Archive for the 'Phil Smith' Category

Nose Art

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

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

08May-Canberra 026

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

Burnt_Cessna_001

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

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

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

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

Here’s a Disney character: cd file 150

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

cd file 181

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

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

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

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

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

All of which raises a question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol19/iss4/3

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

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Flying over Lezennes

Five miles south-east of the centre of Lille is an airport. With an instrument landing system, VOR/DME and a main runway 2825m long it is now more than capable of handling aircraft up to about Boeing B767 size, and indeed today you can catch a flight direct from Lille to some 70 destinations around France, Europe and northern Africa.

But in 1944 it was the Luftwaffe air base known as Flugplatz Vendeville. Based there between April and September of that year was Fliegerhorst-Kommandatur E (v) 220/XI. On the north-west of the base was a battery of three heavy 88mm flak gun positions and it was this battery which probably shot down a 97 Squadron Lancaster, JB708, during the raid on the marshalling yards to the north on 10 May. [1]And after his own aircraft, B for Baker, was hit attacking the same target, Phil Smith landed nearby:

Not long after [being shot down and landing safely], I came to a heavy barbed wire fence, which I took to be the boundary of the fighter aerodrome to the SE of our target. Basis the guarding of English aerodromes, I reckoned that it would be better to walk across the aerodrome rather than make a long detour around it. Accordingly I started to look for a way under the wire but as soon as I did this, shots rang out. I had not been challenged but felt sure that they were meant for me. I changed my mind immediately and crept off as quietly as possible in a North-Easterly direction…        -Phil Smith, ‘Recollections of 1939-1945 War’

About ten hours short of exactly sixty five years after Phil Smith stumbled onto the boundary fence of an airfield near Lille, I was in a car being driven by my friend Olivier Mahieu across the boundary of the same airfield. We had spent the morning at the graves of the crew of B for Baker and Olivier had organised for me to go flying in a light aeroplane with a local instructor. His sister Sylvie came along in the aircraft to act as translator.

The aircraft was F-GKVV, a TB-9 (a French design, unsurprisingly), a type I had never been in before so I enjoyed the chance to fly something a little different.

F-GKVV, the TB-9 we flew over Lille

F-GKVV, the TB-9 we flew over Lille

Though English is the international language of aviation, the local air traffic controllers use French if you’re flying in a French-registered aeroplane. Which is fair enough, but can present some problems if you don’t speak French. The instructor pilot – whose name was Frank – had English as non-existent as my French and I could barely hear Sylvie’s translation over the headset, but with much gesturing going in both directions between Frank and myself we managed reasonably well.

Flying, particularly in a weird aeroplane in a foreign country, is always good fun. But this flight was memorable for more than just this. Because this was the same area where, sixty five years before, the crew of B for Baker had been flying in a Lancaster.

Not long after taking off we were already over Lezennes. The cemetery where we had spent the morning was clearly visible down below.

Lezennes Communal Cemetery from the air

Lezennes Communal Cemetery from the air

And not all that far away I could see the petrol station and hotel that are now built on the site where B for Baker crashed.

The crash site of LM475 B for Baker - between the motel and service station at top centre.

The crash site of LM475 B for Baker – between the motel and service station at top centre.

And also visible, a mile west of the crash site, were some of the big sheds and railway yards that formed part of the target that night. The Fives marshalling yards are the further set in this photo, just above centre.

Part of the Lille marshalling yards

Part of the Lille marshalling yards

Though the passage of time has unavoidably altered the landscape as more areas have been developed and the suburbs have sprawled, from the air the relationship between the target, the airfield and the place where the aeroplane crashed stands out clearly. They really did crash very close to the target area.

Flying over the same area where my great uncle Jack and his crew were lost was for me a profoundly moving experience. It can never come close, of course, to exactly what it was like that May night in 1944. The weather was good, we were flying in daylight and, critically, no one was shooting at us. At 1,500 feet we were also considerably lower than where the Lancasters would have been flying. But to be in the air, over the same railway yards, was to feel for a moment just a little closer to the crew of B for Baker.

F-GKVV passing a church in Hellemmes - snapped by a friend while we were flying

F-GKVV passing a church in Hellemmes – snapped by a friend of Olivier’s while we were flying

 

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

 

[1] Jozefiak, Richard 1995. Crash of a RAF bomber occurred on the airfield Vendeville (Lesquin) during the Second World War. Unpublished typescript translated by Peter Harvey

467 Postblog LXXXIV: Phil Smith’s Return

Bill Purcell, one of Jack’s nephews, used to stay at his aunt Clare’s place near Wollongong after school every day. He remembered well the day that news arrived that his uncle Jack – Clare’s brother – had been posted missing. The whole family, he said, had gathered at Clare’s and were huddled around the kitchen table.[1]

Everyone was almost whispering.

Official telegrams contained so few clues about what had happened besides the stark fact that the airman concerned had been posted missing and, though Bill Brill’s letters were on the way with a little more detail, these would not reach the families in Australia until the middle of July. In the meantime there was little definite information available. Don Smith, therefore, sprang into action. He wrote to the Air Force at the end of May to request addresses of the other Australian next-of-kin, which the Air Force then provided. He also sent letters to the Air Force for onwards delivery to the three British next-of-kin.[2] So developed a significant body of correspondence between the families. Happily, Mr Smith was a careful type who neatly filed almost all of the letters in three big folders, all of which have survived. Similar, if not quite so comprehensive, archives also survive for Jerry Parker and Gilbert Pate. Hence we know that the families exchanged many letters over the course of the next few years. Mr Smith would carefully transcribe anything of note on his typewriter. Photographs and newspaper articles were also shared, and commiserations expressed when news broke on 4 August that first Gilbert Pate and then, three days later, Jerry Parker had been declared dead based on information from the International Red Cross.[3] “Regret no news of your son Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith D.F.C. or remainder of crew,” said the telegram sent to the Smith home in Sydney.

Sadly, as we now know most of the rest of the crew had also been killed when B for Baker came down. But Phil Smith was most definitely still alive, being sheltered by the Mely family in Caudry. And in early September the town was liberated when invasion forces reached it. On 3 September, Monsieur Mely took Phil to the Town Hall where he was received and celebrated by members of the Resistance and the local population.[4] Some time over the next couple of days he made himself known to Allied military authorities so that, on 5 September, he hitchhiked[5] to Beauvais, north of Paris, and was flown back to Northolt in England in a DC-3 via the Normandy beachhead.[6]

The Air Force notification system ground its way into action once more, but on this occasion it was beaten by private means. The news was broken unwittingly by Cis Smith in a telegram, which was telephoned through to the Smiths at 4.45pm on 8 September:[7]

THANK HEAVEN PHILIPS IN ENGLAND

CIS SMITH

A day later came an equally short and cryptic message from the man himself:

SAFE AND SOUND

PHILIP SMITH

Finally, on 11 September came official confirmation from the Air Force, who also sent telegrams to the three other Australian next-of-kin. Messages immediately flew between the families:[8]

GLAD TO HEAR OF YOUR GOOD NEWS

GRACE PATE

HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR SONS SAFE RETURN TO BASE

JOHNSON [sic]

What a relief to you!

Sydney Pate

Phil was given a complete medical (which “confimed that I am as fit as I feel – my only trouble being my teeth”[9]), then sent on three weeks’ survivor’s leave. He spent some time with his uncle Jack and then to his uncle Harold in March, Cambridgeshire, which is where Cis caught up with him. Her airgraph to his parents, written on 13 September,[10] contained the first real account of what actually happened to Phil on the night of the Lille raid.

…he must have had a miraculous escape as he doesn’t know if another plane hit them or if their own bombs exploded as directly their own bombs were released he remembers a terrific flash of light – but felt absolutely nothing. Then he found himself below the fierce flames + took a risk + pulled his rip cord…

From his uncle’s house, Phil set out to find the addresses of the next-of-kin of the three English members of the crew, and then went to visit them. This must have been one of his toughest missions during his time in the Air Force.

After his survivor’s leave, Phil spent a further month in the UK before embarking for home, via the US. He arrived back in Australia on 16 January 1945, having been overseas for three and a half years. The Lille raid was his 51st operation and he returned having received a Mention in Dispatches in 1943 and a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944. (News of the latter came through while he was evading in France). Following a stint in an RAAF hospital in Sydney while recovering from a bad case of peritonitis, Phil was posted to RAAF Bundaberg, Queensland, where he commanded 88 Operational Base Unit while awaiting demobilisation. He was finally discharged from the Royal Australian Air Force on 13 December 1945.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Purcell, Bill, in interview with Kerry Tarleton, approx. 2001

[2] Correspondence on these matters is in A705, 166/38/524

[3] Telegram advising the Johnstons of these facts are in NAA: A705, 166/20/131, encl. 16a and 18a

[4] Grand Outidien du Nord de la France, 22MAY47. Translated transcript, in the collection of Mollie Smith

[5] Related in a letter, Cis Smith to Don Smith, 13SEP44. Part of the collection of Mollie Smith.

[6] This flight is in Phil’s logbook as a passenger.

[7] Original telegrams are part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[8] Telegrams from Grace Pate (12 September) and Charles Johnston (14 September) and letter from Sydney Pate (13 September), all part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[9] Smith, Phil, letter to father, 09SEP44. Part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[10] This letter forms part of the collection of Mollie Smith

467 Postblog LXXXII: Phil Smith’s evasion

Phil Smith spent a little over a week attempting to walk to Switzerland. He walked mostly at night, hiding during the day in either fields or farmers’ barns. In the early morning two days after his aeroplane crashed, Phil made it to a town called Orchies (some eleven miles south of Lezennes as the crow flies), but he was running out of food and still had no boots. He knew he now needed to seek help from local civilians. An elderly woman he approached could be of no direct assistance but pointed him towards a farmhouse not far away, whose inhabitants provided food but asked that he hide in the fields during the day and come back after dark. This he did and, after being well fed he was shown to a hayloft where he could sleep for the night.

I did not volunteer to leave and the next 24 hours followed the same pattern.[1]

After a few days hiding in the hayloft in Orchies, his shelterers told Phil that, as a German garrison was about to be billeted in the area it was too dangerous for him to stay. They gave Phil food, drink, an old pair of sandshoes and a hessian sack for a blanket and sent him on his way. In turn Phil wrote his Australian address on the back of one of the spare passport photos carried by aircrew on operations and left it with the family.

For the next few hours Phil avoided roads, walking cross-country to minimise the chances of encountering people. But it was hard going with a number of drains – mostly dry but some not – to be crossed. So when he stumbled onto a road going in roughly the right direction later in the night, Phil abandoned his cross-country policy. Following the road, he passed several small cemeteries which he thought probably contained graves from the Great War.

I saw a faint light in the distance at the side of the road. I assumed it to be a guard post and approached the area with the utmost caution. However my caution was quite unnecessary as the light turned out to be a glow-worm, the only one I saw in my night walking.

Phil kept walking by night and hiding by day. At one stage he saw a Spitfire making several low passes nearby. “I had fantasies of being seen and picked up and flown home which made me feel a little homesick,” he would later write. Apart from an incident where he was asked for the time by a group of young men and responded with the British Double Summer Time to which his watch was still set, the most dangerous encounter he had occurred when crossing a bridge one night over a large canal, possibly the Canal de la Sensee a few miles north of Cambrai. Exhausted after about a week on foot he was trudging slowly on when, about half-way across, he was challenged from a guard post which he had just passed without noticing.

I did not understand what was said but was able to respond immediately with a tired “bon soir’ and walked slowly on with no hesitation. The guard must have taken me for a drunk as he took no action…

The timeline in his Recollections document is somewhat vague but it was probably around 19 or 20 May when Phil walked through Cambrai itself and, seven or eight miles further east, came to the small village of Caudry. Just after that he could see some big farming establishments in a settlement called Audencourt and he decided to hide for the approaching day in one of the big sheds.

So ended my attempt to walk across France.

The Allied invasion of the Continent was imminent and, because it was considered too dangerous for Phil to continue on his own because of his lack of fluency in French, for the next three and a half months he was looked after by locals:

With the absolute need for secrecy, hiding in the small town of Caudry was, in some aspects, like being in prison. However, in all other ways I was cared for as a member of a husband and wife family.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Quote, and most of the detail in this section, comes from Phil Smith’s Recollections of 1939-1945 War typescript.

467 Postblog LXXXI: Thursday 11 May, 1944

Waddington awoke in shock. Last night, 31 Lancasters had taken off for a ‘milk run’ operation to Lille. This morning, though, there were six empty spaces at the dispersals – and 42 empty beds.

But war waits for no man. Ops were on again tonight. Preparations were put into place for 25 Lancasters to attack a military camp at Bourg Leopold in Belgium. They began taking off just before 22:00.[1] But incorrect forecast winds delayed the marking over the target and thick haze compounded the issue so, after about half the bombers had bombed the leader called the attack off and ordered remaining crews to take their bombs home.

The Bourg Leopold raid was the biggest of the night, with 190 Lancasters and three Mosquitos taking part. Elsewhere marshalling yards were attacked at Hasselt (north-eastern Belgium), Louvain (near Rennes) and Boulogne. Coastal batteries were hit at Trouville (south of Le Havre) and Colline Beaumont (near Le Touquet). “Only at Louvain was any widespread damage caused,” said the Night Raid report.[2]

There was some excitement on arrival at Waddington involving Flight Sergeant John Waugh and crew, flying DV277. One of those crews who had not bombed, they were crossing the enemy coast on the way home when they became involved in a combat with a “fighter and Lancaster.” Jettisoning the 4,000lb ‘cookie’ to reduce weight they successfully escaped but not without damage: when they were ordered to dump their remaining bombs in the sea, the bomb bay doors would not open. When it was also discovered that their undercarriage would not lock down and a crash landing with most of the bomb load still on board was now inevitable, the entire crew except for the pilot and flight engineer baled out a few miles south of Waddington. Then Waugh began his approach. Hearts were in mouths as he bounced high on his first attempt but the undercarriage held and Waugh heard the emergency air system activate, locking the wheels down. The second touchdown was much more controlled and all ended well. “The Officer i/c Night Flying,” notes the Operational Record Book dryly, “then had a cross-country trip in a car trying to locate the members who had baled out.”[3]

But in a cruel blow to 467 Squadron, a night after losing a Flight Commander (Phil Smith) and two other pilots and all of their crews, another bomber failed to return from operations. And amongst this crew were some extremely experienced and capable men. LL792 was being flown by Sam Balmer, the 467 Squadron Commanding Officer who was on his final trip with the Squadron before going to a new posting and who (though apparently he did not know it) had just been promoted to Wing Commander. Among his ‘scratch crew’ was navigator Flying Officer Peter Hammond, a second-tour man who had arrived at Waddington five days ago with the new ‘B’ Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Lloyd Deignan. And on the final trip of his first tour was Flight Lieutenant WR Norden-Hare, the Squadron’s Gunnery Leader. Along with four other RAF men, all were killed when the aircraft crashed near Antwerp after being attacked by a nightfighter on their bombing run.[4]

In happier news for 467 Squadron, though, it had been calculated that their venerable Lancaster R5868 S for Sugar achieved on the Bourg Leopold trip its 100th operational sortie. But not without a scare. Flown for the occasion by Pilot Officer Tom Scholefield, the crew were continuously attacked by a pair of Ju 88s for nearly ten minutes. But some good cooperation between the gunners and the wireless operator, who was directing them via the Monica early warning system, managed to drive off “9 or 10 determined and skilful attacks.”[5] They did not bomb – jettisoning their ‘cookie’ over the sea on the way home – and returned safely.

Flying Officer Scholefield (far left) with his crew after what was reputedly S-Sugar's 100th operation. From the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

Tom Scholefield (far left) with his crew after what was reputedly S-Sugar’s 100th operation. From the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

The next day photographers and press appeared “from everywhere”, according to the Operational Record Book. “I think the B.B.C. even asked the aircraft to say a few words.”

Meanwhile in and around Lille French civilians and the German occupiers were discovering the extent of the damage wrought by the previous night’s chaos. The railways were clearly out of commission for the time being. But the bombing had also spread east of the target and residential property was badly damaged in that area. More than one thousand houses were destroyed, many by fire, and about 150 French civilians were killed with some 57 injuries recorded.[6] Adding to the destruction was the wreckage of ten Lancasters which had crashed in and around the target area. And those ten Lancasters contained ten crews, a total of seventy men.

During the day on 11 May bodies of airmen were discovered in and around the target area. Some were found close to where their aircraft had crashed. At least one was stuck up a tree.[7] Late in the evening of 11 May the burials began. Around 9pm 22 bodies were brought to Forest-sur-Marque, near where at least three Lancasters are thought to have crashed. The burials were carried out under difficult conditions. The Germans ordered the townspeople to dig one long common grave and that the dead were to be buried “by 8am.”[8] The Germans supplied no crosses or coffins.

Burials would continue throughout the area over the next few days. But unknown to anyone else, one of the 70 men shot down near Lille was still alive. Phil Smith had passed the day hiding out in a wood in northern France, sleeping on and off and hearing no sound bar the occasional train passing some distance away.

In the dawn hours it was pretty cold and I missed the raincoat which I had worn on all recent operations – this one was to be pretty short and the weather was warming up.[9]

Sustenance came from some malted milk tablets and a small tube of condensed milk from his escape kit, but though there was a plastic pouch and some water sterilising tablets there was nothing to drink. “It was clear,” he wrote later, “that I would have to get help from French people by next dawn as I would need food and drink if I were to make any further progress.”

When it became dark, Phil began to walk again. Along the way he found an animal trough with which to fill his water pouch and, with the aid of the sterilising tablets he was able to get all the drink he needed.

Phil continued on towards the south-east and, he hoped, Switzerland.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[2] Night Raid Report No. 603

[3] Waugh’s story related in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[4] Storr, 2006

[5] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[6] LeClercq, J 2002; citing several files from the Archives Départementales du Nord in Lille

[7] This was Sergeant Roland Becherel, the wireless operator in the Mason crew of 97 Squadron. Info from Joss le Clercq and NAA: A705, 166/33/163 encl. 56 and 57

[8] Ibid.

[9]This section relies heavily on Smith, Phil, Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.26

467 Postblog LXXXc: Wednesday 10 May, 1944

Phil Smith was falling.

He was still strapped into the pilot’s seat of B for Baker, having a moment ago been preparing for the jolt that usually accompanied the release of the bomb load from a Lancaster. But then something extraordinarily and suddenly violent had happened, and now he could feel no aeroplane around him.

He quickly came to the obvious conclusion:

I immediately released my seat belts and then my parachute. It seemed to open immediately.[1]

Looking up, he could see that one of the two risers from which he was hanging had been half cut through in the blast, so he hung on above the break with both hands until he landed on a large grassy field.

I seemed to be all in one piece but my flying helmet and one flying boot had gone. There was no indication that I had been seen.

His left wrist and hand were somewhat sore but otherwise he felt unharmed. Gathering up his parachute, he crept off in a direction away from some nearby houses in order to find somewhere to hide it.

Apart from the two Lancasters which came down in Flanders on the way home, there is little surviving evidence to show exactly which fate befell the remaining ten aircraft that failed to return from Lille that night. Richard Jozefiak shows that all ten crashed within about five miles of the target. Out of these, the night raid report suggests that four had been seen to go down in combat with fighters and two had collided. There was perhaps one more victim of a collision (the aircraft which hit Pilot Officer Dear in ND896), which leaves three lost to entirely unknown causes. It appears unlikely, however, that sufficient evidence has or will ever come to light to be able to make a determination, with any degree of confidence, of what happened to these aircraft, and by extension, of what exactly caused the crash of B for Baker. Even Phil Smith himself never knew for certain. “All I can say about the accident is that I was extremely lucky to get away with it,” he wrote to his parents shortly following his liberation a few months later.[2] Theories abounded. “He must have had a miraculous escape,” wrote his aunt Cis to her brother, Phil’s father Don Smith.[3] “He didn’t know if another plane hit them or if their own bombs exploded, as directly their own bombs were released he remembers a terrific flash of light – but felt absolutely nothing.” In November 1944 the Air Force sent an extract from Phil’s official evasion report to the family of his rear gunner, Gilbert Pate:[4]

…while bombs were falling from the aircraft it was hit either by flak or by enemy aircraft and exploded in mid air

Later still, Phil wrote a letter which he sent to the Air Force for onwards transmission to the family of his wireless operator, Dale Johnston:[5]

We had a straightforward trip up to the time when the bombs were falling away from the aircraft when something hit us and the aero-plane exploded. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the crew or the remains of the aircraft – after seeing flame in front of my eyes I did not see or feel anything solid until my parachute opened.

And three years after the Lille raid, Phil’s father told him of a letter received from Fannie Johnston. She had been to France, it seems, and spoke to a local who suggested the aircraft had been involved in a collision. “I suppose they found the remains of two aircraft together”, Phil guessed[6]. “A collision is as likely as any other cause…”

Collision? Own bombs? Flak? Nightfighter? Even when my own family spoke with Phil a few years before he died, he was still unclear on exactly what caused the loss of his aeroplane.

All that was some time off, though. Right now he had far more pressing matters to deal with. Squadron Leader Phil Smith was on the ground, alone, in enemy-occupied territory. He did not know it yet, but out of the 84 aircrew on board the twelve Lancasters which had failed to return from Lille, he was the only man still alive. After gathering up his parachute, Phil began heading roughly south-east, navigating roughly by the North Star.[7] His vague plan was to walk to Switzerland, which he considered a better prospect than trying to escape via Spain. He hid his parachute and mae-west lifevest in a pile of roadbuilding stones and carried on, soon coming to a big barbed wire fence. This, he supposed, was probably the Luftwaffe airfield which he knew was south-east of the target. He decided that walking across the airfield would be easier than going around it and looked for a gap in the wire. But then he heard gun shots.

I had not been challenged but felt sure that they were meant for me. I changed my mind and immediately crept off as quietly as possible in a North-Easterly direction.

Planning to avoid contact with any people and to get as far from the crash site as he could on the first night, Phil walked on. Having lost one fur-lined flying boot in the explosion, he now found his remaining boot soaking up dew from the ground. It became too heavy and he was forced to abandon it.

I was then committed to walking cross-country in my socks.

After wading across a narrow canal of some sort (”an unpleasant process”, he wrote in his usual understated way), he found himself walking up steadily rising, wooded ground.

By this time I was tiring, there were signs of dawn and the cover seemed quite good for lying up during daylight.

Phil picked a likely-looking spot, hid himself as best he could, and fell into a fitful sleep.

 

This post – published at 23:45 on 10 May 2014, exactly 70 years since the last known message was sent from B for Baker – is part of a series called 467 Postblog. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Smith, Phil, undated. Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.24

[2] Smith, Phil, letter to parents, 09SEP44

[3] Smith, Cis, letter to Don Smith, 13SEP44. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[4] Air Force to Kathleen Pate, letter, 12NOV44. From the collection of Gil and Peggy Thew

[5] Smith, Phil, letter to Fannie Johnston, 13APR45. Transcript from NAA: A705, 166/20/131

[6] Smith, Phil, letter to father, 16MAY48. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[7] The description of Phil’s attempt to walk across France, and quotes in this section, are from his Recollections typescript

Bomber Command at the Shrine of Remembrance

The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne has gone all Bomber Command on us. As I’ve posted previously, there are a number of events happening there over the next couple of months. All tie in with a major temporary exhibition which opened earlier this month in the Shrine Visitor Centre. Bomber Command: Australians in the air war over Europe 1939-45 is open until 1 May next year. It’s only a fairly small exhibition but it covers much ground concerning the Australian experience of Bomber Command, from enlistment, through training to operations and afterwards, including a significant section on prisoners of war. There are photos, artwork and memorabilia that have all been put together in a professional manner, and it is already beginning to draw visitors from all across Victoria and other parts of Australia. I visited last week with Robyn Bell, one of my Bomber Command contacts in Melbourne.

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I suspect that if you hang around this exhibition for long enough you’ll see a fair number of Bomber Command veterans coming through for a look. And, happily, so it was when we visited. There was an older gent wearing a blazer and an Air Force tie looking at the mannequin in the photo above, talking to a middle-aged man about parachutes. Robyn recognised him as Gordon Laidlaw, a 50 Squadron pilot who she has been in touch with before, and talking to his mate later I discovered that they had come up from Mornington, an hour or so south of Melbourne, especially to have a look at the exhibition. It was great to chat briefly with Gordon. He was also talking to another pair of visitors who were in Melbourne on holidays from Perth who had come to the Shrine to see the exhibition:

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Rosemary Grigg (on the left) was overwhelmed to meet a real-life Bomber Command veteran – Gordon – because her father had been an airman too. Allan Joseph Grigg was killed on 22 July 1944 in a Wellington accident near Lossiemouth in Scotland, where he had been serving with No. 20 Operational Training Unit. She is keen to find out more about her father’s service so I’ve given her a few pointers on where to begin. As always, the fact he was Australian makes life much easier.

Moving around the exhibition, Robyn found her small contribution. She has been liaising with Neil Sharkey from the Shrine who was responsible for setting up the exhibition, and he was looking for some Window, the foil ‘chaff’ used to confuse German radar. As it happened Robyn had a small piece and was happy to allow it to go on display:

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What was most unexpected for me, though, was in a frame hanging at the end of one of the exhibition partitions. We had almost finished our walk around when I found it:

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Regular readers of SomethingVeryBig (those, at least, with very good eyesight) will recognise the lower photograph, the only known photo of the entire crew of B for Baker. And the one above it? It’s a portrait of a ridiculously young-looking Phil Smith, taken in London during the war. It was in fact sourced for the exhibition from this website, and has been credited to Mollie Smith at my request:

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It’s clear that, in the last two or three years in particular, Bomber Command is finally receiving the recognition it deserves. An official memorial was opened last year in London. A Bomber Command clasp is now in the process of being awarded to surviving veterans, before being extended to the next-of-kin of those killed during service or who have died since. And the Canberra weekend is now the third largest annual event held at the Australian War Memorial (behind ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day). There’s no doubt that interest in Bomber Command, and respect and recognition for those who were involved, is growing. It’s great to see some of that interest manifesting itself in this exhibition. More people will visit and learn about Bomber Command and the men who were part of it. The stories will live on.

And that’s the most important thing.

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© 2013 Adam Purcell