‘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

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