How They Crewed Up

The concept of the ‘crew’ is of far-reaching significance to the Bomber Command legend. A Lancaster needed seven men to operate efficiently. Each man would be specially trained in his respective trade, and each trade underwent their training separately. The way those individual airmen formed into crews remains one of the more unique parts of the story. In an Air Force so demanding of rigid procedures and highly developed organisation, the majority of crews came together in a curious, almost haphazard fashion.

The typical venue was a large hall at an Operational Training Unit. In the room would be gathered equal numbers of each aircrew ‘trade’. After a welcoming speech from the Commanding Officer, the assembled airmen would be told, essentially, to sort themselves out. Hank Nelson, in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, described it like “selecting a horse in a yard or a girl at a dance. You made your choice then the test of performance came later.” (C07-039-080). While seemingly chaotic, the system appeared to work well. Individual airmen would learn to work as an effective team and by the time they got to a squadron, most crews would live, work and play together. In the air they would fight together as a more or less autonomous unit. And the camaraderie would develop into extremely close friendships, some of which continue even to this day. It all started, in so many cases, in some draughty hangar at an Operational Training Unit.

Yet despite this being the ‘traditional’ way that crews were made, the men of B for Baker got together in entirely different ways. The available evidence suggests that only three of them crewed up at an OTU in what could be considered the conventional sense. After qualifying as their respective trades, Jerry Parker, Dale Johnston and Eric Hill all arrived at 14 OTU, RAF Cottesmore, in early June 1943. Just over three months later, on 08SEP43, all three were posted to 1661 Conversion Unit at RAF Winthorpe. The fact that all three were posted on the same day suggests that they were all part of the same crew.

The first member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to reach Winthorpe was actually Ken Tabor, the flight engineer, a week or so before the three arrived from Cottesmore. Because the aircraft flown at the OTU stage of training were typically Wellingtons which were less complicated than the four-engined heavies, flight engineers would normally go straight from their School of Technical Training to the HCUs and meet a crew there. This is exactly what happened in Ken’s case. In fact, it is highly likely that he had not yet even been flying until this point – Tom Knox, who flew on Stirlings with 149 Sqn, recently told me that like many flight engineers, “at this stage I had never had my feet off the ground” (C01-480-002).

Meanwhile Jack Purcell was undergoing his own operational training. He was the only member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to pass through 27 OTU at RAF Lichfield, from 22JUN43. What became of his OTU crew is not (yet) known – but on 19SEP43, Jack found himself posted to RAF Winthorpe, where the other four had been for at least week and a half. He most likely joined their crew at this stage. All five would be posted to 9 Squadron, RAF Bardney, on 31 October. After their pilot, a man named JG ‘Paddy’ McComb, was lost on a second dickey trip to Berlin on 18 November, at the end of the month the crew – none of whom had completed any operational flying with 9 Squadron – were posted to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston.

In parallel with the other five, Gilbert Pate went to an OTU (No. 17 at Silverstone) shortly after arriving in England in June 1943. He also went to 1661 Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, in September 1943. However instead of Bardney, Gilbert’s crew was posted to 49 Squadron at Fiskerton on the 22nd of that month. On 3 November, Gilbert took part in his first operational sortie, a raid on Dusseldorf. He was filling in for an injured gunner with an experienced crew. On the same night, P/O JEW Teager, Gilbert’s own pilot, went on the same operation as a ‘second dickey’. But Teager didn’t return. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. Like five of his future crewmates, Gilbert’s crew now found themselves without a pilot. They went to 1654 Conversion Unit and got a new pilot, but, returning to flying after an accident, the pilot lost his nerve and this time the powers that were split the crew up. Gilbert went to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston, on 14 November 1943. Two weeks later, on 1 December, Jack, Jerry, Dale, Ken and Eric were posted to the same unit.

Also posted in to Syerston on 1 December was an Australian Squadron Leader, DPS (Phil) Smith. He was already an experienced operational pilot, having completed a tour on Wellingtons with 103 Squadron in 1941 and 1942. Phil had been ‘screened’, instructing for a year at 24 Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne. He joined up with the three Australians and three Englishmen at Syerston and his logbook shows that his first flight with these men was 10 December 1943. After flying a total of 16.45 hours by day and 16.05 hours at night in a Lancaster, all seven were posted to 467 Squadron, Waddington, on the last day of 1943.

The crew was now formed, and ready for battle.

Sources for this post:

Service records of all seven men in the crew, from the National Archives of Australia or the RAF Disclosures Section

Phil Smith’s logbook – courtesy Mollie Smith

Chased by the Sun by Hank Nelson

Tom Knox – Stirling flight engineer, 149 and 199 Sqns

9 Sqn Association – Roger Audis

The 4T9ers – 49 Sqn Association and Dom Howard

© 2011 Adam Purcell

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