Archive for the 'Eric Hill' Category

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 

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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

Eureka!

Janet Hurst has been busy in Goring. She wrote a small article about my search for Eric Hill, and it has just been published in the village newsletter. And guess what?

It worked!

She was contacted by a local lady whose daughter married Eric Hill’s nephew. Janet sent me an email last night to tell me this good news… and half an hour later I received an email that started with this:

Hello Adam,

I am Barry Hill son of Frederick Roland Hill who was the brother of Eric Reginald Hill.

Bingo!

This is the same tactic that I successfully used in the search for relatives of Jerry Parker. I’m extremely grateful to Janet for her hard work over the last couple of weeks.

Barry says that his father died a few years ago but he does have a couple of stories that have been passed down through the family about Eric. Apparently he was something of a dare-devil. Those sorts of things will go a long way towards giving a story to the blurry photos I have of the man.

So Barry Hill makes it six families out of seven of the crew of B for Baker who I am now in touch with. Only flight engineer Ken Tabor remains outstanding. I’ve been working on that one as well recently, but not getting very far with it as yet. But getting this welcome news from Goring is very encouraging and keeps the spark alive.

I’ll keep searching.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Stationmaster

An intriguing email popped into my inbox the other day. I had written to Janet Hurst, of the Goring and Streatley Local History Society in England, seeking assistance in the search for living relatives of Eric Hill, the mid-upper gunner on B for Baker. She replied with these details on E R Hill, from a book published a decade or so ago on the war casualties of that area:

Eric Rowland Hill

Rank: Leading Aircraftsman (LAC)

Service No: 1295905

Unit: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, served as clerk, special duties, 250 Wing, Middle East Command

Died: 21 September 1942 of enteric fever (typhoid)

Memorial: Ismailia War Memorial, Egypt 7C9

Next of kin: Mr & Mrs F. Hill (parents) of Goring

Home address: Station House,Wallingford Road, Goring

Educated: Goring School, 1928-1935

Personal details: He was employed in the office of Smallbones, builders. His father was stationmaster at Goring 1917 1947 and assistant organist at Goring Parish Church

Comparing this with my information raises a few conflictions. Most notably, the ER Hill buried in Lezennes – and therefore not in Egypt – was named Eric Reginald Hill, not Rowland. The service numbers and ranks do not match. Either do the dates of death (1942 vs 1944).

But his parents’ names and address do support what I have for Sgt Hill. I had a suspicion that the local historian who researched the book in Goring might have muddled up his details with another entry in the Commonwealth War Graves database. But how could I be sure?

The first thing was to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the man I was looking for was indeed Eric Reginald Hill. This might seem a reasonably obvious fact, but I decided to go back to primary sources to be sure. I have a copy of a ‘Circumstantial Report’ from 467 Sqn to the Air Ministry in London, dated 11 May 1944, that confirms “1352851 Sgt Hill ER, MU/AG” as a member of the crew posted missing the previous night. This service number matches that on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database in the record for Eric Reginald Hill. It (unsurprisingly) also matches the service number on the gravestone in Lezennes. Phil Smith’s logbook has many entries including a “Sgt Hill”, and of course these entries are dated 1944, well after LAC Hill died in Egypt. This is to me fairly solid evidence that we have the right man – barring an extremely serious error by CWGC.

Next, I needed to find some sort of connection between Eric Reginald and his parents. CWGC records his next of kin as “Frederick and Fanny Rebecca Hill, of North Weald, Essex”. The names match Janet’s information, but the address does not. Wanting to discount the possibility of an error on the part of CWGC, I went back to some primary sources.

I found a letter written by Gilbert Pate’s father Sydney to Don Smith, the father of the pilot of B for Baker, dated 12NOV44:

“Your mention of Mr F Hill of Goring (Berks) completes the “tally” of 7 names, and we are obliged for this.”

Also in my files was a letter from W/Cdr Bill Brill, CO of 467 Sqn, dated 01SEP44 and again written to Don Smith:

“The addresses of the English members are:-

Mr F Hill (Father)

Station House

Goring

Reading

Berks.”

Janet then sent confirmation of an entry in the Goring Parish registers showing the baptism of Eric Reginald Hill at Goring on 26 June 1921. Critically, she says, he is recorded there as the son of “Frederick and Fanny Rebecca Hill, stationmaster of Goring”.

So I now had a name and address match for Eric Reginald Hill’s parents. But it still did not tally exactly with what is on the CWGC database. There was the remote possibility of another Fred Hill existing, one who also had a son named Eric R Hill. I needed a link between Goring and North Weald. And as it happened, I found something that, while not absolutely incontrovertible, is fairly strong evidence. It is a note on a scrap of paper found amongst Gilbert Pate’s box of letters. Scrawled on it, in an unknown hand, is this:

“Mr Fred Hill, 18 Bassett Gardens, North Weald,Essex. Father of Eric Hill”

This appears to match what is in the CWGC database. But can I explain the reason for the two addresses?

I can’t, at least not from what primary sources I have found to date. But I do have a possible scenario. I do not know when the unknown note was written, but perhaps the Hills initially lived in Goring and after the war moved to North Weald. According to Janet’s email Fred Hill was stationmaster until 1947 so a move around then is certainly within the bounds of possibility. Certainly it is plausible that, as it took CWGC some years to sort out all of their casualties following the war, their records were updated with a new address. The note may have been a record of that new address for the family of Gilbert Pate.

Having established, in any case, that Eric Hill’s father Frederick was the stationmaster at Goring, Janet sent me some photos of a rather pretty stone house in Goring Village.

It is called the Station House – and it is where Eric Hill once lived.

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Janet tells me she will ask around the village in the next little while to see if anyone remembers or knows what happened to the Hills. She also suspects that the family tree on Ancestry.com that gave some information on Eric’s siblings may not be entirely accurate, so will have a dig through some primary sources for me.

The search goes on.

Image credit: Mike Hurst

Other sources: Janet Hurst, Mollie Smith, Gil and Peggy Thew

© 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.

The Search for Eric Hill

In late November 1944, Gilbert Pate’s mother Kathleen received a telegram from the Royal Australian Air Force Casualties Department:

“FURTHER INFORMATION RECEIVED ADVISES THAT ONE AUSTRALIAN MEMBER OF YOUR SONS CREW WARRENT OFFICER R W PURCELL AND ONE ROYAL AIR FORCE MEMBER SERGEANT HILL ALSO LOST THEIR LIVES STOP THESE MEMBERS HAVE BEEN RECLASSIFIED MISSING BELIEVED KILLED” (A01-428-001)

It appears from this message that Jack Purcell and Eric Hill had both been identified and more or less confirmed dead at around the same time. But apart from the mention of his name on this and other similar telegrams, the Pates were told very little else about Sgt Hill.

When I first started this research, I also knew very little about the crew’s mid-upper gunner. Like Ken Tabor, Hill appears in the crew photograph:

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His record at the Commonwealth War Graves tells us that his parents were Frederick and Fannie Rebecca Hill, and that they came from North Weald in Essex. A simple handwritten note in Gil Thew’s archive (A01-373-001) gave an address for Fred Hill, at 18 Bassett Gardens, North Weald. In September 1944 his address was Station House, Goring, Reading, Berkshire (A01-074-001). When I visited the British Library in July 2010 I was hoping to use this information to search for an electoral record and perhaps find names of further members of the family living at the same address.

Sadly this was one of the records that the Library was in the process of moving to another location when I visited, so a new angle was required. Enter Dave Franks with his Ancestry.com membership.

Dave is a family friend who lives in Nottingham and who is working on his own family history. I stayed with him and his family briefly on my last trip and we were able to spend a great night bouncing ideas off each other and searching through ancestry.com. We found a family tree which included Eric Hill, submitted by a man named Harry White. While only very distantly related to Eric, Harry when we contacted him was able to throw some light on the man and his family.

Eric Reginald Hill was, he told us, born in Goring on Thames, Oxfordshire on 7 June 1921. His parents were Frederick Hill, a GWR stationmaster – hence living in Station House – and Fannie Rebecca Noakes, both born in Reading in 1882. They married in the same town in 1904. Harry knew of five children:

  • Winifred Margaret born about 1905 in Reading
  • Marjorie Kathleen born about 1910 in Didcot
  • Rita Ellen Francis born 1911 in the Wellingford Registration District
  • George C born 1913 in Reading
  • Eric Reginald born 1921 in Goring

There is another address on Gil Thew’s piece of paper (A01-073-001). It appears to read as follows:

 “C.J. Duncan, 6 Ulster Rd Gainsborough, Lincs England. Married daughter of Mr Hill”

None of the names from Harry White match those initials. This raises the possibility of either another daughter or, perhaps, I’ve misread a document somewhere.

At the time of writing this was all I had in the search for Eric Hill’s family. Possible avenues for further research from here could involve tracing any further children belonging to Eric’s siblings, chasing up the C J Duncan lead or even searching for a possible archive or other records belonging to the GWR.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

I’m now in the middle of moving and so internet access may be a little intermittant for the next little while. Please bear with me, and hopefully normal service can resume shortly!