Posts Tagged 'Photographs'

Straight to the Pool Room!

Or are you a stranger, without even a name?

Forever enshrined, behind some glass pane?

In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,

And fading to yellow, in a brown leather frame?

-Eric Bogle, No Man’s Land

Perhaps because so little has survived, the few photos and original documents that I have of my great uncle Jack are treasured possessions for my family. They help to make real the legend that I grew up with. They are, literally, all that is left of the man. And for this reason, it’s critically important that I keep them safe.

When Dad was given the photos from his grandfather they lived in a shallow foolscap box. But by the time I saw them in the early 1990s the box was falling apart. Given my developing interest in the photos and the story they represented, something more practical needed to be found to allow them to be easily accessed. They spent the next few years in plastic sleeves in a green display folder, along with all the other material we’d gathered.

A few years later Dad found an old leather briefcase in an antique shop somewhere, and thought it would make an appropriate home for Jack’s memorabilia. He arranged the photos around Jack’ logbook in the briefcase, which sat open in a display cabinet at my parents’ place in Goulburn until he gave them to me earlier this year.

An antique cabinet at home serves as my ‘Pool Room’. I was keen to display Jack’s memorabilia there, along with other meaningful objects like the forage cap and my Lancaster model. (Not entirely coincidentally, the original oil painting of B for Baker hangs on the wall above). But some of the photos are fading and curling a little. Wanting to display them but not wanting to run the risk of further degradation, I needed another solution.

The first thing I did was get copies of the photos. I scanned them many years ago for a CD-ROM (remember those??) I put together in 2003 so I already had digital copies, but imaging technology has improved immeasurably in the decade since then so I recently had digital prints made at my local friendly photo retailer. The new copies I arranged in the briefcase that Dad had given me, along with Jack’s original logbook and service medals:

14Sep-Medals 026 copy

So I now have copies on display in my cabinet. Digital copies are available for study as part of my research if I need to, or for posting on this blog. But the originals have an atmosphere to them that the copies can never replicate. In part it is those imperfections collected over seven decades – the fading, the creases and the pin holes in some – that give the originals their character. Phil Smith’s handwriting on the back of one or two adds to their authenticity.

But while those imperfections add to the character of the originals and help make them ‘real’, there’s not much point if the photo degrades to such an extent that the original can no longer be viewed. To prevent further deterioration I have now mounted the original prints – seventeen of them in all – in a loose-leaf archival quality album, using photo corners. The album is now stored in a closet in my house where the temperature will, hopefully, remain reasonably constant. That way the photos are still easily available for closer examination if I want to get them out, but they are also stored as best I can in conditions that will not accelerate the aging process and the deterioration that comes from it.

They should last another couple of generations at least.

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

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Ten Veterans

At the 463-467 RAAF Squadrons Association lunch which followed the 2014 ANZAC Day march in Sydney last Friday we were privileged to have no fewer than ten Bomber Command veterans amongst the 50 or so people present. I’m still putting together You can find a full post about the day here, but for now here is a collection of photographic portraits, one of each veteran:

Don Browning

Don Browning

Don Southwell

Don Southwell

Don Huxtable

Don Huxtable

Keith Campbell

Keith Campbell

Alan Buxton

Alan Buxton

Albert Wallace

Albert Wallace

Hugh McLeod

Hugh McLeod

David Skinner

David Skinner

Harry Brown

Harry Brown

George Douglass

George Douglass

 

Photos (c) 2014 Adam Purcell

Briefing Room

While the photograph that is now finding a wider audience as the cover shot of Bomber Command: Failed to Return is the only known image showing the entire crew of B for Baker, there is one more photo that shows at least four of them. It is from the small collection that was with my great uncle Jack’s logbook and it shows a large group of airmen in a briefing room. The three men furthest back in the photograph are, left to right, Ken Tabor, Eric Hill and Gil Pate. In the middle of the second row, next to the man wearing the round officer’s cap, is Phil Smith:

Briefing - Still 1

It has been thought that the man in the middle of the row immediately behind Phil Smith was Jack Purcell, on the basis of an arrow that my father says used to be attached to the photo. Certainly Edward Purcell, Jack’s brother and recorded next-of-kin, thought initially that this man was the one who looked most like Jack, writing to Don Smith in November 1944 that:

“The actual features are, as you will notice, very vague, but the general head conformation is identical with that of the boy.” (A01-110-001)

But a month later, after Don had provided another enlarged photo, Edward reconsidered:

“It was most kind of you to send the photos but, I am sorry to say, the enlarged view establishes that the boy marked is definitely not Jack.” (A01-111-001)

The photo has an interesting history. When we first met Phil Smith in 1997, we showed him the print. He turned it over – and immediately recognised his own handwriting on the reverse, naming the three members of his crew sitting at the back of the group. But there is an intriguing inconsistency in the photo. At close inspection, the date on the blackboard at top left reads 11 March. The target is given as Berlin. But in neither Jack’s nor Phil’s logbooks is there an operation recorded on that date – to anywhere, let alone to the ‘Big City’. In fact, neither logbook records any flying of any kind on that day. Perhaps, we thought, the briefing had been for an operation that was subsequently scrubbed.

As it turns out, the real answer is even better. Also appearing in the photo – the man in the centre wearing the officer’s hat – is Dan Conway, an A Flight skipper. After the war he wrote a superb book called The Trenches in the Sky, in which he explained the situation. A film unit was visiting Waddington to take shots for a short feature called The RAAF in Europe. The briefing was staged for the benefit of the cameras and, according to Conway, included “references to tracking at low level over the Ruhr etc. Maybe because we were laughing [the CO] was made to go through the procedure again and then again…” (C07-014-160). The photo is in fact a still taken from that film. Our copy has a purple stamp on the back saying “RAF Photographic Section”.

So how did this official photo end up in Jack’s collection? Phil Smith had much extended family in England and his letters reveal that he visited them often while on leave. One uncle was Jack Smeed, who worked for a film studio in London… and it was this studio that produced the film from which the photograph was pulled. It appears that Jack Smeed arranged for copies to go to Phil, who captioned them and then forwarded them to his parents. After the crew went missing, Edward Purcell’s letters from late 1944 show that Don Smith spread them around to the families of some of the rest of the crew.

A few years before he died, Phil Smith was visiting the Australian War Memorial with his wife Mollie. In a corner of the Second World War gallery at the time was a small Bomber Command display, which included a short film. It was a grab from The RAAF in Europe, and Phil recognised himself as one of the reluctant film stars in it. I remember seeing the same display myself some years later (edit September 2013: it’s still there!), and the footage still crops up occasionally in documentaries and the like.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

The Lost Diggers

“It’s like looking back into time, looking into the eyes of men who’ve just been in battle.”

-Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/world/diggers-at-play-frozen-in-time-20110226-1b97y.html

In 1916 a French couple by the name of Thuillier began taking photographs of allied troops as they passed through their village of Vignacourt, just behind the lines on the Western Front. They began it as a means of making a little money – but what they created has become a priceless collection of immense historical value.

The collection was almost lost to history. A French amateur historian first tried to alert Australian and British authorities to its existence some 20 years ago, but nothing came of it. It was only recently that they were uncovered, in three dusty chests in the attic of the old Thuillier family farmhouse. The Sydney Morning Herald article reports that the farmhouse was about to be sold – which could have been the end of the three dusty chests, until Burness and his team intervened.

As Gil Thew told me, his uncle’s effects hadn’t been touched for over thirty years. I don’t have any comparable material concerning my great uncle Jack. The family story is that his letters disappeared sometime in the 1960s. Perhaps they were seen as merely dusty old papers, of no interest to anyone.

But like this story shows, what one person might consider old junk could be a goldmine. I’ve been lucky enough to study closely the archives of ‘dusty old papers’ belonging to two of the crew of B for Baker. Reading this story made me wonder what else might still be out there, largely forgotten – but waiting to be found.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell