Archive for July, 2010

Painting

Picture the scene:

Just after 7pm, 11 April, 1944. The sun is about an hour and a half from setting and the light is the beautiful golden colour of a mid-Spring evening. Lancaster B for Baker is sitting on dispersal, one of many scattered around the countryside surrounding the runways at RAF Waddington. An engine fitter stands on a scaffold, finishing off some work on the fiddly bits of one of the four Merlin engines. His bicycle leans against a main wheel beneath him. The Lancaster’s belly is open – earlier in the afternoon, armourers had hoisted 13 1,000lb medium-capacity bombs into its racks. A truck has just dropped off the Lancaster’s crew. They clamber from the tailgate and stand around, cracking bad jokes to ward off the gnawing tension that’s been there ever since they found out where they were headed tonight. Aachen.

While this is an imagined description, it is I hope not too far from what happened on that night in the spring of 1944 for Jack Purcell, Phil Smith and the rest of their crew. I don’t have a photo of Jack’s aeroplane – Lancaster LM475, PO-B for Baker – so this is my concept for a painting of it.

On my living room wall is a framed print of this picture:

The artist is a man named Steve Leadenham, and he happens to be a friend of mine. Steve did a series on VH-XBA, the first ever Qantas jet, and the story of its restoration to flight and eventual return to Australia a few years ago. I particularly liked this one so I got him to organise a print for me. Plug alert – have a look at www.leadenham.com for the rest of the series.

Steve grew up around South Yorkshire in England and as a youngster used to explore some of the old bomber bases that are scattered around that part of the world. As he said when I asked him to do a painting of Jack’s aeroplane for me, “it’s inevitable I will get round to a Lancaster sooner or later!” We’re at the stage now of throwing ideas around to see what we can come up with.

The general concept, as described above, is fairly simple – but what details to include or otherwise are more difficult to determine. I don’t, for example, know what if any nose art the aeroplane carried. This we can get around by positioning the aeroplane so that the port nose section – where any nose art would be found – is not facing the viewer, to keep alive the possibility of it being there should we discover a photograph some time in the future. Should the starboard aircraft and squadron code letters – either side of the fuselage roundel – be PO-B, or should they be B-PO? Should the code letters be outlined in yellow (which appears a 5 Group standard)? Should the nose carry a small “PO” by the bomb aimer’s blister (which appears on photos of many but, infuriatingly, not all, Waddington Lancasters)? Should the flaps be up or down? Should the bomb doors be open or closed? What sort of propellers did the aeroplane have – ‘needle’ or ‘paddle’? Did it carry the H2S blister under the fuselage?

These are difficult questions to pin down with any certainty. I’ve used as many photos as I can find of Waddington aircraft – the Waddington Collection from Phil Bonner is invaluable here – and I’ve asked a few ‘experts’, on the Lancaster Archive Forum and in other places, about aircraft configuration. So I can make a few educated guesses: I’ve asked Steve to paint the aeroplane with the bomb doors open (because they were hydraulically operated so would be left open prior to bombing up, and closed following engine start), with the yellow outlined codes and the smaller PO on the nose (basis the fuselage of ‘Old Fred’ in the IWM in London – which was on squadron at the same time – and numerous Waddington Collection photos), and with H2S blister and needle props (basis a photo of LM550, which came off the same production line). This is all based on educated guesses and may be incorrect but at this stage it’s as close as I can get.

In an effort to be as ‘plausible’ as I can, the Aachen operation of 11 April 1944 is one on which the crew actually flew, in LM475. The bomb load was indeed 13 thousand-pounders. The bicycle represents those that I know were owned by Phil Smith and Gil Pate. The idea of the “beautiful golden colour of a mid-Spring evening” is not entirely made up either. On 14 April 1944 – a few days after this raid – Gil Pate wrote to his mother:

“Weather here now beautiful sunny days + long hours of daylight, which we make the most of.”

On the Aachen raid they took off at 2016. According to the Australian Geoscience website calculator, sunset at Waddington was at 1850 GMT, which would be 2050 local given the Double British Summer Time in use throughout the war – or about half an hour after the aircraft took off. So the crew would have arrived at the aircraft an hour and a half or so before sunset, and based on Gil’s letter it’s a good bet that weather conditions were pleasant at the time.

The whole idea is to have something that makes a fitting memorial to the crew. It might not be ‘spot on’ accurate but hopefully it will be based at least partly on plausible facts. Rest assured I’ll keep you updated as Steve progresses.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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Dispersal

Very few wartime Lancasters ever saw the inside of a hangar. They lived outside, on big windswept bare concrete aprons. The aprons were ‘dispersed’ to limit the damage from enemy attack or accidental explosion (such as the one that killed three airmen and destroyed seven Lancasters at East Kirkby in April 1945), so they were known as ‘dispersals’, scattered all around an airfield.

For me, these dispersals are perhaps the most evocative parts of an old aerodrome. It was here that the bombers were prepared for operations – bombed up, fuelled up, tweaked and repaired – and boarded by their crews.

For more than 55,000 of the aircrew of Bomber Command, a dispersal was also where they stood their last upon friendly soil.

In April 2009 I spent three weeks on the Bomber Command trail, travelling around Lincolnshire. One of the places that I visited was what used to be RAF Bardney, a few miles east of Lincoln. Jack had been stationed at Bardney with 9 Squadron for a brief period in November 1943. My guide was Roger Audis of the 9 Squadron Association. Roger had with him a wartime map of the airfield, and together as we drove down the remains of the perimeter track we worked out where we calculated the ‘A Flight’ dispersals had been when Jack was on base. Though he never flew operationally from Bardney, Jack’s logbook records a number of training flights in Lancasters that would have been parked here.

I got out of Roger’s Landrover near the spot, while he went to turn the vehicle around. For a moment, I was all alone.

 

Today, very little remains of the actual dispersal. The concrete has mostly been ploughed up and crops now sway in the breeze where Lancasters once sat. But from the air the outline can still be made out as a slightly lighter patch in the wheat, caused by the oils and other fluids which would have been dropped while the airfield was an active bomber base. And there is something else present too, a feeling I couldn’t quite explain.

Jack was at Bardney for less than a month, but somehow I felt closer to him and his crew here than I ever had before. I knew that here was a place where they had climbed down from the crew trucks, looking up at the great hulking bomber. Here they walked around the aeroplane, checking that all was in order for a flight. Here they clambered up a small ladder and crawled into the depths of the fuselage. Here they started the engines and taxied off. The site has long been abandoned and is in considerable disrepair, but it was not difficult to imagine it as it might have been like when Jack and his crew were here. It felt to me like they left reminders of themselves here, waiting for me to find six and a half decades later.

I’m for all intents and purposes a fairly practical type of person so I am not going to claim that it was ghosts or anything supernatural. But there was a ‘feeling’ present at Bardney that I can’t altogether explain.

Most of that was stirred up, I think, by the dispersal, and by the knowledge of what took place there and on hundreds more just like it.

 

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

 

 

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Finding Gilbert Pate

Gilbert Pate was the rear gunner in Jack’s Lancaster crew. At 28 he was the second eldest in the crew, behind bomb aimer Jerry Parker.Gilbert’s was the third family I managed to trace in the course of this research. From his servce record I had wartime names and addresses for his parents and his wife. That, and a pile of letters written by his father, Sydney Firth Pate, to the family of pilot Phil Smith (kindly provided by Phil’s widow Mollie) was all that I knew.

A good starting point was the Ryerson Index – a free, online, searchable but very incomplete database of Australian death notices. I found a hit for Sydney Pate from 1956 in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Ryerson Index does not normally provide copies of the actual death notices so I needed to go and visit the State Library of NSW in Sydney. Actually finding the record was fairly simple – and it told me the names of the rest of the family – wife Kathleen, daughters Kitty, Peggy and Joyce, and of course his son Gilbert. I took this information downstairs at the State Library to their Family History unit where I could access electoral rolls. An afternoon at a microfiche machine yielded full names for each of the Pates and showed that at least Joyce and Kathleen remained at 17 Bowns Rd, Kogarah, until 1964. After this the trail went cold.

On a whim I tried the Ryerson Index again, this time with the names of each of Gilbert’s siblings. I found a match for his sister Joyce who had died in 2008 – or about two years previously. I also searched NSW Births, Deaths and Marraiges and managed to find a record for Peggy having married a man named Laurence Thew in 1936.

So I was certainly getting somewhere. The breakthrough came when the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader replied to a query in February 2010, sending me a copy of Joyce’s death notice. It said she was

“sadly missed by her sister Peggy and nephews Gil and Dick”.

At this point I went out on a limb. I took a guess that Gil and Dick might have been Peggy’s sons, and speculated that their surname might therefore also be Thew. Back, then, to the State Library, where it was a fairly easy exercise to pull an address from the latest electoral roll (2008) for both names. I fired off hopeful letters to each…

…and three days later, my phone rang:

“G’day, this is Adam”

“Adam. Gil Thew here. You wrote me a letter.”

I felt a surge of excitement. “I did.”

“Well”, he said, “you’ve got the right bloke”.

I am not at all ashamed to say that I danced up and down my hallway after I heard that.

After much subsequent correspondence via email over the next few months, I managed to meet Gil – who indeed is Gilbert Pate’s nephew – and his 97-year-old mother – Gilbert’s sister Peggy – on Sydney’s North Shore in April 2010. We spent a fascinating few hours talking about the story of Gilbert and Jack’s crew, about my research and about vising the graves in 2009. Gil had with him a great big box full of letters, official documents and photographs which we looked through, my eyes goggling at the sight of each new letter. Here, truly, was a gold mine. Gil initially offered to copy for me anything I was interested in – but as we went on it became clear that I wanted a copy of… well… EVERYTHING! Gil thought about it for half a second.

Then he pushed the box across the desk towards me. “Take as long as you need!” he said.

I copied everything in the box, sorted and catalogued it, then returned to Gil the originals.

So I have now spent the last few weeks transcribing letters and other documents from the box. It’s given me a fairly solid idea of what he was like as a person. He was extraordinarily close to his family – especially his mother. He was an Australian through and through – he enjoyed the beach and the weather and the food – and he missed his wife and his pup. He toyed with becoming a jockey for a while, played tennis and was always keen to hear sporting results from home, partidularly the cricket and the football. He enjoyed the good things in life but he also understood full-well the task ahead of him when he joined the Air Force. He tried hard to shield his mother from the uncertainty and he was to a certain degree hopeful for the future, but he was also realistic enough to recognise that he would need a great deal of luck on his side if he was to return to his see his beloved family again.

This is stuff you just can’t get from official records only. I have been greatly privileged to have had the access that I have had to this fantastic archive and I am extremely grateful that Gil has been so enthusiastic about it.

The transcription task is almost complete. Next step is to contact Gil again and arrange a second meeting where – armed with the knowledge I have pulled from this fantastic ‘box of tricks’ – I can ask Peggy specific questions about Gilbert to see what other loose ends I can tie up.

 

Current task: Transcribing Gilbert Pate’s papers – Vol II


(c) 2010 Adam Purcell
 

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Dom’s gonna hate me!

After I posted the last entry, not three letters further down the pile ‘to be transcribed’ was one written by Gil to his mother on 04NOV44 – the day after the Dusseldorf raid on which the unfortunate JE Teager was shot down. As Gil wrote:

“Our pilot Johnnie Teager is missing from a recent raid over Germany + we are more or less spare bodies for a while, although I have been operating with another crew. It seems hard to realize, until the empty bed space tells its tales.”

…which at least confirms that Dom and I found the right bloke.

It doesn’t, however, shed any light on why Teager was posted OUT to 1654 CU on the same day he went missing. So the following night Dom and I were again on Skype (this time it was him keeping me up well past my bed time) trying to work out a plausible theory.

A closer look at the 49 Sqn ORB reveals that the men posted out of 49 Sqn along with Johnnie Teager were F/L Thomas, Sgt Pantor, F/Sgt Clutterbuck, Sgt Payne, Sgt Minns, F/O Ross and Sgt Boxer – which as it turns out was the crew who were on ED438 with him when it went missing without trace over Dusseldorf.

There are a couple of errors that we spotted on the same couple of pages of the ORB: F/Sgt Pate as F/Sgt PALE, Sgt Johnson is shown as having service number 1485745 (CWGC have him as 1488745), and the Teager/Pate crew is recorded as coming from 1654 CU when Gilbert Pate’s service record is fairly definite that they in fact came from 1661. This I feel lends support to my theory that it is a clerical error in the ORB – the men having mistakenly been posted out instead of being posted missing.

All in all, I’m feeling fairly confident to say that Teager should have been posted missing. Teager does not show up as being posted in to 1654 CU in any case. For the record nor do the rest of the crew – Pate et al – but as they were all NCOs this is not entirely unusual.

We know from Dom’s 49 Sqn ORB that Gil and the rest of his crew were posted from 49 Sqn to 1654 CU on 04NOV43. We also know that Gil ended up with an Australian pilot (Phil Smith) at an Australian squadron (467 Sqn). So when I read this letter from Gil written on 26NOV43 it threw me a little (A01-411-001):

“I am having a pretty easy time of it lately as we recently returned to a conversion unit to crew up with a new pilot, as we lost our original one on a raid over Dusseldorf. The new chap is a Canadian from [illegible] + is quite a nice fellow.”

A Canadian pilot??!? This was news to me.

According to Gil’s service record, about a month after going to 1654 CU he was posted to yet another training unit – this time 1668 CU at Syerston. So this was the move that Dom and I couldn’t work out. Had the entire crew – minus the unfortunate Johnnie Teager, who by this time was in a German prison camp – been posted to 1668, or did Gil go by himself? And if he did go as a ‘spare bod’, why?

In April 1944 (just short of a month before he died over Lille), Gil wrote a spectacular seven-page letter to his mother and little sister (A01-441-001). In this letter he writes for the first time all about his path to an operational squadron. I transcribed this one yesterday – and guess what? Almost all the answers were right there.

“After losing our first pilot ‘Johnnie Teager’ who is a prisoner of war we were messed about for a while + eventually crewed up with a Canadian who had been recuperating from a nasty accident”.

So far, so good. There was definitely a Canadian in there somewhere.

“Well we were together a month + after that time his nerves began to play up, so he was taken from us + we were once more in the groove.
Shortly afterwards the powers that be broke the crew up + we were posted as replacements for crews on various squadrons.”

So it now appears that after losing their second pilot the Air Force decided that they were bad luck as a crew, split them up and sent them on their way. Back at a Conversion Unit, Gil Pate crewed up again – this time with an Australian Squadron Leader who was, of course, Phil Smith.

So had I just continued reading and transcribing Gil’s letters, I could have found all the information I needed, with much less fuss. But it wouldn’t have been as much fun, now, would it??

As for his original crew – in the same April 1944 letter Gilbert wrote this of them:

“Two of the boys of the first crew ‘drew the crow’ on Stuttgart.”

 “Still”, he wrote, “that’s all in the game.”

Indeed.

Current task: Transcribing Gil Pate’s letters, vol I.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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Prisoner

I had intended today to write about transcribing Gil Pate's letters, the task that is occupying much of my time at the moment. But something rather special happened this morning.

I wanted to try and find something about Pate's short time on 49 Squadron – specifically who his first pilot was. All I knew was from a transcript of a letter Gil wrote to a friend in California in February 1944:

"Soon after our arrival on squadron I lost my first pilot on a raid on Dusseldorf. The crew was then split up." (B01-004-001)

I also had some information supplied by Colin Cripps, the 49 Sqn researcher, showing that Gilbert in fact flew operationally on one occasion with 49 Squadron, a raid on (wait for it) Dusseldorf. He flew with this crew in JB467 EA-T on 3 November 1943:

  • Sgt E Webb, pilot
  • Sgt C Chaloner, nav
  • Sgt S Ollerenshaw, BA
  • Sgt E Lovick, W/Op
  • Sgt C Woodhouse, MUG
  • F/Sgt G Pate, RG

So the other thing I wanted to determine was whether this was the same raid on which Gil's pilot went missing.

I had requested assistance from Dom Howard, our resident 49 Sqn man on the Lancaster Archive forum. Dom came back to me this morning on that most useful of modern research aids:

Skype.

So, on opposite sides of the world and at vastly different times of day (0900 for me, midnight for Dom), together we tried to work out what had happened.

Dom found an entry showing Gil's posting IN to 49 Squadron, on 22OCT43. He was posted along with these men:

  • 158111 P/O Teager, JEW – Pilot
  • 1488745 Sgt Johnson, RN – F/Eng
  • 1391163 Sgt Cohen, D – Nav
  • 610592 Sgt Fitzsimmons F – W/Op
  • AUS423311 Sgt. Pale, GF – A/G
  • R173983 Sgt. Fallon (difficult to read – may be Gallon) – A/G

Note the error recording Gil Pate's surname as PALE – ORBs are not always completely accurate!

So we now had names for men likely to be Gil's crew. The next task was to see if we could find out what happened to pilot JEW Teager. I tried the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – no records found. Bugger. This meant that we had the wrong man… or maybe something else happened to him.

As Dom said, "4T9ers to the rescue!"

The 49 Sqn Assoc website has a list of everyone who served with them. A record was found for a JE Teager who had been shot down on 03 November 1943 over Dusseldorf – and became a prisoner of war.

Problem solved, or so we thought. Checking further in the ORB we discovered that Teager had been posted OUT of 49 Sqn on 03 November – back to 1654 Conversion Unit, with the rest of his crew.

Oh bugger, that's not at all confusing the matter, is it?

Teager is definitely in the ORB on Lancaster ED438 as second pilot. So we know he went on the raid. To be posted OUT on the same day looks a little strange.

Dom's possible explanation is that Teager was posted out – but asked to go on the second dickie trip before he left for the Conversion Unit. Unfortunately he never came back from that second dickie trip. Sounds plausible. But thinking about it subsequently, it makes no sense to me. Why would a pilot be posted back to a training unit, along with the rest of his crew? I've seen situations where 'headless' crews go back to training after their pilot is lost on a 'second dickie' trip. Indeed, this is what I suspect happened to Jack Purcell, Jerry Parker and Dale Johnston at 9 Sqn. So I can understand why Gil might have been posted. But his pilot as well?

I'm therefore leaning towards the 'clerical error' explanation. Perhaps someone told the compiler of the ORB that 'the Teager crew are posted', forgetting the tiny detail that Teager himself failed to return last night. I suppose the 1654 CU ORB might reveal whether Teager was in fact posted in to that unit again. I'm not expecting to find his name though, given he was in Germany at the time. Dom says he'll have a look in the morning and get back to me.

The best bit about this was that it was happening in real time on opposite sides of the world. The Internet and modern communication technology has seriously changed the way research like this is done. It's certainly sped the process up considerably. Letters from Gil show his pleasure when airmail took 'only' three weeks from Australia to the UK. Even the modern postal system can't be relied upon to be much quicker than a fortnight. This morning's exchange would have taken a few months to go through if we were doing it 'the old way'. Instead, we went through the records and worked out a couple of explanations for what might have happened, in a conversation lasting exactly 32 minutes. Not bad at all!

Meanwhile, back to transcribing Gil's letters…


(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

 

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Something Very Big

When I was very young, my father showed me a little blue felt-covered logbook. Dad also showed me some old black and white photographs of a handsome young man in an Air Force uniform. This, he told me, was my great great uncle Jack, who had been a bomber navigator in WWII. The logbook was Jack’s. He had been killed flying over France in 1944 – aged just 22.

As I grew up I became steadily more fascinated by the Man in the Photograph. Who was he? What was he doing in a Lancaster? Why didn’t he come back? My interest grew to include all things aeronautical as I finished school then gained a pilots licence, a degree in aviation and eventually a job in the industry.

Around the age of 23 I had a flash of inspiration. In part this came from the realisation that I was now older than Jack had been when he was killed, a thought that was suddenly quite confronting. I’d done a little bit of research around the age of 12 and again at about 18, but this time I had some proper academic research skills and a bit of spare time on my hands to get deeper into it. From this has developed Something Very Big. Over the last few years, I’ve uncovered a lot of information. I’ve traced the families of – to date – five of the seven men from Jack’s crew. I’ve gathered a worldwide network of contacts. I’ve even been overseas twice in an attempt to find out more.

Here were seven young men, from vastly different backgrounds, all by immense forces well beyond their control or understanding brought together to the one place at the one time – inside that Lancaster as it flew over Northern France in May 1944. They were normal, everyday lads caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I’ve realised that it’s a fascinating story and it’s one that deserves to be told.

I would like to be the one to tell that story. I’m hoping over the next few years to gather enough information to write a book. A book that will tell the story of the seven lads. Where they came from. Who they were. What they did. Why they were there. What happened next.

So, finally, I come to the point of the post. I’m hoping to use this blog to chart the course of creating the book. Not only should it be a straight record of the how and the what, but I’m also planning to use it to bounce ideas around in my head before committing them to paper – as a sort of jumping-off point. I’m not trained as either a historian or as a writer – so I will also use it to improve my writing skills as I go along.

If anyone wishes to inflict upon themselves the unrefined scribblings of an undeveloped author, I’d be grateful for any comments as I go along.

 

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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