How I met Squadron Leader Tony Iveson, by Brian Milton

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.

The Lancaster and the Tirpitz

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.


The Daughter of a War Hero

In the lead up to the 70th anniversary of one of the most impressive raids in British military history, I was privileged to present the official celebratory Dambusters book to Mary Stopes-Roe, the daughter of the heroic Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb.


The diminutive 86 year old warmly welcomed me into her home and as I showed her the book for the first time, she marvelled at how “handsome” it was. Pulling out the items of memorabilia related to her father, her eyes widened in astonishment as she came across the reproduction of his sketch of the bouncing bomb. Mary said she could still visualise her father sitting at the kitchen table sketching “all sorts of things”, but never really knew what he was planning, other than that he was doing “something good for the war effort”.

Mary had never seen any of these documents before and said, “this really is wonderful, to see these items come to the light of day… brings the whole thing back to life”. She was in her early teens, when her father was plotting what would become one of history’s most iconic raids, and described him as being “great fun, always pottering around the house, making up rhymes, inventing things”. She smiled fondly, and picked up a letter that her father had written to the Major where he excitedly outlined his plans. She then turned to another letter from a skeptic who deemed Barnes Wallis’s mission to be impossible. Mary shook her head and laughed as if to say see, he showed them.

The war hero still has a great presence in his daughter’s home, with his magnificent grandfather clock standing proudly in the living room, chiming on the hour.


dambuster_Mary SR with book


Mary pointed to an ordinary looking wooden table in the garden and revealed that it was the table that her father would stand a bath tub on, filled with water and test bouncing marbles! She confessed that she is a hoarder with an attic filled with many more memories. “What’s going to happen to it all?” she wondered aloud, her voice filled with concern. I asked her what was the most precious thing that she had kept, and she disappeared for a few minutes returning with a small piece of lined paper with blue faded writing on it.



The Original Supermodel?

‘By far the best exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art I have seen’ The Guardian

‘The Pre-Raphaelites are revealed as the cutting edge of art’ The Times

With rave reviews like these for The Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, we wanted to find out more about muse, icon and titian-haired ‘stunner’, Lizzie Siddal, from her biographer Lucinda Hawksley.

‘With the success of the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition, Lizzie Siddal and her fellow models and muses are once more back in the spotlight. As Lizzie’s biographer, I often ponder over what she would make of the cult that has grown up around her image and of the legend she has become. I imagine conversations with her, in which I try to explainabout the 21st-century obsession with so-called “celebrities” (most of whom will be forgotten about in a decade’s time), about the weirdness of current ideas of feminine beauty, and about why she remains such a popular figure, despite all that has changed since her lifetime.

Lizzie’s life was short and at times extremely harsh yet this strangely haunting woman has become not only the icon of an artistic movement, she also defines an era in history – unwittingly spawning what is still referred to as “the cult of the redhead”. Her looks challenged and changed the rigid codes of what was considered acceptable female beauty in mid-Victorian Britain. By doing so, she and her fellow models helped to change the very core of female history. Women began to realise that rules and laws were made to be questioned, challenged and often broken.

Ironically, one of the images most commonly associated with Lizzie’s life is Beata Beatrix, which was painted after her death. It was Dante Rossetti’s emotional response to Lizzie’s suicide: a husband working out his grief, guilt and numerous other complex emotions – all translated onto canvas. It is the one painting that Rossetti did of Lizzie while she was not posing in front of him and yet is is the one that most people associate with the woman who took her own life 150 years ago.

I often think of Lizzie in terms of the very firmly 20th-century icon, Marilyn Monroe. Both died young, both still remain icons. If she had lived to grow old and less ethereal, if she had lived a full and happy life to a ripe old age, would Lizzie still be considered an artistic icon today? There were scores of Pre-Raphaelite models, but if you asked someone today to name one of them, they would almost invariably respond with the name “Lizzie Siddal”. Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death, while still at the height of her beauty, has made her far more famous today than her French contemporary – still very much alive – Brigitte Bardot.

Despite all her activism and political savvy, Bardot is far more likely to make the news because she has “lost her looks” than because of her work in the field of animal rights. Whenever I see Bardot mentioned it has nothing to do with her animal rights work, it is is because some sensationalist photographer has taken a picture of her daring to looking her age. In the eyes of the world’s media, Bardot needs to be despised because she has committed the terrible sin of growing older and no longer being “a sex kitten”. Marilyn Monroe and Lizzie Siddal remain icons precisely because they died young. They have never lost the allure of the young and beautiful – and deeply damaged.

This year, 2012, marked the 150th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. Unable to cope with the stillbirth of her daughter, and perhaps knowing she was pregnant again, Lizzie took an overdose of laudanum and died at the age of 32. Ironically, for a time when infant mortality meant that 1 in 3 babies died in infancy (in London), medical understanding of bereavement and grief was almost non existent. Post-natal depression, along with all other forms of depression, was censured simply as “insanity” and treated with harsh cruelty instead of understanding. The grief experienced by a bereaved mother was dismissed just as summarily, women were expected to “get over it” and have another baby as soon as possible. No effort was taken at all to understand what might be happening in the mind of a woman who had nurtured and then given birth to a dead baby.

When Lizzie’s daughter was born dead, it marked the beginning of the end for the model and aspiring artist. One of the most poignant stories I discovered when researching Lizzie’s life was that related by Georgiana Burne-Jones, who recorded that when she and Ned went to visit Lizzie shortly after the tragedy, Lizzie was rocking an empty cradle as though her daughter was sleeping inside and told them not to wake the baby.

I thought of that story in February this year, as a small group of us stood in Highgate Cemetery beside the family grave of the Rossettis – in which Lizzie’s body was interred, despite the fact that none of the family ever approved of her. (Dante Rossetti, by the way, is not buried with them. He left strict instructions at the end of his life that he was not to be buried in Highgate – perhaps fearful of being placed in the grave he had desecrated in order to retrieve the manuscript of his poems, seven years after the death of his wife. So, Lizzie lies there amongst all her disapproving in-laws, without her husband.)

On the 150th anniversary of Lizzie’s death, the cemetery was fittingly beautiful in a blanket of snow under a sky so blue it looked likeBotticelli could have painted it. At the side of the grave, Jan Marsh read some of Christina Rossetti’s poetry, John Waites read poems by Dante Rossetti and I read a couple of poems by Lizzie. It was very emotional and a fitting memorial for a woman whose image still remains such an important part of our cultural history. I like to think that had she been standing behind us, watching us remember her, she would have smiled in that simple way that Rossetti occasionally captured, and perhaps twirled a lock of her famous copper-coloured hair between her fingers.’

Lucinda Hawksley is author of Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, Katey: The Life and Loves of Dickens’s Artist Daughter and, most recently, Charles Dickens about her great-great-great grandfather, Charles Dickens. See Lucinda discussing Dickens and Parliament at Portcullis House on the 21st November

 supermodel_charles dickens_3D LOWRESsupermodel_marilyn packshot AT flatsupermodel_lizzie siddal cover3d

 Follow Lucinda on Twitter – @lucindahawksley

Lucinda’s piece is reproduced with kind permission from

See more about the paintings and Lizzie in this Art Fund video by Lucinda here.

For more information on the Pre Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate click here.