Bomber Command Memorial London

On 28 June 2012, the Bomber Command Memorial will be officially dedicated and opened in London by the Queen. The Memorial will be a lasting tribute to more than 125,000 Commonwealth aircrew who served with Bomber Command during World War II.

The bomber offensive was perhaps the longest, most sustained single campaign of the war – crews were in action from almost the first day of the conflict and the final sorties were flown at the very end of hostilities in Europe. Their contribution to the final victory was immense – as, sadly, was the cost. Out of those 125,000 airmen, more than 55,000 were killed in action. As an overall group, only the German U-Boat crews suffered a higher casualty rate.

Some 10,000 Australians served with Bomber Command. Almost three and a half thousand of them died while on active service. Bomber Command represented some 2% of total Australian enlistments in WWII but suffered 20% of Australian casualties. One Australian unit, 460 Squadron, lost more than 1,000 men over the course of the conflict – the equivalent of being completely wiped out five times.

Yet despite their terrible sacrifice, despite their enormous contribution to the war effort, the men of Bomber Command have never received the recognition that they deserve. A campaign medal was never awarded. And it has taken until now – nearly seven decades after the cessation of hostilities – for an official Memorial to be built. It’s been estimated that some 150 Bomber Command veterans remain alive in Australia. The youngest of these are fast approaching their 90th birthdays. Naturally our surviving veterans are very keen to travel to London to take part in the dedication ceremony. Due to the ravages of age not all 150 are well enough to attend, but at least 80 have registered interest with the Bomber Command Association of Australia.

The Australian Government initially announced a Commemorative Mission of five veterans would be fully sponsored and supported to go to the Ceremony. No family members or carers were included. A further forty grants of up to $3,000 each were to be available to assist other veterans in defraying their travel costs. In contrast, the New Zealand Government announced in a media release (through Veteran’s Affairs New Zealand) that they will be sending an RNZAF Boeing 757 to London with any veterans who are willing and able to make the trip, plus carers. Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand will cover all accommodation, transport, travel and medical expenses. This is a superb effort and shows how much the New Zealand Government respects and appreciates the efforts of their veterans.

So the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation started a campaign for proper recognition of our veterans. And it was successful, sort of. The Government announced on May 12 that they will now be taking 30 veterans, with $5,000 grants available to those who miss out on being part of the official delegation. This is a good improvement, but more is still needed. There are practical difficulties associated with travelling at such an advanced age and having a family member or carer travelling alongside is almost a necessity. The Australian Government was quite happy to send these brave men all-expenses-paid to England seventy years ago. The least they deserve is help so that they have the chance to see that their efforts – and the memories of the 3,486 Australian airmen who never came home – are properly recognised in London.

I’ve written letters supporting this cause to my local Member of Parliament, the Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. So far (a week and a half later) the only response has come from the Office of the Opposition Leader, in a phone call this afternoon. The staffer who rang me suggested I also contact the Shadow Minister for Veterans Affairs, so a new letter will be on the way shortly. I’ll be very interested to hear the responses of the others and will post here with any updates.

In the meantime, for those who wish to give practical support, please see details for making donations to the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation’s London Visit Appeal here.


Edit 03JUN12:

An article in the Hornsby Advocate featuring a great photo of two of our 463-467 Sqn veterans.

I’ve also received a reply from Warren Snowdon’s office advising that the official mission is now 32 men – 44 applications were received and all those assessed as medically fit to join the mission were accepted.  The number of $5,000 grants is uncapped. This, to me, appears a reasonable response – it is certainly an improvement over the initial proposal. I’m still awaiting a response from my local member.


Text (c) 2012 Adam Purcell 

Learning to Fly

The chance to learn to fly an aeroplane was probably a factor in why many young men joined the Air Force in WWII. Those lucky enough to pass the tests and be selected for pilot training would soon have found themselves at a dusty Elementary Flying Training School, climbing aboard at a bright yellow Tiger Moth for what would be, in many cases, their first ever flight.

“This afternoon we had our first flying experience, a trip of about 1/2 hours duration. It was a very interesting business and it was just sufficient to demonstrate just how difficult a business it is to fly. The controls vary greatly in sensitivity and to the beginner in changing your attention from one thing to another it is very easy to loose [sic] control completely.” – Phil Smith, in a letter to his father written 14NOV40 (A01-125-001)

Despite spending a week in hospital with influenza (he had a temperature of 101 degrees – A01-126-001), it did not take Phil long to go solo for the first time. “When I recommenced flying on Monday [following hospitalisation] I found that I could do everything except land”, he wrote to his father on 28 November 1940, the day of his first solo (A01-132-001). “All my flying time since then has been in picking this up. I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.” He had about eight hours flying time in his logbook at this stage.

But as big an achievement as one’s first solo is when learning to fly, there is a big gap between a pilot who has flown solo and one who is fully qualified. Phil’s letter home two days after his first solo reveals that he was acutely aware of how new everything still was, and of how far he had yet to go (A01-127-001):

“From time to time I get very nasty turns, for example, this morning another plane and I only missed a side-on collision because he was about 20′ below me. This was mostly because I had not kept a good enough lookout. […] Yesterday also I had a scare when on the glide into the aerodrome I was turning and hit a bump which I swear l neally [sic] turned the plane vertical on its side. However, to get down safely is the big thing in flying so they say and the sooner I wake up to the responsibilities the better it will be for me. I find the landings are coming much easier to me now but they still are far from good. I find that steep turns are giving me a bit of trouble too.”

Trainee pilots had to contend with lectures on meteorology (“I think I shall have to learn the Beaufort scale of winds”, he wrote to sister Wenda in March 1941), photography and navigation. They even carried cameras to take photos of turning points to prove they got where they were supposed to go on their solo cross country flights (A01-147-001). The instructors were a mixed bunch. Phil was fined a tin of Craven A cigarettes by one of his, for letting the aeroplane slow down too much on final approach (A01-139-001 02FEB41). On another occasion an instructor rapped him over the knuckles with a ruler for a similar offence. Life was not made any easier, Phil wrote, by having multiple instructors all with slightly differing ideas on how things should be done. But sometimes they could be more relaxed as well. Phil’s letters reveal a number of instances where they got up to some fun. In December 1940 a train derailed near Tamworth and they stooged over to have a look (A01-130-001):

“After we had seen all we wanted my instructor and the other plane’s became playful and staged a mock dogfight. My instructor was very expert at this business and had the other plane at his mercy almost all the time. It was a very fast-moving business and consisted mostly of steep turns almost on our sides and short and quick dives and climbs […]”

And on another day, during a three-hour dual cross country flight (A01-140-001):

“The instructor I was with on that occasion was very playful and delighted in flying over the country schools trying to make the children walk around the school first one way and then the other to keep the plane in sight. We pupils, three of us, lean out and wave at the kids, all quite good fun.”

Aeroplanes being aeroplanes, the forces that keep them in the air are still the same today as they were when Phil Smith took his first few faltering steps into the sky. While the technology might have advanced considerably over the decades, the general techniques and principles of flight remain unchanged. And so I can relate some of my own flying lessons to those of Phil Smith. I had no less than nine instructors over the course of my first 35 or so flying hours so I can relate very much to Phil’s frustrations at being told different things by different pilots. One of those instructors wielded the fuel dipstick instead of a ruler when I got too slow in the circuit. I even did my own first solo on 28 November 2002 – 62 years to the day after Phil Smith did the same thing.

But not everything was the same. It took me about 17 hours of instruction before being let loose for my first solo in a Cessna – a result that would have very quickly resulted in a scrubbing from pilot training if I was learning to fly in a wartime EFTS. There was a radio in the Tiger Moth that I flew last year – there was no radio in Phil’s day. And, perhaps most importantly, I was learning to fly purely for the fun of it. While undoubtedly there were fun times for pilots like Phil Smith along the way, they were ultimately training for a deadly serious job.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Briefing Room

While the photograph that is now finding a wider audience as the cover shot of Bomber Command: Failed to Return is the only known image showing the entire crew of B for Baker, there is one more photo that shows at least four of them. It is from the small collection that was with my great uncle Jack’s logbook and it shows a large group of airmen in a briefing room. The three men furthest back in the photograph are, left to right, Ken Tabor, Eric Hill and Gil Pate. In the middle of the second row, next to the man wearing the round officer’s cap, is Phil Smith:

Briefing - Still 1

It has been thought that the man in the middle of the row immediately behind Phil Smith was Jack Purcell, on the basis of an arrow that my father says used to be attached to the photo. Certainly Edward Purcell, Jack’s brother and recorded next-of-kin, thought initially that this man was the one who looked most like Jack, writing to Don Smith in November 1944 that:

“The actual features are, as you will notice, very vague, but the general head conformation is identical with that of the boy.” (A01-110-001)

But a month later, after Don had provided another enlarged photo, Edward reconsidered:

“It was most kind of you to send the photos but, I am sorry to say, the enlarged view establishes that the boy marked is definitely not Jack.” (A01-111-001)

The photo has an interesting history. When we first met Phil Smith in 1997, we showed him the print. He turned it over – and immediately recognised his own handwriting on the reverse, naming the three members of his crew sitting at the back of the group. But there is an intriguing inconsistency in the photo. At close inspection, the date on the blackboard at top left reads 11 March. The target is given as Berlin. But in neither Jack’s nor Phil’s logbooks is there an operation recorded on that date – to anywhere, let alone to the ‘Big City’. In fact, neither logbook records any flying of any kind on that day. Perhaps, we thought, the briefing had been for an operation that was subsequently scrubbed.

As it turns out, the real answer is even better. Also appearing in the photo – the man in the centre wearing the officer’s hat – is Dan Conway, an A Flight skipper. After the war he wrote a superb book called The Trenches in the Sky, in which he explained the situation. A film unit was visiting Waddington to take shots for a short feature called The RAAF in Europe. The briefing was staged for the benefit of the cameras and, according to Conway, included “references to tracking at low level over the Ruhr etc. Maybe because we were laughing [the CO] was made to go through the procedure again and then again…” (C07-014-160). The photo is in fact a still taken from that film. Our copy has a purple stamp on the back saying “RAF Photographic Section”.

So how did this official photo end up in Jack’s collection? Phil Smith had much extended family in England and his letters reveal that he visited them often while on leave. One uncle was Jack Smeed, who worked for a film studio in London… and it was this studio that produced the film from which the photograph was pulled. It appears that Jack Smeed arranged for copies to go to Phil, who captioned them and then forwarded them to his parents. After the crew went missing, Edward Purcell’s letters from late 1944 show that Don Smith spread them around to the families of some of the rest of the crew.

A few years before he died, Phil Smith was visiting the Australian War Memorial with his wife Mollie. In a corner of the Second World War gallery at the time was a small Bomber Command display, which included a short film. It was a grab from The RAAF in Europe, and Phil recognised himself as one of the reluctant film stars in it. I remember seeing the same display myself some years later (edit September 2013: it’s still there!), and the footage still crops up occasionally in documentaries and the like.

© 2012 Adam Purcell