Archive for November, 2011

Dealing with the stress

“I promise that if you had witnessed normal Mess night booze up “goings on” during stand-downs then you would think that we were all ‘Flack Happy'” – Dennis Over, 227 Sqn rear gunner (C03-021-020).

Aircrew have always had something of a reputation for wildness, and in wartime particularly so. The mess on a wartime bomber station was often the scene of raucous gatherings of airmen getting up to no good. Often there was a reason to celebrate – a crew finished a tour of operations, perhaps, or a Lancaster chalked up 100 operations. Phil Smith, while at 103 Sqn, Elsham Wolds, learnt one day that the Squadron commander was posted overseas and was to leave early the next morning:

We had a party in the mess last night to wish him farewell. It was a very noisy and rowdy affair but quite good fun. It ended up with us all, including the C.O, with our coats off, cockfighting and wrestling on the floor. (A01-207-001).

As Phil wrote in his usual understated way in his diary the next day, “Good fun but not very dignified” (B03-001-001).

On another occasion Phil and a few comrades received visitors at RAF Long Marston in September 1943:

The Chief Instructor + my old flight commander and some others came over from Honeybourne to pay a friendly call. We ended up by returning the compliment – to liven up their mess. It resulted in a certain amount of broken furniture cups and glasses…. The met man had quite a brawl with the chief bombing leader up in the rafters like monkeys (A01-296-002).

Peter Brett, a 183 Sqn Typhoon pilot in France late in the war, was not the only airman to write of aircrew leaving blackened footprints on the ceiling during an impromptu mess party resulting from a three-day stand-down:

Most of us used to drink a pint or two every night but on party nights it was almost obligatory to become legless!

At first glance, there’s nothing surprising about a bunch of young men in the armed forces drinking and carrying on in the mess. Mess parties were a way to blow off a bit of steam, to maybe forget for a while the stresses and never-ending tension of nightly raids over enemy territory. But there is evidence that some men figured it was more important than that. Bob Murphy, a navigator on 467 Sqn then 61 Sqn, spoke about this in a video interview, taped for a documentary called “Wings of the Storm” in the 1980s:

Those who stayed home in the mess – read books, wrote letters home every night – for some reason or other seemed to be the ones that got shot down early’ […] others, a little bit wild like myself, seemed to be the ones who lived. (C07-044-001).

Letting off steam through drinking was (and still is) a common reaction to a prolonged stressful situation. Murphy took it even further when his pilot, Arthur Doubleday, took command of 61 Sqn in 1944. The entire crew was posted to Skellingthorpe, as Hank Nelson writes in Chased by the Sun (C07-036-178):

Given short warning of his posting, Doubleday and his crew arrived at Skellingthorpe to find that 61 Squadron had suffered high losses overBerlinand had just had three aircraft shot down on the Nuremburg raid and another two damaged in crashes. Bob Murphy said that they walked into the mess, and ‘you could hear a pin drop’. On their second night at Skellingthorpe, Doubleday’s crew tried to lift morale: ‘We decided to put on a party. Got the beer flowing, blackened a few bottoms and put the impressions on the ceiling of the mess – generally livened the place up’

Rollo Kingsford-Smith, Nelson wrote, “said that in the dark days of early 1944 he ‘was keeping going by drinking solidly’ and the company in the bar was part of the ‘therapy’.” (C07-036-178)

Nelson also reports that when Dan Conway, a 467 Sqn skipper, needed a new flight engineer,

…he asked the ‘spruce RAF sergeant’ who came forward, ‘Do you drink?’ The sergeant hesitated, but confessed that he did. Conway immediately said, ‘You’ll do’.Conway had decided that the camaraderie of the pubs was important to the crew and was not to be jeopardised. (C07-036-081)

Bomber Command aircrew were lucky that they had access to the mess and pubs and fairly frequent opportunities to visit them. But wartime restrictions meant that the English beer did not impress everyone. The last word on that subject goes to Don Huxtable, a 463 Sqn skipper. The beer was so weak it took 16 pints to really get started, he said. “It couldn’t go flat ‘cos it was flat already… and it couldn’t go warm ‘cos it was warm already too!”

Following the ANZAC Day march in Sydney this year, Don beat all of us to the bar.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

 Wings of the Storm interviews are available to view in the Research Centre of the Australian War Memorial

Flight Engineer

In the early days of the bomber offensive, British aircraft like the Wellington would typically fly with a ‘second pilot’ in a support role to operate flaps and throttles or to take over for a while in the cruise. Phil Smith was operating on his first tour with 103 Sqn at this time, and his logbook records that he completed ten operations as second pilot before being given his own crew. The second pilot would be a fully-trained and qualified pilot who was usually less experienced than the ‘first pilot’ who commanded the aeroplane. But this meant, of course, that to lose one aircraft would mean losing two pilots – and pilots were perhaps the hardest (and most expensive) out of the aircrew categories to train and replace.

The Stirlings, Lancasters and Halifaxes that began coming on line around then had more complex systems than those on, for example, the Wellington, so a more specialised member of the crew was required. Around the beginning of 1942 the second pilot was starting to be replaced by a dedicated member of the crew whose job it was to know where every single switch and dial and gauge on their aeroplane was (and in the dark), and what they did: the flight engineer.

Initially, flight engineers were taken from the ranks of the ground crew already serving at RAF bases: the engine fitters and mechanics whose technical knowledge was already of a high standard. But when the demand for heavy bomber crews really ramped up the supply of suitable ground crew available to take conversion training began to slow. So the RAF began training ‘direct entry’ flight engineers from scratch.

One of these direct entry flight engineers was Tom Knox, a Glaswegian who moved to Australia after the war and still retains his beautiful accent. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Tom in Canberra in June, and recently spent an afternoon visiting him at home onSydney’s northern beaches.

Tom had begun an engineering apprenticeship when he was 16. Being a reserved occupation, the only way he could get out of it was to join up as aircrew. “So I did it!”, he wrote to me in a letter in June 2011. He reported to Lords Cricket Ground just after his 18th birthday, did his ‘square bashing’ in Devon and went to No. 4 School of Technical Training, St Athan.

It was here where young men learnt everything there was to know about their aeroplanes. The training was remarkably solid. Cliff Leach (a pilot who retrained as a flight engineer late in the war) remembers copying diagrams of the various systems from a blackboard and being asked to reproduce from memory some of them in exams. Cliff, aided by his classroom notes which he still has, remembers a lot of the systems of the Lancaster more than six decades later.

During their course the trainee flight engineers covered fuel systems, instrument panels, flight controls, engines, electricals, hydraulics and pneumatics. They learnt how to do the pre-flight inspection. They experienced hypoxia in a decompression chamber, to be able to recognise it if it arose on operations. They spent a week on a ‘Maker’s Course’, visiting Avro or Short Brothers or Handley-Page to gain an insider’s view of their specific aircraft. The final assessment consisted of written tests on each of the subjects they had studied followed by a face-to-face test.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about their training is that, even after receiving the half-wing brevet with an E – the mark of a fully qualified flight engineer – most of them had in fact never been up in the air. And when they got to the next stage, a Heavy Conversion Unit, the men that they would join had already been a crew for some months.

In Tom’s case, crewing up was very simple. He was approached by a young Australian Flight Sergeant who asked if he wanted to join the crew – and that was that. His first experience of flight was in the rear turret of a Stirling shortly afterwards. “It was scary”, he says, but he handled it ok and went on to fly operationally with 149 and 199 Squadrons.

The flight engineer on B for Baker was a young man named Ken Tabor. He joined the RAF on his 18th birthday and was at St Athan between February and August 1943. In this photograph he is standing with his parents, wearing his Flight Engineer’s brevet:

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The brevet shows that the photo was taken after he graduated from St Athan, which happened in August 1943 – perhaps the snap was taken while Ken was visiting his family on leave in Dorset before he went to an operational squadron.

Ken Tabor was the youngest man on board B for Baker when it went missing over Lille in May 1944. He had not yet reached his 20th birthday.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Image: Steve Butson

Thanks also to Tom Knox and Cliff Leach for their input to this post.

The Men in the Photographs

Before he left Australia, Jack Purcell had a formal portrait taken of him wearing his Royal Australian Air Force uniform. The half-wing with the ‘N’, denoting a qualified navigator, is clearly visible, as are his Sergeant’s stripes. It is one of only a small number of photos that we have of Jack and, along with his logbook, it was that photograph of Jack that first fired my interest in the subject of Bomber Command and the part that he played in it.

Giving a face to match a man’s name is an important part of telling his history. It makes the stories somehow more real – as if saying that they are not mere words. They are real stories about real people. As such finding photographs of each of the seven men who flew in B for Baker was something I have been very keen to achieve. And now, having recently made contact with the final family, I have done exactly that.

So here, all together for the first time, are photographs of each of the crew of B for Baker. As is traditional, we will begin with the pilot.

Pilot: Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith (Phil)

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A fine portrait of a remarkably young-looking Phil Smith, taken while on leave in London.

Flight Engineer: Sergeant Kenneth Harold Tabor

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By far the youngest on the crew, Ken was just 19 when he was killed over Lille. This photograph shows him on the left, with his brother Bill. He is wearing the Flight Engineer’s brevet so it was probably taken in late 1943.

Navigator: Warrant Officer Royston William Purcell (Jack)

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The presence of an N half wing and sergeants’ stripes (and the stamp from a Sydney photographer on the back of it) dates this photo to mid 1942. This was the photo of Jack that started my journey to find out more about him.

Bomb Aimer: Flight Sergeant Jeremiah Parker (Jerry)

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At 30, Jerry Parker was the oldest member of the crew. He was married with a young daughter.

Wireless Operator: Flight Sergeant Alastair Dale Johnston (Dale)

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Dale Johnston was from Queensland. He is seen here on the left on the steps of the family home with his twin brother Ian.

Mid-Upper Gunner: Sergeant Eric Reginald Hill

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From Goring in Berkshire, Eric Hill served in the RAF Regiment before he became a member of aircrew. He first enlisted in June 1940, by far the first member of the crew to begin war service.

Rear Gunner: Flight Sergeant Gilbert Firth Pate (Gil)

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A short stocky man, Gilbert had a brief flirtation with becoming a jockey as a teenager, until his father put a stop to all further dealings with the stables where he was working. He trained as a wool classifier before joining up.

The Crew of B for Baker

There is just one photograph that shows the entire crew. It is backlit by the landing light of a Lancaster, it’s shadowy, grainy and indistinct, but it’s an atmospheric photo.

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Photos kindly provided by:

Mollie Smith

Steve Butson

Martin Purcell

Freda Hamer

Don Webster

Barry Hill

Gil Thew

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell