Releasing the Brakes

The shadows were only just beginning to lengthen as Phil Smith released the brakes to let B for Baker roll from its parking bay. He’d done it so many times before – pulled the lever with his fingers, flicked off the catch with his thumb – but it was only now that he considered what it meant

This was it.

It had already been a long day. The tension – as if he had a lump of cold lead in the very bottom of his stomach – started with a phone call from Group Headquarters, telling him that the squadron was ‘on’ tonight. No matter how many times he’d done this, that lump of lead was always there. It sat in the background during the scramble to work out how many aeroplanes his Flight could offer for the coming operation, and through the endless meetings and conferences to thrash out tactics, and in a way he was grateful that he’d been so busy: it took his mind off what he’d be doing, where he’d be going, when the sun went down. But despite the distraction, the lump of lead grew larger as the day went on: by the time he’d been to the briefing, eaten the ‘Last Supper’ of eggs and bacon, pulled on his flying gear and climbed into the truck that took them to their aeroplane, it must have weighed half a pound at least. And then the wait, that endless, awful wait, sprawled on the grass next to the bomber: forced jokes, nervous laughter, cigarettes lit with shaking hands, with nothing to do except think about the coming operation. In that hour, the ball of lead in his stomach felt like it doubled in size.

But then he’d climbed up the ladder and into the aeroplane. Walked, crouching, up the angled fuselage. Scrambled over the main spar. Strapped himself into his seat and started the engines.

And released the brakes.

Pull, flick.

Everything that had happened today – the conferences, the briefing, the truck to dispersal – had been preparing for this moment. The armourers who loaded the bombs, the fitters who tuned the engines, the airmen who filled the fuel tanks, all had been working to a timetable based on this: the moment the aeroplanes started rolling and the raid began.

This was it.

Phil had flicked off an aeroplane’s brakes for a raid many times before. Fifty times, to be precise. And that fact meant that this was the last time he would have to do it. This trip – a short one, they’d said at briefing, just three hours return, a piece of cake really – was the last one of his second tour of operations. After that, he knew, he could no longer be compelled to do any more. He’d be posted to a training school for another stint of instructing, perhaps. Or maybe he’d be given a staff job somewhere. Maybe he’d even be sent home to Australia. That might be nice, he thought. It had been more than three years, after all.

But there was his crew to think about, too. They were all still on their first tours and most of them still had about ten trips to fly before they were done. If Phil finished tonight, he knew they’d all have to keep going without him. That meant they’d have a new pilot to get used to, a less-experienced man most likely, and it would take time before they were as efficient a unit as he knew they now were. Survival on bombers was at least as much about luck as anything the crew themselves brought to the table, but they at least felt that they could favourably influence their chances if they were as effective and careful as they could be. Having to deal with an unfamiliar pilot could be just enough to tip the delicate balance from surviving to not. Despite having more than done his bit for the war effort, Phil was in two minds about whether he was prepared to make the rest of the crew take that chance.

He would have to make that decision soon, he thought. But first, he had to complete one more trip, and it started the same way as every other one:

Pull, flick.

This was it.


(c) 2019 Adam Purcell

Nose Art

It’s quite uncommon to get artwork on aeroplanes these days. ‘Nose art’ usually conjures up visions of pin-ups, bomber jackets and B-17s. Ahh yes, the old Memphis Belle effect:  clearly Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

But of course, painting (usually) scantily-clad women onto aeroplanes is not the sole preserve of the USAAF or Hollywood’s interpretation of it. I once flew a light aeroplane that had some rather alarming airbrushed artwork on the tail:

08May-Canberra 026

VH-RWK was a somewhat older Cessna 182Q, with a great big two-bladed propeller which gave it a distinctive sound in the air. It had sheepskin seat covers and was a very comfortable aeroplane to fly. But then, one night in September 2009, for reasons that were never determined, the aeroplane caught alight and burnt to the ground. All that was left? That tail with the scary witch!


Poor old RWK was an exception though. It’s far more common to find nose art on military aircraft, and particularly vintage military aircraft. And it turns out that there’s a fair bit of interest in the phenomenon. I even found an academic paper about it: Caitlin McWilliams (2010), Camaraderie, Morale and Material Culture: Reflections on the Nose Art of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force, Canadian Military History: Vol. 19: Iss. 4, Article 3.[1]

“Airmen were notoriously superstitious, and nose art became part a distinct “bomber culture” of good luck charms and rituals, the emblazoned designs linking the entire crew with their aircraft,” McWilliams writes. This link, she says, extended to the groundcrew assigned to each aircraft – and it was frequently the ground staff who actually got up on a ladder and did the painting. Indeed, some squadrons might have been blessed with a particularly talented artist among their ground staff who henceforth did all the nose art. 61 Squadron pilot John Boland, in an interview in the Australians at War Film Archive, described the man who painted his aircraft: a “little short artist” named Webb who created a classic nude-reclining-with-bomb in such detail that the CO “made him put a towel over her”!

“Nose art showcasing pin-up girls and other risqué subjects are most prominent, followed by designs which feature Walt Disney characters”, McWilliams writes. “More interestingly,” she continues, “many of the designs signal ties to Canada, sometimes through national symbols but also in more subtle ways.”

Not surprisingly similar patterns can be seen coming out of the nominally Australian units. The following images are all from The Waddington Collection, a series of photo albums which trace the ‘official’ history of RAF Waddington at war. There’s the pin-up girl: cd file 164

Here’s a Disney character: cd file 150

And where else could these pilots be from but Australia?cd file 291

cd file 181

(I think my favourite part of this one is the beer mugs used to denote completed ops)

In many cases the characters used in nose art were inspired in some way by the code letters assigned to the aircraft.

Witness JO-J Jumpin’ Jive, showing a man playing a file 073

Or JO-N Nick the Nazi Neutralizer, with a grinning devil. Vol XI Pt1 137

Piratical Pete, below a skull and crossbones motif, was JO-P. cd file 120

All of which raises a question.

What, if any, nose art was on B for Baker?

Nose art being what it is, it is necessarily temporary. “By its nature, nose art is adaptable and accommodating, there when airmen need it but gone as soon as the conflict is finished,” says McWilliams. Many of the Lancasters depicted here were lost during the war, in action or accident. And even those that survived the conflict didn’t survive their subsequent encounters with the scrap man. And so out of all the artwork in the photos in this post, nothing – not a single bit – survives in its original form. All we have are those photographs. And, as you’ll have heard me whining about for quite some time now, of B for Baker there isn’t even one of those.

In short, there’s a reason that my painting of the aircraft shows its starboard side. Any nose art, should any have existed, would traditionally appear on the port side (under the pilot’s side window). By orienting the aircraft the way we did, we leave open the possibility that should a photograph float out of a dusty box somewhere  and prove one way or the other that B for Baker did or didn’t have nose art, my painting won’t be wrong.

But it’s probably likely that, even if I do find that magical photograph one day in the future, it will show an unadorned space below the pilot’s window. Phil Smith wrote a letter to his mother in July 1942 from the Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne, Worcestershire, where he was an instructor between his operational tours. When he was second pilot during the first part of his tour on Wellingtons, he wrote, the captain, a man named Taffy Jones, had a boomerang painted on the side of the aeroplane. But…

“I never went in for emblems however, always feeling superstitious about them”

And as it would appear that it was the captain’s call about what, if anything, was painted on their aeroplanes, there’s a good chance that Phil’s superstitions carried through to his second tour and B for Baker did not have nose art.


[1] Available at:

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

VeRA and the crew of B for Baker

Some awesome photographs have filtered out over the last couple of months as the world’s only two airworthy Lancasters toured the UK. ‘VeRA’, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster, was flown across the Atlantic in early August and joined PA474 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at numerous airshows and other events across the country. ‘VeRA’ was due to leave the UK around the time that this post is published, having participated in sights and sounds not experienced in at least five decades. They even arranged a rendezvous with Just Jane at East Kirkby, where 5,000 lucky people got to experience not one, not two, but THREE Lancasters with engines running at the same time.

The CWHM aircraft is dedicated to the memory of a man named Andrew Mynarski, who was a 419 Squadron mid-upper gunner in June 1944. Remarkably, I recently discovered a direct connection between Mynarski and the crew of B for Baker.

In June 1944 Mynarski’s aircraft was shot down by nightfighters during an attack on marshalling yards at Cambrai, France. [1]The pilot ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft and, after giving them some time to do so, he parachuted himself. But meanwhile the rear gunner – a man named Pat Brophy – was trapped in his turret, with burning hydraulic fluid in the rear fuselage. Mynarski was about to leave the aircraft via the rear door when he saw Brophy. Without hesitation he crawled through the flames and tried to break into the turret with the crash axe. By this time his uniform was on fire and the rear gunner waved him away, but he tried again with his bare hands.

But it was not enough. With time running out, Brophy screamed at him to get out. Mynarski realised it was hopeless and, because there was no space to turn around, he crawled backwards through the flames. He reached the door. He stood up. Still looking at Brophy, he slowly came to attention, clothes in flames, and saluted. Then he mouthed the words, “Good night, Sir,” and jumped.

Mynarski’s clothes were on fire as he fell – and so was his parachute. While he was found by people on the ground he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Most incredibly, Pat Brophy, the rear gunner still in his turret, survived the crash. On his return to England he was able to tell the story of Mynarski’s final act – and Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, gazetted in October 1946. In his memory, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Lancaster is named the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, and carries the Victoria Cross insignia on both sides of its nose.

So where is the connection to the crew of B for Baker? Earlier this year I was contacted – through this blog – by Dale Higgins, a niece of wireless operator Dale Johnston. Among other things she sent me a copy of his logbook, which includes this particularly useful page:

Alastair Dale Johnston Flight Log-13

Mynarski’s name, because it is so unusual, immediately set bells ringing. The timing matched. A quick google confirmed that the initial matched as well. But Mynarski was serving on a Canadian squadron when he met his death, and Dale Johnston and his crew ended up at 467 Squadron. And he was a mid-upper gunner at 419 Squadron, though Dale lists him as a rear gunner. I needed some more evidence.

Enter Jim on the Bomber Command History Forum. He managed to pull up Mynarski’s service record[2] (caution: 96Mb pdf) from the Archives Canada website. And there is an overlap.

Dale Johnston, Ken Tabor, Jerry Parker and Eric Hill arrived at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit – Mynarski was already there – in September 1943. Jack Purcell arrived a week and a half later. All their posting dates in and out of 9 Squadron are identical. Their paths diverge again at 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, when Dale et al. joined Phil Smith and went to 467 Squadron on 31 December. Mynarski stayed on, leaving the HCU to a Royal Canadian Air Force depot on 20 January 1944.

So we know that Mynarski’s movements were identical to those of the group of men who made up the core of the crew of B for Baker from September until December 1943. And we have Mynarski’s name in the crew list in Dale Johnston’s logbook.

It would be nice to see a copy of Mynarski’s logbook to be sure (and I have feelers out to that end, but no joy yet), but the available evidence supports a strong case that Andrew Mynarski, VC, was for a few months at least, part of the crew of B for Baker.

And that, if it’s possible, gives even more meaning to ‘VeRA’s recent visit to the UK.


© 2014 Adam Purcell

[1] The following description of Mynarski’s actions comes from,mynarski.html and the citation for his decoration, found in his Service Record (see No. 2, below)

[2] Item Number 26336, via

Just Jane to fly again?

Twenty miles east of Lincoln lies a small village called East Kirkby. In fields nearby are the remains of a Royal Air Force Bomber Command station of the same name. It would be just one of many similar old airfields liberally scattered around Lincolnshire, except that in a corner of this one is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre – the home of Avro Lancaster NX611, better known as Just Jane.


I went on a taxi run on Jane during my Bomber Command ‘pilgrimage’ to the UK in April 2009. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. Sitting in the wireless operator’s seat (while the desk is still there, the navigator’s seat has been removed), feeling the vibrations as the aircraft moved and hearing the roar of the engines and the hiss of pneumatic brakes as we bumped our way around a small part of the old airfield, it was very easy to close my eyes and feel just a small taste of What It Was Like.


There has been some significant press coverage in the last couple of weeks about a possible restoration to airworthiness for Just Jane. Indeed, a report on BBC News was reportedly the most viewed and most shared video on the website the day it was released. The museum has secured four airworthy Merlin engines and is slowly gathering more parts, including an almost complete Martin mid-upper turret. Certainly it would appear that the Panton brothers are serious about getting their treasure into the air again.

But restoring another Lancaster to flying status will be a significant challenge. It took a decade to get Canadian Warplane Heritage’s Mynarski Lancaster airworthy. Just Jane is in quite good condition but there are far more regulations and requirements surrounding an airworthy aircraft than those relevant to one that stays on the ground – maintenance becomes instantly more expensive as it would need to be signed off by a licensed engineer, for example. The Pantons are reportedly planning to carry out the restoration on site at East Kirkby. As I discovered when I visited in 2009, they do already have some heroic if limited restoration work already underway on projects like a Hampden light bomber, but a Lancaster – to flying status – is in a whole new level of complexity. Obstacles like these can be overcome, given sufficient determination, but they also need piles and piles of cold hard cash. Taxi rides on Just Jane are by far the biggest attraction of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, and with Jane inaccessible for two seasons at the very least, that’s a large proportion of their revenue affected.

I don’t know the full story, and it is entirely possible (even likely, given the increase in news coverage recently) that the museum has planned and saved already towards the restoration. There are a number of static Lancasters around the world so I feel the risk of losing one in a crash, while very real, is not a reason to leave it on the ground – after all, an aeroplane’s natural environment is the sky. But there is another perhaps more philosophical reason that I think should be considered before any work is commenced.

At the moment, Just Jane provides the only opportunity in the world for members of the general public to crawl all over a Lancaster in something close to wartime configuration. Following the taxi run, you are given the complete run of the machine – sitting in each crew position (though the mid-upper turret is at the moment a shell only), clambering over the main spar, handling the bomb sight and of course manipulating the flying controls in the pilot’s seat. The point is that once the aircraft is certified for flight, it will need to comply with civil aviation regulations and as such this freedom will necessarily need to be curtailed. And having gone to the trouble and expense of returning the Lancaster to flying condition, it’s debatable whether the museum would then tolerate the additional cost and wear and tear of public ground runs.

As current EU regulations stand, flying paying passengers on the aircraft would be nearly impossible (inflexible security laws introduced in 2008 mandate things like bulletproof cockpit doors and escape slides in large aircraft carrying paying passengers, requirements that are impossible or at least extremely impracticable for vintage aircraft of this nature). And about 20 miles down the road is the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with its own flying Lancaster, so people can already see one of the old bombers flying on a regular basis. If Just Jane does ever fly again, the very accessible opportunity for members of the public to experience being in a Lancaster with its engines running will probably be lost. As good as it would be to see two Lancasters in the air at once, I feel that, rather than simply watching another aeroplane fly past, experiencing one of Just Jane’s taxi rides is a far more effective way to give modern audiences a personal feeling of What It Was Like.

Which, for people like me, is the whole point of the exercise.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command in Canberra

There was an old man sitting patiently in the departure lounge in Melbourne when I boarded a QantasLink Dash 8 to fly to Canberra last weekend. Sat next to him was his middle-aged son. When we boarded the aircraft they sat across the aisle and a few rows in front of me. I overheard a snippet of half a conversation that the younger man was having on his phone: “meeting in Canberra… taking him to… you know, Air Force stuff…” I watched his father as we powered down Runway 34 and took off. He was gazing out of the window, and his thoughts looked like they were miles away: across the seas, and across the decades.

They were going to Canberra for the same reason I was: the fourth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. I next saw Ian and his son Phillip underneath the nose of Lancaster G for George at the Meet & Greet cocktail party later that evening and went across and said g’day. Ian had been a 460 Squadron pilot so it was fitting that G for George, a 460 Squadron machine, was the centerpiece of the function.

11jun-bombercommandcanberra-007s copy

It was an outstanding evening. There were perhaps 150 people present, a fair proportion of those being veterans. Talking about flying Lancasters with people like Don Huxtable, a 463 Sqn skipper, was a unique experience as he casually threw a thumb over his shoulder at the old bomber to emphasize a point. The function ended with the magnificent ‘Striking by Night’ sound and light show recreating a bombing raid around the Lancaster. We retired to the hotel bar for a nightcap, ensconced in a warm corner while Don Southwell held court.

It was a cold and misty Canberra winter’s morning when we awoke. But the sky soon cleared and the sun was nicely warming as we took our seats for the ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.

As is customary the AWM Ceremonies division put on a good show. It ran smoothly and Don Browning’s ‘Reflections’ presentation was particularly good. As the first notes of The Last Post rang out into a brilliant blue sky the line of young RAAF officers in the row in front of us snapped into a salute. It was a moving moment.

After the ceremony all the veterans moved up towards the War Memorial buildings for an extraordinary group photo. I counted 50 veterans, surely one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command airmen (and at least one WAAF) anywhere in the world these days.

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The final part of the weekend was the luncheon. This was, I reckon, the highlight of an already highlight-heavy weekend. Some 200 people showed up, with at least one veteran at each table.

The best part of this event is the ability to float around between tables talking to all sorts of interesting people. Until today, I’d never met a real live Bomber Command flight engineer. Tom Knox, a Glaswegian flight engineer from 149 and 199 Squadrons, is on the right here:

11jun-bombercommandcanberra-067s copyThe other man is Pat Kerrins, a pilot from 115 Squadron. They were in animated conversation regarding a mutual friend and just being a fly on the wall while they chatted away was fascinating. A copy of this photo will be winging its way to each of these men shortly. I also met Jean Smith, who served in the WAAF at 27 OTU, RAF Lichfield, and a couple of likely suspects involved with the 463-467 Squadron Association in Melbourne. All very interesting people to know.

This has become an extremely significant event in the Bomber Command calendar in Australia. The Bomber Command Commemoration Day Foundation was set up to organise events like these to ensure that the men and women of Bomber Command get some long-deserved recognition. Behind ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, this is now the third largest single event held by the Australian War Memorial each year.

Given the level of interest in this year’s event, the men and women of Bomber Command can rest assured that it will continue into perpetuity.

11jun-bombercommandcanberra-004-copys copy

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

The Crew of B for Baker

lancaster_7-little1 copy

The crew of LM475 B for Baker, an Avro Lancaster Mk III of 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, arrive on dispersal at RAF Waddington on the evening of 11 April 1944. Their target is Aachen in Germany.

The crew is made up of seven men: Pilot S/L DPS Smith, Navigator W/O RW Purcell, Flight Engineer Sgt KH Tabor, Bomb Aimer Sgt J Parker, Wireless Operator F/Sgt AD Johnston, Mid-Upper Gunner Sgt ER Hill and Rear Gunner F/Sgt GF Pate. One month after the Aachen raid, B for Baker failed to return from an operation to Lille, France. Of these seven men, only the pilot would survive.

This painting, by aviation artist Steve Leadenham, was specially commissioned by Adam Purcell, the great nephew of the navigator. It serves as a tribute to these seven men – but also to the 125,000 who also served in Bomber Command during WWII. The story of how this project developed can be read in the archives of SomethingVeryBig. Click here.

High-quality 80x40cm archival reproductions of this painting are now available for purchase direct from the artist at the rate of AUD45.00, plus postage to anywhere in the world.

For details on how you can obtain your own copy of this very special image, contact Steve directly through his website:

mg_8215_1 copy

See more of Steve’s work at


My good friend Joss le Clercq is a French aviation historian of some note. When I visited Lezennes and the graves of my great uncle’s crew in 2009, I stayed for a few nights with him in his farmhouse between Fromelles and Aubers, about 20km west of Lille.

Joss has the beginnings of a small aviation museum in his back shed. There are parts of many crashed aeroplanes, all dug up around the local area. Among them is one particular bit of metal. Though badly corroded, it is still unmistakably a fragment of a blade from an aircraft propeller. About fifteen years ago, a hotel and a petrol station was being built in Lezennes. While digging the foundations they found some rusted metal – which Joss identified as the remains of a Lancaster. He retrieved two pieces – the propeller blade and a flat fragment of alloy. From local records he deduced which Lancaster the wreckage was from.

These unassuming bits of metal in Joss’ back shed are most probably the only surviving pieces of Lancaster Mk III, LM475:

img_3755 copy

Of the crash site itself there remains now virtually no trace. The petrol station continues dispensing liquefied dead dinosaurs in its curiously French, completely automatic way. The hotel looked pretty empty when we visited. But there are two large rocks on a small bit of flat ground, which Joss says are pretty close to where he found the propeller blade a decade and a half ago.

I reckon they look ideal for the placing of a small plaque, to mark the spot where the Lancaster came down.


img_3854 copyA task, perhaps, for when next I visit.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Painting Complete!

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

painting-007 copy

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.

Three Lancasters

For an Australian, seeing even one Lancaster is something of an achievement. There are only two in the entire country – and they’re separated by some 2000 miles. So while I was in the UK in June 2010, managing to visit no less than three in about four days was pretty special. They were all around London – R5868 ‘S-Sugar’ at Hendon, DV372 ‘Old Fred’ at the Imperial War Museum, and PA474 ‘City of Lincoln’ at Biggin Hill. Each one inspired some sort of feeling, but not entirely as one might have expected.

Old Fred is the least complete of the three. In fact, it’s only the front cockpit section – forward of the main spar – that sits in majestic splendour on the second level of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth:

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This is of course the Lancaster that was immortalised by navigator Arnold Easton’s book ‘We Flew Old Fred – The Fox’. It has a personal connection for me as well, appearing at least once in the logbook of S/Ldr DPS (Phil) Smith, who led my great uncle Jack’s 467 Sqn crew. Jack himself was not on this operation but the rest of the crew were. I’m told that, except for a great big sheet of perspex over the flight engineer’s panel, the cockpit appears more or less untouched from the way it looked at the end of the war.
There’s another great big sheet of perspex across the end that seals off the inside from the sweaty hands of the thousands of school children who were visiting at the same time that I was. It also, of course, carries out the same protective function against slightly emotional relatives of bomber aircrew… like me.
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I was pressed up against the plastic for some time, gazing at a bucket seat that Phil Smith sat in… a navigator’s desk like those Jack Purcell worked at… the knobs on the radio sets that wireless op Dale Johnston fiddled with. Half the aeroplane is missing, but standing there looking forward it wasn’t hard to imagine the three of them, plus the hulking figure of Ken Tabor at the flight engineer’s station (without the perspex) and, beyond those yellow railings, right up the front in the big bulbous blister, bomb aimer Jerry Parker. The chatter of the schoolchildren became the drone of four Merlins as the Lancaster flew through the night. There was definitely a connection here.

S-Sugar is an aeroplane that should evoke similar feelings. It’s certainly an aeroplane that was on squadron at the same time that my great uncle and his crew were. In fact I can almost imagine their anticipation at the prospect of a party in the mess when Sugar approached its 100th operation. Sadly, they were not to enjoy any celebrations, being shot down the night before Sugar chalked up its ‘Ton’.

The first sight, once you enter the main aircraft halls at the RAF Museum at Hendon, is certainly impressive:
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But as I approached the aeroplane I saw tape blocking off one side. The Museum was doing work to their Bomber Command exhibition and so half the hall was closed. I couldn’t even walk a full circuit around the Lancaster. One of my favourite things to do when in close proximity to a Lancaster is to just walk around it, looking up. I think it’s got something to do with realising how big the thing is.

But I couldn’t do that on this day.

I don’t know why, but Sugar just didn’t have the effect on me that I was expecting it to. I couldn’t walk all the way around the aeroplane. There was the sound of power tools over on the other side of the hall (the side that was closed off). There was the ‘beeping’ of a moving cherry picker. The atmosphere – that I think the Australian War Memorial has captured with their Striking by Night display using G-George in Canberra – just wasn’t there.
I realise that here was an aeroplane that was at Waddington when Jack’s crew were there – it was even on the same operation to Lille from which they failed to return. But I found nothing there. The collection of metal bits and pieces looked like a Lancaster but I detected none of the ‘something else’ that I found at Canberra. It just wasn’t there for me. S for Sugar was a bit disappointing.

One aeroplane that definitely still has that something special is PA474. Unique amongst those Lancasters that I’ve laid eyes on, this one still flies.
I spent three weeks on the Bomber Command trail in Lincolnshire last year. Despite chasing it half way across the county, I failed on that occasion to see City of Lincoln in the air.

There was no way it was going to beat me this time around!

I thought the Biggin Hill airshow would be a pretty safe bet. When I arrived – early in the morning – I could see the Lancaster in the distance, parked somewhat improbably behind an Me 109:
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The anticipation began to build.

The airshow was fantastic. All sorts of aeroplanes that we just can’t see in Australia, displayed in professional and entertaining ways. The large crowd lapped it up.

In the afternoon, England was playing Germany in the game that would ultimately send the Poms home from the World Cup. The airshow organisers had thoughtfully provided a few very big video screens on which to show the match.

The Lancaster started up and taxied out shortly after kick-off.
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And do you know what?

Every person on that airfield had their eyes glued to the old bomber. The football never stood a chance.

There is something about the sound of a Lancaster at take-off power. You can’t look away (even if a contentious refereeing decision just cost England any chance they might have had of reaching the next round). The aeroplane made several low, slow passes with the grace of a beautiful lady in her element, the Merlins purring as she swept past. That silhouette is unmistakeable.
The crowd’s attention was wandering back towards the football after the Lancaster made its final pass. I kept watching though, as it headed into the distance. The wings became stumps, then they disappeared altogether and the aeroplane became but a dot. I was still watching as the dot disappeared over the horizon, the throb of those engines finally fading away. A minute or two later I was still watching, still searching, but it was gone.

I’d travelled half-way across the world, and finally I’d managed to see a Lancaster in the air.

Satisfied, I turned my attention to the big screen to watch the rest of the match.

27JUN10092 copyThis post originally appeared on the Lancaster Archive Forum (

© 2010 Adam Purcell


Another update from Steve:

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The crew are gaining some definition. There is even the hint of a ‘flare chute’ inside the door to the Lancaster. The saucepan shape of the dispersal pan is beginning to take shape. And you’ll see that the bicycle has arrived, leaning against some oil drums.

The bike is an important part of the story. I have documentary evidence that at least Phil Smith and Gil Pate had bicycles that they acquired during their time at training units. The RAF bicycle was ubiquitous around airfields – used to get around the sprawling sites, where accommodation could be a couple of miles from the mess, the briefing room and of course the dispersals. A great pile of bicycles outside a pub in the nearby village was a sure sign that aircrew would be inside.

There’s a personal connection as well – a bicycle has been my primary mode of transport around Sydney for the last five or six years, and my bike has come to define me almost as much as my flying does. So I thought a bicycle would be a nice personal touch to make the painting ‘mine’.

It is now very close to completion – hopefully I’ll be able to pick up the finished painting when I drive to Sydney next weekend.