Archive for August, 2012

460 Squadron in Brisbane

I was in Brisbane for a work trip for the last week or so of January. It didn’t stop raining all week.

I had a short chance to stop by the Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith Memorial that is on the road leading to Brisbane Airport. Under a large curved roof, preserved in a glass ‘hangar’, is Smithy’s original Fokker Fokker F.VII/3m three-engined aircraft, the Southern Cross. It’s a very important part of Australia’s aviation heritage and it is fantastic to see the old aeroplane is being well looked after.

But what does this have to do with Bomber Command, I hear you ask? Well, if I’m honest, very little. But a short distance from the Southern Cross is a tree. Under the tree are three plaques dedicated to 460 Squadron, arguably one of the most famous of the Australian bomber units.

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Beneath one of the plaques is a representation of a boomerang, symbolising the motto of the Squadron: ‘Strike and Return’. Sadly, many of the airmen of 460 Squadron struck… but did not return. In fact, the Squadron suffered by far the highest casualty rate of any Australian unit in WWII: out of around 2700 airmen who served in the Squadron, more than 1000 were killed in action – 589 of those being Australians. 181 aircraft were lost on operations in the four years of the Squadron’s existence.

One of 460 Squadron’s aeroplanes survives. It is, of course, W4783 G for George, today forming the centrepiece of the Australian War Memorial’s Striking by Night sound and light exhibit. It is an extremely impressive memorial. And in Queensland, under a tree near Brisbane Airport, those three plaques also help ensure that the deeds of this Squadron are not forgotten.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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Treasure Trove(.nla.gov.au)

On a yellowing piece of old newsprint, under a photograph of a Lancaster in flight, is a headline in large black letters. “BOARDING WITH THE BOMBERS”, it says. “Salome and the Operational Egg at a British Station”. The article below the headline describes one Australian war correspondent’s visit to an airfield in Britain. The article was roughly cut out of the newspaper and details like which newspaper it was out of and when it dates from are missing. Some lines have had the first few words cut off. But what remains paints a vivid portrait of life on a bomber station, written from the perspective of an outsider looking in.

I found the article lurking in Don Smith’s archive of letters and papers concerning his son Phil’s wartime service. The collection was kindly loaned to me by Phil’s widow Mollie. Though the original is short on some details, I thought there were enough clues to perhaps fill in the missing pieces.

Almost certainly the author was writing about a visit to Waddington. “Pilots of two Lancaster bomber squadrons which operate from a station at which I was permitted to stay for three days, are all Australians”, they say. There were five nominally Australian squadrons in Bomber Command: 460, 462, 463, 466 and 467 Squadrons. 462 and 466 flew Halifaxes and 460 Squadron operated alone from RAF Binbrook. Only 463 and 467 Squadrons were both operating Lancasters and both operating from the same airfield at the same time. The author also writes that the visit was “the day after the Nuremburg raid when the Air Force losses reached their highest”. This places the visit in late March and early April 1944 – which means that Phil Smith and his crew were on the station at the time. So for me it is a very valuable insight into what was going when they were there.

But if I want to use the article as a reference, I need to know where it came from. And as it turned out a little bit of research was all that was needed to answer that question, thanks to a magnificent tool from the National Library of Australia.

First of all, I figured that there was a good chance that searching for the journalist’s name could reveal which newspaper the article was written for. Betty Wilson is the name on the byline, and she is described as ‘our London Staff Correspondent’. First stop, then, was my old friend Google. And very quickly I had a match, turning up a number of articles from the Sydney Morning Herald written by Ms Wilson and dating from the war years.

So having established that, I remembered that the National Library of Australia’s fantastic Trove website has, among many, many other things, digitised the Herald from 1842 until 1954. And from there it was a very simple process to search for a phrase that was unlikely to have appeared anywhere else in the newspaper over more than one hundred years.

The phrase I searched for was ‘Operational egg’. And bingo, there it was, the first result. The Trove search engine links to a digital scan of the original article, and also has an automatic text conversion tool to make reading it a little easier. This is still in its early versions and precision is a little hit and miss but for the most part it is accurate, so finding my missing words was a very easy thing.

So I now know that my article (my catalogue number A06-052-001) is in fact from the Sydney Morning Herald, and was published on 20 May 1944. And all of that from about half an hour ratting around on the Trove website. It’s a very aptly named tool and is a real treasure trove (sorry) of sources for Australian social history. Highly recommended.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Enlisting

I went for an interview with the Air Force people this afternoon

– Phil Smith writing to his father, 27MAR40 (A01-118-001)

In 1940, said Don Charlwood, some 60,000 young men applied for the first 4,000 training places in the Royal Australian Air Force (C06-063-001). At that early stage of the war, competition for places was intense and the selection panels could afford to be a little choosy in the potential airmen they accepted. The process was quite involved.

In March 1940, Phil Smith was one of the 60,000. He wrote a detailed account of his first experiences in a letter to his father later that day (A01-118-001). The interview panel consisted of three officers who asked general questions about aeroplanes, about Phil’s motives for joining up, and some technical questions about centrifugal force and specific gravity (“the first I explained only fairly and the second exactly,” he told his father).  And that, he wrote, was about the limit of it. Then it was time for the medical exam.

There was, he said, a long form to fill in. Then a general physical examination, including a colour blindness check, height and weight (while stripped), measurements of “buttocks to toes” and a check of the pulse. The eye exam appears to have been quite complicated, though in his matter-of-fact way Phil declined to describe the details as “I do not know what each was for”.

The next three doctors came equipped with a battery of weird and wonderful tests. Ears were checked first with tuning forks and then with the aid of a little light. The same light was then used on the nose and throat. Phil was spun around ten times on a swivel chair and told to stand up straight afterwards. A dentist carefully checked his teeth. Blood pressure was measured. And then it was time for ‘the torture machine’. With a clip on his nose, Phil had to take a deep breath and then support an inch-high column of mercury for as long as possible. “I kept it up for over two minutes”, he wrote to his father, “but my ears are still singing”. Finally his reflexes were tested by scraping his instep with a sharp piece of iron. Recruit Dennis Over, who would eventually become a 227 Sqn rear gunner, concurred with the general contents of the medical, adding that he was also subjected to a hemorrhoids test (“bend over & let me see if your hat’s on straight”…) and a test for “rupture” (“Just cough for me, will you?”). He also encountered the ‘torture machine’, actually a test for diseases of the lungs.

At the end of an exhausting day of being grilled, poked and prodded, Phil was told he would be accepted for the Air Force Reserve but that he would be required to have his tonsils removed and six teeth filled at his own expense first. After some indecision he had the required work done and was duly enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve, to await call-up. He was given a badge to wear to say that he had enlisted and continued to work at the Yarraville Sugar Refinery for another six months.

Though Phil doesn’t mention it, it appears that recruits would be given a course of study in mathematics, physics and navigation to do while they were awaiting call-up, to improve their chances of coping with the early, theoretical stages of their training. This is what Don Charlwood called the ‘twenty-one lessons’. In his memoir ‘Journeys into Night’ he describes the course as ‘extraordinarily well-arranged’. Recruits living in towns could attend night schools to complete the course; others living further out (like Charlwood himself) needed to work by correspondence, helping mates out as they went. Morse code was taught by local postmasters (C07-034-xiii).

Reservists were on the Reserve for differing periods of time. Don Charlwood’s mates Jim Riddoch and Claude Austin were called up after seven months; Charlwood himself had to wait eleven (C07-034-xiv). In fact Riddoch would be in Canada beginning his training before Charlwood received his call-up papers. Phil Smith was waiting for ‘only’ about six months. But the letter arrived, and on 14 September 1940 Phil found himself on a train from Melbourne to his Initial Training School at Bradfield Park, Sydney. Life would never again be the same.

© 2012 Adam Purcell