‘Gamekeeper-turned-Poacher..!’

Well I suppose, just looking at the number of superb documentaries that are regularly appearing on both the traditional terrestrial channels & myriad satellite channels and the vast array of knowledgeable historians & lecturers with deep wells of fascinating knowledge to share, there was always an outside chance I might have something in between my ears that could prove useful to another producer, (then I woke up!)

However though I would certainly not wish to elevate my way up to the ranks of those superb contributors who are regularly seen on TV as serious & enthusiastic expert ‘talking heads’, after 27 years of working in the field of Third Reich Military Music, I must admit it was rather flattering to be asked if I could make a similar small contribution to a new BBC TV documentary series currently being produced by R K Productions in Leeds entitled ‘Len Goodman’s Big Bands’…

I have to nevertheless admit it was a somewhat odd and a slightly disconcerting feeling to once again be moving from behind the camera to very briefly appearing in front of the magic lantern, (though I have presented a couple of Travel TV documentaries before), but this time I really had to look as if I knew what I was talking about rather than just point to the stunning scenery & enthusing for the viewers - so no pressure then!).

But then that is always assuming my small contribution makes it to the final edit and is not last seen being metaphorically swept up on the cutting-room floor, (because of course now everything is hi-tech digital edits, so a similar fate would that of being simply deleted & banished out into the ether!)…oh how cruel the world of television can be..!

Mind you, I’ve been around this industry long enough to know how this all usually unfolds, so I am fairly sanguine about how things turn out, but nevertheless I had a superb day on location with the well known professional Ballroom Dancer and judge on the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ Mr Len Goodman, in this new role of fronting this superb new series by Roger Keech for the new BBC Four Channel.. (I say ‘new’ but it has been around a while now..and showing some very interesting documentaries).

However I digress, (as is my usual habit), for as many collectors & enthusiasts out there who have come to know my company Tomahawk Films and its now specialist Third Reich Military & Civilian Music output these past 27 years, though a former TV Floor and Unit Production Manager thence Producer myself, these days happily my usual involvement with such fascinating work is very much from behind the camera, either to provide music, film & sound-effects or specialist historical background information to television researchers or to occasionally record the voice-over for the documentary soundtrack in question, if I’m lucky..!

However when Mr Keech, the engaging producer of this BBC Four series & I got talking about supplying some of Tomahawk Films’ German music archive to his series, he kindly asked if I would also care to be interviewed on camera by Mr Goodman, thus contributing to a specific section on Glenn Miller & WW-II German music, to which I happily agreed.

But after all these recent years of standing behind the camera or directing other people’s performances, going on camera myself again felt somewhat strange and very much as if I was turning from Gamekeeper-to-Poacher and, if I am honest, despite having lived a good part of my life on TV sets and in live radio studios, I was amazed at how long it took me to relax and actually think about what I needed to say for the cameras.. (by which time the interview was over..dang!!)

Mr Keech & I had been e-mailing each other as we sought to establish what he needed and what I could talk about and then last Friday I found myself at the former RAF Twinwood Night-Bomber Operational Training air-base north of Bedford, the aerodrome from which Glenn Miller made his fateful flight in December 1944. I say ‘found myself’, which is an over simplification, for this former air-field is well hidden and the only way to find it is to drive through a modern housing estate and then skirt behind a clump of trees then up a long stretch of unmade farm track..yes, quite!

Sadly my Sat Nav got confused and directed me to a house right in the middle of the housing estate; however luckily I managed to collar a local who kindly pointed me in the right direction. I finally knew I was close because as I pulled off the main road onto the dusty track as directed, a rather sumptuous & good-looking Jaguar saloon was just ahead of me and a very distinguished gentleman had got out to open the closed farm gate: Mr Len Goodman himself as I live & breathe, and by crikey, is he tall or what?

I am a fairly reasonable 5’8” when I remember to stand upright, but he towered over me as we exchanged greetings, (and laughed and swapped opinions on just how hard this blessed air-field had been to find) and then I offered to close the gate after he had driven through and I would play ‘tail-end Charlie’ and follow in my car behind his to the airfield!

So the pair of us then bounced up this long rutted track, his huge jag nimbly handling the ruts whilst my new Peugeot, with its low-slung, sporty suspension tried hard to break my spine as I aimed.. and failed.. to miss the holes. But eventually the pair of us in convoy drove on to the old perimeter road and, (though the huge, original concrete runway has since been dug up & restored to farming land),up to the former flight control tower & surrounding buildings, sitting just at the top of this old road.

Today they offer a superb mirror reflecting back those halcyon war-time days as, included on-site, is the official UK Glen Miller Museum; this indeed was the reason for the interviews being filmed here on location, for in the afternoon after my mini-performance on camera, a nephew of former USAAF Major Glenn Miller was also to be interviewed… and what better setting than the base at which his late uncle made his final, and sadly, ill-fated flight from the UK..

Mr Goodman and I eventually found our way into the aerodrome compound to be confronted by a green-painted control tower and a number of typical war-time camo-painted buildings with anti-blast white tape criss-crossing over the windows, plus a NAAFI building and various other assorted out-buildings…

Quite a sight that you would never have believed was still here, almost hidden as it was by the slowly advancing thick, dense forest surrounding this former old World War Two air-base…

RAF Twinwood was an Operational Training Unit for Night Bomber crews flying Mosquitos & Beaufighters and the pilots would be trained here for night sorties over a blacked-out Third Reich. Today the control tower is decked out as it would have been in 1944, with several of the crew-rooms having flying jackets draped over crew chairs, so the whole ‘war-time bomber field vibe’ is very much still there, thus offering a superb back-drop for filming WW-II documentary interviews…

Mr Goodman and I spent a happy half-hour chatting on camera in that evocative RAF tower with all its ghosts and war-time history still hanging in the air and with the Glenn Miller connection, stemming from the fact that this bomber airfield was the closest to Bedford, where his famous war-time Orchestra were based as a safer alternative from Blitzed London. Thus RAF Twinwood was a very convenient base for him to fly back & forth to occupied France for his many morale-boosting troop concerts. It was also at RAF Twinwood on August 27th 1944, that Glenn Miller and his Orchestra performed a concert as a ‘thank you’ to all of the hard-working RAF ground-crew that allowed him and his USAAF musicians free access flying in and out on their musical duties.

Sadly it was to be just 4 months later that, on December 15th 1944, and bound for France, Glenn Miller boarded his Army Co-operation Norseman aircraft outside of the RAF Twinwood Control Tower and set off into the night sky… never to be seen again! Since that day myriad theories as to what actually happened to him remain legion.. I was always of the belief that his Norseman ‘plane flying low across the Channel to France, may have been accidentally hit by returning RAF Lancasters, USAAF B.17 Flying Fortresses or B.24 Liberators who, approaching the English coast, jettisoned any remaining bombs from their missions over Germany ahead of landing back at their bases, and Miller’s plane had simply been unlucky and been hit by one of these jettisoned bombs as he headed out to France in the opposite direction…

However in talking to Keith Hill, (below), a superb aviation artist who now has a permanent exhibition of World War Two US & RAF aircraft in one of the Control Tower’s ground-level rooms, (including a superb painting he produced of Glen Miller’s Norseman plane), he mentioned a new documentary that has come out in the US whereby an expert who has been looking into the mystery of Miller’s disappearance on that fateful December day in 1944. The new researcher has uncovered a witness who saw the Norseman flying over Maidenhead on the night of December 15th, (thereby off course at the hands of a somewhat inexperienced Air Force ‘taxi’ pilot).

However more significantly, there had been a problem in some of the larger bombers with engine parts freezing up in the wintry temperatures, (parts which, unfortunately this smaller Norseman shared), and as a direct result pilots were ordered not to fly in low temperature conditions. However Glen Miller’s pilot did take off into the freezing night sky..and this new research suggests that somewhere off-course and over the English Channel, the Norseman’s engine froze solid as warned… and plummeted vertically out of the sky and into the Channel, never to be traced..!

Whatever the true reason behind this tragic loss of a popular war-time band leader, it is a fitting tribute to USAAF Major Glen Miller that RAF Twinwood, the airfield from which he made his last flight, now boasts its own Glenn Miller Museum, which is open to the public at weekends and where, once a year, a full 1940’s tribute concert is performed in his name. So what remains of RAF Twinwood’s Control Tower & its ancillary buildings here on the edge of the forest was a great location for producer Roger Keech to record interviews for his new BBC series, ‘Len Goodman’s Big Bands’ which is due for transmission over Christmas…

It was also a perfect setting to get us both talking about our other great passions, WW-II Vintage bomber & fighter aircraft as it turned out he has been very heavily involved in filming with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster, Spitfire & Hurricane (along with the arrival of Canada’s last air-worthy Lancaster to fly alongside our our Lanc), whilst I could swap stories of my time in the US with the Confederate Air Force and Battle of Britain Movie stunt pilot Connie Edwards on his ranch in Texas with his beloved ME109s & Spitfires from the 1969 movie… so hopefully, if the gods are willing, we might be able to share our great aviation passion again before too much longer!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Wartime Chivalry in the Air…

This is the remarkable story, shared with me just recently, of a crippled World War Two American bomber spared by a Luftwaffe fighter pilot in combat.. and if you haven’t picked up on it yourself, it is just amazing and I’m happy to in turn share it via this Blog as with all of these incredible war-time incidents, the protagonists involved were to have a later quite remarkable reunion in peace-time, which makes this story all the more incredible…

The story harks back to the heavy Allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany back in 1943 and in the days before Christmas of that year it was the USAAF that were conducting their almost daily day-light sorties over the Third Reich (whilst the RAF were bombing Germany by night) and bomber pilot, Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown, and his young B17 Flying Fortress crew were about to set-off on their very first raid, the target being an aircraft production factory deep inside Germany’s industrial heartlands….

Heavily suited-up against the bitter winter cold, (down to minus 60 in the upper atmosphere through which they’d be flying at this time of year), and with oxygen masks at the ready, the crew of the newly-dubbed ‘Ye Olde Pub’ taxied their heavily laden bomber onto their US 8th Air Force East Anglian air-strip.

Cleared for take-off, the bomb-laden Flying Fortress opened the throttles and rumbled down the concrete runway and Capt.Charlie Brown hauled his bomber into the air and, in tight formation with many other Fortresses, headed out eastward towards their heavily defended industrial target in the Ruhr….

However after several hours of relatively peaceful flying as the B17 approached Bremen, a curtain of heavy flak was thrown up the Luftwaffe gun-crews on the ground and the heaven’s were rent asunder in a black cloud of lethal anti-aircraft rounds, one of which exploded directly ahead of ‘Ye Olde Pub’, taking out their number 2 Alisson engine and seriously damaging their number 4 and having to feather it..

With such heavy damage sustained to his ‘plane, Captain Charlie Brown could no longer keep the power up and so throttled back and fell out of formation…

In WW-II, USAAF bomber tactics had developed a staggered box formation so that all heavily-armed Fortresses & Liberators would be able to cover each other in flight with murderous angles of cross-fire so making Luftwaffe fighter attacks on these protected formations a very dangerous undertaking, but a single US bomber having fallen out of this protection instantly became vulnerable to enemy fighter attack..

Which is exactly what happened to ‘Ye Olde Pub’ as no less than 15 Luftwaffe day fighters pounced on the ailing bomber and though the Flying Fortesses’ gunners immediately downed one Luftwaffe fighter, the exposed tail gunner was killed after another German strafing run and four other crew members were injured, including the pilot Charlie Brown..

The only surviving B.17 guns from this murderous assault were the nose gun and top turret.. in addition the plane’s hydraulics were knocked out and the oxygen system failed… and as if this was not bad enough, Brown lost control of his heavily damaged bomber and it went into a deadly spiral heading groundwards.

Despite his wounds and lack of oxygen Capt. Charlie Brown, thanks to a super-human effort, managed to fight the dive and regain control of his all-but doomed B17 and somehow level out at 1,000 feet, but the heavy 4-engined bomber was mortally wounded and almost incapable of defending itself against further Luftwaffe fighter attack, with the bulk of his guns out of action and his crew seriously wounded or killed..

Having successfully saved the ailing bomber and get ‘Ye Olde Pub’ turned around, Capt Brown headed back towards home at a much lower altitude than he would have liked and as he did so, he flew low over a Luftwaffe fighter base at which fighter pilot Lt. Franz Stigler had just landed, having successfully shot down two B.17s from the same raid. Spotting the wounded & low-flying US bomber, he immediately scrambled again to chase after Brown’s heavily damaged ‘plane. But as he would later twll interviewers in 1991, when he caught up with it ‘Ye Olde Pub’ he was horrified by what he saw and the appalling damage the bomber had sustained: its nose cone was smashed, there were major gaping holes in the fuselage and he could see heavy .50 calibre guns hanging unmanned as the gunners desperately tended their wounded fellow air-crew…

Stigler kept his distance, careful to keep flying out of the line of fire of the two remaining machine guns still in service, but managed to side-slip to within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17, where he tried to contact pilot Brown with hand signals. His message was simple..land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden..!

A stunned Brown stared back through side window, not believing what he was seeing as the German fighter pilot kept gesturing; but there was no way he was going to land. However as he struggled to keep flying his heavy bomber homewards the German pilot stayed with him, keeping other attackers off until they reached the North Sea. When it was clear that Brown wasn’t going to land or veer off towards Sweden but try to make it home, Stigler saluted, and flew away..!

Somehow Capt Charlie Brown just about managed to keep his crippled Flying Fortress in the air and just made it back to East Anglia where he all but crash-landed in a smoking but grateful heap…Brown would say, years later, that if he had been able to comprehend what Stigler was trying to explain to him from his fighter, he would actually have gratefully accepted the offer to land in Sweden.

The American air-crew debriefing was an incredulous affair when the officers taking notes learned of Stigler’s chivalry in the air; but the US Top Brass realised that if word got out to other USAAF bomber crews that Luftwaffe fighter pilots were sometimes this chivalrous towards damaged bombers returning from Germany, then their guard might be lowered, and so the whole affair was hushed up. Furthermore Brown’s deserved recommendation for a American bravery citation for his incredible feat of flying was quietly dropped. The whole affair was classified Top Secret… and there the story ended… or so it was thought..!

Likewise, back in Germany Lt Franz Stigler never spoke of his part in that aerial encounter with ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for fear of a Luftwaffe Court Martial and continued flying in combat until the end of the war in May 1945, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots flying the Luftwaffe’s incredible ME 262 in combat.

After the war, Charlie Brown returned to his West Virginia home but, after a stint at college, returned to the US Air Force in 1949 and served until 1965 though Franz Stigler didn’t fare as well in his life as, amidst the ruins of a defeated Germany his exemplary war record counted for nought and he tried his hand at many things, (even including brick-laying), just to survive, finally moving to Canada in 1953, where he became a successful businessman.

This incredible story remained dormant until 1986 when the, by then, retired Colonel Charlie Brown was invited to speak at a gathering of former fighter pilots: somebody in the audience asked for his memories of any unforgettable missions and suddenly the whole story of ‘Ye Olde Pub’ & Lt Stigler came out to an astounded audience..!

The former B.17 Flying Fortress pilot Capt.Charlie Brown had however been quietly trawling US & West German military records looking for any signs of former Luftwaffe fighter ace Lt. Franz Stigler, but when that brooked no results he wrote a letter to a Combat Pilots’ Association..and got a reply from Canada… it was Franz with the simple words:“I was the one..!” Stigler remembered the entire incident with great clarity and Charlie Brown knew that this was the one and the same German pilot who had showed him and his bomber crew such great chivalry on that fateful Allied bombing raid in December 1943…

Both men then spoke on the phone and later met up in person and between 1990 and 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers, before sadly dying within several months of each other in 2008. .An amazing story that restores your flagging faith in humanity… and if you would like to know more, I have discovered there is a complete book dedicated to this incredible and rare feat of aviation chivalry, written by Adam Makos called A Higher Call…. recommended reading… and then some!

Copyright @ Tomahawk Films & Brian Matthews 2014

America’s WW-II Ghost Squadron..!

Some years back I had the great privilege and unalloyed excitement of flying with America’s ‘Confederate Air Force’ down at its base at Midland-Odessa in Texas. One of the world’s largest private air forces, it comprises an absolutely fabulous collection of hugely famous and most eye-wateringly expensive, airworthy US fighter & bomber aircraft from the Second World War, all coming together to fly under the banner of ’The Ghost Squadron’..!

Dating from 1957, a small group of oil-rich Texan millionaire buddies clubbed together to purchase a ‘Cadillac of the Skies’ -  a stunning P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft that came into its own as a never-bettered, long-range escort to the USAAF Flying Fortresses & Liberator bombers in the skies above the Third Reich between 1943 and 1945 – and then one year later they bought 2 US Navy carrier-borne Grumman Bearcats and so, with two of the fastest piston-engined fighters in US aviation history, an unofficial squadron was formed.

With each CAF member being given an honorary title of ‘Colonel’ and a fictional Squadron Commander known as Colonel Jethro E. Culpepper, the group began what was to be a long & extensive search for other aircraft that served so valiantly during WW-II; but they were shocked at just how little was being done by America’s military to preserve these wonderful ‘Warbirds’. Indeed of those that still flying, many had been modified into air-racers, (something that was, and still is, very big in the US), or bombers that had been converted into civilian freighters! .

Nowhere had any official body been formed or come forward with any suggestions on how to preserve flying versions of these famous marques… so in 1961 the official Confederate Air Force was formed in Texas to focus on locating and restoring to full flying condition as many types of America’s famous fighters & bombers as they could…  and by the time the little group had grown enough to put on its first actual flying display in 1963 they had added an additional 8 aircraft to their original, P-51.

The Confederate’s first home-base was at Mercedes, then in 1968 they moved to Harlingen where they set-up a museum and continued to grow and add examples of USAAF medium & heavy bombers to their inventory: a B.25 Mitchell, a B.17 Flying Fortress, a B-24 Liberator and the world’s only flying B.29 Superfortress, the type infamous for dropping the Atomic bomb at Hiroshima & Nagasaki in 1945 and so bringing about the end of the war in the Far East..

The CAF slowly continued to grown and by the early 90’s had moved from Harlingen, (due, I was told, to the close proximity of the sea and the accompanying salt air that would eat away at these valuable historic aircraft), and took up home at Midland-Odessa, where today the CAF, (renamed, sadly to my mind, as the Commemorative Air Force), boasts over 150 flying aircraft and 11,000 Members (all ‘honorary Colonels,) spread over 70 regional ‘wings’ in 27 US States and 4 overseas countries.

The CAF membership established the American Air Power Heritage Museum at Midland-Odessa and every year the ‘Ghost Squadron’, (happily as it is still known), puts on a mind-blowing weekend of display flying in what is now deemed the largest annual gathering of Warbirds anywhere in the world…  and it was to one of these weekends that I rolled up, looking to film a German aircraft in action, a very rare Luftwaffe ‘Fiesler Storch’ communications & reconnaissance aircraft..

Teamed up with a local cameraman & his sound-recordist I headed off to the sun-bleached airstrip at Midland one very hot dusty Texan morning, (with the pungent smell of the nearby oil-wells carried on the very light wind), to be faced with a boy-hood dream! There before me was almost every American fighter & bomber that I had ever dreamed of seeing as a young man..Mustangs, Tomahawks, a Dauntless Dive-bomber, an Aircobra, a Helldiver, DC.3 Dakota troop transports, Flying Forts, the beautiful Liberator..and bomber nose-art as far as the eye could see…Holy Moly there was even an original carrier-borne Japanese Zero…. I truly thought I’d died and gone to heaven..!

But I was here to work and following a very strict flight briefing, (something all air shows and their display pilots take very seriously indeed), and signing a ‘Hold Safe’ form, without which nobody can fly in these beautiful historical Warbirds, (effectively my legal American declaration that if the plane I fly in decided to ‘bite the dust’.. so be it, it was a risk I was prepared to take, though my travel insurers would have been doing hand-springs, no doubt!)

With cameraman John safely ensconced in the rear seat of his A-6 Texan, (better known in RAF & RCAF circles as the Harvard), and me happily belted up in the front seat of a small American WW-II Army co-operation reconnaissance Grasshopper, the Fiesler Storch we were hunting, almost with no ceremony, lifted gently and in a very ‘lady-like fashion’ from its short take-over and headed out over the Texas ‘desert’ with our two planes in hot pursuit…!

So followed an incredible 30 minutes or so, (that seemed like a lifetime), filming this rare Luftwaffe plane as it gently turned and floated above those Texan oilfields… a superb flight that was only ruffled by the sudden presence of a USAF ‘Fighting Falcon’ jet-fighter that buzzed over us and my little lightweight plane bounced around in its jet wash, (the F.16 pilot must have missed the briefing!), and suddenly I was facing the earth from a rather unnerving angle..the ‘Hold Safe’ form in my pocket understandingly taking on a whole new significance…!

However my veteran pilot sitting behind me obviously wrestled skillfully, (and successfully), with his controls, caught our dive and we managed to return in relative safety to Midland-Odessa, John’s Texan landing a few minutes before us…. to date still my only flight in an original World War Two aircraft.

The rest of the weekend was taken up filming the actual Air Show itself in which, entitled Tora Tora, Tora, the complete attack on Pearl Harbor scenario was acted out by all of the aircraft involved in that sudden surprise Japanese attack on the Hawaiian islands in December 1941… even down to recreating the famous shot of a returning B17 Flying Fortress return to Pearl with just one  undercarriage wheel down. Amidst all the amazing pyrotechnics and fighter aircraft in mock combat, you could have quite easily believed that you were actually back there in that time & place, such was the noise, the heat, the sound of straining aero-engines.

The sheer amount of explosions, tension & excitement of the display all gave lie to the fact this was just a facsimile of a real bombing raid…the pilots all giving a superb example of combat flying… each and everyone a volunteer!

Sadly the Messerschmitt Bf109 I was hoping to film crashed on its way to the show and though the pilot was OK, the rare plane itself was not, so I would have to make alternative arrangements, (which will be detailed in a forthcoming Blog); meantime the most surreal event of the weekend, during which I met some incredibly welcoming and kind fighter pilots & Texan combat veterans), was the scrum of people, coming towards me in one of the airport’s corridors after a day’s filming out on the strip…

With cameras flashing and microphones thrust forward I thought I was about to be flattened by the entourage of a ‘Grade A’ movie star…but amidst the crush of ‘minders’ was a tiny little Japanese man in his 90s, but trying desperately to fight my way into the scrum to see what’s what, I was gently, but politely pushed aside by one of the little old man’s ‘bodyguard’ as the group swept past me and on up the airport’s corridor…

On asking one of my most hospitable CAF guides.. “who was that”?  The answer came..”the world’s only surviving Kamikaze pilot”…dang! now that would have been an interview and a half..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013