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

The IBCC’s Digital Archive is now live!

1806 UK Trip-153
Riseholme Hall, Lincoln University – the home of the IBCC Digital Archive

For every hour of recorded audio, I was told recently, it takes the team of staff and volunteers at the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive about sixteen hours to prepare it for publication. First it has to be transcribed. Then the transcription is reviewed. Then descriptive metadata is added, and finally the item is ready to be uploaded into the archive itself.

Sixteen hours.

By my rough calculations, I recorded about 40 hours of audio during my 27 IBCC interviews. So that’s about 640 hours of work that I created for the poor volunteers. Twenty-six and a half days, and that’s if they don’t sleep. Or eat. Or go for a run. Or do anything else except sit at their computers listening to my interviews.

(Sorry, folks!)

It’s been a mammoth undertaking. There are now more than one thousand oral history interviews in the collection – consisting of 1,049 hours, 43 minutes and three seconds of audio, to be exact – and over 225,000 individual items, including the interviews as well as scans of photographs, documents and letters. More collections are being added every week.

And the good news is that as of today, the Archive is now, finally, available for public access.

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview when I visited the Archive offices, in the University of Lincoln’s facilities at Riseholme Hall, an old manor house just outside Lincoln, in June. I’ve also had advance access for the last month or so as a usability tester. I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen.

Only a small subset of the collection is currently available online: a little over 5,000 items or about 3% of the total. I’ve watched that number increase from about 3,500 or so in the time I’ve had access. More material is being added on a daily basis. I’m told the Archive staff have been pulling 12-hour days in the lead-up to the launch to get as much as possible loaded before it officially went live. At the moment this means that a lot of the really awesome tagging and cross-referencing won’t realise their full potential, but once a critical mass of material is reached this is going to be one very useful source of information.

A lot of this usefulness comes from the detail in the metadata that is attached to every item. As well as the interviews, every letter and document will eventually be transcribed. This makes them searchable down to the individual page, which is extraordinary for an archive of this size. The metadata that’s been added allows grouping of related items by (for example) their spatial coverage (where in the world they relate to) or their temporal coverage (ie the time period that’s covered). Where possible, items are geolocated. This includes wartime aerial photography, which, astonishingly, has been overlaid on a modern interactive map. I don’t even want to think about how much effort it took to make that little party trick work, but it paid dividends for me immediately: there’s a bombing photograph, for example, that was taken during the 10 May 1944 Lille raid from which my great uncle Jack failed to return. I’d never seen one before.

And this is the other great strength of this Archive. It is made up, almost entirely, of personal material collected from participants and families of participants. That Lille target photograph comes from the collection of a WAAF who served at RAF Skellingthorpe. In many (most?) cases, this material has never before been seen outside of those families. There are no official records – those can be found in other places. This collection is about the personal, the stories of the individuals involved, that together chart the course of Bomber Command’s war and its aftermath.

Combine that unique material with very powerful search tools and free, worldwide access, and you have something that will be one of the most useful collections of unpublished Bomber Command material anywhere.

The IBCC’s Digital Archive, developed in partnership with the University of Lincoln, can be accessed here. Go have a look!

 

© Adam Purcell 2018

Book Review: And Some Fell on Stony Ground, by Leslie Mann

While wandering my local remainders bookshop recently, I was surprised to spot a Bomber Command-themed book that I hadn’t heard of before. I was first attracted by the subtitle: A day in the life of an RAF bomber pilot. And when I pulled a copy out I saw an ungainly-looking twin-engined aeroplane on the cover. A Whitley! There are very few books about that part of the bomber war.

Sold!

As far as impulse purchases go, And Some Fell on Stony Ground, by Leslie Mann, turned out to be one of my better ones. At less than 200 pages it’s not very long. The novel centres on the thoughts of Pilot Officer Mason, a Whitley skipper, over a single day in June 1941. It follows him as he winds his way back to his aerodrome after an afternoon at the pub. It follows his preparations for an operation. It follows him as he climbs into his Whitley, takes off and points the nose towards Germany.

Despite being based on actual events, And Some Fell On Stony Ground is not, and does not claim to be, a history. There never was a Pilot Officer Mason who was on that particular operation in June 1941. The release from the bounds of strict accuracy allows the author to really run with things, with no fear of offending the purists or disrespecting those he served with. Mann opens the door and lets the reader in to the deepest feelings of his protagonist, and you get the strong idea he knows first-hand exactly what he’s talking about.

He does. Leslie Mann was in fact a rear gunner on Whitleys, shot down over Germany on the night of 19/20 June 1941. A raid on Dusseldorf, the same operation that’s depicted in the book. It’s pretty clear that it’s Mann’s own thoughts and feelings we are reading here. The result is very honest and searingly powerful. That its focus is on the early part of the bombing war, when aeroplanes like Whitleys and Hampdens were still front-line weapons, is an added bonus.

The concept of a fictional memoir naturally invites comparison with They Hosed Them Out, the book written by John Bede Cusack in the 1960s. But where Cusack’s original story is known to deliberately stretch the truth for the sake of a good narrative, somehow I get the feeling that Mann’s story doesn’t stray too far from how he experienced it. After his Whitley was shot down he was a prisoner of war for a little over two years, before being repatriated to England towards the end of 1943 on psychiatric grounds.

It’s evidently this last fact that led in the first place to the existence of And Some Fell on Stony Ground. Mann wrote it in the late 1940s, seemingly as a way of dealing with the demons that were still hanging around. It’s not clear whether anyone in his family knew about the manuscript until he died in 1989, and it took another quarter-century until it was released.

My edition of the book – which was published in association with the Imperial War Museum in 2014 – includes an introduction by Richard Overy, the distinguished and respected historian of The Bombing War fame. His writing places Mann’s story in context, both of the overall bomber offensive and of Mann’s own part in it. “The value of Leslie Mann’s perspective”, he writes, “lies in the explanation it gives of how it was possible for young men to endure this degree of combat stress and to continue flying.”

As the veterans of the bombing war die out, books like this will soon be one of the few ways we have to understand something of what it was like to live with the strain of continued operations, and how they coped with it. In that sense, And Some Fell on Stony Ground tells a vitally important and little-understood part of the story.

Mann, Leslie (2014). And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot. Icon Books Pty Ltd, Omnibus Business Centre, 39-41 North Rd, London N7 9DP. ISBN 978-184831-720-8

© 2018 Adam Purcell

Review: International Bomber Command Centre, Lincoln

I was on holiday in Lincoln recently. If I stepped out of our rental townhouse on the hill just below the Cathedral and looked south, in a clearing on the opposite ridgeline I could see the Spire of the newly-opened International Bomber Command Centre. That made me happy.

In the few years since it was erected, the Spire has become a landmark in its own right. It’s visible from most places on the south side of Lincoln, a distant brown spindle poking up over the horizon. The view of it from the walls of Lincoln Cathedral is virtually unobstructed.

When the creators of the International Bomber Command Centre chose their spot, the visual link with the Cathedral was important. Lincolnshire was known as Bomber County, and there were 27 airfields scattered around the county. The Cathedral, set as it is high on the hill, dominates the landscape for miles around, and so naturally became something of a landmark for the crews of the bombers. And so it remains today. When you’re standing under the Spire, the Cathedral is clearly visible across the city.

I’m not much of a fan of modern sculpture (the Australian Bomber Command memorial at the AWM puzzles me), but the Spire itself is a rather graceful weathered steel construction that actually looks better in the flesh than I expected it to. It’s designed to be as tall as a Lancaster was wide. While there’s a little niggling within elements of the Bomber Command community about whether this might be too much focus on the Lancaster at the expense of other types of aircraft, there’s no doubting Lincolnshire’s strong connection to Avro’s big four-engined bomber. Given where the IBCC is situated, they can be forgiven for this, I think. The focus of the IBCC has expanded significantly since the initial idea was conceived – originally it was known as the Lincolnshire Bomber Command Memorial – and they’ve been careful to include the other aircraft within the exhibition as well. I guess there’s no way of making everybody happy.

Surrounding the Spire are curved steel walls, engraved with the names of every person who died serving with Bomber Command – almost 58,000, by the IBCC’s count. This is the focus of the memorial part of the project, and many visitors have left poppies alongside names of personal significance. It’s a peaceful spot. Surrounding the Spire are 27 native lime trees, each representing one of the airfields of Lincolnshire. Cleverly, they are placed in positions that approximate the real-life geographic locations of the airfields spread around Lincoln.

The other part of the development is the Chadwick Centre, a striking building with big floor-to-ceiling windows on either side and a roof that in shape is reminiscent of a wing. The exhibition is inside. It was something that I was very interested to finally see.

And I’m pleased to say it’s been very well done. The story begins with a series of four short videos that set the scene. First we learn a bit about the background of the Second World War itself. Then the early theories about strategic bombing are covered before they move on to how Bomber Command came into being and, finally, the individual experience of being on a squadron. As you move around the main gallery you learn about a typical day with Bomber Command. Every 40minutes or so, the room darkens and a short, immersive audio-visual presentation takes over. Upstairs is a gallery about the Home Front – life under the bombing, on both sides. Then you cross into an open mezzanine, which holds displays about how Bomber Command is remembered. From here, you get a view looking out over the grounds to the Spire.

The focus of the whole exhibition is very much on the individual level, asking ‘what was it like’ for these otherwise ordinary people. This focus makes sense especially given that most of the material included in the exhibition comes from the developing IBCC Digital Archive (about which, more in a future post, I hope), a body of information that itself was collected based on individual experiences and collections. Many such individual stories go together to make up the whole, after all.

It’s a very high-tech and hands-on exhibition, with ‘talking head’ actors on screens telling stories and plenty of buttons to push or telephones to dial. Here, incidentally, was where I found a little bit that I’d directly contributed to the Archive. If you pick up this old phone and dial “1”, you hear a short clip of Gerald McPherson telling a story about how he once lent his watch to a mate who, predictably perhaps, didn’t come back.

The clip comes from the interview I did with Gerald in Melbourne in February 2016.

There are also digital photo frames dotted around the place that include a slideshow of interesting images from the Archive. The beauty of such digital presentation methods is that the material can easily be added to, or even rotated, at a later date. The disadvantage is that digital things occasionally break. A couple of the telephones were not working when we visited, and one of the ‘talking head’ screens was not working (though the soundtrack was).

Other than that, though, I found the exhibition excellent. It’s presented in an engaging manner that is accessible for almost any age (a group of primary school children were visiting when we were there), and tries to keep a balanced view of what’s become known as “difficult heritage”. It’s pitched at a level that is intended for people who don’t know a whole lot about Bomber Command, aiming to educate and spread the story wider. But there’s enough there to keep anyone interested. The use of material from the Digital Archive helps here, I think, because most of it is unpublished. While the basic story might be familiar to someone like me, for example, the detail of what is used to tell the story, and how the material presented, is new and interesting.

About the only criticism I can make of the IBCC is the café. It serves breakfast until 11:30 but lunch doesn’t start until 12:00. The Centre opens at 9:30am, and you need about two hours to properly experience the exhibition and gardens… which meant the little half-hour window when they only serve cakes or coffee and tea happened just as I came out of the exhibition. Oh, well.

In the main, though, it was a great morning at the International Bomber Command Centre. It’s been an extremely worthwhile project to be a (very small) part of, and it was quite exciting to see, first-hand, some of my work in the exhibition. The IBCC project has been a long time in the making, and it’s turned out great. Well worth a look.

 

The International Bomber Command Centre can be found at Canwick Hill, Lincoln – internationalbcc.co.uk

Declaration: I was involved with the IBCC as a volunteer interviewer here in Australia, between 2015-2017.

(c)2018 Adam Purcell

IBCC Digital Archive Interview Wrap

I collected my first oral history for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive in October 2015. Interview Number One was with a man named Ern Cutts, a 466 Squadron Halifax rear gunner, and at the time I was one of just two volunteer interviewers for the project in Australia, and the only one in Melbourne.

A little over two years later, the Archive is close to being launched. It is well on the way to being an extremely significant collection of original Bomber Command stories, containing over 700 interviews and tens of thousands of scanned documents. These come from a wide variety of participants: both aircrew and ground crew, civilians who were in some way affected by Bomber Command or its legacy, and even a sizeable collection of material from German and Italian sources.

I’ve now taken a step back from actively seeking out further people to interview, partly to give some attention to other somewhat neglected projects and partly to give someone else a go, but I thought I’d share something of my experiences from the 27 interviews I contributed to the project.

My collection of subjects included nine pilots, seven navigators, four wireless operators, two bomb aimers, one mid-upper gunner, three rear gunners and a single WAAF. To my eternal disappointment, I wasn’t able to find a flight engineer to interview, otherwise I’d have collected an entire crew. In their ‘main’ postings, these 27 individuals represented three Heavy Conversion Units, one Operational Training Unit, and 18 Squadrons. Four of them held a Distinguished Flying Cross. One held a DFC and Bar. There were three members of the Caterpillar Club, four prisoners of war and one evader. 15 flew in Lancasters and eight in Halifaxes. One man flew both. Two flew in Liberators, one in Mosquitos and one poor soul flew in, and was shot down in, something called a Bristol Bombay.

I interviewed four people who were at Heavy Conversion Units when the war ended (two of them on the same crew). At the other end of the experience scale, one man completed 68 operational trips, ending up as a Pathfinder Master Bomber. At the time of interview, they ranged in age from a few months past 90 to more than one hundred. At least five of them have died since I interviewed them.

I interviewed two people in Sydney, one in Canberra and three on a single particularly intense weekend in Adelaide. The rest have all been in and around Melbourne (if, that is, you count as Melbourne the Mornington Peninsula in the south, Warragul in the east and Ballarat in the north-west). I’ve calculated that I have spent almost 250 hours directly working on this project, resulting in about 40 hours of actual taped interviews and more than 50 hours of travel time. I’ve travelled by car, motorbike, train, plane, bus, taxi and on my own two feet. The furthest I travelled for an interview was more than 800km to Sydney, and the shortest a walk of less than two kilometres from my home.

I’ve met some lovely people through this project. The vast majority have been extremely generous with their time, their tea and their stories. I knew seven before I interviewed them – indeed, I could even claim three or four as close friends – but for the vast majority of the rest, the first time I met them was when I turned up on their doorstep carrying my laptop, microphones and camera. I’ve found it quite amazing how open some of these people have been, how willing they’ve been to dive straight into some pretty personal stories within minutes of meeting me.

And some of those stories are genuinely astonishing. Like the navigator who went through all the training only to be shot down on his first trip—by another Lancaster. Or the pilot who went to the UK expecting to go to Bomber Command, but was instead posted to India where he flew a distinguished tour on Liberators. Then there was the pilot who flew for a Special Duties squadron whose operations were so secret he still doesn’t know exactly what he was doing. The Mosquito nightfighter navigator who chased doodlebugs through the skies of south-eastern England. The man who went from Flight Sergeant to Squadron Leader in six weeks, such was the rate of casualties in his squadron, then flew two full tours – all before his 21st birthday. The wireless operator who was shot down over France and spent three months with the Resistance before being rescued by Patton’s tanks. The bomb aimer who was the only survivor from both crews involved in a mid-air collision over Stuttgart. The gunner who still thinks – every day – about his pilot, who was the only member of his crew who died when they were shot down over Germany.

Time, certainly, has dulled some of the memories. But as we’ve gone deeper into the interviews, memories have been unlocked and some long-forgotten details have been pulled to the surface. It was not uncommon to be told afterwards that I’d just heard things that even their closest family members didn’t know. That, in itself, has made this an extremely worthwhile project to be a part of, and the archive is developing into a very valuable collection of original Bomber Command stories.

But I’ve found another happy effect from collecting all of these interviews. I’ve been able to talk with some very interesting people, and several friendships have developed as a result. And in many cases, I’ve been able to ring them up again and even go back to visit them – for nothing so formal as a follow-up interview, simply for a social chat.

I reckon that’s one of the best things that we can do to show our respect for these people: just be friendly, show interest in them as people, not only in their stories. To listen to them, give them some of our time.  They deserve that much from us all.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Barney Greatrex by Michael Veitch

Michael Veitch, I’d wager, has heard some pretty amazing stories in his time. He has, after all, filled three bestselling books with them. Flak (2007) was the first, and as Veitch writes in the introduction to that tome, “inside the head of every pilot, navigator or gunner who flew during the Second World War is at least one extraordinary story.” In Barney Greatrex, however – Veitch’s seventh book, and his fifth about aircrew in WWII – he just might have found the most astonishing story of them all.

Barney Greatrex – for that’s his name – was a 61 Squadron bomb aimer. The book begins with a good old-fashioned cliffhanger. A month after parachuting from his crashing Lancaster into occupied France, Barney witnesses the execution of a collaborator by members of the Maquis band he had become associated with. You’re drawn into the story immediately: what’s this bloke doing in France? How did he get there? What’s he doing with the Maquis? Veitch proceeds to answer those questions, and more, in his usual extremely readable fashion.

We get taken right back to the beginning, the story initially following a well-trodden path of family background, schooling, enlistment and training that is familiar to anybody who has read a book about Bomber Command aircrew. We’re 49 pages in before Barney reaches his squadron and begins flying on operations. This is not to say that the early part of the book is in any way boring. Veitch skilfully weaves explanations of things like the Empire Air Training Scheme through the narrative, and puts Barney’s experiences into the overall context of the war itself. There are one or two errors of fact (such as confusing which rudder pedal a pilot would use to cope with two engines out on one side), but generally he makes good use of the significant background knowledge that comes from countless hours and dozens of interviews with veterans conducted for his previous books, and the lifelong fascination with the aircrew of WWII that motivated those earlier projects.

The descriptions of flying during the Battle of Berlin period, and particularly of what happened following a mid-air collision over the ‘Big City’ in November 1943, are compelling reading. But then comes the fatal trip to Augsburg on 25 February 1944. Barney just manages to escape his crashing Lancaster before it hits the ground and tries to walk to freedom, but after a couple of days decides to seek help in a farmhouse he comes across – and it’s from this point that the story becomes truly incredible. Barney becomes actively involved with the French Maquis. Without giving too much away, the story involves several Resistance units, many hiding places, much cloak-and-dagger sneaking around, tense stand-offs, and somehow surviving many, many narrow squeaks. It’s the sort of stuff you used to read about in those Commando war comics (you did read Commando comics, right?) – and indeed, I found myself visualising the scenes in Commando-style black-and-white line drawings as I read the sections featuring Lieutenant Colonel Prendergrast and his merry band of ‘Jedburghs’. The difference, of course, is that the events described in Barney Greatrex actually happened.

It’s a rollicking read, one that I devoured in just two nights. The way Veitch writes – clear, respectful, occasionally awestruck – is an excellent fit for the story. When he writes how several interrogators, after Barney’s liberation, “took notes but mainly looked at him in stunned silence, mesmerised by the story of his adventure” I could easily imagine Veitch himself doing exactly that, as he researched the book.

A lot of the research for Barney Greatrex was, in fact, completed by two other men – Alex Lloyd and Angus Hordern – who, like Barney, are alumni of the exclusive Knox Grammar School in Sydney. The book has its genesis in a documentary project called For School and Country, which premiered at Knox in 2015. Veitch was approached to turn the story into the book, a task he took to with gusto.

It’d be hard not to make a good book out of the quality of source material and the bones of the story itself that Veitch had to work with, and Barney Greatrex more than lives up to the promise. It’s a very readable, informative and outright exciting book that opens up one more airman’s astonishing story to a mainstream audience.

 

Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance – the Stirring Story of an Australian Hero, Hachette Australia. ISBN 9780733637230

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

The perils of oral history

There was a quite interesting article in Good Weekend, the magazine that comes with the Saturday newspaper here in Melbourne, last week. In Afghanistan, a split-second decision separates life and death is an edited extract of a new book called No Front Line by Chris Masters, who as a journalist was ‘embedded’ with Australian Special Forces units in 2006.

The article (and I suppose the book, though I haven’t read it) looks at some of the troubling issues to rise out of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: the moral ambiguity, the culture of the Special Forces and the questions that remain over what actually happened there. It’s worth a read.

It was a little snippet contained within the article that really grabbed my attention, though. Much of the extract published in Good Weekend centres around one particular action that happened in early June 2006  in the hills around the Chora Valley, near Tarin Kowt (where one of the principle Australian bases was located). An Australian patrol made up of six men climbed up into the hills to establish a reconnaissance post overlooking the valley, which had recently been overrun by Taliban troops. “Later accounts of what occurred vary markedly,” Masters writes. Two soldiers who were involved in the incident recalled a young Afghan male, who carried nothing, approaching their position. He “looked past the OP, then walk[ed] on across their front from right to left.” Then he came back, this time carrying a bag. Sometime around here was when it was decided that the man was a danger to the soldiers at the observation post, and two of the soldiers stalked him and, in the euphemistic language of the later after-action report, “neutralised the threat.” Whether or not this shooting of an apparently unarmed man, who may or may not have been a civilian, was justified is one of the moral questions that often arises in war.

And this is where it gets interesting. One of the other soldiers involved in the incident was Lance-Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith (who would receive a  Medal for Gallantry for this action, and later a Victoria Cross for another incident). He was interviewed by an Australian War Memorial historian in 2011 about what happened on the ridgeline. “A couple of blokes just walked up, literally,” he said, “probably about two hours before dark, walked straight up to the front of the OP, got about 30 metres to the front…”

Note Roberts-Smith’s first sentence: “a couple of blokes” [my emphasis]. The presence of two potential enemies rather than just one paints the incident in a rather different light. So here we have accounts from three eyewitnesses, all soldiers who were directly involved in the action, that differ over a quite significant basic fact. Adding to the confusion, in a different, later, interview, Roberts-Smith said “an armed insurgent walked to within 30 metres” – an. A sole individual.

Which was it, really? The post-action report, written later by the patrol commander in the aftermath of the incident, identifies a single person. That, the original two soldiers’ testimony and Roberts-Smith’s later interview all agree that there was just the one Afghan who approached the observation post, so it’s likely that this is the true number. So why did Roberts-Smith apparently get it wrong when talking to the War Memorial?

I reckon that it’s most likely simply because of the way the human mind works. Roberts-Smith wrote to the AWM after the interview, setting out a few factors that could explain it: Firstly, five years had passed between the incident and recalling it in an interview. In the interim, he had been sent to Afghanistan four more times. And the interview itself was more than two hours and 40 minutes long. “It would appear,” he wrote, “I have confused my many engagements.”

And finally we get to the point. Oral history depends on memories – indeed, oral history is made up of memories. But memories are volatile things. Time can dull the stories or even remove details entirely, and experiences can, perhaps, get muddled together in retelling – even more so when, as is my experience of collecting oral histories, those doing the remembering are nonagenarians  dealing with events that took place more than seven decades ago. Memories can be manipulated, too: if you tell yourself often enough, intentionally or otherwise, that something happened, before too long you’ll believe it really did.

In short, oral histories are not particularly reliable for the bare facts of history. They remain extremely valuable sources because they are first-hand accounts of the time under study and can capture a feeling of what it was like. But make sure you check the facts against documented sources before taking them as gospel.

It’s nothing deliberate on the part of those being interviewed. It’s just the way the mind works.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

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:

Metheringham Pano.jpg

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

IBCC Interview #12: Jean Smith – WAAF, RAF Lichfield

Jean Smith knew that the Second World War was coming, long before it started. She remembers well the day the balloon finally went up. Seventeen years old, she was working as a secretary for the Ministry of Aircraft Production in Barkley Square, London. For the past year, she’d been preparing contracts for, among other things, the construction of Wellingtons and Spitfires for the RAF. It was the first Sunday in September 1939. “They said to us girls, we’re all going down to the big hall because there’s going to be a speech by the Prime Minister,” she said. “We sat in the hall and the speech came on and [Chamberlain] said ‘we are now at war’. And we all said ‘Whoopee!’ – and then the air raid siren went.”

Instead of going to the shelters like they were told, Jean and her colleagues rushed to the big windows and looked over Barkley Square. It was completely deserted, Jean says – except for “a great big fat barrage balloon, going slowly up…”
The balloon really did go up when the Second World War started – and Jean saw it. I thought this an irresistibly evocative image. It was one of many beautifully vivid vignettes that she shared with me during an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre in 2016.

As soon as the war started, Jean told me, she wanted to go into the Air Force. But her father (himself a veteran of the trenches of WWI) wouldn’t let her – “not until you’re 21.” So she stayed at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, while also volunteering in the Services Canteen at the local Town Hall three nights a week to pour tea or serve baked beans to any servicemen who dropped in. “We had troops everywhere!”
In the end Jean managed to enlist at the beginning of 1942 when she was 20. She wanted to be flight mechanic or a radio operator, but given her pre-existing skills she went in as a secretary. “So all I did was my two months’ training at Innsworth camp, with thousands of other girls.” Similar to the syllabus at (male) aircrew Initial Training Schools, Jean learned to march and salute, and studied subjects like hygiene and Air Force law. Unlike aircrew though, Jean was also expected to do her hair and put on ties and make-up while using only a little compact mirror.

Jean Smith, 1943

Jean was quickly posted to 27 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lichfield, as the personal secretary to the Chief Flying Instructor. Her office was part of the Orderly Room of Training Wing – in the Flying Control tower at the edge of the airfield. The reality of life on an RAF training station during the war was brought home very quickly: “As soon as I’d settled into my office, my first job was to type out a Form 765C… five copies.” This was the standard accident report form used in Bomber Command. The particular accident was what was known as a “Cat E” – a total write-off – and all the crew were killed. “When I’d done those, I asked the Sergeant in Charge of the Orderly Room, ‘does this happen often?’ ‘Oh yes’, he said. ‘we’ve had one accident this week, we’re sure to have another two.’” Sure enough, Jean says, that’s exactly what happened. Her task the next morning was to sit down with the CFI and type out letters of condolence to the families of the dead.

On another occasion, Jean described witnessing, from her desk, the immediate aftermath of a Wellington crash. First there was a thud. “You knew it was a crash [from] that metal noise,” she said. “We looked out of the side window and there were flames and it was sliding across the airfield… And we just stood there, rooted to the spot.” Worse was to come, though. The radio operator WAAFs upstairs in the tower had left the intercom switched on. “The crew were screaming and we could hear it [through the intercom]… it was horrible.”

Though the threat of German invasion had abated somewhat by the time Jean reached Lichfield, it was still top of mind among the powers that were, and preparations were made just in case. Members of the WAAF couldn’t be compelled to carry arms, but there was one occasion when Jean was among a large group of women given the opportunity to learn how to reload and fire a Lee-Enfield rifle, in case of a desperate last-minute stand. “We all came back with a big bruised shoulder!” Jean chuckled. It would be the only time she ever fired a weapon. She also remembers being sent to guard Wellingtons that had been dispersed in farmers’ fields, armed with nothing more than a truncheon. “It was so absurd,” Jean said. “Three girls with truncheons, and we’d be out in the rain and mud, parading around these Wimpeys…”

But life at Lichfield wasn’t all bad. Every day at 10:30 the NAAFI van would come round and toot its horn, and everyone would go out with their mugs and ask for “tea and a wad”. And of course there were young men everywhere. “I was struck dumb… all these young heroes breezing in – and they really did say ‘jolly good show’ when they came in after doing something well…” Jean lived two miles down the road at the “Waafery,” which was surrounded by barbed wire and had sentries at the gate. “I used to tell the aircrew that it was to keep you randy Aussies out!” Between the Waafery and the airfield was a little pub called The Anchor, which became a regular stop for a quick drink. On winter nights when it was too foggy or rainy to fly, the message would go out over the Tannoy:

“ALL NIGHT FLYING CANCELLED – ALL NIGHT FLYING SCRUBBED – OVER AND OUT!:

“And we’d all say whoopee,” said Jean, “and get the curlers out and put all the glamour on, and dash to the pub.” Having visited the bar for half-pints of beer, the women would wait there until the sound of bikes going bang, bang, bang outside against the pub wall announced the arrival of all the boys. “They’d all come streaming in, and in half an hour the whole place would be a thick fug, you could hardly see across the room from the cigarette smoke.” There was always a big fire on in the lounge bar, Jean remembered, and “the old piano would be going like mad with all the songs getting naughtier and naughtier as the night went on…”

On 30/31 May 1942, Bomber Command sent its biggest ever force to attack Cologne. Aircraft and crews from the Operational Training Units, including Lichfield, were sent to supplement the Main Force in an effort to reach, mostly for the propaganda value, the magical number of one thousand. Possibly because she was never posted to a front-line squadron, Jean remembers the night well. “That was very exciting,” she said. “Suddenly everybody was called on deck and you were just told to do all sorts of jobs. I was giving out sealed maps and all the Red Cross parcels to the navigators and pilots.”

“A whole host of us went down to wave them off. And I always remember that night, a mass of people all standing underneath the balcony of Flying Control, and all the top brass of the station were all out on the balcony […] you’d hear that coughing and choking sound of each engine starting up and revving up and then slowly slowly the first aircraft came weaving down past the control tower.”

Jean watched the aircraft take off in turn into the dusk, with “all the dust and leaves and twigs flying.” Once they had all gone and an unsettled silence descended once again over the airfield, “long after the groundstaff had put out the flarepath and long after the dim lights on the balcony had gone off and all the officers had gone in, we all stood there, not speaking…”

Jean stayed at Lichfield until she was hospitalised by a bout of pneumonia, probably brought on by the extreme cold and damp in the Nissen huts they had been moved to. To aid her recovery she was posted to more salubrious accommodation at 93 Group Headquarters. Jean was sitting at her desk there one day in November 1944, typing on a big heavy long-carriage typewriter, when “this funny rumble went through my feet – and suddenly this rumble got bigger and my typewriter really jumped.” Jean sat back and watched, astonished, as a great big crack started at the top of the wall and came down in a big curve. She had witnessed the effects of the “Fauld Explosion“, when more than 3,500 tonnes of explosives accidentally went up at a large bomb storage depot. “I just watched it,” she said. “In an air raid when you see bombs, you tend to watch them. You’re sort of rooted to the spot. It was like that.”

The presence of women on the front-line stations was, of course, one of the more unique things about the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I’ve heard plenty of stories about that from the point of view of aircrew, but as the only WAAF I’ve interviewed, Jean was always going to have a different perspective. And, as I discovered is typical, she was very direct about it, too:

“Oh, I was a terrible flirt in the Air Force!”

Jean had a little address book with names and addresses for aircrew from all over the world – “Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders” – to whom she would write letters. “They all wanted you to write to them,” she said – “all these different boys who you never saw again.” She told me about how she met a young fitter at a a fancy-dress dance that was put on by the WAAF. This was Jock, “and of course I really fell for him.” But after they had five dates he went off to train as a flight engineer.

“Jock wanted me to be his steady girlfriend,” Jean said, “but most of us WAAF didn’t want to be serious.” This was as much out of concern for the aircrew than to protect the feelings of the WAAFs (though that undoubtedly played a role, too): “Once [aircrew] got married they became very serious and much more careful – and we all felt, talking to the aircrew boys, that to be careful was the worst thing [on ops] – it was far better to be gung-ho and able to take risks, and not have to think about a wife or serious girlfriend.”

Once he’d completed his aircrew training, Jock was posted to 90 Squadron, where he flew a complete tour of operations on Stirlings. (This explained several framed prints of that aircraft that were on Jean’s living room wall). They wrote to each other throughout that time – “I still have all his letters” – but it was not until Jock was screened and posted as an instructor at an Operational Training Unit at RAF Woolfox Lodge that the romance was re-kindled. Jean had just been posted herself, to 3 and 5 Group Headquarters in Grantham: about fifteen miles up the Great North Road from Jock’s new airfield. He had somehow acquired a motorbike so visits were easy. Jean confided that there was a little bench in a park in Grantham which in the wartime blackout was in an agreeably dark place. “That was our Snogging Seat, and we used to kiss and cuddle there,” she said with eyes sparkling. Alas, come VE Day in May 1945, all the street lights were turned on for the first time in six years… “and our Snogging Seat was no good anymore because there was a big lamp above it and it was lit up!”

Jean Smith, 1943-2

Jean and Jock married in 1946, once both had been demobbed. Life was not easy in the immediate post-war period. “You went back into civvy street and you had this awful feeling that you weren’t wanted,” Jean told me. Jobs that had been held throughout the war by civilians were jealously guarded and rationing was severe – even more so than during the conflict. “I queued for hours for bread and onions and potatoes.” Jock managed to find a job as a ground engineer for British European Airways, but jumped at an opportunity to immigrate to Australia to work with Australian National Airways in Essendon, Melbourne. Jock came out to Australia in 1952 and Jean followed six months later, and they never looked back. “We laughed our way through life, Jean said. “It was all giggle, giggle, giggle the whole time.” Jock died several years ago, and Jean’s wartime training was once again pressed into service. “A WAAF never cries,” she was told. In public, one must appear stoic. “So I didn’t even cry at his funeral,” she said. “That came later.”

“It was the best days of our lives,” Jean says now of her service. “The majority of people were all pulling together, we had one ideal, [and] everyone was working together and helping each other.” Bomber Command, she says, was Britain’s “one big bastion against Germany” before the invasion. “And if it hadn’t been for Bomber Command bombing the factories, roads, keeping them on their toes and keeping them short of things, it would have been terrible on D-Day…”

I always try to take a photo of my interview subjects after we finish. “Oooh!” said Jean when I pulled out my camera, and she rushed out to fix up her make-up (with, I presume, a full-sized mirror). I spotted a little model of a Wellington, made out of solid brass. It’s a genuine piece of trench art, crafted at RAF Lichfield while Jean was posted there. So we incorporated it into the photo:

1603 Jean Smith-031

Being the only WAAF I’ve interviewed, Jean had a very different story to what might be considered the “usual” Bomber Command narrative I’ve been used to hearing. She tells her story well, eyes twinkling at all the important moments, and five hours flew by as we chatted.

“I’m glad I got all that off my chest,” she said as I packed up my lightstand, “to someone who wanted to hear it.”

And I’m glad I got to hear it.

Words and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jean Smith.

Jean died in December 2020.

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.

1706 BCCDF CBR-367

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.