Archive for the 'Dale Johnston' Category

Three Brothers

November 2014 saw the 73rd anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Sydney, a light cruiser of the Royal Australian Navy. Following a successful tour of duty in the Mediterranean, Sydney was escorting troopships through the Indian Ocean to South-East Asia when she was engaged in battle by a German raider called HSK Kormoran. On paper it was a lop-sided encounter but, disguised as a merchant ship until the last moment, the Kormoran managed to surprise the bigger vessel and Sydney was sunk without a trace and with no survivors. Just one body from Sydney washed ashore, three months after the battle, at Christmas Island (north-west of Australia). The unknown remains were buried in an unmarked grave on the island.

One of the 645 men lost with HMAS Sydney was Donald Erskine Johnston, a 21-year-old, and he has a direct connection with the crew of B for Baker. Indeed, it was the Sydney connection that led me directly to contacting Don Webster, a nephew of the lads, in 2010. Following the Mediterranean action, Don Johnston was at home in Kingaroy on leave for a couple of weeks in February 1941. While there, this photo was taken:

Ian, Don and Dale Johnston - Kingaroy, February 1941. Photo courtesy Dale Higgins

Ian, Don and Dale Johnston – Kingaroy, February 1941. Photo courtesy Dale Higgins

Don is in the centre, flanked by his two brothers. On the left is Ian. And on the right is Ian’s twin – Dale Johnston, who of course would eventually become the wireless operator on B for Baker. This would be the last time that all three of the brothers were in the same place at the same time. Only Ian would survive the war.

The wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran were discovered about 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia in 2008. But about a year ago an article was published in The Age, about how the Navy had exhumed the unidentified body on Christmas Island, and was trying to work out who the man had been. Forensic analysis, the article said, had established that the man was of European ancestry with red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. He was quite tall, between 168 and 188cm, and limestone traces found in his teeth suggested he came from northern NSW or Queensland and probably grew up reasonably close to the coast. Using this information, the article continued, researchers had narrowed the field, as it were, from 645 to about 50.

Red hair, you say?

Tall?

From Northern NSW or Queensland?

I’d seen that combination of features somewhere before – in Dale Johnston’s service record (NAA:A9301, 425413).

Dale was 5’10 in the old money, or about 178cm – smack in the middle of the range of our mystery sailor. He had red hair and blue eyes. The family moved to Kingaroy – in southern Queensland – when Don was nine years old. Could it be…? I sent Don Webster an email the day after the article was published and he duly contacted Navy.

Nine months later, Don had provided a DNA sample which had been tested and, in the middle of November, the results were in.

And…?

The sailor buried on Christmas Island is not Don Johnston.

While that result is a little disappointing for Don’s family, it is of course not an entirely wasted effort. Don Johnston can now be crossed off the list of 50 potential identities for the unknown sailor. At this stage in the investigation, ruling someone out is almost as valuable as a positive identification.

One more down, only 49 to go.

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

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VeRA and the crew of B for Baker

Some awesome photographs have filtered out over the last couple of months as the world’s only two airworthy Lancasters toured the UK. ‘VeRA’, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster, was flown across the Atlantic in early August and joined PA474 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at numerous airshows and other events across the country. ‘VeRA’ was due to leave the UK around the time that this post is published, having participated in sights and sounds not experienced in at least five decades. They even arranged a rendezvous with Just Jane at East Kirkby, where 5,000 lucky people got to experience not one, not two, but THREE Lancasters with engines running at the same time.

The CWHM aircraft is dedicated to the memory of a man named Andrew Mynarski, who was a 419 Squadron mid-upper gunner in June 1944. Remarkably, I recently discovered a direct connection between Mynarski and the crew of B for Baker.

In June 1944 Mynarski’s aircraft was shot down by nightfighters during an attack on marshalling yards at Cambrai, France. [1]The pilot ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft and, after giving them some time to do so, he parachuted himself. But meanwhile the rear gunner – a man named Pat Brophy – was trapped in his turret, with burning hydraulic fluid in the rear fuselage. Mynarski was about to leave the aircraft via the rear door when he saw Brophy. Without hesitation he crawled through the flames and tried to break into the turret with the crash axe. By this time his uniform was on fire and the rear gunner waved him away, but he tried again with his bare hands.

But it was not enough. With time running out, Brophy screamed at him to get out. Mynarski realised it was hopeless and, because there was no space to turn around, he crawled backwards through the flames. He reached the door. He stood up. Still looking at Brophy, he slowly came to attention, clothes in flames, and saluted. Then he mouthed the words, “Good night, Sir,” and jumped.

Mynarski’s clothes were on fire as he fell – and so was his parachute. While he was found by people on the ground he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Most incredibly, Pat Brophy, the rear gunner still in his turret, survived the crash. On his return to England he was able to tell the story of Mynarski’s final act – and Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, gazetted in October 1946. In his memory, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster is named the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, and carries the Victoria Cross insignia on both sides of its nose.

So where is the connection to the crew of B for Baker? Earlier this year I was contacted – through this blog – by Dale Higgins, a niece of wireless operator Dale Johnston. Among other things she sent me a copy of his logbook, which includes this particularly useful page:

Alastair Dale Johnston Flight Log-13

Mynarski’s name, because it is so unusual, immediately set bells ringing. The timing matched. A quick google confirmed that the initial matched as well. But Mynarski was serving on a Canadian squadron when he met his death, and Dale Johnston and his crew ended up at 467 Squadron. And he was a mid-upper gunner at 419 Squadron, though Dale lists him as a rear gunner. I needed some more evidence.

Enter Jim on the Bomber Command History Forum. He managed to pull up Mynarski’s service record[2] (caution: 96Mb pdf) from the Archives Canada website. And there is an overlap.

Dale Johnston, Ken Tabor, Jerry Parker and Eric Hill arrived at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit – Mynarski was already there – in September 1943. Jack Purcell arrived a week and a half later. All their posting dates in and out of 9 Squadron are identical. Their paths diverge again at 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, when Dale et al. joined Phil Smith and went to 467 Squadron on 31 December. Mynarski stayed on, leaving the HCU to a Royal Canadian Air Force depot on 20 January 1944.

So we know that Mynarski’s movements were identical to those of the group of men who made up the core of the crew of B for Baker from September until December 1943. And we have Mynarski’s name in the crew list in Dale Johnston’s logbook.

It would be nice to see a copy of Mynarski’s logbook to be sure (and I have feelers out to that end, but no joy yet), but the available evidence supports a strong case that Andrew Mynarski, VC, was for a few months at least, part of the crew of B for Baker.

And that, if it’s possible, gives even more meaning to ‘VeRA’s recent visit to the UK.

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

[1] The following description of Mynarski’s actions comes from http://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/s,mynarski.html and the citation for his decoration, found in his Service Record (see No. 2, below)

[2] Item Number 26336, via http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/second-world-war/second-world-war-dead-1939-1947/Pages/search.aspx

The Men in the Photographs

Before he left Australia, Jack Purcell had a formal portrait taken of him wearing his Royal Australian Air Force uniform. The half-wing with the ‘N’, denoting a qualified navigator, is clearly visible, as are his Sergeant’s stripes. It is one of only a small number of photos that we have of Jack and, along with his logbook, it was that photograph of Jack that first fired my interest in the subject of Bomber Command and the part that he played in it.

Giving a face to match a man’s name is an important part of telling his history. It makes the stories somehow more real – as if saying that they are not mere words. They are real stories about real people. As such finding photographs of each of the seven men who flew in B for Baker was something I have been very keen to achieve. And now, having recently made contact with the final family, I have done exactly that.

So here, all together for the first time, are photographs of each of the crew of B for Baker. As is traditional, we will begin with the pilot.

Pilot: Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith (Phil)

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A fine portrait of a remarkably young-looking Phil Smith, taken while on leave in London.

Flight Engineer: Sergeant Kenneth Harold Tabor

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By far the youngest on the crew, Ken was just 19 when he was killed over Lille. This photograph shows him on the left, with his brother Bill. He is wearing the Flight Engineer’s brevet so it was probably taken in late 1943.

Navigator: Warrant Officer Royston William Purcell (Jack)

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The presence of an N half wing and sergeants’ stripes (and the stamp from a Sydney photographer on the back of it) dates this photo to mid 1942. This was the photo of Jack that started my journey to find out more about him.

Bomb Aimer: Flight Sergeant Jeremiah Parker (Jerry)

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At 30, Jerry Parker was the oldest member of the crew. He was married with a young daughter.

Wireless Operator: Flight Sergeant Alastair Dale Johnston (Dale)

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Dale Johnston was from Queensland. He is seen here on the left on the steps of the family home with his twin brother Ian.

Mid-Upper Gunner: Sergeant Eric Reginald Hill

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From Goring in Berkshire, Eric Hill served in the RAF Regiment before he became a member of aircrew. He first enlisted in June 1940, by far the first member of the crew to begin war service.

Rear Gunner: Flight Sergeant Gilbert Firth Pate (Gil)

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A short stocky man, Gilbert had a brief flirtation with becoming a jockey as a teenager, until his father put a stop to all further dealings with the stables where he was working. He trained as a wool classifier before joining up.

The Crew of B for Baker

There is just one photograph that shows the entire crew. It is backlit by the landing light of a Lancaster, it’s shadowy, grainy and indistinct, but it’s an atmospheric photo.

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Photos kindly provided by:

Mollie Smith

Steve Butson

Martin Purcell

Freda Hamer

Don Webster

Barry Hill

Gil Thew

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell 

Shrine

On the south side of the Yarra River in Melbourne, a mile or so from Flinders Street Station, is a large and rather imposing stone building. The Shrine of Remembrance sits on slightly elevated ground, with large Doric columns on all sides and a truncated pyramid soaring into the sky.

I went for a ride on my bicycle last month, down the Moonee Ponds Creek trail, over the Yarra at Docklands, and along St Kilda Road. I could see the Shrine in the distance. I cycled across and stopped for a visit.

Underneath the Shrine is the Crypt – a quiet space with bronze panels on the walls, regimental flags hanging from the ceiling and a sculpture in the middle. Climbing some stairs through the middle of the stone walls of the Shrine, I emerged in the Sanctuary, which is the heart of the memorial. Perhaps it may have felt more sanctuary-like had a busload of tourists not also shown up at that exact moment. It is a space reminiscent of the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, perhaps not surprising given the particular functions of both spaces. In the middle, sunk below floor level, is a slab of marble upon which is the Biblical inscription, ‘GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN’. On Remembrance Day, November 11, each year, at precisely 1100, a beam of sunlight comes in through a special hole in the roof and falls onto the stone.

Marvelling at the effort and calculations that would have been needed to make that little party trick work, I climbed some more stairs up to the Balcony level. It’s not a particularly tall building when compared with the skyscrapers across the river, but it’s still a nice outlook from the top. The view to the east reminded me a little of Greenwich in England. And to the west, a couple of miles away, I could see Albert Park and, beyond it, the bay.

A couple of years after the war ended, Fannie Johnston left her “little rose + honeysuckle covered cottage” (A01-114-001) in Dayboro, Queensland, and moved to Melbourne. In September 1949 she made the short journey from her new home in Barrett St, Albert Park, to the Shrine of Remembrance. There, she left a large floral arrangement, “in precious memory of Dale and his pals” (A05-184-004). She sent some photographs of the flowers on the steps of the memorial to the families of some of Dale’s crew mates. Copies survive in the collections of Freda Hamer, Gil Thew and Steve Butson.

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Carefully wrapped up alongside the photos in Gil’s box is a small sprig of pressed rosemary.

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As I walked back towards my bicycle, I turned and looked back at the Shrine. In my mind’s eye I could see Fannie Johnston placing her large bunch of flowers on the steps.

All I had was a small red poppy.

 

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Photos: Freda Hamer, Gil Thew and author

© 2011 Adam Purcell

How They Crewed Up

The concept of the ‘crew’ is of far-reaching significance to the Bomber Command legend. A Lancaster needed seven men to operate efficiently. Each man would be specially trained in his respective trade, and each trade underwent their training separately. The way those individual airmen formed into crews remains one of the more unique parts of the story. In an Air Force so demanding of rigid procedures and highly developed organisation, the majority of crews came together in a curious, almost haphazard fashion.

The typical venue was a large hall at an Operational Training Unit. In the room would be gathered equal numbers of each aircrew ‘trade’. After a welcoming speech from the Commanding Officer, the assembled airmen would be told, essentially, to sort themselves out. Hank Nelson, in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, described it like “selecting a horse in a yard or a girl at a dance. You made your choice then the test of performance came later.” (C07-039-080). While seemingly chaotic, the system appeared to work well. Individual airmen would learn to work as an effective team and by the time they got to a squadron, most crews would live, work and play together. In the air they would fight together as a more or less autonomous unit. And the camaraderie would develop into extremely close friendships, some of which continue even to this day. It all started, in so many cases, in some draughty hangar at an Operational Training Unit.

Yet despite this being the ‘traditional’ way that crews were made, the men of B for Baker got together in entirely different ways. The available evidence suggests that only three of them crewed up at an OTU in what could be considered the conventional sense. After qualifying as their respective trades, Jerry Parker, Dale Johnston and Eric Hill all arrived at 14 OTU, RAF Cottesmore, in early June 1943. Just over three months later, on 08SEP43, all three were posted to 1661 Conversion Unit at RAF Winthorpe. The fact that all three were posted on the same day suggests that they were all part of the same crew.

The first member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to reach Winthorpe was actually Ken Tabor, the flight engineer, a week or so before the three arrived from Cottesmore. Because the aircraft flown at the OTU stage of training were typically Wellingtons which were less complicated than the four-engined heavies, flight engineers would normally go straight from their School of Technical Training to the HCUs and meet a crew there. This is exactly what happened in Ken’s case. In fact, it is highly likely that he had not yet even been flying until this point – Tom Knox, who flew on Stirlings with 149 Sqn, recently told me that like many flight engineers, “at this stage I had never had my feet off the ground” (C01-480-002).

Meanwhile Jack Purcell was undergoing his own operational training. He was the only member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to pass through 27 OTU at RAF Lichfield, from 22JUN43. What became of his OTU crew is not (yet) known – but on 19SEP43, Jack found himself posted to RAF Winthorpe, where the other four had been for at least week and a half. He most likely joined their crew at this stage. All five would be posted to 9 Squadron, RAF Bardney, on 31 October. After their pilot, a man named JG ‘Paddy’ McComb, was lost on a second dickey trip to Berlin on 18 November, at the end of the month the crew – none of whom had completed any operational flying with 9 Squadron – were posted to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston.

In parallel with the other five, Gilbert Pate went to an OTU (No. 17 at Silverstone) shortly after arriving in England in June 1943. He also went to 1661 Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, in September 1943. However instead of Bardney, Gilbert’s crew was posted to 49 Squadron at Fiskerton on the 22nd of that month. On 3 November, Gilbert took part in his first operational sortie, a raid on Dusseldorf. He was filling in for an injured gunner with an experienced crew. On the same night, P/O JEW Teager, Gilbert’s own pilot, went on the same operation as a ‘second dickey’. But Teager didn’t return. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. Like five of his future crewmates, Gilbert’s crew now found themselves without a pilot. They went to 1654 Conversion Unit and got a new pilot, but, returning to flying after an accident, the pilot lost his nerve and this time the powers that were split the crew up. Gilbert went to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston, on 14 November 1943. Two weeks later, on 1 December, Jack, Jerry, Dale, Ken and Eric were posted to the same unit.

Also posted in to Syerston on 1 December was an Australian Squadron Leader, DPS (Phil) Smith. He was already an experienced operational pilot, having completed a tour on Wellingtons with 103 Squadron in 1941 and 1942. Phil had been ‘screened’, instructing for a year at 24 Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne. He joined up with the three Australians and three Englishmen at Syerston and his logbook shows that his first flight with these men was 10 December 1943. After flying a total of 16.45 hours by day and 16.05 hours at night in a Lancaster, all seven were posted to 467 Squadron, Waddington, on the last day of 1943.

The crew was now formed, and ready for battle.

Sources for this post:

Service records of all seven men in the crew, from the National Archives of Australia or the RAF Disclosures Section

Phil Smith’s logbook – courtesy Mollie Smith

Chased by the Sun by Hank Nelson

Tom Knox – Stirling flight engineer, 149 and 199 Sqns

9 Sqn Association – Roger Audis

The 4T9ers – 49 Sqn Association and Dom Howard

© 2011 Adam Purcell

The Story So Far

It occurred to me this week that some people who have been reading this blog might not know the basic background to the story I’m attempting to tell. So this post is a general introduction to The Story So Far.

In broad terms, this blog charts the development of my research into my grandfather’s uncle and his wartime story. W/O Royston William Purcell (known as Jack) was a navigator with 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. He was shot down and killed on a bombing operation to Lille in France in May 1944. Jack was 22 years old.

There were seven men in Jack’s Lancaster crew. The pilot was Phil Smith, an industrial chemist from Mosman in Sydney. Flight engineer was Ken Tabor from Bournemouth, England. Jack Purcell, of course, was the navigator. He was from Strathfield, NSW, and had been a shop boy with NSW Government Railways. Wireless operator Dale Johnston was a motor mechanic from Dayboro, Queensland. Postal worker Jerry Parker, from Leyland in the UK, was the bomb aimer. Englishman Eric Hill, from Goring in Berkshire, manned the mid-upper turret, and Gilbert Pate, a wool classifier from Kogarah, NSW, was the rear gunner. They ranged in age from 19 to 30. Only one would see the end of the war.

Over Lille that May night in 1944, their Lancaster exploded. Ejected by the force of the blast, Phil Smith parachuted to safety, evaded capture and was sheltered by a French farmer before Allied invasion forces passed his position four months later. His six crewmates were killed in either the blast or the ensuing crash and are now buried in French soil a few miles from the crash site.

The perception of ‘Uncle Jack’ and his place in the collective Purcell family memory has been passed down through the generations, and indeed down  different branches of the family tree. I was lucky that it was my father who showed an interest in, and was eventually given, Jack’s logbook and the handful of photographs and documents that goes along with it. When he first showed them to me (I was eight or nine years old at the time), it planted the seed that in recent years has turned into something approaching obsession. I have now gathered a fairly significant body of information about this crew and what they were doing in a Lancaster over Northern France in May 1944. I have traced and contacted the families of six of the all seven men in the crew. I have a worldwide network of research contacts. I have even travelled overseas twice in an effort to chase down leads and visit some of the significant sites associated with Jack’s war. Most importantly, I’ve realised that this story – one of more or less ordinary lads caught up in far from ordinary times and doing far from ordinary things – is well worth telling.
So where to from here?

I’m aiming to write a book about this story over the next few years. There remains much work still to do. At this stage I am focussing on the crew themselves, looking at where they came from, who they were and the very different paths that they took to 467 Squadron – while also continuing the search for the family of Ken Tabor, the one member of the crew remaining outstanding. I’m planning future work to concentrate on training and the journey to an operational squadron for each of these men. Then I’ll look at bomber operations in the first part of 1944 when they were on squadron, particularly emphasising the Lille raid on which the men were lost and its part in the overall context of the war in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion. I’m also hoping to investigate some theories on what actually caused the loss of B for Baker, the Lancaster they were flying.

This is the story so far. Who knows where it will end up!

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Painting Complete!

Here is the completed painting, now framed and hanging on my wall. I reckon it looks pretty damn fine:

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Avro Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, of 467 Sqn RAAF, sits on its dispersal at RAF Waddington on 11 April 1944. Its crew has just arrived for a bombing raid on the German city of Aachen.

This painting serves as a tribute to the crew of this aircraft:

S/L DPS Smith

W/O RW Purcell

Sgt KH Tabor

Sgt J Parker

F/Sgt AD Johnston

Sgt ER Hill

F/Sgt GF Pate

These men were shot down in this aircraft on an operation to Lille, France, on 10 May 1944. Only the pilot, Phil Smith, survived.

The painting, by Steve Leadenham, was specially commissioned by Adam Purcell, the great nephew of the navigator.

Steve advises that prints of this painting will be available in the future – details on how to get one will be posted here in due course.