Posts Tagged 'Commemoration'

Finding the Missing

At the end of the Second World War, the Royal Air Force (and associated dominion forces) had some 41,881 personnel listed as missing, worldwide (C07-049-007). A large proportion of these were scattered throughout the European Continent from which, while the battles were still raging, reliable information was difficult to obtain. The unit set up to deal with the problem of searching for and identifying as many of the missing as possible went through a number of guises but is probably best known as the Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES). Their task was to investigate the fates of missing aircrew through records and by putting people ‘on the ground’ in Germany and the former occupied territories to interview local officials and civilians and, if necessary, open graves to find clues on the bodies themselves.

Author Stuart Hadaway, writing in a book called Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research and Enquiry Service 1939-1952 (Pen & Sword Books Ltd 2012), notes that by the end of 1950, just 8,719 aircrew were still officially listed as missing, with 23,881 now having known graves and 9,281 formally recorded as lost at sea (p.7). This, having been achieved without the use of modern technologies such as DNA profiling, is an astonishing success rate.

Once a crashed aircraft had been located, authorities could trace the identity of that aircraft through serial numbers on any number of parts. Knowing which aircraft and squadron it came from, they could then determine which crew was flying in it when it went missing. Identification then often came down to a process of elimination: the body with the pilot’s brevet must be the pilot, for example… identity discs might have survived revealing the wireless operator… one air gunner might have had remnants of his Flight Sergeant’s stripes, which meant that the other body with an air gunner’s brevet must be the other gunner… and so on.

The MRES report of losses from the Lille raid of 10MAY44 (A04-071-017) records how the unit identified the body of F/O J.F. Tucker, who was from Doug Hislop’s 467 Squadron crew, flying in EE143. Post war, six graves in the commune of Hellemes, near Lille, were exhumed. In one was found the remains of an RAAF battle dress with an Air Gunner’s brevet, along with an officer-type shirt on the body. Tucker was at the time the only Australian officer air gunner missing from this operation who remained unaccounted for, and the investigating MRES officer was happy to accept identification on this basis.

It wasn’t always so straightforward however. Often German information was somewhat muddled by events. Hadaway cites the case of a man initially buried by the Germans as ‘Haidee  Silver, 40851’, being traced by the service number to a Pilot Officer Michael Rawlinson, who had been wearing a silver bracelet that his father told the MRES had been given to him by a female relative, inscribed ‘From Haidee’ (p.39). Other men were identified through serial numbers on their standard-issue watches, for example, or through laundry labels on their clothing.

Tracing serial numbers through the many layers of RAF bureaucracy could be a tedious job. What fascinates me about the work they did is the detective effort involved, and how unorthodox methods sometimes yielded the key that unravelled the case. I suppose I can draw certain parallels with the historical research I have been carrying out as part of this project. Throughout the war, files were maintained in the MRES offices in London where any little snippet of information relating to cases was kept. The files would regularly be reviewed and cross-referenced with any new information that might have come in later to see if anything jumped out. One little snippet could lead to another, which lead to another, which might have led up the garden path a bit until something else made sense of everything. And on so many of the cases, they were able to find a match.

Theirs was a gruesome and difficult task, and it was one that continued well after the war had ended and everyone else had ‘gone home’. But each case solved meant one more airman could be taken off the list of the missing. And one more family could have closure. For that, the investigators of the MRES deserve to be remembered.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

This post was scheduled for some time in May but I brought it forward after tonight’s 60 Minutes program on Australian TV. Further post on that program is in the works!

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Shrine

On the south side of the Yarra River in Melbourne, a mile or so from Flinders Street Station, is a large and rather imposing stone building. The Shrine of Remembrance sits on slightly elevated ground, with large Doric columns on all sides and a truncated pyramid soaring into the sky.

I went for a ride on my bicycle last month, down the Moonee Ponds Creek trail, over the Yarra at Docklands, and along St Kilda Road. I could see the Shrine in the distance. I cycled across and stopped for a visit.

Underneath the Shrine is the Crypt – a quiet space with bronze panels on the walls, regimental flags hanging from the ceiling and a sculpture in the middle. Climbing some stairs through the middle of the stone walls of the Shrine, I emerged in the Sanctuary, which is the heart of the memorial. Perhaps it may have felt more sanctuary-like had a busload of tourists not also shown up at that exact moment. It is a space reminiscent of the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, perhaps not surprising given the particular functions of both spaces. In the middle, sunk below floor level, is a slab of marble upon which is the Biblical inscription, ‘GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN’. On Remembrance Day, November 11, each year, at precisely 1100, a beam of sunlight comes in through a special hole in the roof and falls onto the stone.

Marvelling at the effort and calculations that would have been needed to make that little party trick work, I climbed some more stairs up to the Balcony level. It’s not a particularly tall building when compared with the skyscrapers across the river, but it’s still a nice outlook from the top. The view to the east reminded me a little of Greenwich in England. And to the west, a couple of miles away, I could see Albert Park and, beyond it, the bay.

A couple of years after the war ended, Fannie Johnston left her “little rose + honeysuckle covered cottage” (A01-114-001) in Dayboro, Queensland, and moved to Melbourne. In September 1949 she made the short journey from her new home in Barrett St, Albert Park, to the Shrine of Remembrance. There, she left a large floral arrangement, “in precious memory of Dale and his pals” (A05-184-004). She sent some photographs of the flowers on the steps of the memorial to the families of some of Dale’s crew mates. Copies survive in the collections of Freda Hamer, Gil Thew and Steve Butson.

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Carefully wrapped up alongside the photos in Gil’s box is a small sprig of pressed rosemary.

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As I walked back towards my bicycle, I turned and looked back at the Shrine. In my mind’s eye I could see Fannie Johnston placing her large bunch of flowers on the steps.

All I had was a small red poppy.

 

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Photos: Freda Hamer, Gil Thew and author

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command in Canberra

There was an old man sitting patiently in the departure lounge in Melbourne when I boarded a QantasLink Dash 8 to fly to Canberra last weekend. Sat next to him was his middle-aged son. When we boarded the aircraft they sat across the aisle and a few rows in front of me. I overheard a snippet of half a conversation that the younger man was having on his phone: “meeting in Canberra… taking him to… you know, Air Force stuff…” I watched his father as we powered down Runway 34 and took off. He was gazing out of the window, and his thoughts looked like they were miles away: across the seas, and across the decades.

They were going to Canberra for the same reason I was: the fourth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. I next saw Ian and his son Phillip underneath the nose of Lancaster G for George at the Meet & Greet cocktail party later that evening and went across and said g’day. Ian had been a 460 Squadron pilot so it was fitting that G for George, a 460 Squadron machine, was the centerpiece of the function.

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It was an outstanding evening. There were perhaps 150 people present, a fair proportion of those being veterans. Talking about flying Lancasters with people like Don Huxtable, a 463 Sqn skipper, was a unique experience as he casually threw a thumb over his shoulder at the old bomber to emphasize a point. The function ended with the magnificent ‘Striking by Night’ sound and light show recreating a bombing raid around the Lancaster. We retired to the hotel bar for a nightcap, ensconced in a warm corner while Don Southwell held court.

It was a cold and misty Canberra winter’s morning when we awoke. But the sky soon cleared and the sun was nicely warming as we took our seats for the ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.

As is customary the AWM Ceremonies division put on a good show. It ran smoothly and Don Browning’s ‘Reflections’ presentation was particularly good. As the first notes of The Last Post rang out into a brilliant blue sky the line of young RAAF officers in the row in front of us snapped into a salute. It was a moving moment.

After the ceremony all the veterans moved up towards the War Memorial buildings for an extraordinary group photo. I counted 50 veterans, surely one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command airmen (and at least one WAAF) anywhere in the world these days.

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The final part of the weekend was the luncheon. This was, I reckon, the highlight of an already highlight-heavy weekend. Some 200 people showed up, with at least one veteran at each table.

The best part of this event is the ability to float around between tables talking to all sorts of interesting people. Until today, I’d never met a real live Bomber Command flight engineer. Tom Knox, a Glaswegian flight engineer from 149 and 199 Squadrons, is on the right here:

11jun-bombercommandcanberra-067s copyThe other man is Pat Kerrins, a pilot from 115 Squadron. They were in animated conversation regarding a mutual friend and just being a fly on the wall while they chatted away was fascinating. A copy of this photo will be winging its way to each of these men shortly. I also met Jean Smith, who served in the WAAF at 27 OTU, RAF Lichfield, and a couple of likely suspects involved with the 463-467 Squadron Association in Melbourne. All very interesting people to know.

This has become an extremely significant event in the Bomber Command calendar in Australia. The Bomber Command Commemoration Day Foundation was set up to organise events like these to ensure that the men and women of Bomber Command get some long-deserved recognition. Behind ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, this is now the third largest single event held by the Australian War Memorial each year.

Given the level of interest in this year’s event, the men and women of Bomber Command can rest assured that it will continue into perpetuity.

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(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

67 years

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We will remember them.

ANZAC Day 2011

ANZAC Day lives on.

Despite age taking its toll, and in defiance of the rather wet weather, eight 463-467 Sqn veterans took part in the Sydney march on Monday with a group of ten or fifteen descendents and family members following behind. The rain, threatening all morning, held off for the most part while we were marching.

While the rain did fall at times, it failed to keep the crowds away. George St was lined four or five people deep for most of its length as we marched past. I think this fact alone is proof that ANZAC Day remains relevant and keeps its place in the hearts of many Australians.

Ten veterans were at the lunch that followed the march. Left to right, they were: David Skinner, Alan Buxton, Hugh McLeod, Don Southwell, Bill Purdy, Albert Wallace, Harry Brown, Don Browning, George Douglass, Don Huxtable.

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But the nature of the commemoration of ANZAC Day will and must change. The men who fought in WWI are no more. And the men who fought WWII are getting on a bit. Before too many more years have gone by, there will be noone left who ‘was there’. So it will fall to the younger generation to ensure that these men – in the main, ordinary lads living in extraordinary times – and what they did is not forgotten. I’m always touched by the sentiments of the veterans I speak with on ANZAC Day. They are pleased as punch that there are younger people present, at both the march and the lunch. I think they are happy to know that someone will carry the banner down George St, long after they have gone. For me, as one of those younger people, hearing this is rather humbling.

Want further proof that there is a new generation of people remembering? Half way through lunch on ANZAC Day, a group of 20 young musicians entered. 11apr-anzac-day-017 copy

They were the Australian Army Cadets Band and had been playing a few numbers at some of the other ANZAC Day lunches that were taking place around the city. They had a mighty sound and were a wonderful surprise for all present. Lest we forget, indeed!

© 2011 Adam Purcell


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