Posts Tagged 'letters'

One Mystery Solved

Operational Record Books are fantastic historical sources. They are extensive chronological records of everything that happened, day by day, to a squadron in an operational sense. They cover information like targets, aircraft and crews, and usually describe details of any operational flying carried out. Very useful, then, if you’re trying to trace the lives and times of a particular Lancaster crew.

But they do not yield all the answers. The documents are seven decades old. They are faded, smudged, illegible and fragile, either on paper or (shudder) a microfiche machine. The information that was once there can sometimes disappear.

And sometimes the information was left out, mistyped or never even there in the first place.

The Monthly Summary (the so-called ‘Form 540’) in the 463 Squadron ORB records that Pilot Officer ‘Dud’ Ward received word on 9 May 1944 that he had been awarded an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross. The summary shows that the decoration was for a “grand effort” during an operation, but the date of that operation is smudged. It could be 6/7 April, or it could be 26/27 April. It’s unlikely that it was the earlier date because on that night nothing happened. The Form 540 entry for 26 April does however relate a story which is a possible candidate for the action that resulted in Ward’s DFC.

After losing two engines on return from a raid on Schweinfurt and ordering his crew to man ditching stations, Dud Ward managed to coax his aircraft across the Channel and land at Tangmere. The problem is, however, that the sortie list (or Form 541) has no record of Ward or his crew having flown that night. So while it appears most likely that it was indeed the Schweinfurt trip on which Ward won his DFC, there is contradictory evidence and thus some doubt remains.

I came across this quandary while I was writing my 467 Postblog series. Being early May at the time, I was pushing the deadline to publish the post so I had no time to find other sources to swing the balance one way or the other. I had to make do with a short description of the problem, and moved on.

And there the not-quite-satisfactorily-resolved issue remained, largely forgotten. Until I recently started to dig into the large pile of stuff that has been accumulating on my desk (and on my hard drive), waiting patiently for me to find time to go through it properly.

A not insignificant part of this pile is made up by one of the better collections of wartime letters I’ve seen. It’s from Arnold Easton, a 467 Squadron navigator who was at Waddington from mid February 1944. His letters, provided by his very proud son Geoff, are in places extremely detailed and I have been finding interesting little nuggets all through them. Including this, from a letter written on 9 May, 1944:

By the way George Jones’ pilot was notified today that he has won the D.F.C. for a very good show he put up on the return trip from Schweinfurt on 26.4.44.

Jones was a good friend of Arnold’s, and his name appears frequently in his letters. Reading this line set off a small bell in my memory. Could George Jones’ pilot have been ‘Dud’ Ward?

He most certainly was. The crew list is in the ORBs (though not for the Schweinfurt raid!). And, sadly, both Jones and Ward are buried at Forest-sur-Marque in France, just a few miles east of Lille, the city they were attacking when they were killed two nights after Easton wrote his letter home. “George Jones – best pal gone”, wrote Arnold in his logbook the next day.

So, satisfyingly, the ambiguity in the ORB was solved by another primary source, one that came from an entirely different place. I still have almost a hundred of Arnold’s letters to read – what else might I find?

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

 

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


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