Posts Tagged 'Training'

Halam Lancaster

There was an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2011, about a couple of Australian aircrew who had been killed when their Lancaster crashed while on a training flight. It was 10 April 1943, and the crew was on their last exercise at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, before being posted to an operational squadron. Shortly after take-off the aircraft crashed in the small village of Halam, eight miles from the aerodrome and aligned with the runway they had departed from.

Sixty nine years later to the day, a memorial was unveiled in Halam commemorating the seven men who died in the crash. It was the culmination of some years of work by a local man named Andrew Paris who has now researched the story of the crew and how they came to be on that aircraft.

Jack Purcell was posted to RAF Winthorpe between September and November 1943 and I visited the excellent Newark Air Museum that now occupies a corner of the old airfield while visiting the UK in 2009. But that wasn’t why the story in the Herald set some faint bells of recognition chiming in my mind. As part of his research Andrew had been looking for information on what the crew might have been up to during their time at 1661 HCU. I got in touch with him through the Lancaster Archive Forum and was able to share an extract of Jack’s logbook covering the time he had been at the unit. While only a very small piece of the overall story, every little bit helps towards developing an understanding of ‘what they were doing there’.

It’s another good demonstration, I think, of how the Internet has revolutionised historical research. The reach of the web is world-wide, and it’s made finding this information much easier because it’s now a simple matter to find someone on the other side of the world who might have the information that you seek. And it’s then made it very easy to share the results of your work with a much greater audience than in the past.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

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

Flight Engineer

In the early days of the bomber offensive, British aircraft like the Wellington would typically fly with a ‘second pilot’ in a support role to operate flaps and throttles or to take over for a while in the cruise. Phil Smith was operating on his first tour with 103 Sqn at this time, and his logbook records that he completed ten operations as second pilot before being given his own crew. The second pilot would be a fully-trained and qualified pilot who was usually less experienced than the ‘first pilot’ who commanded the aeroplane. But this meant, of course, that to lose one aircraft would mean losing two pilots – and pilots were perhaps the hardest (and most expensive) out of the aircrew categories to train and replace.

The Stirlings, Lancasters and Halifaxes that began coming on line around then had more complex systems than those on, for example, the Wellington, so a more specialised member of the crew was required. Around the beginning of 1942 the second pilot was starting to be replaced by a dedicated member of the crew whose job it was to know where every single switch and dial and gauge on their aeroplane was (and in the dark), and what they did: the flight engineer.

Initially, flight engineers were taken from the ranks of the ground crew already serving at RAF bases: the engine fitters and mechanics whose technical knowledge was already of a high standard. But when the demand for heavy bomber crews really ramped up the supply of suitable ground crew available to take conversion training began to slow. So the RAF began training ‘direct entry’ flight engineers from scratch.

One of these direct entry flight engineers was Tom Knox, a Glaswegian who moved to Australia after the war and still retains his beautiful accent. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Tom in Canberra in June, and recently spent an afternoon visiting him at home onSydney’s northern beaches.

Tom had begun an engineering apprenticeship when he was 16. Being a reserved occupation, the only way he could get out of it was to join up as aircrew. “So I did it!”, he wrote to me in a letter in June 2011. He reported to Lords Cricket Ground just after his 18th birthday, did his ‘square bashing’ in Devon and went to No. 4 School of Technical Training, St Athan.

It was here where young men learnt everything there was to know about their aeroplanes. The training was remarkably solid. Cliff Leach (a pilot who retrained as a flight engineer late in the war) remembers copying diagrams of the various systems from a blackboard and being asked to reproduce from memory some of them in exams. Cliff, aided by his classroom notes which he still has, remembers a lot of the systems of the Lancaster more than six decades later.

During their course the trainee flight engineers covered fuel systems, instrument panels, flight controls, engines, electricals, hydraulics and pneumatics. They learnt how to do the pre-flight inspection. They experienced hypoxia in a decompression chamber, to be able to recognise it if it arose on operations. They spent a week on a ‘Maker’s Course’, visiting Avro or Short Brothers or Handley-Page to gain an insider’s view of their specific aircraft. The final assessment consisted of written tests on each of the subjects they had studied followed by a face-to-face test.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about their training is that, even after receiving the half-wing brevet with an E – the mark of a fully qualified flight engineer – most of them had in fact never been up in the air. And when they got to the next stage, a Heavy Conversion Unit, the men that they would join had already been a crew for some months.

In Tom’s case, crewing up was very simple. He was approached by a young Australian Flight Sergeant who asked if he wanted to join the crew – and that was that. His first experience of flight was in the rear turret of a Stirling shortly afterwards. “It was scary”, he says, but he handled it ok and went on to fly operationally with 149 and 199 Squadrons.

The flight engineer on B for Baker was a young man named Ken Tabor. He joined the RAF on his 18th birthday and was at St Athan between February and August 1943. In this photograph he is standing with his parents, wearing his Flight Engineer’s brevet:

a05-226-001-orig copy

The brevet shows that the photo was taken after he graduated from St Athan, which happened in August 1943 – perhaps the snap was taken while Ken was visiting his family on leave in Dorset before he went to an operational squadron.

Ken Tabor was the youngest man on board B for Baker when it went missing over Lille in May 1944. He had not yet reached his 20th birthday.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell

Image: Steve Butson

Thanks also to Tom Knox and Cliff Leach for their input to this post.

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

Training

I was talking to 463 Squadron veteran Don Southwell on ANZAC Day in April about his training to become a navigator in WWII. Among other things he spoke about life at Initial Training School at Bradfield Park. He said that days started with physical training and drill, and were then full of theory classes – and when the trainee aircrew had time off from formal classes, they were expected to study. He remembers some particularly challenging subjects keeping him working at his desk until one or two in the morning. “The blokes in my hut”, he told me on the phone recently, “used to say that they didn’t have to go to classes because they’d hear everything from me… while I was talking in my sleep!”

This got me thinking (as happens every so often). In some ways, I can draw some parallels with what I understand of Air Force training and what I’m currently experiencing as a trainee air traffic controller. For example, the eleven other lads in my group and I are known by the simple name ‘Course 44’. We are timetabled as a course and subsequently we do everything together. We’ve become a reasonably close-knit group, with friendships forged in the furnace of shared challenges. We’re all (mostly) young men. Many have travelled from all over the country, and some from overseas, to do this training. We are learning a highly technical discipline, and we’re under considerable time pressure. We work hard, and we have to. There is the ever-present threat of being ‘scrubbed’ and washout rates are not insignificant. In short, this course is by far the most intense thing that I’ve ever attempted.

But there are a few key differences. Most of us are in our late 20s or early 30s, which is older than an average Australian airman in training during WWII (Don celebrated his 21st birthday on a bombing raid over a German city). There’s no mandated physical exercise or drill to worry about. We don’t live on site. But most importantly, the end result of our training – if we actually get through it – is a high-pressure but ultimately civil job. Sure, we’ll be on shift at all hours of the day and night, we’ll be working some pretty tough days and nights and there is no ‘pause’ button in air traffic control. But we won’t be going into combat. We are not facing the prospect of half of our number going missing in action. We can be pretty sure that at the end of our shift we will get home safely.

Which is a lot more than could be said for the airmen of Bomber Command.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Bradfield Park

After a period on the Volunteer Reserve, a newly-enlisted airman in the RAAF in WWII would find himself posted to an Initial Training School (ITS) to learn about the basics of military life. Each state of Australia had its own ITS. Airmen from NSW would normally pass through No. 2 ITS at Bradfield Park in Sydney. Many thousands of airmen (and women, for there was also a WAAAF school on site) would experience their first taste of the Air Force at this station.

Don Southwell remembers “miles and miles” of parade grounds near the gatehouse of the station. Don was a 463 Squadron navigator in the latter part of the war. Like so many of his era, his Air Force career started at Bradfield Park. Don took me on a drive around the site of the old station shortly before I left Sydney in October 2010. “The WAAAFs could out-drill anyone”, he said.

Don on occasion would need to guard the Station’s boat house, which was down on the banks of the nearby Lane Cove River. He would carry his straw mattress and rifle down a track through thick bush and stay overnight in the boat house. On one occasion he fired his rifle at the water to see what would happen, then spent the walk back to the main base worrying about how he would account for that one cartridge… history and memory do not record how he got away with that one!

Don related stories of airmen crawling through a hole in the fence and removing the white ‘trainee’ flash from their caps to appear to be ground crew and thus less suspicious, to be able to walk up Lady Game Drive to Chatswood Railway Station. Being a Croydon boy, Don says he did the same while officially on guard at the boat house. He simply waited until it was dark, then made his escape to catch a train home. He slept at home that night, returning just as the sun came up the next day.

There is now virtually none of the station left. The CSIRO moved to the area in 1979 when their National Measurement Laboratories were built. In recent years they sold off some of the Commonwealth land on which the RAAF station once stood. But reminders are still there. The main road past the CSIRO’s compound is called Bradfield Rd. Other streets close by are Squadron Circuit and Brevet Ave. And in the corner of Queen Elizabeth Reserve, a short distance from tennis courts where Don says some of the parade grounds were, is this memorial:

 bradfieldparkmemorial1 copy

Partly funded by the CSIRO and Kuringai Council, it was built in 2006 and forms a fitting reminder to the activities that took place there.

 bradfieldparkmemorial2 copy

© 2010 Adam Purcell

One Friday Afternoon’s Work

Gilbert Pate’s first flight – ever – was in a Tiger Moth from Mascot, Sydney in August 1939. His father, Sydney, wrote about it in a letter to Don Smith in July 1944, after the crew had gone missing (A01-346-003). Gilbert had gone flying with a good friend, Andrew MacArthur-Onslow. They even flew over the Pate family home in nearby Kogarah (“2-storey”, wrote Sydney Pate, “and in the nature of a local land-mark”).

Sydney also wrote that Andrew was “now alas deceased”. I decided to try and find out what happened to him.

It seemed likely that Andrew’s was a war-related death, so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database was my first port of call. I found a match:

Name: MacARTHUR-ONSLOW, ANDREW WILLIAM
Initials: A W
Nationality: Australian
Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force
Age: 25
Date of Death: 18/01/1943
Service No: 261535
Additional information: Son of Francis Arthur and Sylvia Seton Raymond MacArthur-Onslow, of Campbelltown.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Row A. Grave 6.
Cemetery: TAMWORTH WAR CEMETERY

Note that he died a Flight Lieutenant and is buried at Tamworth, NSW, the site of an Elementary Flying Training School. This suggested he was an instructor.

I next searched the National Archives of Australia for a service record – which exists, but is not digitised so I can’t access it from here. I did find a record of his enlistment in the Australian Army Militia pre-war. I also looked through some Tiger Moth accident reports but found no matches.

Perhaps Tamworth cemetery records would yield something. I found this page, which had the bloke I was looking for. It also had a record for another man killed on the same day – a Thomas Myles DAWSON of Queensland. Figuring two men was the normal crew complement at an EFTS, there was a good chance that both of these men were killed in the same accident.

Dawson proved the breakthrough. A search for his service number at the National Archives pulled up a service record (digitised) – and, more importantly, an entry in an accident file (also digitised). It was a simple matter to access the accident file, which answered the question of what happened to F/L AW MacArthur-Onslow.

Gilbert Pate’s great mate, who had held a pilot’s licence before the war and who took Gilbert for his first flight, possibly sparking Gil’s interest in flying, was killed in a flying accident while serving with the Central Flying School.  On 18JAN43  MacArthur-Onslow was flying with a Sgt TM Dawson in Wirraway A20-45, on an authorised practice low-level sortie 16 miles south-east of Tamworth. They crashed during the low-level segment of the flight and both were killed. The aircraft was written off. (A04-087-001, NAA: A9845, 102).

The most pleasing thing for me in this saga is that it all happened one Friday afternoon. I was reading through all of Sydney Pate’s letters in preparation for an article I’m working on about Gil when I read the July 1944 correspondence to Don Smith. That sparked the curiosity to find out what happened to Andrew MacArthur-Onslow – and over the course of a couple of hours I found what I was looking for. Another loose thread tied off, another facet of Gilbert Pate’s life uncovered.

© 2011 Adam Purcell


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