Posts Tagged 'Research'


War is a terrible business. The violent nature of the tools used in combat – guns, bombs, explosions, fire – can do dreadful things to human bodies. In the course of this sort of research, you sometimes come across some shocking stories. A P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, for example, was killed in a crash in eastern Holland in November 1943. A young girl found a loose boot belonging to the pilot near the wreck of the aeroplane… with a foot still inside. Or the unfortunate Charlie Nash, a 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner who was killed on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid. Such was the force of the explosion that brought his Lancaster down that Nash was dismembered. He was initially buried in two distinct graves, one in Hellemmes and one in Forest sur Marque.

Many of these sorts of stories are revealed in the files of the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, a team of RAF investigators who combed what had been occupied Europe to establish the fate of as many missing airmen as possible after the liberation of each area. The reports can sometimes make for disturbing reading. So much so, in fact, that full MRES reports are not released to the public in the UK if authorities believe they will be too distressing for next-of-kin or other researchers to read.

There is no doubt that these reports can contain some very grisly details. But factual reports of this nature are just that – factual. The details contained within them are very real. The events they deal with really happened – to real people. How much should modern-day sensibilities take precedence over knowing the truth?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer, and it’s one that every researcher must give serious thought to. There are two conflicting priorities here: the natural desire of the historian to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, versus the need to protect families from some pretty disturbing feelings about what might have happened to their relative. It is sometimes easier for the researcher to deal with these sorts of unpleasant revelations if they have no direct family connection to their subject. What they need to be careful of, however, is the sensitivities of those who do have that direct connection. I’ve been guilty of this myself, once or twice blithely telling a story to a relative of one of my great uncle’s crew without first considering how they might take the news. It’s only after I’d finished, when I saw their reaction that I realised, whoops, perhaps I could have dealt with that one with a little more sensitivity.

Ultimately, it is the researchers themselves who are responsible for making this very difficult decision. I disagree with the authorities determining what will and will not be released because I think it should be the duty of the researcher to decide what they do and don’t tell their audience. Researchers must be sensitive about how they communicate these sorts of stories.

Personally, I tend to prefer the truth, warts and all. After all, this is what actually happened. But I need to be very careful about how I get the message across.

 © 2012 Adam Purcell


My ultimate aim with this research is to write a significant piece of work – a book – to tell the story of the crew of B for Baker, who they were, where they came from and what part they played in the overall context of the bomber offensive. Much of this blog has been about the actual research that I’ve completed in this project. But I haven’t looked much at that important second bit – the writing thing. And that’s probably the bit that I need most practice in. What follows, then, is a basic framework for how I approach writing a short piece. It will need to be developed when I get around to writing the book that I’d like to end up with, because that will probably end up significantly longer than anything I’ve written before, but it’s a place to start from. This is, in broad terms, the process I use.

My writing evolves through a number of distinct phases. First comes the research part, where I find sources, take notes and build up a picture in my mind of what actually happened. Only when I think I have enough information to have the bare bones of a story in my head do I actually start to write.

My first draft is usually not a particularly eloquent or efficient piece of writing. My aim initially is to simply get everything down on paper (or, more correctly, on my computer screen). Usually I’m writing a historical story so I work more or less chronologically. At this stage I’m not worried too much by structure, length or style. I’m simply using my notes and research and putting everything relevant into a document. This process will quickly reveal any gaps in my research, and it is here that I will go back to my sources to try and fill those gaps. My aim is simply to tell the story – it doesn’t yet matter how long the story is, or how easy it is to read. It just needs to have every part in it. The resulting ‘first draft’ can sometimes be very, very long – for Bomber Command: Failed to Return it was almost 50% longer than my allocated word limit. I like to reference as I go along (usually by footnotes). This means that at all subsequent stages I know exactly where all of my evidence comes from and can easily go back to the primary sources to fact-check if required later on. The references are not normally formatted correctly yet – the important thing is that I know precisely where to find what I’m looking for if needed,

The second draft is where the structure gets fixed up. This is where I shift passages around into a more logical, flowing sequence – even if the language used at this point is far from flowing. A clear introduction, body and conclusion develops (evidently Year 12 English taught me something!). I’m still not too worried about length or efficiency of phrase.

The third phase of my writing is where I start getting creative. The emphasis to this point has been in getting the story right. From here, however, I’ve got the story itself organised. How the story is told is what concerns me next. If writing to a tight word limit, this is where the culling begins. Irrelevant bits get cut and long-winded passages get shortened. Awkward passages get re-written into more efficient language. Parts get condensed or lengthened if further emphasis is required.

By this stage, the main work is just about done. Phase four – the edit – can now begin. I give the piece the once-over myself, checking spelling, grammar, formatting and references. Then I call in outside help – and it’s amazing what another pair of eyes will spot. My sister and mother provided their ‘red pen’ services for Bomber Command: Failed to Return. The revised draft gets revised again, and again, and sometimes again. At this point it’s not unusual to go back to phase three to re-jig phrases or keep culling if I’m really pushing a word limit. Spelling and grammar are given a last check and references are checked for consistency and formatted correctly.

Then, at last, the piece is ready to be submitted.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


There are fifteen Commonwealth War Graves in the cemetery belonging to the small village of Hellendoorn, in the east of The Netherlands. My family and I lived in Nijverdal – the next town along – throughout the year 1995 and when we discovered that there was one Australian among the graves we decided to see what we could discover about him.

Flight Lieutenant Leo McAuliffe was a fighter pilot attached to No. 222 Squadron, RAF. He was killed on 17 March 1945, a matter of weeks before that part of the Netherlands was liberated. He was 24 years old and came from Bexley, NSW. While still overseas, we wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to see what they could tell us about Leo. He had been killed in a ‘flying battle’, they said, and another letter to the Air Force after we returned to Australia in 1996 revealed he crashed while leading a section of two aircraft on a patrol and weather reconnaissance mission over enemy occupied territory.

Late last year I decided to obtain copies of Leo’s service record and A705 files from the National Archives of Australia. This was not intended to be as in-depth a study as I am doing on my great uncle Jack and his Lancaster crew. It was just a side-line interest, more for general interest of our family than anything overly complicated. I had vague plans of reading through the files and writing a short ‘interpretation’ of them so I could then bind the whole lot up and give it to Dad for Christmas. Unfortunately the National Archives are experiencing ‘high demand’ for copies at the moment, and the month turnaround that I was expecting turned into two – too late for Christmas. Dad got a packet of liquorice instead.

But I now have the files, and have spent the last couple of weeks reading through them and beginning to write my little story. And guess what? It’s turned out into something far bigger than I was intending it to. I’m not under the deadline of ‘Christmas’, so I have time to delve into the story a little deeper, following leads that I would have otherwise left alone. So questions raised in the NAA files have led to posts on the RAFCommands forum, which in turn led to the discovery that Leo served in Northern France following the invasion… meaning that my friend Joss le Clercq is also interested in Leo’s story and has been in touch.

The account of Leo’s final flight, from his wingman, suggests to me that he simply became disoriented and lost control in thick cloud – more accident than ‘flying battle’. And the story of how a young Dutch woman witnessed the crash and recovered a dog tag but was later killed in an air attack on Nijverdal caused me to contact a friend who volunteers at the small World War II museum that is now in that town. This, in turn, resulted in numerous emails from her contacts at the museum, and much information about the crash and the attack on Nijverdal.

All quite amazing. I’ve spent the last few hours translating those emails from Dutch and using Google Earth to try and pinpoint a crash location. But a line needs to be drawn somewhere. There is a lot of information out there – the tough part is deciding when you have enough, when you can stop researching and start writing. Leo’s story is well on its way to becoming known now. A couple more questions to my new Dutch contacts, and the writing can begin.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


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

The Thrill of the Chase

“I figured there would be a letter from someone, somewhere… I was just about to give up when I turned over a page and found it.”

-Historian Helen Harris, on the search to identify Ned Kelly’s bones

In recent days it’s been confirmed that a set of human bones exhumed from an unmarked mass grave in what used to be Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison belonged to Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, perhaps the most infamous and celebrated of the Australian bushrangers. One of the great mysteries of the Kelly legend – what actually happened to the body after his execution in 1880 – has been solved, using modern-day technology and a bit of old-fashioned sleuthing.

Which is how a post about a 19th Century bushranger finds its place on a blog about a WWII bomber crew. There was an excellent article in the weekend newspaper last week that explained exactly how the identification was made and eventually confirmed through DNA matching with one of Kelly’s descendants. But it was the quote that opens this post, from a historian engaged in the search, which caught my eye. Harris was looking for police documents that could challenge contemporary newspaper reports that said Kelly’s body had been dismembered by autopsy, a crucial piece of evidence in determining that a skull long thought to have been Kelly’s was in fact not. Harris had a theory, born out of many years studying Victoria’s early police records, that the Superintendant of the time would have tried to find out the truth or otherwise of the newspaper report in question from the governor of Melbourne Gaol. She looked in the archives and, after a methodical search, found the letter she was looking for.

This is how a good historian works. Start with a mystery, work out where the gaps are in the story and consider where the missing piece of the jigsaw might be. Then go searching for it – and there is nothing quite like the thrill of turning over an old yellowing bit of paper in an ancient file somewhere and finding exactly what you are looking for.

Of course, it takes a long while sometimes to find that elusive document. Harris has, over the course of her career, looked at 400 boxes of old Victorian police documents – and the article says there are still a few hundred left to go. There could be anything in that archive – it takes a dedicated researcher to methodically work through each one, missing nothing, to fully extract all of the details.

Though the volume of documents that I have found in my research into B for Baker and her crew will not go even one twentieth of the way towards filling 400 boxes, I’ve gathered a fair bit now. And I still have a large pile that I’m working through – among them, documents that I copied at the National Archives of Australia well over a year and a half ago. As I work through each page, I sometimes find information that adds another piece to other puzzles I’ve been trying to solve. Finding letters written by one parent to another in one archive, and the replies to those letters in another, I’ve discovered that everything really is connected.

The information is out there, somewhere. Sometimes it’s in front of our very noses, it just hasn’t been properly extracted yet.

 (c) 2011 Adam Purcell

This blog post inspired by an article by Mark Chew, A Question of Identity, The Sunday Age Good Weekend Magazine, 03SEP11


B for Baker now has a flight engineer.

This afternoon, I received in the post a slightly fat envelope from England. As I opened it, a dozen or more photographs tumbled out onto my desk. The letter inside was from Steve Butson, to whom I had sent the latest of my speculative letters.

“In answer to your question”, it said, “yes, Kenny Tabor was the Uncle I never knew”.

With that simple phrase, the great relative search was complete.

Steve wrote me a fantastic four-page letter in which he explained a lot about his family. Some of the names were familiar, thanks to Chris Tabor’s careful work on Some were new to me. But they were all connected to the buck-toothed young chap who appeared in some of the photographs.

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Sgt Kenneth Harold Tabor had an older brother and a sister called Bill and Betty, and a younger brother called Don. He worked at a garage in Westbourne before he joined the Royal Air Force on his eighteenth birthday. Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, that he would train and fly as a flight engineer. Ken was killed when Lancaster LM475 B for Baker failed to return from Lille on 10 May 1944. The youngest member of the crew, he was just nineteen years old.

The crew is complete. I am now in contact with relatives of each of the seven men who were on board B for Baker when it was lost. It’s taken about three years of fairly steady work to reach this point. Now it’s time to find out as much as I can about each one, to give a human face to the story.

And ultimately? The seven men in the crew of B for Baker were drawn together long ago by events well beyond their comprehension or control. These same forces now forever link their seven families. It’s my goal to one day bring all seven together again – for the first time in nearly seven decades.

Like crewing up, once more.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Still looking

In recent weeks I’ve stepped up the search for relatives of
the last remaining member of the crew of B for Baker. Sgt Kenneth Harold Tabor was the crew’s Flight Engineer. His service record (which I have just received from the RAF) shows that he was the youngest on the crew, enlisting on his 18th birthday. Sadly he was killed before reaching his 20th.

To this point, the search has been a case of sending letters willy-nilly to Tabors scattered all around the UK, simply because that is their name. I’m up to 12 so far. Many of those I have heard back from have been related to each other. Not all have replied yet but to date I have hit dead ends. As it has turned out, there are many more Tabors around than I previously anticipated and, well, to continue in this direction will take (a) a very long time and (b) lots of money. So a new direction has been needed.

Enter Chris Tabor, the latest to receive one of my speculative letters. He is no relation to Ken, but it happens that he is into family history research, has an membership and, most importantly, knows how to use it. So he’s been doing some digging for me. Chris has uncovered records showing that Ken had two older siblings – a sister and a brother who appear to have been twins. Both married and had children who would now be in their 60s. I plugged the names that Chris sent me into a useful website called, and it has come up with postal addresses for a number of people of those names.

Those six people will shortly be sent one of my now legendary speculative letters. Only this time, I’m hoping that the letters are slightly less speculative than they have been in the past. This time there is a document trail that suggests we might be on the right track.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

© 2011 Adam Purcell