This one took on a life of its' own and spawned the script for the soundscape.
Sir – the information you asked for, is in this section of the transcript. It was from coversations my brother had with my father, in 1993, shortly before his death. These have only surfaced recently, as Tony had taken the better part of a year to write them out, and after his death in 1995, they were consigned to box files in his attic. With his house being cleared to be sold only this year, his widow let me see his forgotten work.
He had intended to write a comprehensive work on British experimental aviation, and considering our father's long involvement in the subject, he set out to interview him, rather than just rely on the scraps we'd been fed since we were young. The surprise contained within, shocked me to my core, and made me seriously doubt the veracity of it. I felt strongly that it should be sealed up in my attic for good and all; but knowing the man my father was, I cannot find it in my heart to dismiss this. Your approach was the catalyst that I needed to reappraise it, and I hope that a man of your learning might be able to make more sense of it than I.
There are also a large number of Dictaphone tapes, one or more of which may contain the source material for this; if you wish to hear what was said, I would certainly review the tapes for you, provided you weren't in any hurry!
INTERVIEW MAY 1993
Grp Capt (Rtd) GEORGE RODWELL BY TONY RODWELL
TR: So, we're up to the end of the war, 1945, and you're settling into a career in aircraft development. What I'm interested in this time, is some of the people around you. They must have been remarkable characters, can you tell me about some of them?
GR: Well, let me see now...mixed bunch of personalities I'll say. Some would go on to be superstars in a way; mentioned in the journals, even newspapers, faces on television as time went on. Not in the way of the Americans, you understand, but no less important.
Some, of the likes of Neville Duke and Peter Twiss, as you know, went on to set and break records. They were the daredevils as far as the news was concerned. Later on, the likes of Trubshaw and Turcat became the public face of the professional side of it.
Mostly, people like myself and Peter Goodman worked in the background – I recognised us and a few others in the photograph in your magazine the other month: 'So and so, Chief Engineer, such and such Chief Designer...And some RAF guys'! - well, that's how it was.
TR: Yeah, that's how I think of it; I remember Uncle Peter's attitude to it – 'to the coalface' he said.
GR: Yes indeed...the coalface. There was a thing.
TR: Was that something between you two from the early days?
GR: No; it was a recent in-joke. A little gallows humour, if you like.
TR: Gallows humour! Make light of a dangerous situation. That was how you all got by? How did you cope with losing someone, and I'm thinking especially of him?
GR: (long pause) Again, that's how it was. Most of us flew in the war, we'd stared death in the face and survived. It breeds that grim humour, but also the resilience. You never forget the ones you lose, but you bounce back. But Peter...I never did bounce back from that one.
TR: Testing flying procedures, wasn't it? What was it he was doing?
GR: The official line, or the truth?
TR: Sorry? There's more to it?
GR: Yes. Should I say, the official lie or the truth?
TR: Go on...
GR: Testing a Buck (Blackburn Buccaneer) at low-level, new radar, new techniques, ground jumped up and bit him. That's the official line, and even that wasn't widely publicised. Swept under the carpet.
TR: What actually happened then?
GR: Black Diamond, one of our projects at the time. Hence 'coalface' for work, 'mining' for flying, 'pithead' for debrief, that was the joke.
TR: Black Diamond? Never heard of it. What was that?
GR: No, you wouldn't have. Very well hidden it was. Long and short of it, put a Brit in space.
GR (Nods) As far as Sandys (Duncan Sandys, SoS Def 1957-9) was concerned, unmanned was the way. We'd argued long and hard at the folly of it, and Black Diamond had been kicked about for long enough. Why it was needed, no-one could be exactly sure, but it was very important all the same.
TR: But the Americans were nearly on the moon!
GR: Yes, them and the Russians were streets ahead. The Chinese were interested, and the French and Germans too. So it was kept quiet, because it would hardly be a great triumph, would it? We had everything we needed – the rocket tests were good cover, and we were using those to launch the capsule anyway, so it was easily kept quiet.
TR: So he died in one of the failed rockets? How did they cover that up?
GR: Oh, the official report was a load of nonsense, but it existed, there was a paper trail. Short statement to the press, and only a few papers were even interested; report to follow, but it never did.
He died in orbit. As far as the tracking stations were aware, it was a dummy payload they were watching. They had their telemetry frequencies, but only we had the talk frequency. So they never heard Peter. It was another job to them. Then afterwards, when the whole thing was cancelled, everybody moved on. 'Oh what a shame, best buy American or go European then' etcetera. Lift rug, and sweep.
TR: So, can you tell me the truth? Or is that Official Secrets Act again?
GR: I'm old Tony, I haven't got long myself. Stuff the OSA! (gesticulating at window) You hear that? Up your OSA! The truth will out, and there's nothing you can do to me for telling. (coughing)
The truth is; he ran out of air. There were problems with the electrics from early on in the orbit pattern. Nothing Peter couldn't work around, but they mounted up – death by a thousand cuts if you like.
By the time we got a few minutes talk on the UHF channel, we were clear that hope of an escape was fading. He'd lost one of the little guidance motors, his spin was wrong; we couldn't directly control it for him. (Long pause)
TR: How did you feel? How did you cope, knowing he was done for?
GR: It's the giving up, the admitting defeat, that's the hard bit. Was for all of us. We'd been working full tilt for hours, then, nothing. To a man, heads went down. Shoulders dropped, cigarettes and pipes lit, just staring at each other. Admit defeat, then wait for whatever. Without a word, we knew it.
TR: Did you hear from Peter again?
GR: On the next pass, we had a couple of minutes again. I took a headset and a mic, cut the room audio. It was terrible, this ghastly wheezing noise through the static. Odd words; he told me to tell Margaret he loved her, he'd be waiting. It took him several wheezes to do that, so it all took time. I told him to give up, which was hard – we never gave up on anything – and said my goodbyes to my old friend. (Crying, long pause)
Then the oddest thing. “I hear trumpets, Georgie boy. Light, so much...”, clear as day. He sounded euphoric. I killed the chat there, I couldn't take any more, and I broke down. I wept for him. I wanted no more than to just reach up and fetch him, save him. And then...
GR: He was sat in the chair beside me. Bernie King got up, and walked out, and there was Peter sitting in Bernie's chair.
GR: (Nods) Deathly pale, eyes like burnished onyx – black diamonds I suppose – and he held my gaze. “Trumpets George, I can hear 'em. It's beautiful.” he said. I couldn't...couldn't speak. What was there to say? I reached out to touch him, but there was only a sensation like static at my fingertips. He saluted me, clapped my shoulder – which I felt, you know – and said “See you later George.” and faded out. Like an old tv set going off. “God speed.” I said to him, and realised my stick was falling from the arm of the chair. It hit the edge of the desk like the crack of a shot, then all the normal hum of the room came rushing back, as if the volume had been turned back up again.
TR: Anyone else witness this?
GR: I thought to ask, but there was so much commotion: instruments had gone full scale, and the radio operator was clutching his head like he was taking a kicking. Well, it settled down within a second or two, and everyone affected, set to checking their equipment, and explaining it away. All perfectly logical, if unusual; spikes in transmissions happen for all sorts of reasons.
TR: But a dying man saying goodbye, isn't one of them?
GR: Not normally, no.
TR: What then?
GR: We called the tracking stations, they'd had spikes too. We advised a change of heading, due to 'circumstances', and asked them to keep going, if nothing was damaged. I hoped if nothing else, we'd get his body back, for Margaret's sake at least.
It was supposed to fall inside Woomera, so we could contain the evidence. But in the event, it fell in the Southern Ocean, badly damaged, and an Aussie Navy crew picked it up. Luckily, they handed it over intact, and couldn't see in the burnt windows – it was a dummy, remember. Officially at least.
TR: So the cover-up started there?
GR: Yes. Well it started before that, I imagine. Whitehall would've known, intelligence probably had it sussed before the destroyer came in. They flew out straight away, only stopped at Changi for juice. They were over there before the destroyer came in. As you can imagine, they questioned us all, reminded us to keep quiet, or else.
TR: Must've been hard to be in the system, but subject to it, then?
GR: Quite right. I kicked up a fuss; they couldn't, shouldn't, have been treating me like that. The right words to the right people, and it was a different playing field when we got back. 'Evidence' they wanted my opinion on.
TR: What was that, then?
GR: Recorded audio from a couple of radio hams up near Edinburgh. The Wilson brothers – electronic engineers both, and ex-army – had some powerful sets, with a good clear reception. They'd got in touch with the Ministry that night, to report. Being good lads, they were willing to submit their audio and keep their mouths shut.
A few of us who'd been there, listened to the tape with the intelligence boys, to confirm that it was indeed a recording of Peter's last few minutes, and it was. Chilled me to the bone, I'll say. But there, right after he says about the trumpets, is this God awful screech. A good couple of seconds long. Sounded like tuning a longwave radio crossed with nails down a blackboard, but kind of distorted. On ours, it was more like a couple of seconds of fuzz, but loud. What they both had, was a short sucking noise straight after, like you'd gone 'whooop' and sucked your lips in.
TR: What was the opinion on that then? It sounds extraordinary.
GR: Oh, theories about the electrical problems; a big battery giving out, the UHF set packing up, atmospheric distortion, crosstalk, stuff like that.
TR: Your opinion?
GR: Do you need to ask? (Pause) I had to speak to the Wilson brothers myself, but I wasn't part of the investigation team, so I had to watch my back, just in case. For their sake too. Remember the holiday we had at North Berwick in '69? I arranged to meet them in Dalkeith, and we went up to their place in the hills; we were talking about it, in the old shed their kit was in, when Hugh Wilson said the damndest thing. He pointed to a corner by the door, and told me Peter had been there. Described him to a tee, even the black eyes bit. They'd never told intelligence about it, thought it unnecessary; and I hadn't mentioned it to them either, before you ask.
TR: So, you're sure? It was Peter's last moments?
GR: Beyond a shadow of doubt. (Pause) How? How could it be? I can only guess, Tony. There are more things in heaven and on earth, etcetera, son. Hearts and minds come together along a good radio beam? He didn't appear to Margaret – the person he loved most in the world – or at any other tracking stations that I know of. Just to us in Australia, and two concerned strangers up a hill thousands of miles away.
TR: Anything like that ever happen to you, at any other time?
GR: I flew in extreme conditions of stress, weather, altitude and all sorts for twenty-seven years; I've experienced the oddest effects on my body. Vibration induced hallucinations, blackouts, disorientation effects. All sorts. But no, never anything that I couldn't explain as perfectly rational or a physiological quirk. Until that night. Quite the most extraordinary thing. Although he did it again.
TR: Sorry? Peter did?
GR: Yes, Peter Goodman, the one and the same, sat right where you are now, night before last. Told me it was time to give up, and it wasn't so bad 'crossing over' – an old flyer should walk it. Just listen for trumpets, and head for the light.
So there we have it. I've showed it to Tony's widow, my sister and my younger brother, and they've expressed similar views to mine. Dad was perfectly compos mentis until the end, and I know of no reason for him to have fabricated such a story. Tony was likely sitting on the story until he could confirm more of it. From the notes attached to this (which I can also send you, if you wish) I know he tried to track down some of dad's old acquaintances, but without much luck.
I hope it is of some use to you, and hopefully (as dad would have said) 'the truth will out'; maybe files relating to Black Diamond will be declassified someday, and my dearly missed Uncle Peter will be more than a falsified footnote.