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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