Flt. Lt. Alan Pollock takes off…
“Only Pollock could have done it, would have done it, did do it.”
‘And so he peeled off from his flight, pretended to have lost comms, and took his Hunter jet along the Thames where he tipped his wings to the War Memorials, buzzed the House of Commons with a mini-sonic boom – they were on their feet talking about aircraft noise at the time – because he felt that “they should be reminded that we had an Air Force”, and then, on sighting Tower Bridge, realized it made a deliciously attractive target to fly through, the act of which became legendary.’
Born in 1936, Alan Pollock grew up inspired by the pilots and planes of the Second World War. He managed to sign up to RAF Cranwell College as an underage officer after threatening to go to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to fly if they didn’t take him. His stellar career began at the end of his first tour in Germany when his squadron won the air firing competition, the Duncan Trophy. As aide–de–camp to Air Marshall Sir Humphrey ‘EJ’ Edwards Jones, who had commanded a squadron in The Battle of Britain, he heard the stories – and met some of the men – first hand. Having trained some of the early Red Arrows pilots in aerobatics – and developed a fly past ‘party piece’ involving flying a jet, upside down, parallel to the runway, with his tailfin a few feet from the ground – his career then came to a spectacular conclusion with ‘the Tower Bridge incident’ – not the first, although the first in a jet.
April 1st, 1968, marked the 50th Anniversary of the Royal Air Force who were given half a day off to mark it – but most of them, recalls Pollock “didn’t even know why”. There were no concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, no commemorations for the 38,462 RAF aircrew killed in the Second World War – or those lost before or after. Not even an honorific fly-past. (The 100th Anniversary was rather different).
Flt. Lt. Alan Pollock felt that something should be done to mark this anniversary. And so, on that fateful day, he peeled off from his flight, pretended to have lost comms, and took his Hunter jet along the Thames. Then he tipped his wings to the War Memorials, buzzed the House of Commons with a mini-sonic boom (they were on their feet talking about aircraft noise at the time) – because he felt that “they should be reminded that we had an Air Force” – and then, on sighting Tower Bridge, realized it made a deliciously attractive target to fly through, the act of which became legendary.
Grounded, he never lost his love of aviation or deep respect for the aircrews who played such a vital role in that defiant defence of “this sceptr’d isle” in the summer of 1940. An instrumental co-founder of Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, he found himself giving a lift to Muriel Nicolson to its Inaugural launch event and, through her, heard firsthand about the plight of the War Widows.
Having bought a sixth (249, in honour of Nicolson’s Squadron) of the prints in the rare edition of Robert Taylor’s Battle of Britain VC, with a mind to fund-raising for the Tangmere museum, he realized that, signed by former pilots from The Battle of Britain, they could also raise funds for the War Widows Pension campaign – which he swiftly joined.
By 1989, the Ministry of Defence and Whitehall were, he recalls, “very anti” about the condition of the War Widows, which amounted to “£1 a week, and a bob a day if they had a child.” Shortly after he joined the campaign, which included Dame Vera Lynn among its high profile supporters, the Government recognised that a number of significant forthcoming World War Two anniversaries might prove embarrassing – and fresh funds were allocated to the dwindling number of War Widows: the campaign had succeeded.
With both Tangmere and the War Widows Pensions on a more secure footing, and a core of legendary World War Two pilots having already signed the prints, Alan Pollock widened his ambitions – and They Were There: Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat was born…
More than 80,000 miles later – including taking advantage of cheap post-9/11 flights to secure significant American contributions, and an extraordinary evening with some extremely bibulous Russian veterans – over 300 signatures on each print, representing almost the entire Allied war effort, together in one place, make They Were There a unique and marvelous record of those people who exemplify the famous Kohima Cemetery epitaph:
‘When you go home, tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.’
“ALAN POLLOCK, the man who flew a Hunter Jet through the middle of Tower Bridge on April 5, 1968 has agreed to tell his own story exclusively to FlyPast.
His daredevil antics caused a storm of controversy at the time, but the Royal Air Force refused to court martial him, preferring, instead to have a Medical Board discharge him.
He was not court martialled, he claims, because his outspoken views on the fighting effectiveness of the Royal Air Force and the lack of RAF 50th anniversary flying celebrations in 1968, might provide embarrassing publicity.
It has also since transpired that his one-man anniversary display inadvertently coincided with the recently exposed ‘coup plot’ against Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labour Government.
Now, for the first time since the incident, he has agreed to reveal why he made his incredible flight, which captured the country’s imagination and describe his fascinating personal account of that fateful day…”
By far the most thorough account of the Tower Bridge Incident is ‘Why I Flew my Hunter through Tower Bridge – 5th April 1968‘ in Flypast Magazine,
reproduced here (with ‘Thanks to Al Pollock and Flypast Magazine‘) in the Jever Steam Laundry.
The Jever Steam Laundry page on it also includes contemporary news coverage, editorial letters, and much else besides.
“British officer served flying Hawker Hunter Mk IV with 26 Sqdn, 124 Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force, RAF in Germany, 1957; served flying Hawker Hunter Mk F VI with 4 Sqdn, 122 Wing, 2nd TAF in Germany, 1957-1958; served flying Hawker Hunter Mk F VI with 26 Sqdn, 121 Wing, 2nd TAF in Germany, 1958-1959: served as ADC at Headquarters 2nd Allied TAF, Germany, 1959-1961; served as flying instructor flying Hunting Jet Provost with No 1 Sqdn, RAF College, Cranwell, GB, 1961-1962; served as instructor with 1 Sqdn, 4 Flying Training School, RAF Valley, Anglesey, GB, 1963-1964; served flying Hawker Hunter Mk IX with 43 Sqdn, Strike Wing, RAF, Kumaxa, Aden, 1965-1966; served flying Hawker Hunter Mk IX with B Flight, 1 Sqdn, 38 Group, Transport Command, RAF, West Raynham, GB, 1966-1968. Flew through Tower Bridge, London, 5/4/1968”
REEL 1 Recollections of background in Purley, 1936-1953: family background and father’s military service; effects of war, 1939-1945, including impact of war posters, evacuation to Kilmington and Kirk Deighton, 1940-1943l V1 raids; Anderson and Morrison shelters; education; VE Day, 8/5/1945; Victory parades, 1946; question of re-establishing relationship with father and visit to him in Germany, 1946; parents’ strained marriage.
REEL 2 Continues: education at St Paul’s School, West Kensington, 1947-1953; boxing activities; training with Combined Cadet Force and Air Cadets; attending glider flying camp; Boy Scouts activities. Background to joining RAF, 9/1953: aptitude tests and medical at Hornchurch; attending selection board at Cranwell, 7/1953; question of National Service. Recollections of conditions of service, lifestyle and daily routines at RAF College, Cranwell, 9/1953-4/1956: train journey; reception; hut accommodation.
REEL 3 cleaning rooms; food rations; drill; ground defence and weapons training; air familiarisation flight in Anson; lectures; sporting activities and adventure sports; use of ‘signals square’ on approaching airfields; practical engineering workshops; organisation of cadets; swimming and dinghy drill; PT; relationship between cadet intakes.
REEL 4 Continues: relationship with cadets and instructors; discipline and punishments; drill; survival training course in Snowdonia; opinion of flying instructor; opinion of De Havilland Chipmunk Trainer; dual flying instructions including effects of controls, instrument flying, standard cockpit instruments, taxiing, take off and effects of propeller, circuits and landing.
REEL 5 Continues: first solo; consolidation and introduction to advanced flying; sketching industrial installations from air; navigation and effects of wind drift; take off and landings; nature of Percival Provost Trainer; aerobatics including barrel roll, loop, slow role, roll out of loop, aileron turn, ‘upward Charlie’ manoeuvre, stall and spin recovery and turns at maximum rate; instrument flying in De Havilland Chipmunk; nature of Boulton Page Balliol Trainer; practising emergency landings after take off; warming up piston engines before take off; practising emergency landing from altitude.
REEL 6 Continues: nature of De Havilland Vampire Mk IX including comparison with propeller aircraft; high speed stalls; effect of electrical instrument failure while flying in cloud; ejector seat training; assessment as pilots and award of wings; detachment to Eastleigh, Kenya. 8/1954, including flight out in Handley Page Hastings and Vickers Valetta, Mau Mau situation, safaris trip and bombing mission in Harvard and Lincoln with 1340 Flight, RAF, 20/8/1954; attachment to attachment to HMS Albion, Mediterranean Fleet, 1955.
REEL 7 Continues: attachment to HMS Albion, Mediterranean Fleet, 1955; passing out parade and ball, 4/1956. Period at No 8, Flying Training School, Swinderby, 5/1956-10/1956: completion of conversion training to jet aircraft on Vampire V; reaction to fatal crashes; formation flying training;. Recollections of period at No 233 Operational Conversion Unit, RAF, Pembrey, 10/1956-2/1957: training in battle formations in Vampire FBU; firing at air drogues including ‘tail chasing’, deflection shooting and gun sights.
REEL 8 Continues: approach to airfield; nature of Hawker Hunter Mk I including advantage of swept wings, powered controls, endurance, armament, problem with ‘surge’ effect and handling characteristics; effects of high altitude flying including risk of stalling and cold; anti ‘G’ suit; high pressure oxygen masks and effects of lack of oxygen; dinghy survival training in sea; relationship with instructors; nature of officers’ mess; question of effects of concussion following car accident; separate De Havilland Venom courses.
REEL 9 Continues: solo and supersonic flights in Hawker Hunter; training exercise to simulate IRA raid on armoury; end of Saturday working in RAF. Recollections of period flying Hawker Hunter Mk IV with 26 Sqdn, 124 Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force, RAF, Oldenburg, Germany, 2/1957-7/1957: reactions to posting; journey out on motorcycle; accommodation; reception; German taxis; nature of Hawker Hunter MK F IV and questions of modifications; question of informal in developing flying skills; effects of cuts in 2nd TAF: aspects of German black market and economy; firing 30mm guns at air drogue targets on Sylt ranges.
REEL 10 Continues: firing 30mm guns at air drogue targets on Sylt ranges; assessment prior to passing for operational role; operational states of readiness; squadron links with South Africa; practice interceptions controlled by ground radar; practicing combat skills and ‘tail chasing’. Recollections of period flying Hawker Hunter Mk F VI with 4 Sqdn, 122 Wing, 2nd TAF at Javer, 7/1957-6/1958: location of base; effects of reorganisation of 2nd TAF; nature of Hawker Hunter Mk F VI and question of fitting drop fuel tanks; composition of unit; standby state of readiness of Battle Flight; short operational turn round time achieved by ground crews on landing Hunter.
REEL 11 Continues: continuous state of readiness for operational scramble; nature of interception missions on East German border including close control by ground radar and sightings of Allied spy planes; standard operating procedures in flying missions; accidental Soviet civilian incursions; air corridors to Berlin; parallel offset interception technique; story illustrating difficulty of head on interception technique; variety of aircraft sighted; effect of drop tanks of Hawker Hunter performance; mock attacks on aircraft and importance of watching tail; question of avoiding supersonic booms; practice dogfights; development of low level strafing role; dislike of use of outboard drop fuel tanks on long navigational exercises to increase unit flying time statistics; question of dropping drop tanks.
REEL 12 Continues: detachment on Exercise Brownjug to Shleswigland airfield and operating over Denmark including importance of mobile role of 2nd TAF, learning to drive MT vehicles, problems with airfield surface, low-level flying and simulated ground attacks; detachment to Canadian Sabre Wing at Baden-Soellingen including comparison of North American Sabre and Hawker Hunter Mk F VI, practice dogfight with North American Sabres, prevalence of mechanical problems with Hawker Hunter and value of dissimilar combat practice; practice firing at Sylt ranges including ‘peg’ and radar ranging methods in firing 30mm guns, question of use of low velocity ammunition and firing at drogue targets; rating as pilot and story of near accident practising limited instrument landing in De Havilland Vampire; volunteering for posting to reformed 26 Sqdn, handing over unit inventory. Recollections of period flying Hawker Hunter Mk F VI with 26 Sqdn, 121 Wing, 2nd TAF at Ahlhorn, 6/1958-9/1959: question of continuing allegiance to 124 Wing in unit; low flying practice; question of varying usages of ‘Green Salad’ anti-jamming device; unit morale; increasing low-level role of unit; story of nearly running out of fuel during low-level practice mission.
REEL 13 Continues: attending course as instrument rating examiner at Coastal Fighter Establishment, West Rainham including instrument flying skills and rating system employed, flying De Havilland Vampire, nature of course, standard instruments and subsequent flexibility allowed in flying in bad weather; method of practicing high altitude attack and tracking on bombers; success of unit in winning Duncan Trophy; simulated ground attacks using arrowhead formation; relationship with ground crew including policy of giving airmen flights, unit morale and discipline; local leave including stories of motorcycle trip across Balkans to Turkey; promotion exam system; education opportunities; introduction of two burst attacks in gunnery competition on Sylt Ranges.
REEL 14 Continues: flying Gloster Meteor and practice with only 1 engine; flying Supermarine Swift Mk V including question of reconnaissance role and comparison with Hawker Hunter. Recollections of period as ADC to Commanding Officer, Headquarters 2 Allied TAF, Rheindahlen, Munchen Gladbach, Germany, 9/1959-3/1961: prior interview with Air Marshal Humphrey Edwards-Jones and question of attending flying instructors’ course; multi-national composition of unit and contacts with German officers; role of personal staff officers and as ADC; developing interest in RAF history through contact with veteran officers; flying opportunities; story of landing in bad weather; opinion of Air Marshals Humphrey Edwards-Jones and John Grandy.
REEL 15 Continues: opinion of Air Marshals John Grandy and Paddy Crisham; flying Gloster Javelin; question of quality of navigators. Attending refresher flying course on Piston Provost at RAF Mamby, 3/1961-4/1961. Recollections of attending flying instructor course on Hunting Jet Provost T III at Central Flying School, Little Rissington, 5/1961-8/1961: learning to improve accuracy of flying; opinion of Hunting Jet Provost T III and T IV; ground training; flying exercises based on Gosport system; question of popularity of course; weather conditions; story of disqualification during low-level aerobatics competition for Clarkson Trophy; practical joke bricking up ground school entrances.
REEL 16 Continues: mixed flying skills amongst pilots on course; opinions of CFS. Recollections of period as flying instructor on Hunting Jet Provost with No 1 Sqdn, RAF College, Cranwell, 9/1961-9/1962: layout and end of signals square system; opinion of Cadet Dickie Duckett, high assessment of flying skills and intervention to prevent his dismissal for failing ground courses; question of qualities required in pilot; grading system as instructor; flexible approach to flying training; concept of all jet training and opinion of Hunting Jet Provost T III; aspects of assessment and posting of cadets; aerobatics team formed using Hunter Jet Provost T IV and demonstrations over US bases; changes in flying syllabus; background to introduction of Folland Gnat as advanced trainer.
REEL 17 Continues: passing Staff College exams. Recollections of attending Folland Gnat conversion course, Central Flying School, Little Rissington, 9/1962-1/1963: story of birth of baby; flying with cadets and impact of RAF traditions; opinion of Folland Gnat; relationship with instructor. Recollections of period as instructor with 1 Sqdn, 4 Flying Training School, RAF Valley, Anglesey, 1/1963-11/1964: initial intensive flying trial; use of Tactical Air navigation System (TACAN) and Instrument Landing System (ILS); arrival of first course training on Folland Gnat from CFS; cadets’ pass rate and subsequent postings for service with English Electric Lightning, Hawker Hunter and V Force; obsolescence of De Havilland Vampire; flying hours; opportunities as flight commander on formation of 1 Sqdn; background to formation of aerobatics team despite official disapproval.
REEL 18 Continues: background to formation of aerobatics team despite official disapproval; success in winning individual aerobatics competition and representing unit at flying displays; lack of official support in provision of training diagrams; story of jettisoning toilet rolls from Folland Gnat during ‘raid’ on RAF stations; story of flying with Air Chief Marshal Walker in Folland Gnat; formation of Yellowjack formation aerobatic team precursor of Red Arrows; role as flight commander; cadets low level flying exercise over Northern Ireland.
REEL 19 Continues: opinion of instructors; question of problems with ailerons on Folland Gnat; story of dismissal as flight commander after disobeying orders to give not-aerobatic solo flying display’ background to requesting overseas posting to Aden. Attending conversion course on Hawker Hunter Mk VI at Chivenor, 11/1964-2/1965: opinion of various Hawker Hunter types; ground attack role. Recollections of period flying Hawker Hunter Mk IX with 43 Sqdn, Strike Wing, RAF, Kumaxa, Aden, 3/1965-11/1966: composition of Strike Wing; role of Photo-Reconnaissance Flight; role of forward air controllers and their adjustments to ground strike missions; problems of cartridge cases falling on British troops when in close support role; situation in Radfan; ground attacks targets; visits with SAS to Thumier base and view of effect of ground attack strikes and howitzer fire; attacks on married quarters area in Maala; reactions of Adenese civilians to British withdrawal.
REEL 20 Continues: pre-planned ground strikes; deterrent flights over prospective targets; comparison of operational efficiency of 43 and 8 Sqdns; patrols to counter Soviet MIG incursions over Beihan; story of pilot missing opportunity to shoot down MIG; story of missed opportunity to attack Ferret stolen by insurgents due to delays caused in requesting government approval; ground attacks in Aden; story of ground attack with Wing Commander Martin Chandler; story of suffering damage to aircraft whilst on deterrent flight; opinion of Hawker Hunter IX including armament, drop tanks, direction finding equipment and performance in Aden conditions; various aircraft at Kumaxa; senior officers; recreations; situation and effects of British withdrawal.
REEL 21 Continues: celebration flight on50th anniversary of formation of 43 Sqdn, 5/4/1966; question of continuing low level aerobatics; story of Hawker Hunter catching fire, decision not to eject despite regulations and safe landing; aircraft markings of 8 and 43 Sqdns; inquiry into failure of eject after aircraft fire; story of flight back to participate in dinner celebrating 50th anniversary of formation of 43 Sqdn, RAF in London, 1966; number of operational sorties; question of armament accuracy and practice on ground targets. Recollections of period as flight commander flying Hawker Hunter Mk IX with B Flight, 1 Sqdn, 38 Group, Transport Command, RAF, West Raynham, 12/1966-10/1968: question of history of unit; role of unit within Transport Command; range of Hawker Hunter Mk IX using drop tanks; story of Hawker Hunter Mk IX crashing into house after pilot ejected; flying hours; reinforcement exercises in Norway and Germany.
REEL 22 Continues: white out’ conditions on low level training flight during reinforcement exercise in Norway; reinforcement exercise at El Adem, Libya, Cyprus and Gibraltar; opinion of SNEB anti-tank rockets and comparison with 3″ rockets; VIP demonstration of SNEB; accuracy achieved in dive and ‘skip’ bombing practice; armament practice and night ground attack at El Adem; varied nature of practice flights across GB; question of experience of pilots; reinforcement exercise to Gibraltar including story of dropping toilet rolls on US Navy and Royal Navy ships and difficult wind conditions during landing at North East airfield.
REEL 23 Continues: enjoyment of posting; question of direction finding equipment; question of Sidewinder capability and obsolescence of Hawker Hunter Mk IX; story of flight to drop Napalm filled drop tanks to set fire to oil spill from Torrey Canyon grounded off Scilly Isles, 20/3/1967; exercises with army on training grounds; training exercises with carious aircraft and helicopters; statistics of exercises flown; weather conditions; aspects of history of RAF and preparations for 50th anniversary of formation of RAF, 1/4/1918; background to flights dropping leaflets and toilet rolls over various RAF bases, 1/4/1968.
REEL 24 Continues: subsequent complaints over leaflet drops, 1/4/1968; question of absence of promised RAF flypasts during celebrations, 1/4/1968; attending party at RAF Tangmere and flypast over Chichester, 4/4/1968; question of side-effects of cold medication; story of flight through Tower Bridge, London, 5/4/1968, including planning, motivation, dropping out of formation, route down Thames, circling Houses of Parliament, speed, passing through bridge and subsequent route and reception on landing at West Raynham.
REEL 25 Continues: initial period of close arrest; development of pneumonia and effects of hypomania; press reaction; hospitalisation; prior press statement; attempt to escape from hospital and consequent treatment with incapacitating drugs; interview with psychiatrist; background to not being court martialed and being invalided out of RAF on medical grounds, 10/1968. Post service career: effects of having disabled daughter; question of side effects of medication; career and development of export role in motor and defence industries; involvement in formation of Tangmere Museum; question of cancellation of flypasts, 4/1968; background to involvement in War Widows Campaign to secure pension rights led by Iris Strange.
Alan was partly inspired by the best-selling success of Dear John – a few years before he got his teeth into They Were There: Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat – in which he and his son John collected the autographs, and favourite quotations, of over 300 famous people, again with some of the profits going to charities (in this case, Help The Aged, Oxfam, The World Wildlife Fund, and Save the Children).
Put together just 30 years after the war, many had distinguished war records – and include three They Were There: Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat Signatories: Harold Balfour #13, Leonard Cheshire VC #31, and his wife Lady Sue Ryder, Baroness of Warsaw #98.
A number of other figures also had interesting experiences in the Second World War:
- Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who wrote the Foreword, served in the Royal Navy during the war;
- Douglas Bader is quoted on the home page of this site;
- Kenneth Clark, Baron Clark set up the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, and many of their magnificent commissions are dotted throughout these pages;
- Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer (“the Tiger of Malaya”) served in both World Wars;
- Lord Chalfont fought in Burma from 1941-44;
- Lord Cromer was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Grenadier Guards;
- Admiral of the Fleet Sir Varyl Begg saw action as a gunnery officer in multiple engagements;
- Lord Gordon-Walker was a renowned BBC broadcaster throughout the war;
- Similarly Lord Hill of Luton was “the Radio Doctor”;
- The voice of Stuart Hibberd announced the death of King George V in 1936 and of Adolf Hitler in 1945;
- The life and career of Lt General Sir Brian Horrocks, military and otherwise, was simply extraordinary;
- Oscar Nemon‘s seris of public sculptures of Sir Winston Churchill include the most famous in the world;
- Meanwhile Sir Frank Whittle (who rather liked the look of our Signatory #180, Constance Babington-Smith) single-handedly invented the turbojet.