”For me it is a strange emotional feeling to hold this knife considering where it has been and also the fact that it was a prized possession of my father when he was just 21 years old.”

-Clive Rattray, son of Lieutenant Kenneth Rattray, a Rat of Tobruk, on being handed his father’s wartime knife. From a story in the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2010 (link: http://www.smh.com.au/national/tobruk-knife-finds-way-home-20101016-16oat.html).

The knife in question had been lost for nearly 70 years. Lt Rattray carried it – a simple pocket knife, engraved with his name and his service history – through the Siege of Tobruk, then through Bougainville and to Darwin in 1943, when it disappeared. It turned up in, of all places, an English cinema some years later. It then disappeared again, before being found in an old suitcase in Kent in the house of the cinema’s former usher. The family of the usher was intrigued by the inscription on the knife and set about tracing its real owner – until, finally, just a few weeks ago, the knife was returned to Lt Rattray’s son.

It’s the story of the knife – seeing action in two major theatres of WWII, then its unlikely journey to England and its equally improbable return to Australia – that makes it so special. On its own, it’s ‘just another knife’, albeit one engraved with faint letters. But knowing its intriguing history somehow gives it extra meaning. It adds a human element to an otherwise unremarkable inanimate object.

I was reminded of this story when I visited the Powerhouse Museum’s Discovery Centre in Castle Hill in north-west Sydney for one of their recent monthly Open Days. I went along and enjoyed a tour of the warehouse – an esoteric collection of fantastic and fascinating objects covering Australia’s technological history.

Among the collections in the warehouse were a number of models of biplanes. They had been built, we were told by our guide, by a young man with a keen interest in aeronautics in the 1920s. The man later followed his dreams of flight, joined the RAF and flew fighters in WWII. He was shot down and disappeared over Crete. Many years later his son found some limited information about where his father was buried. He visited the island armed with only some bare facts – but he managed to find someone who was there when his father was shot down. Someone who, in fact, had sat with his father while he took his last breaths. It was a special moment for the son when the old man led him to the gravestone under which his father lay.

A very special story, then. Knowing the story of the man who built them gives the models something extra. It raises them above the wood, wire and fabric of which they were built. Like the Tobruk knife, they are otherwise ordinary objects that become representative of something more.

Incidentally, Steve Leadenham had a small stand in the main foyer at the Powerhouse and was displaying some of his work – which offered a chance to see the Lancaster painting in the flesh, so to speak. Steve was talking to a small group of people at his stand when I arrived back from the tour. The Lancaster was there too, on his easel. Underneath the canvas there was a small palette with smears of paint and a brush – evidently he had been doing a little ‘touch-up’ work. We talked for some time about the painting, the Lancaster and the men who flew it. Steve’s wife Glenda took a photo of Steve and I with the painting:

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Encouragingly, Steve reported some good interest in the painting from some of the people who had wandered through. Some even asked about the possibility of getting a print of it. I was happy to hear that – it means that the story of B for Baker and her crew won’t be forgotten.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Seven Crew


Here’s Steve’s latest update on the Lancaster. You’ll see our missing seventh crewman has been painted in, sitting on a kitbag. Steve says that at this stage he looks like he’s searching for something on the ground. The kitbag gives him away – it must be the navigator, who could usually be recognised by the large bag of maps and instruments he had to carry to and from the aircraft. Other changes in this update include a bit more definition in the shadows on the aircraft and some grass that has appeared in the foreground. Click on the image to enlarge:

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I’m not sure how that seventh crew member got there, his bicycle isn’t evident yet… but Steve tells me it’s coming!

 This post was edited for clarity on 31 October 2010. Meanwhile, I’m now in Melbourne and, happily, I have internet access again. So, pending job commitments, posting on this blog should from now on be back to what passes for its usual schedule.

I hate moving.

I’m in the middle of moving house interstate…  so everything’s all packed up and, mostly, in Mum and Dad’s garage. This morning I took down the B707 print from my wall… and so the flat is now looking rather depressing.

To cheer myself up, here’s the next update from Steve…

I’ve made some progress and a few revisions (see attached).  I decided the vast expanse of concrete was all rather too much and have resorted to the same fudge used in so many “dispersal” paintings – mud and grass and tyre ruts leading into the picture.  Still a lot to do there but you get the idea.  The GPU is there with an attending erk but not quite at the plugging in stage – I need to suggest the lead though. 

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We have propellers! We have more Lancasters! We have an erk! We have a battery cart! We have (crucially) an entrance door into the aeroplane! We have… erm… (one, two, three, four, five, six) six crew!

Perhaps the seventh airman is pedalling furiously from the ops block on his bicycle…

What Steve Did Next

Oh ok then. Here is another update from Steve’s studio:

Some more progress for you.  We probably need to start thinking about the guy working on the engine, the bike, etc.  I’m still looking to include one or two distant Lancs dispersed around the airfield.  Lots still to do, especially in the foreground.


lancaster_3-blog copyThe crew themselves are starting to appear, and the truck that brought them to the aeroplane is hanging around in the background. As for the erk working on an engine, I’m starting to think that a workstand might ‘clutter’ the scene a little too much, so I’m thinking of a few other options that will get him into the scene but not take over too much…

But looking good, no?


It’s happening.

Steve has started sketching the basic outline for the painting onto the canvas. Here’s a preliminary photo:

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You can see the general arrangement of the Lancaster (with H2S bulge) and the crew bus. The squiggles in the middle will, I’m told, eventually turn into the crew themselves…

Actually introducing paint to the canvas will happen, Steve says, in the next week or so. In the meantime, we now need to start thinking about where the bike and a few other details will fit in…


As explained in this post, I’ve engaged the services of a good friend of mine to paint me a picture of Lancaster LM475. I’ve decided to start an occasional series of posts dealing with ‘the process’ of how the painting develops over the next couple of months.

Steve and I have been throwing ideas around for the last few weeks, and now we are starting to see some concepts ‘on screen’, if not exactly on canvas yet. The traditional method for deciding on a composition, Steve says, is to actually sketch out ideas on paper. Those days are no more, thanks to Photoshop. Steve mocked up a proposed composition using a CGI image that I’d found on the Lancaster Archive Forum (thanks Peter) and a few other bits and pieces:

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Already the feel of the scene is coming through…

The beauty of Photoshop, of course, is that even those like myself, suffering a severe lack of skills in the drawing department, can have a fiddle with some things. So I found our lonely ‘erk’ a work stand…draft1-copy-blog1 copy


…then decided the stand (and ‘erk’ – who had, Steve tells me, been rudely snatched from a USAAF Lightning and suddenly transported into the RAF) would work better on the other wing…draft2-copy-blog copy


So I bounced both of my ‘amendments’ to Steve to throw in to the mix.

These were always intended to be very crude representations of an overall concept for the painting. Details like the bicycles and any other bits of the flotsam usually found near a dispersal haven’t arrived on-scene yet. But they can come later.

Next step: the canvas.

Visit Steve’s website for more of his work…

Visiting George

This was originally posted by me on the Lancaster Archive Forum, 28APR10. I thought it appropriate for a cross-post.

After spending most of a Wednesday morning and a fair proportion of the afternoon at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra making copies of the Casualty Files belonging to three of the Australians on my great uncle Jack’s crew, I drove across Lake Burley Griffin to the Australian War Memorial. The purpose, ostensibly, was to make a recce of the Research Room for the upcoming meeting of the Lancaster Archive Forum brigade. But something else happened while I was there.

I found myself being drawn towards the ANZAC Hall, the impressive display space at the back of the Memorial where the large-technology objects live. The largest of these, of course, is Lancaster bomber W4783 G-George, a 'high-scoring' Lanc from 460 Squadron – and it was this aircraft that was drawing me in.

The first thing that you notice whenever you stand in close proximity to one of these aeroplanes is just how big it is. I moved to the floor underneath the bomber – just walking around it in circles, looking up.

Every hour, on the hour, the lights around George dim. You begin to hear the sound of Merlin engines being run up. It’s the start of the AWM’s impressive Striking by Night exhibition, a sound and light show representing one of George’s many operations. A few years ago I was standing next to a Bomber Command veteran watching the show. He said it was pretty realistic – “but much louder than I remember it!” The show started as I was standing under one of the engines. I stayed there and watched and listened. When it ended the small crowd that had gathered to watch it dispersed – but I found myself frozen to the spot.

Just looking up.

I visited RAF Waddington for ANZAC Day 2009. This was expected to be one of the highlights of my time in Europe. It was, after all, the place at which Jack and five of his comrades set their last foot upon the Earth. And though it was a fantastic experience, there was something that I was missing. After Phil Bonner dropped me off at the Horse and Jockey to pick up my hire car, I tried to drive back into Lincoln. But something wasn’t letting me drive away. Something was keeping me there. I drove again around the outside of the perimeter of the station, but I left feeling very unsettled. There seemed to be unfinished business at Waddington.

As I tried to leave George, I felt that same unsettled feeling. Like something was calling me back. I can't explain for sure what it was. But the aeroplane – a collection of metal, shaped and bolted together in just the right way – had something else to it. Something I could sense. I walked slowly up the stairs nearby, lingering for a time at the top, just gazing at the Lancaster. Even as I turned and walked away, I felt the need to look back over my shoulder. The unsettled feeling stayed.

Each day as the Memorial closes there is a simple ceremony as the sun sets. Still feeling troubled, I stayed to watch. A lone piper stood under the Roll of Honour. He began to play an old Scottish lament, took perhaps a dozen steps forward, then turned to face the silent crowd. His haunting notes echoed around the courtyard. The piper was nearing the end of the piece as I watched him turn about face and slow-march up the steps leading to the Hall of Memory, which houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

He crossed into the Hall.

The doors swung silently shut behind him as the last notes rang out.

I looked up at my great uncle’s name, forever engraved on the Roll of Honour.

I smiled, nodded, turned on my heel – and walked away.


Original location: http://lancaster-archive.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=2522&p=25043 

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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Picture the scene:

Just after 7pm, 11 April, 1944. The sun is about an hour and a half from setting and the light is the beautiful golden colour of a mid-Spring evening. Lancaster B for Baker is sitting on dispersal, one of many scattered around the countryside surrounding the runways at RAF Waddington. An engine fitter stands on a scaffold, finishing off some work on the fiddly bits of one of the four Merlin engines. His bicycle leans against a main wheel beneath him. The Lancaster’s belly is open – earlier in the afternoon, armourers had hoisted 13 1,000lb medium-capacity bombs into its racks. A truck has just dropped off the Lancaster’s crew. They clamber from the tailgate and stand around, cracking bad jokes to ward off the gnawing tension that’s been there ever since they found out where they were headed tonight. Aachen.

While this is an imagined description, it is I hope not too far from what happened on that night in the spring of 1944 for Jack Purcell, Phil Smith and the rest of their crew. I don’t have a photo of Jack’s aeroplane – Lancaster LM475, PO-B for Baker – so this is my concept for a painting of it.

On my living room wall is a framed print of this picture:

The artist is a man named Steve Leadenham, and he happens to be a friend of mine. Steve did a series on VH-XBA, the first ever Qantas jet, and the story of its restoration to flight and eventual return to Australia a few years ago. I particularly liked this one so I got him to organise a print for me. Plug alert – have a look at www.leadenham.com for the rest of the series.

Steve grew up around South Yorkshire in England and as a youngster used to explore some of the old bomber bases that are scattered around that part of the world. As he said when I asked him to do a painting of Jack’s aeroplane for me, “it’s inevitable I will get round to a Lancaster sooner or later!” We’re at the stage now of throwing ideas around to see what we can come up with.

The general concept, as described above, is fairly simple – but what details to include or otherwise are more difficult to determine. I don’t, for example, know what if any nose art the aeroplane carried. This we can get around by positioning the aeroplane so that the port nose section – where any nose art would be found – is not facing the viewer, to keep alive the possibility of it being there should we discover a photograph some time in the future. Should the starboard aircraft and squadron code letters – either side of the fuselage roundel – be PO-B, or should they be B-PO? Should the code letters be outlined in yellow (which appears a 5 Group standard)? Should the nose carry a small “PO” by the bomb aimer’s blister (which appears on photos of many but, infuriatingly, not all, Waddington Lancasters)? Should the flaps be up or down? Should the bomb doors be open or closed? What sort of propellers did the aeroplane have – ‘needle’ or ‘paddle’? Did it carry the H2S blister under the fuselage?

These are difficult questions to pin down with any certainty. I’ve used as many photos as I can find of Waddington aircraft – the Waddington Collection from Phil Bonner is invaluable here – and I’ve asked a few ‘experts’, on the Lancaster Archive Forum and in other places, about aircraft configuration. So I can make a few educated guesses: I’ve asked Steve to paint the aeroplane with the bomb doors open (because they were hydraulically operated so would be left open prior to bombing up, and closed following engine start), with the yellow outlined codes and the smaller PO on the nose (basis the fuselage of ‘Old Fred’ in the IWM in London – which was on squadron at the same time – and numerous Waddington Collection photos), and with H2S blister and needle props (basis a photo of LM550, which came off the same production line). This is all based on educated guesses and may be incorrect but at this stage it’s as close as I can get.

In an effort to be as ‘plausible’ as I can, the Aachen operation of 11 April 1944 is one on which the crew actually flew, in LM475. The bomb load was indeed 13 thousand-pounders. The bicycle represents those that I know were owned by Phil Smith and Gil Pate. The idea of the “beautiful golden colour of a mid-Spring evening” is not entirely made up either. On 14 April 1944 – a few days after this raid – Gil Pate wrote to his mother:

“Weather here now beautiful sunny days + long hours of daylight, which we make the most of.”

On the Aachen raid they took off at 2016. According to the Australian Geoscience website calculator, sunset at Waddington was at 1850 GMT, which would be 2050 local given the Double British Summer Time in use throughout the war – or about half an hour after the aircraft took off. So the crew would have arrived at the aircraft an hour and a half or so before sunset, and based on Gil’s letter it’s a good bet that weather conditions were pleasant at the time.

The whole idea is to have something that makes a fitting memorial to the crew. It might not be ‘spot on’ accurate but hopefully it will be based at least partly on plausible facts. Rest assured I’ll keep you updated as Steve progresses.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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