Two plates, a bowl, and a chicken parmigiana

When I’m not researching the story of B for Baker, I’m an air traffic controller based in Melbourne. After almost a decade as what we call an ‘enroute’ or area controller working regional airspace, in recent months I’ve begun training with an approach unit serving a major capital city airport.

In my so-far limited experience, the primary task of approach control – apart from keeping everyone safely separated – is to take arriving aircraft from all points of the compass and organise them into that nice, evenly-spaced line of aeroplanes that you might see flying down the approach to the runway at any major airport around the world. A big part of the job revolves around managing this ‘arrivals sequence,’ using vectors – directed turns to delay aircraft by increasing the distance that they must fly before they reach the runway – or speed control instructions. There’s less space to work with than in the enroute world, and everything is either climbing (on departure from the runway) or descending (to land on the runway), so everything happens a lot quicker than I’ve been used to. Learning all of this stuff, and integrating it all into the local procedures and rules I need to learn, has been quite a challenge.

 With all the technology that we’ve got at our disposal, in good weather conditions the maximum rate of arrivals that we can accept to the airport I’ll be working is 24 every hour. That spacing, admittedly, also allows the tower controllers to get departures away, off the same runway, in the gaps between arrivals. But even so, when I was looking at 467 and 463 Squadron operational records recently, I was staggered to find examples where in 1944, aircraft landed at RAF Waddington after operations at a much higher rate than we achieve today.

Take, for example, the operation on Frankfurt on the night of 18/19 March 1944. Forty bombers took off from Waddington, 22 of which were from 467 Squadron (“Considering our establishment is 16+4 aircraft,” the Operational Record Book boasted, “tonight […] should be nearly a record for a two-flight Squadron”). One returned early, one failed to return at all and the landing time of a third is illegible in my copy of the documents, but the first of the aircraft for which I have a landing time touched down at 00:38, and the final one at 01:44.

That’s 37 aircraft in 66 minutes: one every minute and three-quarters, which works out to a landing rate of a little over 33 landings an hour, to a single runway, under wartime conditions and with 1940s technology.

Not a bad effort at all, I reckon. But how on earth did they achieve it? I’ve learnt a little bit previously about the system that was used, particularly the so-called ‘Quick Landing Scheme’ in use at 5 Group airfields like Waddington. But given I recently had lunch with a former bomber pilot, I figured it was a good opportunity to ask him about what he could remember.

Don McDonald has appeared in these pages before (here, here and, in most detail, here). He turned 100 in October last year. Sadly the coronavirus pandemic robbed him of the big party he’d been looking forward to for a long time, though a bagpiper visiting his care home in his honour and a personal phone call from a former Chief of Defence went a little way towards making up for it. This week my partner and I decided it was time for a catch-up, so we arranged to pick Don up and go to the local RSL for lunch.

He’s visibly aged since we last saw him and these days gets around with a walking frame, but he’s still the same old Don and he still has that twinkle in his eye. We spent nearly three hours with him, Don tucking into a big plate of oysters (a bowl nearby for the shells), Rach with a ginormous chicken parma and myself hoeing into a thick and fancy steak sandwich.

The time flew by, as it often does with Don. Among other things he told us about how he’s been invited to lay a wreath at the Sorrento-Portsea RSL on Anzac Day and asked how Rachel’s PhD research was going. We told him about our visit to the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. The mention of the Link Trainer we found there got Don chuckling; he told us about a prank that un-named members of his initial flying training course pulled on a disliked drill instructor. Apparently they convinced the man to sit inside the trainer and close the hatch – whereupon someone set fire to a copy of The Age newspaper and held it under the air vent in the front of the machine, while two burly members of the course held the lid down so he couldn’t escape.

“There was hell to pay after that,” Don remembered.

Later on, I was telling him about how my approach training was going. And that’s what brought me to ask Don what he could remember about the way bombers were organised when they arrived back at base after an operation.

“The memory isn’t so strong these days,” he warned. But it was strong enough. Don said the aircraft would call the control tower on the radio as they approached the base, and the operator would give them a height to circle at, 500 feet above the highest bomber to keep them separated. (At this point the air traffic controller in me shuddered – heavy bombers vertically separated by only 500 feet?! Our current vertical standard is twice that!). As each bomber landed, it would vacate the level it had been holding at, enabling the next one to safely step down above it. In turn, each bomber would do the same, one step at a time, until everyone had landed.

Where did they circle, I asked? Over the field, or somewhere else?

Our meals were finished by this stage, but the plates hadn’t been collected yet. Don saw an opportunity for a demonstration. He picked up his small bowl, full of empty oyster shells, and placed it in the middle of the larger plate. The bowl, he explained, was the airfield. A thousand yards around the runway – the edge of the big plate – was a series of lights on poles. These were called Drem lights and, visible from the air, they marked the ‘standard’ circuit; bombers flew around from one to the next around the runway until they lined up on final approach – ‘funnels’, named after the lead-in lights that ‘funnelled’ aircraft towards the runway threshold – and landed. When they were holding in the stack, they followed the same lights, around and around, without landing.

Fair enough, I said. It’s pretty different to how it’s done now, but it seems like a reasonably safe and efficient system to recover large numbers of bombers quickly.

Don chuckled again. ‘Safe’ for the time, perhaps… but not really safe as we’d know it today. There were so many airfields in England, he said, picking up Rachel’s plate. Suddenly it was another Drem system, the remains of the parma in the middle the neighbouring airfield. Sometimes airfields were so close to each other, he told us – moving the plate into position, one edge over the top of his own – that the Drem lights, and therefore the airfield’s circuits, actually overlapped. And while there was some form of flying control for individual airfields (which is why I have the detail I have for Waddington after the Frankfurt raid), it wasn’t really coordinated with any other airfields, no matter how close they were.

We kept talking for another couple of hours before we took Don back. And as we drove home, I couldn’t stop chuckling at the memory of learning about learning from a one-hundred-year-old about how air traffic control worked in the Second World War with the aid of two plates, a bowl and a chicken parmigiana.

Adam Purcell with Don McDonald, 17 April 2021

© 2021 Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #8: Arthur Atkins, 625 Squadron Lancaster Pilot

Arthur Atkins had a fascination with flight that started very early. He built and flew model planes. He was a member of the Cub Scouts. He was lucky enough to take his first flight aged 8 or 9, when two Cubs at a time squeezed in together in the open cockpit of an Avro Avian flying from the old Coote Island aerodrome just west of Melbourne. Arthur really wanted to be a pilot. But in the early 1930s, how on Earth could a lad from Surrey Hills in Melbourne ever afford flying lessons?

By winning them, of course. So Arthur entered a competition run by the Sun News Pictorial newspaper. The prize was enough flying tuition to get a pilot licence. “But I didn’t win!”

Maybe the Air Force would pay instead, he thought, and tried to enlist in his final year at school. But the inter-war Air Force was not very big, and there were lots of other people who also dreamed about becoming a pilot. 2,000 people applied for just 20 positions.

“So I didn’t get that one either.”

Putting his dreams aside for a moment, Arthur qualified and found work as an accountant.

And then the Second World War broke out, and he got his chance.

Two photos of Arthur Atkins as trainee aircrew copy

When I arrived at Arthur’s house for our interview, the gates were closed and I was initially not sure that I had found the right place. But any doubts were dispelled, after I’d parked the motorbike and walked up to the door, as soon as I saw the nameplate on the wall.

‘KELSTERN’

I’d seen that name before. RAF Kelstern, in the Lincolnshire Wolds, was the wartime home of 625 Squadron, Royal Air Force, with which Arthur had flown 31 operations. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process. I was definitely at the right house.

Arthur came out of the front door, a fit and distinguished-looking gentleman, and immediately wanted to talk about my bike. “Oof” he said, giving it a curious push. “It’s a bit heavier than mine was.” He was referring to a 350cc Calthorpe motorcycle that he used to hoon around on in the years immediately before the war.

Arthur Atkins and his 350cc Calthorpe motorcycle copy

This was my first clue that Arthur was quite a technical person. The next one followed soon after, as we walked into his old-fashioned study, with an Anglepoise lamp and one of those big green banker’s desk lights over the desk. As I set up my laptop among the model planes and boats and piles of motorbike and aviation magazines, I remarked on a big picture of a Wellington that was hanging among dozens of photos of cars, boats and aeroplanes on the walls. Arthur immediately launched into a highly detailed explanation of why sleeve valves in the Wellington’s engines made them so complex and therefore unreliable, especially as they got older. This set the tone for the next couple of hours.

Interviewing Arthur was easy. I kicked off with my standard opener about what he was doing before the war, and he was off. He used his meticulous logbook as a memory prompt. Moving through it, he would announce the name of a place or a unit (“then we went to Mallala”) and then he’d lean back, take off his reading glasses, and proceed to tell me a story about that place.

At the end of the story, the glasses went back on and he picked up the logbook to read the next place name. And off we went again.

Ansons over Mallala, early 1943 copy
A very rare air-to-air photo, taken by Arthur, of another Anson as he flew over Mallala

The stories he told were sometimes serious, sometimes funny and sometimes gory. But they were always interesting. He told me of his first solo at Benalla, and of the desert heat at Mallala. He told me about a weekend spent on leave in New York on his way to war. Of arriving at an Advanced Flying Unit at Greening Common in the UK and going for a walk onto the airfield with a few mates. They found a big black patch, about 50 or 60 feet across, the scene of an Oxford crash the night before. “They hadn’t scraped everything off the runway,” Arthur said of the ghastly scene. The next day he was chosen to be one of the pallbearers for the dead pilot. “We carried the coffin to the local train station,” he said, “where we shoved it into the guard’s van and said ‘goodbye sport’ – and that was it…”

He told me of landing a Wellington at his Operational Training Unit at Church Broughton on one engine, and of a Nickel leafletting raid on Chartres in France that was almost comedic. First, the bomb aimer pressed the wrong button over the target, so instead of opening to scatter leaflets in the slipstream, one of the two six-foot-long canisters in the bomb bay was jettisoned entirely. It disappeared from the aircraft with all the leaflets still tightly packed inside. Then, when they were approaching the French coast, someone in the crew said “there’s a searchlight on us!”

“Well, that of course rattled everyone… and after a while we found that the searchlight was following us!”

It was actually their own landing light, which when not in use was supposed to be retracted flush against the wing and pointing straight down, that had been mysteriously switched on.

“We were flying over German-occupied France with this bright light shining straight down…”

Of his time at Blyton, a Heavy Conversion Unit, Arthur told me how, rolling out after his first landing in command of a Halifax, he relaxed a tiny bit too early and the big bomber swung violently. They ended up on the grass facing the way they’d come. But the control tower frequency stayed silent. No-one had seen the grassy excursion. So Arthur innocently taxied back to his dispersal. “I never did it again – you couldn’t relax until the thing had stopped rolling at your parking spot!”

Most of his stories, though, come from the seven months that he was at 625 Squadron, Kelstern, from June 1944. Like the time they were coned over Mannheim, on the way to Russelsheim to attack the Opel works there. They got picked up by a blue “master” searchlight:

“I could hardly see the instruments because I was blinded… I remember thinking, ‘Geezus, I’ve done all this training and now I’m gunna be killed’… I pushed the stick forward and immediately lost the searchlight…”

(While he was telling me this he grabbed an imaginary control column and shoved it forward to illustrate. It might be decades since Arthur flew an aeroplane, but the instinct has never left him.)

Then there were a pair of low-level daylight operations on consecutive days over the Bay of Biscay to attack the Gironde Estuary in France. The first trip happened to be on Arthur’s birthday. “Beautiful day,” he recalled, “no wind, blue skies, not a cloud in the sky. A delightful day… so I got a nice birthday present, a nice trip to southern France, at 50 feet across the Bay of Biscay – and we dropped bombs on it.” He remembers roaring over an old horse and cart in the dunes on the way in to the target.

On the second one, they were all hurtling “hell for leather” over the water when Arthur’s rear gunner called up.

“Someone’s gone in!”

Two other Lancasters had collided. Arthur looked around in his seat, and:

“There’s this great splash of water still hanging in the air…”

One aircraft survived the collision. The second did not.

Another trip that stuck in Arthur’s mind was a night raid on Frankfurt in September 1944. “That was a good one,” he said. “I liked Frankfurt.” From 17,800 feet in the cockpit of his Lancaster, Arthur looked down on the great city. “It looked just like Melbourne would from the air at night, with the streets all lit up… but it wasn’t lights, it was the burning buildings on each side of the street.” Arthur lost a close friend on the same night, a Flight Lieutenant named Dave Browne who died attacking Stuttgart with 467 Squadron.

Dave Browne, Chieveley copy
418804 F/L David Dorey Browne

Incidentally, in the early 1990s Arthur went to Germany with a group of old bomber aircrew organised by the Royal Australian Air Force Association. Among the places they visited, in a bus driven by two German Air Force pilots, was Frankfurt. “They’ve got a big new wide boulevard through the centre,” Arthur said “Well they can thank me for putting that there – I removed a whole heap of scruffy old houses from a great strip in the middle of Frankfurt!” The bomber boys were subsequently guests of honour at a dinner held by the German Ex-Fighter Pilots Association, where the Germans perhaps got a little of their own back. “They had these long tables in the room, with the big pots of beer, and they were singing songs… stamping their feet and banging their pots on the table… I spoke to the bloke next to me (they speak a lot of English in Germany), and said “what are they singing now?”

It was the old battle song: “Wir fahren gegen Engeland!”

“I said, oh, that’s interesting!”

Arthur reckons he flew over about eight European countries in his Lancaster, including Sweden and Switzerland, Norway and Denmark. “I’ve been around in that Lancaster. It was a beautiful thing to fly.”

More than two hours had passed from the time Arthur first picked up his logbook to the time I asked my final question. How will Bomber Command be remembered, I wanted to know?

“I think it’ll be remembered by the people that were in it, alright,” he said. “It was the best job I ever had in my life.”

And he has left his own little piece of remembrance too. Several years ago Arthur sponsored a racing boat for his rowing club. As sponsor he was allowed to choose the name of the vessel.

After his much-missed good mate, he called it “David Browne”.

Arthur Atkins

Text (c) 2016 Adam Purcell

Wartime photos courtesy Arthur Atkins. Colour photo by Adam Purcell

Bomber Command Commemorative Day in Melbourne 2015

“Here they come!”

The cry went up among the crowd waiting outside the Shrine of Remembrance in the blustery winds of early last Sunday afternoon.

And there they were, right over the target and bang on 1:00pm as briefed. Five aeroplanes from the RAAF Museum’s Historical Trainer Flight – two Harvards, a Winjeel and a pair of CT-4s– swept down St Kilda Road and roared over the crowd. The ‘Sound of Round’ echoed off the buildings. The formation continued south, made a big left-hand turn and then came back across the Shrine again, this time from east to west. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause.

The RAAF Museum Flight passing the Shrine of Remembrance
The RAAF Museum Flight passing the Shrine of Remembrance

A few minutes later the second formation appeared, out of the south this time and made up of seven Warriors and a Cessna from the Royal Victorian Aero Club. Flying lighter aeroplanes than the Air Force pilots, these guys were copping the full force of the windy, bumpy conditions as they turned to the west from dead over the Shrine. But it looked and sounded fantastic. The old flyers on the ground certainly appreciated the dedication and commitment of the pilots from both formations.

The Royal Victorian Aero Club formation passes the Shrine of Remembrance
The Royal Victorian Aero Club formation passes the Shrine of Remembrance

It was a fitting conclusion to the Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremony which had finished in the new Auditorium inside the Shrine just a few moments before.

The Auditorium was only officially opened last year and this was the first time it has been used for ceremonial purposes. With cold and blustery conditions outside it was certainly a much more comfortable venue for the estimated 140 or so people who packed it to the rafters for the service.

The MC was the unflappable Brian Smith:

Master of Ceremonies Brian SMith
Master of Ceremonies Brian SMith

Squadron Leader Ron Ledingham, Shrine Governor and Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) committee member, opened the ceremony by discussing its importance to the Shrine and to the Bomber Command community.

Shrine Governor Ron Ledingham
Shrine Governor Ron Ledingham

John Brownbill RFD KSJ, an Army chaplain, looked after the religious aspect of the service and set the scene with a few words on Bomber Command and its part in the Second World War:

Chaplain John Brownbill
Chaplain John Brownbill

Committee member Jan Dimmick – her late husband Frank was a 460 Squadron navigator – read the Epitaph from a poem called Requiem for a Rear Gunner:

BCCDF (Vic) Committee Member Jan Dimmick
BCCDF (Vic) Committee Member Jan Dimmick

 My brief, sweet life is over, my eyes no longer see,

No summer walks, no Christmas trees,

No pretty girls for me.

I’ve got the chop, I’ve had it.

My nightly ops are done.

Yet in another hundred years, I’ll still be twenty one.

                -R.W Gilbert

The guest speaker for the ceremony was former Victorian premier and current Chairman of the Victorian Centenary of Anzac Committee, the Hon Ted Baillieu. He picked up on Jan’s “21 years” theme, remarking that WWII started 21 years after the Great War ended. We commemorate anniversaries like Anzac and the end of WWII, he said, for three reasons: to honour those who served, to educate current generations, and to pass the torch of remembrance on to future generations.

The Hon Ted Baillieu
The Hon Ted Baillieu

Then came the wreathes, including one from Carey Baptist Grammar School, which has now officially adopted this ceremony as part of the Shrine’s ‘Adopt an Ex-Service Organisation’ initiative.

Students from Carey Baptist Grammar School laying a wreath
Students from Carey Baptist Grammar School laying a wreath

This was their first involvement with the ceremony, and it’s a partnership we hope can continue long into the future – first-hand evidence of the passing on of Mr Baillieu’s metaphoric “torch of remembrance”.

On the way out following the service we just had enough time to take a group photo of all the veterans present:

Bomber Command veterans following a commemorative ceremony held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne
Bomber Command veterans following a commemorative ceremony held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Left to Right: Laurie Larmer (51 Sqn), Jim Cahir (466 Sqn), Laurie Williams (460 Sqn), Alan Day, Gerald McPherson (186 Sqn), Jack Bell (216 Sqn), Arthur Atkins (625 Sqn), Colin Fraser (460 Sqn), Don McDonald (578 and 466 Sqns), Don Southwell (463 Sqn), [Unidentified] at rear,  Steve Downes (467 Sqn – seated), Maurie O’Keefe (460 Sqn), Peter Isaacson (460 Sqn), Lachie McBean (467 Sqn)

And then the roar of radial engines heralded the arrival of the flypast.

Afterwards afternoon tea was served in the foyer area. And it was here that something remarkable happened:

1505 BCCDF MEL 88

On the left of this photo is, of course, Don Southwell. He’d come down from Sydney with his son David for the ceremony, representing the ‘national’ Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation. He’s talking to Steve Downes, centre, and Lachie McBean, right. Steve, a wireless operator, and Lachie, a pilot, were on the same crew. The only two Australians in the crew, they were posted to 467 Squadron right at the end of the war so they never flew any operations. But they had gone through training together. Then the war ended and everyone was posted away or discharged from the Air Force entirely. “We were best mates while we were on the same crew”, Lachie told me, “but we never knew much about what each other had done before the war, and then we were all posted away and lost contact.”

Until recently, Lachie thought that Steve had been killed in a post-war car crash. But about three months ago Lachie’s wife died.

Steve – very much still alive – saw the death notice and recognised his old pilot’s name. He contacted Lachie through the funeral director, and their respective daughters conspired to arrange a meeting at the ceremony– and so the two old crew mates saw each other again on Sunday for the first time in seventy years.

I was lucky enough to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall as the two old men chatted. Seven decades simply melted away as they just picked up where they had left off.

It was a lovely moment to cap off a most memorable day.

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight taxis at Point Cook prior to their formation flypast of the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo courtesy Alex le-Merton
The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight taxis at Point Cook prior to their formation flypast of the Shrine of Remembrance. Photo courtesy Alex le-Merton

The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight turns towards the Shrine, Melbourne. Photo from one of the CT-4s in the formation courtesy Matt Henderson
The RAAF Museum Heritage Trainer Flight turns towards the Shrine, Melbourne. Photo from one of the CT-4s in the formation courtesy Matt Henderson

The Shrine Guard
The Shrine Guard

Bomber Command veterans assembling for a group photo
Bomber Command veterans assembling for a group photo

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee
The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee

Many thanks to Matt Henderson and Alex le-Merton, the crew of one of the RAAF CT-4s, for the airborne photos.

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) Committee sincerely thanks both the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Victorian Aero Club for their critical parts in making the commemorative flypast happen.

© 2015 Adam Purcell.

Temora

About 330km west of Sydney, in country New South Wales, lies a small town called Temora. It’s perhaps most famous these days for the superb aviation museum which has taken up considerable real estate at the local airport since its formation in 1999. Home to a significant collection of airworthy warbirds, most owned by Museum President and Founder David Lowy, the Museum is by far the best in Australia in terms of its airworthy fleet, and is perhaps the closest that we come to something like the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in the UK. It puts on flying days every six weeks or so to display the aeroplanes in the element in which they belong – the air.

It was to one of these flying weekends that I went in September 2009, in the back seat of a Piper Cherokee flown by a friend of mine.

09sep-temora-039 copy

It was a great flight over in beautiful conditions, and I distinctly remember the chaos as we arrived in the circuit at Temora before the flying display started, just one of many light aeroplanes doing the same thing. There was so much traffic that we had to go around twice before we managed to land and at one stage we were on final for the runway and there were no fewer than four other aircraft in front of us. But once on the ground, the flying display was exciting and punctual and the organisation was superb.

But as I was wandering around the airfield I noticed a familiar sight. The hangar that now hosts the Temora Aero Club looked remarkably similar to many of the old hangars at Camden, which was the airfield from which I was doing my own flying at the time. Could Temora have a similar wartime heritage?

It could indeed. Temora was the site of 10 EFTS, the longest-running Elementary Flying Training School in the Royal Australian Air Force. Close by the Aero Club (which, yes, is in a Bellman Hangar, the sole remaining example out of six which were originally there) is this simple memorial:

09sep-temora-103 copy

A sign near the entrance to the airfield records that upwards of 10,000 personnel passed through 10 EFTS during the war years, and that at its peak it had some 97 Tiger Moths on strength for pilot training. Four satellite fields scattered around the countryside were used when the congestion at the main airfield became too much. Tom Moore, who would eventually fly with 458 Squadron, said  that the satellite fields were just that – fields – requisitioned off farmers with no buildings or facilities other than a bench from which the instructors could watch their students flying around.

Like any EFTS, however, there were accidents during training at Temora. Sometimes they were almost comical – like one chap who “landed 20 feet off the ground and the plane just come down like that and the wings folded down around him,” as remembered by a 61 Squadron pilot named John Boland – but sadly, sometimes they were fatal. There are 13 of the simple white headstones denoting Commonwealth War Graves in Temora General Cemetery.

One of my favourite stories about Temora, however, comes from Lionel Rackley, eventually a 630 Squadron pilot, and doesn’t concern flying at all. He describes it at the Australians at War Film Archive:

Air crew trainees went into a place and they were there for a month, six weeks, and went out again. But the ground staff people were there, so the town belonged to them, really. In those days, we used to wear a forage cap, and air crew trainees wore a little white flash on the front of the forage cap, that denoted us as air crew trainees. And these ground staff, they had set word around Temora that out at the aerodrome there, there’s a venereal hospital. And all those fellows around town with white flashes on their caps, they’re the patients…

It’s not too far from the airfield into Temora itself, and after the flying display finished that September afternoon in 2009 my mate and I meandered in (without a white flash in our caps) to find a pub for dinner. We stumbled the two miles or so back to the airfield a few hours later, much as I imagined countless trainee aircrew had done, almost seventy years before.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

The First Flight in B for Baker

On Friday 3 March 1944, LM475, the aircraft that would become B for Baker, appears in Phil Smith’s logbook for the first time. Two flights are recorded on this day, and while on the face of it they appear perfectly normal – two sessions of High Level Bombing, one during the day and one by night – the entries would lead to much head-scratching on my part, some seven decades later.

Phil’s logbook records this for the first flight:

Lancaster LM475. Pilot: Self, Crew: W/Cdr Balmer, F/L McCarthy, Crew. HLB. Landed at Hunsdon. 2.05hrs Day.

There are a few curiosities in this entry. Wing Commander Balmer was the 467 Squadron Commanding Officer. It appears most likely that the other passenger was Flight Lieutenant Patrick Ernest McCarthy, who was probably the 467 Squadron Bombing Leader at the time. It is unclear whether Phil’s ‘normal’ bomb aimer Jerry Parker came along or not as Phil had a habit of not recording full crew names for non-operational flights. The reason for the trip to Hunsdon (a nightfighter airfield 20 miles north of London, or some 100 miles from Waddington) is unknown. There is a possibility that this could have been a check flight for either Phil Smith or for the new aircraft, though I don’t know if Squadron Commanders carried out this sort of activity. More likely, perhaps, is that Balmer needed to get to London and so Phil took the opportunity to take his new aeroplane for a spin to get him there.

The mystery deepens however when we throw the entry in Jack Purcell’s logbook into the mix:

Lancaster. Pilot S/Ldr Smith. Duty: Navigator. Remarks: Owethorpe – H.L.B. 1.25hrs Day.

Owethorpe is most likely a spelling error – there was a practice bombing range at Owthorpe (without the ‘e’), just east of Nottingham, and this was probably the destination for the bombing exercise. The High Level Bombing part agrees with what is in Phil’s logbook, but there is an alarming inconsistency here: Phil records the flight as having been 40 minutes longer than Jack did. My initial theory was that Balmer went along first for a 40-minute check flight in the Waddington circuit with Phil Smith only, and then the remainder of the crew with F/L McCarthy joined them for a flight to Hunsdon via the practice range at Owthorpe. But I’m not sure that 1.25 hours is enough time to get from Waddington to Hunsdon via Owthorpe, particularly when the later flight to another range close to Nottingham took 1.30 hours on its own.

This second flight appears to be recorded correctly in both logbooks. Phil says this:

Lancaster LM475. Pilot: Self. Crew: Crew, F/Lt McCarthy. HLB (5). 145yds bombing error. 1.30hrs Night with 0.45hrs Instrument.

And Jack says this:

Lancaster. Pilot: S/Ldr Smith. Duty: Navigator. Remarks: Eppistone – HLB. 1.30hrs Night.

These entries both clearly relate to the same flight (1.30 hours at night with S/L Smith), which was for more practice bombing. Once again F/L McCarthy went along (no mention if Jerry Parker was also on board though), and Jack has misspelt the destination (which come to think of it is a somewhat startling trait for a navigator!) which should probably be ‘Epperstone,’ the site of another practice bombing range seven miles north east of Nottingham. This also tallies with the entry in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book:

No ops again today – instead we had 2 Bulls Eyes and plenty of Bombing Practice at night. With the moonlight conditions were ideal.

So this second flight is fairly easy to explain. But it’s hard to think of a scenario which could explain a flight on which practice bombing was carried out at Owthorpe AND a landing made at Hunsdon, with the Squadron Commander AND the Bombing Leader along for the ride, on a trip on which the pilot logged 2.05 hours but the navigator logged just 1.25 hours. The simplest explanation would be that Jack Purcell made a mistake. If we assume this was the case, it would be quite reasonable to fly from Waddington to Hunsdon, either to drop off W/C Balmer or simply as an exercise on which Balmer came along to observe, via a few practice bombing runs at Owthorpe range, and then back to Waddington again inside 2.05 hours. Judging on other parts of his logbook Jack’s record keeping was never particularly fantastic so a mistake is a distinct possibility. It does not sit well with the fastidious nature of his job as a navigator though.

There is insufficient information in the sources currently available to me to explain what might have happened in a definitive sense. The ORBs do not record non-operational flights in adequate detail and Phil did not write of this trip in his post-war manuscript so the only way of being sure would be to compare the logbooks of all those involved. But as far as I know out of the crew of B for Baker only Jack’s and Phil’s logbooks have survived, and they disagree with each other. This one will probably remain a mystery.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

 

 

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

Happy First Solo Day!

On 28 November 1940 – exactly seventy-two years ago today – Phil Smith flew solo for the first time. Like many (if not all) Australian pilots under the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was in a little yellow Tiger Moth, serial A17-58, at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Phil didn’t seem too excited about it when he wrote to his parents later that day (A01-132-001), reporting simply that “[…] altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.”

But there is no doubt that the first solo is a significant milestone for any pilot. Witness the following small collection of thoughts and memories from various pilots, taken from the excellent Australians at War Film Archive:

Barry Finch, eventually of 3 Squadron, quoted his instructor:

“Well you might want to kill yourself but I’m precious and I’m getting out. That’s all I can say. Be careful. I’m going to let you go off on your own.” The bloody thing leapt into the air like a young buck, it was incredible what a difference it made without his weight in the front, and to actually find myself going up into the air without any head in front of me, it was unbelievable. And I thought, “Well, I’m here, all I’ve got to do is to get down again.”[After landing] I went over to where he was and he said, “That’s alright, I’m coming with you next time. I reckon you’re safe […] Unforgettable!” (C06-072-013)

John Boland, 61 Squadron:

“So when I had 5 hours instruction up, I got in the aircraft and did a circuit and the instructor got out of the front seat, took the pilot stick out and said, “Righto, take it around again” and I got the shock of my life. I got that big a shock, that when I come around to land, I was that nervous, the instructor had confidence that I could land it, and as I come in to touch down the tail hit the ground first and it bounced.” (C06-073-005)

Colin Morton, 450 Squadron:

“Scared bloody hell out of me. […] I flew an aeroplane before I drove a motor car. It’s – the impact was enormous and I loved it” (C06-081-003)

Alf Read, 463 Squadron:

“I can still remember it because it’s marked with a tree, which you see as you drive past the old airport at Narromine. My instructor said, “Just a minute and I’ll get out, and I’ll sit under this tree while you take your first solo,” and I can assure you it was a wonderful feeling just to be able to take that plane off and bring it back in one piece. And it’s a little incident in your life that you never forget.” (C06-086-006)

Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron:

“I went solo at about nine hours, I think it was. It should have been seven, but they took me up for a check, and by the time I finished the check and got back, the wind had strengthened up so strong that they wouldn’t let a learner pilot go out. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and it was still blustery and rough and nobody flew that day. And the following day he said, “You’ve got to have another check.” So I had another check, then he said, “Right, off you go. Just do one circuit and down again and that’s your baptism on your own.” (C06-090-011)

Lionel Rackley, 630 Squadron

“Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. […] Every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now. I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” […] And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there: ‘Went solo today’”. (C06-075-004)

As it turns out, today is also the tenth anniversary of my own first solo. It was in a Cessna 152, registered VH-WFI, from runway 16 at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After an hour or so of flying circuits, my instructor got out and I proceeded to fly one by myself. It was a slightly wobbly but passable exercise and I logged a princely 0.1 hours solo time in the process.

Some years later, by this time a fully qualified private pilot, I would also experience solo flight in a Tiger Moth, in my own small way experiencing something of what these young men had been doing seven decades ago. And while that flight remains one of the most memorable ones in my logbook, I still remember the tremendous sense of achievement that followed my first solo.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Motivations

Daily life at a Bomber Command airfield could not exactly be described as ‘calming’.

I learned what the target was about midday, and for the whole afternoon I wandered around with a feeling of having half a pound of cold lead in the pit of my stomach. – Bill Brill, 467 Sqn skipper and later CO – C07-036-142

In an effort to explain their feelings about what they were to do, some airmen turned to thoughts of sport – as Hank Nelson wrote in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, for many airmen “sport was one place where their capacity to perform at their best under stress had been tested”. Nelson quotes Arthur Doubleday comparing the lead up to an operation to waiting to go into bat in cricket: “You know, the fast bowler looked a lot faster from the fence, but when you get in there it’s not too bad” (C07-036-142).

But as tours dragged on, as airmen witnessed more and more empty places at the Mess tables, it would have been only natural to begin to feel the cumulative tension of one operation after another. On his eleventh operation, Bill Brill was ‘getting a little accustomed to being scared’ (C07-036-159). And there is no doubt that airmen knew very well exactly how low their chances of surviving a tour were. Gil Pate wrote to his mother in November 1943 (A01-409-001): “It seems an age since I last saw you all + I guess I’ll need a lot of luck to do so again, the way things happen.”

So why did they go on?

Much has been made of the ‘stigma’ of being branded ‘LMF’ (Lacking Moral Fibre), a fate seemingly worse than death. And certainly there were instances of aircrew who had gone beyond their breaking point being publicly stripped of their ranks and their aircrew brevets, and given humiliating menial duties for the rest of the war. The loose stitching and unfaded spots left on their uniforms were a cruel reminder of what they once were. Certainly the threat of being branded LMF was a big motivator for some aircrew to carry on. But despite how much it was feared by the aircrew, a very low number of verdicts of LMF were ever officially handed down – Leo McKinstry quotes about 1200 in all, or less than 1% of all airmen in Bomber Command (C07-048-225).  There were also instances of compassionate squadron Commanding Officers recognising an airman at his limit and quietly moving him off flying duties, without the humiliation of accusations of cowardice. One veteran I know told me of the case of a mid-upper gunner who had been so traumatised by discovering the mutilated remains of his rear gunner comrade after an attack by nightfighters that he was clearly not in a state to continue flying. He was given a month’s compassionate leave on return to base, and on his return from leave was transferred to the Parachute Section of the same Squadron where he worked for the rest of the war (C03-021-051).

One of the most significant motivators, in my view, was the bonds shared by the crews themselves. Dennis Over – a 227 Sqn rear gunner, writing on the Lancaster Archive Forum in December 2010 – says “our greatest fears may well have been not wanting to let our crew down”. When I visited Dennis in June 2010 he said that he could not remember feeling fear while actually on an operation. That, he said, came later.  He had instead, he told me, “a sense of complete concentration on my duties, for the benefit of my entire crew”. No matter what the enemy could throw at them, no matter the hazards of weather or mechanical failure, their crew came first. That bond carries on today with many veteran aircrew still very close to surviving members of their crews. It’s one of the unique aspects of the Bomber Command experience and goes a long way to explaining why, in the face of dreadful odds, they pressed on regardless.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Learning to Fly

The chance to learn to fly an aeroplane was probably a factor in why many young men joined the Air Force in WWII. Those lucky enough to pass the tests and be selected for pilot training would soon have found themselves at a dusty Elementary Flying Training School, climbing aboard at a bright yellow Tiger Moth for what would be, in many cases, their first ever flight.

“This afternoon we had our first flying experience, a trip of about 1/2 hours duration. It was a very interesting business and it was just sufficient to demonstrate just how difficult a business it is to fly. The controls vary greatly in sensitivity and to the beginner in changing your attention from one thing to another it is very easy to loose [sic] control completely.” – Phil Smith, in a letter to his father written 14NOV40 (A01-125-001)

Despite spending a week in hospital with influenza (he had a temperature of 101 degrees – A01-126-001), it did not take Phil long to go solo for the first time. “When I recommenced flying on Monday [following hospitalisation] I found that I could do everything except land”, he wrote to his father on 28 November 1940, the day of his first solo (A01-132-001). “All my flying time since then has been in picking this up. I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.” He had about eight hours flying time in his logbook at this stage.

But as big an achievement as one’s first solo is when learning to fly, there is a big gap between a pilot who has flown solo and one who is fully qualified. Phil’s letter home two days after his first solo reveals that he was acutely aware of how new everything still was, and of how far he had yet to go (A01-127-001):

“From time to time I get very nasty turns, for example, this morning another plane and I only missed a side-on collision because he was about 20′ below me. This was mostly because I had not kept a good enough lookout. […] Yesterday also I had a scare when on the glide into the aerodrome I was turning and hit a bump which I swear l neally [sic] turned the plane vertical on its side. However, to get down safely is the big thing in flying so they say and the sooner I wake up to the responsibilities the better it will be for me. I find the landings are coming much easier to me now but they still are far from good. I find that steep turns are giving me a bit of trouble too.”

Trainee pilots had to contend with lectures on meteorology (“I think I shall have to learn the Beaufort scale of winds”, he wrote to sister Wenda in March 1941), photography and navigation. They even carried cameras to take photos of turning points to prove they got where they were supposed to go on their solo cross country flights (A01-147-001). The instructors were a mixed bunch. Phil was fined a tin of Craven A cigarettes by one of his, for letting the aeroplane slow down too much on final approach (A01-139-001 02FEB41). On another occasion an instructor rapped him over the knuckles with a ruler for a similar offence. Life was not made any easier, Phil wrote, by having multiple instructors all with slightly differing ideas on how things should be done. But sometimes they could be more relaxed as well. Phil’s letters reveal a number of instances where they got up to some fun. In December 1940 a train derailed near Tamworth and they stooged over to have a look (A01-130-001):

“After we had seen all we wanted my instructor and the other plane’s became playful and staged a mock dogfight. My instructor was very expert at this business and had the other plane at his mercy almost all the time. It was a very fast-moving business and consisted mostly of steep turns almost on our sides and short and quick dives and climbs […]”

And on another day, during a three-hour dual cross country flight (A01-140-001):

“The instructor I was with on that occasion was very playful and delighted in flying over the country schools trying to make the children walk around the school first one way and then the other to keep the plane in sight. We pupils, three of us, lean out and wave at the kids, all quite good fun.”

Aeroplanes being aeroplanes, the forces that keep them in the air are still the same today as they were when Phil Smith took his first few faltering steps into the sky. While the technology might have advanced considerably over the decades, the general techniques and principles of flight remain unchanged. And so I can relate some of my own flying lessons to those of Phil Smith. I had no less than nine instructors over the course of my first 35 or so flying hours so I can relate very much to Phil’s frustrations at being told different things by different pilots. One of those instructors wielded the fuel dipstick instead of a ruler when I got too slow in the circuit. I even did my own first solo on 28 November 2002 – 62 years to the day after Phil Smith did the same thing.

But not everything was the same. It took me about 17 hours of instruction before being let loose for my first solo in a Cessna – a result that would have very quickly resulted in a scrubbing from pilot training if I was learning to fly in a wartime EFTS. There was a radio in the Tiger Moth that I flew last year – there was no radio in Phil’s day. And, perhaps most importantly, I was learning to fly purely for the fun of it. While undoubtedly there were fun times for pilots like Phil Smith along the way, they were ultimately training for a deadly serious job.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

One Friday Afternoon’s Work

Gilbert Pate’s first flight – ever – was in a Tiger Moth from Mascot, Sydney in August 1939. His father, Sydney, wrote about it in a letter to Don Smith in July 1944, after the crew had gone missing (A01-346-003). Gilbert had gone flying with a good friend, Andrew MacArthur-Onslow. They even flew over the Pate family home in nearby Kogarah (“2-storey”, wrote Sydney Pate, “and in the nature of a local land-mark”).

Sydney also wrote that Andrew was “now alas deceased”. I decided to try and find out what happened to him.

It seemed likely that Andrew’s was a war-related death, so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database was my first port of call. I found a match:

Name: MacARTHUR-ONSLOW, ANDREW WILLIAM
Initials: A W
Nationality: Australian
Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force
Age: 25
Date of Death: 18/01/1943
Service No: 261535
Additional information: Son of Francis Arthur and Sylvia Seton Raymond MacArthur-Onslow, of Campbelltown.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Row A. Grave 6.
Cemetery: TAMWORTH WAR CEMETERY

Note that he died a Flight Lieutenant and is buried at Tamworth, NSW, the site of an Elementary Flying Training School. This suggested he was an instructor.

I next searched the National Archives of Australia for a service record – which exists, but is not digitised so I can’t access it from here. I did find a record of his enlistment in the Australian Army Militia pre-war. I also looked through some Tiger Moth accident reports but found no matches.

Perhaps Tamworth cemetery records would yield something. I found this page, which had the bloke I was looking for. It also had a record for another man killed on the same day – a Thomas Myles DAWSON of Queensland. Figuring two men was the normal crew complement at an EFTS, there was a good chance that both of these men were killed in the same accident.

Dawson proved the breakthrough. A search for his service number at the National Archives pulled up a service record (digitised) – and, more importantly, an entry in an accident file (also digitised). It was a simple matter to access the accident file, which answered the question of what happened to F/L AW MacArthur-Onslow.

Gilbert Pate’s great mate, who had held a pilot’s licence before the war and who took Gilbert for his first flight, possibly sparking Gil’s interest in flying, was killed in a flying accident while serving with the Central Flying School.  On 18JAN43  MacArthur-Onslow was flying with a Sgt TM Dawson in Wirraway A20-45, on an authorised practice low-level sortie 16 miles south-east of Tamworth. They crashed during the low-level segment of the flight and both were killed. The aircraft was written off. (A04-087-001, NAA: A9845, 102).

The most pleasing thing for me in this saga is that it all happened one Friday afternoon. I was reading through all of Sydney Pate’s letters in preparation for an article I’m working on about Gil when I read the July 1944 correspondence to Don Smith. That sparked the curiosity to find out what happened to Andrew MacArthur-Onslow – and over the course of a couple of hours I found what I was looking for. Another loose thread tied off, another facet of Gilbert Pate’s life uncovered.

© 2011 Adam Purcell