Every Monday in my postbox I receive a copy of the local newspaper. The Moonee Valley Leader usually shrinks to less than half its thickness once the advertising flyers are removed, but every now and then it reports on interesting stories with local connections. Just after ANZAC Day this year it ran this story  about a 100 Squadron airman, P/O Jack Wilson, killed in action over Holland in January 1945. He and his wife were living in Essendon when he enlisted, and the story was about how his daughter – two years old at the time of her father’s death – made contact with a British researcher after by chance finding an earlier article in the Leader seeking information about P/O Wilson.

The British man is Paul Kurn, whose father was a ground mechanic with 100 Squadron, responsible for Lancaster JB603, the aircraft on which P/O Wilson had died. Mr Kurn’s search for the story of his father’s war began in 1998 and was originally centred around the operations carried out by this aircraft, before shifting into looking for the airmen who had flown it. He contacted the newspaper using P/O Wilson’s wartime address. It took a year, but eventually the right person saw the article and made contact.

Writing to local newspapers is a tactic that can, as this story demonstrates, be very effective. People of that era tended not to move around nearly as much as we might do today and so if they are still alive there is a good chance of their being in the same area six or seven decades later, if not in the same house. Articles also being published online these days greatly strengthens the chances of finding the right person by bringing them within the reach of a simple Google search. All it takes is one curious relative to look for something as straightforward as a name. Patience – and a good deal of luck – can certainly pay off in this research caper.

Paul Kurn set out on his journey with similar intentions to my own. Finding descendants of the crew, he said, gives him “…a chance to maybe tell them of what happened to their relative and […] to shed light on something that they may have wondered about for 60 years without any idea what happened in those final moments and where it happened… The story has grown beyond anything I could have imagined”.

Telling the crews’ stories, and remembering. That’s why we do it.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


Bomber Command in Canberra 2012

The 2012 Bomber Command Commemoration Weekend has just wrapped up in Canberra. There were slightly fewer people present, to my eye, than on previous years but I think it was still a fair turnout. Perhaps the forecast rain kept some away – it certainly was a wet welcome to Canberra when my Virgin E-Jet broke clear of the thick cloud that we’d been descending through just before landing.

This was the fifth such commemoration to be held in the nation’s capital and the event has settled down into a familiar but effective pattern. G for George provided the setting for the now traditional ‘Meet & Greet’ function. There were indeed many people to meet and greet. Tommy Knox and Pat Kerrins, who I’d met here last year, were both there again. Don Browning and Ross Pearson traded their usual good-natured banter about which between the Halifax and the Lancaster was the ‘proper’ aircraft to have flown in (at least we all thought it was good-natured…). And I met a few new people too.

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Early in the evening as I was wandering around to see who else I recognised, out of the shadows of the Lancaster’s nose came a man named Don McDonald, a 466 Sqn Halifax skipper from Melbourne, a veteran I had not yet met. He was a lovely bloke and we chatted about all sorts of things for a good while – and upon learning that I now also live in the southern capital he and his wife Ailsa promptly invited me to visit them for dinner sometime. You never do know who you will meet at these events! I also spoke with the former Commanding Officer of the reformed 462 Squadron, which was previously a Halifax squadron of Bomber Command and is now an electronic intelligence unit based at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide. The superb Striking by Night sound and light show was again played at the end of the event. The final moments of the production feature a WAAF speaking about the Australian airmen she worked with. “They were young… handsome…” she says, “…and full of life.” At which point Don Huxtable was heard to mutter “well two out of three ain’t bad…”12-jun-bomber-command-in-canberra-012 copy

Many of us repaired to the hotel bar at the Rydges after returning from the AWM. It was a memorable night, sharing beers with the two Toms Knox sitting on one side and Hux on the other as a great variety of stories, of both tall and short varieties, were told.

Canberra received almost an inch of rain on Saturday and it looked very much like it had set in for a week. But upon peering out of my hotel room window in the morning I saw a scene that was wet, but not actually raining. The clouds gradually cleared as the morning went on and in fact it turned out into a delightfully mild Canberra morning. The Commemorative Address was given by Air Marshal Mark Binskin, Deputy Chief of  Defence Force (and a former Chief of Air Force), who spoke about the legacy of teamwork from the men of Bomber Command, and how the Air Force has reformed two Bomber Command squadrons as a tribute. Fittingly a large group of 460 Squadron personnel were present standing in three neat rows at the back of the crowd. There was an attempt to get an official photo of all the veterans who were present but it was not as organised as last year’s effort:

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Back to the Rydges, then, for the luncheon, always for me the highlight of the weekend. Despite the slightly lower numbers present this year, it is still one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command veterans, families and other interested people in this country. Once again there were many extremely interesting people to talk to. I finally met Diane Strub of the Queensland Branch of the 463-467 Squadrons Association, and Fred Murray-Walker, whose father was killed in the crash of 463 Squadron Lancaster JO-G on the Scottish hillside in 1944. Peter Rees, a Canberra-based author who is currently finalising a book focusing on Australians in Bomber Command, was also there, and brought with him a magnificent folio of target photographs cheekily entitled “The Collected Works of 463 Squadron, as told to the Third Reich, September 1944 to May 1945”.

Perhaps the most remarkable person I met was sitting at a table at the back of the function room with her son and daughter in law. An Englishwoman, her name was Maude and, as it turned out, she had been on the staff at Bomber Command Headquarters – she was Deputy Commander in Chief Sir Robert Saundby’s secretary from 1943 until the end of the war. I asked her what the atmosphere was like at Bomber Command HQ. She said it was always busy – she was at work whenever her boss was and might – might – get the occasional half-day off on a Sunday if she was lucky. It was only a short conversation but it was an absolute pleasure to meet and talk to a unique lady. I even managed to convince her to get up for the group photo of all present who had served in Bomber Command (she is front right here, wearing red, behind Tommy Knox):

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Some more photographs from the weekend:

Some of the crowd at the Meet & Greet function in the shadow of Lancaster G for George:

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The Ceremony, in front of the AWM’s Bomber Command memorial:

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The Three Dons: Don Southwell reading a copy of a ‘Tribute to Mr Don Huxtable’ as tabled in NSW State Parliament recently, while Don Browning and Don Huxtable himself look on:

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Bryan Cook, Don Huxtable, Don Browning and Adam Purcell in Canberra, 03JUN12:

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Part of the 220-strong crowd at the Lunch that followed the Ceremony on Sunday:

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In all, then, another fine weekend of commemoration and friendship. Another pile of things to follow up on. Another piece of proof that, even after almost seventy decades, the deeds of Bomber Command live on. I’ll leave the closing words to Don Southwell, who delivered the Reflections address during the Ceremony on Sunday.

“I will always be proud”, he said, “that I flew with Bomber Command”.

Text and images (c) 2012 Adam Purcell