Vale Ralph White

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.

Ralph White following our interview, June 2016

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.

Ralph White

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.

The day I met Ralph White – EATS Lunch, Caulfield RSL. May 2015

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!”

Ralph White is on the far right of this group of Halifax pilots

“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.

The day Ralph was presented with a French Legion of Honour. Melbourne, November 2019

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.

Hear my interview with Ralph at the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive.

©2021 Adam Purcell

10 May 1944

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.

(c) 2021 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

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)

1904 Anzac Day SYD-030
Bomber Command veterans during the Sydney Anzac Day march, 2019

1904 Anzac Day SYD-172
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

Review: International Bomber Command Centre, Lincoln

I was on holiday in Lincoln recently. If I stepped out of our rental townhouse on the hill just below the Cathedral and looked south, in a clearing on the opposite ridgeline I could see the Spire of the newly-opened International Bomber Command Centre. That made me happy.

In the few years since it was erected, the Spire has become a landmark in its own right. It’s visible from most places on the south side of Lincoln, a distant brown spindle poking up over the horizon. The view of it from the walls of Lincoln Cathedral is virtually unobstructed.

When the creators of the International Bomber Command Centre chose their spot, the visual link with the Cathedral was important. Lincolnshire was known as Bomber County, and there were 27 airfields scattered around the county. The Cathedral, set as it is high on the hill, dominates the landscape for miles around, and so naturally became something of a landmark for the crews of the bombers. And so it remains today. When you’re standing under the Spire, the Cathedral is clearly visible across the city.

I’m not much of a fan of modern sculpture (the Australian Bomber Command memorial at the AWM puzzles me), but the Spire itself is a rather graceful weathered steel construction that actually looks better in the flesh than I expected it to. It’s designed to be as tall as a Lancaster was wide. While there’s a little niggling within elements of the Bomber Command community about whether this might be too much focus on the Lancaster at the expense of other types of aircraft, there’s no doubting Lincolnshire’s strong connection to Avro’s big four-engined bomber. Given where the IBCC is situated, they can be forgiven for this, I think. The focus of the IBCC has expanded significantly since the initial idea was conceived – originally it was known as the Lincolnshire Bomber Command Memorial – and they’ve been careful to include the other aircraft within the exhibition as well. I guess there’s no way of making everybody happy.

Surrounding the Spire are curved steel walls, engraved with the names of every person who died serving with Bomber Command – almost 58,000, by the IBCC’s count. This is the focus of the memorial part of the project, and many visitors have left poppies alongside names of personal significance. It’s a peaceful spot. Surrounding the Spire are 27 native lime trees, each representing one of the airfields of Lincolnshire. Cleverly, they are placed in positions that approximate the real-life geographic locations of the airfields spread around Lincoln.

The other part of the development is the Chadwick Centre, a striking building with big floor-to-ceiling windows on either side and a roof that in shape is reminiscent of a wing. The exhibition is inside. It was something that I was very interested to finally see.

And I’m pleased to say it’s been very well done. The story begins with a series of four short videos that set the scene. First we learn a bit about the background of the Second World War itself. Then the early theories about strategic bombing are covered before they move on to how Bomber Command came into being and, finally, the individual experience of being on a squadron. As you move around the main gallery you learn about a typical day with Bomber Command. Every 40minutes or so, the room darkens and a short, immersive audio-visual presentation takes over. Upstairs is a gallery about the Home Front – life under the bombing, on both sides. Then you cross into an open mezzanine, which holds displays about how Bomber Command is remembered. From here, you get a view looking out over the grounds to the Spire.

The focus of the whole exhibition is very much on the individual level, asking ‘what was it like’ for these otherwise ordinary people. This focus makes sense especially given that most of the material included in the exhibition comes from the developing IBCC Digital Archive (about which, more in a future post, I hope), a body of information that itself was collected based on individual experiences and collections. Many such individual stories go together to make up the whole, after all.

It’s a very high-tech and hands-on exhibition, with ‘talking head’ actors on screens telling stories and plenty of buttons to push or telephones to dial. Here, incidentally, was where I found a little bit that I’d directly contributed to the Archive. If you pick up this old phone and dial “1”, you hear a short clip of Gerald McPherson telling a story about how he once lent his watch to a mate who, predictably perhaps, didn’t come back.

The clip comes from the interview I did with Gerald in Melbourne in February 2016.

There are also digital photo frames dotted around the place that include a slideshow of interesting images from the Archive. The beauty of such digital presentation methods is that the material can easily be added to, or even rotated, at a later date. The disadvantage is that digital things occasionally break. A couple of the telephones were not working when we visited, and one of the ‘talking head’ screens was not working (though the soundtrack was).

Other than that, though, I found the exhibition excellent. It’s presented in an engaging manner that is accessible for almost any age (a group of primary school children were visiting when we were there), and tries to keep a balanced view of what’s become known as “difficult heritage”. It’s pitched at a level that is intended for people who don’t know a whole lot about Bomber Command, aiming to educate and spread the story wider. But there’s enough there to keep anyone interested. The use of material from the Digital Archive helps here, I think, because most of it is unpublished. While the basic story might be familiar to someone like me, for example, the detail of what is used to tell the story, and how the material presented, is new and interesting.

About the only criticism I can make of the IBCC is the café. It serves breakfast until 11:30 but lunch doesn’t start until 12:00. The Centre opens at 9:30am, and you need about two hours to properly experience the exhibition and gardens… which meant the little half-hour window when they only serve cakes or coffee and tea happened just as I came out of the exhibition. Oh, well.

In the main, though, it was a great morning at the International Bomber Command Centre. It’s been an extremely worthwhile project to be a (very small) part of, and it was quite exciting to see, first-hand, some of my work in the exhibition. The IBCC project has been a long time in the making, and it’s turned out great. Well worth a look.

 

The International Bomber Command Centre can be found at Canwick Hill, Lincoln – internationalbcc.co.uk

Declaration: I was involved with the IBCC as a volunteer interviewer here in Australia, between 2015-2017.

(c)2018 Adam Purcell

The perils of oral history

Author’s note, 5 June 2021: Since this post was published, several major Australian newspapers have printed serious allegations against the soldier it names, concerning his conduct in Afghanistan. While I make no comment on the veracity or otherwise of the newspapers’ claims, I acknowledge the possibility that the allegations add a different context to the soldier’s testimony as it’s quoted here,. However, because its central thrust is about how oral history needs to be taken with a grain of salt (rather than commenting on the actual incident described), my post remains valid and I’ve decided to leave it here unchanged (except for this note). 

There was a quite interesting article in Good Weekend, the magazine that comes with the Saturday newspaper here in Melbourne, last week. In Afghanistan, a split-second decision separates life and death is an edited extract of a new book called No Front Line by Chris Masters, who as a journalist was ‘embedded’ with Australian Special Forces units in 2006.

The article (and I suppose the book, though I haven’t read it) looks at some of the troubling issues to rise out of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: the moral ambiguity, the culture of the Special Forces and the questions that remain over what actually happened there. It’s worth a read.

It was a little snippet contained within the article that really grabbed my attention, though. Much of the extract published in Good Weekend centres around one particular action that happened in early June 2006  in the hills around the Chora Valley, near Tarin Kowt (where one of the principle Australian bases was located). An Australian patrol made up of six men climbed up into the hills to establish a reconnaissance post overlooking the valley, which had recently been overrun by Taliban troops. “Later accounts of what occurred vary markedly,” Masters writes. Two soldiers who were involved in the incident recalled a young Afghan male, who carried nothing, approaching their position. He “looked past the OP, then walk[ed] on across their front from right to left.” Then he came back, this time carrying a bag. Sometime around here was when it was decided that the man was a danger to the soldiers at the observation post, and two of the soldiers stalked him and, in the euphemistic language of the later after-action report, “neutralised the threat.” Whether or not this shooting of an apparently unarmed man, who may or may not have been a civilian, was justified is one of the moral questions that often arises in war.

And this is where it gets interesting. One of the other soldiers involved in the incident was Lance-Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith (who would receive a  Medal for Gallantry for this action, and later a Victoria Cross for another incident). He was interviewed by an Australian War Memorial historian in 2011 about what happened on the ridgeline. “A couple of blokes just walked up, literally,” he said, “probably about two hours before dark, walked straight up to the front of the OP, got about 30 metres to the front…”

Note Roberts-Smith’s first sentence: “a couple of blokes” [my emphasis]. The presence of two potential enemies rather than just one paints the incident in a rather different light. So here we have accounts from three eyewitnesses, all soldiers who were directly involved in the action, that differ over a quite significant basic fact. Adding to the confusion, in a different, later, interview, Roberts-Smith said “an armed insurgent walked to within 30 metres” – an. A sole individual.

Which was it, really? The post-action report, written later by the patrol commander in the aftermath of the incident, identifies a single person. That, the original two soldiers’ testimony and Roberts-Smith’s later interview all agree that there was just the one Afghan who approached the observation post, so it’s likely that this is the true number. So why did Roberts-Smith apparently get it wrong when talking to the War Memorial?

I reckon that it’s most likely simply because of the way the human mind works. Roberts-Smith wrote to the AWM after the interview, setting out a few factors that could explain it: Firstly, five years had passed between the incident and recalling it in an interview. In the interim, he had been sent to Afghanistan four more times. And the interview itself was more than two hours and 40 minutes long. “It would appear,” he wrote, “I have confused my many engagements.”

And finally we get to the point. Oral history depends on memories – indeed, oral history is made up of memories. But memories are volatile things. Time can dull the stories or even remove details entirely, and experiences can, perhaps, get muddled together in retelling – even more so when, as is my experience of collecting oral histories, those doing the remembering are nonagenarians  dealing with events that took place more than seven decades ago. Memories can be manipulated, too: if you tell yourself often enough, intentionally or otherwise, that something happened, before too long you’ll believe it really did.

In short, oral histories are not particularly reliable for the bare facts of history. They remain extremely valuable sources because they are first-hand accounts of the time under study and can capture a feeling of what it was like. But make sure you check the facts against documented sources before taking them as gospel.

It’s nothing deliberate on the part of those being interviewed. It’s just the way the mind works.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command in Canberra 2017

“PER ARDUA AD ASTRA – For we are young and free.”

With these words, Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson closed a speech delivered at the Bomber Command lunch in the shadows of Lancaster G for George last weekend. He was speaking, specifically, to the 38 veterans of Bomber Command who were among the audience, telling them that the latter phrase can be in Australia’s National Anthem because of deeds done by the likes of them.

Dr Nelson’s speech – a rolling masterpiece, delivered with passion, skill and emotion (and just the right amount of self-deprecating humour) by a man who admittedly does this sort of thing for a living – will long be remembered by those who heard it. It received a standing ovation and was a clear highlight of a weekend that brimmed with them: the tenth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.

Ostensibly there were, perhaps, two reasons why a particular effort was made to make this year somewhat more special than usual: the fact that this was the tenth such event, and also to mark the 75th anniversary of Australian squadrons going into action as part of Bomber Command. There is some contention on this latter point (as author Kristen Alexander has pointed out) and in a way it’s unfortunate that someone felt the need to justify ‘extra special’ treatment by concocting an anniversary which doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. But whatever the justification for it, this was a very impressive event. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs were involved early on by making funding available to assist veterans to travel to Canberra, Royal Australian Air Force Association coordinated the DVA grants, Bomber Command Association in Australia were actively contacting all the veterans on their database to ensure that they were aware that assistance was available, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation coordinated guest lists and arranged the Meet and Greet, and the Australian War Memorial hosted, ran and even paid for more than 300 people to enjoy lunch in the shadows of G for George. Each of those groups, and more, played a role in delivering the biggest and most significant Bomber Command event seen in Australia for several years.

It’s become traditional in the last few years to focus on an Australian Bomber Command airman in the ‘Last Post’ ceremony, with which the AWM closes each evening, on the Saturday night for this event. This year it was Flying Officer Charles Williams, who died on Operation Chastise in May 1943. Several hundred people were present, including a good number of Bomber Command veterans:

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I am more of a fan of the way the War Memorial used to mark the close of each day (a far simpler ceremony with a lone bugler or piper), but this Last Post ceremony was well done, with an all-Air Force catafalque party providing an honour guard and F/O Williams’ story told simply and well.

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Following the ceremony, we moved into the AWM’s Reception area, mostly to get out of the cold while waiting for the Meet & Greet cocktail party to begin. Dr Nelson, though, decided it was time to move, getting up onto a bench to ask the crowd “what are you waiting for? We need a navigator…” and exhorting everyone to move to the Anzac Hall.

There was a short delay while final preparations were being made for the night’s function. But once the Air Force jazz quartet started up, it was a very good night: talking with people I’d just met, seeing familiar old faces and soaking up the atmosphere of that big collection of metal known as G for George.

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RAAF Jazz Quartet

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Frank Dell

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Keith Campbell

It was lovely seeing a young Sydney couple (Josh – himself ex-Navy -and his wife Katie, both of whom who I’d met on Anzac Day this year) talking to Bill Purdy. Josh had a grandfather who flew with 463 Squadron. On mentioned his name, Bill remembered him immediately. I left them listening intently to his recollections.

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It was also great to catch up with Ray Merrill again. One of my favourite veterans, who I’d met at the Canberra weekend in 2014, Ray had come from Adelaide with no fewer than 16 relatives and friends:

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Sunday saw the sort of morning that, despite the rain that has affected it on some occasions, I most associate with this weekend: bright, sunny and cold. A big crowd gathered in front of the Bomber Command sculpture in the grounds of the AWM for the ceremony, the centrepiece of the weekend’s events. Plenty of veterans were scattered around the crowd, with a catafalque party provided by the Federation Guard and an honour guard of current 460 Squadron personnel making up the most visible uniformed presence. It was particularly pleasing to see no fewer than four veterans taking active roles in the ceremony, including Ray Merrill who delivered an excellent Reflections speech:

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Another impressive speech was given by Senator Linda Reynolds (representing the Prime Minister). Senator Reynolds, it turns out, has two Bomber Command connections in her family, and so her speech was heartfelt and honest.

And then, afterburners twinkling, a 77 Squadron F/A18 Hornet screamed over the crowd to end the ceremony, pulling up to disappear in a vertical climb over Mount Ainslie.

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Alan Finch

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Murray Maxton

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Ron Houghton

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Richard Munro

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Howard Hendrick

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Bill Purdy

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Catafalque Party

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Peek-a-boo!

This year’s Bomber Command lunch was one for the ages. It saw the most people attend, I think ever, and the most Bomber Command veterans that I’ve seen in one place in a very long time. Seated under George’s starboard wing, the atmosphere was quite unique. As well as Dr Nelson’s outstanding speech, several veterans spontaneously got up to say a few words. There was Rob Jubb:

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Ron Hickey:

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And Don Browning:

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The most revealing thing? All three told stories relating to wartime service – but not about their own wartime service. The stories were about someone else.

That famous modesty of this generation, on display again.

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Jim Bateman says grace

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This was a particularly special weekend, the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again. Without going overboard, the focus was firmly on the veterans we had present. Absent friends were also kept close to mind throughout. While there was some confusion in the lead-up, probably because of the multitude of groups involved in putting it together, the actual events appeared to run smoothly and professionally in a genuinely respectful atmosphere. Though several needed to pull out at short notice on medical grounds, the effort to get as many veterans as possible to attend, from all over the country, was very successful. One man I met for the first time – Howard Hendrick – came all the way from country South Australia, which is not a particularly straightforward journey. This was the first time he’s ever come to a ‘reunion’ like this. Seeing how much he enjoyed himself will, I’m sure, reaffirm to everyone concerned the value of weekends like this.

Long may it continue.

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© 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

Vale Jim Cahir

I first saw Jim Cahir at a Bomber Command panel discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, way back in 2013. He was one of 13 Bomber Command veterans who were present, and he was able to share with the audience the experience of being shot down by Schräge Musik over Germany one December night in 1943.

Keilor East RSL Anzac Ceremony, April 2016

It would be several years later, though, when I would get the opportunity to have a close talk with him. A chance meeting at the Anzac Ceremony at the Keilor East RSL in 2016, just down the road from my home in suburban Melbourne, led to a very quick acceptance of my invitation for an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre. We did the interview a few weeks later. And I’m very glad that we did, for this week, at the age of 93, Jim Cahir took his final flight.

Jim Cahir as a trainee gunner at Parkes, NSW

Jim was a 466 Squadron mid-upper gunner, shot down over Germany one night in December 1943. In his turret, Jim had the best view in the house as the starboard wing and engines of his Halifax burst into flame. They were the victims of a JU-88 flown by German nightfighter ace, Heinz Rökker. Jim and most of the rest of the crew would spend the next year and a half in a German prisoner of war camp.

For all the trauma of that experience, Jim led an extremely fulfilling life. He had a long career as an accountant, but he reckoned his family was his greatest achievement: ten children of his own, 38 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. His first and much-loved wife, Valda, died in 2003 and he married his second, Glenne, when well into his 80s. Their relationship was quite special. I dropped in a couple of times after our interview for a cup of tea and a chat – Jim and Glenne lived a ten-minute walk from my house – and I’ll always remember Jim’s hopeful and cheeky smile as he signaled to her that he’d like a new cup of tea, thanks very much, miming the teacup-on-a-saucer with his hands.

Following our interview, June 2016

We gave him a lift home from the Bomber Command ceremony at the Shrine last year, along with Laurie Larmer who also lives close by. My partner Rachel best remembers the sight of Jim, insisting on sitting in the back, squeezing his long legs into our little Golf.

Jim always held close the memory of his pilot, Flight Sergeant Patrick Edwards. After the Halifax was hit, Edwards stayed at the controls, battling to get the aircraft under some sort of control. “Good luck Boys,” Jim remembered him saying. “If those so and so’s catch you, don’t tell them anything!” The rest of the crew got out and survived – but Edwards, in making it possible for his crew to jump, lost his own life.

Jim had remarkable determination and drive throughout his life, which helped him survive three types of cancer, a heart attack and a stroke. His three pillars, it was said at his funeral today, were Family, Faith and the Forces (and the Essendon Bombers). I reckon his grandson Tom McCann pinpointed the real source of that determination, though: “All the accolades that Pa achieved over the last 74 years belong as much to Pat Edwards as they do Pa.”

Jim lived his life driven by wanting to make the most of the time that his pilot’s sacrifice gave him. To make sure he never ever forgot, hanging from the wall in Jim’s little study at home is a portrait of Patrick Edwards.

“He was the bravest man I ever knew,” Jim told me sadly.

So were you, Jim.

So were you.

Text and colour photos (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photo from Jim Cahir.

Werribee Liberator

If you head down the Geelong Road a short distance out of Werribee in Melbourne’s south west, you soon come to two almost identical big old buildings sitting beside the road. They are a little incongruous, until you realise that they sit next to a great big paddock which looks like it could once have been an aerodrome.

Indeed it was, in fact, once an aerodrome – leased by the Royal Australian Air Force from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1940 for a satellite relief landing ground for the nearby stations at Laverton and Point Cook. And the two big hangars are the last survivors of five, of American design, that were built there between 1942 and 1943. The original design called for steel to be used in the construction of the frame and roof trusses, but a shortage of that material meant that instead they were built using wood from the Otway Ranges.

Aeroplanes have not flown from Werribee for many years, the field reverting to MMBW use in the early 1952s. But there’s still at least one aeroplane in one of the hangars. It’s a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, one of only eight in the world and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. The actual aircraft is 44-41956, a B-24M, and while it never saw active service it did serve with the RAAF as A72-176 at 7 Operational Training Unit at Tocumwal. After five decades being used as temporary accommodation and as a wool shed on a farm at Moe in Victoria’s south east, the aircraft was acquired by the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund and moved to Werribee in 1995, where it has been the subject of a slow, heroic and extraordinarily high-quality restoration ever since.

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The hangar is open for visits three days a week and this afternoon I finally managed to go and have a look. It’s an impressive operation. The old hangar is full of aeroplane – I have no idea how they’ll get it out of the building once they’re done. It’s a tight fit, and the tailplane isn’t even attached yet. There are aeroplane parts everywhere, workshop areas that were in use while I was there and displays related to Liberators in general and this one in particular. They have four operational engines (none yet fitted to the aircraft) and they conduct public runs on a specially-constructed test rig once a month or so.

You can even duck under those amazing sliding bomb bay doors (apparently this was the favoured way for Liberator aircrew to access their machines) and stand up inside the aeroplane’s fuselage to have a look at the interior of the beast. There was a refreshing lack of safety barriers or fun police present – evidently the Fund has gone down the very practical “common sense” path. Standing here, looking up past the wireless operator and flight engineer’s positions to the cockpit, I thought of men like John McCredie who once flew – and indeed was compelled on one occasion to bale out from – these big silver birds.

Inside the Werribee Liberator, looking forward from the bomb bay
Inside the Werribee Liberator, looking forward from the bomb bay

There are those who have publicly lamented the lack of a WWII-vintage bomber in Victoria. Those people, I think, are doing this group a disservice. Here is a genuine WWII bomber, and indeed a genuine Australian bomber, and it’s right on Melbourne’s doorstep. I’m told the organisation holds about 97% of the parts required to make a complete Liberator, and what they are missing is non-essential ‘aesthetical’ pieces. So they certainly will eventually reach their goal of a fully-operational Liberator (albeit restored to taxying status only, much like Just Jane was when I visited it in 2009). The intent is to reach “museum piece” status, which apparently requires at least 51% of the aircraft to be verifiably original.

All they need is money. It costs a very reasonable $5 to go and have a stickybeak around ($5 more on engine run days), and further donations are much appreciated. They’re a very welcoming lot, I thought – so if you’re in the area, make the effort to go and have a look. You won’t be disappointed.

More details, including opening times, on the Fund’s website.

I’m not in any way affiliated with the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund, and visited as a paying member of the public.

© 2017 Adam Purcell