Posts Tagged 'RAF Bomber Command'



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

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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.

Forage Cap

Gil Thew recently sent me this fantastic photograph of his uncle Gilbert Pate:

 a05-212-001 copy

Gilbert is in uniform, wearing a peaked forage cap parked at a jaunty angle upon his head. Tucked into the fold at the front of the cap is a white ‘flash’ of fabric. This flash was the mark of an airman under training. Gilbert’s serious expression and immaculate uniform coupled with the trainee flash suggests this might be a copy of his enlistment identity photograph. The photo was therefore most likely taken in late June 1942, when Gilbert would have been 26 years old. He barely looks out of his teens.

While not unique to Bomber Command itself, photographs of airmen from Commonwealth air forces in WWII will frequently show them wearing caps just like this one. The forage cap had been part of the uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force since the First World War. It was designed to look reasonably respectable even after being folded up and jammed into a corner in the cramped cockpit of an aeroplane. A battered cap was a sign that its owner was no sprog.

In May 2009 I visited Lezennes on the anniversary of the Lille operation to see the graves of my great uncle and his crew. I wasn’t prepared for the reception I was given by the locals. There was a small but moving ceremony at the cemetery, presided over by the Mayor with perhaps 20 people attending. After the cemetery we walked into the town to the local library, where a display had been set up telling the story of the crew. There was a television camera crew to document the occasion. I even met a man who had been 10 at the time of the Lille raid, and who remembered standing next to the graves the day after the funerals, singing ‘God Save the King’.

But most amazing of all was the man on the left of this photo:

img_3783 copy

His name is Laurent Messiaen. He is presenting me with a pristine original RAAF forage cap. The exact origins of the cap are unknown. I was told it had been with a local family since the war. Apparently Laurent read about my impending visit in the local newspaper and came along specifically to give it to me.

There is no doubt that it is RAAF. Stamped inside, it says “MADE IN AUSTRALIA 1943”. A direct link with the Lille operation cannot be ruled out.

The cap now sits on my shelf. It’s become one of my most treasured possessions.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command – Failed to Return

I have just received a new book called Bomber Command – Failed to Return. From Fighting High Publishing in the UK, it contains eleven chapters, written by six different authors, each chapter concentrating on the story of a particular airman or crew who failed to return from operations. I was one of the contributing authors, writing a chapter profiling rear gunner Gilbert Pate. Keen eyes might also recognise the photograph that appears on the cover of the book. It is, of course, the only known photo of the entire crew of 467 Sqn Lancaster LM475, B for Baker.

This is the first time I’ve written anything for publication in an actual book, and it was rather exciting to spy on my front step the package containing my copy, open it up and see the front cover, with my name one of the six underneath the title. I’m also stoked that Steve chose the crew photograph for the cover. Its prominent position (and there’s a full double-page spread of it inside too) means that the story of B for Baker and her crew can now reach an even wider audience.

I am indebted to Gil and Peggy Thew, the nephew and sister of Gilbert Pate, who extremely graciously allowed me full access to and use of Gilbert’s papers for this project. Much of my chapter was based on those letters and reading them all gave me a very good idea of who the man was. I can only hope that in what I’ve written I’ve done justice to Gilbert’s story.

Steve says the book has received some very good feedback in the UK already, and there was a launch event in early September at Duxford, attended by among others two of the airmen who feature in the book. If you’ll excuse the blatant plug, copies of Bomber Command – Failed to Return are available from the Book Depository, or direct from the publisher.

© 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

How They Crewed Up

The concept of the ‘crew’ is of far-reaching significance to the Bomber Command legend. A Lancaster needed seven men to operate efficiently. Each man would be specially trained in his respective trade, and each trade underwent their training separately. The way those individual airmen formed into crews remains one of the more unique parts of the story. In an Air Force so demanding of rigid procedures and highly developed organisation, the majority of crews came together in a curious, almost haphazard fashion.

The typical venue was a large hall at an Operational Training Unit. In the room would be gathered equal numbers of each aircrew ‘trade’. After a welcoming speech from the Commanding Officer, the assembled airmen would be told, essentially, to sort themselves out. Hank Nelson, in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, described it like “selecting a horse in a yard or a girl at a dance. You made your choice then the test of performance came later.” (C07-039-080). While seemingly chaotic, the system appeared to work well. Individual airmen would learn to work as an effective team and by the time they got to a squadron, most crews would live, work and play together. In the air they would fight together as a more or less autonomous unit. And the camaraderie would develop into extremely close friendships, some of which continue even to this day. It all started, in so many cases, in some draughty hangar at an Operational Training Unit.

Yet despite this being the ‘traditional’ way that crews were made, the men of B for Baker got together in entirely different ways. The available evidence suggests that only three of them crewed up at an OTU in what could be considered the conventional sense. After qualifying as their respective trades, Jerry Parker, Dale Johnston and Eric Hill all arrived at 14 OTU, RAF Cottesmore, in early June 1943. Just over three months later, on 08SEP43, all three were posted to 1661 Conversion Unit at RAF Winthorpe. The fact that all three were posted on the same day suggests that they were all part of the same crew.

The first member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to reach Winthorpe was actually Ken Tabor, the flight engineer, a week or so before the three arrived from Cottesmore. Because the aircraft flown at the OTU stage of training were typically Wellingtons which were less complicated than the four-engined heavies, flight engineers would normally go straight from their School of Technical Training to the HCUs and meet a crew there. This is exactly what happened in Ken’s case. In fact, it is highly likely that he had not yet even been flying until this point – Tom Knox, who flew on Stirlings with 149 Sqn, recently told me that like many flight engineers, “at this stage I had never had my feet off the ground” (C01-480-002).

Meanwhile Jack Purcell was undergoing his own operational training. He was the only member of the eventual crew of B for Baker to pass through 27 OTU at RAF Lichfield, from 22JUN43. What became of his OTU crew is not (yet) known – but on 19SEP43, Jack found himself posted to RAF Winthorpe, where the other four had been for at least week and a half. He most likely joined their crew at this stage. All five would be posted to 9 Squadron, RAF Bardney, on 31 October. After their pilot, a man named JG ‘Paddy’ McComb, was lost on a second dickey trip to Berlin on 18 November, at the end of the month the crew – none of whom had completed any operational flying with 9 Squadron – were posted to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston.

In parallel with the other five, Gilbert Pate went to an OTU (No. 17 at Silverstone) shortly after arriving in England in June 1943. He also went to 1661 Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, in September 1943. However instead of Bardney, Gilbert’s crew was posted to 49 Squadron at Fiskerton on the 22nd of that month. On 3 November, Gilbert took part in his first operational sortie, a raid on Dusseldorf. He was filling in for an injured gunner with an experienced crew. On the same night, P/O JEW Teager, Gilbert’s own pilot, went on the same operation as a ‘second dickey’. But Teager didn’t return. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. Like five of his future crewmates, Gilbert’s crew now found themselves without a pilot. They went to 1654 Conversion Unit and got a new pilot, but, returning to flying after an accident, the pilot lost his nerve and this time the powers that were split the crew up. Gilbert went to 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit, Syerston, on 14 November 1943. Two weeks later, on 1 December, Jack, Jerry, Dale, Ken and Eric were posted to the same unit.

Also posted in to Syerston on 1 December was an Australian Squadron Leader, DPS (Phil) Smith. He was already an experienced operational pilot, having completed a tour on Wellingtons with 103 Squadron in 1941 and 1942. Phil had been ‘screened’, instructing for a year at 24 Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne. He joined up with the three Australians and three Englishmen at Syerston and his logbook shows that his first flight with these men was 10 December 1943. After flying a total of 16.45 hours by day and 16.05 hours at night in a Lancaster, all seven were posted to 467 Squadron, Waddington, on the last day of 1943.

The crew was now formed, and ready for battle.

Sources for this post:

Service records of all seven men in the crew, from the National Archives of Australia or the RAF Disclosures Section

Phil Smith’s logbook – courtesy Mollie Smith

Chased by the Sun by Hank Nelson

Tom Knox – Stirling flight engineer, 149 and 199 Sqns

9 Sqn Association – Roger Audis

The 4T9ers – 49 Sqn Association and Dom Howard

© 2011 Adam Purcell


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