Just another name in a logbook

I’ve been trying to find more time recently to devote to my Bomber Command research – or, more specifically, to my Bomber Command writing. For several years the focus of that writing was this blog, but as those of you who’ve recently had to fight your way through the cobwebs and tumbleweeds to get here would know, there’s been not much of that over the last little while. I’ve had unrelated projects to work on which have taken much of my spare time in the last year or two in particular, but I’ve also been working on some Bomber Command-related projects too – including that book I’ve been threatening to write for a very, very long time.

One of the things about that is that, despite all that research over a couple of decades, there’s still stuff I don’t know. And as I’ve discovered, the best way for revealing exactly where the gaps are in my research is by trying to write about it. So occasionally, despite setting aside a day for “writing my book,” as I rather grandly call it, I have to hit the archives.

And that is exactly what happened yesterday.

For me, the concept of “the crew” and the surprisingly informal way in which they were formed is still one of the most fascinating things about Bomber Command. Putting equal numbers of each aircrew trade in a big room and telling them to sort themselves out was a remarkably effective strategy, and the generally accepted story is that, thus formed, crews stayed together through thick and thin, becoming as close as brothers.

The problem for me is that the evidence shows this is not what happened in Jack Purcell’s case. The pilot that he crewed up with at 27 Operational Training Unit (Lichfield) in June 1943 is recorded in his logbook as Flight Sergeant Saunders. But Jack had a new pilot by the end of his Heavy Conversion Unit course (F/Sgt J McComb) and, as we know, actually flew operations with yet another (S/Ldr Phil Smith). Somewhere along the way, belying if you like the “traditional” narrative, his crew changed.

Trying to write about this yesterday, I realised that I didn’t know what happened to Saunders. To fix that, I decided to go for a dig through my files. The first thing I needed to find was a full name. The 27 OTU Operational Record Book, fortuitously, lists the members of each course, along with the day they arrived and where they came from. Here I found my first clue. The only Saunders who appears in the lists for the period around when Jack was at Lichfield is AUS8687 Flight Sergeant A J Saunders, a pilot who arrived there on 1 July 1943.

Saunders’ service number is unusual: I would normally expect an Australian number to be six digits starting with a 4. Knowing that original documents are often hard to read or have errors, I checked what I had against the DVA WWII Nominal Roll. This revealed that the ORB was correct. Born in Charters Towers in 1917, Alexander James Saunders enlisted at Laverton in Victoria on 5 February 1940. Enlisting so early probably explains the unusual service number: perhaps the format had not yet been worked out at the time.

All I really wanted to know was where Saunders went after 27 OTU, so the list of postings in his Service Record at the National Archives of Australia would be sufficient for my purposes today. Unfortunately while that record exists, it hasn’t been digitised yet. It hasn’t even been examined for release. I could order the record online, but because there is a fee and a delay associated with that and all I really wanted was that list of postings, I decided to first check if there was any other way to find it.

What the hey, I thought. I’ve been lucky with Google before. I tried a simple search for his name and number… and found one little nugget of information that cracked the whole case open for me.

It’s hidden inside Volume IV of the so-called Official History of the RAAF during WWII[1], an account of an operation to an oil target at Wesseling on 21-22 June 1944:

A third Australian, Flight Lieutenant Saunders, also of 83 Squadron, was attacked six times by fighter aircraft before reaching Wesseling. (p.204)

In itself, this quote doesn’t show me much: there would have been more than one airman named Saunders. How do I know it’s the right one?

Happily for me, the author left a footnote, and that’s what made all the difference. “F-Lt AJ Saunders,” it says, “8687. 467 and 463 Squadrons, 83 Sqn RAF. Accountant, of Townsville, QLD”

There’s that strange service number again, which told me I’d definitely found the right man. And, more usefully, three squadrons are mentioned – two for which I happen to have full operational records.

I went to Nobby Blundell’s ‘Yellow Books’ which revealed that Alec Saunders and his crew had been posted to 467 Squadron on 31 October 1943. From here it was easy. Going to the original Operational Record Books, I discovered that Saunders flew twice as a second dickey before taking his own crew on one trip to Berlin on 23-24 November. A day later, they were all posted to the newly-formed 463 Squadron, with which they flew a further six operations. In early February 1944 they were posted to 83 Squadron, a Pathfinder unit.

Blundell records the names of the rest of Alec Saunders’ 467 Squadron crew:

  • A J Saunders (Pilot)
  • F D Redding (Flight Engineer)
  • J S Falconer (Navigator)
  • D D Govett (Bomb Aimer)
  • T A Sheen (Wireless Operator)
  • K G Tennent (Air Gunner)
  • D M Robinson (Air Gunner)

I cross-checked these against course lists in the 27 OTU Operational Record Book, finding records for four of them (Saunders, Govett, Sheen and Robinson). It makes sense that flight engineer Redding and second gunner Tennent wouldn’t be at the OTU because the aircraft in use at OTUs did not require flight engineers and had no mid-upper turret, so the extra men didn’t join the crew until the Heavy Conversion Unit. But what about Falconer, the navigator?

It took me a moment to make the connection: at OTU, the navigator was Jack Purcell. He is included in the course lists, of course, but he wasn’t on Saunders’ crew by the time they got to the squadron. Where did he go? And where did Falconer come from?

Amazingly enough, in my collection was another little gem of a piece of information which brought it all together. This is a page from Dale Johnston’s logbook, recording the names of his crewmates. Johnston was the wireless operator on the McComb crew – the bones of which became the crew of LM475 B for Baker:

Alastair Dale Johnston Flight Log-13

See the third name? The one that’s been scratched out and replaced?

Sgt J S Falconer.

Falconer was Paddy McComb’s navigator right up to the end of Heavy Conversion Unit. Then he disappears, to be replaced by…

Jack Purcell.

Purcell and Falconer swapped crews.

I don’t know why.

But for whatever reason, at the end of October or the beginning of November 1943, just before their final flights at Heavy Conversion Unit, two crews swapped navigators.

Falconer went off with Alec Saunders and his crew and survived the war.

Jack Purcell went off with Paddy McComb and his crew – and didn’t.

Such, I suppose, are the fortunes of war.

© 2020 Adam Purcell

 

[1] Herington, John (1963) Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Series 3 – Air. Volume IV, Air Power over Europe 1944-45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Available from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417318

Anzac Day 2020

For over a decade, for me Anzac Day has meant travelling to Sydney to gather with members and friends of the 463-467 Squadrons Association. There’s been a gradual change in format over the last few years as time finally caught up with so many of our veterans: in 2018 for the first time no veterans were able to march or attend the lunch and last year there was no formal 463-467 Squadron lunch at all.

Sadly but inevitably, the process accelerated somewhat in the last twelve months, with the deaths of three particular stalwarts of the group: first Keith Campbell, actually a 466 Squadron bomb aimer and PoW, in July 2019, then 463 Squadron navigator and long-time Association Secretary Don Southwell in December, and finally 463 Squadron wireless operator and the final President of the Association Don Browning in January. Don Southwell in particular had been instrumental in organising the annual gatherings, so despite his son David ably picking up that responsibility in more recent years, the very knowledge of his passing cast a heavy shadow on things. Anzac Day was always going to be very different in 2020.

And then a global pandemic intervened, and made it like no Anzac Day has ever been before.

Given the changing landscape of WWII commemoration as the originals of that generation leave us, I was very disappointed that a gathering in person was not going to be possible this year. So I suggested to David that we arrange a video call of interested people, using the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom conferencing service, to gather, remember and tell a few stories to keep the spirit of the two Squadrons alive.

And so we did, and I think it went really well. A little over 25 people were involved in the call at its peak, including two veterans: Alan Buxton, a navigator who flew his operations with 617 Squadron and was posted to 467 Squadron for Tiger Force training after the war finished in Europe, and the seemingly unsinkable Bill Purdy, a 463 Squadron skipper who is the only man I know still alive who flew on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid that I’m so interested in.

(Bill joined in our test call the day before, popping onto my screen comfortably ensconced in an armchair with a glass of something appropriate in his hand. He said g’day, waved, and disappeared again. No fuss, as usual.)

Bill even put up a very appropriate Zoom background:

Bill

I asked him how he managed to drag a Lancaster into his living room, and that triggered a fascinating conversation between our two veterans about the merits or otherwise of the restoration to flight of Lancaster NX611 Just Jane.

Over the next hour or so, we went around the room, as it were, to hear stories from those on the call about their connection to the Squadrons or to Bomber Command. Attendees were joining the call from five states and territories and different locations all up and down the East Coast and beyond, and it was particularly gratifying to hear from a couple of people who had never been able to travel to Sydney to join us in person, but were able to participate in a conference call.

I read the Ode to finish off, and we were done.

After the death of her father last year, Fiona Campbell observed to me that we have now arrived at a “changing of the guard” moment. The responsibility for remembrance is being passed from those who were there to us. Suddenly the immediate children of the veterans are finding themselves custodians of those memories. If the spirit of the Squadrons is to continue, it’s the families who will have to pick up the duty of remembrance.

The sort of response we saw on our virtual Anzac Day gathering suggests that responsibility is being taken seriously – global pandemic or no.

Anzac Day Zoom meeting

© 2020 Adam Purcell

Vale Don Southwell

IBCC interview, 2016

You know how some people just feel like they’ve always been there?

That they always will be there?

It makes it all the more heartbreaking when, suddenly, they’re not there anymore.

Don Southwell was one of those seemingly immortal people. He was one of the first Bomber Command veterans I really got to know, and until a couple of years ago he was, well, always there: always at functions and ceremonies, always on the end of the phone for a chat. Always there.

But now he’s not anymore.

Don Southwell died last week in a hospital in Sydney at the age of 95.

Anzac Day 2016

There’s a lot that can, and no doubt will, be said over the next few weeks about this man. He was involved with the volunteer Coastal Patrol for a very long time, and after he retired, he continued working part time for “the MLC”, as he called it – the company that he returned to when he came back from the war – until well into his 90s.

It’s for his Bomber Command work that he’s perhaps best known though. Don was a driving force in the Bomber Command community, and particularly the 463-467 Squadron community, in Sydney and around Australia. He was always organising things: Anzac Day lunches in Sydney, ‘Ladies Day’ lunches in Killara, and of course the annual commemoration at the War Memorial in Canberra. It meant that at the events he was always busy and it could be difficult to pin him down for a proper chat. In 2016 I conspired to fly to Sydney the day before Anzac Day, taking my laptop and a pair of microphones to Don’s home for a proper interview. You can find the resulting recording here if you want to hear some of Don’s stories in his own words.

Anzac Day 2017

He was a great story teller, and he had some good stories to tell, too. Like, for example, the one about crawling through a hole in the fence while at Initial Training School in East Lindfield in Sydney and removing the white cap flash that marked trainee airmen (in order to travel incognito), then walking down the road to catch a train to his family home to stay the night. In the morning he reversed the journey to make it back to camp in time for morning parade, with no-one in authority being any the wiser.

Then there’s the one about his first solo flight in a Tiger Moth (Don was originally selected for pilot training), when the wind changed while he was up there and Don didn’t notice. His instructor came up beside him in another aeroplane, pointing at the wind sock, and Don went down and pulled off a ‘pearler’ of a crosswind landing. Despite this demonstration of his skills, he was scrubbed shortly thereafter and sent to navigation school. It hurt at the time but was probably for the best; “I probably would have been killed as a pilot, I reckon,” he told me during the interview.

And then there’s the one about how, on an operation, Don took a ‘wakey-wakey’ pill over Bohlen to stay alert for the flight home. After the war, the drug in the pills was revealed to have been Benzedrine, the first amphetamine. On the come-down after arriving back at base in the early hours of the morning, Don crashed into bed and slept all day – thereby completely missing his 21st birthday.

Anzac Day 2019

I first discovered the continued existence of the 463-467 Squadrons Association by the simple and lucky method of seeing their banner march by in Sydney one Anzac Day, well over 15 years ago, and deciding to follow it. I started going to the Association lunches that traditionally followed the march, first at the NSW Sports Club and later at what eventually became the Pullman Hotel near Hyde Park. This was how I got to know Don (who took a couple of years to stop mentioning me in his annual list of visitors, presumably once it became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere!!). I’ll always treasure my memories of him. Over the years he was a great one for ringing up occasionally with little tidbits of information to pass on, questions he’d received from people, or just for a chat. Those random phone calls from Don are what I’ll miss the most, I think. And probably not just me either; my best guess is that there were at least 250 people at his funeral, such was the measure of the man.

Don was one of a fair number of highly distinguished Bomber Command veterans who in 2019 departed on what someone once described as “that great final flight, about which we know very little.” It was only a couple of months ago that I sat in a very similar church elsewhere on Sydney’s North Shore at the funeral of Keith Campbell, for example. The fact of the matter is that now, those who remain are not just old. Now they are ancient. It won’t be too many years before none remain at all. The work that people like Don Southwell did, for so many years, ensures that the deeds of those who served with Bomber Command remain in people’s memories. It’s absolutely vital that the rest of us continue that work, to keep that legacy alive – in memory of Don Southwell, and of all the others.

Adam Purcell speaking with Keith Campbell (left) and Don Southwell – Anzac Day 2019 (Photo by Ros Ingram)

(c) 2020 Adam Purcell 

Anzac Day in Sydney 2019

Veterans of Sydney – a photographic gallery

1904 Anzac Day SYD-023

Ron Houghton (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-035

Tony Adams (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-098

Ernie Holden (a Korean War veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-123

Betty Seery (WAAF veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-133

June Hill (widow of a Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-137

Don Southwell (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-138

Keith Campbell (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-150

Frank Dell (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-152

Noel Cummings (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-157

Bill Ceoghegan (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-030

Bomber Command veterans during the Sydney Anzac Day march, 2019

1904 Anzac Day SYD-172

Veterans and widows following the Bomber Command Association in Australia lunch – Royal Automobile Club, Sydney

1904 Anzac Day SYD-016

Adam Purcell with Bomber Command veteran Tommy Knox

Photographs taken during the 2019 Sydney Anzac Day march or at the Bomber Command Association in Australia luncheon that followed it

(c) 2019 Adam Purcell

Releasing the Brakes

The shadows were only just beginning to lengthen as Phil Smith released the brakes to let B for Baker roll from its parking bay. He’d done it so many times before – pulled the lever with his fingers, flicked off the catch with his thumb – but it was only now that he considered what it meant

This was it.

It had already been a long day. The tension – as if he had a lump of cold lead in the very bottom of his stomach – started with a phone call from Group Headquarters, telling him that the squadron was ‘on’ tonight. No matter how many times he’d done this, that lump of lead was always there. It sat in the background during the scramble to work out how many aeroplanes his Flight could offer for the coming operation, and through the endless meetings and conferences to thrash out tactics, and in a way he was grateful that he’d been so busy: it took his mind off what he’d be doing, where he’d be going, when the sun went down. But despite the distraction, the lump of lead grew larger as the day went on: by the time he’d been to the briefing, eaten the ‘Last Supper’ of eggs and bacon, pulled on his flying gear and climbed into the truck that took them to their aeroplane, it must have weighed half a pound at least. And then the wait, that endless, awful wait, sprawled on the grass next to the bomber: forced jokes, nervous laughter, cigarettes lit with shaking hands, with nothing to do except think about the coming operation. In that hour, the ball of lead in his stomach felt like it doubled in size.

But then he’d climbed up the ladder and into the aeroplane. Walked, crouching, up the angled fuselage. Scrambled over the main spar. Strapped himself into his seat and started the engines.

And released the brakes.

Pull, flick.

Everything that had happened today – the conferences, the briefing, the truck to dispersal – had been preparing for this moment. The armourers who loaded the bombs, the fitters who tuned the engines, the airmen who filled the fuel tanks, all had been working to a timetable based on this: the moment the aeroplanes started rolling and the raid began.

This was it.

Phil had flicked off an aeroplane’s brakes for a raid many times before. Fifty times, to be precise. And that fact meant that this was the last time he would have to do it. This trip – a short one, they’d said at briefing, just three hours return, a piece of cake really – was the last one of his second tour of operations. After that, he knew, he could no longer be compelled to do any more. He’d be posted to a training school for another stint of instructing, perhaps. Or maybe he’d be given a staff job somewhere. Maybe he’d even be sent home to Australia. That might be nice, he thought. It had been more than three years, after all.

But there was his crew to think about, too. They were all still on their first tours and most of them still had about ten trips to fly before they were done. If Phil finished tonight, he knew they’d all have to keep going without him. That meant they’d have a new pilot to get used to, a less-experienced man most likely, and it would take time before they were as efficient a unit as he knew they now were. Survival on bombers was at least as much about luck as anything the crew themselves brought to the table, but they at least felt that they could favourably influence their chances if they were as effective and careful as they could be. Having to deal with an unfamiliar pilot could be just enough to tip the delicate balance from surviving to not. Despite having more than done his bit for the war effort, Phil was in two minds about whether he was prepared to make the rest of the crew take that chance.

He would have to make that decision soon, he thought. But first, he had to complete one more trip, and it started the same way as every other one:

Pull, flick.

This was it.

 

(c) 2019 Adam Purcell

The IBCC’s Digital Archive is now live!

1806 UK Trip-153

Riseholme Hall, Lincoln University – the home of the IBCC Digital Archive

For every hour of recorded audio, I was told recently, it takes the team of staff and volunteers at the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive about sixteen hours to prepare it for publication. First it has to be transcribed. Then the transcription is reviewed. Then descriptive metadata is added, and finally the item is ready to be uploaded into the archive itself.

Sixteen hours.

By my rough calculations, I recorded about 40 hours of audio during my 27 IBCC interviews. So that’s about 640 hours of work that I created for the poor volunteers. Twenty-six and a half days, and that’s if they don’t sleep. Or eat. Or go for a run. Or do anything else except sit at their computers listening to my interviews.

(Sorry, folks!)

It’s been a mammoth undertaking. There are now more than one thousand oral history interviews in the collection – consisting of 1,049 hours, 43 minutes and three seconds of audio, to be exact – and over 225,000 individual items, including the interviews as well as scans of photographs, documents and letters. More collections are being added every week.

And the good news is that as of today, the Archive is now, finally, available for public access.

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview when I visited the Archive offices, in the University of Lincoln’s facilities at Riseholme Hall, an old manor house just outside Lincoln, in June. I’ve also had advance access for the last month or so as a usability tester. I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen.

Only a small subset of the collection is currently available online: a little over 5,000 items or about 3% of the total. I’ve watched that number increase from about 3,500 or so in the time I’ve had access. More material is being added on a daily basis. I’m told the Archive staff have been pulling 12-hour days in the lead-up to the launch to get as much as possible loaded before it officially went live. At the moment this means that a lot of the really awesome tagging and cross-referencing won’t realise their full potential, but once a critical mass of material is reached this is going to be one very useful source of information.

A lot of this usefulness comes from the detail in the metadata that is attached to every item. As well as the interviews, every letter and document will eventually be transcribed. This makes them searchable down to the individual page, which is extraordinary for an archive of this size. The metadata that’s been added allows grouping of related items by (for example) their spatial coverage (where in the world they relate to) or their temporal coverage (ie the time period that’s covered). Where possible, items are geolocated. This includes wartime aerial photography, which, astonishingly, has been overlaid on a modern interactive map. I don’t even want to think about how much effort it took to make that little party trick work, but it paid dividends for me immediately: there’s a bombing photograph, for example, that was taken during the 10 May 1944 Lille raid from which my great uncle Jack failed to return. I’d never seen one before.

And this is the other great strength of this Archive. It is made up, almost entirely, of personal material collected from participants and families of participants. That Lille target photograph comes from the collection of a WAAF who served at RAF Skellingthorpe. In many (most?) cases, this material has never before been seen outside of those families. There are no official records – those can be found in other places. This collection is about the personal, the stories of the individuals involved, that together chart the course of Bomber Command’s war and its aftermath.

Combine that unique material with very powerful search tools and free, worldwide access, and you have something that will be one of the most useful collections of unpublished Bomber Command material anywhere.

The IBCC’s Digital Archive, developed in partnership with the University of Lincoln, can be accessed here. Go have a look!

 

© Adam Purcell 2018

Book Review: And Some Fell on Stony Ground, by Leslie Mann

While wandering my local remainders bookshop recently, I was surprised to spot a Bomber Command-themed book that I hadn’t heard of before. I was first attracted by the subtitle: A day in the life of an RAF bomber pilot. And when I pulled a copy out I saw an ungainly-looking twin-engined aeroplane on the cover. A Whitley! There are very few books about that part of the bomber war.

Sold!

As far as impulse purchases go, And Some Fell on Stony Ground, by Leslie Mann, turned out to be one of my better ones. At less than 200 pages it’s not very long. The novel centres on the thoughts of Pilot Officer Mason, a Whitley skipper, over a single day in June 1941. It follows him as he winds his way back to his aerodrome after an afternoon at the pub. It follows his preparations for an operation. It follows him as he climbs into his Whitley, takes off and points the nose towards Germany.

Despite being based on actual events, And Some Fell On Stony Ground is not, and does not claim to be, a history. There never was a Pilot Officer Mason who was on that particular operation in June 1941. The release from the bounds of strict accuracy allows the author to really run with things, with no fear of offending the purists or disrespecting those he served with. Mann opens the door and lets the reader in to the deepest feelings of his protagonist, and you get the strong idea he knows first-hand exactly what he’s talking about.

He does. Leslie Mann was in fact a rear gunner on Whitleys, shot down over Germany on the night of 19/20 June 1941. A raid on Dusseldorf, the same operation that’s depicted in the book. It’s pretty clear that it’s Mann’s own thoughts and feelings we are reading here. The result is very honest and searingly powerful. That its focus is on the early part of the bombing war, when aeroplanes like Whitleys and Hampdens were still front-line weapons, is an added bonus.

The concept of a fictional memoir naturally invites comparison with They Hosed Them Out, the book written by John Bede Cusack in the 1960s. But where Cusack’s original story is known to deliberately stretch the truth for the sake of a good narrative, somehow I get the feeling that Mann’s story doesn’t stray too far from how he experienced it. After his Whitley was shot down he was a prisoner of war for a little over two years, before being repatriated to England towards the end of 1943 on psychiatric grounds.

It’s evidently this last fact that led in the first place to the existence of And Some Fell on Stony Ground. Mann wrote it in the late 1940s, seemingly as a way of dealing with the demons that were still hanging around. It’s not clear whether anyone in his family knew about the manuscript until he died in 1989, and it took another quarter-century until it was released.

My edition of the book – which was published in association with the Imperial War Museum in 2014 – includes an introduction by Richard Overy, the distinguished and respected historian of The Bombing War fame. His writing places Mann’s story in context, both of the overall bomber offensive and of Mann’s own part in it. “The value of Leslie Mann’s perspective”, he writes, “lies in the explanation it gives of how it was possible for young men to endure this degree of combat stress and to continue flying.”

As the veterans of the bombing war die out, books like this will soon be one of the few ways we have to understand something of what it was like to live with the strain of continued operations, and how they coped with it. In that sense, And Some Fell on Stony Ground tells a vitally important and little-understood part of the story.

Mann, Leslie (2014). And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot. Icon Books Pty Ltd, Omnibus Business Centre, 39-41 North Rd, London N7 9DP. ISBN 978-184831-720-8

© 2018 Adam Purcell


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