Richard Moffat and the Lost Identity Disc

Servicemen of all hues have long carried identification tags into battle. Frequently, when soldiers are killed the tags of fibreboard or tin are all that is left to identify the bodies of their owners. But just as frequently, even the tags themselves are missing or destroyed, making the task of identifying the casualty that much harder.

Perhaps in anticipation of this – but probably more likely as a good luck charm – it has not been unknown for servicemen to wear their own, private ‘identity’ tags. And not uncommonly, it has indeed been these unofficial trinkets which proved crucial in identifying a dead soldier.

Such was the case when WWI infantryman Private Richard John Moffat, service number 2698, from Carlton in Melbourne, was killed in France in August 1918. On exhumation of the battlefield grave some years later, Moffat’s official identity tags were missing – but on the body was a small piece of curved brass, crudely cut into the shape of Australia and engraved with his name. He was identified on the basis of this piece of personal property.

His file at the National Archives of Australia[1] notes personal effects connected with Moffat. All it says is “DISC”. Usually personal effects like these would be returned to the family. But, as related by reporter Bridie Smith in an article published in October last year in The Age newspaper, instead of being forwarded on to Moffat’s grieving mother, for unknown reasons the disc was included in his official service record. It was still in the folder when, in 1993, the Army transferred its records to the National Archives. And it was still there when Moffat’s niece, Deirdre Meredith, opened the folder in the reading room at the National Archives in 2001. “It was a heart-stopping moment because it was such a personal thing,” Mrs Meredith is quoted as saying.

But when the file was returned to the Archive’s storage, the identity disc had to go back too. And so started a two-and-a-half year battle to get it back to the family.

The National Archives held the view that the little piece of brass was part of a Commonwealth record, and thus needed to remain under its jurisdiction. But for the Merediths, it was clearly a family heirloom – it had been part of Private Moffat’s personal possessions. Letters were written to the National Archives, Commonwealth Ombudsman, Government Ministers and Members of Parliament. And she wrote to the Australian Army. Expert advice from historians and legal advisors eventually persuaded the Army that the brass plate was, in fact, the property of Private Moffat’s next-of-kin. And so, in September last year, an Army officer flew to Melbourne from Canberra, and returned the little brass identity plate to its rightful owners.

“It was like him coming home”, Mrs Meredith said.

This story caught my eye because I can remember similar feelings to those experienced by Mrs Meredith when the plate fell out of the file from one of my first visits to the National Archives a few years ago. The file I was looking at was Jack Purcell’s A705 Casualty File.[2] About halfway into the stack of papers, I found a letter from January 1945 signed ‘EF Purcell’.

That would be Edward Francis Purcell. One of Jack’s brothers.

And my great grandfather.

It’s a very official letter, dealing with important issues like wills and deferred pay. But the signature pulled me up for a moment. It suddenly reminded me that it was written by someone with whom I share a name, and to some extent a family identity.

There are other letters from Edward Purcell. All are typed, as is the letter in the NAA file. All are signed with the same almost copperplate hand. And all are written in beautiful, almost painfully polite language. As far as I know just four other letters exist – all in Mollie Smith’s collection – and so because they are so rare I must confess to feeling a little disappointed that I had to give the NAA one back when I returned the file after looking at it.

Of course, this is a different scenario to the brass identity plate in Richard Moffat’s service record. Edward’s letter was an official one, written to the Air Force, and so it legitimately forms part of a Commonwealth record. Thus it quite properly stays in the National Archives, ready for anyone else who is interested to read it.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

[1] NAA: B2455, MOFFAT RICHARD JOHN. The digital copy of this record still contains a scan of the disc.

[2] NAA: A705, 166/33/163 PURCHELL, Royston William – (Warrant Officer); Service Number – 412686; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LM475; Place – Lille, France; Date – 10 May 1944 [Note mis-spelling of PURCELL]

A Diamond in Emerald

In the central Queensland town of Emerald recently, a lady named Margaret Rawsthorne, a researcher at the Emerald RSL, heard a story about a box of papers belonging to a local man whose grandfather had served at Gallipoli in WWI. Mark Murray, a surveyor, had no idea of what was in the box – and the discovery was so interesting that it led to a small story on ABC’s 7.30 programme in January this year.

Murray’s grandfather, James Nicholas Murray, was a soldier in the infantry when he was sent to Gallipoli in 1915. But when his commanding officer discovered that he was also a licenced surveyor, he was asked to apply his trade to mapping the network of trenches and tunnels at a particularly significant strategic point of the peninsula, a place called Russell’s Top.

The diary entries of the adventures he had while carrying out this work are interesting enough. But along with the diary were notes and maps which have provided the most detailed information yet about exactly what was at Russell’s Top. “The Russell’s Top handover report […] basically says that Russell’s Top is one of the most important lines of defence. It said […] it doesn’t have any second line, and if that line is lost, then ANZAC is lost,” said Rawsthorne.

How often do we hear of this sort of story? A long-forgotten box of papers gathers dust in someone’s shed or attic. Simple curiosity or a chance remark somewhere leads to someone opening the box and discovering a veritable gold mine. Probably the most famous discovery of recent years was the glass plate photographs of Australian and British soldiers discovered in a French attic in 2011. I’d suggest that this discovery in Emerald is of a similar significance. And while not necessarily of national importance, smaller finds can be just as useful for family or researchers interested in a particular time period, unit or even individual. The boxes lie undisturbed until the elderly relatives die and their house is cleared by the family (which is where the McAuliffe Letter came from), or until a chance remark reminds someone of their existence (or a letter arrives from someone like me – as happened to Gil Thew).

Happily, as in each of the cases above, much of the time when boxes like these come to light the discoverer contacts the Australian War Memorial or their local RSL (or even gets straight onto Mr Google if they are interested themselves to find out something about what they’ve found). But sometimes people do not realise what they have found and the documents are thrown out or destroyed. This is likely why we have so little documentation relating to my great uncle Jack Purcell.

This year being the Centenary of ANZAC, I suspect a few more dusty boxes will be coming out of the woodwork before too long. I can only hope that whoever discovers a box of papers like these realises the significance of their find.

 

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Medals lost and medals found

Digging in his garden in the Victorian Goldfields town of Creswick late last year, a man named Neville Holmes unearthed something unexpected. Under the flower bed was a sort of trench. And in the trench was what was left of an old medicine cabinet. “I could see bits of bottles and broken glass so I kept digging deeper and deeper to see what was under there,” he told journalist Melissa Cunningham of the Ballarat Courier newspaper in January. “There were tubes and tubes of toothpaste, combs, toothbrushes, a pair of dentures and medicine bottles.”

My sister has a degree in archaeology, and to celebrate her graduation a few years ago my father created an ‘archaeological dig’ in the back yard, smashing old plates and mixing in a rusty spoon or two for her to excavate with her brand new trowel (because, as everyone knows, every archaeologist needs a trowel). So finding a real-life pile of old stuff buried under your wife’s irises would, I’d imagine, be pretty exciting. But Mr Holmes found something else hiding away in the old medicine cabinet. Something with even more of a story.

They looked like coins at first. But when he pulled them out, Mr Holmes realised he had found a pair of war service medals. He took them to the secretary of the local RSL club, a man named Phil Carter. Mr Carter was able to identify who the medals belonged to because the soldier’s name is engraved around the rim: a WWI soldier named Private George Bailey. Cunningham writes that Bailey enlisted in Ballarat in April 1916, served with the 39th Battalion and was killed in a gas attack in Messines, Belgium, in June 1917. His brother – Frederick – lived for many years in the house now occupied by Mr Holmes and his wife.

At the time the article was written the search was on for Private Bailey’s family, led by the Creswick RSL. “We knew nothing about George but now we know so much”, said Phil Carter. “It’s like he’s a member of our RSL.”

I can certainly relate to this feeling. After seriously studying the story of my great uncle Jack and the rest of his crew over the last six or seven years, I genuinely do feel as if I know the lads, even though six of them were killed forty years before I was born. The feeling is all the stronger for those members of the crew for whom I have letters or diaries written in their own words, in their own hand. But to find those, of course, I first needed to find their families, and, well, that took a while.

Amazingly, though, less than a week after Melissa Cunningham’s first article was published in the Ballarat Courier and The Age, the search for Private George Bailey’s family came to a successful conclusion when Frederick Bailey’s grandson came forward. If only it were that easy when I was searching for families of the crew of B for Baker three or four years ago!

We initially thought that Jack Purcell’s service medals had been lost in the years since the war and so almost 20 years ago my father enquired about the possibility of acquiring replicas. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that in actual fact they had never officially been issued. Dad duly jumped through the multiple bureaucratic hoops that were required to prove that we were entitled to claim them and one day in 1996 a small box arrived by registered post. Inside were five medals – three circles and two stars – and their associated ribbons.

And, yes. Stamped around the edges are Jack’s name and service number.

1501-JackMedals 042Words and photo (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Hangars, Ansons and Aeradio: A visit to Nhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Childhood Memories

Given I’ve recently bought a house, my parents decided that, now I have space of my own, the time had come to go back and pick up the boxes of my old stuff which they had been keeping in their shed. So instead of flying to Canberra for the Bomber Command Commemorations in June I drove my car the seven hours up the Hume Highway. After the lunch concluded on the Sunday afternoon, I continued north to Goulburn where Mum and Dad now live.

It turned out that most of the boxes in the shed contained stuff belonging to my two sisters rather than me, but I still came away with a couple of those big plastic tubs full of old trophies, documents and childhood memories. Included amongst it were two very interesting artefacts.

I well remember the morning when, as a very young lad, I came out of my bedroom to get ready for school to find a long, tattered cardboard box at my place on the kitchen table. I lifted the lid in the early morning gloom to find some curling, yellowing black and white photos of a young man in uniform, an impressive certificate bearing a large, colourful royal seal and a little blue notebook, carefully inserted into a hand-made blue felt cover. The collection, my father told me later that day, all related to a man who had been my grandfather’s uncle. ‘Uncle Jack’, as Dad called him, had been killed during the Second World War.

The long and the short of it is that this was a critical moment in my growing up. For my next birthday, I was given an Airfix model of a Lancaster. I built it and for the next seven or eight years it was suspended by fishing line from the ceiling in my bedroom, in eternal combat with a model I later built of a Messerschmitt. While the German aircraft seems to have disappeared at some point in the intervening years, in one of the boxes I collected from Goulburn in early June, there was the Lancaster:

14Jun-Melbourne 116 copy

14Jun-Melbourne 106 copy

It’s far from perfect – after all it was built by a not-quite-ten-year-old boy. The decals were never square and the paint line is nowhere near straight but, apart from a couple of missing propeller blades, it’s survived its years packed away reasonably well.

While Jack’s logbook is obviously the most important single source of my Bomber Command interest, the Lancaster model is also significant. When I was a little boy I wanted to be a train driver. But then I saw the logbook. Imagine if my reaction had been one of resounding indifference. But, happily, I clearly showed some sort of curiosity, so my parents decided to give me the model. And that only stoked the fires.

Also in one of the big plastic tubs I retrieved from Goulburn, hidden in a big folder of mass-produced pre-school paintings of green trains (and one blue signalbox, done after my teacher confiscated the green paint and told me I wasn’t allowed to paint a train) was a drawing of the top view of an aeroplane.

14Jun-Melbourne 140 copy

It’s shaky and childlike but it’s unmistakeably a Lancaster. And written underneath (in my mother’s schoolteacher handwriting) is the date: November 1993. Probably not entirely coincidentally, the drawing is very close to the same size as a 1:72 scale model of a Lancaster, suggesting it was completed after I finished the model. That would imply that I probably got the model for my ninth birthday which was in August that year. Dad must have left the logbook at my place at the kitchen table some time before that. So it turns out that I’ve been interested, in one way or another, in Lancasters and the men who flew them for more than two decades.

Dad gave me one more very special box to take home when I drove back to Melbourne. It’s a very small black leather briefcase that he found at an antique shop somewhere.

Inside?

Uncle Jack’s service medals, logbook and those yellowing photos.

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

The crash of Wellington LP437, 30 July 1944 – appeal for information

It was on a training flight from nearby 27 Operational Training Unit, RAF Lichfield, when Wellington LP437 apparently stalled, crashed and caught fire in a field near Stafford, England, on 30 July 1944. The crew – six Australians – were all killed in the crash.

It’s now approaching 70 years since the accident, and this has prompted a local historian and archaeologist, Bruce Braithwaite, to begin work to trace the families of the six airmen, with an aim to appropriately commemorating the anniversary when it comes around in July.

The details of the crew are as follows:

Pilot: 424927  Flight Sergeant Frederick Luckman Stephens, from Sydney
Navigator: 430243 Flight Sergeant Ray Kethel Bolger, from Williamstown in Melbourne
Bomb Aimer: 432627 Flight Sergeant John Hilary Normyle, from Sydney
Wireless Operator: 436249 Flight Sergeant Jack James Manners, from Sydney
Rear Gunner: 435557 Sergeant Earl Hume Beatson, from Queensland
Mid Upper Gunner: Sergeant 44993 Hugh Alexander Smyth, from Brisbane

The burials of the crew of LP437. Photo via Bruce Braithwaite
The burials of the crew of LP437. Photo via Bruce Braithwaite

If anyone has any information on any of these aircrew or their families, please get in touch through the handy form on this page.

The click that crossed seven decades

While the Imperial War Museum undergoes significant redevelopment in preparation for the centenary of the First World War, some of its bigger and most well-known exhibits have been removed from its main site on Lambeth Road in London and temporarily installed at Duxford. Among them is the forward section of a rather significant Lancaster.

Avro Lancaster Mk I DV372 of 467 Squadron flew its first operation on 18 November 1943. The target was Berlin. Over the next seven months the aircraft would fly on 50 raids, [1] including the entire Battle of Berlin period, the infamous Nuremberg Raid and the Transportation Plan operations on French railway targets in the lead-up to D-Day. Old Fred, as it was known on account of its squadron code letters PO-F, was on the strength of 467 Squadron at the same time as the crew of B for Baker, and indeed Phil Smith and most of his crew took it on its 16th trip, to Berlin on 28 January 1944. But the man with whom Old Fred is probably most associated is Flight Lieutenant Arnold Easton, a 467 Squadron navigator who flew 20 trips in the aircraft from March until May 1944. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Arnold’s logbook a few years ago. Befitting his civilian career as a civil engineer, it is one of the most detailed and comprehensive wartime logbooks I’ve seen and forms the basis of a book, We Flew Old Fred – The Fox, compiled by Arnold after the war.

After its front-line service it appears that the aircraft was damaged in an accident, requiring repairs that took several months to complete. It was sent to 1651 Conversion Unit where it saw out the war before being broken up in October 1945. Happily someone thought to save the nose section which eventually is how it became part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum. It was one of three Lancasters I ‘visited’ while in the UK in 2009.

30JUN10001 copy

Among the people I met at the recent Bomber Command Panel Discussion event held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne was Arnold’s son Geoff. As well as discussing the intriguing possibility of reissuing his father’s book (now out of print and extremely difficult to get hold of), Geoff told me a lovely story of what happened when he was in the UK in June 2013.

Like many surviving Bomber Command aircrew, Arnold kept some bits and pieces relating to his wartime service when he returned to Australia. Geoff used to play with his flying helmet, putting it on and pretending to connect the intercom cable, with its distinctive bell-shaped Bakelite plug, into an imaginary ‘aeroplane’. Somehow it never stayed plugged in.

Since his father’s death some years ago, Geoff and his wife decided to donate his leather flying helmet and metal circular navigational computer to the Imperial War Museum, unique relics with a direct connection to Old Fred. They arranged to take the artefacts to Duxford where the IWM’s Andy Marriott is taking the opportunity, while it is out of London, to clean and conserve the remains of the aeroplane. Indeed, Andy asked Geoff at one stage whether his father had chewed gum. While ferreting around in various locations under the navigator’s position he had found some lolly wrappers, a chewed-up wad of gum and a NAAFI form with aerodrome weather written on it:

NAAFI sheet found in Old Fred
NAAFI sheet found in Old Fred – photo courtesy Geoff Easton

Andy allowed Geoff and his wife to crawl into the aeroplane through the bomb aimer’s escape hatch in the nose. They then used the yellow handrails on the side of the fuselage to move up underneath the flight engineer’s position into the cockpit proper. There, just behind the pilot’s seat, was the navigator’s bench and, tucked in underneath it, attached to a swinging arm, the unpadded metal bucket chair in which Geoff’s father sat for twenty operations over enemy territory. Pulling the chair out, Geoff sat down and placed the helmet on the desk. He looked around, soaking up the atmosphere. Among the instruments and equipment remaining in the cramped compartment, hanging from the bulkhead to his left was a rather familiar-looking bell-shaped Bakelite plug. Could it be?

It was.

Geoff picked up the end of the intercom cable on the helmet. He pushed the two bell-shaped plugs together.

There was a snug click.

For the first time in nearly 70 years, the flying helmet was reunited with Old Fred.

Geoff stood up, stooping somewhat under the low roof of the fuselage. He exited the aeroplane the same way he came in, leaving his father’s flying helmet on the desk.

Arnold's flying helmet reunited with Old Fred. Photo courtesy Geoff Easton
Arnold’s flying helmet reunited with Old Fred. Photo courtesy Geoff Easton

Thanks to Geoff Easton for the photos and for allowing me to read the entry from his diary that inspired this post. © 2013 Adam Purcell


[1] While most sources list 49 trips, Geoff Easton believes he has found a 50th, to Berlin on 28JAN44. The 467 Squadron ORBs certainly appear to support this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh dear.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further information about the Conley crew can be found here:  http://www.97squadron.co.uk/Coningsby%20crew%20Carter.html

Sources:

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

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

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

© 2013 Adam Purcell