REACH FOR THE SKY
Bomber Boys: The Fighting Lancaster
A 4 x 1-hour Documentary Series
Even sixty years on Joe English can never forget the sight: “Flack clouds
like bowling balls exploding all around us.” The twenty-year-old
farm boy from Nanton, Alberta was skipper of a Lancaster Mk IV known as
“The Lucky H”. Their navigator, Harvey Gottfried, considered “the
best in the business”, had the Lucky H tucked deep in the heart of the
bomber stream as more than 500 aircraft wallowed through the German skies
on their way to bomb Berlin. The Ju-88s were up in force that day
and Joe watched as plane after plane exploded in a brilliant flare of yellow
and orange. “If it wasn’t for Harv…we’d have been picked off like
a blind gopher,” Joe remembers decades later.
What’s remarkable about Joe’s story is how ordinary it seemed at the
time. Joe was simply doing his job. He had just turned twenty
and had never kissed a girl but he went to war to serve his country, to
fly with his buddies, and with luck – to meet some women.
The guys on the crew of the Lucky H were just a few of the tens of thousands
of young airmen who emerged from World War Two’s most remarkable program
– the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Winston Churchill
said the air campaign was “the decisive factor in the war”. Men like
Joe English waged and ultimately won the war, but it was the BCATP that
gave them the skills to do so.
2005 will be an important time to remember those who served and died
for us. There are just a few precious years left before the veterans
of the great wars will be gone. As we have often heard, more than
they want honours or medals, they want to be remembered. But 60 years
on, how do we connect with the past? Can we find a new way to help
them share their stories?
Reach for the Sky will provide a fresh approach to telling
the story of the BCATP, the bombers and the crews that flew them.
Using a blend of first-person interviews, living history and other more
traditional documentary techniques, the series will give viewers a better
understanding and appreciation for this critical part of the war effort
and a part of the greater context: the history of the Lancasters and their
important role in Bomber Command during the Second World War.
The BCATP was much more than a collection of flying schools. It
was to become the world's largest and most successful system for training
aircrews for military service, prompting President Roosevelt to dub it
the “Aerodrome of Democracy”. Thousands of young men - Canadians,
Americans, British, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and even
some Europeans - descended upon 231 schools across Canada to learn to fly.
The program was one of the largest undertakings of the World War Two, costing
over $2 billion (in 1940s dollars) and churning out over 130,000 graduates.
For those passing through its doors, the program was a challenging and
formative experience. From raw recruits, the men became pilots, navigators,
gunners and wireless operators – but more than that, they became part of
a team that would come to rely on one another for success and survival.
TELLING THE STORY – The
Reach for the Sky will tell the stories of the men who
graduated from the BCATP and risked – and sometimes lost - their lives
over occupied Europe. We will focus primarily on bomber crews especially
those who flew the magnificent Lancaster heavy bomber – aircraft such as
the Lucky H.
Joe English flew his aircraft on some of the most dangerous ops of the
war. Hamburg - Berlin - Dresden - the Keil Canal - Joe and his crew
survived thirty wartime raids over Germany. Remarkably six of these
seven brave men are still alive and willing to share these experiences.
The stories of their time at war will provide the storytelling spine for
our series and give us a chance to explore these different missions and
their impact on the timeline to the ultimate Allied victory.
Joe’s crew offered a cross-section of 1940s Canada. Joe,
young and handsome, came from middle-class Calgary; his navigator – fast-talking
Harv Gottleib – was the son of a Hamilton jeweler. Harv earned the
admiration of all when he smuggled a film camera onto their operational
base in England to record “illegal” home movies. Burke Thompson came
from a BC ranch and was considered a crack-shot. The mid-upper
gunner, Burke once decided not to shoot down a German nightfighter at the
mercy of his guns because he “had a bad feeling”. The sensible one on board
was flight engineer Jack Munday, who was so accurate with his fuel calculations
that the Lucky H once ran out of gas on the taxiway - just after
landing on its home field. Bomb aimer Ernie Croteau, rear gunner
George Stowe and the wireless operator, Mike Chalk, an Englishman who still
resides in the UK today, rounded out the crew. Only Stowe is deceased,
having passed away in 1997.
These courageous men will be interviewed at length and by using home
movies, letters to family members, personal photographs and archival footage,
our audience will experience what Joe and his crew saw first-hand: the
rigour of the BCATP training regime, the camaraderie of the English operational
bases and the terror of the German night skies.
In addition to this “core” group of veterans, our documentary series
will also include the voices of other veterans. Our research team
has identified approximately 20 surviving aircrew that may be included.
These are men with colourful and amazing stories - such as Reg Paterson,
who escaped from a dying aircraft by cutting his way through his cockpit
roof with a fire axe and parachuting down to safety. Or rear-gunner
Ken Davis who was rendered unconscious when his Lancaster exploded and
awoke to find himself plummeting towards the earth. Their stories
are ones of heroism and survival but our program will also tell some more
of the tragic stories as well.
10,347 Canadian men gave their lives in the service of Bomber Command.
Virtually all of these men began their BCATP training with the youthful
excitement and sense of adventure that Joe English and his crew did.
THE LIVING HISTORY COMPONENT
Reach for the Sky will utilize a limited amount of Frantic
Films’ successful “living history” production technique. Seven carefully
selected young men will participate in a 1940s-style BCATP training program.
All the recruits will begin their experience in the historic location
of Picton, Ontario, the best preserved BCATP site in Canada. There
they will learn to march, salute and “enjoy” air force rations. Like
the men generations before, they will learn to identify plane silhouettes.
After trying out one of the earliest flight simulators, the Link Trainer,
they will gear up for the excitement of their first flight in a Tiger Moth,
one of the original planes used in the Elementary Flight Training Schools.
They’ll also learn techniques such as dead reckoning and celestial navigation
and operate some of the antiquated communication systems used by wireless
operators. Like the bomb aimers and air gunners before them, they
learn about the weapons of the time and will even strip, assemble and practice
target shooting with period machine guns.
After “graduating” from their BCATP experience, our group of young men
will join the Joe English crew for a truly remarkable opportunity.
They will fly in one of the two remaining airworthy Lancaster Bombers –
and our cameras will document the moment. For the living history
boys, this flight promises to be an exciting ride…but for Joe English and
his crew it will be a deeply moving and personal event.
The recruits will share their personal moments through video diaries
and letters home as they describe the challenges of their first-hand experiences.
A Historical Authority Board comprised of historians and experts in the
field will ensure the series recreates these elements of the BCATP experience
in the most authentic way possible.
After experiencing the selected elements of the BCATP our living history
group will travel with Joe English and his crew to Europe and the United
Kingdom to learn about the final stages of their training and to visit
the places Joe and his friends knew when they were the same age as our
Although this documentary series will incorporate living history elements,
unlike past Quest programs, it will use more archival footage and feature
interviews that mirror the experiences of our young men. While past
Quests have recreated some incredible experiences there is no way to credibly
recreate the experience of war. As a result, the living history elements
will be a much smaller part of the series, but will nevertheless serve
an important purpose – to create a shared experience between the generations.
This will be the first time that two generations will connect in this way
and the audience will be able to understand the impact of the Plan as they
will see the old and the young come together to discuss the experiences
they now both have in common.
A LONELY GRAVEYARD IN
Joe English did not escape the war unscathed…among the many he knew
who died was his brother-in-law, who was also a Lancaster crew member.
His aircraft was shot down over Belgium; he and his crew died. The
force of the crash was so horrific their bodies were flung far and wide
– it was not until weeks after the crash that the corpse of Joe’s brother-in-law
was finally found and buried in a small Belgian village.
Following our filming in England, Joe, his crew, and the living history
recruits will be brought to Belgium to pay their respects to Joe’s long
dead relative. In a tastefully produced scene both generations will
remember the many that died in the air war. This solitary grave will
symbolize the war dead of all nations – but in particular it will speak
to the sacrifice of Canadians.
At this point in the program the script will “reveal” that the scene
has a particular relevance for our living history cast as well as for Joe
English. The audience will learn that some members of the young group
are direct descendents of Joe and his crew – in fact, one of the boys will
be Joe’s grandson – while some of the other living history team will be
descendents of aircrews who died in Europe during the war. We will
then see the burial sites of all these relatives and watch the old and
the young pay their respects to the dead.
Both crews, both generations, will stand united in their BCATP experience
and their respect for the lost family members and Canada’s war dead.
Joe’s last mission was one he’ll never forget. It was a mission
At the end of April 1945, the Lucky H forsook bombs in favour of bread
as Joe and hundreds of other Canadian airmen dropped food supplies to starving
Dutch communities along a special corridor negotiated by the Allies with
the Germans. Archival footage of the mission plus family photographs of
the actual food drop will set-up a hopeful ending to our series as Joe
and his crew plus the living history cast will visit one of the communities
who benefited from Operation Manna.
There they will meet the families who survived on this desperately need
food and be celebrated by the community they saved.
Sixty years have now passed since Joe English flew the Lucky H and the
boys who fought in the war are now old men in the twilight of their time.
The Lancaster in which they will fly for one last time is a symbol of their
courage and their youth. The sound of its engines and the lift of
its wings will carry them back to a time when they were young and strong
and life held endless possibilities.
On the 65th anniversary of the BCATP’s creation and the 60th anniversary
of the end of the war in Europe (May 8, 2005), our series will honour those
who participated in the Plan, remember those who gave their lives and pay
homage to the important role that bomber command played in winning the
Second World War.
Our living history team will allow this experience to be shared by today’s
generation. It will establish respect and understanding for the world
of their grandfathers and the choices made when they were young.
As the world remembers in 2005, Reach for the Sky will
celebrate one of the most important and least told stories of the War while
honouring those who were so critical to the Allied victory.