Archive for the 'The Search' Category



Niet weggooien!

There’s an interesting campaign underway in the Netherlands at the moment, spearheaded by a loose conglomeration of WWII museums. Called ‘Actie Niet Weggooien’ (translated to ‘Don’t Throw It Away’), the aim is to bring to light the ‘stuff’ from the war years that people might have hidden away in a box somewhere. What better place to save these historical artefacts and documents for the future, say the organisers, than in a museum?

It’s an admirable sentiment, and the campaign has brought many amazing bits and pieces out of the woodwork – the website (link above) has photos of an SS flag from a public building in Groningen, for example, and a pair of ordinary-looking scissors with a story: they were recovered during the war from the wreck of a 150 Squadron Wellington that crashed in Friesland. Both artefacts would have sat, forgotten, in a box somewhere, perhaps until their owners died and the stories associated with them had been forgotten and a little piece of history lost. But thanks to the campaign by the Dutch museums, the stories of the flag and the scissors can be shared and the history lives on.

You never really know what might still be out there undiscovered. Just recently Kerry Stokes purchased and donated to the Australian War Memorial the ‘Lost Diggers’ collection of some 3000 glass photographic plates taken in the French village of Vignacourt on the Somme. The collection had been lying in an attic of an old farmhouse once owned by the French couple who had made them – whose descendants had no idea of the historical significance of the collection. On a level a little closer to home, Leo McAuliffe’s letter recently sent to me by William Rusbridge had been hiding in a box of his late mother’s papers and was only discovered recently. Gil Thew knew of a box of letters and documents relating to his uncle Gil Pate, B for Baker’s rear gunner, but said no-one had touched it for thirty years – until I contacted him out of the blue a few years ago.

What has been lost forever, forgotten or even thrown out by people who didn’t realise what they have? And on a brighter note, what else might still be in a dusty box in an attic somewhere, waiting to be found? Each new find adds a layer to the story of these men and each layer adds to our understanding of who they were and what they did – so helping to ensure that their stories will live on.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

 

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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

Leo’s Letter

It started, as many of these things do, with a simple Google search. In mid May, I saw in my site stats that someone had run a search for “222 squadron leo mcauliffe’. A day or so later a comment appeared in my inbox. It was from a man named William Rusbridge. Cleaning out his late mother’s papers, he had found a letter written by a young Australian airman whose squadron had been based for a time at the Selsey Advanced Landing Ground in southern England.

William’s parents owned a farm that had been requisitioned by the RAF for the landing ground in the lead-up to D-Day. They managed to convince the Air Force to allow them to stay living in their house, as William says more or less in the middle of the air base. They subsequently got to know many of the airmen posted to the base and, as the letter shows, remained in touch with at least one young Australian – Leo McAuliffe. Deciding to find out more about who might have written the letter so long ago, William tried an internet search… and so found this blog.

William very kindly typed out and sent me a transcript of the letter. It is, in every way, a typical letter as written by aircrew during the war. There’s a bit of news about Leo’s rest period when he was “flying an Anson backwards and forward from the continent to England”, some talk about other airmen the recipients would have known (“You remember the C.O. S/L Rigby the chap who was going around with that girl you know from Chichester well both he and Ernie Broad got a bar to their DFC’s before going on rest which they both deserved”), and a story of how he celebrated Christmas. “What a time it turned out to be”, he wrote, “drunk for two days without remembering a thing”. Leo wrote this letter on 2 February 1945, just six weeks before he was killed.

Just reading the transcript was amazing enough. But then, having no further use for it himself, and in an extraordinarily generous move, William mailed me the original letter.

It’s written on four pages of blue paper with an Air Force letterhead, in fountain pen ink and with a flowing old-fashioned script. Leo McAuliffe wrote this letter with his own fountain pen and in his own hand. And though the words he used themselves add something to what I know about him, the letter also represents something more. It is a real, tangible connection to the man whose grave we first stumbled upon in the east of The Netherlands in 1995. Suddenly the story has a human element to it. The man is more than a face in a photograph, and more than a name on a white stone.

I’m extremely grateful to William Rusbridge for his generosity – and ever hopeful that more people who look through dusty boxes of papers are curious enough to try to find out more about the people they belonged to.

 © 2012 Adam Purcell

Sergeant Taylor

On 10 May 1944, the crew of B for Baker failed to return from an operation to Lille in France. As the next day dawned at Waddington and the survivors of the raid began to come to terms with what had been the worst night of the war for the station, a new crew was posted in to 463 Squadron. Led by 16203 P/O J.F. Martin, it was made up mainly by Australians. The Flight Engineer, one 1324017 Sgt P.D. Taylor, was the sole Englishman. This crew, flying Lancaster LM571 JO-E, would make eleven un-eventful trips, mainly to targets supporting the invasion in France, but would be lost on their twelfth, to Prouville on 24/25 June 1944. The bomb aimer would be the only survivor, and his six crewmates today lie in Bussuss-Bussuel Communal Cemetery in France. They were one of three 463 Sqn crews to be lost that night, while 467 Sqn lost two. Only the 10 May Lille raid was more costly.

I received an email last night from Phil Bonner, who was the Squadron Leader who showed me around RAF Waddington when I visited in 2009. Now retired from the RAF, he runs Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire and remains a key contact for me in the area. Phil passed on a query from the sister-in-law of Sgt Taylor, a Mrs Joni Taylor, who is searching for relatives of the Australians in this crew. He wondered if I might be able to help.

The full crew list is as follows:

Pilot: 16203 P/O J.F. Martin

Flight Engineer: 1324017 Sgt P.D. Taylor

Navigator: 415430 W/O B.E. Kelly

Bomb Aimer: F/S T.A. Malcolm

Wireless Operator: 417327 F/S G.W. Bateman

Mid-Upper Gunner: 424761 F/S L.G.L. Hunter

Rear Gunner: 408433 F/S B.R. Barber

The National Archives of Australia has digitised records for W/O Kelly and F/S Barber. Before enlistment Kelly was a ‘Junior Clerk’ with the Chief Secretary’s Department of the Government of Western Australia. His next-of-kin was listed as an aunt, Mary O’Grady of 70 Lindsay St, Perth, WA. Also to be informed of any news was Miss Valerie O’Sullivan, 45 London St, Mt.   Hawthorn, WA. Barber was a bank clerk from Ulverstone in Tasmania. His next of kin was recorded as his father, Fletcher Bramwell Barber, 12 Richards Ave, Launceston, TAS.

I’ve pointed Phil towards the secretaries of the Queensland and the NSW Branches of the 463-467 Squadron Association, and in the meantime thought I’d try to publicise Mrs Taylor’s search online. If anyone has any leads that may be of assistance, please leave a comment below or drop me an email – details through this link.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Leader

Every Monday in my postbox I receive a copy of the local newspaper. The Moonee Valley Leader usually shrinks to less than half its thickness once the advertising flyers are removed, but every now and then it reports on interesting stories with local connections. Just after ANZAC Day this year it ran this story  about a 100 Squadron airman, P/O Jack Wilson, killed in action over Holland in January 1945. He and his wife were living in Essendon when he enlisted, and the story was about how his daughter – two years old at the time of her father’s death – made contact with a British researcher after by chance finding an earlier article in the Leader seeking information about P/O Wilson.

The British man is Paul Kurn, whose father was a ground mechanic with 100 Squadron, responsible for Lancaster JB603, the aircraft on which P/O Wilson had died. Mr Kurn’s search for the story of his father’s war began in 1998 and was originally centred around the operations carried out by this aircraft, before shifting into looking for the airmen who had flown it. He contacted the newspaper using P/O Wilson’s wartime address. It took a year, but eventually the right person saw the article and made contact.

Writing to local newspapers is a tactic that can, as this story demonstrates, be very effective. People of that era tended not to move around nearly as much as we might do today and so if they are still alive there is a good chance of their being in the same area six or seven decades later, if not in the same house. Articles also being published online these days greatly strengthens the chances of finding the right person by bringing them within the reach of a simple Google search. All it takes is one curious relative to look for something as straightforward as a name. Patience – and a good deal of luck – can certainly pay off in this research caper.

Paul Kurn set out on his journey with similar intentions to my own. Finding descendants of the crew, he said, gives him “…a chance to maybe tell them of what happened to their relative and […] to shed light on something that they may have wondered about for 60 years without any idea what happened in those final moments and where it happened… The story has grown beyond anything I could have imagined”.

Telling the crews’ stories, and remembering. That’s why we do it.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Leo

There are fifteen Commonwealth War Graves in the cemetery belonging to the small village of Hellendoorn, in the east of The Netherlands. My family and I lived in Nijverdal – the next town along – throughout the year 1995 and when we discovered that there was one Australian among the graves we decided to see what we could discover about him.

Flight Lieutenant Leo McAuliffe was a fighter pilot attached to No. 222 Squadron, RAF. He was killed on 17 March 1945, a matter of weeks before that part of the Netherlands was liberated. He was 24 years old and came from Bexley, NSW. While still overseas, we wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see what they could tell us about Leo. He had been killed in a ‘flying battle’, they said, and another letter to the Air Force after we returned to Australia in 1996 revealed he crashed while leading a section of two aircraft on a patrol and weather reconnaissance mission over enemy occupied territory.

Late last year I decided to obtain copies of Leo’s service record and A705 files from the National Archives of Australia. This was not intended to be as in-depth a study as I am doing on my great uncle Jack and his Lancaster crew. It was just a side-line interest, more for general interest of our family than anything overly complicated. I had vague plans of reading through the files and writing a short ‘interpretation’ of them so I could then bind the whole lot up and give it to Dad for Christmas. Unfortunately the National Archives are experiencing ‘high demand’ for copies at the moment, and the month turnaround that I was expecting turned into two – too late for Christmas. Dad got a packet of liquorice instead.

But I now have the files, and have spent the last couple of weeks reading through them and beginning to write my little story. And guess what? It’s turned out into something far bigger than I was intending it to. I’m not under the deadline of ‘Christmas’, so I have time to delve into the story a little deeper, following leads that I would have otherwise left alone. So questions raised in the NAA files have led to posts on the RAFCommands forum, which in turn led to the discovery that Leo served in Northern France following the invasion… meaning that my friend Joss le Clercq is also interested in Leo’s story and has been in touch.

The account of Leo’s final flight, from his wingman, suggests to me that he simply became disoriented and lost control in thick cloud – more accident than ‘flying battle’. And the story of how a young Dutch woman witnessed the crash and recovered a dog tag but was later killed in an air attack on Nijverdal caused me to contact a friend who volunteers at the small World War II museum that is now in that town. This, in turn, resulted in numerous emails from her contacts at the museum, and much information about the crash and the attack on Nijverdal.

All quite amazing. I’ve spent the last few hours translating those emails from Dutch and using Google Earth to try and pinpoint a crash location. But a line needs to be drawn somewhere. There is a lot of information out there – the tough part is deciding when you have enough, when you can stop researching and start writing. Leo’s story is well on its way to becoming known now. A couple more questions to my new Dutch contacts, and the writing can begin.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Girlfriends: the plot thickens

Late last year I had, on behalf of my grandfather, embarked on a search to see if I could find out anything more about Joy Gisby, the woman who was probably Jack Purcell’s girlfriend while he was in England.

Somewhat at a loss for how best to carry out that search, I roped Kerry Tarleton in to assist. Kerry is a distant relation of mine (second cousin twice removed, I believe) who has been working on the family tree. While the name Joy Gisby was unfamiliar to her, she had some immediate results via a contact in the UK. It appears that a woman named Joyce E Gisby was born in West Ham in 1923, and while she has since died her husband is still alive. We do not know if this is even the person we are after, but it’s the closest we have to a lead at the moment and Kerry tells me moves are afoot to see if we can identify her based on the photograph from Jack’s collection. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, I’ve made an interesting find about Nurse MC Sands, of Summer Hill Hospital. As usual, it was a chance discovery. I was transcribing the last few letters from Phil Smith’s collection when I came across one written by Mollie Jansen, Jack’s sister, to Edith Smith (Phil’s mother). In it she writes (my bolding):

“Have you had any word from W/C Brill I have not up to date, am hoping for some, his girl friend had a very nice letter, from him last week, which she sent on to me I thought it strange that I haven’t had a letter too.” (A01-358-002)

Hmmm.

Though the letter is undated, it contains a few clues that I can use to pin it down to late June or early July 1944. Mollie wrote that she had only just found out Mrs Smith’s address. As we know, it was Don Smith (Phil’s father) who first sought out the addresses of the Australian next of kin and who initiated correspondence with them. I have what I suspect is Edward Purcell’s reply to the first letter he received from Don (A01-344-001); it is dated 01JUL44. It is therefore reasonable to guess that Mollie received the Smiths’ address around this time and so her reply, if indeed she had ‘just found out’ the address, was most likely written sometime around then as well. So if this letter was written around the beginning of July 1944, it follows that the letter from Bill Brill to Jack’s girlfriend that Mollie writes about was received by the girlfriend a week or so beforehand.

So why is it so important to know when this letter was written? Jack’s Casualty or Repatriation File at the National Archives of Australia (A04-071, NAA: A705, 166/33/163) includes copies of two almost identical letters from Bill Brill. One is for Edward Purcell, but we already know about him. The other is addressed to one Nurse MC Sands. There is a covering letter from the RAAF that went along with the Brill note. It states that the arrival of this letter from England was the first time that the Air Force had heard of Miss Sands, and offers to forward copies of any further communications concerning Jack to her. Critically, it is dated 17JUN44 – or just before when I suspect Mollie Jansen wrote her letter to Don Smith. Any other letters from Brill would also have been in Jack’s A705 file. As the only two there are addressed to Edward Purcell and Nurse Sands, there is I believe a good chance that Nurse Sands is the ‘girlfriend’ that Mollie was referring to.

So now we probably have two girlfriends – one in England and one in Australia. Kerry is chasing up a Mona Collinette Sands who served in the RAAF briefly in 1942. It appears she then abruptly left the Air Force and what happened subsequently is as yet unclear. Could she have ended up as a nurse at Summer Hill Hospital? We’ll keep searching.

Thanks to Kerry Tarleton for assistance with this research.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


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