Posts Tagged 'Royal Australian Air Force'

Point Cook and the RAAF Museum

A little over twenty kilometres south west of Melbourne city, on the shores of Port Philip Bay, lies the birthplace of military aviation in Australia. RAAF Williams Base Point Cook is where land was purchased in 1912 for the newly-formed Australian Flying Corps, and where nine years later that fledgling organisation became the Royal Australian Air Force. In fact, until Richmond and Laverton were built in 1925 Point Cook remained the only military air base in Australia. Point Cook played an important role in training of pilots and officers and many other Air Force trades and disciplines over the next seventy or so years, and while military flight training ceased in 1992 the airfield remains operational with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology operating a flying school from it (though little military traffic uses it these days and the control tower has been empty for many years).
It is, therefore, a fitting location for the RAAF Museum. Housed in four Bellman hangars, the museum follows the story of Australia’s military aviation history – from the very first days of the Australian Flying Corps right through to current operations in the Middle East. There is a large collection of significant aircraft and artefacts and some intensive restoration work underway, including of a Mosquito which is the only known surviving airframe of that type with a WWII combat record.
Three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 1pm, one of the collection of airworthy aircraft will be parked in front of a purpose-built grandstand. An MC delivers a short introduction, then the pilot adds a few words and climbs in, fires up whatever old machine it is and takes off for a short 10-15 minute flying display. During the flight the radio calls from the aircraft are patched over the PA system. After landing, with the aircraft once again shut down in front of the grandstand, the floor is opened up for questions. The whole thing is carried out without fuss in about half an hour. It’s a great opportunity to see some flying action at close range and then have a chat with those responsible for flying and maintaining the aircraft. When I visited in May, the star of the show was a Harvard:

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Other days it might be a Tiger Moth, or a CT-4, or perhaps a Mustang. And it’s all done free of charge. The Museum reckons it’s the only place in the world where these sorts of aircraft are displayed regularly like this.
Point Cook was the site of No. 1 Service Flying Training School during the Second World War. As such an entire hangar is dedicated to training – with displays of some of the aircraft and devices used for training a very wide variety of Air Force personnel throughout the 20th Century and beyond. Most relevant to my interests (apart from a brief look at air traffic control) was a Tiger Moth, in the ubiquitous bright yellow colours typical of Elementary Flying Training Schools:

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There was also an intriguing item on exhibition in the WWII Heritage Gallery:

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It’s a map of Europe, with the operations carried out by a 460 Squadron crew member marked on it. I couldn’t find a name to go along with it but in the bottom right corner is a list of all 43 operations along with dates. They span two tours, the first between 12 March – 03 November 1943 and the second from 24 October 1944 – 22 April 1945. Whoever the unknown crew member was, he was extraordinarily lucky. The particularly deadly Battle of Berlin period fell in the time that he was (presumably) instructing between his tours of operations.

Point Cook is steeped in history. Suburbia is fast encroaching (its sister base, just up the road at Laverton, has already been sold off for housing) but for the moment it is still an active airfield. The Government has announced a planned redevelopment with an “ongoing commitment to maintain the base” as an operating military airfield and continuing to “recognise the significant heritage of the site” which is very encouraging. Much work appears to have been carried out already – there is an excellent (but very large – around 75mb) presentation of ‘before and after’ photos from the end of 2012 available here on the Defence website – but I found many buildings that still look unloved as I wandered around the Museum precinct.
The difficulty is the trade-off between maintaining the base as an active RAAF station and retaining the heritage fabric of the physical environment. Remaining an active military base gives Point Cook an economic reason for continued existence and makes it more likely that future governments will continue to consider it a useful part of the Air Force’s infrastructure. But with that comes the security and access restrictions that the modern military demands, which seriously reduces easy access for the public. Opening the base to the public as a heritage site will necessarily reduce its utility as a pure military facility, and Defence will naturally be reluctant to take the required funding from its already stretched budget.
At the very least, though, the recent work will see the most significant physical parts of Point Cook’s heritage survive for some decades to come.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

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Bomber Command in Canberra 2013

It was a very wet weekend in south-eastern Australia.

It rained so much in Adelaide on Friday that the automatic rain gauge at the airport gave up. 70mm fell in Melbourne on the same day. It was still raining when I walked to the train station in Sydney on my way to the airport on Sunday morning and, as we were taxying out, the heavy jets weren’t so much ‘landing’ as ‘splashing down’. We were in cloud all the way to Canberra.

Things were not looking good for the sixth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.

Though the tarmac was noticeably wet on arrival, the sky showed signs of clearing as I took a taxi to the Australian War Memorial. On arrival I discovered that, because the grass near the Bomber Command sculpture was still rather squelchy underfoot, the ceremony had been moved to the Commemorative Area within the War Memorial itself. As the clouds gradually moved off parts of the crowd were soon sitting in that glorious autumn sunshine for which Canberra is famous.

The Commemorative Area was a spectacular location for the ceremony.

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The crowd was sitting underneath the thousands of names on the Roll of Honour. A statue of an airman, on the eastern side, in turn cast his bronze gaze down onto the gathered crowd. To the rear, immaculately dressed members of the current iterations of 460 and 462 Squadrons, Royal Australian Air Force, were lined up in parade order. Those veterans who could were invited into the Hall of Memory to watch and take part in the wreath-laying, at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. As the bugler sounded the Last Post, the notes echoed off the cloisters and faded away to silence. The singing of the Australian National Anthem, with the support of the Australian Rugby Choir, was spine-tingling stuff. The ceremony was enhanced by the atmosphere of the place it was in.

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The speakers, too were excellent: in particular, former Defence Minister and Leader of the Opposition Dr Brendan Nelson who is now the Director of the Australian War Memorial. His opening address, delivered mostly without notes, was impressive. He quoted the words of Charles Bean which are scribed on the wall in the Welcome Gallery of the War Memorial:

Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.

Some of those who made that record, of course, were the veterans of Bomber Command.

Following the ceremony itself came an organised photo opportunity in the shadow of G for George, with almost all the veterans present. My count is 32 (including one who is not in this photo):

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And then to lunch. Once again, the networking and reunion opportunities offered at this function for someone like me in this country are second to none. Among others, I met a Mosquito navigator named Alan Beavis, and his good mate Alan Pugh, who was training at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (Winthorpe – Jack Purcell was there in 1943) at the end of the war. And of course I also caught up with many of the usual suspects again – Don and Ailsa McDonald, the three other Dons Southwell, Huxtable and Browning, Keith Campbell, Harry Brown and Tommy Knox (the latter commenting to me, ‘you can really see it this year… age is certainly catching up with them!’). There was some good discussion on a few potential projects for the next couple of years, much reminiscing and many stories.

The Southwells dropped me off at the airport again, and I flew home to Melbourne with a notebook full of ideas and addresses to follow up on.

Bomber Command, over the last few years, is finally beginning to see some recognition for its deeds during the Second World War, and acknowledgement of the legacy it left. This was a common theme among many of the speakers at the weekend this year. Peter Rees (who recently published Lancaster Men and is rumoured to be planning a follow-up for the next couple of years) spoke briefly at the lunch and cited this as one of his key motivations. Air Marshal Geoff Brown, current Chief of Air Force, also gave a good talk at the lunch about what today’s Air Force can learn from the bomber offensive. His main points were that a coalition of nations in a common cause is far more powerful than trying to do it alone, a reminder of the importance of close links with technological and research organisations, how vital it is to gain and maintain control of the air in a combat scenario, the continued value of electronic countermeasures and the critical importance of teamwork and people all united by a common purpose and common aims. He effectively demonstrated that, while the airmen of Bomber Command fought their battles so long ago, and while they fought a battle so unique in scale and circumstance, what they did has continued relevance in current operations – and that in that very practical way their legacy will live on.

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Remembering the history – the raids, the stories, the men – is of course vital. But learning from that history and applying the lessons in practical ways in modern times can also form part of the legacy of Bomber Command. It is far too late for most of those who served, but I hope that some of the veterans who were in Canberra over the weekend can take some comfort in the knowledge that this legacy is living on and will continue to do so.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

A photoset by the Australian War Memorial’s official photographer is available to view here.

What happened to Jack’s letters?

Something that intrigues, and slightly frustrates, me on this journey into the story of my great uncle Jack is that we have very little original personal material about him. Being in possession of his wartime logbook, I concede, is more than many people have (and indeed was significant in capturing my interest in the first place), and there are official records available at the National Australian Archives and other places, but beyond a couple of official portraits I have nothing in the way of personal photographs, diaries or correspondence. What is most frustrating is that I know that such material once existed. What has happened to it since is a mystery.

There are a number of sources where correspondence to or from Jack is mentioned. His ‘last letter’, as his brother Edward wrote to Don Smith in July 1944 (A01-344-001), spoke of his “hope of being home for next Xmas and, as he phrased it, in a place where he could count on seeing the sun every day”. A note in his Casualty File reports that a letter to his late mother was discovered amongst his personal effects following his being posted missing, which was forwarded to RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne ‘for appropriate action’ (A04-071-061). There’s also talk in another of Edward’s letters to Don Smith of two letters from “Jack’s English sweetheart’ (which is a story in itself), and the intriguing suggestion that she might have sent some ‘snaps of all the boys [of the crew of B for Baker]’ to Edward (A01-111-001). So there was definitely correspondence that came from England to Australia, either written by Jack or by his mysterious girlfriend. And presumably his relatives in Australia would have replied to those letters – which could account for a bundle of “correspondence and photographs” that was included in the list of personal effects in his Casualty File (A04-071-024).

Unfortunately, somewhere between England and Australia, the bundle (along with a pillowcase) went missing. Its listing is marked with an asterisk on the list in the Casualty File, showing it never arrived at RAAF Central Depositories in Melbourne. And sometime in the ensuing decades, everything else apart from his logbook , a small collection of photographs and two unsent postcards went missing too. What happened to it is unknown. I have vague recollections of being told that a great aunt (one of Jack’s sisters) might have destroyed anything that she could find to do with her late brother in a fit of pique sometime in the 1960s. Or less menacingly, perhaps it was all simply thrown out in a big clean-up, just a bunch of papers found in a file somewhere that surely couldn’t be of any use to anyone any more. Whatever happened, it is clear that what was once a valuable archive (at least for someone like me) has simply disappeared.

I live in hope that one of my long-lost relatives will one day clear out their shed and stumble upon a bundle of ‘old papers’, thus solving a decades-old family mystery. But I suspect the history might have been lost forever.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Enlisting

I went for an interview with the Air Force people this afternoon

– Phil Smith writing to his father, 27MAR40 (A01-118-001)

In 1940, said Don Charlwood, some 60,000 young men applied for the first 4,000 training places in the Royal Australian Air Force (C06-063-001). At that early stage of the war, competition for places was intense and the selection panels could afford to be a little choosy in the potential airmen they accepted. The process was quite involved.

In March 1940, Phil Smith was one of the 60,000. He wrote a detailed account of his first experiences in a letter to his father later that day (A01-118-001). The interview panel consisted of three officers who asked general questions about aeroplanes, about Phil’s motives for joining up, and some technical questions about centrifugal force and specific gravity (“the first I explained only fairly and the second exactly,” he told his father).  And that, he wrote, was about the limit of it. Then it was time for the medical exam.

There was, he said, a long form to fill in. Then a general physical examination, including a colour blindness check, height and weight (while stripped), measurements of “buttocks to toes” and a check of the pulse. The eye exam appears to have been quite complicated, though in his matter-of-fact way Phil declined to describe the details as “I do not know what each was for”.

The next three doctors came equipped with a battery of weird and wonderful tests. Ears were checked first with tuning forks and then with the aid of a little light. The same light was then used on the nose and throat. Phil was spun around ten times on a swivel chair and told to stand up straight afterwards. A dentist carefully checked his teeth. Blood pressure was measured. And then it was time for ‘the torture machine’. With a clip on his nose, Phil had to take a deep breath and then support an inch-high column of mercury for as long as possible. “I kept it up for over two minutes”, he wrote to his father, “but my ears are still singing”. Finally his reflexes were tested by scraping his instep with a sharp piece of iron. Recruit Dennis Over, who would eventually become a 227 Sqn rear gunner, concurred with the general contents of the medical, adding that he was also subjected to a hemorrhoids test (“bend over & let me see if your hat’s on straight”…) and a test for “rupture” (“Just cough for me, will you?”). He also encountered the ‘torture machine’, actually a test for diseases of the lungs.

At the end of an exhausting day of being grilled, poked and prodded, Phil was told he would be accepted for the Air Force Reserve but that he would be required to have his tonsils removed and six teeth filled at his own expense first. After some indecision he had the required work done and was duly enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve, to await call-up. He was given a badge to wear to say that he had enlisted and continued to work at the Yarraville Sugar Refinery for another six months.

Though Phil doesn’t mention it, it appears that recruits would be given a course of study in mathematics, physics and navigation to do while they were awaiting call-up, to improve their chances of coping with the early, theoretical stages of their training. This is what Don Charlwood called the ‘twenty-one lessons’. In his memoir ‘Journeys into Night’ he describes the course as ‘extraordinarily well-arranged’. Recruits living in towns could attend night schools to complete the course; others living further out (like Charlwood himself) needed to work by correspondence, helping mates out as they went. Morse code was taught by local postmasters (C07-034-xiii).

Reservists were on the Reserve for differing periods of time. Don Charlwood’s mates Jim Riddoch and Claude Austin were called up after seven months; Charlwood himself had to wait eleven (C07-034-xiv). In fact Riddoch would be in Canada beginning his training before Charlwood received his call-up papers. Phil Smith was waiting for ‘only’ about six months. But the letter arrived, and on 14 September 1940 Phil found himself on a train from Melbourne to his Initial Training School at Bradfield Park, Sydney. Life would never again be the same.

© 2012 Adam Purcell   

 

The Men in the Photographs

Before he left Australia, Jack Purcell had a formal portrait taken of him wearing his Royal Australian Air Force uniform. The half-wing with the ‘N’, denoting a qualified navigator, is clearly visible, as are his Sergeant’s stripes. It is one of only a small number of photos that we have of Jack and, along with his logbook, it was that photograph of Jack that first fired my interest in the subject of Bomber Command and the part that he played in it.

Giving a face to match a man’s name is an important part of telling his history. It makes the stories somehow more real – as if saying that they are not mere words. They are real stories about real people. As such finding photographs of each of the seven men who flew in B for Baker was something I have been very keen to achieve. And now, having recently made contact with the final family, I have done exactly that.

So here, all together for the first time, are photographs of each of the crew of B for Baker. As is traditional, we will begin with the pilot.

Pilot: Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith (Phil)

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A fine portrait of a remarkably young-looking Phil Smith, taken while on leave in London.

Flight Engineer: Sergeant Kenneth Harold Tabor

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By far the youngest on the crew, Ken was just 19 when he was killed over Lille. This photograph shows him on the left, with his brother Bill. He is wearing the Flight Engineer’s brevet so it was probably taken in late 1943.

Navigator: Warrant Officer Royston William Purcell (Jack)

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The presence of an N half wing and sergeants’ stripes (and the stamp from a Sydney photographer on the back of it) dates this photo to mid 1942. This was the photo of Jack that started my journey to find out more about him.

Bomb Aimer: Flight Sergeant Jeremiah Parker (Jerry)

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At 30, Jerry Parker was the oldest member of the crew. He was married with a young daughter.

Wireless Operator: Flight Sergeant Alastair Dale Johnston (Dale)

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Dale Johnston was from Queensland. He is seen here on the left on the steps of the family home with his twin brother Ian.

Mid-Upper Gunner: Sergeant Eric Reginald Hill

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From Goring in Berkshire, Eric Hill served in the RAF Regiment before he became a member of aircrew. He first enlisted in June 1940, by far the first member of the crew to begin war service.

Rear Gunner: Flight Sergeant Gilbert Firth Pate (Gil)

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A short stocky man, Gilbert had a brief flirtation with becoming a jockey as a teenager, until his father put a stop to all further dealings with the stables where he was working. He trained as a wool classifier before joining up.

The Crew of B for Baker

There is just one photograph that shows the entire crew. It is backlit by the landing light of a Lancaster, it’s shadowy, grainy and indistinct, but it’s an atmospheric photo.

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Photos kindly provided by:

Mollie Smith

Steve Butson

Martin Purcell

Freda Hamer

Don Webster

Barry Hill

Gil Thew

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell 

Forage Cap

Gil Thew recently sent me this fantastic photograph of his uncle Gilbert Pate:

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Gilbert is in uniform, wearing a peaked forage cap parked at a jaunty angle upon his head. Tucked into the fold at the front of the cap is a white ‘flash’ of fabric. This flash was the mark of an airman under training. Gilbert’s serious expression and immaculate uniform coupled with the trainee flash suggests this might be a copy of his enlistment identity photograph. The photo was therefore most likely taken in late June 1942, when Gilbert would have been 26 years old. He barely looks out of his teens.

While not unique to Bomber Command itself, photographs of airmen from Commonwealth air forces in WWII will frequently show them wearing caps just like this one. The forage cap had been part of the uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force since the First World War. It was designed to look reasonably respectable even after being folded up and jammed into a corner in the cramped cockpit of an aeroplane. A battered cap was a sign that its owner was no sprog.

In May 2009 I visited Lezennes on the anniversary of the Lille operation to see the graves of my great uncle and his crew. I wasn’t prepared for the reception I was given by the locals. There was a small but moving ceremony at the cemetery, presided over by the Mayor with perhaps 20 people attending. After the cemetery we walked into the town to the local library, where a display had been set up telling the story of the crew. There was a television camera crew to document the occasion. I even met a man who had been 10 at the time of the Lille raid, and who remembered standing next to the graves the day after the funerals, singing ‘God Save the King’.

But most amazing of all was the man on the left of this photo:

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His name is Laurent Messiaen. He is presenting me with a pristine original RAAF forage cap. The exact origins of the cap are unknown. I was told it had been with a local family since the war. Apparently Laurent read about my impending visit in the local newspaper and came along specifically to give it to me.

There is no doubt that it is RAAF. Stamped inside, it says “MADE IN AUSTRALIA 1943”. A direct link with the Lille operation cannot be ruled out.

The cap now sits on my shelf. It’s become one of my most treasured possessions.

© 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


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