Sometimes It’s More Than Luck..!

Every now and then I receive an e-mail relating to some incredible stories from the Second World War: tales of incredible bravery, some of amazing derring-do and some that just make me stop in my tracks and really think for a moment or two and wonder if they are merely apocryphal or are based in fact..!

For the latest to cross my desk, I am indebted to a good pal of mine who is currently working on the impressive German Maisy Batterie, the recently discovered and thence completely uncovered ‘must-see’ D-Day military attraction slap-bang on the Normandy Invasion Coast of France.The exciting discovery of this long-hidden Batterie and the realisation all these years on of its vitally important role on D-Day has attracted great media interest… and I hope to write about it and offer more photos here in future Blogs…

However, in the meantime his recent forwarded e-mail from across the Channel concerns the story of one Elmer Bendiner, who as a young man, was a navigator with the USAAF on a B-17 Flying Fortress flying from its base here in East Anglia during the heavy air campaign over Germany in the Second World War. Elmer has related a most incredible story of one of his war-time bombing  runs over the town of Kassel that had a most unexpected outcome as the result of a direct hit on the fuel tanks of this sturdy American bomber from Luftwaffe anti-aircraft guns defending the city. Elmer takes up the story:

“Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi anti-aircraft guns, which wasn’t unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20 millimetre canon shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot told me it was not quite that simple as on the morning following the raid, he’d had gone off to ask our ground-crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of our unbelievable luck…

The crew-chief told him that not just one shell but 11 had been found in the gas tanks… 11 unexploded shells whereas just one would have been sufficient to blast us out of the sky..! It was just as if the sea had been parted for us… a near-miracle, I thought! Even after all those years, so awesome an event still leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from our former pilot who was later told that the shells had been sent to the armourers to be defused… and they had told him that USAAF  Intelligence had suddenly come in to pick them up and take them away for inspection, without a word as to why..!.

However it later transpired that when the armourers opened each of those shells, they had found no explosive charges… they were as clean as a whistle and just as harmless.. completely empty!  
All except one of them that had contained a carefully rolled piece of paper and on it was a scrawl in Czech. The Intelligence people had then scoured our base for a man who could read Czech and eventually they found one to decipher the note, which set us all marvelling for, when translated, the note read: ”This is all we can do for you now … using slave labour is never a good idea..!”

Indeed whether apocryphal or completely true, (and I’d like to think it was indeed one of those fabulous true stories that emerge from time to time), I’ll let you decide which for, as I wrote at the beginning of this particular Blog, sometimes these stories from the Second World War, whether indeed real or ‘enhanced’ just stop you in your tracks and this was certainly one of those…Talking of which: Part Two of Hitler’s Rise-The Colour Films was aired last night…but at least this time came the voice-over confession at the start of the documentary that the footage had indeed been ‘digitally enhanced’… i.e. colourised, so ‘The Colour Films’ as trumpeted were sadly no such thing, more’s the pity.  As I have often moaned before: ‘Why do they do this..?’

Without meaning to sound too po-faced about this, I personally feel that tampering with original b/w Third Reich film footage through adding colour not only ‘humanises’ some scenes that should remain thought-provoking in their original harsher hues as shot, but also buggering about 70 years after the event by adding such colour that wasn’t originally there is not only akin to inserting newly-written paragraphs in Shakespeare, (or other works of literature years after they were finished & lauded), but somehow seemingly also runs the risk of lessening the impact when the occasional haul of previously unseen Agfa-colour 16mm film (or even 35mm if we are really lucky), still surfaces from time-to-time.

So for these reasons, amongst others, I always find myself thinking they should have left well alone, as the original archival b/w film tampered with in this particular case was absolutely superb and good enough to stand on its own two feet, especially rare footage of Hitler’s Bodyguard divisional band, the Musikkorps Leibstandarte-SS. Indeed the thoughtful commentary running behind some of this superb footage also continued to offer odd snippets of additional background information that the myriad previous documentaries on Adolf Hitler had not thought (or knew enough), about to include and were certainly a most valuable addition to our knowledge of the subject.

But it is almost as if the producers or commissioning editors thought that they wouldn’t get a big enough audience for their black & white footage without somehow sensationalising their documentary for the viewing masses by introducing colour to footage what should have most assuredly remained in its 1930s & 1940s state… especially as in places the colourisers had made a real hash of things resulting in several rather uncomfortable ‘ouch’ moments!

This was a crying shame, and in places something of a diversion as sections of the footage were quite rare… including, (and excitingly for me with this Nazi anthem ever-present in our Tomahawk Films Archive), terrific footage of the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel and the ensuing funeral arrangements after his murder that I’d not previously encountered. In addition, some some of the Hitler Speeches, (and several from Reichs Propagandaminister Goebbels) were actually of the rarer variety and so the visual imagery accompanying them certainly didn’t need any tampering with whatsoever.

It may come as a complete surprise to the young shavers now in charge of the ‘Magic Lantern’ but those of us long fascinated by the history of the Third Reich, both professionally & personally, don’t actually need to be led by the nose in this crass fashion and made to feel that we are not intelligent or sufficiently interested in such historical programmes that we would only watch their documentary if they had jazzed it up a bit first….what a shame and in fact, what arrogance… but then that’s the modern world of television programme-making for you..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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