A SEARCH FOR MY FATHER
F/O Thomas Roberts [Bob] Millar RAAF Observer 422612
I grew up in Australia and came to England in 1967.
In January 2001 my mother rang from Sydney. She had seen an article in the Sydney Morning Herald relating to 31 Squadron SAAF and was given the name of a contact in England, Nick M. who was involved in finding relatives of crews of the mission on which my RAAF father was lost. The research was begun by an Italian, Beppe B. who grew up in the village where one of the Liberators had crashed. We met other crew relatives and an ex 31 SAAF man at Nick's home.
Nick told us that ---
Six Liberators, of 31 & 34 SAAF, each with crew of 8 men, on the same Italian partisan supply mission, had failed to return to base on 12th October 1944. The remains of five of the planes were later found, but not the sixth, 31 SAAF Liberator KH158, in which my father was the bombaimer. The weather had unexpectedly turned stormy with high winds, soon after takeoff.
I learnt a great deal more about the mission, squadron, my father's crew and other relatives - much more than my mother and paternal grandfather were able to find out after the war. There was a sortie report of KH158 with listed crew and map of the "Morris " drop site ENE of Genoa and flight path. Many years ago we had tried to get information from South Africa, without success but had obtained a very short list of my father's wartime placements from RAF Innsworth. .
There was to be a commemoration service in Bra, northern Italy, to remember the sacrifice these men had made while trying to drop supplies, in canisters, to the Italian partisans. My father's Liberator KH158 had disappeared while on this mission and has never been found --as far as we know .
In 1968 two friends and I had driven over Foggia plain to Brindisi without knowing anything about my father's wartime association with this part of Italy .I also visited Warsaw in 1968 without knowing, then, that my father had taken part in the August 1944 airlifts .
So I started my "FATHER SEARCH" RESEARCH --in 2001.
I started to think about the families of the crew of KH158 and wondered if I could find them. Also I wanted to find out about my father's wartime life. Censored letters meant that my mother knew little of my fathers missions . Had anyone known him ? Where were the "Morris" drop zone villages in Italy ? What did a Liberator look like ? Had KH158 gone into the sea or exploded in the air or crashed in a remote mountain area ? I did not have my father's log book and the only letter was one he wrote to me for my first birthday.
I sent for my father's Record of Service from the National Archives of Australia. His name is on the Malta Memorial "for those of no known grave" and on the Australian War Memorial -Walls of Honour.
In September 2001 my son Andrew and I found a house in Kenilworth where my father had spent some of his w/end leave with a "host family" and later met a daughter of the family. The photograph of the house was on a Christmas card sent to my paternal grandmother at the end of the war .
In April 2001 my daughter and I went to Bra, meeting some of the South African [SA] and British crew relatives and Beppe, who had researched the mission .We had 3 days of visiting crash sites, attending lunches, speeches and receiving Italian hospitality. In July 2001 my husband, daughter and I visited Genoa/Genova then Favale di Malvaro and Neirone, two Ligurian mountain villages near the WW2 "Morris" drop zone area.We also enquired at the Genoan Coast Guard office, about wartime bomber plane wreckage in the sea. We were directed to the to the Genoan Istituto Idrografico Della Marina but the Cartographic Division Director, to whom I later wrote, told me there was no wartime bomber wreckage on his Ligurian Sea wrecks database ?
My husband, our son, James, who then lived in SA and I went to a SAAF Commemoration in Pretoria, SA in 2004. We met more crew relatives and became friends. Earlier we had met Urry's nephew & niece-in-law when they were visiting London.
My daughter and I went to a memorial service in Lysa Gora, Poland in 2007 for another 31 SAAF crew. They were shot down when returning from a Warsaw airlift flight .
From February 2001 I had been deciphering the 1944 typing on the sortie report by checking the KH158 crew names on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] website. I also had the crewmen's 1940s addresses. The crew were aged 19--29 years
THE CREW were --
Maj SS Urry SAAF- aged 29 Pilot
F/O GE Hudspith RAF aged 29 Co-pilot
F/O TR Millar RAAF aged 28 [my father] Bombaimer
Lt NW Armstrong SAAF age unknown ?
Lt GA Collard SAAF aged 19 Navigator
2nd Lt PJ Lordan SAAF age unknown ?
W/O1 LB Bloch SAAF age unknown but poss. 20-21?
Sgt RC Fitzgerald RAF aged 19 Rear Gunner
I started to try to find any relatives in the unlikely event that Liberator KH158 might be found and to tell them about the Bra commemoration. Relatives often stay in an area for a long time even if some of the family moves away .I had already made contact with the grandson of Urry via another distant relative of the Urry family.My search started in Kent to try and find the farm where RC Fitzgerald had lived before enlisting .Later I made contact with his brother Charles .
Having searched for 2 years for relatives of the crew in UK and SA and eventually, by various means, as below, I found the families of the crew of KH158.
I decided to start searching for relatives of some of the crews of the crashed planes and those of my SA friend, whose uncle and uncle-in-law were lost in France and Italy in 1944/5 - by writing to dozens of names in an area, placing local newspaper and airforce magazine notices in UK, Canada, Italy and Australia and speaking on local UK radio.Also placing notices on TV teletext "Service Pals", on airforce websites, writing to official bodies and using both a UK and a SA based researcher to find crew relatives . I also contacted UK based warbird diving groups [which has not progressed beyond an initial contact].Personnel at the SAAF Museum and SA Dept of Defence have given some help. I also found relatives of the crew of a Lancaster bomber which crashed in Denmark and went to the commemoration with some of my family .Also found crew families of a 31 SAAF Liberator which was shot down near Lysa Gora ,Poland and attended the commemoration with my daughter .
My search for relatives of those crewman who took part in the mission of 12th October 1944 is ongoing and I have found more families .As well as families of airmen who were based in Italy and Britain in 1943 and 1944 and were in different RAF , RAAF and SAAF squadrons.
It is heartwarming when a relative is pleased to be found and can speak to someone in the same situation,can offer photos, talk about their relative & sometimes receive previously unknown information about the airmans wartime life. So far about 30 relatives and school friends of WW2 SAAF, RAF, RCAF and RAAF crew have been found ,including relatives of the crew of Flt/Sgt WA [Bill] GUNNING, a pilot of 466 sqdn RAAF and my father's first cousin. His Wellington was shot down over Belgium 1943.
I have been told, first hand, about life for the men on the Celone base and their experiences of flying in bombers. Plus I have visited airforce museums and read many books on wartime airforce and wartime life in Italy .I have attended lectures on the Italian partisans and life in WW2 Italy. A friend of my father sent me a shoe brush that he used when returning from missions Was it a release of tension to polish his shoes ? It had been left behind when his possessions were packed up.
Those who have helped
A South African [SA] Professor very kindly supplied information from his thesis on the SAAF airlifts to Warsaw, to someone he had never met .As a student, he had spent time in a Wiltshire village, near where I live.
A SA friend and ex 31 crewman gave me an indirect introduction to an ex Warsaw partisan, now priest, living in Australia, who gave me information about his endeavours to keep the memory of the uprising and the sacrifices of the WW2 airmen alive. Through him I met a Warsaw airlift veteran and founder of the Warsaw 44 Club, of which I am a member .Also ex RAAF man, a friend of my fathers at Celone who still had my father's shoe polish brush, which he sent to me. They ran a squadron book club together.
A former SOE friend, Bill P ,who has descriptive and amusing tales of his life as a radio operator with the partisans in northern Italy early 1945. He written a book of his experiences "The Bandits of Cisterna" His Italian wife has helped me greatly by translating various Italian pieces into English.A translation of Missing in Action into Italian was done by the Italian wife of another close contact.
An ex 31 SAAF RAF man has given me a photo of a training group with names of some of the crashed crews , plus wartime Foggia postcards and told me his memories of that time. Another told of the strong winds that drove them off course and possibly KH158 as well - the night of 12/10/44.
Other ex 31 SAAF & 104 RAF men have given mementoes ,told me of their wartime experiences passed on suitable contacts and been very helpful and interested.I have collated information for a SAAF Colonel who is writing of the crews who took part in the Warsaw airlifts.This has meant contacting ex 31/34 SAAF, 148 and 178 RAF members.
An ex RAF man has kindly researched at the PRO London [now National Archives] for me, collecting 104 RAF and 31 SAAF sortie reports .As he survived the war he wanted to "put something back" for those servicemen who did not return.
Two men who trained with my father and another who was at school with him in Sydney and still had a 1930s class photo .
A bombaimer ex 31 SAAF friend, who attended my fathers briefings when he, my father, was the 31 SAAF Leading Bombaimer .
The former Base Commander,Dirke N informed me that my father was made a Flight Lieutenant -though the official promotion probably had not come through before he disappeared and I have not been able to obtain an official record of this promotion.
Ive read many books on the wartime airforces based at the Foggia airbases, Italy. One of the most memorable being Neil Orpens "Airlift to Warsaw" in which my father & fellow crew are listed.
Sadly I do not have my fathers log book -whereabouts unknown. Nor any clear 31 SAAF labelled crew photos of which he is a part .Only as part of a group of seven men of 31 SAAF Liberator 858 of the Warsaw flights. This is on P215 in "The Men who went to Warsaw" by Lawrence Isemonger. I do have photos of him in uniform and with his Observers' group at English railway stations ,plus an informal 104 RAF group photo although little information of his time with 104 RAF in Italy, apart from sortie reports .
My research and reading carries on and I am still in contact with many people around the world including Polish researchers and those whose wartime airmen relatives are also missing . In April 2006 my husband and I attended a search for the Liberator in Lake Bolsena, Italy.A contact in Italy and Romagna Air Finders thought the plane might have been blown off course into the lake.The Rome based British Defence Attache' organised an underwater search with ROV cameras. Also attending were Italian officials, SA and Australian diplomats and very welcoming and helpful local people .The search ended abruptly because of an ROV cable break but, one day, may begin again if sufficient funds can be found for a diving expedition.The lake is huge so the plane could still be in there, or not, but I have learned not to place too much hope on possible eventualities.
In 2009 I was contacted by an Italian man, S. living in northern Italy, who had visited the crash sites, in the mountains, of the other 5 lost crews and was interested in wartime partisan activities and in particular the disappearance of KH158 .We corresponded then met in March 2010 when he came on a visit to UK .He investigated KH158's WW2 drop zone area and met the Mayor of the nearest DZ village, Neirone, in the Ligurian Mountains [NE of Genoa] and the people who owned an old WW2 partisan meeting house, Faggio Rotondo, high in the mountains above Neirone. The idea was that a plaque could be installed, perhaps by Faggio R or in Neirone commemorating the crew of KH158. My husband, eldest son R and I then flew to Italy to see the mountain sited crash sites and meet the Mayor of Neirone, with S.He later took B to see the area and they felt that a plaque placed in the grounds of Faggio R might be a suitable site .The owners were very keen and as it is on a hiking route through the mountains would be seen by many walkers.This was done ,erected by S and B and the happy informal event was held on 15th May 2011 attended by Italian officials and local people. British Australian and South African Embassy officials also attended as well as our family .
I'd like to thank all who have helped , provided encouragement and friendship .Many of these people are also researching WW2 airforce activities.
Anne Storm 2007
last updated February 2012