Living in the frozen wilds of Newfoundland — as my island home in the middle of the North Atlantic is aptly referred to in Flying the Secret Sky —I am constantly reminded of the challenge that is North Atlantic weather. Planes are frequently grounded in winter storms and, even more so, flights to the island from mainland Canada — big jets with radar, powerful engines and automatic pilot — refuse to even attempt the flight here when even potential weather is forecast. Our storms are indeed notorious: hurricane-like winds, fluctuating temperatures, a swirling mix of the “dark and dirty” conditions that the Ferry Command flyers know all too well.
In 2001 I began researching this incredible story of what I refer to as “a war without war” — a story of danger, romance, adventure and young men who must have felt all the while that the world was their oyster, flying to far-flung locations in the latest aircraft of the day. What moved me most, in all of the interviews that I did with these flyers over the years, was the way they articulated the camaraderie they felt as young men. They really did hold each others’ lives in the balance with every flight: these were experimental flights in often atrocious conditions.
So much of what we can now take for granted in flying the North Atlantic is indebted to the flyers of Ferry Command, who pioneered the air routes, developed North Atlantic weather forecasting and contributed to an understanding of altitudes and air currents. How could their extraordinary story have been lost to the war?
At the 2000 Reunion of the Ferry Command in Gander, Canadian Military Historian Carl Christie launched what was essentially a first “official account” of this wartime operation, entitled Ocean Bridge: the History of RAF Ferry Command. In consultation with Carl Christie, I returned to the original records held at Canada’s Department of National Defense Directorate of History and Heritage, where he had first come across a collection of interview transcripts of the original team that bravely launched the civilian ferry service. What was immediately apparent was that this amazing logistical network that grew from a spirited team of civilians — because of its international scope and ad-hoc beginnings — now had its history held in albums, in scrapbooks, in logbooks and in documents scattered in public and private archival collections throughout the world. This was a wartime operation with, as Carl Christie said, a “military veneer” and its fragmented records are a testament to that, even though many military airmen flew with Ferry Command from the RCAF, the RAF, the USAAF and RAAF, among others.
Field research became indispensable to making this film, as first-hand accounts of what the experience was like flying these missions and living the life of the Ferry Command during the war was the story that Flying the Secret Sky would tell.
It was an honor to meet all of the airmen we interviewed for the film and it was sincerely exciting to hear their stories. We traveled to Saskatoon in Saskatchewan to interview the last surviving member of Captain VanDerKloot’s Commando crew, Flight Engineer John Affleck — who was able to provide amazing detail about Prime Minister Churchill’s missions to Cairo and to Moscow to meet with Roosevelt and with Stalin. Not many people alive today can recount anecdotes involving an array of historic figures including Lord Louis Mount Batten and Sir Anthony Eden. When we interviewed John Affleck he was a spry 91 years of age.
So many film and photographic collections were mined for content related to Ferry Command: from the Imperial War Museum in London, to the San Diego Air and Space Museum; to the holdings of NARA, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Library and Archives Canada, the New England Air Museum, the National Film Board of Canada, the RAF Museum and Archives; the corporate collections of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.,Shell Canada, Canadian Pacific and Aeroports de Montreal; the Washington State University Archives and many others all held precious fragments of the story.
My favorite part of conducting research is always the adventure it brings – in those moments when you are not only sitting with someone who is telling you something that matters very much to them, but you are able to hold a piece of that story in the palm of your hand. In pouring over the logbooks of these men, in unraveling their ‘short snorters’ and trying to make out the signatures of airmen you’ve been lucky enough to meet on each of the bills — in leafing through photo albums and linking together different pieces of the same story told from another perspective — those are the moments that make history and historical research come alive.
Working on Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of RAF Ferry Command was like uncovering an expedition log from another century and watching that far away landscape come to life.
By Monique Tobin, Head Researcher
St. John’s, Newfoundland
“Because this was a civilian operation at the core, when the war was over, they just closed the filing cabinets and walked away.”
— Military Historian Carl Christie, author of Ocean Bridge: the History of RAF Ferry Command