Operation Crowflight 1960 Part Two
Click here for Operation Crowflight 1960 Part One.
The shooting of “Operation Crowflight” was only halfway through the process of producing a finished article ready for broadcasting. After an eventful day at R.A.A.F. East Sale, we had to gear ourselves up for another eventful period post-producing the documentary on Operation Crowflight. It was almost midnight when we got back to the ABC in Melbourne ().
We unloaded the gear and the film, which was picked up by the lab boys who were waiting for us. We went home and slept. Oh! How I slept. We had not eaten more than a sandwich all day. It’s amazing how time passes when you are having fun. It was one of the most enjoyable day’s work I had ever done.
The next morning I went in to see the rushes. One of the rolls of film from the sound camera, with combined optical sound, had been fogged somehow. It was not too bad and we decided to use it. Everything else was perfect. Kirby Rickard’s air to air could have been shot from a purpose-built aerial camera platform, once he settled down.
All the affected departments in the studio had been alerted to our project and had left space and time for us to work. We had a lot of sound to transcribe.
I gave Nandor Jenes, the appointed editor, a run-down of how the film was to go. In fact, it was easy, the edited programme would be in the exact order in which we shot it. Why should we not ? After all, the day progressed with its changing light and shadows. It also made it easier to compile the sequences.
The shots from the U2, (5) 66705, taken with the Bell and Howell, were far better than we could have expected. Ninety-mile beach and Wilson’s Promontory from 70,000 feet. I believe that, at that time, these moving pictures were the first ever to have been taken at such an altitude and then broadcast. After all, what manned aircraft had ever operated at a greater height ?
The actual editing process could not be started until well into the afternoon of Wednesday, December 14th 1960. Thetelevision broadcasts were “trailing” the programme to drag in more viewers.
By mid-afternoon on Thursday 15th December 1960 , Dennis Wahren had laid all the tracks and we were ready for the voice over. Of course this was done by Gerald Lyons, but as he had had so much to say into the camera, and little to say during action sequences, this was restricted to a few pages of script.
When it was over, we sat back and relaxed for the first time. We did not want to view it through, we had seen enough of it.
Colonel Kenneth McCaslin and his second in command together with one of the pilots had been invited to Ripponlea studios to take part in the programme.
The programme started with the film and it was an outstanding success. For the first time, anywhere in the world, close up scenes of the U2 were to be seen. (I now know that a U2 Aircraft was on public display at Patrick Air Force Base in the United States on November 2nd 1960 attended by pilots Herman and Halloran)
The Press, who seemed remarkably ignorant of what was going on at R.A.A.F. Sale, suddenly cottoned on to the subject. It should have a few headlines.
When it was all over, we met up with the Colonel, to say goodbye and to thank him for his co-operation.
He said to me “I am truly amazed that you could have made such a film in such a short time. Do you realise that we have had an Air Force Film Unit working on a documentary for the past eighteen months and they have come up with nothing so far ?”. I said: “Do you mean that this is the first film ever made about the U2s?“.
He said “Indeed it is Sir !” I wondered if that was true, after all, he thought that his were the only U2s operational. I have since seen movie film of U2s shot in 1955, but were they used in a completed film ?
Actual working time on the post production of the programme totalled nine hours.
I often wondered what became of the Colonel. Did he give us more room to manoeuvre than we should have had ? Surely he must have cleared it with the Pentagon before agreeing to let us do it.
I don’t think that any of us realised what we had done, what we had in our possession. To my knowledge the film was never released outside Australia. Except for an excerpt that I will mention later. The A.B.C. could have made a packet from the United States alone if anyone had tried to sell it.
I started to wonder whether anyone would believe what we had done that day and, later, I would have good reason to wonder.
Within a few weeks, I was on board RMS Orcades on my way back to England with my wife, Janet, and my nine-month old son Mark. Fellow passengers were Dennis and Mary Wahren. Dennis had been a senior editor on my staff at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABV2) and had done the track laying on the film.. He was going to England to try to find some job that would better his career.
In March 1961, only twelve weeks after “Crowflight” I was appointed Assignments Manager of British Movietonews in London. My new boss was Paul Wyand who was Production Manager and had been the chief cameraman with the company.
On day one, he gave me the assignments file for 1960 and asked me to go through it to get an idea of the sort of assignments they were involved in. I read it with interest and then came across an assignment at, I believe, R.A.F. West Malling in Kent. What took my notice was that the cameraman had been instructed to take a 400 millimetre lens. The subject was U2.
I took the file to Paul and asked him what the lens was for. He said “Don’t you know, the U2 is a top secret aircraft and we were not allowed inside the perimeter. We had to shoot from the fence”.
I said ”Well, a few months ago, I made a film about the U2s in Australia. I leant on one. We were filming the aircraft from a few feet away”.
He said, “That ‘s not possible, it must have been another aircraft”.
I said “I know the aircraft were U2s”. We agreed to differ.
One has to realise the situation at that time. The U2 was a secret surveillance aircraft only acknowledged with the downing of Gary Powers. A U2 aircraft was on display in the States and we, in Australia, had been given permission to shoot what we liked. There were no restrictions. It seems to me, therefore, that the aircraft, itself, was no longer a subject of secrecy. In England, my boss thought that the aircraft was highly secret and he was a news editor with access to incoming news over a wide area. Perhaps what secrecy there was, and remains to this day, concerns what they were doing up there.
Dennis Wahren found himself a job that exceeded his expectations. He became film editor to John Grierson, sometimes referred to as “Father of the Documentary” and attributed with the coining of the word “Documentary” in relation to film.
Grierson was producing and presenting a weekly programme via Scottish Television called “This Wonderful World”. He was showing the best of documentary production from around the world.
Dennis wrote to me to tell me that they had approached The Australian Broadcasting Commission to get a copy of the film on “Operation Crowflight”. They were successful and it was shown to Grierson.
Some months later, on Saturday 11th November, Dennis wrote to me from Cardiff, where the programme was produced. He wrote inter alia:
Good news at last for you – The Doc likes your film and wants to use it next time. Knowing the Doc this could be in several months time, depending on his whim, but he just may use it immediately…….
………I have informed the Doc that money is paid to you and that is what will happen. Price has not yet been discussed but I would hazard a rough guess at £25. Do not take that as Gospel but I am hoping for at least that amount. Cost of track, say a fiver, you might still get some perks out of it and I shall also try for a direction credit, if you want it……
He refers to a payment to me. I never sought payment. I was never entitled to a payment, which, if there was one, would have been payable to the A.B.C. In fact, I never received any payment (nor did they). He also refers to the “track”. I cannot remember what the problem was, only that we had recorded much of it in a gale-force wind.
Operation Crowflight was included in ‘programme 231’ of This Wonderful World which was recorded on 21st November 1962 and broadcast on Scottish Television (STV) on 4th Dec 1962. The archive, at Sterling University, includes Grierson’s script for the programme and he introduced the film as follows:
“A U2 landed in Britain the other day and I was astonished to hear that they wouldn’t let the cameras look at it. I had the impression the camera wraps were taken off the U2 a couple of years ago. Anyway I thought it was worth while digging out that record and here from Australia is a picture they made, then, of the U2 – with, as you will see, the fullest co-operation of the American Strategical Airforce. The U2, of course, has been in the news over and over again and it is obviously a splendid achievement in the matter of flying higher than high – and there’s a thing about its wide wide wings that takes us back to the soaring visions of Leonardo. But I am presenting this account of the U2 with another notion. These Australians have always been great news-reel reporters. I always think of the Germans as the greatest, the Americans second but certainly the Australians third. Just have a look at this for a piece of news-reel reporting. The story yes but also the heart of the story and no pains spared to make a job of it. I know we are very good at this sort of thing ourselves, both on ITV and BBC, but if the news boys are listening to me, let me tell them that this item was completed from beginning to end in nine hours. That’s what I call first rate reporting. The reporter was Gerald Lyons and the director Terry Gallacher and my complements to both of them.”
(Ref no. Grierson Archive, G8. 28. 13) This statement was kindly provided to me by Karl Magee from the Grierson Archive at Sterling University.
I had been advised beforehand of its broadcast date in England and I told as many people as I could think of.
When Paul Wyand saw what we had done, he could not believe it and he apologised to me for doubting what I had told him.
Having since seen films of the U2s, my one regret is that when we arrived at Sale, the three aircraft were already airborne and I missed the chance to shoot a take-off. This shot, taken from the start of the runway, is one of the most exciting in aviation cinematography. The aircraft at rotation seems to accelerate and shoot up into the stratosphere.
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