Posts Tagged 'Phil Smith'



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 

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


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