Archive Page 2

Bundaberg Beaufort

It’s funny the way the internet works sometimes.

A little over four years ago I wrote a post about a Scroll of Honour that I’d found in a tiny military museum next to the Murray River in Moama, NSW. Starting with the name of the man it commemorates, Flight Sergeant Irwin Harold Smead, I carried out a small search to find out about him. I discovered that he had been the navigator of a 32 Squadron Beaufort aircraft which was involved in a mid-air collision with another Beaufort of the same squadron near Bundaberg, Queensland, on 21 April 1944, with the loss of both aircraft and all eight men on board.

I wrote a post about the Scroll, added a little bit of the story… and forgot about it.

Almost exactly four years later, in December last year I was reminded about the story when a second cousin of Flight Sergeant Ignatius William Willcocks (the navigator on the other Beaufort involved in the collision) left a comment on the post. And then Vince Willcocks, Flight Sergeant Willcocks’ nephew, got in touch, and sent me a few photos. He also sent them to Peter Dunn who manages the ‘Oz at War’ website which is where, in 2012, I originally found some details on the crash, and Peter’s posted them there as well, but I thought I’d add them here for completion, along with some photos of the graves as they are now in Bundaberg:

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Ignations Willcocks is second from right in this photo

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Funeral of the victims of the Beaufort crash

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William and Frances, Ignatius’s parents, visit his grave

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The Air Force section of Bundaberg Cemetery as it is today

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Ignatius Willcock’s headstone in Bundaberg

Because someone in his family cared enough to try to find out more about him, Flight Sergeant Willcock’s story and photos are now being shared around and are available for other people to find. In a small way, it helps to ensure that his story is remembered.

And that’s why we do it!

 

Thanks to Vince Willcocks for the photos.

Text © 2017 Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #10: Allan Couper, 75 (NZ) Squadron Bomb Aimer

In early 1944, a young Australian airman on board the Ille de France preparing to depart New York for England and an operational career with Bomber Command, listened to the BBC radio news over the ship’s Tannoy system: “The RAF mounted big attacks on German cities last night,” it said. “Sixty-nine of our aircraft are missing.”

“My God,” he thought. “What are we letting ourselves in for?”

Allan Couper was in the middle of a long stay in hospital after a fall when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive last year. Despite the boredom, he was in good spirits and willingly told me his story in between nurses interrupting or telephones ringing.

Allan was working for the State Electricity Commission in Victoria in late 1941 when he saw an advertisement to join the Air Training Corps as a cadet. It was therefore natural that Allan would join the Royal Australian Air Force proper when he turned 18. “One of the first things I remember that happened at Somers,” he said of his arrival at Initial Training School, “they pointed to a pile of hessian bags and then a pile of hay and they said, that’ll be your bedding for tonight.”

The next three months passed in a blur of lectures (some of which repeated material Allan had already learned in his time with the Air Training Corps), drill, exercise and tests. At the end of the course, Allan was selected as a pilot and sent to 7 Elementary Flying Training School at Western Junction, Tasmania, flying Tiger Moths. But after twelve hours of instruction, before he had the chance to go solo, he was scrubbed because he couldn’t judge landings properly.

Remustered as an observer, Allan was sent to Cootamundra in NSW. Flying in Ansons with two trainees and a staff pilot, they would “stooge around,” navigating to various places and drawing a quick sketch of the townships to prove they’d got there. “You had to be pretty quick,” he said

Further training took place at West Sale, where they did bombing training in Oxfords and gunnery in Fairey Battles. “After the exercise was over,” he said of the gunnery sorties, “the staff pilots would do a few aerobatics… well, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy that!”

Accidents were common in training. Allan remembered one trainee who needed to bail out of his Anson when it got into trouble. “But he forgot to do up the straps between his legs, fell out of his harness and was killed.”

Like many Australians, Allan enjoyed the hospitality of local families while he was in transit through America. On arrival in the UK, it immediately became clear that they were now in a war zone. “The place was absolutely over-run with troops,” he remembered of Brighton, his first stop. “There was food rationing, the roads were chockers with tanks and that sort of thing, there were a lot of women in uniform… every day a formation of Fortresses or Liberators would be coming back and other aircraft would be coming and going all the time.”

At this point, Allan was a fully-trained Observer. But in June 1942 Bomber Command had split that category of aircrew into two specialist roles: those of the bomb aimer and the navigator. And up to this stage in his training, Allan could have been either. Many chose their preference for themselves – but for Allan, the decision was made for him. At the Operational Training Unit in Westcott, the Navigation Leader said to Allan and a group of other Observers, “You shouldn’t have an O on your brevet, you should be wearing a B.” And so Allan became a bomb aimer.

Eventually Allan was posted to 75 (NZ) Squadron at Mepal – the only Australian there. “My crew were allocated a hut,” he remembered, “we went out on a few training exercises to start with – and then we went on our first trip.”

In the first days of autumn in 1944, the German forces in Holland were in retreat but still holding out in places. A major airborne operation to force a resolution, code-named Market Garden, was just weeks away. In this context, the German-held Gilze-Rijen airfield, just outside of Eindhoven, was attacked by a large force of bombers in daylight on 3 September. It was Allan Couper’s baptism of fire, and it didn’t start well. “About a minute and a half after we started on track, the navigator announced that we were doing the reciprocal of what we should have been doing…. That meant that we were four or five minutes late.”

By the time they got over enemy territory, Allan and his crew were now so late that they appeared to be the only aeroplane in the sky – a scary prospect for a crew on their first operation. They were engaged by anti-aircraft fire but escaped and, alone over their target, dropped their bombs into the smoke clouds below. They returned safely to Mepal, to much relief all round. “It was said,” Allan told me, “that if you managed to survive the first three trips you had a fair chance of surviving a tour… that [first trip] was a fair illustration of what those first three trips were all about.”

Happily for Allan and his crew, they learnt from that early experience and managed to complete 32 operations in all. It was not exactly uneventful – on one occasion they lost an engine on take-off, with a full bomb load, but carried on to successfully bomb the target regardless. On another trip an engine failed at low level over the sea on the way out to bomb the dykes at Wangerooge. “Of course, that wasn’t the best…”, Allan said thoughtfully. And on another flight the pilot needed to go and use the Elsan, so Allan’s very limited flying experience was called upon. “We were in formation,” he said, “and in cloud… that was an experience, for everybody!”

On completing his tour, Allan was posted to a unit which was engaged in checking navigation installations at airfields all around the UK. Each day they would fly out to another aerodrome and spend the day checking the accuracy of the beam approach system. The next day they’d go to another airfield. Allan enjoyed the camaraderie at this unit: “The people at this station were all very experienced crews who had been all over the world – they’d done everything.”

And then the war ended, and Allan came home – straight back into his old job at the State Electricity Commission. He would stay with that organisation, in progressively more senior roles, for the rest of his working life.

“None of us knew what we were getting ourselves in for,” he said, reflecting on his service at the end of the interview. “[Bomber Command] was a marvellous, well-organised organisation that achieved great things against great odds… it was a very big contribution that kinda got lost in the upset after the war.”

I looked back as I walked out of the hospital room. There was Allan, eyes closed, lost in his memories.

© 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.

 

Event: FLAK by Michael Veitch, Alex Theatre St Kilda, 22-23 October 2016

If you read this blog there’s a fair chance you’re already familiar with the work of Australian broadcaster and writer Michael Veitch, who has over the last decade produced three books based on interviews with a large number of WWII aircrew. Each book contains 20 or so individual chapters, each focusing on one particular veteran.

“Inside the head of every pilot, navigator or gunner who flew during the Second World War is at least one extraordinary story,” Veitch begins Flak, the first book in the series. He made it his self-imposed mission to collect, and then tell, as many of those stories as he could, and the resulting books are an excellent record of them. They are well worth reading if you have the chance to get your hands on a copy.

But Veitch is probably better-known for his acting and media work, appearing on such 90s shows as Full Frontal, The D Generation and Fast Forward. This unique skill set has enabled him to turn the stories of six airmen featured in the first book into a searingly powerful, sometimes funny and overall very human one-man stage show, called Flak.

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I managed to catch Flak in September last year, at the Gasworks Theatre in Albert Park. It’s a brilliant show. He takes on the characters of the veterans themselves, and manages to capture just what it is actually like talking to them: their mannerisms, their sometimes halting speech – but above all, their humanity. It’s highly recommended.

And it’s back in Melbourne.

Veitch will perform Flak in St Kilda on 22 and 23 October. Tickets here.

 

Declaration: I have no connection with Michael Veitch or the venue or anything associated with this show. I just enjoyed it and thought the audience for this blog might be interested too.

 

Behind the Wire – Photographic Exhibition at the Shrine

I went down to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne recently to see their current exhibition, a photographic project by Australian documentary photographer Susan Gordon-Brown called Behind the Wire. It is a collection of some 50 portraits of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War, presented together with a short blurb from interviews completed with each veteran over a three-year period. There are cooks, dentists, drivers, gunners, infantrymen, pilots and civilian nurses, among other trades, in the collection.

Some of the portraits are beautiful. They’re not particularly flashy, taken with natural light in most cases, but it’s in part their simplicity that appeals. It’s clear to see that these faces have seen some terrible things – and, sadly, in one way or another, these people are all still coping with their experiences many decades later.

Indeed, part of why I wanted to see the exhibition was because of the parallels with my own post-interview photos of Bomber Command veterans. At the local Keilor East ceremony a week before Anzac Day in April I met a Vietnam veteran named Bill, a local man who was there with his grand-daughter. And that made me realise that there are parallels between the men of Bomber Command and the men who served in Vietnam. Both fought in campaigns that have become controversial. Once they came home, there was no official support – no counselling, no recognition. And both sets of veterans have only started talking about their experiences in much later years.

I spent a couple of hours soaking the whole exhibition in. Highly recommended.

The exhibition is on at the Shrine until 23 October at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. Further information can be found on the Behind the Wire website

Incidentally, wandering around the grounds outside the Shrine I finally discovered that there is, in fact, a plaque dedicated to 467 and 463 Squadrons. It’s on the southern edge, in what I’d call prime position – under the first tree on the right when you’re looking down from the Shrine’s southern steps. It’s a simple memorial, but it’s nice to have found a focal point for remembering the two Squadrons in Melbourne.

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(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #9: Denis Kelly – 467 Squadron Wireless Operator and Evader

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“I thought, I’m done, I can’t get out of this ditch, I’m gunna die here. And that was frightening.”

When I rang 467 Squadron wireless operator Denis Kelly to arrange an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive, he told me that he’d almost completed his tour of operations when he was shot down over France in July 1944. I was excited when I hung up the phone: no doubt this would be a good story for me to capture for the Archive.

But when I set up my microphones in his little retirement unit in Melbourne’s far south-east on one warm December morning, what he told me was more than just a good story. It turned out, without exception and without exaggeration, to be the most astonishing tale I have ever had the privilege of hearing first-hand.

And it goes something like this.

Denis Kelly was already married with an infant son when he joined the Air Force at 19, wanting to be a fighter pilot. A lack of depth perception discovered at Initial Training School in Victor Harbour saw him chosen instead for wireless training, which he completed at Ballarat. He sailed to war via the USA (including an unauthorised couple of days in New York), did some more flying at Llandwrog in north-west Wales and crewed up at RAF Lichfield with an Australian pilot named Tom Davis.

Posted to 467 Squadron at Waddington, Denis and his crew began flying operations in late April 1944. They were on many of the same trips as the crew of B for Baker, including Mailly-le-Camp on 3 May (though not the fateful Lille raid a week later). Life on operations was a continual strain, broken only by wild parties in the Mess or short periods of leave. Denis was convinced that with each trip, his supply of luck was steadily being used up. “Every op you completed brought you one closer to the one that would get you.”

On 18 July 1944 the crew attacked Revigny, in France. Close to the end of their tour, this one would indeed turn out to be the one that got them. “We had dropped our bombs,” Denis recalled, “and we’d just turned round and [were] making for home and then BANG, we were hit.” His radios exploded as the aircraft started to burn. The pilot yelled to bale out. Denis immediately clipped on his parachute and went down to the door at the back of the aircraft, pulling on the mid-upper gunner’s legs as he went past to signal that he was about to go. He opened the doors to the rear turret to help the 19-year-old gunner inside to escape, to be confronted by a shocking sight.

“His head was… well, he was dead.”

Denis’ parachute pack and battledress was beginning to smoulder by this time, and the pilot was still yelling to get out.

“So I went to step out – and then I remembered, never step out of a Lanc, you gotta dive.”

Denis dived.

“Next thing I know, I was falling, I was smoking, so I pulled the ripcord at the exact second I hit the ground.”

The impact caused him severe injuries: he later discovered that it had compacted his legs and spine so much that he was a full three inches shorter afterwards. “I thought I broke my spine,” he said. More immediately, his legs simply refused to work.

Denis dragged himself painfully over to a nearby tree. “I thought, ‘my wife’s not going to know I’m here, she’ll think I’m dead. She’ll get the telegram, I can’t do anything about it…’”

Two other members of his crew had landed nearby, and all three held a council of war to decide what to do next. Unable to walk, Denis decided he would be a liability and convinced the others to go on without him. They left – and Denis began a courageous attempt to crawl his way across France. “It was marshy ground, fortunately,” he said.

For the next two days, Denis dragged himself laboriously along on his elbows, moving about “50 yards every three hours.” At one point he slithered into a canal and swam, until he came to a bridge that had German guards on it. In the water he beat a cautious retreat. Getting out of the canal was difficult without the use of his legs, but after several attempts he managed and continued on his slow, determined but excruciating way. He came to a road, started crawling across it – and mercifully passed out.

Evidently deciding he was safe enough, Denis’ mind simply shut his body down. “The Harley St people said it was mind over matter, [my] mind said ‘you’re safe there,’ so…” The next thing he knew, he was being prodded by the boot of a curious French civilian. Lying there, Denis croaked the only French he knew: “Je suis Anglais parachutist – soif.” – “I am an English parachutist – thirsty.” The Frenchman produced a full bottle of beer, and Denis gulped the lot. Then the Frenchman rolled Denis into the ditch at the side of the road – and left him there.

“I thought, I’m done, I can’t get out of this ditch, I’m gunna die here. And that was frightening.”

After Denis spent a terrible day in the ditch thinking the worst, that night the Frenchman returned. He brought with him two others, some spare civilian clothes and a bicycle. Dressing Denis in the clothes, they propped him up on the bicycle, legs hanging below, and took him just a little further downstream from where Denis had scrabbled out of the canal to the house of a lock-keeper named Victor.

Denis stayed here for several weeks while his immediate injuries healed and while he figured out how to walk again. At one point he was taken to see two other members of his crew, in another safe house nearby. This happened to be on Denis’ 21st birthday. Unbelievably, when Denis informed one of the Frenchmen of that fact he produced a bottle of Moet champagne, and all present enjoyed a glass.

After leaving Victor’s care, Denis was hidden, guarded by a gigantic and fierce dog, in the locked room of an unknown house, and later in the attic of a hospital. A little later Denis was picked up again, by a pair of Resistance fighters driving a car fuelled by a charcoal-burning contraption bolted to the back of it. They informed him that a British aeroplane was coming to pick him up that night, and that they were taking him to the landing ground. But on the way there, they saw an identical little car being towed by some German soldiers. The Frenchmen, recognising the car as belonging to one of their comrades, panicked. Clearly the operation had been compromised. The car stopped, the Frenchmen jumped out and urgently knocked on the door of the nearest house, and Denis was unceremoniously pushed inside. (Denis was later told that a British aircraft did indeed land to pick up a whole bunch of evaders, and that the Germans waited until it was loaded and had taken off before shooting it down in cold blood.)

Denis’ new host was not enamoured with the idea of involuntarily sheltering an Allied airman, and by the third day, despite not sharing a common language, he made it clear that he was not welcome. So Denis left.

He was now alone in occupied France.

For the next little while (he isn’t certain how long), Denis wandered between farmhouses scrounging for food. It was at one of these places that he met an American airman, a Thunderbolt pilot who he knew only as ‘Tex’ who had been shot down some nine months previously. They decided to join forces. For a while all was ok, but scrounging sufficient food for two was even harder than it had been when they were on their own. As they got hungrier they started to take more risks, and one day it all came unstuck.

They were in a café and the plan was for Tex to cause a distraction at the counter while Denis pinched a loaf of bread. Unfortunately, two German soldiers walked in at the exact moment that Tex began talking, in his broad Texan accent, to the girl behind the counter. The game was up. The two unfortunate airmen were handcuffed and taken away.

Interrogated half-heartedly by an elderly German soldier who reminded him of a nice old school teacher, Denis was informed that as they had been caught in civilian clothes it was being presumed that they were spies. They were to be taken to Berlin for further interrogation by the Gestapo. “I’d visions of my fingernails being pulled out,” Denis said with a shudder. Sure enough, the next night Denis and Tex were taken to the station, handcuffed together, and were on the point of being bundled onto the train when one of their two guards ducked around the corner to answer a call of nature.

“Tex looked at me,” Denis recalled. “He didn’t say anything but I knew he was going to [do something].” Denis watched wide-eyed as Tex kicked the remaining guard in the groin, stole his gun and shot him in the head. Predictably the other guard then stuck his head around the corner to see what the fuss was about, and Tex shot him too. And then, still handcuffed together, the two airmen ran. Amazingly they were not chased. They spent the next few nights in several barns until they managed to convince one of the farmers to remove their handcuffs with a cold chisel.

Despite their shared perils, however, Denis and Tex went their separate ways shortly afterwards. And here’s where Denis’ story gets truly bizarre. He was just outside a forest one day, foraging for food, when he heard some tanks approaching. So he high-tailed it into the forest and up a tree – then watched in horror as the tanks, which were German, stopped and proceeded to set up their own camp directly underneath his tree.

They stayed there for four days.

FOUR DAYS.

For all of that time, Denis remained in the tree, having used a piece of his parachute which he had been carrying to tie himself to the branch so he could sleep. He sucked the dew off the leaves to survive. The hardest part, he told me, was smelling the aromas when the troops were cooking their rations. The tanks eventually packed up camp and left – and not once had anyone looked up.

Denis crawled down from his tree, very stiff, very sore, very hungry and very thirsty. He had a drink from a nearby stream and, stumbling across a calf, hacked a piece of flesh out of the unfortunate beast’s side. Suddenly beset by terrible stomach cramps from the unaccustomed nutrition, he drifted into an uneasy sleep just outside the forest. He awoke the next night to the sound of a big aeroplane circling very low nearby.

It was a lone Shorts Stirling bomber, and it dropped something big on the end of a parachute. Denis watched as the parachute descended and was making his way over to investigate when suddenly he heard a deep, threatening and unmistakably British voice. “You German bastard,” it growled, “you stop where you are!” Denis turned around, very slowly, to find a mean-looking soldier levelling an equally mean-looking submachine gun in his direction.

“I’m not a German,” Denis squeaked. “I’m an Aussie!”

It turned out that he had blundered into a small platoon of SAS commandos, operating from a well-hidden base behind the lines. The Stirling had been dropping them a Jeep. Denis would stay with the commandos for several days. At one point while they were out on an operation he snuck into their camp, found their radio and tapped out a desperate message to England. “They never answered and I never knew if it had been received,” he told me, “but I found out later from my wife that the federal police came to her [at home] and told her that I was safe at that time, but still behind enemy lines.”

Some time afterwards the commandos handed Denis back to the Resistance who placed him in yet another safe house – where he found Tex and several of his own crew waiting. Knowing that the fighting front was getting closer, the French were collecting their fugitive airmen in one place to wait for liberation.

It was not long coming. “We heard guns,” Denis recalled, “and thought, that’s real firing. So we went up the road, and it was General Patton’s mob, so we waved them down.”

Once they had convinced the Americans that they were Allied airmen who had been in hiding, the Yanks invited them into their tanks, and Denis had the surreal experience of standing in the gun turret, being handed bottles of wine from the grateful inhabitants of several villages as they were liberated.

Denis was sent back to Paris and eventually flown back to England in early September 1944. He had been on the run behind enemy lines for nearly three months. He eventually returned to Australia and his family.

Perhaps unsurprisingly after his experiences, Denis is still coping with the effects of his war. He still occasionally suffers nightmares – “it’s horrifying how realistic it is” – and he said he’d told me things during the interview that he never told his wife (who died about fifteen years ago). It’s clearly hard for him to talk about. But a decade or so ago, his son sat him down and said, “look Dad, you’ve got grandchildren and great grandchildren now – you should leave your story.”

And so Denis wrote. Only ten copies of the resulting manuscript were ever printed. The book includes his whole story, from enlistment to demob and beyond, and it’s uncompromising in its detail. It’s in need of a good edit but its raw honesty, and the astonishing story it tells, makes it one of the more remarkable aircrew memoirs that I’ve read.

As well as setting the incredible tale onto paper, the act of writing the book, I suspect, helped Denis to in some way cope with the demons he’s carried for so long. But something else helped too. There’s a photo on Denis’ wall of him with his son at the Bomber Command memorial in London. It was taken in 2014 when they went on a pilgrimage to Europe.

As well as England, they went across the Channel to France. They visited the lock keeper’s house where Denis had been hidden. They attended receptions in town halls with ceremonies and local dignitaries. They even found a woman who, as a young girl, had been present at the impromptu party when Denis celebrated his 21st birthday behind enemy lines. But most important of all, they visited two lone war graves in two separate churchyards: those of rear gunner Sgt Col Allen and pilot P/O Tom Davis, the two members of Denis’ crew who did not survive the crash.

Standing next to the grave of his brave pilot, Denis broke down in tears. “I bless all of you for coming here today in memory of my comrade,” he told the gathering of local townsfolk. “But also a very important agenda on my plate today is to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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See a video of Denis’ trip to Europe on the ABC 7.30 website

© 2016 Adam Purcell

 

 

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.

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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