Posts Tagged '467 Squadron'

Anzac Day 2015 in Sydney

Last week, Sydney got hit by the “storm of this century”. Extremely heavy rain – 255mm over three days, or almost exactly twice the average for the entire month of April – combined with flooding and winds of over 130km/h to cause eight deaths, thousands of fallen trees and untold millions of dollars of damage.

So it was with some relief that the city awoke on Saturday to one of those beautiful gin-clear blue sky autumn days for which it is so known. Patrons at the Grand Hotel, on the corner of Hunter and Pitt Streets, were well and truly into it even as I walked past just before 8.30am to the starting point for the 2015 Anzac Day march.

Just three veterans marched with the 463-467 Squadrons Association last year (with three more in trucks) and, with three of those having since suffered from deteriorating health, my fellow banner-carrier Bryan Cook and I were uncertain that we would have anyone marching at all this year. So we were both happy to find that numbers had in fact grown. In all there were eight veterans taking part. Bill Purdy missed last year as he was flying a Tiger Moth over the city. This year he led the 463-467 Squadron group. Don Southwell was back, feeling comfortable enough to march on foot for the first time in several years. Don Huxtable wasn’t going to let the trifling matter of a recent operation to remove a tumour from his neck stop him (he wore a beanie to cover the bandages). Riding in the trucks were Keith Campbell and Don Browning, and we had two veterans in wheelchairs: Albert Wallace and Harry Brown. Harry was pushed along by his grandson Geordie Jacobs, himself a member of the Royal Australian Air Force:

Jen Lill and Geordie Jacobs with Harry Brown

Harry Brown with his daughter Nancy Jacobs and grandson Geordie

And we had a ring-in with us too. David Wylie, a wireless operator, radar operator and air gunner who served on Coastal Command, had been ‘adopted’ by the Southwells.

A Coastal Command veteran marching with a bomber unit? “Well, we did air-sea rescue patrols,” David said, “and when these blokes ditched into the ocean, we’d go to fish them out!”

Sounds reasonable to me, I thought.

There was a rather long delay while waiting for the march to get going. Bryan found Hux a couple of milk crates to sit on in the meantime, which caused much merriment:

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But finally, we were off. There was just one thing missing.

“Where’s our music?!?” asked Bill Purdy from the front.

Just as he said that I heard a shouted command – and the Castle Hill Pipe Band appeared out of a side street and slotted themselves in behind us.

There’s our music, Bill.

With the pipes behind us and the cheers of the crowd the noise was spine-tingling, especially where Pitt St narrows just before we turned down Martin Place. It seemed to me, and to at least one or two others, like the biggest crowd ever, and it probably was. We heard later that there were some 220,000 people lining the streets. Hux – ably assisted by Hannah Beech-Allen, and I don’t think Hux was complaining at all about that – was determined to see through to the end of the march. I thought he had finally conceded defeat on the last leg up Bathurst St, but it turned out he just wanted to high-five some young kids who were hanging on the fenceline.

Hux with Hannah

Hux with Hannah

Intrepid leader Bill finally turned around when we reached the end of the march. I saw his eyes widen when he saw the rag-tag bunch of veterans and friends bunched behind the banner. “What a gaggle!” he said. We’d win no prizes for the crispness of our marching this year.

A short stroll followed across Hyde Park to the Pullman Hotel for lunch.

It was a bit squeezy. The room is built for about 45 guests – but we had almost 60, I think the biggest group ever, with more on a waiting list. Two more veterans joined the eight who had taken part in the march: Alan Buxton and my good friend Hugh McLeod. I’m not sure quite how I managed it but once again I had some extremely interesting dining companions. I was seated between Hugh and Bill Purdy, with Don Southwell off Hugh’s starboard wing. The conversation was as stimulating as you’d imagine with that calibre of gentlemen involved (“Did you ever have a nightfighter come in during the landing procedure?” Hugh asked Bill at one point, and I knew he was speaking from experience) and the lunch passed quickly.

The crowd

The crowd

Keith Campbell

Keith Campbell

Hugh McLeod

Hugh McLeod

I overheard an interesting conversation between Alan Buxton and David Wylie. They were talking about parachutes. David related the time when he and his crew were returning from a patrol in their Vickers Warwick (a development of the Wellington)and one of the wheels would not come down. The ground controller told them to point the aircraft east towards the sea and bail out, but they elected to try and land instead because, David said, “I’m afraid of heights”. Here Alan chuckled. He was wearing his little golden caterpillar badge, earned departing his Lancaster by parachute when all four engines caught alight crossing the English coast on the way home from an operation. “It’s different when you have to get out”, he said. “And we had to get out.”    

David Wylie

David Wylie

Alan Buxton

Alan Buxton

And so another Anzac Day passes. The World War II veterans are getting fewer, and many of those who were there are much more frail than they were even a year ago. But they are still there, and while they keep coming to march, I’ll keep carrying the banner they so proudly march beneath.

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Tommy KNox and Keith Campbell on the truck

Tommy Knox and Keith Campbell on the truck

Bill Purdy showing off his Legion d'Honneur

Bill Purdy showing off his Legion d’Honneur

The paparazzi at work. Back row, L-R: Bill Purdy, Alan Buxton, Hugh McLeod, David Wylie, Don Southwell, Don Browning. Front row, L-R: Albert Wallace, Keith Campbell, Harry Brown and Don Huxtable.

The paparazzi at work. Back row, L-R: Bill Purdy, Alan Buxton, Hugh McLeod, David Wylie, Don Southwell, Don Browning. Front row, L-R: Albert Wallace, Keith Campbell, Harry Brown and Don Huxtable.

Don Huxtable

Don Huxtable

 Text and Photos (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

 

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Ladies’ Day with the 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney, 16 November 2014

Some three decades ago, the 463-467 Squadrons Association (NSW) (Inc) needed to find a new venue for their Annual General Meeting. One of the squadron veterans was a member of the Killara Golf Club in what’s usually described as Sydney’s ‘leafy’ North Shore, and suggested that the salubrious surrounds of the art deco clubhouse there might be suitable. So they tried it, and it was. After a few years the meeting would be followed by lunch at the club and eventually wives and partners were invited along too. The gents had their meeting in the Billiards Room while the ladies got stuck into drinks in the Dining Room. And then they would all share lunch together.

Such were the origins, says veteran 463 Squadron wireless operator Don Browning, of the now-annual ‘Ladies’ Day’ luncheon. AGMs are no longer required following the winding up of the official body some years ago but the loose association continues to hold the lunches on the Sunday nearest Remembrance Day each November. This year’s edition took place yesterday. And I was there, one of about 55 people in the crowd.

There was a little shuffling of the seats happening at Table 3 when I arrived to stake my claim. No fewer than three Bomber Command veterans were at the table so I cunningly found a spot in between two of them. Don Southwell apologised as he took his seat on my left. “Sorry you got me,” he said. “I thought you’d want to sit next to someone interesting!” I raised an eyebrow. Sitting next to me on my right, was Ron Houghton, who flew a full tour as a Halifax pilot on 102 Squadron and after the war had a long career flying Constellations and B707s with Qantas. To his right, Keith Campbell, a bomb aimer who was the only survivor when his 466 Squadron Halifax was shot down over Stuttgart in June 1944. Keith wore the little gold caterpillar badge that denotes a member of the Caterpillar Club. Don Southwell himself, of course, flew nine operations as a 463 Squadron navigator.

Don Southwell (right), Ron Houghton and Keith Campbell

Don Southwell (right), Ron Houghton and Keith Campbell

I reckon I’d have a hard time finding anyone more interesting than this trio.

I was, in reality, extraordinarily lucky to have three veterans at my table. In all there were nine present, down three on last year, mostly through illness both short and long-term. Most obviously missing for me were Tom Hopkinson, who had to cancel at short notice, and Harry Brown, who is still recovering from complications after breaking a hip a few months ago. Even some of those who were there have been a little in the wars lately. Keith Campbell got the most points for effort though. He’s had a hip operation recently but managed to wrangle a leave pass from hospital for the afternoon.

After a superb meal at which, as you’d expect in this company, the conversation was free-flowing, it was time for some speeches. Don Southwell welcomed the reasonably significant number of visitors, and proposed the traditional Toast to the Ladies:

SOLD! To the man in the blue suit!

SOLD! To the man in the blue suit!

Annette Guterres responded on behalf of the Ladies, both present and not:

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Annette Guterres

The day’s main speaker was Bill Purdy. Before he spoke, however, Don Browning shared a story about him:

Don Browning

Don Browning

Following his tour of operations, Bill was posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Wigsley as an instructor. Returning from a training sortie one day Bill found himself close to Waddington and decided it would be fun to buzz the control tower there. So he did. Word of his indiscretion, of course, made its way back to Wigsley, where the Commanding Officer there happened to be the former CO from 463 Squadron, Rollo Kingsford-Smith. Kingsford-Smith gave Bill a good dressing-down and told him that Group Captain Bonham-Carter had demanded an apology in person.
“You are to go to Waddington”, Rollo said.

No problem, Bill thought. It’s only about nine miles away as the crow flies, a short hop in a Lancaster. No sweat.

But Rollo wasn’t finished yet.

“…by bicycle!”

Bill says he hasn’t forgotten that bike ride.

Apart from Phil Smith, of course, Bill was the first Bomber Command veteran I had met who actually flew on the Lille raid of 10 May 1944 from which the crew of B for Baker failed to return. He’s also the only Bomber Command airman I know who still has a pilot licence, flying around in a Tiger Moth from Luskintyre, north of Sydney. But this talk was about his experiences in June of this year, when a delegation of seven Australian veterans went to France to take part in the official 70th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings.

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Bill had been on the raid on the morning of the invasion against Pointe du Hoc, a very large German gun emplacement, and it was in this capacity as a veteran of D-Day that he was selected. Interestingly another one of the seven was present at Killara: my lunch companion Ron Houghton.

In any case, Bill gave a good talk. Security on the French trip was tight, he said, with multiple checkpoints to negotiate on the way to the official ceremonies, and traffic was a nightmare with half a million people in the area. But it was one of the best-organised events he had ever been part of and a most memorable occasion, particularly seeing first-hand the damage their 1,000-pounders had done to Pointe du Hoc. Having been there myself a few years ago, he’s right – there are craters everywhere.

Bill was wearing his medals, and they included a particularly impressive-looking one hanging from a red ribbon. While the veterans were overseas the French presented each of them with the Légion d’Honneur, one of the country’s highest honours. It’s the one hanging from his left thumb in this photo:

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Following the talk there was one more bit of official business to take care of: the group photo. Once again, all we were missing was a flight engineer… and a Lancaster, otherwise I would have suggested they all took us for a fly.

Back row L-R: Don Southwell (463 Sqn Navigator), Bill Purdy (463 Sqn Pilot), Hugh McLeod (49 Sqn Rear Gunner), Max Barry (463 Sqn Mid Upper Gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Sqn Bomb Aimer). Front Row L-R: Don Huxtable (463 Sqn Pilot), Don Browning (463 Sqn Wireless Operator), Ron Houghton (102 Sqn Pilot) and Keith Campbell (466 Sqn Bomb Aimer).

Back row L-R: Don Southwell (463 Sqn Navigator), Bill Purdy (463 Sqn Pilot), Hugh McLeod (49 Sqn Rear Gunner), Max Barry (463 Sqn Mid Upper Gunner), Roy Pegler (467 Sqn Bomb Aimer). Front Row L-R: Don Huxtable (463 Sqn Pilot), Don Browning (463 Sqn Wireless Operator), Ron Houghton (102 Sqn Pilot) and Keith Campbell (466 Sqn Bomb Aimer).

I really enjoy the company of these ‘old lags’ and I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to make the trip up from Melbourne to catch up with them a couple of times a year. May it continue for a good few years yet.

Max Barry

Max Barry

Roy Pegler

Roy Pegler

Don Huxtable

Don Huxtable

Ron Houghton

Ron Houghton

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Keith Campbell

Hugh McLeod

Hugh McLeod

Keith Campbell and Ron Houghton

Keith Campbell and Ron Houghton

"How do you work this thing anyway?"

“How do you work this thing anyway?”

Hux and his 'Top Gun Hands". Once a pilot, always a pilot...

“There I was, nothing on the clock but the maker’s name…” Once a pilot, always a pilot…

Keith Campbell, Ross Browning and Ross' socks

Keith Campbell, Ross Browning and Ross’ socks

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Text and images (c) 2014 Adam Purcell

 

ANZAC Day 2014 in Sydney

It started at a different spot than over the previous seven decades.

At a much earlier time.

And the trains weren’t running (or so we thought).

And it was raining.

And there were (of course) road closures in the CBD.

But we eventually made it to the start of the 2014 ANZAC Day march in Sydney last Friday.

(And it was still raining).

We found, in a large group of veterans and other hangers-on sheltering under one of Sydney’s tall office buildings, four familiar faces in front of the 463-467 Squadrons Association banner.

Clearly we’d found the right place.

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Left to right: Don Southwell (463 Squadron navigator), Don Browning (463 Squadron wireless operator), Don Huxtable (463 Squadron skipper) and Hugh McLeod (49 Squadron rear gunner)

The rain abated for a moment and, with a little bit of encouragement from the RSL marshals, the various banners of numerous Air Force associations formed up on Pitt Street. Bryan Cook (the young bloke on the right of the photo above) and I (on the left side of the banner) shuffled the banner sideways through the crowds, passing an Army LandRover in the back of which we found two more veterans we knew, wireless operator Harry Brown (106 and 467 Squadrons) and bomb aimer Keith Campbell (466 Squadron). We were marshalled into position as the rain started and the umbrellas came out once more. Don Southwell took the LandRover option, leaving us with three veterans for the march, with three people representing various other squadron members acting as carers. It was still raining.

As the rain dried up the march proceeded. Unfortunately we were in the middle between two different bands, each playing a different beat, and so marching in step was a challenge. We made it past the Cenotaph at Martin Place and half way down George St when one of our veterans – Don Browning -started wobbling a little and made the decision to retire. A carer detached from the column to assist. No great harm done however, and in the end Don made it to lunch before the rest of us, having procured a lift from somewhere.

Having completed the march, we carried the banner to the Pullman Hotel, across the road from Hyde Park, for what turned into a great lunch. In all fifty people attended, and as well as the six veterans who participated in the march we were joined by four more: David Skinner, Alan Buxton, Albert Wallace and George Douglass.

This is the third year that the Association has used the Pullman and they put on their usual fine show. The food was excellent and the service top-notch, but of course once again it was the conversation which really made the afternoon. Here’s Bryan talking to George Douglass:

Bryan Cook talking to George Douglass

…and Hugh McLeod:

Bryan Cook and Hugh McLeod

….and here’s my partner Rachel (who came along because she “wanted to meet all those old blokes you keep talking about”!) asking Alan Buxton about the significance of his little gold caterpillar badge:

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And even the veterans themselves, who know each other well, found things to talk about. Here, Hugh McLeod and Don Southwell examine Don Huxtable’s medals:

Hugh McLeod points out something on Don Huxtable's medals to Don Southwell

We gathered the veterans for a group photo (though one managed to evade detection in this photo):

Names

Back row: Alan Buxton, Don Huxtable, Hugh McLeod, Don Southwell. Front row: David Skinner, Keith Campbell, Don Browning, Harry Brown, Albert Wallace. Missing: George Douglass

Outside, the rain continued to pour down. But as the desserts were being served, the day cleared up into one of those magnificent, mostly blue-sky autumn days for which Sydney is so well-known. The most disappointing thing about the timing of that was that 463 Squadron stalwart Bill Purdy was unable to lead the planned Tiger Moth flypast, open cockpits and rain not being particularly good bedfellows.

Age is now, undeniably, wearying the veterans of Bomber Command. This was clear in the lower numbers of veterans taking part in the march, and indeed this is the key motivation behind the RSL’s move to change the format of the march in Sydney. Very few veterans are now under 90. It won’t be too much longer before, like the veterans of the Great War before them, there are no longer any originals left to march. But the number of people present at the lunch last Friday is encouraging. The interest from family and friends remains high and, while that continues, so too will the memories of these two Squadrons. And while we still have Bomber Command aircrew with us, occasions like these offer the chance to talk to and celebrate some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

The 463-467 Squadrons Association ANZAC Day lunch, Sydney 2014

The Lunch

David Skinner talking to Keith Campbell

David Skinner talking to Keith Campbell

Geoff Nottage and Don Southwell

Geoff Nottage and Don Southwell

Rachel McIntosh and Adam Purcell

Rachel McIntosh and Adam Purcell

Don Huxtable's medals

Don Huxtable’s medals

 

Photographic portraits of all ten veterans who attended the lunch are on a separate post, here. Text and photos (c) 2014 Adam Purcell.

 

 

Two Railway Attacks: Tours and Lille, April-May 1944

By the beginning of April 1944, the crew of B for Baker had completed their first dozen or so operations. They had been members of 467 Squadron at Waddington for three months and their last time off had been in February. Consequently all seven spent the first week and a half of April away on leave.

But while they were away the war continued. I’ve been having a close look recently at the operations that were carried out during the period that the crew were at Waddington. On 10 April 1944 – the day that they were due back from leave – the rest of the squadron were part of a force of 166 aircraft that were sent to attack the marshalling yards at Tours in southern France. When I first saw the Tours raid in the Operational Record Books, I wasn’t intending to take too much time to study it closely because the crew of B for Baker were not themselves involved in it. But the Tours operation nevertheless shows some interesting parallels when compared with the operation a month later from which they failed to return, an attack on Lille on 10 May 1944.

Both operations were part of the so-called ‘Transportation Plan’, a series of attacks designed to cripple the Germans’ ability to move troops and equipment around France in preparation for the coming invasion of the continent. As such, each was one of a number of attacks made on railway targets on the same nights. 180 aircraft went to Tours, but only 89 went to Lille.

Interestingly, both were a little ‘different’ tactically when compared with the other raids they accompanied. While the four other raids carried out on 10 April (Aulnoye, Ghent, Laon and Tergnier) used Mosquitos to lay ground markers on the aiming point using the Oboe blind bombing aid, at Tours the marking was done visually by Lancasters under the light of white parachute flares, similar to the Pathfinders’ Newhaven tactics. Three other railway targets were attacked on 10 May 1944, each also using Oboe-equipped Mosquitos backed up by visual flares and using a Master Bomber to control the raid (Lens, Ghent and Courtrai). At Lille the same night, however, the marking was carried out entirely by visual means. At this stage in my research I can’t establish why Oboe was used for the other raids but not at Tours or Lille – perhaps it was a capacity issue, and the expected clear conditions and bright moonlight on each night meant that a visual technique was considered sufficient.

At both Tours and Lille, the first markers went down accurately. But on each operation problems arose after the first few bombs had fallen. At Tours, this was because the markers were laid on the actual aiming point itself, and smoke from the resulting bombing obscured the markers for later aircraft. The resulting delay before the target could be remarked caused some aircraft to circle in the target area for up to an hour. A new tactic was developed between the two operations so that markers were laid a short distance away from the actual aiming point, and bomb sights were adjusted accordingly so that bombs still fell onto the actual target, and Lille was the second time that this technique had been attempted. Unfortunately it failed when the first few bombs fell onto the target indicator anyway (perhaps because some early bomb aimers had not made the necessary adjustments to their sights) and it was extinguished or obscured by blast and smoke. A delay ensued, like at Tours, while the target was remarked and the appropriate wind correction was calculated for the bomb sights.

The biggest difference between the two raids, however, was that while the defences of Tours failed to take advantage of 180 bombers circling for up to an hour, at Lille it was rather a different story. Few fighters and little flak was encountered on the Tours trip and only one bomber was lost. But at Lille, while the delay was ‘only’ about 20 minutes and there was slight to moderate flak over the target, the fighters put up stiff opposition and twelve aircraft out of 89 failed to return.

————

Sources:

467 and 463 Squadron Operational Record Books for the Tours operation, 10APR44, and for the Lille operation, 10MAY44

Night Raid Reports Nos. 576 and 602

Lawrence, W.J. 1951. No. 5 Bomber Group, R.A.F. 1939-1945, Faber and Faber Limited, 24 Russell Square, London W.C.1, p. 185

© 2013 Adam Purcell

ANZAC Day 2013

Sydney turned on an absolute sparkler for ANZAC Day yesterday. The sky was clear, blue and brilliant, it was warm in the sun (but with that delicious autumn chill to the air in the shade) and the air was almost perfectly still. Perfect conditions, then, for an ANZAC Day march.

I flew up from Melbourne early, catching the fast, clean and efficient (but horribly expensive) airport train into the city centre and arriving with enough time to spare to walk around and enjoy the atmosphere for a little while. The contingents from some current naval ships in particular, stepping off as I crossed Castlereagh Street, displayed some very impressive marching. I headed for Elizabeth Street and the usual starting point for the Air Force veterans.

At first, I couldn’t find many from 463-467 Squadrons. But then the banner arrived, safe in the care of Bryan Cook, and suddenly they all melted out of the crowd:Setting up the Banner

In all there were six veterans marching, with one more traveling along the march route in a truck provided by the Australian Army. They were Don Browning, Hugh McLeod, Don Huxtable, Bill Purdy, Don Southwell and George Douglass, with Harry Brown in the truck. As usual, shortly after setting off from Elizabeth St we reached King St… and stopped, again, for about forty minutes:

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I placed my end of the banner in the safe hands of veteran pilot and rear gunner Hugh McLeod for a few moments, and quickly snapped a photo of an animated conversation which was taking place between Bill Purdy, David Southwell and Don Browning (who had again come prepared for the long wait with his own walking-stick-with-inbuilt-stool):

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As much as we complain about the delay I’ve found in the last few years that it’s during this stop that some of the best conversation happens among those marching. And this year we were joined at this point by a group of people wearing kilts and carrying bagpipes and drums who inserted themselves into the column in front of us. They looked suspiciously like a pipe band… They turned out to be the Castle Hill RSL Pipe Band, who had already ‘done their bit’ making one round of the march course earlier in the day. But one of their members was also marching in memory of a relation with the 466-462 Squadron Association, which was the unit in front of us. So they decided to support him and ‘go round again’. All of which worked in our favour. They sounded superb, and at the end of the march I overheard Don Southwell exclaim, “That was the best march of recent years…. we were all in step!

A friend was watching the ABC Television coverage of the march and spotted us as we went past the cameras. He later sent me a photograph he had taken of his screen:

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At the conclusion of the march I tried to find the band to thank them for their music but they had done like pipers generally do and taken off in a hurry to the nearest pub. Meanwhile, we headed across the road for lunch at the Pullman Hotel, the same venue as has been used in the last couple of years. Once again, the food was great, the service attentive and the conversation outstanding. I was lucky enough to find myself on a table in the company of no fewer than three of our veterans (Don Huxtable, Hugh McLeod and George Douglass). At one point, Association President Don Browning was telling a story about a raid he was on, with appropriate deadpan asides added from Don Huxtable who had been on the same trip (“I recall the weather was awful… do you remember that Don?” “Fifty-foot ceiling, mate!”). When Browning related that his bomb aimer had called for them to go around again, I heard a grim chuckle from Hugh: “I’ve experienced that too…” There were stories flying left right and centre and it was a very enjoyable afternoon. We were again joined by the young musicians of the Australian Army Cadet Band, who played a few numbers and got a certain old pilot to drum along with them:

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In all, a really good day. There were lots of familiar faces to catch up with, and a few new people to talk to as well. I even met Col Edwards, whose uncle was Bob Coward, a 463 Squadron mid-upper gunner who was killed over Holland in 1944. Col first got in touch with me through the Lancaster Archive Forum and again through a comment on this blog. Bob Coward’s crew took a second dickie pilot along with them on one of their operations. The pilot? One Don Huxtable, who at yesterday’s lunch was sitting at the same table as Col, three seats along.

A few further photos from the day follow. Click on the image for full-size.

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A top day, and well worth the flying visit to Sydney. I’ll be back next year.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

Four posts in a week! There will consequently be a short delay before I publish the next update on SomethingVeryBig. Next post is due on May 10.

The Men in the Photographs

Before he left Australia, Jack Purcell had a formal portrait taken of him wearing his Royal Australian Air Force uniform. The half-wing with the ‘N’, denoting a qualified navigator, is clearly visible, as are his Sergeant’s stripes. It is one of only a small number of photos that we have of Jack and, along with his logbook, it was that photograph of Jack that first fired my interest in the subject of Bomber Command and the part that he played in it.

Giving a face to match a man’s name is an important part of telling his history. It makes the stories somehow more real – as if saying that they are not mere words. They are real stories about real people. As such finding photographs of each of the seven men who flew in B for Baker was something I have been very keen to achieve. And now, having recently made contact with the final family, I have done exactly that.

So here, all together for the first time, are photographs of each of the crew of B for Baker. As is traditional, we will begin with the pilot.

Pilot: Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith (Phil)

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A fine portrait of a remarkably young-looking Phil Smith, taken while on leave in London.

Flight Engineer: Sergeant Kenneth Harold Tabor

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By far the youngest on the crew, Ken was just 19 when he was killed over Lille. This photograph shows him on the left, with his brother Bill. He is wearing the Flight Engineer’s brevet so it was probably taken in late 1943.

Navigator: Warrant Officer Royston William Purcell (Jack)

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The presence of an N half wing and sergeants’ stripes (and the stamp from a Sydney photographer on the back of it) dates this photo to mid 1942. This was the photo of Jack that started my journey to find out more about him.

Bomb Aimer: Flight Sergeant Jeremiah Parker (Jerry)

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At 30, Jerry Parker was the oldest member of the crew. He was married with a young daughter.

Wireless Operator: Flight Sergeant Alastair Dale Johnston (Dale)

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Dale Johnston was from Queensland. He is seen here on the left on the steps of the family home with his twin brother Ian.

Mid-Upper Gunner: Sergeant Eric Reginald Hill

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From Goring in Berkshire, Eric Hill served in the RAF Regiment before he became a member of aircrew. He first enlisted in June 1940, by far the first member of the crew to begin war service.

Rear Gunner: Flight Sergeant Gilbert Firth Pate (Gil)

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A short stocky man, Gilbert had a brief flirtation with becoming a jockey as a teenager, until his father put a stop to all further dealings with the stables where he was working. He trained as a wool classifier before joining up.

The Crew of B for Baker

There is just one photograph that shows the entire crew. It is backlit by the landing light of a Lancaster, it’s shadowy, grainy and indistinct, but it’s an atmospheric photo.

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Photos kindly provided by:

Mollie Smith

Steve Butson

Martin Purcell

Freda Hamer

Don Webster

Barry Hill

Gil Thew

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell 

The Story So Far

It occurred to me this week that some people who have been reading this blog might not know the basic background to the story I’m attempting to tell. So this post is a general introduction to The Story So Far.

In broad terms, this blog charts the development of my research into my grandfather’s uncle and his wartime story. W/O Royston William Purcell (known as Jack) was a navigator with 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. He was shot down and killed on a bombing operation to Lille in France in May 1944. Jack was 22 years old.

There were seven men in Jack’s Lancaster crew. The pilot was Phil Smith, an industrial chemist from Mosman in Sydney. Flight engineer was Ken Tabor from Bournemouth, England. Jack Purcell, of course, was the navigator. He was from Strathfield, NSW, and had been a shop boy with NSW Government Railways. Wireless operator Dale Johnston was a motor mechanic from Dayboro, Queensland. Postal worker Jerry Parker, from Leyland in the UK, was the bomb aimer. Englishman Eric Hill, from Goring in Berkshire, manned the mid-upper turret, and Gilbert Pate, a wool classifier from Kogarah, NSW, was the rear gunner. They ranged in age from 19 to 30. Only one would see the end of the war.

Over Lille that May night in 1944, their Lancaster exploded. Ejected by the force of the blast, Phil Smith parachuted to safety, evaded capture and was sheltered by a French farmer before Allied invasion forces passed his position four months later. His six crewmates were killed in either the blast or the ensuing crash and are now buried in French soil a few miles from the crash site.

The perception of ‘Uncle Jack’ and his place in the collective Purcell family memory has been passed down through the generations, and indeed down  different branches of the family tree. I was lucky that it was my father who showed an interest in, and was eventually given, Jack’s logbook and the handful of photographs and documents that goes along with it. When he first showed them to me (I was eight or nine years old at the time), it planted the seed that in recent years has turned into something approaching obsession. I have now gathered a fairly significant body of information about this crew and what they were doing in a Lancaster over Northern France in May 1944. I have traced and contacted the families of six of the all seven men in the crew. I have a worldwide network of research contacts. I have even travelled overseas twice in an effort to chase down leads and visit some of the significant sites associated with Jack’s war. Most importantly, I’ve realised that this story – one of more or less ordinary lads caught up in far from ordinary times and doing far from ordinary things – is well worth telling.
So where to from here?

I’m aiming to write a book about this story over the next few years. There remains much work still to do. At this stage I am focussing on the crew themselves, looking at where they came from, who they were and the very different paths that they took to 467 Squadron – while also continuing the search for the family of Ken Tabor, the one member of the crew remaining outstanding. I’m planning future work to concentrate on training and the journey to an operational squadron for each of these men. Then I’ll look at bomber operations in the first part of 1944 when they were on squadron, particularly emphasising the Lille raid on which the men were lost and its part in the overall context of the war in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion. I’m also hoping to investigate some theories on what actually caused the loss of B for Baker, the Lancaster they were flying.

This is the story so far. Who knows where it will end up!

© 2011 Adam Purcell