Last week, Sydney got hit by the “storm of this century”. Extremely heavy rain – 255mm over three days, or almost exactly twice the average for the entire month of April – combined with flooding and winds of over 130km/h to cause eight deaths, thousands of fallen trees and untold millions of dollars of damage.
So it was with some relief that the city awoke on Saturday to one of those beautiful gin-clear blue sky autumn days for which it is so known. Patrons at the Grand Hotel, on the corner of Hunter and Pitt Streets, were well and truly into it even as I walked past just before 8.30am to the starting point for the 2015 Anzac Day march.
Just three veterans marched with the 463-467 Squadrons Association last year (with three more in trucks) and, with three of those having since suffered from deteriorating health, my fellow banner-carrier Bryan Cook and I were uncertain that we would have anyone marching at all this year. So we were both happy to find that numbers had in fact grown. In all there were eight veterans taking part. Bill Purdy missed last year as he was flying a Tiger Moth over the city. This year he led the 463-467 Squadron group. Don Southwell was back, feeling comfortable enough to march on foot for the first time in several years. Don Huxtable wasn’t going to let the trifling matter of a recent operation to remove a tumour from his neck stop him (he wore a beanie to cover the bandages). Riding in the trucks were Keith Campbell and Don Browning, and we had two veterans in wheelchairs: Albert Wallace and Harry Brown. Harry was pushed along by his grandson Geordie Jacobs, himself a member of the Royal Australian Air Force:
And we had a ring-in with us too. David Wylie, a wireless operator, radar operator and air gunner who served on Coastal Command, had been ‘adopted’ by the Southwells.
A Coastal Command veteran marching with a bomber unit? “Well, we did air-sea rescue patrols,” David said, “and when these blokes ditched into the ocean, we’d go to fish them out!”
Sounds reasonable to me, I thought.
There was a rather long delay while waiting for the march to get going. Bryan found Hux a couple of milk crates to sit on in the meantime, which caused much merriment:
But finally, we were off. There was just one thing missing.
“Where’s our music?!?” asked Bill Purdy from the front.
Just as he said that I heard a shouted command – and the Castle Hill Pipe Band appeared out of a side street and slotted themselves in behind us.
There’s our music, Bill.
With the pipes behind us and the cheers of the crowd the noise was spine-tingling, especially where Pitt St narrows just before we turned down Martin Place. It seemed to me, and to at least one or two others, like the biggest crowd ever, and it probably was. We heard later that there were some 220,000 people lining the streets. Hux – ably assisted by Hannah Beech-Allen, and I don’t think Hux was complaining at all about that – was determined to see through to the end of the march. I thought he had finally conceded defeat on the last leg up Bathurst St, but it turned out he just wanted to high-five some young kids who were hanging on the fenceline.
Intrepid leader Bill finally turned around when we reached the end of the march. I saw his eyes widen when he saw the rag-tag bunch of veterans and friends bunched behind the banner. “What a gaggle!” he said. We’d win no prizes for the crispness of our marching this year.
A short stroll followed across Hyde Park to the Pullman Hotel for lunch.
It was a bit squeezy. The room is built for about 45 guests – but we had almost 60, I think the biggest group ever, with more on a waiting list. Two more veterans joined the eight who had taken part in the march: Alan Buxton and my good friend Hugh McLeod. I’m not sure quite how I managed it but once again I had some extremely interesting dining companions. I was seated between Hugh and Bill Purdy, with Don Southwell off Hugh’s starboard wing. The conversation was as stimulating as you’d imagine with that calibre of gentlemen involved (“Did you ever have a nightfighter come in during the landing procedure?” Hugh asked Bill at one point, and I knew he was speaking from experience) and the lunch passed quickly.
I overheard an interesting conversation between Alan Buxton and David Wylie. They were talking about parachutes. David related the time when he and his crew were returning from a patrol in their Vickers Warwick (a development of the Wellington)and one of the wheels would not come down. The ground controller told them to point the aircraft east towards the sea and bail out, but they elected to try and land instead because, David said, “I’m afraid of heights”. Here Alan chuckled. He was wearing his little golden caterpillar badge, earned departing his Lancaster by parachute when all four engines caught alight crossing the English coast on the way home from an operation. “It’s different when you have to get out”, he said. “And we had to get out.”
And so another Anzac Day passes. The World War II veterans are getting fewer, and many of those who were there are much more frail than they were even a year ago. But they are still there, and while they keep coming to march, I’ll keep carrying the banner they so proudly march beneath.
Carrying a big old photo album and a familiar-looking blue-covered notebook, the old man led the way up a narrow staircase. Upstairs a table and a few chairs were in the middle of a big light-filled room. He pointed me to a chair, settled himself into the other one, and looked me fair in the eyes.
“So,” he said. “What do you want to know?”
Always a difficult question, that. And particularly so when the old man asking it is a Bomber Command veteran with 37 operations to his credit. But this was the situation that I found myself in one Wednesday afternoon recently, when I went out to Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to talk to one Gerald McPherson.
Gerald grew up in Horsham, in country Victoria. He grew up one of eight children, with one sister (the eldest of the lot), three older brothers and three younger brothers. At nineteen he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in January 1943. Two older brothers were already in the Air Force: Cyril, a pilot on Vultee Vengeances in Darwin, and Harry, a rear gunner on Halifaxes with Bomber Command in the UK. One of the photos in the big album that Gerald had brought up with him shows all three in uniform:
One of his other brothers was in a reserved occupation and thus unable to enlist. He was a telegraphist at the Horsham Post Office. “If anything had happened to us”, Gerald said soberly, “he would have been the first to know.” But while Gerald was awaiting call-up, his brother taught him Morse code at the Post Office. And so when this became known at Initial Training School, he found himself earmarked for training as a wireless operator.
At that stage in the war, a Wireless Air Gunners School was operating at Ballarat, north-west of Melbourne. Gerald was there between April and August 1943 – straight through winter. And Ballarat is, he reckons, one of the coldest places in the country. “We wore our complete flying kit to bed at night!” he told me. Matters were not helped by the gap of several inches between the bottom of the doors and the floor of the Nissen hut in which they were accommodated.
Gerald made an important discovery at Ballarat. While he could send and receive messages – a legacy of the lessons with his brother – he realised that he had no aptitude at all for taking a wireless set apart, finding and repairing any faults and putting it together again. As this was a vital part of the wireless operator’s role in a heavy bomber crew, he asked to be transferred to become a straight air gunner only.
Logbooks are good things to pore through. The entries are usually brief, to the point and largely emotionless. But they offer a convenient stepping-off point for further discussion, particularly when their owner is sitting across the table from you. The first page of Gerald’s revealed, over a week and a half in August-September 1943, a little over nine hours of flying, all by day, at No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School, West Sale.
“You trained in Fairey Battles, I see?” I asked.
“Terrible aeroplanes. Cramped… and the glycol fumes!” he said, rolling his eyes. “And I almost fell out of one once.” Apparently he dropped a full magazine of bullets over the side, leant over and caught it – “good thing I was playing so much cricket then” – and only then realised that his safety belt was not secured to the aircraft.
Shaking my head in amazement, I turned to the next the page of the logbook. Here the entries begin on 3 March 1944, and the flying is in Wellingtons from 17 Operational Training Unit at Turweston, in the UK.
Wait a second. Now he’s in the UK? But what about the rest of his training? Surely he can’t have had just nine hours of dedicated gunnery training in the air before he qualified as an air gunner?
I looked for the page that I felt sure I had missed. But there was none.
Air gunners in Bomber Command really were sent overseas and joined a crew with fewer than ten hours flying time.
Dale Johnston, the wireless operator on B for Baker had been in the service for a year and nine months and navigator Jack Purcell for more than two years when they first arrived at 9 Squadron at the end of October 1943. In contrast, Gilbert Pate, their rear gunner, took about a year and a quarter from enlistment to arriving at his first operational squadron, and he spent a month and a half in transit to the UK. Eric Hill, B for Baker’s English mid-upper gunner who, of course, did not have to travel half way around the world, was in the Royal Air Force for just six and a half months before he arrived at his first operational squadron. I knew that it didn’t take long to train a gunner to the point where they qualified to wear the half-wing with ‘AG’ on it.
But seeing Gerald’s logbook brought home with a thud just how little flying experience was involved before a gunner crewed up at an OTU. Gerald had been in the Air Force for nearly 18 months by the time he reached an operational squadron, but getting to the UK took four and a half months of that. He was packed off to war having completed a three month course at an Initial Training School and three weeks at Air Gunnery School, with a total of nine hours and ten minutes in his logbook.
Gerald crewed up at OTU in the usual fashion: equal numbers of each trade were sent into a big room and told to sort themselves out. Shortly afterwards they needed to replace their wireless operator, who had filled in for another crew on a training flight but was killed when the Wellington in which he was flying ditched into the North Sea after an engine failure. And soon after they got to 15 Squadron at Mildenhall, their pilot – Kiwi Flight Sergeant Jim Houghton – went on the usual second dickie trip to gain some experience before taking his own crew on ops. But as happened far too often, the aircraft he was on failed to return and Houghton was killed. Gerald told me that the Squadron Commanding Officer called them into his office and offered for them to remain on the squadron as ‘spare bods’, filling in for aircrew temporarily unable to fly with their own crews. Knowing from the loss of first their wireless operator and then their skipper that flying with strange crews was frequently a virtual death sentence, however, the crew managed to convince the CO to send them back to a Heavy Conversion Unit so they could find another pilot.
Finally Gerald and his crew – now led by Australian Flight Lieutenant Jeff Clarson – arrived at 186 Squadron, newly reformed at Tuddenham in Norfolk and under the command of Wing Commander JH Giles, a Canadian. Gerald maintains a very high degree of respect for his ‘Wingco’, telling me that instead of sending newly arrived pilots on second dickie trips, Giles would take the entire crew on their first trip himself. This being a very unofficial practice, Giles apparently did not even put the flights into his own logbook.
So it came to pass, as it were, that on 28 October 1944, Gerald and his crew climbed into a Lancaster with Wing Commander Giles for a daylight raid on Flushing. But they needed to swap at the last minute into a spare aircraft, and as they clambered aboard and did their pre-flight checks, Gerald discovered that the rear turret had no guns fitted. He told Giles over the intercom – but they were already late and there was no time to fix it. “Just keep a good look-out”, Gerald was told, “and sing out if you see anything”. He now reckons he’s the only gunner in Bomber Command to have gone on his first trip without guns!
Incidentally, this kicked off an interesting discussion about just how useful four Brownings weren’t against cannon-armed German fighters. Gerald confirmed my impression that most of the time it was considered better to evade nightfighters than to engage them in an uneven firefight. Indeed, just over a week after the attack on Flushing, Gerald and his crew flew on their first night raid to Coblenz in Germany. “Attacked by JU-88”, I read from his logbook.
“Not really”, Gerald said.
What actually happened was that the mid-upper gunner spotted the fighter close above them and reported it to the pilot. They altered course to see if it would follow them. It didn’t, probably indicating that the German pilot did not spot the bomber at all, and the Lancaster slipped away. Had either of the gunners opened up, the flashes from their muzzles would have drawn the attention of not just the JU-88 pilot, but of any enemy fighter nearby, putting them into a very dangerous situation. “You can’t fight cannon with machine guns”, Gerald said.
Their tour continued, not exactly uneventfully. They were shot at by a nightfighter on the way home from Leuna on 6 December 1944. The ‘cookie’ hung up over Gelsenkirchen three months later and had to be cut out with an axe. They thought they’d lost another wireless operator when ‘Grandad’ Perry (at all of 23 years, the eldest in the crew) went to fill in for a sick wireless operator with another crew to Dortmund. The aircraft crashed and blew up at the end of the runway and the rest of Gerald’s crew had been told that all on board had been killed and had already begun drinking to the memory of their late friend in the mess when the man himself appeared at the door. Apparently the other crew’s own wireless operator had been cleared to fly and turned up at the last minute and took over (full story here).
But as their tally approached the magic 30 that would usually mean the end of their tour, Bomber Command decided to raise the requirement to 35 because more crews were being lost than could be replaced. Gerald’s crew struggled to 33… and then it went up again, to 40. And so on 9 April 1945 they went on a night trip to Kiel, Gerald’s 37th all up. Over the target they were coned by a big pack of searchlights. For ten or fifteen minutes, pilot Jeff Clarson struggled to escape the blinding light. Flak damaged an aileron and it was a massive effort to recover, losing 16,000 feet in the process. At one point, flight engineer Jock Hepburn later told Gerald, they were actually upside down, not that Gerald could perceive that in his turret.
They managed to return safely – though not before almost hitting another Lancaster near the Danish coast – and it was only after landing that they discovered that in fact they had no obligation to go on the operation in the first place. The previous day – before they took off for Kiel – the requirement for a tour had been dropped back to 30. Apparently this was brought to the attention of the new Commanding Officer, an Englishman, but he decided to leave them on the Battle Order.
So Gerald finally finished his tour having completed 37 operations. Unusually among the veterans I’ve met, this included no fewer than 31 daylight trips. He was sent back to Australia and quite quickly demobbed, eventually to return to his pre-war job in the Personnel Department of ANZ Bank. He lived quite near Essendon Airport (in fact on my way to visit Gerald I had ridden the scooter past the site of his old house – it now hosts a block of serviced apartments) and played first-grade cricket for Essendon for many years. And it was after a cricket training session about a decade after the war when Gerald was in the bar at the Essendon Club with his team-mates and someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Jeff Clarson, now a pilot with Ansett-ANA, in Melbourne on a night-stop.
That turned into a much later night than had been planned, Gerald told me.
When I next looked at my watch, Gerald and I had been sitting at that upstairs table for three and a half hours. The time had flown by and we had covered a lot of ground. Gerald’s wife, Fay – who had organised the visit for me – had stuck her head up once or twice to offer tea refills but otherwise just let us talk. By the time I arrived home she had already emailed me a copy of Gerald’s logbook (she also provided the photos in this post).
I’m not, of course, the first person to interview Gerald (though this was more a chat than an interview). He also features in Michael Veitch’s excellent book, Flak.
Between that and my afternoon with Gerald, I had indeed discovered everything I wanted to know.
Text (c) 2015 Adam Purcell. Images courtesy Gerald and Fay McPherson
Details have now been released for the ‘national’ Bomber Command Commemorative Day events in Canberra, to be held on the weekend 30-31 May 2015. Note the change in date, one week earlier than has been traditional. There are as usual three events taking place:
The Bomber Command Memorial, Western Sculpture Garden at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Sunday 31 May 2015, 11:00 (please be seated by 10:50)
Contact and bookings: Don Southwell 02 9449 6515 or southwelldonald (at) gmail.com
The Meet & Greet
In the shadow of G for George, ANZAC Hall, Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Saturday night 30 May, 18:30-20:30
$60 per person, includes canapes, beer, wine, soft drink.
Sunday 31 May 2015, 12:30 for 13:00
$60 per person, includes two-course sit-down lunch. A cash bar will be operating.
Note that the Lunch has been moved back to the QT due to high demand
Contact for Meet & Greet and Lunch bookings: Ros Ingram, 2A Kitchener St Oatley NSW 2223, ros (at) ingram.org.au or 02 9570 6176
Tony Wright, National Affairs editor at The Age newspaper here in Melbourne, usually writes about the goings-on in and around Parliament House in Canberra. His series of Sketch columns usually throw an interesting light on the events of the day (and, if you’ve been following Australian politics, he’s had a not inconsiderable amount of material for inspiration recently).
But every Saturday, Wright gets the opportunity to write about something other than politics. One week last year it was about Mike Druce, the man who made a modern-day escape from Colditz Castle in September, then walked unsupported to Switzerland. Wright wrote another interesting one early in February.
“They are disappearing fast now”, he wrote, “the generation who experienced a world war.”
It seems not so long ago that those who had lived through World War I and had seen horses step aside for internal combustion engines and a lot more were being put in the ground, but memory plays tricks – it’s 100 years since that war began.
Those who knew it, even those who lived to astonishing ages, breathed the last of this earth’s air a long time ago.
Now it is the turn of the last of the survivors of World War II.
Some of those shuffling off into the sunset in recent times, of course, were well-known in life and widely mourned in death. Giants of politics like Gough Whitlam (an RAAF navigator) and Tom Uren (a survivor of the Burma-Thai Railway). Journalist and Korean War correspondent Harry Gordon. “These are, of course, big and extraordinary lives”, Wright says:
…generous spirits well documented, celebrated on a broad stage, their stories teaching us something that transcends the experiences that will go into books about their achievements: call it wisdom.
But while these were some of the better-known men whose lives intersected with some of the biggest conflicts in the history of mankind, so many others were there too. In Wright’s words:
…each day others whose lives were not destined to be celebrated so publicly or granted obituaries pass beyond this existence. Every one of them has a story, and in those stories we can often find ourselves enriched, because wisdom often resides there.
He’s dead right.
This is more or less why I flew to Sydney last month to have lunch with a Bomber Command veteran who also happens to be a good friend of mine. Hugh is a former rear gunner and we arranged to meet at one of those very old and very exclusive clubs in the city, all cedar panelling and leather Chesterfield armchairs. Hugh has been a member for a quarter-century.
He’s clearly well-known here. As we entered the bar the bartender poured my beer but gave Hugh the bottle and an empty mug. “I like to pour it myself”, he explained. Somehow, I imagine, with its sharply-dressed, exclusively male clientele, beer in pewter mugs and discreet murmur of conversation, the atmosphere in the bar at a wartime Officer’s Mess (in one of its quieter moments) might have been something similar. And perhaps for Hugh that’s at least part of where the attraction lies.
With that thought in my head, it’s not surprising that our conversation very quickly turned to flying. As we drank our beers we shared experiences flying the Tiger Moth and I mentioned my recent visit to Nhill and the Anson that is under restoration there. “I loved the old Aggie”, he said simply. We continued talking in the dining room as we waited for and then enjoyed a scrumptious meal while looking out over the State Library across the street.
Hugh is a little unique. He actually trained as a pilot but when he arrived at his squadron, he was one of twelve who were asked/chosen to re-train as gunners to operate a special ‘secret weapon’. It turned out to be ‘Village Inn’, an automatic radar-guided gun system. Despite what you might read on that link, Hugh’s opinion of the equipment is not very high. It was unserviceable half the time, he said, and the rear turret was not a nice place to be. Nor was it safe. On his first trip – to Bremen, in October 1944 – two of the twelve Village Inn men failed to return.
Hugh flew on his last operation – his 32nd – a matter of weeks before the end of the war. There followed the traditional fortnight’s end-of-tour leave, part of which coincided with the regular 12-days-every-six-weeks leave of a good friend at the squadron called Johnny Garrett. Hugh had arranged to meet up with Johnny in Cardiff but was a bit surprised when he did not show up. On return to the squadron he found out why.
On 22 April 1945, 49 Squadron was moving from Fulbeck to Syerston. As happened frequently on these occasions, on departure each bomber “beat up” the control tower before setting course for their new home. One aircraft flew past at extremely low level. Johnny, like Hugh a pilot/rear gunner, was in the rear turret.
The pilot pulled the Lancaster up into the air.
The tail of the aircraft hit the MT shed. The Lancaster fell to the ground, killing all six on board. Fifteen more people – part of the works party which were about to begin runway extentions at Fulbeck – were killed on the ground.(1)
It was a sobering story to hear over an otherwise very civilised lunch. But that’s just the point. Such was life, and death, in Bomber Command. Tragic as they are, stories like these actually happened. While official records like the squadron Operational Record Book reveal something of what happened to the aircraft, they won’t include the personal details – like the friends of those killed who wondered why they did not show up for an arranged meet-up while on leave.
These are the sorts of details and stories that can only come direct from those who were there at the time. So I see part of my role, as a Bomber Command researcher, but also as a member of the human race, to collect those stories while I still can. Hugh is one of the younger Bomber Command veterans I know, but he turned 90 last year. He’s no spring chicken. And one day I’m going to want to ask him something… but he won’t be there anymore. So in the meantime, says Tony Wright as he finishes his piece:
…the rest of us could do worse than sit with those close to us and explore what they might have to share and teach before they are gone and we find ourselves turning, bereft, to their shadow.
Amen to that.
Hugh McLeod, 49 Squadron rear gunner and my good friend, died on 7 July 2015.
(1) The ‘Fulbeck Tragedy’, as it is known, is described in Ward, J 1997: Beware of the Dog at War: Operational Diary of 49 Squadron Spanning Forty Nine Years, 1916-1965, pp. 542-5. Thanks to Colin Cripps for the steer.