467 Postblog LXXXIII: What happened to the rest of the crew

NOTE: This post contains detail which some readers may find distressing.

In the days after the Lille raid, while Phil Smith was attempting to put as much distance between himself and the crash site as possible, the burials of his comrades were taking place. As we saw on the 11th, 22 bodies were buried at Forest-sur-Marque on the night of 11-12 May. One more would be found and buried there a few days later. Meanwhile it appears that the wreck of B for Baker was found in Lezennes on 11 May with the bodies of Jerry Parker, Eric Hill and Jack Purcell nearby. Ken Tabor and Dale Johnston were found under the wreck of the aircraft itself a short time later.[1] It is unclear where or when the body of Gilbert Pate was found. Three more bodies of 467 Squadron airmen were also found in Lezennes – those of Pilot Officer Bill Felstead and his flight engineer, Sergeant Cyril Duthoit, and navigator, Sergeant John Mellor. The nine airmen were buried in the Lezennes cemetery on 12 May 1944, though at this early stage Tabor and Johnston had not yet been identified. Amazingly, a French civilian took clandestine photographs of the funeral procession (though he is reported to have said that he needed to be careful that the Germans did not see him).[2] In time these would be sent via the Air Force to various next-of-kin of the crew. This copy, reproduced here courtesy Gil Thew, was sent to Gilbert Pate’s family:

Funeral Procession, Lezennes, 12 May 1944

Funeral Procession, Lezennes, 12 May 1944

Felstead’s aircraft – LL788 – exploded over the target and crashed on the road separating the communes of Annappes and Hellemmes. Elements of the crew were therefore buried in three distinct cemeteries. While three were interred at Lezennes three other members of his crew – Flight Sergeants Bill Ferguson, Brian Grasby and Bill Hancock – were among the 25 airmen buried at nearby Hellemmes on 15 May. This burial, the Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES) reported in their Casualty Inquiry No. 157[3], was attended by large numbers of civilians who left the graves covered in flowers. Testament to the violence of the explosion which had brought down their aircraft, the sole remaining airman from Felstead’s crew – mid-upper gunner Sergeant Charlie Nash – had apparently been dismembered and remains were buried in graves in both Hellemmes and Forest-sur-Marque. The MRES would eventually re-inter both at the latter.

At the time of the funerals seven of the bodies at Hellemmes were unidentified. By July 1947[4] MRES had exhumed and examined the questionable ones and all bar one had been matched with missing airmen. The identity of the airman buried in this single grave remains unknown today.

When he took command of 467 Squadron on 12 May 1944, of course, all Wing Commander Bill Brill – or anyone else in England for that matter – knew was that seventeen Lancasters had taken off from Waddington for Lille two nights ago, but only fourteen came back. Officially a signal needed to be sent from the Squadrons to the Air Ministry when an aircraft was one hour overdue.[5] For units based in the UK it was then the responsibility of the unit’s Commanding Officer to ensure a telegram was sent to notify next-of-kin resident in that country that their airman had been posted missing. Jerry Parker’s wife, Ethel, for example, lived in Leyland in Lancashire. She would have been among the first to be told that B for Baker and her crew failed to return from Lille. The telegram she received is dated 11 May 1944 and, as such, would have been one of the last things that Wing Commander Balmer organised before he took part in the Bourg Leopold raid from which he himself failed to return.

Like these things are, the hand-written telegram is brutally simple and to the point:[6]

Regret to inform you that your husband Sgt Jeremiah Parker is missing as the result of air operations on the night of 10/11 May 44 letter follows. Any further information received will be immediately communicated to you pending receipt of written notification from the Air Ministry. No information should be given to the press. O.C. 467 Squadron R.A.A.F.

The letter Balmer referred to was dated 12 May and as such was signed by Bill Brill. It would have been one of his first duties on taking over the squadron. Similar letters of condolence were sent to the next of kin of a total of 28 aircrew: 21 resulting from the Lille raid and seven more from Bourg Leopold (one of whom was Balmer, the man Brill had replaced).

Notifying the next of kin of the Australians on the crew, however, was a longer process. On receipt of the first signal from Waddington, the British Air Ministry in turn advised RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne. Copies of this signal, dated 12 May 1944, survive in the casualty files of all four of the Australians[7] who were on board B for Baker when it went missing, including the names of recorded next of kin and whether they had been informed yet or not. The distance to Australia meant that it took longer for the information to reach the families. It would appear that late on 15 May the Air Force dispatched telegrams to all four families. At 09:20 the next morning, the delivery boy knocked on the door at 25 Victory Street, Belmore. Grace Pate – Gilbert’s wife – was not available so the telegram was given to her mother instead.[8] At 09:40, Eustace Purcell, Jack’s brother, received a similar message in nearby Enfield, and ten minutes after that the news reached Jack’s eldest brother, Edward, in Thirroul.[9] An attempted delivery to the Smiths in Mosman failed at 10:00 and Phil’s father, Don, needed to go to the post office later in the afternoon to receive the message.[10] It is likely that at the same time he picked up another telegram, one from his brother Jack Smeed. Living in England (and indeed Phil had spent some of his leaves from the Squadron staying with his uncle at Denham) meant that Jack had received notification earlier than the Australians. “HAD THE NEWS YESTERDAY”, he wrote on May 13. “MAKING ENQUIRIES WILL LET YOU KNOW ANY RESULT LOVE TO ALL JACK SMEED”[11] The telegram is stamped 15 May and Don Smith’s handwriting next to the stamp notes that he received it on the 16th.

Meanwhile, notifying Dale Johnston’s family was taking a little longer still.[12] It appears they had moved from Proston, north of Toowoomba in Queensland, to Dayboro, 100 miles away near Brisbane, without telling the Air Force. The Proston Postmaster sent a return telegram notifying the Air Force of this on 16 May, and they forwarded another copy of the casualty notification to Dayboro. Charles Johnston – Dale’s father – received it at 10:15 the next day.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] MRES Casualty Enquiry No. 157, in NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 57D

[2] Ibid.

[3] Copy in NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 57. Details in this paragraph are all sourced from this document.

[4] MRES Casualty Enquiry No. 157, in NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 56A

[5] Hadaway, Stuart 2012 p.161

[6] Telegram, OC 467 Squadron R.A.A.F. to Mrs Ethel Parker, 11 May 1944. Original in the collection of Freda Hamer

[7] Such as that of Jack Purcell: NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Enc. 1A

[8] NAA: A705, 166/32/380 Encl. 4a

[9] NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 3a and 4a

[10] NAA: A705, 166/38/524 Encl. 6a

[11] Telegram, Jack Smeed to Don Smith, 13MAY44. Original in the collection of Mollie Smith

[12] NAA: A705, 166/20/131. Encl. 3-6

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