Author’s note, 5 June 2021: Since this post was published, several major Australian newspapers have printed serious allegations against the soldier it names, concerning his conduct in Afghanistan. While I make no comment on the veracity or otherwise of the newspapers’ claims, I acknowledge the possibility that the allegations add a different context to the soldier’s testimony as it’s quoted here,. However, because its central thrust is about how oral history needs to be taken with a grain of salt (rather than commenting on the actual incident described), my post remains valid and I’ve decided to leave it here unchanged (except for this note).
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.
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:
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.
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 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 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:
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.
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.
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.
With these words, Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson closed a speech delivered at the Bomber Command lunch in the shadows of Lancaster G for George last weekend. He was speaking, specifically, to the 38 veterans of Bomber Command who were among the audience, telling them that the latter phrase can be in Australia’s National Anthem because of deeds done by the likes of them.
Dr Nelson’s speech – a rolling masterpiece, delivered with passion, skill and emotion (and just the right amount of self-deprecating humour) by a man who admittedly does this sort of thing for a living – will long be remembered by those who heard it. It received a standing ovation and was a clear highlight of a weekend that brimmed with them: the tenth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.
Ostensibly there were, perhaps, two reasons why a particular effort was made to make this year somewhat more special than usual: the fact that this was the tenth such event, and also to mark the 75th anniversary of Australian squadrons going into action as part of Bomber Command. There is some contention on this latter point (as author Kristen Alexander has pointed out) and in a way it’s unfortunate that someone felt the need to justify ‘extra special’ treatment by concocting an anniversary which doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. But whatever the justification for it, this was a very impressive event. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs were involved early on by making funding available to assist veterans to travel to Canberra, Royal Australian Air Force Association coordinated the DVA grants, Bomber Command Association in Australia were actively contacting all the veterans on their database to ensure that they were aware that assistance was available, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation coordinated guest lists and arranged the Meet and Greet, and the Australian War Memorial hosted, ran and even paid for more than 300 people to enjoy lunch in the shadows of G for George. Each of those groups, and more, played a role in delivering the biggest and most significant Bomber Command event seen in Australia for several years.
It’s become traditional in the last few years to focus on an Australian Bomber Command airman in the ‘Last Post’ ceremony, with which the AWM closes each evening, on the Saturday night for this event. This year it was Flying Officer Charles Williams, who died on Operation Chastise in May 1943. Several hundred people were present, including a good number of Bomber Command veterans:
I am more of a fan of the way the War Memorial used to mark the close of each day (a far simpler ceremony with a lone bugler or piper), but this Last Post ceremony was well done, with an all-Air Force catafalque party providing an honour guard and F/O Williams’ story told simply and well.
Following the ceremony, we moved into the AWM’s Reception area, mostly to get out of the cold while waiting for the Meet & Greet cocktail party to begin. Dr Nelson, though, decided it was time to move, getting up onto a bench to ask the crowd “what are you waiting for? We need a navigator…” and exhorting everyone to move to the Anzac Hall.
There was a short delay while final preparations were being made for the night’s function. But once the Air Force jazz quartet started up, it was a very good night: talking with people I’d just met, seeing familiar old faces and soaking up the atmosphere of that big collection of metal known as G for George.
It was lovely seeing a young Sydney couple (Josh – himself ex-Navy -and his wife Katie, both of whom who I’d met on Anzac Day this year) talking to Bill Purdy. Josh had a grandfather who flew with 463 Squadron. On mentioned his name, Bill remembered him immediately. I left them listening intently to his recollections.
It was also great to catch up with Ray Merrill again. One of my favourite veterans, who I’d met at the Canberra weekend in 2014, Ray had come from Adelaide with no fewer than 16 relatives and friends:
Sunday saw the sort of morning that, despite the rain that has affected it on some occasions, I most associate with this weekend: bright, sunny and cold. A big crowd gathered in front of the Bomber Command sculpture in the grounds of the AWM for the ceremony, the centrepiece of the weekend’s events. Plenty of veterans were scattered around the crowd, with a catafalque party provided by the Federation Guard and an honour guard of current 460 Squadron personnel making up the most visible uniformed presence. It was particularly pleasing to see no fewer than four veterans taking active roles in the ceremony, including Ray Merrill who delivered an excellent Reflections speech:
Another impressive speech was given by Senator Linda Reynolds (representing the Prime Minister). Senator Reynolds, it turns out, has two Bomber Command connections in her family, and so her speech was heartfelt and honest.
And then, afterburners twinkling, a 77 Squadron F/A18 Hornet screamed over the crowd to end the ceremony, pulling up to disappear in a vertical climb over Mount Ainslie.
This year’s Bomber Command lunch was one for the ages. It saw the most people attend, I think ever, and the most Bomber Command veterans that I’ve seen in one place in a very long time. Seated under George’s starboard wing, the atmosphere was quite unique. As well as Dr Nelson’s outstanding speech, several veterans spontaneously got up to say a few words. There was Rob Jubb:
And Don Browning:
The most revealing thing? All three told stories relating to wartime service – but not about their own wartime service. The stories were about someone else.
That famous modesty of this generation, on display again.
This was a particularly special weekend, the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again. Without going overboard, the focus was firmly on the veterans we had present. Absent friends were also kept close to mind throughout. While there was some confusion in the lead-up, probably because of the multitude of groups involved in putting it together, the actual events appeared to run smoothly and professionally in a genuinely respectful atmosphere. Though several needed to pull out at short notice on medical grounds, the effort to get as many veterans as possible to attend, from all over the country, was very successful. One man I met for the first time – Howard Hendrick – came all the way from country South Australia, which is not a particularly straightforward journey. This was the first time he’s ever come to a ‘reunion’ like this. Seeing how much he enjoyed himself will, I’m sure, reaffirm to everyone concerned the value of weekends like this.
I was in Sydney as usual for Anzac Day in April – more than a month ago, I know. I’ve been away and then concentrating on other priorities ever since, so I’m only just getting around to posting a few photos.
Along with Bryan Cook I was, once again, honoured to carry the banner for the 463-467 Squadrons Association along the shortened march route down Elizabeth Street. Just one veteran from the group participated in the march, the unsinkable Don Southwell, and he was in a wheelchair. The time is soon approaching when we will no longer have any veterans taking part with us. Until that day, though, I’m happy to continue carrying the banner – but there can’t be too many more to come.
There were several veterans marching with the Bomber Command Association in Australia group, and one or two other squadrons. One of my favourite moments of the day was watching and listening on as, positioned in their wheelchairs in a small circle they all chewed the fat while we waited to form up:
The march officially concluded on Liverpool St, literally around the corner from the Pullman Hotel where we were to have lunch. So Brian and I simply kept on going, leading Don and his wheelchair in our own private parade, right to the door of the hotel!
Four veterans graced us for lunch, and as usual I made sure I got photos of them:
The lunch was of the usual high standard put on by the Pullman, and I was asked afterwards to say a few words about my experiences collecting interviews for the IBCC project. This was the first time I’d spoken about some of the stories I’ve gathered (and some of the stories about what happened when I gathered them) and I think it was well received.
And then after lunch, Bryan and I retired to a pub in The Rocks for a scotch and soda each. The barmaid raised an eyebrow at the odd combination, but understood once we’d explained.
You see, scotch and soda was the favoured drink of a much-missed Lancaster pilot named Don Huxtable.
I suspect we might have started a nice little Anzac Day tradition…
I first saw Jim Cahir at a Bomber Command panel discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, way back in 2013. He was one of 13 Bomber Command veterans who were present, and he was able to share with the audience the experience of being shot down by Schräge Musik over Germany one December night in 1943.
It would be several years later, though, when I would get the opportunity to have a close talk with him. A chance meeting at the Anzac Ceremony at the Keilor East RSL in 2016, just down the road from my home in suburban Melbourne, led to a very quick acceptance of my invitation for an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre. We did the interview a few weeks later. And I’m very glad that we did, for this week, at the age of 93, Jim Cahir took his final flight.
Jim was a 466 Squadron mid-upper gunner, shot down over Germany one night in December 1943. In his turret, Jim had the best view in the house as the starboard wing and engines of his Halifax burst into flame. They were the victims of a JU-88 flown by German nightfighter ace, Heinz Rökker. Jim and most of the rest of the crew would spend the next year and a half in a German prisoner of war camp.
For all the trauma of that experience, Jim led an extremely fulfilling life. He had a long career as an accountant, but he reckoned his family was his greatest achievement: ten children of his own, 38 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. His first and much-loved wife, Valda, died in 2003 and he married his second, Glenne, when well into his 80s. Their relationship was quite special. I dropped in a couple of times after our interview for a cup of tea and a chat – Jim and Glenne lived a ten-minute walk from my house – and I’ll always remember Jim’s hopeful and cheeky smile as he signaled to her that he’d like a new cup of tea, thanks very much, miming the teacup-on-a-saucer with his hands.
We gave him a lift home from the Bomber Command ceremony at the Shrine last year, along with Laurie Larmer who also lives close by. My partner Rachel best remembers the sight of Jim, insisting on sitting in the back, squeezing his long legs into our little Golf.
Jim always held close the memory of his pilot, Flight Sergeant Patrick Edwards. After the Halifax was hit, Edwards stayed at the controls, battling to get the aircraft under some sort of control. “Good luck Boys,” Jim remembered him saying. “If those so and so’s catch you, don’t tell them anything!” The rest of the crew got out and survived – but Edwards, in making it possible for his crew to jump, lost his own life.
Jim had remarkable determination and drive throughout his life, which helped him survive three types of cancer, a heart attack and a stroke. His three pillars, it was said at his funeral today, were Family, Faith and the Forces (and the Essendon Bombers). I reckon his grandson Tom McCann pinpointed the real source of that determination, though: “All the accolades that Pa achieved over the last 74 years belong as much to Pat Edwards as they do Pa.”
Jim lived his life driven by wanting to make the most of the time that his pilot’s sacrifice gave him. To make sure he never ever forgot, hanging from the wall in Jim’s little study at home is a portrait of Patrick Edwards.
“He was the bravest man I ever knew,” Jim told me sadly.
So were you, Jim.
So were you.
Text and colour photos (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photo from Jim Cahir.
You wouldn’t pick it from looking at him or talking to him, but Jack Bell was born in 1917. “I’ll be 100 next year,” he said when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive in 2016. “Gawd, that’s a terrifying thought!”
Terrifying it might be for Jack, but I reckon it’s an astonishing achievement, particularly after hearing the story of what happened to him during WWII. Jack Bell had a long war, and it was not an easy one.
A child of the Depression, Jack decided in 1935 that he was sick of working in an accountant’s office, and joined the military. As a gun sergeant with the Australian Militia, he says, “I could hit an anthill at a range of 3,000 yards – over a hill!” War came in 1939 and Jack immediately went into camp for a month in Caloundra with his unit. It was during this time that he had a critical realisation. If he could hit an anthill at 3,000 yards, someone else over that hill could probably hit him too. “That’s it,” he thought. “I’m going to get up in the air where it’s more difficult to get hit…” So in November 1939, Jack put his name down for the Royal Australian Air Force.
He was called up in May 1940 – too early for the ITS at Bradfield Park, which wouldn’t open for another month. Jack instead did his early training at Ballarat Showgrounds. His cohort moved to the Ballarat aerodrome for a wireless course after construction of the Air Force station there was completed that August. Next came Evans Head for gunnery training. And suddenly he was qualified. By the beginning of February 1941, Jack was on his way overseas.
Jack disembarked at Port Tawfik in Egypt. At an aerodrome at Heliopolis, just outside of Cairo, he completed a cypher course, then waited for posting orders. Three months later someone finally realised that 216 Squadron was looking for him. It turned out the Squadron was based on the other side of the same aerodrome. Jack had not received his posting orders because he was already at Heliopolis.
While nominally a bomber unit, 216 Squadron was engaged on transport and support operations. They assisted the North African campaign by ferrying supplies and fuel and occasionally dropping people behind enemy lines. There were so many primitive airfields in the desert that they were given numbers instead of names.
Jack’s first steed for this flying was the alarmingly obsolete twin-engine Vickers Valentia. The Valentia was a strengthened and re-engined version of the Vickers Victoria, a big British aircraft designed in 1922. While the Valentia was marginally more capable than its regally-named predecessor, its genesis in the design offices of the 1920s was embarrassingly clear. “It was like a bus,” Jack said. The Valentia was a canvas-covered biplane with huge, draggy fixed undercarriage and, almost unbelievably for an operational multi-engined aeroplane of WWII, its pilot and navigator sat in an open cockpit at the front of the aircraft, wearing pith helmets and peering through a low windscreen. It carried a fitter as part of the crew, whose sole job was to wind up the big inertial starters to get the engines going at the beginning of every flight. On a good day, the Valentia topped out at 82 miles an hour. “One day we were overtaken by a truck on the ground below us,” Jack remembered wryly.
Happily for Jack’s continued existence, in October 1941, 216 Squadron got rid of its last Valentia. Not so happily, its replacement was the equally uninspiring Bristol Bombay. The squadron had been using Bombays solely as bombers since the beginning of the war, and the aircraft took on the transport duties of the now-superseded Valentias. “They were just useless, absolutely useless,” Jack reckoned. The type was a step up from the old Vickers aircraft inasmuch as it was now a monoplane, and the cockpit was enclosed. But it was a huge, slow thing, its undercarriage was still firmly bolted down and it was grossly underpowered. As a bomber it was more or less ineffective: it could carry just eight 250lb bombs and its bomb aiming apparatus was so old it could not drop them with any degree of accuracy. In an attempt to supplement the feeble punch packed by the official bomb load, “the air gunners and the fitters used to throw 25-pound anti-personnel bombs out of the flare chute.” Reassuring? Not at all. But it was an aeroplane, and it was all that was available.
Like its aircraft, life at 216 Squadron was fairly primitive. For meals, the aircrew ate bully beef and biscuits, or canned herring in tomato sauce. To pass the time they played cricket or poker. There were “probably a million flies per square foot.” But it was, Jack reckoned, “a wonderful experience for a young fella like me.”
For Jack it came to an abrupt end, however, on 23 January 1942. “I’ll never forget it,” Jack said soberly. The plan was to fly to a place called Msus, southeast of Benghazi in Libya, taking up replacement pilots and medical supplies and returning with elements of a Brigade Headquarters. All went well until they were flying down an escarpment near the town of Derna, which was then under attack by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Down below, suddenly, was an echelon of the 15th Panzer Division. They could hardly miss the big Bombay.
“The second pilot categorically stated that we were shot down by a tank,” Jack said, “which I never ever believed… the shells, to me, were more like point fives.” Whatever they were, they “rattled across the mainplane and down the centre of the aircraft.” Jack’s mate, Tony Carter, was the navigator. He was killed immediately. The pilot was wounded (he would ultimately lose a leg), as was one of the passengers. Jack received a nasty abdominal wound. Only the second pilot escaped unscathed.
Jack can’t remember much of what happened next. Rescued, and captured, by the troops who had just shot them down, he was operated on by a German doctor who happened to have been a Harley Street abdominal specialist. The doctor had been sent to England as part of Germany’s reparations after the First World War. He had returned to Germany in August 1939 and hadn’t been allowed back to England.
The man saved Jack’s life. After eight or nine days of being fed intravenously, Jack was transferred on the back of a three-tonne truck to Tripoli with other wounded prisoners, a journey of some 40 miles. It was not a pleasant trip. The friendly doctor gave him several phials of morphine and told him to jab one in his leg each morning and night. “Well, the next three days I can’t remember,” Jack said – which is lucky, because the combination of unmade roads, wartime conditions and rough handling on the part of those who loaded and unloaded the truck each night broke the stitches that were literally holding Jack together. “My abdominals – skin and stomach – were wide open,” he said with a shudder. Jack overheard a doctor telling a nurse that they would simply let nature take its course. The nurse refused to allow that to happen and convinced Jack to eat, cooking up a quince with sugar especially for him. “She was the enemy,” Jack said in wonder, “but she fed me that sweetened quince and that’s how I started to eat again.”
Jack was moved to Italy on a hospital ship, and then stayed in a hospital in Caserta until he was eventually interned at Parma, outside Milan. He sold his wristwatch for two blocks of chocolate to give to an officer making an escape attempt – but when the plot was discovered, for his part in it he was sent to the “punishment” camp at Gravina.
It’s perhaps not surprising that from this point, food – or more precisely, the lack of it – becomes a dominating theme of Jack’s story. Prisoners at Gravina were fed, but only just. “They weighed me at the end of February,” Jack said. “I weighed six stone four pounds” – about 40kg. At one stage, he was made “catering officer”. To feed 600 men for two days, he was provided with exactly twelve broccoli, eleven cabbages and a bunch of fennel. The cooks just bashed it up, roots and all, heated it in a big copper pot and served it as a brew.
“We were starving,” Jack said of his time at Gravina. On average, six prisoners a week were dying of malnutrition. The situation improved at his next camp, near Trieste, but not until the middle of 1943 once it became clear that Italy was nearing capitulation. On 23 September, their jailors left. “The British sent messages saying ‘stay where you are, you’ll be relieved in the next 24 hours.’” So Jack and his comrades stayed in the camp and waited for rescue. But in a cruel twist, overnight the camp was surrounded by German forces and the prisoners were loaded onto cattle trains and sent deep into Germany. It would be nearly two years before they were free.
Their destination was Stalag Luft IVb at Mühlberg, near the Elbe river. “It was probably at that stage the worst prison camp in Germany,” Jack reckoned. It was overcrowded. Some 35,000 prisoners squished in an area of about 32 acres, and for the first three months Jack’s group had to sleep in tents on the parade ground while waiting for more huts to be built. Food was adequate, “according to the Germans” – in reality it was barely a subsistence diet and things were grim until Red Cross parcels could supplement the rations.
The Red Cross parcels that made the diet survivable also served another purpose. “Some of the parcels had particular marks on them,” Jack said. “We – the average prisoner – didn’t know that these were sent out by MI5.” The marked parcels contained maps, hidden under labels, and other useful items for escapers. There was an Escape Committee, presided over by the Man of Confidence (who officially was the contact between the Detaining Power and the rest of the British prisoners), and all potential escapers had to be approved by the Committee to preserve the secrecy of the clandestine Red Cross supply lines. As far as escaping activity went, Jack himself was unable to physically help digging tunnels because of the injuries he sustained in the crash, but he would act as lookout if someone was stealing coal from the brazier, for example. He also has many stories of some of the escape attempts made while he was a prisoner: tunnels under vegetable gardens that collapsed on the diggers, for example (“a tomato plant with all the soil dropped down on top of him…”), or hiding a newly arrived man with the assistance of a uniform provided by the French prisoners (who had relatively more freedom than the Commonwealth troops).
After enduring the extreme cold of the winter of 1944-45, and after seeing the glow of the fires at Dresden (less than 60km away), on 4 May 1945 the German commandant simply notified the British senior officer that they would be leaving, wished everybody good luck, and took off with all the guards. The next day the Russian Army arrived – and Jack and the other prisoners were, in his words, “recaptured.” This was to ensure that the Russians had a bargaining chip, he reckons. After three days at Muhlberg the Russians marched everyone to Riga, just short of the Elbe. Jack and a few comrades took off and spent the next few days foraging for food. Eventually they crossed the fragile bridge over the Elbe and were in American hands.
Jack returned to the UK by air. All his clothes were taken on arrival and he was fumigated – and then issued with a complete new uniform. He was bitterly disappointed at losing his faithful RAF battledress jacket, which he had been wearing on that fateful operation in January 1942, and subsequently continued to wear throughout his captivity. “It still had the holes in it from the shellfire”, he said ruefully.
Jack told me of some overwhelming kindness from the British public on his arrival after his release. Staying with a friend in Brighton, for example, he went out grocery shopping with the man’s wife. Jack’s shiny new uniform stood out in the queue at the fishmongers. When the man behind the counter found out that Jack was a returned prisoner, he gave them double rations for free. “And the people clapped me, you know,” Jack recalled. “They were really wonderful people.”
His arrival in Australia was a different story, however. Japan surrendered while Jack was mid-Pacific. By the time he got home he had been out of captivity and relatively well-fed for three months. He didn’t look like the emaciated prisoners of the Japanese, who began arriving in Australia shortly afterwards. So instead of thanking him for his service, people would ask why he had gone to Europe at all. “The bloody war with Japan hadn’t even started when I left!” he says incredulously. “The reception wasn’t too great.” Even the RSL wouldn’t accept him as a member, saying he would have to go onto a waiting list.
There were personal effects too. “At night time I didn’t know what I was doing – I was thrashing around, kicking and rolling… it took a long, long time to get back to normal.”
The hardest thing he ever had to do, Jack says, was visiting the mother of his friend Tony Carter, the navigator who was killed when Jack’s Bombay crashed in Libya. “He was an only son, and I can still see his mother looking at me with the question in her eyes, why was it my son and not you… I can never forget it.”
Until the late 1980s, Jack didn’t much talk about the war. But then he wrote, for the benefit of his family, a 30-page document that told something of his story. “It was the greatest thing I ever did,” he says now. “It released me… it was out in the world somewhere and it enabled me to talk to people that weren’t old enough to go to the war and who wanted to know what happened.” Now he talks to many people about his experiences – indeed, I first encountered Jack, doing exactly that, at a large public event at the Shrine in 2013.
In wartime particularly, you never can tell quite where fortune might take you. Luck plays such an important role in where you are sent, in when you serve, in which aeroplane you fly. “It’s an experience that I would never ever do without,” Jack says of his wartime service, “but I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”
“The strange thing about it,” he says thoughtfully, “is that all my mates who stayed in the artillery came back, and I got shot down…”
Jack was interviewed in January 2016.
Text and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jack Bell.
If you head down the Geelong Road a short distance out of Werribee in Melbourne’s south west, you soon come to two almost identical big old buildings sitting beside the road. They are a little incongruous, until you realise that they sit next to a great big paddock which looks like it could once have been an aerodrome.
Indeed it was, in fact, once an aerodrome – leased by the Royal Australian Air Force from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1940 for a satellite relief landing ground for the nearby stations at Laverton and Point Cook. And the two big hangars are the last survivors of five, of American design, that were built there between 1942 and 1943. The original design called for steel to be used in the construction of the frame and roof trusses, but a shortage of that material meant that instead they were built using wood from the Otway Ranges.
Aeroplanes have not flown from Werribee for many years, the field reverting to MMBW use in the early 1952s. But there’s still at least one aeroplane in one of the hangars. It’s a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, one of only eight in the world and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. The actual aircraft is 44-41956, a B-24M, and while it never saw active service it did serve with the RAAF as A72-176 at 7 Operational Training Unit at Tocumwal. After five decades being used as temporary accommodation and as a wool shed on a farm at Moe in Victoria’s south east, the aircraft was acquired by the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund and moved to Werribee in 1995, where it has been the subject of a slow, heroic and extraordinarily high-quality restoration ever since.
The hangar is open for visits three days a week and this afternoon I finally managed to go and have a look. It’s an impressive operation. The old hangar is full of aeroplane – I have no idea how they’ll get it out of the building once they’re done. It’s a tight fit, and the tailplane isn’t even attached yet. There are aeroplane parts everywhere, workshop areas that were in use while I was there and displays related to Liberators in general and this one in particular. They have four operational engines (none yet fitted to the aircraft) and they conduct public runs on a specially-constructed test rig once a month or so.
You can even duck under those amazing sliding bomb bay doors (apparently this was the favoured way for Liberator aircrew to access their machines) and stand up inside the aeroplane’s fuselage to have a look at the interior of the beast. There was a refreshing lack of safety barriers or fun police present – evidently the Fund has gone down the very practical “common sense” path. Standing here, looking up past the wireless operator and flight engineer’s positions to the cockpit, I thought of men like John McCredie who once flew – and indeed was compelled on one occasion to bale out from – these big silver birds.
There are those who have publicly lamented the lack of a WWII-vintage bomber in Victoria. Those people, I think, are doing this group a disservice. Here is a genuine WWII bomber, and indeed a genuine Australian bomber, and it’s right on Melbourne’s doorstep. I’m told the organisation holds about 97% of the parts required to make a complete Liberator, and what they are missing is non-essential ‘aesthetical’ pieces. So they certainly will eventually reach their goal of a fully-operational Liberator (albeit restored to taxying status only, much like Just Jane was when I visited it in 2009). The intent is to reach “museum piece” status, which apparently requires at least 51% of the aircraft to be verifiably original.
All they need is money. It costs a very reasonable $5 to go and have a stickybeak around ($5 more on engine run days), and further donations are much appreciated. They’re a very welcoming lot, I thought – so if you’re in the area, make the effort to go and have a look. You won’t be disappointed.
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.
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