Another chapter from “Special Assignment” by my uncle John Alldridge
(published in 1960 and now long out of print)
In almost every great news story of recent times Luck has been the deciding factor. You can’t change your luck. But sometimes you can find a way round it.
The Kurt Bjorkvall Story is really the story of how two determined men – a reporter and a photographer – were able to beat Bad Luck at its own game.
The story begins in New York in October 1936. Out at the Floyd-Bennett Field young Kurt Bjorkvall, ‘the Swedish Lindbergh’, is standing by with his two-seater monoplane ready fuelled. He is waiting for a favourable weather report that will start him off on his long hop across the Atlantic.
There has been more publicity than usual surrounding this flight. According to rumour Kurt will be taking a passenger along – a White Russian princess. Not since Lindbergh has an Atlantic flight carried so much ‘human interest’.
And then one night, quietly, without fuss – and without the Princess – Kurt takes off. And the world settles down to wait for news of the gallant Swede who is going it alone.
It waits for thirty hours. And all that time no news from the little monoplane. A violent storm is reported raging right across the North Atlantic. If the plane is forced down into that sea it can’t last for more than an hour, at most. Sadly, reluctantly, Bjorkvall is presumed lost. . . .
Two days later in Manchester Dave Cooksey, chief photographer of the Daily Express, was having tea and crumpets in his dark-room. He had just come back from an arduous Royal visit to Wales, and was enjoying a rare spell off duty. It was going to be a long time before Cooksey knew such peace again. For at that moment the door opened and in came that talented and tireless reporter the late Bernard Gray (he was afterwards to die in a submarine that was trying to break out of besieged Malta).
“On your feet, Dave,” said Gray. “This is it! They’ve found Bjorkvall. And we’re going to bring him in!”
The news had just reached the Express news desk that Bjorkvall had ‘ditched’ in the sea hundreds of miles from land. By wonderful good luck he had been sighted and picked up by a French trawler. At this very moment the trawler was making for Valentia Island, off the west coast of Ireland, with Bjorkvall on board, alive and well.
Gray explained that the Express was making an all-out attempt to fly a reporter-photographer team to meet him and bring him home. But how could a plane be hired at that time of night? If they left it till morning the story would be as dead and cold as last Sunday’s mutton.
Let Cooksey take it up from there:
“It was then that Gray, who was also our aviation correspondent, remembered his old friend, Roy Dobson (now Sir Roy Dobson, of A. V. Roe). He got on the phone to him: and to my amazement, came back with the news that Mr. Dobson was prepared to lend us a magnificent silver-and-red biplane just completed and ready for delivery to a maharajah.”
And so at dawn Gray and Cooksey were airborne out of Woodford, where today Avro fly their famous Vulcan bombers.
And at the same moment Kurt Bjorkvall was steaming slowly towards the Irish coast. . . .
Now at this point Luck takes a hand in the game for the first time. For in those days you couldn’t fly out of the North of England without clearing customs at Speke, near Liverpool. So they flew on to Liverpool and circled the airfield – there were no concrete runways in those days – and after a few impatient minutes received permission to land. They were coming in low in this elegantly appointed aircraft built for a prince. Their wheels were almost down when the pilot yelled “Hold on! She’s stalled!” and the propeller began to swing feebly until it finally came to a shuddering stop.
“We hit the turf, bounced like a rubber ball two or three times, and finally slithered to a full stop. The three of us quickly scrambled out, fully expecting it to catch fire. Luckily the pilot had wisely decided not to complete fuelling until just before we took off on the long hop over the Irish sea.
“In a matter of seconds an ambulance, a fire-tender and would-be rescuers raced to the crashed plane. But apart from a few bruises and a cut finger, caused by gripping a flash-bulb too hard while the plane was bouncing, there was no work for them to do on me.
“We went very quietly into the club-house and rang the Daily Express office to sadly report the untimely end of the assignment. But it takes more than a crashed plane to beat the Express. They had heard about our bad luck already. And the paper’s news-gathering organisation was in action. ‘Don’t worry’ they said cheerfully. We’ll find you another plane.”
“And, sure enough, they did.”
Thirty minutes and four cups of tea later the club-house phone rang to announce that a D.H. Dragon was already on its way from the Orkneys to pick them up!
They lost no time embarking. Having refuelled, cleared customs, and left behind the maharajah’s pilot to tidy up the mess – they headed out over the Irish Sea for Dublin. With a following wind behind them, that leg of the flight didn’t take long. And a few minutes after that they were airborne again and heading due west across the hills and bogs of Ireland towards Valentia.
They were going well when Jock, their Scots pilot, shouted back over his shoulder that he couldn’t reach the island before nightfall and he proposed to put down on an old wartime air-strip near Tipperary.
“This time it couldn’t have been a quieter landing. Nobody saw us come in: so we chocked-down the plane for the night and walked off towards the nearest village.
“It was a pleasant night, I remember. We spent most of it in the local grocer’s shop where the proprietor fried us giant steaks and afterwards gave us a bottle of horse linament – he claimed it was made from dog-fat – to ease our bruised limbs. We accepted the linament politely: but had no intention of ever using the foul-smelling stuff!
“Bright and early next morning, after a breakfast of home-cured ham-and-eggs, we returned to our Dragon. A couple of twists of the propeller soon shook off the morning dew and we were airborne again. We reeled out the wireless aerial and talked to Dublin. Jock’s face went red as he listened to a bad-tempered Irish voice a couple of hundred miles away asking where on earth we’d been.
‘You didn’t tell us where you were putting down last night. We thought you’d crashed. Half the Irish Air Force is up looking for you.’ It was then that we realised the seriousness of landing without reporting our whereabouts.
It looked like bad trouble for Jock when we got back, but in the meantime we had to push on to Valentia.
And just about here Luck tried track another dirty trick.
“After a while we were circling the tiny island that had never seen a motor-car, let alone a plane; where the only means of transport was still the donkey and jaunting-cart.
“So where were we going to land? After wheeling around a bit Jock reluctantly reported that he didn’t think he’d be able to set us down. Looking below I could see why. The tiny fields, each framed with a stone wall, were too small for such a large plane to land in.
“Desperately disappointed at the thought of having to give up after all we had gone through, we decided to take one last look round. Jock stood the plane almost on its ear and I craned my neck to see the crazy-spinning world below.
“Then I saw something that made me think the blood rushing to my head had sent me dizzy. For there right below was the largest field we had yet seen. And in the middle of it a crofter was calmly making a smoke-fire while his wife was spreading a large white sheet on the ground.
“It was the last thing we could have dared to hope for – wind indicators and an improvised runway on an island so far out of this world. But there it was: and they were obviously expecting us to drop in for tea.
“’Can you make it?’ I shouted to Jock.”
“’I’m game if you are,’ Jock called back, out of a twisted grin. We gave him the thumbs-up sign and he turned the plane around and then back into the wind. It was risky we knew: but our only chance.
“By now the smoke from the crofter’s fire was drifting from corner to corner of the field. Slowly, very slowly, we passed through it, and felt our wheels touch down. For what seemed like an eternity we taxied on towards a dry-stone wall. I closed my eyes – this was it!
“But it wasn’t. When I opened my eyes again the plane was at rest a bare five yards from the wall. We had made it!”
Having twisted Luck’s tail for the second time the next problem was how they were going to get out to the trawler before she docked. If they waited until she was in harbour they might have to compete with half Fleet Street.
“Realising that the best source of news about the trawler’s position would come from the only Irish customs officer on the island, we went to his cottage. He told us the Frenchman was expected next morning about ten.
“So far, so good. But we still had to get aboard her somehow. We turned our attentions to the customs officer. After an hour or two of ‘blarney’ – and the best part of a bottle of Irish whiskey! – we quite won his heart. So much so that he agreed to take us out in the customs cutter the next morning to meet Bjorkvall. ‘All highly irregular, ye understand? But shure! – you’re two nice wee fellers!’
So the following morning – having left Jock to recruit a team of crofters to clear the field for take-off – Dave and Bernard went aboard the small customs boat and headed west into the Atlantic to meet the trawler, still 9 miles out.
They sighted her about noon; and she hove-to when they met.
“A ladder was thrown over the side and we went aboard her. The French captain was most co-operative. He wanted to get back to his fishing, anyway. So it was agreed that Kurt should return to Valentia with us in the customs boat, thus saving the Frenchman a mooring-fee.
“They were a pleasant crew, those French trawlermen. Everyone wanted his photograph taken with Bernard and myself. We even had to sign autographs for them before we left, after a stiff cognac with the skipper.
“Later we landed on the tiny jetty where a crowd of islanders cheered Bjorkvall, and the pilot put us aboard a jaunting-car to take us to the plane and the the improvised take-off strip. The islanders ran behind. For they weren’t going to miss the chance of seeing us take to the air. It was the first time they had seen a plane at close quarters and they made a regular holiday of it. They were a wonderfully friendly lot, those simple crofters of Valentia.”
So at long last they got Kurt aboard. He had no baggage to speak of, everything of any value having been lost with the plane. Petrol was low: but Jock reckoned, cheerfully, they could just about make it as far as Dublin.
The engines were started up – and the crowd scattered as they roared away, through the break in the wall, up and up above the cheers and waving arms of the Valentia islanders whose simple friendship had made it all possible.
And so they sped on, eastward now. With Bjorkvall all to themselves and an exclusive ‘first-person’ story and a page of pictures practically in print.
But Luck hadn’t quite given them up even yet.
It was nightfall when they finally circled the airfield at Barton, Manchester: a small field with no facilities for night landings. The next ten minutes were going to be the worst of the whole trip. Grimly they called up Control and began to circle down into the darkness.
And then an amazing thing happened. As they stared down at the spinning field below they were dazzled by a blaze of light. It was as if a whole battery of search-lights had suddenly opened up on them.
The explanation was simple. That wonderful Express news-gathering organisation had come to the rescue again. The light was coming from the headlamps of fifty newspaper delivery vans hastily dispatched to the airfield to provide an improvised flare path!
Slowly and quietly they approached that welcome ribbon of light: and steadily and surely the Dragon bounced down to a perfect three-point landing.
A few minutes later four tired but infinitely happy men climbed wearily out of the plane. Two hours after that the giant presses were running off the most dramatic picture story of the year.
And that was how Kurt Bjorkvall finally finished his flight across the Atlantic. And how two resolute newsmen got their story against all the odds.
If you were to ask Dave Cooksey what quality a good Press photographer needs above all else he would probably reply: ‘Patience’. In newspaper work patience isn’t just a virtue – it’s an absolute necessity.
In 1949 the Daily Express sent Dave up to Coniston to get a picture of young Donald Campbell breaking the water speed record held by his father. Dave waited two months for that picture. And then he never got it!
“And of course waiting with me were a team of radio and newsreel men, mechanics and general hangers-on. The job seemed easy enough. All we had to do was get up each morning at first light and see whether Coniston Water was calm enough for trials or an all-out crack at the record. If it wasn’t – why, we went back to bed. We knew that Donald would only risk that boat on a mirror-calm lake. The trouble was that during those two months we had all the weather the in the book – except the two hours of unbroken calm that were needed.
“Very soon we all became weather experts. And we learned to establish a weather watch – so that a few of us, at least, could get some sleep. But all the time we dare not leave the lake just in case there was a blessed lull in the weather and Donald decided to come out and grab his chance. We even arranged for a barber to cut our hair on the job!
“Then one morning after a day and night of drizzling rain the duty-watcher reported activity in Donald’s headquarters. The lake was as smooth as glass. It looked as if this was it!
“And so it was. Donald went out in that wonderful speedboat and I followed with his wife in the rescue launch. Could Donald beat his father’s record!
“Well, no man ever tried harder. He drove that piston job flat out and cracked 141 m.p.h. – just half a mile slower than the record. Then his gearbox blew up – and the chance of the record and £50,000 went down the drain.
“So that two months of waiting ended in a picture of glorious failure that cost the earth.”
Like every good craftsman a Press photographer must be able to know and trust his equipment. In other words he must be a skilled photographer in every branch of the profession.
In his thirty years as an ‘ace’ cameraman Dave Cooksey has used every kind of camera, from the giant plate-camera which had to be carried around like the kitchen stove, to the small, compact, incredibly fast Rolleiflex. He has used every kind of lighting device from the formidable ‘flash-pan’ which fired a cap into an open tray of magnesium powder and often scorched your eyebrows, to the tiny flash-bulb no bigger than your thumb-nail.
It was just this intimate knowledge of his craft that gave Dave what he still regards as his happiest picture.
“It was in 1956, and I was detailed to follow Princess Margaret on a Royal tour round the Potteries. The Princess was very much in the news just then: for it was only a few weeks after her romance with Peter Townsend had ended so poignantly. And so everywhere she went she was followed by a flock of photographers.
“I wasn’t very happy about the assignment. For I don’t like photographing people, no matter who they are, when they are obviously not in the mood for it. And in any case this could only be, at best, a whistle-stop tour, with the Royal car stopping en route for a few hasty minutes at a time. This could only mean a mad scramble, at best a frustrating hit-or-miss affair.
“However, there I was on a crisp, cold morning, driving down to Newcastle under Lyme, armed with an official Press pass, hoping for the best but quite prepared for the worst.
“To make things worse, it began to rain soon: and by the time I was in position it was coming down in torrents and I was getting wetter and wetter. After about half an hour of it the rest of the Pressmen decided they had had enough. They moved on to other points on the route leaving me alone in an official Press ‘pen’ designed to hold at least forty.
“The idea was that the Princess would get out of her car, shake hands with the V.I.P.s, get back into the car, and carry on with the tour. And I was the only cameraman left to record the event!
“The Town Clerk looked at me anxiously from under his awning – unlike the Press the V.I.P.s were rainproof and called: ‘If you’re the only one left, for goodness sake make sure you get a good one of the Princess meeting the party.’ I said I’d be only too happy to oblige providing he left me a clear view.
“By the time the Royal car arrived I couldn’t have been more wet if I’d jumped fully clothed into a swimming bath. I wiped the raindrops out of my eyes and shielded my lens as the Princess stepped out. And of course, as I’d expected, the Town Clerk chose that very moment to move right in front of me.
“I must have shown my annoyance, because as the Princess got back into her car she looked straight into the eyes of one very wet and very miserable cameraman and gave him a radiant smile all to himself. It was all I wanted. I ‘flashed’ straight at the car window, and the Princess waved. And drove on.
“I remember feeling that, sweet as the gesture was, it hadn’t got me anywhere. I was sure that all I had got was the raindrops on the window.
“By this time my portable telephoto team had established themselves in a dark coal cellar in the main telephone exchange in Hanley, and I drove over there feeling extremely disappointed and very wet. I developed my one vital film, decided that it was ruined by raindrops on the window and threw it, still wet from the hypo, into a fire-bucket. Then I raced across country to catch up with the rest of the tour.
“I worked all day in my soaking clothes, shooting more pictures of the Princess, and about five o’clock in the evening I went back to the telephoto set-up in Hanley to transmit my badly-needed pictures. When these were safely on the wire I decided, wearily, to call it a day, collected my negatives – my picture of the raindrops still floating in the fire-bucket – and motored back to Manchester.
“Back in my dark-room I found a note waiting for me. The editor wanted a new print from every negative I had exposed that day. And that was how ‘raindrops’ got printed.
“When I saw the print I was amazed. Never had I seen the Princess looking more lovely. And, remembering her recent sadness, I knew there could only be one caption for it – ‘Smiling Through’. And that was exactly what I wrote on the back of the print; and so it went in with all my other pictures to the Editor.
“He flicked through my day’s work until he came to one of the smiling Princess in the rain. ‘I rather like that one, sir,’ I ventured. He stared at it for a moment – and then flung it over his shoulder in disgust. And that was the end of my efforts for that night.
“But there’s a happy ending. Not long afterwards I was making a selection of my work to submit as an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Best Pictures of the Year competition. And I remembered my Princess. I looked at her again. And I swear she looked lovelier than ever. I could have entered ten pictures for that competition – but I entered just one. ‘Smiling Through’. To my joy it won the principal award – the Royal.
“That isn’t quite the end of the story, either. For some weeks later I received a request from the Princess for a copy of ‘Smiling Through’. I printed one and sent it off without delay.
“I still cherish the letter of thanks she sent me. A letter that will remind me always of a gracious lady who saw a wet and miserable photographer standing in the rain. And in her compassion, smiled. . . .”
Notes (courtesy Wikipedia)
1. Kurt Björkvall
Before the war Kurt Björkvall was one of the pioneers in Swedish civil aviation and on 28 August 1931 he made the first non-stop flight between Stockholm and London. He made the trip in a de Havilland Puss Moth and the flight took nine hours.
On 6 October 1936 he took off from Floyd Bennet Field in USA with the aim of reaching Bromma, Stockholm. He was flying a one-engined Bellanca CH 400W Pacemaker. Due to bad weather and problems with the adjustable propeller he was however forced to make an emergency landing in the waters 100 kilometres off the Irish coast and was saved by a French trawler from La Rochelle.
He was killed in an explosion in an aircraft hangar on 30 May 1940.
2. The “White Russian princess”
The “White Russian princess” who was supposed to accompany Bjorkvall on his trans-Atlantic flight was Baroness Eve Blixen Finecke of Sweden (nee Eva Dickson).
Eva Dickson (born Eva Lindström; 8 March 1905 – March 1938) was a Swedish explorer, rally driver, aviator and travel writer. She was the first woman to have crossed the Sahara desert by car. She was perhaps the first female rally driver in Sweden (1925), and the third Swedish female aviator (1923).
She married Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke – the former spouse of Out of Africa author, Karen Blixen – in 1936.
She died in a car accident in Baghdad in March 1938. Her husband was immediately telegraphed about her death, but he was out on a safari and did not get the telegram until he came back to Nairobi on 28 July 1938.
Jerry F 2022