Posts Tagged 'Family History'

Childhood Memories

Given I’ve recently bought a house, my parents decided that, now I have space of my own, the time had come to go back and pick up the boxes of my old stuff which they had been keeping in their shed. So instead of flying to Canberra for the Bomber Command Commemorations in June I drove my car the seven hours up the Hume Highway. After the lunch concluded on the Sunday afternoon, I continued north to Goulburn where Mum and Dad now live.

It turned out that most of the boxes in the shed contained stuff belonging to my two sisters rather than me, but I still came away with a couple of those big plastic tubs full of old trophies, documents and childhood memories. Included amongst it were two very interesting artefacts.

I well remember the morning when, as a very young lad, I came out of my bedroom to get ready for school to find a long, tattered cardboard box at my place on the kitchen table. I lifted the lid in the early morning gloom to find some curling, yellowing black and white photos of a young man in uniform, an impressive certificate bearing a large, colourful royal seal and a little blue notebook, carefully inserted into a hand-made blue felt cover. The collection, my father told me later that day, all related to a man who had been my grandfather’s uncle. ‘Uncle Jack’, as Dad called him, had been killed during the Second World War.

The long and the short of it is that this was a critical moment in my growing up. For my next birthday, I was given an Airfix model of a Lancaster. I built it and for the next seven or eight years it was suspended by fishing line from the ceiling in my bedroom, in eternal combat with a model I later built of a Messerschmitt. While the German aircraft seems to have disappeared at some point in the intervening years, in one of the boxes I collected from Goulburn in early June, there was the Lancaster:

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14Jun-Melbourne 106 copy

It’s far from perfect – after all it was built by a not-quite-ten-year-old boy. The decals were never square and the paint line is nowhere near straight but, apart from a couple of missing propeller blades, it’s survived its years packed away reasonably well.

While Jack’s logbook is obviously the most important single source of my Bomber Command interest, the Lancaster model is also significant. When I was a little boy I wanted to be a train driver. But then I saw the logbook. Imagine if my reaction had been one of resounding indifference. But, happily, I clearly showed some sort of curiosity, so my parents decided to give me the model. And that only stoked the fires.

Also in one of the big plastic tubs I retrieved from Goulburn, hidden in a big folder of mass-produced pre-school paintings of green trains (and one blue signalbox, done after my teacher confiscated the green paint and told me I wasn’t allowed to paint a train) was a drawing of the top view of an aeroplane.

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It’s shaky and childlike but it’s unmistakeably a Lancaster. And written underneath (in my mother’s schoolteacher handwriting) is the date: November 1993. Probably not entirely coincidentally, the drawing is very close to the same size as a 1:72 scale model of a Lancaster, suggesting it was completed after I finished the model. That would imply that I probably got the model for my ninth birthday which was in August that year. Dad must have left the logbook at my place at the kitchen table some time before that. So it turns out that I’ve been interested, in one way or another, in Lancasters and the men who flew them for more than two decades.

Dad gave me one more very special box to take home when I drove back to Melbourne. It’s a very small black leather briefcase that he found at an antique shop somewhere.

Inside?

Uncle Jack’s service medals, logbook and those yellowing photos.

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

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Another Satisfied Customer

In July last year I wrote here about a 463 Squadron Flight Engineer named Sergeant Peter Taylor, and his sister-in-law, Joni, who has been trying to find relatives of Sgt Taylor’s crew. I published the names of the rest of the crew on the blog, in the hope that it might attract a passing Google search.

And it did.

At the end of January I received a blog comment from a lady named Susan Little, the niece and God-daughter of the only survivor from the crew, bomb aimer Flight Sergeant Tom Malcolm. It’s taken a little bit of too-ing and fro-ing but Joni and Susan are now in touch with each other. Susan’s sent copies of a photo of Tom and his crew:

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The men wearing the white lifejackets are Sgt taylor and his crew (the others are their ground crew). Aircrew in the back row, left to right are pilot P/O J.F. Martin, wireless operator F/S G.W. Bateman and bomb aimer F/S Tom Malcolm. In the front row, left to right, airmen are flight engineer Sgt Peter Taylor, navigator W/O Bernard Kelly, mid-upper gunner F/S L.G.L. Hunter and F/S Bramwell Barber.

There’s also this photo from Susan, showing some of the crew outside a pub:

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Bramwell Barber is on the far left, Tom Malcolm is next to him. The airman in the middle is unidentified. Next along is Peter Taylor, and on the far right is skipper J.F. Martin.

Once again, the power of the internet is demonstrated. Two people, on opposite sides of the planet, brought together simply through a little bit of curiosity, a blog post and the wonders of the Google search algorithm. I’m happy I was able to help. And finding Susan has inspired Joni to continue her search for the rest of her brother in law’s crew.

I’d call that another satisfied customer!

© 2013 Adam Purcell

(Edited 13MAR13 with identification of Peter Taylor in photos following correspondence from Joni)

Sergeant Taylor

On 10 May 1944, the crew of B for Baker failed to return from an operation to Lille in France. As the next day dawned at Waddington and the survivors of the raid began to come to terms with what had been the worst night of the war for the station, a new crew was posted in to 463 Squadron. Led by 16203 P/O J.F. Martin, it was made up mainly by Australians. The Flight Engineer, one 1324017 Sgt P.D. Taylor, was the sole Englishman. This crew, flying Lancaster LM571 JO-E, would make eleven un-eventful trips, mainly to targets supporting the invasion in France, but would be lost on their twelfth, to Prouville on 24/25 June 1944. The bomb aimer would be the only survivor, and his six crewmates today lie in Bussuss-Bussuel Communal Cemetery in France. They were one of three 463 Sqn crews to be lost that night, while 467 Sqn lost two. Only the 10 May Lille raid was more costly.

I received an email last night from Phil Bonner, who was the Squadron Leader who showed me around RAF Waddington when I visited in 2009. Now retired from the RAF, he runs Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire and remains a key contact for me in the area. Phil passed on a query from the sister-in-law of Sgt Taylor, a Mrs Joni Taylor, who is searching for relatives of the Australians in this crew. He wondered if I might be able to help.

The full crew list is as follows:

Pilot: 16203 P/O J.F. Martin

Flight Engineer: 1324017 Sgt P.D. Taylor

Navigator: 415430 W/O B.E. Kelly

Bomb Aimer: F/S T.A. Malcolm

Wireless Operator: 417327 F/S G.W. Bateman

Mid-Upper Gunner: 424761 F/S L.G.L. Hunter

Rear Gunner: 408433 F/S B.R. Barber

The National Archives of Australia has digitised records for W/O Kelly and F/S Barber. Before enlistment Kelly was a ‘Junior Clerk’ with the Chief Secretary’s Department of the Government of Western Australia. His next-of-kin was listed as an aunt, Mary O’Grady of 70 Lindsay St, Perth, WA. Also to be informed of any news was Miss Valerie O’Sullivan, 45 London St, Mt.   Hawthorn, WA. Barber was a bank clerk from Ulverstone in Tasmania. His next of kin was recorded as his father, Fletcher Bramwell Barber, 12 Richards Ave, Launceston, TAS.

I’ve pointed Phil towards the secretaries of the Queensland and the NSW Branches of the 463-467 Squadron Association, and in the meantime thought I’d try to publicise Mrs Taylor’s search online. If anyone has any leads that may be of assistance, please leave a comment below or drop me an email – details through this link.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Leader

Every Monday in my postbox I receive a copy of the local newspaper. The Moonee Valley Leader usually shrinks to less than half its thickness once the advertising flyers are removed, but every now and then it reports on interesting stories with local connections. Just after ANZAC Day this year it ran this story  about a 100 Squadron airman, P/O Jack Wilson, killed in action over Holland in January 1945. He and his wife were living in Essendon when he enlisted, and the story was about how his daughter – two years old at the time of her father’s death – made contact with a British researcher after by chance finding an earlier article in the Leader seeking information about P/O Wilson.

The British man is Paul Kurn, whose father was a ground mechanic with 100 Squadron, responsible for Lancaster JB603, the aircraft on which P/O Wilson had died. Mr Kurn’s search for the story of his father’s war began in 1998 and was originally centred around the operations carried out by this aircraft, before shifting into looking for the airmen who had flown it. He contacted the newspaper using P/O Wilson’s wartime address. It took a year, but eventually the right person saw the article and made contact.

Writing to local newspapers is a tactic that can, as this story demonstrates, be very effective. People of that era tended not to move around nearly as much as we might do today and so if they are still alive there is a good chance of their being in the same area six or seven decades later, if not in the same house. Articles also being published online these days greatly strengthens the chances of finding the right person by bringing them within the reach of a simple Google search. All it takes is one curious relative to look for something as straightforward as a name. Patience – and a good deal of luck – can certainly pay off in this research caper.

Paul Kurn set out on his journey with similar intentions to my own. Finding descendants of the crew, he said, gives him “…a chance to maybe tell them of what happened to their relative and […] to shed light on something that they may have wondered about for 60 years without any idea what happened in those final moments and where it happened… The story has grown beyond anything I could have imagined”.

Telling the crews’ stories, and remembering. That’s why we do it.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Girlfriends: the plot thickens

Late last year I had, on behalf of my grandfather, embarked on a search to see if I could find out anything more about Joy Gisby, the woman who was probably Jack Purcell’s girlfriend while he was in England.

Somewhat at a loss for how best to carry out that search, I roped Kerry Tarleton in to assist. Kerry is a distant relation of mine (second cousin twice removed, I believe) who has been working on the family tree. While the name Joy Gisby was unfamiliar to her, she had some immediate results via a contact in the UK. It appears that a woman named Joyce E Gisby was born in West Ham in 1923, and while she has since died her husband is still alive. We do not know if this is even the person we are after, but it’s the closest we have to a lead at the moment and Kerry tells me moves are afoot to see if we can identify her based on the photograph from Jack’s collection. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, I’ve made an interesting find about Nurse MC Sands, of Summer Hill Hospital. As usual, it was a chance discovery. I was transcribing the last few letters from Phil Smith’s collection when I came across one written by Mollie Jansen, Jack’s sister, to Edith Smith (Phil’s mother). In it she writes (my bolding):

“Have you had any word from W/C Brill I have not up to date, am hoping for some, his girl friend had a very nice letter, from him last week, which she sent on to me I thought it strange that I haven’t had a letter too.” (A01-358-002)

Hmmm.

Though the letter is undated, it contains a few clues that I can use to pin it down to late June or early July 1944. Mollie wrote that she had only just found out Mrs Smith’s address. As we know, it was Don Smith (Phil’s father) who first sought out the addresses of the Australian next of kin and who initiated correspondence with them. I have what I suspect is Edward Purcell’s reply to the first letter he received from Don (A01-344-001); it is dated 01JUL44. It is therefore reasonable to guess that Mollie received the Smiths’ address around this time and so her reply, if indeed she had ‘just found out’ the address, was most likely written sometime around then as well. So if this letter was written around the beginning of July 1944, it follows that the letter from Bill Brill to Jack’s girlfriend that Mollie writes about was received by the girlfriend a week or so beforehand.

So why is it so important to know when this letter was written? Jack’s Casualty or Repatriation File at the National Archives of Australia (A04-071, NAA: A705, 166/33/163) includes copies of two almost identical letters from Bill Brill. One is for Edward Purcell, but we already know about him. The other is addressed to one Nurse MC Sands. There is a covering letter from the RAAF that went along with the Brill note. It states that the arrival of this letter from England was the first time that the Air Force had heard of Miss Sands, and offers to forward copies of any further communications concerning Jack to her. Critically, it is dated 17JUN44 – or just before when I suspect Mollie Jansen wrote her letter to Don Smith. Any other letters from Brill would also have been in Jack’s A705 file. As the only two there are addressed to Edward Purcell and Nurse Sands, there is I believe a good chance that Nurse Sands is the ‘girlfriend’ that Mollie was referring to.

So now we probably have two girlfriends – one in England and one in Australia. Kerry is chasing up a Mona Collinette Sands who served in the RAAF briefly in 1942. It appears she then abruptly left the Air Force and what happened subsequently is as yet unclear. Could she have ended up as a nurse at Summer Hill Hospital? We’ll keep searching.

Thanks to Kerry Tarleton for assistance with this research.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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)

A05-118-001 med

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 

Found.

B for Baker now has a flight engineer.

This afternoon, I received in the post a slightly fat envelope from England. As I opened it, a dozen or more photographs tumbled out onto my desk. The letter inside was from Steve Butson, to whom I had sent the latest of my speculative letters.

“In answer to your question”, it said, “yes, Kenny Tabor was the Uncle I never knew”.

With that simple phrase, the great relative search was complete.

Steve wrote me a fantastic four-page letter in which he explained a lot about his family. Some of the names were familiar, thanks to Chris Tabor’s careful work on Ancestry.com. Some were new to me. But they were all connected to the buck-toothed young chap who appeared in some of the photographs.

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Sgt Kenneth Harold Tabor had an older brother and a sister called Bill and Betty, and a younger brother called Don. He worked at a garage in Westbourne before he joined the Royal Air Force on his eighteenth birthday. Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, that he would train and fly as a flight engineer. Ken was killed when Lancaster LM475 B for Baker failed to return from Lille on 10 May 1944. The youngest member of the crew, he was just nineteen years old.

The crew is complete. I am now in contact with relatives of each of the seven men who were on board B for Baker when it was lost. It’s taken about three years of fairly steady work to reach this point. Now it’s time to find out as much as I can about each one, to give a human face to the story.

And ultimately? The seven men in the crew of B for Baker were drawn together long ago by events well beyond their comprehension or control. These same forces now forever link their seven families. It’s my goal to one day bring all seven together again – for the first time in nearly seven decades.

Like crewing up, once more.

© 2011 Adam Purcell


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