Posts Tagged 'Royal Air Force'

Letters

I’m currently reading through and transcribing Phil Smith’s wartime letters. Phil joined the Air Force in September 1940 and was discharged in December 1945 – and, except for a notable period between May and September 1944 when he was ‘otherwise occupied’ in France, he tried to write home once a week. Lucky for me, his father kept more or less every one of his letters. So going through the lot – a couple of hundred in all – has not been a trivial (or short) job.

Phil’s letters reflect his methodical, calm personality. For example, he wrote about his first solo in a letter to Don Smith, his father, 28NOV40. For most aspiring pilots, the moment of flying an aeroplane alone for the first time is one of the most memorable of all. But to Phil, it was just another day:

I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time. I had flown about 8 hours dual before going solo which is slightly longer than the average but, considering that a week without flying came in the 8 hours I think it is satisfactory. (A01-132-001).

Or in July 1941, after dropping his first practice bombs:

I actually dropped bombs for the first time this week. It was low level attacking which is a matter of judgement only. I am sorry to say that I did very badly but feel that with practice I could improve. (A01-145-001)

Perhaps my favourite example of Phil’s understated way of writing letters comes from April 1943 at RAF Honeybourne, where he was an instructor for a year or so between his two operational tours. On a training flight a practice bomb ‘hung up’ in one of the Operational Training Unit’s Whitleys. After landing Phil clambered down from the aircraft to find out what had happened and instructed his pupil to open the bomb bay doors, and the offending bomb crashed out onto the tarmac in front of his nose. It failed to explode. Phil described this rather alarming incident as merely “another minor adventure” (A01-270-001).

The meaty stuff that I’m really interested in, of course, is Phil’s thoughts on operational flying. Once he got onto an operational squadron he wrote in a letter about his first raid. The language used here is indicative of his new status as operational aircrew – note the RAF slang:

“I was cracking at the real job three days after I arrived and took part in a raid on theRuhrdistrict. It was quite an adventure. We dropped our bombs OK but had engine trouble on the way back and had quite a shaky do getting back on terra firma” (A01-177-001).

The ‘shaky do’ he referred to was an emergency landing on one engine at Martlesham Heath, a coastal aerodrome that they needed assistance from the ground to find. This is one of the only times that Phil actually mentions in one of his letters an incident that occurred on operations, and it’s also the only time the RAF slang comes out. Later letters are much more restrained.

While security concerns were undoubtedly a consideration, I suspect that this lack of detail of what Phil was doing in his letters home was more a product of the type of person he was. Before the war – and after he returned – Phil was a chemist with the Commonwealth Sugar Refining Company (CSR), and his father Don was an engineer. He therefore always had a very practical and straightforward personality. Though he was living in quite extraordinary times in theUKand despite having a rather unique job flying a heavy bomber, for Phil it was just that – a job. While he was there, he just got on with it. And so in a letter in December 1941 (A01-194-001) Phil says ‘we were busy on Sunday evening” (referring to an operation to Wilhelmshafen, 28DEC41) and writes simply that Christmas was menaced “by a constant threat of work which fortunately did not come off.” Just another day at the office.

So while there is the odd little tidbit in Phil’s letters that I can pull out to derive some idea of his operational flying, overall they are remarkable mainly for their ordinariness. He would typically spend some time and ink apologising for his letter being late this week, then list the mail and parcels he had received from home since his last letter, ask about the family in Australia, report on the family he had visited in England, talk about the weather and conclude with words to the effect of “no more news at the moment”. And that was that. It’s almost frustrating at times to read what amounts to the same thing in every letter, over and over again. Nevertheless, I still read and transcribe them all. You never know where your next clue might come from.

Phil is one of two members of the crew for whom I have significant collections of letters. Reading so much that was written by the men I am studying opens a unique door into the thoughts, minds and personalities of the men concerned. I remain grateful to Mollie Smith and Gil Thew for so kindly letting me open those doors.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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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

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

Have the Brits changed their tune?

I’ve been thankful that the crew I am researching has four Australians in it. This is good because it means that it was very easy to access copies of their service records. The National Archives of Australia provide records to anyone who requests them, for a small fee – and once the records have been requested they are digitally scanned and placed onto their website where anyone can access them free of charge.

But getting British service records has always been much, much harder. They are still under the care of the Royal Air Force and previously you needed to write to their office at RAF Cranwell. You could access an extract of your record for free if you were a veteran, but anyone else was up for a GBP30.00 fee, payable by cheque only (rather difficult to organise from Australia!). On top of that, due to ‘privacy laws’ you required the written permission of the next of kin to access any records at all. If you didn’t have that permission (perhaps you were still searching for them… sound familiar?!??), you couldn’t access anything at all.

I managed to find Freda Hamer, daughter of Jerry Parker’s widow, and got a letter from her which I used to get his service record – which was two single pages of A4, with information limited to his promotions and postings. Useful, but at GBP30.00, rather steep – and a little unreasonable considering for AUD15.00, or about a quarter of the cost, you got a colour scan of an entire service record for an Australian airman – which could run to seventy or so pages! And I needed to trace Jerry’s family before the RAF even considered giving me that much.

But have things changed? Phil Bonner alerted me to this web page a few months ago. It would appear that an otherwise unannounced change has occurred:

 Under the scheme, and in recognition of the duty of care owed to the family of the deceased subject, for a period of 25 years following the date of death of the subject and without the consent of the Next of Kin, MOD will disclose only:  surname; forename; rank; service number; regiment/corps; place of birth; age; date of birth; date of death where this occurred in service; the date an individual joined the service; the date of leaving; good conduct medals (i.e. Long Service and Good Conduct Medal (LS&GCM)), any orders of chivalry and gallantry medals (decorations of valour) awarded, some of which may have been announced in the London Gazette.

After this period, and if it is held, in addition MOD will disclose without the requirement for Next of Kin consent: the units in which he/she served; the dates of this service and the locations of those units; the ranks in which the service was carried out and details of WWII campaign medals.

Note no further requirement for NoK consent.

So it looks as though I’ll now be able to get parts of the service records for Ken Tabor and for Eric Hill.

Still need to organise some cheques in GBP though.

 

 

 


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