The discovery of a cache of original photographs of Winston Churchill smoking cigars in the cockpit of a flying boat led a Tauranga man on a journey to discover who his uncle really was, and the airman’s role at a crucial moment in history. Charles Anderson reports.
The combination lock on Mike Buck’s battered brown suitcase was long since broken.
He threw his clothes down into the case’s silk lining, strapped down a singular suit and closed the lid.
He had packed his world into that case and as he stood at the Glasgow port side ready to board a ship and transfer his life across the ocean, Mike thought of new opportunity. In his pocket was a one way ticket to Wellington dated 1957.
It was only later that he noticed a singular faded and peeling sticker glued to the suitcase’s outer leather: “Rotorua,” it read. It was a word that meant little to the 17-year-old who had grown up in Kent, England. As far as he knew no one from his family had ever been to New Zealand. Alongside that sticker were the initials “RGB”. The suitcase had belonged to his uncle Ronald George Buck.
Mike’s father seldom spoke of him. Even when he too emigrated to New Zealand he kept quiet about the wooden tea chest he had brought with him. Mike knew of the box but had never been allowed to see inside. Mike’s father admired his younger brother greatly, that much was clear. But he could never bring himself to tell Ron’s story.
So Mike inherited that box. He started arranging its materials in a large red album. There were photos, a menu card, a book and a cartoon. As years passed Mike began to compliment the collection with newspaper clippings from the Times of London, newsletters from the British Overseas Airways Corporation and with extracts from Winston Churchill’s autobiography. Slowly a picture emerged of a life less ordinary – one ended all too soon.
Mike stored the album away in his house in Whanganui. He brought it with him when he moved to the Wairarapa and then finally to Tauranga where last year an appraiser visited asking the public to bring in their family heirlooms. It took some urging by Mike’s wife, Ray, for him to get the album out of storage and line up along with the hundreds of other punters eager to hear of the worth of their potential payloads in the attic.
“It’s only when you get a bit older that you start wondering about where you have come from,” he said.
Mike sat down in front of auctioneer Hamish Coney and pushed the red album in front of him. Coney had dashed the dreams of many would be gold diggers. Occasionally, though, there was something interesting. He looked at the 72-year-old across the table, took the album in his hands and pulled it towards him.
Coney opened the cover and turned the page.
In the first photo Mike pointed out his uncle. It was taken sometime during the 1930s. He was there on the corner, smiling weakly, in the back row. This was of Buck as a young man, only a teenager then, at RAF Halton the main training unit for aircraft mechanics. In each of the photos tracking Buck’s ascension through the graduating ranks he was always at the back. Always removed.
“He was always superstitious,” Mike said. “In almost every photo he is like that.”
They students were to become navigators tasked with plotting the course of airships in the early age of modern aviation.
Coney turned another page. He had to do a double take.
The photo was of the British Bulldog himself dressed in a fine black suit and sitting politely at a table clad in white cloth. His neck bulged over his collar. In front of him were two thick unlit cigars. Next to the photo was a menu card dated January 16, 1942. The meal had been shrimp cocktail, and a cold buffet of roast ham followed by Bartlett pears with cream. The card was signed by, among others, Winston Churchill, Sir Dudley Pound, and Sir Charles Portal. It seemed to be the entire British War Cabinet casually at lunch during the height of World War 2. What’s more, they seemed to be aboard a British Airways flight on a plane named “Berwick”.
Then, on the next page, was Churchill again, this time at the half-crescent wheel of the Boeing Clipper, grinning widely with a lit cigar hanging out of his mouth. On the back it was signed RG Buck, who had seemingly penned, in fine lace writing, the camera settings he used. To capture Churchill at work at 8.000ft Buck used a five second exposure with no filter.
“It’s seldom where you get a collection that genuinely intrigues you,” Coney said. When he got back to Auckland he did some more digging.
“THE MOST DARING FLIGHT OF THE WHOLE WAR,” screamed the front page of the Sunday Dispatch on January 19, 1942.
“The manner of Mr Churchill’s homecoming yesterday from his historic visit to the United Sates has astonished the whole world,” it continued.
In 1941, two weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, Churchill travelled to the United States to lobby the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt to join the war effort in Europe. “Here we are together, facing a group of mighty foes who seek our ruin,” Churchill told congress. “Here we are together, defending all that to free men is dear.”
The prime goal in this undertaking, the leaders agreed, was to defeat the Nazis in Europe. Churchill then had to get back to London to announce the good news by the quickest means possible. A British Airways crew tasked with the job flew to La Guardia airport in New York, then to Baltimore to pick up the politicians and then to Bermuda where they were to load them aboard the Battleship HMS Duke of York. The sea trip would take a week. But when they arrived the conditions seemed clear. They could, it was decided, take Churchill back to England by air. The non-stop flight only just fell within the Berwick’s maximum operations range of 3,600 miles. But it would take only 17 hours and 25 minutes and shave almost five days off the Prime Minister’s travel time. The only problem was, they would have to fly over Nazi occupied France. They would have to maintain radio silence. The distinct possibility of being shot down was quite real.
On the morning of departure Churchill appeared to have second thoughts about he journey.
“I woke up unconscionably early with the conviction I should certainly not go to sleep again,” he wrote. “I must confess I felt rather frightened.”
Captain JC Kelly Rogers later recounted the flight was uneventful. The weather stayed consistent until the arrival of darkness and an incoming cold front made the obtaining of astronomical fixes difficult. But as Rogers noted, “the greatest credit is due to the navigator, First Officer Buck, for the wonderful accuracy which he displayed”.
Buck, it was also revealed, was tasked with being the flight’s official photographer.
On the album’s following page were two more photos the last in the collection. One was a previously classified image of Buck midair flying a converted Lancaster Bomber. The second was dated April 1945. Buck was on a landing strip. He wore a dark black uniform with gold ribbons around the cuffs and a sharp cap upon his head. He stood in the middle of a large group with a broad smile. He had, as the note on the back indicates, “his crew under him”. He was now a captain. And he was standing on New Zealand soil.
On April 23 1945, Buck left England in a Lancastrian on a proving flight to New Zealand. It was the first test of commercial long distance air travel between the two countries.
“I never even knew that he had been here,” said Mike. “It explains the sticker.”
The final page in the album was an article with the headline “The solid cloud again” dated two years later in March 1947. On a flight much less auspicious than he might be used to Buck left Hurn airbase at 4pm on a flight to obtain fuel consumption figures under cruising conditions for a Gypsy Engine. An hour later the project was complete. According to the crash reports, the weather began to deteriorate rapidly. The cloud base lowered and rain began to fall. Buck approached the runway but failed to line up correctly. He passed over the centre of the airfield and disappeared. Captain Buck told the control tower “No radio, VHF not working”. He was operating blind. At 6pm, the controller told him the best weather was in London. Buck ignored him. The controller proposed he should make a further attempt. Buck replied: “Do not know where I am, but will try to find you.” At about 6.08pm the de Haviland Dove struck a row of trees poking above a hillside and crashed in a thicket of shrubs. All three aboard were killed.
“Buck was one of the most brilliant air transport research and development pilots in this country,” his obituary read. He was 35.
Sometimes Mike thinks about where his uncle might have been if he had lived a full life.
“At that age you are not even in your prime,” he said. “Just where he would have gone who knows.”
Mike has slim memories of racing through the Hampshire countryside in his uncle’s four-cylinder Standard motorcar. But he now thinks Buck might have had a bigger impact on him than he first thought. His uncle must have spoken fondly of New Zealand.
“Really,” he said, “He is probably the one that prompted the thoughts of me coming out here too,”
So the menu card, the book and the cartoon will now all be auctioned for others to enjoy. But the photos – the ones the tell a tale of a shy young man who navigated the most daring flight of the whole war to become the proud captain of a flight which relocated his family half-way around the world – Mike will keep those.
via the Sunday Star Times