Bill and the demons of Dresden

When I arrange to meet a Bomber Command veteran I typically try to find out beforehand some basic details of his service, to put the visit in some sort of context. It was no different when I recently met a former bomb aimer who had served on an Australian squadron in the closing months of the war.

The veteran – who I’ll call ‘Bill’ – flew his first operation on 13 February, 1945.

In hindsight, I probably should have realised the significance of that date much earlier than I did.


Even though in recent years there has been a re-assessment of the causes and consequences of the firestorm (most notably in Frederick Taylor’s excellent 2004 book Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945), the name of the city still induces a sharp, involuntary intake of breath. It would come to haunt Bill for the next seven decades.

On 9 February 1995, The Age newspaper published two articles marking the 50th anniversary of the raid. “Dresden put to fire and the sword”, said the headline on one of them, an article by Simon Jenkins. “The war was almost over and military installations round Dresden were not attacked,” Jenkins wrote. “Harris used incendiaries on Dresden to create a firestorm where in other cities he used high explosive.” And in dealing with the reaction after the raid, he wrote, even the Americans “distanced themselves from avowedly “terrorist” air attacks, after their own planes had gunned down people fleeing the burning city the morning after the British raid.”

The second article, titled “Unease lingers 50 years after a city’s ruin” by John Lahey, quotes a 463 Squadron navigator, Brian Luscombe. “Mr Luscombe says he become uneasy about 20 years after the war ‘when people would ask where you had been and what you had done. It was only then we realised the enormity of it. It was a holocaust.’” Bill underlined that paragraph in red ink. As the bomb aimer, he had been the man on board his Lancaster who pressed the button to send his munitions into the maelstrom below. Ashamed at the personal responsibility he felt for what happened to Dresden, he threw away his service medals and declared himself a pacifist.

But the irony is the two articles which apparently affected him so much demonstrate a view of the Dresden raid which is now well out of date. As 227 Squadron rear gunner Dennis Over – who also flew to Dresden – suggested to me a few years ago, how did anybody at the time know that the war was almost over? Squadron Operational Record Books confirm that bomb loads used at Dresden were no different to other raids on urban targets around the same time. And Frederick Taylor, in an appendix to his book, effectively blows the theory of post-raid strafing of civilians out of the water (see p.440 for a summary and explanation). The theory was raised in David Irving’s now-discredited 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden, but there is precisely no reliable documentary evidence that anything of the sort actually happened.

This is not the first time that I’ve met a veteran of Dresden. Indeed, given that it happened at the end of the war, I’d say most veterans still alive today would have been operating at the time. But Bill is one of the first I have met who has been affected by it this much. It wasn’t the only part of his wartime service which appears to have scarred him however.

Bill is well over 90 now and quite frail, and was sitting in an armchair reading a newspaper when his wife showed me in. She introduced us and his first comment was that “it was a very very very long time ago and my memory isn’t very good anymore.” Nevertheless we were able to have a conversation, however rambling and confused it might have been.

Prompted by a photo of his crew sitting on the engine of a Lancaster, Bill shared with me one of the more shocking events of his operational career. Just a couple of weeks from the end of the war in Europe, his crew was on the final leg to a target in Germany when they were attacked by an unidentified aircraft, badly damaging their Lancaster. As was standard practice, once the immediate emergency was over the pilot checked on the intercom to make sure everyone was ok. He managed to raise everyone but ‘Jock’, the flight engineer. He asked Bill to check on him.

Bill was within arm’s reach of his comrade. He reached across and placed a hand on his wrist and felt – nothing.

I don’t think Jock’s with us anymore.

Jock was dead. The crew later got permission to fly to Scotland for the funeral – but after that life (and the war) went on. They got a replacement flight engineer and continued flying on operations.

Having experiences like this can badly affect people, especially young people. Bill was not quite 24 when this happened. Five or so years ago he became ill. His memory began to fail him and consequently when I visited the story was difficult for him to find in his mind. As he finished his story I began to feel like maybe he had shared enough, that the memories, as difficult as they were physically to find, were now beginning to get too much. He suddenly realised the time. “Oh, the football will be on,” he said, and shuffled out with his walking frame to watch it on a television out the back.

His wife came back in around that point, and over a cup of tea I found out a little more about him. “He was very difficult to live with,” she told me. It got to the point where their daughter would refuse to be in the house without her mother. It’s only been in recent years – since Bill became ill and, ironically, since his memory began to fail – that he began opening up just a little bit about his experiences. To try and better understand the sorts of things he would have gone through, she has begun to seek out more about his story. There’s an impressive collection of Bomber Command books on her shelf and, though Bill himself is now unable to travel she regularly attends Squadron reunions and Bomber Command events. Their daughter went to the UK for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial in 2012 (with replacement medals arranged through the Australian Department of Defence and her local Member of Parliament). His wife even went to the UK as well a few years ago to visit some of the sites associated with Bill’s service, including what’s left of the airfield his unit flew from. One day she had lunch at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, most famous as being the one-time 617 Squadron Officers’ Mess. Hanging on a wall in the Squadron Bar inside the hotel, she found a framed print showing a Lancaster flying low over a Dutch windmill. It’s a painting called ‘And They Called It Manna’, done in 1989 by an artist called Howard Bourne, and try as she might, she has been unable to find a copy of it.

For Bill also took part in some of the food drops carried out by Bomber Command to starving Dutch civilians in the very final days of the war in Europe. They counted as full operations and were flown fully crewed and armed because no-one could be certain that the Germans, who still occupied western parts of the Netherlands, would not fire on the aircraft. And then there were two flights for Operation Exodus, the repatriation of Allied prisoners of war, following the German surrender. On one of these, one of the 24 or so passengers who had been picked up in Antwerp became so emotional when he sighted the White Cliffs of Dover that he gave Bill a German SS dagger he had souvenired. Bill still has it. It’s an evil-looking weapon, with a swastika in a red and white diamond-shaped enamel badge set in the hilt, and will soon find a home in an appropriate museum.

The football match had developed into a very one-sided contest but despite that Bill had regained his spark by the time I went into the back room to say goodbye. I left in a very thoughtful mood. For many in Bomber Command, the food drops and prisoner repatriations were some of the most satisfying trips they took part in, giving them the chance to be part of something constructive rather than destructive. Perhaps the joy at having survived the war (though an offensive against Japan still looked possible) had something to do with it.

But it is clear that for some, even seven decades on there are still some demons hanging around. It was not Manna or Exodus which Bill remembered. It was instead one particularly infamous raid on which he took part which would come to define his wartime service and, subsequently, his life. It’s a desperately sad story and very much one of the forgotten but longest-lasting effects of the war.

It’s all a bit much, really.

Anyone interested in Bomber Command is probably aware that last night marked the seventieth anniversary of what, in popular culture, is probably the most famous air raid of all time. The ‘Dambusters’ raid of 16/17 May 1943 – more properly known as Operation Chastise – was the daring, novel, unique, dangerous, costly and mostly effective operation by the RAF’s 617 Squadron that used the so-called ‘bouncing bombs’ to destroy two of Germany’s great dams and severely damage a third. The morale boost to Britain, in the middle of 1943 during a dark patch in the war, was arguably greater than the material effect on Germany, but the raid entered the popular consciousness and made the leader of 617 Squadron, Guy Gibson, into one of, if not the, most famous airman in Bomber Command.

So naturally there have been many activities and events to commemorate exactly seven decades since this auspicious event. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster has made a fly-over of the Derwent Dam in Derbyshire, England, where the squadron practiced before the raid. There’s been black and white footage of bouncing bombs on the television news in Australia (though Sky News showed the later ‘Highball’ devices which were never used operationally and were more or less spherical in shape, rather than ‘Upkeep’s cylindrical bomb, and dropped by Mosquitos rather than Lancasters, but I’ll let that slide for the moment). There have been commemorative services at Woodhall Spa (the later home of 617 Squadron), Lincoln Cathedral, RAF Scampton and in Germany. The Royal Air Force has even been live-tweeting wireless messages and key events from the raid, seventy years to the minute since they occurred.

It’s all a bit much really.

It’s an awful lot of fuss over just one operation, just one night of a very very long war. Taking absolutely nothing away from the 53 aircrew who were killed on the raid – out of 133 men, all of whom were already highly experienced – but there has indisputably been a very strong focus on this raid in the years since, perhaps at the expense of the rest of Bomber Command. So much so, in fact, that in much the same way as ‘Battle of Britain’ means ‘Spitfire’ to the average Englishman or Australian, to the detriment of the Hurricane and all the other parts of Britain’s defensive effort that summer of 1940, ‘Lancaster’ has come to mean ‘Dambuster’. And don’t worry about all the rest of Bomber Command, thanks very much.

Much of this is probably due to the Dambusters film of 1955, based on Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book. So much so, in fact, that one newspaper in the UK chose to mark the 70th anniversary with a collection of photographs… from behind the scenes in the making of the movie. Which, all rather interesting, but really??? It’s a sign that the anniversary has become all about the legend, and much less about the blokes who did the job that night – and indeed, the blokes who did the job every night.I mean no slur on 617 Squadron, either to the original members or anyone else involved with it. I mean no slur against Barnes Wallis, the engineer who came up with the concept. I mean no slur against the makers or the actors in the movie (which is probably still one of the greatest war movies ever made). But it would be really nice to see some of the interest, scholarship and mythology associated with the Dambusters carry over into the rest of Bomber Command.

I’ll close with a quote on the Professional Pilot Rumour Network forum by a member calling himself ‘Chugalug2,’ who in this case says it far more eloquently than I can:

The pride that the Royal Air Force has rightly expressed since WW2 over the subject exploits of this thread was not similarly expressed over those of Main Force, when almost every night was one of Maximum Effort.

The Dambusters played an incredible part in the Second World War bomber offensive. But there were many others, just like them, who played an equally important role and who have not been nearly so recognised. Think about them on May 16 each year, too.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

“Lancaster 739:” 60 Minutes, Crashes and Cover-Ups

Australian investigative journalism program 60 Minutes last night broadcast a very interesting story about a 97 Squadron navigator called Ron Conley, who went missing on a raid on the Pointe du Hoc gun emplacements, very early on D-Day morning, 6 June 1944. The report, called “Lancaster 739”, followed the story of Conley’s crew who were presumed lost at sea. The reporter, Michael Usher, suggested that there had been an official cover-up about the circumstances of the crash, and that a ‘top secret’ radar system that was on board might have had something to do with it. As always, I like to think cock-up before I think conspiracy, so on hearing this bit my ears pricked up. I thought I would do a little digging.

Conveniently, Conley’s Casualty File[1] is available to view at the National Archives of Australia website. It contains a letter written after the crew failed to return by the new 97 Squadron Officer Commanding to the RAF Air Ministry. It’s a poor-quality photostat and is rather difficult to read, but it does appear to report the circumstances of the loss of Lancaster LD739 ND739 (Edit September 2014: see comments below). There was an extra man in the crew – the eighth member being named in this letter as a Special Air Bomber. Pathfinder crews regularly had extra men on board to operate some of the special navigational equipment they carried – in this case possibly the Oboe blind-bombing aid. Ground defences were “inactive”, the letter says, but “a few fighters were known to be over the target area”. Critically, the pilot of this aircraft, W/C EJ (Jimmy) Carter, DFC, who was the 97 Squadron CO until he failed to return from this trip, had been nominated Deputy Controller for the operation and so was required to keep in radio communication with the rest of his force over the target, relaying orders from the Master Bomber who was flying a Mosquito. Carter’s voice was heard but apparently “ceased in the middle of a sentence” just after 5am and no further signals were received from the aircraft. “It is believed,” wrote the replacement CO to Conley’s father, “that an enemy fighter must have intercepted the aircraft while over the target, but although one or two of our aircraft were seen to be shot down, nothing much could be identified owing to a certain amount of cloud.”

Also in the Casualty File is a copy of an internal signal dated 22 December 1944 sent from London to the RAAF in Melbourne advising that enquiries made to the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva had failed to turn up any news of Conley or the rest of his crew. This shows that the RAAF had made efforts to trace the missing crew. But in the absence of any further word, in March 1945 they wrote to Mr Conley again advising that “it has now become necessary to consider the question whether in these circumstances an official presumption of your son’s death should be made.” I’ve seen very similar letters in the files of many of my great uncle Jack’s crew as well. In May 1945 Conley was officially presumed dead.

In 1949, the Air Force explained (and this letter was quoted in the report). “All efforts to find any trace of your son’s aircraft or to establish whether the bodies of any of the crew were ever recovered for burial have proved unsuccessful. In view of this complete lack of evidence, it is now concluded that your son and his comrades were lost at sea. It is proposed, therefore, to commemorate your son by including his name on a memorial which will be erected at a later date by the Imperial War Graves Commission, to the memory of those deceased members who have no known grave.” Ron Conley’s name, and those of the rest of his crew, are now on the Runnymede memorial in England.

So far, all of this is very much like so many other stories about Bomber Command airmen. The 60 Minutes team interviewed cousins of Ron Conley and found family of other members of the crew as well. What sets this story apart just a little, however, is that an English aviation archaeologist named Tony Graves has only recently found the remains of the aircraft – not in the English Channel as was officially presumed, but in a field on an abandoned farm in Normandy. The wreck was positively identified on the basis of a gold wedding ring engraved with the initials “A.C.” and with the words “Love Vera” on the inside. This was traced to F/L Albert Chambers, the wireless operator on the crew, whose wife was named Vera. They also showed a small fragment of a uniform with the remains of a Distinguished Flying Medal ribbon still sewn on. Three members of the crew had received that particular decoration. (In fact this was a highly experienced and decorated crew. As well as the Squadron Commander, W/C Carter, it also carried the Gunnery and Signals Leaders. Six of the eight had already been awarded DFMs or DFCs, and Conley himself would be posthumously given a DFC as well.) Though smashed into almost unrecognisable fragments from the force of the impact of the crash, what remained had been preserved remarkably well, with paper maps and charts that would have been from Conley’s nav bag recovered from the wreckage. How Graves knew that the wreck was there was not explained beyond a reference to “enough evidence and eyewitness accounts,” but congratulations are due to him for making the discovery and following the story up to the extent that he has.

The report was, I thought, going well up to this point. But then they started talking about the “new, secret” radar called “HS2” that was on this “customised” Lancaster.

Oh dear.

By the middle of 1944, H2S (note not ‘HS2’) was well-established as a ground-mapping radar system. So while it was still nominally a ‘secret’, it certainly was not a brand-new piece of equipment and was in general use by the Main Force throughout the Battle of Berlin period (November 1943 – March 1944). It’s mentioned many times in the Night Raid Reports[2] of this period, being fitted to both heavy bombers and Mosquitos. In fact, the interrogation of German nightfighter commander Josef ‘Beppo’ Schmid after the war confirmed that as early as November 1943 the Germans were using the emissions from the H2S sets to home in on the bomber stream.[3] In short, it was by no means an unusual thing to find on a Lancaster at that time, and cannot therefore be used as a reason for a potential cover-up.

Also appearing in the report was Keith Dunning, the son of P/O Guy Dunning, the flight engineer on ND739. He remembered a visit to his family, after the war, by an RAF airman who said he was on the same trip and had seen the aircraft go down over land. The RAF had, Keith said, later written to Dunning’s family to say that this had been a “mistake” and the airman had later withdrawn his testimony. This was presented in the 60 Minutes report as further evidence of a cover-up. However, as was written in the CO’s letter to Conley’s father I quoted earlier, cloud prevented the exact identification of any of the aircraft that were seen to be shot down. There is also the fact that the raid took place half an hour or so before dawn so light levels would have been low. It’s difficult to say, in the face of that, that the airman was definitively correct in his original identification of the crashing aircraft, and with no further evidence to support the theory coming to light after the event, the Air Force appears to have acted quite reasonably in discounting his report.

The logbook belonging to Guy Dunning was featured, with some pages apparently removed covering the operation on which the crew went missing. Keith Dunning said other logbooks that he has seen from the same crew showed the same pages missing. Again, 60 Minutes called this evidence of a cover-up. But the final pages would have been filled in by someone at the squadron after the crew failed to return, not by the aircrew themselves (who were dead by this stage). Jack Purcell’s logbook records the wrong aircraft for his final flight,  and squadron Operational Record Books are littered with similar clerical errors. It’s quite possible that whoever wrote the last entry in the logbooks made a mistake and decided to remove the pages and start again.

Finally, there is the fact that no bodies were found when the aircraft was excavated. No-one appears to know where the bodies are, or who might have moved them. “Eight bodies don’t vanish”, said Dunning. 60 Minutes, by now predictably, again called it a cover-up. But an understanding of RAF Missing Research and Enquiry Service methods would suggest that, more likely, the investigators simply couldn’t find anyone who could tell them what happened. Tony Graves apparently found reports by eyewitnesses to the crash but perhaps any witnesses to the burial did not survive the fairly intense fighting that occurred in the general area in the immediate aftermath of the invasion (as happened to a young Dutch girl who witnessed a Tempest crash in March 1945). There would have been considerable confusion in the area in the following weeks and months and if any records were made of the burials, they could well have simply disappeared in the fog of war. There are, according to the report, some graves marked as ‘unknown airmen’ in the local cemetery and there is of course a possibility that these hold the crew of ND739. But two 97 Squadron aircraft were lost on this raid so they could also belong to the other crew. The MRES could well have been aware of these graves and opened them up (though no MRES report appears in Conley’s A705 file), but perhaps were unable to make a positive identification of the airmen buried there. There was some talk on the program, if the required documents could be found, of identifying the men in the graves and giving names to the headstones, but as the crew are already appropriately commemorated elsewhere (at Runnymede), this is not something that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would approve.

So most of the evidence that 60 Minutes used to decide there had been a cover-up could, and in my view probably does, have a far less sinister explanation. On the positive side, I’m happy to see some Bomber Command coverage on a high-rating television program in the lead-up to ANZAC Day. Another crash site has been identified, and, though graves have not been found, some more families now have a little more closure on what really happened to their lost airmen. It’s a fascinating story. But that’s just the point. It’s a fascinating story in its own right, and it does not need to be sensationalised.


Further information about the Conley crew can be found here:


[1] NAA: A705, 166/8/495. CONLEY, Ronald John – (Flight Lieutenant); Service Number – 425606; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LD739; Place – Cherbourg, France; Date – 6 June 1944

[2] The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), AIR 14/3411, B.C. (O.R.S.) Final Reports on operations, Night Raids Nos. 416-620, September 1943 to May 1944, vol. 4

[3] Isby, David C (2003) p.104: Fighting the Bombers: the Luftwaffe’s Struggle against the Allied Bomber Offensive, Greenhill Books 2003, Lionel Leventhal Limited, Park House, 1 RussellGardens, London, NM11 9NN. ISBN 1-85367-532-6

© 2013 Adam Purcell

What happened to Jack’s letters?

Something that intrigues, and slightly frustrates, me on this journey into the story of my great uncle Jack is that we have very little original personal material about him. Being in possession of his wartime logbook, I concede, is more than many people have (and indeed was significant in capturing my interest in the first place), and there are official records available at the National Australian Archives and other places, but beyond a couple of official portraits I have nothing in the way of personal photographs, diaries or correspondence. What is most frustrating is that I know that such material once existed. What has happened to it since is a mystery.

There are a number of sources where correspondence to or from Jack is mentioned. His ‘last letter’, as his brother Edward wrote to Don Smith in July 1944 (A01-344-001), spoke of his “hope of being home for next Xmas and, as he phrased it, in a place where he could count on seeing the sun every day”. A note in his Casualty File reports that a letter to his late mother was discovered amongst his personal effects following his being posted missing, which was forwarded to RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne ‘for appropriate action’ (A04-071-061). There’s also talk in another of Edward’s letters to Don Smith of two letters from “Jack’s English sweetheart’ (which is a story in itself), and the intriguing suggestion that she might have sent some ‘snaps of all the boys [of the crew of B for Baker]’ to Edward (A01-111-001). So there was definitely correspondence that came from England to Australia, either written by Jack or by his mysterious girlfriend. And presumably his relatives in Australia would have replied to those letters – which could account for a bundle of “correspondence and photographs” that was included in the list of personal effects in his Casualty File (A04-071-024).

Unfortunately, somewhere between England and Australia, the bundle (along with a pillowcase) went missing. Its listing is marked with an asterisk on the list in the Casualty File, showing it never arrived at RAAF Central Depositories in Melbourne. And sometime in the ensuing decades, everything else apart from his logbook , a small collection of photographs and two unsent postcards went missing too. What happened to it is unknown. I have vague recollections of being told that a great aunt (one of Jack’s sisters) might have destroyed anything that she could find to do with her late brother in a fit of pique sometime in the 1960s. Or less menacingly, perhaps it was all simply thrown out in a big clean-up, just a bunch of papers found in a file somewhere that surely couldn’t be of any use to anyone any more. Whatever happened, it is clear that what was once a valuable archive (at least for someone like me) has simply disappeared.

I live in hope that one of my long-lost relatives will one day clear out their shed and stumble upon a bundle of ‘old papers’, thus solving a decades-old family mystery. But I suspect the history might have been lost forever.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Nightingales and Bombers

19 May 1942.

As they had done each May 19th since 1924, the BBC recorded nightingales singing in the late evening in a place called Foyle Riding in Surrey.

The nightingales were not all that they recorded:

Click Here.

105 Wellingtons, 31 Stirlings, 29 Halifaxes, 15 Hampdens, 13 Lancasters and 4 Manchesters of RAF Bomber Command were on their way to attack Mannheim in Germany. The drone as they flew overhead was also captured by the BBC.

Of the 197 aircraft that flew over Foyle Riding that night, 11 failed to return. Only light damage resulted from the raid. Most of the target photographs from those that did make it to Mannheim showed forests or open fields.

(Hat tip to Chris Wild of ‘How to be a Retronaut’)


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.

jacklog-last-page copy

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

© 2011 Adam Purcell


”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:

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:

mg_6586-copy_1 copy

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

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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Very few wartime Lancasters ever saw the inside of a hangar. They lived outside, on big windswept bare concrete aprons. The aprons were ‘dispersed’ to limit the damage from enemy attack or accidental explosion (such as the one that killed three airmen and destroyed seven Lancasters at East Kirkby in April 1945), so they were known as ‘dispersals’, scattered all around an airfield.

For me, these dispersals are perhaps the most evocative parts of an old aerodrome. It was here that the bombers were prepared for operations – bombed up, fuelled up, tweaked and repaired – and boarded by their crews.

For more than 55,000 of the aircrew of Bomber Command, a dispersal was also where they stood their last upon friendly soil.

In April 2009 I spent three weeks on the Bomber Command trail, travelling around Lincolnshire. One of the places that I visited was what used to be RAF Bardney, a few miles east of Lincoln. Jack had been stationed at Bardney with 9 Squadron for a brief period in November 1943. My guide was Roger Audis of the 9 Squadron Association. Roger had with him a wartime map of the airfield, and together as we drove down the remains of the perimeter track we worked out where we calculated the ‘A Flight’ dispersals had been when Jack was on base. Though he never flew operationally from Bardney, Jack’s logbook records a number of training flights in Lancasters that would have been parked here.

I got out of Roger’s Landrover near the spot, while he went to turn the vehicle around. For a moment, I was all alone.


Today, very little remains of the actual dispersal. The concrete has mostly been ploughed up and crops now sway in the breeze where Lancasters once sat. But from the air the outline can still be made out as a slightly lighter patch in the wheat, caused by the oils and other fluids which would have been dropped while the airfield was an active bomber base. And there is something else present too, a feeling I couldn’t quite explain.

Jack was at Bardney for less than a month, but somehow I felt closer to him and his crew here than I ever had before. I knew that here was a place where they had climbed down from the crew trucks, looking up at the great hulking bomber. Here they walked around the aeroplane, checking that all was in order for a flight. Here they clambered up a small ladder and crawled into the depths of the fuselage. Here they started the engines and taxied off. The site has long been abandoned and is in considerable disrepair, but it was not difficult to imagine it as it might have been like when Jack and his crew were here. It felt to me like they left reminders of themselves here, waiting for me to find six and a half decades later.

I’m for all intents and purposes a fairly practical type of person so I am not going to claim that it was ghosts or anything supernatural. But there was a ‘feeling’ present at Bardney that I can’t altogether explain.

Most of that was stirred up, I think, by the dispersal, and by the knowledge of what took place there and on hundreds more just like it.


(c) 2010 Adam Purcell



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