Before it’s too late

Tony Wright, National Affairs editor at The Age newspaper here in Melbourne, usually writes about the goings-on in and around Parliament House in Canberra. His series of Sketch columns usually throw an interesting light on the events of the day (and, if you’ve been following Australian politics, he’s had a not inconsiderable amount of material for inspiration recently).

But every Saturday, Wright gets the opportunity to write about something other than politics. One week last year it was about Mike Druce, the man who made a modern-day escape from Colditz Castle in September, then walked unsupported to Switzerland. Wright wrote another interesting one early in February.

“They are disappearing fast now”, he wrote, “the generation who experienced a world war.”

It seems not so long ago that those who had lived through World War I and had seen horses step aside for internal combustion engines and a lot more were being put in the ground, but memory plays tricks – it’s 100 years since that war began.

Those who knew it, even those who lived to astonishing ages, breathed the last of this earth’s air a long time ago.

Now it is the turn of the last of the survivors of World War II.

Some of those shuffling off into the sunset in recent times, of course, were well-known in life and widely mourned in death. Giants of politics like Gough Whitlam (an RAAF navigator) and Tom Uren (a survivor of the Burma-Thai Railway). Journalist and Korean War correspondent Harry Gordon. “These are, of course, big and extraordinary lives”, Wright says:

…generous spirits well documented, celebrated on a broad stage, their stories teaching us something that transcends the experiences that will go into books about their achievements: call it wisdom.

But while these were some of the better-known men whose lives intersected with some of the biggest conflicts in the history of mankind, so many others were there too. In Wright’s words:

…each day others whose lives were not destined to be celebrated so publicly or granted obituaries pass beyond this existence. Every one of them has a story, and in those stories we can often find ourselves enriched, because wisdom often resides there.

He’s dead right.

This is more or less why I flew to Sydney last month to have lunch with a Bomber Command veteran who also happens to be a good friend of mine. Hugh is a former rear gunner and we arranged to meet at one of those very old and very exclusive clubs in the city, all cedar panelling and leather Chesterfield armchairs. Hugh has been a member for a quarter-century.

He’s clearly well-known here. As we entered the bar the bartender poured my beer but gave Hugh the bottle and an empty mug. “I like to pour it myself”, he explained. Somehow, I imagine, with its sharply-dressed, exclusively male clientele, beer in pewter mugs and discreet murmur of conversation, the atmosphere in the bar at a wartime Officer’s Mess (in one of its quieter moments) might have been something similar. And perhaps for Hugh that’s at least part of where the attraction lies.

With that thought in my head, it’s not surprising that our conversation very quickly turned to flying. As we drank our beers we shared experiences flying the Tiger Moth and I mentioned my recent visit to Nhill and the Anson that is under restoration there. “I loved the old Aggie”, he said simply. We continued talking in the dining room as we waited for and then enjoyed a scrumptious meal while looking out over the State Library across the street.

Hugh is a little unique. He actually trained as a pilot but when he arrived at his squadron, he was one of twelve who were asked/chosen to re-train as gunners to operate a special ‘secret weapon’. It turned out to be ‘Village Inn’, an automatic radar-guided gun system. Despite what you might read on that link, Hugh’s opinion of the equipment is not very high. It was unserviceable half the time, he said, and the rear turret was not a nice place to be. Nor was it safe. On his first trip – to Bremen, in October 1944 – two of the twelve Village Inn men failed to return.

Hugh flew on his last operation – his 32nd – a matter of weeks before the end of the war. There followed the traditional fortnight’s end-of-tour leave, part of which coincided with the regular 12-days-every-six-weeks leave of a good friend at the squadron called Johnny Garrett. Hugh had arranged to meet up with Johnny in Cardiff but was a bit surprised when he did not show up. On return to the squadron he found out why.

On 22 April 1945, 49 Squadron was moving from Fulbeck to Syerston. As happened frequently on these occasions, on departure each bomber “beat up” the control tower before setting course for their new home. One aircraft flew past at extremely low level. Johnny, like Hugh a pilot/rear gunner, was in the rear turret.

The pilot pulled the Lancaster up into the air.

Too late.

The tail of the aircraft hit the MT shed. The Lancaster fell to the ground, killing all six on board. Fifteen more people – part of the works party which were about to begin runway extentions at Fulbeck –  were killed on the ground.(1)

It was a sobering story to hear over an otherwise very civilised lunch. But that’s just the point. Such was life, and death, in Bomber Command. Tragic as they are, stories like these actually happened. While official records like the squadron Operational Record Book reveal something of what happened to the aircraft, they won’t include the personal details – like the friends of those killed who wondered why they did not show up for an arranged meet-up while on leave.

These are the sorts of details and stories that can only come direct from those who were there at the time. So I see part of my role, as a Bomber Command researcher, but also as a member of the human race, to collect those stories while I still can. Hugh is one of the younger Bomber Command veterans I know, but he turned 90 last year. He’s no spring chicken. And one day I’m going to want to ask him something… but he won’t be there anymore. So in the meantime, says Tony Wright as he finishes his piece:

…the rest of us could do worse than sit with those close to us and explore what they might have to share and teach before they are gone and we find ourselves turning, bereft, to their shadow.

Amen to that.


Hugh McLeod, 49 Squadron rear gunner and my good friend, died on 7 July 2015.


(1) The ‘Fulbeck Tragedy’, as it is known, is described in Ward, J 1997: Beware of the Dog at War: Operational Diary of 49 Squadron Spanning Forty Nine Years, 1916-1965, pp. 542-5. Thanks to Colin Cripps for the steer.


© 2015 Adam Purcell

What happens when those that are left grow too old?

It has long been the case that, following their return from war or warlike service, many veterans will become involved in ex-service groups. These organisations – many set up and run by the veterans themselves – provide support and comradeship for the years immediately following return from war. Regular reunions, typically based around ANZAC Day or other significant dates on the calendar, helped keep alive the close friendships that develop out of shared combat or other adversities. And of course they would also allow time for reflection and remembrance of those who did not come back. As Laurence Binyon wrote, “They shall not grow old.”

But of course there are more words that follow that line from Binyon’s famous poem, For the Fallen:

“ we that are left grow old.”

Time, inevitably, marches on, and those that are left from WWII are now very, very old indeed. The last Australian to serve overseas in WWI died in 2005. It won’t be many more years before WWII veterans go the same way. Once they are no more, will the ex-service organisations carry on? Who will run them? Who will carry the banners? Who will remember them, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning?

Enter Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. Reasoning that the earlier you get ‘em, the greater the impact, the Shrine runs a programme that as far as I know is unique in Australia. They match ex-service organisations with primary and secondary schools, usually with either a geographical or a historical connection. The Shrine facilitates and hosts initial meetings between the interested parties. It provides guidance on how to proceed. And then it steps discreetly out of the way, leaving the two bodies to continue and develop the relationship that has been cultivated.

Usually targeting a particular year group at the school, the history of the adopted unit is integrated into the school’s curriculum. As the Shrine notes on its website, this works nicely with the Civics and Citizenship part of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (AusVELS) curriculum. Just this in itself is a good reason for becoming involved. But then they go further.

Many different ex-service organisations hold annual commemorative services at the Shrine (that for Bomber Command, of course, is in June each year). But as the veterans age, it becomes harder for them to organise, run or even attend the ceremonies themselves. For units that have been adopted under the Shrine’s programme, the solution is obvious. The school students, who have been learning about the unit at school, meet the veterans, become part of organising the ceremony and then play a role in actually running it. Because the programme is targeted at a specific year group (say, Year 9), different students are involved every year – and thus the unit’s legacy becomes, hopefully, self-perpetuating.

It’s a great idea and one that has already borne fruit. Some 33 schools are already taking part and there are a number of others in the pipeline.

Just imagine learning at school about a particular aspect of WWII, and then meeting people who were actually there. What a fantastic way to inspire an interest and bring the history alive. Wish they’d have thought of it when I was at school!


(c) 2015 Adam Purcell


Scredington and the crew of Lancaster ED439

It is right, that the nine men who perished that day, ready and willing to defend the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and all those standing with us… are remembered with honour and dignity on the quiet walls of an English church.

With these words, Reverend Chris Harrington closed the service held last year to dedicate a memorial stone to the crew of 83 Squadron Lancaster ED439, which crashed in the English village of Scredington 71 years ago today.

I’ve posted about Scredington before, but I recently received a small package in the mail from the UK. Mike Galvin – Honorary Secretary of the National Service (RAF) Association, Lincolnshire Branch – sent me a DVD made up of footage that was taken on the day. It’s quite a production.

St Andrews Church in Scredington is fairly small, as these things go, though it does have an imposingly tall steeple. The building – decorated for the occasion with red white and blue RAF standards – can nominally seat 145 people, but somehow on the day they managed to squeeze 185 inside, including 33 relatives of six members of the crew. The ceremony appears to have gone off to plan. A reading from a book written by a local man who was a young lad at the time of the crash set the scene. Neil Trotter, the man whose childhood memories and dedication sparked the memorial project, addressed the congregation and made a point that resonates with the ethos behind

Having retired after 37 years serving in the Royal Air Force, Neil wanted to find out what he could about the crash he remembered as a child. He wrote a letter which was posted online and, eventually, seen by someone who knew more of the story and got in touch. This contact came about because of the extraordinary reach of the internet. I’ve had similar success connecting with people from all over the world as a direct result of posts I’ve made on this blog. In part, that’s why I write here. It lets me get the story out to a much wider audience than has ever been possible before, and the power of search engines means that anybody with an internet connection can find it and get in touch. It’s certainly been a really useful concept for my research so far, as it was for Neil.

The main section of the video ends with the bugler inside the church. It’s been over-dubbed and merged with footage of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster making a fly-past over the village. The Merlins swell as the Last Post rings out.

It’s spine-tingling stuff, even if you weren’t there.


There’s a television news report from ITV available online here, and footage of the Lancaster flypasts here.

©2014 Adam Purcell

Remembering Scredington

In June 1943, a seven year old lad named Neil Trotter was in the playground at school in a tiny English village called Scredington when he saw a big black bomber flying very low overhead. After walking home that afternoon, he was told by his mother that the aircraft had crashed in the fields behind the house (about two miles from the school). Neil later learnt that his mother had approached the aircraft intending to render what assistance she could, but because of exploding ammunition was unable to get anywhere near the wreck. All on board perished in the crash.

The aircraft was Lancaster I ED439, of 83 Squadron. It had taken off from Wyton at around 11.00am on 18 June 1943 with a crew of seven, plus two passengers believed to have been wireless technicians:

Pilot: AUS409804 F/Sgt M.K. Cummings

Flight Engineer: AUS6756 Sgt H.W. Luker

Navigator: 537936 Sgt F.W. Wilcox

Bomb Aimer: 1431821 Sgt J. Roughley

Wireless Operator: 1396788 Sgt Cheshire

Mid Upper Gunner: 1588938 Sgt N. Woodcock

Rear Gunner: Can. R113958 Sgt R. Taylor

Passengers: 1024724 Cpl Bond and 1544915 Cpl. Sloss

The ‘Report on Flying Accident or Forced Landing Not Attributable to Enemy Action’ in Max Cummings’ casualty file at the National Archives of Australia shows that the aircraft was on a practice bombing flight “but did not carry out [its] detail”. It was seen to dive out of cloud near Highgate Farm, Scredington, about 45 minutes after take-off. The aircraft burnt on impact. While the Commanding Officer, 83 Squadron, recommended a Court of Enquiry be held as “this was a fully capable crew”, he appears to have been overruled by the Station Commander, RAF Wyton, Group Captain H.R. Graham, who wrote that “pending [the] report of Accident Investigation branch, I doubt that any useful purpose can be gained by holding [a] Court of Enquiry”. A report by the Engineer Officer, 83 Squadron, written after examination of the accident scene, states that “the starboard wing hit a farm building, and demolished one end wall, the fuselage and probably undercarriage nacelle tore off the roof of an unoccupied house close to the Barn.” The aircraft was identified by means of a number plate attached to one of the four engines. Because of the lack of a formal Court of Enquiry, the exact cause of the crash remains unknown to this day.

The idea to properly commemorate the men who died in this crash has been percolating around in Neil Trotter’s mind for some years and, now he’s retired after a long career in the post-war RAF, he’s had the time to do something about it. With the assistance of the RAF Association (Lincolnshire Branch), he has been working on organising for an appropriate memorial plaque to be placed in the village church in memory of the crew. He has managed to contact the families of six of the nine men who were on board the Lancaster when it crashed, and representatives of some of these families will be attending the unveiling ceremony in June this year. Other parties involved in the ceremony will be a large crowd of Scredington villagers, the Mayor of the local area, a considerable current RAF presence from the stations at Waddington, Coningsby and Wyton, and the local Air Training Corps, who will become custodians of the memorial after the ceremony. All in all, it’s a significant undertaking and it all comes, primarily, from Neil Trotter’s desire to find out more about that fleeting childhood glimpse of a Lancaster.

Ultimately stories like these are about the airmen themselves. They deserve to be remembered, and it’s heartening to see the work that people like Neil have done in the UK to ensure the stories live on.


© 2013 Adam Purcell



Emails between Neil Trotter, Ian Milnes, Bill Hauxwell, Gerrit Kuijper and myself, November 2012- March 2013

Research into P/O Max Cummings, carried out by Victor Harbour RSL Sub Branch, South Australia

NAA: A705, 166/8/141; CUMMINGS, Max Keiran – (Pilot Officer); Service Number – 408904; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster ED 439; Place – Lincolnshire; Date – 18 June 1943

I became involved in this story through a very small part that I played in the search for the family of P/O Cummings.

The Scroll of Honour

A few weeks ago I took some days off work and my girlfriend and I drove a rented campervan up to Echuca, on the Murray River which borders New South Wales and Victoria. While exploring the surrounding area we stopped at a small winery in neighbouring Moama (on the NSW side of the river) to escape the stinking heat of the day. The winery also happened to have attached to it a small military museum, so we went in to have a look.

In the museum – which, alas, was not air-conditioned – was a quite remarkable gathering of old vehicles on the ground floor, some restored and some not so restored. Upstairs, arranged in a collection of dusty display cabinets, were uniforms, rifles, medals, badges and other assorted items of militaria. What caught my eye was this:

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It is a scroll as presented to the families of Australian servicemen who died as a result of their military service in World War II. A similar scroll hangs on a wall at my parents’ place, bearing the name of my grandfather’s uncle, RW Purcell. The scroll in Moama commemorates one Flight Sergeant I H Smead – but apart from the name on the scroll itself, there were no details on who he might have been or what might have happened to him. I thought it looked quite sad sitting there all but forgotten in a display case in a roasting tin shed next to the Murray River, so I decided to see what I could find out about him when I got home.

The first place to look, as with any Australian casualty from either of the World Wars, was the Commonwealth War Graves website. This gave me a few further details to work with:


Rank: Flight Sergeant

Service No: 419228

Date of Death: 21/04/1944

Age: 20

Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force

Grave Reference Plot A. Row D. Grave 14.


I now had a name, service number and date of death – and, most interestingly, information that he is buried in Bundaberg, Queensland. Bundaberg was the site of No. 8 Service Flying Training School at that time. Being a training unit, this suggested an accident rather than enemy action.

Going out on a limb, I tried a quick Google search – and came up with Peter Dunn’s Oz At War website which revealed what happened. Irwin Smead was a navigator. He was flying in a Bristol Beaufort on a formation flying exercise on 21 April 1944 when it collided with another Beaufort of the same formation about 15 miles west of Bundaberg. All eight airmen – four in each aircraft – were killed.

I also found a copy of the “Preliminary Report Internal External of Flying Accident or Forced Landing” for this accident in the Casualty or Repatriation File of F/Sgt Hardy, the pilot of the other aircraft*, which is digitised at the National Archives of Australia website (A705, 166/17/544). It gives the probable cause of the collision as ‘UNKNOWN’.

It’s not much, but finding even this small amount of information adds that little bit more to Irwin Smead’s story. It reminds us that he was more than just a name on a page.

*Interestingly there appears to be a disagreement between this source and Peter Dunn’s information about which aircraft were involved in this accident. Both agree on Hardy’s aircraft, A9-476 – but the NAA file shows Smead’s as A9-426. This shows the value of going back to the original documents wherever possible!  

This will be the last post on SomethingVeryBig for 2012. Thanks to all for your support and comments throughout the year. Have a great Christmas, and I’ll be back in mid-January.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Sam Alexander

In September 1916, Private Sam Alexander, of the 9th Brigade, 34th Battalion, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Force, began writing in a diary. Over the next three years or so he would scrawl a few lines on most days about his experiences as a soldier on the Western Front.

Two decades later, as the world was plunging into yet another global conflict, a young neighbour called Kevin Jeffcoat sat spellbound as Sam showed him spiked helmets, medals, gas masks and guns, amazing him with stories of the trenches. “It was awful, it was terrible”, Sam told him. “But it was a grand adventure!”

Kevin would eventually become a professional author, writing books like More precious than gold: An illustrated history of water in New South Wales and Burrinjuck to Balranald: The Early Days. But he also wrote an unpublished manuscript based on his memories of conversations with his childhood neighbour. Called From Kangaroo Valley to Messines Ridge: A Digger’s Diary 1917-1918, it’s a remarkable mix of transcripts of Sam Alexander’s diary entries, with context added by explanatory notes based on research and on Kevin’s own memories.

My parents live in the NSW Southern Tablelands town of Goulburn, where my father is the Principal at one of the two state high schools in the town. Dad transferred to Mulwaree High School almost two years ago, though it took a year before he and my mother moved there. When we visited them a few days after they moved into their new house at Christmas last year, Dad managed to find a little time to show me one of Mulwaree’s hidden secrets. In an unassuming little cinder block building near the school’s main entrance is the Mulwaree High School Remembrance Library.

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Started in 1992, it’s a collection of some 4,000 artefacts, photos and documents relating to local men at war, dating from Vietnam all the way back to the New Zealand-Maori War of the mid-nineteenth century. The Australian War Memorial has described it as perhaps the best collection, outside its own, of war memorabilia in Australia.

Kevin Jeffcoat’s granddaughter is a student at Mulwarree. And in August 2012 she donated to the Remembrance Library a signed copy of her grandfather’s manuscript. It is beautifully written and a fantastic resource for the school. Kevin Jeffcoat has put Sam Alexander’s story into an easily understood form and so has ensured that those stories that he was lucky enough to hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, will remain accessible to new generations into the future.

© 2012 Adam Purcell