Archive for the 'Training' Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyril, Harry and Gerald McPherson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerald McPherson circa 1943

Gerald McPherson circa 1943

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

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

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

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

“Not really”, Gerald said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Temora

About 330km west of Sydney, in country New South Wales, lies a small town called Temora. It’s perhaps most famous these days for the superb aviation museum which has taken up considerable real estate at the local airport since its formation in 1999. Home to a significant collection of airworthy warbirds, most owned by Museum President and Founder David Lowy, the Museum is by far the best in Australia in terms of its airworthy fleet, and is perhaps the closest that we come to something like the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in the UK. It puts on flying days every six weeks or so to display the aeroplanes in the element in which they belong – the air.

It was to one of these flying weekends that I went in September 2009, in the back seat of a Piper Cherokee flown by a friend of mine.

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It was a great flight over in beautiful conditions, and I distinctly remember the chaos as we arrived in the circuit at Temora before the flying display started, just one of many light aeroplanes doing the same thing. There was so much traffic that we had to go around twice before we managed to land and at one stage we were on final for the runway and there were no fewer than four other aircraft in front of us. But once on the ground, the flying display was exciting and punctual and the organisation was superb.

But as I was wandering around the airfield I noticed a familiar sight. The hangar that now hosts the Temora Aero Club looked remarkably similar to many of the old hangars at Camden, which was the airfield from which I was doing my own flying at the time. Could Temora have a similar wartime heritage?

It could indeed. Temora was the site of 10 EFTS, the longest-running Elementary Flying Training School in the Royal Australian Air Force. Close by the Aero Club (which, yes, is in a Bellman Hangar, the sole remaining example out of six which were originally there) is this simple memorial:

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A sign near the entrance to the airfield records that upwards of 10,000 personnel passed through 10 EFTS during the war years, and that at its peak it had some 97 Tiger Moths on strength for pilot training. Four satellite fields scattered around the countryside were used when the congestion at the main airfield became too much. Tom Moore, who would eventually fly with 458 Squadron, said  that the satellite fields were just that – fields – requisitioned off farmers with no buildings or facilities other than a bench from which the instructors could watch their students flying around.

Like any EFTS, however, there were accidents during training at Temora. Sometimes they were almost comical – like one chap who “landed 20 feet off the ground and the plane just come down like that and the wings folded down around him,” as remembered by a 61 Squadron pilot named John Boland – but sadly, sometimes they were fatal. There are 13 of the simple white headstones denoting Commonwealth War Graves in Temora General Cemetery.

One of my favourite stories about Temora, however, comes from Lionel Rackley, eventually a 630 Squadron pilot, and doesn’t concern flying at all. He describes it at the Australians at War Film Archive:

Air crew trainees went into a place and they were there for a month, six weeks, and went out again. But the ground staff people were there, so the town belonged to them, really. In those days, we used to wear a forage cap, and air crew trainees wore a little white flash on the front of the forage cap, that denoted us as air crew trainees. And these ground staff, they had set word around Temora that out at the aerodrome there, there’s a venereal hospital. And all those fellows around town with white flashes on their caps, they’re the patients…

It’s not too far from the airfield into Temora itself, and after the flying display finished that September afternoon in 2009 my mate and I meandered in (without a white flash in our caps) to find a pub for dinner. We stumbled the two miles or so back to the airfield a few hours later, much as I imagined countless trainee aircrew had done, almost seventy years before.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Flying around the bases

In the very back of my great uncle Jack’s wartime logbook is a list of places and dates. It records the places at which he served, from Air Observer School right through to the Squadron. Jack evidently wasn’t the world’s most fastidious record keeper because the list is missing some places that are shown on his service record, but it does list all of the airfields he was stationed at.

jacklog-postings copyThe last eight names on the list are in the UK. When I was over that side of the world in 2009 I hired a light aeroplane and a local instructor from Tatenhill Aviation and flew over four of them, plus a number of others.

Tatenhill was a satellite airfield for 27 Operational Training Unit, RAF Lichfield. As it turns out, Lichfield itself is not very far away. Just after we took off we turned left – and there it was, less than seven miles to the south.

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At first it took me a moment to recognise it as an airfield. Parts of a runway and a number of hangars are still extant, but on top of what used to be a runway is now a great big Tesco warehouse. The northern corner, with half a runway, some taxiways and a couple of blister hangars, is the best-preserved section of the old airfield, though now in considerable disrepair.

Morton Hall was not an airfield, though it is very close to the remains of RAF Swinderby. It became No. 5 Group Headquarters a few months later but it appears that it was a venue for lectures about security and significant physical training at the time that Jack was there (C07-014-067). It was a prison when I drove by in 2009 and is now an immigration detention centre, so no photos. On my flight however we did see Swinderby.

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I was quite pleased to discover what appeared to be a relatively well-preserved RAF airfield when I visited on the ground a day or so later – but just a few months later the whole site was flattened for development.

But enough of that. Onwards with the aerial tour through Jack’s logbook. Winthorpe was a Heavy Conversion Unit, where Jack and his crew got to grips with the Lancaster for the first time.

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One corner of the airfield is now the Newark Showgrounds, and across from those is the fantastic Newark Air Museum.  There’s very little remaining of the original airfield, and the runways, which were used for gliding until recently, are no longer fit for use. But at least one corner of the old airfield still has some sort of aviation activity taking place on it.

Bardney is only a few miles from Lincoln. From the air, the triangle of the runway layout is still visible, though most of the hard surface has been removed.

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The old airfield has reverted to the farmland it one was, with thousands of chickens now occupying sheds on what used to be the runways. Jack was only here for a few months serving on 9 Squadron, losing his pilot in a ‘second dickey trip before flying operationally himself. The crew did record some training flights from here however.

After losing their pilot Jack and (most of) his crew were posted to another Heavy Conversion Unit, this time at Syerston, where they joined up with Phil Smith. We skirted around Syerston on my flight but didn’t actually go over the top so I have no aerial photos of it – though I did visit the RAF Gliding squadron that now occupies the site on weekends.

The last unit in Jack’s logbook is of course 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington. This is where, on 10 May 1944, he and his crew climbed aboard B for Baker and took off in the direction of Lille on their final flight. Waddington remains an active RAF station and retains very little of its wartime ‘feel’, though remnants of the original triangle runway layout are still used as taxiways.

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There were a number of other airfields that we also flew over on this trip, with names like East Kirkby, Conningsby, Metheringham, Bottesford and Tollerton. What was perhaps most telling for me, used to the wide open spaces you get flying in Australia, was how close by everything is. I logged 1.5 hours for this trip, out and back, and we flew over at least ten separate wartime airfields that I could recognise, with a good few others nearby that I couldn’t identify. It’s not hard to imagine how crews could get lost and land at the wrong airfield, particularly during the wartime blackout, and the proximity of the bases would have considerably heightened the collision risk.

Most poignant, however, was at the most easterly point of our flight, near East Kirkby. From there, the coast is about fifteen miles away. That coast line was extraordinarily significant to the aircrew of Bomber Command. On the way out, it marked the end of friendly territory – beyond it was the enemy. And on the way home some hours later, it meant they were back among friends.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Halam Lancaster

There was an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2011, about a couple of Australian aircrew who had been killed when their Lancaster crashed while on a training flight. It was 10 April 1943, and the crew was on their last exercise at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, before being posted to an operational squadron. Shortly after take-off the aircraft crashed in the small village of Halam, eight miles from the aerodrome and aligned with the runway they had departed from.

Sixty nine years later to the day, a memorial was unveiled in Halam commemorating the seven men who died in the crash. It was the culmination of some years of work by a local man named Andrew Paris who has now researched the story of the crew and how they came to be on that aircraft.

Jack Purcell was posted to RAF Winthorpe between September and November 1943 and I visited the excellent Newark Air Museum that now occupies a corner of the old airfield while visiting the UK in 2009. But that wasn’t why the story in the Herald set some faint bells of recognition chiming in my mind. As part of his research Andrew had been looking for information on what the crew might have been up to during their time at 1661 HCU. I got in touch with him through the Lancaster Archive Forum and was able to share an extract of Jack’s logbook covering the time he had been at the unit. While only a very small piece of the overall story, every little bit helps towards developing an understanding of ‘what they were doing there’.

It’s another good demonstration, I think, of how the Internet has revolutionised historical research. The reach of the web is world-wide, and it’s made finding this information much easier because it’s now a simple matter to find someone on the other side of the world who might have the information that you seek. And it’s then made it very easy to share the results of your work with a much greater audience than in the past.

(c) 2013 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

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   

 

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

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

Flight Engineer

In the early days of the bomber offensive, British aircraft like the Wellington would typically fly with a ‘second pilot’ in a support role to operate flaps and throttles or to take over for a while in the cruise. Phil Smith was operating on his first tour with 103 Sqn at this time, and his logbook records that he completed ten operations as second pilot before being given his own crew. The second pilot would be a fully-trained and qualified pilot who was usually less experienced than the ‘first pilot’ who commanded the aeroplane. But this meant, of course, that to lose one aircraft would mean losing two pilots – and pilots were perhaps the hardest (and most expensive) out of the aircrew categories to train and replace.

The Stirlings, Lancasters and Halifaxes that began coming on line around then had more complex systems than those on, for example, the Wellington, so a more specialised member of the crew was required. Around the beginning of 1942 the second pilot was starting to be replaced by a dedicated member of the crew whose job it was to know where every single switch and dial and gauge on their aeroplane was (and in the dark), and what they did: the flight engineer.

Initially, flight engineers were taken from the ranks of the ground crew already serving at RAF bases: the engine fitters and mechanics whose technical knowledge was already of a high standard. But when the demand for heavy bomber crews really ramped up the supply of suitable ground crew available to take conversion training began to slow. So the RAF began training ‘direct entry’ flight engineers from scratch.

One of these direct entry flight engineers was Tom Knox, a Glaswegian who moved to Australia after the war and still retains his beautiful accent. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Tom in Canberra in June, and recently spent an afternoon visiting him at home onSydney’s northern beaches.

Tom had begun an engineering apprenticeship when he was 16. Being a reserved occupation, the only way he could get out of it was to join up as aircrew. “So I did it!”, he wrote to me in a letter in June 2011. He reported to Lords Cricket Ground just after his 18th birthday, did his ‘square bashing’ in Devon and went to No. 4 School of Technical Training, St Athan.

It was here where young men learnt everything there was to know about their aeroplanes. The training was remarkably solid. Cliff Leach (a pilot who retrained as a flight engineer late in the war) remembers copying diagrams of the various systems from a blackboard and being asked to reproduce from memory some of them in exams. Cliff, aided by his classroom notes which he still has, remembers a lot of the systems of the Lancaster more than six decades later.

During their course the trainee flight engineers covered fuel systems, instrument panels, flight controls, engines, electricals, hydraulics and pneumatics. They learnt how to do the pre-flight inspection. They experienced hypoxia in a decompression chamber, to be able to recognise it if it arose on operations. They spent a week on a ‘Maker’s Course’, visiting Avro or Short Brothers or Handley-Page to gain an insider’s view of their specific aircraft. The final assessment consisted of written tests on each of the subjects they had studied followed by a face-to-face test.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about their training is that, even after receiving the half-wing brevet with an E – the mark of a fully qualified flight engineer – most of them had in fact never been up in the air. And when they got to the next stage, a Heavy Conversion Unit, the men that they would join had already been a crew for some months.

In Tom’s case, crewing up was very simple. He was approached by a young Australian Flight Sergeant who asked if he wanted to join the crew – and that was that. His first experience of flight was in the rear turret of a Stirling shortly afterwards. “It was scary”, he says, but he handled it ok and went on to fly operationally with 149 and 199 Squadrons.

The flight engineer on B for Baker was a young man named Ken Tabor. He joined the RAF on his 18th birthday and was at St Athan between February and August 1943. In this photograph he is standing with his parents, wearing his Flight Engineer’s brevet:

a05-226-001-orig copy

The brevet shows that the photo was taken after he graduated from St Athan, which happened in August 1943 – perhaps the snap was taken while Ken was visiting his family on leave in Dorset before he went to an operational squadron.

Ken Tabor was the youngest man on board B for Baker when it went missing over Lille in May 1944. He had not yet reached his 20th birthday.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Image: Steve Butson

Thanks also to Tom Knox and Cliff Leach for their input to this post.


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