Leo’s Letter

It started, as many of these things do, with a simple Google search. In mid May, I saw in my site stats that someone had run a search for “222 squadron leo mcauliffe’. A day or so later a comment appeared in my inbox. It was from a man named William Rusbridge. Cleaning out his late mother’s papers, he had found a letter written by a young Australian airman whose squadron had been based for a time at the Selsey Advanced Landing Ground in southern England.

William’s parents owned a farm that had been requisitioned by the RAF for the landing ground in the lead-up to D-Day. They managed to convince the Air Force to allow them to stay living in their house, as William says more or less in the middle of the air base. They subsequently got to know many of the airmen posted to the base and, as the letter shows, remained in touch with at least one young Australian – Leo McAuliffe. Deciding to find out more about who might have written the letter so long ago, William tried an internet search… and so found this blog.

William very kindly typed out and sent me a transcript of the letter. It is, in every way, a typical letter as written by aircrew during the war. There’s a bit of news about Leo’s rest period when he was “flying an Anson backwards and forward from the continent to England”, some talk about other airmen the recipients would have known (“You remember the C.O. S/L Rigby the chap who was going around with that girl you know from Chichester well both he and Ernie Broad got a bar to their DFC’s before going on rest which they both deserved”), and a story of how he celebrated Christmas. “What a time it turned out to be”, he wrote, “drunk for two days without remembering a thing”. Leo wrote this letter on 2 February 1945, just six weeks before he was killed.

Just reading the transcript was amazing enough. But then, having no further use for it himself, and in an extraordinarily generous move, William mailed me the original letter.

It’s written on four pages of blue paper with an Air Force letterhead, in fountain pen ink and with a flowing old-fashioned script. Leo McAuliffe wrote this letter with his own fountain pen and in his own hand. And though the words he used themselves add something to what I know about him, the letter also represents something more. It is a real, tangible connection to the man whose grave we first stumbled upon in the east of The Netherlands in 1995. Suddenly the story has a human element to it. The man is more than a face in a photograph, and more than a name on a white stone.

I’m extremely grateful to William Rusbridge for his generosity – and ever hopeful that more people who look through dusty boxes of papers are curious enough to try to find out more about the people they belonged to.

 © 2012 Adam Purcell

Sergeant Taylor

On 10 May 1944, the crew of B for Baker failed to return from an operation to Lille in France. As the next day dawned at Waddington and the survivors of the raid began to come to terms with what had been the worst night of the war for the station, a new crew was posted in to 463 Squadron. Led by 16203 P/O J.F. Martin, it was made up mainly by Australians. The Flight Engineer, one 1324017 Sgt P.D. Taylor, was the sole Englishman. This crew, flying Lancaster LM571 JO-E, would make eleven un-eventful trips, mainly to targets supporting the invasion in France, but would be lost on their twelfth, to Prouville on 24/25 June 1944. The bomb aimer would be the only survivor, and his six crewmates today lie in Bussuss-Bussuel Communal Cemetery in France. They were one of three 463 Sqn crews to be lost that night, while 467 Sqn lost two. Only the 10 May Lille raid was more costly.

I received an email last night from Phil Bonner, who was the Squadron Leader who showed me around RAF Waddington when I visited in 2009. Now retired from the RAF, he runs Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire and remains a key contact for me in the area. Phil passed on a query from the sister-in-law of Sgt Taylor, a Mrs Joni Taylor, who is searching for relatives of the Australians in this crew. He wondered if I might be able to help.

The full crew list is as follows:

Pilot: 16203 P/O J.F. Martin

Flight Engineer: 1324017 Sgt P.D. Taylor

Navigator: 415430 W/O B.E. Kelly

Bomb Aimer: F/S T.A. Malcolm

Wireless Operator: 417327 F/S G.W. Bateman

Mid-Upper Gunner: 424761 F/S L.G.L. Hunter

Rear Gunner: 408433 F/S B.R. Barber

The National Archives of Australia has digitised records for W/O Kelly and F/S Barber. Before enlistment Kelly was a ‘Junior Clerk’ with the Chief Secretary’s Department of the Government of Western Australia. His next-of-kin was listed as an aunt, Mary O’Grady of 70 Lindsay St, Perth, WA. Also to be informed of any news was Miss Valerie O’Sullivan, 45 London St, Mt.   Hawthorn, WA. Barber was a bank clerk from Ulverstone in Tasmania. His next of kin was recorded as his father, Fletcher Bramwell Barber, 12 Richards Ave, Launceston, TAS.

I’ve pointed Phil towards the secretaries of the Queensland and the NSW Branches of the 463-467 Squadron Association, and in the meantime thought I’d try to publicise Mrs Taylor’s search online. If anyone has any leads that may be of assistance, please leave a comment below or drop me an email – details through this link.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Caterpillar Club

One night in September 2008 I was at a formal dinner put on by the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Sydney branch. Sitting at my table was a very interesting man. On his lapel was a tiny golden caterpillar, with bright ruby red eyes, not unlike this one:

That suggested he had a story to tell!

Peter Batten was his name, and indeed he did have a story. In March 1987 he became the last Australian to eject from a Mirage jet fighter, after his engine flamed out off the coast near Newcastle, NSW. He was rescued by a fishing boat with only minor injuries. I had recognised the golden badge on his lapel as the emblem of the Caterpillar Club, a loose association of airmen united by one common thread (ahem): taking to the silk to escape from a disabled aeroplane. Started by Irvin Aerospace in 1926, the Club recognises aircrew regardless of their nationality.

The first member of the Caterpillar Club that I met was Phil Smith, pilot of Lancaster LM475 B for Baker. He once showed me his caterpillar badge, which is how I recognised Peter’s some years later. In 2003 I wrote to Irvin to see what information they held on Phil’s escape but due to British privacy laws they could not release anything. Lucky, then, that I now have a copy of an unpublished manuscript that Phil originally wrote for his grandson, in which he relates exactly what he could remember:

We were just about to drop our bombs when everything went hot and dry and red. When the flame had gone out, I was still in my seat but could feel no aeroplane around me. I immediately released my seatbelts and then my parachute. It seemed to open immediately. There was sufficient light for me to see that one of the two straps supporting me had been half cut through. I floated to the ground holding with both hands the damaged strap above the cut. This helped soften my landing which was on what appeared to be a flat grassy field. […] I seemed to be all in one piece but my flying helmet and one flying boot had gone. (C03-004-024)

As we now know, Phil sheltered with a French family until the invasion forces passed his position in September 1944. There is a letter in Mollie Smith’s collection from the great Leslie Irvine himself, written to Phil in October congratulating him for his escape – it took a little longer for the badge to reach him, “owing to supply restrictions” (A01-042-001).

And when I visited Phil in the late 1990s, hanging on his wall was a frame enclosing the tiny golden caterpillar with the ruby red eyes.

Text © 2012 Adam Purcell

Image from http://www.merkki.com/images/ccpin.jpg