The Red Arrows managed to be late on cue but otherwise Songs of Praise was highly successful - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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The Red Arrows managed to be late on cue but otherwise Songs of Praise was highly successful

The British Airways cabin staff, all from Lincolnshire, arrived independently at Scampton and met up with the dozens of helpers, including doctors, nurses and carers, who were to look after the children during the flight. Amongst the children were 20 youngsters in wheel chairs and each one had to be accompanied by a nominated adult at all times for safety reasons.

In the early afternoon Lima Tango took off from Scampton with 413 persons on board, then the largest number of people ever to be loaded onto a single aircraft at an RAF base. The local radio station, BBC Radio Lincolnshire, broadcast live from on board the aircraft during the flight; listeners to the programme were able to ring in to the radio station as the aircraft passed overhead their own village and talk live on air with the crew and passengers. What they, and I, did not know then was that the Lincolnshire Police traffic division, were parked up in a layby close to the entrance to RAF Scampton and had caught Lima Tango on a hand-held speed gun as it passed overhead.

The officers were officially there to keep an eye on traffic conditions and ensure that there was no illegal parking on the narrow A15. They had also planned a little joke: as the 747 passed overhead they issued a Fixed Penalty Notice stating that the aircraft had been clocked at 368 mph in a 30 mph zone. The speeding ticket was passed to the owner, British Airways at Heathrow Airport and it eventually reached the pilot who in turn passed it to me since, as he said, I was the organiser. The action was widely reported in the national and regional media. The Head of the Lincolnshire Police Traffic Division wisely decided that no further action need be taken!

Above: Reproduced by kind permission of the Editor of the Lincolnshire Echo
Below: This was the BBC plan for the layout in the hangar

This was the BBC plan for the layout in the hangar
The Director's plan was that the programme presenter, Sally Magnussen and her camera crew would be positioned out on the taxiway close to the Air Traffic Control Tower. The live programme would open with that shot and Sally would make her opening speech, which was timed to last precisely 30 seconds. In the background of the live shot would be Lincoln's famous cathedral. No 1 Hangar, with Lima Tango's tail fin towering above it, would be seen clearly in the foreground. The Red Arrows were planned to approach from the direction of Lincoln and roar at 250 ft overhead the hangar and then over Sally's head as she came to the end of her speech at exactly 6.16 and 30 seconds. I had regularly assured the BBC Producer, Christopher Mann, that the Red Arrows could time their arrival to an accuracy of plus or minus two seconds. He had not been convinced and so at the Dress Rehearsal he had pre-recorded the Red Arrows' flypast and Sally's opening speech. He had the tape of that on a quick start machine ready to roll should it be needed - and it was needed!

The idea was that as the programme went live on air the Director gave would give Sally her cue through a hidden earpiece, She would then start walking towards the camera and make her opening speech:

"Hello and welcome. These last few years have seen many anniversaries of events in the Second World War. Some say these glorify war and we must never forget the awful toll of lost human lives. But there were also tales of extraordinary bravery and courage as men gave their lives for the defence of the country and its values, and it was here, 50 years ago to the day, that Lancasters of 617 Dam Busters Squadron took off on one of the most daring and ingenious raids of the second world war. Tonight many hundreds have gathered in the hangar behind me to remember all those who lost their lives on that night. Today, RAF Scampton is the home of the Red Arrows who, together with the Central Band of the RAF, welcome you to Scampton and salute the Dam Busters in their own special way."

One of the BBC crew took this photo of me during the live transmission and sent it to me later. That's the script of the programme on my lap - although there was nothing I could do at that stage if anything went wrong. And something did go wrong!

Unfortunately, a very rare timing error meant that the Red Arrows were overhead exactly 60 seconds early. They flew over the hangar and Sally during the opening announcement from the continuity studio in London. Everyone in the hangar heard the Red Arrows roar over the hangar early but, as Christopher Mann's 30-second recording played out, I reckon none of the viewers at home knew there had been a problem. I was very pleased that Christopher was ensconced in the Outside Broadcast control cabin so I didn't have to look him in the eye!

Most of the 2,500 people in the hangar had some connection either with Scampton or RAF Bomber Command during World War 2. All the surviving Dam Busters aircrew were there. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Michael Beetham, President of the Bomber Command Association, was there to represent the whole of Bomber Command. In addition all the children and their carers who had flown on Lima Tango earlier in the day were in the congregation. The programme included prayers of reconciliation from British and German ministers. Richard Todd read out a letter from the Minister of the church nearest to the Möhne Dam. It was all very moving and tasteful.

The Red Arrows pilots did manage to enter the hangar exactly on cue partway through the programme so that the cameras could pick them up as they joined the congregation. I think I detected a guilty look on the face of the pilot who had been responsible for the ill-timing of the flypast: he had , apparently, made a mistake when compiling the flight plan earlier in the day and realised his error when it was too late to do anything about it. As I wrote on an earlier page, the Red Arrows had not been keen on taking part in this programme because the Team was not the star of the show and it ruined one of their rare free weekends! After 4 years in the job I was still battling with my aim of getting the RAF and the Red Arrows into recognising the value of good media coverage.

The live programme was watched by eight million people in UK and was subsequently repeated on BBC World Service TV enabling millions more in many countries throughout the world to see it. What a pity the RAF top echelons had so little foresight and were so grudging about a good news story of peace and reconciliation. It has become the fashion to write knocking stories about distinguished people and famous events. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible that the Dam Busters raid might not, or should not, have taken place: who can say? I remember listening to the story of the raid on the wireless the next morning? I know everyone around me at my primary school in Wakefield was talking about it: the brave aircrew and their sacrifices and the belief that it would shorten the war. They were my heroes then and I was proud to meet the survivors when they came to Scampton for Songs of Praise.

Very sadly, two of the aircrew, Basil Feneron and David Shannon who had been working with me and the Dam Busters' Association throughout the planning, died before the programme went on air.

Basil Feneron was a flight engineer and he had flown in Lancaster F for Freddie piloted by Canadian Flight Sergeant Ken Brown. They made eight separate runs against their target, the Sorpe Dam, and after each one the pilot had to slam the Lancaster's four throttles fully open to climb out of the valley. F for Freddie landed back at Scampton at 0533hrs, unscathed, and Basil flew in 12 further raids with 617 Squadron. He died on 18 November 1992.

Other members of the Dam Busters told me that David Shannon had always looked younger than his years, even when I met him on his last visit to Scampton in March 1993. Amazingly, he was just 20 years old when he piloted his Lancaster in an attack on the Eder Dam after the Möhne Dam had been breached by other Lancasters. David had already been awarded the DFC for his actions when flying with 106 Squadron. He was awarded the DSO for his part in the Dams Raid and the medal was pinned on his chest by the King himself on David's 21st birthday. The King had remarked, "How well preserved you look for your age!" Before the war ended Shannon had collected another DSO and another DFC. He died on 8 April 1993, just four weeks before the 50th Anniversary Songs of Praise went on air.


 
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