Archive for November, 2013

Lancaster Men at the Shrine

Peter Rees, author of the highly successful book Lancaster Men, delivered a talk about his book tonight at the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne..

Peter Rees signing copies of his book

Despite the shocking weather there was a good-sized audience of perhaps 100 people present, all of whom listened in some awe to a very thorough presentation which covered the main themes of the book and told some good stories. Peter made certain to mention that Lancaster Men was his publisher’s choice for a title, not his – there were, as he rightly points out, other aircraft flown by Australians in Bomber Command! He told some stories from ‘behind the scenes’ of researching and writing the book, like Ted Pickerd, a 463 Squadron veteran who  who greatly assisted Peter’s research before he died last year. They would meet weekly at the Australian War Memorial to pore through documents and archives together, Ted still being in possession of his navigator’s eye for detail and accuracy coming to the fore. He also said that since publication the book has received strong support, so much so that it’s now on its third print run (and indeed the Shrine shop ran out of copies of the book tonight, like the Australian War Memorial did during the Bomber Command weekend in Canberra in June), and as a direct result of writing it he has received so many further stories from people who have read the book that he is planning a follow-up volume in a couple of years time.

A lively discussion followed the talk, with Dresden getting much of the attention – and, incredibly, adding their input from the audience were four Bomber Command veterans, three of whom had in fact been on the Dresden trip and who could add recollections of what they were told at briefing for that raid. That added a very personal, and quite immediate, touch to the discussion at hand.

Someone mistook me for an official photographer and asked me to organise a group photo of Peter with, yes, the Lancaster Men.

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Left to right, we have Len Swettnam (a bomb aimer),  Gerald McPherson (rear gunner), Peter Rees (author),  John Wyke (another rear gunner), and Gordon Laidlaw (pilot).

Peter cites the lack of recognition given to Bomber Command and especially its returning veterans at the end of the war as one of the reasons he wrote his book. This event, of course, tied in with the Bomber Command exhibition which is now showing at the Shrine. And next week at the Shrine will be a panel discussion with, among others, Peter Isaacson, perhaps one of Australia’s most well-known Bomber Command airmen. It’s all evidence of the increase in awareness of Bomber Command in recent times.

At least a little bit of the credit for that should go to Peter himself. His very readable book has made some of the extraordinary stories of the ordinary airmen of Bomber Command accessible to a mass audience. That can only be a good thing, if the stories are to live on.

Bring on Volume Two!

The Shrine has placed a podcast of Peter’s talk on their website. The download is here.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

Ladies’ Day with 463-467 Squadrons Association, Sydney

The 463-467 Squadrons Association (NSW) holds a luncheon every November, on the Sunday after Remembrance Day. For as long as anyone can remember it’s taken place in the rather classy surroundings of the Killara Golf Club in Sydney’s North Shore, and this year was no different. I was able to wrangle the day off work so I flew up from Melbourne last Sunday to attend.

I was staying at my sister’s place in Marrickville so I travelled to Killara by train, walking to the station in teeming rain. One of the stops along the way was Town Hall and here I noticed a tall, slim older gent and a middle-aged woman among the passengers getting on the train. I caught a fleeting glimpse of his tie and it looked rather familiar. They sat across the aisle from me in an otherwise nearly empty top deck compartment and continued the conversation they had been engaged in when they boarded the train. First I overheard the word ‘Killara’, then, a little later, ‘Southwell.’

Clearly, I decided, we were going to the same place. So I moved across the seat and introduced myself. The older gent was Tom Hopkinson, a 463 Squadron mid-upper gunner. He was up from Canberra for the function, staying with his second cousin Pamela who was travelling on the train with him. We had a great little chat on the way and while sheltering from the rain waiting for our lift to arrive at the station to take us to the golf club. It’s not very far away and last year, I thought to myself, I got sunburnt as I walked it…

A nice little crowd had gathered in the atrium area when we arrived. Most of the usual suspects were around, though there had been one or two cancellations as a result of the weather (it was still bucketing down outside).

The next couple of hours saw some good conversation amongst forty-odd guests with twelve veterans in total present. I found myself seated between Ron Houghton, a 102 Squadron Halifax skipper, and my frequent neighbour at these sorts of events, 49 Squadron rear gunner Hugh McLeod. The Golf Club put on a good meal again and, as is traditional, Don Browning proposed a toast to the ladies, present and elsewhere, for their support of their veteran husbands, fathers and grandfathers, which is the reason that this function is known as Ladies’ Day.

A remarkable photograph followed. By my count we had three pilots, a navigator, a bomb aimer, three wireless operators, two mid-upper gunners and two rear gunners in the group. Between them they covered almost every position in a typical heavy bomber crew. Unfortunately there were very few Australian flight engineers, and none were present here or I would have suggested we find ourselves a Lancaster and go flying.

Bomber Command veterans in Killara, November 2013

Seated, left to right: Ron Houghton (102 Squadron Halifax pilot), Don Huxtable (463 Squadron pilot), Don Browning (463 Squadron wireless operator), Harry Brown (467 Squadron wireless operator)

Standing, left to right: Hugh McLeod (49 Squadron rear gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Squadron bomb aimer), Max Barry (463 Squadron rear gunner), Albert Wallace (467 Squadron mid-upper gunner), Ross Pearson (102 Squadron wireless operator/air gunner), Bill Purdy (463 Squadron pilot), Tom Hopkinson (463 Squadron mid-upper gunner), Don Southwell (463 Squadron navigator)

I also made sure that I got a photo with Albert Wallace. In June last year I received a comment on somethingverybig.com from a veteran called Albert Wallace. Unbelievably, it was a different Albert Wallace, who lives in Canada. At the opening of the Bomber Command memorial in London earlier that year he (Canadian Albert) was amazed to meet an Australian veteran of the same name who had also been a mid-upper gunner. I helped both Alberts get in touch with each other, though unfortunately they did not get a photo with both of them together!

Bomber Command veterans at Killara, November 2013

Left to right, in this photo we have Ron Houghton, Hugh McLeod, Albert Wallace and myself.

A couple of photos to finish off, then. Bryan Cook and Don Huxtable:

Bryan Cook and Don Huxtable

Hux had a minor heart attack a few months ago but though he looks a little more frail than I have seen him in recent years it clearly has not affected his mischievous nature. Here he is clowning about before the group photo:

Don Huxtable

Again, a great little function and well worth making the trip up from Melbourne. I’ll be back next year.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Confusing the Nightfighters

Imagine you are a German nightfighter controller, sitting in a bunker during the Second World War. Listening posts have picked up radio transmissions from navigation beams, warning messages to British shipping, and signals from H2S or Fishpond radar devices as aircrew warmed up their equipment in England. You know the British are planning a big raid tonight and the nightfighter units have been warned. Now the first reports are coming in from observers and radar stations around the continent – large concentrations of raiders are approaching across Belgium and Northern France, heading south-east. But there’s another big force heading towards Denmark. Could they be after Berlin again?

The decisions you make next will play a significant role in the success or otherwise of the nightfighters defending the Reich. Is the force over Belgium a distraction? That’s been their tactic over the last couple of months. Or will the northern group just drop mines along the coast of Germany and scarper again? If you decide the northern threat is ‘just’ a minor mining operation you can send all your fighters to intercept the other force, which could be bound for anywhere in Germany. But then you run the risk of leaving Berlin undefended. So you might decide that the northern force is the real threat, and move your fighters to cover Hamburg from where they can quickly get stuck into any bombers crossing the top of the country. But that leaves the southern force free to attack any part of southern or central Germany untouched by fighters, should it turn out to be the ‘real’ bomber stream. Perhaps you should split your forces and send half to the north and half to the south?

This was the situation facing the German nightfighter controllers on 18 March 1944. As it happened the northern force was indeed a diversion, sent to drop mines in the Heligoland area off north-west Germany. The distraction kept many fighters to the north while the ‘real’ bomber stream slipped through almost unmolested, reaching their target – Frankfurt – having lost only four known victims to the fighters. In all the fighters accounted for just eight out of a total of twenty two casualties that night, a low loss rate probably influenced by the confusion brought about in the nightfighter control system by multiple apparent bomber streams.

A few days later two big forces of aircraft again appeared on German radar screens heading north east over the North Sea: a mining force headed for Kiel and the main bomber stream, which turned sharply south east halfway across the water. This time they flew a route that appeared to threaten cities like Hanover or even Berlin, reinforced by Mosquitos making diversion raids on both of those cities. The tactics successfully disguised the true objective of the bombers, which once again was Frankfurt (indeed, the running commentary that directed the nightfighters did not mention Frankfurt until seventeen minutes after the first target indicators went down there). Nineteen bombers out of a total of 33 that failed to return were seen to fall to nightfighters on this raid. This time the mining force did not distract the fighters unduly but the convoluted and somewhat novel route used still caused some confusion about the actual target and so the loss rate was relatively low for a city-busting raid like this one.

The Frankfurt raids demonstrate two facets of the tactics used extensively by Bomber Command in the spring of 1944 in an attempt to confuse the German nightfighter control system. Most raids carried out in this period were accompanied by aircraft on diversions, harassing raids or mining operations, and used elaborate routes designed to conceal the identity of the real target for as long as possible. On these two occasions the tactics appeared to have been successful, but there were many raids where despite the best planning and intentions, things simply didn’t turn out for the bombers as they were hoping.

One example came a few days after the Frankfurt raids, on 24 March 1944, when the Main Force bombed Berlin. They took a conventional route to the north via Denmark and were supported by Mosquitos attacking Kiel, Münster and Duisburg and a large force of aircraft from Training Groups making a diversionary sweep near to Paris without dropping any bombs. The controllers completely ignored the Paris sweep and nightfighters got stuck into the bomber stream from the island of Sylt all the way to the target and back out again. They accounted for sixteen victims – but worse was to happen to the bombers. A northerly wind that was far stronger than expected blew many crews off track and over the heavily defended areas that the route had been planned to avoid. Many, as a result, fell to flak and a total of 72 aircraft failed to return. The best-laid plans were brought unstuck by nature.

Perhaps the most infamous case, however, was the disastrous raid on Nuremberg a week later, on 30 March 1944. The bombers were routed from England down towards Charleroi in Belgium. There they would turn east for a long leg of some 250 miles, which was planned to thread the bombers safely between the heavy defences in the Ruhr and those of Koblenz to the south. The main force was to be supported by a group of Halifaxes simulating a large force possibly threatening Berlin that would actually drop mines in the Heligoland Bight before returning home, and small forces of Mosquitos to bomb Aachen, Cologne and Kassel as diversions from the main raid. The Germans decided, correctly, that the diversionary raids were just that and concentrated their fighters at two radio beacons between Cologne and Frankfurt. Unhappily for the bombers, their route passed smack between both beacons. Updated winds broadcast to the bombers were incorrect and many were off-track as a result, scattering the stream. In clear conditions over a very thin layer of low cloud, lit by a bright half-moon, and trailing spectacular white contrails caused by an unfortunate atmospheric quirk, their progress simply could not be missed. The bombers fought a running battle all the way to the target and more than sixty of the 94 that failed to return fell to fighters.

This operation had all of the usual tactics applied to it with the diversions and indirect route, but it still resulted in the highest losses of the entire war for Bomber Command. Undoubtedly the moonlight contributed, and the unexpected contrails drew attention to the bomber stream, but luck also played a part. The German controllers guessed that the northern force was a diversion and sent their fighters to the south – and just happened to pick the two fighter beacons that straddled the planned route of the bomber stream. It was a lucky guess that brought so many fighters to the area transited by the bombers, and unlucky chance that conditions were just about perfect for nightfighting when they got there.

The choice about where to deploy their forces was one that the German nightfighter control system faced night after night. Sometimes they got it wrong, and the bombers slipped through unthreatened. But frequently they got it right, and the bombers suffered severely as a consequence. The tactical cat and mouse continued throughout the war and remains a fascinating part of the story of the bomber offensive.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

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Sources:

Details of German early-warning system from Isby, David C (Ed.), Fighting the Bombers: The Luftwaffe’s struggle against the Allied Bomber Offensive

Details of Nuremburg raid mainly taken from Martin Middlebrook (1973), The Nuremburg Raid

Frankfurt and Berlin raid details and additional information on Nuremberg from Bomber Command Night Raid Reports Nos. 556, 560 and 567.

Temora

About 330km west of Sydney, in country New South Wales, lies a small town called Temora. It’s perhaps most famous these days for the superb aviation museum which has taken up considerable real estate at the local airport since its formation in 1999. Home to a significant collection of airworthy warbirds, most owned by Museum President and Founder David Lowy, the Museum is by far the best in Australia in terms of its airworthy fleet, and is perhaps the closest that we come to something like the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in the UK. It puts on flying days every six weeks or so to display the aeroplanes in the element in which they belong – the air.

It was to one of these flying weekends that I went in September 2009, in the back seat of a Piper Cherokee flown by a friend of mine.

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It was a great flight over in beautiful conditions, and I distinctly remember the chaos as we arrived in the circuit at Temora before the flying display started, just one of many light aeroplanes doing the same thing. There was so much traffic that we had to go around twice before we managed to land and at one stage we were on final for the runway and there were no fewer than four other aircraft in front of us. But once on the ground, the flying display was exciting and punctual and the organisation was superb.

But as I was wandering around the airfield I noticed a familiar sight. The hangar that now hosts the Temora Aero Club looked remarkably similar to many of the old hangars at Camden, which was the airfield from which I was doing my own flying at the time. Could Temora have a similar wartime heritage?

It could indeed. Temora was the site of 10 EFTS, the longest-running Elementary Flying Training School in the Royal Australian Air Force. Close by the Aero Club (which, yes, is in a Bellman Hangar, the sole remaining example out of six which were originally there) is this simple memorial:

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A sign near the entrance to the airfield records that upwards of 10,000 personnel passed through 10 EFTS during the war years, and that at its peak it had some 97 Tiger Moths on strength for pilot training. Four satellite fields scattered around the countryside were used when the congestion at the main airfield became too much. Tom Moore, who would eventually fly with 458 Squadron, said  that the satellite fields were just that – fields – requisitioned off farmers with no buildings or facilities other than a bench from which the instructors could watch their students flying around.

Like any EFTS, however, there were accidents during training at Temora. Sometimes they were almost comical – like one chap who “landed 20 feet off the ground and the plane just come down like that and the wings folded down around him,” as remembered by a 61 Squadron pilot named John Boland – but sadly, sometimes they were fatal. There are 13 of the simple white headstones denoting Commonwealth War Graves in Temora General Cemetery.

One of my favourite stories about Temora, however, comes from Lionel Rackley, eventually a 630 Squadron pilot, and doesn’t concern flying at all. He describes it at the Australians at War Film Archive:

Air crew trainees went into a place and they were there for a month, six weeks, and went out again. But the ground staff people were there, so the town belonged to them, really. In those days, we used to wear a forage cap, and air crew trainees wore a little white flash on the front of the forage cap, that denoted us as air crew trainees. And these ground staff, they had set word around Temora that out at the aerodrome there, there’s a venereal hospital. And all those fellows around town with white flashes on their caps, they’re the patients…

It’s not too far from the airfield into Temora itself, and after the flying display finished that September afternoon in 2009 my mate and I meandered in (without a white flash in our caps) to find a pub for dinner. We stumbled the two miles or so back to the airfield a few hours later, much as I imagined countless trainee aircrew had done, almost seventy years before.

© 2013 Adam Purcell