"Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of the RAF Ferry Command" is a documentary film that was first aired on PBS and released on DVD in 2008. Here is some basic information about it:
** Written, produced and directed by William VanDerKloot, Jr. ** Narrated by Carlo Rota ** Head Researcher: Monique Tobin ** Musical score composed by James Oliverio ** Run time: 73 minutes
In 1940, things were not going well for Britain. One reason was the lack of airplanes. In World War II, airplanes played a significant role. Airplanes for Britain were being been built in Canada and the US, but before Britain could use them against Germany, they had to be transported across the Atlantic Ocean. This was a time-consuming and dangerous operation. Some cargo-ships did not make it across the ocean, because they were hit by torpedoes from German submarines.
In the British cabinet, minister of aircraft production Lord Beaverbrook suggested the planes should be flown across the ocean; this was much quicker, and there was no need to dismantle them before shipping and re-assemble them again after shipping. Minister of the air force Archibald Sinclair and other experts objected. They said it was impossible to ferry planes from America to the UK. The distance was too long and during the winter season the weather was too hard.
Beaverbrook insisted it could be done and hired the famous pilot and navigator Donald “Don” Bennett to set up an organisation to implement this plan. This film is the story of the Ferry Command, which operated from 1940 to the end of the war in 1945. It made a significant contribution to the war against Germany, even though it is not so well-known.
PART ONE More than twenty witnesses were interviewed for the film. Most of them worked on the Ferry Command as pilots, navigators, radio operators or flight engineers. One of the pilots is William VanDerKloot, Sr., the director’s father.
The son began working on the film before his father died in 2000. Many interviews were conducted in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, in connection with the last reunion of the Ferry Command in 2000. Here are the names in the order of appearance:
** Donald Douglas – pilot ** Lawrence Sellick – instrument shop technician ** Al Lilly – pilot ** Kerk Kerkorian – pilot
** Griffith “Taffy” Powell – chief air officer, Ferry Command ** John Lukacs – historian ** Sir Martin Gilbert – Churchill’s biographer ** Nora Irwin – wife of a Ferry Command pilot
** Mervin McLeod – radio operator ** Walter Jones – pilot ** Robert Short – radio operator / navigator ** Carl Christie – military historian
** Richard Stanley – navigator ** William VanDerKloot, Sr. – pilot ** Al McCrae – pilot ** Dave Clarke – radio operator
** Ted Biss – navigator ** Len Barrett – navigator ** Bill MacLaren – Return Ferry Command Operations
** Geoffrey Mangham – radio operator ** Sandy Forbes – pilot ** John Affleck – flight engineer
The film is divided into seven chapters. Here are the headlines:
# 1. Introduction # 2. The Arsenal of Democracy # 3. Captains of the Cloud # 4. The Hard Work Begins # 5. Civilians in the Military # 6. Ferrying Churchill # 7. The End of the Ferry Command
PART TWO The history of the Ferry Command can be divided into two parts. The first part 1940-1942: a civilian organisation run by Don Bennett. During most of this period, the US had not yet entered the war. The second part 1942-1945: a military organisation run by the RAF. The US entered the war in December 1941 and this was one reason why the RAF decided to take over the Ferry Command.
The crew who worked on the Ferry Command were civilians, even though they ferried military planes; they continued to work for the Ferry Command when it was taken over by the RAF in 1942.
The first run across the Atlantic Ocean began on 10 November 1940 when seven Hudson planes took off from Gander Airport. There was a shortage of navigators, so Don Bennett decided that they should fly in formation. He would do the navigation in the first plane and the other six would follow him. At first the plan worked well, but bad weather soon caused the formation to break up. Even so, all seven planes landed safely in Northern Ireland the next day.
RAF had predicted that three or four planes would be lost during the operation. They were wrong. Beaverbrook, Bennett and his crew had proved that it could be done. From this moment the Ferry Command was born and planes were ferried on a regular basis during the war, although there were days when the operation had to be cancelled because of bad weather.
Once the planes were delivered to England, the pilots and the crew faced a new problem: how to get back home! At first they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. This took about two weeks. Later they were flown in large transport planes, which carried 10 or 20 pilots at a time. Flying back across the Atlantic was faster than sailing, but it was even worse, because there were strong headwinds.
The planes had no noise insulation, so there was a lot of noise. They had no heating, so it was extremely cold in the winter season. And they had no pressurized cabins, so the crew had to use oxygen tubes when they were at a high altitude. These flights were not comfortable. But the crews kept on going. Why? Because they were young, they loved to fly, they were well paid, and there was a sense of patriotism as well.
While the job was exciting, it was also dangerous. There were casualties: about 500 men and women lost their lives working for the Ferry Command.
PART THREE Members of the Ferry Command were hand-picked when VIPs had to be ferried from one place to another during the war. In chapter 6 we hear about Winston Churchill’s journey to Cairo and Moscow in 1942. The plane used for this flight was an unarmed Liberator known as “Commando.” The crew consisted of five persons:
** First pilot – William VanDerKloot, Sr. (1915-2000) ** Second pilot – Jack Ruggles (1924-2001) ** Flight engineer – John Affleck (1915-2013) ** Flight engineer – Ronnie Williams ** Radio operator – Russ Holmes
The first two were Americans, the last three were Canadians. They were all civilians in their 20s. The mission to Moscow was top-secret. Even so, the Germans knew something special was going on. They would have loved to shoot down the plane that carried the British Prime Minister, but nothing happened. The plane made it all the way to Moscow and back again without any problems. The members of the crew were young, but they knew what they were doing.
The picture on the front cover of the cassette shows the crew in front of the “Commando.” From the left we have: Russ Holmes, Jack Ruggles, William VanDerKloot, Ron Williams, and John Affleck.
PART FOUR The story of the Ferry Command deserves to be told and this film does it very well. Most of the story is told by people who worked for this operation during the war, which gives it a human face. These people made an important contribution to the war effort without ever firing a single shot.
The quality of this film is high. I noticed only a few minor flaws:
# 1. The people who worked for the Ferry Command were sworn to secrecy. They could not talk to anyone about their job. It was important to make sure that German spies did not know any details about the operation. In the film we are told that there was one spy in the organisation. But no details are offered. Who was the spy? How was the spy discovered? What happened to the spy? The topic is mentioned in one sentence and then it is dropped again. This is unfortunate.
# 2. One of the casualties of the Ferry Command was Canadian scientist Sir Frederick Banting (1891-1941), co-discoverer of insulin, who was a passenger of a plane out of Gander Airport in February 1941. Soon after take-off the plane developed problems and the pilot tried to return to Gander. He did not make it. The plane crashed on land, near Musgrave Harbour. The pilot survived, but Banting was injured during the crash and he died the next day. Banting is not mentioned in the film. He could have been mentioned, but the failure to mention him is not a big problem, only a minor flaw.
# 3. According to the film, more than 10,000 planes were ferried across the Atlantic Ocean by the Ferry Command during the war. This is an exaggeration. The correct figure is more than 9,000 planes, or almost 10,000, but not more than 10,000. There is no need to exaggerate.
# 4. When the route across the Atlantic Ocean is shown and explained in the film, there is something wrong with the map. The first leg from Montreal to Gander is correct. The second leg is a line from Gander across the ocean to Prestwick in Scotland. The line is over water the whole way. This is not quite correct.
The second leg can be divided into three sections: from Gander to the southern tip of Greenland, from Greenland to Iceland, from Iceland to Prestwick in Scotland. I do not know why Greenland and Iceland are ignored. Perhaps the director just wanted to give the viewer a general idea of the direction. But I still think it is unfortunate to ignore the details of the route.
One witness talks about a plane that landed at Reykjavik Airport because of some technical problem. This story shows that I am right when I say that the planes passed over Iceland on the way from the American continent to the UK.
CONCLUSION As stated above, these flaws are minor. I mention them here because they deserve to be mentioned, for the record, but they will not affect my overall evaluation of the film.
"Flying the Secret Sky" is an excellent film about an important topic. If you are interested in the history of the modern world – in particular World War II and the history of aviation – this film is something for you.
PS # 1. For more information, see the following books:
PS # 4. The following article is available online: Graham Chandler, “Travels with Churchill,” Air & Space, July 2009.
PS # 5. Even though the Ferry Command was a secret organisation and Churchill’s journeys were top-secret, there were press reports about them during the war. Here are a few examples which can be found online:
** “Churchill Pilot back in Canada,” St. Petersburg Times, 30 August 1942
** “Wives of Churchill’s Pilots here Told of Men’s Doings by Gazette,” The Montreal Gazette, 27 January 1943
** “Ace Pilot Calls Mr. Churchill ‘The Boss’,” Army News, Darwin, Northern Territory, 4 March 1943
PS # 6. William VanDerKloot, Jr. has written about his father and Churchill in an article called “With Fond Memories of Commando” posted on the website of the Churchill Centre: Finest Hour 148, autumn 2010.
PS # 7. This disc is marked region 1 (the US). My laptop is from Europe (region 2). The disc plays without any problem on my laptop.
As a lifelong aviation enthusiast, I found this film very stimulating, telling as it does the story of a little-known operation. Some claims are questionable, for instance, if memory serves Churchill used an Avro York as personal transport in the latter stages of the War, not a Consolidated Privateer as stated. However, this does not detract from the main story which is enhanced by the testimony of Bill VanderKloot, the pilot of the Liberator "Commando".
I was personally intrigued by the still picture of the first group of airmen; as a very young boy I can recall seeing this picture in a newsreel in 1940!