The Story So Far

It occurred to me this week that some people who have been reading this blog might not know the basic background to the story I’m attempting to tell. So this post is a general introduction to The Story So Far.

In broad terms, this blog charts the development of my research into my grandfather’s uncle and his wartime story. W/O Royston William Purcell (known as Jack) was a navigator with 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. He was shot down and killed on a bombing operation to Lille in France in May 1944. Jack was 22 years old.

There were seven men in Jack’s Lancaster crew. The pilot was Phil Smith, an industrial chemist from Mosman in Sydney. Flight engineer was Ken Tabor from Bournemouth, England. Jack Purcell, of course, was the navigator. He was from Strathfield, NSW, and had been a shop boy with NSW Government Railways. Wireless operator Dale Johnston was a motor mechanic from Dayboro, Queensland. Postal worker Jerry Parker, from Leyland in the UK, was the bomb aimer. Englishman Eric Hill, from Goring in Berkshire, manned the mid-upper turret, and Gilbert Pate, a wool classifier from Kogarah, NSW, was the rear gunner. They ranged in age from 19 to 30. Only one would see the end of the war.

Over Lille that May night in 1944, their Lancaster exploded. Ejected by the force of the blast, Phil Smith parachuted to safety, evaded capture and was sheltered by a French farmer before Allied invasion forces passed his position four months later. His six crewmates were killed in either the blast or the ensuing crash and are now buried in French soil a few miles from the crash site.

The perception of ‘Uncle Jack’ and his place in the collective Purcell family memory has been passed down through the generations, and indeed down  different branches of the family tree. I was lucky that it was my father who showed an interest in, and was eventually given, Jack’s logbook and the handful of photographs and documents that goes along with it. When he first showed them to me (I was eight or nine years old at the time), it planted the seed that in recent years has turned into something approaching obsession. I have now gathered a fairly significant body of information about this crew and what they were doing in a Lancaster over Northern France in May 1944. I have traced and contacted the families of six of the all seven men in the crew. I have a worldwide network of research contacts. I have even travelled overseas twice in an effort to chase down leads and visit some of the significant sites associated with Jack’s war. Most importantly, I’ve realised that this story – one of more or less ordinary lads caught up in far from ordinary times and doing far from ordinary things – is well worth telling.
So where to from here?

I’m aiming to write a book about this story over the next few years. There remains much work still to do. At this stage I am focussing on the crew themselves, looking at where they came from, who they were and the very different paths that they took to 467 Squadron – while also continuing the search for the family of Ken Tabor, the one member of the crew remaining outstanding. I’m planning future work to concentrate on training and the journey to an operational squadron for each of these men. Then I’ll look at bomber operations in the first part of 1944 when they were on squadron, particularly emphasising the Lille raid on which the men were lost and its part in the overall context of the war in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion. I’m also hoping to investigate some theories on what actually caused the loss of B for Baker, the Lancaster they were flying.

This is the story so far. Who knows where it will end up!

© 2011 Adam Purcell


WordPress gives you access to some interesting tools and statistics about your blog. For example, this blog has clocked up nearly 1,500 total views since I migrated it to the WordPress platform last year. I can see which links people have clicked, both from the blog to get to other places and on other web pages to get here (hello Lancaster Archive Forum!). Most interestingly, though, it also gives me a list showing the search terms that people have used to find me (numbers show how many hits came from each term):

Some are interesting:

  • dinas dinlle world war (11)
  • air traffic control tower dinas dinlle north wales (1)
  • llandwrog caernarfon raf training in the war (1)
  • llandwrog airfield wartime (2)
  • avro lancaster outline (2)
  • gil thew (2)
  • tail end charlie fradley raf (2)
  • adam purcell (1)
  • jack purcell family (1)
  • lancaster bomber elsham crash site (1)
  • avro lancaster line drawings (1)
  • a painting of a lancaster avro in a field (1)
  • fradley airodrome during the war (1)
  • lancaster bomber crews 467 (1)
  • jude findlay and adam purcell (1)

Some probably didn’t quite find what was being searched for:

  • lancaster jb467 (4)
  • old rcaf airfields firestation (2)
  • wartime bomb shelters in scotland (2)
  • 102 squadron pocklington (2)
  • “102 squadron” (2)
  • wartime fire service models (1)
  • canberra bomber navigator station (1)
  • wartime fire service stations (1)
  • photos binbrook dispersal apron (1)
  • air traffic control dinas dinlle (1)
  • lancaster lm550 (1)
  • sir arthur harris raf gravestone (1)
  • roger audis of 9 squadron (1)
  • very big canvas (1)

Some are just plain strange:

  • raf bardney ghosts (2)
  • irish sea paintings (1)
  • how to canvas something (1)
  • is the control tower raf bardney haunted (1)
  • are jack purcells still cool? (1)
  • repainting jack purcell (1)

But every so often comes one which makes me sit up and take

  • ken tabor  (2)
  • ” lille raid “+ smith (2)
  • lm475 purcell (1)
  • navy veteran dale johnston (1)
  • don smith 463 squadron (1)
  • who was eric hill born to (1)
  • search for dale johnston (1)
  • charles erskine johnston (1)

It’s this last group that gets me a little excited. Sure, there could be many ‘Dale Johnstons’ and ‘Eric Hills’ in the world. But from these searches, someone is looking for people of that name. Could they be the same ones that I’m looking for?

The lack of any comments or emails suggests maybe not. But I’ll keep hoping. And if you are one of the people who find this blog through a search engine while looking for someone, please leave me a comment. You never know where a connection might be.

© 2011 Adam Purcell