Archive for the 'Jack Purcell' Category



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

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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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