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

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

Found.

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 Ancestry.com. 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 Ancestry.com 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 192.com, 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

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

Searches

WordPress gives you access to some interesting tools and statistics about your blog. For example, this blog has clocked up nearly 1,500 total views since I migrated it to the WordPress platform last year. I can see which links people have clicked, both from the blog to get to other places and on other web pages to get here (hello Lancaster Archive Forum!). Most interestingly, though, it also gives me a list showing the search terms that people have used to find me (numbers show how many hits came from each term):

Some are interesting:

  • dinas dinlle world war (11)
  • air traffic control tower dinas dinlle north wales (1)
  • llandwrog caernarfon raf training in the war (1)
  • llandwrog airfield wartime (2)
  • avro lancaster outline (2)
  • gil thew (2)
  • tail end charlie fradley raf (2)
  • adam purcell (1)
  • jack purcell family (1)
  • lancaster bomber elsham crash site (1)
  • avro lancaster line drawings (1)
  • a painting of a lancaster avro in a field (1)
  • fradley airodrome during the war (1)
  • lancaster bomber crews 467 (1)
  • jude findlay and adam purcell (1)

Some probably didn’t quite find what was being searched for:

  • lancaster jb467 (4)
  • old rcaf airfields firestation (2)
  • wartime bomb shelters in scotland (2)
  • 102 squadron pocklington (2)
  • “102 squadron” (2)
  • wartime fire service models (1)
  • canberra bomber navigator station (1)
  • wartime fire service stations (1)
  • photos binbrook dispersal apron (1)
  • air traffic control dinas dinlle (1)
  • lancaster lm550 (1)
  • sir arthur harris raf gravestone (1)
  • roger audis of 9 squadron (1)
  • very big canvas (1)

Some are just plain strange:

  • raf bardney ghosts (2)
  • irish sea paintings (1)
  • how to canvas something (1)
  • is the control tower raf bardney haunted (1)
  • are jack purcells still cool? (1)
  • repainting jack purcell (1)

But every so often comes one which makes me sit up and take
notice:

  • ken tabor  (2)
  • ” lille raid “+ smith (2)
  • lm475 purcell (1)
  • navy veteran dale johnston (1)
  • don smith 463 squadron (1)
  • who was eric hill born to (1)
  • search for dale johnston (1)
  • charles erskine johnston (1)

It’s this last group that gets me a little excited. Sure, there could be many ‘Dale Johnstons’ and ‘Eric Hills’ in the world. But from these searches, someone is looking for people of that name. Could they be the same ones that I’m looking for?

The lack of any comments or emails suggests maybe not. But I’ll keep hoping. And if you are one of the people who find this blog through a search engine while looking for someone, please leave me a comment. You never know where a connection might be.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Eureka!

Janet Hurst has been busy in Goring. She wrote a small article about my search for Eric Hill, and it has just been published in the village newsletter. And guess what?

It worked!

She was contacted by a local lady whose daughter married Eric Hill’s nephew. Janet sent me an email last night to tell me this good news… and half an hour later I received an email that started with this:

Hello Adam,

I am Barry Hill son of Frederick Roland Hill who was the brother of Eric Reginald Hill.

Bingo!

This is the same tactic that I successfully used in the search for relatives of Jerry Parker. I’m extremely grateful to Janet for her hard work over the last couple of weeks.

Barry says that his father died a few years ago but he does have a couple of stories that have been passed down through the family about Eric. Apparently he was something of a dare-devil. Those sorts of things will go a long way towards giving a story to the blurry photos I have of the man.

So Barry Hill makes it six families out of seven of the crew of B for Baker who I am now in touch with. Only flight engineer Ken Tabor remains outstanding. I’ve been working on that one as well recently, but not getting very far with it as yet. But getting this welcome news from Goring is very encouraging and keeps the spark alive.

I’ll keep searching.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Stationmaster

An intriguing email popped into my inbox the other day. I had written to Janet Hurst, of the Goring and Streatley Local History Society in England, seeking assistance in the search for living relatives of Eric Hill, the mid-upper gunner on B for Baker. She replied with these details on E R Hill, from a book published a decade or so ago on the war casualties of that area:

Eric Rowland Hill

Rank: Leading Aircraftsman (LAC)

Service No: 1295905

Unit: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, served as clerk, special duties, 250 Wing, Middle East Command

Died: 21 September 1942 of enteric fever (typhoid)

Memorial: Ismailia War Memorial, Egypt 7C9

Next of kin: Mr & Mrs F. Hill (parents) of Goring

Home address: Station House,Wallingford Road, Goring

Educated: Goring School, 1928-1935

Personal details: He was employed in the office of Smallbones, builders. His father was stationmaster at Goring 1917 1947 and assistant organist at Goring Parish Church

Comparing this with my information raises a few conflictions. Most notably, the ER Hill buried in Lezennes – and therefore not in Egypt – was named Eric Reginald Hill, not Rowland. The service numbers and ranks do not match. Either do the dates of death (1942 vs 1944).

But his parents’ names and address do support what I have for Sgt Hill. I had a suspicion that the local historian who researched the book in Goring might have muddled up his details with another entry in the Commonwealth War Graves database. But how could I be sure?

The first thing was to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the man I was looking for was indeed Eric Reginald Hill. This might seem a reasonably obvious fact, but I decided to go back to primary sources to be sure. I have a copy of a ‘Circumstantial Report’ from 467 Sqn to the Air Ministry in London, dated 11 May 1944, that confirms “1352851 Sgt Hill ER, MU/AG” as a member of the crew posted missing the previous night. This service number matches that on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database in the record for Eric Reginald Hill. It (unsurprisingly) also matches the service number on the gravestone in Lezennes. Phil Smith’s logbook has many entries including a “Sgt Hill”, and of course these entries are dated 1944, well after LAC Hill died in Egypt. This is to me fairly solid evidence that we have the right man – barring an extremely serious error by CWGC.

Next, I needed to find some sort of connection between Eric Reginald and his parents. CWGC records his next of kin as “Frederick and Fanny Rebecca Hill, of North Weald, Essex”. The names match Janet’s information, but the address does not. Wanting to discount the possibility of an error on the part of CWGC, I went back to some primary sources.

I found a letter written by Gilbert Pate’s father Sydney to Don Smith, the father of the pilot of B for Baker, dated 12NOV44:

“Your mention of Mr F Hill of Goring (Berks) completes the “tally” of 7 names, and we are obliged for this.”

Also in my files was a letter from W/Cdr Bill Brill, CO of 467 Sqn, dated 01SEP44 and again written to Don Smith:

“The addresses of the English members are:-

Mr F Hill (Father)

Station House

Goring

Reading

Berks.”

Janet then sent confirmation of an entry in the Goring Parish registers showing the baptism of Eric Reginald Hill at Goring on 26 June 1921. Critically, she says, he is recorded there as the son of “Frederick and Fanny Rebecca Hill, stationmaster of Goring”.

So I now had a name and address match for Eric Reginald Hill’s parents. But it still did not tally exactly with what is on the CWGC database. There was the remote possibility of another Fred Hill existing, one who also had a son named Eric R Hill. I needed a link between Goring and North Weald. And as it happened, I found something that, while not absolutely incontrovertible, is fairly strong evidence. It is a note on a scrap of paper found amongst Gilbert Pate’s box of letters. Scrawled on it, in an unknown hand, is this:

“Mr Fred Hill, 18 Bassett Gardens, North Weald,Essex. Father of Eric Hill”

This appears to match what is in the CWGC database. But can I explain the reason for the two addresses?

I can’t, at least not from what primary sources I have found to date. But I do have a possible scenario. I do not know when the unknown note was written, but perhaps the Hills initially lived in Goring and after the war moved to North Weald. According to Janet’s email Fred Hill was stationmaster until 1947 so a move around then is certainly within the bounds of possibility. Certainly it is plausible that, as it took CWGC some years to sort out all of their casualties following the war, their records were updated with a new address. The note may have been a record of that new address for the family of Gilbert Pate.

Having established, in any case, that Eric Hill’s father Frederick was the stationmaster at Goring, Janet sent me some photos of a rather pretty stone house in Goring Village.

It is called the Station House – and it is where Eric Hill once lived.

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Janet tells me she will ask around the village in the next little while to see if anyone remembers or knows what happened to the Hills. She also suspects that the family tree on Ancestry.com that gave some information on Eric’s siblings may not be entirely accurate, so will have a dig through some primary sources for me.

The search goes on.

Image credit: Mike Hurst

Other sources: Janet Hurst, Mollie Smith, Gil and Peggy Thew

© 2011 Adam Purcell

This is why we do it.

”It’s unbelievable. After 95 years, we finally found him.”

-John Andrews, great nephew of Matthew Hepple, one of the Australians missing at Fromelles

In July 1916 the 5th Division of the Australian Army launched an attack on German positions near the French town of Fromelles. It remains one of the costliest attacks ever mounted by Australian military forces. In one night more than five and a half thousand men became casualties. Almost two thousand of those had been killed.

In 2002 retired Australian schoolteacher Lambis Englezos, following a visit to the Western Front, realised that the number of known Australians buried after the Fromelles battle did not match the number of the recorded missing. He suspected he had evidence of the existence of mass graves dug by the Germans after the battle at a place called Pheasant Wood. He believed that this might have been where the missing Australians lay. This kicked off a remarkably dogged and determined investigation that would eventually find enough information to convince Australian and British authorities to mount an exploratory archaeological dig at the site. British historian Peter Barton was the man, as part of that first dig, who uncovered two buttons showing the Rising Sun of the Australian Army, unequivocally proving that Australians had been there and that Lambis had in fact been right.

In 2009, I was in France to visit the graves of the crew of B for Baker in Lille. I was staying with Joss le Clercq, who by chance lives just outside the village of Fromelles. The week that I was there, a full archaeological dig began on what became known as ‘the Fromelles Project’ at Pheasant Wood. This work resulted in some 250 bodies being recovered and reinterred in the first completely new cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in more than 50 years, just across the road from Pheasant Wood.

Up to the beginning of 2011, some 96 of those 250 had been identified. Last month, a further 14 names were released, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

We are now seeing the vindication of the project begun by Lambis Englezos. 110 families have now received news that had been delayed almost a century. 110 soldiers have permanent, dignified resting places that can become a focus for their families’ remembrance of them. Most importantly, 110 soldiers now have names and stories.

And it all came about through one bloke’s enthusiasm, determination and sheer hard work.

Remembering the men in the faded photographs. This is why we
do it.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Must be the time of year

There are a few articles like the one that appeared in the Sun-Herald today that tend to appear around this time of year. This one tells the story of a man named Fred Reeves, a Digger killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Or rather it tells the story of how an interested descendant – a great niece in this case – pieced together Fred’s story.

More power to Judy McLeod’s elbow, I say. She started with a name in a family Bible and a hunch that the date given with the name – 1915 – could have been connected with the First World War. She was right. He had been killed in Gallipoli and has no known grave.

“I am glad I looked into this otherwise he would just be another statistic. There is nobody to even say he existed and fought and died for his country.” – Judy McLeod, great niece of Australian infantryman Fred Reeve

This quote for me is the most important part of the article. Through the curiosity of one interested individual, almost a century later, the name scribbled into the Bible has come to life.

There has been a real resurgence in interest in this sort of family research in recent years. Indeed, my own work could be said to be part of it as well. I put it down to a couple of happy coincidences. Perhaps the salient one from a practical point of view has been the information and speed of communications that comes from the internet. It’s become much more accessible to the average person and so it’s easier to turn an idle curiosity into a keen family history interest. We can find records online that previously would have involved letters to archives overseas, if not an actual trip overseas. Investigations that previously would have taken months can now find answers from the other side of the world in literally minutes. In short, people can work in the comfort of their own homes, without having to pore through musty files in some record depository somewhere (though some (like me) might say that doing that is what it’s all about anyway!).

The other factor, more relevant in this case than in my own work into the crew of B for Baker, is the upcoming centenary of the Gallipoli landings in four years time. It means that ANZAC Day is receiving more and more media coverage each year. There are no WWI veterans alive in Australia anymore, but there are more and more people investigating family connections to the conflict – giving names and stories to their own ‘man in the photograph’. For remembering men like Fred Reeves, who would otherwise as Judy McLeod said be just another statistic, this can only be a good thing.

© 2011 Adam Purcell