WORLD War Two pilot Ken Souter met the Queen at the opening of homes for veterans and chatted about the card she sent for his 100th birthday.
But ex-Flight Lieutenant Ken, who flew RAF combat missions against Rommel in North Africa and later in the Malayan Emergency, forgot to mention his place in cinema history.
He was lead pilot in the movie that became probably the greatest war film ever made — The Dam Busters.
With its classic theme tune, The Dam Busters March, the picture was so popular it had two royal premieres and inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars.
Now Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson has a £21million remake of The Dam Busters in production, with a script written by Stephen Fry.
But back in the summer of 1954, 11 years after the real RAF raid on three German dams, Ken became part of the original film that cost just £200,000 and became a classic.
And all he was concerned about was staying alive.
He risked his life day after day, low-flying a Lancaster bomber closer to the ground than he had ever done before, even in combat.
Ken and wife Brigitta, 79, live in a house in Morden, South London. It is provided by the military trust Haig Housing and where the Queen opened 70 new homes for veterans.
She joked with Ken that she was “glad to see” his special birthday card had turned up and “always worried” about whether the cards she personally signs arrived on time.
After the meeting, Sunderland-born Ken said: “She’s a truly amazing lady.”
During an exclusive interview with The Sun, Ken — who turned 100 this summer — pointed above his head and said: “We were flying as low as that ceiling. I was convinced we would crash and probably end up dead.”
In the 1943 Dam Busters raids, officially known as Operation Chastise, 19 Lancaster crews from 617 Squadron flew 60ft above the water under enemy fire.
They dropped bouncing bombs to try to destroy three German dams, knocking out Hitler’s munitions factories in the Ruhr Valley.
But when director Michael Anderson came to make the movie of the mission, he decided that flying a plane with a 100ft wingspan at more than 200mph and 60ft from the ground did not look dramatic enough.
Ken was then told to fly even lower. On one occasion he skimmed so close to the surface of Derwent Reservoir in the Peak District that the down draft from each of the propellers whipped up waterspouts.
Father-of-three Ken said: “I remember walking along the top of Derwent Dam, which was to double up as the Eder Dam, before shooting.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘This is bloody dangerous’. If you took your eyes off the ball for one second you would be in the water.”
On another occasion, Ken almost crashed his Lancaster into a hillside above Lake Windermere in Cumbria.
He recalled: “The director wanted two aeroplanes to fly very low over the water and then climb up the side of a mountain.
“As we flew up the mountain, we were getting lower and lower to the ground. There was nothing we could do about it.
“We were on maximum power and maximum climb and the ground was coming up fast. We couldn’t climb any more and I thought, ‘This is it’.
“How we managed to scrape over the top of that mountain I’ll never know. It was very dodgy but we survived. We were flying lower than we had ever flown before, even during wartime, and I had arguments with the film company about it.
“I kept telling them we were going to be killed, but they insisted.”
On many occasions the four Lancasters, that were brought back into use after being mothballed at the end of the war, returned to base from filming with tree branches stuck in the undercarriage.
Despite their complaints, Ken and his fellow pilots, Flying Officer Dick Lambert and Flight Sergeants Joe Kmiecik and Ted Szuwalski, continued to risk their necks.
They were not paid danger money and received only their RAF salaries.
The Government made money from the pilots because Associated British Films leased the planes from the Air Ministry, which charged the equivalent today of £6,480 per Lancaster per hour of flying.
The filmmakers were based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and Ken was told by his commander that he was being sent to join the filming.
The servicemen, shooting between regular RAF commitments, recreated the flights of the real 617 Squadron, including dropping bouncing bombs.
In 1954, the bombs invented by scientist Barnes Wallis that successfully destroyed the Mohne and Eder dams and killed 1,400 civilians in Germany, were still a state secret.
For the film, Ken dropped replicas made from plywood and plaster of Paris, which looked nothing like the actual bombs. Ken has nothing but admiration for the pilots of the real Dam Busters mission and disagrees with historians trying to rewrite the raid as a “disaster”.
He said: “They did the job they were given. It took 18 weeks to seal up the Mohne Dam and it showed people in Britain that we could strike at the heart of Germany.”
‘KING WAS NOT AMUSED’
The weather in the summer of 1954 was terrible, and with the director wanting fair-weather shots caught by cameras mounted on the planes, Ken and his fellow pilots flew all over Britain to find sunshine.
They even went to Holland in pursuit of a break in the clouds but flew so low over a pier in Lincolnshire that a fisherman complained.
Derek Browne, a young cameraman who flew on the Lancasters for some of the low-level footage, remembered: “I could not resist the temptation to drop a few objects, like toilet rolls, out of the bomb doors over Lake Windermere. The director knew nothing of this until he received a memo from the production office. Apparently, one of the displaced crowned heads of Europe was staying in a hotel that received a ‘direct hit’. The king was not amused and I received a bollocking.”
Each of the aircraft in the film was painted with different squadron code letters on either side of the fuselage, meaning, for example, three Lancasters could play six planes on screen.
As the leading pilot on the movie, Ken often flew the Lancaster painted with registration ED932 AJ-G, used by the leader of the real mission, 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson. He was played by D-Day hero Richard Todd, and the actor said: “I think The Dam Busters is the best military film ever made. Michael Anderson shot it in black and white for two reasons. One was that we could use stock shots in black and white of the original bombs being tested.
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“Also, he thought colour would prettify it too much and I think he was right. Those RAF chaps in the film took a lot of chances and did a wonderful, wonderful job for us.”
Michael Anderson, who died last year aged 98, had nothing but praise for the pilots and crews on the film.
He said: “They dared and risked so much, so the exploits of the Dam Buster heroes could be immortalised for ever on film.
“It is fitting that these men should be mentioned and honoured for recreating history.”
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