Archive for the 'Other Aircrew' Category



Vale Harry Brown

Harry Brown

Harry Brown

April 25, 2008 was one of the first years that I joined the 463-467 Squadrons Association for the Sydney Anzac Day March. It was, as I remember it, quite wet.

There were a good few more veterans marching then than there have been in more recent times – I guess age catches up quickly for most people sometime between their late 80s and early 90s. And so that wet April morning seven years ago, back when the old blokes weren’t quite so old, the march was moving a little quicker than it now does.

One veteran, though, was falling slightly behind, so I dropped back to offer him the shelter of my umbrella. We chatted as we marched. His name was Harry, he said, and “I was doing ok until I lost my marbles a few years ago!” I had to admit he looked in pretty good shape to me, notwithstanding the ever-increasing distance between us and the main group of marchers ahead.

Harry (on the right), before the marchers got away from him. Anzac Day 2008., Sydney. The other veteran is David Walter, a 467 Squadron W/Op, who died a few years ago.

But Harry, determined to complete the march on his own two feet, had a plan for that.

Just after the Sydney Town Hall, the traditional march route passes St Andrews Cathedral and then turns left into Bathurst St. We watched the Squadron wheel left in something that may have once resembled parade ground style (it had been over sixty years for these blokes, after all). Cheekily, though, my new friend Harry led me and my umbrella not so much around the corner as across it, cutting the corner and neatly closing the gap (at least a little bit).

No problems with marbles there, then, lost or otherwise.

This happy memory came to mind recently when I learned that Harry – actually Henry Emanuel Brown – 106 Squadron Wireless Operator, died peacefully in hospital on a Sunday night in May.

Harry had completed a year at Teachers College training to be a science teacher (having not yet reached the age of seventeen years) when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, using his brother’s birthday to try and sneak in four months underage. Alas, his family tell me, the duty sergeant knew him and ‘misplaced’ the paperwork until after Harry’s actual birthday. He was called up in August 1942, completed wireless operator/air gunner training in Canada and flew twelve operations with 106 Squadron from Metheringham. Then in March 1945 he went to RAF Warboys, in what is now Cambridgeshire, for a Pathfinder training course.

Harry (centre, marked with his initials HEB) among 106 Squadron aircrew. The man marked KK in front of him is his pilot, Ken Kiesling. Photo courtesy Nancy Jacobs

Harry (centre, marked with his initials HEB) among 106 Squadron aircrew. The man marked KK in front of him is his pilot, Ken Kiesling. Photo courtesy Nancy Jacobs

By the time this course ended, in late April 1945, the end of the war in Europe was but a fortnight away and Harry flew no more operations. He received a commission a week after VE Day and was posted to 467 Squadron, which moved from Waddington to (surprise!) Metheringham at around the same time. There Harry took part in the training for Tiger Force, the planned bomber offensive against Japan. Then the atomic bombs, as we now know, removed the requirement for that, and 467 Squadron disbanded at Metheringham at the end of September 1945. Shortly thereafter Harry returned to Australia and following discharge studied Physics at Sydney University under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme and worked as a research physicist in atmospherics and minerals. Though he told his family that “the last time I saw Europe was out of the back of a bomber and I never want to see it again!” he did eventually return, well into his late eighties, to visit his children.

For the last few years Harry and I had corresponded occasionally after I posted him a copy of the group photograph of aircrew from Killara in 2013. He was one of the rare veterans with an email address (using dictation software rather than a keyboard) and this came in handy when I had technical questions about the role of wireless operator. There were many different types of radios in Lancasters and Harry was a great help in sorting out their various roles.

One of his emails mentioned using one of them to get a fix from “0512 East and 56 North when we were shot up over Hampden” (I suspect that was a dictation error from the software and it should have read Hamburg). My calculations place that position over the North Sea, rather closer to Denmark than to England. To my eternal regret I never got around to asking Harry to tell me more about that particular story.

Anzac Day 2015

Anzac Day 2015

Like many veterans though, most of the stories with which he did go into more detail concerned what could be called the lighter side of life in Bomber Command. As the wireless operator, Harry had a spare moment every 15 minutes or so. He had specially prepared an empty 7lb jam tin and would use that spare time, he told me at an Anzac Day lunch one year, to wander around between each man in the crew, offering them the use of it to answer calls of nature. “Not only was I the wireless operator”, so his punch line went, “I was the piss-pot too!”

Harry had broken his hip in a fall about a year ago and complications arising out of that had meant that he was in various hospitals and nursing homes more or less ever since. We didn’t see him at the Ladies’ Day lunch last November, but he was determined to come to Anzac Day this year, where his grandson Geordie, who is now a member of the Royal Australian Air Force himself, pushed his wheelchair during the march.

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A little over two weeks later Harry passed away. He was the last remaining member of both his 106 Squadron and his 467 Squadron crews.

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Thanks to Nancy (Harry’s daughter) and Geordie (his grandson) Jacobs for their help with supplying details and the wartime images in this post. 

Text and colour images (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

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“So… what do you want to know?” – an afternoon with Gerald McPherson

Carrying a big old photo album and a familiar-looking blue-covered notebook, the old man led the way up a narrow staircase. Upstairs a table and a few chairs were in the middle of a big light-filled room. He pointed me to a chair, settled himself into the other one, and looked me fair in the eyes.

“So,” he said. “What do you want to know?”

Always a difficult question, that. And particularly so when the old man asking it is a Bomber Command veteran with 37 operations to his credit. But this was the situation that I found myself in one Wednesday afternoon recently, when I went out to Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to talk to one Gerald McPherson.

Gerald grew up in Horsham, in country Victoria. He grew up one of eight children, with one sister (the eldest of the lot), three older brothers and three younger brothers. At nineteen he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in January 1943. Two older brothers were already in the Air Force: Cyril, a pilot on Vultee Vengeances in Darwin, and Harry, a rear gunner on Halifaxes with Bomber Command in the UK. One of the photos in the big album that Gerald had brought up with him shows all three in uniform:

Cyril, Harry and Gerald McPherson. Photo courtesy Gerald and Fay McPherson

Cyril, Harry and Gerald McPherson.

One of his other brothers was in a reserved occupation and thus unable to enlist. He was a telegraphist at the Horsham Post Office. “If anything had happened to us”, Gerald said soberly, “he would have been the first to know.” But while Gerald was awaiting call-up, his brother taught him Morse code at the Post Office. And so when this became known at Initial Training School, he found himself earmarked for training as a wireless operator.

At that stage in the war, a Wireless Air Gunners School was operating at Ballarat, north-west of Melbourne. Gerald was there between April and August 1943 – straight through winter. And Ballarat is, he reckons, one of the coldest places in the country. “We wore our complete flying kit to bed at night!” he told me. Matters were not helped by the gap of several inches between the bottom of the doors and the floor of the Nissen hut in which they were accommodated.

Gerald made an important discovery at Ballarat. While he could send and receive messages – a legacy of the lessons with his brother – he realised that he had no aptitude at all for taking a wireless set apart, finding and repairing any faults and putting it together again. As this was a vital part of the wireless operator’s role in a heavy bomber crew, he asked to be transferred to become a straight air gunner only.

Logbooks are good things to pore through. The entries are usually brief, to the point and largely emotionless. But they offer a convenient stepping-off point for further discussion, particularly when their owner is sitting across the table from you. The first page of Gerald’s revealed, over a week and a half in August-September 1943, a little over nine hours of flying, all by day, at No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School, West Sale.

“You trained in Fairey Battles, I see?” I asked.

“Terrible aeroplanes. Cramped… and the glycol fumes!” he said, rolling his eyes. “And I almost fell out of one once.” Apparently he dropped a full magazine of bullets over the side, leant over and caught it – “good thing I was playing so much cricket then” – and only then realised that his safety belt was not secured to the aircraft.

Shaking my head in amazement, I turned to the next the page of the logbook. Here the entries begin on 3 March 1944, and the flying is in Wellingtons from 17 Operational Training Unit at Turweston, in the UK.

Wait a second. Now he’s in the UK? But what about the rest of his training? Surely he can’t have had just nine hours of dedicated gunnery training in the air before he qualified as an air gunner?

I looked for the page that I felt sure I had missed. But there was none.

Air gunners in Bomber Command really were sent overseas and joined a crew with fewer than ten hours flying time.

Dale Johnston, the wireless operator on B for Baker had been in the service for a year and nine months and navigator Jack Purcell for more than two years when they first arrived at 9 Squadron at the end of October 1943. In contrast, Gilbert Pate, their rear gunner, took about a year and a quarter from enlistment to arriving at his first operational squadron, and he spent a month and a half in transit to the UK. Eric Hill, B for Baker’s English mid-upper gunner who, of course, did not have to travel half way around the world, was in the Royal Air Force for just six and a half months before he arrived at his first operational squadron. I knew that it didn’t take long to train a gunner to the point where they qualified to wear the half-wing with ‘AG’ on it.

But seeing Gerald’s logbook brought home with a thud just how little flying experience was involved before a gunner crewed up at an OTU. Gerald had been in the Air Force for nearly 18 months by the time he reached an operational squadron, but getting to the UK took four and a half months of that. He was packed off to war having completed a three month course at an Initial Training School and three weeks at Air Gunnery School, with a total of nine hours and ten minutes in his logbook.

Gerald McPherson circa 1943

Gerald McPherson circa 1943

Gerald crewed up at OTU in the usual fashion: equal numbers of each trade were sent into a big room and told to sort themselves out. Shortly afterwards they needed to replace their wireless operator, who had filled in for another crew on a training flight but was killed when the Wellington in which he was flying ditched into the North Sea after an engine failure. And soon after they got to 15 Squadron at Mildenhall, their pilot – Kiwi Flight Sergeant Jim Houghton – went on the usual second dickie trip to gain some experience before taking his own crew on ops. But as happened far too often, the aircraft he was on failed to return and Houghton was killed. Gerald told me that the Squadron Commanding Officer called them into his office and offered for them to remain on the squadron as ‘spare bods’, filling in for aircrew temporarily unable to fly with their own crews. Knowing from the loss of first their wireless operator and then their skipper that flying with strange crews was frequently a virtual death sentence, however, the crew managed to convince the CO to send them back to a Heavy Conversion Unit so they could find another pilot.

Finally Gerald and his crew – now led by Australian Flight Lieutenant Jeff Clarson – arrived at 186 Squadron, newly reformed at Tuddenham in Norfolk and under the command of Wing Commander JH Giles, a Canadian. Gerald maintains a very high degree of respect for his ‘Wingco’, telling me that instead of sending newly arrived pilots on second dickie trips, Giles would take the entire crew on their first trip himself. This being a very unofficial practice, Giles apparently did not even put the flights into his own logbook.

So it came to pass, as it were, that on 28 October 1944, Gerald and his crew climbed into a Lancaster with Wing Commander Giles for a daylight raid on Flushing. But they needed to swap at the last minute into a spare aircraft, and as they clambered aboard and did their pre-flight checks, Gerald discovered that the rear turret had no guns fitted. He told Giles over the intercom – but they were already late and there was no time to fix it. “Just keep a good look-out”, Gerald was told, “and sing out if you see anything”. He now reckons he’s the only gunner in Bomber Command to have gone on his first trip without guns!

Incidentally, this kicked off an interesting discussion about just how useful four Brownings weren’t against cannon-armed German fighters. Gerald confirmed my impression that most of the time it was considered better to evade nightfighters than to engage them in an uneven firefight. Indeed, just over a week after the attack on Flushing, Gerald and his crew flew on their first night raid to Coblenz in Germany. “Attacked by JU-88”, I read from his logbook.

“Not really”, Gerald said.

What actually happened was that the mid-upper gunner spotted the fighter close above them and reported it to the pilot. They altered course to see if it would follow them. It didn’t, probably indicating that the German pilot did not spot the bomber at all, and the Lancaster slipped away. Had either of the gunners opened up, the flashes from their muzzles would have drawn the attention of not just the JU-88 pilot, but of any enemy fighter nearby, putting them into a very dangerous situation. “You can’t fight cannon with machine guns”, Gerald said.

The crew, from left to right: P/O. Jock Hepburn D.F.M. Flight Engineer, P/O. Dennis Parrish Bomb Aimer, P/O. Gerald McPherson Rear Gunner. P/O. Ron Liversidge Navigator, P/O. Jim Mallinson Mid Upper Gunner, Flt./Lt. Jeff Clarson D.F.C. Pilot, W/O. Wilbert Perry Wireless Operator.

The crew, from left to right: P/O. Jock Hepburn D.F.M. Flight Engineer, P/O. Dennis Parrish Bomb Aimer, P/O. Gerald McPherson Rear Gunner. P/O. Ron Liversidge Navigator, P/O. Jim Mallinson Mid Upper Gunner, Flt./Lt. Jeff Clarson D.F.C. Pilot, W/O. Wilbert Perry Wireless Operator.

Their tour continued, not exactly uneventfully. They were shot at by a nightfighter on the way home from Leuna on 6 December 1944. The ‘cookie’ hung up over Gelsenkirchen three months later and had to be cut out with an axe. They thought they’d lost another wireless operator when ‘Grandad’ Perry (at all of 23 years, the eldest in the crew) went to fill in for a sick wireless operator with another crew to Dortmund. The aircraft crashed and blew up at the end of the runway and the rest of Gerald’s crew had been told that all on board had been killed and had already begun drinking to the memory of their late friend in the mess when the man himself appeared at the door. Apparently the other crew’s own wireless operator had been cleared to fly and turned up at the last minute and took over (full story here).

But as their tally approached the magic 30 that would usually mean the end of their tour, Bomber Command decided to raise the requirement to 35 because more crews were being lost than could be replaced. Gerald’s crew struggled to 33… and then it went up again, to 40. And so on 9 April 1945 they went on a night trip to Kiel, Gerald’s 37th all up. Over the target they were coned by a big pack of searchlights. For ten or fifteen minutes, pilot Jeff Clarson struggled to escape the blinding light. Flak damaged an aileron and it was a massive effort to recover, losing 16,000 feet in the process. At one point, flight engineer Jock Hepburn later told Gerald, they were actually upside down, not that Gerald could perceive that in his turret.

They managed to return safely – though not before almost hitting another Lancaster near the Danish coast – and it was only after landing that they discovered that in fact they had no obligation to go on the operation in the first place. The previous day – before they took off for Kiel – the requirement for a tour had been dropped back to 30. Apparently this was brought to the attention of the new Commanding Officer, an Englishman, but he decided to leave them on the Battle Order.

So Gerald finally finished his tour having completed 37 operations. Unusually among the veterans I’ve met, this included no fewer than 31 daylight trips. He was sent back to Australia and quite quickly demobbed, eventually to return to his pre-war job in the Personnel Department of ANZ Bank. He lived quite near Essendon Airport (in fact on my way to visit Gerald I had ridden the scooter past the site of his old house – it now hosts a block of serviced apartments) and played first-grade cricket for Essendon for many years. And it was after a cricket training session about a decade after the war when Gerald was in the bar at the Essendon Club with his team-mates and someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Jeff Clarson, now a pilot with Ansett-ANA, in Melbourne on a night-stop.

That turned into a much later night than had been planned, Gerald told me.

When I next looked at my watch, Gerald and I had been sitting at that upstairs table for three and a half hours. The time had flown by and we had covered a lot of ground. Gerald’s wife, Fay – who had organised the visit for me – had stuck her head up once or twice to offer tea refills but otherwise just let us talk. By the time I arrived home she had already emailed me a copy of Gerald’s logbook (she also provided the photos in this post).

I’m not, of course, the first person to interview Gerald (though this was more a chat than an interview). He also features in Michael Veitch’s excellent book, Flak.

Between that and my afternoon with Gerald, I had indeed discovered everything I wanted to know.

Text (c) 2015 Adam Purcell. Images courtesy Gerald and Fay McPherson

 

Before it’s too late

Tony Wright, National Affairs editor at The Age newspaper here in Melbourne, usually writes about the goings-on in and around Parliament House in Canberra. His series of Sketch columns usually throw an interesting light on the events of the day (and, if you’ve been following Australian politics, he’s had a not inconsiderable amount of material for inspiration recently).

But every Saturday, Wright gets the opportunity to write about something other than politics. One week last year it was about Mike Druce, the man who made a modern-day escape from Colditz Castle in September, then walked unsupported to Switzerland. Wright wrote another interesting one early in February.

“They are disappearing fast now”, he wrote, “the generation who experienced a world war.”

It seems not so long ago that those who had lived through World War I and had seen horses step aside for internal combustion engines and a lot more were being put in the ground, but memory plays tricks – it’s 100 years since that war began.

Those who knew it, even those who lived to astonishing ages, breathed the last of this earth’s air a long time ago.

Now it is the turn of the last of the survivors of World War II.

Some of those shuffling off into the sunset in recent times, of course, were well-known in life and widely mourned in death. Giants of politics like Gough Whitlam (an RAAF navigator) and Tom Uren (a survivor of the Burma-Thai Railway). Journalist and Korean War correspondent Harry Gordon. “These are, of course, big and extraordinary lives”, Wright says:

…generous spirits well documented, celebrated on a broad stage, their stories teaching us something that transcends the experiences that will go into books about their achievements: call it wisdom.

But while these were some of the better-known men whose lives intersected with some of the biggest conflicts in the history of mankind, so many others were there too. In Wright’s words:

…each day others whose lives were not destined to be celebrated so publicly or granted obituaries pass beyond this existence. Every one of them has a story, and in those stories we can often find ourselves enriched, because wisdom often resides there.

He’s dead right.

This is more or less why I flew to Sydney last month to have lunch with a Bomber Command veteran who also happens to be a good friend of mine. Hugh is a former rear gunner and we arranged to meet at one of those very old and very exclusive clubs in the city, all cedar panelling and leather Chesterfield armchairs. Hugh has been a member for a quarter-century.

He’s clearly well-known here. As we entered the bar the bartender poured my beer but gave Hugh the bottle and an empty mug. “I like to pour it myself”, he explained. Somehow, I imagine, with its sharply-dressed, exclusively male clientele, beer in pewter mugs and discreet murmur of conversation, the atmosphere in the bar at a wartime Officer’s Mess (in one of its quieter moments) might have been something similar. And perhaps for Hugh that’s at least part of where the attraction lies.

With that thought in my head, it’s not surprising that our conversation very quickly turned to flying. As we drank our beers we shared experiences flying the Tiger Moth and I mentioned my recent visit to Nhill and the Anson that is under restoration there. “I loved the old Aggie”, he said simply. We continued talking in the dining room as we waited for and then enjoyed a scrumptious meal while looking out over the State Library across the street.

Hugh is a little unique. He actually trained as a pilot but when he arrived at his squadron, he was one of twelve who were asked/chosen to re-train as gunners to operate a special ‘secret weapon’. It turned out to be ‘Village Inn’, an automatic radar-guided gun system. Despite what you might read on that link, Hugh’s opinion of the equipment is not very high. It was unserviceable half the time, he said, and the rear turret was not a nice place to be. Nor was it safe. On his first trip – to Bremen, in October 1944 – two of the twelve Village Inn men failed to return.

Hugh flew on his last operation – his 32nd – a matter of weeks before the end of the war. There followed the traditional fortnight’s end-of-tour leave, part of which coincided with the regular 12-days-every-six-weeks leave of a good friend at the squadron called Johnny Garrett. Hugh had arranged to meet up with Johnny in Cardiff but was a bit surprised when he did not show up. On return to the squadron he found out why.

On 22 April 1945, 49 Squadron was moving from Fulbeck to Syerston. As happened frequently on these occasions, on departure each bomber “beat up” the control tower before setting course for their new home. One aircraft flew past at extremely low level. Johnny, like Hugh a pilot/rear gunner, was in the rear turret.

The pilot pulled the Lancaster up into the air.

Too late.

The tail of the aircraft hit the MT shed. The Lancaster fell to the ground, killing all six on board. Fifteen more people – part of the works party which were about to begin runway extentions at Fulbeck –  were killed on the ground.(1)

It was a sobering story to hear over an otherwise very civilised lunch. But that’s just the point. Such was life, and death, in Bomber Command. Tragic as they are, stories like these actually happened. While official records like the squadron Operational Record Book reveal something of what happened to the aircraft, they won’t include the personal details – like the friends of those killed who wondered why they did not show up for an arranged meet-up while on leave.

These are the sorts of details and stories that can only come direct from those who were there at the time. So I see part of my role, as a Bomber Command researcher, but also as a member of the human race, to collect those stories while I still can. Hugh is one of the younger Bomber Command veterans I know, but he turned 90 last year. He’s no spring chicken. And one day I’m going to want to ask him something… but he won’t be there anymore. So in the meantime, says Tony Wright as he finishes his piece:

…the rest of us could do worse than sit with those close to us and explore what they might have to share and teach before they are gone and we find ourselves turning, bereft, to their shadow.

Amen to that.

 

Hugh McLeod, 49 Squadron rear gunner and my good friend, died on 7 July 2015.

 

(1) The ‘Fulbeck Tragedy’, as it is known, is described in Ward, J 1997: Beware of the Dog at War: Operational Diary of 49 Squadron Spanning Forty Nine Years, 1916-1965, pp. 542-5. Thanks to Colin Cripps for the steer.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

A Cocktail Party in Melbourne

I love collecting veterans.

Though their numbers are undeniably dwindling, it seems that every time I go to a Bomber Command-related event I come away having met a new veteran or two. And last Saturday night, a fundraising cocktail party for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) in Melbourne, was no different.

Because of my own history of living in Sydney most of the events I go to are still in the Harbour City, and so despite living in Melbourne for four and a half years now I regularly travel there for ANZAC Days or other events. Consequently I’m still getting to know the Melbourne-based Bomber Command community. So it was great to see that among the fifty or so guests who gathered on Saturday night at the Nurses’ Memorial Centre on St Kilda Road were five Bomber Command veterans, three of whom I had not properly met yet. Rest assured that was remedied by the end of the evening!

The other two I know well. 578 and 466 Squadron Halifax skipper Don McDonald brought his wife Ailsa, and was working the room as he always does. Though he was wearing a badge with joined Australian and French flags I didn’t get the chance, unfortunately, to ask him about his recent award of the Legion d’Honneur, but that story will have to wait until the next time we meet. 463 Squadron navigator Don Southwell came down from Sydney as a representative of the national Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation committee. Don, as well as being a friend of mine is very active on numerous Bomber Command committees and it was nice to have the chance to talk to him at an event which, for once, he did not organise.

Gerald McPherson and Don Southwell

Gerald McPherson and Don Southwell

The other three are all Melbourne veterans. “Poor old Wally McCulloch”, as he introduced himself, was a 460 Squadron bomb aimer. He and his wife had braved a long and difficult journey to get to the function… from their apartment upstairs in the same building! And Arthur Atkins was a 625 Squadron pilot, with a DFC. He approached me after Don Southwell pointed me out as someone with a 463-467 Squadron connection, saying he had a mate who was lost flying from Waddington.

I’d briefly met the third Melbourne veteran, Gerald McPherson, at the panel discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in 2013 but, until now, had not had a chance to talk to him. He was a rear gunner in 186 Squadron and related the story of his first ever trip in a Lancaster. Up to that point, he told me, flying Wellingtons and Stirlings, he’d always said a small prayer to himself at the top of the runway to help the aeroplanes take off safely. “I never needed to do that in the Lanc”, he said. “You could feel the power as it took off.” He was wearing a Bomber Command clasp so we talked about that for a little while. Coincidentally I had dropped the application for my great uncle Jack’s clasp into the postbox as I was walking to the tram to travel into the city for this event.

It’s not just the veterans, of course. I came away with some other useful contacts too. David Howell works at the Shrine as a Development Officer and is their resident Kokoda expert. In fact he even leads tours along the Kokoda Track (see www.kokodahistorical.com). David is clearly a military history nut – he turned up to the function wearing a WWII RAAF uniform, along with a mate:

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I also, finally, met Andy Wright of Aircrew Book Review. We’ve corresponded before, mostly about blogging and book-ish issues, and we’ve been trying to arrange a time to catch up since he moved to Melbourne from central NSW with his young family a few months ago. This cocktail party offered a good chance to meet. Very generously, Andy had used some of his publishing contacts to source for us some very nice books for our raffle.

The raffle had been my main contribution to the running of the event. It turned out to be very successful with everyone getting involved, and Andy’s efforts, along with a couple more books and an Easter basket or two from Jan Dimmick (one of my fellow committee members), really made it worthwhile. Here are a couple of the winners:

Andy Wright with David Howell, the winner of the 'main prize' - a complete set of Chris Ward's Bomber Command Groups books, donated by Pen and Sword in the UK

Andy Wright with David Howell, the winner of the ‘main prize’ – a complete set of Chris Ward’s Bomber Command Groups books, donated by Pen and Sword in the UK

Ian Gibson with his prize, a Fighting High book donated by Capricorn Link (Australia)

Ian Gibson with his prize, a Fighting High book donated by Capricorn Link (Australia)

Thanks to Capricorn Link (Australia) and Pen and Sword Books (UK) for their very generous donations. And I must also mention the Royal Australian Air Force Association (Victoria), whose treasurer Richard Orr announced a significant donation of funds to the group on the night.

And at the end of the day, fundraising was what it was all about. The Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremony gets bigger in Melbourne each year, and it is beginning to cost a fair amount to put on. The aim of the cocktail party, as well as being a good chance to bring together people with an interest in Bomber Command in the city, was to raise money to ensure that the ceremony – set down for June 7 this year – can continue to be held. In this it was a success, and I think a good night was had by all.

One last thing, before I get stuck into some more photos. I wrote back in January about a programme run by the Shrine of Remembrance to connect veterans’ groups with schools, to pass the legacies of some of these groups on to a new generation. I’ve been holding this news back for a while now but, as it was effectively announced publicly on Saturday night, it’s time it got a run on SomethingVeryBig.

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) is now part of this important Shrine initiative.

Present at the cocktail party was Scott Bramley, who is the Middle School Chaplain at Carey Baptist Grammar School, in Kew, Melbourne. (His seven-year-old son Hamish was also there and won the final prize in the raffle – a great big Easter basket – but no one believes me when I say it was emphatically not a set-up!!)

Scott Bramley

Scott Bramley

Carey was the school attended by Frank Dimmick, who was a 460 Squadron navigator and the husband of Jan Dimmick, one of my fellow committee members. Though Frank died in 2013 Jan has maintained contact with Carey’s Old Grammarians network and it is through this association that the school was approached and agreed to become part of the ceremony each June. Scott has been the main point of contact, and his enthusiasm for the project is infectious. He’s effectively thrown the resources of the school at our disposal. Year 9 students will learn about Bomber Command as part of their history studies and Carey students are expected to take an active role at the ceremony in June. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial association between the two groups.

RAAAFA (Vic) Treasurer Richard Orr

RAAAFA (Vic) Treasurer Richard Orr

Don McDonald with David Howell

Don McDonald with David Howell

Arthur Atkins wih Jan Dimmick

Arthur Atkins wih Jan Dimmick

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Vic Leigh of the Royal Air Forces Association (Melbourne Branch). He is a veteran from an RAF Mosquito squadron but served in Australia and the Pacific, and so very modestly refused to appear in the group photograph. Lovely bloke though!

Vic Leigh of the Royal Air Forces Association (Melbourne Branch). He is a veteran from an RAF Mosquito squadron but served in Australia and the Pacific, and so very modestly refused to appear in the group photograph. Lovely bloke though!

Don Southwell. Ron ledingham looking on.

Don Southwell. Ron Ledingham looking on.

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Back, L-R: Robyn Bell (Organiser), Don Southwell, Don McDonald, Elaine McCulloch, Wal McCulloch. Front, L-R: Ailsa McDonald, Fay McPherson, Gerald McPherson, Arthur Atkins

 

Photos and text (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

 

 

Appeal for Information: Prouville, 24 June 1944

As regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) would know, the most expensive operation of WWII, in terms of crews lost, for 463 and 467 Squadrons was the Lille raid of 10 May 1944 from which six aircraft failed to return.

There were three occasions – all in 1944 – which were almost as expensive, when the Squadrons lost five aircraft in single nights. On 30 January, five failed to return from Berlin. On 29 August, another five were lost attacking Konigsberg. And on 24 June, five aircraft didn’t come back from a raid on Prouville in France.

I’ve posted about the Prouville raid before. Back in July 2012 I was contacted by Phil Bonner in the UK, who passed on an enquiry from Joni Taylor, the sister-in-law of one of the men who was lost on this raid. Joni was looking for information about other members of the crew, so I posted about it here in the hope it would attract a passing Google search… and it did. It took nine months but in January the following year I received a comment from Susan Hird-Little, niece of the only survivor of Sgt PD Taylor’s crew. I was able to put the two ladies in touch with each other, which I thought was a nice little story.

Meanwhile, the wonders of Google have struck again. A few months ago I had a message from a Frenchman named Mathieu Lecul, who lives in Brucamps, near Amiens in the Somme area, and about 10km south of the night’s target at Prouville. LM571 – Taylor’s aircraft – crashed in nearby Bussus-Bussuel. In fact, four of the five 463/467 Squadron machines lost that night came down within 20km of Mathieu’s house.The fifth (the ORB says LM587 but it appears more likely to have been LM597*) also crashed somewhere near the target, but all on board survived. Four of the crew became prisoners of war but amazingly the other three evaded capture and made it home.

I was able to put Mathieu in contact with Joni and Susan, but he has now asked for help to find information or – even better – family members of each of the other crews who crashed nearby.

So, set out below, are the names and where possible a little more detail about 28 airmen who were in the aircraft shot down around the Somme area on the night of 24 June 1944. If anyone does have any useful leads for Mathieu, please drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch.

 

LM450 PO-K, 467 Squadron:

Crashed near Neuilly-L’Hospital

  • 415495 P/O Albert Arthur William Berryman – Died. Neuilly-Hospital – Son of Frederick and Gertrude Annie Langley Berryman Berryman; husband of Agnes Elizabeth Berryman, Victoria Park, Western Australia.
  • Sgt J.W.D. Carey Escaped
  • 418086 F/Sgt John William Berry Down – Escaped. Born on 29/01/1922 at Epson UK
  • 418418 F/Sgt John Murray Hughes – Prisoner. Born 26/02/1923 in Sydney, NSW, Australia – 305 POW Stalag Luft7
  • 427323 F/Sgt Peter Padbury Hardwick – Prisoner. Born 10/01/1922 in Perth, WA, Australia
  • 424978 F/Sgt William John Conway – Prisoner. Born 03/05/1922 in Surry Hills, NSW, Australia – 293 POW Stalag Luft7
  • F/Sgt F.H. Pagett – Prisoner

 

ND729 PO-L, 467 Squadron

Crashed near Mareuil Caubert

  • 425278 F/L Reginald Ronald Cowan – Died – Commemorated at Runnymede. 24 years – Born 21/8/1919 – DFC – Son of Reginald Herbert and Lucy Agnes Cowan, Caloundra, Queensland, Australia.
  • 1540769 Sgt Harry Kitchener Feltham – Died – Mareuil-Caubert
  • 422779 F/Sgt Andrew Leslie West – Died – Mareuil-Caubert. 20 years – Born 30/9/1923 – Son of William Thomas and West Dorris West, Randwick, New South Wales, Australia.
  • 426377 F/Sgt Paul Francis O’Connell  – Died – Poix de Picardie. 22 years – Born 17/12/1921 – Son of Michael Francis and Annie Maria O’Connell, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. Pharmaceutical Chemist.
  • 423639 F/Sgt Herbert Kenith Brown – Died – Mareuil-Caubert. 21 years – Born 10/6/1923 – Son of William Herbert and Elsie May Brown, of Tocumwal, New South Wales, Australia.
  • 1578397 Sgt Jack Sheffield – Died – Mareuil-Caubert. 28 years – Son H. Lawrence, Raunds, Northamptonshire UK
  • 429503 F/Sgt Arthur Albert Summers – Died – Mareuil-Caubert. 30 years – Born 28/1/1914 – Son of James Arthur Joseph and Margaret Mary Summers; husband of Beatrice Erin Summers, of Annerley, Queensland, Australia.

 

LM571 JO-E, 463 Squadron:

Crashed near Bussus-Bussuel.

  • 16203 P/O John Francis Martin – Died – Bussus-Bussuel. 23 ​​years – Born 14/12/1920 in Fremantle, WA, Aust – Son of Francis William and Veronica Rechinda Martin; husband of Doreen Madge Martin, Subiaco, Western Australia.
  • 1324017 Sgt Peter Donald Taylor – Died – Bussus-Bussuel. 24 years – Son of John Ernest and Elizabeth Taylor, of Slough, Buckinghamshire.
  • 415430 W/O Bernard Edward Kelly – Died – Bussus-Bussuel. 23 years – Born 02/03/1921 in Perth, WA, Aust – Son of Edward Joseph and Bridget Kelly, Perth, Western Australia.
  • 418755 F/Sgt Thomas Alexander Malcolm – Prisoner. 418755 – Born 13/07/1921 in Morwell, VIC, Australia – Arrested in Paris on 19/07/1944 and deported to Buchenwald – Pow 8929?
  • 417327 F/Sgt George William Bateman – Died – Bussus-Bussuel. 32 years – Born 28/04/1912 in Unley, SA, Aust – Son of Sidney Davies Bateman and Florence Ethel Christina Bateman; husband of Marjorie Jean Bateman, Magill, South Australia.
  • 424761 F/Sgt Lionel Gregory Leslie Hunter – Died – Bussus-Bussuel. 20 years – Born 23/08/1923 in Canowindra, NSW, Aust – Son of Arthur and Grace Agnes Hunter, of Balgowlah, New South Wales, Australia.
  • 408433 F/Sgt Bramwell Rockliff Barber – Died – Bussus-Bussuel. 20 years – Born 28/02/1924 in Ulverstone, TAS, Aust – Son of Bramwell Fletcher Barber Florence and Myrtle Barber, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia.

 

LM574 JO-J, 463 Squadron:

Crashed near Longuevillette.

  • 417248 P/O Jeoffrey Maxwell Tilbrook – Died – Amiens St-Pierre. 21 years – Son of Robert and Esther Forrester Tilbrook, of Brinkworth, South Australia.
  • 1725436 Sgt David Jesse Dowe – Died – Amiens St-Pierre. 19 years – Son of David N. Dowe and Alice E. Dowe, Thorpe St Andrew, Norfolk.
  • 416651 W/O Hubert George Carlyle – Died – Amiens St-Pierre. 30 years – Son of Leslie and Amy Morton Carlyle Carlyle, Flinders Park, South Australia.
  • 412469 W/O Alexis Charles Mineeff – Died – Amiens St-Pierre. 23 years – Son of John and Annie Emily Mineeff, Glenbrook, New South Wales, Australia.
  • 1251477 Sgt Frederick Charles Penn – Died – Amiens St-Pierre. 23 years
  • 419126 F/Sgt Maxwell MacDonald Lack – Died – Amiens St-Pierre. 21 years – Son of Edna Osborne Lack, Myrtleford, Victoria, Australia.
  • 136398 P/O A Syddall – Prisoner 6509 POW Camp Luft III

 

Do you know anything about any of these airmen? Get in touch – there’s a handy form on this page!

 

*Alan Storr gives LM587 but my copy of the ORB shows a pencilled correction to LM597 and Bruce Robertson’s Lancaster – The Story of a Famous Bomber lists LM597. LM587 is shown by Robertson as being lost in September 1944.

This will be the final post on somethingverybig.com for 2014, while I take a short break from blogging. I’ll be back in early January 2015!

Ladies’ Day with the 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney, 16 November 2014

Some three decades ago, the 463-467 Squadrons Association (NSW) (Inc) needed to find a new venue for their Annual General Meeting. One of the squadron veterans was a member of the Killara Golf Club in what’s usually described as Sydney’s ‘leafy’ North Shore, and suggested that the salubrious surrounds of the art deco clubhouse there might be suitable. So they tried it, and it was. After a few years the meeting would be followed by lunch at the club and eventually wives and partners were invited along too. The gents had their meeting in the Billiards Room while the ladies got stuck into drinks in the Dining Room. And then they would all share lunch together.

Such were the origins, says veteran 463 Squadron wireless operator Don Browning, of the now-annual ‘Ladies’ Day’ luncheon. AGMs are no longer required following the winding up of the official body some years ago but the loose association continues to hold the lunches on the Sunday nearest Remembrance Day each November. This year’s edition took place yesterday. And I was there, one of about 55 people in the crowd.

There was a little shuffling of the seats happening at Table 3 when I arrived to stake my claim. No fewer than three Bomber Command veterans were at the table so I cunningly found a spot in between two of them. Don Southwell apologised as he took his seat on my left. “Sorry you got me,” he said. “I thought you’d want to sit next to someone interesting!” I raised an eyebrow. Sitting next to me on my right, was Ron Houghton, who flew a full tour as a Halifax pilot on 102 Squadron and after the war had a long career flying Constellations and B707s with Qantas. To his right, Keith Campbell, a bomb aimer who was the only survivor when his 466 Squadron Halifax was shot down over Stuttgart in June 1944. Keith wore the little gold caterpillar badge that denotes a member of the Caterpillar Club. Don Southwell himself, of course, flew nine operations as a 463 Squadron navigator.

Don Southwell (right), Ron Houghton and Keith Campbell

Don Southwell (right), Ron Houghton and Keith Campbell

I reckon I’d have a hard time finding anyone more interesting than this trio.

I was, in reality, extraordinarily lucky to have three veterans at my table. In all there were nine present, down three on last year, mostly through illness both short and long-term. Most obviously missing for me were Tom Hopkinson, who had to cancel at short notice, and Harry Brown, who is still recovering from complications after breaking a hip a few months ago. Even some of those who were there have been a little in the wars lately. Keith Campbell got the most points for effort though. He’s had a hip operation recently but managed to wrangle a leave pass from hospital for the afternoon.

After a superb meal at which, as you’d expect in this company, the conversation was free-flowing, it was time for some speeches. Don Southwell welcomed the reasonably significant number of visitors, and proposed the traditional Toast to the Ladies:

SOLD! To the man in the blue suit!

SOLD! To the man in the blue suit!

Annette Guterres responded on behalf of the Ladies, both present and not:

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Annette Guterres

The day’s main speaker was Bill Purdy. Before he spoke, however, Don Browning shared a story about him:

Don Browning

Don Browning

Following his tour of operations, Bill was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Wigsley as an instructor. Returning from a training sortie one day Bill found himself close to Waddington and decided it would be fun to buzz the control tower there. So he did. Word of his indiscretion, of course, made its way back to Wigsley, where the Commanding Officer there happened to be the former CO from 463 Squadron, Rollo Kingsford-Smith. Kingsford-Smith gave Bill a good dressing-down and told him that Group Captain Bonham-Carter had demanded an apology in person.
“You are to go to Waddington”, Rollo said.

No problem, Bill thought. It’s only about nine miles away as the crow flies, a short hop in a Lancaster. No sweat.

But Rollo wasn’t finished yet.

“…by bicycle!”

Bill says he hasn’t forgotten that bike ride.

Apart from Phil Smith, of course, Bill was the first Bomber Command veteran I had met who actually flew on the Lille raid of 10 May 1944 from which the crew of B for Baker failed to return. He’s also the only Bomber Command airman I know who still has a pilot licence, flying around in a Tiger Moth from Luskintyre, north of Sydney. But this talk was about his experiences in June of this year, when a delegation of seven Australian veterans went to France to take part in the official 70th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings.

14Nov-LadiesDay 044

Bill had been on the raid on the morning of the invasion against Pointe du Hoc, a very large German gun emplacement, and it was in this capacity as a veteran of D-Day that he was selected. Interestingly another one of the seven was present at Killara: my lunch companion Ron Houghton.

In any case, Bill gave a good talk. Security on the French trip was tight, he said, with multiple checkpoints to negotiate on the way to the official ceremonies, and traffic was a nightmare with half a million people in the area. But it was one of the best-organised events he had ever been part of and a most memorable occasion, particularly seeing first-hand the damage their 1,000-pounders had done to Pointe du Hoc. Having been there myself a few years ago, he’s right – there are craters everywhere.

Bill was wearing his medals, and they included a particularly impressive-looking one hanging from a red ribbon. While the veterans were overseas the French presented each of them with the Légion d’Honneur, one of the country’s highest honours. It’s the one hanging from his left thumb in this photo:

14Nov-LadiesDay 045

Following the talk there was one more bit of official business to take care of: the group photo. Once again, all we were missing was a flight engineer… and a Lancaster, otherwise I would have suggested they all took us for a fly.

Back row L-R: Don Southwell (463 Sqn Navigator), Bill Purdy (463 Sqn Pilot), Hugh McLeod (49 Sqn Rear Gunner), Max Barry (463 Sqn Mid Upper Gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Sqn Bomb Aimer). Front Row L-R: Don Huxtable (463 Sqn Pilot), Don Browning (463 Sqn Wireless Operator), Ron Houghton (102 Sqn Pilot) and Keith Campbell (466 Sqn Bomb Aimer).

Back row L-R: Don Southwell (463 Sqn Navigator), Bill Purdy (463 Sqn Pilot), Hugh McLeod (49 Sqn Rear Gunner), Max Barry (463 Sqn Mid Upper Gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Sqn Bomb Aimer). Front Row L-R: Don Huxtable (463 Sqn Pilot), Don Browning (463 Sqn Wireless Operator), Ron Houghton (102 Sqn Pilot) and Keith Campbell (466 Sqn Bomb Aimer).

I really enjoy the company of these ‘old lags’ and I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to make the trip up from Melbourne to catch up with them a couple of times a year. May it continue for a good few years yet.

Max Barry

Max Barry

Roy Pegler

Roy Pegler

Don Huxtable

Don Huxtable

Ron Houghton

Ron Houghton

14Nov-LadiesDay 051

Keith Campbell

Hugh McLeod

Hugh McLeod

Keith Campbell and Ron Houghton

Keith Campbell and Ron Houghton

"How do you work this thing anyway?"

“How do you work this thing anyway?”

Hux and his 'Top Gun Hands". Once a pilot, always a pilot...

“There I was, nothing on the clock but the maker’s name…” Once a pilot, always a pilot…

Keith Campbell, Ross Browning and Ross' socks

Keith Campbell, Ross Browning and Ross’ socks

14Nov-LadiesDay 070

Text and images (c) 2014 Adam Purcell

 

Visiting Hux

Don Huxtable has featured on this blog before. A Lancaster pilot, he remains one of the living legends of 463 Squadron. He and his crew flew 32 operations between between September 1944 and April 1945, earning Hux a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process.

He has been a little in the wars in the last few months with a recent extended stay in various hospitals and rehabilitation centres. I made a mid-week dash to Sydney a couple of weeks ago and, with the prospect of a few hours to spare before my flight home, decided to see if I could arrange a visit.

The first step was to find out where he actually was. And when I rang his daughter a week before my trip I was most pleased to discover that Hux had returned home again. So on an unassuming Thursday morning I caught a train to Hornsby, on Sydney’s upper North Shore, and walked up the hill from the station to a simple weatherboard house on a quiet tree-lined street.

The importance of the ‘crew’ is one of the central themes of the Bomber Command experience, and in Hux’s case it was no different. In the words of Peta Fitzgerald, grand-daughter of Hux’s mid-upper gunner Brian Fallon[1], they had “[flown] together, lived together, drank together, prayed together, and on more than a few occasions saved each other’s lives… they became as close as brothers.”

In the years immediately following their return from war, the four members of Hux’s crew who were from Sydney stayed together as they settled back into normal life. They built four houses on adjacent blocks in the same street. Hux’s own house was the second to be finished. “We built that one first,” he told me, pointing through a window towards next door. Well, not that one, he corrected. “We built the one that used to be there!” And he raised the blind to reveal the solid brick wall of a huge McMansion now pressing up against his fence. Today, Hux is the only one of the four who is still there. The rest have all died.

When I first arrived Hux had just begun makinga simple salad for lunch, but after pondering it for all of, oh I don’t know, two and a half seconds, he suggested we instead went to “the Club” for lunch. I readily agreed.

I thought about it as we waited for the taxi. I’d seen the Hornsby RSL Club as I walked up the street from the station. Hux has been involved with the club for a very, very long time. In fact, the last time I spoke to him on the phone, when he was still in hospital and it appeared likely that he would need to move into full-time care, his main comment about it was that he did not mind whatever facility he ended up in if “at least I can still get to the club!” Knowing how special the place is for him I realised the honour implicit in an invitation to lunch there with him.

After a stimulating conversation about the quality or otherwise of the refereeing in the previous weekend’s rugby league semi-finals, the taxi driver dropped us off at the downstairs entrance. ‘When I first came here,” Hux told me, “the club was in a little tin shed about there,” pointing to what is now a large car park. “Look at it now!” It soon became clear just how well-known Hux is at the club. Every corner we turned was someone who said a cheery “morning, Mr Huxtable!” as we went past.

I was given the grand tour, then we ended up in the bistro for a classic RSL lunch: simple, cheap and lots of it. I drank beer; Hux had his usual scotch and soda. We chatted about all sorts of things: Hornsby, Hux’s post-war career in the meat trade, the recent tour of England by the Canadian Lancaster, the perils of shift work, life in Melbourne, the future of Bomber Command commemoration in Australia… I even found time for a quick portrait:

14Oct-Sydney 097

And on the way out we made a short detour. As if anyone needed any more proof of the importance of Hornsby RSL to Hux, or of his importance to them, there’s a room named after him:.

Don Huxtable outside the roon maned for him, Hornsby RSL, October 2014

Don Huxtable outside the roon named for him, Hornsby RSL, October 2014

“I thought they only named rooms after people when they died,” he said gruffly, though even as he said it I’m sure I could detect a touch of quiet pride in his voice.

We shuffled out into the Sydney spring sunshine, and Hux bade me farewell. When I looked back, I saw the old pilot waiting at the street corner for the lights to change. Slightly stooped as he leant on his walking stick, he still towered over the rest of the crowd.

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

[1] Fitzgerald was writing in the preface to Brian’s posthumously-published memoirs, Press On Regardless: Memories of Bomber Command, which she edited. Privately published.


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