Flight Engineer

In the early days of the bomber offensive, British aircraft like the Wellington would typically fly with a ‘second pilot’ in a support role to operate flaps and throttles or to take over for a while in the cruise. Phil Smith was operating on his first tour with 103 Sqn at this time, and his logbook records that he completed ten operations as second pilot before being given his own crew. The second pilot would be a fully-trained and qualified pilot who was usually less experienced than the ‘first pilot’ who commanded the aeroplane. But this meant, of course, that to lose one aircraft would mean losing two pilots – and pilots were perhaps the hardest (and most expensive) out of the aircrew categories to train and replace.

The Stirlings, Lancasters and Halifaxes that began coming on line around then had more complex systems than those on, for example, the Wellington, so a more specialised member of the crew was required. Around the beginning of 1942 the second pilot was starting to be replaced by a dedicated member of the crew whose job it was to know where every single switch and dial and gauge on their aeroplane was (and in the dark), and what they did: the flight engineer.

Initially, flight engineers were taken from the ranks of the ground crew already serving at RAF bases: the engine fitters and mechanics whose technical knowledge was already of a high standard. But when the demand for heavy bomber crews really ramped up the supply of suitable ground crew available to take conversion training began to slow. So the RAF began training ‘direct entry’ flight engineers from scratch.

One of these direct entry flight engineers was Tom Knox, a Glaswegian who moved to Australia after the war and still retains his beautiful accent. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Tom in Canberra in June, and recently spent an afternoon visiting him at home onSydney’s northern beaches.

Tom had begun an engineering apprenticeship when he was 16. Being a reserved occupation, the only way he could get out of it was to join up as aircrew. “So I did it!”, he wrote to me in a letter in June 2011. He reported to Lords Cricket Ground just after his 18th birthday, did his ‘square bashing’ in Devon and went to No. 4 School of Technical Training, St Athan.

It was here where young men learnt everything there was to know about their aeroplanes. The training was remarkably solid. Cliff Leach (a pilot who retrained as a flight engineer late in the war) remembers copying diagrams of the various systems from a blackboard and being asked to reproduce from memory some of them in exams. Cliff, aided by his classroom notes which he still has, remembers a lot of the systems of the Lancaster more than six decades later.

During their course the trainee flight engineers covered fuel systems, instrument panels, flight controls, engines, electricals, hydraulics and pneumatics. They learnt how to do the pre-flight inspection. They experienced hypoxia in a decompression chamber, to be able to recognise it if it arose on operations. They spent a week on a ‘Maker’s Course’, visiting Avro or Short Brothers or Handley-Page to gain an insider’s view of their specific aircraft. The final assessment consisted of written tests on each of the subjects they had studied followed by a face-to-face test.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about their training is that, even after receiving the half-wing brevet with an E – the mark of a fully qualified flight engineer – most of them had in fact never been up in the air. And when they got to the next stage, a Heavy Conversion Unit, the men that they would join had already been a crew for some months.

In Tom’s case, crewing up was very simple. He was approached by a young Australian Flight Sergeant who asked if he wanted to join the crew – and that was that. His first experience of flight was in the rear turret of a Stirling shortly afterwards. “It was scary”, he says, but he handled it ok and went on to fly operationally with 149 and 199 Squadrons.

The flight engineer on B for Baker was a young man named Ken Tabor. He joined the RAF on his 18th birthday and was at St Athan between February and August 1943. In this photograph he is standing with his parents, wearing his Flight Engineer’s brevet:

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The brevet shows that the photo was taken after he graduated from St Athan, which happened in August 1943 – perhaps the snap was taken while Ken was visiting his family on leave in Dorset before he went to an operational squadron.

Ken Tabor was the youngest man on board B for Baker when it went missing over Lille in May 1944. He had not yet reached his 20th birthday.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Image: Steve Butson

Thanks also to Tom Knox and Cliff Leach for their input to this post.


My good friend Joss le Clercq is a French aviation historian of some note. When I visited Lezennes and the graves of my great uncle’s crew in 2009, I stayed for a few nights with him in his farmhouse between Fromelles and Aubers, about 20km west of Lille.

Joss has the beginnings of a small aviation museum in his back shed. There are parts of many crashed aeroplanes, all dug up around the local area. Among them is one particular bit of metal. Though badly corroded, it is still unmistakably a fragment of a blade from an aircraft propeller. About fifteen years ago, a hotel and a petrol station was being built in Lezennes. While digging the foundations they found some rusted metal – which Joss identified as the remains of a Lancaster. He retrieved two pieces – the propeller blade and a flat fragment of alloy. From local records he deduced which Lancaster the wreckage was from.

These unassuming bits of metal in Joss’ back shed are most probably the only surviving pieces of Lancaster Mk III, LM475:

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Of the crash site itself there remains now virtually no trace. The petrol station continues dispensing liquefied dead dinosaurs in its curiously French, completely automatic way. The hotel looked pretty empty when we visited. But there are two large rocks on a small bit of flat ground, which Joss says are pretty close to where he found the propeller blade a decade and a half ago.

I reckon they look ideal for the placing of a small plaque, to mark the spot where the Lancaster came down.


img_3854 copyA task, perhaps, for when next I visit.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Into the Silence

“Every day I wonder + cogitate about what really happened to the Lancaster on May 10/11. It’s such a peculiar happening – into the silence” (A01-113-001)

Writing to Don Smith in August 1944, Sydney Pate put into words what so many at the time and since have wondered. Just what was it that caused the loss of Lancaster LM475 over Lille?

When Phil Smith returned to England from occupied Europe a month or so after those words were written, Mr Pate could be forgiven for expecting that the only survivor of the crew might be able to shed some light on what really happened that May evening. But it was not to be. Phil’s first letter to his parents, written just five days after returning to England, reveals very little of the mystery (A01-033-002):

“All I can say about the accident is that I was extremely lucky to get away with it”

If anything, this brief account only served to further muddy the waters for Sydney Pate. He wrote to Don Smith in October 1944 (A01-094-001):

“I am struck by [Philip’s] use of the word ‘accident’, its precise application is still not clear to me… was it from enemy attack? Was it from internal misadventure? Was it from its own bomb load?”

Mr Pate put into words what is still puzzling, even today. When we first met Phil Smith in 1996 we asked him what he remembered. His answer?

Very little. Everything, he said, went hot, dry and red – and suddenly there was no aeroplane around him anymore. So he pulled his ripcord and parachuted to the ground.

Even the only man who survived the destruction of LM475 never knew for sure what caused his aircraft to crash. So what hope have we, 65 years later, of finding a definitive answer?

I’ll happily concede that, without wreckage to examine and without any known eyewitnesses, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that I will ever be able to nail down a probable cause with any degree of certainty. But there is some written evidence that I can use to look at a number of theories. At this stage in my research I have not actually studied these closely. I am simply putting the theories out there so I can start thinking about them in more detail in the future.

The most obvious possible causes concern enemy action:

  • Shot down by flak
  • Attacked by a nightfighter

Other causes might be seen by today’s air crash investigators as ‘accidents’:

  • Collision with another aircraft
  • System failure eg engines
  • Structural failure through manufacturing or maintenance defect
  • Airframe icing in poor weather
  • Pilot or other crew error
  • Overstressing of airframe, causing structural failure
  • Controlled flight into terrain
  • Running out of fuel causing a crash

There could also be some other, more ‘out there’ scenarios:

  •             Hit by a bomb dropped from above
  •             Own bombs collided with each other after leaving aircraft and exploded

This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of all possible causes for the loss of LM475. I may even edit this post to add more if I think of any plausible ideas in the near future. Though there remains no physical evidence in existence – only a single propeller blade is left of the wreck of the actual aircraft – there is written evidence that lends support to some of these theories. I don’t think that enough evidence exists to be definitive, but I think it would be an interesting exercise to at least try and produce a plausible, probable cause.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Three Lancasters

For an Australian, seeing even one Lancaster is something of an achievement. There are only two in the entire country – and they’re separated by some 2000 miles. So while I was in the UK in June 2010, managing to visit no less than three in about four days was pretty special. They were all around London – R5868 ‘S-Sugar’ at Hendon, DV372 ‘Old Fred’ at the Imperial War Museum, and PA474 ‘City of Lincoln’ at Biggin Hill. Each one inspired some sort of feeling, but not entirely as one might have expected.

Old Fred is the least complete of the three. In fact, it’s only the front cockpit section – forward of the main spar – that sits in majestic splendour on the second level of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth:

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This is of course the Lancaster that was immortalised by navigator Arnold Easton’s book ‘We Flew Old Fred – The Fox’. It has a personal connection for me as well, appearing at least once in the logbook of S/Ldr DPS (Phil) Smith, who led my great uncle Jack’s 467 Sqn crew. Jack himself was not on this operation but the rest of the crew were. I’m told that, except for a great big sheet of perspex over the flight engineer’s panel, the cockpit appears more or less untouched from the way it looked at the end of the war.
There’s another great big sheet of perspex across the end that seals off the inside from the sweaty hands of the thousands of school children who were visiting at the same time that I was. It also, of course, carries out the same protective function against slightly emotional relatives of bomber aircrew… like me.
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I was pressed up against the plastic for some time, gazing at a bucket seat that Phil Smith sat in… a navigator’s desk like those Jack Purcell worked at… the knobs on the radio sets that wireless op Dale Johnston fiddled with. Half the aeroplane is missing, but standing there looking forward it wasn’t hard to imagine the three of them, plus the hulking figure of Ken Tabor at the flight engineer’s station (without the perspex) and, beyond those yellow railings, right up the front in the big bulbous blister, bomb aimer Jerry Parker. The chatter of the schoolchildren became the drone of four Merlins as the Lancaster flew through the night. There was definitely a connection here.

S-Sugar is an aeroplane that should evoke similar feelings. It’s certainly an aeroplane that was on squadron at the same time that my great uncle and his crew were. In fact I can almost imagine their anticipation at the prospect of a party in the mess when Sugar approached its 100th operation. Sadly, they were not to enjoy any celebrations, being shot down the night before Sugar chalked up its ‘Ton’.

The first sight, once you enter the main aircraft halls at the RAF Museum at Hendon, is certainly impressive:
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But as I approached the aeroplane I saw tape blocking off one side. The Museum was doing work to their Bomber Command exhibition and so half the hall was closed. I couldn’t even walk a full circuit around the Lancaster. One of my favourite things to do when in close proximity to a Lancaster is to just walk around it, looking up. I think it’s got something to do with realising how big the thing is.

But I couldn’t do that on this day.

I don’t know why, but Sugar just didn’t have the effect on me that I was expecting it to. I couldn’t walk all the way around the aeroplane. There was the sound of power tools over on the other side of the hall (the side that was closed off). There was the ‘beeping’ of a moving cherry picker. The atmosphere – that I think the Australian War Memorial has captured with their Striking by Night display using G-George in Canberra – just wasn’t there.
I realise that here was an aeroplane that was at Waddington when Jack’s crew were there – it was even on the same operation to Lille from which they failed to return. But I found nothing there. The collection of metal bits and pieces looked like a Lancaster but I detected none of the ‘something else’ that I found at Canberra. It just wasn’t there for me. S for Sugar was a bit disappointing.

One aeroplane that definitely still has that something special is PA474. Unique amongst those Lancasters that I’ve laid eyes on, this one still flies.
I spent three weeks on the Bomber Command trail in Lincolnshire last year. Despite chasing it half way across the county, I failed on that occasion to see City of Lincoln in the air.

There was no way it was going to beat me this time around!

I thought the Biggin Hill airshow would be a pretty safe bet. When I arrived – early in the morning – I could see the Lancaster in the distance, parked somewhat improbably behind an Me 109:
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The anticipation began to build.

The airshow was fantastic. All sorts of aeroplanes that we just can’t see in Australia, displayed in professional and entertaining ways. The large crowd lapped it up.

In the afternoon, England was playing Germany in the game that would ultimately send the Poms home from the World Cup. The airshow organisers had thoughtfully provided a few very big video screens on which to show the match.

The Lancaster started up and taxied out shortly after kick-off.
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And do you know what?

Every person on that airfield had their eyes glued to the old bomber. The football never stood a chance.

There is something about the sound of a Lancaster at take-off power. You can’t look away (even if a contentious refereeing decision just cost England any chance they might have had of reaching the next round). The aeroplane made several low, slow passes with the grace of a beautiful lady in her element, the Merlins purring as she swept past. That silhouette is unmistakeable.
The crowd’s attention was wandering back towards the football after the Lancaster made its final pass. I kept watching though, as it headed into the distance. The wings became stumps, then they disappeared altogether and the aeroplane became but a dot. I was still watching as the dot disappeared over the horizon, the throb of those engines finally fading away. A minute or two later I was still watching, still searching, but it was gone.

I’d travelled half-way across the world, and finally I’d managed to see a Lancaster in the air.

Satisfied, I turned my attention to the big screen to watch the rest of the match.

27JUN10092 copyThis post originally appeared on the Lancaster Archive Forum (http://lancaster-archive.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=2810&st=0&sk=t&sd=a&hilit=three+lancasters)

© 2010 Adam Purcell