Posts Tagged 'Leo McAuliffe'

Published!

The August issue of Flightpath magazine (Vol 28 No. 1 – in newsagents now) includes a feature article that I wrote on Leo McAuliffe, an Australian fighter pilot who was killed over Holland in a Tempest in March 1945.

Leo,Harley & sidecar copy

Leo on a sidecar, pre-enlistment. Photo from Craig Bennett

I wrote a little about Leo here and here, and since I did that new letters, photos and even Leo’s logbook has come to light, shared by Craig Bennett, Leo’s nephew who lives in Cootamundra. I had put together a piece about Leo for my family several years ago, and Craig’s generously-shared collection gave me enough new material to update it – and that’s what you can now find in Flightpath.

Quite an exciting moment to see the new issue in the newsagent and open it to find my article inside! My grateful thanks to Craig Bennett, Chris Thomas and Andy Wright for making it happen.

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You can find Flightpath in most newsagents in Australia – or a digital version is available to purchase here

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Leo’s Letter

It started, as many of these things do, with a simple Google search. In mid May, I saw in my site stats that someone had run a search for “222 squadron leo mcauliffe’. A day or so later a comment appeared in my inbox. It was from a man named William Rusbridge. Cleaning out his late mother’s papers, he had found a letter written by a young Australian airman whose squadron had been based for a time at the Selsey Advanced Landing Ground in southern England.

William’s parents owned a farm that had been requisitioned by the RAF for the landing ground in the lead-up to D-Day. They managed to convince the Air Force to allow them to stay living in their house, as William says more or less in the middle of the air base. They subsequently got to know many of the airmen posted to the base and, as the letter shows, remained in touch with at least one young Australian – Leo McAuliffe. Deciding to find out more about who might have written the letter so long ago, William tried an internet search… and so found this blog.

William very kindly typed out and sent me a transcript of the letter. It is, in every way, a typical letter as written by aircrew during the war. There’s a bit of news about Leo’s rest period when he was “flying an Anson backwards and forward from the continent to England”, some talk about other airmen the recipients would have known (“You remember the C.O. S/L Rigby the chap who was going around with that girl you know from Chichester well both he and Ernie Broad got a bar to their DFC’s before going on rest which they both deserved”), and a story of how he celebrated Christmas. “What a time it turned out to be”, he wrote, “drunk for two days without remembering a thing”. Leo wrote this letter on 2 February 1945, just six weeks before he was killed.

Just reading the transcript was amazing enough. But then, having no further use for it himself, and in an extraordinarily generous move, William mailed me the original letter.

It’s written on four pages of blue paper with an Air Force letterhead, in fountain pen ink and with a flowing old-fashioned script. Leo McAuliffe wrote this letter with his own fountain pen and in his own hand. And though the words he used themselves add something to what I know about him, the letter also represents something more. It is a real, tangible connection to the man whose grave we first stumbled upon in the east of The Netherlands in 1995. Suddenly the story has a human element to it. The man is more than a face in a photograph, and more than a name on a white stone.

I’m extremely grateful to William Rusbridge for his generosity – and ever hopeful that more people who look through dusty boxes of papers are curious enough to try to find out more about the people they belonged to.

 © 2012 Adam Purcell

Leo

There are fifteen Commonwealth War Graves in the cemetery belonging to the small village of Hellendoorn, in the east of The Netherlands. My family and I lived in Nijverdal – the next town along – throughout the year 1995 and when we discovered that there was one Australian among the graves we decided to see what we could discover about him.

Flight Lieutenant Leo McAuliffe was a fighter pilot attached to No. 222 Squadron, RAF. He was killed on 17 March 1945, a matter of weeks before that part of the Netherlands was liberated. He was 24 years old and came from Bexley, NSW. While still overseas, we wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see what they could tell us about Leo. He had been killed in a ‘flying battle’, they said, and another letter to the Air Force after we returned to Australia in 1996 revealed he crashed while leading a section of two aircraft on a patrol and weather reconnaissance mission over enemy occupied territory.

Late last year I decided to obtain copies of Leo’s service record and A705 files from the National Archives of Australia. This was not intended to be as in-depth a study as I am doing on my great uncle Jack and his Lancaster crew. It was just a side-line interest, more for general interest of our family than anything overly complicated. I had vague plans of reading through the files and writing a short ‘interpretation’ of them so I could then bind the whole lot up and give it to Dad for Christmas. Unfortunately the National Archives are experiencing ‘high demand’ for copies at the moment, and the month turnaround that I was expecting turned into two – too late for Christmas. Dad got a packet of liquorice instead.

But I now have the files, and have spent the last couple of weeks reading through them and beginning to write my little story. And guess what? It’s turned out into something far bigger than I was intending it to. I’m not under the deadline of ‘Christmas’, so I have time to delve into the story a little deeper, following leads that I would have otherwise left alone. So questions raised in the NAA files have led to posts on the RAFCommands forum, which in turn led to the discovery that Leo served in Northern France following the invasion… meaning that my friend Joss le Clercq is also interested in Leo’s story and has been in touch.

The account of Leo’s final flight, from his wingman, suggests to me that he simply became disoriented and lost control in thick cloud – more accident than ‘flying battle’. And the story of how a young Dutch woman witnessed the crash and recovered a dog tag but was later killed in an air attack on Nijverdal caused me to contact a friend who volunteers at the small World War II museum that is now in that town. This, in turn, resulted in numerous emails from her contacts at the museum, and much information about the crash and the attack on Nijverdal.

All quite amazing. I’ve spent the last few hours translating those emails from Dutch and using Google Earth to try and pinpoint a crash location. But a line needs to be drawn somewhere. There is a lot of information out there – the tough part is deciding when you have enough, when you can stop researching and start writing. Leo’s story is well on its way to becoming known now. A couple more questions to my new Dutch contacts, and the writing can begin.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


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