Badly damaged while trying to bomb the Luftwaffe military airbase at Aalborg in Nazi-occupied Denmark, ‘Mi Amigo’ had been limping home to its base in Northamptonshire when its engines failed, forcing its pilot to crash-land in Sheffield.
Horrified by what he had witnessed – the bomber had been flying so low that the schoolchildren could see the pilot waving at them to try to usher them out of harm’s way – Tony vowed to honour the fallen airmen. For more than six decades he has visited the crash site in Endcliffe Park to clean the memorial that was installed there in 1969, and to plant flowers and sweep away dead leaves. Tony, now aged 82, visits the memorial at least three times each week – he has to take three buses to reach the park and often spends three or four hours there maintaining the memorial, before taking another three buses back home.
Tony has continued his silent memorial to the crew of ‘Mi Amigo’ for more than seven decades, going completely unnoticed to all but a small number of local residents. But now, following a campaign launched by BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker, who met Tony while walking his dog in Endcliffe Park last December, it has been announced that Tony’s dream of a fly-past to honour the airmen will take place on the 75th anniversary of the crash next month.
A silent memorial
Speaking to History Extra about Tony’s story, Dan said: “I was walking my dog in Endcliffe Park – I had promised my wife I would do it but I was already running late for work that day, so I was jogging in shorts and a stupid woolly hat (quietly cursing the dog!) when I took a slightly different route from usual – I don’t know why. But as I came round a corner, about 200 yards in front of me I could see a man in a beige coat trying to sweep up leaves with a brush. His hands were shaking. I stopped and asked if he needed any help and he told me he was fine, that he was just looking after the memorial.
“We got chatting and I assumed that the council paid him to look after the memorial, but he said ‘no’ and told me how, as an eight-year-old boy in 1944, he had witnessed the bomber crash. He told me that was why he looked after the memorial – he felt it was his duty and his responsibility to honour the airmen who had died.”
Touched by Tony’s dedication, Dan asked him why he felt responsible for tending the memorial. “It’s a strange kind of guilt, and it’s very sad that he feels that guilt,” Dan told History Extra. “It has been his sort of ‘silent memorial’ to the men who died.”
Dan added: “Most news outlets have reported that Tony was playing in the park on the day of the crash – in fact, he had gone there for a fight with some kids from another local school in Sheffield!
“They saw the B-17 flying towards them and the pilot was waving – of course, they now know retrospectively that he was trying to usher them out of the way.
“One of the bomber’s engines had failed and the second engine was very nearly done with, but the plane couldn’t land. It disappeared into a hill and suddenly there was a huge plume of smoke and a fireball. Tony says he can’t remember much after that. He never saw the kids who were at the park that day ever again.”
It wasn’t until a few years later that Tony realised the enormity of what had happened, says Dan. “In the early 1950s, Tony started to visit the site of the crash to make sure it was kept tidy. Even now, aged 82, Tony visits the memorial at least three times a week – he goes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and often at the weekend – and he’s there for three or four hours each time.
“Tony also has an essential tremor [a neurological disorder that causes involuntary and rhythmic shaking, most commonly affecting the hands]. He tells me the shaking has been severe for the past 20 years. But he doesn’t let that stop him – he sweeps up leaves and plants fresh flowers, which he pays for himself. It’s incredible.”
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Dreams of a fly-past
“Tony told me he desperately wanted the council to tarmac the path and that what he would really love above all else is a flypast for the 75th anniversary of the crash in February,” said Dan. “So I told him, ‘Tony, leave it with me’. It wasn’t until I was jogging home that it dawned on me that I have no idea how to organise a fly-past!”
Dan quickly set to work. After verifying Tony’s story with local residents and speaking to the Sheffield Star newspaper about the crash, he contacted the US Embassy and RAF Lakenheath (which hosts United States Air Force units and personnel), and even asked his 535,000 Twitter followers for help.
“Within the next hour I had been contacted by Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth of the RAF; by a Major in the US Air Force; and even by two MPs – it was incredible! And within 48 hours of meeting Tony I had received emails from everyone I had spoken to saying ‘leave it with us, this is an amazing story, we’ll get this done’.”
Tony’s story goes global
A few days later, Dan posted photos of Tony on his Twitter feed. “Within two hours the post had 10,000 Likes and people were crying out for more information,” says Dan. “The story quickly took off around the world, particularly in the US.
“The story just kept growing and growing – we got more than 1 million views on the video of my interview with Tony; it was the most-watched video in the history of BBC Breakfast.”
Soon, the hashtag #GetTonyAFlypast was trending on Twitter.
“A couple of days later, a group of eight volunteers arrived at Endcliffe Park to paint the memorial. These people were complete strangers – they arranged the meet-up over Facebook, persuaded the local B&Q to donate the paint and the tools they needed, and met each other for the first time at the memorial to paint the fences. Meanwhile the local council hired a contractor to tarmac the path and the steps leading up to the memorial, and a local school crowdfunded a flagpole.”
Tony, who doesn’t use Twitter, had no idea that his story was resonating around the world. News had even reached the House of Commons: on 10 January, Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, took to the floor to ask Andrea Leadsom, leader of the Commons, whether she would meet with her to discuss how to honour Tony and to float the prospect of an anniversary fly-past.
“I showed Tony that video clip and it blew his mind!” says Dan.
Look to the skies
Less than a fortnight later, Dan learned that the fly-past had been confirmed. He delivered the news to Tony live on BBC Breakfast on 22 January.
“We rang up Tony and asked if he would come on the show – I wanted it to be a surprise, so all we told him was that he was going to meet the US ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson. Tony said, ‘yeah, alright!’ The two of them had an amazing chat both on and off-air, putting the world to rights. We then had the incredible moment where we went live to RAF Lakenheath, where airmen told Tony to ‘look to the skies’ on 22 February’.”
Both Dan and Tony could be seen fighting back tears. Dan said: “It was very emotional and I felt compelled to give Tony a hug. Someone must have been cutting onions in the studio that day! And it’s so lovely that Tony doesn’t even realise the effect his story has had on other people. He is just doing what he thinks he ought to be doing, not looking for any recognition.
“I felt ignorant for not knowing about Tony sooner. I knew about the crash and I had told my kids about it – the story is quite well-known around Sheffield. And I had even seen Tony around before, but I had never spoken to him and I had no idea what he had been doing all these years. What makes it even lovelier is that Tony had no idea who I was, either – in his words, ‘I thought you were just bloke wit’ dog!’”
The video clip of Dan telling Tony about the fly-past on BBC Breakfast was watched even more times than the pair’s first interview, and soon afterwards Dan was contacted by networks in America looking to cover the story. A new hashtag, #WeGotTonyAFlyPast began trending on Twitter.
“I’ve received hundreds of messages every day – I’d estimate 2,500 emails in total from all over the world – from people telling me why the story has resonated with them and sharing their memories of the history,” says Dan.
“I’ve been contacted by people who have never been to Sheffield; people who have no interest in aviation, yet this story has resonated with them. I’ve heard from people from all walks of life – there’s something for everyone in this story.”
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The big day
The fly-past to mark the 75th anniversary of the ‘Mi Amigo’ crash will take place on the morning of 22 February. Broadcast live on BBC Breakfast, the fly-past will feature aircraft from both the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force.
Major Sybil Taunton, chief of public affairs at 48th Fighter Wing, RAF Lakenheath, told History Extra: “As American Airmen serving here, we’re really excited and honoured to be able to show our appreciation for all of the wonderful people that have been tending to US war memorials across the UK, by supporting this flyover request.
“While final participation will be driven by weather and mission requirements, we are anticipating a pretty incredible variety of aircraft from US Air Force and Royal Air Force installations, including RAF Lakenheath, RAF Mildenhall and RAF Coningsby. Due to airspace regulations, these aircraft will not fly in one combined formation together but will still put on a fantastic show of airpower in tribute to the fallen crew of the ‘Mi Amigo’.”
Look out for more information about the fly-past coming soon to historyextra.com.
To read more about the ‘Mi Amigo’ crash of 1944, click here.
You can follow Dan on Twitter @mrdanwalker