Archive for the 'Daily Life' Category

Air Traffic Control, Bomber Command-style

Around the time that Jack Purcell and his crew were on active service with 467 Squadron (January – May 1944), Bomber Command was routinely sending forces numbering six or eight hundred aircraft on large-scale raids against German cities. Even the ‘smaller’ raids on French targets still involved a couple of hundred aircraft each. Landing everyone safely at their airfields after the operation, in the dark, with no lights or radar, and contending with fatigued aircrew, battle damage and the odd German intruder attack, required the development of some remarkably sophisticated and highly efficient systems, and thus laid the foundations for what we now know as air traffic control.

There were a number of local variations depending on which Group the airfield fell under, but the basic procedure was that incoming aircraft would call up the control tower as they approached their home airfield to identify themselves. Flying Control would respond with instructions to either land immediately if there was no-one in front of them, or to circle the airfield, stacked above earlier arrivals at 1,000’ intervals. As No. 1 was in the circuit at 1,000’ and preparing to land, No. 2 would be circling at 2,000’, No. 3 would be at 3,000’ and so on. No. 1 flew around the circuit, following the ‘Drem’ lights located around the airfield, and the pilot would report on the radio as he passed each position: ‘crosswind’ as he passed over the upwind end of the runway, perpendicular to it; ‘downwind’ as he passed the mid-point of the runway, flying parallel to it (which is also where he would begin a slow descent from 1,000’ to land), and ‘funnels’ as he made the final turn to line up with the runway, facing into wind. Then he would wait for the green light from the aerodrome controller (who was located in a caravan parked next to the landing end of the runway) before landing and taxying off the runway to dispersal. Meanwhile, No. 2 became No. 1 and would leave the stack. He would adjust his circuit spacing and speed to position himself one reporting position behind the aircraft in front. As each aircraft left the bottom of the stack, everyone else still circling above them could be stepped down a level until, in turn, they were at the bottom and next to land.

Arrival over base could be inside 10/10ths cloud. In this case, according to 49 Squadron veteran rear gunner Hugh McLeod, the navigator would use the ‘Gee’ navigation aid to home in to the airfield. He would be calling instructions to the pilot in much the same manner as the bomb aimer would while over the target: “Starboard a bit, Skipper… hold it there… should be coming into view now”. Hugh says it was accurate enough to take the aircraft all the way to ‘funnels’ – quite astounding accuracy for the time. In the event of an intruder alert (“this happened to me on three occasions,” Hugh said), an emergency call would come over the radio, lights everywhere would be turned off and the arriving bombers would all scatter until the all-clear sounded or they diverted to other ‘dromes.

It’s interesting to study how the ‘Quick Landing Scheme’ worked in practice on a typical operation. My interest was piqued by an entry in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, following a Berlin raid on 15/16 February 1944. Pilot Officer Clive Quartermaine, flying in Lancaster LM338, said this in his interrogation report:

Had to circle base for 40 minutes before landing. Quick Landing Scheme disappointing.

This was an intriguing comment, I thought, and warranted further investigation. Happily, the ORBs for both 463 and 467 Squadrons record landing times for each aircraft at Waddington. I plotted reported landing times in five-minute blocks, for all aircraft landing between midnight and 1 a.m. LM338 landed at 00.53 (in red). The resulting table looks like this:

Time Aircraft   Landing Times
0000-0004 0001 0001 0003 0004
0005-0009 0008
0010-0014 0010 0011 0012 0014
0015-0019 0015 0015 0015 0017 0019
0020-0024 0022 0023
0025-0029 0025 0029 0029
0030-0034 0032
0035-0039 0036 0039
0040-0044 0040 0041 0043
0045-0049 0045 0047 0048
0050-0054 0053
0055-0059 0056

During this hour, thirty aircraft landed at Waddington. The longest gap between arrivals is five minutes (it comes immediately before Quartermaine landed). Without a modern-day radar controller judging approach paths and in darkness, the odd ‘blow out’ of a few extra minutes in the landing sequence is quite understandable. Shorter intervals are far more common and, assuming the times recorded in the ORB are indeed accurate, there were an amazing three arrivals in a single minute at 00.15. Tellingly, this was about 40 minutes before Quartermaine landed, so was quite possibly about the time that LM338 arrived overhead – to find a large stack of aircraft already awaiting their turn to land.

In the next 40 minutes, as Quartermaine and his crew circled overhead the field, a total of 21 aircraft landed. At a rate better than one aircraft every two minutes, this is actually a reasonably efficient use of the runway given wartime conditions (blackout, no lights, no radar control, fatigued crews etc). There is insufficient evidence about the timing of when other aircraft arrived over the field, but there is a good chance that other captains faced similar waiting times.

So while P/O Quartermaine may well have felt a little hard-done-by having needed to wait for so long, it was a simple case of too many aircraft arriving at once and not enough runways for them to use. This basic cause of airborne delays is still a common occurrence in modern-day air traffic control. Nothing ever changes… someone still has to wait!


Descriptions of aerodrome control come from C07-014-123, The Trenches in the Sky by Dan Conway, and C07-050-023 Takeoff to Touchdown by Don Charlwood. Hugh’s recollections were related in a phone call in May 2013.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

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Briefing Room

While the photograph that is now finding a wider audience as the cover shot of Bomber Command: Failed to Return is the only known image showing the entire crew of B for Baker, there is one more photo that shows at least four of them. It is from the small collection that was with my great uncle Jack’s logbook and it shows a large group of airmen in a briefing room. The three men furthest back in the photograph are, left to right, Ken Tabor, Eric Hill and Gil Pate. In the middle of the second row, next to the man wearing the round officer’s cap, is Phil Smith:

Briefing - Still 1

It has been thought that the man in the middle of the row immediately behind Phil Smith was Jack Purcell, on the basis of an arrow that my father says used to be attached to the photo. Certainly Edward Purcell, Jack’s brother and recorded next-of-kin, thought initially that this man was the one who looked most like Jack, writing to Don Smith in November 1944 that:

“The actual features are, as you will notice, very vague, but the general head conformation is identical with that of the boy.” (A01-110-001)

But a month later, after Don had provided another enlarged photo, Edward reconsidered:

“It was most kind of you to send the photos but, I am sorry to say, the enlarged view establishes that the boy marked is definitely not Jack.” (A01-111-001)

The photo has an interesting history. When we first met Phil Smith in 1997, we showed him the print. He turned it over – and immediately recognised his own handwriting on the reverse, naming the three members of his crew sitting at the back of the group. But there is an intriguing inconsistency in the photo. At close inspection, the date on the blackboard at top left reads 11 March. The target is given as Berlin. But in neither Jack’s nor Phil’s logbooks is there an operation recorded on that date – to anywhere, let alone to the ‘Big City’. In fact, neither logbook records any flying of any kind on that day. Perhaps, we thought, the briefing had been for an operation that was subsequently scrubbed.

As it turns out, the real answer is even better. Also appearing in the photo – the man in the centre wearing the officer’s hat – is Dan Conway, an A Flight skipper. After the war he wrote a superb book called The Trenches in the Sky, in which he explained the situation. A film unit was visiting Waddington to take shots for a short feature called The RAAF in Europe. The briefing was staged for the benefit of the cameras and, according to Conway, included “references to tracking at low level over the Ruhr etc. Maybe because we were laughing [the CO] was made to go through the procedure again and then again…” (C07-014-160). The photo is in fact a still taken from that film. Our copy has a purple stamp on the back saying “RAF Photographic Section”.

So how did this official photo end up in Jack’s collection? Phil Smith had much extended family in England and his letters reveal that he visited them often while on leave. One uncle was Jack Smeed, who worked for a film studio in London… and it was this studio that produced the film from which the photograph was pulled. It appears that Jack Smeed arranged for copies to go to Phil, who captioned them and then forwarded them to his parents. After the crew went missing, Edward Purcell’s letters from late 1944 show that Don Smith spread them around to the families of some of the rest of the crew.

A few years before he died, Phil Smith was visiting the Australian War Memorial with his wife Mollie. In a corner of the Second World War gallery at the time was a small Bomber Command display, which included a short film. It was a grab from The RAAF in Europe, and Phil recognised himself as one of the reluctant film stars in it. I remember seeing the same display myself some years later (edit September 2013: it’s still there!), and the footage still crops up occasionally in documentaries and the like.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Dealing with the stress

“I promise that if you had witnessed normal Mess night booze up “goings on” during stand-downs then you would think that we were all ‘Flack Happy'” – Dennis Over, 227 Sqn rear gunner (C03-021-020).

Aircrew have always had something of a reputation for wildness, and in wartime particularly so. The mess on a wartime bomber station was often the scene of raucous gatherings of airmen getting up to no good. Often there was a reason to celebrate – a crew finished a tour of operations, perhaps, or a Lancaster chalked up 100 operations. Phil Smith, while at 103 Sqn, Elsham Wolds, learnt one day that the Squadron commander was posted overseas and was to leave early the next morning:

We had a party in the mess last night to wish him farewell. It was a very noisy and rowdy affair but quite good fun. It ended up with us all, including the C.O, with our coats off, cockfighting and wrestling on the floor. (A01-207-001).

As Phil wrote in his usual understated way in his diary the next day, “Good fun but not very dignified” (B03-001-001).

On another occasion Phil and a few comrades received visitors at RAF Long Marston in September 1943:

The Chief Instructor + my old flight commander and some others came over from Honeybourne to pay a friendly call. We ended up by returning the compliment – to liven up their mess. It resulted in a certain amount of broken furniture cups and glasses…. The met man had quite a brawl with the chief bombing leader up in the rafters like monkeys (A01-296-002).

Peter Brett, a 183 Sqn Typhoon pilot in France late in the war, was not the only airman to write of aircrew leaving blackened footprints on the ceiling during an impromptu mess party resulting from a three-day stand-down:

Most of us used to drink a pint or two every night but on party nights it was almost obligatory to become legless!

At first glance, there’s nothing surprising about a bunch of young men in the armed forces drinking and carrying on in the mess. Mess parties were a way to blow off a bit of steam, to maybe forget for a while the stresses and never-ending tension of nightly raids over enemy territory. But there is evidence that some men figured it was more important than that. Bob Murphy, a navigator on 467 Sqn then 61 Sqn, spoke about this in a video interview, taped for a documentary called “Wings of the Storm” in the 1980s:

Those who stayed home in the mess – read books, wrote letters home every night – for some reason or other seemed to be the ones that got shot down early’ […] others, a little bit wild like myself, seemed to be the ones who lived. (C07-044-001).

Letting off steam through drinking was (and still is) a common reaction to a prolonged stressful situation. Murphy took it even further when his pilot, Arthur Doubleday, took command of 61 Sqn in 1944. The entire crew was posted to Skellingthorpe, as Hank Nelson writes in Chased by the Sun (C07-036-178):

Given short warning of his posting, Doubleday and his crew arrived at Skellingthorpe to find that 61 Squadron had suffered high losses overBerlinand had just had three aircraft shot down on the Nuremburg raid and another two damaged in crashes. Bob Murphy said that they walked into the mess, and ‘you could hear a pin drop’. On their second night at Skellingthorpe, Doubleday’s crew tried to lift morale: ‘We decided to put on a party. Got the beer flowing, blackened a few bottoms and put the impressions on the ceiling of the mess – generally livened the place up’

Rollo Kingsford-Smith, Nelson wrote, “said that in the dark days of early 1944 he ‘was keeping going by drinking solidly’ and the company in the bar was part of the ‘therapy’.” (C07-036-178)

Nelson also reports that when Dan Conway, a 467 Sqn skipper, needed a new flight engineer,

…he asked the ‘spruce RAF sergeant’ who came forward, ‘Do you drink?’ The sergeant hesitated, but confessed that he did. Conway immediately said, ‘You’ll do’.Conway had decided that the camaraderie of the pubs was important to the crew and was not to be jeopardised. (C07-036-081)

Bomber Command aircrew were lucky that they had access to the mess and pubs and fairly frequent opportunities to visit them. But wartime restrictions meant that the English beer did not impress everyone. The last word on that subject goes to Don Huxtable, a 463 Sqn skipper. The beer was so weak it took 16 pints to really get started, he said. “It couldn’t go flat ‘cos it was flat already… and it couldn’t go warm ‘cos it was warm already too!”

Following the ANZAC Day march in Sydney this year, Don beat all of us to the bar.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

 Wings of the Storm interviews are available to view in the Research Centre of the Australian War Memorial