‘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

Tomahawk Films Under Water…

I awoke the other morning, or rather I was woken, by the incessant sound of sawing..and when I finally came to with a clear enough brain and looked out of the window I could see a funny little bearded man in back garden surrounded by a huge pile of wood..and realised it was Noah building himself another Ark… and I am not surprised he is in such advanced planning as it is still raining here on the South Coast after some 2 months or so!

I cannot believe how a little country likes ours can receive so much constant rain..it seems to me as if it has been raining almost every day since before Christmas..I know we have actually had some precious rain-free days, but the overall memory to date is just a continual torrent of the wet stuff…(and as some wag said the other day, despite it being the wettest winter since records began, no doubt the Water Companies will be warning us of drought conditions later this summer..they’d better not!)

The problem seems to be constant rain streams coming across the Atlantic and they are making landfall in Devon, Cornwall & South Wales and from the news reports those parts are having a  really bad time of it, with farms under water, railway lines physically broken and still the water rises..and still the Government seems to be ‘fiddling while Rome burns’. The scuttlebutt in the pub is that whenever there is a disaster anywhere else in the non-English-speaking world, the ‘charity do-gooders’ throw their hands in the air, rush straight to the advertising companies and produce gut-wrenching, emotionally black-mailing TV adverts exhorting us to hand over more of hard–earned, (in addition to the £13 billion our governmental masters are eagerly giving away in overseas aid each year to other countries). Currently this is leaving many of us wondering if our neighbouring countries are now running similar TV Appeals urging their people to give to this growing British Flood disaster?

One joke doing the rounds aptly sums up how it works in Britain: an old couple are sitting on the roof of their house in Cornwall surrounded by rising flood water and after 5 days up there, they espy a small boat with three Red Cross volunteers speeding towards them.The old couple cry out in relief to the boat.. ’have you come to rescue us? No! shout back the volunteers, we are collecting donations for Syria!!!!

As I say dear reader, that just about sums up this country..we help everybody else yet nobody givers a ‘brass razoo’ about us poor Brits…we have to do everything ourselves.. yet on that note my little village of Twyford is pulling together, (some 13 years after our last major flood), and the past 3 days for Tomahawk have been spent in helping to fill sandbags and patrolling the rising flood water. I managed to spend 7 hours in the water with others on Sunday as the floods spread out down the valley from the Hazeley Down area, (which is full of natural springs deep within the chalk).

Indeed we have a Victorian pumping station on the outskirts of the village, so pure is our water, however though that water is great to drink, the vast amount of it is now posing a big problem as the constant fall of rain means that everywhere is just waterlogged and the hillsides can just take no more and are literally now bursting at the seams. In fact when I walked along the Hazeley Road yesterday, (which now resembles a fast-flowing river rather than tarmac road), I could see actual ‘geysers’ of water rising a foot into the air from the sodden ground in the adjacent fields and onto the road..!

Thus far about a quarter of a mile or so of road is under water and cut off to traffic and the edge of the flood has reached the centre of the village and everything is being done to stem the flow. Over the weekend all sorts of important people from the various Environment agencies came out, plus the local Member for Parliament, village councillors, TV news crews and assorted members of the press to report on progress.. and then yesterday it went quiet again with just a few of us trying to maintain the situation before more stoic local folk turned up to help fill yet further sandbags.

The main problem is now we have no idea when the rain will stop or indeed how much more water is still in the hills and yet to find its way into the torrent rushing down into the village. Thankfully we are nowhere near as bad either as our 2000 flood or indeed as the poor folk down in Devon & Cornwall are now, but we are still in danger of having some of our low lying neighbours flooded out, so the constant whirr of water pumps can he heard pumping out water from these low-lying properties is now the constant background noise.

As is often said, at times like these the old ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ kicks in with people pitching in and doing what they can to help and we now have a constant rota of people in bright yellow tabbards trying to direct traffic to ensure people can still reach the village store & cafe..but the amount of indignant people who get ratty because they can’t go where they want to is just amazing. Whilst most people are quite understanding it beggars belief that others are too dense to realise that we are in a  tricky situation. As for those who see we are struggling with the rising water yet try to drive through at high speed so sending a tidal wave over us..well it takes all our will power not to drag them from their cars and dunk their fat heads under the waves they are causing.. .you certainly see both the best & worst of people at times like these..!

So hopefully valued customers of Tomahawk Films will also understand if their orders are a little later than our usual speedy despatch as we break off from our normal day’s work here at our production offices just above the flood to pitch to help our neighbours. So far we have done 3 days on the bounce and will try to spend today back at Tomahawk HQ catching up.. but as it is now raining again we’ll try to break off tomorrow and pitch in once more, wherever we’re needed..!

Talking of Tomahawk, the floods notwithstanding our planned monthly geriatric lad’s get-together of former TV colleagues took place at our local, The Phoenix, last night and I am delighted that amongst our small gathering of 7 was the cameraman on Tomahawk Films ‘Channel Islands Occupied‘ TV documentary, Ian ‘Nobby’ Fraser (left) and my old sound-recordist buddy and former colleague on Jack Hargreaves ‘Out of Town’ series, Phil Wade.. and talking of floods, to use an appalling DJ link, (that I would certainly have been strung up for using in my radio days!) the memories of our former working lives certainly flooded back over a riotous couple of hours!

But returning to the rising water outside, we now just have to see if the submarine will return with more aid..I contacted the Ministry of Defence and they said the skipper will try to ‘come about’ when he reaches the end of the road at Morestead and hope to sedately return along Hazeley Road distributing vital supplies, (ie cider), so thankfully even with today’s severe defence budget cuts, you can still rely on the Royal Navy. .the true ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ personified..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

 

‘Got it wrong again, Dad..!’

Well here I am still struggling valiantly on behalf of the Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive with the necessary evils of Social Media… and that’s without even having wrestled yet with the thorny issue of mastering You Tube and posting up bite-sized snippets from our Archive..(seems many others have already loaded up some of our German music clips & CD covers without our permission, so I feel it only polite that we, as the original copyright-holders, actually get a look–in and have a go ourselves!)

But oh boy! is my learning curve still steep.. with so much coming at me since the sad loss of dear old Stan, Tomahawk Film’s web-master, all this technical fannying around has fallen to me to get my head around and as I opined in one of my former Blogs, I am having to assimilate so much in recent months that my head is in danger of exploding.! It must have been great to be born at a time when all of this new media technology just came naturally to you: in fact my much loved & dearly missed mum always used to ask if it was something she should get involved with?… and I always told her in no uncertain terms to avoid it all costs.!

I would have done the same if today’s modern world didn’t view it as such an essential business tool; in fact only yesterday I heard the superb actor Martin Shaw being interviewed on Radio Two about his new series of ‘Inspector George Gently’ (starting tomorrow night on the Beeb) and when the subject came around to Facebook it was more than obvious that he is implacably imposed to it all and also avoids it like the plague.. and I silently thought: ‘lucky blighter that you can..!’

However the next generation growing up with all of this as ‘natural’ merely take it in their stride, but those young shavers have to remember that my colleagues & I come from the generation that glorified in ITV’s The Sweeney when Regan & Carter would have to break off from a high-speed car chase, tailing a ‘motor full of villains with shooters’ in the East End, to find a ‘phone box to make an urgent call back to HQ..! No good the young sniggering about that, as that was just the way it was and so it is that my generation of 50-somethings are now the apparent dinosaurs… great! But when all the satellites ‘go on the fritz’ after being hit by a meteor shower we at least will know how to write & talk to each other… some of us even know how to do long-division (well not me, I was a somewhat ‘theatrical’ History & English wallah with my head in the clouds… and not much change there either!)

However thanks to my great TV director & cameraman mate Ian ‘Nobby’ Fraser and his wonderful Girl-Friday, Harriet, both have continued to expend further valuable time in trying to help me find my way through the trials & tribulations of Facebook though sadly, ‘Dear Listener’ I have to shamefacedly admit I have transgressed yet again..dang!.. and much to everybody’s exasperation, I find myself on the FB Naughty Step… again, for Pete’s sake.. and it’s for 14 bloomin’ days this time!

Apparently I was again spotted by members of the the FB Polizei Feld-Division contacting another couple of fellow WWII German enthusiasts and that is verboten!.. As was noted before, you may contact friends only on FB to which I counter: that is what the pub, the ‘phone and e-mail is for..!

However Nobby very kindly took me to one side and quietly said “Look Bruno you are imbuing Facebook with far too much importance and a business ethic it doesn’t actually possess..it is just a place for mates to swap gossip and send each other cute little pictures of kittens or donkeys standing on their head…it’s not like the public library or theTomahawk Films website where you post up serious archival & historical information and promote yourself in a business sense.. Facebook is like buying a tabloid newspaper, looking at a couple of  lurid stories & interesting pics inside…then throwing it out..it is literally here today & gone tomorrow..!”

And that was my big mistake..I actually thought Facebook was like a company website where you put up your work & allied information for folk to use like a reference source, (and also exchange links with like-minded folk). But once I finally realised that FB is just a bit of lightweight fun & frolics and nothing more and that this ‘Daily Star’ approach to life is actually their raison d’être in place of a business plan, it has made all the difference to my thinking. So rather than post up written articles I am now limiting myself to sticking up interesting Tomahawk archival pictures with perhaps a few lines of explanation, (or stuff I’ve worked on in my career), writing funny captions on other peoples often hilarious images and just enjoying seeing what other people on FB find funny or thought-provoking.

More worrying however is that I too am now going awwww!! at pictures of kittens & Boxers and laughing uproariously at aforesaid mentioned donkeys standing on their head…but the fact that many other like-minded military-historical enthusiasts are now enjoying our Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive Page and following us is a real a bonus..!

My original plan was just to go on FB to help Tomahawk Films get noticed by Google  and so hopefully rise above the rankings of those pirating our original Tomahawk Films archive, but it is actually turning out to be quite a fun place to be and I can now clearly see the attraction… it is also having an unexpected but happy consequence to my own personal & professional life as well!

As kind readers of my Blogs may know, before Tomahawk Films I had a very interesting period as a freelancer in television production plus a parallel 8 years or so as a local radio presenter and as I wrote in a recent Blog, my very first professional job in telly was as Unit Production Manager on Jack Hargreaves’ ‘Out of Town/The Old Country’ working alongside my old pal Phil Wade who was the superb sound recordist on the series. One of the unintended consequences of  now being on Facebook is I then found a Jack Hargreaves Page and as a result of that I  posted a small bit about my former role in the Out of Town story and since then have been welcomed in by Jack’s growing legion of followers which in turn is hopefully leading Phil & I to meet up with the man behind those Facebook pages, Simon Baddeley, Jack’s step-son…

So all of this social media is slowly & gradually staring to weave small links throughout my professional & personal life (which I can see is also one of its many attractions), because this new Out of Town link comes at a time when Phil and I also met up after almost 20 years or so of not being in touch, courtesy of Nobby’s 60th birthday bash just before Christmas..(pictured in the photo are my Dad, Dennis left, Nobby middle, Phil right). At what was a ‘superb do’ that I had not realised Phil was attending, we linked up again and through gales of laughter the years rolled away..!

It seems like only yesterday that Phil & I were working together on the Jack Hargreaves’ shows, (and also enjoying a riotous skiing holiday in Westerndorf, Austria in the first mid-shoot break!) and as we left Nobby’s bash we all made a pact to meet up again on the basis that none of us is getting any older and the only time we have spied each other of late was from opposite aisles at funerals… not a good state of affairs by any stretch of the imagination!

Happy to say we’ve now had our first ‘geriatric lad’s night’ out at the local watering hole: The Phoenix Inn, in my village of Twyford (at which the photo albums came out) and apart from the laughter resulting from comparing lack-of-hair and me being accused of actually dying my hair.. bloody cheek!.. plus a measuring of ever-expanding waist-lines (on some!), we also recalled some of the shoots we did… a couple I don’t recall even being on..that’s age for you!

Since then we have started to slowly catch up on our disparate lives via text ahead of our next monthly meet-up, (at which we are hoping to have 3 more mates from the past join us to also exchange wig-length & ‘beer belly’ statistics), and a surprising thing for me in meeting up again was to learn that Phil’s son Ollie Wade has become a very talented singer… his dad Phil was always a dab hand as a singer-songwriter and he’s obviously passed this skill on to his lad..!

Some of our old group back in our pre-television days had varying rock careers in the music biz: the second band I drummed for, ‘Adam West and The Gotham City Rockers’, lasted for a few very successful years on the local circuit here on the South Coast (during which time Nobby, unbeknownst to me at the time as an aspiring TV cameraman, actually looked after our lighting & gig poster design)… there’s a very spooky early crossing of later lives for you..!

I’m embarrassed to admit now that I was totally unaware of him in those heady times, yet years later he has happily become one of my closet buddies.. In fact we all had great fun in our early, if short-lived, disparate musical careers and though some came closer to a recording contract than others, reality dawned and we realised we had to get proper jobs, (if you can call television & radio a ‘proper job’!)

However it is obviously a case of what is in the genes is almost always passed on and in Ollie Wade I am thrilled to have seen on You Tube, (so yes all this Social media is working & interlocking our lives), what an absolutely superb singer he is, possessed of a very haunting delivery and indeed look.. and those of us who know Phil well can see his dad in him.. very ‘mini-me’. Though I don’t get involved in any promotion of up & coming musicians or media-types these days, (as I feel it is just too much like today’s short-cut reality TV to those of us who spent years practising, gigging, learning our craft and driving to & from myriad venues late at night in battered transit vans, dreaming of an album deal.. or even, gasp, a rare appearance on TV), however with Ollie, this is a very different kettle of fish..!

I linked into his superb You Tube pages yesterday to see B/W footage of his latest cover ‘Say Something’ (which I’d never heard until yesterday, but most spookily yet again, has just come on the radio as I write..how weird and how prescient is that ?) and I am genuinely blown away by his obvious talent.. and I urge you, if you have a moment, to make the link yourself and listen in to this brilliant young man sing..what a voice..his parents Phil & Nicky must be so proud of him...and rightly so!

I pray he doesn’t go down the television wannabe route and be used & abused by the music industry as with so many previous ‘one-hit wonders’ (or X-Factor winners as they are now known!), but gets picked up by trusted music-career professionals and bags a ‘proper’ recording deal for, with his obvious talents, I know Ollie Wade is a star of the future..and remember… you heard it here on the Tomahawk Films’ Blog… go for it Ollie!

….now, where’s that hilarious Facebook photograph of a Boxer puppy driving a German armoured car..?

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

A Hurricane Downed over Guernsey..!

When wandering the tranquil lanes & backwaters of the beautiful islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey it is sometimes hard to believe, especially on a drowsy, sunny, early Autumnal day that, between 1940 & 1945 this Crown Dependent landscape was occupied by the military forces of Hitler’s Third Reich!

Indeed sometimes amidst the peace & quiet of these intrinsically agricultural islands you could be fooled into thinking the Bailiwick had been completely untouched by war and that the sound of heavily studded boots and the clinking of German mess-tins on gas-masks and lusty voices raised in soldier-song on these narrow lanes was all but a fantastic dream..!

However although the Channel Islands are dotted with some very serious German fortifications, (some of which were doomed to be destroyed post-war until it was realised the civilian-commissioned demolition teams were to be beaten by the sheer amount of concrete involved), it is only when you visit some of the well kempt graveyards or see the myriad memorials in the occupation museums or renovated German military sites & locations that you realise that it did indeed happen…and how!

As to be expected, there was a large human cost involved despite this ‘benign occupation’ as the late Guernseyman Frank Stroobant called it and the German cemetery at Fort George is both another place of ‘pilgrimage’ for me as well as being a part of the closing sequence in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied.

Here, high up on the cliffs overlooking St Peter Port, some 113 German graves lie with full public access and where one can see headstones of some 19 Kriegsmarine matelots, 88 soldiers & 4 German merchant seaman killed, some as the result of Allied assaults and some of illness or natural causes during the years of occupation. All of these graves all beautifully tended & manicured by locals and a paternal eye is also kept by the German War Graves Commission, however there would have been many more German graves across the Bailiwick but for a concerted effort by the German authorities in the 1960s to exhume and repatriate many bodies of former serving Wehrmacht and Organisation Todt personnel from the Bailiwick.

Slightly macabre evidence of this very sombre act can be seen today in Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest.. sight of which I must admit rather stops me in my tracks and causes more than a few moments of quiet thought! But why some bodies were removed and re-interred in military graves in France & Germany, whilst the 113 in St George were left quietly in this most stunning of locations, I have yet to find out… it may be that by the 1960s their families were now stranded behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany or their families were no longer around… or maybe that their surviving loved-ones thought it perhaps best to leave them quietly at rest here in this most peaceful location on Guernsey.

However it is a further contemplative moment when you wander amongst these many German headstones in St George’s cemetery and note the varying ages of those lying here: from late teens to late 40s/early 50s, plus the varying ranks & branches of service of those former servicemen laid to rest here. Indeed there is a member of the NSKK, (Nazi Germany’s political motoring arm), a Wehrmacht veterinary officer, a Kriegsmarine ships stoker, a Luftwaffe flak gunner, a senior army officer… just casting an eye across this cemetery is a history lesson in itself.

Then, set just atop all of these German headstones that step down in tiers below it, is one of a Canadian pilot, 22 year old Flight Sergeant Biddlecombe RCAF, shot down over the Bailiwick in 1944 when either conducting an air assault on Guernsey’s German fortifications or having baled out when in the vicinity of the islands… and again I am wondering if that, as his family was so far away across the Atlantic, they too perhaps thought it best to also leave his body here in peace on the island of Guernsey.

This then led me on to wondering just how many Allied air crew had actually been killed over the Bailiwick – and the number was surprisingly readily forthcoming: 111. Indeed at Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest there is now a very attractive little propeller memorial to these airmen sited in the corner of his car park as you venture from your car towards the museum entrance as testament to this fact.

When you think about it, 111 is a huge number of lost Allied air-crew even for the  5 years occupation of these islands, (on average just over 22 a year), and a number of these would have come as a result of probing low-level fighter-bomber offensive attacks conducted against the islands by the RAF and USAAF, whilst others, (which would account for the somewhat high number of losses) would be from British, Canadian or US bomber crews shot down on the return legs of their missions over the Ruhr or the Reich’s capital Berlin.

These would undoubtedly have been shot down as they strayed off course and got bounced by Luftwaffe night & day fighters flying from nearby France, or by the ME109s scrambled from Guernsey’s Luftwaffe base. A number would have also been shot down by the many heavy flak crews sited both on the islands and again over the water in France.

Happily not all Allied crew that baled out or crashed over the Bailiwick were killed… and I am indebted to my pal Major Evan Ozanne, late of the Guernsey Tourist Board and more recently editor of his former parish’s newsletter ‘Les Tortevalais’, who told me of a Hawker Hurricane pilot that baled out over the island early on in the war and the tale surrounding the pilot’s family who had recently come to Guernsey looking for information on his war-time escapades!

Lesley Sutherland and her husband Alastair had flown over to the Bailiwick from their home in Glasgow, intent on researching the story of her father, Robert Stirling, who crashed off Lihou island during the war. Staying at a local hotel they picked up Evan’s magazine and there, before her eyes, was her father’s story as penned by Evan … and a subsequent meeting up with him and thence with Simon Hamon from the Channel Island Occupation Society (Guernsey) added more vital information to their research.

It transpires that Robert Stirling was a 23 year old Sergeant-Pilot with 87 Squadron RAF flying a Hurricane Mk1 on a night-intruder patrol from its base in South West England in the vicinity of the Channel Islands on the night of April 11th/12th 1941, when his plane actually ran out of juice over the Bailiwick. Making a swift decision to try to force-land at Guernsey’s airfield unfortunately the Luftwaffe heavy flak crews defending the air-field opened fire on his Hurricane and Robert decided to bale out instead of being shot down and safely came down on the end of his parachute onto the tiny all-but inhabited island of Lihou just off the south-west corner of Guernsey.

Fortunately it was low-tide so he made his way back across the causeway to the mainland and, surviving both a German minefield and a mined road, walked to the nearest house he could find, that of Mr Tom Brouard who took him in and gave him a cuppa, (of bramble tea no doubt!).

With an island-wide night curfew and Tom having no ‘phone Robert was given bed and in the morning, he gave himself up to the German authorities… and Tom? Well sadly for all his endeavour the Germans gave him 4 weeks in prison for harbouring a British fugitive… despite not being able to inform the authorities that the downed RAF pilot was with him..! and that might have been the end of the story but for Robert’s daughter Lesley who, later in their holiday, was chatting to Marion Henry at the Bruce Russell Gold & Silversmith showroom and mentioned the purpose of their trip.

She showed Marion Major Ozanne’s magazine article and said she & her husband had learned that a Mr Tom Brouard had sheltered her father on that fateful night he was shot down…to which Marion replied:’Tom was my uncle’…a very small world if ever there was..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013       (Robert Stirling photos courtesy: The John Goodwin CIOS Archive)

Kalamazoo’s ‘Air Zoo’ Michigan USA…

Standing in the shower this morning listening to Chris Evans’ BBC Radio Two breakfast show I was fascinated to hear the studio take a call from a ‘weekend display’ pilot of a veteran aircraft, talking about the cockpit of a former de Havilland Vampire jet, (the second jet-fighter to enter RAF service, just missing out on WW-II), that he had sitting on his drive-way!

Bought ‘on impulse’ at an auction of a former independent aircraft museum up north that had ‘gone west’ and was subsequently having to sell off all its wonderful exhibits, including a number of original aircraft cockpits of varying hues & conditions, the chap had bought this particular decrepit cockpit, restored it and was now looking for a museum that would like to take it away from his driveway and have it on display for other enthusiasts to enjoy.

With my other ‘great historical love’ being Second World War vintage aircraft this radio exchange immediately called to mind a superbly displayed ‘front half’ of a twin-engined, USAAF B-26 Marauder bomber, (an aircraft that had operated with great distinction from UK airfields and flew in the skies above Germany during the Allied heavy bombing campaign of WW-II), that I saw at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington on one of my many US trips… and my mind then drifted further to another superb air museum that I was also very lucky to have seen on another of my exciting US jaunts:

Whilst over on another US Veterans’ gathering as a result of the treasured contacts I had made when travelling with the US 79th Infantry Division on their pilgrimage back to Normandy’s D-Day beaches in 2000, I was staying with my great mates up in the stunningly beautiful state of Michigan, when it was suggested that I might like to visit the Kalamazoo Zoo.. (and yes, Kalamzoo does actually exist – it’s not just a song..!)

Thanking my hosts (the Brantingham family), for their suggestion and imagining what strange North American wild-life might be housed within: Moose? the odd Raccoon? or perhaps even evidence of the original Big Foot?… I was soon put right!  We were indeed talking about an exotic collection… of ‘cats’…for the small, friendly American town of Kalamazoo is home to the Flight of Cats, a mind-boggling collection of Grumman fighter aircraft lovingly restored and displayed on the edge of the town’s small airport.

Opened in 1979 with nine aircraft, the Air Zoo was the brainchild of war-time ferry pilot Sue Parish and husband Pete. A former member of the American Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service, Sue’s own Curtiss P40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft, (after which our archival company Tomahawk Films is named), is on show complete with its ‘lipstick pink’ paint-work. The pink hue was originlly the ‘planes undercoat showing through its 1942 desert livery and today is one of the star attractions of this much loved fighter collection.

Excitingly, the whole of the illustrious Grumman fighter family is on display at the Zoo: from the famous US Navy carrier-borne fighters of the Pacific War, the Wildcat, the Hellcat and the Bearcat, through to the F7 twin-engined Tigercat that just caught the end of World War two, but which distinguished itself as a night-fighter in the Korean War, up to the modern day and the awe-inspiring and beautiful front-line carrier-borne F14 Tomcat, an example on loan from the US Navy’s ‘Fighting 84t.h’ Squadron.

Far more than just a collection of static aircraft, the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, (much like our very own Imperial War Museum’s Airfield of Duxford, where our SFX CD Sounds of War, offering a number of original WW-II aero-engine sounds is on offer), is actually a living, breathing museum, with a daily display flight by one of their restored aircraft, a comprehensive reference library & education centre and a fully working aircraft restoration and renovation department.

With over 70 aircraft on display, museum guests will find a small, dedicated team of ‘Docents’ (tour guides), drawn from a collection of war-time pilots, including Canadian Bill Clearly who flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain with Tangmere-based 601 Squadron. Known as ‘Pranger’ due to several mishaps whilst with a ‘Mossie’ squadron, Bill was eventually credited with four kills in the Battle and ended his war flying Lysanders on spy-drop missions behind enemy lines in Northern France.

In fact the log-books of many of these formally-trained museum guides read like a plane-spotter’s dream; from ‘Black Widows’ to the amazing F82 ‘double-mustang’ from the B25 Mitchell bomber to the P39 Aircobra and all these animated, former fighter pilots are eager & willing to share their amazing war-time experiences with the visitors.

I must admit that in chatting to one of these, now elderly, gentlemen, I finally found out where the phrase ‘the whole 9 yards’ actually comes from: apparently early machine-gun belts in the wings of Allied fighter aircraft were 27 feet long and when returning pilots were greeted by the armourers, if the pilot had expended all of his ammunition, the ground-crew opening up the gun-ports would exclaim: ’well he certainly shot the whole 9 yards..!’

Many similar nuggets of information were forthcoming and such is the importance placed on learning that the Zoo has appointed an education director, Gerard ‘Jerry’ Pahl, who showed me their Restoration operation at the centre of which was an amazing project: the rebuild of one of the X-planes. In fact the XP-55 ‘Ascender’  which Jerry proudly pointed out is the last surviving example and, as an affiliate of the Washington Smithsonian Institute, the Air Zoo was tasked with its important renovation upon behalf of the American nation.

Maintaining another local connection is the on-going restoration project to restore a superb Douglas SBD Dauntless naval carrier-borne dive-bomber that was recovered from the bottom of the nearby Lake Michigan. During the war, local paddle steamers were pressed into military service and converted into training carriers upon which Dauntless naval aviators could practice the hazardous business of carrier landings & take-offs; however some 300 aircraft were lost into the lake during this training period and many still lie in the silt at the bottom to this day.

However a number of successful recoveries have since been made by aircraft recovery groups and the Air Zoo now has one of these rare aircraft in the main hall alongside its other exciting exhibits, which also includes a flying version of the Bell P39-Q Aircobra in the markings of the 67th US pursuit squadron… one of the world’s only 3 surviving airworthy examples of the 9,585 originally built.

World War Two aircraft buffs & students of US Naval carrier history passing through this lovely Great Lake State would be well rewarded with a stop-over at Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo and its amazing collection of combat aircraft… I certainly was!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013