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

3 thoughts on “The Story So Far

  1. Firstly let me say what an interesting site. I only came across it last night – frustrating really- if I’d seen something like your blog much earlier it would have given me great confidence to not be overwhelmed by depicting a particular transport aircraft (C47 – DC3) in a dramatic WW2 context. I ‘ve been preparing a mixed media work for the RAAF 2012 heritage art prize (closes Feb 1 2012!) The artwork subject is a partiicular incident (one of many mentioned in a 96 page manuscript written by my father in 1999 -on experiences he and others had while serving ion RAF 194 squadron in Burma 1944-45). I have been working co-jointly with Dad who is 94 and has a fantastic memory for visual detail) My father Harley O’Regan (DFC) RAAF pilot trained on Bombers for European theatre but was sent from UK east to India in july 1944. Period after the Battle of Imphal/Kohima and the 2nd Chindit operation . He was attached to one of the many RAF and USAAF and Indian Airforce Squadrons delivering supplies to 14th Army during “the forgotten war in Burma”. All these volunteers Flying under the most hazardous conditions over dense jungle mountains and dusty plains during the monsoon season 1944. What is impressive to my mind is what You have said in your blogs and shown with both art and history in one package without the superhero jingoism just practical empathy for the subject and clearly you have the actual technical skills in art and composition to pull it off.
    My question is do you think there would be interest in a group of likeminded artists and history people in putting together a joint online or updatable source book of “stuff” to assist others in producing their artworks. I had thought of applying for 3 year ADF heritage /research – fellowship funding to put together a source book – guidance manual for the 1944/45 period for artists (ie including sources for their artworks (and not just the pink bits on the map! – in some ways not dissimilar to the family history, war reunion sites, aviation commercial and military sites the official and non-official sites, war artists, geography, history and pictorial libraries, war games and plane skins and all sorts of web based sites . I’d be interested to see if there is interest to keep the momentum going

    1. G’day Justine,
      Thanks for your kind words. I assume you are referring to the painting of B for Baker, described on these pages – I should first correct your apparent impression that it was me ‘wot did it’. It was not – all credit for the actual artwork belongs to Steve Leadenham, a well-known transport artist who happens to be a mate of mine. The initial concept was mine and I did much of the background research for the details (which I think I have also explained on elsewhere on this blog) but that’s as far as it went. Steve’s the one with the technical skills!
      So my interest is primarily in the men who flew the aeroplane – the idea of the painting was to come up with a little ‘memorial’, if you will, to that particular crew. They were ordinary blokes doing a pretty extraordinary job and so I think their story is worth telling… hence this blog and the book I’d like to write about it. I’m pleased to hear that your father’s wartime experiences have been recorded for posterity – with by the sounds of it a visual representation as well. Burma is certainly the ‘forgotten’ war and I freely admit it’s outside the fairly specific part of the air war that I have any significant knowledge of. For me, it’s all about getting these little-known yet important stories out there to a wider audience so that what they did will not be forgotten. It appears that the RAAF Heritage Awards have a similar aim.
      I think your idea definitely has merit but, as one who comes in primarily from the historical side rather than the art side, I’m not sure I’m one to judge. This is unfortunately a fairly specialised field – I don’t know what sort of ‘market’ if that is the right word there is for this sort of thing.
      Thanks for your comment in any case – and keep us updated with how you go!

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