Posts Tagged 'WWII'



Flying around the bases

In the very back of my great uncle Jack’s wartime logbook is a list of places and dates. It records the places at which he served, from Air Observer School right through to the Squadron. Jack evidently wasn’t the world’s most fastidious record keeper because the list is missing some places that are shown on his service record, but it does list all of the airfields he was stationed at.

jacklog-postings copyThe last eight names on the list are in the UK. When I was over that side of the world in 2009 I hired a light aeroplane and a local instructor from Tatenhill Aviation and flew over four of them, plus a number of others.

Tatenhill was a satellite airfield for 27 Operational Training Unit, RAF Lichfield. As it turns out, Lichfield itself is not very far away. Just after we took off we turned left – and there it was, less than seven miles to the south.

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At first it took me a moment to recognise it as an airfield. Parts of a runway and a number of hangars are still extant, but on top of what used to be a runway is now a great big Tesco warehouse. The northern corner, with half a runway, some taxiways and a couple of blister hangars, is the best-preserved section of the old airfield, though now in considerable disrepair.

Morton Hall was not an airfield, though it is very close to the remains of RAF Swinderby. It became No. 5 Group Headquarters a few months later but it appears that it was a venue for lectures about security and significant physical training at the time that Jack was there (C07-014-067). It was a prison when I drove by in 2009 and is now an immigration detention centre, so no photos. On my flight however we did see Swinderby.

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I was quite pleased to discover what appeared to be a relatively well-preserved RAF airfield when I visited on the ground a day or so later – but just a few months later the whole site was flattened for development.

But enough of that. Onwards with the aerial tour through Jack’s logbook. Winthorpe was a Heavy Conversion Unit, where Jack and his crew got to grips with the Lancaster for the first time.

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One corner of the airfield is now the Newark Showgrounds, and across from those is the fantastic Newark Air Museum.  There’s very little remaining of the original airfield, and the runways, which were used for gliding until recently, are no longer fit for use. But at least one corner of the old airfield still has some sort of aviation activity taking place on it.

Bardney is only a few miles from Lincoln. From the air, the triangle of the runway layout is still visible, though most of the hard surface has been removed.

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The old airfield has reverted to the farmland it one was, with thousands of chickens now occupying sheds on what used to be the runways. Jack was only here for a few months serving on 9 Squadron, losing his pilot in a ‘second dickey trip before flying operationally himself. The crew did record some training flights from here however.

After losing their pilot Jack and (most of) his crew were posted to another Heavy Conversion Unit, this time at Syerston, where they joined up with Phil Smith. We skirted around Syerston on my flight but didn’t actually go over the top so I have no aerial photos of it – though I did visit the RAF Gliding squadron that now occupies the site on weekends.

The last unit in Jack’s logbook is of course 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington. This is where, on 10 May 1944, he and his crew climbed aboard B for Baker and took off in the direction of Lille on their final flight. Waddington remains an active RAF station and retains very little of its wartime ‘feel’, though remnants of the original triangle runway layout are still used as taxiways.

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There were a number of other airfields that we also flew over on this trip, with names like East Kirkby, Conningsby, Metheringham, Bottesford and Tollerton. What was perhaps most telling for me, used to the wide open spaces you get flying in Australia, was how close by everything is. I logged 1.5 hours for this trip, out and back, and we flew over at least ten separate wartime airfields that I could recognise, with a good few others nearby that I couldn’t identify. It’s not hard to imagine how crews could get lost and land at the wrong airfield, particularly during the wartime blackout, and the proximity of the bases would have considerably heightened the collision risk.

Most poignant, however, was at the most easterly point of our flight, near East Kirkby. From there, the coast is about fifteen miles away. That coast line was extraordinarily significant to the aircrew of Bomber Command. On the way out, it marked the end of friendly territory – beyond it was the enemy. And on the way home some hours later, it meant they were back among friends.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Talking

I did my first research project about my great uncle Jack at the age of about 12. It was for an entry in a national history competition and my project was to write a series of letters as if Jack had been writing home from the war. This work led directly to our discovering that Phil Smith, who had been Jack’s pilot, was still alive and was living in Sydney. We first met Phil and his wife Mollie in early 1997.

There then came a break of a few years. We stayed in contact with Phil and Mollie and occasionally travelled to Sydney to visit them and while I was aware of ‘Uncle Jack’ the bug had not yet bitten in earnest to find out more about him myself. In 2003 I took a year off between school and university, and that’s when I had some time to once again delve into the subject. Sadly the catalyst for this work was news of Phil’s death in March of that year. The starting point this time was all the original documents that we had about Jack, which I scanned and wrote explanatory notes about to put on a CD-ROM and share around my family. Then university and moving out of home got in the way and it was some years before I felt the urge again and started the work that has evolved into SomethingVeryBig.

The slightly frustrating thing is that I never had the opportunity to speak to Phil in detail about his experiences. I was quite young when I first started researching the story of B for Baker. This phase of work was what led us to him in the first place – and the second phase started after he passed away. I remember one discussion, over the lunch table at Phil and Mollie’s home in Sydney, when my father was asked to read out Phil’s wartime letter about the time his troop ship hit an iceberg in mid-Atlantic (a story in itself) while Phil added comments here and there, but that’s the only occasion that I can recall where we spoke directly about his experiences. I’m lucky that since his death I’ve had access to the superb archive of letters and photos and other documents that his father carefully collated while Phil was in the Air Force, but there’s nothing like actually talking to the people who were there for a ‘feel’ of what it was like.

Which is why I’m slowly collecting veterans, so to speak – contacting as many as I can, writing letters (yes, real letters, with stamps and envelopes and everything), phoning up and generally picking their brains. Each has a story to tell and each little insight adds to what I understand of what it was like to fly for Bomber Command. I can’t ask my great uncle or any members of his crew what their war was like – but I can still talk to other veterans. While it’s not quite the same story, they would have shared many similar experiences with each other so I reckon it’s enough to build a picture of the ‘feel’ of the times they lived in and the tasks they carried out.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

“Lancaster 739:” 60 Minutes, Crashes and Cover-Ups

Australian investigative journalism program 60 Minutes last night broadcast a very interesting story about a 97 Squadron navigator called Ron Conley, who went missing on a raid on the Pointe du Hoc gun emplacements, very early on D-Day morning, 6 June 1944. The report, called “Lancaster 739”, followed the story of Conley’s crew who were presumed lost at sea. The reporter, Michael Usher, suggested that there had been an official cover-up about the circumstances of the crash, and that a ‘top secret’ radar system that was on board might have had something to do with it. As always, I like to think cock-up before I think conspiracy, so on hearing this bit my ears pricked up. I thought I would do a little digging.

Conveniently, Conley’s Casualty File[1] is available to view at the National Archives of Australia website. It contains a letter written after the crew failed to return by the new 97 Squadron Officer Commanding to the RAF Air Ministry. It’s a poor-quality photostat and is rather difficult to read, but it does appear to report the circumstances of the loss of Lancaster LD739 ND739 (Edit September 2014: see comments below). There was an extra man in the crew – the eighth member being named in this letter as a Special Air Bomber. Pathfinder crews regularly had extra men on board to operate some of the special navigational equipment they carried – in this case possibly the Oboe blind-bombing aid. Ground defences were “inactive”, the letter says, but “a few fighters were known to be over the target area”. Critically, the pilot of this aircraft, W/C EJ (Jimmy) Carter, DFC, who was the 97 Squadron CO until he failed to return from this trip, had been nominated Deputy Controller for the operation and so was required to keep in radio communication with the rest of his force over the target, relaying orders from the Master Bomber who was flying a Mosquito. Carter’s voice was heard but apparently “ceased in the middle of a sentence” just after 5am and no further signals were received from the aircraft. “It is believed,” wrote the replacement CO to Conley’s father, “that an enemy fighter must have intercepted the aircraft while over the target, but although one or two of our aircraft were seen to be shot down, nothing much could be identified owing to a certain amount of cloud.”

Also in the Casualty File is a copy of an internal signal dated 22 December 1944 sent from London to the RAAF in Melbourne advising that enquiries made to the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva had failed to turn up any news of Conley or the rest of his crew. This shows that the RAAF had made efforts to trace the missing crew. But in the absence of any further word, in March 1945 they wrote to Mr Conley again advising that “it has now become necessary to consider the question whether in these circumstances an official presumption of your son’s death should be made.” I’ve seen very similar letters in the files of many of my great uncle Jack’s crew as well. In May 1945 Conley was officially presumed dead.

In 1949, the Air Force explained (and this letter was quoted in the report). “All efforts to find any trace of your son’s aircraft or to establish whether the bodies of any of the crew were ever recovered for burial have proved unsuccessful. In view of this complete lack of evidence, it is now concluded that your son and his comrades were lost at sea. It is proposed, therefore, to commemorate your son by including his name on a memorial which will be erected at a later date by the Imperial War Graves Commission, to the memory of those deceased members who have no known grave.” Ron Conley’s name, and those of the rest of his crew, are now on the Runnymede memorial in England.

So far, all of this is very much like so many other stories about Bomber Command airmen. The 60 Minutes team interviewed cousins of Ron Conley and found family of other members of the crew as well. What sets this story apart just a little, however, is that an English aviation archaeologist named Tony Graves has only recently found the remains of the aircraft – not in the English Channel as was officially presumed, but in a field on an abandoned farm in Normandy. The wreck was positively identified on the basis of a gold wedding ring engraved with the initials “A.C.” and with the words “Love Vera” on the inside. This was traced to F/L Albert Chambers, the wireless operator on the crew, whose wife was named Vera. They also showed a small fragment of a uniform with the remains of a Distinguished Flying Medal ribbon still sewn on. Three members of the crew had received that particular decoration. (In fact this was a highly experienced and decorated crew. As well as the Squadron Commander, W/C Carter, it also carried the Gunnery and Signals Leaders. Six of the eight had already been awarded DFMs or DFCs, and Conley himself would be posthumously given a DFC as well.) Though smashed into almost unrecognisable fragments from the force of the impact of the crash, what remained had been preserved remarkably well, with paper maps and charts that would have been from Conley’s nav bag recovered from the wreckage. How Graves knew that the wreck was there was not explained beyond a reference to “enough evidence and eyewitness accounts,” but congratulations are due to him for making the discovery and following the story up to the extent that he has.

The report was, I thought, going well up to this point. But then they started talking about the “new, secret” radar called “HS2” that was on this “customised” Lancaster.

Oh dear.

By the middle of 1944, H2S (note not ‘HS2’) was well-established as a ground-mapping radar system. So while it was still nominally a ‘secret’, it certainly was not a brand-new piece of equipment and was in general use by the Main Force throughout the Battle of Berlin period (November 1943 – March 1944). It’s mentioned many times in the Night Raid Reports[2] of this period, being fitted to both heavy bombers and Mosquitos. In fact, the interrogation of German nightfighter commander Josef ‘Beppo’ Schmid after the war confirmed that as early as November 1943 the Germans were using the emissions from the H2S sets to home in on the bomber stream.[3] In short, it was by no means an unusual thing to find on a Lancaster at that time, and cannot therefore be used as a reason for a potential cover-up.

Also appearing in the report was Keith Dunning, the son of P/O Guy Dunning, the flight engineer on ND739. He remembered a visit to his family, after the war, by an RAF airman who said he was on the same trip and had seen the aircraft go down over land. The RAF had, Keith said, later written to Dunning’s family to say that this had been a “mistake” and the airman had later withdrawn his testimony. This was presented in the 60 Minutes report as further evidence of a cover-up. However, as was written in the CO’s letter to Conley’s father I quoted earlier, cloud prevented the exact identification of any of the aircraft that were seen to be shot down. There is also the fact that the raid took place half an hour or so before dawn so light levels would have been low. It’s difficult to say, in the face of that, that the airman was definitively correct in his original identification of the crashing aircraft, and with no further evidence to support the theory coming to light after the event, the Air Force appears to have acted quite reasonably in discounting his report.

The logbook belonging to Guy Dunning was featured, with some pages apparently removed covering the operation on which the crew went missing. Keith Dunning said other logbooks that he has seen from the same crew showed the same pages missing. Again, 60 Minutes called this evidence of a cover-up. But the final pages would have been filled in by someone at the squadron after the crew failed to return, not by the aircrew themselves (who were dead by this stage). Jack Purcell’s logbook records the wrong aircraft for his final flight,  and squadron Operational Record Books are littered with similar clerical errors. It’s quite possible that whoever wrote the last entry in the logbooks made a mistake and decided to remove the pages and start again.

Finally, there is the fact that no bodies were found when the aircraft was excavated. No-one appears to know where the bodies are, or who might have moved them. “Eight bodies don’t vanish”, said Dunning. 60 Minutes, by now predictably, again called it a cover-up. But an understanding of RAF Missing Research and Enquiry Service methods would suggest that, more likely, the investigators simply couldn’t find anyone who could tell them what happened. Tony Graves apparently found reports by eyewitnesses to the crash but perhaps any witnesses to the burial did not survive the fairly intense fighting that occurred in the general area in the immediate aftermath of the invasion (as happened to a young Dutch girl who witnessed a Tempest crash in March 1945). There would have been considerable confusion in the area in the following weeks and months and if any records were made of the burials, they could well have simply disappeared in the fog of war. There are, according to the report, some graves marked as ‘unknown airmen’ in the local cemetery and there is of course a possibility that these hold the crew of ND739. But two 97 Squadron aircraft were lost on this raid so they could also belong to the other crew. The MRES could well have been aware of these graves and opened them up (though no MRES report appears in Conley’s A705 file), but perhaps were unable to make a positive identification of the airmen buried there. There was some talk on the program, if the required documents could be found, of identifying the men in the graves and giving names to the headstones, but as the crew are already appropriately commemorated elsewhere (at Runnymede), this is not something that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would approve.

So most of the evidence that 60 Minutes used to decide there had been a cover-up could, and in my view probably does, have a far less sinister explanation. On the positive side, I’m happy to see some Bomber Command coverage on a high-rating television program in the lead-up to ANZAC Day. Another crash site has been identified, and, though graves have not been found, some more families now have a little more closure on what really happened to their lost airmen. It’s a fascinating story. But that’s just the point. It’s a fascinating story in its own right, and it does not need to be sensationalised.

 

Further information about the Conley crew can be found here:  http://www.97squadron.co.uk/Coningsby%20crew%20Carter.html

Sources:

[1] NAA: A705, 166/8/495. CONLEY, Ronald John – (Flight Lieutenant); Service Number – 425606; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LD739; Place – Cherbourg, France; Date – 6 June 1944

[2] The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), AIR 14/3411, B.C. (O.R.S.) Final Reports on operations, Night Raids Nos. 416-620, September 1943 to May 1944, vol. 4

[3] Isby, David C (2003) p.104: Fighting the Bombers: the Luftwaffe’s Struggle against the Allied Bomber Offensive, Greenhill Books 2003, Lionel Leventhal Limited, Park House, 1 RussellGardens, London, NM11 9NN. ISBN 1-85367-532-6

© 2013 Adam Purcell

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


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