Flight of the Churchill navigator

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


On the boxing meatwagon

When the call came 24 hours before the title fight, the boxer could not refuse. Four grand in cash. Just a few rounds, he was told. Move around. Don’t get hit too bad. If you do go down, take the money and run.

The boxer, in his mid-30s and at the end of his career, did not move in the ring as quickly as he once did. He could still see the holes but couldn’t “pull the trigger”. He messaged the promoter that he would come. But if he started to get hammered he would fake a body shot and go down for a technical knockout. That night he was on a plane to Australia. His opponent picked him up. Within three rounds he was down on one knee. He took the money and ran.

The next day he was back home in New Zealand. “It was complete jack-up,” says the boxer, who wants to remain anonymous. “How can someone with a record like mine be eligible to fight for titles? “Australian boxing needs a shake-up. It’s Mickey Mouse, a bit of a shame to boxing, but money is hard to come by.”

For years, it was the same – a flat negotiated rate of a few thousand dollars for a fight with a pre- ordained outcome. In almost 20 pro-fights in Australia, the boxer never won. He was on the “meat wagon” – the not-so-secret pact between Kiwi boxers who make a career out of losing, and the Aussie promoters who use them as punching bags.

“There are heaps of us about,” he says. “I don’t go over there for anything less than three or four thousand. You’re taking a risk, definitely.”

One boxing official says some fighters can receive as little as $150 a round for a six-rounder, with the matchmaker taking a 25 per cent cut: “It’s all about volume, supply and demand. Basically, the more putzes you send over, the bigger the payday at the end of the month. Call it commission-based meat marketing.”

The official says some fighters would travel without medical clearances, and others with forged documents. Some knew what they were doing, others were journeymen with delusions of grandeur put up against experienced boxers too early in their careers. Of one promoter, the official says, “most of the meathandlers wanted them warm, he didn’t care”.

The unabashed king of the meat wagon is Auckland matchmaker John Glozier. Glozier is the man they call if they need someone who looks the part, but isn’t dangerous, or will take a fight on a day’s notice. He’s been phoned at the airport waiting for a flight to Japan, to be told the fighter wasn’t coming; and roused another from his bed in Apia, Samoa, to make a three-leg journey the day before the bout.

His men are in demand. “It’s good to have a good fighter, but if you want to make regular money, you need to have guys who can fight but aren’t going to be dangerous, you get more work for them,” he says. It explains why some Kiwis have racked up statistics like “Pistol” Paz Viejo’s 10 win-48 loss record. Glozier sends what he’s asked for: “You want the promoter to be happy so you do business with him again.” Occasionally, he says he can “sneak” over a guy who looks bad on paper, but can punch, and steal a result, but too often they “go for the payday” and lose. He’s drily funny about the resulting near-certainties: “If you knew nothing about boxing, went to a fight and wanted to have a bet, you’d just look down the left hand side of the poster [usually the promoters’ own fighters], you wouldn’t go too far wrong.”

New Zealand National Boxing Federation president Gary McCrystal is fatalistic. “The problem is that as long as guys are prepared to accept the money, we will never stop it.” The fighters were offered reasonable money for a six-round fight, up to $2000, with airfare and accommodation on top. “For a lot of boys who don’t come from great socio-economic backgrounds, it’s a way of travelling the world. If they get knocked over for it, well, I guess they see it as a cheap three days overseas.”

McCrystal is reluctant to licence some fighters to go overseas, and ended the careers of three men with dreadful records by demanding brain scans. But, he says, some sneak under the radar and others persuade Australian authorities to licence them as Aussies. New South Wales Combat Authority executive officer Craig Waller says he’s bound by the governing bodies in New Zealand that supply the authority with a medical examination and blood test. “It’s unfortunate, but if the ruling bodies keep giving clearances to us, we have no right to reject them.” But he had pulled fights deemed too badly mismatched. “Knowing a fighter is going to be hammered, we will tell a promoter they aren’t allowed to put that fight on.”

Promoter, matchmaker and manager Craig Thomson has organised opponents for Sonny Bill Williams – including Richard Tutaki, who was pulled from fighting the All Blacks star after it was revealed he faced a string of criminal charges, including possession of methamphetamine. Thomson says Australian promoters often call him looking for a “soft touch”, or someone with little ability or strength, to build up their “prospect”. The problem was boxers fighting down a level when they were clearly superior. “Some people like the crowd cheering when they are beating up some guy,” he says. Boxers can turn professional without any proven background, and after “pretty loose” medical testing. . Thomson says the only way to push out the professional losers was to make regulations stricter. “If they don’t want to go through a rigorous process then they are in the industry for the wrong reasons.” But if two boxers agree to fight, he wouldn’t stop them. “I never put on a fight to lose money.”

Experienced promoter and manager Ken Reinsfield, who manages Shane Cameron and others, sees the meat wagon as a necessary evil. “You can sensationalise it, but really there is always someone looking for opponents for fighters they are developing, and they want someone who may test them, but not too much. “If you’d just started playing rugby, you wouldn’t play the All Blacks first up.”

Reinsfield says it’s not only a Kiwi issue. Indonesia and Thailand both do a roaring trade to Australia in the lighter weights, and Mexico serves a similar role for the US. New Zealand Professional Boxing Association president Lance Revill says something has to be done to stop the “greedy guys” offered thousands to go to Australia and take a dive. “They call them professional losers. They fight against Australians and they always get beaten, but they get good money. Legally, they are doing it the proper way.” But some won’t have anything to do with it.

Former manager and promoter Mark Keddell says he was known as conservative because he refused to send his fighters to Australia knowing “homeground advantage” made it very difficult to win, and that most Kiwis who crossed the Tasman were seen as “cannon fodder”. He’s not alone. A former matchmaker says: “It’s good you are doing a story, it will do some service to the sport, because these fights do a disservice to it.” Sometime fight promoter Dean Lonergan adds: “There are some boxers out there who simply should not be allowed to set foot in the ring again.”

Meanwhile, the would-be title contender is back in New Zealand, his wallet full. His next fight, a decent bout against a New Zealander near his home town, will be his last. “That’s it, after that,” he says. “I’m too old. I’m done. I’m busy with other stuff.” Unless? “Well, if the money was good . . .”