Finding Dale Johnston

Alastair Dale Johnston – known as Dale – was the wireless operator on LM475. A tall redheaded Queenslander, Dale was 24 when killed over Lille.

As he was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, Dale’s service record was easily obtained from the National Archives of Australia. In fact I had a copy of this document as far back as 2003. So I knew from an early stage Dale’s path to 467 Squadron, via 14 OTU Cottesmore, 1661 HCU Winthorpe (where he would have met Jack Purcell and Jerry Parker) and 9 Sqn at Bardney. There is a photo believed to show Dale with Jerry Parker and two as-yet unidentified airmen that was probably taken at either Winthorpe or Bardney. When their pilot was lost over Berlin on a ‘second dickey’ trip, Dale and his mates ended up at 1668 CU, Syerston – which is where they joined with Phil Smith and Gil Pate before their posting to 467 Squadron, Waddington, 30 December 1943.

The search for Dale’s family took me down a couple of dead-end streets but in the end success came unexpectedly easily. I felt I knew the family before I found them because I had read many letters from them. Dale’s mother Fannie was, like many of her time, a prolific writer. Many letters from her survive in Mollie Smith’s superb archive. Sadly, her handwriting – not fantastically clear to begin with – noticeably deteriorates as time goes on. There were also a couple of letters from a mysterious ‘Mollie Webster’, which appeared to be from someone in this family as well.

The key lead in this search came from a letter written by Edward Purcell – my great grandfather – to Don Smith, Phil’s father:

“My chief grief at the moment is for my… now old and very valued… friend, Mrs Johnston. She has, as you already know, lost one boy on the Sydney, and, as her other son, Dales twin, is now on active service” (A01-086-001)

The relative openness of Australian authorities (when compared to their British counterparts – perhaps a subject for a future blog post) meant that it was straightforward to find the names of Dale’s two brothers.  The HMAS Sydney connection was particularly valuable, given publicity in the last couple of years surrounding the discovery of the wreck of that particularly unfortunate ship. A search on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website for Johnstons killed on the date the Sydney was sunk yielded a couple of possibilities – but I knew Dale’s father’s name was Charles Erskine so there was a very good chance that one Donald Erskine Johnston was the man I was after. CWGC confirmed Donald’s parents matched those of Dale – so one brother was uncovered.

I could then plug Dale’s date of birth into the Department of Veteran’s Affairs WWII Nominal Roll to search for Brother # 2. Two options came to light – Aubrey Thomas or Ian Rennie. Aubrey was according to the Nominal Roll in the Merchant Navy but Ian was in the Air Force, which seemed to me to be more likely to match the ‘active service’ description from Edward Purcell.

I tried tracing Ian on the Ryerson Index which had proven so useful in the search for Gil Pate. This revealed an entry for a local Queensland newspaper from 1992 but without a copy of the actual death notice following this one up was going to be tough.

Don Johnston seemed to be the best way forward. I searched for an HMAS Sydney crew list, and found the HMAS Sydney II Virtual Memorial. Some crew on the list have short histories attached that have been submitted by families. Crucially, Ian’s history was available in a scanned PDF document – which included this:

“Donald Erskine Johnston the youngest son of Charles Erskine and Francis Emma Johnston, was born on the 17th January 1921 in Oaklands (Southern Riverina) NSW. He had a sister, Mary Rothney, who is still alive today at age 92, and twin brothers Alastair Dale and Ian Rennie. The twins joined the RAAF during WWII. Alastair was a member of 467 Sqn when he was shot down and killed over Lille in France on the 10th or 11th May 1944. Ian survived the war, and died in 1992.” (C06-049-006)

In one paragraph it confirmed I’d found the right Johnston, showed that someone, somewhere remembered the boys – and raised the intriguing possibility that their sister was still around.

I contacted the Naval Association who runs the Virtual Memorial website. Their President, Les Dwyer, did the rest. He passed my request to the people who had submitted the history – and a few days later, Don Webster contacted me. He was Mary’s son. Sadly he told me that she had died a couple of years ago – but he did clear up that she was known as Mollie (which, of course, explained the letters from Mollie Webster).

Finding Don Webster completed the tally of four Australian crew members. With Freda Hamer the first of the British group to be traced, this leaves two more – the families of Ken Tabor, flight engineer, and Eric Hill, mid-upper gunner. I’m still working on these ones…

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

BUMP – My site stats shows that someone today (15APR11)  found this blog through a search engine, searching for Charles Erskine Johnston. As you can read above, Dale’s father was a man of the same name. If this looks like being the same bloke, please drop me a message through the comments box below.

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Tiger Moth

How I imagine Phil Smith’s solo might have happened…

“It’s all yours, Smith – just do what Maguire told you to”, the senior instructor yelled into Phil’s ear, as he dropped off the wing and walked away from the Tiger Moth. It was early on one of those mornings that had the promise of turning into a real stinker in Tamworth. “And don’t bend it!” He waggled the elevator up and down – oh yes, keep that stick back, Phil, you twit – as he left. Phil blipped the throttle to get her moving, pushing the rudder pedals one way and then the other to keep the Tiger Moth weaving but heading, on average at least, in the direction he wanted it to. As the nose moved to each side, he peeked down the other side of the fuselage to make sure they would not taxi into anything.

Still rolling, Phil pushed the throttle forward to carry out his run-up checks – reaching outside the cockpit to flick the magneto switches off and on one at a time while  listening for a faint drop in RPM, closing the throttle and checking it idled smoothly, ‘stirring the pot’ with the control stick and rudder pedals – then released the trim. Nearing the far end of the field now, he checked the windsock, satisfied that from here he could take off directly into the light breeze that was blowing. He checked for any approaching aeroplanes, then turned into the wind and opened the throttle.

As the Tiger started to accelerate, he added progressively more left rudder to counteract the swing to starboard – the tail came up and suddenly he could (after a fashion) see ahead. Like the graceful creature she was, the Tiger Moth lifted from the grass, seemingly all by itself. Wow, he wasn’t kidding, they do climb better empty. Phil pushed forward slightly on the stick to place the horizon just below the edge of senior instructor F/O Maddocks’ windscreen (speaking of Maddocks, where was he?), adjusted the throttle back to 2150 rpm and checked the airspeed indicator. Good, he thought, it’s reading about 55 knots, just where it should be. Gee, it’s chilly up here. Keep those b—-d wings level – still got the power on, still got the left boot jammed into the rudder pedal. Sneak a glance at the airfield behind, the slipstream clawing at the top of his leather cap. Flying straight, that’s good.

Approaching 500’ on the altimeter now – lead the turn with a little rudder, then ease into the bank. Stop the turn. Still climbing. Nearing 1000’, circuit altitude. Turn downwind, lower the nose a little and reduce the power to about 1900 rpm – there, that sounds about right. Trim out the control forces – airfield off to the left, its far boundary just outside the wingtip. There goes another Tiger, he thought, as a little yellow biplane lifted off. With the power back it’s marginally warmer, but it’s still jolly cold in here. Wow, I’m actually flying – by myself! He looked all around, but it was true – he was the only one in the aeroplane. Solo!

“Wings level”, growled Maddocks through the Gosport.  Or he would have, had he been there. Whoops. Phil came back to reality. His touchdown point slipped past the left wingtip and it was time to think about the approach. I thought I’d be more nervous than this. Pull the throttle back to idle now – the engine coughed a bit, must have moved the throttle a bit too fast. It settled, and Phil kept the nose up as the aeroplane decelerated. Rolling into the base turn – don’t forget that rudder – he looked through the wires at the touchdown point. Looks a little high, he thought. Wait… don’t fall for that one again. Maguire had always told him it was easier to lose height than try and find it again. With the power at idle, all went comparitively quiet and he listened to the sound of the wind through the wires. Whoops. The singing wires turned higher in pitch. Too fast. Nose up a bit – the noise fell away and the aeroplane slowed down. There. That’s better. He shifted his backside on his parachute – the aeroplane wobbling from the inadvertant rudder movement. Aiming point – that rough patch of grass – stayed framed by the wings, just where it should be.

He started rolling into the final turn – added a bit of right rudder to sideslip neatly towards the ground. Too high – watch that airspeed – more aileron and more rudder to steepen the sideslip, then the aiming point disappeared below the nose and it was time to straighten up. Kicked her straight, brought the wings level – put on a trickle of power for the extra control authority. Transitioning into the flare, Phil brought the stick back a little bit. Feeling for the runway – lots of little, almost imperceptible jerks on the controls – then he felt the wheels kiss the grass. Power off – a tiny bounce – then she settled. Stick forward a tiny bit to pin the wheels onto the deck. Keep her straight! The Tiger Moth slowed down and Phil’s view forward disappeared as the tailskid dropped neatly onto the ground. Keep her straight! At walking pace now. Phil turned off the runway. There’s Maddocks, out to the side – how curious, he almost looks pleased. Taxied to the flight line, weaving back and forth – there’s that erk again, waving him in. There now – throw the switches, the engine stopped, the Tiger Moth rolled tidily to a halt, perfectly lined up with all the others. Helmet off, harness unbuckled, stand up – on shaking legs – climb out of the aeroplane (don’t forget to turn off the front switches). It’s only then that he realises what he’s just achieved.

Big silly grin.


First Solo in a Tiger Moth

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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Visiting George

This was originally posted by me on the Lancaster Archive Forum, 28APR10. I thought it appropriate for a cross-post.

After spending most of a Wednesday morning and a fair proportion of the afternoon at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra making copies of the Casualty Files belonging to three of the Australians on my great uncle Jack’s crew, I drove across Lake Burley Griffin to the Australian War Memorial. The purpose, ostensibly, was to make a recce of the Research Room for the upcoming meeting of the Lancaster Archive Forum brigade. But something else happened while I was there.

I found myself being drawn towards the ANZAC Hall, the impressive display space at the back of the Memorial where the large-technology objects live. The largest of these, of course, is Lancaster bomber W4783 G-George, a 'high-scoring' Lanc from 460 Squadron – and it was this aircraft that was drawing me in.

The first thing that you notice whenever you stand in close proximity to one of these aeroplanes is just how big it is. I moved to the floor underneath the bomber – just walking around it in circles, looking up.

Every hour, on the hour, the lights around George dim. You begin to hear the sound of Merlin engines being run up. It’s the start of the AWM’s impressive Striking by Night exhibition, a sound and light show representing one of George’s many operations. A few years ago I was standing next to a Bomber Command veteran watching the show. He said it was pretty realistic – “but much louder than I remember it!” The show started as I was standing under one of the engines. I stayed there and watched and listened. When it ended the small crowd that had gathered to watch it dispersed – but I found myself frozen to the spot.

Just looking up.

I visited RAF Waddington for ANZAC Day 2009. This was expected to be one of the highlights of my time in Europe. It was, after all, the place at which Jack and five of his comrades set their last foot upon the Earth. And though it was a fantastic experience, there was something that I was missing. After Phil Bonner dropped me off at the Horse and Jockey to pick up my hire car, I tried to drive back into Lincoln. But something wasn’t letting me drive away. Something was keeping me there. I drove again around the outside of the perimeter of the station, but I left feeling very unsettled. There seemed to be unfinished business at Waddington.

As I tried to leave George, I felt that same unsettled feeling. Like something was calling me back. I can't explain for sure what it was. But the aeroplane – a collection of metal, shaped and bolted together in just the right way – had something else to it. Something I could sense. I walked slowly up the stairs nearby, lingering for a time at the top, just gazing at the Lancaster. Even as I turned and walked away, I felt the need to look back over my shoulder. The unsettled feeling stayed.

Each day as the Memorial closes there is a simple ceremony as the sun sets. Still feeling troubled, I stayed to watch. A lone piper stood under the Roll of Honour. He began to play an old Scottish lament, took perhaps a dozen steps forward, then turned to face the silent crowd. His haunting notes echoed around the courtyard. The piper was nearing the end of the piece as I watched him turn about face and slow-march up the steps leading to the Hall of Memory, which houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

He crossed into the Hall.

The doors swung silently shut behind him as the last notes rang out.

I looked up at my great uncle’s name, forever engraved on the Roll of Honour.

I smiled, nodded, turned on my heel – and walked away.


Original location: 

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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The Shadow in the Corner

My father first showed me my great uncle’s logbook and a few faded photos when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. Since that time, I have always been aware of the family legend that tells the story of the Man in the Photograph. I think my sister Jen said it better than I can when she visited the grave in Lezennes in September 2007:

“Jack has always been an intangible legend. A god. The man of the medals and he blue felt covered notebook. The man of the faded photo and the tragic love story. Larger than life. The sudden realisation that this legend was human came when I read out aloud his age of 22…the age I will be in less than six months. So I sat in front of a war grave of a man I was so utterly disconnected from, but so inextricably connected to, and cried”.

There has always been this ‘idea’ of Jack in the back of the collective Purcell family mind. The idea is of a young man who sailed to far-off places to fly in a war from which he never returned, leaving only a handful of photos and that much-prized blue logbook to survive through the decades. Jude Findlay – a great nephew of Jack’s from the other side of the family – called him “the Shadow in the Corner”. While growing up Jude was always aware of the legend. In fact Jack’s death affected Jude’s father so much that he went and joined the RAAF himself.

Consequently Jen is right when she calls Jack a ‘legend’. Certainly he has been turned into a legend, being the focus of much of the family lore that originally got me hooked on the story. But along with the ‘legend’ tag has come some mythology, or at the very least some stories of debatable or unconfirmed authenticity. Like the story that says Jack was to be married the Saturday following his death. Or the claim that his mother only signed his enlistment papers in the belief that a knee injury picked up as a young child would disqualify him from active flying. Both these stories I heard originally from my grandfather (Jack’s nephew). They may well be true – but they may also be somewhat ’embellished’. The Purcell family, of course, is far from alone when it comes to these family stories. One example is the tale Gil Thew tells of his uncle Gil Pate who, he says, was recalled off end-of-tour leave for ‘one last’ operation to Lille from which – of course – he never returned.

The problem is that, unlike the hard facts like dates and places that can be found in service records and logbooks, for the somewhat ‘romantic’ stories like these ones there is generally no definitive primary evidence – especially where the serviceman concerned never returned from the war. In these cases grieving families, desperate for any clue as to what might have happened to their loved ones, could perhaps grab hold of any information that might possibly relate to the bomber war and ‘extrapolate’ it into a theory relating to their missing man. It could also be a comfort or a defence mechanism, as a way of dealing with what happened – believing, for example, that the aeroplane was brought down by flak rather than a more mundane and somehow less acceptable accident like a collision. Over time, the theory becomes ‘fact’ in the minds of the successive generations of the family. This is the danger of relying solely on ‘oral histories’ from members of the various families.

But while dry facts like dates and places and timelines can come from official documents, it’s these stories that add a ‘human’ element to the history. It is, after all, a ‘family’ history – as much the story of the families as it is of the airmen themselves. How the families dealt with the loss is a legitimate part of the history – even if the stories they used to cope are slightly stretched versions of the truth.

This post took well over a week to write. I started off going in one direction but in the writing it took a few unexpected turns. I’m not entirely sure what it became – which is why I left it for a few days. I’d especially appreciate your comments on this one please!

Current task: Editing and cataloguing Dale Johnston’s A705

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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Jerry Parker

At 30, bomb aimer Jerry Parker was the oldest member of the crew of Lancaster LM475. He and his wife Ethel lived in Leyland in Lancashire – of Leyland trucks fame – where Jerry worked at the local General Post Office. They had a small daughter named Ann, making Jerry the only known father on the crew. Before the war Jerry was the Choirmaster and organist at the (then) Leyland Congregational Church.

Jerry originally joined the Royal Army Service Corps as a driver but it appears that in September 1940 he transferred to the Royal Air Force – according to his family because he could earn more as aircrew. Interestingly most of Jerry’s training took place during an eight-month stay in South Africa before he returned to the UK in November 1942. Via a series of further training units, and a short-lived stint with 9 Squadron at Bardney, Jerry made it to RAF Waddington with Phil Smith, Jack Purcell and the rest in late December 1943.


Jerry Parker was the first of the RAF members of the crew whose family I located when I first started doing this research. I knew that he had been married – and that he had a child – only by virtue of what is carved into his grave stone in Lezennes:

“A dear husband and father of Ethel and Ann”

Two letters in Mollie Smith’s archive provided the most important clues. One had been written by Dale Johnston’s mother Fannie to Phil Smith’s mother Edith in February 1945:

“Mrs Parker is sending a photo of her husband + daughter Ann, on Jan 20th at the Church where Jerry was organist + Choirmaster. Little Ann was to unveil a model organ with a brass plate to his memory” (A01-067-001)

The second revealed which church. It had been written by Rev Harry Townley, of the Leyland Congregational Church, on behalf of Ethel Parker:


“She desires me to add that only a few days before he retuned to duty, her husband [Jerry Parker] had spoken in Very High terms of the skill and courage of his officer, your son.” […] “It may be that you will hear something about Lt. Smith other than through ‘official intimations’. Should you do so will you kindly communicate with me […]” (A01-057-001)

An internet search revealed that the Leyland Congregational Church still existed, albeit now known as a United Reformed Church. I was able to find a contact at the local Historical Society. In June 2009 I made contact with Bill Waring, a member of the Society who had researched the war dead of Leyland extensively in 1995. He had the relevant contacts at the Church and, a few weeks later, I had an email from Freda Hamer. Freda is Ethel Parker’s daughter, but to her second marraige. Jerry’s own daughter Ann died of cancer in 2001 and Ethel herself died in 2003.

In June 2010 I was able to stay with Freda and her husband David in Lancashire for a few days while I was travelling around the UK. It was fantastic to visit them and explore the area where Jerry lived:


I also caught up with Bill Waring. Here he is on the right, in front of what is now the Leyland United Reformed Church, along with Ernest Wrennal (who led Bill directly to Freda):


Ernest took me upstairs behind the church, through a small wooden door and onto a little balcony which looks over the pews. He opened some sliding doors – and there was the organ which Jerry used to play:


Back at home, Freda and I spent considerable time talking about the lads and what I had managed to find out about them. I copied her mother’s collection of letters and photos about Jerry – including one very special fragment of a poem which Jerry had written for her. But what I found most poignant was a simple bookshelf which sits in Freda’s front hall. it’s of simple but strong construction and a bit rough around the edges in places: 


But it had been built by Jerry.


Current task: Cataloguing and editing Freda’s collection of photos and letters

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell


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On the far north western edge of Wales is the old fortified city of Caernarfon. Its magnificent castle looks out over a flat estury on one side, with dramatic hills rising above the horizon on the other. Eight or so miles south of Caernarfon is a tiny stone village named Llandwrog, situated in low hills a short distance from the Irish Sea.

From Llandwrog the ground slopes down gently towards the coast, flattening out at the bottom into a wide plain. The plain is surrounded on three sides by the hills of Snowdonia, rising up to 3,500 feet. The hills are responsible for the unique weather of the locality. Biting westerly winds sweep off the sea, bringing moisture-laden air with them. The air is deflected up by the rising terrain and, as it cools with altitude, the moisture condenses into cloud. It is not unusual for the entire British Isles to be clear of cloud, except for this tiny corner of Wales (and perhaps deepest, darkest, northern-est Scotland):

On the plain between the village of Llandwrog and the sea is an airfield. Despite being closer to the village of Dinas Dinlle, the airfield was originally named RAF Llandwrog. It opened in January 1941 as the home of No. 9 (Observers) Advanced Flying Unit and later became famous as the base of the first ever RAF Mountain Rescue unit. In late May 1943, following three months thumb-twiddling at No. 11 PDRC in Bournemouth and two months flying in Tiger Moths at No. 26 EFTS at the old grass airfield at Theale in Reading, Jack Purcell found himself posted to RAF Llandwrog. Over the next month or so he would log 18.25 hours by day and 7.10 hours at night flying in Avro Ansons.

Summer in this part of the world is very different to summer in Australia. It’s not too difficult to imagine what Jack may have thought on first being posted to this place with the strange name. He had been exposed to flying in English conditions in the Tiger Moths at Theale – but not in something relatively modern like an Anson, and certainly not in weather as persistant as that at Llandwrog. Visibility would have been often reduced in atmospheric haze, which made visual navigation difficult. The wind over the hills made the air bumpy when an aeroplane strayed too close to them. Sure, aeroplanes bounced a bit in thermals in Australia, but this was a different sort of bump. Even in summer the wind would be cold, especially when it blew straight off the Irish Sea. The beach is covered in pebbles and under a cloudy sky would have looked far less than inviting. In short, this must have looked like a forgotten part of the world.

Llandwrog, I discovered when I visited the area in June 2010, is pronounced ‘G’lland-oohrogh’. The airfield, now known as Caernarfon Airworld, is still active and is home to a flying club and a small museum. Despite the brand new hangar and operations building, much remains of the old RAF station. The former fire station, now missing important bits like its roof, stands behind the museum:

The old control tower – until recently the headquarters of the flying club and still in use as their air-ground radio base – still stands:

Behind the fire shed is a remarkably intact bomb shelter:

I particularly wanted to go flying from Caernarfon because of its connection with Jack’s story. I took along a local instructor named Phil. We flew south along the peninsula towards Bardsey Island, keeping below the cloud base. Nearer the island it became clear that the cloud was very much ‘following’ the coast line and we emerged into beautifully clear flying weather:

The cloud, however, stretched solidly over land back towards the airfield and the tops of some of the higher peaks were easily visible popping out the top of it as we flew ‘over the top’. It was easy to see how someone not used to flying in the area (like, for example, a brand new Australian WWII navigator) might blunder into what pilots euphemistically call ‘cumulo-granite’. We were able to use the modern aid of radar and a helpful air traffic controller from nearby RAF Valley to vector us clear of the terrain for a descent through cloud over the sea before we returned to the airfield, but this of course was not an option during wartime. It really is no wonder so many aircraft crashes occurred (and, sadly, continue to occur) in the Snowdonia area – a direct factor in the creation of the RAF Mountain Rescue team originally based at RAF Llandwrog.

For a morning, I had walked (and flown) in the footsteps of my great uncle. Though in some respects modernised there remains much in this area that has probably not changed in the six and a half decades since Jack was here. The sleepy little stone villages remain sleepy little stone villages. The airfield remains an airfield. The wind and the cloud is still the same wind and cloud. The connection that I felt to that time was made even stronger when I discovered the full name of the instructor I flew with.

He was called Phil Smith.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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