Archive for the 'Training' Category



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:

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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.

Training

I was talking to 463 Squadron veteran Don Southwell on ANZAC Day in April about his training to become a navigator in WWII. Among other things he spoke about life at Initial Training School at Bradfield Park. He said that days started with physical training and drill, and were then full of theory classes – and when the trainee aircrew had time off from formal classes, they were expected to study. He remembers some particularly challenging subjects keeping him working at his desk until one or two in the morning. “The blokes in my hut”, he told me on the phone recently, “used to say that they didn’t have to go to classes because they’d hear everything from me… while I was talking in my sleep!”

This got me thinking (as happens every so often). In some ways, I can draw some parallels with what I understand of Air Force training and what I’m currently experiencing as a trainee air traffic controller. For example, the eleven other lads in my group and I are known by the simple name ‘Course 44’. We are timetabled as a course and subsequently we do everything together. We’ve become a reasonably close-knit group, with friendships forged in the furnace of shared challenges. We’re all (mostly) young men. Many have travelled from all over the country, and some from overseas, to do this training. We are learning a highly technical discipline, and we’re under considerable time pressure. We work hard, and we have to. There is the ever-present threat of being ‘scrubbed’ and washout rates are not insignificant. In short, this course is by far the most intense thing that I’ve ever attempted.

But there are a few key differences. Most of us are in our late 20s or early 30s, which is older than an average Australian airman in training during WWII (Don celebrated his 21st birthday on a bombing raid over a German city). There’s no mandated physical exercise or drill to worry about. We don’t live on site. But most importantly, the end result of our training – if we actually get through it – is a high-pressure but ultimately civil job. Sure, we’ll be on shift at all hours of the day and night, we’ll be working some pretty tough days and nights and there is no ‘pause’ button in air traffic control. But we won’t be going into combat. We are not facing the prospect of half of our number going missing in action. We can be pretty sure that at the end of our shift we will get home safely.

Which is a lot more than could be said for the airmen of Bomber Command.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

You never know what lies up the garden path

Joss le Clercq alerted me to a thread on the RAFCommands forum late last year. It concerned a researcher who was trying to work out the fate of Sgt Leslie Edwards, who died of wounds or injuries in July 1943. It was discovered that Edwards had been on board a 27OTU Wellington that crashed at Church Broughton on the 6th of that month.

So why did Joss think it was of particular interest to me? Henk Welting posted on that RAFCommands thread that Bill Chorley’s Bomber Command Losses vol 7 revealed a Sgt Purcell had been in the crew of the Wellington. Joss thought it could have been my great uncle Jack.

This was an intriguing find. Because we have no letters or diaries from Jack, we know little about what happened to him directly while he was in England. Could Joss have uncovered a story about Jack surviving a Wellington crash that my family didn’t know about?

I quickly checked my records. Initially it looked possible. Jack was posted to 27OTU at Lichfield on 22 June 1943 and did not leave until September, so he was certainly there at the right time. But a few other details did not check out. Jack’s service record shows that he was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 20 February 1943 – before this accident – so his rank did not match. And perhaps more crucially, we do have Jack’s logbook. The first flying recorded at Lichfield in my copy of it is not until 14 July, or after this crash happened.

So it was not looking good. I rechecked the original logbook when next I returned to my parents place near Sydney to make sure that I hadn’t missed any pages in the copying process.

I hadn’t.

The next step was to ask Chris Pointon of the RAF Lichfield Association, who had guided me around what was left of the old station when I visited in 2009.

Chris settled the matter. It turns out that AUS410379 Sgt David Purcell was posted to 27OTU in May 1943. So there was a second Australian navigator called Purcell at RAF Lichfield at the same time that Jack was. It seems likely that this Purcell is our man.

David Purcell’s service record is online at the National Archives of Australia. It reveals that he was from Melbourne and enlisted on the same day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. He trained at Cootamundra, East Sale and Nhill before going to the UK via Canada. Eventually he ended up on Halifaxes with 466 Squadron at Leconfield. Chris’ email told me that David Purcell was shot down on 23 April 1944 on an operation to Dusseldorf. He survived and spent the rest of the war as a POW, eventually returning to Australia.

So while somehow disappointed that I didn’t uncover something else about Jack Purcell, I did find another interesting story – and potentially another branch of the Purcell family to look at. I’ve passed the details about David’s family to Therese Findlay, one of my regular correspondents on this blog. Therese says she’s found a Purcell somewhere who is working on the family tree. Perhaps they might have more information for me.

©2011 Adam Purcell

Bradfield Park

After a period on the Volunteer Reserve, a newly-enlisted airman in the RAAF in WWII would find himself posted to an Initial Training School (ITS) to learn about the basics of military life. Each state of Australia had its own ITS. Airmen from NSW would normally pass through No. 2 ITS at Bradfield Park in Sydney. Many thousands of airmen (and women, for there was also a WAAAF school on site) would experience their first taste of the Air Force at this station.

Don Southwell remembers “miles and miles” of parade grounds near the gatehouse of the station. Don was a 463 Squadron navigator in the latter part of the war. Like so many of his era, his Air Force career started at Bradfield Park. Don took me on a drive around the site of the old station shortly before I left Sydney in October 2010. “The WAAAFs could out-drill anyone”, he said.

Don on occasion would need to guard the Station’s boat house, which was down on the banks of the nearby Lane Cove River. He would carry his straw mattress and rifle down a track through thick bush and stay overnight in the boat house. On one occasion he fired his rifle at the water to see what would happen, then spent the walk back to the main base worrying about how he would account for that one cartridge… history and memory do not record how he got away with that one!

Don related stories of airmen crawling through a hole in the fence and removing the white ‘trainee’ flash from their caps to appear to be ground crew and thus less suspicious, to be able to walk up Lady Game Drive to Chatswood Railway Station. Being a Croydon boy, Don says he did the same while officially on guard at the boat house. He simply waited until it was dark, then made his escape to catch a train home. He slept at home that night, returning just as the sun came up the next day.

There is now virtually none of the station left. The CSIRO moved to the area in 1979 when their National Measurement Laboratories were built. In recent years they sold off some of the Commonwealth land on which the RAAF station once stood. But reminders are still there. The main road past the CSIRO’s compound is called Bradfield Rd. Other streets close by are Squadron Circuit and Brevet Ave. And in the corner of Queen Elizabeth Reserve, a short distance from tennis courts where Don says some of the parade grounds were, is this memorial:

 bradfieldparkmemorial1 copy

Partly funded by the CSIRO and Kuringai Council, it was built in 2006 and forms a fitting reminder to the activities that took place there.

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© 2010 Adam Purcell

Lichfield

Among the small collection of photos that my family has belonging to Jack Purcell are two postcards from the English town of Lichfield. Both are unwritten and unsent. The only mark on either is a tiny cross in pen, at top right of this one:

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Jack was stationed at the nearby RAF Lichfield between 22 June and 9 September, 1943. The airfield – actually closer to the village of Fradley than to Lichfield itself – was the site of No 27 Operational Training Unit during the war.

The OTU stage of an airman’s training was where, in general, he first ‘crewed up’. The concept of the ‘crew’ is central to the Bomber Command legend – even transcending class boundaries in the RAF. Crews would, by the time they got onto a squadron, live together, play together, fight together and, all too often, die together. While officers and NCOs might have lived and messed separately, most crews socialised together when off-duty. In many cases airmen began strong friendships that would last them the rest of their lives.

But it took time for those uniquely close bonds to develop within the crews. The OTU was where it started and where the crews learnt to operate as an interdependent unit, but they were not there yet. As Don Charlwood wrote of his first flight at an OTU, in his superb book No Moon Tonight:

we were not a crew, we were a ‘plane load of bewildered individuals” (C07-035-023)

Consequently in many cases crews would not therefore come to regard their time on an OTU with any particular affection like they would their time on an operational squadron. The OTUs, it could be said, were the forgotten part of Bomber Command.

They were nevertheless an extremely important part of the Bomber Command machine. Many Australians passed through the gates of Lichfield. In the forecourt of Lichfield Cathedral is a memorial park bench which was paid for by Charlwood after the war. The plaque on it reads as follows:

“To the memory of the many hundreds of Australian airmen who trained at No. 27 Operational Training Unit Fradley during the Second World War. In Lichfield they found peace and friendship”

Years later Charlwood wrote a second, more thorough book of his time in Bomber Command called Journeys into Night:

“It always tantalized me when I gazed from the sergeant’s mess across the fields to the cathedral and thought of life going on in Lichfield, not as in peacetime to be sure, but at least with semblances of normality. Most of us were glad to escape [to] there” (C07-034-093)

While Lichfield will never be as famous as Waddington or Binbrook, it is clear that airmen like Charlwood understood its significance to the war effort and to the development of the crews of Bomber Command. It is also significant on a personal level for Jack Purcell, simply because of the existence of those two postcards.

Unlike the superb archive of letters and documents that I have been lucky enough to study from Mollie Smith and Gil Thew, we have very little bar a few photographs from Jack. I know he wrote letters while he was in the Air Force but what happened to them is unknown. These two postcards – though unwritten – are therefore particularly special.

So special, in fact, that in 2009 I visited Lichfield in an attempt to discover what the mysterious cross might have been marking. Chris Pointon of the RAF Lichfield Association was my guide. We first visited the Cathedral, in front of which was the park bench donated by Don Charlwood. Interestingly the bench is the only memorial to the OTU in the city – the building’s importance to the airmen seemingly less spiritual (as a religious place) than it was practical (as a prominent landmark nearby the airfield). Down a hill from the Cathedral we came to the Pond. At first Chris could not recognise the postcard – sixty-five years of tree growth has significantly changed the scene. But the road bridge with its three arches stands out. Walking towards it I could make out the distinctive façade of the Library and Museum through the thick tree growth:

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And the cross? Standing in front of the Library, looking up the street, I spotted two buildings.

One is the Probate Court.

The other is the Angel Croft Hotel.

For some reason, I reckon Jack was marking the pub.

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(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Hat tip to Chris Pointon for the idea that inspired this post.


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