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