Finding the Missing

At the end of the Second World War, the Royal Air Force (and associated dominion forces) had some 41,881 personnel listed as missing, worldwide (C07-049-007). A large proportion of these were scattered throughout the European Continent from which, while the battles were still raging, reliable information was difficult to obtain. The unit set up to deal with the problem of searching for and identifying as many of the missing as possible went through a number of guises but is probably best known as the Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES). Their task was to investigate the fates of missing aircrew through records and by putting people ‘on the ground’ in Germany and the former occupied territories to interview local officials and civilians and, if necessary, open graves to find clues on the bodies themselves.

Author Stuart Hadaway, writing in a book called Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research and Enquiry Service 1939-1952 (Pen & Sword Books Ltd 2012), notes that by the end of 1950, just 8,719 aircrew were still officially listed as missing, with 23,881 now having known graves and 9,281 formally recorded as lost at sea (p.7). This, having been achieved without the use of modern technologies such as DNA profiling, is an astonishing success rate.

Once a crashed aircraft had been located, authorities could trace the identity of that aircraft through serial numbers on any number of parts. Knowing which aircraft and squadron it came from, they could then determine which crew was flying in it when it went missing. Identification then often came down to a process of elimination: the body with the pilot’s brevet must be the pilot, for example… identity discs might have survived revealing the wireless operator… one air gunner might have had remnants of his Flight Sergeant’s stripes, which meant that the other body with an air gunner’s brevet must be the other gunner… and so on.

The MRES report of losses from the Lille raid of 10MAY44 (A04-071-017) records how the unit identified the body of F/O J.F. Tucker, who was from Doug Hislop’s 467 Squadron crew, flying in EE143. Post war, six graves in the commune of Hellemes, near Lille, were exhumed. In one was found the remains of an RAAF battle dress with an Air Gunner’s brevet, along with an officer-type shirt on the body. Tucker was at the time the only Australian officer air gunner missing from this operation who remained unaccounted for, and the investigating MRES officer was happy to accept identification on this basis.

It wasn’t always so straightforward however. Often German information was somewhat muddled by events. Hadaway cites the case of a man initially buried by the Germans as ‘Haidee  Silver, 40851’, being traced by the service number to a Pilot Officer Michael Rawlinson, who had been wearing a silver bracelet that his father told the MRES had been given to him by a female relative, inscribed ‘From Haidee’ (p.39). Other men were identified through serial numbers on their standard-issue watches, for example, or through laundry labels on their clothing.

Tracing serial numbers through the many layers of RAF bureaucracy could be a tedious job. What fascinates me about the work they did is the detective effort involved, and how unorthodox methods sometimes yielded the key that unravelled the case. I suppose I can draw certain parallels with the historical research I have been carrying out as part of this project. Throughout the war, files were maintained in the MRES offices in London where any little snippet of information relating to cases was kept. The files would regularly be reviewed and cross-referenced with any new information that might have come in later to see if anything jumped out. One little snippet could lead to another, which lead to another, which might have led up the garden path a bit until something else made sense of everything. And on so many of the cases, they were able to find a match.

Theirs was a gruesome and difficult task, and it was one that continued well after the war had ended and everyone else had ‘gone home’. But each case solved meant one more airman could be taken off the list of the missing. And one more family could have closure. For that, the investigators of the MRES deserve to be remembered.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

This post was scheduled for some time in May but I brought it forward after tonight’s 60 Minutes program on Australian TV. Further post on that program is in the works!

Who did what, when and in which aircraft?

At the Canberra Bomber Command weekend a few years ago, Don Southwell made an off-hand comment about how he wanted to re-do the Squadron histories. I’m beginning to see why!

I’m currently having a fairly close look at the activities of 463 and 467 Squadrons for the time that the crew of B for Baker were at Waddington. I’ve pulled a variety of sources that I’m going through and cross-referencing to try and build a picture of what happened for each day in the period – and, not surprisingly, I’ve found a number of inconsistencies. Take the latest one, for example. Here is an entry from Nobby Blundell’s squadron history, They Flew From Waddington!, written in 1975 and privately published, concerning 29 January 1944:

Berlin again. 467 Sqn F/Lt Simpson’s a/c was attacked by an ME110 – F/Sgt Campbell, the rear gunner, shot it down. We lost 6 a/c from Waddington, 3 from each Squadron, our worse [sic] night to date, 467: ED772, DV378 and ME575. 463: HK537, JA973 and ED949. 43 aircrew in one op. lost.

On the face of it, this seems straightforward. From a single operation to Berlin in late January 1944, Waddington lost six crews. It is true that this was right in the thick of the period that later became known as the Battle of Berlin, and as such there were many raids to that city around that time. The only problem is, this particular Berlin trip appears in none of the other records I’ve looked at. The 463 Squadron Operational Record Book for example, says this:

A dull day. No Ops. Routine work.

And 467 Squadron said this:

Much sleeping today, and a stand down in the afternoon. The usual Saturday night dance was held.

No sign of any operations there, then. Indeed, the Night Raid Report for this date shows that only small forces of Mosquitos were operating on this night.

But I always like to think cock-up before I think conspiracy. It’s unlikely that Blundell would have made the entry up entirely. Far more likely, I think, is that he’s mixed up a few raids and put them into one entry. So I thought I’d have a look around that date and see what went on elsewhere. From the Bomber Command Night Raid Reports and Operational Record Books for 463 and 467 Squadrons, here are the main operations for a few days:

  • 27 January: 530 heavies to BERLIN; 32 lost. 32 aircraft from Waddington; 463 lost one and 467 lost two.
  • 28 January: 683 heavies to BERLIN; 43 lost. 26 from Waddington, one lost from each Squadron.
  • 29 January: No Main Force operations. Squadrons stood down.
  • 30 January: 540 heavies to BERLIN. 33 lost. Waddington sent 24 aircraft. 463 Squadron lost four and 467 Squadron lost one.
  • 31 January: No Night Raid Report, so no ops.

The most likely suspect, looking at this run of operations, is the trip on the 30th. But Blundell claims six losses on that night, not the five in the ORBs. I needed to look deeper.

The only other details that Blundell recorded are the serial numbers of the aircraft lost:

From 467 Squadron:

  • ED772
  • DV378
  • ME575

From 463 Squadron:

  • HK537
  • JA973
  • ED949

So I thought that was a good place to go next. From the Operational Record Books, we get this:

Pilot                             Squadron                     Aircraft

Messenger                   463                              ED772

Hanson                        463                              JA973

Dunn                           463                              ED949

Fairclough                   463                              ED545

Riley                            467                              DV372

Comparing that to Blundell’s list, we see he has accounted for the first three, so I’m now fairly confident that he’s got the wrong date and the operation he is referring to is indeed that of the 30th. But he attributes ED772 to the other squadron, includes DV378, ME575 and HK537 in his list and completely misses ED545 and DV372. To work this one out, it’s time to find another source.

Bruce Robertson wrote a book called Lancaster: The Story of a Famous Bomber, published in 1964. In the back section are lists upon lists of Lancaster serial numbers, and what happened to each aircraft. So I checked the serial numbers from the ORB, and from Blundell’s extract. Robertson agrees that the first three were lost on 30 January and shows it as 463 – which agrees with the ORBs. ED545, says Robertson, was lost on 14 May 1943 – seven months before the night in question – so it must be an error in the ORB. DV372 survived the war and was scrapped in October 1945, so that one must also be incorrect. With those two ORB records now empty we have two outstanding aircraft (those flown by Fairclough and Riley) and three unknown serials (DV378, ME575 and HK537).

Robertson comes to the rescue again: ME575 was lost on January 27 (one of the other Berlin trips at the end of that month), and indeed the 467 Squadron ORB agrees that this aircraft went missing on that night.

DV378 is very close to DV372, so it is possible that the Orderly Room clerk who typed up the ORB made an error. And indeed, Robertson shows that DV378 went missing on 31 January. Since aircraft returned from the 30 January operation close to and in many cases beyond midnight, and there is no Night Raid Report for the 31st, it is reasonable to suggest that this is the correct serial number for the aircraft flown by P/O Riley.

That, then, leaves HK537 which, again, Robertson records as being lost on 31 January. That is fairly solid evidence that it was indeed the aircraft flown by P/O Fairclough.

So based on this, the list from above should, I believe, actually look like this:

Pilot                             Squadron                     Aircraft

Messenger                   463                              ED772

Hanson                        463                              JA973

Dunn                           463                              ED949

Fairclough                   463                              HK537

Riley                            467                              DV378

All of this goes to show how important it is to cross-check your sources. The ORBs, while considered the definitive record of what happened on each squadron, vary significantly in quality, depending on the individual officer who wrote them at the time. They were compiled at a time when aircraft were being lost and new aircraft and crews were arriving on squadron virtually every day and as such errors could and did creep in. It takes a bit of patience to painstakingly sort through the records and check other relevant sources to try and find out what actually happened.

I think Don Southwell is on to something when he says he’d like to re-do the squadron histories. It would be a very long job to go through the entire Operational Record Books for both Squadrons to try and find these sorts of errors, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise if it meant that the histories could be more accurate. What form the histories would then take needs more thought and is, perhaps, a subject for a future post.

©2013 Adam Purcell

Vale Pat Kerrins

Bomber Command attracted, and got, the best men of a generation. They were (in general) more highly educated than many of their time, they were carefully selected and they were highly trained. Many achieved great things during their time with the Air Force. A significant proportion – those who didn’t come back – never got the chance to follow that achievement up with similar success in post-war life. For some who did survive, their few short months on an operational squadron would come to define the rest of their lives. But there were also others who went to war, flew a tour of operations, returned to Australia – and, putting all thoughts of the war behind them, simply got on with life. One of those was Pat Kerrins, who died on Easter Sunday.

Pat was a Lancaster pilot. He grew up on a farm just outside the northern Victorian town of Tatura and, after leaving home, worked for the Postmaster General’s department in Melbourne and Sale. It was while he was at Sale that war broke out and, perhaps having caught the flying bug from the close proximity to the RAAF base nearby, as soon as he was old enough he joined up, first as a transport driver but eventually as a trainee pilot.

Pat trained in Australia and was selected as a fighter pilot. He travelled via the US to England, but on arrival found a long wait to get onto a fighter squadron. Bomber pilots, on the other hand, were needed immediately – so he swapped over, and would eventually fly 32 operations with 115 Squadron. He ended the war as a Flying Officer.

I first met Pat at the Bomber Command Commemorative Day weekend in Canberra  in June 2011. He was engaged at the time in a lively conversation with another veteran (Tommy Knox, a 149 Squadron Stirling flight engineer) about a mutual acquaintance both had known during the war, and I took a photo of them both in the midst of it:

11jun-bombercommandcanberra-067s copy

I sent Pat a copy of this photo (he’s on the left), and after exchanging a few letters I even drove up to Tatura to visit him for lunch one day. We pored over his logbook and a few photos and he shared a story or two of his service. It turned out that, along with his mid-upper gunner Nobby Clarke, he had been interviewed by writer and broadcaster Michael Veitch for a book called Fly, published in 2008. It’s worth quoting a passage from this book (p.83) which I think reveals much about Pat’s character and cheeky sense of humour:

“You’re writing a story about us old blokes, are you?’ asked Pat. ‘Why didn’t you get onto us fifty years ago when we could remember something?’

‘Sorry about that, Pat,’ I replied. ‘So when did you join up?’

’26 June 1942,’ he rattled off in a flash. Somehow I didn’t think his memory would present too much of a problem.

I think it was Pat’s favourite self-deprecating joke; he asked me the same thing the day that I visited him!

But talking about his wartime experiences was only a fairly recent development. After the war, Pat never flew an aeroplane again. He returned to Tatura and settled down on the family farm. He raised a family (eventually becoming a grandfather and then a ‘2-Pa’), played an important role in the developing Tatura dairy industry and was generally involved in the life of the town, volunteering with groups like Legacy, the local AFL club and horseracing club. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2001 for his services to the local community. Pat was such a legend in and around Tatura that about one thousand people attended his funeral there last week, and a large crowd of those who couldn’t fit inside the church spilled over into the driveway outside. He had been baptised and married in the same church.

I spotted perhaps my most favourite tribute to a real character of the local area as I was driving out of Tatura after the funeral on Saturday. Pat had a lifelong love of horses and was heavily involved in the Tatura horseracing club, officiating as a steward for many years at race meetings. I happened to glance to my left as I was passing the racecourse, just in time to flash past a sign proudly proclaiming the name of a large expanse of dirt. It was, the sign said, the Pat Kerrins Carpark.

I only knew Pat because he was a Bomber Command veteran. But while his two or three years in the Air Force were an important part of his life, they did not come to define it, and arguably his greatest successes came after he returned to Australia. His impish grin and cheeky sense of humour will be much missed.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Use the Source, Luke

My research catalogue for this project includes about a thousand individual items. And those are just the ones that I have catalogued; there are many more that sit in a great pile on my bookshelf waiting to be looked at. They are from a wide variety of sources and types. There are personal letters, logbooks and photographs. There are service records, casualty files and night raid reports. There are audio recordings, interview transcripts and videos. And there are books – there are many, many books; some written by people who were there, and some written by people who were not there.

No one source can tell the whole story, though – in one sense, this is why there are so many individual items in my catalogue! To build a more complete picture of ‘what really happened and why’ (which, after all, is one of the reasons for doing this work in the first place), multiple sources need to be consulted and compared as a whole.

A pilot’s logbook, for example, can offer a full record of what flights the pilot made and when they went on them. The more fastidious pilots also recorded who they flew with, in which aircraft, and even over which route they flew, which are all Really Useful Facts for a historian. But what a logbook doesn’t necessarily reveal is why each flight was made. Take, for example, this one, which appears in S/Ldr Phil Smith’s wartime logbook on 06MAY44:

Aircraft: Oxford. Pilot: Self. Crew: -. Duty: Base – Coningsby and return. 0.30hrs Day.

This is the first flight in an Oxford that I can find in Phil’s logbook at all (though he did significant flying in the very similar Avro Anson during his training), and it is quite an odd flight to find in the logbook of an operational bomber pilot. Indeed, later that night, Phil led his crew on a bombing operation to an ammunition dump at a place called Sable-sur-Sarthe in France. So what on earth could he have been going to Coningsby for?  To find the answer, I needed some other sources.

A few years before he died, Phil wrote an unpublished 29-page typescript for the benefit of his grandson, entitled ‘Phil’s Recollections of 1939-45 War’. I’m lucky enough to have a copy of it and I had cause recently to go through it to see if I could match his (mostly undated) reminiscences with actual flights in his logbook. And, funnily enough, that odd little flight the fifteen or so miles from Waddington to Coningsby is one of those he wrote about.

“For this raid I was appointed ‘Controller’ which meant that I would maintain contact between the target marking Mosquitoes and the main force of Lancasters carrying the bombs. In the afternoon before the raid, the station commander ordered me to visit the target marking people on the nearby aerodrome, Conningsby [sic]. I duly went over there in our Oxford aircraft, a type I had not flown for more than a year.”

But why would Phil need to do that? At the time of the Sable-sur-Sarthe operation, Bomber Command was increasingly becoming engaged on operations against French targets in the lead-up to D-Day. That much is clear from a perusal of Night Raid Reports for this period, in the UK National Archives (AIR14/3411). This trip was no exception. Great care was taken to be accurate on these trips – for the sake of effectiveness of the attack itself, but also to avoid French civilian casualties – and new, far more accurate marking techniques had begun to be developed. This is touched on in a 1951 book called No. 5 Bomber Group RAF by WJ Lawrence (p.164) Indeed a week previously the crew of B for Baker were on an operation to attack a munitions factory at St Medard-en-Jalles, near Bordeaux, but were ordered to return with their bombs when smoke and haze made accurate visual marking of the target impossible. (The bombers returned the next night and blew the munitions factory out of existence.) Phil Smith, having been appointed Controller for the upcoming raid, went to Coningsby to discuss tactics with the people who would be marking the target for the force he was to control.

So that curious little trip in Phil’s logbook now has an explanation. The primary source (logbook) has been complemented by a range of other documents, both primary (night raid reports) and secondary (Phil’s typescript and the 5 Group book) to come up with a picture of what happened and why.

It’s only a minor detail in the overall scheme of things, but it adds a little bit of colour to an otherwise dry logbook entry. And it gives the history just that little bit more life.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

For King and Country?

There appear to have been as many reasons for joining the wartime Air Force as there were aircrew. The chance to learn to fly was of course a key motivation. Dennis Over gave me some of his reasons on the phone in June 2011: “Until the war, we were all going to be train drivers”, he said. But the Battle of Britain happened, and “then we were all going to be fighter pilots!” Too young to join up immediately, Dennis worked in a shipyard fitting out Air-Sea Rescue boats. Many of the crews of these boats were ex aircrew and he was also inspired by their tales of derring-do so when he became old enough he joined up, eventually serving as a rear gunner on 227 Squadron.

For some, it was more personal. Cliff Leach, a 150 Squadron Pilot/Flight Engineer, wrote that “our main aim… was to stop our relatives being killed and our homes being wrecked”. To back it up, he had a newspaper photograph of what was left of his mother’s house after a German air raid on Liverpool in 1941.

It’s easy to see how motivation to enlist in the Air Force could be stirred by seeing the effects of war first-hand – but until the Japanese entered the war Australia was not under direct threat of attack. So what might have attracted so many Australians to join the ranks of aircrew in those first few years of the war?

Hank Nelson collected a few ideas from different aircrew in Chased by the Sun:

Those who volunteered for aircrew were, Don Charlwood said, ‘children of the empire’. Nearly all had relatives in the British Isles. Most were also strongly conscious of their Australianness, but saw no contradiction in being both British and Australian […] Charlwood said that his swearing-in was the culmination of his upbringing, acceptance of authority and the ‘Call of the Homeland’. Wade Rogers’ mother said to him before he sailed, ‘Don’t miss seeing Scotland for me, son’ […] Although David Leicester’s father was born in Australia, he was ‘very pro-English’, and David grew up in a home where ‘fighting for England was really the thing to do’. (C07-039-009)

One of the most matter-of-fact descriptions that I’ve seen, and one that covers most of the key motivations for enlisting, was written by 467 Squadron skipper Phil Smith in an unpublished manuscript, some decades after the war (C03-004-004):

My motives for joining the forces were mixed:

  • a) The call of adventure
  • b) A feeling of duty
  • c) The need to be ‘in it’ with the mob
  • d) A question of patriotism
  • e) At 22 years I was the right age, and had no responsibilities.

The call of ‘King and Country’ managed to reach all the way to Australia much like it had a generation before, and it was heard by thousands of young men. The chance of adventure and the need to be ‘in it’ certainly played a big part – in many ways similar to that which attracted so many of the previous generation to arms in the First World War. It is clear that patriotism was perhaps the overriding reason for men to enlist in the armed forces in general – but there were other reasons for choosing the Air Force specifically, over the other two branches of the military. Stories of the horrors of that earlier conflict were well-known and so many were conscious of the need to stay out of the infantry. Frank Dixon was a 467 Squadron skipper, and picked the Air Force out of a desire to avoid what he called a “man to man, face to face, knee deep in mud confrontation with cold steel”, the thought of which horrified him (C06-070-005).  The Air Force offered what Danny O’Leary, a Vultee Vengeance pilot, called “a way out: accept the risk of death for yourself, but volunteer for a technical arm like the Air Force or the Navy, where you will kill clinically, at a distance, where you won’t see ” the whites of his eyes”.

Phil Smith’s reason was perhaps more practical than many; he wrote that he decided on the Air Force because he thought that a pilot’s licence could be “a useful qualification” to have after the war (C03-004-004). As it happened after he was demobbed he never flew in command of an aeroplane again, but the sentiment remains.

But there was also a higher sense of duty. Danny O’Leary put it eloquently:

Deep down we all knew that this was a job which had to be done, and we young men of our generation, who had the fitness and schooling to do it, must step forward, for there was no one else […]It was our duty to stop this.

And stop it, they did.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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

Book Review: A Grave Too Far Away – A Tribute to Australians in Bomber Command Europe

Note this photo - from the publisher's website - appers to be of an earlier version of the book, with a different subtitle to that on the copy I bought.

A Grave Too Far Away: A Tribute to Australians in Bomber Command Europe is a new book by military historian and lecturer Kathryn Spurling. Essentially the book comprises stories about many Australian aircrew who were killed in action during WWII, adding together with each name a little bit of information about their backgrounds and eventual fates. Interestingly for me, included in the book is a short paragraph or two about the crew of B for Baker, along with a photograph of my great uncle Jack.

The general intention of this book was to tell the stories of some of Australia’s Bomber Command airmen and the effects that their deaths had on the families they left behind. It was certainly a worthwhile aim, but unfortunately A Grave Too Far is somewhat let down in its execution.

The book has a definite Australian focus. This becomes quite parochial in places, with much criticism of the way that Australian airmen were placed under the unfettered control of the British. The focus continues even to the point of completely failing to mention non-Australian airmen in some crews or, as for the crew of B for Baker, relegating the names of the three Englishmen to an endnote. The author has made heavy use of records from the National Archives of Australia, predominantly files from the A9300 and A705 series (service records and casualty files). This is conceivably a reason for the lack of information on some of the other members of the crews – it’s far easier to get access to Australian service records than it is British. It is clear that Spurling has accessed and read an extraordinarily large number of files from the NAA, and she should be congratulated for that, but the result overall appears to have favoured quantity over quality. The sections where the author has had more information available from a wider range of sources are done quite well – for example those concerning Don Charlwood and her own father Max Norris – but where the NAA files were the only sources used there is little to tie the individual stories together. Consequently the book reads like an endless stream of names, facts and figures, presented in a repetitive and almost formulaic manner. As such, I must admit that it becomes rather monotonous to read at times.

Unfortunately the overall impact of the book is diminished by poor editing. In places it appears not to have been effectively proof-read at all, with confused sentences and spelling errors littered throughout and entire sentences apparently missing. There are also a number of factual errors and inconsistencies: for example, on a couple of occasions the conversion between metric and imperial weights is messed up, and more than once there is confusion between aircraft and aircrew numbers lost on the Mailly-le-Camp raid of 3 May 1944.

Kathryn Spurling’s father was a Bomber Command wireless operator (indeed, he is mentioned in the dedication). Consequently she has a close connection with the overall Bomber Command story. Perhaps here is an explanation for some of the deeper structural problems with this book. It would appear that the emotional impact of the material covered, when combined with the author’s very personal stake in the story, has gotten in the way of a more balanced result. A desire to honour as many individual Australians as possible is a noble one, but here it has interfered with the coherence and hence the quality of the narrative presented. This shows the danger of ‘history as a tribute’ – where emotion hinders the dispassionate analysis of the story and indeed affects the factual accuracy of the writing.

History is, by its nature, a very human subject, both in its making and in its telling. And humans are emotional creatures. As such, one would expect a certain amount of emotion to come out in the telling of a story like that of Bomber Command, its airmen and the families so many of them left behind. But in this case, that emotion has been allowed to influence the author too much, resulting in an apparent ‘scattergun’ approach that tries to do too much for too many different people. In the end, sadly, some of it is not done particularly well.

A Grave Too Far Away – A Tribute to Australians in Bomber Command Europe is published by New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd, ISBN 9781742571614. RRP $29.95.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

The Scroll of Honour

A few weeks ago I took some days off work and my girlfriend and I drove a rented campervan up to Echuca, on the Murray River which borders New South Wales and Victoria. While exploring the surrounding area we stopped at a small winery in neighbouring Moama (on the NSW side of the river) to escape the stinking heat of the day. The winery also happened to have attached to it a small military museum, so we went in to have a look.

In the museum – which, alas, was not air-conditioned – was a quite remarkable gathering of old vehicles on the ground floor, some restored and some not so restored. Upstairs, arranged in a collection of dusty display cabinets, were uniforms, rifles, medals, badges and other assorted items of militaria. What caught my eye was this:

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It is a scroll as presented to the families of Australian servicemen who died as a result of their military service in World War II. A similar scroll hangs on a wall at my parents’ place, bearing the name of my grandfather’s uncle, RW Purcell. The scroll in Moama commemorates one Flight Sergeant I H Smead – but apart from the name on the scroll itself, there were no details on who he might have been or what might have happened to him. I thought it looked quite sad sitting there all but forgotten in a display case in a roasting tin shed next to the Murray River, so I decided to see what I could find out about him when I got home.

The first place to look, as with any Australian casualty from either of the World Wars, was the Commonwealth War Graves website. This gave me a few further details to work with:


Rank: Flight Sergeant

Service No: 419228

Date of Death: 21/04/1944

Age: 20

Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force

Grave Reference Plot A. Row D. Grave 14.


I now had a name, service number and date of death – and, most interestingly, information that he is buried in Bundaberg, Queensland. Bundaberg was the site of No. 8 Service Flying Training School at that time. Being a training unit, this suggested an accident rather than enemy action.

Going out on a limb, I tried a quick Google search – and came up with Peter Dunn’s Oz At War website which revealed what happened. Irwin Smead was a navigator. He was flying in a Bristol Beaufort on a formation flying exercise on 21 April 1944 when it collided with another Beaufort of the same formation about 15 miles west of Bundaberg. All eight airmen – four in each aircraft – were killed.

I also found a copy of the “Preliminary Report Internal External of Flying Accident or Forced Landing” for this accident in the Casualty or Repatriation File of F/Sgt Hardy, the pilot of the other aircraft*, which is digitised at the National Archives of Australia website (A705, 166/17/544). It gives the probable cause of the collision as ‘UNKNOWN’.

It’s not much, but finding even this small amount of information adds that little bit more to Irwin Smead’s story. It reminds us that he was more than just a name on a page.

*Interestingly there appears to be a disagreement between this source and Peter Dunn’s information about which aircraft were involved in this accident. Both agree on Hardy’s aircraft, A9-476 – but the NAA file shows Smead’s as A9-426. This shows the value of going back to the original documents wherever possible!  

This will be the last post on SomethingVeryBig for 2012. Thanks to all for your support and comments throughout the year. Have a great Christmas, and I’ll be back in mid-January.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Happy First Solo Day!

On 28 November 1940 – exactly seventy-two years ago today – Phil Smith flew solo for the first time. Like many (if not all) Australian pilots under the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was in a little yellow Tiger Moth, serial A17-58, at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Phil didn’t seem too excited about it when he wrote to his parents later that day (A01-132-001), reporting simply that “[…] altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.”

But there is no doubt that the first solo is a significant milestone for any pilot. Witness the following small collection of thoughts and memories from various pilots, taken from the excellent Australians at War Film Archive:

Barry Finch, eventually of 3 Squadron, quoted his instructor:

“Well you might want to kill yourself but I’m precious and I’m getting out. That’s all I can say. Be careful. I’m going to let you go off on your own.” The bloody thing leapt into the air like a young buck, it was incredible what a difference it made without his weight in the front, and to actually find myself going up into the air without any head in front of me, it was unbelievable. And I thought, “Well, I’m here, all I’ve got to do is to get down again.”[After landing] I went over to where he was and he said, “That’s alright, I’m coming with you next time. I reckon you’re safe […] Unforgettable!” (C06-072-013)

John Boland, 61 Squadron:

“So when I had 5 hours instruction up, I got in the aircraft and did a circuit and the instructor got out of the front seat, took the pilot stick out and said, “Righto, take it around again” and I got the shock of my life. I got that big a shock, that when I come around to land, I was that nervous, the instructor had confidence that I could land it, and as I come in to touch down the tail hit the ground first and it bounced.” (C06-073-005)

Colin Morton, 450 Squadron:

“Scared bloody hell out of me. […] I flew an aeroplane before I drove a motor car. It’s – the impact was enormous and I loved it” (C06-081-003)

Alf Read, 463 Squadron:

“I can still remember it because it’s marked with a tree, which you see as you drive past the old airport at Narromine. My instructor said, “Just a minute and I’ll get out, and I’ll sit under this tree while you take your first solo,” and I can assure you it was a wonderful feeling just to be able to take that plane off and bring it back in one piece. And it’s a little incident in your life that you never forget.” (C06-086-006)

Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron:

“I went solo at about nine hours, I think it was. It should have been seven, but they took me up for a check, and by the time I finished the check and got back, the wind had strengthened up so strong that they wouldn’t let a learner pilot go out. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and it was still blustery and rough and nobody flew that day. And the following day he said, “You’ve got to have another check.” So I had another check, then he said, “Right, off you go. Just do one circuit and down again and that’s your baptism on your own.” (C06-090-011)

Lionel Rackley, 630 Squadron

“Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. […] Every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now. I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” […] And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there: ‘Went solo today’”. (C06-075-004)

As it turns out, today is also the tenth anniversary of my own first solo. It was in a Cessna 152, registered VH-WFI, from runway 16 at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After an hour or so of flying circuits, my instructor got out and I proceeded to fly one by myself. It was a slightly wobbly but passable exercise and I logged a princely 0.1 hours solo time in the process.

Some years later, by this time a fully qualified private pilot, I would also experience solo flight in a Tiger Moth, in my own small way experiencing something of what these young men had been doing seven decades ago. And while that flight remains one of the most memorable ones in my logbook, I still remember the tremendous sense of achievement that followed my first solo.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


Daily life at a Bomber Command airfield could not exactly be described as ‘calming’.

I learned what the target was about midday, and for the whole afternoon I wandered around with a feeling of having half a pound of cold lead in the pit of my stomach. – Bill Brill, 467 Sqn skipper and later CO – C07-036-142

In an effort to explain their feelings about what they were to do, some airmen turned to thoughts of sport – as Hank Nelson wrote in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, for many airmen “sport was one place where their capacity to perform at their best under stress had been tested”. Nelson quotes Arthur Doubleday comparing the lead up to an operation to waiting to go into bat in cricket: “You know, the fast bowler looked a lot faster from the fence, but when you get in there it’s not too bad” (C07-036-142).

But as tours dragged on, as airmen witnessed more and more empty places at the Mess tables, it would have been only natural to begin to feel the cumulative tension of one operation after another. On his eleventh operation, Bill Brill was ‘getting a little accustomed to being scared’ (C07-036-159). And there is no doubt that airmen knew very well exactly how low their chances of surviving a tour were. Gil Pate wrote to his mother in November 1943 (A01-409-001): “It seems an age since I last saw you all + I guess I’ll need a lot of luck to do so again, the way things happen.”

So why did they go on?

Much has been made of the ‘stigma’ of being branded ‘LMF’ (Lacking Moral Fibre), a fate seemingly worse than death. And certainly there were instances of aircrew who had gone beyond their breaking point being publicly stripped of their ranks and their aircrew brevets, and given humiliating menial duties for the rest of the war. The loose stitching and unfaded spots left on their uniforms were a cruel reminder of what they once were. Certainly the threat of being branded LMF was a big motivator for some aircrew to carry on. But despite how much it was feared by the aircrew, a very low number of verdicts of LMF were ever officially handed down – Leo McKinstry quotes about 1200 in all, or less than 1% of all airmen in Bomber Command (C07-048-225).  There were also instances of compassionate squadron Commanding Officers recognising an airman at his limit and quietly moving him off flying duties, without the humiliation of accusations of cowardice. One veteran I know told me of the case of a mid-upper gunner who had been so traumatised by discovering the mutilated remains of his rear gunner comrade after an attack by nightfighters that he was clearly not in a state to continue flying. He was given a month’s compassionate leave on return to base, and on his return from leave was transferred to the Parachute Section of the same Squadron where he worked for the rest of the war (C03-021-051).

One of the most significant motivators, in my view, was the bonds shared by the crews themselves. Dennis Over – a 227 Sqn rear gunner, writing on the Lancaster Archive Forum in December 2010 – says “our greatest fears may well have been not wanting to let our crew down”. When I visited Dennis in June 2010 he said that he could not remember feeling fear while actually on an operation. That, he said, came later.  He had instead, he told me, “a sense of complete concentration on my duties, for the benefit of my entire crew”. No matter what the enemy could throw at them, no matter the hazards of weather or mechanical failure, their crew came first. That bond carries on today with many veteran aircrew still very close to surviving members of their crews. It’s one of the unique aspects of the Bomber Command experience and goes a long way to explaining why, in the face of dreadful odds, they pressed on regardless.

© 2012 Adam Purcell