Posts Tagged 'History'

Bundaberg Beaufort

It’s funny the way the internet works sometimes.

A little over four years ago I wrote a post about a Scroll of Honour that I’d found in a tiny military museum next to the Murray River in Moama, NSW. Starting with the name of the man it commemorates, Flight Sergeant Irwin Harold Smead, I carried out a small search to find out about him. I discovered that he had been the navigator of a 32 Squadron Beaufort aircraft which was involved in a mid-air collision with another Beaufort of the same squadron near Bundaberg, Queensland, on 21 April 1944, with the loss of both aircraft and all eight men on board.

I wrote a post about the Scroll, added a little bit of the story… and forgot about it.

Almost exactly four years later, in December last year I was reminded about the story when a second cousin of Flight Sergeant Ignatius William Willcocks (the navigator on the other Beaufort involved in the collision) left a comment on the post. And then Vince Willcocks, Flight Sergeant Willcocks’ nephew, got in touch, and sent me a few photos. He also sent them to Peter Dunn who manages the ‘Oz at War’ website which is where, in 2012, I originally found some details on the crash, and Peter’s posted them there as well, but I thought I’d add them here for completion, along with some photos of the graves as they are now in Bundaberg:

ignatius-willcocks-2nd-from-right-small

Ignations Willcocks is second from right in this photo

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Funeral of the victims of the Beaufort crash

william-frances-willcocks-ignatiuss-grave-copy-smaller

William and Frances, Ignatius’s parents, visit his grave

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The Air Force section of Bundaberg Cemetery as it is today

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Ignatius Willcock’s headstone in Bundaberg

Because someone in his family cared enough to try to find out more about him, Flight Sergeant Willcock’s story and photos are now being shared around and are available for other people to find. In a small way, it helps to ensure that his story is remembered.

And that’s why we do it!

 

Thanks to Vince Willcocks for the photos.

Text © 2017 Adam Purcell

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Information Management Part II: The Database

Though I’ve been looking at the story of my great uncle Jack and the crew of B for Baker since about 1996, my work has really become serious over the last five or so years. In that time I’ve amassed and created a great deal of information: facts, documents, books, photographs, sound recordings, emails, letters and yes, even blog posts. Keeping track of all of that data is a significant task. In my last post I explained how I catalogue my sources. How to easily access the information contained within those sources forms the second part of my information management system.

The files from the first research I completed on my great uncle, which was for a competition called the National History Challenge when I was still in primary school, all fitted into a single A4 display folder. The second phase of work I did, in the year I took off between high school and university, filled a small portable filing box. I graduated to a two-drawer filing cabinet for paper notes and documents when I decided to start my current (and somewhat obsessive) work about five years ago, but by then digital storage was becoming predominant. While it’s still important to have access to the paper files in that cabinet (and I’ve filled another box with them too), most of my work (including this blog post as I write it) is now saved onto a portable hard drive on my computer and catalogued as I explained in my last post. And having stored and catalogued all of this information, the next step is the ability to easily search the whole lot to find the parts I’m looking for at any particular time. That is where a solid digital database comes in handy.

The one I eventually settled on is a self-contained piece of software called Personal Knowbase. It’s a simple, easy-to-use program that allows me to save my information in text-based articles and attach any number of relevant keywords to each article. Each article has a date stamp which can be set to any date – like the date of the letter or document under study, for example. I can then easily pull up any articles tagged with a particular keyword, or combination of keywords. Some examples of tags I’ve used might be general themes (‘training’, ‘flying’, ‘operations’, ‘England’ etc), individuals’ names, book titles, aircraft types, targets, airfields and so on and so on. I’ve also used my catalogue numbers as keywords which makes it easy to locate the source of any specific quote. I can easily run a more customised search using a combination of keywords, basic text searches and date ranges, across the entire database or a selected subset of it. Searches can then be exported in various formats for printing or review.

The point is it is very easy to access information when it is needed, and to be able to tell where that particular piece of information came from. And if I’ve used my keywords effectively, I can also pull up related articles – very helpful when looking for everything I have on a particular raid that happened on 10 May 1944, for example…

It’s not a perfect system. Simple things like typographical errors can make word searches difficult, and care needs to be taken to use appropriate keywords to avoid burying an important fact under a pile of other stuff. And like anything computer-related, the file is susceptible to a hardware failure or a file corruption, for example – the latter of which happened to me late last year. Happily, a solid backup regime provides a certain degree of redundancy and I was able to recover my file without losing too much work (the cause was eventually traced to a dodgy portable hard drive). My database is now automatically backed up in two separate locations, one of which is ‘off-site’, and I make an occasional manual copy too ‘just in case’.

Overall, it’s a useful bit of gear. I have the database window open on one side of my screen whenever I’m working on my research. Together with the catalogue spreadsheet, the database makes it easy to store, search and find virtually anything in my collection of sources.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

 

Information Management Part I: The Catalogue

I have something in the order of 13,000 individual pages in the sources listed in my catalogue for this project. Dealing with the sheer volume of stuff that I’ve gathered remains one of the big challenges of the work. Making interesting discoveries won’t do much good if I then forget where the discoveries came from, how I made them and where they fit into the story when it eventually comes time to write my planned book. There are two keys to my information management system: the catalogue, for knowing which source information comes from, and the database, for knowing what information is in those sources. This post will look at how I catalogue my sources.

If you’ve been reading this blog closely over the last few years, you may have noticed the occasional strange group of letters and numbers popping up in the posts themselves. The codes are in fact references to my catalogue of sources, and are the way I keep track of where my information comes from. The codes look like this, for example, from my ‘Accidents’ post of September 2010:

The second engine faltered shortly after crossing into England so they sought out an emergency aerodrome and, in Phil’s memorable understatement… (B03-001-016)

“…we crash landed rather unsuccessfully…”

Or these two, in ‘Motivations’ (November 2012):

Bill Brill was ‘getting a little accustomed to being scared’ (C07-036-159). And there is no doubt that airmen knew very well exactly how low their chances of surviving a tour were. Gil Pate wrote to his mother in November 1943 (A01-409-001): “It seems an age since I last saw you all + I guess I’ll need a lot of luck to do so again, the way things happen.”

The catalogue was one of the first things I set up when I got seriously stuck into this work in about mid 2008 and though it’s not an incredibly sophisticated system it is quite effective in keeping track of all the sources I’ve gathered over the last few years. It lives on a (well backed-up) multiple-tabbed Excel spreadsheet that I continually add to whenever I obtain a new source. Broadly, the code is split into four groups:

Designator-Series-Item Number-Page Number

The Designator tells me what type of source I’m looking at. It is the first letter in the group, and translates as follows:

A: Original (ie Primary) Documents, Scans or Copies – a document that originated during the war or the immediate period thereafter

B: Transcripts of original documents (used when I have not seen the original – ie someone else has transcribed it)

C: Post-war (ie Secondary) material

The types are broadly defined and can sometimes be a little ambiguous – at this stage it is not critical to define each type precisely. A general idea is sufficient.

The Series indicator defines the broad category under which the source fits. It decodes like this:

01: Letters and Telegrams (including letters I’ve personally sent and received)

02: Flying Logbooks

03: Diaries and Operational Record Books

04: Official Documents and Service Records – typically these documents come from archival collections such as the National Archives of Australia [www.naa.gov.au]

05: Photographs

06: Articles, Newspaper Clippings and Media Reports – including magazines

07: Books, Memoirs and Video

08: Databases

09: [Currently spare]

The Item Number is simply an increasing three-digit number for each individual document in each series (disregarding the designator), allocated in order of cataloguing. I haven’t yet reached greater than 999 items in any category, but if I do I’ll simply transition to a four-digit number for subsequent items.

The three-digit Page Number is the page of the document on which the actual quote or information can be found. Obviously for single-page documents or photos this would remain 001. If it’s a really long book with more than 999 pages, there is nothing stopping me using a four-digit page number.

So putting it all together, using as the first example the reference from my ‘Accidents’ post quoted above:

B03-001-006

This refers to a transcript (B) of a diary (03), which was the first diary I catalogued (001). The quote can be found on page 6 (006).

I then take those details over to my Excel spread sheet, where I find…catalogue

Which tells me that it’s a quote from Phil Smith’s diary. I originally got the document from Mollie Smith, and my copy of it resides in my filing cabinet in the folder ‘Smith, Phil’.

The quote from Bill Brill, in my second example above, has the catalogue number C07-063-159. So it comes from page 159 of the 36th book I catalogued, and the book was written post-war. Referring to my handy spreadsheet, I can see its source is Hank Nelson’s book Chased by the Sun, and that there’s a copy of it on my shelf should I feel the need to check the quote.

I’ve used this cataloguing system throughout this blog mainly for my own benefit, so that when I start writing the book I keep telling myself I want to write I can easily find where I found all of my information when I was writing the blog. Obviously the final book will be properly referenced rather than being interrupted by my own strange system of code groups of letters and numbers – but behind the scenes, when I’m doing the research and the actual writing of the story, it’s a quick and easy short-hand method of accurately keeping track of exactly where my information comes from and ensuring that I can easily check my sources for accuracy where required.

I have also incorporated the referencing numbers into the second part of my information management system – the database. Conveniently, that will be the subject of my next post.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Happy First Solo Day!

On 28 November 1940 – exactly seventy-two years ago today – Phil Smith flew solo for the first time. Like many (if not all) Australian pilots under the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was in a little yellow Tiger Moth, serial A17-58, at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Phil didn’t seem too excited about it when he wrote to his parents later that day (A01-132-001), reporting simply that “[…] altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.”

But there is no doubt that the first solo is a significant milestone for any pilot. Witness the following small collection of thoughts and memories from various pilots, taken from the excellent Australians at War Film Archive:

Barry Finch, eventually of 3 Squadron, quoted his instructor:

“Well you might want to kill yourself but I’m precious and I’m getting out. That’s all I can say. Be careful. I’m going to let you go off on your own.” The bloody thing leapt into the air like a young buck, it was incredible what a difference it made without his weight in the front, and to actually find myself going up into the air without any head in front of me, it was unbelievable. And I thought, “Well, I’m here, all I’ve got to do is to get down again.”[After landing] I went over to where he was and he said, “That’s alright, I’m coming with you next time. I reckon you’re safe […] Unforgettable!” (C06-072-013)

John Boland, 61 Squadron:

“So when I had 5 hours instruction up, I got in the aircraft and did a circuit and the instructor got out of the front seat, took the pilot stick out and said, “Righto, take it around again” and I got the shock of my life. I got that big a shock, that when I come around to land, I was that nervous, the instructor had confidence that I could land it, and as I come in to touch down the tail hit the ground first and it bounced.” (C06-073-005)

Colin Morton, 450 Squadron:

“Scared bloody hell out of me. […] I flew an aeroplane before I drove a motor car. It’s – the impact was enormous and I loved it” (C06-081-003)

Alf Read, 463 Squadron:

“I can still remember it because it’s marked with a tree, which you see as you drive past the old airport at Narromine. My instructor said, “Just a minute and I’ll get out, and I’ll sit under this tree while you take your first solo,” and I can assure you it was a wonderful feeling just to be able to take that plane off and bring it back in one piece. And it’s a little incident in your life that you never forget.” (C06-086-006)

Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron:

“I went solo at about nine hours, I think it was. It should have been seven, but they took me up for a check, and by the time I finished the check and got back, the wind had strengthened up so strong that they wouldn’t let a learner pilot go out. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and it was still blustery and rough and nobody flew that day. And the following day he said, “You’ve got to have another check.” So I had another check, then he said, “Right, off you go. Just do one circuit and down again and that’s your baptism on your own.” (C06-090-011)

Lionel Rackley, 630 Squadron

“Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. […] Every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now. I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” […] And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there: ‘Went solo today’”. (C06-075-004)

As it turns out, today is also the tenth anniversary of my own first solo. It was in a Cessna 152, registered VH-WFI, from runway 16 at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After an hour or so of flying circuits, my instructor got out and I proceeded to fly one by myself. It was a slightly wobbly but passable exercise and I logged a princely 0.1 hours solo time in the process.

Some years later, by this time a fully qualified private pilot, I would also experience solo flight in a Tiger Moth, in my own small way experiencing something of what these young men had been doing seven decades ago. And while that flight remains one of the most memorable ones in my logbook, I still remember the tremendous sense of achievement that followed my first solo.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Does a blog count?

When Bomber Command: Failed to Return was in its final stages of preparation before printing, Steve Darlow, the publisher, asked all the contributing authors to write a short bio for the front flap. “This is your chance to crow unabashed about your work to date”, he wrote.

With precisely no published work to date, for me this was going to be a challenge. My first attempt was pretty lame. But then Steve wondered, what about my blog? Surely that’s a significant piece of work?

That was an interesting point. A blog by definition is something quite personal, where literally anything that I want can be published for all to read without requiring the rigorous editing and reviewing that goes into a traditional book. There are thousands, if not millions, of blogs out there, all of varying quality and accuracy. I hadn’t considered my own to be worthy of much ‘crowing’, and I suppose it’s telling of my mindset at the time that I was excited about Bomber Command: Failed to Return being my first piece of ‘proper’ in-print writing. But then I thought about it. The button I will click on to send this post spinning into cyberspace is marked ‘Publish’. And once I have clicked that button, my words can be read by anyone with an internet connection – just like a book can be read by anyone who happens to pick it up. I’ve tried to note sources as I go along and, though no-one else ever sees my posts before they go live I make sure I edit them for spelling or grammar before I hit ‘Publish’. So why can’t a blog be published work?

I’ve decided that it can indeed count as ‘work to date’, and so my bio on the front flap of Bomber Command: Failed to Return includes the web address for this blog. With the decline of the printed word on paper in society (one just needs to see the long and growing list of failed ‘traditional’ bookshops in Australia to see this), the telling of history needs to evolve. This is not at all incompatible with the idea of a traditional book. I still want to eventually write a real book, made of real paper and ink, on the tale of the crew of B for Baker and where they fit into the overall Bomber Command story. But in the meantime, this blog can help spread the word.

James Daly, an English historian specialising in the military history of Portsmouth, wrote on his Daly History blog: “Just like the internet has broken down doors for music artists, it’s done the same for historians”. Blogs give a vehicle for making history accessible, on sometimes a very local level. The stories get told – which is, of course, the most important thing – to people who want to read them.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Grisly

War is a terrible business. The violent nature of the tools used in combat – guns, bombs, explosions, fire – can do dreadful things to human bodies. In the course of this sort of research, you sometimes come across some shocking stories. A P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, for example, was killed in a crash in eastern Holland in November 1943. A young girl found a loose boot belonging to the pilot near the wreck of the aeroplane… with a foot still inside. Or the unfortunate Charlie Nash, a 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner who was killed on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid. Such was the force of the explosion that brought his Lancaster down that Nash was dismembered. He was initially buried in two distinct graves, one in Hellemmes and one in Forest sur Marque.

Many of these sorts of stories are revealed in the files of the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, a team of RAF investigators who combed what had been occupied Europe to establish the fate of as many missing airmen as possible after the liberation of each area. The reports can sometimes make for disturbing reading. So much so, in fact, that full MRES reports are not released to the public in the UK if authorities believe they will be too distressing for next-of-kin or other researchers to read.

There is no doubt that these reports can contain some very grisly details. But factual reports of this nature are just that – factual. The details contained within them are very real. The events they deal with really happened – to real people. How much should modern-day sensibilities take precedence over knowing the truth?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer, and it’s one that every researcher must give serious thought to. There are two conflicting priorities here: the natural desire of the historian to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, versus the need to protect families from some pretty disturbing feelings about what might have happened to their relative. It is sometimes easier for the researcher to deal with these sorts of unpleasant revelations if they have no direct family connection to their subject. What they need to be careful of, however, is the sensitivities of those who do have that direct connection. I’ve been guilty of this myself, once or twice blithely telling a story to a relative of one of my great uncle’s crew without first considering how they might take the news. It’s only after I’d finished, when I saw their reaction that I realised, whoops, perhaps I could have dealt with that one with a little more sensitivity.

Ultimately, it is the researchers themselves who are responsible for making this very difficult decision. I disagree with the authorities determining what will and will not be released because I think it should be the duty of the researcher to decide what they do and don’t tell their audience. Researchers must be sensitive about how they communicate these sorts of stories.

Personally, I tend to prefer the truth, warts and all. After all, this is what actually happened. But I need to be very careful about how I get the message across.

 © 2012 Adam Purcell

Logbook

A logbook is a legal requirement for any pilot. In Australia, it must record at a minimum the dates of any flights made by the pilot, crew details, aircraft type and registration, route details and flight times. It allows a pilot to calculate his or her experience in terms of flying hours, and records the results of any exams or licence flight tests carried out.

But logbooks are something more than simply a dry record of dates, aeroplanes and times. They can also be intensely personal documents. Reading through my own one, I find my mind can very easily wander to remember a particular flight, and the circumstances surrounding it. “Bankstown-Three Sisters-Bankstown. Bumpy”, reads one entry. A simple enough description. But it’s one that belies the intensity of that flight, on which I and my passengers flew unwittingly into some pretty severe turbulence. Or ‘Circuits Camden – First Tiger Solo’, recording the first time I flew a Tiger Moth by myself, possibly my proudest yet moment in an aeroplane.

Unless one kept a diary there were very few ways that people could accurately recall where they were at a certain time, let alone what they were doing. This is where all pilots score. Your log book, which it was mandatory to keep and have regularly certified as being a true record, will instantly tell you that and, hopefully, jog the memory especially as the long forgotten names of the people that flew with you are very often there as well.

-The late Reg Levy, 51 Sqn Halifax skipper and later pilot for Sabena, writing on PPRuNe 

I think Reg nailed it. The terse notations in a logbook, taken in isolation, give fairly dry information about where someone was and what they were doing at particular dates in history. This in itself is interesting stuff for a study of the men of Bomber Command. But they can also trigger memories far beyond the short statements themselves.

It’s easier, of course, when the airmen are still around, because you can ask them questions about it. This is one reason why Reg Levy, in the last year or so of his life, contributed to a fantastic thread on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network (which by the way is well worth a look if you have a few hours to spare*). He used his logbooks as the basis of a superb running story about his experiences in training, then while operating in Bomber Command, and his rather incredible adventures after the war. The logbooks provided the spark, the interaction with other contributors around the world were the fuel and his sharp memory filled in the details.

It’s a little harder to ‘reconstruct’ what an airman was doing through his logbook alone if he is no longer with us. But it’s a good starting point. Other historical records and personal letters can go a long way to filling in the details. Maybe the end result won’t be quite so personal – but it’s a worthwhile challenge.

jacklog-last-page copy

*Reg’s pseudonym on the thread was ‘regle’

© 2011 Adam Purcell