Archive for the 'Training' Category



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:

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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.

Accidents

Life in Bomber Command was a hazardous affair. Apart from the obvious – anything the Germans could throw at them – aircrew faced many other dangers in the long road to an operational squadron. Out of more than 55,000 aircrew killed serving in Bomber Command, some 8,000 died in accidents.

In the early 1940s, the aeroplane had existed for just four decades. Equipment was still primitive – especially compared with modern aircraft. Engine and other system failures were common, particularly when pushed beyond their design limits by the realities of wartime all-weather flying. Aircraft used at Operational Training Unit level – the unit at which airmen would ‘crew up’ and learn to fight – were often older, tired-out aircraft because the priority for the best equipment understandably lay with the operational squadrons themselves.

The aircraft on which most of the eventual crew of LM475 completed their OTUs in late 1943 was the Vickers Wellington. This was the type of aircraft on which Phil Smith flew his first tour of operations with 103 Squadron from Elsham Wolds from October 1941-June 1942. Phil’s first operation was as a second pilot on 16 October 1941 to Duisberg. Due to an oil problem they shut down one engine crossing the Dutch coast on the return flight. The second engine faltered shortly after crossing into England so they sought out an emergency aerodrome and, in Phil’s memorable understatement… (B03-001-016)

“…we crash landed rather unsuccessfully…”

All got out with only cuts and bruises.

But while Phil’s first crash in a Wellington was caused by mechanical failure, accidents could also come about from somewhat more mundane problems. Chief amongst these was human error. “I have come to the conclusion since I have been flying”, wrote Phil Smith to his mother in 1941, “that the machines are much more reliable than the humans that fly them.” (A01-147-001)

While the truly unsuitable were theoretically weeded out at the elementary flying training stage, even the best could occasionally make mistakes. On first arrival at Elementary Flying Training School in Tamworth in November 1940, Phil Smith wrote to his mother: (A01-126-001)

“The discipline up here appears unpleasantly severe, partly, we are told, because there was a fatal accident not long ago due to lack of flying discipline.”

An accident in a Tiger Moth witnessed by Phil at Elementary Flying Training School at Tamworth, NSW, in January 1941 was, according to the RAAF Preliminary Report of Flying Accident, put down to (A04-072-001)

“Poor technique and lack of anticipation on the part of the instructor”.

What happened to the instructor’s career subsequently is not recorded.

Inexperience played a big role in air accidents. The pilot of the Tamworth accident that Phil saw was lucky enough to walk away – but sometimes aircrew were not that lucky. During Phil’s time at 21 OTU, Moreton-in-Marsh, between August and October 1941, he witnessed or heard about many incidents. At least four are recorded in his diary – ranging from less-serious accidents like a burst tyre in August to an aeroplane flying into a hill and killing all seven on board in early October. The cemetery on the road between the airfield and the town of Moreton-in-Marsh bears witness to the appalling loss of life both from this accident and, sadly, from many more just like it. In all 46 airmen from the OTU are buried there. In a similar way, just outside the site of the old RAF Lichfield airfield is Fradley Church. 35 airmen rest here – which, according to Chris Pointon (RAF Lichfield Association historian) are only casualties from the period prior to August 1943. To avoid taking over the church yard, he says, following that date burials took place at Chester Blacon, almost 100km to the north west of RAF Lichfield. – there are 35 more there. A further six casualties were buried at Oxford Botley, 100km south.

Even then, that is not all of Lichfield’s victims. One of the men to die at Lichfield was Sgt AH Ashwood. He was killed on 27 September 1941 after sustaining serious burns in a Wellington crash which Phil Smith witnessed while out on a training flight himself (B03-001-013):

“We went first to Lichfield which is north of Birmingham.” […] We landed and no sooner had we got out of the plane than we saw a Wimpy start to burn on the runway. A very nasty memory, these planes are certainly death traps if they catch alight.”

Sgt Ashwood was buried in Margate, Kent – which was where his parents lived during the war.

Phil, of course, was not entirely immune himself. On squadron at Elsham, he was flying night time practice circuits with another pilot in January 1942. Bad visibility hampered their efforts but all went well until Phil’s last landing. They touched down nicely, but then (B03-001-015):

“the wheels collapsed and we settled down on our belly in the middle of the runway. It looks as though I selected the wheels up instead of flaps.”

Phil received a negative endorsement in his logbook following this incident, the cause being called “faulty cockpit drill”, put down to “inexperience”.

Perhaps the saddest epitaph of them all, however, is carved into one of the headstones in Moreton-in-Marsh and has nothing to do with aeroplanes.

“Killed in a road accident”, it reads. “Thy will be done.”

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(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

G’lland-oohrogh

On the far north western edge of Wales is the old fortified city of Caernarfon. Its magnificent castle looks out over a flat estury on one side, with dramatic hills rising above the horizon on the other. Eight or so miles south of Caernarfon is a tiny stone village named Llandwrog, situated in low hills a short distance from the Irish Sea.

From Llandwrog the ground slopes down gently towards the coast, flattening out at the bottom into a wide plain. The plain is surrounded on three sides by the hills of Snowdonia, rising up to 3,500 feet. The hills are responsible for the unique weather of the locality. Biting westerly winds sweep off the sea, bringing moisture-laden air with them. The air is deflected up by the rising terrain and, as it cools with altitude, the moisture condenses into cloud. It is not unusual for the entire British Isles to be clear of cloud, except for this tiny corner of Wales (and perhaps deepest, darkest, northern-est Scotland):

On the plain between the village of Llandwrog and the sea is an airfield. Despite being closer to the village of Dinas Dinlle, the airfield was originally named RAF Llandwrog. It opened in January 1941 as the home of No. 9 (Observers) Advanced Flying Unit and later became famous as the base of the first ever RAF Mountain Rescue unit. In late May 1943, following three months thumb-twiddling at No. 11 PDRC in Bournemouth and two months flying in Tiger Moths at No. 26 EFTS at the old grass airfield at Theale in Reading, Jack Purcell found himself posted to RAF Llandwrog. Over the next month or so he would log 18.25 hours by day and 7.10 hours at night flying in Avro Ansons.

Summer in this part of the world is very different to summer in Australia. It’s not too difficult to imagine what Jack may have thought on first being posted to this place with the strange name. He had been exposed to flying in English conditions in the Tiger Moths at Theale – but not in something relatively modern like an Anson, and certainly not in weather as persistant as that at Llandwrog. Visibility would have been often reduced in atmospheric haze, which made visual navigation difficult. The wind over the hills made the air bumpy when an aeroplane strayed too close to them. Sure, aeroplanes bounced a bit in thermals in Australia, but this was a different sort of bump. Even in summer the wind would be cold, especially when it blew straight off the Irish Sea. The beach is covered in pebbles and under a cloudy sky would have looked far less than inviting. In short, this must have looked like a forgotten part of the world.

Llandwrog, I discovered when I visited the area in June 2010, is pronounced ‘G’lland-oohrogh’. The airfield, now known as Caernarfon Airworld, is still active and is home to a flying club and a small museum. Despite the brand new hangar and operations building, much remains of the old RAF station. The former fire station, now missing important bits like its roof, stands behind the museum:

The old control tower – until recently the headquarters of the flying club and still in use as their air-ground radio base – still stands:

Behind the fire shed is a remarkably intact bomb shelter:

I particularly wanted to go flying from Caernarfon because of its connection with Jack’s story. I took along a local instructor named Phil. We flew south along the peninsula towards Bardsey Island, keeping below the cloud base. Nearer the island it became clear that the cloud was very much ‘following’ the coast line and we emerged into beautifully clear flying weather:

The cloud, however, stretched solidly over land back towards the airfield and the tops of some of the higher peaks were easily visible popping out the top of it as we flew ‘over the top’. It was easy to see how someone not used to flying in the area (like, for example, a brand new Australian WWII navigator) might blunder into what pilots euphemistically call ‘cumulo-granite’. We were able to use the modern aid of radar and a helpful air traffic controller from nearby RAF Valley to vector us clear of the terrain for a descent through cloud over the sea before we returned to the airfield, but this of course was not an option during wartime. It really is no wonder so many aircraft crashes occurred (and, sadly, continue to occur) in the Snowdonia area – a direct factor in the creation of the RAF Mountain Rescue team originally based at RAF Llandwrog.

For a morning, I had walked (and flown) in the footsteps of my great uncle. Though in some respects modernised there remains much in this area that has probably not changed in the six and a half decades since Jack was here. The sleepy little stone villages remain sleepy little stone villages. The airfield remains an airfield. The wind and the cloud is still the same wind and cloud. The connection that I felt to that time was made even stronger when I discovered the full name of the instructor I flew with.

He was called Phil Smith.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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