered by German civilians. Looking on is the RSL's Ken Doolan and Peter Rees

Ron Houghton launching a new book, called Severed Wings about a Bomber Command crew who were shot down and bailed out over Germany. Four members of the crew were subsequently murdered by German civilians. Looking on is the RSL’s Ken Doolan and Peter Rees

Veterans at the Lunch gathered for a group photo with the two top-ranking members of the current Royal Australian Air Force. Front row, L-R: Tom Hopkinson, [unknown], Keith Campbell, Max Barry, Rex Austin, Ray Merrill, Jim Clayton.  Back row L-R: Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Vice Marshal Gavin 'Leo' Davies, Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron, Bill Purdy, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Ron Houghton, Don Southwell.

Veterans at the Lunch gathered for a group photo with the two top-ranking members of the current Royal Australian Air Force.
Front row, L-R: Tom Hopkinson, [unknown], Keith Campbell, Max Barry, Rex Austin, Ray Merrill, Jim Clayton.
Back row L-R: Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Vice Marshal Gavin ‘Leo’ Davies, Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron, Bill Purdy, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Ron Houghton, Don Southwell.

The increased interest in Bomber Command and events of this type can easily be seen in the numbers attending this year. While not the “biggest ever” I think it was a modest increase on last year, even with those notable absentees. While I didn’t come away with as many ‘new’ veterans as I have in the past I still made a lot of contacts and there were many family, friends and hangers-on present. (Including, incredibly enough, one of my high school PE teachers whose wife has a 467 Squadron connection).

The news of Ross Pearson’s stroke concentrated some minds on thoughts of what the future might look like for the organisation of this event and others like it, and there was discussion of this important question at various points over the weekend. The intention of the group of veterans – led by the late Rollo Kingsford-Smith – who developed the concept for the first Bomber Command Commemorative Day was that it would continue “in perpetuity”, and this intention was restated a couple of times on the weekend. Certainly the numbers present demonstrate that the demand is there and indeed is growing for events of this type. Much of the burden of organising this event already falls on the younger generation, but the inspiration for it is still drawn from the hardy but dwindling band of Bomber Command ‘originals’. Some hard questions will need to be answered when the last of the ‘extraordinary, ordinary Australians’ finally leave this life.

Ian Coffey (left) talking to Keith Campbell and Tom Hopkinson at the lunch

Ian Coffey (left) talking to Keith Campbell and Tom Hopkinson at the lunch

Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron and Rex Austin. Angus and Rex have just recognised each other for the first time in about 20 years. In the early 1950s, both rejoined the Air Force and were on the same ITS course together.

Tommy Knox, Angus Cameron and Rex Austin. Angus and Rex have just recognised each other for the first time in about 20 years. In the early 1950s, both rejoined the Air Force and were on the same ITS course together.

The luncheon was beginning to wrap up and the crowd was thinning. As I prepared to leave I saw two old blokes, the last people sitting at a table. They were Angus Cameron and Tom Hopkinson, two Canberra-based veterans, and they looked very relaxed.

Two extraordinary, ordinary Australians, sitting back and having a lively chat.

They were still at it as I left the room.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

The official photos from the AWM are now on their Flickr stream, here

The Empire Air Training Scheme, or How I Got To Have Lunch With 40 Veterans At The Same Time

The Empire Air Training Scheme was an agreement between Britain and its Dominion countries that trained ab-initio aircrew and put them into a joint ‘pool’ from which they could be drawn to serve with various RAF units. Some 37,000 Australian aircrew were trained under the agreement, serving in Coastal, Fighter and Bomber Commands. And I recently had lunch with almost 40 of them.

My post written after the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic)’s Cocktail Party in March started thusly:

“I love collecting veterans.”

It was a throw-away line, really. I was referring to my habit of coming away from Bomber Command-related events with a few new contacts, addresses and things to follow up on. But the line obviously tickled the fancy of Fay McPherson. While we were organising my visit to her husband Gerald a couple of months ago, she mentioned that she and Gerald are involved in running the biannual Empire Air Training Scheme luncheon.

The what?

Fay told me that a lunch is held in Caulfield, Melbourne, every six months for trainees and staff of the Empire Air Training Scheme. In other words, just about any member of Commonwealth aircrew from WWII can attend. Would I like to go along too, she enquired?

Would I what!

I had no idea that such a group existed. I’ve been pretty happy with groups of ten or so veterans from various lunches and events, and we might reach 40 on a good year for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day in Canberra, but the old blokes are usually well and truly outnumbered by family, friends and assorted hangers-on like, well, me. But I felt quite special to be invited to this one: fully two-thirds of those present had served in the Royal Australian Air Force in some capacity during WWII. Such a concentration of veterans I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

And so it was that, a few weeks ago, almost sixty people descended on the Caulfield RSL. As it turns out the RSL isn’t even in Caulfield. It’s housed in a handsome 90-ish-year-old mock Tudor building in neighbouring Elsternwick, and when I turned up last week people were already starting to gather in the bar, where the staff had set up jugs of beer with glasses for a very civilised serve-it-yourself opener. I recognised one or two people but decided I’d go introduce myself to someone new.

John Missen was his name, a genial man with a big white beard and a hearty laugh. John had been in Course 55 at 1 Initial Training School at Somers in Victoria in late 1944, right before the Empire Air Training Scheme began to wind up (I believe Course 57 was the final one). Just 18 years old, he and a mate reckoned they’d have a better chance of seeing action if they volunteered directly for training as air gunners but as you couldn’t be posted overseas until you were 19 someone talked them out of that. John ended up at Signals School at Point Cook and did eventually see service on the ground as a RAAF signaller in Borneo. The war ended before some others from his course, who had been accepted as gunners, got to an operational squadron. A writer and a painter, John told me he’s written a novel and is wondering if he should try to get it published. “It needs a good editor”, he said, “but the problem is that once you get to my age…”

The RSL had decided on this, of all days, to renovate its kitchen, so the meal was a somewhat slap-up affair cooked mostly on a BBQ. But it was hearty enough and the conversation was great. I’d asked to be seated next to “someone interesting”, and Fay more than delivered. At my table were two Halifax skippers (Laurie Larmer of 51 Sqn and Ralph White of 192 Sqn) and a Mosquito navigator (Ken Munro). One of the others at the table was Geoff Clark, who while not a veteran himself was pretty close: he’d completed his National Service in the RAF in the 1950s, working in the Photographic Section with reconnaissance cameras. And the other person was a man named Ian Stevenson, who’d brought along a logbook belonging to his uncle who had been a Spitfire pilot killed over Italy. So we all had plenty to talk about, and even more so when I discovered that Laurie lives just two suburbs over from me.

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

I wandered around to some of the other tables between lunch and dessert. Someone mentioned the primitive conditions when the Initial Training School at Somers first opened. Apparently it was quite cold and the buildings were very draughty. At this point I heard Ken Wilkinson, a 77 Sqn Kittyhawk pilot, snort. “I was there in July…” he said. Ken thought at first that, as my interest is mainly Bomber Command, he wouldn’t be of much use to me, and pointed me to the two 460 Squadron men across the table. But then he said he had also done some air traffic control while in the Air Force… I’ll be seeing Mr Wilkinson again for a deeper chat, methinks!

Ken Wilkinson - a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot - calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

Ken Wilkinson – a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot – calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

I also talked with Jack Bell, who I had heard speak during the Bomber Command Panel Discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in 2013.I mentioned how happy I was to see so many veterans in the one place, and he concurred. But he had a very interesting point too. “A lot of these blokes haven’t told their stories”, he said. “This isn’t the place for it though – too many distractions. You really need to get them on their own.”

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Which, I thought, is very true. I go to a lot of these sort of functions (indeed I’m madly trying to get this post finished in time before heading to Canberra for a whole weekend of them) and, while they are an excellent way to meet people initially, they are not usually the right sort of environment for a detailed talk. If the old blokes are up for something like that, as Jack said, you really do need to go and visit them.

So six old men will shortly get a letter from me requesting just such a visit. And hopefully I’ll get the chance to go and get some stories from them.

Words and photos (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Vale Harry Brown

Harry Brown

Harry Brown

April 25, 2008 was one of the first years that I joined the 463-467 Squadrons Association for the Sydney Anzac Day March. It was, as I remember it, quite wet.

There were a good few more veterans marching then than there have been in more recent times – I guess age catches up quickly for most people sometime between their late 80s and early 90s. And so that wet April morning seven years ago, back when the old blokes weren’t quite so old, the march was moving a little quicker than it now does.

One veteran, though, was falling slightly behind, so I dropped back to offer him the shelter of my umbrella. We chatted as we marched. His name was Harry, he said, and “I was doing ok until I lost my marbles a few years ago!” I had to admit he looked in pretty good shape to me, notwithstanding the ever-increasing distance between us and the main group of marchers ahead.

Harry (on the right), before the marchers got away from him. Anzac Day 2008., Sydney. The other veteran is David Walter, a 467 Squadron W/Op, who died a few years ago.

 

But Harry, determined to complete the march on his own two feet, had a plan for that.

Just after the Sydney Town Hall, the traditional march route passes St Andrews Cathedral and then turns left into Bathurst St. We watched the Squadron wheel left in something that may have once resembled parade ground style (it had been over sixty years for these blokes, after all). Cheekily, though, my new friend Harry led me and my umbrella not so much around the corner as across it, cutting the corner and neatly closing the gap (at least a little bit).

No problems with marbles there, then, lost or otherwise.

This happy memory came to mind recently when I learned that Harry – actually Henry Emanuel Brown – 106 Squadron Wireless Operator, died peacefully in hospital on a Sunday night in May.

Harry had completed a year at Teachers College training to be a science teacher (having not yet reached the age of seventeen years) when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, using his brother’s birthday to try and sneak in four months underage. Alas, his family tell me, the duty sergeant knew him and ‘misplaced’ the paperwork until after Harry’s actual birthday. He was called up in August 1942, completed wireless operator/air gunner training in Canada and flew twelve operations with 106 Squadron from Metheringham. Then in March 1945 he went to RAF Warboys, in what is now Cambridgeshire, for a Pathfinder training course.

Harry (centre, marked with his initials HEB) among 106 Squadron aircrew. The man marked KK in front of him is  his pilot, Ken Kiesling. Photo courtesy Nancy Jacobs

Harry (centre, marked with his initials HEB) among 106 Squadron aircrew. The man marked KK in front of him is his pilot, Ken Kiesling. Photo courtesy Nancy Jacobs

By the time this course ended, in late April 1945, the end of the war in Europe was but a fortnight away and Harry flew no more operations. He received a commission a week after VE Day and was posted to 467 Squadron, which moved from Waddington to (surprise!) Metheringham at around the same time. There Harry took part in the training for Tiger Force, the planned bomber offensive against Japan. Then the atomic bombs, as we now know, removed the requirement for that, and 467 Squadron disbanded at Metheringham at the end of September 1945. Shortly thereafter Harry returned to Australia and following discharge studied Physics at Sydney University under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme and worked as a research physicist in atmospherics and minerals. Though he told his family that “the last time I saw Europe was out of the back of a bomber and I never want to see it again!” he did eventually return, well into his late eighties, to visit his children.

For the last few years Harry and I had corresponded occasionally after I posted him a copy of the group photograph of aircrew from Killara in 2013. He was one of the rare veterans with an email address (using dictation software rather than a keyboard) and this came in handy when I had technical questions about the role of wireless operator. There were many different types of radios in Lancasters and Harry was a great help in sorting out their various roles.

One of his emails mentioned using one of them to get a fix from “0512 East and 56 North when we were shot up over Hampden” (I suspect that was a dictation error from the software and it should have read Hamburg). My calculations place that position over the North Sea, rather closer to Denmark than to England. To my eternal regret I never got around to asking Harry to tell me more about that particular story.

Anzac Day 2015

Anzac Day 2015

Like many veterans though, most of the stories with which he did go into more detail concerned what could be called the lighter side of life in Bomber Command. As the wireless operator, Harry had a spare moment every 15 minutes or so. He had specially prepared an empty 7lb jam tin and would use that spare time, he told me at an Anzac Day lunch one year, to wander around between each man in the crew, offering them the use of it to answer calls of nature. “Not only was I the wireless operator”, so his punch line went, “I was the piss-pot too!”

Harry had broken his hip in a fall about a year ago and complications arising out of that had meant that he was in various hospitals and nursing homes more or less ever since. We didn’t see him at the Ladies’ Day lunch last November, but he was determined to come to Anzac Day this year, where his grandson Geordie, who is now a member of the Royal Australian Air Force himself, pushed his wheelchair during the march.

1504 Anzac Day002

A little over two weeks later Harry passed away. He was the last remaining member of both his 106 Squadron and his 467 Squadron crews.

5

 

Thanks to Nancy (Harry’s daughter) and Geordie (his grandson) Jacobs for their help with supplying details and the wartime images in this post. 

Text and colour images (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

 

Richard Moffat and the Lost Identity Disc

Servicemen of all hues have long carried identification tags into battle. Frequently, when soldiers are killed the tags of fibreboard or tin are all that is left to identify the bodies of their owners. But just as frequently, even the tags themselves are missing or destroyed, making the task of identifying the casualty that much harder.

Perhaps in anticipation of this – but probably more likely as a good luck charm – it has not been unknown for servicemen to wear their own, private ‘identity’ tags. And not uncommonly, it has indeed been these unofficial trinkets which proved crucial in identifying a dead soldier.

Such was the case when WWI infantryman Private Richard John Moffat, service number 2698, from Carlton in Melbourne, was killed in France in August 1918. On exhumation of the battlefield grave some years later, Moffat’s official identity tags were missing – but on the body was a small piece of curved brass, crudely cut into the shape of Australia and engraved with his name. He was identified on the basis of this piece of personal property.

His file at the National Archives of Australia[1] notes personal effects connected with Moffat. All it says is “DISC”. Usually personal effects like these would be returned to the family. But, as related by reporter Bridie Smith in an article published in October last year in The Age newspaper, instead of being forwarded on to Moffat’s grieving mother, for unknown reasons the disc was included in his official service record. It was still in the folder when, in 1993, the Army transferred its records to the National Archives. And it was still there when Moffat’s niece, Deirdre Meredith, opened the folder in the reading room at the National Archives in 2001. “It was a heart-stopping moment because it was such a personal thing,” Mrs Meredith is quoted as saying.

But when the file was returned to the Archive’s storage, the identity disc had to go back too. And so started a two-and-a-half year battle to get it back to the family.

The National Archives held the view that the little piece of brass was part of a Commonwealth record, and thus needed to remain under its jurisdiction. But for the Merediths, it was clearly a family heirloom – it had been part of Private Moffat’s personal possessions. Letters were written to the National Archives, Commonwealth Ombudsman, Government Ministers and Members of Parliament. And she wrote to the Australian Army. Expert advice from historians and legal advisors eventually persuaded the Army that the brass plate was, in fact, the property of Private Moffat’s next-of-kin. And so, in September last year, an Army officer flew to Melbourne from Canberra, and returned the little brass identity plate to its rightful owners.

“It was like him coming home”, Mrs Meredith said.

This story caught my eye because I can remember similar feelings to those experienced by Mrs Meredith when the plate fell out of the file from one of my first visits to the National Archives a few years ago. The file I was looking at was Jack Purcell’s A705 Casualty File.[2] About halfway into the stack of papers, I found a letter from January 1945 signed ‘EF Purcell’.

That would be Edward Francis Purcell. One of Jack’s brothers.

And my great grandfather.

It’s a very official letter, dealing with important issues like wills and deferred pay. But the signature pulled me up for a moment. It suddenly reminded me that it was written by someone with whom I share a name, and to some extent a family identity.

There are other letters from Edward Purcell. All are typed, as is the letter in the NAA file. All are signed with the same almost copperplate hand. And all are written in beautiful, almost painfully polite language. As far as I know just four other letters exist – all in Mollie Smith’s collection – and so because they are so rare I must confess to feeling a little disappointed that I had to give the NAA one back when I returned the file after looking at it.

Of course, this is a different scenario to the brass identity plate in Richard Moffat’s service record. Edward’s letter was an official one, written to the Air Force, and so it legitimately forms part of a Commonwealth record. Thus it quite properly stays in the National Archives, ready for anyone else who is interested to read it.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

[1] NAA: B2455, MOFFAT RICHARD JOHN. The digital copy of this record still contains a scan of the disc.

[2] NAA: A705, 166/33/163 PURCHELL, Royston William – (Warrant Officer); Service Number – 412686; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LM475; Place – Lille, France; Date – 10 May 1944 [Note mis-spelling of PURCELL]

71 Years

Lezennes, France 10 May 1944

Funeral Procession, Lezennes, 12 May 1944

We Will Remember Them.



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