Archive for June, 2011

Training

I was talking to 463 Squadron veteran Don Southwell on ANZAC Day in April about his training to become a navigator in WWII. Among other things he spoke about life at Initial Training School at Bradfield Park. He said that days started with physical training and drill, and were then full of theory classes – and when the trainee aircrew had time off from formal classes, they were expected to study. He remembers some particularly challenging subjects keeping him working at his desk until one or two in the morning. “The blokes in my hut”, he told me on the phone recently, “used to say that they didn’t have to go to classes because they’d hear everything from me… while I was talking in my sleep!”

This got me thinking (as happens every so often). In some ways, I can draw some parallels with what I understand of Air Force training and what I’m currently experiencing as a trainee air traffic controller. For example, the eleven other lads in my group and I are known by the simple name ‘Course 44’. We are timetabled as a course and subsequently we do everything together. We’ve become a reasonably close-knit group, with friendships forged in the furnace of shared challenges. We’re all (mostly) young men. Many have travelled from all over the country, and some from overseas, to do this training. We are learning a highly technical discipline, and we’re under considerable time pressure. We work hard, and we have to. There is the ever-present threat of being ‘scrubbed’ and washout rates are not insignificant. In short, this course is by far the most intense thing that I’ve ever attempted.

But there are a few key differences. Most of us are in our late 20s or early 30s, which is older than an average Australian airman in training during WWII (Don celebrated his 21st birthday on a bombing raid over a German city). There’s no mandated physical exercise or drill to worry about. We don’t live on site. But most importantly, the end result of our training – if we actually get through it – is a high-pressure but ultimately civil job. Sure, we’ll be on shift at all hours of the day and night, we’ll be working some pretty tough days and nights and there is no ‘pause’ button in air traffic control. But we won’t be going into combat. We are not facing the prospect of half of our number going missing in action. We can be pretty sure that at the end of our shift we will get home safely.

Which is a lot more than could be said for the airmen of Bomber Command.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

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Eureka!

Janet Hurst has been busy in Goring. She wrote a small article about my search for Eric Hill, and it has just been published in the village newsletter. And guess what?

It worked!

She was contacted by a local lady whose daughter married Eric Hill’s nephew. Janet sent me an email last night to tell me this good news… and half an hour later I received an email that started with this:

Hello Adam,

I am Barry Hill son of Frederick Roland Hill who was the brother of Eric Reginald Hill.

Bingo!

This is the same tactic that I successfully used in the search for relatives of Jerry Parker. I’m extremely grateful to Janet for her hard work over the last couple of weeks.

Barry says that his father died a few years ago but he does have a couple of stories that have been passed down through the family about Eric. Apparently he was something of a dare-devil. Those sorts of things will go a long way towards giving a story to the blurry photos I have of the man.

So Barry Hill makes it six families out of seven of the crew of B for Baker who I am now in touch with. Only flight engineer Ken Tabor remains outstanding. I’ve been working on that one as well recently, but not getting very far with it as yet. But getting this welcome news from Goring is very encouraging and keeps the spark alive.

I’ll keep searching.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Stationmaster

An intriguing email popped into my inbox the other day. I had written to Janet Hurst, of the Goring and Streatley Local History Society in England, seeking assistance in the search for living relatives of Eric Hill, the mid-upper gunner on B for Baker. She replied with these details on E R Hill, from a book published a decade or so ago on the war casualties of that area:

Eric Rowland Hill

Rank: Leading Aircraftsman (LAC)

Service No: 1295905

Unit: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, served as clerk, special duties, 250 Wing, Middle East Command

Died: 21 September 1942 of enteric fever (typhoid)

Memorial: Ismailia War Memorial, Egypt 7C9

Next of kin: Mr & Mrs F. Hill (parents) of Goring

Home address: Station House,Wallingford Road, Goring

Educated: Goring School, 1928-1935

Personal details: He was employed in the office of Smallbones, builders. His father was stationmaster at Goring 1917 1947 and assistant organist at Goring Parish Church

Comparing this with my information raises a few conflictions. Most notably, the ER Hill buried in Lezennes – and therefore not in Egypt – was named Eric Reginald Hill, not Rowland. The service numbers and ranks do not match. Either do the dates of death (1942 vs 1944).

But his parents’ names and address do support what I have for Sgt Hill. I had a suspicion that the local historian who researched the book in Goring might have muddled up his details with another entry in the Commonwealth War Graves database. But how could I be sure?

The first thing was to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the man I was looking for was indeed Eric Reginald Hill. This might seem a reasonably obvious fact, but I decided to go back to primary sources to be sure. I have a copy of a ‘Circumstantial Report’ from 467 Sqn to the Air Ministry in London, dated 11 May 1944, that confirms “1352851 Sgt Hill ER, MU/AG” as a member of the crew posted missing the previous night. This service number matches that on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database in the record for Eric Reginald Hill. It (unsurprisingly) also matches the service number on the gravestone in Lezennes. Phil Smith’s logbook has many entries including a “Sgt Hill”, and of course these entries are dated 1944, well after LAC Hill died in Egypt. This is to me fairly solid evidence that we have the right man – barring an extremely serious error by CWGC.

Next, I needed to find some sort of connection between Eric Reginald and his parents. CWGC records his next of kin as “Frederick and Fanny Rebecca Hill, of North Weald, Essex”. The names match Janet’s information, but the address does not. Wanting to discount the possibility of an error on the part of CWGC, I went back to some primary sources.

I found a letter written by Gilbert Pate’s father Sydney to Don Smith, the father of the pilot of B for Baker, dated 12NOV44:

“Your mention of Mr F Hill of Goring (Berks) completes the “tally” of 7 names, and we are obliged for this.”

Also in my files was a letter from W/Cdr Bill Brill, CO of 467 Sqn, dated 01SEP44 and again written to Don Smith:

“The addresses of the English members are:-

Mr F Hill (Father)

Station House

Goring

Reading

Berks.”

Janet then sent confirmation of an entry in the Goring Parish registers showing the baptism of Eric Reginald Hill at Goring on 26 June 1921. Critically, she says, he is recorded there as the son of “Frederick and Fanny Rebecca Hill, stationmaster of Goring”.

So I now had a name and address match for Eric Reginald Hill’s parents. But it still did not tally exactly with what is on the CWGC database. There was the remote possibility of another Fred Hill existing, one who also had a son named Eric R Hill. I needed a link between Goring and North Weald. And as it happened, I found something that, while not absolutely incontrovertible, is fairly strong evidence. It is a note on a scrap of paper found amongst Gilbert Pate’s box of letters. Scrawled on it, in an unknown hand, is this:

“Mr Fred Hill, 18 Bassett Gardens, North Weald,Essex. Father of Eric Hill”

This appears to match what is in the CWGC database. But can I explain the reason for the two addresses?

I can’t, at least not from what primary sources I have found to date. But I do have a possible scenario. I do not know when the unknown note was written, but perhaps the Hills initially lived in Goring and after the war moved to North Weald. According to Janet’s email Fred Hill was stationmaster until 1947 so a move around then is certainly within the bounds of possibility. Certainly it is plausible that, as it took CWGC some years to sort out all of their casualties following the war, their records were updated with a new address. The note may have been a record of that new address for the family of Gilbert Pate.

Having established, in any case, that Eric Hill’s father Frederick was the stationmaster at Goring, Janet sent me some photos of a rather pretty stone house in Goring Village.

It is called the Station House – and it is where Eric Hill once lived.

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Janet tells me she will ask around the village in the next little while to see if anyone remembers or knows what happened to the Hills. She also suspects that the family tree on Ancestry.com that gave some information on Eric’s siblings may not be entirely accurate, so will have a dig through some primary sources for me.

The search goes on.

Image credit: Mike Hurst

Other sources: Janet Hurst, Mollie Smith, Gil and Peggy Thew

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command in Canberra

There was an old man sitting patiently in the departure lounge in Melbourne when I boarded a QantasLink Dash 8 to fly to Canberra last weekend. Sat next to him was his middle-aged son. When we boarded the aircraft they sat across the aisle and a few rows in front of me. I overheard a snippet of half a conversation that the younger man was having on his phone: “meeting in Canberra… taking him to… you know, Air Force stuff…” I watched his father as we powered down Runway 34 and took off. He was gazing out of the window, and his thoughts looked like they were miles away: across the seas, and across the decades.

They were going to Canberra for the same reason I was: the fourth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. I next saw Ian and his son Phillip underneath the nose of Lancaster G for George at the Meet & Greet cocktail party later that evening and went across and said g’day. Ian had been a 460 Squadron pilot so it was fitting that G for George, a 460 Squadron machine, was the centerpiece of the function.

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It was an outstanding evening. There were perhaps 150 people present, a fair proportion of those being veterans. Talking about flying Lancasters with people like Don Huxtable, a 463 Sqn skipper, was a unique experience as he casually threw a thumb over his shoulder at the old bomber to emphasize a point. The function ended with the magnificent ‘Striking by Night’ sound and light show recreating a bombing raid around the Lancaster. We retired to the hotel bar for a nightcap, ensconced in a warm corner while Don Southwell held court.

It was a cold and misty Canberra winter’s morning when we awoke. But the sky soon cleared and the sun was nicely warming as we took our seats for the ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.

As is customary the AWM Ceremonies division put on a good show. It ran smoothly and Don Browning’s ‘Reflections’ presentation was particularly good. As the first notes of The Last Post rang out into a brilliant blue sky the line of young RAAF officers in the row in front of us snapped into a salute. It was a moving moment.

After the ceremony all the veterans moved up towards the War Memorial buildings for an extraordinary group photo. I counted 50 veterans, surely one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command airmen (and at least one WAAF) anywhere in the world these days.

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The final part of the weekend was the luncheon. This was, I reckon, the highlight of an already highlight-heavy weekend. Some 200 people showed up, with at least one veteran at each table.

The best part of this event is the ability to float around between tables talking to all sorts of interesting people. Until today, I’d never met a real live Bomber Command flight engineer. Tom Knox, a Glaswegian flight engineer from 149 and 199 Squadrons, is on the right here:

11jun-bombercommandcanberra-067s copyThe other man is Pat Kerrins, a pilot from 115 Squadron. They were in animated conversation regarding a mutual friend and just being a fly on the wall while they chatted away was fascinating. A copy of this photo will be winging its way to each of these men shortly. I also met Jean Smith, who served in the WAAF at 27 OTU, RAF Lichfield, and a couple of likely suspects involved with the 463-467 Squadron Association in Melbourne. All very interesting people to know.

This has become an extremely significant event in the Bomber Command calendar in Australia. The Bomber Command Commemoration Day Foundation was set up to organise events like these to ensure that the men and women of Bomber Command get some long-deserved recognition. Behind ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, this is now the third largest single event held by the Australian War Memorial each year.

Given the level of interest in this year’s event, the men and women of Bomber Command can rest assured that it will continue into perpetuity.

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(c) 2011 Adam Purcell