The search for the story of Lancaster B for Baker (and other things)
Author: Adam Purcell
When I was young my father showed me a small blue felt-covered notebook. It was the flying logbook of my great uncle Jack, a Lancaster navigator in WWII.
That simple act kicked off a fascination with all things aeronautical. That fascination has now become Something Very Big for me. Here were seven young men, from vastly different backgrounds, all by immense forces well beyond their control or understanding brought together to the one place at the one time - inside that Lancaster as it flew over Northern France in May 1944. They were normal, everyday lads caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I've realised that it's a fascinating story and it's one that deserves to be told.
This is the story of That Thing Very Big and where it is leading me. I'm endeavouring to add a new post roughly once every ten or twelve days or so.
Late last year I dropped in to visit Laurie Larmer at his home in Melbourne’s north-western suburbs. Though we’d had the occasional phone call, it was the first time I’d actually seen him since the pandemic started. It was a lovely visit, we had a chat and a cup of coffee, and then Laurie graciously kicked me out so he could have an afternoon nap. As I left, he wagged a finger at me:
“Don’t leave it so long next time!”
Sadly, I now can’t comply with his instruction. On 14 April, five months before his one hundredth birthday, my friend, 51 Squadron skipper Lawrence O’Hara Larmer, OAM Ld’H, departed on his final flight.
I have written about Laurie before, of course. He was one of 28 veterans who I interviewed for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive – you can listen to his interview here – and I wrote up details of his wartime story in a blog post shortly afterwards.
Up until we recorded the interview, I’d known of Laurie but beyond a few short conversations at lunches or other Bomber Command events we hadn’t really got to know each other. But once I’d spent several hours in his company, listening to his story, we became friends. After that, if there was a Bomber Command or aircrew-related event, I’d ring Laurie to see if he was planning to come, and then on the day I’d drive him there and back. And it was on those car trips that we got to talk about all sorts of things: about his service, sure, but also about life after the war, or the chances of one of his horses in its latest race meeting, or about politics and current affairs. I’m a bit sad I was born to late to experience Laurie’s hospitality in one of the pubs he ran after the war.
Laurie had a great friendship with Jim Cahir, another veteran who lived close by, and my partner Rachel and I will always remember a hilarious car trip home from the Bomber Command commemoration ceremony at the Shrine one year, with Laurie comfortably riding shotgun and Jim’s long legs squeezed into the back seat of my little Golf.
Laurie flew nine trips with 51 Squadron out of Snaith in the UK in the last weeks of the Second World War. He was, thus, proudly a Halifax man. At his funeral last week, they played the video clip for Grant Luhrs’ 2013 song ‘Full Moon Tonight.’ You might recognise a lot of the footage from the wartime colour film ‘Night Bombers’ which was filmed in 1943 on the airfield of a 1 Group Lancaster squadron. I could almost hear Laurie making indignant comments about the lack of Halifaxes in the film.
As the film played though, I realised something. Over the last couple of decades I’ve been privileged to know several dozen Bomber Command veterans. I’ve had in my address book many of their names and phone numbers, and I’ve always been able to pick up the phone to one of them for a chat or to arrange to drive them to a luncheon, or just a visit for a cup of coffee.
With Laurie goes the last of those men that I knew in Melbourne. No more can I ring a phone number and hear a familiar old voice on the other end. No more can I go and visit someone to hear about life in Bomber Command, from someone who was there.
That makes Laurie’s passing all the more poignant.
Bomber Command lost one of its last remaining veterans.
An extraordinarily tight-knit family lost its much-loved patriarch.
And I, and a lot of other people, lost a friend.
On Sunday morning, at the age of one hundred and one, Don McDonald took off on his final flight.
I last spoke with him on the phone on his birthday, a little over a week previously. His voice, in hindsight, might have been wavering just a bit more than usual, but his mind was still sharp and we chatted about lots of things. He was positive, upbeat and, as always, anxious to know how everyone else was handling the pandemic.
But that was Don: always caring about other people. “Life’s kind, Adam,” he’d invariably say when you asked him how he was going. “Life’s kind.” Then he’d change the subject back to you.
Over the last few years – before COVID restrictions put a stop to visits, and even one time in between two of Melbourne’s frequent lockdowns – Rachel and I occasionally organised to go and pick Don up from his unit at the ‘Fossil Farm’ or, later, from his aged care home, to drive him the short distance to the Box Hill RSL for lunch. On one of those outings, we asked him what he’d been up to lately and he admitted so many people wanted to catch up with him that ours was his third visit to the RSL that week. His calendar was always so full with social visits and lunches and excursions, so we knew what a privilege it was to be able to enjoy his company, just him and us, for such extended periods of time over those long lunches.
You don’t get to 101 without gathering at least a few stories, and you certainly don’t survive one-and-a-bit tours on Halifax bombers during WWII without amassing a reasonable collection, either. He told his stories well, often in a slightly self-deprecating fashion. In 2015 I managed to sit Don down with my laptop and a pair of microphones to record some of those stories for the IBCC’s Digital Archive. Those who knew Don will not be surprised that, at more than two hours, this was close to the longest interview I recorded with any veteran!
There are plenty of memorable pieces in the interview – descriptions of several engine failures in Wellingtons, seeing the D-Day invasion fleet from the air, and what he called “a magnificent bloody ground-loop” after crashing a Whitley while instructing between his tours, to mention but a few – but perhaps my favourite ‘behind the scenes’ moment came when Don was telling me about a ‘second dickey’ operation that he flew on, with an experienced crew before he took his own out for their first raid. They were attacked by a night fighter on the way home, and Don was impressed with the violence of the evasive action that the pilot carried out to get away. Don was in the middle of demonstrating this supremely violent corkscrew – complete with hands doing the actions on an imaginary control column – when he suddenly broke off, looked at me, and asked…
I’m not boring you, am I?”
I could only look at him, eyes wide, and shake my head. Absolutely no chance of boredom here, sir! It showed the measure of the man, again: here we were, sitting down for the express purpose of talking about his war story, and all he could do was think about my welfare.
I could fill a book with my memories of Don (and I suspect I’m not the only one who could). Like the first time I met him, with his wife Ailsa, in the shadows of the great Lancaster G for George in Canberra. The riotous evening that followed at their retirement unit at the ‘Fossil Farm’ a few weeks later. Telling me about the circumstances of how, during one of his wartime leave periods, he came to be in possession of a crystal glass from an exclusive London hotel – and then going to a cabinet in the living room and producing said glass for me to inspect. And holding court at a lunch at the Toorak RSL in late 2019, telling a story or two.
Don was, for so long, so fit that I was genuinely convinced that he would be the last Bomber Command man standing in Melbourne. But it was not to be.
I’m going to miss Don. I’ll miss his company. I’ll miss his quiet humour. I’ll miss his stories.
But most of all I’ll miss the man himself: a genuine old-school gentleman, the likes of which they just don’t make anymore.
Don McDonald DFC LdH died at a care home in Box Hill Victoria, on 17 October 2021 at the age of 101.
“[O]ur boys joined in the attack on the Marshalling Yards at LILLE” – 463 Squadron Operational Record Book, 10 May 1944
The concept of a marshalling yard in Lille has long formed part of my understanding of what happened to the man known in our family as ‘Uncle Jack’. It’s been part of Purcell family folklore, I suppose, for as long as I can remember: that the target of Jack’s Lancaster on that fateful night was a set of railway lines in northern France.
But which set of railway yards, exactly?
The thing about Lille, you see, is that it’s a pretty important railway junction. It’s now a key stop on the Eurostar cross-Channel tunnel route between Brussels and London, an hour from Paris on the TGV and about 40 minutes from Brussels. There’s also a significant local railway network. There are two key stations in the centre of the city; Lille-Flandres, which hosts local and regional trains and some high-speed TGVs, into which I arrived when I visited Lille in 2009, and Lille-Europe, serving the Eurostar cross-Channel trains and international TGV services, from which I departed three days later. While a lot of these train lines and services have been built since the Second World War, their slower fore-runners also ran through the city: Lille sat on the route from the ports of Calais to Berlin and on to Warsaw, for example, and one of the first railroads in France, the line between Lille and Paris, opened as early as 1846. Locomotive building and repair workshops were also located in the city.
It’s pretty clear, then, why the city’s railways were targeted as part of Bomber Command’s pre-invasion Transportation Plan. But which part of them, specifically, was the target on 10 May 1944?
In the International Bomber Command Centre’s superb Digital Archive I thought I found the answer: a bombing photograph from the night in question, which shows a distinctive set of marshalling yards amongst the smoke – just above the white bomb burst in the photo:
Extremely helpfully, the IBCC’s volunteers have geolocated this photograph over a modern-day map. I fired up Google Earth, bearing in mind that this is a modern-day image and a lot of this infrastructure wouldn’t have been present in 1944, and immediately found the relevant spot. The facility in the bombing photo is pretty clearly the Hellemmes workshops, circled in blue:
And it looks like the 50 Squadron crew who obtained the bombing photograph just missed the target – the centre of the photo, the point where the bombs themselves would have theoretically fallen, being plotted a little way south of the marshalling yards. In this view, which I’ve geolocated onto the Google Earth screenshot, the red ‘X’ marks the crosshairs:
If I remove the bombing photo overlay, you can see the red ‘X’ just above that little white building – not very far away from the marshalling yards at all:
Or so I thought… until I saw the other side of the bombing photo, which has also been scanned in the IBCC’s Archive:
Hmm. “1300 yds 114°” – that looks to me to be a bearing and distance. I wonder if it’s a location referencing the actual aiming point, or in other words, how far away from it this crew’s bombs landed?
If 114° is the bearing of the photo from the aiming point, as I suspect, its reciprocal (114 + 180 = 294) is the bearing of the photo to the aiming point. So here’s a Google Earth ‘ruler’ showing where that point is. The bottom right of the yellow line is located on the position of the red ‘X’ in the earlier screenshot. If I’m right, the other end of it shows where the actual aiming point was:
Looking promising – that’s clearly one of the other marshalling yards. But can I find any other evidence to corroborate this theory?
I wouldn’t be writing about it if I couldn’t. In the Night Raid Report from this night’s operation, there’s a description of damage as shown by later photo-reconnaissance:
A great concentration of bombs fell on and around the railways and sidings 200yds S.W. of the steel and engineering works of the Fives Lille company. 2 locomotive sheds and a repair shop were destroyed, together with numerous smaller buildings, and many hits were scored on lines and rolling stock. The Fives Lille factory and several other industries were damaged.
Where is or was the Lille-Fives company? It’s that white-roofed industrial area to the right – east – of the marshalling yard in the following screenshot. You might just be able to see the label above it that says ‘Fives Cail’; this is a new redevelopment project that aims to turn the old factories of the ‘Lille-Fives Company’, which later became known as ‘Fives-Lille-Cail’ and, now, simply ‘Fives’, into an urban project with housing, public areas and creative industries. But it’s where the Lille-Fives company was located during the Second World War, and its edge is clearly 200 yards north-east of the same marshalling yard identified by my yellow line earlier. In other words, the marshalling yard is 200 miles south-west of the factory, as noted by the Night Raid Report:
So it looks to me like the marshalling yards near Fives were the actual target for the bombers on the night of 10 May 1944. While the bombing was mostly accurate, some landed closer to the railway yards and workshops south of Hellemmes – and all of the six bombers that crashed within two miles of the target area, including B for Baker, fell east of the aiming point. That, however, is a story for another day.
 The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), AIR 14/3411, B.C. (O.R.S.) Final Reports on operations, Night Raids Nos. 416-620, September 1943 to May 1944, vol. 4: Night Raid Report No. 602
I remember it was very wet the day I interviewed Ralph White.
You can even see it in the photo I took after we finished the recording: so heavy was the rain that it seemed to bounce off the pavement onto the outside of the window.
Also visible in the photo is a little model aeroplane built from Lego. And what you can’t see in the photo is the pair of socks that Ralph was wearing that he cheekily flashed me, decorated with pictures of aeroplanes.
Clearly, I thought, here was a man who just wanted to fly.
Ralph certainly got his wish. During WWII he was a pilot, flying Halifaxes with 192 Squadron.
That’s 192 (Special Duties) Squadron, to you.
That made him something of a rarity. Ralph, who died earlier this month, was the only person I knew who, though he flew heavy bombers on operations with Bomber Command, never once dropped a bomb on the enemy. Instead, his job was to go out with (or sometimes not with) the bomber stream, often with an eighth crew member who operated special secret equipment installed in the aircraft, as part of the great radio countermeasure battle against the German Nachtjagd. They’d just fly around on specified flightpaths designed to maximise the effectiveness of whatever secret squirrel stuff they were supporting. Ask Ralph, though, and right to the day he died he couldn’t tell you exactly what they were doing. “They just told us to fly ‘that way,’” he said, “so we did!”
Ralph was a junior clerk at Melbourne City Council before the war. He wanted to join the Royal Australian Air Force as soon as he turned 18, but his parents wouldn’t sign the necessary forms. “So I then made a very silly mistake,” Ralph said, “and joined the army.”
Eighteen unhappy months in an infantry battalion followed, during which he eventually made it to Geraldton in Western Australia. Clearly aware of the prevailing attitude towards army service, the Air Force cunningly sent a recruiting train there. Ralph did not hesitate to jump ship, as it were. Soon he was at Pearce, near Perth, filling time as an aircrew guard, before initial training at Victor Harbor, South Australia, and elementary flying training on Tiger Moths at Benalla, Victoria.
After getting his wings, Ralph travelled to the UK via the familiar route through the US, landing in Greenock in Scotland. And straight away Ralph could tell that things were different. “I read a notice in the train,” he said thoughtfully. “It didn’t say if there’s an air raid. It said when there’s an air raid, these are the things you have to do…” During a short stay in Brighton, Ralph remembered the German ‘tip and run’ raiders coming across. “People would be queuing up for something – old ladies, blokes going to the pubs – and as the warning came out that [the raider] was coming again, people would just drop to the ground. Once he flew over, they’d all stand up again. That took a bit of getting used to.”
By the time Ralph arrived in the UK there was a backlog in the training units for Bomber Command so he endured a few postings to use up a bit of time, including a short period at an Advanced Flying Unit, flying Tiger Moths from a grass strip at Windsor Castle. During this posting, Ralph told me, on one Sunday he attended Chapel in the castle with the King, Queen and the two Princesses present.
Then, finally to the Operational Training Unit, for crewing up and flying on the Wellington. There was one incident here that bears repeating. Ralph and his new crew were due to do a ‘Bullseye’ training flight – a practice bombing trip, over friendly territory, where a designated town was ‘bombed’ and searchlights and fighters simulated enemy defences – but the first Wellington they’d been allocated was not serviceable. They swapped to a second one, but this meant they were late, and so copped the full force of the ‘defences’ during the exercise. Then there was a fire in the wireless operator’s compartment. It was safely extinguished, but shortly after that one of the engines failed when a throttle connection vibrated loose. At that point, Ralph decided to give up and go home. They returned safely, and Ralph “came in on one [engine] and put it down perfectly […] the crew reckoned it was the only perfect one I ever did!”
The interview’s full of amusing, self-deprecating comments like this one. I suspect his entire life was full of them, too. With his big white moustache he always reminded me of a big friendly teddy bear. Ralph told stories well and always included a touch of humour.
Perhaps that humour was to soften the blow a bit: that Wellington story’s got a tragic kicker. Ten days later, Ralph told me, after the engine was repaired, the same aircraft went out on a daytime cross-country with another crew and crashed, killing everyone on board. It’s likely that the same fault – vibrations that disconnected the throttle cable – struck again.
The Wellingtons were clapped-out, but Ralph had a much higher opinion of the aircraft he would fly on operations. “I loved the Hali,” he said. “She was good to fly, she was responsive.” They served him well, too. Ralph and his crew had a mostly uneventful tour – except for one moment of inattention over Tonsberg in Norway. It was a quiet night and the crew were all distracted by the lights of Stockholm, in Sweden. Perhaps fantasising about parachuting into the neutral country to see out the rest of the war in peace and safety, they were surprised by a Ju-88 nightfighter that suddenly flew over the top of the Halifax. Evidently the German pilot was distracted by the same thing. Ralph ducked as it flew past. “I can still see the dirt on his belly to this day!”
“That’s about all the excitement I can give you, Adam,” Ralph said apologetically after he related the Tonsberg story. That didn’t mean that his tour was easy, though. Ralph drew a distinction between the “joyful flying” of the various training units and life on operations. “Once you went over the enemy coast, instead of relaxing you really would hang on and I presume stress was what it was. […] As the captain of the aircraft you’re inclined to get a bit snappy with people […] you can get a bit crusty with them. I think I was [under tension]. I think it probably caught up with me later in life.”
I missed this last comment at the time, and that’s a shame because I’d have liked to dive deeper into it.
“I started off as an office boy in the Melbourne City Council,” Ralph said, telling me he returned to his old job after the war. “And you know, it was a pretty dead sort of existence after the flying days.”
This is a part of the bomber war that isn’t spoken about often: the aftermath. It was a little insight into the post-war world, and how wartime experiences continued to affect veterans for the rest of their lives. I’m forever grateful to Ralph for sharing a little bit of what was clearly a painful period for him.
I’m also grateful for the friendship that we struck up over the last few years of his life. I visited he and his wife Marie a couple of times and always looked forward to catching up at lunches and ceremonies around Melbourne.
It was raining the day of Ralph’s funeral, too. I made sure I was wearing my best pair of aeroplane socks, in memory of the man who just wanted to fly.
My imagined view of the start of the Lille raid on 10 May 1944 – 77 years ago tonight. This post was published at 21:57, the time that B for Baker took off from Waddington.
“Righto, chaps.” Squadron Leader Phil Smith said, standing up. “Let’s go.”
The slim, nuggetty Australian pilot watched as his flying jacket-clad crew got up. At 27 years of age, with short dark wavy hair and a calm, matter-of-fact way of speaking, Phil was a highly experienced and respected airman, the only man among his crew to be on his second tour of operations.
He watched the other six men as they climbed the short metal ladder into the fuselage of the great black-painted bomber. They were a good crew, he thought to himself. He had been a little worried about how they’d receive him when he had first joined them at the conversion unit. They had already been together for several months and had developed into a tight little group. They had met at an operational training unit and had trained together before eventually being posted to their first operational squadron. But before they’d had a chance to start their own tours, their original pilot went on a familiarisation flight to Berlin and didn’t come back. So they’d been sent back to a conversion unit. There, they were a crew looking for a pilot, and he was a pilot looking for a crew. It was inevitable, really, that they’d be allocated to each other. Luckily, Phil thought as he climbed the short ladder into the fuselage of the bomber, they turned out to be a good bunch of chaps and had quickly accepted him as the leader of the crew. He’d now been flying with them for almost six months, and he was proud of how they’d developed.
Phil took a small step up onto the catwalk on top of the roof of the aircraft’s cavernous bomb bay, then squeezed past the machinery of the mid-upper turret, stooping slightly as he climbed the slight incline. Then he clambered over the spars, the two massive steel structures that ran across the fuselage and into each wing to carry the heavy loads imposed on the structures during flight.
He squeezed down the tight passageway along the side of the fuselage, the dangling parachute pack hanging from his harness and banging against the backs of his thighs as he went. He straightened up as he emerged into the great Perspex glasshouse of the Lancaster’s cockpit, the instrument panel glowing in the last rays of the setting sun. In front and to his left, mounted on a slightly raised platform, was the single pilot’s seat.
Reaching for a yellow-painted handle on the top of the windscreen frame, he pulled himself up and into the seat. It had armrests that folded down and a little cushioning on the backrest, but otherwise the seat was completely devoid of creature comforts. It didn’t even have a cushion to sit on. Instead, the parachute pack – which hung behind Phil’s thighs when he was standing – nestled into a deep metal bucket at the base of the seat when he sat down. They didn’t design these things for comfort, he thought to himself as he settled in.
The parachute pack on which he was now perched included an emergency dinghy that had a metal compressed gas bottle for inflation in case of a water landing. No matter how much he squirmed during a flight, that gas bottle always found its way precisely under Phil’s tailbone. He remembered how it felt a few weeks ago when they returned from an operation to Munich. On that occasion he’d been strapped tightly to that blessed gas bottle for more than ten hours.
Luckily tonight’s trip was only short, he thought. Just three and a half hours out and back.
A piece of cake.
In memory of the crew of 467 Squadron Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, who failed to return from the Lille raid on 10 May 1944. Phil Smith was the crew’s only survivor.
Everyone looked up when the jet screamed over the city.
It was Anzac Day 2021, and once again I’d returned to Sydney to mark the occasion. First order of business was the march – and for once, first order of the march was the Air Force.
The Bomber Command contingent, made up of four veterans with banner bearers and assorted supporters, made their way down the route slowly and somewhat unsteadily. While it appeared that the WWII veterans in preceding groups had been pushed along the march in wheelchairs – these fellows aren’t old any more, they’re now ancient – two of the Bomber Boys made the journey on foot. Consequently they weren’t moving particularly fast, and a fair gap opened up between them and the group in front. You could be forgiven for thinking that they were leading the entire march.
It was at that moment that the jet appeared. Flying north to south over the parade, the sound of its engines growled, roared and boomed off the surrounding buildings as it whistled overhead. It was an F-35 fighter-bomber – in the long lineage of Royal Australian Air Force bombers, it’s the current holder of the role once held by the Lancasters and Halifaxes of WWII – and for just a moment it looked like it was giving Bomber Command its very own flypast.
Travelling interstate in the midst of a global pandemic, however under control it might appear in Australia at the moment, is always a somewhat fraught business. And there were certainly signs that things aren’t ‘normal’ yet. Masks on planes and trains. Helpful people dotted around the city holding QR codes for contact tracing check-ins. Overall spectator numbers looked to be a long way down on usual. But the skirl of bagpipes, the smell of horse poo and that little chinking sound made by bemedaled chests made it feel like an almost-normal Anzac Day. There was more than one moment where I felt how lucky we are to live here, when compared with the rest of the world.
It’s been a year and a half since I’ve seen most of the veterans who were present this year, and I can say most of them have aged in that time. But they were there, still pressing on regardless – like Ron Houghton who, determined not to be pushed in a wheelchair, had the assistance of two of his adult grandchildren. Matt, on the right of shot here, is an RAAF Reservist, and flew down from Brisbane to march in uniform.
Then there’s the one who, in the words of one of my lunch companions, “always looks like he’s just stepped out of the gym”: Tony Adams. A 149 Sqn wireless operator (Stirlings! Lancasters! Oh my!), Tony’s one of the more switched-on veterans you’ll find these days. He’s also a bit of a film star: just the night before Anzac Day, A Current Affair featured him (and two others who were on the march, the previously-mentioned Ron Houghton and the rather incredible Frank Dell) in a short report (see here). That’s just the latest in a long string of recent TV appearances. Tony had no trouble completing the march and, yes, looked like he’d just stepped out of the gym at the end.
Off to lunch, after all that, with the Bomber Command Association of Australia. On the way, I ducked into the Anzac Memorial with Fiona Campbell for a quick look at the new RAAF Centenary exhibition they have there, which includes a silk ‘escape map’ that belonged to Fiona’s late father Keith.
Then to the Royal Automobile Club for a lunch that was up to their usual high standards. There was good food and good conversation throughout. Speeches were short and to the point and the surroundings were comfortable and classy. Five Bomber Command veterans were present: Tony Adams (complete with what seemed like the entire, er, Adams Family), Rodney Higgs, Ron Houghton, Bill Geoghegan and Bill Purdy.
Also present was a good-sized contingent of current serving RAAF personnel, from 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond. This was a wonderful way for members of the current Air Force to get to know some of their predecessors, and it certainly seemed like the passing on of wisdom was well underway:
As I left the lunch to catch the train to the airport and fly back to Melbourne, I saw perhaps the best example of this. Bill Geoghegan – at 101, said some wag, Bill is older than the Air Force himself – was deep in conversation with a young 37 Squadron pilot, with plenty of ‘Top Gun’ hands in evidence from both sides.
It would appear that Bomber Command’s legacy in Australia is in safe hands.
When I’m not researching the story of B for Baker, I’m an air traffic controller based in Melbourne. After almost a decade as what we call an ‘enroute’ or area controller working regional airspace, in recent months I’ve begun training with an approach unit serving a major capital city airport.
In my so-far limited experience, the primary task of approach control – apart from keeping everyone safely separated – is to take arriving aircraft from all points of the compass and organise them into that nice, evenly-spaced line of aeroplanes that you might see flying down the approach to the runway at any major airport around the world. A big part of the job revolves around managing this ‘arrivals sequence,’ using vectors – directed turns to delay aircraft by increasing the distance that they must fly before they reach the runway – or speed control instructions. There’s less space to work with than in the enroute world, and everything is either climbing (on departure from the runway) or descending (to land on the runway), so everything happens a lot quicker than I’ve been used to. Learning all of this stuff, and integrating it all into the local procedures and rules I need to learn, has been quite a challenge.
With all the technology that we’ve got at our disposal, in good weather conditions the maximum rate of arrivals that we can accept to the airport I’ll be working is 24 every hour. That spacing, admittedly, also allows the tower controllers to get departures away, off the same runway, in the gaps between arrivals. But even so, when I was looking at 467 and 463 Squadron operational records recently, I was staggered to find examples where in 1944, aircraft landed at RAF Waddington after operations at a much higher rate than we achieve today.
Take, for example, the operation on Frankfurt on the night of 18/19 March 1944. Forty bombers took off from Waddington, 22 of which were from 467 Squadron (“Considering our establishment is 16+4 aircraft,” the Operational Record Book boasted, “tonight […] should be nearly a record for a two-flight Squadron”). One returned early, one failed to return at all and the landing time of a third is illegible in my copy of the documents, but the first of the aircraft for which I have a landing time touched down at 00:38, and the final one at 01:44.
That’s 37 aircraft in 66 minutes: one every minute and three-quarters, which works out to a landing rate of a little over 33 landings an hour, to a single runway, under wartime conditions and with 1940s technology.
Not a bad effort at all, I reckon. But how on earth did they achieve it? I’ve learnt a little bit previously about the system that was used, particularly the so-called ‘Quick Landing Scheme’ in use at 5 Group airfields like Waddington. But given I recently had lunch with a former bomber pilot, I figured it was a good opportunity to ask him about what he could remember.
Don McDonald has appeared in these pages before (here, here and, in most detail, here). He turned 100 in October last year. Sadly the coronavirus pandemic robbed him of the big party he’d been looking forward to for a long time, though a bagpiper visiting his care home in his honour and a personal phone call from a former Chief of Defence went a little way towards making up for it. This week my partner and I decided it was time for a catch-up, so we arranged to pick Don up and go to the local RSL for lunch.
He’s visibly aged since we last saw him and these days gets around with a walking frame, but he’s still the same old Don and he still has that twinkle in his eye. We spent nearly three hours with him, Don tucking into a big plate of oysters (a bowl nearby for the shells), Rach with a ginormous chicken parma and myself hoeing into a thick and fancy steak sandwich.
The time flew by, as it often does with Don. Among other things he told us about how he’s been invited to lay a wreath at the Sorrento-Portsea RSL on Anzac Day and asked how Rachel’s PhD research was going. We told him about our visit to the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. The mention of the Link Trainer we found there got Don chuckling; he told us about a prank that un-named members of his initial flying training course pulled on a disliked drill instructor. Apparently they convinced the man to sit inside the trainer and close the hatch – whereupon someone set fire to a copy of The Age newspaper and held it under the air vent in the front of the machine, while two burly members of the course held the lid down so he couldn’t escape.
“There was hell to pay after that,” Don remembered.
Later on, I was telling him about how my approach training was going. And that’s what brought me to ask Don what he could remember about the way bombers were organised when they arrived back at base after an operation.
“The memory isn’t so strong these days,” he warned. But it was strong enough. Don said the aircraft would call the control tower on the radio as they approached the base, and the operator would give them a height to circle at, 500 feet above the highest bomber to keep them separated. (At this point the air traffic controller in me shuddered – heavy bombers vertically separated by only 500 feet?! Our current vertical standard is twice that!). As each bomber landed, it would vacate the level it had been holding at, enabling the next one to safely step down above it. In turn, each bomber would do the same, one step at a time, until everyone had landed.
Where did they circle, I asked? Over the field, or somewhere else?
Our meals were finished by this stage, but the plates hadn’t been collected yet. Don saw an opportunity for a demonstration. He picked up his small bowl, full of empty oyster shells, and placed it in the middle of the larger plate. The bowl, he explained, was the airfield. A thousand yards around the runway – the edge of the big plate – was a series of lights on poles. These were called Drem lights and, visible from the air, they marked the ‘standard’ circuit; bombers flew around from one to the next around the runway until they lined up on final approach – ‘funnels’, named after the lead-in lights that ‘funnelled’ aircraft towards the runway threshold – and landed. When they were holding in the stack, they followed the same lights, around and around, without landing.
Fair enough, I said. It’s pretty different to how it’s done now, but it seems like a reasonably safe and efficient system to recover large numbers of bombers quickly.
Don chuckled again. ‘Safe’ for the time, perhaps… but not really safe as we’d know it today. There were so many airfields in England, he said, picking up Rachel’s plate. Suddenly it was another Drem system, the remains of the parma in the middle the neighbouring airfield. Sometimes airfields were so close to each other, he told us – moving the plate into position, one edge over the top of his own – that the Drem lights, and therefore the airfield’s circuits, actually overlapped. And while there was some form of flying control for individual airfields (which is why I have the detail I have for Waddington after the Frankfurt raid), it wasn’t really coordinated with any other airfields, no matter how close they were.
We kept talking for another couple of hours before we took Don back. And as we drove home, I couldn’t stop chuckling at the memory of learning from a one-hundred-year-old about how air traffic control worked in the Second World War with the aid of two plates, a bowl and a chicken parmigiana.
World War II begins. At first, the boy is too young, but he enlists in aircrew the instant he turns 18. Basic training follows and he’s awarded an aircrew brevet. Then comes operational training, crewing up, converting onto big four-engined bombers. The new crew joins a squadron, flies on operations and has one or two close calls. Then the war ends.
Call it a fairly standard career for a surviving member of Bomber Command. With greater or lesser degrees of variation, stories like this have been told in countless books over the years. Yes – the story of John Henry Meller, in the new book The Boy with Only One Shoe, follows much the same arc.
But what’s notable about this book is that it’s been published in 2020, seven and a half decades since the end of the war. It’s the rarest of rare things: a recently-written first-hand account by a Bomber Command airman. There just aren’t many veterans left alive these days, let alone ones who still have the drive and skill to vividly write a story about events of so long ago – and then publish it.
To be clear, Meller’s daughter, Caroline Brownbill, a former airline pilot, is credited as a co-author. It’s not clear how much of the work is hers, but that doesn’t matter. The narrative is cohesive and in a consistent voice. Brownbill is also, it seems, doing a lot of the publicity work around the release of the book, which was self-published via Amazon in May 2020. The authors are planning to donate proceeds from sales of the book to the RAF Benevolent Fund, and Meller signs and writes a personal message on virtually every copy they sell, which is a nice touch.
John Henry Meller served as a wireless operator with 149 Squadron, flying operations on Lancasters from February 1945. That experience, and all the bits and pieces that go with it, necessarily forms the core of The Boy with Only One Shoe. But this book has so much more to offer too. The early sections about growing up in the English town of Warrington in the 1920s and 30s are detailed, and the descriptions of life as a teenage civilian in the early years of the war are full of life. Post-war, Meller remained in the Royal Air Force for a few years, and there are some very interesting sections about postings to exotic places like Egypt and Libya.
His personal recollections are great, and include some unusual details. I knew that RAF recruits, undergoing basic training in London, ate their meals in a restaurant at London Zoo, for example, but I didn’t know that while there they were also told that they would be responsible for “protecting or detaining” any of the zoo animals that might escape as a result of air raid damage. There’s also one of the better descriptions of the training and operational role of the wireless operator that I’ve seen in an aircrew memoir.
These are the sorts of details that you can’t easily get from official files and archives – you really need the recollections of someone who was there. There’s a fascinating discussion of a lecture attended during Meller’s wireless operator course, during which it was clearly communicated to the trainees exactly what risk they were taking by becoming aircrew. The fatality rate in Bomber Command at the time, they were explicitly told, was 46%. Common knowledge now, of course, and certainly by the time a crew had been on a squadron for a few months they would have been well aware of the ‘chop rate’, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of aircrew being directly told about it while still in training. It makes their decisions to continue that training all the more courageous.
The Boy with Only One Shoe – the significance of the title is explained in a short introductory section in the book – came about after Meller’s son in law persuaded him to write about his wartime experiences, primarily for his grand-daughter. The book is therefore pitched at an audience that may not have much understanding of Bomber Command and the context into which it fitted. Meller provides a lot of that context with explanations of what was going on in the wider conflict at the time, and while some of these bits aren’t done as well as the parts of the story based on his own experiences, he nevertheless manages to successfully weave his own story into the wider one.
My only criticisms about the book are, I think, a direct result of its self-published roots. The story is great and the writing is engaging, but in some ways the execution doesn’t do the story all the justice it deserves. Editing can be hit and miss, with the occasional superfluous punctuation and, on one occasion, “where” used in place of “were”. There are one or two minor errors in terminology that probably should have been picked up, too: cumulonimbus clouds are called “Cumulus Nimbus” on p.175, for example. Formatting inside is a little inconsistent, particularly when dealing with block quotes. There is a contents page, but it’s not very useful: it only lists “Chapter 1”, “Chapter 2” and so on, despite all the chapters being individually titled. The cover – though attention-grabbing with an illustration of a Lancaster with an engine on fire – is printed on cheap stock and is not very hardy. My copy marked too easily, copping several dings from one or two trips in my bag.
Don’t get me wrong: I really liked this book, and Amazon’s global reach makes it very accessible to the widest possible audience. But it’s a great shame that this story was not picked up by a traditional publisher, who might have had the expertise to overcome the few niggles I had with it.
Putting that to one side, though, The Boy with Only One Shoe is a good read. It’s honest, engaging and true to life – and it’s a never-before-heard Bomber Command story, written by someone who was there. Well recommended.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.