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Metheringham

There were an awful lot of wartime airfields in Lincolnshire: almost 50, in fact, with 16 of them within ten miles of Lincoln itself. Most of the old airfields have reverted to the farmland from whence they came. But even today, if you take a flight over the county you’ll see unmistakable signs of the classic ‘A’ shape of wartime runways, marked by a line of trees, remnants of concrete or even a bunch of chook sheds.

Metheringham is one of the airfields in the close ring around Lincoln, situated ten miles to the south east. It was a wartime ‘temporary’ airfield and was built in a hurry, with all the privations that implied, and it was only operational for about two and a half years. 106 Squadron was based there and, among other honours, the Victoria Cross awarded to Norman Jackson, for his crawl-onto-the-wing-and-put-a-fire-out heroics, was earned while on a sortie from Metheringham.

There’s a book called Lincolnshire Airfields in the Second World War by Patrick Otter (1996), that says 106 Squadron were the “first and only” occupants of RAF Metheringham. This isn’t quite correct. In June 1945 – after the war in Europe ended – 467 Squadron was moved to Metheringham from Waddington. Here they began training for the ‘Tiger Force’ that was to begin bombing Japan. When the atom bomb rendered that force redundant, in September 1945 the squadron was disbanded with a ceremony held at Metheringham (“Vale 467”, says the Operational Record Book. “And so to Civvy Street.”)

Consequently, Metheringham is of some significance for me. Several veterans I know or knew served there, like Harry Brown and Ern Cutts. And it was one of the places I visited while on my Bomber Command pilgrimage in 2009. I well remember clambering up into the ruins of the old control tower in the late afternoon, and looking out over the old airfield:

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I also visited the small but active visitors centre and museum, set in the old ration store for the station. I was recently contacted by Jacquie Marson, who is the centre’s volunteer Education Officer, asking me to spread the word, particularly for any 106 Squadron veterans or their families. The centre is a registered charity and an accredited museum, with “an ever growing archive and genuine wartime buildings which are of great interest to family members who visit us,” Jacquie says.

They’re a friendly and knowledgeable bunch, and can be contacted at www.metheringhamairfield.co.uk, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

 

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

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Bomber Command Commemorative Day Speech by AWM Director Dr Brendan Nelson

One of the highlights of the Bomber Command weekend in Canberra in June was the rolling masterpiece of a speech delivered during the lunch by AWM Director, Dr Brendan Nelson.

The War Memorial has posted a transcript of the speech on their website – you can find it here.

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I’ll even claim a little bit of credit for one section: I was the IBCC “Oral Historian” he mentioned, who collected Denis Kelly’s story (if you haven’t read that rather astonishing tale yet, it’s here).

The transcript isn’t quite word for word – it omits some perhaps less-relevant anecdotes – but the main thrust comes through loud and clear. Well worth a read.

 

Going to the Archives

Primary records are the foundation of any good history. And there’s nothing quite like going directly to the source to find them. I travelled to Canberra last month to plough through files at the National Archives of Australia and, as it turned out, also at the Australian War Memorial.

The National Archives are housed in a squat white building located behind Old Parliament House. While most files are stored off-site, the building houses offices, exhibition spaces and, in the back, the Reading Room where researchers can access original documents. I had previously ordered a number of files and they were waiting there for me when I arrived.

This visit was primarily looking for general 467 and 463 Squadrons stuff, and I wasn’t disappointed. Among other things, I found an internal signal to the Squadrons, explaining what went wrong during the disastrous Mailly-le-Camp raid on 3 May 1944, and the original order detailing the special training sortie to be carried out prior to the Marignane trip of 9 March 1944. I know that the crew of B for Baker were involved in both operations so these documents add considerable detail to the story. Another file allowed me to solve the mystery of why Jack Purcell waited until the middle of February to do his first operation, despite having arrived on the squadron in early January: he spent a week and a half in the Station Sick Quarters in the latter part of January and missed the Berlin trip (28 January) on which most of the rest of his crew made their operational debuts.

Some other files that I’m interested in, with intriguing titles like “Flight Planning Conferences”, “5 Group Tactical Summaries” and “Ideas and Inventions”, are marked “not yet examined” – offering the tantalising prospect of looking at files that no-one has ever seen before at the Archives – but these were not yet ready in time for this visit. Guess I’m coming back another time.

There are a few other files listed on the NAA database under a search for “467 Squadron” that are part of a series called ‘AWM64’. As it turned out these are actually held at the Australian War Memorial Research Centre. Conveniently, after spending most of the morning shuffling and photographing old papers at the Archives, this was to be my next stop.

As part of plans for the Centenary of ANZAC commemorations, the War Memorial is undergoing significant refurbishment works at the moment. Consequently the usual entrance to the Research Centre is unavailable and you need to be escorted through ‘back of house’ to access it. That minor inconvenience aside, the staff are exceedingly helpful and the collection, of course, is world-class. I was able to examine an original navigation log and chart for an operation to Konigsberg in August 1944 (the overwhelming impression is that navigators worked like cut snakes, with fixes every six minutes), a number of logbooks (including one for a navigator who completed a tour on Lancasters, then another one on Mosquitos and after the war flew extensively for Qantas Empire Airways) and diaries and, eventually, the relevant AWM64 files. Included among these are large-size notebooks which appear to be the Orderly Room’s master list of sorties carried out by each member of aircrew. They are incomplete and contain frequent blank pages but it was interesting to see evidence that French targets only counted for a ‘third’ of a raid up until Mailly-le-Camp. The crew of B for Baker were not among the names on the pages but others who occasionally flew with Phil Smith are there. I’m not sure that the full records have survived but even so, this could be a valuable resource for deciphering some of the more badly faded pages of the Operational Record Books.

A certain amount of ‘pot-luck’ is needed when ordering records at libraries and archives – sometimes the entries in the catalogues are less than descriptive – but that’s all part of the fun. Many times the files are not entirely relevant to the task at hand but, every so often, you find something unexpected in amongst the files. It was a useful couple of days work.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Grisly

War is a terrible business. The violent nature of the tools used in combat – guns, bombs, explosions, fire – can do dreadful things to human bodies. In the course of this sort of research, you sometimes come across some shocking stories. A P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, for example, was killed in a crash in eastern Holland in November 1943. A young girl found a loose boot belonging to the pilot near the wreck of the aeroplane… with a foot still inside. Or the unfortunate Charlie Nash, a 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner who was killed on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid. Such was the force of the explosion that brought his Lancaster down that Nash was dismembered. He was initially buried in two distinct graves, one in Hellemmes and one in Forest sur Marque.

Many of these sorts of stories are revealed in the files of the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, a team of RAF investigators who combed what had been occupied Europe to establish the fate of as many missing airmen as possible after the liberation of each area. The reports can sometimes make for disturbing reading. So much so, in fact, that full MRES reports are not released to the public in the UK if authorities believe they will be too distressing for next-of-kin or other researchers to read.

There is no doubt that these reports can contain some very grisly details. But factual reports of this nature are just that – factual. The details contained within them are very real. The events they deal with really happened – to real people. How much should modern-day sensibilities take precedence over knowing the truth?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer, and it’s one that every researcher must give serious thought to. There are two conflicting priorities here: the natural desire of the historian to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, versus the need to protect families from some pretty disturbing feelings about what might have happened to their relative. It is sometimes easier for the researcher to deal with these sorts of unpleasant revelations if they have no direct family connection to their subject. What they need to be careful of, however, is the sensitivities of those who do have that direct connection. I’ve been guilty of this myself, once or twice blithely telling a story to a relative of one of my great uncle’s crew without first considering how they might take the news. It’s only after I’d finished, when I saw their reaction that I realised, whoops, perhaps I could have dealt with that one with a little more sensitivity.

Ultimately, it is the researchers themselves who are responsible for making this very difficult decision. I disagree with the authorities determining what will and will not be released because I think it should be the duty of the researcher to decide what they do and don’t tell their audience. Researchers must be sensitive about how they communicate these sorts of stories.

Personally, I tend to prefer the truth, warts and all. After all, this is what actually happened. But I need to be very careful about how I get the message across.

 © 2012 Adam Purcell

Chipmunk

And now for something completely different. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of going for a flight in a de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk. I know it isn’t quite connected with the overall topic of this blog, but I had a great time and felt I had to share it… Normal service will resume shortly!

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From the outside, it’s a very pretty-looking aeroplane. A narrow nose, with a single metal propeller. A single sliding canopy covering two seats. Beautifully shaped wings and the unmistakably de Havilland tail. It’s not a very big aeroplane, and it’s not particularly powerful, but it shaped a generation of British pilots in much the same way as its immediate predecessor, the famed Tiger Moth.

But inside the cockpit, underneath that narrow framed canopy, ‘pretty’ is not the word to describe the DHC-1 Chipmunk. The design dates back to the immediate post-war period in British aviation, and it shows. The concept of ergonomics simply hadn’t been invented yet and many of the controls are tucked into slightly bewildering places around the cockpit. The master switch is positioned on the sidewall, down near your left shin. Sticking out of the floor nearby is the brake lever – pull to activate, then push the appropriate rudder for something approximating differential braking. The mixture control is pulled aft to select fully rich – the exact opposite of more or less every other aeroplane ever built. The throttle lever has a little ball on top (helpfully marked with a “T” in the Tiger Moth fashion) and is mounted with the mixture lever on the left side of the cockpit. The flap lever, with a ratchet to keep it in place, is reached for with a nearly fully-extended right arm and pulled up like a really big handbrake. The designers did away with the need for a complicated mechanism to adjust seat height by simply bolting the seat firmly to the floor. If it’s too low for you, get some cushions. If it’s too high, bad luck!

Priming the engine on VH-AKB, the Chipmunk that I flew recently, is accomplished by the highly technical means of pouring a small amount of fuel into the carburettor intake (the original priming mechanism having long ago given up the ghost). Once settled into the cockpit, the start procedure feels like it needs four arms. You cradle the stick in the crook of your right elbow, while keeping pressure on the brake lever with your right hand. Your left hand cracks the throttle open, then moves across to the starter button which is positioned about as far away from the throttle as it physically can be, high up on the top right-hand corner of the instrument panel. Once the engine fires, that left hand needs to be quick to move to the throttle to ‘juggle’ it and catch the engine before it dies – otherwise you need to unstrap, climb out to reprime the engine, and try again.

Taxiing in this aeroplane is an exercise in coordination. Juggling the throttle and the brake lever with your left hand while holding the stick back with your right (as is essential in any taildragger), weaving down the taxiway to see past the nose and trying not to hit anything is quite difficult. Slow and steady is the answer. Hopefully you’ll manage not to bend the aeroplane before taking off.

But get the aeroplane in the air and all the niggles involved in its ground handling simply disappear. The controls are beautifully light – ailerons especially so. A standard turn requires very little control movement. Even an aileron roll can be flown with much less stick than I was expecting. Aerobatics are graceful in a Chipmunk. Sure, there are many more capable aerobatic aeroplanes out there. But not many have the combination of finely balanced ailerons, responsive elevators and sheer old-world charm that this one does. She loops, rolls, stalls, wings over and generally has a whale of a time. And that all-over canopy gives a beautiful view of the ground when you’re upside down.

Back to the airport, then, to see if modern-day spamcan pilots like me can land a Chipmunk. Like the Tiger Moth, this machine likes the ‘wheeler’ style of landing, with a trickle of power on, because the oleos soak up any excess sink rate on touchdown. The actual touchdown is relatively easy to judge. But the problems start once the aeroplane slows up and the tailwheel came down. The rudder is extremely light and it’s very easy to overcontrol, leading to some not particularly dignified swerving down the runway if you’re not careful. The second attempt – once you tell your feet to wake up on the rudder bars – is usually much neater. But slow down to taxi speed and once again you need to juggle that awkward but very British brake system to get back to the hangar. It’s almost like the aeroplane doesn’t want to stay on the ground, like it’s trying to convince you that up in the air is where it belongs.

One thing that Gypsy Majors like is oil. After some aerobatics, the engine bay of the Chipmunk certainly shows why:

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Apparently that’s normal. Like all good vintage aero engines, if it stops dripping oil, it simply means it’s run out.

Despite her awkwardness on the ground, there’s no doubt that these aeroplanes have a certain ‘class’ that modern-day aircraft just don’t have. The heritage of the Chipmunk, stretching back to the Tiger Moth days, is certainly evident. Many pilots learnt to fly on aeroplanes just like this one in the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s great to try and capture some of that era of flying if you ever get the chance.

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(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Something Very Big

When I was very young, my father showed me a little blue felt-covered logbook. Dad also showed me some old black and white photographs of a handsome young man in an Air Force uniform. This, he told me, was my great great uncle Jack, who had been a bomber navigator in WWII. The logbook was Jack’s. He had been killed flying over France in 1944 – aged just 22.

As I grew up I became steadily more fascinated by the Man in the Photograph. Who was he? What was he doing in a Lancaster? Why didn’t he come back? My interest grew to include all things aeronautical as I finished school then gained a pilots licence, a degree in aviation and eventually a job in the industry.

Around the age of 23 I had a flash of inspiration. In part this came from the realisation that I was now older than Jack had been when he was killed, a thought that was suddenly quite confronting. I’d done a little bit of research around the age of 12 and again at about 18, but this time I had some proper academic research skills and a bit of spare time on my hands to get deeper into it. From this has developed Something Very Big. Over the last few years, I’ve uncovered a lot of information. I’ve traced the families of – to date – five of the seven men from Jack’s crew. I’ve gathered a worldwide network of contacts. I’ve even been overseas twice in an attempt to find out more.

Here were seven young men, from vastly different backgrounds, all by immense forces well beyond their control or understanding brought together to the one place at the one time – inside that Lancaster as it flew over Northern France in May 1944. They were normal, everyday lads caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I’ve realised that it’s a fascinating story and it’s one that deserves to be told.

I would like to be the one to tell that story. I’m hoping over the next few years to gather enough information to write a book. A book that will tell the story of the seven lads. Where they came from. Who they were. What they did. Why they were there. What happened next.

So, finally, I come to the point of the post. I’m hoping to use this blog to chart the course of creating the book. Not only should it be a straight record of the how and the what, but I’m also planning to use it to bounce ideas around in my head before committing them to paper – as a sort of jumping-off point. I’m not trained as either a historian or as a writer – so I will also use it to improve my writing skills as I go along.

If anyone wishes to inflict upon themselves the unrefined scribblings of an undeveloped author, I’d be grateful for any comments as I go along.

 

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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