Posts Tagged 'RAF Bomber Command'



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

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Training

I was talking to 463 Squadron veteran Don Southwell on ANZAC Day in April about his training to become a navigator in WWII. Among other things he spoke about life at Initial Training School at Bradfield Park. He said that days started with physical training and drill, and were then full of theory classes – and when the trainee aircrew had time off from formal classes, they were expected to study. He remembers some particularly challenging subjects keeping him working at his desk until one or two in the morning. “The blokes in my hut”, he told me on the phone recently, “used to say that they didn’t have to go to classes because they’d hear everything from me… while I was talking in my sleep!”

This got me thinking (as happens every so often). In some ways, I can draw some parallels with what I understand of Air Force training and what I’m currently experiencing as a trainee air traffic controller. For example, the eleven other lads in my group and I are known by the simple name ‘Course 44’. We are timetabled as a course and subsequently we do everything together. We’ve become a reasonably close-knit group, with friendships forged in the furnace of shared challenges. We’re all (mostly) young men. Many have travelled from all over the country, and some from overseas, to do this training. We are learning a highly technical discipline, and we’re under considerable time pressure. We work hard, and we have to. There is the ever-present threat of being ‘scrubbed’ and washout rates are not insignificant. In short, this course is by far the most intense thing that I’ve ever attempted.

But there are a few key differences. Most of us are in our late 20s or early 30s, which is older than an average Australian airman in training during WWII (Don celebrated his 21st birthday on a bombing raid over a German city). There’s no mandated physical exercise or drill to worry about. We don’t live on site. But most importantly, the end result of our training – if we actually get through it – is a high-pressure but ultimately civil job. Sure, we’ll be on shift at all hours of the day and night, we’ll be working some pretty tough days and nights and there is no ‘pause’ button in air traffic control. But we won’t be going into combat. We are not facing the prospect of half of our number going missing in action. We can be pretty sure that at the end of our shift we will get home safely.

Which is a lot more than could be said for the airmen of Bomber Command.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command in Canberra

There was an old man sitting patiently in the departure lounge in Melbourne when I boarded a QantasLink Dash 8 to fly to Canberra last weekend. Sat next to him was his middle-aged son. When we boarded the aircraft they sat across the aisle and a few rows in front of me. I overheard a snippet of half a conversation that the younger man was having on his phone: “meeting in Canberra… taking him to… you know, Air Force stuff…” I watched his father as we powered down Runway 34 and took off. He was gazing out of the window, and his thoughts looked like they were miles away: across the seas, and across the decades.

They were going to Canberra for the same reason I was: the fourth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day. I next saw Ian and his son Phillip underneath the nose of Lancaster G for George at the Meet & Greet cocktail party later that evening and went across and said g’day. Ian had been a 460 Squadron pilot so it was fitting that G for George, a 460 Squadron machine, was the centerpiece of the function.

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It was an outstanding evening. There were perhaps 150 people present, a fair proportion of those being veterans. Talking about flying Lancasters with people like Don Huxtable, a 463 Sqn skipper, was a unique experience as he casually threw a thumb over his shoulder at the old bomber to emphasize a point. The function ended with the magnificent ‘Striking by Night’ sound and light show recreating a bombing raid around the Lancaster. We retired to the hotel bar for a nightcap, ensconced in a warm corner while Don Southwell held court.

It was a cold and misty Canberra winter’s morning when we awoke. But the sky soon cleared and the sun was nicely warming as we took our seats for the ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.

As is customary the AWM Ceremonies division put on a good show. It ran smoothly and Don Browning’s ‘Reflections’ presentation was particularly good. As the first notes of The Last Post rang out into a brilliant blue sky the line of young RAAF officers in the row in front of us snapped into a salute. It was a moving moment.

After the ceremony all the veterans moved up towards the War Memorial buildings for an extraordinary group photo. I counted 50 veterans, surely one of the largest gatherings of Bomber Command airmen (and at least one WAAF) anywhere in the world these days.

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The final part of the weekend was the luncheon. This was, I reckon, the highlight of an already highlight-heavy weekend. Some 200 people showed up, with at least one veteran at each table.

The best part of this event is the ability to float around between tables talking to all sorts of interesting people. Until today, I’d never met a real live Bomber Command flight engineer. Tom Knox, a Glaswegian flight engineer from 149 and 199 Squadrons, is on the right here:

11jun-bombercommandcanberra-067s copyThe other man is Pat Kerrins, a pilot from 115 Squadron. They were in animated conversation regarding a mutual friend and just being a fly on the wall while they chatted away was fascinating. A copy of this photo will be winging its way to each of these men shortly. I also met Jean Smith, who served in the WAAF at 27 OTU, RAF Lichfield, and a couple of likely suspects involved with the 463-467 Squadron Association in Melbourne. All very interesting people to know.

This has become an extremely significant event in the Bomber Command calendar in Australia. The Bomber Command Commemoration Day Foundation was set up to organise events like these to ensure that the men and women of Bomber Command get some long-deserved recognition. Behind ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, this is now the third largest single event held by the Australian War Memorial each year.

Given the level of interest in this year’s event, the men and women of Bomber Command can rest assured that it will continue into perpetuity.

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(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Nightingales and Bombers

19 May 1942.

As they had done each May 19th since 1924, the BBC recorded nightingales singing in the late evening in a place called Foyle Riding in Surrey.

The nightingales were not all that they recorded:

Click Here.

105 Wellingtons, 31 Stirlings, 29 Halifaxes, 15 Hampdens, 13 Lancasters and 4 Manchesters of RAF Bomber Command were on their way to attack Mannheim in Germany. The drone as they flew overhead was also captured by the BBC.

Of the 197 aircraft that flew over Foyle Riding that night, 11 failed to return. Only light damage resulted from the raid. Most of the target photographs from those that did make it to Mannheim showed forests or open fields.

(Hat tip to Chris Wild of ‘How to be a Retronaut’)

67 years

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We will remember them.

Bradfield Park

After a period on the Volunteer Reserve, a newly-enlisted airman in the RAAF in WWII would find himself posted to an Initial Training School (ITS) to learn about the basics of military life. Each state of Australia had its own ITS. Airmen from NSW would normally pass through No. 2 ITS at Bradfield Park in Sydney. Many thousands of airmen (and women, for there was also a WAAAF school on site) would experience their first taste of the Air Force at this station.

Don Southwell remembers “miles and miles” of parade grounds near the gatehouse of the station. Don was a 463 Squadron navigator in the latter part of the war. Like so many of his era, his Air Force career started at Bradfield Park. Don took me on a drive around the site of the old station shortly before I left Sydney in October 2010. “The WAAAFs could out-drill anyone”, he said.

Don on occasion would need to guard the Station’s boat house, which was down on the banks of the nearby Lane Cove River. He would carry his straw mattress and rifle down a track through thick bush and stay overnight in the boat house. On one occasion he fired his rifle at the water to see what would happen, then spent the walk back to the main base worrying about how he would account for that one cartridge… history and memory do not record how he got away with that one!

Don related stories of airmen crawling through a hole in the fence and removing the white ‘trainee’ flash from their caps to appear to be ground crew and thus less suspicious, to be able to walk up Lady Game Drive to Chatswood Railway Station. Being a Croydon boy, Don says he did the same while officially on guard at the boat house. He simply waited until it was dark, then made his escape to catch a train home. He slept at home that night, returning just as the sun came up the next day.

There is now virtually none of the station left. The CSIRO moved to the area in 1979 when their National Measurement Laboratories were built. In recent years they sold off some of the Commonwealth land on which the RAAF station once stood. But reminders are still there. The main road past the CSIRO’s compound is called Bradfield Rd. Other streets close by are Squadron Circuit and Brevet Ave. And in the corner of Queen Elizabeth Reserve, a short distance from tennis courts where Don says some of the parade grounds were, is this memorial:

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Partly funded by the CSIRO and Kuringai Council, it was built in 2006 and forms a fitting reminder to the activities that took place there.

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© 2010 Adam Purcell

So Far from Home

A recent article in Sydney’s Sun-Herald, 02JAN11:

http://www.smh.com.au/national/where-the-streets-will-have-his-name-20110101-19cjd.html

Flying Officer Lindsay Page Bacon, a couple of months before the end of the war in Europe, returning from a bombing operation in a 7 Sqn Lancaster which is damaged in combat and struggling to keep height. He manages to avoid crashing into a small town, but in the process destroys what little control he has over the aircraft. All on board perish in the crash.

65 years later, digging at a construction site in Nieuwdorp, the Netherlands, uncovers remnants of F/O Bacon’s aircraft. The town goes on a search for information about the crew, with an aim to build a memorial near the crash site. With the help of the newspaper they eventually find F/O Bacon’s sole surviving brother in Ulladulla, NSW.

People have many motivations for becoming involved in this sort of research. For myself, like many others, it’s about that dusty photograph or logbook, and wanting to know more about someone who shared your name. For others, it’s the technical aspects of the aircraft, or the tactics, or the strategies.

But for people like Hans van Dam, the Dutchman who contacted the newspaper in Sydney, it’s about remembering the men who came from the other side of the world to fight in the defence of his little village – and who never got the chance to go back home.


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