Posts Tagged 'Air Force'

For King and Country?

There appear to have been as many reasons for joining the wartime Air Force as there were aircrew. The chance to learn to fly was of course a key motivation. Dennis Over gave me some of his reasons on the phone in June 2011: “Until the war, we were all going to be train drivers”, he said. But the Battle of Britain happened, and “then we were all going to be fighter pilots!” Too young to join up immediately, Dennis worked in a shipyard fitting out Air-Sea Rescue boats. Many of the crews of these boats were ex aircrew and he was also inspired by their tales of derring-do so when he became old enough he joined up, eventually serving as a rear gunner on 227 Squadron.

For some, it was more personal. Cliff Leach, a 150 Squadron Pilot/Flight Engineer, wrote that “our main aim… was to stop our relatives being killed and our homes being wrecked”. To back it up, he had a newspaper photograph of what was left of his mother’s house after a German air raid on Liverpool in 1941.

It’s easy to see how motivation to enlist in the Air Force could be stirred by seeing the effects of war first-hand – but until the Japanese entered the war Australia was not under direct threat of attack. So what might have attracted so many Australians to join the ranks of aircrew in those first few years of the war?

Hank Nelson collected a few ideas from different aircrew in Chased by the Sun:

Those who volunteered for aircrew were, Don Charlwood said, ‘children of the empire’. Nearly all had relatives in the British Isles. Most were also strongly conscious of their Australianness, but saw no contradiction in being both British and Australian […] Charlwood said that his swearing-in was the culmination of his upbringing, acceptance of authority and the ‘Call of the Homeland’. Wade Rogers’ mother said to him before he sailed, ‘Don’t miss seeing Scotland for me, son’ […] Although David Leicester’s father was born in Australia, he was ‘very pro-English’, and David grew up in a home where ‘fighting for England was really the thing to do’. (C07-039-009)

One of the most matter-of-fact descriptions that I’ve seen, and one that covers most of the key motivations for enlisting, was written by 467 Squadron skipper Phil Smith in an unpublished manuscript, some decades after the war (C03-004-004):

My motives for joining the forces were mixed:

  • a) The call of adventure
  • b) A feeling of duty
  • c) The need to be ‘in it’ with the mob
  • d) A question of patriotism
  • e) At 22 years I was the right age, and had no responsibilities.

The call of ‘King and Country’ managed to reach all the way to Australia much like it had a generation before, and it was heard by thousands of young men. The chance of adventure and the need to be ‘in it’ certainly played a big part – in many ways similar to that which attracted so many of the previous generation to arms in the First World War. It is clear that patriotism was perhaps the overriding reason for men to enlist in the armed forces in general – but there were other reasons for choosing the Air Force specifically, over the other two branches of the military. Stories of the horrors of that earlier conflict were well-known and so many were conscious of the need to stay out of the infantry. Frank Dixon was a 467 Squadron skipper, and picked the Air Force out of a desire to avoid what he called a “man to man, face to face, knee deep in mud confrontation with cold steel”, the thought of which horrified him (C06-070-005).  The Air Force offered what Danny O’Leary, a Vultee Vengeance pilot, called “a way out: accept the risk of death for yourself, but volunteer for a technical arm like the Air Force or the Navy, where you will kill clinically, at a distance, where you won’t see ” the whites of his eyes”.

Phil Smith’s reason was perhaps more practical than many; he wrote that he decided on the Air Force because he thought that a pilot’s licence could be “a useful qualification” to have after the war (C03-004-004). As it happened after he was demobbed he never flew in command of an aeroplane again, but the sentiment remains.

But there was also a higher sense of duty. Danny O’Leary put it eloquently:

Deep down we all knew that this was a job which had to be done, and we young men of our generation, who had the fitness and schooling to do it, must step forward, for there was no one else […]It was our duty to stop this.

And stop it, they did.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

More Connections

The internet has made it a lot easier in recent years to make connections between people sharing common interests. One comment I received on this blog in recent times led to me linking up two people with an association with the same aircraft (ME739 of 630 Sqn): one whose great uncle flew it at the beginning of its career in April 1944 and one whose neighbour was shot down in it on its last operation exactly a year later. I’ve also had a comment from an artist preparing an entry for the 2012 RAAF Heritage Prize. And I received a comment a few months back from James Hollinworth, who has been researching Tamworth’s aviation history for some time. He was able to add significantly to what I now know about Andrew MacArthur-Onslow, the man with whom Gilbert Pate first tasted flight in the last few days of peace in 1939.

Given MacArthur-Onslow had held a pilot’s licence before the war (he had to have one if he had taken Gilbert with him!) I knew he already had some sort of flying experience. But I had no idea of just how much. James says he was an aerial surveyor prior to his enlistment, and as early as 1936 had visited Tamworth for the Diamond Jubilee Air Pageant that was held there, flying one of six machines from the Royal Aero Club. He enlisted in the RAAF in January 1937. But for me, the most staggering fact that James has revealed is that, in 1938, Andrew MacArthur-Onslow, along with his brother Denzil, flew their own aircraft from England to Australia. Even today this is no mean feat, let alone in the 1930s.

So it is evident that MacArthur-Onslow was a well-experienced airman, and the Air Force was not going to allow that expertise to go begging. In September 1940 (when Phil Smith was preparing for call-up for his posting to Initial Training School), MacArthur-Onslow was already an instructor at 6 Elementary Flying Training School atTamworth, NSW. The Air Force used his experience as part of a Board of Inquiry into 6 EFTS’s first accident in early October, when Tiger Moth A17-59 crashed, killing the student LAC WM Aspinall. Incidentally I suspect Phil Smith was alluding to this accident when he wrote to his mother shortly after arriving atTamworth in November 1940:

“The discipline up here appears unpleasantly severe, partly, we are told, because there was a fatal accident not long ago due to lack of flying discipline.” (A01-126-001)

I did have a look through Phil’s logbook for his time at Tamworth (November and December 1940) but MacArthur-Onslow’s name does not appear in it so the two did not fly together.

MacArthur-Onslow, James tells me, remained at Tamworth when 6 EFTS was disbanded in March 1942. The unit was replaced by the Central Flying School, which had the task of training the Air Force’s future instructor pilots. It was in this capacity that Flight Lieutenant Andrew William MacArthur-Onslow was flying with Sgt Thomas Myles Dawson on 18 January 1943 when, two and a half miles south west of Currabubula – about thirty kilometres south west of Tamworth– the Wirraway they were flying crashed while on a low flying exercise. Along with his unfortunate student, MacArthur-Onslow was killed and is buried in Tamworth War Cemetery.

c05-234-001 copy

© 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Thanks to James Hollinworth for the information that went into this post and the photograph of the grave.

How They Crewed Up

The concept of the ‘crew’ is of far-reaching significance to the Bomber Command legend. A Lancaster needed seven men to operate efficiently. Each man would be specially trained in his respective trade, and each trade underwent their training separately. The way those individual airmen formed into crews remains one of the more unique parts of the story. In an Air Force so demanding of rigid procedures and highly developed organisation, the majority of crews came together in a curious, almost haphazard fashion.

The typical venue was a large hall at an Operational Training Unit. In the room would be gathered equal numbers of each aircrew ‘trade’. After a welcoming speech from the Commanding Officer, the assembled airmen would be told, essentially, to sort themselves out. Hank Nelson, in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, described it like “selecting a horse in a yard or a girl at a dance. You made your choice then the test of performance came later.” (C07-039-080). While seemingly chaotic, the system appeared to work well. Individual airmen would learn to work as an effective team and by the time they got to a squadron, most crews would live, work and play together. In the air they would fight together as a more or less autonomous unit. And the camaraderie would develop into extremely close friendships, some of which continue even to this day. It all started, in so many cases, in some draughty hangar at an Operational Training Unit.

Yet despite this being the ‘traditional’ way that crews were made, the men of B for Baker got together in entirely different ways. The available evidence suggests that only three of them crewed up at an OTU in what could be considered the conventional sense. After qualifying as their respective trades, Jerry Parker, Dale Johnston and Eric Hill all arrived at 14 OTU, RAF Cottesmore, in early June 1943. Just over three months later, on 08SEP43, all three were posted to 1661 Conversion Unit at RAF Winthorpe. The fact that all three were posted on the same day suggests that they were all part of the same crew.

The first member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to reach Winthorpe was actually Ken Tabor, the flight engineer, a week or so before the three arrived from Cottesmore. Because the aircraft flown at the OTU stage of training were typically Wellingtons which were less complicated than the four-engined heavies, flight engineers would normally go straight from their School of Technical Training to the HCUs and meet a crew there. This is exactly what happened in Ken’s case. In fact, it is highly likely that he had not yet even been flying until this point – Tom Knox, who flew on Stirlings with 149 Sqn, recently told me that like many flight engineers, “at this stage I had never had my feet off the ground” (C01-480-002).

Meanwhile Jack Purcell was undergoing his own operational training. He was the only member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to pass through 27 OTU at RAF Lichfield, from 22JUN43. What became of his OTU crew is not (yet) known – but on 19SEP43, Jack found himself posted to RAF Winthorpe, where the other four had been for at least week and a half. He most likely joined their crew at this stage. All five would be posted to 9 Squadron, RAF Bardney, on 31 October. After their pilot, a man named JG ‘Paddy’ McComb, was lost on a second dickey trip to Berlin on 18 November, at the end of the month the crew – none of whom had completed any operational flying with 9 Squadron – were posted to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston.

In parallel with the other five, Gilbert Pate went to an OTU (No. 17 at Silverstone) shortly after arriving in England in June 1943. He also went to 1661 Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, in September 1943. However instead of Bardney, Gilbert’s crew was posted to 49 Squadron at Fiskerton on the 22nd of that month. On 3 November, Gilbert took part in his first operational sortie, a raid on Dusseldorf. He was filling in for an injured gunner with an experienced crew. On the same night, P/O JEW Teager, Gilbert’s own pilot, went on the same operation as a ‘second dickey’. But Teager didn’t return. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. Like five of his future crewmates, Gilbert’s crew now found themselves without a pilot. They went to 1654 Conversion Unit and got a new pilot, but, returning to flying after an accident, the pilot lost his nerve and this time the powers that were split the crew up. Gilbert went to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston, on 14 November 1943. Two weeks later, on 1 December, Jack, Jerry, Dale, Ken and Eric were posted to the same unit.

Also posted in to Syerston on 1 December was an Australian Squadron Leader, DPS (Phil) Smith. He was already an experienced operational pilot, having completed a tour on Wellingtons with 103 Squadron in 1941 and 1942. Phil had been ‘screened’, instructing for a year at 24 Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne. He joined up with the three Australians and three Englishmen at Syerston and his logbook shows that his first flight with these men was 10 December 1943. After flying a total of 16.45 hours by day and 16.05 hours at night in a Lancaster, all seven were posted to 467 Squadron, Waddington, on the last day of 1943.

The crew was now formed, and ready for battle.

Sources for this post:

Service records of all seven men in the crew, from the National Archives of Australia or the RAF Disclosures Section

Phil Smith’s logbook – courtesy Mollie Smith

Chased by the Sun by Hank Nelson

Tom Knox – Stirling flight engineer, 149 and 199 Sqns

9 Sqn Association – Roger Audis

The 4T9ers – 49 Sqn Association and Dom Howard

© 2011 Adam Purcell

One Friday Afternoon’s Work

Gilbert Pate’s first flight – ever – was in a Tiger Moth from Mascot, Sydney in August 1939. His father, Sydney, wrote about it in a letter to Don Smith in July 1944, after the crew had gone missing (A01-346-003). Gilbert had gone flying with a good friend, Andrew MacArthur-Onslow. They even flew over the Pate family home in nearby Kogarah (“2-storey”, wrote Sydney Pate, “and in the nature of a local land-mark”).

Sydney also wrote that Andrew was “now alas deceased”. I decided to try and find out what happened to him.

It seemed likely that Andrew’s was a war-related death, so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database was my first port of call. I found a match:

Name: MacARTHUR-ONSLOW, ANDREW WILLIAM
Initials: A W
Nationality: Australian
Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force
Age: 25
Date of Death: 18/01/1943
Service No: 261535
Additional information: Son of Francis Arthur and Sylvia Seton Raymond MacArthur-Onslow, of Campbelltown.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Row A. Grave 6.
Cemetery: TAMWORTH WAR CEMETERY

Note that he died a Flight Lieutenant and is buried at Tamworth, NSW, the site of an Elementary Flying Training School. This suggested he was an instructor.

I next searched the National Archives of Australia for a service record – which exists, but is not digitised so I can’t access it from here. I did find a record of his enlistment in the Australian Army Militia pre-war. I also looked through some Tiger Moth accident reports but found no matches.

Perhaps Tamworth cemetery records would yield something. I found this page, which had the bloke I was looking for. It also had a record for another man killed on the same day – a Thomas Myles DAWSON of Queensland. Figuring two men was the normal crew complement at an EFTS, there was a good chance that both of these men were killed in the same accident.

Dawson proved the breakthrough. A search for his service number at the National Archives pulled up a service record (digitised) – and, more importantly, an entry in an accident file (also digitised). It was a simple matter to access the accident file, which answered the question of what happened to F/L AW MacArthur-Onslow.

Gilbert Pate’s great mate, who had held a pilot’s licence before the war and who took Gilbert for his first flight, possibly sparking Gil’s interest in flying, was killed in a flying accident while serving with the Central Flying School.  On 18JAN43  MacArthur-Onslow was flying with a Sgt TM Dawson in Wirraway A20-45, on an authorised practice low-level sortie 16 miles south-east of Tamworth. They crashed during the low-level segment of the flight and both were killed. The aircraft was written off. (A04-087-001, NAA: A9845, 102).

The most pleasing thing for me in this saga is that it all happened one Friday afternoon. I was reading through all of Sydney Pate’s letters in preparation for an article I’m working on about Gil when I read the July 1944 correspondence to Don Smith. That sparked the curiosity to find out what happened to Andrew MacArthur-Onslow – and over the course of a couple of hours I found what I was looking for. Another loose thread tied off, another facet of Gilbert Pate’s life uncovered.

© 2011 Adam Purcell


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