Archive for the 'Gilbert Pate' Category

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









PARIS (La Chapelle) 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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Dom’s gonna hate me!

After I posted the last entry, not three letters further down the pile ‘to be transcribed’ was one written by Gil to his mother on 04NOV44 – the day after the Dusseldorf raid on which the unfortunate JE Teager was shot down. As Gil wrote:

“Our pilot Johnnie Teager is missing from a recent raid over Germany + we are more or less spare bodies for a while, although I have been operating with another crew. It seems hard to realize, until the empty bed space tells its tales.”

…which at least confirms that Dom and I found the right bloke.

It doesn’t, however, shed any light on why Teager was posted OUT to 1654 CU on the same day he went missing. So the following night Dom and I were again on Skype (this time it was him keeping me up well past my bed time) trying to work out a plausible theory.

A closer look at the 49 Sqn ORB reveals that the men posted out of 49 Sqn along with Johnnie Teager were F/L Thomas, Sgt Pantor, F/Sgt Clutterbuck, Sgt Payne, Sgt Minns, F/O Ross and Sgt Boxer – which as it turns out was the crew who were on ED438 with him when it went missing without trace over Dusseldorf.

There are a couple of errors that we spotted on the same couple of pages of the ORB: F/Sgt Pate as F/Sgt PALE, Sgt Johnson is shown as having service number 1485745 (CWGC have him as 1488745), and the Teager/Pate crew is recorded as coming from 1654 CU when Gilbert Pate’s service record is fairly definite that they in fact came from 1661. This I feel lends support to my theory that it is a clerical error in the ORB – the men having mistakenly been posted out instead of being posted missing.

All in all, I’m feeling fairly confident to say that Teager should have been posted missing. Teager does not show up as being posted in to 1654 CU in any case. For the record nor do the rest of the crew – Pate et al – but as they were all NCOs this is not entirely unusual.

We know from Dom’s 49 Sqn ORB that Gil and the rest of his crew were posted from 49 Sqn to 1654 CU on 04NOV43. We also know that Gil ended up with an Australian pilot (Phil Smith) at an Australian squadron (467 Sqn). So when I read this letter from Gil written on 26NOV43 it threw me a little (A01-411-001):

“I am having a pretty easy time of it lately as we recently returned to a conversion unit to crew up with a new pilot, as we lost our original one on a raid over Dusseldorf. The new chap is a Canadian from [illegible] + is quite a nice fellow.”

A Canadian pilot??!? This was news to me.

According to Gil’s service record, about a month after going to 1654 CU he was posted to yet another training unit – this time 1668 CU at Syerston. So this was the move that Dom and I couldn’t work out. Had the entire crew – minus the unfortunate Johnnie Teager, who by this time was in a German prison camp – been posted to 1668, or did Gil go by himself? And if he did go as a ‘spare bod’, why?

In April 1944 (just short of a month before he died over Lille), Gil wrote a spectacular seven-page letter to his mother and little sister (A01-441-001). In this letter he writes for the first time all about his path to an operational squadron. I transcribed this one yesterday – and guess what? Almost all the answers were right there.

“After losing our first pilot ‘Johnnie Teager’ who is a prisoner of war we were messed about for a while + eventually crewed up with a Canadian who had been recuperating from a nasty accident”.

So far, so good. There was definitely a Canadian in there somewhere.

“Well we were together a month + after that time his nerves began to play up, so he was taken from us + we were once more in the groove.
Shortly afterwards the powers that be broke the crew up + we were posted as replacements for crews on various squadrons.”

So it now appears that after losing their second pilot the Air Force decided that they were bad luck as a crew, split them up and sent them on their way. Back at a Conversion Unit, Gil Pate crewed up again – this time with an Australian Squadron Leader who was, of course, Phil Smith.

So had I just continued reading and transcribing Gil’s letters, I could have found all the information I needed, with much less fuss. But it wouldn’t have been as much fun, now, would it??

As for his original crew – in the same April 1944 letter Gilbert wrote this of them:

“Two of the boys of the first crew ‘drew the crow’ on Stuttgart.”

 “Still”, he wrote, “that’s all in the game.”


Current task: Transcribing Gil Pate’s letters, vol I.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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I had intended today to write about transcribing Gil Pate's letters, the task that is occupying much of my time at the moment. But something rather special happened this morning.

I wanted to try and find something about Pate's short time on 49 Squadron – specifically who his first pilot was. All I knew was from a transcript of a letter Gil wrote to a friend in California in February 1944:

"Soon after our arrival on squadron I lost my first pilot on a raid on Dusseldorf. The crew was then split up." (B01-004-001)

I also had some information supplied by Colin Cripps, the 49 Sqn researcher, showing that Gilbert in fact flew operationally on one occasion with 49 Squadron, a raid on (wait for it) Dusseldorf. He flew with this crew in JB467 EA-T on 3 November 1943:

  • Sgt E Webb, pilot
  • Sgt C Chaloner, nav
  • Sgt S Ollerenshaw, BA
  • Sgt E Lovick, W/Op
  • Sgt C Woodhouse, MUG
  • F/Sgt G Pate, RG

So the other thing I wanted to determine was whether this was the same raid on which Gil's pilot went missing.

I had requested assistance from Dom Howard, our resident 49 Sqn man on the Lancaster Archive forum. Dom came back to me this morning on that most useful of modern research aids:


So, on opposite sides of the world and at vastly different times of day (0900 for me, midnight for Dom), together we tried to work out what had happened.

Dom found an entry showing Gil's posting IN to 49 Squadron, on 22OCT43. He was posted along with these men:

  • 158111 P/O Teager, JEW – Pilot
  • 1488745 Sgt Johnson, RN – F/Eng
  • 1391163 Sgt Cohen, D – Nav
  • 610592 Sgt Fitzsimmons F – W/Op
  • AUS423311 Sgt. Pale, GF – A/G
  • R173983 Sgt. Fallon (difficult to read – may be Gallon) – A/G

Note the error recording Gil Pate's surname as PALE – ORBs are not always completely accurate!

So we now had names for men likely to be Gil's crew. The next task was to see if we could find out what happened to pilot JEW Teager. I tried the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – no records found. Bugger. This meant that we had the wrong man… or maybe something else happened to him.

As Dom said, "4T9ers to the rescue!"

The 49 Sqn Assoc website has a list of everyone who served with them. A record was found for a JE Teager who had been shot down on 03 November 1943 over Dusseldorf – and became a prisoner of war.

Problem solved, or so we thought. Checking further in the ORB we discovered that Teager had been posted OUT of 49 Sqn on 03 November – back to 1654 Conversion Unit, with the rest of his crew.

Oh bugger, that's not at all confusing the matter, is it?

Teager is definitely in the ORB on Lancaster ED438 as second pilot. So we know he went on the raid. To be posted OUT on the same day looks a little strange.

Dom's possible explanation is that Teager was posted out – but asked to go on the second dickie trip before he left for the Conversion Unit. Unfortunately he never came back from that second dickie trip. Sounds plausible. But thinking about it subsequently, it makes no sense to me. Why would a pilot be posted back to a training unit, along with the rest of his crew? I've seen situations where 'headless' crews go back to training after their pilot is lost on a 'second dickie' trip. Indeed, this is what I suspect happened to Jack Purcell, Jerry Parker and Dale Johnston at 9 Sqn. So I can understand why Gil might have been posted. But his pilot as well?

I'm therefore leaning towards the 'clerical error' explanation. Perhaps someone told the compiler of the ORB that 'the Teager crew are posted', forgetting the tiny detail that Teager himself failed to return last night. I suppose the 1654 CU ORB might reveal whether Teager was in fact posted in to that unit again. I'm not expecting to find his name though, given he was in Germany at the time. Dom says he'll have a look in the morning and get back to me.

The best bit about this was that it was happening in real time on opposite sides of the world. The Internet and modern communication technology has seriously changed the way research like this is done. It's certainly sped the process up considerably. Letters from Gil show his pleasure when airmail took 'only' three weeks from Australia to the UK. Even the modern postal system can't be relied upon to be much quicker than a fortnight. This morning's exchange would have taken a few months to go through if we were doing it 'the old way'. Instead, we went through the records and worked out a couple of explanations for what might have happened, in a conversation lasting exactly 32 minutes. Not bad at all!

Meanwhile, back to transcribing Gil's letters…

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell


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