467 Postblog LXXXIV: Phil Smith’s Return

Bill Purcell, one of Jack’s nephews, used to stay at his aunt Clare’s place near Wollongong after school every day. He remembered well the day that news arrived that his uncle Jack – Clare’s brother – had been posted missing. The whole family, he said, had gathered at Clare’s and were huddled around the kitchen table.[1]

Everyone was almost whispering.

Official telegrams contained so few clues about what had happened besides the stark fact that the airman concerned had been posted missing and, though Bill Brill’s letters were on the way with a little more detail, these would not reach the families in Australia until the middle of July. In the meantime there was little definite information available. Don Smith, therefore, sprang into action. He wrote to the Air Force at the end of May to request addresses of the other Australian next-of-kin, which the Air Force then provided. He also sent letters to the Air Force for onwards delivery to the three British next-of-kin.[2] So developed a significant body of correspondence between the families. Happily, Mr Smith was a careful type who neatly filed almost all of the letters in three big folders, all of which have survived. Similar, if not quite so comprehensive, archives also survive for Jerry Parker and Gilbert Pate. Hence we know that the families exchanged many letters over the course of the next few years. Mr Smith would carefully transcribe anything of note on his typewriter. Photographs and newspaper articles were also shared, and commiserations expressed when news broke on 4 August that first Gilbert Pate and then, three days later, Jerry Parker had been declared dead based on information from the International Red Cross.[3] “Regret no news of your son Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith D.F.C. or remainder of crew,” said the telegram sent to the Smith home in Sydney.

Sadly, as we now know most of the rest of the crew had also been killed when B for Baker came down. But Phil Smith was most definitely still alive, being sheltered by the Mely family in Caudry. And in early September the town was liberated when invasion forces reached it. On 3 September, Monsieur Mely took Phil to the Town Hall where he was received and celebrated by members of the Resistance and the local population.[4] Some time over the next couple of days he made himself known to Allied military authorities so that, on 5 September, he hitchhiked[5] to Beauvais, north of Paris, and was flown back to Northolt in England in a DC-3 via the Normandy beachhead.[6]

The Air Force notification system ground its way into action once more, but on this occasion it was beaten by private means. The news was broken unwittingly by Cis Smith in a telegram, which was telephoned through to the Smiths at 4.45pm on 8 September:[7]

THANK HEAVEN PHILIPS IN ENGLAND

CIS SMITH

A day later came an equally short and cryptic message from the man himself:

SAFE AND SOUND

PHILIP SMITH

Finally, on 11 September came official confirmation from the Air Force, who also sent telegrams to the three other Australian next-of-kin. Messages immediately flew between the families:[8]

GLAD TO HEAR OF YOUR GOOD NEWS

GRACE PATE

HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR SONS SAFE RETURN TO BASE

JOHNSON [sic]

What a relief to you!

Sydney Pate

Phil was given a complete medical (which “confimed that I am as fit as I feel – my only trouble being my teeth”[9]), then sent on three weeks’ survivor’s leave. He spent some time with his uncle Jack and then to his uncle Harold in March, Cambridgeshire, which is where Cis caught up with him. Her airgraph to his parents, written on 13 September,[10] contained the first real account of what actually happened to Phil on the night of the Lille raid.

…he must have had a miraculous escape as he doesn’t know if another plane hit them or if their own bombs exploded as directly their own bombs were released he remembers a terrific flash of light – but felt absolutely nothing. Then he found himself below the fierce flames + took a risk + pulled his rip cord…

From his uncle’s house, Phil set out to find the addresses of the next-of-kin of the three English members of the crew, and then went to visit them. This must have been one of his toughest missions during his time in the Air Force.

After his survivor’s leave, Phil spent a further month in the UK before embarking for home, via the US. He arrived back in Australia on 16 January 1945, having been overseas for three and a half years. The Lille raid was his 51st operation and he returned having received a Mention in Dispatches in 1943 and a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944. (News of the latter came through while he was evading in France). Following a stint in an RAAF hospital in Sydney while recovering from a bad case of peritonitis, Phil was posted to RAAF Bundaberg, Queensland, where he commanded 88 Operational Base Unit while awaiting demobilisation. He was finally discharged from the Royal Australian Air Force on 13 December 1945.

 

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] Purcell, Bill, in interview with Kerry Tarleton, approx. 2001

[2] Correspondence on these matters is in A705, 166/38/524

[3] Telegram advising the Johnstons of these facts are in NAA: A705, 166/20/131, encl. 16a and 18a

[4] Grand Outidien du Nord de la France, 22MAY47. Translated transcript, in the collection of Mollie Smith

[5] Related in a letter, Cis Smith to Don Smith, 13SEP44. Part of the collection of Mollie Smith.

[6] This flight is in Phil’s logbook as a passenger.

[7] Original telegrams are part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[8] Telegrams from Grace Pate (12 September) and Charles Johnston (14 September) and letter from Sydney Pate (13 September), all part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[9] Smith, Phil, letter to father, 09SEP44. Part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[10] This letter forms part of the collection of Mollie Smith

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