The First Flight in B for Baker

On Friday 3 March 1944, LM475, the aircraft that would become B for Baker, appears in Phil Smith’s logbook for the first time. Two flights are recorded on this day, and while on the face of it they appear perfectly normal – two sessions of High Level Bombing, one during the day and one by night – the entries would lead to much head-scratching on my part, some seven decades later.

Phil’s logbook records this for the first flight:

Lancaster LM475. Pilot: Self, Crew: W/Cdr Balmer, F/L McCarthy, Crew. HLB. Landed at Hunsdon. 2.05hrs Day.

There are a few curiosities in this entry. Wing Commander Balmer was the 467 Squadron Commanding Officer. It appears most likely that the other passenger was Flight Lieutenant Patrick Ernest McCarthy, who was probably the 467 Squadron Bombing Leader at the time. It is unclear whether Phil’s ‘normal’ bomb aimer Jerry Parker came along or not as Phil had a habit of not recording full crew names for non-operational flights. The reason for the trip to Hunsdon (a nightfighter airfield 20 miles north of London, or some 100 miles from Waddington) is unknown. There is a possibility that this could have been a check flight for either Phil Smith or for the new aircraft, though I don’t know if Squadron Commanders carried out this sort of activity. More likely, perhaps, is that Balmer needed to get to London and so Phil took the opportunity to take his new aeroplane for a spin to get him there.

The mystery deepens however when we throw the entry in Jack Purcell’s logbook into the mix:

Lancaster. Pilot S/Ldr Smith. Duty: Navigator. Remarks: Owethorpe – H.L.B. 1.25hrs Day.

Owethorpe is most likely a spelling error – there was a practice bombing range at Owthorpe (without the ‘e’), just east of Nottingham, and this was probably the destination for the bombing exercise. The High Level Bombing part agrees with what is in Phil’s logbook, but there is an alarming inconsistency here: Phil records the flight as having been 40 minutes longer than Jack did. My initial theory was that Balmer went along first for a 40-minute check flight in the Waddington circuit with Phil Smith only, and then the remainder of the crew with F/L McCarthy joined them for a flight to Hunsdon via the practice range at Owthorpe. But I’m not sure that 1.25 hours is enough time to get from Waddington to Hunsdon via Owthorpe, particularly when the later flight to another range close to Nottingham took 1.30 hours on its own.

This second flight appears to be recorded correctly in both logbooks. Phil says this:

Lancaster LM475. Pilot: Self. Crew: Crew, F/Lt McCarthy. HLB (5). 145yds bombing error. 1.30hrs Night with 0.45hrs Instrument.

And Jack says this:

Lancaster. Pilot: S/Ldr Smith. Duty: Navigator. Remarks: Eppistone – HLB. 1.30hrs Night.

These entries both clearly relate to the same flight (1.30 hours at night with S/L Smith), which was for more practice bombing. Once again F/L McCarthy went along (no mention if Jerry Parker was also on board though), and Jack has misspelt the destination (which come to think of it is a somewhat startling trait for a navigator!) which should probably be ‘Epperstone,’ the site of another practice bombing range seven miles north east of Nottingham. This also tallies with the entry in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book:

No ops again today – instead we had 2 Bulls Eyes and plenty of Bombing Practice at night. With the moonlight conditions were ideal.

So this second flight is fairly easy to explain. But it’s hard to think of a scenario which could explain a flight on which practice bombing was carried out at Owthorpe AND a landing made at Hunsdon, with the Squadron Commander AND the Bombing Leader along for the ride, on a trip on which the pilot logged 2.05 hours but the navigator logged just 1.25 hours. The simplest explanation would be that Jack Purcell made a mistake. If we assume this was the case, it would be quite reasonable to fly from Waddington to Hunsdon, either to drop off W/C Balmer or simply as an exercise on which Balmer came along to observe, via a few practice bombing runs at Owthorpe range, and then back to Waddington again inside 2.05 hours. Judging on other parts of his logbook Jack’s record keeping was never particularly fantastic so a mistake is a distinct possibility. It does not sit well with the fastidious nature of his job as a navigator though.

There is insufficient information in the sources currently available to me to explain what might have happened in a definitive sense. The ORBs do not record non-operational flights in adequate detail and Phil did not write of this trip in his post-war manuscript so the only way of being sure would be to compare the logbooks of all those involved. But as far as I know out of the crew of B for Baker only Jack’s and Phil’s logbooks have survived, and they disagree with each other. This one will probably remain a mystery.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

 

 

Talking

I did my first research project about my great uncle Jack at the age of about 12. It was for an entry in a national history competition and my project was to write a series of letters as if Jack had been writing home from the war. This work led directly to our discovering that Phil Smith, who had been Jack’s pilot, was still alive and was living in Sydney. We first met Phil and his wife Mollie in early 1997.

There then came a break of a few years. We stayed in contact with Phil and Mollie and occasionally travelled to Sydney to visit them and while I was aware of ‘Uncle Jack’ the bug had not yet bitten in earnest to find out more about him myself. In 2003 I took a year off between school and university, and that’s when I had some time to once again delve into the subject. Sadly the catalyst for this work was news of Phil’s death in March of that year. The starting point this time was all the original documents that we had about Jack, which I scanned and wrote explanatory notes about to put on a CD-ROM and share around my family. Then university and moving out of home got in the way and it was some years before I felt the urge again and started the work that has evolved into SomethingVeryBig.

The slightly frustrating thing is that I never had the opportunity to speak to Phil in detail about his experiences. I was quite young when I first started researching the story of B for Baker. This phase of work was what led us to him in the first place – and the second phase started after he passed away. I remember one discussion, over the lunch table at Phil and Mollie’s home in Sydney, when my father was asked to read out Phil’s wartime letter about the time his troop ship hit an iceberg in mid-Atlantic (a story in itself) while Phil added comments here and there, but that’s the only occasion that I can recall where we spoke directly about his experiences. I’m lucky that since his death I’ve had access to the superb archive of letters and photos and other documents that his father carefully collated while Phil was in the Air Force, but there’s nothing like actually talking to the people who were there for a ‘feel’ of what it was like.

Which is why I’m slowly collecting veterans, so to speak – contacting as many as I can, writing letters (yes, real letters, with stamps and envelopes and everything), phoning up and generally picking their brains. Each has a story to tell and each little insight adds to what I understand of what it was like to fly for Bomber Command. I can’t ask my great uncle or any members of his crew what their war was like – but I can still talk to other veterans. While it’s not quite the same story, they would have shared many similar experiences with each other so I reckon it’s enough to build a picture of the ‘feel’ of the times they lived in and the tasks they carried out.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

For King and Country?

There appear to have been as many reasons for joining the wartime Air Force as there were aircrew. The chance to learn to fly was of course a key motivation. Dennis Over gave me some of his reasons on the phone in June 2011: “Until the war, we were all going to be train drivers”, he said. But the Battle of Britain happened, and “then we were all going to be fighter pilots!” Too young to join up immediately, Dennis worked in a shipyard fitting out Air-Sea Rescue boats. Many of the crews of these boats were ex aircrew and he was also inspired by their tales of derring-do so when he became old enough he joined up, eventually serving as a rear gunner on 227 Squadron.

For some, it was more personal. Cliff Leach, a 150 Squadron Pilot/Flight Engineer, wrote that “our main aim… was to stop our relatives being killed and our homes being wrecked”. To back it up, he had a newspaper photograph of what was left of his mother’s house after a German air raid on Liverpool in 1941.

It’s easy to see how motivation to enlist in the Air Force could be stirred by seeing the effects of war first-hand – but until the Japanese entered the war Australia was not under direct threat of attack. So what might have attracted so many Australians to join the ranks of aircrew in those first few years of the war?

Hank Nelson collected a few ideas from different aircrew in Chased by the Sun:

Those who volunteered for aircrew were, Don Charlwood said, ‘children of the empire’. Nearly all had relatives in the British Isles. Most were also strongly conscious of their Australianness, but saw no contradiction in being both British and Australian […] Charlwood said that his swearing-in was the culmination of his upbringing, acceptance of authority and the ‘Call of the Homeland’. Wade Rogers’ mother said to him before he sailed, ‘Don’t miss seeing Scotland for me, son’ […] Although David Leicester’s father was born in Australia, he was ‘very pro-English’, and David grew up in a home where ‘fighting for England was really the thing to do’. (C07-039-009)

One of the most matter-of-fact descriptions that I’ve seen, and one that covers most of the key motivations for enlisting, was written by 467 Squadron skipper Phil Smith in an unpublished manuscript, some decades after the war (C03-004-004):

My motives for joining the forces were mixed:

  • a) The call of adventure
  • b) A feeling of duty
  • c) The need to be ‘in it’ with the mob
  • d) A question of patriotism
  • e) At 22 years I was the right age, and had no responsibilities.

The call of ‘King and Country’ managed to reach all the way to Australia much like it had a generation before, and it was heard by thousands of young men. The chance of adventure and the need to be ‘in it’ certainly played a big part – in many ways similar to that which attracted so many of the previous generation to arms in the First World War. It is clear that patriotism was perhaps the overriding reason for men to enlist in the armed forces in general – but there were other reasons for choosing the Air Force specifically, over the other two branches of the military. Stories of the horrors of that earlier conflict were well-known and so many were conscious of the need to stay out of the infantry. Frank Dixon was a 467 Squadron skipper, and picked the Air Force out of a desire to avoid what he called a “man to man, face to face, knee deep in mud confrontation with cold steel”, the thought of which horrified him (C06-070-005).  The Air Force offered what Danny O’Leary, a Vultee Vengeance pilot, called “a way out: accept the risk of death for yourself, but volunteer for a technical arm like the Air Force or the Navy, where you will kill clinically, at a distance, where you won’t see ” the whites of his eyes”.

Phil Smith’s reason was perhaps more practical than many; he wrote that he decided on the Air Force because he thought that a pilot’s licence could be “a useful qualification” to have after the war (C03-004-004). As it happened after he was demobbed he never flew in command of an aeroplane again, but the sentiment remains.

But there was also a higher sense of duty. Danny O’Leary put it eloquently:

Deep down we all knew that this was a job which had to be done, and we young men of our generation, who had the fitness and schooling to do it, must step forward, for there was no one else […]It was our duty to stop this.

And stop it, they did.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Happy First Solo Day!

On 28 November 1940 – exactly seventy-two years ago today – Phil Smith flew solo for the first time. Like many (if not all) Australian pilots under the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was in a little yellow Tiger Moth, serial A17-58, at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Phil didn’t seem too excited about it when he wrote to his parents later that day (A01-132-001), reporting simply that “[…] altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.”

But there is no doubt that the first solo is a significant milestone for any pilot. Witness the following small collection of thoughts and memories from various pilots, taken from the excellent Australians at War Film Archive:

Barry Finch, eventually of 3 Squadron, quoted his instructor:

“Well you might want to kill yourself but I’m precious and I’m getting out. That’s all I can say. Be careful. I’m going to let you go off on your own.” The bloody thing leapt into the air like a young buck, it was incredible what a difference it made without his weight in the front, and to actually find myself going up into the air without any head in front of me, it was unbelievable. And I thought, “Well, I’m here, all I’ve got to do is to get down again.”[After landing] I went over to where he was and he said, “That’s alright, I’m coming with you next time. I reckon you’re safe […] Unforgettable!” (C06-072-013)

John Boland, 61 Squadron:

“So when I had 5 hours instruction up, I got in the aircraft and did a circuit and the instructor got out of the front seat, took the pilot stick out and said, “Righto, take it around again” and I got the shock of my life. I got that big a shock, that when I come around to land, I was that nervous, the instructor had confidence that I could land it, and as I come in to touch down the tail hit the ground first and it bounced.” (C06-073-005)

Colin Morton, 450 Squadron:

“Scared bloody hell out of me. […] I flew an aeroplane before I drove a motor car. It’s – the impact was enormous and I loved it” (C06-081-003)

Alf Read, 463 Squadron:

“I can still remember it because it’s marked with a tree, which you see as you drive past the old airport at Narromine. My instructor said, “Just a minute and I’ll get out, and I’ll sit under this tree while you take your first solo,” and I can assure you it was a wonderful feeling just to be able to take that plane off and bring it back in one piece. And it’s a little incident in your life that you never forget.” (C06-086-006)

Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron:

“I went solo at about nine hours, I think it was. It should have been seven, but they took me up for a check, and by the time I finished the check and got back, the wind had strengthened up so strong that they wouldn’t let a learner pilot go out. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and it was still blustery and rough and nobody flew that day. And the following day he said, “You’ve got to have another check.” So I had another check, then he said, “Right, off you go. Just do one circuit and down again and that’s your baptism on your own.” (C06-090-011)

Lionel Rackley, 630 Squadron

“Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. […] Every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now. I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” […] And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there: ‘Went solo today’”. (C06-075-004)

As it turns out, today is also the tenth anniversary of my own first solo. It was in a Cessna 152, registered VH-WFI, from runway 16 at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After an hour or so of flying circuits, my instructor got out and I proceeded to fly one by myself. It was a slightly wobbly but passable exercise and I logged a princely 0.1 hours solo time in the process.

Some years later, by this time a fully qualified private pilot, I would also experience solo flight in a Tiger Moth, in my own small way experiencing something of what these young men had been doing seven decades ago. And while that flight remains one of the most memorable ones in my logbook, I still remember the tremendous sense of achievement that followed my first solo.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Treasure Trove(.nla.gov.au)

On a yellowing piece of old newsprint, under a photograph of a Lancaster in flight, is a headline in large black letters. “BOARDING WITH THE BOMBERS”, it says. “Salome and the Operational Egg at a British Station”. The article below the headline describes one Australian war correspondent’s visit to an airfield in Britain. The article was roughly cut out of the newspaper and details like which newspaper it was out of and when it dates from are missing. Some lines have had the first few words cut off. But what remains paints a vivid portrait of life on a bomber station, written from the perspective of an outsider looking in.

I found the article lurking in Don Smith’s archive of letters and papers concerning his son Phil’s wartime service. The collection was kindly loaned to me by Phil’s widow Mollie. Though the original is short on some details, I thought there were enough clues to perhaps fill in the missing pieces.

Almost certainly the author was writing about a visit to Waddington. “Pilots of two Lancaster bomber squadrons which operate from a station at which I was permitted to stay for three days, are all Australians”, they say. There were five nominally Australian squadrons in Bomber Command: 460, 462, 463, 466 and 467 Squadrons. 462 and 466 flew Halifaxes and 460 Squadron operated alone from RAF Binbrook. Only 463 and 467 Squadrons were both operating Lancasters and both operating from the same airfield at the same time. The author also writes that the visit was “the day after the Nuremburg raid when the Air Force losses reached their highest”. This places the visit in late March and early April 1944 – which means that Phil Smith and his crew were on the station at the time. So for me it is a very valuable insight into what was going when they were there.

But if I want to use the article as a reference, I need to know where it came from. And as it turned out a little bit of research was all that was needed to answer that question, thanks to a magnificent tool from the National Library of Australia.

First of all, I figured that there was a good chance that searching for the journalist’s name could reveal which newspaper the article was written for. Betty Wilson is the name on the byline, and she is described as ‘our London Staff Correspondent’. First stop, then, was my old friend Google. And very quickly I had a match, turning up a number of articles from the Sydney Morning Herald written by Ms Wilson and dating from the war years.

So having established that, I remembered that the National Library of Australia’s fantastic Trove website has, among many, many other things, digitised the Herald from 1842 until 1954. And from there it was a very simple process to search for a phrase that was unlikely to have appeared anywhere else in the newspaper over more than one hundred years.

The phrase I searched for was ‘Operational egg’. And bingo, there it was, the first result. The Trove search engine links to a digital scan of the original article, and also has an automatic text conversion tool to make reading it a little easier. This is still in its early versions and precision is a little hit and miss but for the most part it is accurate, so finding my missing words was a very easy thing.

So I now know that my article (my catalogue number A06-052-001) is in fact from the Sydney Morning Herald, and was published on 20 May 1944. And all of that from about half an hour ratting around on the Trove website. It’s a very aptly named tool and is a real treasure trove (sorry) of sources for Australian social history. Highly recommended.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Enlisting

I went for an interview with the Air Force people this afternoon

– Phil Smith writing to his father, 27MAR40 (A01-118-001)

In 1940, said Don Charlwood, some 60,000 young men applied for the first 4,000 training places in the Royal Australian Air Force (C06-063-001). At that early stage of the war, competition for places was intense and the selection panels could afford to be a little choosy in the potential airmen they accepted. The process was quite involved.

In March 1940, Phil Smith was one of the 60,000. He wrote a detailed account of his first experiences in a letter to his father later that day (A01-118-001). The interview panel consisted of three officers who asked general questions about aeroplanes, about Phil’s motives for joining up, and some technical questions about centrifugal force and specific gravity (“the first I explained only fairly and the second exactly,” he told his father).  And that, he wrote, was about the limit of it. Then it was time for the medical exam.

There was, he said, a long form to fill in. Then a general physical examination, including a colour blindness check, height and weight (while stripped), measurements of “buttocks to toes” and a check of the pulse. The eye exam appears to have been quite complicated, though in his matter-of-fact way Phil declined to describe the details as “I do not know what each was for”.

The next three doctors came equipped with a battery of weird and wonderful tests. Ears were checked first with tuning forks and then with the aid of a little light. The same light was then used on the nose and throat. Phil was spun around ten times on a swivel chair and told to stand up straight afterwards. A dentist carefully checked his teeth. Blood pressure was measured. And then it was time for ‘the torture machine’. With a clip on his nose, Phil had to take a deep breath and then support an inch-high column of mercury for as long as possible. “I kept it up for over two minutes”, he wrote to his father, “but my ears are still singing”. Finally his reflexes were tested by scraping his instep with a sharp piece of iron. Recruit Dennis Over, who would eventually become a 227 Sqn rear gunner, concurred with the general contents of the medical, adding that he was also subjected to a hemorrhoids test (“bend over & let me see if your hat’s on straight”…) and a test for “rupture” (“Just cough for me, will you?”). He also encountered the ‘torture machine’, actually a test for diseases of the lungs.

At the end of an exhausting day of being grilled, poked and prodded, Phil was told he would be accepted for the Air Force Reserve but that he would be required to have his tonsils removed and six teeth filled at his own expense first. After some indecision he had the required work done and was duly enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve, to await call-up. He was given a badge to wear to say that he had enlisted and continued to work at the Yarraville Sugar Refinery for another six months.

Though Phil doesn’t mention it, it appears that recruits would be given a course of study in mathematics, physics and navigation to do while they were awaiting call-up, to improve their chances of coping with the early, theoretical stages of their training. This is what Don Charlwood called the ‘twenty-one lessons’. In his memoir ‘Journeys into Night’ he describes the course as ‘extraordinarily well-arranged’. Recruits living in towns could attend night schools to complete the course; others living further out (like Charlwood himself) needed to work by correspondence, helping mates out as they went. Morse code was taught by local postmasters (C07-034-xiii).

Reservists were on the Reserve for differing periods of time. Don Charlwood’s mates Jim Riddoch and Claude Austin were called up after seven months; Charlwood himself had to wait eleven (C07-034-xiv). In fact Riddoch would be in Canada beginning his training before Charlwood received his call-up papers. Phil Smith was waiting for ‘only’ about six months. But the letter arrived, and on 14 September 1940 Phil found himself on a train from Melbourne to his Initial Training School at Bradfield Park, Sydney. Life would never again be the same.

© 2012 Adam Purcell   

 

Caterpillar Club

One night in September 2008 I was at a formal dinner put on by the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Sydney branch. Sitting at my table was a very interesting man. On his lapel was a tiny golden caterpillar, with bright ruby red eyes, not unlike this one:

That suggested he had a story to tell!

Peter Batten was his name, and indeed he did have a story. In March 1987 he became the last Australian to eject from a Mirage jet fighter, after his engine flamed out off the coast near Newcastle, NSW. He was rescued by a fishing boat with only minor injuries. I had recognised the golden badge on his lapel as the emblem of the Caterpillar Club, a loose association of airmen united by one common thread (ahem): taking to the silk to escape from a disabled aeroplane. Started by Irvin Aerospace in 1926, the Club recognises aircrew regardless of their nationality.

The first member of the Caterpillar Club that I met was Phil Smith, pilot of Lancaster LM475 B for Baker. He once showed me his caterpillar badge, which is how I recognised Peter’s some years later. In 2003 I wrote to Irvin to see what information they held on Phil’s escape but due to British privacy laws they could not release anything. Lucky, then, that I now have a copy of an unpublished manuscript that Phil originally wrote for his grandson, in which he relates exactly what he could remember:

We were just about to drop our bombs when everything went hot and dry and red. When the flame had gone out, I was still in my seat but could feel no aeroplane around me. I immediately released my seatbelts and then my parachute. It seemed to open immediately. There was sufficient light for me to see that one of the two straps supporting me had been half cut through. I floated to the ground holding with both hands the damaged strap above the cut. This helped soften my landing which was on what appeared to be a flat grassy field. […] I seemed to be all in one piece but my flying helmet and one flying boot had gone. (C03-004-024)

As we now know, Phil sheltered with a French family until the invasion forces passed his position in September 1944. There is a letter in Mollie Smith’s collection from the great Leslie Irvine himself, written to Phil in October congratulating him for his escape – it took a little longer for the badge to reach him, “owing to supply restrictions” (A01-042-001).

And when I visited Phil in the late 1990s, hanging on his wall was a frame enclosing the tiny golden caterpillar with the ruby red eyes.

Text © 2012 Adam Purcell

Image from http://www.merkki.com/images/ccpin.jpg

Learning to Fly

The chance to learn to fly an aeroplane was probably a factor in why many young men joined the Air Force in WWII. Those lucky enough to pass the tests and be selected for pilot training would soon have found themselves at a dusty Elementary Flying Training School, climbing aboard at a bright yellow Tiger Moth for what would be, in many cases, their first ever flight.

“This afternoon we had our first flying experience, a trip of about 1/2 hours duration. It was a very interesting business and it was just sufficient to demonstrate just how difficult a business it is to fly. The controls vary greatly in sensitivity and to the beginner in changing your attention from one thing to another it is very easy to loose [sic] control completely.” – Phil Smith, in a letter to his father written 14NOV40 (A01-125-001)

Despite spending a week in hospital with influenza (he had a temperature of 101 degrees – A01-126-001), it did not take Phil long to go solo for the first time. “When I recommenced flying on Monday [following hospitalisation] I found that I could do everything except land”, he wrote to his father on 28 November 1940, the day of his first solo (A01-132-001). “All my flying time since then has been in picking this up. I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.” He had about eight hours flying time in his logbook at this stage.

But as big an achievement as one’s first solo is when learning to fly, there is a big gap between a pilot who has flown solo and one who is fully qualified. Phil’s letter home two days after his first solo reveals that he was acutely aware of how new everything still was, and of how far he had yet to go (A01-127-001):

“From time to time I get very nasty turns, for example, this morning another plane and I only missed a side-on collision because he was about 20′ below me. This was mostly because I had not kept a good enough lookout. […] Yesterday also I had a scare when on the glide into the aerodrome I was turning and hit a bump which I swear l neally [sic] turned the plane vertical on its side. However, to get down safely is the big thing in flying so they say and the sooner I wake up to the responsibilities the better it will be for me. I find the landings are coming much easier to me now but they still are far from good. I find that steep turns are giving me a bit of trouble too.”

Trainee pilots had to contend with lectures on meteorology (“I think I shall have to learn the Beaufort scale of winds”, he wrote to sister Wenda in March 1941), photography and navigation. They even carried cameras to take photos of turning points to prove they got where they were supposed to go on their solo cross country flights (A01-147-001). The instructors were a mixed bunch. Phil was fined a tin of Craven A cigarettes by one of his, for letting the aeroplane slow down too much on final approach (A01-139-001 02FEB41). On another occasion an instructor rapped him over the knuckles with a ruler for a similar offence. Life was not made any easier, Phil wrote, by having multiple instructors all with slightly differing ideas on how things should be done. But sometimes they could be more relaxed as well. Phil’s letters reveal a number of instances where they got up to some fun. In December 1940 a train derailed near Tamworth and they stooged over to have a look (A01-130-001):

“After we had seen all we wanted my instructor and the other plane’s became playful and staged a mock dogfight. My instructor was very expert at this business and had the other plane at his mercy almost all the time. It was a very fast-moving business and consisted mostly of steep turns almost on our sides and short and quick dives and climbs […]”

And on another day, during a three-hour dual cross country flight (A01-140-001):

“The instructor I was with on that occasion was very playful and delighted in flying over the country schools trying to make the children walk around the school first one way and then the other to keep the plane in sight. We pupils, three of us, lean out and wave at the kids, all quite good fun.”

Aeroplanes being aeroplanes, the forces that keep them in the air are still the same today as they were when Phil Smith took his first few faltering steps into the sky. While the technology might have advanced considerably over the decades, the general techniques and principles of flight remain unchanged. And so I can relate some of my own flying lessons to those of Phil Smith. I had no less than nine instructors over the course of my first 35 or so flying hours so I can relate very much to Phil’s frustrations at being told different things by different pilots. One of those instructors wielded the fuel dipstick instead of a ruler when I got too slow in the circuit. I even did my own first solo on 28 November 2002 – 62 years to the day after Phil Smith did the same thing.

But not everything was the same. It took me about 17 hours of instruction before being let loose for my first solo in a Cessna – a result that would have very quickly resulted in a scrubbing from pilot training if I was learning to fly in a wartime EFTS. There was a radio in the Tiger Moth that I flew last year – there was no radio in Phil’s day. And, perhaps most importantly, I was learning to fly purely for the fun of it. While undoubtedly there were fun times for pilots like Phil Smith along the way, they were ultimately training for a deadly serious job.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Briefing Room

While the photograph that is now finding a wider audience as the cover shot of Bomber Command: Failed to Return is the only known image showing the entire crew of B for Baker, there is one more photo that shows at least four of them. It is from the small collection that was with my great uncle Jack’s logbook and it shows a large group of airmen in a briefing room. The three men furthest back in the photograph are, left to right, Ken Tabor, Eric Hill and Gil Pate. In the middle of the second row, next to the man wearing the round officer’s cap, is Phil Smith:

Briefing - Still 1

It has been thought that the man in the middle of the row immediately behind Phil Smith was Jack Purcell, on the basis of an arrow that my father says used to be attached to the photo. Certainly Edward Purcell, Jack’s brother and recorded next-of-kin, thought initially that this man was the one who looked most like Jack, writing to Don Smith in November 1944 that:

“The actual features are, as you will notice, very vague, but the general head conformation is identical with that of the boy.” (A01-110-001)

But a month later, after Don had provided another enlarged photo, Edward reconsidered:

“It was most kind of you to send the photos but, I am sorry to say, the enlarged view establishes that the boy marked is definitely not Jack.” (A01-111-001)

The photo has an interesting history. When we first met Phil Smith in 1997, we showed him the print. He turned it over – and immediately recognised his own handwriting on the reverse, naming the three members of his crew sitting at the back of the group. But there is an intriguing inconsistency in the photo. At close inspection, the date on the blackboard at top left reads 11 March. The target is given as Berlin. But in neither Jack’s nor Phil’s logbooks is there an operation recorded on that date – to anywhere, let alone to the ‘Big City’. In fact, neither logbook records any flying of any kind on that day. Perhaps, we thought, the briefing had been for an operation that was subsequently scrubbed.

As it turns out, the real answer is even better. Also appearing in the photo – the man in the centre wearing the officer’s hat – is Dan Conway, an A Flight skipper. After the war he wrote a superb book called The Trenches in the Sky, in which he explained the situation. A film unit was visiting Waddington to take shots for a short feature called The RAAF in Europe. The briefing was staged for the benefit of the cameras and, according to Conway, included “references to tracking at low level over the Ruhr etc. Maybe because we were laughing [the CO] was made to go through the procedure again and then again…” (C07-014-160). The photo is in fact a still taken from that film. Our copy has a purple stamp on the back saying “RAF Photographic Section”.

So how did this official photo end up in Jack’s collection? Phil Smith had much extended family in England and his letters reveal that he visited them often while on leave. One uncle was Jack Smeed, who worked for a film studio in London… and it was this studio that produced the film from which the photograph was pulled. It appears that Jack Smeed arranged for copies to go to Phil, who captioned them and then forwarded them to his parents. After the crew went missing, Edward Purcell’s letters from late 1944 show that Don Smith spread them around to the families of some of the rest of the crew.

A few years before he died, Phil Smith was visiting the Australian War Memorial with his wife Mollie. In a corner of the Second World War gallery at the time was a small Bomber Command display, which included a short film. It was a grab from The RAAF in Europe, and Phil recognised himself as one of the reluctant film stars in it. I remember seeing the same display myself some years later (edit September 2013: it’s still there!), and the footage still crops up occasionally in documentaries and the like.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Letters

I’m currently reading through and transcribing Phil Smith’s wartime letters. Phil joined the Air Force in September 1940 and was discharged in December 1945 – and, except for a notable period between May and September 1944 when he was ‘otherwise occupied’ in France, he tried to write home once a week. Lucky for me, his father kept more or less every one of his letters. So going through the lot – a couple of hundred in all – has not been a trivial (or short) job.

Phil’s letters reflect his methodical, calm personality. For example, he wrote about his first solo in a letter to Don Smith, his father, 28NOV40. For most aspiring pilots, the moment of flying an aeroplane alone for the first time is one of the most memorable of all. But to Phil, it was just another day:

I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time. I had flown about 8 hours dual before going solo which is slightly longer than the average but, considering that a week without flying came in the 8 hours I think it is satisfactory. (A01-132-001).

Or in July 1941, after dropping his first practice bombs:

I actually dropped bombs for the first time this week. It was low level attacking which is a matter of judgement only. I am sorry to say that I did very badly but feel that with practice I could improve. (A01-145-001)

Perhaps my favourite example of Phil’s understated way of writing letters comes from April 1943 at RAF Honeybourne, where he was an instructor for a year or so between his two operational tours. On a training flight a practice bomb ‘hung up’ in one of the Operational Training Unit’s Whitleys. After landing Phil clambered down from the aircraft to find out what had happened and instructed his pupil to open the bomb bay doors, and the offending bomb crashed out onto the tarmac in front of his nose. It failed to explode. Phil described this rather alarming incident as merely “another minor adventure” (A01-270-001).

The meaty stuff that I’m really interested in, of course, is Phil’s thoughts on operational flying. Once he got onto an operational squadron he wrote in a letter about his first raid. The language used here is indicative of his new status as operational aircrew – note the RAF slang:

“I was cracking at the real job three days after I arrived and took part in a raid on theRuhrdistrict. It was quite an adventure. We dropped our bombs OK but had engine trouble on the way back and had quite a shaky do getting back on terra firma” (A01-177-001).

The ‘shaky do’ he referred to was an emergency landing on one engine at Martlesham Heath, a coastal aerodrome that they needed assistance from the ground to find. This is one of the only times that Phil actually mentions in one of his letters an incident that occurred on operations, and it’s also the only time the RAF slang comes out. Later letters are much more restrained.

While security concerns were undoubtedly a consideration, I suspect that this lack of detail of what Phil was doing in his letters home was more a product of the type of person he was. Before the war – and after he returned – Phil was a chemist with the Commonwealth Sugar Refining Company (CSR), and his father Don was an engineer. He therefore always had a very practical and straightforward personality. Though he was living in quite extraordinary times in theUKand despite having a rather unique job flying a heavy bomber, for Phil it was just that – a job. While he was there, he just got on with it. And so in a letter in December 1941 (A01-194-001) Phil says ‘we were busy on Sunday evening” (referring to an operation to Wilhelmshafen, 28DEC41) and writes simply that Christmas was menaced “by a constant threat of work which fortunately did not come off.” Just another day at the office.

So while there is the odd little tidbit in Phil’s letters that I can pull out to derive some idea of his operational flying, overall they are remarkable mainly for their ordinariness. He would typically spend some time and ink apologising for his letter being late this week, then list the mail and parcels he had received from home since his last letter, ask about the family in Australia, report on the family he had visited in England, talk about the weather and conclude with words to the effect of “no more news at the moment”. And that was that. It’s almost frustrating at times to read what amounts to the same thing in every letter, over and over again. Nevertheless, I still read and transcribe them all. You never know where your next clue might come from.

Phil is one of two members of the crew for whom I have significant collections of letters. Reading so much that was written by the men I am studying opens a unique door into the thoughts, minds and personalities of the men concerned. I remain grateful to Mollie Smith and Gil Thew for so kindly letting me open those doors.

© 2012 Adam Purcell