Posts Tagged 'Bomber Command'

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

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

Sold!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 Adam Purcell

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IBCC Digital Archive Interview Wrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

 

Metheringham

There were an awful lot of wartime airfields in Lincolnshire: almost 50, in fact, with 16 of them within ten miles of Lincoln itself. Most of the old airfields have reverted to the farmland from whence they came. But even today, if you take a flight over the county you’ll see unmistakable signs of the classic ‘A’ shape of wartime runways, marked by a line of trees, remnants of concrete or even a bunch of chook sheds.

Metheringham is one of the airfields in the close ring around Lincoln, situated ten miles to the south east. It was a wartime ‘temporary’ airfield and was built in a hurry, with all the privations that implied, and it was only operational for about two and a half years. 106 Squadron was based there and, among other honours, the Victoria Cross awarded to Norman Jackson, for his crawl-onto-the-wing-and-put-a-fire-out heroics, was earned while on a sortie from Metheringham.

There’s a book called Lincolnshire Airfields in the Second World War by Patrick Otter (1996), that says 106 Squadron were the “first and only” occupants of RAF Metheringham. This isn’t quite correct. In June 1945 – after the war in Europe ended – 467 Squadron was moved to Metheringham from Waddington. Here they began training for the ‘Tiger Force’ that was to begin bombing Japan. When the atom bomb rendered that force redundant, in September 1945 the squadron was disbanded with a ceremony held at Metheringham (“Vale 467”, says the Operational Record Book. “And so to Civvy Street.”)

Consequently, Metheringham is of some significance for me. Several veterans I know or knew served there, like Harry Brown and Ern Cutts. And it was one of the places I visited while on my Bomber Command pilgrimage in 2009. I well remember clambering up into the ruins of the old control tower in the late afternoon, and looking out over the old airfield:

Metheringham Pano.jpg

I also visited the small but active visitors centre and museum, set in the old ration store for the station. I was recently contacted by Jacquie Marson, who is the centre’s volunteer Education Officer, asking me to spread the word, particularly for any 106 Squadron veterans or their families. The centre is a registered charity and an accredited museum, with “an ever growing archive and genuine wartime buildings which are of great interest to family members who visit us,” Jacquie says.

They’re a friendly and knowledgeable bunch, and can be contacted at www.metheringhamairfield.co.uk, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

 

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command in Canberra 2017

“PER ARDUA AD ASTRA – For we are young and free.”

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:

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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.

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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.

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RAAF Jazz Quartet

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Frank Dell

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Keith Campbell

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Alan Finch

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Murray Maxton

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Ron Houghton

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Richard Munro

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Howard Hendrick

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Bill Purdy

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Catafalque Party

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Peek-a-boo!

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:

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Ron Hickey:

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And Don Browning:

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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.

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Jim Bateman says grace

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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.

Long may it continue.

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© 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

Anzac Day in Sydney 2017

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 rather amazing Frank Dell, who was shot down in a Mosquito over Germany one night in 1944. He walked to Holland and actively worked with the Dutch Resistance for the remainder of the war.

149 Sqn Flight Engineer Tommy Knox – a man I’m proud to call a friend

Don Southwell and Keith Campbell looking on as Frank Dell signs an impressive print of a Mosquito 

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:

Don Southwell

Bill Purdy

Keith Campbell

Alan Buxton

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…

Jim Bateman

Tony Adams

Tony and David Kingsford-Smith

Members of the Australian Army Cadets Band once again came into the lunch venue to play a few tunes

Frank Dell tells some of his amazing story to David Davine, who spends his spare time looking for veterans to sign some magnificent prints of paintings of aeroplanes… a TV crew looks on.

 

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

IBCC Interview #11: Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Wireless Operator and PoW

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 Bell, at ‘Kilo 40’ outside Cairo, 1941

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.

Western Desert 1941

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.”

216 Squadron Mess, Libya

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 Bell in his back garden after the interview

Jack was interviewed in January 2016.

Text and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jack Bell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Adam Purcell


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