Sunday Afternoon Black and White Films – perfick

I know I was going to post some photos this time, but as it’s Sunday, it means time to watch old movies on telly and todays black and white movie of choice is “The Malta Story”. Alec Guiness plays an RAF photo recce pilot who find himself of the besieged island of Malta. I love this film because of the story behind it rather than the story on-screen, I was involved in a photographic work task to do with the pilot that Alec Guiness’ character was (loosely) based on – a pilot called Wing Commander Adrian Warburton.

“Warby” as he was known by his friends at the time, was a photo reconnaissance pilot who, after his time in Malta was referred to as “The most valuable pilot in the RAF” by the Marshall of the Royal Air Force. He was highly decorated, and was a proper “maverick” pilot – unconventional in his approach to gathering imagery, and his approach to RAF uniform! He was known for wearing the most random mixed dress, and wearing his hair quite long and scruffy!

Before his posting to Malta he spent some time in Portsmouth where he met a barmaid called Eileen (otherwise known as Betty) and after a short romance of 2 weeks got married, days before he flew to Malta. He was heard to say that he only got married to make sure he would leave someone with a War Widows pension, and Betty never saw Warby again.

In 1940 he took recce photos over the Italian harbour of Taranto. When his camera failed, he did the unthinkable and went around for a second pass. By now the sentries knew he was there so he left himself open to their fire. With no camera he flew low so his observer could read ships names, and apparently when he landed the ground crew had to untangle some ships antennas from the undercarriage! Whilst in Malta he started a relationship with a flamenco dancer called Christine, who also worked in the ops room as a plotter.

After some very successful years, with time spent in Egypt, he was posted back to the UK, and due to a landrover accident late in 1943, which resulted in a broken leg he was taken off flying duties and posted to the US base at RAF Mount Farm in Oxfordshire to work as the RAF Liaison Officer early in 1944. Whilst there he became good buddies with Elliot Roosevelt, the son of the former US President Theodore Roosevelt, and was given the opportunity to get some sneaky flying hours in when he should have been downgraded!

Unfortunately he did not return from one of these “illegal” flights and he went missing over Bavaria, southern Germany, aged only 26. For many years his fate or final resting place was unknown, and in 2002 the remains of the aircraft were discovered, containing the remains of Warby. Finally there was some closure on the story of the missing flying ace, who was so highly decorated.

Back in 2003 I was working as the Command Photographer at Personnel and Training Command (now amalgamated with Strike Command into one Air Command) based at RAF Innsworth, near Cheltenham. One of the units also based at RAF Innsworth was something called the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) who not only have the sad task of dealing with current losses of service personnel but they also dealt with those personnel who died in previous, such as pilots who crashed and were never recovered at the time, or soldier who died on the battlefield and were buried where they fell.

They contacted us (I worked alongside a couple of MoD civilian journalists) and we got involved in the story, knowing that there would be quite a lot of media interest in Warbys story. Over the months leading up to Warbys funeral I was fortunate enough to meet some people involved with Warby over the years. Firstly there was Betty, who had been left behind in Portsmouth. A wonderful lady, who had gone on and remarried and had children. Whilst being interviewed for ITV she said that (on her marriage to Warby) she “wasn’t sure if they had consummated the marriage”! We were all sat there listening thinking “You don’t say that on the telly!!” She was a lovely lady, as was her daughter Shelia who looked after her during her brush with fame.

We also spent some time with a guy called Jack Vowles who was one of Warburtons ground crew. He had loads of little stories to tell about Warby, such as the fact that he’d rather sit and play cards with the ground crew, than go and sit in the stuffy Officer Mess with the others! He also showed me a photo of a Maryland that Warby had been flying – he’d been shot at whilst flying and had managed to land the aircraft – even though it looked like swiss cheese as it was so full of holes! It was Jack who’d had to untangle the antenna from the undercarriage after the Taranto raid.

In early 2003 we travelled to Bavaria to cover the military funeral that Warburton had been denied for far too long, and it was, rather strangely, quite emotional for me. I think because we’d spent so long preparing for the day, and I’d learnt so much about the amazing, if slightly reckless guy, that I almost felt like I knew him. I thought about all of the years of his life that he never got the chance to experience, and the future he never had.

I know it’s a cliché (and a Peter Kay joke!) but the weather really was appropriate for the day. It started off sunny throughout the ceremony in the church, then just as the coffin was removed from the hearse at the cemetery the heavens opened and it started to hail, like I’ve never seen before! It was so bad that the RAF Regiment pall bearers had piles of hailstones on their heads, and it was so cold that the catch on one of my camera batteries snapped – luckily it had run out and it snapped in the unlocked position! Once Warby had been lowered into the grave and people started to move away from the graveside, the sunshine came out again. I took some photos of the RAF Regiment guys 5 minutes after the ceremony, in bright sunshine and they still had wet hair and shoulders, with steam coming off!

I spent some time talking to Jack Vowles after the service and he insisted that the weather was all Warbys fault – he’d done it to have a last laugh on us all J I really wanted to post a couple of photos from that day, but can’t find my copies at the moment, some of my images were even used in the updated version of a book about his life, with a new chapter at the end, as the previous version had just ended with him missing in action.

It was probably one of the jobs I’m most proud of so far in my career, the media coverage at the time was phenomenal and it felt good to be a part of the team, making sure he had the respect and dignity that he deserved, whilst telling his story for the current generations to hear.

This link should take you to the BBC page about him, with a photo of Wg Cdr Warburton in his unusual choice of uniform!

Please note that I am not an historical expert on Wg Cdr Warburton and his aviation past – I just tell it like I heard it!!


3 thoughts on “Sunday Afternoon Black and White Films – perfick

  1. Pingback: Tales from the slightly blunt end…. Part One « rafphotog

  2. Hi,

    I found your notes about Adrian Warburton very interesting.

    Like you, I am ex-RAF but from an earlier generation and for a three-year tour I shared your passion for photography, but from the air in an elderly Canberra PR7 based at RAF Luqa. Maybe if you grew up at Laarbruch or Bruggen in the mid/late 1980s, I may have been one of those responsible for keeping you awake at night. Recently I have had my memoirs published and they include many photographs, old and new, which you might find interesting.

    I have now been bitten by the writing bug and am currently researching Adrian Warburton and the love of his short life, Christina Ratcliffe. I would very much like to learn more from you, first hand, about Adrian’s funeral at Gmund and his subsequent burial at Durnbach.

    To establish my bona-fides, perhaps you could have a look at my website:

    If you are willing to share your experience and discuss further your memories of 2003 I would be delighted. Perhaps you could contact me either direct on the email address below or via the address on the contact page of the website.

    Regards, Paul

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