Movie Stunt Pilot: Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards…

I can well recall the great excitement I felt when, back in 1969, my mother took my brother & I into Winchester’s Theatre Royal during our long summer holidays to watch the new Guy Hamilton-directed movie: ‘The Battle of Britain’.

It was my first real experience of a major World War Two motion picture up on the ‘big screen’… and, oh boy, what an action-packed film it was, (still is in fact), and it really was the talk of my school and amongst all of my other pals that had similarly also seen the movie during their holidays!

Once back at school after the break, as well as talking about the movie we’d all seen and thoroughly enjoyed during the summer, there was then the added excitement of the swaps & trades of the associated chewing gum ‘cigarette cards’ doing the rounds that were issued to co-incide with the movie’s release. Based on the myriad official press stills from the movies,  I remember that my young pals and I soon had our fill of the revolting, bland gum contained within the packs that new school term as we laboured hard to collect all of the fantastic cards in the series..!

At the time I had absolutely no inkling whatsoever that I would, a lifetime later, actually be standing in a huge aircraft hanger over in deepest Texas clambering over & around the actual Messerschmitt Bf-109s and lead Spitfire from the movie and interviewing the chief stunt pilot in charge of all the American ‘crop dusters’ who flew the vintage fighters in the movie!

One of the reasons for my Texan trip all those years later was to interview an ME-109 pilot, however unfortunately the fighter that was due to be at the Confederate Air Force’s annual weekend show at its air-base at Midland-Odessa had been forced to ditch somewhere in the desert en route to the show. Mercifully, though the pilot was OK, the plane wasn’t thus leaving me casting my eyes around for another opportunity, if that were at all possible.

Then somebody asked me if I knew of Connie Edwards…”Connie who?” I asked in dreadful ignorance…to be told that not only had Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards’ been the lead stunt pilot on The Battle of Britain, but he also owned about a dozen or so of the movie’s Spanish-built ME-109s… and he lived just a 50 mile drive from Midland…

Connie’s number was found and I made a tentative call that was answered by a bluff voice that immediately mellowed when he heard my English voice. Apparently Connie was not in the habit of giving media interviews but as an ‘Anglophile’ said he’d would love to meet me if I would to come out to his ranch. So the following day, hire-car booked, I found myself on the highway driving out to Big Spring looking for his ranch, not realising that it was nearly half the size of Texas..!

I still remember the look on the faces of the construction workers on the side of a very hot & dusty road in the middle of nowhere when I stopped, wound down the car window and politely asked, (in something of an ‘Oxford-English’ accent), if they would kindly point me in the direction of Connie’s ranch..!

Once found, I began the long drive from the highway over hill & dale all through huge cotton fields to a long air-strip with massive hangers and, parking up, I walked over to the nearest and opening a small door, stepped in out of the blistering heat to see a huge Catalina flying boat and the backsides of two men in overalls bending over tinkering with some engine part on the floor.

Mr Edwards?” I called out and up popped Connie, typical farmer’s oily dungarees, a grimy baseball hat to the back of his head and a grin from ear to ear…”Welcome boy…c’mon in and have a beer’..the warm Texan greeting I was beginning to get used to in this wonderful part of America. After our initial chat and introductions he invited me to jump into his old pick-up truck outside and, (accompanied by the most ferocious looking ‘attack dog’ I had ever seen that alarmingly jumped in behind me and stuck its head between the two front seats and slavered alarmingly near my right ear), we shot across the tarmac strip to another equally large hanger.

Here again stepping inside out of the searing noon-day heat, as my eyes slowly accustomed to the gloom I was met by the most incredible sight… a’ multiple plane crash’ with parts of ME-109s all over the shop, wings here, fuselages there, tails hanging from the roof… what on earth had just happened..?

Seeing my confusion, Connie quietly explained that for the movie in ’69, the production company had spent years scouring the world looking for the required ME-109s, few if any remaining in Germany. However the Spanish had been a customer of Messerschmitt during their Civil War and had acquired a number of the latest ME-109s in the late 30s, including a rare 2-seat trainer used, post-war WW-II, by a Spanish Air Force Colonel, and these had continued to fly into the 1950s and early 1960s.

Producer Harry Saltzman had managed to buy all of the ME-109s, (plus several still-flying Heinkel-111s), from the Spanish Government and these, with Rolls Royce replacement engines fitted, were the planes used in the aerial action scenes.

Connie was tasked with gathering together a ‘squadron of bush pilots’ to come over to Europe and fly most of the aircraft, including the Spitfires that we now see on screen… in fact Connie took the lead Spitfire role and so it was even more of a school-boy dream when we wandered into the next hanger to see the actual Spitfire standing there, albeit covered in dust & grime, before my eyes… but as I was still reeling from seeing so many of the movie aircraft from my youth standing here in various states of disrepair, my first questions to Connie had to be: “why and how..?”

Apparently, according to Connie, the finished movie that we now regularly see on TV was not quite the film that was due to be eventually shown as much of the air sequences ended up on the cutting-room floor and indeed as the film company was running short of money, a number of short-cuts were taken. So when it came to being paid off, such was the shortage of money that Connie, (so obviously a fabulously wealthy oil-billionaire), simply said ‘fine, I’ll take the aircraft as IOUs’… and he actually had all of the ME-109s plus the two lead Spitfires subsequently crated up and shipped back home to Texas in lieu of his movie payment!!!

Unbelievably, in a third hanger I saw through the further gloom a pair of sleek, but completely dust-covered, piston-engined fighter aircraft in an unusual gray & green camouflage: and when I looked closer my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I realised I was actually looking at 2 World War Two-era USAAF P.51 Mustangs..!

Again Connie saw my querying expression and answered, “yep, two original Mustangs: I flew them in the Nicaraguan Civil War and they couldn’t pay me either… so I had these two beauties shipped home as well!”

I have to say in all of my working life I have never met such a character as Connie, he was truly a Texan one-off and my time with him and his WW-II aircraft was just out of this world… but the strangest thing was yet to come. I was already being to realise that I was in the company of both a kindly man and a true eccentric and bordering on eccentric myself I certainly recognise the signs. However having taken me on a tour of the ranch and then walked me out, chest-high, into the middle of a cotton field (and when I enquired what the rattling noise near my feet was, told. “Oh that’s just a rattle-snake!” Jeez, I never realised I could move so fast!!), he calmly asked me if I’d like to take a look at the ’house’ he was building?

By now I was ready for anything, or so I thought, and after another drive  we crested a hill and there before me… was a half-built Camelot! Connie had become so enamoured of our history during his time in the UK that on his return to Texas he set about building himself a true English castle – even down to building himself a ‘castle brick-making machine’..!

A guided-tour of this castle, (including a visit to his office to see photos on every wall of him in the cockpit of almost every fighter aircraft you could imagine), eventually led me to a huge oak wooden door through which was Camelot HQ, a huge hall with minstrel galleries & shields & lances on every wall, a massive banqueting table and even an entrance down on the rock floor through which you could swim from his outside pool, dive under the outer wall and come up in the main baronial hall..!

By this time I was beginning to wonder if the heat was getting to me as I continued to wander in stunned fashion after Connie around his castle… seeing all those original WW-II fighter aircraft in his hangar was one thing, but this was another.

However there was one final joke to come from this jovial ‘Anglophile’:.. leading me down an old, dark  passage-way in the stygian gloom, we came up against another a massive old door.. “go on son, open it up…” Connie grinned, as he stepped back to let me through…

Gripping the huge wrought iron handle I opened the door and pushed the heavy weight inwards accompanied by a real ‘Hammer House of Horror’ squeal of rusty hinges… to be faced with a mass of cobwebs, and pushing through the dust & muck I realised I was in an ‘old’ wine cellar. Connie came past me and reached for a bottle and pulling it down off the dusty rack, blew away the cobwebs to proudly show me the bottle label… with last months’ date on!

Connie had only gone and built himself a cobweb-making machine as well… and there I was thinking it was only we Brits that were so wonderfully eccentric..!

Truly an incredible day… truly an incredible man..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

The Nazi Occupation of Jersey 1940-1945…

Like many of my generation I suspect, the earliest awareness I had of the very beautiful British Channel Islands was from watching the always superb, Jersey-located, ‘Bergerac’  that was a regular staple of our television viewing back in the 1980s, (and which still holds up as a gripping police detective series in its many outings on the various history satellite channels today… but oh boy, in that pre-mobile phone, pre-computer era, doesn’t everybody now look so young?).

As with a lot of folk back, then I merely assumed that all of the Channel Islands were one single entity, not realising at the time that the Bailiwick of Guernsey, (containing the 7 islands of Guernsey, Alderney, Herm, Sark, Jethou, Lihou & Brecqhou), were actually one governmental or administrative grouping, whilst the Bailiwick of Jersey stood aaprt from the others as a completely seperate island, complete with its own parliament, laws & bank-notes and so forth; a slighty strange anomaly the roots of which can be traced back to when both Bailiwick’s, (the word meaning the ‘area over which a Bailiff has jurisdiction‘), were on opposing sides during the English Civil War.

Originally part of the Duchy of Normandy back in the 10th century, the Channel Islands were constantly fought over by England & France in many ensuing mediaeval wars, during which their ownership changed hands on more than one occasion: indeed pre-1945 the majority of all Channel Islanders spoke French, or more accurately, a fascinating local Patois that it is still possible to catch being spoken in certain parts of the two larger islands today.

But it was during the English Civil War that the distinct fault lines began to appear within the islands as the population of Guernsey’s sympathies lay firmly with the Parliamentarians whilst nearby Jersey remained staunchly Royalist… and it is these deep-set divisions that still appear to underpin  inter-island relationships albeit today it is, happily, more of a friendly rivalry between the two Bailiwicks which, as Crown Dependencies, are a part of the British Isles, though not part of the United Kingdom or the EU… (lucky them!)

However during the Second World War, the story of their German Occupation was more or less the same and both Bailiwicks went through identical untold hardships, had huge German garrisons stationed there between 1940 & 1945 .Furthermore both had their landscapes dramatically transformed forever thanks to the massive German ‘Organisation Todt’ fortification building programme that turned these most beautiful & hitherto peaceful islands into the most heavily fortified part of Adolf Hitler’s massive ‘Atlantic Wall’.

So when faced with documenting these islands in my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ and having only the limited budgets available, decisions had to be made as to which islands I would, or could, actually focus on… and despite having a number of friends and valued Tomahawk Films’ customers on Jersey, (a most beautiful island in its own right), tough financial decisions finally came down to my eventually shooting on Guernsey & Alderney.

Though I am relieved that this ultimately proved to be the right financial decision for Tomahawk, with my film, (I’m proud to say), now a very well received & highly respected documentary, it nevetheless always niggled me a little in that I could not give over as much of the story to Jersey’s specific experiences as I would have liked, in terms of physically filming there.

Nevertheless Jersey is very much a part of my story and I am therefore ever grateful for a wonderful comment later made by Michael Ginns MBE, Hon. Secretary of Jersey’s Occupation Society, who generously & most kindly opined of my documentary: “Congratulations on a very neat production: first class and much more honest & factual than some of the rubbish we’ve had to endure on television lately..!”

However in order that I might try to correct the possible ‘shooting imbalance’ of my film,  some years later I directly approached Jersey’s Tourist Board, showed them my documentary and asked if I could produce something similar for them but which had much more of a direct ‘Jersey focus’ to it?

Sadly I was met with a something of a rebuff… so did not pursue that idea any further as my documentary was continuing to sell in huge numbers in Jersey, not least through the fabulous German Underground Hospital, (now renamed Jersey War Tunnels), at St Andrews and the superb private museum down on the coast at St Ouen, owned & run by Damien Horn. So I felt that there was perhaps enough sales evidence to convince me that I had roughly got the story right for all of the differing Channel Islands and their incredible shared war-time German occupation history.

But it was still a real delight when I was approached by David Williams who called Tomahawk Films to say that he was putting together a film called ‘Stars on the Landscape’.  In it he would be taking a highly detailed look at the surviving German fortifications on Jersey that volunteer CIOS members were working very hard to lovingly restore and open up to their islands’ many visitors each summer season and could he use some of the period music from our Tomahawk Films’ WW-II German Archive for his sound-track..?

We were indeed able to supply him with some tracks from our biggest selling Third Reich/Nazi-era CD ‘The Military Music of Adolf’s Hitler Leibstandarte-SS’ but then a  thought occurred to me: around this time Tomahawk was in the process of going from video to DVD and ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ was going to be permanently transferred to this new format, but at 50’ long I thought this was a bit short for this new format that always seemed to be around 90’ and required additional extras such director’s cuts and ‘behind-the-scenes’ formats etc.

So I suggested to David that if  I also offered to record the voice-over for ‘Stars on the Lanscape’, in addition to supplying the Musikkorps SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ music tracks for his sound-track, could Tomahawk obtain the rights to his wonderful film and effectively offer it as a second ‘bonus film’ on our newly transferred to DVD ‘Channel Islands Occupied’?

Happily he agreed and so Tomahawk Films re-edited our production to offer ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ as 90’ double-documentary release featuring my programme looking, primarily, at the German occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey & Alderney, whilst David’s superb film documented the incredible post-war fortifications that Jersey still boasts… thereby offering that much more comprehensive, historical balance across all of the islands that I had so striven for earlier.

Judging from the terrific and most welcome feedback we are still getting from our myriad Tomahawk Films’ customers around the globe, (along with myriad visitors to the Channel Islands kindly still buying our DVD year in, year out when over on holiday), this was indeed the correct production decision..!

I am now really much happier that ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ combined with David’s ‘bunker-hunting’ production of ’Stars on the Landscape’ now gives ‘equal billing’ to this important German Occupation story cross all islands…

So as they say in certain circles… job’s a good ‘un..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013