Archive for March, 2011

You never know what lies up the garden path

Joss le Clercq alerted me to a thread on the RAFCommands forum late last year. It concerned a researcher who was trying to work out the fate of Sgt Leslie Edwards, who died of wounds or injuries in July 1943. It was discovered that Edwards had been on board a 27OTU Wellington that crashed at Church Broughton on the 6th of that month.

So why did Joss think it was of particular interest to me? Henk Welting posted on that RAFCommands thread that Bill Chorley’s Bomber Command Losses vol 7 revealed a Sgt Purcell had been in the crew of the Wellington. Joss thought it could have been my great uncle Jack.

This was an intriguing find. Because we have no letters or diaries from Jack, we know little about what happened to him directly while he was in England. Could Joss have uncovered a story about Jack surviving a Wellington crash that my family didn’t know about?

I quickly checked my records. Initially it looked possible. Jack was posted to 27OTU at Lichfield on 22 June 1943 and did not leave until September, so he was certainly there at the right time. But a few other details did not check out. Jack’s service record shows that he was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 20 February 1943 – before this accident – so his rank did not match. And perhaps more crucially, we do have Jack’s logbook. The first flying recorded at Lichfield in my copy of it is not until 14 July, or after this crash happened.

So it was not looking good. I rechecked the original logbook when next I returned to my parents place near Sydney to make sure that I hadn’t missed any pages in the copying process.

I hadn’t.

The next step was to ask Chris Pointon of the RAF Lichfield Association, who had guided me around what was left of the old station when I visited in 2009.

Chris settled the matter. It turns out that AUS410379 Sgt David Purcell was posted to 27OTU in May 1943. So there was a second Australian navigator called Purcell at RAF Lichfield at the same time that Jack was. It seems likely that this Purcell is our man.

David Purcell’s service record is online at the National Archives of Australia. It reveals that he was from Melbourne and enlisted on the same day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. He trained at Cootamundra, East Sale and Nhill before going to the UK via Canada. Eventually he ended up on Halifaxes with 466 Squadron at Leconfield. Chris’ email told me that David Purcell was shot down on 23 April 1944 on an operation to Dusseldorf. He survived and spent the rest of the war as a POW, eventually returning to Australia.

So while somehow disappointed that I didn’t uncover something else about Jack Purcell, I did find another interesting story – and potentially another branch of the Purcell family to look at. I’ve passed the details about David’s family to Therese Findlay, one of my regular correspondents on this blog. Therese says she’s found a Purcell somewhere who is working on the family tree. Perhaps they might have more information for me.

©2011 Adam Purcell

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Logbook

A logbook is a legal requirement for any pilot. In Australia, it must record at a minimum the dates of any flights made by the pilot, crew details, aircraft type and registration, route details and flight times. It allows a pilot to calculate his or her experience in terms of flying hours, and records the results of any exams or licence flight tests carried out.

But logbooks are something more than simply a dry record of dates, aeroplanes and times. They can also be intensely personal documents. Reading through my own one, I find my mind can very easily wander to remember a particular flight, and the circumstances surrounding it. “Bankstown-Three Sisters-Bankstown. Bumpy”, reads one entry. A simple enough description. But it’s one that belies the intensity of that flight, on which I and my passengers flew unwittingly into some pretty severe turbulence. Or ‘Circuits Camden – First Tiger Solo’, recording the first time I flew a Tiger Moth by myself, possibly my proudest yet moment in an aeroplane.

Unless one kept a diary there were very few ways that people could accurately recall where they were at a certain time, let alone what they were doing. This is where all pilots score. Your log book, which it was mandatory to keep and have regularly certified as being a true record, will instantly tell you that and, hopefully, jog the memory especially as the long forgotten names of the people that flew with you are very often there as well.

-The late Reg Levy, 51 Sqn Halifax skipper and later pilot for Sabena, writing on PPRuNe 

I think Reg nailed it. The terse notations in a logbook, taken in isolation, give fairly dry information about where someone was and what they were doing at particular dates in history. This in itself is interesting stuff for a study of the men of Bomber Command. But they can also trigger memories far beyond the short statements themselves.

It’s easier, of course, when the airmen are still around, because you can ask them questions about it. This is one reason why Reg Levy, in the last year or so of his life, contributed to a fantastic thread on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network (which by the way is well worth a look if you have a few hours to spare*). He used his logbooks as the basis of a superb running story about his experiences in training, then while operating in Bomber Command, and his rather incredible adventures after the war. The logbooks provided the spark, the interaction with other contributors around the world were the fuel and his sharp memory filled in the details.

It’s a little harder to ‘reconstruct’ what an airman was doing through his logbook alone if he is no longer with us. But it’s a good starting point. Other historical records and personal letters can go a long way to filling in the details. Maybe the end result won’t be quite so personal – but it’s a worthwhile challenge.

jacklog-last-page copy

*Reg’s pseudonym on the thread was ‘regle’

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Bradfield Park

After a period on the Volunteer Reserve, a newly-enlisted airman in the RAAF in WWII would find himself posted to an Initial Training School (ITS) to learn about the basics of military life. Each state of Australia had its own ITS. Airmen from NSW would normally pass through No. 2 ITS at Bradfield Park in Sydney. Many thousands of airmen (and women, for there was also a WAAAF school on site) would experience their first taste of the Air Force at this station.

Don Southwell remembers “miles and miles” of parade grounds near the gatehouse of the station. Don was a 463 Squadron navigator in the latter part of the war. Like so many of his era, his Air Force career started at Bradfield Park. Don took me on a drive around the site of the old station shortly before I left Sydney in October 2010. “The WAAAFs could out-drill anyone”, he said.

Don on occasion would need to guard the Station’s boat house, which was down on the banks of the nearby Lane Cove River. He would carry his straw mattress and rifle down a track through thick bush and stay overnight in the boat house. On one occasion he fired his rifle at the water to see what would happen, then spent the walk back to the main base worrying about how he would account for that one cartridge… history and memory do not record how he got away with that one!

Don related stories of airmen crawling through a hole in the fence and removing the white ‘trainee’ flash from their caps to appear to be ground crew and thus less suspicious, to be able to walk up Lady Game Drive to Chatswood Railway Station. Being a Croydon boy, Don says he did the same while officially on guard at the boat house. He simply waited until it was dark, then made his escape to catch a train home. He slept at home that night, returning just as the sun came up the next day.

There is now virtually none of the station left. The CSIRO moved to the area in 1979 when their National Measurement Laboratories were built. In recent years they sold off some of the Commonwealth land on which the RAAF station once stood. But reminders are still there. The main road past the CSIRO’s compound is called Bradfield Rd. Other streets close by are Squadron Circuit and Brevet Ave. And in the corner of Queen Elizabeth Reserve, a short distance from tennis courts where Don says some of the parade grounds were, is this memorial:

 bradfieldparkmemorial1 copy

Partly funded by the CSIRO and Kuringai Council, it was built in 2006 and forms a fitting reminder to the activities that took place there.

 bradfieldparkmemorial2 copy

© 2010 Adam Purcell

The Lost Diggers

“It’s like looking back into time, looking into the eyes of men who’ve just been in battle.”

-Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/world/diggers-at-play-frozen-in-time-20110226-1b97y.html

In 1916 a French couple by the name of Thuillier began taking photographs of allied troops as they passed through their village of Vignacourt, just behind the lines on the Western Front. They began it as a means of making a little money – but what they created has become a priceless collection of immense historical value.

The collection was almost lost to history. A French amateur historian first tried to alert Australian and British authorities to its existence some 20 years ago, but nothing came of it. It was only recently that they were uncovered, in three dusty chests in the attic of the old Thuillier family farmhouse. The Sydney Morning Herald article reports that the farmhouse was about to be sold – which could have been the end of the three dusty chests, until Burness and his team intervened.

As Gil Thew told me, his uncle’s effects hadn’t been touched for over thirty years. I don’t have any comparable material concerning my great uncle Jack. The family story is that his letters disappeared sometime in the 1960s. Perhaps they were seen as merely dusty old papers, of no interest to anyone.

But like this story shows, what one person might consider old junk could be a goldmine. I’ve been lucky enough to study closely the archives of ‘dusty old papers’ belonging to two of the crew of B for Baker. Reading this story made me wonder what else might still be out there, largely forgotten – but waiting to be found.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell