Posts Tagged 'RAF Bomber Command'

Bomber Command Commemoration Day 2016: Canberra

It was an unfortunate fact that the Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremonies were on the same day this year in both Canberra and Melbourne. While in previous years I have prioritised travelling to the nation’s capital, in part because it has tended to attract Sydney-based Bomber Command types who I count as friends, with the recent incorporation of the Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria and my deeper involvement with that group in Melbourne, I needed to be in the southern capital on Sunday. But neither that nor the big rain band that’s been chucking it down at the entire east coast of Australia all weekend stopped me making a flying visit to Canberra last Saturday.

While it was only a short visit, I made sure it would be well and truly worthwhile by arranging an early flight on Saturday morning and doing a sneaky IBCC interview with 466 Squadron bomb aimer and prisoner of war Keith Campbell. I’ll get around to writing about Keith’s story in more detail one of these days (I’m afraid there’s a six-month backlog on that series of posts at the moment!), but at this point I must acknowledge the superb support cheerfully given by the staff of the Australian War Memorial in arranging a suitable venue for the recording. We’d hoped to be able to get an early check-in at the hotel but as this could not be confirmed until very late in the piece I thought I’d ask a contact at the AWM about the possibility of finding an appropriate spot somewhere in the building.

To AWM Events and Ceremonies Coordinator Pam Tapia, Media Relations Manager Greg Kimball, Duty Manager Richard Cruise and the staff at the front desk go my grateful thanks. We had the use of the Memorial’s BAE Systems Theatre for a couple of hours and it made for a very comfortable and appropriate location. Keith was the only survivor of a mid-air collision over Stuttgart in July 1944 – he still doesn’t know how his parachute was clipped on or how it opened – and it was wonderful to listen to him telling his story in detail, and get it on tape.

The prize for ingenuity goes to Adam, the AWM’s Theatre Manager who, noticing my struggles with the low light in the room, suggested, supplied and operated a theatre spotlight for the traditional photo:

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Keith Campbell OAM LdH in the BAE Systems Theatre, Australian War Memorial

After all that excitement we had a brief respite at the hotel (back at the QT again after last year’s experiment further down Northbourne Ave), and then it was back to the War Memorial for the evening’s cocktail party. This has always been my favourite part of this weekend: the atmosphere provided by Lancaster G for George is second to none. There was a reasonable crowd, though veteran numbers were somewhat lower than we have seen in recent years with eight present.

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A notable absence was Don Southwell, who had been taken to hospital on Friday with a mild infection. Long a stalwart of the organising committee of this weekend, Don was devastated at missing the event, and he was certainly missed both at the AWM and at the post-function drinks back at the hotel. Apparently he’d been on the phone to his son David every three hours to make sure everything was going smoothly in Canberra, so we hope to see him back on his feet soon.

Geoff Ingram provided MC services on the night and the guest speaker was Air Vice Marshal Kim Osley. He hit precisely the right note with a short address that was informal enough for the social nature of the occasion yet thoughtful enough to touch on some important issues. He started on a humorous note, telling the crowd that his father had been German. “So I’d like to thank those of you who attacked Stuttgart,” he said, pausing for effect, “…and missed!”

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The airmen of Bomber Command, Air Vice Marshal Osley said, were to the modern Royal Australian Air Force role models, leaving a legacy of moral courage in adversity and professional mastery. “Bomber Command shortened the war – end of story,” he declared, and no-one in the crowd could possibly argue with that.

I was happy to renew acquaintances with some veterans I know well: Tommy Knox, Bill Purdy, Tom Hopkinson, Ray Merrill and Jim Clayton (who claimed after AVM Osley’s Stuttgart quip that “we didn’t [miss]!”). And I managed to meet a new one too: Les Davies, a 466 Squadron mid-upper gunner, a lovely bloke who I found sitting under G for George.

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The night ended with the return of the Striking by Night sound and light show, which finished things off with a nice little punctuation mark.

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Jim Clayton, Ray Merrill and some plane called George

There were a small band of people in the QT hotel bar when we got back to the hotel for a nightcap or three. That distinctly Huxtable-shaped hole in proceedings again made its presence felt, but there were some passionate and very useful conversations in progress as the night wore on.

And then the next morning I got up early, Geoff Ingram drove me to the airport and I flew, in cloud the whole way, back to Melbourne. The next part of the Bomber Command Commemoration Day events was about to begin.

 

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

 

Talking

I did my first research project about my great uncle Jack at the age of about 12. It was for an entry in a national history competition and my project was to write a series of letters as if Jack had been writing home from the war. This work led directly to our discovering that Phil Smith, who had been Jack’s pilot, was still alive and was living in Sydney. We first met Phil and his wife Mollie in early 1997.

There then came a break of a few years. We stayed in contact with Phil and Mollie and occasionally travelled to Sydney to visit them and while I was aware of ‘Uncle Jack’ the bug had not yet bitten in earnest to find out more about him myself. In 2003 I took a year off between school and university, and that’s when I had some time to once again delve into the subject. Sadly the catalyst for this work was news of Phil’s death in March of that year. The starting point this time was all the original documents that we had about Jack, which I scanned and wrote explanatory notes about to put on a CD-ROM and share around my family. Then university and moving out of home got in the way and it was some years before I felt the urge again and started the work that has evolved into SomethingVeryBig.

The slightly frustrating thing is that I never had the opportunity to speak to Phil in detail about his experiences. I was quite young when I first started researching the story of B for Baker. This phase of work was what led us to him in the first place – and the second phase started after he passed away. I remember one discussion, over the lunch table at Phil and Mollie’s home in Sydney, when my father was asked to read out Phil’s wartime letter about the time his troop ship hit an iceberg in mid-Atlantic (a story in itself) while Phil added comments here and there, but that’s the only occasion that I can recall where we spoke directly about his experiences. I’m lucky that since his death I’ve had access to the superb archive of letters and photos and other documents that his father carefully collated while Phil was in the Air Force, but there’s nothing like actually talking to the people who were there for a ‘feel’ of what it was like.

Which is why I’m slowly collecting veterans, so to speak – contacting as many as I can, writing letters (yes, real letters, with stamps and envelopes and everything), phoning up and generally picking their brains. Each has a story to tell and each little insight adds to what I understand of what it was like to fly for Bomber Command. I can’t ask my great uncle or any members of his crew what their war was like – but I can still talk to other veterans. While it’s not quite the same story, they would have shared many similar experiences with each other so I reckon it’s enough to build a picture of the ‘feel’ of the times they lived in and the tasks they carried out.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Just Jane to fly again?

Twenty miles east of Lincoln lies a small village called East Kirkby. In fields nearby are the remains of a Royal Air Force Bomber Command station of the same name. It would be just one of many similar old airfields liberally scattered around Lincolnshire, except that in a corner of this one is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre – the home of Avro Lancaster NX611, better known as Just Jane.

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I went on a taxi run on Jane during my Bomber Command ‘pilgrimage’ to the UK in April 2009. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. Sitting in the wireless operator’s seat (while the desk is still there, the navigator’s seat has been removed), feeling the vibrations as the aircraft moved and hearing the roar of the engines and the hiss of pneumatic brakes as we bumped our way around a small part of the old airfield, it was very easy to close my eyes and feel just a small taste of What It Was Like.

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There has been some significant press coverage in the last couple of weeks about a possible restoration to airworthiness for Just Jane. Indeed, a report on BBC News was reportedly the most viewed and most shared video on the website the day it was released. The museum has secured four airworthy Merlin engines and is slowly gathering more parts, including an almost complete Martin mid-upper turret. Certainly it would appear that the Panton brothers are serious about getting their treasure into the air again.

But restoring another Lancaster to flying status will be a significant challenge. It took a decade to get Canadian Warplane Heritage’s Mynarski Lancaster airworthy. Just Jane is in quite good condition but there are far more regulations and requirements surrounding an airworthy aircraft than those relevant to one that stays on the ground – maintenance becomes instantly more expensive as it would need to be signed off by a licensed engineer, for example. The Pantons are reportedly planning to carry out the restoration on site at East Kirkby. As I discovered when I visited in 2009, they do already have some heroic if limited restoration work already underway on projects like a Hampden light bomber, but a Lancaster – to flying status – is in a whole new level of complexity. Obstacles like these can be overcome, given sufficient determination, but they also need piles and piles of cold hard cash. Taxi rides on Just Jane are by far the biggest attraction of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, and with Jane inaccessible for two seasons at the very least, that’s a large proportion of their revenue affected.

I don’t know the full story, and it is entirely possible (even likely, given the increase in news coverage recently) that the museum has planned and saved already towards the restoration. There are a number of static Lancasters around the world so I feel the risk of losing one in a crash, while very real, is not a reason to leave it on the ground – after all, an aeroplane’s natural environment is the sky. But there is another perhaps more philosophical reason that I think should be considered before any work is commenced.

At the moment, Just Jane provides the only opportunity in the world for members of the general public to crawl all over a Lancaster in something close to wartime configuration. Following the taxi run, you are given the complete run of the machine – sitting in each crew position (though the mid-upper turret is at the moment a shell only), clambering over the main spar, handling the bomb sight and of course manipulating the flying controls in the pilot’s seat. The point is that once the aircraft is certified for flight, it will need to comply with civil aviation regulations and as such this freedom will necessarily need to be curtailed. And having gone to the trouble and expense of returning the Lancaster to flying condition, it’s debatable whether the museum would then tolerate the additional cost and wear and tear of public ground runs.

As current EU regulations stand, flying paying passengers on the aircraft would be nearly impossible (inflexible security laws introduced in 2008 mandate things like bulletproof cockpit doors and escape slides in large aircraft carrying paying passengers, requirements that are impossible or at least extremely impracticable for vintage aircraft of this nature). And about 20 miles down the road is the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with its own flying Lancaster, so people can already see one of the old bombers flying on a regular basis. If Just Jane does ever fly again, the very accessible opportunity for members of the public to experience being in a Lancaster with its engines running will probably be lost. As good as it would be to see two Lancasters in the air at once, I feel that, rather than simply watching another aeroplane fly past, experiencing one of Just Jane’s taxi rides is a far more effective way to give modern audiences a personal feeling of What It Was Like.

Which, for people like me, is the whole point of the exercise.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Motivations

Daily life at a Bomber Command airfield could not exactly be described as ‘calming’.

I learned what the target was about midday, and for the whole afternoon I wandered around with a feeling of having half a pound of cold lead in the pit of my stomach. – Bill Brill, 467 Sqn skipper and later CO – C07-036-142

In an effort to explain their feelings about what they were to do, some airmen turned to thoughts of sport – as Hank Nelson wrote in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, for many airmen “sport was one place where their capacity to perform at their best under stress had been tested”. Nelson quotes Arthur Doubleday comparing the lead up to an operation to waiting to go into bat in cricket: “You know, the fast bowler looked a lot faster from the fence, but when you get in there it’s not too bad” (C07-036-142).

But as tours dragged on, as airmen witnessed more and more empty places at the Mess tables, it would have been only natural to begin to feel the cumulative tension of one operation after another. On his eleventh operation, Bill Brill was ‘getting a little accustomed to being scared’ (C07-036-159). And there is no doubt that airmen knew very well exactly how low their chances of surviving a tour were. Gil Pate wrote to his mother in November 1943 (A01-409-001): “It seems an age since I last saw you all + I guess I’ll need a lot of luck to do so again, the way things happen.”

So why did they go on?

Much has been made of the ‘stigma’ of being branded ‘LMF’ (Lacking Moral Fibre), a fate seemingly worse than death. And certainly there were instances of aircrew who had gone beyond their breaking point being publicly stripped of their ranks and their aircrew brevets, and given humiliating menial duties for the rest of the war. The loose stitching and unfaded spots left on their uniforms were a cruel reminder of what they once were. Certainly the threat of being branded LMF was a big motivator for some aircrew to carry on. But despite how much it was feared by the aircrew, a very low number of verdicts of LMF were ever officially handed down – Leo McKinstry quotes about 1200 in all, or less than 1% of all airmen in Bomber Command (C07-048-225).  There were also instances of compassionate squadron Commanding Officers recognising an airman at his limit and quietly moving him off flying duties, without the humiliation of accusations of cowardice. One veteran I know told me of the case of a mid-upper gunner who had been so traumatised by discovering the mutilated remains of his rear gunner comrade after an attack by nightfighters that he was clearly not in a state to continue flying. He was given a month’s compassionate leave on return to base, and on his return from leave was transferred to the Parachute Section of the same Squadron where he worked for the rest of the war (C03-021-051).

One of the most significant motivators, in my view, was the bonds shared by the crews themselves. Dennis Over – a 227 Sqn rear gunner, writing on the Lancaster Archive Forum in December 2010 – says “our greatest fears may well have been not wanting to let our crew down”. When I visited Dennis in June 2010 he said that he could not remember feeling fear while actually on an operation. That, he said, came later.  He had instead, he told me, “a sense of complete concentration on my duties, for the benefit of my entire crew”. No matter what the enemy could throw at them, no matter the hazards of weather or mechanical failure, their crew came first. That bond carries on today with many veteran aircrew still very close to surviving members of their crews. It’s one of the unique aspects of the Bomber Command experience and goes a long way to explaining why, in the face of dreadful odds, they pressed on regardless.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Book Review: Bomber Command – Australians in World War II

 

In June the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs released a book called Bomber Command: Australians in World War II. Launched at the Australian War Memorial in the presence of three Bomber Command veterans, it’s DVA’s second book in a series looking at Australians and their experiences in World War II (the first looked at Greece and Crete). Dr Richard Reid, of the Department’s Commemorations Branch, was the author (though interestingly he is not credited on the front cover). A couple of weeks after the launch DVA gave a copy of the book to each of the Australian veterans who went to London for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial.

The first half of the book contains an overview of Australia’s role in Bomber Command. Starting with a description of a raid over Berlin, it goes on to cover in some detail the typical path followed by many aircrew, from enlistment to training and right through to their operational squadrons. Reid makes good use of the Australians at War Film Archive (another DVA project in which he was involved) among other resources, to build a picture of ‘what it was like’, with a focus on individual Australian airmen. Unfortunately, though a well-respected and experienced military historian, Reid is not a Bomber Command specialist, and in places it shows. For example, on p. 150 he mistakenly calls the Avro Manchester the “prototype” of the Lancaster. While the Lanc was indeed a development of the Manchester, the final product was an entirely different aircraft – ergo, not a prototype. There are also some editing errors (which I admit may not be the historian’s fault): throughout the text, altitudes are converted to metres, an annoying move that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of technical terminology (in the Western world altitudes are and have always been measured in feet, regardless of whether the country uses metric measurements elsewhere). And, unforgivably, the airfield from which the Dambusters took off on the Dams raid is misspelt as ‘Scrampton’ and, on at least two occasions, the name of Britain’s first four-engined heavy bomber is misspelt as ‘Sterling’. Though minor errors in isolation, they all add up to an overall impression of a certain amount of ‘slapdashery’.

But then you reach the imagery. The entire second half of the book is taken up by a rather impressive collection of photos and other artwork, mostly taken from the Australian War Memorial’s collections. And this part of the book is very good. There are the obligatory photos that everyone has seen before (like the one of S-Sugar being bombed up at Waddington) but there are also many that are more unusual. They cover the entire journey through Bomber Command: enlistment, training, operations and homecoming (or, for those less fortunate, burial and remembrance). It’s a good collection, reproduced in high quality and with informative and comprehensive captions.

According to the press release that accompanied the launch, the book is “an invaluable resource, helping Australians learn about the important history of Bomber Command, including stories of those who served and died”. I’d agree with almost all of that. It will certainly make many of the stories of Bomber Command more accessible to Australians in the future – and in that sense, the Department have achieved something worthwhile – but it can only be an ‘invaluable resource’ if its facts are correct. Being a Government publication, it can be seen as an official record of what happened, and therefore it needs to be done right. Their hearts were in the right place, but unfortunately it would appear that those who produced this book settled for merely ‘close enough for government work’.

Bomber Command: Australians in World War II – which is, if you can look past its problems, still worth a look simply because of the images – is available from the Australian War Memorial Online Shop

 

(c) 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Bicester

Scattered across the fields of England are the remains of hundreds of former military aerodromes. Some have disappeared entirely, the runways excavated for hard fill and the buildings demolished. Some have been turned into business parks, showgrounds, residential estates and even prisons. Some have reverted back to agricultural land, with pig or chicken sheds where once were runways. A scant few are still operational airfields, civilian light aeroplanes replacing the bombers. And many more have simply been mothballed – still owned by the Ministry of Defence but all but abandoned, externally intact but uncared for, quietly decaying away to dust. One such airfield is RAF Bicester, and a group called Bomber Command Heritage  is determined to save it.

Bicester, at least according to English Heritage, “retains – better than any other aviation site in Britain – the layout and built fabric relating to both the first expansion period of the RAF and subsequent developments up to 1940”. While not an operational front-line Bomber Command station, Bicester was home to 13 Operational Training Unit, part of the great training pipeline which kept those front-line squadrons supplied with aircrew. The all-grass flying field is still used by gliders of the  Windrushers Gliding Club. Bomber Command Heritage sees an opportunity to preserve the site by turning the disused Technical Site into a significant museum.

On the face of it, it’s a fantastic idea. But it’s a large site (348 acres). Just purchasing the site from the MOD is expected to cost upwards of £2 million. There are also a large number of buildings on the site, some of which, the hangars in particular, are quite large. Many are in an advanced state of disrepair. Restoring the buildings is estimated to cost about £35 million, a lot of money for a volunteer organisation to come up with. And once they are restored, the costs involved in maintaining an active aerodrome and keeping the buildings in good repair are also not inconsiderable. It’s likely that gate takings alone from what would be, let’s face it, a niche market of Bomber Command enthusiasts would be insufficient to keep the museum open for long. There is always the possibility of lottery grants and other government support, but to rely on these as long-term funding appears less than sustainable.

So how could a site like Bicester be saved –with space for a significant museum on site – but still be a going concern in its own right? There needs to be something else other than just the museum to make the site commercially viable. ‘Developers’ have become a dirty word in today’s society with their ‘knock down and rebuild it bigger better and newer’ disregard for history. But development doesn’t have to be incompatible with heritage.

On the northern head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour lies the old Quarantine Station. It’s a magnificent site with many extremely significant buildings, used between 1832 and 1984 to quarantine passengers from arriving ships affected by infectious diseases. After its closure as an active facility the site passed into the management of the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service. NPWS did considerable work to the site to care for it (and conducted fantastic ghost tours, one of which I well remember going on in the mid 1990s) but they never had the funding required to ensure that the site was preserved properly. Things came to a head in 2002 when the 180-year-old hospital building burnt down, a fire thought to have been caused by an electrical fault. Shortly afterwards it was decided that government funding by itself was not enough to properly care for the site, and that private development was a possible solution. Unsurprisingly there was considerable public protest towards the idea, but – now that the site has indeed been leased to a private operator and has been reopened as a boutique accommodation, function and conference venue with a museum and guided tours – it’s actually turned out quite well. The commercial activities generate an income which supports the upkeep of the site, while being sympathetic to the heritage of the old station. The buildings are restored to their former glory. Even the old hospital that burnt down has been completely rebuilt, from scratch and using period methods, into a faithful and quite spectacular reproduction of the old building. Government funds alone would never have been sufficient to cover the work at the extraordinarily high standard required. Most importantly, the site retains the ‘feel’ of the old Quarantine Station – the work carried out has remained sympathetic to the original buildings and the activities that now take place there are compatible uses for them – and the public still has access to the site to be able to enjoy, appreciate and learn from it. The site is still alive.

I use the Quarantine Station simply as an example of what I think is a well-thought-out, sympathetic and viable use for a historical site. I’m not advocating that RAF Bicester is turned into a ‘boutique accommodation, function and conference centre’. But despite having all the best intentions, sentiment alone will not provide the cold hard cash that’s needed to acquire and restore a large site like a historic airfield. There needs to be some sort of income generating activities in place if the site is to remain viable, beyond just a museum. Imaginative and creative – and commercially viable – uses for significant historical sites are not necessarily incompatible with the idea of preserving the heritage value of them.

There need to be carefully thought-out controls in place to ensure that any development remains true to the heritage of the site. But developers are not necessarily the enemy, if they have the funding that will make the difference between the site falling further into disrepair, or it remaining in the long-term as an example of a Bomber Command airfield.

© 2012 Adam Purcell    

Bomber Command Memorial London

On 28 June 2012, the Bomber Command Memorial will be officially dedicated and opened in London by the Queen. The Memorial will be a lasting tribute to more than 125,000 Commonwealth aircrew who served with Bomber Command during World War II.

The bomber offensive was perhaps the longest, most sustained single campaign of the war – crews were in action from almost the first day of the conflict and the final sorties were flown at the very end of hostilities in Europe. Their contribution to the final victory was immense – as, sadly, was the cost. Out of those 125,000 airmen, more than 55,000 were killed in action. As an overall group, only the German U-Boat crews suffered a higher casualty rate.

Some 10,000 Australians served with Bomber Command. Almost three and a half thousand of them died while on active service. Bomber Command represented some 2% of total Australian enlistments in WWII but suffered 20% of Australian casualties. One Australian unit, 460 Squadron, lost more than 1,000 men over the course of the conflict – the equivalent of being completely wiped out five times.

Yet despite their terrible sacrifice, despite their enormous contribution to the war effort, the men of Bomber Command have never received the recognition that they deserve. A campaign medal was never awarded. And it has taken until now – nearly seven decades after the cessation of hostilities – for an official Memorial to be built. It’s been estimated that some 150 Bomber Command veterans remain alive in Australia. The youngest of these are fast approaching their 90th birthdays. Naturally our surviving veterans are very keen to travel to London to take part in the dedication ceremony. Due to the ravages of age not all 150 are well enough to attend, but at least 80 have registered interest with the Bomber Command Association of Australia.

The Australian Government initially announced a Commemorative Mission of five veterans would be fully sponsored and supported to go to the Ceremony. No family members or carers were included. A further forty grants of up to $3,000 each were to be available to assist other veterans in defraying their travel costs. In contrast, the New Zealand Government announced in a media release (through Veteran’s Affairs New Zealand) that they will be sending an RNZAF Boeing 757 to London with any veterans who are willing and able to make the trip, plus carers. Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand will cover all accommodation, transport, travel and medical expenses. This is a superb effort and shows how much the New Zealand Government respects and appreciates the efforts of their veterans.

So the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation started a campaign for proper recognition of our veterans. And it was successful, sort of. The Government announced on May 12 that they will now be taking 30 veterans, with $5,000 grants available to those who miss out on being part of the official delegation. This is a good improvement, but more is still needed. There are practical difficulties associated with travelling at such an advanced age and having a family member or carer travelling alongside is almost a necessity. The Australian Government was quite happy to send these brave men all-expenses-paid to England seventy years ago. The least they deserve is help so that they have the chance to see that their efforts – and the memories of the 3,486 Australian airmen who never came home – are properly recognised in London.

I’ve written letters supporting this cause to my local Member of Parliament, the Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. So far (a week and a half later) the only response has come from the Office of the Opposition Leader, in a phone call this afternoon. The staffer who rang me suggested I also contact the Shadow Minister for Veterans Affairs, so a new letter will be on the way shortly. I’ll be very interested to hear the responses of the others and will post here with any updates.

In the meantime, for those who wish to give practical support, please see details for making donations to the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation’s London Visit Appeal here.

 

Edit 03JUN12:

An article in the Hornsby Advocate featuring a great photo of two of our 463-467 Sqn veterans.

I’ve also received a reply from Warren Snowdon’s office advising that the official mission is now 32 men – 44 applications were received and all those assessed as medically fit to join the mission were accepted.  The number of $5,000 grants is uncapped. This, to me, appears a reasonable response – it is certainly an improvement over the initial proposal. I’m still awaiting a response from my local member.

Picture: http://www.hydro.com/pagefiles/846261563/BCM-Poster_800x1365.jpg

Text (c) 2012 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:

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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

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

Flight Engineer

In the early days of the bomber offensive, British aircraft like the Wellington would typically fly with a ‘second pilot’ in a support role to operate flaps and throttles or to take over for a while in the cruise. Phil Smith was operating on his first tour with 103 Sqn at this time, and his logbook records that he completed ten operations as second pilot before being given his own crew. The second pilot would be a fully-trained and qualified pilot who was usually less experienced than the ‘first pilot’ who commanded the aeroplane. But this meant, of course, that to lose one aircraft would mean losing two pilots – and pilots were perhaps the hardest (and most expensive) out of the aircrew categories to train and replace.

The Stirlings, Lancasters and Halifaxes that began coming on line around then had more complex systems than those on, for example, the Wellington, so a more specialised member of the crew was required. Around the beginning of 1942 the second pilot was starting to be replaced by a dedicated member of the crew whose job it was to know where every single switch and dial and gauge on their aeroplane was (and in the dark), and what they did: the flight engineer.

Initially, flight engineers were taken from the ranks of the ground crew already serving at RAF bases: the engine fitters and mechanics whose technical knowledge was already of a high standard. But when the demand for heavy bomber crews really ramped up the supply of suitable ground crew available to take conversion training began to slow. So the RAF began training ‘direct entry’ flight engineers from scratch.

One of these direct entry flight engineers was Tom Knox, a Glaswegian who moved to Australia after the war and still retains his beautiful accent. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Tom in Canberra in June, and recently spent an afternoon visiting him at home onSydney’s northern beaches.

Tom had begun an engineering apprenticeship when he was 16. Being a reserved occupation, the only way he could get out of it was to join up as aircrew. “So I did it!”, he wrote to me in a letter in June 2011. He reported to Lords Cricket Ground just after his 18th birthday, did his ‘square bashing’ in Devon and went to No. 4 School of Technical Training, St Athan.

It was here where young men learnt everything there was to know about their aeroplanes. The training was remarkably solid. Cliff Leach (a pilot who retrained as a flight engineer late in the war) remembers copying diagrams of the various systems from a blackboard and being asked to reproduce from memory some of them in exams. Cliff, aided by his classroom notes which he still has, remembers a lot of the systems of the Lancaster more than six decades later.

During their course the trainee flight engineers covered fuel systems, instrument panels, flight controls, engines, electricals, hydraulics and pneumatics. They learnt how to do the pre-flight inspection. They experienced hypoxia in a decompression chamber, to be able to recognise it if it arose on operations. They spent a week on a ‘Maker’s Course’, visiting Avro or Short Brothers or Handley-Page to gain an insider’s view of their specific aircraft. The final assessment consisted of written tests on each of the subjects they had studied followed by a face-to-face test.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about their training is that, even after receiving the half-wing brevet with an E – the mark of a fully qualified flight engineer – most of them had in fact never been up in the air. And when they got to the next stage, a Heavy Conversion Unit, the men that they would join had already been a crew for some months.

In Tom’s case, crewing up was very simple. He was approached by a young Australian Flight Sergeant who asked if he wanted to join the crew – and that was that. His first experience of flight was in the rear turret of a Stirling shortly afterwards. “It was scary”, he says, but he handled it ok and went on to fly operationally with 149 and 199 Squadrons.

The flight engineer on B for Baker was a young man named Ken Tabor. He joined the RAF on his 18th birthday and was at St Athan between February and August 1943. In this photograph he is standing with his parents, wearing his Flight Engineer’s brevet:

a05-226-001-orig copy

The brevet shows that the photo was taken after he graduated from St Athan, which happened in August 1943 – perhaps the snap was taken while Ken was visiting his family on leave in Dorset before he went to an operational squadron.

Ken Tabor was the youngest man on board B for Baker when it went missing over Lille in May 1944. He had not yet reached his 20th birthday.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Image: Steve Butson

Thanks also to Tom Knox and Cliff Leach for their input to this post.


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