I did my first research project about my great uncle Jack at the age of about 12. It was for an entry in a national history competition and my project was to write a series of letters as if Jack had been writing home from the war. This work led directly to our discovering that Phil Smith, who had been Jack’s pilot, was still alive and was living in Sydney. We first met Phil and his wife Mollie in early 1997.
There then came a break of a few years. We stayed in contact with Phil and Mollie and occasionally travelled to Sydney to visit them and while I was aware of ‘Uncle Jack’ the bug had not yet bitten in earnest to find out more about him myself. In 2003 I took a year off between school and university, and that’s when I had some time to once again delve into the subject. Sadly the catalyst for this work was news of Phil’s death in March of that year. The starting point this time was all the original documents that we had about Jack, which I scanned and wrote explanatory notes about to put on a CD-ROM and share around my family. Then university and moving out of home got in the way and it was some years before I felt the urge again and started the work that has evolved into SomethingVeryBig.
The slightly frustrating thing is that I never had the opportunity to speak to Phil in detail about his experiences. I was quite young when I first started researching the story of B for Baker. This phase of work was what led us to him in the first place – and the second phase started after he passed away. I remember one discussion, over the lunch table at Phil and Mollie’s home in Sydney, when my father was asked to read out Phil’s wartime letter about the time his troop ship hit an iceberg in mid-Atlantic (a story in itself) while Phil added comments here and there, but that’s the only occasion that I can recall where we spoke directly about his experiences. I’m lucky that since his death I’ve had access to the superb archive of letters and photos and other documents that his father carefully collated while Phil was in the Air Force, but there’s nothing like actually talking to the people who were there for a ‘feel’ of what it was like.
Which is why I’m slowly collecting veterans, so to speak – contacting as many as I can, writing letters (yes, real letters, with stamps and envelopes and everything), phoning up and generally picking their brains. Each has a story to tell and each little insight adds to what I understand of what it was like to fly for Bomber Command. I can’t ask my great uncle or any members of his crew what their war was like – but I can still talk to other veterans. While it’s not quite the same story, they would have shared many similar experiences with each other so I reckon it’s enough to build a picture of the ‘feel’ of the times they lived in and the tasks they carried out.
© 2013 Adam Purcell