Mystery woman

Part of the small collection of photos that we have as part of my great uncle Jack’s personal effects is this one, showing a young woman:

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This is one of the enduring mysteries of Jack’s story. Her name was Joy Gisby, according to my grandfather who has just begun a mission to find out what happened to her, and he says she was Jack’s English girlfriend. There is certainly some evidence that Jack had a girlfriend while he was overseas. His brother Edward wrote the following to Don Smith in December 1944:

“I have, since last hearing from you, had two letters from Jack’s English sweetheart […]. She is very upset over the final news of the boy, but that, I suppose, is only to be expected. It was to me, however, most comforting to know that his all-too-brief span over there was, at least, very happy.” (A01-111-001)

Unfortunately, Edward made no mention of the girl’s name, which makes it rather difficult to find any more information about who she might have been. All I have to go with in the search for information is my grandfather’s memory of a name he first heard a very long time ago and an otherwise unidentified photo. There is a family story that says Jack was engaged to Joy, and that they were to be married on the Saturday after Jack was shot down. As Jack’s letters disappeared decades ago I have no documentary evidence of this, as tragic as the story sounds. And adding to the intrigue are a number of official letters from the Air Force (that I found in A04-071 Jack’s Casualty/Repatriation File from the National Archives of Australia) addressed to Nurse MC Sands, Renwick Hospital, Liverpool Road, Summer Hill – who Jude Findlay suggested may have been a girlfriend of Jack’s in Australia. Nurse Sands was notified along with Edward Purcell of Jack being posted missing so she was obviously close in some way. She could be a red herring, but where I do not have documentary evidence of Joy Gisby’s name, I do for Nurse Sands.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained and all of that, so I’ve been doing some preliminary searching. It turns out that there are a lot of Gisbys around the world. I found a website called The Gisby Saga, a rather well-written account of one particular branch of the family. There’s a Facebook group (The Worldwide Gisby Empire) . And there are thousands of possible hits on Ancestry.com. I’m not really sure where to go from here. Any ideas gratefully received!

© 2011 Adam Purcell

The Men in the Photographs

Before he left Australia, Jack Purcell had a formal portrait taken of him wearing his Royal Australian Air Force uniform. The half-wing with the ‘N’, denoting a qualified navigator, is clearly visible, as are his Sergeant’s stripes. It is one of only a small number of photos that we have of Jack and, along with his logbook, it was that photograph of Jack that first fired my interest in the subject of Bomber Command and the part that he played in it.

Giving a face to match a man’s name is an important part of telling his history. It makes the stories somehow more real – as if saying that they are not mere words. They are real stories about real people. As such finding photographs of each of the seven men who flew in B for Baker was something I have been very keen to achieve. And now, having recently made contact with the final family, I have done exactly that.

So here, all together for the first time, are photographs of each of the crew of B for Baker. As is traditional, we will begin with the pilot.

Pilot: Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith (Phil)

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A fine portrait of a remarkably young-looking Phil Smith, taken while on leave in London.

Flight Engineer: Sergeant Kenneth Harold Tabor

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By far the youngest on the crew, Ken was just 19 when he was killed over Lille. This photograph shows him on the left, with his brother Bill. He is wearing the Flight Engineer’s brevet so it was probably taken in late 1943.

Navigator: Warrant Officer Royston William Purcell (Jack)

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The presence of an N half wing and sergeants’ stripes (and the stamp from a Sydney photographer on the back of it) dates this photo to mid 1942. This was the photo of Jack that started my journey to find out more about him.

Bomb Aimer: Flight Sergeant Jeremiah Parker (Jerry)

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At 30, Jerry Parker was the oldest member of the crew. He was married with a young daughter.

Wireless Operator: Flight Sergeant Alastair Dale Johnston (Dale)

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Dale Johnston was from Queensland. He is seen here on the left on the steps of the family home with his twin brother Ian.

Mid-Upper Gunner: Sergeant Eric Reginald Hill

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From Goring in Berkshire, Eric Hill served in the RAF Regiment before he became a member of aircrew. He first enlisted in June 1940, by far the first member of the crew to begin war service.

Rear Gunner: Flight Sergeant Gilbert Firth Pate (Gil)

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A short stocky man, Gilbert had a brief flirtation with becoming a jockey as a teenager, until his father put a stop to all further dealings with the stables where he was working. He trained as a wool classifier before joining up.

The Crew of B for Baker

There is just one photograph that shows the entire crew. It is backlit by the landing light of a Lancaster, it’s shadowy, grainy and indistinct, but it’s an atmospheric photo.

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Photos kindly provided by:

Mollie Smith

Steve Butson

Martin Purcell

Freda Hamer

Don Webster

Barry Hill

Gil Thew

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell 

How They Crewed Up

The concept of the ‘crew’ is of far-reaching significance to the Bomber Command legend. A Lancaster needed seven men to operate efficiently. Each man would be specially trained in his respective trade, and each trade underwent their training separately. The way those individual airmen formed into crews remains one of the more unique parts of the story. In an Air Force so demanding of rigid procedures and highly developed organisation, the majority of crews came together in a curious, almost haphazard fashion.

The typical venue was a large hall at an Operational Training Unit. In the room would be gathered equal numbers of each aircrew ‘trade’. After a welcoming speech from the Commanding Officer, the assembled airmen would be told, essentially, to sort themselves out. Hank Nelson, in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, described it like “selecting a horse in a yard or a girl at a dance. You made your choice then the test of performance came later.” (C07-039-080). While seemingly chaotic, the system appeared to work well. Individual airmen would learn to work as an effective team and by the time they got to a squadron, most crews would live, work and play together. In the air they would fight together as a more or less autonomous unit. And the camaraderie would develop into extremely close friendships, some of which continue even to this day. It all started, in so many cases, in some draughty hangar at an Operational Training Unit.

Yet despite this being the ‘traditional’ way that crews were made, the men of B for Baker got together in entirely different ways. The available evidence suggests that only three of them crewed up at an OTU in what could be considered the conventional sense. After qualifying as their respective trades, Jerry Parker, Dale Johnston and Eric Hill all arrived at 14 OTU, RAF Cottesmore, in early June 1943. Just over three months later, on 08SEP43, all three were posted to 1661 Conversion Unit at RAF Winthorpe. The fact that all three were posted on the same day suggests that they were all part of the same crew.

The first member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to reach Winthorpe was actually Ken Tabor, the flight engineer, a week or so before the three arrived from Cottesmore. Because the aircraft flown at the OTU stage of training were typically Wellingtons which were less complicated than the four-engined heavies, flight engineers would normally go straight from their School of Technical Training to the HCUs and meet a crew there. This is exactly what happened in Ken’s case. In fact, it is highly likely that he had not yet even been flying until this point – Tom Knox, who flew on Stirlings with 149 Sqn, recently told me that like many flight engineers, “at this stage I had never had my feet off the ground” (C01-480-002).

Meanwhile Jack Purcell was undergoing his own operational training. He was the only member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to pass through 27 OTU at RAF Lichfield, from 22JUN43. What became of his OTU crew is not (yet) known – but on 19SEP43, Jack found himself posted to RAF Winthorpe, where the other four had been for at least week and a half. He most likely joined their crew at this stage. All five would be posted to 9 Squadron, RAF Bardney, on 31 October. After their pilot, a man named JG ‘Paddy’ McComb, was lost on a second dickey trip to Berlin on 18 November, at the end of the month the crew – none of whom had completed any operational flying with 9 Squadron – were posted to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston.

In parallel with the other five, Gilbert Pate went to an OTU (No. 17 at Silverstone) shortly after arriving in England in June 1943. He also went to 1661 Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, in September 1943. However instead of Bardney, Gilbert’s crew was posted to 49 Squadron at Fiskerton on the 22nd of that month. On 3 November, Gilbert took part in his first operational sortie, a raid on Dusseldorf. He was filling in for an injured gunner with an experienced crew. On the same night, P/O JEW Teager, Gilbert’s own pilot, went on the same operation as a ‘second dickey’. But Teager didn’t return. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. Like five of his future crewmates, Gilbert’s crew now found themselves without a pilot. They went to 1654 Conversion Unit and got a new pilot, but, returning to flying after an accident, the pilot lost his nerve and this time the powers that were split the crew up. Gilbert went to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston, on 14 November 1943. Two weeks later, on 1 December, Jack, Jerry, Dale, Ken and Eric were posted to the same unit.

Also posted in to Syerston on 1 December was an Australian Squadron Leader, DPS (Phil) Smith. He was already an experienced operational pilot, having completed a tour on Wellingtons with 103 Squadron in 1941 and 1942. Phil had been ‘screened’, instructing for a year at 24 Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne. He joined up with the three Australians and three Englishmen at Syerston and his logbook shows that his first flight with these men was 10 December 1943. After flying a total of 16.45 hours by day and 16.05 hours at night in a Lancaster, all seven were posted to 467 Squadron, Waddington, on the last day of 1943.

The crew was now formed, and ready for battle.

Sources for this post:

Service records of all seven men in the crew, from the National Archives of Australia or the RAF Disclosures Section

Phil Smith’s logbook – courtesy Mollie Smith

Chased by the Sun by Hank Nelson

Tom Knox – Stirling flight engineer, 149 and 199 Sqns

9 Sqn Association – Roger Audis

The 4T9ers – 49 Sqn Association and Dom Howard

© 2011 Adam Purcell

The Story So Far

It occurred to me this week that some people who have been reading this blog might not know the basic background to the story I’m attempting to tell. So this post is a general introduction to The Story So Far.

In broad terms, this blog charts the development of my research into my grandfather’s uncle and his wartime story. W/O Royston William Purcell (known as Jack) was a navigator with 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. He was shot down and killed on a bombing operation to Lille in France in May 1944. Jack was 22 years old.

There were seven men in Jack’s Lancaster crew. The pilot was Phil Smith, an industrial chemist from Mosman in Sydney. Flight engineer was Ken Tabor from Bournemouth, England. Jack Purcell, of course, was the navigator. He was from Strathfield, NSW, and had been a shop boy with NSW Government Railways. Wireless operator Dale Johnston was a motor mechanic from Dayboro, Queensland. Postal worker Jerry Parker, from Leyland in the UK, was the bomb aimer. Englishman Eric Hill, from Goring in Berkshire, manned the mid-upper turret, and Gilbert Pate, a wool classifier from Kogarah, NSW, was the rear gunner. They ranged in age from 19 to 30. Only one would see the end of the war.

Over Lille that May night in 1944, their Lancaster exploded. Ejected by the force of the blast, Phil Smith parachuted to safety, evaded capture and was sheltered by a French farmer before Allied invasion forces passed his position four months later. His six crewmates were killed in either the blast or the ensuing crash and are now buried in French soil a few miles from the crash site.

The perception of ‘Uncle Jack’ and his place in the collective Purcell family memory has been passed down through the generations, and indeed down  different branches of the family tree. I was lucky that it was my father who showed an interest in, and was eventually given, Jack’s logbook and the handful of photographs and documents that goes along with it. When he first showed them to me (I was eight or nine years old at the time), it planted the seed that in recent years has turned into something approaching obsession. I have now gathered a fairly significant body of information about this crew and what they were doing in a Lancaster over Northern France in May 1944. I have traced and contacted the families of six of the all seven men in the crew. I have a worldwide network of research contacts. I have even travelled overseas twice in an effort to chase down leads and visit some of the significant sites associated with Jack’s war. Most importantly, I’ve realised that this story – one of more or less ordinary lads caught up in far from ordinary times and doing far from ordinary things – is well worth telling.
So where to from here?

I’m aiming to write a book about this story over the next few years. There remains much work still to do. At this stage I am focussing on the crew themselves, looking at where they came from, who they were and the very different paths that they took to 467 Squadron – while also continuing the search for the family of Ken Tabor, the one member of the crew remaining outstanding. I’m planning future work to concentrate on training and the journey to an operational squadron for each of these men. Then I’ll look at bomber operations in the first part of 1944 when they were on squadron, particularly emphasising the Lille raid on which the men were lost and its part in the overall context of the war in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion. I’m also hoping to investigate some theories on what actually caused the loss of B for Baker, the Lancaster they were flying.

This is the story so far. Who knows where it will end up!

© 2011 Adam Purcell

You never know what lies up the garden path

Joss le Clercq alerted me to a thread on the RAFCommands forum late last year. It concerned a researcher who was trying to work out the fate of Sgt Leslie Edwards, who died of wounds or injuries in July 1943. It was discovered that Edwards had been on board a 27OTU Wellington that crashed at Church Broughton on the 6th of that month.

So why did Joss think it was of particular interest to me? Henk Welting posted on that RAFCommands thread that Bill Chorley’s Bomber Command Losses vol 7 revealed a Sgt Purcell had been in the crew of the Wellington. Joss thought it could have been my great uncle Jack.

This was an intriguing find. Because we have no letters or diaries from Jack, we know little about what happened to him directly while he was in England. Could Joss have uncovered a story about Jack surviving a Wellington crash that my family didn’t know about?

I quickly checked my records. Initially it looked possible. Jack was posted to 27OTU at Lichfield on 22 June 1943 and did not leave until September, so he was certainly there at the right time. But a few other details did not check out. Jack’s service record shows that he was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 20 February 1943 – before this accident – so his rank did not match. And perhaps more crucially, we do have Jack’s logbook. The first flying recorded at Lichfield in my copy of it is not until 14 July, or after this crash happened.

So it was not looking good. I rechecked the original logbook when next I returned to my parents place near Sydney to make sure that I hadn’t missed any pages in the copying process.

I hadn’t.

The next step was to ask Chris Pointon of the RAF Lichfield Association, who had guided me around what was left of the old station when I visited in 2009.

Chris settled the matter. It turns out that AUS410379 Sgt David Purcell was posted to 27OTU in May 1943. So there was a second Australian navigator called Purcell at RAF Lichfield at the same time that Jack was. It seems likely that this Purcell is our man.

David Purcell’s service record is online at the National Archives of Australia. It reveals that he was from Melbourne and enlisted on the same day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. He trained at Cootamundra, East Sale and Nhill before going to the UK via Canada. Eventually he ended up on Halifaxes with 466 Squadron at Leconfield. Chris’ email told me that David Purcell was shot down on 23 April 1944 on an operation to Dusseldorf. He survived and spent the rest of the war as a POW, eventually returning to Australia.

So while somehow disappointed that I didn’t uncover something else about Jack Purcell, I did find another interesting story – and potentially another branch of the Purcell family to look at. I’ve passed the details about David’s family to Therese Findlay, one of my regular correspondents on this blog. Therese says she’s found a Purcell somewhere who is working on the family tree. Perhaps they might have more information for me.

©2011 Adam Purcell

Logbook

A logbook is a legal requirement for any pilot. In Australia, it must record at a minimum the dates of any flights made by the pilot, crew details, aircraft type and registration, route details and flight times. It allows a pilot to calculate his or her experience in terms of flying hours, and records the results of any exams or licence flight tests carried out.

But logbooks are something more than simply a dry record of dates, aeroplanes and times. They can also be intensely personal documents. Reading through my own one, I find my mind can very easily wander to remember a particular flight, and the circumstances surrounding it. “Bankstown-Three Sisters-Bankstown. Bumpy”, reads one entry. A simple enough description. But it’s one that belies the intensity of that flight, on which I and my passengers flew unwittingly into some pretty severe turbulence. Or ‘Circuits Camden – First Tiger Solo’, recording the first time I flew a Tiger Moth by myself, possibly my proudest yet moment in an aeroplane.

Unless one kept a diary there were very few ways that people could accurately recall where they were at a certain time, let alone what they were doing. This is where all pilots score. Your log book, which it was mandatory to keep and have regularly certified as being a true record, will instantly tell you that and, hopefully, jog the memory especially as the long forgotten names of the people that flew with you are very often there as well.

-The late Reg Levy, 51 Sqn Halifax skipper and later pilot for Sabena, writing on PPRuNe 

I think Reg nailed it. The terse notations in a logbook, taken in isolation, give fairly dry information about where someone was and what they were doing at particular dates in history. This in itself is interesting stuff for a study of the men of Bomber Command. But they can also trigger memories far beyond the short statements themselves.

It’s easier, of course, when the airmen are still around, because you can ask them questions about it. This is one reason why Reg Levy, in the last year or so of his life, contributed to a fantastic thread on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network (which by the way is well worth a look if you have a few hours to spare*). He used his logbooks as the basis of a superb running story about his experiences in training, then while operating in Bomber Command, and his rather incredible adventures after the war. The logbooks provided the spark, the interaction with other contributors around the world were the fuel and his sharp memory filled in the details.

It’s a little harder to ‘reconstruct’ what an airman was doing through his logbook alone if he is no longer with us. But it’s a good starting point. Other historical records and personal letters can go a long way to filling in the details. Maybe the end result won’t be quite so personal – but it’s a worthwhile challenge.

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*Reg’s pseudonym on the thread was ‘regle’

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Painting Complete!

Here is the completed painting, now framed and hanging on my wall. I reckon it looks pretty damn fine:

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Avro Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, of 467 Sqn RAAF, sits on its dispersal at RAF Waddington on 11 April 1944. Its crew has just arrived for a bombing raid on the German city of Aachen.

This painting serves as a tribute to the crew of this aircraft:

S/L DPS Smith

W/O RW Purcell

Sgt KH Tabor

Sgt J Parker

F/Sgt AD Johnston

Sgt ER Hill

F/Sgt GF Pate

These men were shot down in this aircraft on an operation to Lille, France, on 10 May 1944. Only the pilot, Phil Smith, survived.

The painting, by Steve Leadenham, was specially commissioned by Adam Purcell, the great nephew of the navigator.

Steve advises that prints of this painting will be available in the future – details on how to get one will be posted here in due course.

Lichfield

Among the small collection of photos that my family has belonging to Jack Purcell are two postcards from the English town of Lichfield. Both are unwritten and unsent. The only mark on either is a tiny cross in pen, at top right of this one:

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Jack was stationed at the nearby RAF Lichfield between 22 June and 9 September, 1943. The airfield – actually closer to the village of Fradley than to Lichfield itself – was the site of No 27 Operational Training Unit during the war.

The OTU stage of an airman’s training was where, in general, he first ‘crewed up’. The concept of the ‘crew’ is central to the Bomber Command legend – even transcending class boundaries in the RAF. Crews would, by the time they got onto a squadron, live together, play together, fight together and, all too often, die together. While officers and NCOs might have lived and messed separately, most crews socialised together when off-duty. In many cases airmen began strong friendships that would last them the rest of their lives.

But it took time for those uniquely close bonds to develop within the crews. The OTU was where it started and where the crews learnt to operate as an interdependent unit, but they were not there yet. As Don Charlwood wrote of his first flight at an OTU, in his superb book No Moon Tonight:

we were not a crew, we were a ‘plane load of bewildered individuals” (C07-035-023)

Consequently in many cases crews would not therefore come to regard their time on an OTU with any particular affection like they would their time on an operational squadron. The OTUs, it could be said, were the forgotten part of Bomber Command.

They were nevertheless an extremely important part of the Bomber Command machine. Many Australians passed through the gates of Lichfield. In the forecourt of Lichfield Cathedral is a memorial park bench which was paid for by Charlwood after the war. The plaque on it reads as follows:

“To the memory of the many hundreds of Australian airmen who trained at No. 27 Operational Training Unit Fradley during the Second World War. In Lichfield they found peace and friendship”

Years later Charlwood wrote a second, more thorough book of his time in Bomber Command called Journeys into Night:

“It always tantalized me when I gazed from the sergeant’s mess across the fields to the cathedral and thought of life going on in Lichfield, not as in peacetime to be sure, but at least with semblances of normality. Most of us were glad to escape [to] there” (C07-034-093)

While Lichfield will never be as famous as Waddington or Binbrook, it is clear that airmen like Charlwood understood its significance to the war effort and to the development of the crews of Bomber Command. It is also significant on a personal level for Jack Purcell, simply because of the existence of those two postcards.

Unlike the superb archive of letters and documents that I have been lucky enough to study from Mollie Smith and Gil Thew, we have very little bar a few photographs from Jack. I know he wrote letters while he was in the Air Force but what happened to them is unknown. These two postcards – though unwritten – are therefore particularly special.

So special, in fact, that in 2009 I visited Lichfield in an attempt to discover what the mysterious cross might have been marking. Chris Pointon of the RAF Lichfield Association was my guide. We first visited the Cathedral, in front of which was the park bench donated by Don Charlwood. Interestingly the bench is the only memorial to the OTU in the city – the building’s importance to the airmen seemingly less spiritual (as a religious place) than it was practical (as a prominent landmark nearby the airfield). Down a hill from the Cathedral we came to the Pond. At first Chris could not recognise the postcard – sixty-five years of tree growth has significantly changed the scene. But the road bridge with its three arches stands out. Walking towards it I could make out the distinctive façade of the Library and Museum through the thick tree growth:

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And the cross? Standing in front of the Library, looking up the street, I spotted two buildings.

One is the Probate Court.

The other is the Angel Croft Hotel.

For some reason, I reckon Jack was marking the pub.

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(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Hat tip to Chris Pointon for the idea that inspired this post.

The Shadow in the Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Current task: Editing and cataloguing Dale Johnston’s A705


(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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G’lland-oohrogh

On the far north western edge of Wales is the old fortified city of Caernarfon. Its magnificent castle looks out over a flat estury on one side, with dramatic hills rising above the horizon on the other. Eight or so miles south of Caernarfon is a tiny stone village named Llandwrog, situated in low hills a short distance from the Irish Sea.

From Llandwrog the ground slopes down gently towards the coast, flattening out at the bottom into a wide plain. The plain is surrounded on three sides by the hills of Snowdonia, rising up to 3,500 feet. The hills are responsible for the unique weather of the locality. Biting westerly winds sweep off the sea, bringing moisture-laden air with them. The air is deflected up by the rising terrain and, as it cools with altitude, the moisture condenses into cloud. It is not unusual for the entire British Isles to be clear of cloud, except for this tiny corner of Wales (and perhaps deepest, darkest, northern-est Scotland):

On the plain between the village of Llandwrog and the sea is an airfield. Despite being closer to the village of Dinas Dinlle, the airfield was originally named RAF Llandwrog. It opened in January 1941 as the home of No. 9 (Observers) Advanced Flying Unit and later became famous as the base of the first ever RAF Mountain Rescue unit. In late May 1943, following three months thumb-twiddling at No. 11 PDRC in Bournemouth and two months flying in Tiger Moths at No. 26 EFTS at the old grass airfield at Theale in Reading, Jack Purcell found himself posted to RAF Llandwrog. Over the next month or so he would log 18.25 hours by day and 7.10 hours at night flying in Avro Ansons.

Summer in this part of the world is very different to summer in Australia. It’s not too difficult to imagine what Jack may have thought on first being posted to this place with the strange name. He had been exposed to flying in English conditions in the Tiger Moths at Theale – but not in something relatively modern like an Anson, and certainly not in weather as persistant as that at Llandwrog. Visibility would have been often reduced in atmospheric haze, which made visual navigation difficult. The wind over the hills made the air bumpy when an aeroplane strayed too close to them. Sure, aeroplanes bounced a bit in thermals in Australia, but this was a different sort of bump. Even in summer the wind would be cold, especially when it blew straight off the Irish Sea. The beach is covered in pebbles and under a cloudy sky would have looked far less than inviting. In short, this must have looked like a forgotten part of the world.

Llandwrog, I discovered when I visited the area in June 2010, is pronounced ‘G’lland-oohrogh’. The airfield, now known as Caernarfon Airworld, is still active and is home to a flying club and a small museum. Despite the brand new hangar and operations building, much remains of the old RAF station. The former fire station, now missing important bits like its roof, stands behind the museum:

The old control tower – until recently the headquarters of the flying club and still in use as their air-ground radio base – still stands:

Behind the fire shed is a remarkably intact bomb shelter:

I particularly wanted to go flying from Caernarfon because of its connection with Jack’s story. I took along a local instructor named Phil. We flew south along the peninsula towards Bardsey Island, keeping below the cloud base. Nearer the island it became clear that the cloud was very much ‘following’ the coast line and we emerged into beautifully clear flying weather:

The cloud, however, stretched solidly over land back towards the airfield and the tops of some of the higher peaks were easily visible popping out the top of it as we flew ‘over the top’. It was easy to see how someone not used to flying in the area (like, for example, a brand new Australian WWII navigator) might blunder into what pilots euphemistically call ‘cumulo-granite’. We were able to use the modern aid of radar and a helpful air traffic controller from nearby RAF Valley to vector us clear of the terrain for a descent through cloud over the sea before we returned to the airfield, but this of course was not an option during wartime. It really is no wonder so many aircraft crashes occurred (and, sadly, continue to occur) in the Snowdonia area – a direct factor in the creation of the RAF Mountain Rescue team originally based at RAF Llandwrog.

For a morning, I had walked (and flown) in the footsteps of my great uncle. Though in some respects modernised there remains much in this area that has probably not changed in the six and a half decades since Jack was here. The sleepy little stone villages remain sleepy little stone villages. The airfield remains an airfield. The wind and the cloud is still the same wind and cloud. The connection that I felt to that time was made even stronger when I discovered the full name of the instructor I flew with.

He was called Phil Smith.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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