In which Adam ‘flies’ a Link Trainer

It’s shaped like a stubby little aeroplane, with comically short wings and a tail. It’s not very big: inside is seating accommodation for a single occupant only. When in use, it rotates and pitches and rolls on air-operated bellows and if you’re unfamiliar with this machine you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for one of those coin-operated children’s rides you find in dreary suburban shopping centres.

Though for a while a coin-operated amusement is exactly what it was, this 90-year-old piece of technology is actually a highly sophisticated simulator. It is, of course, a Link Trainer, and last weekend, I got the chance to try one.

Edwin Link – the man who designed the machine – did so using expertise gained from his previous career as an organ builder. Hence the bellows. In 1931, the world wasn’t quite ready for the leap in sophistication that the simulator represented. That’s why for several years the only models that Link managed to sell were the aforementioned coin-operated varieties for amusement parks. But when a number of pilots were killed flying air mail in the US in the mid 1930s, the Link Trainer’s potential as an instrument flight trainer became clear. When the Second World War erupted, the little simulator truly came into its own. More than 10,000 were built; apparently at its peak one rolled off the production line every 45 minutes.

Open the logbook of any World War II pilot and you will almost certainly find that they spent considerable time in a contraption just like this one. It seems to have been the custom at Australian training schools to add an extra column in one’s logbook to record time in the Trainer on the same pages as real-life flying, but once pilots got to the UK they transitioned to what was evidently the RAF way of doing things, dedicating entire pages in the back of the book to time in the simulator and leaving the main section of the book to the real aeroplanes. But relegating time in the simulator to a forgotten section at the back of a logbook seems rather like selling it short. This little box-on-bellows played a crucial role in pilot training, allowing the realistic simulation of instrument flying and procedures, at a much cheaper cost than flying in a real aeroplane, and at virtually no risk to life and limb.   

The operating Link Trainer that I had a go in is part of the excellent Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre in western Victoria. NAHC volunteers Wes and Trevor explained things as we moved around the hangar, and after looking at the Anson they have under restoration, the exquisite Wirraway parked in a corner and an airworthy Tiger Moth, eventually we ended up standing next to the trainer. We chatted here for several minutes before Trevor casually asked me if I had any flying experience.

NAHC volunteer Trevor with the Link Trainer

Well, yes, I admitted. But it was a looong time ago now.

That didn’t seem to matter. “Would you like a go in the Link?” he asked me.

I didn’t have to be asked twice.

Adam in the Link (Photo: Rachel McIntosh)

Trevor flicked a few switches on the outside of the machine while I climbed in. It took a little while for the valves to warm up – there’s nothing digital about this thing, everything’s electro-mechanical or pneumatic. I looked around the cockpit while I waited. The pilot’s seat is padded leather and the control stick is a big piece of turned wood that falls naturally to hand. My feet rested on flimsy-looking rudder pedals on the floor. In front of me was a wooden instrument panel with a standard ‘six pack’ of dials like you’d find in any aeroplane of the era, with a big artificial horizon in the middle. There was a throttle lever on the left wall of the cockpit and a compass between my knees, in the manner of a Tiger Moth or a Spitfire. There was even a Morse key mounted on the right-hand side. It was a reasonably comfortable little cockpit.

Link Trainer cockpit (Photo: Rachel McIntosh)

Once the instruments started indicating things, Trevor turned on the compressor that powers the simulator’s motion, released two stabilising metal strips, and I was away. The whole machine wobbled immediately, like it was floating on air – which, I suppose, on those bellows, it pretty well was. I started off carefully, with the hood open, getting a feel for how the controls moved and how the simulator responded. Before too long, though, I started pushing the envelope a bit, pitching the nose up and down as far as it would go and, somewhat more tentatively, rolling from one side to the other. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that it took me a while to realise that if I pushed the rudder pedals far enough, the Link would spin around – I later discovered that if I’d tried it, I’d have been able to rotate through a full 360 degrees.

As you will see if you watch this video, I had a grin from ear to ear. It was great fun! But it also wasn’t the point. The Link Trainer wasn’t for fun. It was a trainer, designed to allow pilots to learn and practice instrument flying so they could go flying in cloud without killing themselves. I wanted to get the full effect, so I asked Trevor if I could close up the hood. He nodded. So I did.

It was very dark under the hood (he says, obviously). The only illumination, apart from a tiny bit of light that leaked around the base of the hood, came from a pair of lights mounted on either side of the cockpit, bathing the instrument panel in a dim orange light. It was consequently not much of a challenge to concentrate on the instruments: there was nothing else to look at. With the vacuum pump running it almost sounded like a jet inside; the air flowing through the pipes made a reasonable approximation of a slipstream flowing past the fuselage. There was some ungainly wobbling, but I managed to fly something resembling straight and level for a little while, and even made some more-or-less coordinated turns. I was concentrating so hard I started sweating, but I was still grinning widely. It really did feel like flying.

Though Jack Purcell did start out on a pilot’s course, he was fairly rapidly scrubbed from that and remustered as a navigator. Presumably there was a Pilot’s Logbook that recorded his flying training but it hasn’t survived so I don’t know if he ever got into a Link Trainer. But his pilot Phil Smith certainly did, and it was towards him that my thoughts turned as I bounced around in the Link cockpit. It wasn’t much, but I could feel a distinct connection reaching back through the decades to him. For a moment, I could feel just a tiny bit of what these people experienced.

Then I opened the hood and got out again.

Thanks to my partner Rachel for the video and some of the photos in this post. She had a go in the Link too. Let’s just say I’m not a very good flying instructor and leave it at that, eh?!

The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre is open on weekends or by appointment. See their Facebook page for the most up to date information.

© 2020 Adam Purcell

Vale Tommy Knox

Between 2015 and 2017, I interviewed 27 Bomber Command veterans as part of the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive project. There were nine pilots, seven navigators, four wireless operators, two bomb aimers, one mid-upper gunner, three rear gunners and a WAAF.

All I needed, I noted at the time, was a flight engineer – then I’d have collected an entire bomber crew.

Eighteen months later, I finally managed to rectify that, when I interviewed Tommy Knox: the only Bomber Command flight engineer I’ve ever met.

Tommy Knox holds a model of a 149 Squadron Stirling – immediately following our IBCC interview in Sydney, June 2019

Tommy died this week in a Sydney hospital at the age of 95.

It took a few years of gentle persuasion from his family to get him to agree to an interview, but in the middle of 2019, I flew to Sydney and drove a hired car out to Tommy’s nice (if slightly weathered) house in the suburbs, dragging with me a soft briefcase with my laptop, voice recorder, camera and assorted photo lighting kit. I walked up a short but steep driveway, and didn’t even have to knock: as I turned up, there was the redoubtable Tommy, already standing at the door. I dragged my several kilograms of gear inside, and we sat down at a small table in the corner of the room. Tommy made us a cup of tea, I turned on my voice recorder, and for the next hour we talked.

We talked about all sorts of things. Growing up in a tenement on the outskirts of Glasgow. The Boys Brigade. Getting an engineering apprenticeship with the railways – a reserved occupation – and realising that the only way out was to volunteer for aircrew. (“And so I did!”). Training at St Athan. Flying in his beloved Stirling bomber. Operations with 149 Squadron: first, coastal mining sorties and the occasional bombing raid on a marshalling yard and then, later, ‘special operations’ to isolated fields in France, dropping supplies for the Maquis. Moving to 199 Squadron for radio counter-measure operations. Finishing his tour and being posted to the draughting department of a maintenance unit where, as a warrant officer, he outranked his sergeant boss. Standing up on a table, singing, the day the war ended. Becoming a parachute instructor, training paratroops in the Middle East, before demobbing. And the moment he decided, while shovelling snow from his doorway shortly after arriving home again in February 1947, that he’d move to Australia in search of better weather.

Unfortunately the interview that we recorded that day hasn’t yet been properly ingested into the Archive, so it’s not yet publicly available (edit 09NOV20: it is now!). That meant that, before I sat down to write this piece this morning, I had to listen to the interview tape again.

Tommy at the Bomber Command Commemorative Weekend, Canberra – 2015

Which meant that I got to hear Tommy’s Glaswegian voice again. His accent was softened by decades on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, but it was still unmistakable. And it meant I got to hear the little asides and comments that were always delivered with sparkling eyes, and hear the little ‘ha-ha’ that he used when he was talking about something terrific.

I met Tommy at the annual Bomber Command weekend in Canberra in 2011. Probably my favourite memory of Tommy comes from the same event the following year, when on the Saturday night after the official cocktail party ended, I was sitting at the bar at the hotel with Tommy on one side and the much-missed Don Huxtable on the other as they shared some flying stories late into the evening.

We wrote to each other, too. Until I pulled the letters out again this morning, I’d forgotten about how rich a correspondence we enjoyed: there’s one brilliant letter, for example, that told me in more detail than I ever expected I’d need, exactly how the Stirling fuel system worked. In another, there’s a wonderful description of Tommy’s 2012 trip to the UK for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial in London. In yet another he told me about how, as a flight engineer, he was fully qualified on the Stirling before he’d even been airborne in one.

Tommy with his son Tom – Australian War Memorial, Bomber Command Commemorative Weekend 2014

There is of course an intense (if mostly tongue-in-cheek) rivalry among Bomber Command types over whose was the best aeroplane. Naturally, your allegiances lie with the type you flew on operations: Lancaster men know they had the superior machine. Halifax men always seem just a little bit defensive about their aircraft, and like to emphasise how much easier it was to get out of a Halifax in an emergency than it was a Lancaster.

At home, June 2019

And Stirling men? Well, I’ve met precious few of them, but if Tommy is anything to go by, there was nothing but an immense pride in his aeroplane. Unlike most aircrew, Tommy got to choose, while training at St Athan, what aeroplane he wanted to specialise in. “I picked the Stirling,” he told me. “I saw this picture of [one] – I’d never seen [a real] one before: big, beautiful, Clyde-built. I thought that’ll do me.” And it did, through no fewer than forty operational flights. Sparse notes in his logbook show that along the way they safely negotiated several flak holes, a burst tyre (with associated ground loop on landing), a flap failure and an undercarriage failure (Tommy had to wind it up and down by hand). “[The Stirling] wasn’t pretty,” he said, “but it was big and strong, like a battleship.”

Tommy moved to Australia in 1950. First he settled in Queensland, but after a while he met his wife and, as she was a Sydney girl, they soon moved south. Tommy kept his engineering interest all his life, working as a mechanic fixing things as diverse as washing machines, lawn mowers, petrol bowsers and, somewhat incongruously, perhaps, Xerox copy machines. He lived in the same house in Northern Beaches from 1986 until only a very short time before he died.

“I’ve had a pretty good life,” Tommy said when our interview was winding up. “Pretty good, yeah.”

I don’t think there’s anyone who would disagree with that. He’ll be badly missed.

Tommy with his family – Anzac Day in Sydney, April 2019

© 2020 Adam Purcell

Andrew Mynarski and the crew of B for Baker

In 2014 I first became aware of an intriguing connection between the crew of B for Baker and one of only 13 Bomber Command aircrew to be awarded the Victoria Cross, a Canadian gunner named Andrew Mynarski. As I discovered, before he went to a Canadian squadron, Mynarski spent several months flying with the core group of men who would become the crew of B for Baker.

While the information I managed to gather in 2014 wasn’t enough to be absolutely certain that Mynarski had flown with the crew, it was sufficient to support a strong circumstantial case. I would need to see Mynarski’s logbook to be sure, though.

Well, it’s taken six years, but thanks to the assistance of Lech Lebiedowski, the curator of the Alberta Aviation Museum, and the generosity of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, which holds of the original document, I’ve now seen scans of the relevant pages of Andrew Mynarski’s logbook – and they do indeed confirm what I suspected.

By September 1943, Andrew Mynarski had been at 1661 Conversion Unit, RAF Winthorpe for three months. Within a month it looks like he completed most if not all of the usual HCU training programme, flying with a sergeant pilot named Blackmore. There’s then a big gap in his logbook of more than two months. I don’t know the reason for the long break, but I do know that his next recorded flight, 2:30 hours in a Manchester, with Pilot Officer Hamilton at the controls on 26 September, also appears in Dale Johnston’s logbook. Johnston, of course, would go on to be the wireless operator in the crew of B for Baker.

From then on, the logbooks of the two men follow each other closely, with only minor disagreements about aircraft identification letters or the dates of some flights, all the way through the Heavy Conversion Unit course at Winthorpe, across to 9 Squadron at Bardney, and to another Heavy Conversion Unit at Syerston at the beginning of December 1943. From this information it’s clear that the two men were flying on the same crew.

I’m lucky enough to have copies of the logbooks of two more members of the eventual crew of B for Baker – pilot Phil Smith and navigator Jack Purcell – so I thought I’d cross-reference between all of them to build up a picture of when each man joined or left the crew. Then I added what posting information I had for the remaining three members of the crew.

And because it’s sometimes easier to see connections in a complex story in a visual way, I then ended up pulling out my long-neglected colour pencils and building a literal picture:

Movement Map

In this diagram – which, I’ll grant you, looks a bit like a map of a not-very-useful underground train network – locations are marked down the left-hand side, dates run from left to right across the top and each man’s path is represented by a different coloured line. Looking at the full-size image (click here), it’s reasonably easy to see how the core of the crew – Johnston, Hill, Tabor and Parker – moved through things together, remaining a unit from the first HCU at Winthorpe right through to 467 Squadron at Waddington. Mynarski was at Winthorpe at the same time that Johnston et al. were, but on a different crew until some time just prior to 26 September (when the first common flight appears in the logbooks). Similarly, Jack Purcell was also on a different crew at Winthorpe – see my previous post for details – until his logbook also starts showing the same flights as the other two from 3 November.

Notice the green line running down to join the conglomeration at the very end of November 1943? That one represents Phil Smith, who had been instructing at an Operational Training Unit until he was posted to 1668 HCU at Syerston. He would have arrived there around the same time as the other six, and from here on his logbook reflects the others.

So we’ve established that Andrew Mynarski flew with Jack Purcell and Dale Johnston from September 1943, and that they all flew with Phil Smith at Syerston in December. But when did Mynarski leave the crew?

This is where Mynarski’s logbook threw up something of a surprise. It reveals that he flew with this crew right up to 21 December, just ten days before Smith and co. left Syerston for Waddington and 467 Squadron. Mynarski’s next flight – with a new pilot – isn’t until 5 January.

This is a lot later, and a lot further through the HCU course, than I expected. My theory, prior to receiving this information, was that Mynarski had left the crew immediately upon arriving at Syerston. After all, the man who would replace him as rear gunner, an Australian named Gilbert Pate, had himself already been at Syerston for a couple of weeks when everyone else turned up. Evidently, though, that was not the case.

Why did Mynarski leave the crew? That’s something that the information in his logbook can’t tell me. I know that the Royal Canadian Air Force was gradually rounding up Canadian aircrew for transfer to the specifically Canadian 6 Group from early 1943. Perhaps it had something to do with that initiative, though January 1944, a year after the formation of 6 Group, does seem quite late in the piece to be doing it.

I don’t think that is a question that will ever be answered with 100% confidence. Still, it’s nice to have confirmation that Pilot Andrew Mynarski VC did indeed fly with the crew of B for Baker.

My grateful thanks to Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, based in the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Canada, for providing access to the information in Andrew Mynarski’s logbook, and to Lech Lebiedowski for making it happen.

©2020 Adam Purcell

Just another name in a logbook

I’ve been trying to find more time recently to devote to my Bomber Command research – or, more specifically, to my Bomber Command writing. For several years the focus of that writing was this blog, but as those of you who’ve recently had to fight your way through the cobwebs and tumbleweeds to get here would know, there’s been not much of that over the last little while. I’ve had unrelated projects to work on which have taken much of my spare time in the last year or two in particular, but I’ve also been working on some Bomber Command-related projects too – including that book I’ve been threatening to write for a very, very long time.

One of the things about that is that, despite all that research over a couple of decades, there’s still stuff I don’t know. And as I’ve discovered, the best way for revealing exactly where the gaps are in my research is by trying to write about it. So occasionally, despite setting aside a day for “writing my book,” as I rather grandly call it, I have to hit the archives.

And that is exactly what happened yesterday.

For me, the concept of “the crew” and the surprisingly informal way in which they were formed is still one of the most fascinating things about Bomber Command. Putting equal numbers of each aircrew trade in a big room and telling them to sort themselves out was a remarkably effective strategy, and the generally accepted story is that, thus formed, crews stayed together through thick and thin, becoming as close as brothers.

The problem for me is that the evidence shows this is not what happened in Jack Purcell’s case. The pilot that he crewed up with at 27 Operational Training Unit (Lichfield) in June 1943 is recorded in his logbook as Flight Sergeant Saunders. But Jack had a new pilot by the end of his Heavy Conversion Unit course (F/Sgt J McComb) and, as we know, actually flew operations with yet another (S/Ldr Phil Smith). Somewhere along the way, belying if you like the “traditional” narrative, his crew changed.

Trying to write about this yesterday, I realised that I didn’t know what happened to Saunders. To fix that, I decided to go for a dig through my files. The first thing I needed to find was a full name. The 27 OTU Operational Record Book, fortuitously, lists the members of each course, along with the day they arrived and where they came from. Here I found my first clue. The only Saunders who appears in the lists for the period around when Jack was at Lichfield is AUS8687 Flight Sergeant A J Saunders, a pilot who arrived there on 1 July 1943.

Saunders’ service number is unusual: I would normally expect an Australian number to be six digits starting with a 4. Knowing that original documents are often hard to read or have errors, I checked what I had against the DVA WWII Nominal Roll. This revealed that the ORB was correct. Born in Charters Towers in 1917, Alexander James Saunders enlisted at Laverton in Victoria on 5 February 1940. Enlisting so early probably explains the unusual service number: perhaps the format had not yet been worked out at the time.

All I really wanted to know was where Saunders went after 27 OTU, so the list of postings in his Service Record at the National Archives of Australia would be sufficient for my purposes today. Unfortunately while that record exists, it hasn’t been digitised yet. It hasn’t even been examined for release. I could order the record online, but because there is a fee and a delay associated with that and all I really wanted was that list of postings, I decided to first check if there was any other way to find it.

What the hey, I thought. I’ve been lucky with Google before. I tried a simple search for his name and number… and found one little nugget of information that cracked the whole case open for me.

It’s hidden inside Volume IV of the so-called Official History of the RAAF during WWII[1], an account of an operation to an oil target at Wesseling on 21-22 June 1944:

A third Australian, Flight Lieutenant Saunders, also of 83 Squadron, was attacked six times by fighter aircraft before reaching Wesseling. (p.204)

In itself, this quote doesn’t show me much: there would have been more than one airman named Saunders. How do I know it’s the right one?

Happily for me, the author left a footnote, and that’s what made all the difference. “F-Lt AJ Saunders,” it says, “8687. 467 and 463 Squadrons, 83 Sqn RAF. Accountant, of Townsville, QLD”

There’s that strange service number again, which told me I’d definitely found the right man. And, more usefully, three squadrons are mentioned – two for which I happen to have full operational records.

I went to Nobby Blundell’s ‘Yellow Books’ which revealed that Alec Saunders and his crew had been posted to 467 Squadron on 31 October 1943. From here it was easy. Going to the original Operational Record Books, I discovered that Saunders flew twice as a second dickey before taking his own crew on one trip to Berlin on 23-24 November. A day later, they were all posted to the newly-formed 463 Squadron, with which they flew a further six operations. In early February 1944 they were posted to 83 Squadron, a Pathfinder unit.

Blundell records the names of the rest of Alec Saunders’ 467 Squadron crew:

  • A J Saunders (Pilot)
  • F D Redding (Flight Engineer)
  • J S Falconer (Navigator)
  • D D Govett (Bomb Aimer)
  • T A Sheen (Wireless Operator)
  • K G Tennent (Air Gunner)
  • D M Robinson (Air Gunner)

I cross-checked these against course lists in the 27 OTU Operational Record Book, finding records for four of them (Saunders, Govett, Sheen and Robinson). It makes sense that flight engineer Redding and second gunner Tennent wouldn’t be at the OTU because the aircraft in use at OTUs did not require flight engineers and had no mid-upper turret, so the extra men didn’t join the crew until the Heavy Conversion Unit. But what about Falconer, the navigator?

It took me a moment to make the connection: at OTU, the navigator was Jack Purcell. He is included in the course lists, of course, but he wasn’t on Saunders’ crew by the time they got to the squadron. Where did he go? And where did Falconer come from?

Amazingly enough, in my collection was another little gem of a piece of information which brought it all together. This is a page from Dale Johnston’s logbook, recording the names of his crewmates. Johnston was the wireless operator on the McComb crew – the bones of which became the crew of LM475 B for Baker:

Alastair Dale Johnston Flight Log-13

See the third name? The one that’s been scratched out and replaced?

Sgt J S Falconer.

Falconer was Paddy McComb’s navigator right up to the end of Heavy Conversion Unit. Then he disappears, to be replaced by…

Jack Purcell.

Purcell and Falconer swapped crews.

I don’t know why.

But for whatever reason, at the end of October or the beginning of November 1943, just before their final flights at Heavy Conversion Unit, two crews swapped navigators.

Falconer went off with Alec Saunders and his crew and survived the war.

Jack Purcell went off with Paddy McComb and his crew – and didn’t.

Such, I suppose, are the fortunes of war.

© 2020 Adam Purcell

[1] Herington, John (1963) Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Series 3 – Air. Volume IV, Air Power over Europe 1944-45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Available from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417318

Anzac Day 2020

For over a decade, for me Anzac Day has meant travelling to Sydney to gather with members and friends of the 463-467 Squadrons Association. There’s been a gradual change in format over the last few years as time finally caught up with so many of our veterans: in 2018 for the first time no veterans were able to march or attend the lunch and last year there was no formal 463-467 Squadron lunch at all.

Sadly but inevitably, the process accelerated somewhat in the last twelve months, with the deaths of three particular stalwarts of the group: first Keith Campbell, actually a 466 Squadron bomb aimer and PoW, in July 2019, then 463 Squadron navigator and long-time Association Secretary Don Southwell in December, and finally 463 Squadron wireless operator and the final President of the Association Don Browning in January. Don Southwell in particular had been instrumental in organising the annual gatherings, so despite his son David ably picking up that responsibility in more recent years, the very knowledge of his passing cast a heavy shadow on things. Anzac Day was always going to be very different in 2020.

And then a global pandemic intervened, and made it like no Anzac Day has ever been before.

Given the changing landscape of WWII commemoration as the originals of that generation leave us, I was very disappointed that a gathering in person was not going to be possible this year. So I suggested to David that we arrange a video call of interested people, using the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom conferencing service, to gather, remember and tell a few stories to keep the spirit of the two Squadrons alive.

And so we did, and I think it went really well. A little over 25 people were involved in the call at its peak, including two veterans: Alan Buxton, a navigator who flew his operations with 617 Squadron and was posted to 467 Squadron for Tiger Force training after the war finished in Europe, and the seemingly unsinkable Bill Purdy, a 463 Squadron skipper who is the only man I know still alive who flew on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid that I’m so interested in.

(Bill joined in our test call the day before, popping onto my screen comfortably ensconced in an armchair with a glass of something appropriate in his hand. He said g’day, waved, and disappeared again. No fuss, as usual.)

Bill even put up a very appropriate Zoom background:

Bill

I asked him how he managed to drag a Lancaster into his living room, and that triggered a fascinating conversation between our two veterans about the merits or otherwise of the restoration to flight of Lancaster NX611 Just Jane.

Over the next hour or so, we went around the room, as it were, to hear stories from those on the call about their connection to the Squadrons or to Bomber Command. Attendees were joining the call from five states and territories and different locations all up and down the East Coast and beyond, and it was particularly gratifying to hear from a couple of people who had never been able to travel to Sydney to join us in person, but were able to participate in a conference call.

I read the Ode to finish off, and we were done.

After the death of her father last year, Fiona Campbell observed to me that we have now arrived at a “changing of the guard” moment. The responsibility for remembrance is being passed from those who were there to us. Suddenly the immediate children of the veterans are finding themselves custodians of those memories. If the spirit of the Squadrons is to continue, it’s the families who will have to pick up the duty of remembrance.

The sort of response we saw on our virtual Anzac Day gathering suggests that responsibility is being taken seriously – global pandemic or no.

Anzac Day Zoom meeting

© 2020 Adam Purcell

Vale Don Southwell

IBCC interview, 2016

You know how some people just feel like they’ve always been there?

That they always will be there?

It makes it all the more heartbreaking when, suddenly, they’re not there anymore.

Don Southwell was one of those seemingly immortal people. He was one of the first Bomber Command veterans I really got to know, and until a couple of years ago he was, well, always there: always at functions and ceremonies, always on the end of the phone for a chat. Always there.

But now he’s not anymore.

Don Southwell died last week in a hospital in Sydney at the age of 95.

Anzac Day 2016

There’s a lot that can, and no doubt will, be said over the next few weeks about this man. He was involved with the volunteer Coastal Patrol for a very long time, and after he retired, he continued working part time for “the MLC”, as he called it – the company that he returned to when he came back from the war – until well into his 90s.

It’s for his Bomber Command work that he’s perhaps best known though. Don was a driving force in the Bomber Command community, and particularly the 463-467 Squadron community, in Sydney and around Australia. He was always organising things: Anzac Day lunches in Sydney, ‘Ladies Day’ lunches in Killara, and of course the annual commemoration at the War Memorial in Canberra. It meant that at the events he was always busy and it could be difficult to pin him down for a proper chat. In 2016 I conspired to fly to Sydney the day before Anzac Day, taking my laptop and a pair of microphones to Don’s home for a proper interview. You can find the resulting recording here if you want to hear some of Don’s stories in his own words.

Anzac Day 2017

He was a great story teller, and he had some good stories to tell, too. Like, for example, the one about crawling through a hole in the fence while at Initial Training School in East Lindfield in Sydney and removing the white cap flash that marked trainee airmen (in order to travel incognito), then walking down the road to catch a train to his family home to stay the night. In the morning he reversed the journey to make it back to camp in time for morning parade, with no-one in authority being any the wiser.

Then there’s the one about his first solo flight in a Tiger Moth (Don was originally selected for pilot training), when the wind changed while he was up there and Don didn’t notice. His instructor came up beside him in another aeroplane, pointing at the wind sock, and Don went down and pulled off a ‘pearler’ of a crosswind landing. Despite this demonstration of his skills, he was scrubbed shortly thereafter and sent to navigation school. It hurt at the time but was probably for the best; “I probably would have been killed as a pilot, I reckon,” he told me during the interview.

And then there’s the one about how, on an operation, Don took a ‘wakey-wakey’ pill over Bohlen to stay alert for the flight home. After the war, the drug in the pills was revealed to have been Benzedrine, the first amphetamine. On the come-down after arriving back at base in the early hours of the morning, Don crashed into bed and slept all day – thereby completely missing his 21st birthday.

Anzac Day 2019

I first discovered the continued existence of the 463-467 Squadrons Association by the simple and lucky method of seeing their banner march by in Sydney one Anzac Day, well over 15 years ago, and deciding to follow it. I started going to the Association lunches that traditionally followed the march, first at the NSW Sports Club and later at what eventually became the Pullman Hotel near Hyde Park. This was how I got to know Don (who took a couple of years to stop mentioning me in his annual list of visitors, presumably once it became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere!!). I’ll always treasure my memories of him. Over the years he was a great one for ringing up occasionally with little tidbits of information to pass on, questions he’d received from people, or just for a chat. Those random phone calls from Don are what I’ll miss the most, I think. And probably not just me either; my best guess is that there were at least 250 people at his funeral, such was the measure of the man.

Don was one of a fair number of highly distinguished Bomber Command veterans who in 2019 departed on what someone once described as “that great final flight, about which we know very little.” It was only a couple of months ago that I sat in a very similar church elsewhere on Sydney’s North Shore at the funeral of Keith Campbell, for example. The fact of the matter is that now, those who remain are not just old. Now they are ancient. It won’t be too many years before none remain at all. The work that people like Don Southwell did, for so many years, ensures that the deeds of those who served with Bomber Command remain in people’s memories. It’s absolutely vital that the rest of us continue that work, to keep that legacy alive – in memory of Don Southwell, and of all the others.

Adam Purcell speaking with Keith Campbell (left) and Don Southwell – Anzac Day 2019 (Photo by Ros Ingram)

(c) 2020 Adam Purcell 

Anzac Day in Sydney 2019

Veterans of Sydney – a photographic gallery

1904 Anzac Day SYD-023
Ron Houghton (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-035
Tony Adams (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-098
Ernie Holden (a Korean War veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-123
Betty Seery (WAAF veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-133
June Hill (widow of a Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-137
Don Southwell (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-138
Keith Campbell (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-150
Frank Dell (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-152
Noel Cummings (Bomber Command veteran)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-157
Bill Ceoghegan (Bomber Command veteran)

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Bomber Command veterans during the Sydney Anzac Day march, 2019

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Veterans and widows following the Bomber Command Association in Australia lunch – Royal Automobile Club, Sydney

1904 Anzac Day SYD-016
Adam Purcell with Bomber Command veteran Tommy Knox

Photographs taken during the 2019 Sydney Anzac Day march or at the Bomber Command Association in Australia luncheon that followed it

(c) 2019 Adam Purcell

Releasing the Brakes

The shadows were only just beginning to lengthen as Phil Smith released the brakes to let B for Baker roll from its parking bay. He’d done it so many times before – pulled the lever with his fingers, flicked off the catch with his thumb – but it was only now that he considered what it meant

This was it.

It had already been a long day. The tension – as if he had a lump of cold lead in the very bottom of his stomach – started with a phone call from Group Headquarters, telling him that the squadron was ‘on’ tonight. No matter how many times he’d done this, that lump of lead was always there. It sat in the background during the scramble to work out how many aeroplanes his Flight could offer for the coming operation, and through the endless meetings and conferences to thrash out tactics, and in a way he was grateful that he’d been so busy: it took his mind off what he’d be doing, where he’d be going, when the sun went down. But despite the distraction, the lump of lead grew larger as the day went on: by the time he’d been to the briefing, eaten the ‘Last Supper’ of eggs and bacon, pulled on his flying gear and climbed into the truck that took them to their aeroplane, it must have weighed half a pound at least. And then the wait, that endless, awful wait, sprawled on the grass next to the bomber: forced jokes, nervous laughter, cigarettes lit with shaking hands, with nothing to do except think about the coming operation. In that hour, the ball of lead in his stomach felt like it doubled in size.

But then he’d climbed up the ladder and into the aeroplane. Walked, crouching, up the angled fuselage. Scrambled over the main spar. Strapped himself into his seat and started the engines.

And released the brakes.

Pull, flick.

Everything that had happened today – the conferences, the briefing, the truck to dispersal – had been preparing for this moment. The armourers who loaded the bombs, the fitters who tuned the engines, the airmen who filled the fuel tanks, all had been working to a timetable based on this: the moment the aeroplanes started rolling and the raid began.

This was it.

Phil had flicked off an aeroplane’s brakes for a raid many times before. Fifty times, to be precise. And that fact meant that this was the last time he would have to do it. This trip – a short one, they’d said at briefing, just three hours return, a piece of cake really – was the last one of his second tour of operations. After that, he knew, he could no longer be compelled to do any more. He’d be posted to a training school for another stint of instructing, perhaps. Or maybe he’d be given a staff job somewhere. Maybe he’d even be sent home to Australia. That might be nice, he thought. It had been more than three years, after all.

But there was his crew to think about, too. They were all still on their first tours and most of them still had about ten trips to fly before they were done. If Phil finished tonight, he knew they’d all have to keep going without him. That meant they’d have a new pilot to get used to, a less-experienced man most likely, and it would take time before they were as efficient a unit as he knew they now were. Survival on bombers was at least as much about luck as anything the crew themselves brought to the table, but they at least felt that they could favourably influence their chances if they were as effective and careful as they could be. Having to deal with an unfamiliar pilot could be just enough to tip the delicate balance from surviving to not. Despite having more than done his bit for the war effort, Phil was in two minds about whether he was prepared to make the rest of the crew take that chance.

He would have to make that decision soon, he thought. But first, he had to complete one more trip, and it started the same way as every other one:

Pull, flick.

This was it.

 

(c) 2019 Adam Purcell

The IBCC’s Digital Archive is now live!

1806 UK Trip-153
Riseholme Hall, Lincoln University – the home of the IBCC Digital Archive

For every hour of recorded audio, I was told recently, it takes the team of staff and volunteers at the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive about sixteen hours to prepare it for publication. First it has to be transcribed. Then the transcription is reviewed. Then descriptive metadata is added, and finally the item is ready to be uploaded into the archive itself.

Sixteen hours.

By my rough calculations, I recorded about 40 hours of audio during my 27 IBCC interviews. So that’s about 640 hours of work that I created for the poor volunteers. Twenty-six and a half days, and that’s if they don’t sleep. Or eat. Or go for a run. Or do anything else except sit at their computers listening to my interviews.

(Sorry, folks!)

It’s been a mammoth undertaking. There are now more than one thousand oral history interviews in the collection – consisting of 1,049 hours, 43 minutes and three seconds of audio, to be exact – and over 225,000 individual items, including the interviews as well as scans of photographs, documents and letters. More collections are being added every week.

And the good news is that as of today, the Archive is now, finally, available for public access.

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview when I visited the Archive offices, in the University of Lincoln’s facilities at Riseholme Hall, an old manor house just outside Lincoln, in June. I’ve also had advance access for the last month or so as a usability tester. I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen.

Only a small subset of the collection is currently available online: a little over 5,000 items or about 3% of the total. I’ve watched that number increase from about 3,500 or so in the time I’ve had access. More material is being added on a daily basis. I’m told the Archive staff have been pulling 12-hour days in the lead-up to the launch to get as much as possible loaded before it officially went live. At the moment this means that a lot of the really awesome tagging and cross-referencing won’t realise their full potential, but once a critical mass of material is reached this is going to be one very useful source of information.

A lot of this usefulness comes from the detail in the metadata that is attached to every item. As well as the interviews, every letter and document will eventually be transcribed. This makes them searchable down to the individual page, which is extraordinary for an archive of this size. The metadata that’s been added allows grouping of related items by (for example) their spatial coverage (where in the world they relate to) or their temporal coverage (ie the time period that’s covered). Where possible, items are geolocated. This includes wartime aerial photography, which, astonishingly, has been overlaid on a modern interactive map. I don’t even want to think about how much effort it took to make that little party trick work, but it paid dividends for me immediately: there’s a bombing photograph, for example, that was taken during the 10 May 1944 Lille raid from which my great uncle Jack failed to return. I’d never seen one before.

And this is the other great strength of this Archive. It is made up, almost entirely, of personal material collected from participants and families of participants. That Lille target photograph comes from the collection of a WAAF who served at RAF Skellingthorpe. In many (most?) cases, this material has never before been seen outside of those families. There are no official records – those can be found in other places. This collection is about the personal, the stories of the individuals involved, that together chart the course of Bomber Command’s war and its aftermath.

Combine that unique material with very powerful search tools and free, worldwide access, and you have something that will be one of the most useful collections of unpublished Bomber Command material anywhere.

The IBCC’s Digital Archive, developed in partnership with the University of Lincoln, can be accessed here. Go have a look!

 

© Adam Purcell 2018

Book Review: And Some Fell on Stony Ground, by Leslie Mann

While wandering my local remainders bookshop recently, I was surprised to spot a Bomber Command-themed book that I hadn’t heard of before. I was first attracted by the subtitle: A day in the life of an RAF bomber pilot. And when I pulled a copy out I saw an ungainly-looking twin-engined aeroplane on the cover. A Whitley! There are very few books about that part of the bomber war.

Sold!

As far as impulse purchases go, And Some Fell on Stony Ground, by Leslie Mann, turned out to be one of my better ones. At less than 200 pages it’s not very long. The novel centres on the thoughts of Pilot Officer Mason, a Whitley skipper, over a single day in June 1941. It follows him as he winds his way back to his aerodrome after an afternoon at the pub. It follows his preparations for an operation. It follows him as he climbs into his Whitley, takes off and points the nose towards Germany.

Despite being based on actual events, And Some Fell On Stony Ground is not, and does not claim to be, a history. There never was a Pilot Officer Mason who was on that particular operation in June 1941. The release from the bounds of strict accuracy allows the author to really run with things, with no fear of offending the purists or disrespecting those he served with. Mann opens the door and lets the reader in to the deepest feelings of his protagonist, and you get the strong idea he knows first-hand exactly what he’s talking about.

He does. Leslie Mann was in fact a rear gunner on Whitleys, shot down over Germany on the night of 19/20 June 1941. A raid on Dusseldorf, the same operation that’s depicted in the book. It’s pretty clear that it’s Mann’s own thoughts and feelings we are reading here. The result is very honest and searingly powerful. That its focus is on the early part of the bombing war, when aeroplanes like Whitleys and Hampdens were still front-line weapons, is an added bonus.

The concept of a fictional memoir naturally invites comparison with They Hosed Them Out, the book written by John Bede Cusack in the 1960s. But where Cusack’s original story is known to deliberately stretch the truth for the sake of a good narrative, somehow I get the feeling that Mann’s story doesn’t stray too far from how he experienced it. After his Whitley was shot down he was a prisoner of war for a little over two years, before being repatriated to England towards the end of 1943 on psychiatric grounds.

It’s evidently this last fact that led in the first place to the existence of And Some Fell on Stony Ground. Mann wrote it in the late 1940s, seemingly as a way of dealing with the demons that were still hanging around. It’s not clear whether anyone in his family knew about the manuscript until he died in 1989, and it took another quarter-century until it was released.

My edition of the book – which was published in association with the Imperial War Museum in 2014 – includes an introduction by Richard Overy, the distinguished and respected historian of The Bombing War fame. His writing places Mann’s story in context, both of the overall bomber offensive and of Mann’s own part in it. “The value of Leslie Mann’s perspective”, he writes, “lies in the explanation it gives of how it was possible for young men to endure this degree of combat stress and to continue flying.”

As the veterans of the bombing war die out, books like this will soon be one of the few ways we have to understand something of what it was like to live with the strain of continued operations, and how they coped with it. In that sense, And Some Fell on Stony Ground tells a vitally important and little-understood part of the story.

Mann, Leslie (2014). And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot. Icon Books Pty Ltd, Omnibus Business Centre, 39-41 North Rd, London N7 9DP. ISBN 978-184831-720-8

© 2018 Adam Purcell