Archive for November, 2012

Happy First Solo Day!

On 28 November 1940 – exactly seventy-two years ago today – Phil Smith flew solo for the first time. Like many (if not all) Australian pilots under the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was in a little yellow Tiger Moth, serial A17-58, at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Phil didn’t seem too excited about it when he wrote to his parents later that day (A01-132-001), reporting simply that “[…] altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.”

But there is no doubt that the first solo is a significant milestone for any pilot. Witness the following small collection of thoughts and memories from various pilots, taken from the excellent Australians at War Film Archive:

Barry Finch, eventually of 3 Squadron, quoted his instructor:

“Well you might want to kill yourself but I’m precious and I’m getting out. That’s all I can say. Be careful. I’m going to let you go off on your own.” The bloody thing leapt into the air like a young buck, it was incredible what a difference it made without his weight in the front, and to actually find myself going up into the air without any head in front of me, it was unbelievable. And I thought, “Well, I’m here, all I’ve got to do is to get down again.”[After landing] I went over to where he was and he said, “That’s alright, I’m coming with you next time. I reckon you’re safe […] Unforgettable!” (C06-072-013)

John Boland, 61 Squadron:

“So when I had 5 hours instruction up, I got in the aircraft and did a circuit and the instructor got out of the front seat, took the pilot stick out and said, “Righto, take it around again” and I got the shock of my life. I got that big a shock, that when I come around to land, I was that nervous, the instructor had confidence that I could land it, and as I come in to touch down the tail hit the ground first and it bounced.” (C06-073-005)

Colin Morton, 450 Squadron:

“Scared bloody hell out of me. […] I flew an aeroplane before I drove a motor car. It’s – the impact was enormous and I loved it” (C06-081-003)

Alf Read, 463 Squadron:

“I can still remember it because it’s marked with a tree, which you see as you drive past the old airport at Narromine. My instructor said, “Just a minute and I’ll get out, and I’ll sit under this tree while you take your first solo,” and I can assure you it was a wonderful feeling just to be able to take that plane off and bring it back in one piece. And it’s a little incident in your life that you never forget.” (C06-086-006)

Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron:

“I went solo at about nine hours, I think it was. It should have been seven, but they took me up for a check, and by the time I finished the check and got back, the wind had strengthened up so strong that they wouldn’t let a learner pilot go out. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and it was still blustery and rough and nobody flew that day. And the following day he said, “You’ve got to have another check.” So I had another check, then he said, “Right, off you go. Just do one circuit and down again and that’s your baptism on your own.” (C06-090-011)

Lionel Rackley, 630 Squadron

“Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. […] Every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now. I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” […] And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there: ‘Went solo today’”. (C06-075-004)

As it turns out, today is also the tenth anniversary of my own first solo. It was in a Cessna 152, registered VH-WFI, from runway 16 at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After an hour or so of flying circuits, my instructor got out and I proceeded to fly one by myself. It was a slightly wobbly but passable exercise and I logged a princely 0.1 hours solo time in the process.

Some years later, by this time a fully qualified private pilot, I would also experience solo flight in a Tiger Moth, in my own small way experiencing something of what these young men had been doing seven decades ago. And while that flight remains one of the most memorable ones in my logbook, I still remember the tremendous sense of achievement that followed my first solo.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Motivations

Daily life at a Bomber Command airfield could not exactly be described as ‘calming’.

I learned what the target was about midday, and for the whole afternoon I wandered around with a feeling of having half a pound of cold lead in the pit of my stomach. – Bill Brill, 467 Sqn skipper and later CO – C07-036-142

In an effort to explain their feelings about what they were to do, some airmen turned to thoughts of sport – as Hank Nelson wrote in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, for many airmen “sport was one place where their capacity to perform at their best under stress had been tested”. Nelson quotes Arthur Doubleday comparing the lead up to an operation to waiting to go into bat in cricket: “You know, the fast bowler looked a lot faster from the fence, but when you get in there it’s not too bad” (C07-036-142).

But as tours dragged on, as airmen witnessed more and more empty places at the Mess tables, it would have been only natural to begin to feel the cumulative tension of one operation after another. On his eleventh operation, Bill Brill was ‘getting a little accustomed to being scared’ (C07-036-159). And there is no doubt that airmen knew very well exactly how low their chances of surviving a tour were. Gil Pate wrote to his mother in November 1943 (A01-409-001): “It seems an age since I last saw you all + I guess I’ll need a lot of luck to do so again, the way things happen.”

So why did they go on?

Much has been made of the ‘stigma’ of being branded ‘LMF’ (Lacking Moral Fibre), a fate seemingly worse than death. And certainly there were instances of aircrew who had gone beyond their breaking point being publicly stripped of their ranks and their aircrew brevets, and given humiliating menial duties for the rest of the war. The loose stitching and unfaded spots left on their uniforms were a cruel reminder of what they once were. Certainly the threat of being branded LMF was a big motivator for some aircrew to carry on. But despite how much it was feared by the aircrew, a very low number of verdicts of LMF were ever officially handed down – Leo McKinstry quotes about 1200 in all, or less than 1% of all airmen in Bomber Command (C07-048-225).  There were also instances of compassionate squadron Commanding Officers recognising an airman at his limit and quietly moving him off flying duties, without the humiliation of accusations of cowardice. One veteran I know told me of the case of a mid-upper gunner who had been so traumatised by discovering the mutilated remains of his rear gunner comrade after an attack by nightfighters that he was clearly not in a state to continue flying. He was given a month’s compassionate leave on return to base, and on his return from leave was transferred to the Parachute Section of the same Squadron where he worked for the rest of the war (C03-021-051).

One of the most significant motivators, in my view, was the bonds shared by the crews themselves. Dennis Over – a 227 Sqn rear gunner, writing on the Lancaster Archive Forum in December 2010 – says “our greatest fears may well have been not wanting to let our crew down”. When I visited Dennis in June 2010 he said that he could not remember feeling fear while actually on an operation. That, he said, came later.  He had instead, he told me, “a sense of complete concentration on my duties, for the benefit of my entire crew”. No matter what the enemy could throw at them, no matter the hazards of weather or mechanical failure, their crew came first. That bond carries on today with many veteran aircrew still very close to surviving members of their crews. It’s one of the unique aspects of the Bomber Command experience and goes a long way to explaining why, in the face of dreadful odds, they pressed on regardless.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Does a blog count?

When Bomber Command: Failed to Return was in its final stages of preparation before printing, Steve Darlow, the publisher, asked all the contributing authors to write a short bio for the front flap. “This is your chance to crow unabashed about your work to date”, he wrote.

With precisely no published work to date, for me this was going to be a challenge. My first attempt was pretty lame. But then Steve wondered, what about my blog? Surely that’s a significant piece of work?

That was an interesting point. A blog by definition is something quite personal, where literally anything that I want can be published for all to read without requiring the rigorous editing and reviewing that goes into a traditional book. There are thousands, if not millions, of blogs out there, all of varying quality and accuracy. I hadn’t considered my own to be worthy of much ‘crowing’, and I suppose it’s telling of my mindset at the time that I was excited about Bomber Command: Failed to Return being my first piece of ‘proper’ in-print writing. But then I thought about it. The button I will click on to send this post spinning into cyberspace is marked ‘Publish’. And once I have clicked that button, my words can be read by anyone with an internet connection – just like a book can be read by anyone who happens to pick it up. I’ve tried to note sources as I go along and, though no-one else ever sees my posts before they go live I make sure I edit them for spelling or grammar before I hit ‘Publish’. So why can’t a blog be published work?

I’ve decided that it can indeed count as ‘work to date’, and so my bio on the front flap of Bomber Command: Failed to Return includes the web address for this blog. With the decline of the printed word on paper in society (one just needs to see the long and growing list of failed ‘traditional’ bookshops in Australia to see this), the telling of history needs to evolve. This is not at all incompatible with the idea of a traditional book. I still want to eventually write a real book, made of real paper and ink, on the tale of the crew of B for Baker and where they fit into the overall Bomber Command story. But in the meantime, this blog can help spread the word.

James Daly, an English historian specialising in the military history of Portsmouth, wrote on his Daly History blog: “Just like the internet has broken down doors for music artists, it’s done the same for historians”. Blogs give a vehicle for making history accessible, on sometimes a very local level. The stories get told – which is, of course, the most important thing – to people who want to read them.

© 2012 Adam Purcell