It was a very significant letter.
A single page of A4, written in a steady but flowing hand, it was this correspondence of November 1996 which turned a passing interest in Uncle Jack’s story into something much bigger. The letter was from Doug Wheeler, himself a former Bomber Command navigator and, at the time, the secretary of the NSW branch of the 463-467 RAAF Lancaster Squadrons Association. Doug lived a couple of towns from where I grew up. I’d done quite well earlier in the year in a national history competition with an entry based around what I knew then about Jack. Doug saw an article about my entry in the local paper and contacted me through my school.
It was, in fact, this letter which led us directly to the sole surviving member of the crew of Lancaster LM475.
“Squadron Leader D.P. Smith survived and evaded capture […] I have been in touch with him a couple of times in recent years. I am sure that if you wished to contact him at any point he would be happy to help.”
Happy to help, he was. We made contact and, early in 1997, visited the old pilot and his wife Mollie in Sydney:
Donald Philip Smeed Smith – better known as Phil – was an industrial chemist working in the sugar industry when he joined the RAAF in 1940. By November of that year he had made his first solo in a Tiger Moth at Tamworth. He arrived in the UK in July 1941 and flew the first operation of his tour in October of that year with 103 Squadron, Elsham Wolds. That tour was completed in June 1942 and Phil became an instructor pilot for a spell. In late 1943 he returned to operations via 1668 Conversion Unit at Syerston – which is where, as a Squadron Leader, he was joined by the rest of the crew that he would lead to 467 Squadron.
The Lille raid was Phil’s 51st operational flight. Not even he could remember exactly what brought the aeroplane down. He simply found himself being ejected from the aircraft, by whatever means, and descended by parachute. After a short-lived attempt to walk to neutral territory in Spain, Phil was sheltered by a French family until the invasion forces caught up in September 1944.
Phil returned to Australia shortly thereafter. He was hospitalised in early 1945 with peritonitis. Mollie tells me that he was saved by a massive dose of penicillin. Phil wasn’t demobbed until late 1945, spending the remaining time of his five years in the Air Force as Commanding Officer of 88 Operational Base Unit, Bundaberg. He met and married Mollie after the war, had a family and returned to the sugar industry.
Phil Smith died in 2003. I remain in touch with Mollie who still lives in Sydney.
Receiving the letter from Doug Wheeler in 1996 and making contact with Phil Smith turned out to be a substantial factor in turning my interest in my great uncle into, well, Something Very Big. Here was someone who had actually known my great uncle Jack. Here was a living connection to the Man in the Photograph. In more recent years Mollie has allowed me to borrow and study Phil’s archive of letters and photographs, which has added immeasurably to my understanding of his experiences. I think this archive inspired me to start looking to see if there was anything else like it still out there, waiting to be found.
There have indeed been other collections like it that I have found. The search goes on for more.
This will be the last entry on SomethingVeryBig for 2010. The out-of-hours workload in the new job is significant, and I’ve discovered that I don’t at this stage have sufficient time to devote to properly researching and writing new posts. I’ve therefore decided to take a break from it for a month or so.
I should be back by mid January.