Author’s note, 5 June 2021: Since this post was published, several major Australian newspapers have printed serious allegations against the soldier it names, concerning his conduct in Afghanistan. While I make no comment on the veracity or otherwise of the newspapers’ claims, I acknowledge the possibility that the allegations add a different context to the soldier’s testimony as it’s quoted here,. However, because its central thrust is about how oral history needs to be taken with a grain of salt (rather than commenting on the actual incident described), my post remains valid and I’ve decided to leave it here unchanged (except for this note).
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.
The cabbie who picked me up from the airport couldn’t work out why I would be coming to Canberra for non-work reasons.
On a weekend.
He perked up, though, as he drove me down Fairburn Avenue and through a big roundabout, pointing to a big domed building up the hill.
“That War Memorial. You must go there.”
Don’t worry, I said. I’ll be going there alright.
The Australian War Memorial, that big domed building on the hill in front of Mount Ainslie, is the traditional and spiritual home of much of the activity associated with the annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. The weekend just gone saw the 8th edition take place, under blue skies for once.
It began, though, with sad news. While preparing to leave for the commemorations, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation President Ross Pearson suffered a stroke. As I write it is still too soon to know much but the early signs are, I hear, not good. The knowledge of Ross’ illness cast a dark shadow on the weekend, and he remained in the thoughts of many of those present. But the show, as they say, must go on, and in the best spirit of Bomber Command, we pressed on regardless.
First up was the Meet & Greet function, in the shadow of the great black bomber named G for George. It was one of the bigger crowds in recent memory I thought, and was quite a good evening.
A highlight was seeing two old pilots sitting next to each other having a chat. Alan Finch (who I met at this function last year) was posted to 467 Squadron in August 1943 and completed his tour on 19 March 1944. Bill Purdy arrived at 463 Squadron two weeks after Alan left. So while they were not quite both at Waddington at the same time, they were there at the same time as the crew of B for Baker. There are not many men around these days who were operating around that time, so to find two of them sitting next to each other was a special moment for me.
Bill was telling a story when I passed by. After his tour ended in August 1944, he was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit as an instructor on Stirlings. His first pupil, he said, could fly better than he did. “We didn’t even realise we had landed!” His second pupil was even better. But Number Three? There was much swerving all over the sky. “It was a controlled crash every time!”
Once they all got to their operational squadrons, though, it was a different story. The first man was lost on his first trip. The second man lasted three. But the third pilot survived his tour. “Maybe the other two were too good…” Bill mused thoughtfully.
It strangely makes sense. Flying perfectly straight and level in a combat zone could be fatal when flak and nightfighters were around.
There was an attempt to get a group photo of all the veterans present but it was less than successful. But seeing as everyone was gathered near the lectern at the tail end of George, 467 Squadron mid-upper gunner Albert Wallace took to the microphone to tell a few stories about Australians, WAAFs and sugar tongs. He mentioned being one of the last crews to fly S-Sugar, the Lancaster preserved at the RAF Museum in Hendon.
That brought Alan Finch to the front. “We were the first crew to fly Sugar on 467 Squadron!” he said. He wasn’t impressed: “I said it wasn’t fit for operational service…” As we now know, of course, Sugar would go on to fly over 100 operations.
Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.
While all this was going on, I noticed Don Southwell sitting on a convenient ledge in front of a painting of a flight engineer. He had some interesting light falling on his face from a set of lamps that were ostensibly there to illuminate the speaker at the lectern.
I got an idea…
VETERAN PHOTO BOOTH!
As the event wrapped up I also dragged the lights over to get a nice portrait of two of the key organisers of the event, Don and David Southwell:
The ‘official’ hotel for the Bomber Command group had changed to the brand-new Avenue, in the heart of the city. A small group repaired to the hotel bar there following the function for a few drinks. The group was down a little on numbers from previous years, partly because some were still staying at the QT hotel as usual and also because some of the usual suspects were missing (Don Huxtable being a very noticeable absence, being in hospital in Sydney). The ghosts of absent friends were very evident. But it was still a very useful and enjoyable evening. At one point I asked Keith Campbell, who had just been served the biggest ‘little’ beer he had ever seen, what he thought of wartime English beer. Not much, as it turns out. “It was weak and tasteless!” he said.
The grass in front of the Bomber Command memorial sculpture in the western grounds of the War Memorial is the original venue for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day, and given it is a dedicated memorial to Bomber Command it makes sense to hold the ceremony in its shadow. But having experienced the heightened atmosphere and mood in the cloisters of the War Memorial for the last two years, I reckon it’s much better up there. And so I was almost hoping for rain when I awoke this morning. But for the first time in three years the ceremony on Sunday morning was held outside under blue skies, and it went rather well.
I’m told there were 600 seats provided, and they were all full well before the ceremony kicked off at 11:00, with other people standing around the periphery. Sitting behind me was Tom Stewart, a Canberra local who was a 77 Squadron (Royal Air Force, not the Australian fighter squadron!) wireless operator. I snapped a quick photo before the ceremony started:
A representative flight of the reformed 460 Squadron ‘marched on’ to open the ceremony. Dr Brendan Nelson, AWM Director, again spoke well and mostly without notes, quoting the words that end Striking by Night presentation in which G for George plays such a starring role. “My memories are of young men, Aussie men,” it goes, “laughing, dancing, singing and enjoying the moment… Never to be heard of again.”
Well, Dr Nelson told us, setting the theme for the weekend, “they are to be heard of again: here, today.”
I was most impressed, however, by the speech from Dr Peter Hendy, the Federal Member for Eden-Monaro. It started off the usual way and I was a little worried that it would be a typical politician’s speech, saying the right things but without really knowing or believing in what was being said. But then he veered off into much more personal territory. Dr Hendy, it turned out, had an Uncle Jack, actually a cousin of his father’s, who was a rear gunner in Bomber Command. And so, just like I did, Dr Hendy grew up with stories of “Uncle Jack,” bombers and gun turrets. He said that while it’s tempting to speak of Bomber Command airmen as being superhuman, they were actually ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. “The extraordinary, ordinary Australians”, he called them, and I thought that a most appropriate description.
Keith Campbell (who at breakfast that morning was singularly unruffled by the short notice) gave the Reflections address in place of Ross Pearson. He spoke of the WAAFs who would issue parachutes to the airmen with the old line “if it doesn’t open, bring it back!”, of “the longest ten seconds you would ever know” after the bombs went down, waiting for the camera to tick over, and of listening to a Master Bomber’s voice on the radio over the target one night: “Goodbye chaps, we’re going in – we’ve been hit by flak and we’ve had it.” And he spoke of his demob: “There was no tickertape parade. Just a suit, new hat and best wishes.”
But it was Keith’s conclusion that rang most true for me. He was speaking to the veterans present, urging them to tell their stories while they still can. “Maybe you can pass the torch on to others,” he said. “Make sure that their name lives forevermore.”
The luncheon was moved from the War Memorial at quite short notice to the QT Hotel because of high demand. More than 180 people were there.
There was a lot of brass there. The soon-to-retire Chief of Air Force, Air Marshall Geoff Brown, delivered an intriguing address looking at current capability of the Royal Australian Air Force, including some very rare bombing footage of recent operations in Iraq.
Where in Bomber Command’s day 1,000 aircraft might be sent to one target, these days one aircraft might engage four individual targets on a single sortie. He even showed an example of the requirement to avoid collateral damage, when non-combatant vehicles were observed nearing a target and the laser targeting system was used to push the munitions off target after the weapons were released. A capability, one suspects, which Bomber Command would have found quite useful.
Also speaking was the Chairman of the Trustees of the International Bomber Command Centre, Tony Worth. Tony was in Australia as part of a delegation of IBCC people who are working on “an international story of Recognition, Remembrance and Reconciliation”.
The Centre, in the early stages of being established on a hillside within sight of Lincoln Cathedral, will consist of a Memorial Spire (which was erected last month), steel walls engraved with the names of those who died in Bomber Command, an education and exhibition centre, ‘Peace Garden’ and, most significantly for me, an ambitious digital archive that aims to become a comprehensive research resource – the ‘go-to’ point for Bomber Command information into the future. As such they are looking for people worldwide to scan documents and interview veterans and it’s possible that I may become a point of contact for this in Melbourne. It’s a big project with very lofty goals but it certainly looks like they have an enthusiastic team behind it and it will be very interesting to watch their progress.
The increased interest in Bomber Command and events of this type can easily be seen in the numbers attending this year. While not the “biggest ever” I think it was a modest increase on last year, even with those notable absentees. While I didn’t come away with as many ‘new’ veterans as I have in the past I still made a lot of contacts and there were many family, friends and hangers-on present. (Including, incredibly enough, one of my high school PE teachers whose wife has a 467 Squadron connection).
The news of Ross Pearson’s stroke concentrated some minds on thoughts of what the future might look like for the organisation of this event and others like it, and there was discussion of this important question at various points over the weekend. The intention of the group of veterans – led by the late Rollo Kingsford-Smith – who developed the concept for the first Bomber Command Commemorative Day was that it would continue “in perpetuity”, and this intention was restated a couple of times on the weekend. Certainly the numbers present demonstrate that the demand is there and indeed is growing for events of this type. Much of the burden of organising this event already falls on the younger generation, but the inspiration for it is still drawn from the hardy but dwindling band of Bomber Command ‘originals’. Some hard questions will need to be answered when the last of the ‘extraordinary, ordinary Australians’ finally leave this life.
The luncheon was beginning to wrap up and the crowd was thinning. As I prepared to leave I saw two old blokes, the last people sitting at a table. They were Angus Cameron and Tom Hopkinson, two Canberra-based veterans, and they looked very relaxed.
Two extraordinary, ordinary Australians, sitting back and having a lively chat.
It has long been the case that, following their return from war or warlike service, many veterans will become involved in ex-service groups. These organisations – many set up and run by the veterans themselves – provide support and comradeship for the years immediately following return from war. Regular reunions, typically based around ANZAC Day or other significant dates on the calendar, helped keep alive the close friendships that develop out of shared combat or other adversities. And of course they would also allow time for reflection and remembrance of those who did not come back. As Laurence Binyon wrote, “They shall not grow old.”
But of course there are more words that follow that line from Binyon’s famous poem, For the Fallen:
“..as we that are left grow old.”
Time, inevitably, marches on, and those that are left from WWII are now very, very old indeed. The last Australian to serve overseas in WWI died in 2005. It won’t be many more years before WWII veterans go the same way. Once they are no more, will the ex-service organisations carry on? Who will run them? Who will carry the banners? Who will remember them, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning?
Enter Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. Reasoning that the earlier you get ‘em, the greater the impact, the Shrine runs a programme that as far as I know is unique in Australia. They match ex-service organisations with primary and secondary schools, usually with either a geographical or a historical connection. The Shrine facilitates and hosts initial meetings between the interested parties. It provides guidance on how to proceed. And then it steps discreetly out of the way, leaving the two bodies to continue and develop the relationship that has been cultivated.
Usually targeting a particular year group at the school, the history of the adopted unit is integrated into the school’s curriculum. As the Shrine notes on its website, this works nicely with the Civics and Citizenship part of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (AusVELS) curriculum. Just this in itself is a good reason for becoming involved. But then they go further.
Many different ex-service organisations hold annual commemorative services at the Shrine (that for Bomber Command, of course, is in June each year). But as the veterans age, it becomes harder for them to organise, run or even attend the ceremonies themselves. For units that have been adopted under the Shrine’s programme, the solution is obvious. The school students, who have been learning about the unit at school, meet the veterans, become part of organising the ceremony and then play a role in actually running it. Because the programme is targeted at a specific year group (say, Year 9), different students are involved every year – and thus the unit’s legacy becomes, hopefully, self-perpetuating.
It’s a great idea and one that has already borne fruit. Some 33 schools are already taking part and there are a number of others in the pipeline.
Just imagine learning at school about a particular aspect of WWII, and then meeting people who were actually there. What a fantastic way to inspire an interest and bring the history alive. Wish they’d have thought of it when I was at school!
When I arrange to meet a Bomber Command veteran I typically try to find out beforehand some basic details of his service, to put the visit in some sort of context. It was no different when I recently met a former bomb aimer who had served on an Australian squadron in the closing months of the war.
The veteran – who I’ll call ‘Bill’ – flew his first operation on 13 February, 1945.
In hindsight, I probably should have realised the significance of that date much earlier than I did.
Even though in recent years there has been a re-assessment of the causes and consequences of the firestorm (most notably in Frederick Taylor’s excellent 2004 book Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945), the name of the city still induces a sharp, involuntary intake of breath. It would come to haunt Bill for the next seven decades.
On 9 February 1995, The Age newspaper published two articles marking the 50th anniversary of the raid. “Dresden put to fire and the sword”, said the headline on one of them, an article by Simon Jenkins. “The war was almost over and military installations round Dresden were not attacked,” Jenkins wrote. “Harris used incendiaries on Dresden to create a firestorm where in other cities he used high explosive.” And in dealing with the reaction after the raid, he wrote, even the Americans “distanced themselves from avowedly “terrorist” air attacks, after their own planes had gunned down people fleeing the burning city the morning after the British raid.”
The second article, titled “Unease lingers 50 years after a city’s ruin” by John Lahey, quotes a 463 Squadron navigator, Brian Luscombe. “Mr Luscombe says he become uneasy about 20 years after the war ‘when people would ask where you had been and what you had done. It was only then we realised the enormity of it. It was a holocaust.’” Bill underlined that paragraph in red ink. As the bomb aimer, he had been the man on board his Lancaster who pressed the button to send his munitions into the maelstrom below. Ashamed at the personal responsibility he felt for what happened to Dresden, he threw away his service medals and declared himself a pacifist.
But the irony is the two articles which apparently affected him so much demonstrate a view of the Dresden raid which is now well out of date. As 227 Squadron rear gunner Dennis Over – who also flew to Dresden – suggested to me a few years ago, how did anybody at the time know that the war was almost over? Squadron Operational Record Books confirm that bomb loads used at Dresden were no different to other raids on urban targets around the same time. And Frederick Taylor, in an appendix to his book, effectively blows the theory of post-raid strafing of civilians out of the water (see p.440 for a summary and explanation). The theory was raised in David Irving’s now-discredited 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden, but there is precisely no reliable documentary evidence that anything of the sort actually happened.
This is not the first time that I’ve met a veteran of Dresden. Indeed, given that it happened at the end of the war, I’d say most veterans still alive today would have been operating at the time. But Bill is one of the first I have met who has been affected by it this much. It wasn’t the only part of his wartime service which appears to have scarred him however.
Bill is well over 90 now and quite frail, and was sitting in an armchair reading a newspaper when his wife showed me in. She introduced us and his first comment was that “it was a very very very long time ago and my memory isn’t very good anymore.” Nevertheless we were able to have a conversation, however rambling and confused it might have been.
Prompted by a photo of his crew sitting on the engine of a Lancaster, Bill shared with me one of the more shocking events of his operational career. Just a couple of weeks from the end of the war in Europe, his crew was on the final leg to a target in Germany when they were attacked by an unidentified aircraft, badly damaging their Lancaster. As was standard practice, once the immediate emergency was over the pilot checked on the intercom to make sure everyone was ok. He managed to raise everyone but ‘Jock’, the flight engineer. He asked Bill to check on him.
Bill was within arm’s reach of his comrade. He reached across and placed a hand on his wrist and felt – nothing.
I don’t think Jock’s with us anymore.
Jock was dead. The crew later got permission to fly to Scotland for the funeral – but after that life (and the war) went on. They got a replacement flight engineer and continued flying on operations.
Having experiences like this can badly affect people, especially young people. Bill was not quite 24 when this happened. Five or so years ago he became ill. His memory began to fail him and consequently when I visited the story was difficult for him to find in his mind. As he finished his story I began to feel like maybe he had shared enough, that the memories, as difficult as they were physically to find, were now beginning to get too much. He suddenly realised the time. “Oh, the football will be on,” he said, and shuffled out with his walking frame to watch it on a television out the back.
His wife came back in around that point, and over a cup of tea I found out a little more about him. “He was very difficult to live with,” she told me. It got to the point where their daughter would refuse to be in the house without her mother. It’s only been in recent years – since Bill became ill and, ironically, since his memory began to fail – that he began opening up just a little bit about his experiences. To try and better understand the sorts of things he would have gone through, she has begun to seek out more about his story. There’s an impressive collection of Bomber Command books on her shelf and, though Bill himself is now unable to travel she regularly attends Squadron reunions and Bomber Command events. Their daughter went to the UK for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial in 2012 (with replacement medals arranged through the Australian Department of Defence and her local Member of Parliament). His wife even went to the UK as well a few years ago to visit some of the sites associated with Bill’s service, including what’s left of the airfield his unit flew from. One day she had lunch at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, most famous as being the one-time 617 Squadron Officers’ Mess. Hanging on a wall in the Squadron Bar inside the hotel, she found a framed print showing a Lancaster flying low over a Dutch windmill. It’s a painting called ‘And They Called It Manna’, done in 1989 by an artist called Howard Bourne, and try as she might, she has been unable to find a copy of it.
For Bill also took part in some of the food drops carried out by Bomber Command to starving Dutch civilians in the very final days of the war in Europe. They counted as full operations and were flown fully crewed and armed because no-one could be certain that the Germans, who still occupied western parts of the Netherlands, would not fire on the aircraft. And then there were two flights for Operation Exodus, the repatriation of Allied prisoners of war, following the German surrender. On one of these, one of the 24 or so passengers who had been picked up in Antwerp became so emotional when he sighted the White Cliffs of Dover that he gave Bill a German SS dagger he had souvenired. Bill still has it. It’s an evil-looking weapon, with a swastika in a red and white diamond-shaped enamel badge set in the hilt, and will soon find a home in an appropriate museum.
The football match had developed into a very one-sided contest but despite that Bill had regained his spark by the time I went into the back room to say goodbye. I left in a very thoughtful mood. For many in Bomber Command, the food drops and prisoner repatriations were some of the most satisfying trips they took part in, giving them the chance to be part of something constructive rather than destructive. Perhaps the joy at having survived the war (though an offensive against Japan still looked possible) had something to do with it.
But it is clear that for some, even seven decades on there are still some demons hanging around. It was not Manna or Exodus which Bill remembered. It was instead one particularly infamous raid on which he took part which would come to define his wartime service and, subsequently, his life. It’s a desperately sad story and very much one of the forgotten but longest-lasting effects of the war.
On Friday 3 March 1944, LM475, the aircraft that would become B for Baker, appears in Phil Smith’s logbook for the first time. Two flights are recorded on this day, and while on the face of it they appear perfectly normal – two sessions of High Level Bombing, one during the day and one by night – the entries would lead to much head-scratching on my part, some seven decades later.
There are a few curiosities in this entry. Wing Commander Balmer was the 467 Squadron Commanding Officer. It appears most likely that the other passenger was Flight Lieutenant Patrick Ernest McCarthy, who was probably the 467 Squadron Bombing Leader at the time. It is unclear whether Phil’s ‘normal’ bomb aimer Jerry Parker came along or not as Phil had a habit of not recording full crew names for non-operational flights. The reason for the trip to Hunsdon (a nightfighter airfield 20 miles north of London, or some 100 miles from Waddington) is unknown. There is a possibility that this could have been a check flight for either Phil Smith or for the new aircraft, though I don’t know if Squadron Commanders carried out this sort of activity. More likely, perhaps, is that Balmer needed to get to London and so Phil took the opportunity to take his new aeroplane for a spin to get him there.
The mystery deepens however when we throw the entry in Jack Purcell’s logbook into the mix:
Owethorpe is most likely a spelling error – there was a practice bombing range at Owthorpe (without the ‘e’), just east of Nottingham, and this was probably the destination for the bombing exercise. The High Level Bombing part agrees with what is in Phil’s logbook, but there is an alarming inconsistency here: Phil records the flight as having been 40 minutes longer than Jack did. My initial theory was that Balmer went along first for a 40-minute check flight in the Waddington circuit with Phil Smith only, and then the remainder of the crew with F/L McCarthy joined them for a flight to Hunsdon via the practice range at Owthorpe. But I’m not sure that 1.25 hours is enough time to get from Waddington to Hunsdon via Owthorpe, particularly when the later flight to another range close to Nottingham took 1.30 hours on its own.
This second flight appears to be recorded correctly in both logbooks. Phil says this:
Lancaster LM475. Pilot: Self. Crew: Crew, F/Lt McCarthy. HLB (5). 145yds bombing error. 1.30hrs Night with 0.45hrs Instrument.
These entries both clearly relate to the same flight (1.30 hours at night with S/L Smith), which was for more practice bombing. Once again F/L McCarthy went along (no mention if Jerry Parker was also on board though), and Jack has misspelt the destination (which come to think of it is a somewhat startling trait for a navigator!) which should probably be ‘Epperstone,’ the site of another practice bombing range seven miles north east of Nottingham. This also tallies with the entry in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book:
No ops again today – instead we had 2 Bulls Eyes and plenty of Bombing Practice at night. With the moonlight conditions were ideal.
So this second flight is fairly easy to explain. But it’s hard to think of a scenario which could explain a flight on which practice bombing was carried out at Owthorpe AND a landing made at Hunsdon, with the Squadron Commander AND the Bombing Leader along for the ride, on a trip on which the pilot logged 2.05 hours but the navigator logged just 1.25 hours. The simplest explanation would be that Jack Purcell made a mistake. If we assume this was the case, it would be quite reasonable to fly from Waddington to Hunsdon, either to drop off W/C Balmer or simply as an exercise on which Balmer came along to observe, via a few practice bombing runs at Owthorpe range, and then back to Waddington again inside 2.05 hours. Judging on other parts of his logbook Jack’s record keeping was never particularly fantastic so a mistake is a distinct possibility. It does not sit well with the fastidious nature of his job as a navigator though.
There is insufficient information in the sources currently available to me to explain what might have happened in a definitive sense. The ORBs do not record non-operational flights in adequate detail and Phil did not write of this trip in his post-war manuscript so the only way of being sure would be to compare the logbooks of all those involved. But as far as I know out of the crew of B for Baker only Jack’s and Phil’s logbooks have survived, and they disagree with each other. This one will probably remain a mystery.
Australian investigative journalism program 60 Minutes last night broadcast a very interesting story about a 97 Squadron navigator called Ron Conley, who went missing on a raid on the Pointe du Hoc gun emplacements, very early on D-Day morning, 6 June 1944. The report, called “Lancaster 739”, followed the story of Conley’s crew who were presumed lost at sea. The reporter, Michael Usher, suggested that there had been an official cover-up about the circumstances of the crash, and that a ‘top secret’ radar system that was on board might have had something to do with it. As always, I like to think cock-up before I think conspiracy, so on hearing this bit my ears pricked up. I thought I would do a little digging.
Conveniently, Conley’s Casualty File is available to view at the National Archives of Australia website. It contains a letter written after the crew failed to return by the new 97 Squadron Officer Commanding to the RAF Air Ministry. It’s a poor-quality photostat and is rather difficult to read, but it does appear to report the circumstances of the loss of Lancaster LD739 ND739 (Edit September 2014: see comments below). There was an extra man in the crew – the eighth member being named in this letter as a Special Air Bomber. Pathfinder crews regularly had extra men on board to operate some of the special navigational equipment they carried – in this case possibly the Oboe blind-bombing aid. Ground defences were “inactive”, the letter says, but “a few fighters were known to be over the target area”. Critically, the pilot of this aircraft, W/C EJ (Jimmy) Carter, DFC, who was the 97 Squadron CO until he failed to return from this trip, had been nominated Deputy Controller for the operation and so was required to keep in radio communication with the rest of his force over the target, relaying orders from the Master Bomber who was flying a Mosquito. Carter’s voice was heard but apparently “ceased in the middle of a sentence” just after 5am and no further signals were received from the aircraft. “It is believed,” wrote the replacement CO to Conley’s father, “that an enemy fighter must have intercepted the aircraft while over the target, but although one or two of our aircraft were seen to be shot down, nothing much could be identified owing to a certain amount of cloud.”
Also in the Casualty File is a copy of an internal signal dated 22 December 1944 sent from London to the RAAF in Melbourne advising that enquiries made to the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva had failed to turn up any news of Conley or the rest of his crew. This shows that the RAAF had made efforts to trace the missing crew. But in the absence of any further word, in March 1945 they wrote to Mr Conley again advising that “it has now become necessary to consider the question whether in these circumstances an official presumption of your son’s death should be made.” I’ve seen very similar letters in the files of many of my great uncle Jack’s crew as well. In May 1945 Conley was officially presumed dead.
In 1949, the Air Force explained (and this letter was quoted in the report). “All efforts to find any trace of your son’s aircraft or to establish whether the bodies of any of the crew were ever recovered for burial have proved unsuccessful. In view of this complete lack of evidence, it is now concluded that your son and his comrades were lost at sea. It is proposed, therefore, to commemorate your son by including his name on a memorial which will be erected at a later date by the Imperial War Graves Commission, to the memory of those deceased members who have no known grave.” Ron Conley’s name, and those of the rest of his crew, are now on the Runnymede memorial in England.
So far, all of this is very much like so many other stories about Bomber Command airmen. The 60 Minutes team interviewed cousins of Ron Conley and found family of other members of the crew as well. What sets this story apart just a little, however, is that an English aviation archaeologist named Tony Graves has only recently found the remains of the aircraft – not in the English Channel as was officially presumed, but in a field on an abandoned farm in Normandy. The wreck was positively identified on the basis of a gold wedding ring engraved with the initials “A.C.” and with the words “Love Vera” on the inside. This was traced to F/L Albert Chambers, the wireless operator on the crew, whose wife was named Vera. They also showed a small fragment of a uniform with the remains of a Distinguished Flying Medal ribbon still sewn on. Three members of the crew had received that particular decoration. (In fact this was a highly experienced and decorated crew. As well as the Squadron Commander, W/C Carter, it also carried the Gunnery and Signals Leaders. Six of the eight had already been awarded DFMs or DFCs, and Conley himself would be posthumously given a DFC as well.) Though smashed into almost unrecognisable fragments from the force of the impact of the crash, what remained had been preserved remarkably well, with paper maps and charts that would have been from Conley’s nav bag recovered from the wreckage. How Graves knew that the wreck was there was not explained beyond a reference to “enough evidence and eyewitness accounts,” but congratulations are due to him for making the discovery and following the story up to the extent that he has.
The report was, I thought, going well up to this point. But then they started talking about the “new, secret” radar called “HS2” that was on this “customised” Lancaster.
By the middle of 1944, H2S (note not ‘HS2’) was well-established as a ground-mapping radar system. So while it was still nominally a ‘secret’, it certainly was not a brand-new piece of equipment and was in general use by the Main Force throughout the Battle of Berlin period (November 1943 – March 1944). It’s mentioned many times in the Night Raid Reports of this period, being fitted to both heavy bombers and Mosquitos. In fact, the interrogation of German nightfighter commander Josef ‘Beppo’ Schmid after the war confirmed that as early as November 1943 the Germans were using the emissions from the H2S sets to home in on the bomber stream. In short, it was by no means an unusual thing to find on a Lancaster at that time, and cannot therefore be used as a reason for a potential cover-up.
Also appearing in the report was Keith Dunning, the son of P/O Guy Dunning, the flight engineer on ND739. He remembered a visit to his family, after the war, by an RAF airman who said he was on the same trip and had seen the aircraft go down over land. The RAF had, Keith said, later written to Dunning’s family to say that this had been a “mistake” and the airman had later withdrawn his testimony. This was presented in the 60 Minutes report as further evidence of a cover-up. However, as was written in the CO’s letter to Conley’s father I quoted earlier, cloud prevented the exact identification of any of the aircraft that were seen to be shot down. There is also the fact that the raid took place half an hour or so before dawn so light levels would have been low. It’s difficult to say, in the face of that, that the airman was definitively correct in his original identification of the crashing aircraft, and with no further evidence to support the theory coming to light after the event, the Air Force appears to have acted quite reasonably in discounting his report.
The logbook belonging to Guy Dunning was featured, with some pages apparently removed covering the operation on which the crew went missing. Keith Dunning said other logbooks that he has seen from the same crew showed the same pages missing. Again, 60 Minutes called this evidence of a cover-up. But the final pages would have been filled in by someone at the squadron after the crew failed to return, not by the aircrew themselves (who were dead by this stage). Jack Purcell’s logbook records the wrong aircraft for his final flight, and squadron Operational Record Books are littered with similar clerical errors. It’s quite possible that whoever wrote the last entry in the logbooks made a mistake and decided to remove the pages and start again.
Finally, there is the fact that no bodies were found when the aircraft was excavated. No-one appears to know where the bodies are, or who might have moved them. “Eight bodies don’t vanish”, said Dunning. 60 Minutes, by now predictably, again called it a cover-up. But an understanding of RAF Missing Research and Enquiry Service methods would suggest that, more likely, the investigators simply couldn’t find anyone who could tell them what happened. Tony Graves apparently found reports by eyewitnesses to the crash but perhaps any witnesses to the burial did not survive the fairly intense fighting that occurred in the general area in the immediate aftermath of the invasion (as happened to a young Dutch girl who witnessed a Tempest crash in March 1945). There would have been considerable confusion in the area in the following weeks and months and if any records were made of the burials, they could well have simply disappeared in the fog of war. There are, according to the report, some graves marked as ‘unknown airmen’ in the local cemetery and there is of course a possibility that these hold the crew of ND739. But two 97 Squadron aircraft were lost on this raid so they could also belong to the other crew. The MRES could well have been aware of these graves and opened them up (though no MRES report appears in Conley’s A705 file), but perhaps were unable to make a positive identification of the airmen buried there. There was some talk on the program, if the required documents could be found, of identifying the men in the graves and giving names to the headstones, but as the crew are already appropriately commemorated elsewhere (at Runnymede), this is not something that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would approve.
So most of the evidence that 60 Minutes used to decide there had been a cover-up could, and in my view probably does, have a far less sinister explanation. On the positive side, I’m happy to see some Bomber Command coverage on a high-rating television program in the lead-up to ANZAC Day. Another crash site has been identified, and, though graves have not been found, some more families now have a little more closure on what really happened to their lost airmen. It’s a fascinating story. But that’s just the point. It’s a fascinating story in its own right, and it does not need to be sensationalised.
 NAA: A705, 166/8/495. CONLEY, Ronald John – (Flight Lieutenant); Service Number – 425606; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LD739; Place – Cherbourg, France; Date – 6 June 1944
 The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), AIR 14/3411, B.C. (O.R.S.) Final Reports on operations, Night Raids Nos. 416-620, September 1943 to May 1944, vol. 4
 Isby, David C (2003) p.104: Fighting the Bombers: the Luftwaffe’s Struggle against the Allied Bomber Offensive, Greenhill Books 2003, Lionel Leventhal Limited, Park House, 1 RussellGardens, London, NM11 9NN. ISBN 1-85367-532-6
At the end of the Second World War, the Royal Air Force (and associated dominion forces) had some 41,881 personnel listed as missing, worldwide (C07-049-007). A large proportion of these were scattered throughout the European Continent from which, while the battles were still raging, reliable information was difficult to obtain. The unit set up to deal with the problem of searching for and identifying as many of the missing as possible went through a number of guises but is probably best known as the Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES). Their task was to investigate the fates of missing aircrew through records and by putting people ‘on the ground’ in Germany and the former occupied territories to interview local officials and civilians and, if necessary, open graves to find clues on the bodies themselves.
Author Stuart Hadaway, writing in a book called Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research and Enquiry Service 1939-1952 (Pen & Sword Books Ltd 2012), notes that by the end of 1950, just 8,719 aircrew were still officially listed as missing, with 23,881 now having known graves and 9,281 formally recorded as lost at sea (p.7). This, having been achieved without the use of modern technologies such as DNA profiling, is an astonishing success rate.
Once a crashed aircraft had been located, authorities could trace the identity of that aircraft through serial numbers on any number of parts. Knowing which aircraft and squadron it came from, they could then determine which crew was flying in it when it went missing. Identification then often came down to a process of elimination: the body with the pilot’s brevet must be the pilot, for example… identity discs might have survived revealing the wireless operator… one air gunner might have had remnants of his Flight Sergeant’s stripes, which meant that the other body with an air gunner’s brevet must be the other gunner… and so on.
The MRES report of losses from the Lille raid of 10MAY44 (A04-071-017) records how the unit identified the body of F/O J.F. Tucker, who was from Doug Hislop’s 467 Squadron crew, flying in EE143. Post war, six graves in the commune of Hellemes, near Lille, were exhumed. In one was found the remains of an RAAF battle dress with an Air Gunner’s brevet, along with an officer-type shirt on the body. Tucker was at the time the only Australian officer air gunner missing from this operation who remained unaccounted for, and the investigating MRES officer was happy to accept identification on this basis.
It wasn’t always so straightforward however. Often German information was somewhat muddled by events. Hadaway cites the case of a man initially buried by the Germans as ‘Haidee Silver, 40851’, being traced by the service number to a Pilot Officer Michael Rawlinson, who had been wearing a silver bracelet that his father told the MRES had been given to him by a female relative, inscribed ‘From Haidee’ (p.39). Other men were identified through serial numbers on their standard-issue watches, for example, or through laundry labels on their clothing.
Tracing serial numbers through the many layers of RAF bureaucracy could be a tedious job. What fascinates me about the work they did is the detective effort involved, and how unorthodox methods sometimes yielded the key that unravelled the case. I suppose I can draw certain parallels with the historical research I have been carrying out as part of this project. Throughout the war, files were maintained in the MRES offices in London where any little snippet of information relating to cases was kept. The files would regularly be reviewed and cross-referenced with any new information that might have come in later to see if anything jumped out. One little snippet could lead to another, which lead to another, which might have led up the garden path a bit until something else made sense of everything. And on so many of the cases, they were able to find a match.
Theirs was a gruesome and difficult task, and it was one that continued well after the war had ended and everyone else had ‘gone home’. But each case solved meant one more airman could be taken off the list of the missing. And one more family could have closure. For that, the investigators of the MRES deserve to be remembered.
At the Canberra Bomber Command weekend a few years ago, Don Southwell made an off-hand comment about how he wanted to re-do the Squadron histories. I’m beginning to see why!
I’m currently having a fairly close look at the activities of 463 and 467 Squadrons for the time that the crew of B for Baker were at Waddington. I’ve pulled a variety of sources that I’m going through and cross-referencing to try and build a picture of what happened for each day in the period – and, not surprisingly, I’ve found a number of inconsistencies. Take the latest one, for example. Here is an entry from Nobby Blundell’s squadron history, They Flew From Waddington!, written in 1975 and privately published, concerning 29 January 1944:
Berlin again. 467 Sqn F/Lt Simpson’s a/c was attacked by an ME110 – F/Sgt Campbell, the rear gunner, shot it down. We lost 6 a/c from Waddington, 3 from each Squadron, our worse [sic] night to date, 467: ED772, DV378 and ME575. 463: HK537, JA973 and ED949. 43 aircrew in one op. lost.
On the face of it, this seems straightforward. From a single operation to Berlin in late January 1944, Waddington lost six crews. It is true that this was right in the thick of the period that later became known as the Battle of Berlin, and as such there were many raids to that city around that time. The only problem is, this particular Berlin trip appears in none of the other records I’ve looked at. The 463 Squadron Operational Record Book for example, says this:
A dull day. No Ops. Routine work.
And 467 Squadron said this:
Much sleeping today, and a stand down in the afternoon. The usual Saturday night dance was held.
No sign of any operations there, then. Indeed, the Night Raid Report for this date shows that only small forces of Mosquitos were operating on this night.
But I always like to think cock-up before I think conspiracy. It’s unlikely that Blundell would have made the entry up entirely. Far more likely, I think, is that he’s mixed up a few raids and put them into one entry. So I thought I’d have a look around that date and see what went on elsewhere. From the Bomber Command Night Raid Reports and Operational Record Books for 463 and 467 Squadrons, here are the main operations for a few days:
27 January: 530 heavies to BERLIN; 32 lost. 32 aircraft from Waddington; 463 lost one and 467 lost two.
28 January: 683 heavies to BERLIN; 43 lost. 26 from Waddington, one lost from each Squadron.
29 January: No Main Force operations. Squadrons stood down.
30 January: 540 heavies to BERLIN. 33 lost. Waddington sent 24 aircraft. 463 Squadron lost four and 467 Squadron lost one.
31 January: No Night Raid Report, so no ops.
The most likely suspect, looking at this run of operations, is the trip on the 30th. But Blundell claims six losses on that night, not the five in the ORBs. I needed to look deeper.
The only other details that Blundell recorded are the serial numbers of the aircraft lost:
From 467 Squadron:
From 463 Squadron:
So I thought that was a good place to go next. From the Operational Record Books, we get this:
Pilot Squadron Aircraft
Messenger 463 ED772
Hanson 463 JA973
Dunn 463 ED949
Fairclough 463 ED545
Riley 467 DV372
Comparing that to Blundell’s list, we see he has accounted for the first three, so I’m now fairly confident that he’s got the wrong date and the operation he is referring to is indeed that of the 30th. But he attributes ED772 to the other squadron, includes DV378, ME575 and HK537 in his list and completely misses ED545 and DV372. To work this one out, it’s time to find another source.
Bruce Robertson wrote a book called Lancaster: The Story of a Famous Bomber, published in 1964. In the back section are lists upon lists of Lancaster serial numbers, and what happened to each aircraft. So I checked the serial numbers from the ORB, and from Blundell’s extract. Robertson agrees that the first three were lost on 30 January and shows it as 463 – which agrees with the ORBs. ED545, says Robertson, was lost on 14 May 1943 – seven months before the night in question – so it must be an error in the ORB. DV372 survived the war and was scrapped in October 1945, so that one must also be incorrect. With those two ORB records now empty we have two outstanding aircraft (those flown by Fairclough and Riley) and three unknown serials (DV378, ME575 and HK537).
Robertson comes to the rescue again: ME575 was lost on January 27 (one of the other Berlin trips at the end of that month), and indeed the 467 Squadron ORB agrees that this aircraft went missing on that night.
DV378 is very close to DV372, so it is possible that the Orderly Room clerk who typed up the ORB made an error. And indeed, Robertson shows that DV378 went missing on 31 January. Since aircraft returned from the 30 January operation close to and in many cases beyond midnight, and there is no Night Raid Report for the 31st, it is reasonable to suggest that this is the correct serial number for the aircraft flown by P/O Riley.
That, then, leaves HK537 which, again, Robertson records as being lost on 31 January. That is fairly solid evidence that it was indeed the aircraft flown by P/O Fairclough.
So based on this, the list from above should, I believe, actually look like this:
Pilot Squadron Aircraft
Messenger 463 ED772
Hanson 463 JA973
Dunn 463 ED949
Fairclough 463 HK537
Riley 467 DV378
All of this goes to show how important it is to cross-check your sources. The ORBs, while considered the definitive record of what happened on each squadron, vary significantly in quality, depending on the individual officer who wrote them at the time. They were compiled at a time when aircraft were being lost and new aircraft and crews were arriving on squadron virtually every day and as such errors could and did creep in. It takes a bit of patience to painstakingly sort through the records and check other relevant sources to try and find out what actually happened.
I think Don Southwell is on to something when he says he’d like to re-do the squadron histories. It would be a very long job to go through the entire Operational Record Books for both Squadrons to try and find these sorts of errors, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise if it meant that the histories could be more accurate. What form the histories would then take needs more thought and is, perhaps, a subject for a future post.
Scattered across the fields of England are the remains of hundreds of former military aerodromes. Some have disappeared entirely, the runways excavated for hard fill and the buildings demolished. Some have been turned into business parks, showgrounds, residential estates and even prisons. Some have reverted back to agricultural land, with pig or chicken sheds where once were runways. A scant few are still operational airfields, civilian light aeroplanes replacing the bombers. And many more have simply been mothballed – still owned by the Ministry of Defence but all but abandoned, externally intact but uncared for, quietly decaying away to dust. One such airfield is RAF Bicester, and a group called Bomber Command Heritage is determined to save it.
Bicester, at least according to English Heritage, “retains – better than any other aviation site in Britain – the layout and built fabric relating to both the first expansion period of the RAF and subsequent developments up to 1940”. While not an operational front-line Bomber Command station, Bicester was home to 13 Operational Training Unit, part of the great training pipeline which kept those front-line squadrons supplied with aircrew. The all-grass flying field is still used by gliders of the Windrushers Gliding Club. Bomber Command Heritage sees an opportunity to preserve the site by turning the disused Technical Site into a significant museum.
On the face of it, it’s a fantastic idea. But it’s a large site (348 acres). Just purchasing the site from the MOD is expected to cost upwards of £2 million. There are also a large number of buildings on the site, some of which, the hangars in particular, are quite large. Many are in an advanced state of disrepair. Restoring the buildings is estimated to cost about £35 million, a lot of money for a volunteer organisation to come up with. And once they are restored, the costs involved in maintaining an active aerodrome and keeping the buildings in good repair are also not inconsiderable. It’s likely that gate takings alone from what would be, let’s face it, a niche market of Bomber Command enthusiasts would be insufficient to keep the museum open for long. There is always the possibility of lottery grants and other government support, but to rely on these as long-term funding appears less than sustainable.
So how could a site like Bicester be saved –with space for a significant museum on site – but still be a going concern in its own right? There needs to be something else other than just the museum to make the site commercially viable. ‘Developers’ have become a dirty word in today’s society with their ‘knock down and rebuild it bigger better and newer’ disregard for history. But development doesn’t have to be incompatible with heritage.
On the northern head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour lies the old Quarantine Station. It’s a magnificent site with many extremely significant buildings, used between 1832 and 1984 to quarantine passengers from arriving ships affected by infectious diseases. After its closure as an active facility the site passed into the management of the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service. NPWS did considerable work to the site to care for it (and conducted fantastic ghost tours, one of which I well remember going on in the mid 1990s) but they never had the funding required to ensure that the site was preserved properly. Things came to a head in 2002 when the 180-year-old hospital building burnt down, a fire thought to have been caused by an electrical fault. Shortly afterwards it was decided that government funding by itself was not enough to properly care for the site, and that private development was a possible solution. Unsurprisingly there was considerable public protest towards the idea, but – now that the site has indeed been leased to a private operator and has been reopened as a boutique accommodation, function and conference venue with a museum and guided tours – it’s actually turned out quite well. The commercial activities generate an income which supports the upkeep of the site, while being sympathetic to the heritage of the old station. The buildings are restored to their former glory. Even the old hospital that burnt down has been completely rebuilt, from scratch and using period methods, into a faithful and quite spectacular reproduction of the old building. Government funds alone would never have been sufficient to cover the work at the extraordinarily high standard required. Most importantly, the site retains the ‘feel’ of the old Quarantine Station – the work carried out has remained sympathetic to the original buildings and the activities that now take place there are compatible uses for them – and the public still has access to the site to be able to enjoy, appreciate and learn from it. The site is still alive.
I use the Quarantine Station simply as an example of what I think is a well-thought-out, sympathetic and viable use for a historical site. I’m not advocating that RAF Bicester is turned into a ‘boutique accommodation, function and conference centre’. But despite having all the best intentions, sentiment alone will not provide the cold hard cash that’s needed to acquire and restore a large site like a historic airfield. There needs to be some sort of income generating activities in place if the site is to remain viable, beyond just a museum. Imaginative and creative – and commercially viable – uses for significant historical sites are not necessarily incompatible with the idea of preserving the heritage value of them.
There need to be carefully thought-out controls in place to ensure that any development remains true to the heritage of the site. But developers are not necessarily the enemy, if they have the funding that will make the difference between the site falling further into disrepair, or it remaining in the long-term as an example of a Bomber Command airfield.