While sorting through some of my old files recently I found a few sheets of notepaper stapled together and covered in the messy scrawl of my own handwriting from some years earlier. It was a description of some of my early flying lessons from late 2003. As I read through it I chuckled to myself as I remembered the events I had described. On one page however, the flying story came to an abrupt stop. The handwriting became bigger, messier, more hurried. At the top of the page was scrawled,
“PHONE CALL FROM ROLLO KINGSFORD—SMITH, 6.30pm 13/12/03”
Rollo was the nephew of perhaps the most famous of all Australian aviators, Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. Far from hiding in the shadow of his famous uncle, Rollo had a distinguished career of his own in the Royal Australian Air Force. He was, in fact, the first Commanding Officer of 463 Squadron, which had been formed in November 1943 from ‘C Flight’ of 467 Squadron and was also based at Waddington. In 2003 Rollo lived in the village of Exeter, in the far south of the Southern Highlands of NSW, not too far away from where I grew up. I had discovered that he had flown – and in fact had a narrow escape – on the Lille raid of 10 May 1944 on which Jack Purcell and his crew were shot down, so I sent him an email.
A few weeks later I was writing out my flying account, having completely forgotten about the email, when my telephone rang. It was Rollo, calling for a chat. The notes I found recently had been scribbled during this phone call. Rollo remembered Phil Smith as a man who “kept much to himself but seemed a pleasant chap”. This certainly bears out with Phil’s letters and with Dan Conway’s description of him as a “fine example of quiet efficiency” (C07-014-143). Phil Smith had passed away some nine months previously and, while I had been lucky enough to meet Phil a few years before his death, it was quite something to hear about him from someone who had known and served with him at Waddington.
Given his close shave on the Lille trip it is not surprising that Rollo could remember it well. My notes from the conversation tell me that it was very important that they “only bomb the railway” on the night – I’m guessing that this was to avoid French civilian casualties. The Pathfinders marked the target, Rollo said. Then:
“we milled around for five minutes or so and that gave the German defences time to get organised”.
As we now know, it was this delay – actually lasting 21 minutes (A04-056-002) and caused because the first markers on the target were quickly obscured by smoke – which contributed to the surprisingly high casualties on the Lille operation (C07-018-185). Rollo said that the bombing height for this raid was very low – only about 6,000 feet – which would also have raised the risks for the bombers by bringing them into the range of light flak. There was, he remembered, “intense” flak about though he could not remember seeing any fighters about. Given the target’s close proximity to a nightfighter airfield and the delay in marking the target this, with the background knowledge I now have, I find curious. I can only conclude that Rollo and his crew were lucky – certainly the possibility of a nightfighter attack rates fairly highly on my list of theories to explain what caused the loss of LM475.
I never spoke directly to Rollo again. I had seen him at a Bomber Command Commemoration at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, but never got the chance to have another chat. He died in 2009, but I consider myself honoured to have spoken even so briefly with such an amazing man.
© 2010 Adam Purcell