Archive for the 'Museums' Category

Hangars, Ansons and Aeradio: A visit to Nhill

Most of the 40 or so locations around Australia that hosted aircrew training units during WWII are still in use today as aerodromes, both civil and military. Some are better-known than others. Mascot, for example, where the current Sydney International Airport is located, was No. 4 Elementary Flying Training School. Essendon – No. 3 EFTS – was, for a time, Melbourne’s main airport and remains in use by corporate aircraft, emergency services, freighters and trainers. Amberley and Pearce are still RAAF bases. While some were abandoned post-war (Cressy in Victoria, for example, or Uranquinty in NSW), a large number of the others are in use in regional and metro areas of Australia. Forest Hill – No. 2 Service Flying Training School – became Wagga Wagga Airport, now a reasonably busy training, maintenance and RPT hub for regional airline Rex. Many navigators trained at No. 1 Air Navigation School in Parkes, NSW, which remains active as a regional airport. And about five years ago I landed my last aeroplane, appropriately enough a Tiger Moth, on the grass runway at Camden, outside Sydney, which hosted for a time the RAAF’s Central Flying School where flying instructors were taught their trade.

Jack Purcell trained at four airfields in Australia, and all remain active. After he was scrubbed from pilot training at 8 EFTS, Narranderra (which today receives multiple scheduled air services each day to and from Sydney), he re-mustered and began his navigator training at No. 2 Air Observers’ School, Mount Gambier (hosting air services to Adelaide and Melbourne). Then he was posted to 2 Bombing and Air Gunnery School at Port Pirie, South Australia (a regional town on the eastern side of the Spencer Gulf). And finally, before being awarded the half-wing that denoted a qualified navigator in July 1942, he spent almost a month at No. 2 Air Navigation School, just outside the western Victorian wheatbelt town of Nhill, on the highway half-way between Adelaide and Melbourne.

Rachel and I happened to spend a night camped in the caravan park at Nhill on the way home from a holiday to Kangaroo Island late last year. Knowing that the name crops up in Jack’s logbook, I thought we might be able to have a quick look at the airfield to see if we could find interesting remnants of its wartime history. I was completely unprepared for what we actually found.

The first sign that something good is going on at Nhill was, quite literally, just that: a new-looking brown road sign. It was pointing, it said, to the “Historic RAAF Base”. Excellent, I thought, we’ll follow that in the morning. We arrived at the caravan park where a westerly wind was howling as we set up the tent. The roar of trucks passing on the highway was almost drowned out by the squawking and screaming of hundreds of white and pink corellas as they wheeled and soared and swung overhead.

Walking around the town looking for somewhere to have breakfast the next morning, we found a display in an otherwise empty shop window for the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. I rang the telephone number and was put on to a lady named Joan Bennett, who is the Secretary of the group. She readily agreed to open up the hangar at the aerodrome for us to visit.

And so an hour later after breakfast in a local café, that’s exactly where we headed. Unexpectedly, and despite the almost constant truck traffic, Nhill is a rather pretty little town. Heritage buildings line the main street and a long park, with bandstand and war memorials, sits between the two carriageways as the highway passes through the town itself.

The smaller of the two memorials looked, to me, to be quite new. And so it proved, being a memorial set up by the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre in 2011:RAAF Nhill memorial in the town The northern end of the town is dominated by the concrete silos of the former Noske Flour Mills. When it was built in 1919 this was apparently the largest concrete silo in Australia. No doubt it was a significant landmark for trainee navigators during wartime. About two kilometres northwest of the town is the airfield.

In 1938 an Aeradio station began operating at Nhill. This was part of a national network of air/ground communications stations set up to give comms and navigation support to civil aircraft flying around Australia. It was, in effect, the forerunner of the Flight Service network which eventually developed into the enroute air traffic control system we now use. The first building we passed, right next to the road along the western boundary of the aerodrome, is the former Aeradio site. It looks to be in some disrepair but out of the seventeen original sites around the country this is, it seems, the most original and the best preserved, and so moves are afoot, in cooperation with the Civil Aviation Heritage Society based at Essendon Airport here in Melbourne, to restore it and turn it into part of the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre.

There are two hangars at Nhill Airport. One is the last of five Bellman hangars built at Nhill during the war. It currently hosts the Wimmera Aero Club: The Bellman Hangar at Nhill Airfield; now the home of the Wimmera Aeroclub The other is virtually brand new. It was built in 2013 and officially opened in May 2014. Designed and built at cost by Ahrens, a steel and industrial supply company based in Adelaide but which owns a local Nhill business, the hangar now houses the beginnings of an air museum.

Joan was already there when we pulled up in front of the hangar. We paid our $5 each for admission (genuine 1972 prices!) and Joan showed us around. Pride of place in the middle is this: The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre Avro Anson, undergoing restoration in their brand new hangar It’s the bones of an Avro Anson, serial W2364 to be specific. While this particular airframe was not itself based at Nhill during the war, most of the flying that took place from the airfield would have been in aircraft very much like it. Jack Purcell’s logbook records a total of 25 hours of flying from Nhill by both day and night, over seven flights in July and August 1942. All of it was in Ansons. Page from RW Purcell's logbook In recognition of Nhill’s association with Ansons, then, this one is undergoing a slow but steady and beautifully detailed restoration. Joan says the aim is to get it to taxying status and they have already got one of the engines running, evidenced by the drip trays catching oil from said engine. Over along one side of the hangar is the workshop area, where members of the group have been cleaning, repairing or fabricating components as they go. It’s taken five years and over 2,000 man-hours of work to get it to this stage and while there’s undoubtedly a very long way to go, the day in February 2014 when the work-in-progress was towed from Anson Restoration Project Manager Mick Kingwell’s shed to the new hangar was a significant one for the group and for Nhill – the first time an Anson had been on the airfield in some sixty years.

While none of the original wooden parts have been suitable for re-use on the restoration, they have been used as templates for copies to be made and the level of detail already in place inside the fuselage is quite stunning: Inside the Nhill Anson Joan emphasised the spirit of cooperation and assistance that has come out of the aviation heritage community around Australia. A good illustration of this is the pair of Link Trainers which sit in a corner of the hangar. They both come from the same South Australian-based family. One is more complete than the other. This has been loaned to the Nhill group to restore to operating status and then to use as a template while they work on restoring the second one. Once restoration is complete the first trainer is to go back to its owners – but the second is to be retained in Nhill.

Also around the airfield itself is a Heritage Trail, with sealed pathways and signage, that takes the visitor around and explains the significance of the remains of the airfield’s time as a RAAF base. While we didn’t have time to walk around it ourselves it’s another sign that good things are afoot at Nhill. There are even plans to hold a fundraising airshow at the airfield on October 10 this year (stay tuned for details – I intend to be there if I can).

It’s wonderful to see such a passionate group at work in Nhill. Their plans are ambitious but the work to date is, really, most impressive. They appear to have the support of the local council and the town itself and they are breathing new life into what would otherwise be just another quiet, dying little country airfield in a quiet, dying little country town. We certainly need more of that sort of enthusiasm, and that there is a direct connection to Jack Purcell’s wartime story is, for me, an added bonus. Joan and Adam in front of the Nhill Anson You can find the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre’s website at http://nhillaviationheritagecentre.com.au/. Visits to the Ahrens Hangar can be arranged by phoning Joan Bennett on 0438 265 579. Tell her I sent you! © 2015 Adam Purcell

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Bomber Command Panel Discussion at the Shrine

The Panel Discussion On Tuesday a large crowd of at least 150 people gathered at the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne to take part in perhaps the largest of the events to be held in conjunction with the Bomber Command exhibition currently showing at the Shrine. I was particularly looking forward to this one, and it didn’t disappoint.

The occasion was a Panel Discussion about Bomber Command, chaired by Air Vice Marshal Chris Spence (Retd), Chairman of the Shrine Trustees. The panel was made up of three veterans, covering the entire period from the beginning of the war to the end. Jack Bell was a Wireless/Air Gunner who served in the Middle East early in the conflict before being shot down in a Bristol Bombay and becoming a prisoner of war in Italy and then in Germany. Peter Isaacson was a Pilot with 460 and 156 Squadrons, later famous as the man who flew Lancaster Q for Queenie to Australia (and under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) on a War Bonds tour in 1943. And Maurie O’Keefe was a Wireless/Air Gunner who served with 460 Squadron at the tail end of the war.

Left to Right: Jack Bell, Peter Isaacson, Maurie O'Keefe and Chris Spence

Left to Right: Jack Bell, Peter Isaacson, Maurie O’Keefe and Chris Spence

With Air Vice Marshal Spence asking questions and gently prodding the veterans along, over the next fifty minutes or so the discussion covered the entire war: from enlistment to training to operations and beyond. Peter joined up, he said, after seeing a mannequin wearing an Air Force uniform in a recruitment display in the window of Myer in Bourke St, Melbourne. It was a very smart blue suit, he said, and he decided that he would like one of those. So he enlisted. Maurie concurred. “You used to go to dances,” he said, “and the girls made a bit of a fuss of you if you’d joined up… so that was the main attraction, really!”

The theme continued. Peter related a story of landing a Tiger Moth in a farmer’s field so he could sneak an illicit smoke while at 8 Elementary Flying Training School. Unfortunately he was seen by an overflying aircraft and was as a result confined to barracks, the indiscretion, he said slightly wistfully, “rather spoiling a little romance I had going with a girl in Narrandera…” Once aircrew, always aircrew.

But there were also some desperately sad stories. Jack was shot down after his aircraft stumbled over the German 15th Panzer Division in Libya. The navigator was killed in the ensuing crash and, after he returned to Australia following three years, three months and three days as a prisoner of war Jack went to visit his dead crewman’s family. He could see in the mother’s eyes the unasked question, ‘why my son and not you?’ It was, he said, the hardest thing he ever had to do.

Following the formal part of the discussion, the microphone was opened to questions from the floor. And there were some very good questions, too. One was relating to Schräge Musik, the fixed upward-firing guns fitted to nightfighters which were so devastatingly effective and utterly unsuspected by Bomber Command until quite late in 1944. What was it like, the questioner asked, to encounter Schräge Musik? Incredibly enough, a first-hand answer was available. In the audience were at least ten other veterans, and one of these – Jim Cahir – was actually in Stalag Luft III with Jack Bell. Jim’s aircraft was shot down by Schräge Musik over Germany one night. He first became aware of it – “too late, of course” – when shells started hitting his aircraft. Having someone there who, well, was there, gave the answer a real meaning and brought the subject home in a very personal and tangible way.

Inevitably at a public event of this nature the discussion eventually turned to Dresden and, as Peter Rees emphasised both in his book and in his talk last week, there were some passionate defences of the rationale and of the attack itself, both from the floor and the panel.

Following the discussion someone suggested organising a group photograph of all of the veterans present. In all there were thirteen in the photo, though I suspect one or two others may have slipped off before we had a chance to get everyone gathered near the front of the room. Unfortunately I was unable to get everyone’s names so only the following are identified in the photograph below: Back row, L-R: Peter Isaacson, Bruce Clifton, Wal McCulloch, [unknown], Gerald McPherson, Allan Beavis, John Wyke, Gordon Laidlaw, Jean Smith, Maurie O’Keefe. Front row, L-R: Bill Wilkie, Jack Bell, Jim Cahir(Most of) the veterans Other veterans who were present but for whom I cannot match a name with a face were Jim Carr, Col Fraser and Ron Fitch. (If you are able to identify any of the unknowns in this photo, please get in touch)

The opportunity then arose to mix a little bit over a cup of tea. I knew a few veterans (among them Allan Beavis, a Mosquito navigator who I visited at home in Geelong earlier this year) but most were new to me. Most notably, I recognised a tiny golden caterpillar with ruby red eyes on Bill Wilkie’s tie. When I asked him about it he immediately opened his wallet and pulled out his Caterpillar Club membership card, which he carries around with him everywhere even today. He had been a 15 Squadron rear gunner flying out of Mildenhall when his Lancaster was shot down over Germany in January 1945.

There were of course other people to see as well. Robyn Bell was there and I finally got to meet Neil Sharkey, the curator at the Shrine responsible for the current Bomber Command exhibition. Happily I was also able meet a man named Geoff Easton. His father was Arnold Easton, a 467 Squadron navigator who was operating at much the same time that my great uncle Jack and his crew were at Waddington. Arnold’s logbook, which I have a copy of, is one of the most precise examples I’ve ever seen and has been a great help in my research so far. But apart from a few emails about five years ago I’d never actually met Geoff. We had a good chat and he offered to send me copies of his late father’s wartime correspondence and a few photos of a very special visit he made recently to what’s left of ‘Old Fred’, Lancaster DV372 in which Arnold completed 20 sorties (and Phil Smith flew at least once), at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford site. That will be the subject of a future post (it’s a wonderful story). Geoff has since sent me the files and I’m going to enjoy diving into them to see what nuggets come to the surface.

On my way out, I saw Gordon Laidlaw, the 50 Squadron pilot who I first met when visiting the exhibition a few weeks ago. He was waiting for his lift to arrive and I couldn’t resist one last photo of him: Gordon Laidlaw In all, a fantastic event. The Shrine of Remembrance has embraced the Bomber Command theme in the last few months and the interest from the public has been obvious, with big crowds turning out to the two events which I’ve been able to attend in the last week. Peter Rees said to me in an email after his talk last week, “It really feels like the book has tapped into something out there. Maybe people have long sensed [the airmen] were given a bum deal; if I’ve made it accessible for them to understand, then that’s a good outcome.”

The same could be said of the Shrine’s efforts over the last few months. It’s quite strange – but also very encouraging – to see big banners around the city of Melbourne emblazoned with the legend ‘BOMBER COMMAND’ with a photo of a crew in front of a Lancaster. It’s far too late for the vast majority of those who were there, of course, but while we still have some left, events and exhibitions like these allow the stories to be told and the memories to live on.

Download a podcast of the discussion from the Shrine website here.

© Adam Purcell 2013

Point Cook and the RAAF Museum

A little over twenty kilometres south west of Melbourne city, on the shores of Port Philip Bay, lies the birthplace of military aviation in Australia. RAAF Williams Base Point Cook is where land was purchased in 1912 for the newly-formed Australian Flying Corps, and where nine years later that fledgling organisation became the Royal Australian Air Force. In fact, until Richmond and Laverton were built in 1925 Point Cook remained the only military air base in Australia. Point Cook played an important role in training of pilots and officers and many other Air Force trades and disciplines over the next seventy or so years, and while military flight training ceased in 1992 the airfield remains operational with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology operating a flying school from it (though little military traffic uses it these days and the control tower has been empty for many years).
It is, therefore, a fitting location for the RAAF Museum. Housed in four Bellman hangars, the museum follows the story of Australia’s military aviation history – from the very first days of the Australian Flying Corps right through to current operations in the Middle East. There is a large collection of significant aircraft and artefacts and some intensive restoration work underway, including of a Mosquito which is the only known surviving airframe of that type with a WWII combat record.
Three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 1pm, one of the collection of airworthy aircraft will be parked in front of a purpose-built grandstand. An MC delivers a short introduction, then the pilot adds a few words and climbs in, fires up whatever old machine it is and takes off for a short 10-15 minute flying display. During the flight the radio calls from the aircraft are patched over the PA system. After landing, with the aircraft once again shut down in front of the grandstand, the floor is opened up for questions. The whole thing is carried out without fuss in about half an hour. It’s a great opportunity to see some flying action at close range and then have a chat with those responsible for flying and maintaining the aircraft. When I visited in May, the star of the show was a Harvard:

12-anzac-day-will-pt-cook-051 copy

Other days it might be a Tiger Moth, or a CT-4, or perhaps a Mustang. And it’s all done free of charge. The Museum reckons it’s the only place in the world where these sorts of aircraft are displayed regularly like this.
Point Cook was the site of No. 1 Service Flying Training School during the Second World War. As such an entire hangar is dedicated to training – with displays of some of the aircraft and devices used for training a very wide variety of Air Force personnel throughout the 20th Century and beyond. Most relevant to my interests (apart from a brief look at air traffic control) was a Tiger Moth, in the ubiquitous bright yellow colours typical of Elementary Flying Training Schools:

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There was also an intriguing item on exhibition in the WWII Heritage Gallery:

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It’s a map of Europe, with the operations carried out by a 460 Squadron crew member marked on it. I couldn’t find a name to go along with it but in the bottom right corner is a list of all 43 operations along with dates. They span two tours, the first between 12 March – 03 November 1943 and the second from 24 October 1944 – 22 April 1945. Whoever the unknown crew member was, he was extraordinarily lucky. The particularly deadly Battle of Berlin period fell in the time that he was (presumably) instructing between his tours of operations.

Point Cook is steeped in history. Suburbia is fast encroaching (its sister base, just up the road at Laverton, has already been sold off for housing) but for the moment it is still an active airfield. The Government has announced a planned redevelopment with an “ongoing commitment to maintain the base” as an operating military airfield and continuing to “recognise the significant heritage of the site” which is very encouraging. Much work appears to have been carried out already – there is an excellent (but very large – around 75mb) presentation of ‘before and after’ photos from the end of 2012 available here on the Defence website – but I found many buildings that still look unloved as I wandered around the Museum precinct.
The difficulty is the trade-off between maintaining the base as an active RAAF station and retaining the heritage fabric of the physical environment. Remaining an active military base gives Point Cook an economic reason for continued existence and makes it more likely that future governments will continue to consider it a useful part of the Air Force’s infrastructure. But with that comes the security and access restrictions that the modern military demands, which seriously reduces easy access for the public. Opening the base to the public as a heritage site will necessarily reduce its utility as a pure military facility, and Defence will naturally be reluctant to take the required funding from its already stretched budget.
At the very least, though, the recent work will see the most significant physical parts of Point Cook’s heritage survive for some decades to come.

© 2013 Adam Purcell