Google Earth

The internet is full of tools to make the life of a Bomber Command researcher easier. There are forums to connect like-minded folk from across the globe. There is the National Archives of Australia website to view digital copies of original personnel and casualty files (among many many thousands of others). And there is Google Earth, which has for me proven invaluable in giving some sort of an appreciation of the geographical setting of the events I’m investigating from the other side of the world.

I made heavy use of the program while I was researching and writing my 467 Postblog series over the last couple of years. I pulled the approximate routes flown by the bomber streams on various operations from either logbooks or the Night Raid Reports, then stuck those ubiquitous virtual yellow pins into the map. Then I could plot the locations of casualties, nightfighter attacks or other interesting events in relation to the nominal track flown by the bombers. I could even, in some cases, locate the exact aiming point and trace the unfolding bombing operation in close detail.

As an example, take the Tours raid of 10 April 1944 (on which the crew of B for Baker did not take part). I wanted to find potential reasons for why the second wave of the attack was not as accurate as the first had been. I started with the Night Raid Report[1], which says that “the first red spot fires fell near the roundhouse and the bottleneck between the two yards”.

Off to Google Earth I went, where it was easy to find railway yards at Tours with a bottleneck between them and (though this image is quite low-resolution) a roundhouse visible just under the ’o’ in ‘Approx’. Excellent, I thought, and inserted a fire icon.


What next? “The Master Bomber therefore ordered crews to bomb 500 yards to the E”, continued the Night Raid Report. So I picked an appropriate icon (a bullseye), and placed it some 500 yards east of the spot fire icon. It’s pretty close to the bottleneck – smash that and the entire marshalling yard complex will struggle to function effectively. So things are beginning to make sense.

The bombers approached the target roughly along the line from bottom right to the target pin (which is probably slightly displaced from the actual aiming point because of limits in the resolution of the coordinate system used by the aircrews). This image has been rotated slightly towards the east to fit the text in comfortably so the line of approach should actually be only slightly north of west.

While most crews were carrying high explosives only, the 463 and 467 Squadron Operational Record Books reveal that a number of crews also dropped incendiaries, the fires from which caused a lot of smoke to rise over the target. The ground wind, according to Wing Commander Willie Tait’s report on the 467 Squadron ORB, was coming from the west. One look at the target area on Google Earth reveals that the smoke would have been blown back along the path of the second wave of approaching bombers. It’s easy to see why the second wave had trouble identifying the target and thus, one reason for why their attack was not as accurate as the first had been.

This analysis came from a careful study of the data found in the Night Raid Reports and the 463 and 467 Squadrons Operational Record Books, combined with a Google Earth satellite view of the target area as it was in 2010. Perhaps a map of the area may have afforded a similar conclusion but it’s unlikely that the detail of the bottleneck and the roundhouse, which stick out clearly on the satellite photo, would have been on a map. I used a similar technique throughout the Postblog series, including tracing Phil Smith’s evasion as he walked south through France – I could even pinpoint the farmhouse where he spent a couple of nights in Orchies two days after his aeroplane crashed.

I visited the UK in 2009 on what was essentially a pilgrimage around various sites associated with the crew of B for Baker and with Bomber Command in general. However much they have changed in the intervening decades, there is nothing quite like seeing first-hand places I had, to that point, only read about in logbooks and diaries. But, when trying to trace these events from the other side of the world, if you can’t be there in person Google Earth comes closest for giving an impression of how everything fitted together.


[1] No. 576 – see here for full citation

A modern-day ‘Escape from Colditz’

Colditz Castle, in Saxony in Germany, is of course most famous for housing Oflag IV-C, the supposedly escape-proof prisoner of war camp during WWII. The prisoners held there all had a demonstrated history of escaping from their previous camps and so describing their new home as escape-proof surely had the same effect as would waving a red rag at a bull. Consequently the prisoners had in place significant secret ‘escapist’ infrastructure and numerous attempts were made to abscond – some 30 of them successful.

Playing an important part in that escaping effort was an unassuming Australian man named Jack Millett, a Lieutenant of the 2/11 Battallion who had a knack for drawing maps. His talent was considered so valuable that the Escape Committee wouldn’t let him escape himself. I was alerted to his story in an article by Tony Wright in yesterday’s The Age newspaper here in Melbourne.

Millett’s wartime adventures inspired another Australian man, 51-year-old Mike Druce, to attempt a modern-day walk from Colditz to Switzerland, retracing as much as possible one of the routes used by escaping prisoners. He walked more than 600km over 17 days in September and October this year, and last Tuesday crossed the Swiss border at Ramsen, just as escapers Airey Neave and Pat Reid did, aided by Jack Millett’s maps, some seven decades ago. Mike had a copy of one of the maps with him as well on his journey.

Mike wanted to use the walk to raise funds for the Fred Hollows Foundation, a non-profit aid organization based in Australia that focuses on treating and preventing blindness and other vision problems, particularly in less-advantaged parts of Australia and the world. He wanted to raise $15,000 – enough money to save the sight of one person per kilometre that he walked.

At the time of writing he has just cracked $10,000 (up $2000ish since Wright’s article was published yesterday).

Mike’s just finished an inspiring walk. The physical challenge was not insignificant. The Fred Hollows Foundation is a very worthy cause. And, by walking across Germany unassisted he has experienced, at least in a limited way, some of the difficulties that faced wartime escapees, alone in a strange and hostile land, and ensured that their exploits are not forgotten. At least the locals were friendlier this time.

Well worth your support, if you can spare a few bob. You can donate to Mike’s cause through his page at Everyday Hero, and read the blog he wrote while he was on the road here.



Visiting Hux

Don Huxtable has featured on this blog before. A Lancaster pilot, he remains one of the living legends of 463 Squadron. He and his crew flew 32 operations between between September 1944 and April 1945, earning Hux a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process.

He has been a little in the wars in the last few months with a recent extended stay in various hospitals and rehabilitation centres. I made a mid-week dash to Sydney a couple of weeks ago and, with the prospect of a few hours to spare before my flight home, decided to see if I could arrange a visit.

The first step was to find out where he actually was. And when I rang his daughter a week before my trip I was most pleased to discover that Hux had returned home again. So on an unassuming Thursday morning I caught a train to Hornsby, on Sydney’s upper North Shore, and walked up the hill from the station to a simple weatherboard house on a quiet tree-lined street.

The importance of the ‘crew’ is one of the central themes of the Bomber Command experience, and in Hux’s case it was no different. In the words of Peta Fitzgerald, grand-daughter of Hux’s mid-upper gunner Brian Fallon[1], they had “[flown] together, lived together, drank together, prayed together, and on more than a few occasions saved each other’s lives… they became as close as brothers.”

In the years immediately following their return from war, the four members of Hux’s crew who were from Sydney stayed together as they settled back into normal life. They built four houses on adjacent blocks in the same street. Hux’s own house was the second to be finished. “We built that one first,” he told me, pointing through a window towards next door. Well, not that one, he corrected. “We built the one that used to be there!” And he raised the blind to reveal the solid brick wall of a huge McMansion now pressing up against his fence. Today, Hux is the only one of the four who is still there. The rest have all died.

When I first arrived Hux had just begun makinga simple salad for lunch, but after pondering it for all of, oh I don’t know, two and a half seconds, he suggested we instead went to “the Club” for lunch. I readily agreed.

I thought about it as we waited for the taxi. I’d seen the Hornsby RSL Club as I walked up the street from the station. Hux has been involved with the club for a very, very long time. In fact, the last time I spoke to him on the phone, when he was still in hospital and it appeared likely that he would need to move into full-time care, his main comment about it was that he did not mind whatever facility he ended up in if “at least I can still get to the club!” Knowing how special the place is for him I realised the honour implicit in an invitation to lunch there with him.

After a stimulating conversation about the quality or otherwise of the refereeing in the previous weekend’s rugby league semi-finals, the taxi driver dropped us off at the downstairs entrance. ‘When I first came here,” Hux told me, “the club was in a little tin shed about there,” pointing to what is now a large car park. “Look at it now!” It soon became clear just how well-known Hux is at the club. Every corner we turned was someone who said a cheery “morning, Mr Huxtable!” as we went past.

I was given the grand tour, then we ended up in the bistro for a classic RSL lunch: simple, cheap and lots of it. I drank beer; Hux had his usual scotch and soda. We chatted about all sorts of things: Hornsby, Hux’s post-war career in the meat trade, the recent tour of England by the Canadian Lancaster, the perils of shift work, life in Melbourne, the future of Bomber Command commemoration in Australia… I even found time for a quick portrait:

14Oct-Sydney 097

And on the way out we made a short detour. As if anyone needed any more proof of the importance of Hornsby RSL to Hux, or of his importance to them, there’s a room named after him:.

Don Huxtable outside the roon maned for him, Hornsby RSL, October 2014
Don Huxtable outside the roon named for him, Hornsby RSL, October 2014

“I thought they only named rooms after people when they died,” he said gruffly, though even as he said it I’m sure I could detect a touch of quiet pride in his voice.

We shuffled out into the Sydney spring sunshine, and Hux bade me farewell. When I looked back, I saw the old pilot waiting at the street corner for the lights to change. Slightly stooped as he leant on his walking stick, he still towered over the rest of the crowd.

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

[1] Fitzgerald was writing in the preface to Brian’s posthumously-published memoirs, Press On Regardless: Memories of Bomber Command, which she edited. Privately published.

Event: Ladies Day Lunch with 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney, 16 November 2014

Details have now been released for this year’s Ladies’ Day Luncheon, held by the 463-467 RAAF Lancaster Squadrons Association (NSW Branch) in Sydney:

  • Sunday 16 November 2014
  • 12:00pm for 12:30pm
  • Killara Golf Club, Pacific Highway, Killara
  • $55pp covers three-course meal with wine/beer/soft drink

Speaking will be Bill Purdy, a 463 Sqn skipper who travelled to France in June as part of the official Australian Delegation to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

For more info, or to book, please contact David Southwell at PO Box 692, Pymble Business Centre, NSW 2073 or david(at)villageconcierge(dot)net.

You can read my post about the 2013 event here.