Posts Tagged 'World War II'

Book Review: Bomber Command – Australians in World War II

 

In June the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs released a book called Bomber Command: Australians in World War II. Launched at the Australian War Memorial in the presence of three Bomber Command veterans, it’s DVA’s second book in a series looking at Australians and their experiences in World War II (the first looked at Greece and Crete). Dr Richard Reid, of the Department’s Commemorations Branch, was the author (though interestingly he is not credited on the front cover). A couple of weeks after the launch DVA gave a copy of the book to each of the Australian veterans who went to London for the opening of the Bomber Command memorial.

The first half of the book contains an overview of Australia’s role in Bomber Command. Starting with a description of a raid over Berlin, it goes on to cover in some detail the typical path followed by many aircrew, from enlistment to training and right through to their operational squadrons. Reid makes good use of the Australians at War Film Archive (another DVA project in which he was involved) among other resources, to build a picture of ‘what it was like’, with a focus on individual Australian airmen. Unfortunately, though a well-respected and experienced military historian, Reid is not a Bomber Command specialist, and in places it shows. For example, on p. 150 he mistakenly calls the Avro Manchester the “prototype” of the Lancaster. While the Lanc was indeed a development of the Manchester, the final product was an entirely different aircraft – ergo, not a prototype. There are also some editing errors (which I admit may not be the historian’s fault): throughout the text, altitudes are converted to metres, an annoying move that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of technical terminology (in the Western world altitudes are and have always been measured in feet, regardless of whether the country uses metric measurements elsewhere). And, unforgivably, the airfield from which the Dambusters took off on the Dams raid is misspelt as ‘Scrampton’ and, on at least two occasions, the name of Britain’s first four-engined heavy bomber is misspelt as ‘Sterling’. Though minor errors in isolation, they all add up to an overall impression of a certain amount of ‘slapdashery’.

But then you reach the imagery. The entire second half of the book is taken up by a rather impressive collection of photos and other artwork, mostly taken from the Australian War Memorial’s collections. And this part of the book is very good. There are the obligatory photos that everyone has seen before (like the one of S-Sugar being bombed up at Waddington) but there are also many that are more unusual. They cover the entire journey through Bomber Command: enlistment, training, operations and homecoming (or, for those less fortunate, burial and remembrance). It’s a good collection, reproduced in high quality and with informative and comprehensive captions.

According to the press release that accompanied the launch, the book is “an invaluable resource, helping Australians learn about the important history of Bomber Command, including stories of those who served and died”. I’d agree with almost all of that. It will certainly make many of the stories of Bomber Command more accessible to Australians in the future – and in that sense, the Department have achieved something worthwhile – but it can only be an ‘invaluable resource’ if its facts are correct. Being a Government publication, it can be seen as an official record of what happened, and therefore it needs to be done right. Their hearts were in the right place, but unfortunately it would appear that those who produced this book settled for merely ‘close enough for government work’.

Bomber Command: Australians in World War II – which is, if you can look past its problems, still worth a look simply because of the images – is available from the Australian War Memorial Online Shop

 

(c) 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Niet weggooien!

There’s an interesting campaign underway in the Netherlands at the moment, spearheaded by a loose conglomeration of WWII museums. Called ‘Actie Niet Weggooien’ (translated to ‘Don’t Throw It Away’), the aim is to bring to light the ‘stuff’ from the war years that people might have hidden away in a box somewhere. What better place to save these historical artefacts and documents for the future, say the organisers, than in a museum?

It’s an admirable sentiment, and the campaign has brought many amazing bits and pieces out of the woodwork – the website (link above) has photos of an SS flag from a public building in Groningen, for example, and a pair of ordinary-looking scissors with a story: they were recovered during the war from the wreck of a 150 Squadron Wellington that crashed in Friesland. Both artefacts would have sat, forgotten, in a box somewhere, perhaps until their owners died and the stories associated with them had been forgotten and a little piece of history lost. But thanks to the campaign by the Dutch museums, the stories of the flag and the scissors can be shared and the history lives on.

You never really know what might still be out there undiscovered. Just recently Kerry Stokes purchased and donated to the Australian War Memorial the ‘Lost Diggers’ collection of some 3000 glass photographic plates taken in the French village of Vignacourt on the Somme. The collection had been lying in an attic of an old farmhouse once owned by the French couple who had made them – whose descendants had no idea of the historical significance of the collection. On a level a little closer to home, Leo McAuliffe’s letter recently sent to me by William Rusbridge had been hiding in a box of his late mother’s papers and was only discovered recently. Gil Thew knew of a box of letters and documents relating to his uncle Gil Pate, B for Baker’s rear gunner, but said no-one had touched it for thirty years – until I contacted him out of the blue a few years ago.

What has been lost forever, forgotten or even thrown out by people who didn’t realise what they have? And on a brighter note, what else might still be in a dusty box in an attic somewhere, waiting to be found? Each new find adds a layer to the story of these men and each layer adds to our understanding of who they were and what they did – so helping to ensure that their stories will live on.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

 

Learning to Fly

The chance to learn to fly an aeroplane was probably a factor in why many young men joined the Air Force in WWII. Those lucky enough to pass the tests and be selected for pilot training would soon have found themselves at a dusty Elementary Flying Training School, climbing aboard at a bright yellow Tiger Moth for what would be, in many cases, their first ever flight.

“This afternoon we had our first flying experience, a trip of about 1/2 hours duration. It was a very interesting business and it was just sufficient to demonstrate just how difficult a business it is to fly. The controls vary greatly in sensitivity and to the beginner in changing your attention from one thing to another it is very easy to loose [sic] control completely.” – Phil Smith, in a letter to his father written 14NOV40 (A01-125-001)

Despite spending a week in hospital with influenza (he had a temperature of 101 degrees – A01-126-001), it did not take Phil long to go solo for the first time. “When I recommenced flying on Monday [following hospitalisation] I found that I could do everything except land”, he wrote to his father on 28 November 1940, the day of his first solo (A01-132-001). “All my flying time since then has been in picking this up. 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.” He had about eight hours flying time in his logbook at this stage.

But as big an achievement as one’s first solo is when learning to fly, there is a big gap between a pilot who has flown solo and one who is fully qualified. Phil’s letter home two days after his first solo reveals that he was acutely aware of how new everything still was, and of how far he had yet to go (A01-127-001):

“From time to time I get very nasty turns, for example, this morning another plane and I only missed a side-on collision because he was about 20′ below me. This was mostly because I had not kept a good enough lookout. […] Yesterday also I had a scare when on the glide into the aerodrome I was turning and hit a bump which I swear l neally [sic] turned the plane vertical on its side. However, to get down safely is the big thing in flying so they say and the sooner I wake up to the responsibilities the better it will be for me. I find the landings are coming much easier to me now but they still are far from good. I find that steep turns are giving me a bit of trouble too.”

Trainee pilots had to contend with lectures on meteorology (“I think I shall have to learn the Beaufort scale of winds”, he wrote to sister Wenda in March 1941), photography and navigation. They even carried cameras to take photos of turning points to prove they got where they were supposed to go on their solo cross country flights (A01-147-001). The instructors were a mixed bunch. Phil was fined a tin of Craven A cigarettes by one of his, for letting the aeroplane slow down too much on final approach (A01-139-001 02FEB41). On another occasion an instructor rapped him over the knuckles with a ruler for a similar offence. Life was not made any easier, Phil wrote, by having multiple instructors all with slightly differing ideas on how things should be done. But sometimes they could be more relaxed as well. Phil’s letters reveal a number of instances where they got up to some fun. In December 1940 a train derailed near Tamworth and they stooged over to have a look (A01-130-001):

“After we had seen all we wanted my instructor and the other plane’s became playful and staged a mock dogfight. My instructor was very expert at this business and had the other plane at his mercy almost all the time. It was a very fast-moving business and consisted mostly of steep turns almost on our sides and short and quick dives and climbs […]”

And on another day, during a three-hour dual cross country flight (A01-140-001):

“The instructor I was with on that occasion was very playful and delighted in flying over the country schools trying to make the children walk around the school first one way and then the other to keep the plane in sight. We pupils, three of us, lean out and wave at the kids, all quite good fun.”

Aeroplanes being aeroplanes, the forces that keep them in the air are still the same today as they were when Phil Smith took his first few faltering steps into the sky. While the technology might have advanced considerably over the decades, the general techniques and principles of flight remain unchanged. And so I can relate some of my own flying lessons to those of Phil Smith. I had no less than nine instructors over the course of my first 35 or so flying hours so I can relate very much to Phil’s frustrations at being told different things by different pilots. One of those instructors wielded the fuel dipstick instead of a ruler when I got too slow in the circuit. I even did my own first solo on 28 November 2002 – 62 years to the day after Phil Smith did the same thing.

But not everything was the same. It took me about 17 hours of instruction before being let loose for my first solo in a Cessna – a result that would have very quickly resulted in a scrubbing from pilot training if I was learning to fly in a wartime EFTS. There was a radio in the Tiger Moth that I flew last year – there was no radio in Phil’s day. And, perhaps most importantly, I was learning to fly purely for the fun of it. While undoubtedly there were fun times for pilots like Phil Smith along the way, they were ultimately training for a deadly serious job.

© 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)

A05-118-001 med

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

Bomber Command – Failed to Return

I have just received a new book called Bomber Command – Failed to Return. From Fighting High Publishing in the UK, it contains eleven chapters, written by six different authors, each chapter concentrating on the story of a particular airman or crew who failed to return from operations. I was one of the contributing authors, writing a chapter profiling rear gunner Gilbert Pate. Keen eyes might also recognise the photograph that appears on the cover of the book. It is, of course, the only known photo of the entire crew of 467 Sqn Lancaster LM475, B for Baker.

This is the first time I’ve written anything for publication in an actual book, and it was rather exciting to spy on my front step the package containing my copy, open it up and see the front cover, with my name one of the six underneath the title. I’m also stoked that Steve chose the crew photograph for the cover. Its prominent position (and there’s a full double-page spread of it inside too) means that the story of B for Baker and her crew can now reach an even wider audience.

I am indebted to Gil and Peggy Thew, the nephew and sister of Gilbert Pate, who extremely graciously allowed me full access to and use of Gilbert’s papers for this project. Much of my chapter was based on those letters and reading them all gave me a very good idea of who the man was. I can only hope that in what I’ve written I’ve done justice to Gilbert’s story.

Steve says the book has received some very good feedback in the UK already, and there was a launch event in early September at Duxford, attended by among others two of the airmen who feature in the book. If you’ll excuse the blatant plug, copies of Bomber Command – Failed to Return are available from the Book Depository, or direct from the publisher.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

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


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