For King and Country?

There appear to have been as many reasons for joining the wartime Air Force as there were aircrew. The chance to learn to fly was of course a key motivation. Dennis Over gave me some of his reasons on the phone in June 2011: “Until the war, we were all going to be train drivers”, he said. But the Battle of Britain happened, and “then we were all going to be fighter pilots!” Too young to join up immediately, Dennis worked in a shipyard fitting out Air-Sea Rescue boats. Many of the crews of these boats were ex aircrew and he was also inspired by their tales of derring-do so when he became old enough he joined up, eventually serving as a rear gunner on 227 Squadron.

For some, it was more personal. Cliff Leach, a 150 Squadron Pilot/Flight Engineer, wrote that “our main aim… was to stop our relatives being killed and our homes being wrecked”. To back it up, he had a newspaper photograph of what was left of his mother’s house after a German air raid on Liverpool in 1941.

It’s easy to see how motivation to enlist in the Air Force could be stirred by seeing the effects of war first-hand – but until the Japanese entered the war Australia was not under direct threat of attack. So what might have attracted so many Australians to join the ranks of aircrew in those first few years of the war?

Hank Nelson collected a few ideas from different aircrew in Chased by the Sun:

Those who volunteered for aircrew were, Don Charlwood said, ‘children of the empire’. Nearly all had relatives in the British Isles. Most were also strongly conscious of their Australianness, but saw no contradiction in being both British and Australian […] Charlwood said that his swearing-in was the culmination of his upbringing, acceptance of authority and the ‘Call of the Homeland’. Wade Rogers’ mother said to him before he sailed, ‘Don’t miss seeing Scotland for me, son’ […] Although David Leicester’s father was born in Australia, he was ‘very pro-English’, and David grew up in a home where ‘fighting for England was really the thing to do’. (C07-039-009)

One of the most matter-of-fact descriptions that I’ve seen, and one that covers most of the key motivations for enlisting, was written by 467 Squadron skipper Phil Smith in an unpublished manuscript, some decades after the war (C03-004-004):

My motives for joining the forces were mixed:

  • a) The call of adventure
  • b) A feeling of duty
  • c) The need to be ‘in it’ with the mob
  • d) A question of patriotism
  • e) At 22 years I was the right age, and had no responsibilities.

The call of ‘King and Country’ managed to reach all the way to Australia much like it had a generation before, and it was heard by thousands of young men. The chance of adventure and the need to be ‘in it’ certainly played a big part – in many ways similar to that which attracted so many of the previous generation to arms in the First World War. It is clear that patriotism was perhaps the overriding reason for men to enlist in the armed forces in general – but there were other reasons for choosing the Air Force specifically, over the other two branches of the military. Stories of the horrors of that earlier conflict were well-known and so many were conscious of the need to stay out of the infantry. Frank Dixon was a 467 Squadron skipper, and picked the Air Force out of a desire to avoid what he called a “man to man, face to face, knee deep in mud confrontation with cold steel”, the thought of which horrified him (C06-070-005).  The Air Force offered what Danny O’Leary, a Vultee Vengeance pilot, called “a way out: accept the risk of death for yourself, but volunteer for a technical arm like the Air Force or the Navy, where you will kill clinically, at a distance, where you won’t see ” the whites of his eyes”.

Phil Smith’s reason was perhaps more practical than many; he wrote that he decided on the Air Force because he thought that a pilot’s licence could be “a useful qualification” to have after the war (C03-004-004). As it happened after he was demobbed he never flew in command of an aeroplane again, but the sentiment remains.

But there was also a higher sense of duty. Danny O’Leary put it eloquently:

Deep down we all knew that this was a job which had to be done, and we young men of our generation, who had the fitness and schooling to do it, must step forward, for there was no one else […]It was our duty to stop this.

And stop it, they did.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

What happened to Jack’s letters?

Something that intrigues, and slightly frustrates, me on this journey into the story of my great uncle Jack is that we have very little original personal material about him. Being in possession of his wartime logbook, I concede, is more than many people have (and indeed was significant in capturing my interest in the first place), and there are official records available at the National Australian Archives and other places, but beyond a couple of official portraits I have nothing in the way of personal photographs, diaries or correspondence. What is most frustrating is that I know that such material once existed. What has happened to it since is a mystery.

There are a number of sources where correspondence to or from Jack is mentioned. His ‘last letter’, as his brother Edward wrote to Don Smith in July 1944 (A01-344-001), spoke of his “hope of being home for next Xmas and, as he phrased it, in a place where he could count on seeing the sun every day”. A note in his Casualty File reports that a letter to his late mother was discovered amongst his personal effects following his being posted missing, which was forwarded to RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne ‘for appropriate action’ (A04-071-061). There’s also talk in another of Edward’s letters to Don Smith of two letters from “Jack’s English sweetheart’ (which is a story in itself), and the intriguing suggestion that she might have sent some ‘snaps of all the boys [of the crew of B for Baker]’ to Edward (A01-111-001). So there was definitely correspondence that came from England to Australia, either written by Jack or by his mysterious girlfriend. And presumably his relatives in Australia would have replied to those letters – which could account for a bundle of “correspondence and photographs” that was included in the list of personal effects in his Casualty File (A04-071-024).

Unfortunately, somewhere between England and Australia, the bundle (along with a pillowcase) went missing. Its listing is marked with an asterisk on the list in the Casualty File, showing it never arrived at RAAF Central Depositories in Melbourne. And sometime in the ensuing decades, everything else apart from his logbook , a small collection of photographs and two unsent postcards went missing too. What happened to it is unknown. I have vague recollections of being told that a great aunt (one of Jack’s sisters) might have destroyed anything that she could find to do with her late brother in a fit of pique sometime in the 1960s. Or less menacingly, perhaps it was all simply thrown out in a big clean-up, just a bunch of papers found in a file somewhere that surely couldn’t be of any use to anyone any more. Whatever happened, it is clear that what was once a valuable archive (at least for someone like me) has simply disappeared.

I live in hope that one of my long-lost relatives will one day clear out their shed and stumble upon a bundle of ‘old papers’, thus solving a decades-old family mystery. But I suspect the history might have been lost forever.

© 2012 Adam Purcell