Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Just another name in a logbook

I’ve been trying to find more time recently to devote to my Bomber Command research – or, more specifically, to my Bomber Command writing. For several years the focus of that writing was this blog, but as those of you who’ve recently had to fight your way through the cobwebs and tumbleweeds to get here would know, there’s been not much of that over the last little while. I’ve had unrelated projects to work on which have taken much of my spare time in the last year or two in particular, but I’ve also been working on some Bomber Command-related projects too – including that book I’ve been threatening to write for a very, very long time.

One of the things about that is that, despite all that research over a couple of decades, there’s still stuff I don’t know. And as I’ve discovered, the best way for revealing exactly where the gaps are in my research is by trying to write about it. So occasionally, despite setting aside a day for “writing my book,” as I rather grandly call it, I have to hit the archives.

And that is exactly what happened yesterday.

For me, the concept of “the crew” and the surprisingly informal way in which they were formed is still one of the most fascinating things about Bomber Command. Putting equal numbers of each aircrew trade in a big room and telling them to sort themselves out was a remarkably effective strategy, and the generally accepted story is that, thus formed, crews stayed together through thick and thin, becoming as close as brothers.

The problem for me is that the evidence shows this is not what happened in Jack Purcell’s case. The pilot that he crewed up with at 27 Operational Training Unit (Lichfield) in June 1943 is recorded in his logbook as Flight Sergeant Saunders. But Jack had a new pilot by the end of his Heavy Conversion Unit course (F/Sgt J McComb) and, as we know, actually flew operations with yet another (S/Ldr Phil Smith). Somewhere along the way, belying if you like the “traditional” narrative, his crew changed.

Trying to write about this yesterday, I realised that I didn’t know what happened to Saunders. To fix that, I decided to go for a dig through my files. The first thing I needed to find was a full name. The 27 OTU Operational Record Book, fortuitously, lists the members of each course, along with the day they arrived and where they came from. Here I found my first clue. The only Saunders who appears in the lists for the period around when Jack was at Lichfield is AUS8687 Flight Sergeant A J Saunders, a pilot who arrived there on 1 July 1943.

Saunders’ service number is unusual: I would normally expect an Australian number to be six digits starting with a 4. Knowing that original documents are often hard to read or have errors, I checked what I had against the DVA WWII Nominal Roll. This revealed that the ORB was correct. Born in Charters Towers in 1917, Alexander James Saunders enlisted at Laverton in Victoria on 5 February 1940. Enlisting so early probably explains the unusual service number: perhaps the format had not yet been worked out at the time.

All I really wanted to know was where Saunders went after 27 OTU, so the list of postings in his Service Record at the National Archives of Australia would be sufficient for my purposes today. Unfortunately while that record exists, it hasn’t been digitised yet. It hasn’t even been examined for release. I could order the record online, but because there is a fee and a delay associated with that and all I really wanted was that list of postings, I decided to first check if there was any other way to find it.

What the hey, I thought. I’ve been lucky with Google before. I tried a simple search for his name and number… and found one little nugget of information that cracked the whole case open for me.

It’s hidden inside Volume IV of the so-called Official History of the RAAF during WWII[1], an account of an operation to an oil target at Wesseling on 21-22 June 1944:

A third Australian, Flight Lieutenant Saunders, also of 83 Squadron, was attacked six times by fighter aircraft before reaching Wesseling. (p.204)

In itself, this quote doesn’t show me much: there would have been more than one airman named Saunders. How do I know it’s the right one?

Happily for me, the author left a footnote, and that’s what made all the difference. “F-Lt AJ Saunders,” it says, “8687. 467 and 463 Squadrons, 83 Sqn RAF. Accountant, of Townsville, QLD”

There’s that strange service number again, which told me I’d definitely found the right man. And, more usefully, three squadrons are mentioned – two for which I happen to have full operational records.

I went to Nobby Blundell’s ‘Yellow Books’ which revealed that Alec Saunders and his crew had been posted to 467 Squadron on 31 October 1943. From here it was easy. Going to the original Operational Record Books, I discovered that Saunders flew twice as a second dickey before taking his own crew on one trip to Berlin on 23-24 November. A day later, they were all posted to the newly-formed 463 Squadron, with which they flew a further six operations. In early February 1944 they were posted to 83 Squadron, a Pathfinder unit.

Blundell records the names of the rest of Alec Saunders’ 467 Squadron crew:

  • A J Saunders (Pilot)
  • F D Redding (Flight Engineer)
  • J S Falconer (Navigator)
  • D D Govett (Bomb Aimer)
  • T A Sheen (Wireless Operator)
  • K G Tennent (Air Gunner)
  • D M Robinson (Air Gunner)

I cross-checked these against course lists in the 27 OTU Operational Record Book, finding records for four of them (Saunders, Govett, Sheen and Robinson). It makes sense that flight engineer Redding and second gunner Tennent wouldn’t be at the OTU because the aircraft in use at OTUs did not require flight engineers and had no mid-upper turret, so the extra men didn’t join the crew until the Heavy Conversion Unit. But what about Falconer, the navigator?

It took me a moment to make the connection: at OTU, the navigator was Jack Purcell. He is included in the course lists, of course, but he wasn’t on Saunders’ crew by the time they got to the squadron. Where did he go? And where did Falconer come from?

Amazingly enough, in my collection was another little gem of a piece of information which brought it all together. This is a page from Dale Johnston’s logbook, recording the names of his crewmates. Johnston was the wireless operator on the McComb crew – the bones of which became the crew of LM475 B for Baker:

Alastair Dale Johnston Flight Log-13

See the third name? The one that’s been scratched out and replaced?

Sgt J S Falconer.

Falconer was Paddy McComb’s navigator right up to the end of Heavy Conversion Unit. Then he disappears, to be replaced by…

Jack Purcell.

Purcell and Falconer swapped crews.

I don’t know why.

But for whatever reason, at the end of October or the beginning of November 1943, just before their final flights at Heavy Conversion Unit, two crews swapped navigators.

Falconer went off with Alec Saunders and his crew and survived the war.

Jack Purcell went off with Paddy McComb and his crew – and didn’t.

Such, I suppose, are the fortunes of war.

© 2020 Adam Purcell

 

[1] Herington, John (1963) Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Series 3 – Air. Volume IV, Air Power over Europe 1944-45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Available from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417318

Releasing the Brakes

The shadows were only just beginning to lengthen as Phil Smith released the brakes to let B for Baker roll from its parking bay. He’d done it so many times before – pulled the lever with his fingers, flicked off the catch with his thumb – but it was only now that he considered what it meant

This was it.

It had already been a long day. The tension – as if he had a lump of cold lead in the very bottom of his stomach – started with a phone call from Group Headquarters, telling him that the squadron was ‘on’ tonight. No matter how many times he’d done this, that lump of lead was always there. It sat in the background during the scramble to work out how many aeroplanes his Flight could offer for the coming operation, and through the endless meetings and conferences to thrash out tactics, and in a way he was grateful that he’d been so busy: it took his mind off what he’d be doing, where he’d be going, when the sun went down. But despite the distraction, the lump of lead grew larger as the day went on: by the time he’d been to the briefing, eaten the ‘Last Supper’ of eggs and bacon, pulled on his flying gear and climbed into the truck that took them to their aeroplane, it must have weighed half a pound at least. And then the wait, that endless, awful wait, sprawled on the grass next to the bomber: forced jokes, nervous laughter, cigarettes lit with shaking hands, with nothing to do except think about the coming operation. In that hour, the ball of lead in his stomach felt like it doubled in size.

But then he’d climbed up the ladder and into the aeroplane. Walked, crouching, up the angled fuselage. Scrambled over the main spar. Strapped himself into his seat and started the engines.

And released the brakes.

Pull, flick.

Everything that had happened today – the conferences, the briefing, the truck to dispersal – had been preparing for this moment. The armourers who loaded the bombs, the fitters who tuned the engines, the airmen who filled the fuel tanks, all had been working to a timetable based on this: the moment the aeroplanes started rolling and the raid began.

This was it.

Phil had flicked off an aeroplane’s brakes for a raid many times before. Fifty times, to be precise. And that fact meant that this was the last time he would have to do it. This trip – a short one, they’d said at briefing, just three hours return, a piece of cake really – was the last one of his second tour of operations. After that, he knew, he could no longer be compelled to do any more. He’d be posted to a training school for another stint of instructing, perhaps. Or maybe he’d be given a staff job somewhere. Maybe he’d even be sent home to Australia. That might be nice, he thought. It had been more than three years, after all.

But there was his crew to think about, too. They were all still on their first tours and most of them still had about ten trips to fly before they were done. If Phil finished tonight, he knew they’d all have to keep going without him. That meant they’d have a new pilot to get used to, a less-experienced man most likely, and it would take time before they were as efficient a unit as he knew they now were. Survival on bombers was at least as much about luck as anything the crew themselves brought to the table, but they at least felt that they could favourably influence their chances if they were as effective and careful as they could be. Having to deal with an unfamiliar pilot could be just enough to tip the delicate balance from surviving to not. Despite having more than done his bit for the war effort, Phil was in two minds about whether he was prepared to make the rest of the crew take that chance.

He would have to make that decision soon, he thought. But first, he had to complete one more trip, and it started the same way as every other one:

Pull, flick.

This was it.

 

(c) 2019 Adam Purcell

Book Review: From the Top of the Hill, by Kevin Peoples

Jack Peoples was nobody particularly unusual. One day in August 1915 the 18-year-old farmhand from country Victoria walked with his younger brother up a small rise near the family property. Leaving the younger boy at the top of the hill, he walked down the other side and into the nearby town of Mortlake to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He never came back, killed in action in France with no known grave.

The story was a familiar backdrop when a man named Kevin Peoples grew up. Sitting by the fire with his brother and sister, he would ask his father – who had been the boy who watched from the top of that hill as his brother Jack walked away – to “tell us about the day Uncle Jack went to war, Dad”. Aware of the shadow that the memory had cast on his father’s life, and aware of how little he knew beyond that oft-related vignette, Kevin would, after his father’s death, embark on a life-long journey to find the story of his lost uncle.

The result is a little blue self-published book named, appropriately, From the Top of the Hill, which I discovered after Tony Wright wrote about it in the Saturday paper a few months ago. It’s not a long book (I read it in a single afternoon), but it is a deeply heartfelt and honest account.

fttoth-peoples

Peoples breaks the book into three sections. The first is the shortest at just four pages and tells his father’s story, writing about how the “dark, solemn presence of Jack lived on the wall in the corner, directly above my father’s chair.” Oh how I can relate to that concept. The second bit (twelve pages) is what perhaps you’d expect from a self-published book like this: a reasonably straight account of what Peoples knows of Jack’s life. But it’s what comes next, and what makes up the remaining 45-odd pages of the book, that is what sets this little story apart.

Starting with watching his university history lecturer breaking down in tears when trying to describe the horror of what happened at Pozieres, Peoples explains how he came to understand something of what his father felt when thinking of Jack. He visits what’s left of the old homestead to which Jack never returned, describing how “the sad old ghosts of my people have come out to welcome us”. He searches in dusty files at the Central Army Records Office (this was in 1977, pre-National Archives of Australia online catalogues) for something tangible of his uncle’s life. He visits France, twice, and he watches as the Unknown Australian Soldier is entombed at the Australian War Memorial in 1993, feeling somehow that the man in the coffin is Jack even while knowing it’s pretty well impossible. “That’s the wonderful thing about being unknown”, he writes. “…we can all name him and claim him as our own.”

There are occasional little things that betray the book’s self-published origins: one or two typesetting errors, one photograph that’s been printed upside down, and some inconsistent editing: I’m not a fan of the way Peoples mixes the present tense with the past tense. But From the Top of the Hill is for the most part beautifully written, and occasionally reaches the eloquence of poetry. “I see a letter signed by my grandfather, which I push to one side and instead start writing down all the dates and statistics,” Peoples writes of viewing Jack’s files at the Central Army Records Office. “As I write I become conscious of an old brown couch, an open fire, long legs resting on the sides of the fireplace and a hill with a young boy sitting and watching his brother walk away.”

What’s clear is that Peoples realises the importance of place when trying to understand history. The description of his first return to the ruins of the family homestead hints of an even darker history to that place, nearby which 35 or more Aboriginals had been massacred in 1839. His first visit to France, in 1998, left him feeling like there was an “unease insisting this matter of Jack and me was not yet finished.” (Funnily enough, I can relate to that feeling too.) So he returned to France a decade later – and you’re going to have to read the book to find out what happens there.

I found From the Top of the Hill a sad but lovely tale, well-told. I can very much relate to several aspects of Kevin Peoples’ search for ‘Uncle Jack’, to his sense of story and place and to the way an old family story like this one can embed itself in your bones and not let go. Well worth a read.

 

From the Top of the Hill (ISBN 9780994570307) is available as a print-on-demand title from BookPOD Australia, $19.95

 

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

Guest Reviewer

It’s been a bit quiet around these parts recently.

There have been several distractions in recent months, both Bomber Command-related and outside. A few things have changed. But never fear – I’m still here, and I continue to write, read, and interview my way across the Bomber Command universe.

Occasionally I even get asked to write things for other people – like this article, just in time for Christmas, for my good friend Andy Wright. It’s a review of Norman Franks’ new book Veteran Lancs, and you can find it on Andy’s website Aircrew Book Review.

Thanks for your support of SomethingVeryBig, have a wonderful Christmas and, all going well, normal service will resume here early next year.

 

Published!

The August issue of Flightpath magazine (Vol 28 No. 1 – in newsagents now) includes a feature article that I wrote on Leo McAuliffe, an Australian fighter pilot who was killed over Holland in a Tempest in March 1945.

Leo,Harley & sidecar copy

Leo on a sidecar, pre-enlistment. Photo from Craig Bennett

I wrote a little about Leo here and here, and since I did that new letters, photos and even Leo’s logbook has come to light, shared by Craig Bennett, Leo’s nephew who lives in Cootamundra. I had put together a piece about Leo for my family several years ago, and Craig’s generously-shared collection gave me enough new material to update it – and that’s what you can now find in Flightpath.

Quite an exciting moment to see the new issue in the newsagent and open it to find my article inside! My grateful thanks to Craig Bennett, Chris Thomas and Andy Wright for making it happen.

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You can find Flightpath in most newsagents in Australia – or a digital version is available to purchase here

“Sablé bombardé : un Australien raconte” – some French media coverage for somethingverybig.com

Early last month I had just published my 467 Postblog Part LXXVI which covered an attack on a munitions dump outside the French town of Sable-sur-Sarthe on 6 May seventy years ago. I was subsequently contacted over Twitter by a journalist from “Les Nouvelles de Sablé”, a weekly newspaper based the town. Lucile Ageron was her name, and she was wondering how someone all the way over here in Australia might be sufficiently interested in her little town to write about it.

Truth be told, I’d never heard of the place until I saw its name in Phil Smith’s logbook (it’s not even in Jack’s – he mistakenly entered the target in his own logbook as Louaille, a nearby town, and he got the date wrong too). But it was a highly siccessful raid and some rather spectacular film footage of the raid has survived.

Having read my posts, Lucile sent me a list of questions, I answered them, and now she’s written an article for her newspaper. Particularly with the anniversary of the D-Day landings coming up tomorrow, it’s great to get a bit of media coverage for my little website – and of course for getting the story of the seven airmen in the crew of B for Baker out there once more.

If you can read French (or even if you can’t), an online version of the article can be found here.

467 Postblog: Final Wrap

The idea of writing a ‘real time’ project following the crew of B for Baker first came to me in late 2012. I’d realised the significance of 2014 as the 70th anniversary of the loss of the crew, and wanted to mark it in an appropriate way. A few weeks later I took the first steps in sorting through and assessing what information I had.

A year and a half, 102 posts and more than 81,000 words later, what has come out of the project? In pure blogging terms, I’ve seen a 50% increase in traffic – average daily views – since this series began. This is not to say that my traffic has ever been particularly high to begin with (let’s face it, it is a fairly niche subject), but I’ve been happy to see the level of interest increase as I’ve gone deeper into the story. Comments received through the blog have also been excellent and have produced some good contacts. It turns out there are more people interested in the Lille raid than I previously thought!

As I said right at the beginning, digital publishing is ideally suited to a project of this nature. 80,000 words is almost a book in itself, but I wouldn’t want to read all of these posts in one hit. Each post, by design, is really a stand-alone article (though it helps to have some idea of the back story to follow the thread). Publishing the story in chunks spreads out the effort of reading all that detail at once and, I hope, keeps the interest going.

The other advantage of digital publishing, of course, is that revisions can be made if and when new information becomes known. My copy of the ORBs in particular is sometimes not very clear to read and there are errors dotted throughout the original documents… and sometimes I’ve simply mistyped in either transcription or writing. In particular I am indebted to Graham Wallace of the Bomber Command History Forum who sent numerous corrections through as the project progressed. Thanks are also due to Chris Dean of the RAF Waddington Heritage Centre, who reminded me of the existence of the excellent ‘Waddington Collection’ of photos that follow the history of the squadrons on that airfield. Among others, the highly atmospheric photo of the bombers taking off from Waddington for Munich on 24 April 1944 came from that collection.

All in all, I think this was a very worthwhile exercise. I’ve researched and produced what is probably the biggest single piece of work I’ve ever written. I’ve gained a reasonably detailed knowledge of what those seven men were doing while they were on the squadron. I’ve been able to share the story of the crew, seven decades to the day since the events described, with a whole host of interested people, from all around the world.

And that was the main aim. While people know about them, the memory of those seven men will live on. If I’ve contributed to that in some way, I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve.

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

467 Postblog: An Introduction

The crew of B for Baker were posted to 467 Squadron on the last day of 1943. They arrived at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, on the first day of 1944. It follows therefore that 2014 marks seventy years since the crew were operational. To mark this anniversary, I’ve planned a special project to be published on SomethingVeryBig over the next few months: 467 Postblog.

Drawing from a range of sources I’ve compiled a timeline, or a daily diary if you will, looking at events in Bomber Command as a whole and RAF Waddington and the crew of B for Baker in particular during the time that they were on the squadron. From tomorrow I’ll be publishing a post almost every day, following their story from the time they arrived in January 1944 until the fateful Lille operation some four and a half months later.

This period encompasses a good cross-section of Bomber Command operations, and includes some very significant raids. In the first couple of months we will see the crescendo of the Battle of Berlin, with the last mass raid on that city taking place on 23 March amongst a larger campaign of mass city-busting attacks. A week after the final Berlin raid comes the infamous Nuremberg operation. As we move into April, we will see how Bomber Command’s strategies change, in line with the Transportation Plan and other operations aimed at preparing the way for the planned invasion of occupied Europe. While the occasional large raid still happens on a big city like Munich in the latter part of April, for most of that month and the early part of May attacking forces become smaller, trips become shorter and marking techniques become increasingly more accurate. The changing tactics make this a particularly useful and interesting period to look at in some detail.

There were significant periods early on – in early February in particular – where the weather badly affected the bomber offensive. And it was a very long war so there were also days when, simply, nothing much of note happened. So there will be a few days for which I will summarise events into a single post – but all the important ones, particularly the operations in which any member of the crew was involved, will have their own entry to be published seventy years to the day after the events it covers. There will be descriptions of the big events of the time, but also some discussion of everyday life on the squadron and, where the information is available, what the crew themselves got up to.

Almost a year in the making, this is a type of project well-suited to digital publication. Sections will be added in close to real time and the whole project will grow as time goes by.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Does a blog count?

When Bomber Command: Failed to Return was in its final stages of preparation before printing, Steve Darlow, the publisher, asked all the contributing authors to write a short bio for the front flap. “This is your chance to crow unabashed about your work to date”, he wrote.

With precisely no published work to date, for me this was going to be a challenge. My first attempt was pretty lame. But then Steve wondered, what about my blog? Surely that’s a significant piece of work?

That was an interesting point. A blog by definition is something quite personal, where literally anything that I want can be published for all to read without requiring the rigorous editing and reviewing that goes into a traditional book. There are thousands, if not millions, of blogs out there, all of varying quality and accuracy. I hadn’t considered my own to be worthy of much ‘crowing’, and I suppose it’s telling of my mindset at the time that I was excited about Bomber Command: Failed to Return being my first piece of ‘proper’ in-print writing. But then I thought about it. The button I will click on to send this post spinning into cyberspace is marked ‘Publish’. And once I have clicked that button, my words can be read by anyone with an internet connection – just like a book can be read by anyone who happens to pick it up. I’ve tried to note sources as I go along and, though no-one else ever sees my posts before they go live I make sure I edit them for spelling or grammar before I hit ‘Publish’. So why can’t a blog be published work?

I’ve decided that it can indeed count as ‘work to date’, and so my bio on the front flap of Bomber Command: Failed to Return includes the web address for this blog. With the decline of the printed word on paper in society (one just needs to see the long and growing list of failed ‘traditional’ bookshops in Australia to see this), the telling of history needs to evolve. This is not at all incompatible with the idea of a traditional book. I still want to eventually write a real book, made of real paper and ink, on the tale of the crew of B for Baker and where they fit into the overall Bomber Command story. But in the meantime, this blog can help spread the word.

James Daly, an English historian specialising in the military history of Portsmouth, wrote on his Daly History blog: “Just like the internet has broken down doors for music artists, it’s done the same for historians”. Blogs give a vehicle for making history accessible, on sometimes a very local level. The stories get told – which is, of course, the most important thing – to people who want to read them.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Sam Alexander

In September 1916, Private Sam Alexander, of the 9th Brigade, 34th Battalion, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Force, began writing in a diary. Over the next three years or so he would scrawl a few lines on most days about his experiences as a soldier on the Western Front.

Two decades later, as the world was plunging into yet another global conflict, a young neighbour called Kevin Jeffcoat sat spellbound as Sam showed him spiked helmets, medals, gas masks and guns, amazing him with stories of the trenches. “It was awful, it was terrible”, Sam told him. “But it was a grand adventure!”

Kevin would eventually become a professional author, writing books like More precious than gold: An illustrated history of water in New South Wales and Burrinjuck to Balranald: The Early Days. But he also wrote an unpublished manuscript based on his memories of conversations with his childhood neighbour. Called From Kangaroo Valley to Messines Ridge: A Digger’s Diary 1917-1918, it’s a remarkable mix of transcripts of Sam Alexander’s diary entries, with context added by explanatory notes based on research and on Kevin’s own memories.

My parents live in the NSW Southern Tablelands town of Goulburn, where my father is the Principal at one of the two state high schools in the town. Dad transferred to Mulwaree High School almost two years ago, though it took a year before he and my mother moved there. When we visited them a few days after they moved into their new house at Christmas last year, Dad managed to find a little time to show me one of Mulwaree’s hidden secrets. In an unassuming little cinder block building near the school’s main entrance is the Mulwaree High School Remembrance Library.

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Started in 1992, it’s a collection of some 4,000 artefacts, photos and documents relating to local men at war, dating from Vietnam all the way back to the New Zealand-Maori War of the mid-nineteenth century. The Australian War Memorial has described it as perhaps the best collection, outside its own, of war memorabilia in Australia.

Kevin Jeffcoat’s granddaughter is a student at Mulwarree. And in August 2012 she donated to the Remembrance Library a signed copy of her grandfather’s manuscript. It is beautifully written and a fantastic resource for the school. Kevin Jeffcoat has put Sam Alexander’s story into an easily understood form and so has ensured that those stories that he was lucky enough to hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, will remain accessible to new generations into the future.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


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