This week, Brian Milton, author of The Lancaster and the Tirpitz tells us how he met Squadron Leader, Tony Iveson and how they came to work together on the book.
In 1986 I was in a meeting of the National Union of Journalists in TV-am, where we were pondering the launch of the ITV breakfast TV station on the Stock Market and wondering how many share options we should ask for, even demand; trade unions were powerful back then. I had spent much of the previous two years in cold and windy mining villages as TV-am’s Industrial Reporter watching Maggie Thatcher destroy the NUM. Then there was a summons from upstairs.
It was from Bruce Gyngell, a large Australian who habitually wore pink shirts and had dispensed with three wives and was in the process of acquiring a fourth, Kathy Rowan, one of TV-am producers and a friend. Bruce had four or five men in his office plotting a wheeze. They were managing the ‘float’ of TV-am on the stock market to pay back some of the money put up by Gyngell’s patron, the legendary investor and gambler Kerry Packer. Their problem was that no one in the City knew anything about TV-am except Anna Ford had thrown a glass of wine over Jonathan Aitken. It was the wrong wine, white instead of red, and the wrong Aitken. It should have been Jonathan’s cousin Tim (‘I just love sacking people’) Aitken, who had dispensed with a number of Ms Ford’s friends, the Famous Five + One. The ‘Famous Five’ were David Frost, Robert Key, Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon and Ms Ford herself, all founders of TV-am. The ‘One’ was Britain’s former ambassador to Washington, Peter Jay, and that may have been the last straw to break the camel’s back that was Ms Ford’s fiery and feminist temper.
It was hardly the basis to sell a company to the public, or the City.
Bruce Gyngell had been advised that the best way of getting known to City investors, and thereby get TV-am shares away in a successful float and trouser a pile of money, was to make a daily programme about the City itself.
What sort of a programme it was to be, no one knew, because there had been no regular City slot in Britain back in 1986 – they are all the rage in the 21st century, but back then I had some difficulty getting an agreed spelling for Nikkei, as in ‘Nikkei Dow’, a measure of the strength of the Japanese stock market
Gyngell roared in his distinctive Australian, ‘Brian, you’re going to set up a financial slot, you’ve got two weeks, if you were an Australian you could do it in two days but you Poms take longer.’
Looking on with approval was one of the men who had come up with this wheeze, a tall, quiet man with a benign smile. I hardly knew who he was, it was Gyngell to mattered to me at that time. It was, though, Tony Iveson, who probably knew more than most PR men where ‘all the bodies were buried’, which may have been why Gyngell hired him and two others like him. In any case, it was Tony’s idea, and I had to make it work.
Two years later, during which time I chose an intemperate moment to have a row with Bruce and resigned, and TV-am had broken the power of the trade unions and was coining money. I went off to fly a microlight aircraft to Australia to celebrate its bicentenary. This was, for ten years, the longest fastest microlight flight in the world. Adventures included being turned upside down and wrecked on a Greek island and gluing it together, and falling into the Persian Gulf with a fuel blockage on Christmas Day in the middle of the Iran/Iraq War. The Iranians attacked two nearby tankers killing seven crewmen during the six hours before I got the microlight out of the water again, but they did not see me.
After other adventures I reached Sydney – only Brisbane by the time of the Bicentenary, sadly – and after touring the Outback to write a book, I returned to England to see how I was going to make a living again for my wife and two young children down in Bristol.
I was in the middle of helping produce a pub quiz programme for Yorkshire TV when, one day, I was phoned, and a smooth voice introduced himself as Tony Iveson. He explained how we had (briefly) met at TV-am, and asked if I would come and talk to his squadron about the Australia flight?
‘I would love to,’ I replied.
No one in British microlighting had asked me to speak about my flight, then being dismissed by Norman Burr, Editor of the official magazine, as ‘the world’s longest ego trip.’
‘What is your squadron?’
‘617,’ he said.
I nearly fell off the chair!
I cannot remember how many times I have seen ‘The Dambusters’ film but it was a lot. I am sure it affected the way I speak, in clipped tones – my father was in the RAF, we were posted every two years, I am a service brat with no regional accent – so I learned to talk by emulating Richard Todd and all those wartime cinema heroes. Now I was going to speak to them. The real thing!
On that night, November 12, 1988, it was the 44th anniversary of 617 Squadron’s sinking of the Tirpitz, and Tony was a kind host to me and my then wife, Fiona Campbell. It was all a bit of a blur. I know so much more about them now than then, but the fact that I was in the same room as the surviving men who broke the Mohne and Eder dams, and sank the Tirpitz, was just astonishing. My talk was too long, and while no one said anything, I still cringe at the thought.
What right had I to go and talk of my ‘adventure’ to such men?
I knew Tony had been on all three raids against the Tirpitz, the more so because his beloved wife Margery told me about the individual bomb plots that night. I also learned that he was one of the 2,946 pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. Tony had been a 21-year old RAFVR Sergeant flying a Spitfire in 616 Squadron when he was shot down chasing a Ju88 over the North Sea. He was rescued by a passing convoy.
From time to time thereafter, I came across Tony. I learned that he and Margery sold up and went to France, I had their address and phone number, but we were not then in regular contact. After TV-am I never again had a ‘proper job’ with a pension. It was always contracts and freelance work.
In 1997 I found the sponsorship to make the first flight around the world in a flexwing microlight, like a large hang glider with a motorbike underneath, and chose a flying companion called Keith Reynolds, who had asked to join me. We wanted a lot of time together before the flight itself, and proposed trips to Corsica, Liechtenstein – our sponsor was Prince Philipp of Liechtenstein – and Berlin. On the flight to Corsica we stopped in Villefranche du Perigord where I have a house, and I found Tony’s phone number and called him. I wanted to visit him the following day and give him a ride in my microlight; I remember him saying dubiously, ‘four engines good, one engine bad’.
Tony told me Margery had died not long before, after having fought cancer for two years. He had sold the French house, and was packing up to go back to England, but I persuaded him to meet us next day at an airfield near Montpelier, west of Marseilles. He gave us lunch, I gave us dinner, we slept in packed-up rooms and the following day I took him up in my beautiful fragile aircraft in clear blue skies. We soared over his local village church at 1,000 feet, circling slowly while he paid his last respects to the wife he had loved for so long.
It was moving to him and I was conscious of the moment. I was the younger man, setting out on a hazardous journey, washing my shield as it were, and sharpening my sword, while Tony, a genuine warrior veteran was saying goodbye to one life, and at 79, preparing for another.
Tony went back to England and some months later met a girl he had once taken to a cricket match when she was a beautiful 14 year-old schoolgirl and he was a BOAC Captain. Mary was the stepdaughter to Tony’s great wartime flying friend ‘Slinky’, and was now a widow. Each had gone on to different lives after that cricket match, but when they met again in Bath, Tony said later, ‘as she walked the few yards across the room to greet me I realised I was, once more, in love.’
I did set off around the world with Keith Reynolds and had numerous adventures. These included being bounced by a Syrian MIG-21, and seven out-landings and an engine change in the Saudi Desert. But Keith abandoned the flight in Siberia and I came back alone. It was during the fifteen minutes of fame afterwards that I was drawn into Tony Iveson’s aviation world – I know he had something to do with it – and it may have been because I was a flyer myself that, when the Lancaster Project came up, I was a name that Tony thought of.
I have learned a lot about his world and that of the other ‘Last Witnesses’ of Bomber Command, and discovered that whatever adventures I aspired to, it was not a big deal compared to what they went through.
The Lancaster and the Tirpitz is out now and available to buy here.