Saturday, July 27, 2013

One Man's Pieces of War

Working as an archaeologist, my daily work consists of writing reports of sites prior to their proposed development. It's varied, taxing and occasionally very rewarding. A sense of professional detachment is a necessity in order to produce a balanced view of the evidence collected, but what happens when the material being assessed has a very personal connection?

With my family, I am currently looking through and attempting to catalogue and contextualise the photographs and other ephemera my paternal grandfather amassed during his time in the Royal Air Force in World War Two.

Thomas John Smith died aged 98 in 2009 when I was 37. I knew him very well, and I saw him at least once a week apart from my time away at University in my mid twenties. Occasionally he told me war stories, but they were only ever asides or glimpses of his time spent away from his home in North-East Wales.

Thomas John Smith (left) and friend,
probably taken in Egypt in 1941.

As a small child he gave my brother and I brass buttons from his tunic, emblazoned with the RAF Eagle, and later we were given his two bakelite identity discs; a round brown one and a octagonal shaped black one. Even then I knew that the discs were laden with significance as we had them both. Had he died we would have seen neither of them, as one would have been left with his body and one taken by those responsible for reporting his death to his family.

Later I was given two pieces of volcanic rock from Mount Etna in Sicily and told a story about his meeting of Pope Pius the Twelfth in Rome when he accompanied a friend to an audience in the Vatican. I was also given a magazine, published in 1945 which described the particular part of the War my grandfather had been involved in.

A single placename, El Alamein, provides a mental trigger for many to encapsulate the war in the Western Desert in World War Two. My grandfather was there, and watched the gun muzzle flashes in the night sky. I've seen the photographs, but I can't even begin to imagine the noise they made.

So. What do we know as a family about World War Two through the eyes of Thomas John Smith? We know in later life he developed skin cancer on his face and ears from the time spent out in the sun without any protection, and required a course of treatment. This left him with a long thin scar down one side of his face and a series of marks and indentations on his ears from where the cancerous growths were removed. We also know that he was serving abroad when his first child was born in March 1941, someone he would not see for the first time until after the end of the war in 1945.

The one physical feature of my Grandfather I remember most of all was just how powerful his arms were. Well into his 70s his grip and handshake were incredibly strong, almost superhuman. You could put this down to my idolising him. However, my father, who worked as a mechanical engineer during his working life is also possessed of a powerful grip from handing torque wrenches and other tools, and is nowhere near as strong.

The reason for his strength - and I'm sure the reason he was known as 'The Iron Man' by the schoolchildren he taught post-war - was an exploding, burning aeroplane which almost killed him in the desert.

We don't know all the details of my Grandfather's RAF service yet as we are awaiting his war record, but we do know after basic training and being assigned a trade as an engine fitter (mechanic) he was eventually put on to a troop transport ship which was bound for South Africa. He joined RAF 223 squadron, equipped with American built Martin Maryland light bombers. These had air-cooled radial engines, very different to the liquid-cooled inline engines he had trained to service and repair in Britain.

223 Squadron were based at Shandur, near the Suez Canal in Egypt when we think my Grandfather joined them, and among the photographs are at least one of a Martin Maryland, and several of the Pyramids of Giza, both from the air and from the ground. 223 served as an OTU (Operational Training Unit) where newly-formed crews (there were three crew members for a Maryland) learned to work together as an efficient fighting unit.

The Martin Maryland was replaced by the Martin Baltimore, a larger, more powerful aircraft with four crew members. By May 1942, having trained it own crews, 223 Squadron were ready to go to war.

A list exists of the airfields the squadron flew from and some of them I've been able to locate near existing settlements, whilst others existed merely as a runway carved out of the desert, designated with the prefix LG (Landing Ground) - for example between April 1942 and March 1943 LG116, LG99, LG Y and LG86.

The event of the exploding, burning aeroplane happened somewhere out in the deserts of Egypt or Libya. From discussions we all had separately with my grandfather, we have established an outline of the chain of events. As an engine fitter, part of his routine was to ground run the aircraft engines to ensure there were not problems with them before the crews flew them into battle.

Whilst undertaking this duty, something went wrong. We aren't sure if an engine failed of its own internal volition, or the airfield was attacked from the air. Whatever the reason, the result was that the aircraft caught fire.

To exit the cockpit of a Baltimore (my brother remembered being told it was a Baltimore - and as someone with no knowledge of aircraft types - we have no reason to doubt his memory) there were two parts to the pilot's canopy which had to be unfolded in opposite directions before climbing onto the left wing and walking down it to climb down from the trailing edge.

However the fire was so severe that there was only one way to escape. By standing on the pilot's seat and jumping over the nose of the aircraft to land in the sand nearly ten feet below.

The burns to his arms were extensive (I never asked if there were other injuries) and he was sent to South Africa for rest and recuperation. We don't know how long he was there, but we do know that he was sent back to his Squadron, rather than being invalided home.

Undated photograph--probably taken in Italy between 1943 and 1945,
showing the hazards of straying from the prescribed route.
After this, the next move was into Tunisia, before crossing the Mediterranean to Malta. From here we have a series of 'The Times of Malta' newspapers he kept in a larger bundle. The Imperial War Museums have recently put photographs of 223 Squadron online, and it has been interesting comparing the official War photographer's images to the unofficial images my grandfather took.

In the bundle of newspapers there are also copies of 'Eighth Army News'; 'Crusader - British Forces' Weekly'; 'Union Jack - The Newspaper for the British Fighting Forces' and 'The Stars and Stripes Mediterranean' all of which date to 1943 and 1944. We don't know why he kept these particular copies, but we will compare the publication dates to where he was stationed and his war record and see how they match up.

The only conversation about Italy and Sicily I had with my grandfather apart from the story about meeting the Pope was towards the end of his life. One tale - about how cold and terrible the winter of 1944 was in Italy - would be repeated again and again - especially as his short-term memory began to fail. Interestingly, there are no photographs of this winter, although there are many photographs of Italy which we will try and associate with the places they were taken in order to track his journey from town to town and village to village.

As for the end of his war, we don't really know. 223 Squadron were disbanded at Pescara in Italy on the 12th of August 1944, and none of the family really know what happened after this. We know he joined another squadron, but we don't know which one, although a photograph of a Martin Marauder medium bomber suggests he may have joined a squadron using these aircraft.

We hope we can piece together all these fragments of information and find more about Thomas John Smith's own personal experiences of war, and to pass on the information to our descendants so they can see how war shaped him, us and them. We miss him, and hope we can tell his story to the best of our ability.

Spencer Gavin Smith

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