Friday, 25 April 2014

ANZAC Stories - William James Atkinson

This post may feel a little odd, a little dry - facts and figures and not much else. Just about all the information from it has been taken from a WWII service record. It took some time to decipher all the acronyms and abbreviations and to then work out where the different training camps and postings were. One thing that comes through loud and clear is the huge investment in time and teaching that went into creating a fighter pilot. Months and months, and they were doing well to last six to eight weeks once they got operational. William Atkinson lasted six months.

William James Atkinson was born on 14 August 1922 to Clifford C. Atkinson and Elsie May ni O'Toole (the daughter of William O'Toole and Emily ni Butler, if you are trying to work out a connection). He grew up in Cremorne on Sydney's lower North Shore and attended North Sydney Boys' High School from 1934 to 1938. He studied English, Maths I & II, Geography, French, Elementary Science, Latin and History for his Intermediate certificate and achieved a first-class pass in Maths I and Geography. William went on to his Leaving Certificate, continuing the English, both Maths, Geography and French and adding Chemistry and Economics.

On graduation, William went to work for the National Bank of Australasia (now the NAB). He was a teller's clerk in the North George Street branch in the city.
In late 1940, aged 18, William enlisted, joining the 1st Machine Gun Regiment. He was stationed in Newcastle, patrolling the northern beaches, but by August of 1941 he had decided he wanted something more. He applied for the Air Force and on the 17th of that month passed his medical and was accepted. William was described as 5 foot 9 inches and 10 stone exactly (140lb, about 63 1/2 kg). His chest was 33 inches (36 on expansion), his complexion medium, with blue eyes and brown hair. His mother, Elsie, was listed as his next of kin.

Photograph of William James Atkinson from his service file. Don't blame me for the resolution.
Usually I am looking at WWI Enlistment papers, but time had moved on. After so many years, it is to be expected that enlistment papers would change, however there are particular changes that stand out, such as questions on education (not present on WWI papers). The most striking, however, is the addition of a question regarding race. In the first World War, race did not seem to be an issue. The emphasis was on able-bodiment, health and previous experience, even if it was just with a rifle club. Health and experience were still important in World War II, but suddenly there was this race question.

WWI Enlistment form:

3. Are you a Natural born British subject or a Naturalised British Subject?

WWII Enlistment form:

3. Are you a British Subject or a Naturalised British Subject of pure European descent?

The Air Force had their own questions when William applied for Air Crew:

7. Are you a British subject? Of pure European descent?

8. State the Nationality of your Parents.

The best answer to 8 was "British". I understand the correct answer to "British subject" is "yes", but William and Clifford and Elsie were all born here, in Australia. Their nationality, looking on it with modern eyes, should be Australian, yet it is "British".

William joined the Empire Air Training Scheme and was first sent to 2ITS (Initial Training School) at Lindfield, more commonly referred to as Bradfield Park. Recruits were taught the basics of military life, along with maths, navigation and aerodynamics. In November he was moved to the 10 Elementary Flight Training School in Temora, where he began initial flight training with Tiger Moths. In February William was transferred to 2 Embarkation Depot back at Bradfield Park for medical and training assessment, where he remained for four weeks before being sent to No.2 Service Flight Training School outside Wagga Wagga on 8 April, 1942. He was to undertake 16 weeks of intermediate and advanced courses, training in CAC Wirraway single-engine aircraft, but the RAAF decided to change the organisation of its flight schools. 2SFTS was disbanded and the staff and students split between 5 SFTS at Uranquity and 7 SFTS at Deniliquin. William went to Deniliquin.

Wirraway training at Wagga, c.1941. From Wikicommons
His course included instrument flying, night flying, advanced aerobatics, formation flying, dive bombing, and aerial gunner training. William was being trained as a fighter pilot. In his service record there are two dates given for the awarding of his Flying Badge, 28 April 1942 and 2 May, 1942. He passed the intermediate course on 2 May 1942 and the advanced course on 25 June, 1942,. He headed back to Bradfield Park on 8 July to await further assignment.

On 24 August, 1942 William left Australia to complete his training in Britain in preparation for operational flying. He arrived in the UK on 18 November 1942 and was sent to the No.11 Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at Bournemouth1. This was where all RAAF aircrew would wait, some for months, to be assigned to units. The accommodation was made up of seconded hotels, stripped of their luxury fittings and furnishings and decked out with basic beds and lockers. But there were plenty of dance halls, and lots of girls, so it wouldn't have been dull2. Bournemouth was, however, a target for German bombing raids, and 11 PDRC was later moved to Brighton where it was subject to fewer attacks. William waited at Bournemouth until 2 February, 1943, when he got his appointment – 5 (Pilot) Advanced Flying Unit.

5 (P) AFU operated out of Ternhill in Shrophsire and Clavely in Cheshire, and specialised in single-engine craft. William trained with the unit for five weeks before been assigned to 58 Operational Training Unit at Grangemouth in Stirlingshire, Scotland. Grangemouth specialised in training Spitfire pilots and had simulated night flying exercises (using special darkened goggles)3. On assignment to 58 OTU, William was a sergeant and a pilot, rather than just a Trainee Pilot. He finished his training in early July and spent ten days at 1 Personnel Despatch Depot, West Kirby, Cheshire (now Merseyside). And then he was off to North Africa to fly air support for the invasions of Sicily and Italy.

On 27 September, 1943 William was back in at West Kirby, again awaiting assignment. He held tight until 1 November, 1943 when he was sent to 2 Tactical Exercise Unit. This was really the 58 OTU, re-organised and re-named while William had been in North Africa. The 2 TEU operated out of Balado Bridge, Kinross. There was a temporary surplus of pilots and 2 TEU was designed to give pilots as much air warfare experience as possible while they were waiting to go into combat4.

Finally, on 4 December, 1943 William was assigned to a squadron – the 131, flying Spitfires over occupied Europe. At the time that William joined 131 Squadron they were flying Mark IX Supermarine Spitfires, but later he flew Mark VII. 131 Squadron was based at various locations throughout the war, from Scotland to India. During William's time it was operating out of south-west England, providing fighter cover for convoys and flying offensive missions over north-western France5.

131 Squadron badge. From RAFweb
William flew as part of 131 Squadron from 4 December 1943 to 1 June 19446 and achieved the rank of Warrant Officer. There would have been many missions, but I only have documentation for his last - 265 Rhubarb Mission. Rhubarb missions were fighter sweeps against targets of opportunity. They formed part of the “softening up” of German forces in anticipation of D Day. There is a full account of this mission and transcripts from the subsequent investigation here. (Google translate or similar may be needed, depending on the level of your French)

There were four Spitfires assigned to 265 Rhubarb mission, Flying Officer Stanley Catarall in command, with William flying Red 4 in Spitfire Mk VII MB 887. They took off from Taunton, Somerset at 11.43 in the morning and flew across the channel7. They flew in low just south of Saint Brieuc in the CĂ´tes d'Armor in Britanny, diving to zero feet then climbing to about 800 feet. Catarall noticed a train just west of the town. He ordered the attack and all four planes headed in, firing on the train from the side. At the end of the train was a flak wagon with a 20mm quad mount flak gun, or flugabwehrkanone. Flak is not an ammunition type, it is an action, specifically ground fire on aircraft. The flak gun opened fire.

Catarall was hit. He could see Red 2, but Red 3 and 4 were behind, so he called them. Red 3 replied, but there was no answer from Red 4.

Flight Lieutenant Richard Paget de Burgh was in Red 3. He had seen Red 4 just before the attack. When Catarall put out his call, Paget de Burgh turned to look for his team member. There was no sign of him. After repeated calls Red 1 made the decision to turn for home. The three remaining Spitfires landed back at base at 13.20. William was recorded as “Missing Presumed Dead”. It was five days before D-Day.

William Atkinson's plane and body have never been found. However, while checking up on references for this post I came across a new development. There were only three Mark VII Spitfires shot down over Britanny, all from 131 Squadron. In November 2012 the wreckage of one was located and it is hoped it will recovered and properly identified sometime during this year. I hope it is Spitfire Mk VII MB 887 and that William can finally be laid to rest.

1It took a while to work this out. On William's service record it looks like “GDRC”. Only by greatly enlarging it was it seen, finally, to be PDRC. Others in the Air Force thought it was GDRC and this error has been copied across to his Service And Discharge papers.
2For an account of life in 11PDRC Bournemouth, see WW2 People's War, BBC Home,
358 Operational Training Unit (OTU) RAF Grangemouth & Balado Bridge, Wallace Shackleton, Kinross,
4Clegg Eric “A Pilot's View”,
5Royal Air Force, History RAF Formations,; Rickard, J (17 December 2010), No. 131 Squadron (RAF): Second World War,
6I can apply to the RAF for William's full flight log, which will give details of his missions, but as it attracts a £30 fee it will have to wait a while.
7I wonder if William knew that his great great grandmother, Anne Allen, was born in Taunton.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't work out how to add this to the post, but William's conduct sheet makes for interesting reading. "Certified no entry" time and again, and four counts of Privileged Leave. Safe to say he was a good lad.