On a yellowing piece of old newsprint, under a photograph of a Lancaster in flight, is a headline in large black letters. “BOARDING WITH THE BOMBERS”, it says. “Salome and the Operational Egg at a British Station”. The article below the headline describes one Australian war correspondent’s visit to an airfield in Britain. The article was roughly cut out of the newspaper and details like which newspaper it was out of and when it dates from are missing. Some lines have had the first few words cut off. But what remains paints a vivid portrait of life on a bomber station, written from the perspective of an outsider looking in.
I found the article lurking in Don Smith’s archive of letters and papers concerning his son Phil’s wartime service. The collection was kindly loaned to me by Phil’s widow Mollie. Though the original is short on some details, I thought there were enough clues to perhaps fill in the missing pieces.
Almost certainly the author was writing about a visit to Waddington. “Pilots of two Lancaster bomber squadrons which operate from a station at which I was permitted to stay for three days, are all Australians”, they say. There were five nominally Australian squadrons in Bomber Command: 460, 462, 463, 466 and 467 Squadrons. 462 and 466 flew Halifaxes and 460 Squadron operated alone from RAF Binbrook. Only 463 and 467 Squadrons were both operating Lancasters and both operating from the same airfield at the same time. The author also writes that the visit was “the day after the Nuremburg raid when the Air Force losses reached their highest”. This places the visit in late March and early April 1944 – which means that Phil Smith and his crew were on the station at the time. So for me it is a very valuable insight into what was going when they were there.
But if I want to use the article as a reference, I need to know where it came from. And as it turned out a little bit of research was all that was needed to answer that question, thanks to a magnificent tool from the National Library of Australia.
First of all, I figured that there was a good chance that searching for the journalist’s name could reveal which newspaper the article was written for. Betty Wilson is the name on the byline, and she is described as ‘our London Staff Correspondent’. First stop, then, was my old friend Google. And very quickly I had a match, turning up a number of articles from the Sydney Morning Herald written by Ms Wilson and dating from the war years.
So having established that, I remembered that the National Library of Australia’s fantastic Trove website has, among many, many other things, digitised the Herald from 1842 until 1954. And from there it was a very simple process to search for a phrase that was unlikely to have appeared anywhere else in the newspaper over more than one hundred years.
The phrase I searched for was ‘Operational egg’. And bingo, there it was, the first result. The Trove search engine links to a digital scan of the original article, and also has an automatic text conversion tool to make reading it a little easier. This is still in its early versions and precision is a little hit and miss but for the most part it is accurate, so finding my missing words was a very easy thing.
So I now know that my article (my catalogue number A06-052-001) is in fact from the Sydney Morning Herald, and was published on 20 May 1944. And all of that from about half an hour ratting around on the Trove website. It’s a very aptly named tool and is a real treasure trove (sorry) of sources for Australian social history. Highly recommended.
© 2012 Adam Purcell