Archive for the 'Gilbert Pate' 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)

A05-118-001 med

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 

Forage Cap

Gil Thew recently sent me this fantastic photograph of his uncle Gilbert Pate:

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Gilbert is in uniform, wearing a peaked forage cap parked at a jaunty angle upon his head. Tucked into the fold at the front of the cap is a white ‘flash’ of fabric. This flash was the mark of an airman under training. Gilbert’s serious expression and immaculate uniform coupled with the trainee flash suggests this might be a copy of his enlistment identity photograph. The photo was therefore most likely taken in late June 1942, when Gilbert would have been 26 years old. He barely looks out of his teens.

While not unique to Bomber Command itself, photographs of airmen from Commonwealth air forces in WWII will frequently show them wearing caps just like this one. The forage cap had been part of the uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force since the First World War. It was designed to look reasonably respectable even after being folded up and jammed into a corner in the cramped cockpit of an aeroplane. A battered cap was a sign that its owner was no sprog.

In May 2009 I visited Lezennes on the anniversary of the Lille operation to see the graves of my great uncle and his crew. I wasn’t prepared for the reception I was given by the locals. There was a small but moving ceremony at the cemetery, presided over by the Mayor with perhaps 20 people attending. After the cemetery we walked into the town to the local library, where a display had been set up telling the story of the crew. There was a television camera crew to document the occasion. I even met a man who had been 10 at the time of the Lille raid, and who remembered standing next to the graves the day after the funerals, singing ‘God Save the King’.

But most amazing of all was the man on the left of this photo:

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His name is Laurent Messiaen. He is presenting me with a pristine original RAAF forage cap. The exact origins of the cap are unknown. I was told it had been with a local family since the war. Apparently Laurent read about my impending visit in the local newspaper and came along specifically to give it to me.

There is no doubt that it is RAAF. Stamped inside, it says “MADE IN AUSTRALIA 1943”. A direct link with the Lille operation cannot be ruled out.

The cap now sits on my shelf. It’s become one of my most treasured possessions.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command – Failed to Return

I have just received a new book called Bomber Command – Failed to Return. From Fighting High Publishing in the UK, it contains eleven chapters, written by six different authors, each chapter concentrating on the story of a particular airman or crew who failed to return from operations. I was one of the contributing authors, writing a chapter profiling rear gunner Gilbert Pate. Keen eyes might also recognise the photograph that appears on the cover of the book. It is, of course, the only known photo of the entire crew of 467 Sqn Lancaster LM475, B for Baker.

This is the first time I’ve written anything for publication in an actual book, and it was rather exciting to spy on my front step the package containing my copy, open it up and see the front cover, with my name one of the six underneath the title. I’m also stoked that Steve chose the crew photograph for the cover. Its prominent position (and there’s a full double-page spread of it inside too) means that the story of B for Baker and her crew can now reach an even wider audience.

I am indebted to Gil and Peggy Thew, the nephew and sister of Gilbert Pate, who extremely graciously allowed me full access to and use of Gilbert’s papers for this project. Much of my chapter was based on those letters and reading them all gave me a very good idea of who the man was. I can only hope that in what I’ve written I’ve done justice to Gilbert’s story.

Steve says the book has received some very good feedback in the UK already, and there was a launch event in early September at Duxford, attended by among others two of the airmen who feature in the book. If you’ll excuse the blatant plug, copies of Bomber Command – Failed to Return are available from the Book Depository, or direct from the publisher.

© 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

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

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.

How many operations?

Gilbert Pate’s logbook is not held by the part of his family that I am in touch with. It appears that it was sent to his wife, who fairly quickly remarried after the war and then dropped off the radar. So I’ve been trying to ‘recreate’ his operational flights through other sources like the Operational Record Books of the two Squadrons he was part of. Here are the ones I found:

1. 03NOV43: Dusseldorf JB467 EA-T with Sgt WEBB – this as far as I can tell was his only operaion with 49 Sqn.

All the rest in this list come from the 467 Sqn ORB.

2. 28JAN44 to Berlin with Phil Smith in DV372. Tabor, Johnston and Hill also on this op; Purcell and Parker were not.

3. 15FEB44 to Berlin with Phil Smith and entire crew in EE143

4. 19FEB44 to Leipzig in EE143 with Phil Smith and entire crew

5. 24FEB44 to Schweinfurt in EE143 with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie

6. 01MAR44 to Stuttgart in EE143 with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie

7. 09MAR44 to Marignane with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

8. 15MAR44 to Stuttgart with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie in LM475

9. 18MAR44 to Frankfurt with Phil Smith and entire crew less Jerry Parker in LM475

10. 22MAR44 to Frankfurt with Phil Smth and entire crew in R5485

11. 24MAR44 to Berlin with entire crew in LM475

12. 26MAR44 to Essen with Phil Smith and entire crew less Dale Johnston in LM475.

13. 30MAR44 to Nuremburg with entire crew less Jerry Parker in LM475

14. 11APR44 to Aachen with Phil Smith and crew in LM475

15. 18APR44 to Juvisy with Phil Smith and crew in LM475 – G/C Bonham-Carter came along too

16. 24APR44 to Munich with Phil Smith, entire crew and 2nd dickie in LM475

17. 28APR44 to St Medard en Jalles with entire crew in LM475.

18. 29APR44 to St Medard en Jalles with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

19. 01MAY44 to Toulouse with Phil Smith and entire crew plus second dickie in LM475

20. 03MAY44 to Mailly le Camp with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

21. 06MAY44 to Sable sur Sarthe with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475

22. 10MAY44 to Lille with Phil Smith and entire crew in LM475. MISSING.

Crossreferencing with Phil Smith’s logbook confirms that Gil was on the operations noted in the ORB that he flew with Phil. 22 operations represents a significant contribution to the war effort. But, as is usual in this sort of thing, the picture isn’t as simple as that. I have a letter that Gil wrote to his little sister Joyce on 01MAY44 (A01-443-001) – the eve of his Toulouse trip – that contains the following list:

JOYCE – trips so far are:

BERLIN – 3 times

SCHWEINFURT 2

STUTTGART 2

NUREMBURG 1

LEIPZIG 1

FRANKFURT 2

MUNICH 1

BORDEAUX 2

PARIS (JUVISY) 1

PARIS (La Chapelle) 1

TOURS 1

AACHEN 1

DUSSELDORF 1

ESSEN 1

MARIGNANE 1

BRUNSWICK 1

Remember this list was written on 01MAY44 and so does not include the last four on the list I found in the ORBs. So if we include those, it appears that the Lille operation was Gil’s 26th.

Further muddying the waters is a transcript (via his wife Grace Pate) of a letter Gil sent to her on 02MAY44. It reads as follows:

Last night we went to Toulouse and as we only landed at 7am we have the day off. April was a very busy month for me and I managed 9 trips which were all that we were on. (A01-348-001)

The ORBs only show that Gil was on 5 operations in that time.

In total I can only find 22 in the ORBs – which leaves four ‘extra’ ops:

  • One extra to Schweinfurt
  • Paris-La Chapelle
  • Tours
  • Brunswick

Assuming the letter to Grace wasn’t being exaggerated, there’s a good chance that April 1944 is the month where the inconsistency lies.

The La Chapelle operation could be 21APR44, though 467 Sqn had a ‘make and mend’ day on that date and did not operate. The Brunswick trip is possibly 22APR44.

One other option is that I also have a letter Gil wrote to Joyce on 20AUG43 (A01-381-001) that says he was “on a sortie over Paris recently but things went off smoothly”. This was while he was at 17OTU at Silverstone, so I’m trying to find the ORB of that unit which might reveal a nickelling raid that he could have counted.

I need to do a little more digging to see if I can find his name anywhere else.

(c) Adam Purcell 2011

Incidentally, while I was working on these lists my research database file corrupted itself overnight. I had to redo a little bit of work that I’d done the previous evening but I was able to recover the file from a back-up that was only a couple of days old. Shows the value of having an effective back-up regime in place while doing any irreplaceable work with computers! Since the file died I’ve now got a daily back-up going automatically to secure online storage and I manually copy the file to a USB stick, in addition to the usual weekly backup that my computer carries out.

Paranoid, me???

The Shadow in the Corner

My father first showed me my great uncle’s logbook and a few faded photos when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. Since that time, I have always been aware of the family legend that tells the story of the Man in the Photograph. I think my sister Jen said it better than I can when she visited the grave in Lezennes in September 2007:

“Jack has always been an intangible legend. A god. The man of the medals and he blue felt covered notebook. The man of the faded photo and the tragic love story. Larger than life. The sudden realisation that this legend was human came when I read out aloud his age of 22…the age I will be in less than six months. So I sat in front of a war grave of a man I was so utterly disconnected from, but so inextricably connected to, and cried”.

There has always been this ‘idea’ of Jack in the back of the collective Purcell family mind. The idea is of a young man who sailed to far-off places to fly in a war from which he never returned, leaving only a handful of photos and that much-prized blue logbook to survive through the decades. Jude Findlay – a great nephew of Jack’s from the other side of the family – called him “the Shadow in the Corner”. While growing up Jude was always aware of the legend. In fact Jack’s death affected Jude’s father so much that he went and joined the RAAF himself.

Consequently Jen is right when she calls Jack a ‘legend’. Certainly he has been turned into a legend, being the focus of much of the family lore that originally got me hooked on the story. But along with the ‘legend’ tag has come some mythology, or at the very least some stories of debatable or unconfirmed authenticity. Like the story that says Jack was to be married the Saturday following his death. Or the claim that his mother only signed his enlistment papers in the belief that a knee injury picked up as a young child would disqualify him from active flying. Both these stories I heard originally from my grandfather (Jack’s nephew). They may well be true – but they may also be somewhat ’embellished’. The Purcell family, of course, is far from alone when it comes to these family stories. One example is the tale Gil Thew tells of his uncle Gil Pate who, he says, was recalled off end-of-tour leave for ‘one last’ operation to Lille from which – of course – he never returned.

The problem is that, unlike the hard facts like dates and places that can be found in service records and logbooks, for the somewhat ‘romantic’ stories like these ones there is generally no definitive primary evidence – especially where the serviceman concerned never returned from the war. In these cases grieving families, desperate for any clue as to what might have happened to their loved ones, could perhaps grab hold of any information that might possibly relate to the bomber war and ‘extrapolate’ it into a theory relating to their missing man. It could also be a comfort or a defence mechanism, as a way of dealing with what happened – believing, for example, that the aeroplane was brought down by flak rather than a more mundane and somehow less acceptable accident like a collision. Over time, the theory becomes ‘fact’ in the minds of the successive generations of the family. This is the danger of relying solely on ‘oral histories’ from members of the various families.

But while dry facts like dates and places and timelines can come from official documents, it’s these stories that add a ‘human’ element to the history. It is, after all, a ‘family’ history – as much the story of the families as it is of the airmen themselves. How the families dealt with the loss is a legitimate part of the history – even if the stories they used to cope are slightly stretched versions of the truth.

This post took well over a week to write. I started off going in one direction but in the writing it took a few unexpected turns. I’m not entirely sure what it became – which is why I left it for a few days. I’d especially appreciate your comments on this one please!


Current task: Editing and cataloguing Dale Johnston’s A705


(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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Finding Gilbert Pate

Gilbert Pate was the rear gunner in Jack’s Lancaster crew. At 28 he was the second eldest in the crew, behind bomb aimer Jerry Parker.Gilbert’s was the third family I managed to trace in the course of this research. From his servce record I had wartime names and addresses for his parents and his wife. That, and a pile of letters written by his father, Sydney Firth Pate, to the family of pilot Phil Smith (kindly provided by Phil’s widow Mollie) was all that I knew.

A good starting point was the Ryerson Index – a free, online, searchable but very incomplete database of Australian death notices. I found a hit for Sydney Pate from 1956 in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Ryerson Index does not normally provide copies of the actual death notices so I needed to go and visit the State Library of NSW in Sydney. Actually finding the record was fairly simple – and it told me the names of the rest of the family – wife Kathleen, daughters Kitty, Peggy and Joyce, and of course his son Gilbert. I took this information downstairs at the State Library to their Family History unit where I could access electoral rolls. An afternoon at a microfiche machine yielded full names for each of the Pates and showed that at least Joyce and Kathleen remained at 17 Bowns Rd, Kogarah, until 1964. After this the trail went cold.

On a whim I tried the Ryerson Index again, this time with the names of each of Gilbert’s siblings. I found a match for his sister Joyce who had died in 2008 – or about two years previously. I also searched NSW Births, Deaths and Marraiges and managed to find a record for Peggy having married a man named Laurence Thew in 1936.

So I was certainly getting somewhere. The breakthrough came when the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader replied to a query in February 2010, sending me a copy of Joyce’s death notice. It said she was

“sadly missed by her sister Peggy and nephews Gil and Dick”.

At this point I went out on a limb. I took a guess that Gil and Dick might have been Peggy’s sons, and speculated that their surname might therefore also be Thew. Back, then, to the State Library, where it was a fairly easy exercise to pull an address from the latest electoral roll (2008) for both names. I fired off hopeful letters to each…

…and three days later, my phone rang:

“G’day, this is Adam”

“Adam. Gil Thew here. You wrote me a letter.”

I felt a surge of excitement. “I did.”

“Well”, he said, “you’ve got the right bloke”.

I am not at all ashamed to say that I danced up and down my hallway after I heard that.

After much subsequent correspondence via email over the next few months, I managed to meet Gil – who indeed is Gilbert Pate’s nephew – and his 97-year-old mother – Gilbert’s sister Peggy – on Sydney’s North Shore in April 2010. We spent a fascinating few hours talking about the story of Gilbert and Jack’s crew, about my research and about vising the graves in 2009. Gil had with him a great big box full of letters, official documents and photographs which we looked through, my eyes goggling at the sight of each new letter. Here, truly, was a gold mine. Gil initially offered to copy for me anything I was interested in – but as we went on it became clear that I wanted a copy of… well… EVERYTHING! Gil thought about it for half a second.

Then he pushed the box across the desk towards me. “Take as long as you need!” he said.

I copied everything in the box, sorted and catalogued it, then returned to Gil the originals.

So I have now spent the last few weeks transcribing letters and other documents from the box. It’s given me a fairly solid idea of what he was like as a person. He was extraordinarily close to his family – especially his mother. He was an Australian through and through – he enjoyed the beach and the weather and the food – and he missed his wife and his pup. He toyed with becoming a jockey for a while, played tennis and was always keen to hear sporting results from home, partidularly the cricket and the football. He enjoyed the good things in life but he also understood full-well the task ahead of him when he joined the Air Force. He tried hard to shield his mother from the uncertainty and he was to a certain degree hopeful for the future, but he was also realistic enough to recognise that he would need a great deal of luck on his side if he was to return to his see his beloved family again.

This is stuff you just can’t get from official records only. I have been greatly privileged to have had the access that I have had to this fantastic archive and I am extremely grateful that Gil has been so enthusiastic about it.

The transcription task is almost complete. Next step is to contact Gil again and arrange a second meeting where – armed with the knowledge I have pulled from this fantastic ‘box of tricks’ – I can ask Peggy specific questions about Gilbert to see what other loose ends I can tie up.

 

Current task: Transcribing Gilbert Pate’s papers – Vol II


(c) 2010 Adam Purcell
 

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