Use the Source, Luke

My research catalogue for this project includes about a thousand individual items. And those are just the ones that I have catalogued; there are many more that sit in a great pile on my bookshelf waiting to be looked at. They are from a wide variety of sources and types. There are personal letters, logbooks and photographs. There are service records, casualty files and night raid reports. There are audio recordings, interview transcripts and videos. And there are books – there are many, many books; some written by people who were there, and some written by people who were not there.

No one source can tell the whole story, though – in one sense, this is why there are so many individual items in my catalogue! To build a more complete picture of ‘what really happened and why’ (which, after all, is one of the reasons for doing this work in the first place), multiple sources need to be consulted and compared as a whole.

A pilot’s logbook, for example, can offer a full record of what flights the pilot made and when they went on them. The more fastidious pilots also recorded who they flew with, in which aircraft, and even over which route they flew, which are all Really Useful Facts for a historian. But what a logbook doesn’t necessarily reveal is why each flight was made. Take, for example, this one, which appears in S/Ldr Phil Smith’s wartime logbook on 06MAY44:

Aircraft: Oxford. Pilot: Self. Crew: -. Duty: Base – Coningsby and return. 0.30hrs Day.

This is the first flight in an Oxford that I can find in Phil’s logbook at all (though he did significant flying in the very similar Avro Anson during his training), and it is quite an odd flight to find in the logbook of an operational bomber pilot. Indeed, later that night, Phil led his crew on a bombing operation to an ammunition dump at a place called Sable-sur-Sarthe in France. So what on earth could he have been going to Coningsby for?  To find the answer, I needed some other sources.

A few years before he died, Phil wrote an unpublished 29-page typescript for the benefit of his grandson, entitled ‘Phil’s Recollections of 1939-45 War’. I’m lucky enough to have a copy of it and I had cause recently to go through it to see if I could match his (mostly undated) reminiscences with actual flights in his logbook. And, funnily enough, that odd little flight the fifteen or so miles from Waddington to Coningsby is one of those he wrote about.

“For this raid I was appointed ‘Controller’ which meant that I would maintain contact between the target marking Mosquitoes and the main force of Lancasters carrying the bombs. In the afternoon before the raid, the station commander ordered me to visit the target marking people on the nearby aerodrome, Conningsby [sic]. I duly went over there in our Oxford aircraft, a type I had not flown for more than a year.”

But why would Phil need to do that? At the time of the Sable-sur-Sarthe operation, Bomber Command was increasingly becoming engaged on operations against French targets in the lead-up to D-Day. That much is clear from a perusal of Night Raid Reports for this period, in the UK National Archives (AIR14/3411). This trip was no exception. Great care was taken to be accurate on these trips – for the sake of effectiveness of the attack itself, but also to avoid French civilian casualties – and new, far more accurate marking techniques had begun to be developed. This is touched on in a 1951 book called No. 5 Bomber Group RAF by WJ Lawrence (p.164) Indeed a week previously the crew of B for Baker were on an operation to attack a munitions factory at St Medard-en-Jalles, near Bordeaux, but were ordered to return with their bombs when smoke and haze made accurate visual marking of the target impossible. (The bombers returned the next night and blew the munitions factory out of existence.) Phil Smith, having been appointed Controller for the upcoming raid, went to Coningsby to discuss tactics with the people who would be marking the target for the force he was to control.

So that curious little trip in Phil’s logbook now has an explanation. The primary source (logbook) has been complemented by a range of other documents, both primary (night raid reports) and secondary (Phil’s typescript and the 5 Group book) to come up with a picture of what happened and why.

It’s only a minor detail in the overall scheme of things, but it adds a little bit of colour to an otherwise dry logbook entry. And it gives the history just that little bit more life.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

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