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HAITIAN CHILDRENS FUND / High flight  / When Hollywood came to Wicklow, Ireland in the 60’s

When Hollywood came to Wicklow, Ireland in the 60’s

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by John Goodman

For a time during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Ireland was the location for several Hollywood Movies set during the First World War. The Blue Max, Zeppelin, Darling Lili and Richtofen and Brown all had scenes shot in County Wicklow in varying degrees but what was it that attracted the Hollywood producers to come here?

It basically came down to one individual, Lynn Garrison. He was a former Royal Canadian Air Force officer with a love for aviation. After his retirement from the military, he started a building a collection of historic aircraft in Canada. He was also a mercenary and intelligence operative, but we’ll come to that.

A company called ‘Blue Max Aviation’ was created specifically for the production on the film of the same name. Garrison assembled a fleet of aircraft to replicate the dogfights of WW1 using converted Tiger Moths and Stampe SV. 4s as well as replica SE5as complimented by the odd disguised Tiger Moth.

An agreement had been reached with the Irish Air Corps that they would provide pilots and engineering facilities at Casement Aerodrome in return for training in aerial combat techniques – the operation moved to Weston Airfield near Leixlip later.

The Blue Max began shooting in August 1965 in Ardmore Studios and it told the story of a German fighter pilot’s ruthless desire to win Germany’s highest military award, The Blue Max and the General’s wife while he was at it. He was played by George Peppard who later became TV’s, The A-Team leader “Hannibal Smith”. He trained intensively for two months before filming began to learn how to fly his German Pfahlz fighter. The General’s wife was played by Ursula Andress who was at the time one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies after the success of her now iconic role and bikini in the James Bond movie Dr. No. Both stars were seen frequently in The Bray Head and Glenview Hotels ‘sipping cocktails’ and exuding glamour.

The film’s producers identified Calary Bog near Roundwood as the location to build a ‘French’ village typical of those in the found in the Somme region of Northern France. Once the entire village was completed a team of explosive experts promptly blew it up. Over 25 miles of detonation cable was used to create artillery effects and the Belfast Telegraph reported the ‘Éire’ Army provided sappers and pioneers to aid them.  It also reported that 1200 men from The Irish Army provided the extras for the battle scenes switching from German to British uniforms as needed.

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However, this make believe was not without its dangers. According to the report the filming proved more dangerous than the ‘real soldiering’ that they had been doing previously in Cyprus and The Congo. One man accidently fell on his bayonet, and 20 others – including two officers – suffered cuts and bruises while enacting battle charges.

 Another sequence showed a German truck drive past Wire Ropes and across the Bridge in Wicklow Town to Bachelors Walk. The signage on Wire Ropes was altered to portray a factory in an occupied French town.

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 The aircraft were of a primitive design even by the standards of the 1960’s and using them was a dangerous occupation. The Belfast Telegraph reported a near miss when one plane suddenly ‘comes to life’ while idling.  Nine men grabbed the wings in an effort to stop it, but it veered and crashed nose first. This was a foretaste of the tragedies that lay ahead.

During the filming of ‘Zeppelin’ in 1970, several aerial sequences were shot over Wicklow Bay. The planes used the airstrip at Kiloughter belonging to Kenneth Davies to refuel. In one sequence five replica British SE5a fighters fly in formation to attack a German Zeppelin airship. The camera crew were aboard an Alouette 1 helicopter hovering, to play the part of the Zeppelin being attacked.  Unfortunately, one plane came too close to the helicopter and they collided causing both aircraft to crash into the sea. Initially some people, including UDC Chairman Frank Conway “thought it was part of the act” but it very quickly became clear what had occurred.

Docker Jim Quinn was rounding up cattle that had escaped from being loaded on to a ship on the East Pier and witnessed it from the Black Castle area: “The next minute there was a collision and they came down in pieces”.  He continued to describe how himself, Wally Hill and his brother Michael, jumped into Jack Connor’s moored boat and headed out while being followed in another boat by his brother Tony, Kit Dunne, Joe Fitzgerald and Mick Dunne. Jim’s boat picked up two bodies about two miles north of the harbour and the third was picked up by Tony.

Another boat skippered by Sam Doyle brought Fr. McDonnell and Bro. Cathaldus out to give the last rites. A roll of film was recovered but was ruined by immersion in the water. There was no sign of the fourth body. Michael Quinn said “It was the worst I have ever seen”.

Michael Greenwood recovered various pieces of wreckage in his fishing boat “Marguerette”. Several members of Wicklow Swimming Club attempted to locate the wreckage and fourth victim, but Mark Conway,  Peter Davis and Paul Rice were unsuccessful in their efforts.

The fourth body, that of Comdt. Jim Liddy of the Aer Corps was eventually recovered by divers four days later.  He had been piloting the biplane.  The other fatalities were well known American film producer Burch Williams, George White-Kelly cameraman and Gilbere Ghomat, helicopter pilot.

This was not to be the last tragedy to beset the company.  Just a month later, while filming “Richthofen and Brown” a renowned pilot Charles Boddington was killed at Weston when his plane stalled at low altitude and exploded on impact with the ground.  The following day Garrison and one of the films stars, Don Stroud, were filming a sequence over lake Weston.  Garrison had altered the plane to have a camera in front of the cockpit to give the cinema goer the most realistic views possible. As a result, he had to look out of the side of the plane to see where he was going. A jackdaw flew into his face causing him to lose consciousness. Before he passed out, he managed to pull the plane up, but it flew into five powerlines and snapped rolled into the lake.

Both men were recovered although Garrison required 60 stitches in his head.  One of the crew, Paddy Corcoran, attempted to swim out to the two men with a rope tied around his waist. He floundered and went under. He was believed drowned until somebody remembered the rope and pulled him across the lake floor to the surface and revived him with artificial respiration.

Jack Lynch passed the Film Act of 1970 which was intended to encourage more film making in Ireland through tax breaks and other incentives. It’s not known how much influence Garrison had on this policy, but he was a neighbour of Mr. Lynch.

Garrison was also instrumental in the Aer Corps purchasing 4 SIAI Marchetti Warrior aircraft recommending them for the counter insurgency role. While he wasn’t making movies in Ireland he was operating as a mercenary in the Nigerian civil war with the Biafrans. He went to Biafra at the suggestion of Audy Murphy to make a movie but once there he was asked to sink a Nigerian war ship that was blockading the Biafran port using limpet mines. When he arrived at the port the ship had moved. Instead, he was asked to attack the air force instead using an old A26 Invader, a WW2 vintage American light bomber. He destroyed three Mig 17s at Kano airbase and barely made it back on a failing engine before shredding the nose wheel on roll out. The plane never flew again.

He joined up with two of the pilots that had flown with him in Ireland, John Fairy of Fairy aviation and James Baring of Barings bank. Using funds raised by Baring they purchased five Malmo MFI-9 light aircraft and smuggled them in through Gabon. They also purchased several hundred rockets and fitted launchers and machine guns to the wings.  Nicknamed the Biafran Babies the tiny force launched several highly effective raids that basically shut down the Nigerian Airforce for 6 months.   Flying at fifty feet they popped over the trees before dropping to five feet and firing their rockets.  On the first mission he destroyed a Mig and an IL28.

The picture above was taken on May 22, 1969 at Port Harcourt and shows a Mig exploding after being hit by Garrison.   The Biafran people hold a memorial service for him every year believing that he had been killed which he only became aware of in recent years.

He claimed that during the conflict a DC-6 was operating out of Shannon flying in relief supplies to San Tome.  It was flown by a man called Lynch whose brother was a priest with the charity Concern.  It would fly into frontline places like Uli, drop off supplies, return to San Tome, load weapons and fly these into Biafra.  Garrison allegedly flew some of these transport flights himself.  He also developed the method of double bagging supplies, placing a tightly packed bag inside a much bigger one so that when they are dropped the outer bag contains the burst contents of the inner bag.

After his African adventures he crossed the Atlantic to fly in the last conflict with propeller driven fighters, The so-called ‘Football War’ between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.   P51 Mustangs and F4 U Corsairs were used in the fighting.  Garrison owned his F4 Corsair having bought a retired French Navy machine and shipped it to California.

In 1991 he was heavily involved in the political goings on between Haiti and the US and operated under the nickname of ‘The Shadow’.  It is believed that he was the main conduit for communication between the two sides and that he was responsible for preventing the intervention of the US military in Haiti.  He also set up a charitable foundation for Haitian children and co-ordinated the distribution of One World Futbol soccer balls in the country.

As well as films he was also involved the making of some 3500 ads over the years.  One such ad was for Opel cars who had hired Ridley Scott to make it.  He came to Ireland to shoot with Garrison at Weston but found the ground to be too bumpy to film from while driving.  So, strings were pulled, and the shoot transferred to Baldonell and its concrete runway.  Garrison ended up driving the camera car given his experience of the speeds required to film aircraft on the ground.

Lynn Garrison is a major aviation enthusiast to this day, and he still owns the red Fokker Triplane.  He did a huge amount for aviation and the Irish film industry and while people are familiar with the finished products, the films, few people had any idea of the other activities that he was involved in.  A life less ordinary.

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