Posts Tagged 'Phil Smith'

467 Postblog LXXXII: Phil Smith’s evasion

Phil Smith spent a little over a week attempting to walk to Switzerland. He walked mostly at night, hiding during the day in either fields or farmers’ barns. In the early morning two days after his aeroplane crashed, Phil made it to a town called Orchies (some eleven miles south of Lezennes as the crow flies), but he was running out of food and still had no boots. He knew he now needed to seek help from local civilians. An elderly woman he approached could be of no direct assistance but pointed him towards a farmhouse not far away, whose inhabitants provided food but asked that he hide in the fields during the day and come back after dark. This he did and, after being well fed he was shown to a hayloft where he could sleep for the night.

I did not volunteer to leave and the next 24 hours followed the same pattern.[1]

After a few days hiding in the hayloft in Orchies, his shelterers told Phil that, as a German garrison was about to be billeted in the area it was too dangerous for him to stay. They gave Phil food, drink, an old pair of sandshoes and a hessian sack for a blanket and sent him on his way. In turn Phil wrote his Australian address on the back of one of the spare passport photos carried by aircrew on operations and left it with the family.

For the next few hours Phil avoided roads, walking cross-country to minimise the chances of encountering people. But it was hard going with a number of drains – mostly dry but some not – to be crossed. So when he stumbled onto a road going in roughly the right direction later in the night, Phil abandoned his cross-country policy. Following the road, he passed several small cemeteries which he thought probably contained graves from the Great War.

I saw a faint light in the distance at the side of the road. I assumed it to be a guard post and approached the area with the utmost caution. However my caution was quite unnecessary as the light turned out to be a glow-worm, the only one I saw in my night walking.

Phil kept walking by night and hiding by day. At one stage he saw a Spitfire making several low passes nearby. “I had fantasies of being seen and picked up and flown home which made me feel a little homesick,” he would later write. Apart from an incident where he was asked for the time by a group of young men and responded with the British Double Summer Time to which his watch was still set, the most dangerous encounter he had occurred when crossing a bridge one night over a large canal, possibly the Canal de la Sensee a few miles north of Cambrai. Exhausted after about a week on foot he was trudging slowly on when, about half-way across, he was challenged from a guard post which he had just passed without noticing.

I did not understand what was said but was able to respond immediately with a tired “bon soir’ and walked slowly on with no hesitation. The guard must have taken me for a drunk as he took no action…

The timeline in his Recollections document is somewhat vague but it was probably around 19 or 20 May when Phil walked through Cambrai itself and, seven or eight miles further east, came to the small village of Caudry. Just after that he could see some big farming establishments in a settlement called Audencourt and he decided to hide for the approaching day in one of the big sheds.

So ended my attempt to walk across France.

The Allied invasion of the Continent was imminent and, because it was considered too dangerous for Phil to continue on his own because of his lack of fluency in French, for the next three and a half months he was looked after by locals:

With the absolute need for secrecy, hiding in the small town of Caudry was, in some aspects, like being in prison. However, in all other ways I was cared for as a member of a husband and wife family.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Quote, and most of the detail in this section, comes from Phil Smith’s Recollections of 1939-1945 War typescript.

Treasure Trove(.nla.gov.au)

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

Learning to Fly

The chance to learn to fly an aeroplane was probably a factor in why many young men joined the Air Force in WWII. Those lucky enough to pass the tests and be selected for pilot training would soon have found themselves at a dusty Elementary Flying Training School, climbing aboard at a bright yellow Tiger Moth for what would be, in many cases, their first ever flight.

“This afternoon we had our first flying experience, a trip of about 1/2 hours duration. It was a very interesting business and it was just sufficient to demonstrate just how difficult a business it is to fly. The controls vary greatly in sensitivity and to the beginner in changing your attention from one thing to another it is very easy to loose [sic] control completely.” – Phil Smith, in a letter to his father written 14NOV40 (A01-125-001)

Despite spending a week in hospital with influenza (he had a temperature of 101 degrees – A01-126-001), it did not take Phil long to go solo for the first time. “When I recommenced flying on Monday [following hospitalisation] I found that I could do everything except land”, he wrote to his father on 28 November 1940, the day of his first solo (A01-132-001). “All my flying time since then has been in picking this up. I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.” He had about eight hours flying time in his logbook at this stage.

But as big an achievement as one’s first solo is when learning to fly, there is a big gap between a pilot who has flown solo and one who is fully qualified. Phil’s letter home two days after his first solo reveals that he was acutely aware of how new everything still was, and of how far he had yet to go (A01-127-001):

“From time to time I get very nasty turns, for example, this morning another plane and I only missed a side-on collision because he was about 20′ below me. This was mostly because I had not kept a good enough lookout. […] Yesterday also I had a scare when on the glide into the aerodrome I was turning and hit a bump which I swear l neally [sic] turned the plane vertical on its side. However, to get down safely is the big thing in flying so they say and the sooner I wake up to the responsibilities the better it will be for me. I find the landings are coming much easier to me now but they still are far from good. I find that steep turns are giving me a bit of trouble too.”

Trainee pilots had to contend with lectures on meteorology (“I think I shall have to learn the Beaufort scale of winds”, he wrote to sister Wenda in March 1941), photography and navigation. They even carried cameras to take photos of turning points to prove they got where they were supposed to go on their solo cross country flights (A01-147-001). The instructors were a mixed bunch. Phil was fined a tin of Craven A cigarettes by one of his, for letting the aeroplane slow down too much on final approach (A01-139-001 02FEB41). On another occasion an instructor rapped him over the knuckles with a ruler for a similar offence. Life was not made any easier, Phil wrote, by having multiple instructors all with slightly differing ideas on how things should be done. But sometimes they could be more relaxed as well. Phil’s letters reveal a number of instances where they got up to some fun. In December 1940 a train derailed near Tamworth and they stooged over to have a look (A01-130-001):

“After we had seen all we wanted my instructor and the other plane’s became playful and staged a mock dogfight. My instructor was very expert at this business and had the other plane at his mercy almost all the time. It was a very fast-moving business and consisted mostly of steep turns almost on our sides and short and quick dives and climbs […]”

And on another day, during a three-hour dual cross country flight (A01-140-001):

“The instructor I was with on that occasion was very playful and delighted in flying over the country schools trying to make the children walk around the school first one way and then the other to keep the plane in sight. We pupils, three of us, lean out and wave at the kids, all quite good fun.”

Aeroplanes being aeroplanes, the forces that keep them in the air are still the same today as they were when Phil Smith took his first few faltering steps into the sky. While the technology might have advanced considerably over the decades, the general techniques and principles of flight remain unchanged. And so I can relate some of my own flying lessons to those of Phil Smith. I had no less than nine instructors over the course of my first 35 or so flying hours so I can relate very much to Phil’s frustrations at being told different things by different pilots. One of those instructors wielded the fuel dipstick instead of a ruler when I got too slow in the circuit. I even did my own first solo on 28 November 2002 – 62 years to the day after Phil Smith did the same thing.

But not everything was the same. It took me about 17 hours of instruction before being let loose for my first solo in a Cessna – a result that would have very quickly resulted in a scrubbing from pilot training if I was learning to fly in a wartime EFTS. There was a radio in the Tiger Moth that I flew last year – there was no radio in Phil’s day. And, perhaps most importantly, I was learning to fly purely for the fun of it. While undoubtedly there were fun times for pilots like Phil Smith along the way, they were ultimately training for a deadly serious job.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

More Connections

The internet has made it a lot easier in recent years to make connections between people sharing common interests. One comment I received on this blog in recent times led to me linking up two people with an association with the same aircraft (ME739 of 630 Sqn): one whose great uncle flew it at the beginning of its career in April 1944 and one whose neighbour was shot down in it on its last operation exactly a year later. I’ve also had a comment from an artist preparing an entry for the 2012 RAAF Heritage Prize. And I received a comment a few months back from James Hollinworth, who has been researching Tamworth’s aviation history for some time. He was able to add significantly to what I now know about Andrew MacArthur-Onslow, the man with whom Gilbert Pate first tasted flight in the last few days of peace in 1939.

Given MacArthur-Onslow had held a pilot’s licence before the war (he had to have one if he had taken Gilbert with him!) I knew he already had some sort of flying experience. But I had no idea of just how much. James says he was an aerial surveyor prior to his enlistment, and as early as 1936 had visited Tamworth for the Diamond Jubilee Air Pageant that was held there, flying one of six machines from the Royal Aero Club. He enlisted in the RAAF in January 1937. But for me, the most staggering fact that James has revealed is that, in 1938, Andrew MacArthur-Onslow, along with his brother Denzil, flew their own aircraft from England to Australia. Even today this is no mean feat, let alone in the 1930s.

So it is evident that MacArthur-Onslow was a well-experienced airman, and the Air Force was not going to allow that expertise to go begging. In September 1940 (when Phil Smith was preparing for call-up for his posting to Initial Training School), MacArthur-Onslow was already an instructor at 6 Elementary Flying Training School atTamworth, NSW. The Air Force used his experience as part of a Board of Inquiry into 6 EFTS’s first accident in early October, when Tiger Moth A17-59 crashed, killing the student LAC WM Aspinall. Incidentally I suspect Phil Smith was alluding to this accident when he wrote to his mother shortly after arriving atTamworth in November 1940:

“The discipline up here appears unpleasantly severe, partly, we are told, because there was a fatal accident not long ago due to lack of flying discipline.” (A01-126-001)

I did have a look through Phil’s logbook for his time at Tamworth (November and December 1940) but MacArthur-Onslow’s name does not appear in it so the two did not fly together.

MacArthur-Onslow, James tells me, remained at Tamworth when 6 EFTS was disbanded in March 1942. The unit was replaced by the Central Flying School, which had the task of training the Air Force’s future instructor pilots. It was in this capacity that Flight Lieutenant Andrew William MacArthur-Onslow was flying with Sgt Thomas Myles Dawson on 18 January 1943 when, two and a half miles south west of Currabubula – about thirty kilometres south west of Tamworth– the Wirraway they were flying crashed while on a low flying exercise. Along with his unfortunate student, MacArthur-Onslow was killed and is buried in Tamworth War Cemetery.

c05-234-001 copy

© 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Thanks to James Hollinworth for the information that went into this post and the photograph of the grave.

Letters

I’m currently reading through and transcribing Phil Smith’s wartime letters. Phil joined the Air Force in September 1940 and was discharged in December 1945 – and, except for a notable period between May and September 1944 when he was ‘otherwise occupied’ in France, he tried to write home once a week. Lucky for me, his father kept more or less every one of his letters. So going through the lot – a couple of hundred in all – has not been a trivial (or short) job.

Phil’s letters reflect his methodical, calm personality. For example, he wrote about his first solo in a letter to Don Smith, his father, 28NOV40. For most aspiring pilots, the moment of flying an aeroplane alone for the first time is one of the most memorable of all. But to Phil, it was just another day:

I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time. I had flown about 8 hours dual before going solo which is slightly longer than the average but, considering that a week without flying came in the 8 hours I think it is satisfactory. (A01-132-001).

Or in July 1941, after dropping his first practice bombs:

I actually dropped bombs for the first time this week. It was low level attacking which is a matter of judgement only. I am sorry to say that I did very badly but feel that with practice I could improve. (A01-145-001)

Perhaps my favourite example of Phil’s understated way of writing letters comes from April 1943 at RAF Honeybourne, where he was an instructor for a year or so between his two operational tours. On a training flight a practice bomb ‘hung up’ in one of the Operational Training Unit’s Whitleys. After landing Phil clambered down from the aircraft to find out what had happened and instructed his pupil to open the bomb bay doors, and the offending bomb crashed out onto the tarmac in front of his nose. It failed to explode. Phil described this rather alarming incident as merely “another minor adventure” (A01-270-001).

The meaty stuff that I’m really interested in, of course, is Phil’s thoughts on operational flying. Once he got onto an operational squadron he wrote in a letter about his first raid. The language used here is indicative of his new status as operational aircrew – note the RAF slang:

“I was cracking at the real job three days after I arrived and took part in a raid on theRuhrdistrict. It was quite an adventure. We dropped our bombs OK but had engine trouble on the way back and had quite a shaky do getting back on terra firma” (A01-177-001).

The ‘shaky do’ he referred to was an emergency landing on one engine at Martlesham Heath, a coastal aerodrome that they needed assistance from the ground to find. This is one of the only times that Phil actually mentions in one of his letters an incident that occurred on operations, and it’s also the only time the RAF slang comes out. Later letters are much more restrained.

While security concerns were undoubtedly a consideration, I suspect that this lack of detail of what Phil was doing in his letters home was more a product of the type of person he was. Before the war – and after he returned – Phil was a chemist with the Commonwealth Sugar Refining Company (CSR), and his father Don was an engineer. He therefore always had a very practical and straightforward personality. Though he was living in quite extraordinary times in theUKand despite having a rather unique job flying a heavy bomber, for Phil it was just that – a job. While he was there, he just got on with it. And so in a letter in December 1941 (A01-194-001) Phil says ‘we were busy on Sunday evening” (referring to an operation to Wilhelmshafen, 28DEC41) and writes simply that Christmas was menaced “by a constant threat of work which fortunately did not come off.” Just another day at the office.

So while there is the odd little tidbit in Phil’s letters that I can pull out to derive some idea of his operational flying, overall they are remarkable mainly for their ordinariness. He would typically spend some time and ink apologising for his letter being late this week, then list the mail and parcels he had received from home since his last letter, ask about the family in Australia, report on the family he had visited in England, talk about the weather and conclude with words to the effect of “no more news at the moment”. And that was that. It’s almost frustrating at times to read what amounts to the same thing in every letter, over and over again. Nevertheless, I still read and transcribe them all. You never know where your next clue might come from.

Phil is one of two members of the crew for whom I have significant collections of letters. Reading so much that was written by the men I am studying opens a unique door into the thoughts, minds and personalities of the men concerned. I remain grateful to Mollie Smith and Gil Thew for so kindly letting me open those doors.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Dealing with the stress

“I promise that if you had witnessed normal Mess night booze up “goings on” during stand-downs then you would think that we were all ‘Flack Happy'” – Dennis Over, 227 Sqn rear gunner (C03-021-020).

Aircrew have always had something of a reputation for wildness, and in wartime particularly so. The mess on a wartime bomber station was often the scene of raucous gatherings of airmen getting up to no good. Often there was a reason to celebrate – a crew finished a tour of operations, perhaps, or a Lancaster chalked up 100 operations. Phil Smith, while at 103 Sqn, Elsham Wolds, learnt one day that the Squadron commander was posted overseas and was to leave early the next morning:

We had a party in the mess last night to wish him farewell. It was a very noisy and rowdy affair but quite good fun. It ended up with us all, including the C.O, with our coats off, cockfighting and wrestling on the floor. (A01-207-001).

As Phil wrote in his usual understated way in his diary the next day, “Good fun but not very dignified” (B03-001-001).

On another occasion Phil and a few comrades received visitors at RAF Long Marston in September 1943:

The Chief Instructor + my old flight commander and some others came over from Honeybourne to pay a friendly call. We ended up by returning the compliment – to liven up their mess. It resulted in a certain amount of broken furniture cups and glasses…. The met man had quite a brawl with the chief bombing leader up in the rafters like monkeys (A01-296-002).

Peter Brett, a 183 Sqn Typhoon pilot in France late in the war, was not the only airman to write of aircrew leaving blackened footprints on the ceiling during an impromptu mess party resulting from a three-day stand-down:

Most of us used to drink a pint or two every night but on party nights it was almost obligatory to become legless!

At first glance, there’s nothing surprising about a bunch of young men in the armed forces drinking and carrying on in the mess. Mess parties were a way to blow off a bit of steam, to maybe forget for a while the stresses and never-ending tension of nightly raids over enemy territory. But there is evidence that some men figured it was more important than that. Bob Murphy, a navigator on 467 Sqn then 61 Sqn, spoke about this in a video interview, taped for a documentary called “Wings of the Storm” in the 1980s:

Those who stayed home in the mess – read books, wrote letters home every night – for some reason or other seemed to be the ones that got shot down early’ […] others, a little bit wild like myself, seemed to be the ones who lived. (C07-044-001).

Letting off steam through drinking was (and still is) a common reaction to a prolonged stressful situation. Murphy took it even further when his pilot, Arthur Doubleday, took command of 61 Sqn in 1944. The entire crew was posted to Skellingthorpe, as Hank Nelson writes in Chased by the Sun (C07-036-178):

Given short warning of his posting, Doubleday and his crew arrived at Skellingthorpe to find that 61 Squadron had suffered high losses overBerlinand had just had three aircraft shot down on the Nuremburg raid and another two damaged in crashes. Bob Murphy said that they walked into the mess, and ‘you could hear a pin drop’. On their second night at Skellingthorpe, Doubleday’s crew tried to lift morale: ‘We decided to put on a party. Got the beer flowing, blackened a few bottoms and put the impressions on the ceiling of the mess – generally livened the place up’

Rollo Kingsford-Smith, Nelson wrote, “said that in the dark days of early 1944 he ‘was keeping going by drinking solidly’ and the company in the bar was part of the ‘therapy’.” (C07-036-178)

Nelson also reports that when Dan Conway, a 467 Sqn skipper, needed a new flight engineer,

…he asked the ‘spruce RAF sergeant’ who came forward, ‘Do you drink?’ The sergeant hesitated, but confessed that he did. Conway immediately said, ‘You’ll do’.Conway had decided that the camaraderie of the pubs was important to the crew and was not to be jeopardised. (C07-036-081)

Bomber Command aircrew were lucky that they had access to the mess and pubs and fairly frequent opportunities to visit them. But wartime restrictions meant that the English beer did not impress everyone. The last word on that subject goes to Don Huxtable, a 463 Sqn skipper. The beer was so weak it took 16 pints to really get started, he said. “It couldn’t go flat ‘cos it was flat already… and it couldn’t go warm ‘cos it was warm already too!”

Following the ANZAC Day march in Sydney this year, Don beat all of us to the bar.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

 Wings of the Storm interviews are available to view in the Research Centre of the Australian War Memorial

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)

A05-041-001 large

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)

A05-118-001 med

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 

Questions

In 2003 Phil Smith, my great uncle’s wartime pilot, passed away. In a way, Phil’s death was a catalyst for me. I’d done some work on the topic when I was very young – indeed this is what led us initially to finding and contacting the old pilot – but I was now old enough that I could start doing some work in my own right. But where to start?

One evening I first used what has become a very useful technique. Sitting at my desk in my little granny flat at my parents’ place in the Southern Highlands of NSW, I pulled out the dusty old photos and documents that I’d found the first time around. I read through the lot, with a notebook and a pencil alongside. I wrote notes as I went.

And most importantly, I also wrote down what I didn’t know. And I wrote down what I thought might be interesting to delve further into.

The resulting list of questions gave me my place to start. But as I answered each one, more questions would arise. So, despite the work I’ve done so far, the list remains as long, if not longer, than it was in 2003. I suppose that is a good thing – it means there will always be more out there, just waiting to be discovered.

I’ve used this technique a few times since – most recently in the search for the family of Eric Hill. By going back through what I already had, I could figure out where I might go next. Knowing where Eric came from, I could contact local history groups in the area – and they found the connection to a living relative.

There is one big question that I would still like to answer:

“What was it like?”

Ultimately this is why I’m studying this story. I never had the opportunity to talk to my great uncle, to find out first-hand what his war was like. I have his logbook and I have a couple of photos, but that’s more or less it. Everything else I know about him has been inferred from other sources: letters from Phil Smith and others, official records, and talking to as many veterans as I can. I can even draw on some of my own experiences: the taxi ride in Just Jane, for example, or flying a Tiger Moth. That’s as close as I can come to experiencing something of the Bomber Command story. To try and answer that never-ending question – what was it like?

Answering that question is, for me, the best way to ensure that airmen like my great uncle Jack and his crew are remembered.

© 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

Finding Phil Smith

It was a very significant letter.

A single page of A4, written in a steady but flowing hand, it was this correspondence of November 1996 which turned a passing interest in Uncle Jack’s story into something much bigger. The letter was from Doug Wheeler, himself a former Bomber Command navigator and, at the time, the secretary of the NSW branch of the 463-467 RAAF Lancaster Squadrons Association. Doug lived a couple of towns from where I grew up. I’d done quite well earlier in the year in a national history competition with an entry based around what I knew then about Jack. Doug saw an article about my entry in the local paper and contacted me through my school.

It was, in fact, this letter which led us directly to the sole surviving member of the crew of Lancaster LM475.

“Squadron Leader D.P. Smith survived and evaded capture […] I have been in touch with him a couple of times in recent years. I am sure that if you wished to contact him at any point he would be happy to help.”

Happy to help, he was. We made contact and, early in 1997, visited the old pilot and his wife Mollie in Sydney:

Donald Philip Smeed Smith – better known as Phil – was an industrial chemist working in the sugar industry when he joined the RAAF in 1940. By November of that year he had made his first solo in a Tiger Moth at Tamworth. He arrived in the UK in July 1941 and flew the first operation of his tour in October of that year with 103 Squadron, Elsham Wolds. That tour was completed in June 1942 and Phil became an instructor pilot for a spell. In late 1943 he returned to operations via 1668 Conversion Unit at Syerston – which is where, as a Squadron Leader, he was joined by the rest of the crew that he would lead to 467 Squadron.

The Lille raid was Phil’s 51st operational flight. Not even he could remember exactly what brought the aeroplane down. He simply found himself being ejected from the aircraft, by whatever means, and descended by parachute. After a short-lived attempt to walk to neutral territory in Spain, Phil was sheltered by a French family until the invasion forces caught up in September 1944.

Phil returned to Australia shortly thereafter. He was hospitalised in early 1945 with peritonitis. Mollie tells me that he was saved by a massive dose of penicillin. Phil wasn’t demobbed until late 1945, spending the remaining time of his five years in the Air Force as Commanding Officer of 88 Operational Base Unit, Bundaberg. He met and married Mollie after the war, had a family and returned to the sugar industry.

Phil Smith died in 2003. I remain in touch with Mollie who still lives in Sydney.

Receiving the letter from Doug Wheeler in 1996 and making contact with Phil Smith turned out to be a substantial factor in turning my interest in my great uncle into, well, Something Very Big. Here was someone who had actually known my great uncle Jack. Here was a living connection to the Man in the Photograph. In more recent years Mollie has allowed me to borrow and study Phil’s archive of letters and photographs, which has added immeasurably to my understanding of his experiences. I think this archive inspired me to start looking to see if there was anything else like it still out there, waiting to be found.

There have indeed been other collections like it that I have found. The search goes on for more.

C05-043-002med(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

This will be the last entry on SomethingVeryBig for 2010. The out-of-hours workload in the new job is significant, and I’ve discovered that I don’t at this stage have sufficient time to devote to properly researching and writing new posts. I’ve therefore decided to take a break from it for a month or so. 

I should be back by mid January.  

Adam 


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