Posts Tagged 'Jack Purcell'

Halam Lancaster

There was an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2011, about a couple of Australian aircrew who had been killed when their Lancaster crashed while on a training flight. It was 10 April 1943, and the crew was on their last exercise at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, before being posted to an operational squadron. Shortly after take-off the aircraft crashed in the small village of Halam, eight miles from the aerodrome and aligned with the runway they had departed from.

Sixty nine years later to the day, a memorial was unveiled in Halam commemorating the seven men who died in the crash. It was the culmination of some years of work by a local man named Andrew Paris who has now researched the story of the crew and how they came to be on that aircraft.

Jack Purcell was posted to RAF Winthorpe between September and November 1943 and I visited the excellent Newark Air Museum that now occupies a corner of the old airfield while visiting the UK in 2009. But that wasn’t why the story in the Herald set some faint bells of recognition chiming in my mind. As part of his research Andrew had been looking for information on what the crew might have been up to during their time at 1661 HCU. I got in touch with him through the Lancaster Archive Forum and was able to share an extract of Jack’s logbook covering the time he had been at the unit. While only a very small piece of the overall story, every little bit helps towards developing an understanding of ‘what they were doing there’.

It’s another good demonstration, I think, of how the Internet has revolutionised historical research. The reach of the web is world-wide, and it’s made finding this information much easier because it’s now a simple matter to find someone on the other side of the world who might have the information that you seek. And it’s then made it very easy to share the results of your work with a much greater audience than in the past.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

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Mystery woman

Part of the small collection of photos that we have as part of my great uncle Jack’s personal effects is this one, showing a young woman:

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This is one of the enduring mysteries of Jack’s story. Her name was Joy Gisby, according to my grandfather who has just begun a mission to find out what happened to her, and he says she was Jack’s English girlfriend. There is certainly some evidence that Jack had a girlfriend while he was overseas. His brother Edward wrote the following to Don Smith in December 1944:

“I have, since last hearing from you, had two letters from Jack’s English sweetheart […]. She is very upset over the final news of the boy, but that, I suppose, is only to be expected. It was to me, however, most comforting to know that his all-too-brief span over there was, at least, very happy.” (A01-111-001)

Unfortunately, Edward made no mention of the girl’s name, which makes it rather difficult to find any more information about who she might have been. All I have to go with in the search for information is my grandfather’s memory of a name he first heard a very long time ago and an otherwise unidentified photo. There is a family story that says Jack was engaged to Joy, and that they were to be married on the Saturday after Jack was shot down. As Jack’s letters disappeared decades ago I have no documentary evidence of this, as tragic as the story sounds. And adding to the intrigue are a number of official letters from the Air Force (that I found in A04-071 Jack’s Casualty/Repatriation File from the National Archives of Australia) addressed to Nurse MC Sands, Renwick Hospital, Liverpool Road, Summer Hill – who Jude Findlay suggested may have been a girlfriend of Jack’s in Australia. Nurse Sands was notified along with Edward Purcell of Jack being posted missing so she was obviously close in some way. She could be a red herring, but where I do not have documentary evidence of Joy Gisby’s name, I do for Nurse Sands.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained and all of that, so I’ve been doing some preliminary searching. It turns out that there are a lot of Gisbys around the world. I found a website called The Gisby Saga, a rather well-written account of one particular branch of the family. There’s a Facebook group (The Worldwide Gisby Empire) . And there are thousands of possible hits on Ancestry.com. I’m not really sure where to go from here. Any ideas gratefully received!

© 2011 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)

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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 

How They Crewed Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew was now formed, and ready for battle.

Sources for this post:

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

Phil Smith’s logbook – courtesy Mollie Smith

Chased by the Sun by Hank Nelson

Tom Knox – Stirling flight engineer, 149 and 199 Sqns

9 Sqn Association – Roger Audis

The 4T9ers – 49 Sqn Association and Dom Howard

© 2011 Adam Purcell

The Story So Far

It occurred to me this week that some people who have been reading this blog might not know the basic background to the story I’m attempting to tell. So this post is a general introduction to The Story So Far.

In broad terms, this blog charts the development of my research into my grandfather’s uncle and his wartime story. W/O Royston William Purcell (known as Jack) was a navigator with 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. He was shot down and killed on a bombing operation to Lille in France in May 1944. Jack was 22 years old.

There were seven men in Jack’s Lancaster crew. The pilot was Phil Smith, an industrial chemist from Mosman in Sydney. Flight engineer was Ken Tabor from Bournemouth, England. Jack Purcell, of course, was the navigator. He was from Strathfield, NSW, and had been a shop boy with NSW Government Railways. Wireless operator Dale Johnston was a motor mechanic from Dayboro, Queensland. Postal worker Jerry Parker, from Leyland in the UK, was the bomb aimer. Englishman Eric Hill, from Goring in Berkshire, manned the mid-upper turret, and Gilbert Pate, a wool classifier from Kogarah, NSW, was the rear gunner. They ranged in age from 19 to 30. Only one would see the end of the war.

Over Lille that May night in 1944, their Lancaster exploded. Ejected by the force of the blast, Phil Smith parachuted to safety, evaded capture and was sheltered by a French farmer before Allied invasion forces passed his position four months later. His six crewmates were killed in either the blast or the ensuing crash and are now buried in French soil a few miles from the crash site.

The perception of ‘Uncle Jack’ and his place in the collective Purcell family memory has been passed down through the generations, and indeed down  different branches of the family tree. I was lucky that it was my father who showed an interest in, and was eventually given, Jack’s logbook and the handful of photographs and documents that goes along with it. When he first showed them to me (I was eight or nine years old at the time), it planted the seed that in recent years has turned into something approaching obsession. I have now gathered a fairly significant body of information about this crew and what they were doing in a Lancaster over Northern France in May 1944. I have traced and contacted the families of six of the all seven men in the crew. I have a worldwide network of research contacts. I have even travelled overseas twice in an effort to chase down leads and visit some of the significant sites associated with Jack’s war. Most importantly, I’ve realised that this story – one of more or less ordinary lads caught up in far from ordinary times and doing far from ordinary things – is well worth telling.
So where to from here?

I’m aiming to write a book about this story over the next few years. There remains much work still to do. At this stage I am focussing on the crew themselves, looking at where they came from, who they were and the very different paths that they took to 467 Squadron – while also continuing the search for the family of Ken Tabor, the one member of the crew remaining outstanding. I’m planning future work to concentrate on training and the journey to an operational squadron for each of these men. Then I’ll look at bomber operations in the first part of 1944 when they were on squadron, particularly emphasising the Lille raid on which the men were lost and its part in the overall context of the war in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion. I’m also hoping to investigate some theories on what actually caused the loss of B for Baker, the Lancaster they were flying.

This is the story so far. Who knows where it will end up!

© 2011 Adam Purcell

You never know what lies up the garden path

Joss le Clercq alerted me to a thread on the RAFCommands forum late last year. It concerned a researcher who was trying to work out the fate of Sgt Leslie Edwards, who died of wounds or injuries in July 1943. It was discovered that Edwards had been on board a 27OTU Wellington that crashed at Church Broughton on the 6th of that month.

So why did Joss think it was of particular interest to me? Henk Welting posted on that RAFCommands thread that Bill Chorley’s Bomber Command Losses vol 7 revealed a Sgt Purcell had been in the crew of the Wellington. Joss thought it could have been my great uncle Jack.

This was an intriguing find. Because we have no letters or diaries from Jack, we know little about what happened to him directly while he was in England. Could Joss have uncovered a story about Jack surviving a Wellington crash that my family didn’t know about?

I quickly checked my records. Initially it looked possible. Jack was posted to 27OTU at Lichfield on 22 June 1943 and did not leave until September, so he was certainly there at the right time. But a few other details did not check out. Jack’s service record shows that he was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 20 February 1943 – before this accident – so his rank did not match. And perhaps more crucially, we do have Jack’s logbook. The first flying recorded at Lichfield in my copy of it is not until 14 July, or after this crash happened.

So it was not looking good. I rechecked the original logbook when next I returned to my parents place near Sydney to make sure that I hadn’t missed any pages in the copying process.

I hadn’t.

The next step was to ask Chris Pointon of the RAF Lichfield Association, who had guided me around what was left of the old station when I visited in 2009.

Chris settled the matter. It turns out that AUS410379 Sgt David Purcell was posted to 27OTU in May 1943. So there was a second Australian navigator called Purcell at RAF Lichfield at the same time that Jack was. It seems likely that this Purcell is our man.

David Purcell’s service record is online at the National Archives of Australia. It reveals that he was from Melbourne and enlisted on the same day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. He trained at Cootamundra, East Sale and Nhill before going to the UK via Canada. Eventually he ended up on Halifaxes with 466 Squadron at Leconfield. Chris’ email told me that David Purcell was shot down on 23 April 1944 on an operation to Dusseldorf. He survived and spent the rest of the war as a POW, eventually returning to Australia.

So while somehow disappointed that I didn’t uncover something else about Jack Purcell, I did find another interesting story – and potentially another branch of the Purcell family to look at. I’ve passed the details about David’s family to Therese Findlay, one of my regular correspondents on this blog. Therese says she’s found a Purcell somewhere who is working on the family tree. Perhaps they might have more information for me.

©2011 Adam Purcell


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