Archive for the 'Interviews' Category

The IBCC’s Digital Archive is now live!

1806 UK Trip-153

Riseholme Hall, Lincoln University – the home of the IBCC Digital Archive

For every hour of recorded audio, I was told recently, it takes the team of staff and volunteers at the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive about sixteen hours to prepare it for publication. First it has to be transcribed. Then the transcription is reviewed. Then descriptive metadata is added, and finally the item is ready to be uploaded into the archive itself.

Sixteen hours.

By my rough calculations, I recorded about 40 hours of audio during my 27 IBCC interviews. So that’s about 640 hours of work that I created for the poor volunteers. Twenty-six and a half days, and that’s if they don’t sleep. Or eat. Or go for a run. Or do anything else except sit at their computers listening to my interviews.

(Sorry, folks!)

It’s been a mammoth undertaking. There are now more than one thousand oral history interviews in the collection – consisting of 1,049 hours, 43 minutes and three seconds of audio, to be exact – and over 225,000 individual items, including the interviews as well as scans of photographs, documents and letters. More collections are being added every week.

And the good news is that as of today, the Archive is now, finally, available for public access.

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview when I visited the Archive offices, in the University of Lincoln’s facilities at Riseholme Hall, an old manor house just outside Lincoln, in June. I’ve also had advance access for the last month or so as a usability tester. I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen.

Only a small subset of the collection is currently available online: a little over 5,000 items or about 3% of the total. I’ve watched that number increase from about 3,500 or so in the time I’ve had access. More material is being added on a daily basis. I’m told the Archive staff have been pulling 12-hour days in the lead-up to the launch to get as much as possible loaded before it officially went live. At the moment this means that a lot of the really awesome tagging and cross-referencing won’t realise their full potential, but once a critical mass of material is reached this is going to be one very useful source of information.

A lot of this usefulness comes from the detail in the metadata that is attached to every item. As well as the interviews, every letter and document will eventually be transcribed. This makes them searchable down to the individual page, which is extraordinary for an archive of this size. The metadata that’s been added allows grouping of related items by (for example) their spatial coverage (where in the world they relate to) or their temporal coverage (ie the time period that’s covered). Where possible, items are geolocated. This includes wartime aerial photography, which, astonishingly, has been overlaid on a modern interactive map. I don’t even want to think about how much effort it took to make that little party trick work, but it paid dividends for me immediately: there’s a bombing photograph, for example, that was taken during the 10 May 1944 Lille raid from which my great uncle Jack failed to return. I’d never seen one before.

And this is the other great strength of this Archive. It is made up, almost entirely, of personal material collected from participants and families of participants. That Lille target photograph comes from the collection of a WAAF who served at RAF Skellingthorpe. In many (most?) cases, this material has never before been seen outside of those families. There are no official records – those can be found in other places. This collection is about the personal, the stories of the individuals involved, that together chart the course of Bomber Command’s war and its aftermath.

Combine that unique material with very powerful search tools and free, worldwide access, and you have something that will be one of the most useful collections of unpublished Bomber Command material anywhere.

The IBCC’s Digital Archive, developed in partnership with the University of Lincoln, can be accessed here. Go have a look!

 

© Adam Purcell 2018

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IBCC Digital Archive Interview Wrap

I collected my first oral history for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive in October 2015. Interview Number One was with a man named Ern Cutts, a 466 Squadron Halifax rear gunner, and at the time I was one of just two volunteer interviewers for the project in Australia, and the only one in Melbourne.

A little over two years later, the Archive is close to being launched. It is well on the way to being an extremely significant collection of original Bomber Command stories, containing over 700 interviews and tens of thousands of scanned documents. These come from a wide variety of participants: both aircrew and ground crew, civilians who were in some way affected by Bomber Command or its legacy, and even a sizeable collection of material from German and Italian sources.

I’ve now taken a step back from actively seeking out further people to interview, partly to give some attention to other somewhat neglected projects and partly to give someone else a go, but I thought I’d share something of my experiences from the 27 interviews I contributed to the project.

My collection of subjects included nine pilots, seven navigators, four wireless operators, two bomb aimers, one mid-upper gunner, three rear gunners and a single WAAF. To my eternal disappointment, I wasn’t able to find a flight engineer to interview, otherwise I’d have collected an entire crew. In their ‘main’ postings, these 27 individuals represented three Heavy Conversion Units, one Operational Training Unit, and 18 Squadrons. Four of them held a Distinguished Flying Cross. One held a DFC and Bar. There were three members of the Caterpillar Club, four prisoners of war and one evader. 15 flew in Lancasters and eight in Halifaxes. One man flew both. Two flew in Liberators, one in Mosquitos and one poor soul flew in, and was shot down in, something called a Bristol Bombay.

I interviewed four people who were at Heavy Conversion Units when the war ended (two of them on the same crew). At the other end of the experience scale, one man completed 68 operational trips, ending up as a Pathfinder Master Bomber. At the time of interview, they ranged in age from a few months past 90 to more than one hundred. At least five of them have died since I interviewed them.

I interviewed two people in Sydney, one in Canberra and three on a single particularly intense weekend in Adelaide. The rest have all been in and around Melbourne (if, that is, you count as Melbourne the Mornington Peninsula in the south, Warragul in the east and Ballarat in the north-west). I’ve calculated that I have spent almost 250 hours directly working on this project, resulting in about 40 hours of actual taped interviews and more than 50 hours of travel time. I’ve travelled by car, motorbike, train, plane, bus, taxi and on my own two feet. The furthest I travelled for an interview was more than 800km to Sydney, and the shortest a walk of less than two kilometres from my home.

I’ve met some lovely people through this project. The vast majority have been extremely generous with their time, their tea and their stories. I knew seven before I interviewed them – indeed, I could even claim three or four as close friends – but for the vast majority of the rest, the first time I met them was when I turned up on their doorstep carrying my laptop, microphones and camera. I’ve found it quite amazing how open some of these people have been, how willing they’ve been to dive straight into some pretty personal stories within minutes of meeting me.

And some of those stories are genuinely astonishing. Like the navigator who went through all the training only to be shot down on his first trip—by another Lancaster. Or the pilot who went to the UK expecting to go to Bomber Command, but was instead posted to India where he flew a distinguished tour on Liberators. Then there was the pilot who flew for a Special Duties squadron whose operations were so secret he still doesn’t know exactly what he was doing. The Mosquito nightfighter navigator who chased doodlebugs through the skies of south-eastern England. The man who went from Flight Sergeant to Squadron Leader in six weeks, such was the rate of casualties in his squadron, then flew two full tours – all before his 21st birthday. The wireless operator who was shot down over France and spent three months with the Resistance before being rescued by Patton’s tanks. The bomb aimer who was the only survivor from both crews involved in a mid-air collision over Stuttgart. The gunner who still thinks – every day – about his pilot, who was the only member of his crew who died when they were shot down over Germany.

Time, certainly, has dulled some of the memories. But as we’ve gone deeper into the interviews, memories have been unlocked and some long-forgotten details have been pulled to the surface. It was not uncommon to be told afterwards that I’d just heard things that even their closest family members didn’t know. That, in itself, has made this an extremely worthwhile project to be a part of, and the archive is developing into a very valuable collection of original Bomber Command stories.

But I’ve found another happy effect from collecting all of these interviews. I’ve been able to talk with some very interesting people, and several friendships have developed as a result. And in many cases, I’ve been able to ring them up again and even go back to visit them – for nothing so formal as a follow-up interview, simply for a social chat.

I reckon that’s one of the best things that we can do to show our respect for these people: just be friendly, show interest in them as people, not only in their stories. To listen to them, give them some of our time.  They deserve that much from us all.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

 

The perils of oral history

There was a quite interesting article in Good Weekend, the magazine that comes with the Saturday newspaper here in Melbourne, last week. In Afghanistan, a split-second decision separates life and death is an edited extract of a new book called No Front Line by Chris Masters, who as a journalist was ‘embedded’ with Australian Special Forces units in 2006.

The article (and I suppose the book, though I haven’t read it) looks at some of the troubling issues to rise out of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: the moral ambiguity, the culture of the Special Forces and the questions that remain over what actually happened there. It’s worth a read.

It was a little snippet contained within the article that really grabbed my attention, though. Much of the extract published in Good Weekend centres around one particular action that happened in early June 2006  in the hills around the Chora Valley, near Tarin Kowt (where one of the principle Australian bases was located). An Australian patrol made up of six men climbed up into the hills to establish a reconnaissance post overlooking the valley, which had recently been overrun by Taliban troops. “Later accounts of what occurred vary markedly,” Masters writes. Two soldiers who were involved in the incident recalled a young Afghan male, who carried nothing, approaching their position. He “looked past the OP, then walk[ed] on across their front from right to left.” Then he came back, this time carrying a bag. Sometime around here was when it was decided that the man was a danger to the soldiers at the observation post, and two of the soldiers stalked him and, in the euphemistic language of the later after-action report, “neutralised the threat.” Whether or not this shooting of an apparently unarmed man, who may or may not have been a civilian, was justified is one of the moral questions that often arises in war.

And this is where it gets interesting. One of the other soldiers involved in the incident was Lance-Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith (who would receive a  Medal for Gallantry for this action, and later a Victoria Cross for another incident). He was interviewed by an Australian War Memorial historian in 2011 about what happened on the ridgeline. “A couple of blokes just walked up, literally,” he said, “probably about two hours before dark, walked straight up to the front of the OP, got about 30 metres to the front…”

Note Roberts-Smith’s first sentence: “a couple of blokes” [my emphasis]. The presence of two potential enemies rather than just one paints the incident in a rather different light. So here we have accounts from three eyewitnesses, all soldiers who were directly involved in the action, that differ over a quite significant basic fact. Adding to the confusion, in a different, later, interview, Roberts-Smith said “an armed insurgent walked to within 30 metres” – an. A sole individual.

Which was it, really? The post-action report, written later by the patrol commander in the aftermath of the incident, identifies a single person. That, the original two soldiers’ testimony and Roberts-Smith’s later interview all agree that there was just the one Afghan who approached the observation post, so it’s likely that this is the true number. So why did Roberts-Smith apparently get it wrong when talking to the War Memorial?

I reckon that it’s most likely simply because of the way the human mind works. Roberts-Smith wrote to the AWM after the interview, setting out a few factors that could explain it: Firstly, five years had passed between the incident and recalling it in an interview. In the interim, he had been sent to Afghanistan four more times. And the interview itself was more than two hours and 40 minutes long. “It would appear,” he wrote, “I have confused my many engagements.”

And finally we get to the point. Oral history depends on memories – indeed, oral history is made up of memories. But memories are volatile things. Time can dull the stories or even remove details entirely, and experiences can, perhaps, get muddled together in retelling – even more so when, as is my experience of collecting oral histories, those doing the remembering are nonagenarians  dealing with events that took place more than seven decades ago. Memories can be manipulated, too: if you tell yourself often enough, intentionally or otherwise, that something happened, before too long you’ll believe it really did.

In short, oral histories are not particularly reliable for the bare facts of history. They remain extremely valuable sources because they are first-hand accounts of the time under study and can capture a feeling of what it was like. But make sure you check the facts against documented sources before taking them as gospel.

It’s nothing deliberate on the part of those being interviewed. It’s just the way the mind works.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

IBCC Interview #12: Jean Smith – WAAF, RAF Lichfield

Jean Smith knew that the Second World War was coming, long before it started. She remembers well the day the balloon finally went up. Seventeen years old, she was working as a secretary for the Ministry of Aircraft Production in Barkley Square, London. For the past year, she’d been preparing contracts for, among other things, the construction of Wellingtons and Spitfires for the RAF. It was the first Sunday in September 1939. “They said to us girls, we’re all going down to the big hall because there’s going to be a speech by the Prime Minister,” she said. “We sat in the hall and the speech came on and [Chamberlain] said ‘we are now at war’. And we all said ‘Whoopee!’ – and then the air raid siren went.”

Instead of going to the shelters like they were told, Jean and her colleagues rushed to the big windows and looked over Barkley Square. It was completely deserted, Jean says – except for “a great big fat barrage balloon, going slowly up…”
The balloon really did go up when the Second World War started – and Jean saw it. I thought this an irresistibly evocative image. It was one of many beautifully vivid vignettes that she shared with me during an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre in 2016.

As soon as the war started, Jean told me, she wanted to go into the Air Force. But her father (himself a veteran of the trenches of WWI) wouldn’t let her – “not until you’re 21.” So she stayed at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, while also volunteering in the Services Canteen at the local Town Hall three nights a week to pour tea or serve baked beans to any servicemen who dropped in. “We had troops everywhere!”
In the end Jean managed to enlist at the beginning of 1942 when she was 20. She wanted to be flight mechanic or a radio operator, but given her pre-existing skills she went in as a secretary. “So all I did was my two months’ training at Innsworth camp, with thousands of other girls.” Similar to the syllabus at (male) aircrew Initial Training Schools, Jean learned to march and salute, and studied subjects like hygiene and Air Force law. Unlike aircrew though, Jean was also expected to do her hair and put on ties and make-up while using only a little compact mirror.

Jean Smith, 1943

Jean was quickly posted to 27 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lichfield, as the personal secretary to the Chief Flying Instructor. Her office was part of the Orderly Room of Training Wing – in the Flying Control tower at the edge of the airfield. The reality of life on an RAF training station during the war was brought home very quickly: “As soon as I’d settled into my office, my first job was to type out a Form 765C… five copies.” This was the standard accident report form used in Bomber Command. The particular accident was what was known as a “Cat E” – a total write-off – and all the crew were killed. “When I’d done those, I asked the Sergeant in Charge of the Orderly Room, ‘does this happen often?’ ‘Oh yes’, he said. ‘we’ve had one accident this week, we’re sure to have another two.’” Sure enough, Jean says, that’s exactly what happened. Her task the next morning was to sit down with the CFI and type out letters of condolence to the families of the dead.

On another occasion, Jean described witnessing, from her desk, the immediate aftermath of a Wellington crash. First there was a thud. “You knew it was a crash [from] that metal noise,” she said. “We looked out of the side window and there were flames and it was sliding across the airfield… And we just stood there, rooted to the spot.” Worse was to come, though. The radio operator WAAFs upstairs in the tower had left the intercom switched on. “The crew were screaming and we could hear it [through the intercom]… it was horrible.”

Though the threat of German invasion had abated somewhat by the time Jean reached Lichfield, it was still top of mind among the powers that were, and preparations were made just in case. Members of the WAAF couldn’t be compelled to carry arms, but there was one occasion when Jean was among a large group of women given the opportunity to learn how to reload and fire a Lee-Enfield rifle, in case of a desperate last-minute stand. “We all came back with a big bruised shoulder!” Jean chuckled. It would be the only time she ever fired a weapon. She also remembers being sent to guard Wellingtons that had been dispersed in farmers’ fields, armed with nothing more than a truncheon. “It was so absurd,” Jean said. “Three girls with truncheons, and we’d be out in the rain and mud, parading around these Wimpeys…”

But life at Lichfield wasn’t all bad. Every day at 10:30 the NAAFI van would come round and toot its horn, and everyone would go out with their mugs and ask for “tea and a wad”. And of course there were young men everywhere. “I was struck dumb… all these young heroes breezing in – and they really did say ‘jolly good show’ when they came in after doing something well…” Jean lived two miles down the road at the “Waafery,” which was surrounded by barbed wire and had sentries at the gate. “I used to tell the aircrew that it was to keep you randy Aussies out!” Between the Waafery and the airfield was a little pub called The Anchor, which became a regular stop for a quick drink. On winter nights when it was too foggy or rainy to fly, the message would go out over the Tannoy:

“ALL NIGHT FLYING CANCELLED – ALL NIGHT FLYING SCRUBBED – OVER AND OUT!:

“And we’d all say whoopee,” said Jean, “and get the curlers out and put all the glamour on, and dash to the pub.” Having visited the bar for half-pints of beer, the women would wait there until the sound of bikes going bang, bang, bang outside against the pub wall announced the arrival of all the boys. “They’d all come streaming in, and in half an hour the whole place would be a thick fug, you could hardly see across the room from the cigarette smoke.” There was always a big fire on in the lounge bar, Jean remembered, and “the old piano would be going like mad with all the songs getting naughtier and naughtier as the night went on…”

On 30/31 May 1942, Bomber Command sent its biggest ever force to attack Cologne. Aircraft and crews from the Operational Training Units, including Lichfield, were sent to supplement the Main Force in an effort to reach, mostly for the propaganda value, the magical number of one thousand. Possibly because she was never posted to a front-line squadron, Jean remembers the night well. “That was very exciting,” she said. “Suddenly everybody was called on deck and you were just told to do all sorts of jobs. I was giving out sealed maps and all the Red Cross parcels to the navigators and pilots.”

“A whole host of us went down to wave them off. And I always remember that night, a mass of people all standing underneath the balcony of Flying Control, and all the top brass of the station were all out on the balcony […] you’d hear that coughing and choking sound of each engine starting up and revving up and then slowly slowly the first aircraft came weaving down past the control tower.”

Jean watched the aircraft take off in turn into the dusk, with “all the dust and leaves and twigs flying.” Once they had all gone and an unsettled silence descended once again over the airfield, “long after the groundstaff had put out the flarepath and long after the dim lights on the balcony had gone off and all the officers had gone in, we all stood there, not speaking…”

Jean stayed at Lichfield until she was hospitalised by a bout of pneumonia, probably brought on by the extreme cold and damp in the Nissen huts they had been moved to. To aid her recovery she was posted to more salubrious accommodation at 93 Group Headquarters. Jean was sitting at her desk there one day in November 1944, typing on a big heavy long-carriage typewriter, when “this funny rumble went through my feet – and suddenly this rumble got bigger and my typewriter really jumped.” Jean sat back and watched, astonished, as a great big crack started at the top of the wall and came down in a big curve. She had witnessed the effects of the “Fauld Explosion“, when more than 3,500 tonnes of explosives accidentally went up at a large bomb storage depot. “I just watched it,” she said. “In an air raid when you see bombs, you tend to watch them. You’re sort of rooted to the spot. It was like that.”

The presence of women on the front-line stations was, of course, one of the more unique things about the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I’ve heard plenty of stories about that from the point of view of aircrew, but as the only WAAF I’ve interviewed, Jean was always going to have a different perspective. And, as I discovered is typical, she was very direct about it, too:

“Oh, I was a terrible flirt in the Air Force!”

Jean had a little address book with names and addresses for aircrew from all over the world – “Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders” – to whom she would write letters. “They all wanted you to write to them,” she said – “all these different boys who you never saw again.” She told me about how she met a young fitter at a a fancy-dress dance that was put on by the WAAF. This was Jock, “and of course I really fell for him.” But after they had five dates he went off to train as a flight engineer.

“Jock wanted me to be his steady girlfriend,” Jean said, “but most of us WAAF didn’t want to be serious.” This was as much out of concern for the aircrew than to protect the feelings of the WAAFs (though that undoubtedly played a role, too): “Once [aircrew] got married they became very serious and much more careful – and we all felt, talking to the aircrew boys, that to be careful was the worst thing [on ops] – it was far better to be gung-ho and able to take risks, and not have to think about a wife or serious girlfriend.”

Once he’d completed his aircrew training, Jock was posted to 90 Squadron, where he flew a complete tour of operations on Stirlings. (This explained several framed prints of that aircraft that were on Jean’s living room wall). They wrote to each other throughout that time – “I still have all his letters” – but it was not until Jock was screened and posted as an instructor at an Operational Training Unit at RAF Woolfox Lodge that the romance was re-kindled. Jean had just been posted herself, to 3 and 5 Group Headquarters in Grantham: about fifteen miles up the Great North Road from Jock’s new airfield. He had somehow acquired a motorbike so visits were easy. Jean confided that there was a little bench in a park in Grantham which in the wartime blackout was in an agreeably dark place. “That was our Snogging Seat, and we used to kiss and cuddle there,” she said with eyes sparkling. Alas, come VE Day in May 1945, all the street lights were turned on for the first time in six years… “and our Snogging Seat was no good anymore because there was a big lamp above it and it was lit up!”

Jean Smith, 1943-2

Jean and Jock married in 1946, once both had been demobbed. Life was not easy in the immediate post-war period. “You went back into civvy street and you had this awful feeling that you weren’t wanted,” Jean told me. Jobs that had been held throughout the war by civilians were jealously guarded and rationing was severe – even more so than during the conflict. “I queued for hours for bread and onions and potatoes.” Jock managed to find a job as a ground engineer for British European Airways, but jumped at an opportunity to immigrate to Australia to work with Australian National Airways in Essendon, Melbourne. Jock came out to Australia in 1952 and Jean followed six months later, and they never looked back. “We laughed our way through life, Jean said. “It was all giggle, giggle, giggle the whole time.” Jock died several years ago, and Jean’s wartime training was once again pressed into service. “A WAAF never cries,” she was told. In public, one must appear stoic. “So I didn’t even cry at his funeral,” she said. “That came later.”

“It was the best days of our lives,” Jean says now of her service. “The majority of people were all pulling together, we had one ideal, [and] everyone was working together and helping each other.” Bomber Command, she says, was Britain’s “one big bastion against Germany” before the invasion. “And if it hadn’t been for Bomber Command bombing the factories, roads, keeping them on their toes and keeping them short of things, it would have been terrible on D-Day…”

I always try to take a photo of my interview subjects after we finish. “Oooh!” said Jean when I pulled out my camera, and she rushed out to fix up her make-up (with, I presume, a full-sized mirror). I spotted a little model of a Wellington, made out of solid brass. It’s a genuine piece of trench art, crafted at RAF Lichfield while Jean was posted there. So we incorporated it into the photo:

1603 Jean Smith-031

Being the only WAAF I’ve interviewed, Jean had a very different story to what might be considered the “usual” Bomber Command narrative I’ve been used to hearing. She tells her story well, eyes twinkling at all the important moments, and five hours flew by as we chatted.

“I’m glad I got all that off my chest,” she said as I packed up my lightstand, “to someone who wanted to hear it.”

And I’m glad I got to hear it.

Words and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jean Smith.

IBCC Interview #11: Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Wireless Operator and PoW

You wouldn’t pick it from looking at him or talking to him, but Jack Bell was born in 1917. “I’ll be 100 next year,” he said when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive in 2016. “Gawd, that’s a terrifying thought!”

Terrifying it might be for Jack, but I reckon it’s an astonishing achievement, particularly after hearing the story of what happened to him during WWII. Jack Bell had a long war, and it was not an easy one.

A child of the Depression, Jack decided in 1935 that he was sick of working in an accountant’s office, and joined the military. As a gun sergeant with the Australian Militia, he says, “I could hit an anthill at a range of 3,000 yards – over a hill!” War came in 1939 and Jack immediately went into camp for a month in Caloundra with his unit. It was during this time that he had a critical realisation. If he could hit an anthill at 3,000 yards, someone else over that hill could probably hit him too. “That’s it,” he thought. “I’m going to get up in the air where it’s more difficult to get hit…” So in November 1939, Jack put his name down for the Royal Australian Air Force.

He was called up in May 1940 – too early for the ITS at Bradfield Park, which wouldn’t open for another month. Jack instead did his early training at Ballarat Showgrounds. His cohort moved to the Ballarat aerodrome for a wireless course after construction of the Air Force station there was completed that August. Next came Evans Head for gunnery training. And suddenly he was qualified. By the beginning of February 1941, Jack was on his way overseas.

Jack disembarked at Port Tawfik in Egypt. At an aerodrome at Heliopolis, just outside of Cairo, he completed a cypher course, then waited for posting orders. Three months later someone finally realised that 216 Squadron was looking for him. It turned out the Squadron was based on the other side of the same aerodrome. Jack had not received his posting orders because he was already at Heliopolis.

While nominally a bomber unit, 216 Squadron was engaged on transport and support operations. They assisted the North African campaign by ferrying supplies and fuel and occasionally dropping people behind enemy lines. There were so many primitive airfields in the desert that they were given numbers instead of names.

Jack Bell, at ‘Kilo 40’ outside Cairo, 1941

Jack’s first steed for this flying was the alarmingly obsolete twin-engine Vickers Valentia. The Valentia was a strengthened and re-engined version of the Vickers Victoria, a big British aircraft designed in 1922. While the Valentia was marginally more capable than its regally-named predecessor, its genesis in the design offices of the 1920s was embarrassingly clear. “It was like a bus,” Jack said. The Valentia was a canvas-covered biplane with huge, draggy fixed undercarriage and, almost unbelievably for an operational multi-engined aeroplane of WWII, its pilot and navigator sat in an open cockpit at the front of the aircraft, wearing pith helmets and peering through a low windscreen. It carried a fitter as part of the crew, whose sole job was to wind up the big inertial starters to get the engines going at the beginning of every flight. On a good day, the Valentia topped out at 82 miles an hour. “One day we were overtaken by a truck on the ground below us,” Jack remembered wryly.

Western Desert 1941

Happily for Jack’s continued existence, in October 1941, 216 Squadron got rid of its last Valentia. Not so happily, its replacement was the equally uninspiring Bristol Bombay. The squadron had been using Bombays solely as bombers since the beginning of the war, and the aircraft took on the transport duties of the now-superseded Valentias. “They were just useless, absolutely useless,” Jack reckoned. The type was a step up from the old Vickers aircraft inasmuch as it was now a monoplane, and the cockpit was enclosed. But it was a huge, slow thing, its undercarriage was still firmly bolted down and it was grossly underpowered. As a bomber it was more or less ineffective: it could carry just eight 250lb bombs and its bomb aiming apparatus was so old it could not drop them with any degree of accuracy. In an attempt to supplement the feeble punch packed by the official bomb load, “the air gunners and the fitters used to throw 25-pound anti-personnel bombs out of the flare chute.” Reassuring? Not at all. But it was an aeroplane, and it was all that was available.

Like its aircraft, life at 216 Squadron was fairly primitive. For meals, the aircrew ate bully beef and biscuits, or canned herring in tomato sauce. To pass the time they played cricket or poker. There were “probably a million flies per square foot.” But it was, Jack reckoned, “a wonderful experience for a young fella like me.”

216 Squadron Mess, Libya

For Jack it came to an abrupt end, however, on 23 January 1942. “I’ll never forget it,” Jack said soberly. The plan was to fly to a place called Msus, southeast of Benghazi in Libya, taking up replacement pilots and medical supplies and returning with elements of a Brigade Headquarters. All went well until they were flying down an escarpment near the town of Derna, which was then under attack by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Down below, suddenly, was an echelon of the 15th Panzer Division. They could hardly miss the big Bombay.

“The second pilot categorically stated that we were shot down by a tank,” Jack said, “which I never ever believed… the shells, to me, were more like point fives.” Whatever they were, they “rattled across the mainplane and down the centre of the aircraft.” Jack’s mate, Tony Carter, was the navigator. He was killed immediately. The pilot was wounded (he would ultimately lose a leg), as was one of the passengers. Jack received a nasty abdominal wound. Only the second pilot escaped unscathed.

Jack can’t remember much of what happened next. Rescued, and captured, by the troops who had just shot them down, he was operated on by a German doctor who happened to have been a Harley Street abdominal specialist. The doctor had been sent to England as part of Germany’s reparations after the First World War. He had returned to Germany in August 1939 and hadn’t been allowed back to England.

The man saved Jack’s life. After eight or nine days of being fed intravenously, Jack was transferred on the back of a three-tonne truck to Tripoli with other wounded prisoners, a journey of some 40 miles. It was not a pleasant trip. The friendly doctor gave him several phials of morphine and told him to jab one in his leg each morning and night. “Well, the next three days I can’t remember,” Jack said – which is lucky, because the combination of unmade roads, wartime conditions and rough handling on the part of those who loaded and unloaded the truck each night broke the stitches that were literally holding Jack together. “My abdominals – skin and stomach – were wide open,” he said with a shudder. Jack overheard a doctor telling a nurse that they would simply let nature take its course. The nurse refused to allow that to happen and convinced Jack to eat, cooking up a quince with sugar especially for him. “She was the enemy,” Jack said in wonder, “but she fed me that sweetened quince and that’s how I started to eat again.”

Jack was moved to Italy on a hospital ship, and then stayed in a hospital in Caserta until he was eventually interned at Parma, outside Milan. He sold his wristwatch for two blocks of chocolate to give to an officer making an escape attempt – but when the plot was discovered, for his part in it he was sent to the “punishment” camp at Gravina.

It’s perhaps not surprising that from this point, food – or more precisely, the lack of it – becomes a dominating theme of Jack’s story. Prisoners at Gravina were fed, but only just. “They weighed me at the end of February,” Jack said. “I weighed six stone four pounds” – about 40kg. At one stage, he was made “catering officer”. To feed 600 men for two days, he was provided with exactly twelve broccoli, eleven cabbages and a bunch of fennel. The cooks just bashed it up, roots and all, heated it in a big copper pot and served it as a brew.

“We were starving,” Jack said of his time at Gravina. On average, six prisoners a week were dying of malnutrition. The situation improved at his next camp, near Trieste, but not until the middle of 1943 once it became clear that Italy was nearing capitulation. On 23 September, their jailors left. “The British sent messages saying ‘stay where you are, you’ll be relieved in the next 24 hours.’” So Jack and his comrades stayed in the camp and waited for rescue. But in a cruel twist, overnight the camp was surrounded by German forces and the prisoners were loaded onto cattle trains and sent deep into Germany. It would be nearly two years before they were free.

Their destination was Stalag Luft IVb at Mühlberg, near the Elbe river. “It was probably at that stage the worst prison camp in Germany,” Jack reckoned. It was overcrowded. Some 35,000 prisoners squished in an area of about 32 acres, and for the first three months Jack’s group had to sleep in tents on the parade ground while waiting for more huts to be built. Food was adequate, “according to the Germans” – in reality it was barely a subsistence diet and things were grim until Red Cross parcels could supplement the rations.

The Red Cross parcels that made the diet survivable also served another purpose. “Some of the parcels had particular marks on them,” Jack said. “We – the average prisoner – didn’t know that these were sent out by MI5.” The marked parcels contained maps, hidden under labels, and other useful items for escapers. There was an Escape Committee, presided over by the Man of Confidence (who officially was the contact between the Detaining Power and the rest of the British prisoners), and all potential escapers had to be approved by the Committee to preserve the secrecy of the clandestine Red Cross supply lines. As far as escaping activity went, Jack himself was unable to physically help digging tunnels because of the injuries he sustained in the crash, but he would act as lookout if someone was stealing coal from the brazier, for example. He also has many stories of some of the escape attempts made while he was a prisoner: tunnels under vegetable gardens that collapsed on the diggers, for example (“a tomato plant with all the soil dropped down on top of him…”), or hiding a newly arrived man with the assistance of a uniform provided by the French prisoners (who had relatively more freedom than the Commonwealth troops).

After enduring the extreme cold of the winter of 1944-45, and after seeing the glow of the fires at Dresden (less than 60km away), on 4 May 1945 the German commandant simply notified the British senior officer that they would be leaving, wished everybody good luck, and took off with all the guards. The next day the Russian Army arrived – and Jack and the other prisoners were, in his words, “recaptured.” This was to ensure that the Russians had a bargaining chip, he reckons. After three days at Muhlberg the Russians marched everyone to Riga, just short of the Elbe. Jack and a few comrades took off and spent the next few days foraging for food. Eventually they crossed the fragile bridge over the Elbe and were in American hands.

Jack returned to the UK by air. All his clothes were taken on arrival and he was fumigated – and then issued with a complete new uniform. He was bitterly disappointed at losing his faithful RAF battledress jacket, which he had been wearing on that fateful operation in January 1942, and subsequently continued to wear throughout his captivity. “It still had the holes in it from the shellfire”, he said ruefully.

Jack told me of some overwhelming kindness from the British public on his arrival after his release. Staying with a friend in Brighton, for example, he went out grocery shopping with the man’s wife. Jack’s shiny new uniform stood out in the queue at the fishmongers. When the man behind the counter found out that Jack was a returned prisoner, he gave them double rations for free. “And the people clapped me, you know,” Jack recalled. “They were really wonderful people.”

His arrival in Australia was a different story, however. Japan surrendered while Jack was mid-Pacific. By the time he got home he had been out of captivity and relatively well-fed for three months. He didn’t look like the emaciated prisoners of the Japanese, who began arriving in Australia shortly afterwards. So instead of thanking him for his service, people would ask why he had gone to Europe at all. “The bloody war with Japan hadn’t even started when I left!” he says incredulously. “The reception wasn’t too great.” Even the RSL wouldn’t accept him as a member, saying he would have to go onto a waiting list.

There were personal effects too. “At night time I didn’t know what I was doing – I was thrashing around, kicking and rolling… it took a long, long time to get back to normal.”

The hardest thing he ever had to do, Jack says, was visiting the mother of his friend Tony Carter, the navigator who was killed when Jack’s Bombay crashed in Libya. “He was an only son, and I can still see his mother looking at me with the question in her eyes, why was it my son and not you… I can never forget it.”

Until the late 1980s, Jack didn’t much talk about the war. But then he wrote, for the benefit of his family, a 30-page document that told something of his story. “It was the greatest thing I ever did,” he says now. “It released me… it was out in the world somewhere and it enabled me to talk to people that weren’t old enough to go to the war and who wanted to know what happened.” Now he talks to many people about his experiences – indeed, I first encountered Jack, doing exactly that, at a large public event at the Shrine in 2013.

In wartime particularly, you never can tell quite where fortune might take you. Luck plays such an important role in where you are sent, in when you serve, in which aeroplane you fly. “It’s an experience that I would never ever do without,” Jack says of his wartime service, “but I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”

“The strange thing about it,” he says thoughtfully, “is that all my mates who stayed in the artillery came back, and I got shot down…”

Jack Bell in his back garden after the interview

Jack was interviewed in January 2016.

Text and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jack Bell.

IBCC Interview #10: Allan Couper, 75 (NZ) Squadron Bomb Aimer

In early 1944, a young Australian airman on board the Ille de France preparing to depart New York for England and an operational career with Bomber Command, listened to the BBC radio news over the ship’s Tannoy system: “The RAF mounted big attacks on German cities last night,” it said. “Sixty-nine of our aircraft are missing.”

“My God,” he thought. “What are we letting ourselves in for?”

Allan Couper was in the middle of a long stay in hospital after a fall when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive last year. Despite the boredom, he was in good spirits and willingly told me his story in between nurses interrupting or telephones ringing.

Allan was working for the State Electricity Commission in Victoria in late 1941 when he saw an advertisement to join the Air Training Corps as a cadet. It was therefore natural that Allan would join the Royal Australian Air Force proper when he turned 18. “One of the first things I remember that happened at Somers,” he said of his arrival at Initial Training School, “they pointed to a pile of hessian bags and then a pile of hay and they said, that’ll be your bedding for tonight.”

The next three months passed in a blur of lectures (some of which repeated material Allan had already learned in his time with the Air Training Corps), drill, exercise and tests. At the end of the course, Allan was selected as a pilot and sent to 7 Elementary Flying Training School at Western Junction, Tasmania, flying Tiger Moths. But after twelve hours of instruction, before he had the chance to go solo, he was scrubbed because he couldn’t judge landings properly.

Remustered as an observer, Allan was sent to Cootamundra in NSW. Flying in Ansons with two trainees and a staff pilot, they would “stooge around,” navigating to various places and drawing a quick sketch of the townships to prove they’d got there. “You had to be pretty quick,” he said

Further training took place at West Sale, where they did bombing training in Oxfords and gunnery in Fairey Battles. “After the exercise was over,” he said of the gunnery sorties, “the staff pilots would do a few aerobatics… well, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy that!”

Accidents were common in training. Allan remembered one trainee who needed to bail out of his Anson when it got into trouble. “But he forgot to do up the straps between his legs, fell out of his harness and was killed.”

Like many Australians, Allan enjoyed the hospitality of local families while he was in transit through America. On arrival in the UK, it immediately became clear that they were now in a war zone. “The place was absolutely over-run with troops,” he remembered of Brighton, his first stop. “There was food rationing, the roads were chockers with tanks and that sort of thing, there were a lot of women in uniform… every day a formation of Fortresses or Liberators would be coming back and other aircraft would be coming and going all the time.”

At this point, Allan was a fully-trained Observer. But in June 1942 Bomber Command had split that category of aircrew into two specialist roles: those of the bomb aimer and the navigator. And up to this stage in his training, Allan could have been either. Many chose their preference for themselves – but for Allan, the decision was made for him. At the Operational Training Unit in Westcott, the Navigation Leader said to Allan and a group of other Observers, “You shouldn’t have an O on your brevet, you should be wearing a B.” And so Allan became a bomb aimer.

Eventually Allan was posted to 75 (NZ) Squadron at Mepal – the only Australian there. “My crew were allocated a hut,” he remembered, “we went out on a few training exercises to start with – and then we went on our first trip.”

In the first days of autumn in 1944, the German forces in Holland were in retreat but still holding out in places. A major airborne operation to force a resolution, code-named Market Garden, was just weeks away. In this context, the German-held Gilze-Rijen airfield, just outside of Eindhoven, was attacked by a large force of bombers in daylight on 3 September. It was Allan Couper’s baptism of fire, and it didn’t start well. “About a minute and a half after we started on track, the navigator announced that we were doing the reciprocal of what we should have been doing…. That meant that we were four or five minutes late.”

By the time they got over enemy territory, Allan and his crew were now so late that they appeared to be the only aeroplane in the sky – a scary prospect for a crew on their first operation. They were engaged by anti-aircraft fire but escaped and, alone over their target, dropped their bombs into the smoke clouds below. They returned safely to Mepal, to much relief all round. “It was said,” Allan told me, “that if you managed to survive the first three trips you had a fair chance of surviving a tour… that [first trip] was a fair illustration of what those first three trips were all about.”

Happily for Allan and his crew, they learnt from that early experience and managed to complete 32 operations in all. It was not exactly uneventful – on one occasion they lost an engine on take-off, with a full bomb load, but carried on to successfully bomb the target regardless. On another trip an engine failed at low level over the sea on the way out to bomb the dykes at Wangerooge. “Of course, that wasn’t the best…”, Allan said thoughtfully. And on another flight the pilot needed to go and use the Elsan, so Allan’s very limited flying experience was called upon. “We were in formation,” he said, “and in cloud… that was an experience, for everybody!”

On completing his tour, Allan was posted to a unit which was engaged in checking navigation installations at airfields all around the UK. Each day they would fly out to another aerodrome and spend the day checking the accuracy of the beam approach system. The next day they’d go to another airfield. Allan enjoyed the camaraderie at this unit: “The people at this station were all very experienced crews who had been all over the world – they’d done everything.”

And then the war ended, and Allan came home – straight back into his old job at the State Electricity Commission. He would stay with that organisation, in progressively more senior roles, for the rest of his working life.

“None of us knew what we were getting ourselves in for,” he said, reflecting on his service at the end of the interview. “[Bomber Command] was a marvellous, well-organised organisation that achieved great things against great odds… it was a very big contribution that kinda got lost in the upset after the war.”

I looked back as I walked out of the hospital room. There was Allan, eyes closed, lost in his memories.

© 2017 Adam Purcell

Behind the Wire – Photographic Exhibition at the Shrine

I went down to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne recently to see their current exhibition, a photographic project by Australian documentary photographer Susan Gordon-Brown called Behind the Wire. It is a collection of some 50 portraits of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War, presented together with a short blurb from interviews completed with each veteran over a three-year period. There are cooks, dentists, drivers, gunners, infantrymen, pilots and civilian nurses, among other trades, in the collection.

Some of the portraits are beautiful. They’re not particularly flashy, taken with natural light in most cases, but it’s in part their simplicity that appeals. It’s clear to see that these faces have seen some terrible things – and, sadly, in one way or another, these people are all still coping with their experiences many decades later.

Indeed, part of why I wanted to see the exhibition was because of the parallels with my own post-interview photos of Bomber Command veterans. At the local Keilor East ceremony a week before Anzac Day in April I met a Vietnam veteran named Bill, a local man who was there with his grand-daughter. And that made me realise that there are parallels between the men of Bomber Command and the men who served in Vietnam. Both fought in campaigns that have become controversial. Once they came home, there was no official support – no counselling, no recognition. And both sets of veterans have only started talking about their experiences in much later years.

I spent a couple of hours soaking the whole exhibition in. Highly recommended.

The exhibition is on at the Shrine until 23 October at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. Further information can be found on the Behind the Wire website

Incidentally, wandering around the grounds outside the Shrine I finally discovered that there is, in fact, a plaque dedicated to 467 and 463 Squadrons. It’s on the southern edge, in what I’d call prime position – under the first tree on the right when you’re looking down from the Shrine’s southern steps. It’s a simple memorial, but it’s nice to have found a focal point for remembering the two Squadrons in Melbourne.

1609-shrine-003

1609-shrine-001

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell


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