There are fifteen Commonwealth War Graves in the cemetery belonging to the small village of Hellendoorn, in the east of The Netherlands. My family and I lived in Nijverdal – the next town along – throughout the year 1995 and when we discovered that there was one Australian among the graves we decided to see what we could discover about him.
Flight Lieutenant Leo McAuliffe was a fighter pilot attached to No. 222 Squadron, RAF. He was killed on 17 March 1945, a matter of weeks before that part of the Netherlands was liberated. He was 24 years old and came from Bexley, NSW. While still overseas, we wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see what they could tell us about Leo. He had been killed in a ‘flying battle’, they said, and another letter to the Air Force after we returned to Australia in 1996 revealed he crashed while leading a section of two aircraft on a patrol and weather reconnaissance mission over enemy occupied territory.
Late last year I decided to obtain copies of Leo’s service record and A705 files from the National Archives of Australia. This was not intended to be as in-depth a study as I am doing on my great uncle Jack and his Lancaster crew. It was just a side-line interest, more for general interest of our family than anything overly complicated. I had vague plans of reading through the files and writing a short ‘interpretation’ of them so I could then bind the whole lot up and give it to Dad for Christmas. Unfortunately the National Archives are experiencing ‘high demand’ for copies at the moment, and the month turnaround that I was expecting turned into two – too late for Christmas. Dad got a packet of liquorice instead.
But I now have the files, and have spent the last couple of weeks reading through them and beginning to write my little story. And guess what? It’s turned out into something far bigger than I was intending it to. I’m not under the deadline of ‘Christmas’, so I have time to delve into the story a little deeper, following leads that I would have otherwise left alone. So questions raised in the NAA files have led to posts on the RAFCommands forum, which in turn led to the discovery that Leo served in Northern France following the invasion… meaning that my friend Joss le Clercq is also interested in Leo’s story and has been in touch.
The account of Leo’s final flight, from his wingman, suggests to me that he simply became disoriented and lost control in thick cloud – more accident than ‘flying battle’. And the story of how a young Dutch woman witnessed the crash and recovered a dog tag but was later killed in an air attack on Nijverdal caused me to contact a friend who volunteers at the small World War II museum that is now in that town. This, in turn, resulted in numerous emails from her contacts at the museum, and much information about the crash and the attack on Nijverdal.
All quite amazing. I’ve spent the last few hours translating those emails from Dutch and using Google Earth to try and pinpoint a crash location. But a line needs to be drawn somewhere. There is a lot of information out there – the tough part is deciding when you have enough, when you can stop researching and start writing. Leo’s story is well on its way to becoming known now. A couple more questions to my new Dutch contacts, and the writing can begin.
© 2012 Adam Purcell