Ken Adam: Oscar-Winning Set Designer & German RAF Typhoon Pilot
Normandy, August 1944. In the six weeks since the pilots of 609 Squadron had moved to France, they had become used to the very different surroundings and living conditions in which they now found themselves. Gone were the days of large, properly built airfields, complete with hangars, repair-workshops, living quarters and, most importantly, a comfortable and well-stocked mess. Instead, theirs was a tented existence of notable impermanence and unsettlingly close to the front line. They were now at their third airfield since crossing the Channel for good – known simply as ‘B.7’, a wood-shielded field just outside Bayeux, from where the sounds of battle never seemed to be far away.
The rattle of small-arms had sounded fainter, however, over the past few days, and the thud of shell-fire duller. The pilots of 609 had never been busier – sometimes as many as five missions a day, a heavy workload. But all the men sensed the battle for Normandy was now reaching a close. Montgomery’s forces had finally taken Caen and were pushing south towards Falaise, while the Americans and Free French, having pushed south away from the main fighting, had turned east and were now driving northwards. The entire German 7th Army and half the 5th Army were trapped in a deadly encirclement between Falaise and Argenton, with only an increasingly narrow corridor through which they could escape.
Flight-Sergeant Klaus ‘Heinie’ Adam had not been too concerned about giving up the comfortable existence they had had back in England. After all, it was exciting to be part of this great invasion force and to feel that they finally had the enemy on the run. And his tent was comfortable enough: he and his good friend Norman Merrett had a camp-bed and sleeping bag each and a canvas washstand to share. They felt a bit more vulnerable at night – the Allies might have had complete air superiority, but that hadn’t stopped a couple of German fighters sneaking over and spraying the airfield with machinegun and cannon fire – although Klaus had slept easier again since going to bed with his tin helmet covering his most vital parts.
August 9th dawned with mist hanging over the airfield, but it promised to be a warm, clear day, and even before the liaison officers stepped into the large dark-green intelligence tent for the morning briefing, it was obvious to the assembled pilots that there would be plenty of flying that day once the early morning mist had been burnt off by the sun.
At least none of the pilots could ever complain about being kept in the dark. Daily briefings were held in the ‘inter ops’ tent for the two squadrons that shared the airfield and made up 123 Wing – 609 and 198 – providing each and every pilot with impressive amounts of information about the progress of the Allies. In attendance were liaison officers from the Army and Royal Navy as well as their own intelligence officers and the Met Officer. Such detail was essential: the fighting across the dense bocage of Normandy was often close and intense. Very little ground often separated their own side from the enemy; the role of the 2nd Tactical Air Force was to help the army, not hit them by mistake. Klaus listened carefully to the briefing by the Army liaison officer, then the Met officer, until finally it was the Wing Commander’s turn. Around ten o’clock, once the mist had gone, 609 would send up a flight on an armed reconnaissance mission over the Falaise area. If they saw any clear targets they were to hit the enemy hard.
Klaus’s friend Norman Merrett took part in that first flight of the day. They spotted enemy tanks moving north-west six miles south-east of Falaise, and attacked, knocking out two tanks. Another armed recce took off at 1.45pm and once again they found targets, opening fire on an enemy column on the Falaise-Argentan road, and leaving a truck and a further tank in flames.
Klaus was one of eight men in ‘A’ Flight chosen to fly a third armed recce later that afternoon. Shortly after half-past four, he was walking briskly towards the large and imposing figure of his Hawker Typhoon, standing motionless alongside a number of others under the cover of some trees around the airfield perimeter. His ground crew were already there. Ammunition boxes were stacked nearby, as were piles of rockets. Klaus took the parachute off his dew-sodden wing, and put each fur-booted leg in turn through the straps, then brought the other two over his shoulders and clipped them all together into the buckle. A quick glance at the four rockets loaded under each wing, and then he put his boot into the retracting footrest and heaved himself up onto the scuffed, paint-chipped wing-root and clambered into the cockpit.
At seven tons, the Typhoon was the largest fighter in the RAF by some distance. With its thick wings, and huge protruding radiator jutting from underneath the nose, it had none of the finesse and elegance of the Spitfire, or even the Hurricane, but what it lacked in looks it gained in speed. Quite simply, it could out-fly the latest Spitfire or anything else the Allies had, and although it had been found wanting at high altitudes and against the best of the Luftwaffe, as a ground-attack machine, it had no rival. Its bulk also meant it was an extremely effective gun-platform. In its brief service career, machineguns had soon made way for four high-velocity 20mm cannons. Bombs were then added: it could carry as much as 1000lb, more than any other single-engine plane. Then in February, 609 Squadron had been transferred to Fairwood Common in Wales – a new type of armament had been given to the Typhoons: rockets. Eight could be slung to the underside of the wings. Klaushad been impressed by this new addition to their fire-power. Now, he was not only flying the fastest aircraft in the RAF, but one armed to the teeth with cannon and rockets. And he was good at it too: during training, he’d regularly fired his rockets with an average error of between fifty and sixty yards; with eight 60-lb warheads exploding, that still created an enormous amount of damage.
In the cockpit, Klaus immediately put on his helmet and, as he always did before a mission, turned the ring on his finger three times. Having given the signal to his ground crew, he strapped the oxygen mask to his face and fired the starter cartridge. The Typhoon could be a temperamental starter, but this time the huge 24-cylinder Sabre-Napier engine immediately burst into life amidst clouds of thick, acrid smoke. The noise was enormous – far louder than the Hurricane. The airframe shook violently and immediately Klaus switched on the oxygen to avoid breathing in lethal carbon-monoxide fumes that swept into the cockpit the moment the engine began to run. Closing the bubble-perspex canopy, he watched his ground crew, their faces covered with scarves, take away the chocks and wave him round towards the wire-mesh – PSP – runway amidst clouds of dust whipped up by the propeller.
The Typhoons took off in pairs, his friend Norman leading them on what was his third sortie of the day. By the time it was Klaus’s turn the dust was so thick he could barely see a thing. Such was the power of the Sabre engine that the torque from the propeller caused the aircraft to veer violently to the right unless the pilot heavily corrected the yaw by pressing down hard on the port rudder. Klaus was well used to this foible by now, but even so, taking off, especially with such poor visibility, was a hazardous occupation at the best of times, and had to be done blind, using the gyro – the aircraft compass – to keep him straight.
They immediately climbed steeply and turned northwards, out to sea. Normally, Klaus could see the silver barrage balloons shielding the newly-constructed Mulberry harbour at Avranches glinting in the sun, but not that morning: Normandy was draped in soft, grey cloud. Norman took them to 8,000 feet then they turned back in and flew inland once more. Circling over their patrol area, they soon spotted a cluster of scattered enemy transport – trucks, lorries and smaller vehicles, and so Norman led them down, the eight Typhoons, their engines screaming, plunging at nearly 600 miles per hour.
Each Typhoon hurtled over the enemy vehicles. Klaus released half his rockets, two at time, and pressed his thumb down on the gun button. Their efforts were clearly striking home. Balls of flame and columns of thick, black smoke erupted into the sky. All eight Typhoons managed to escape the fray and they climbed once more before attacking a wood they thought might be hiding more enemy equipment. Firing their remaining rockets, they left the wood in flames. Looking back, Klaus saw thick black smoke rising high into the sky. A little over ten minutes later, all eight aircraft were touching back down again at B.7.
It had been a good day for the squadron: three armed reconnaissance flights and targets hit on every one, and marked the beginning of the destruction of the Germany Army in Normandy. Over the next week, the Allied air forces, including 609 Squadron, repeatedly flew over the remnants of the 7th and 5th Armies. On just one day – August 18 – 609 flew four separate missions, part of 1,471 individual sorties in which over a thousand enemy vehicles were destroyed, including ninety tanks. The Falaise Gap had become one of the greatest killing-grounds of the entire war.
On August 22, Klaus saw the battlefield himself. 609 Squadron had been given the day off, so he and a number of other pilots took a truck and drove over to the Falaise area. He soon wished he hadn’t. Their truck became stuck among a long British armoured column moving at a snail’s pace through the carnage. The road – or what was left of it – was choked with wreckage, swollen corpses and dead cattle and horses. ‘The smell was terrible,’ he says, and although they all put handkerchiefs over their faces, it did little to help; the sickly sweet smell of death stuck to their clothes for days to come. ‘This was my first contact on the ground with the dead and what had been the enemy,’ says Ken. In the air, most pilots were somewhat removed from the realities on the ground. Being so close to this horror came as a profound shock.
Strangely, however, Klaus felt more affected by the sight of bloated and rotting horses and cows than he did the many German dead; and particularly strange because the majority of the dead, although his enemy, were also his fellow countrymen.
However English it may have sounded, ‘Adam’ was the surname he had been born with. In the squadron he was known simply as ‘Heinie,’ although because there had been another Adam in the squadron, he had taken to calling himself Adams to avoid any confusion. No-one seemed to bat an eye that he was a German flying for the RAF. On the contrary, he was popular amongst the other pilots and they were proud to have him. They were also keenly aware that while they would be treated as prisoners of war were they to be shot down and captured, Heinie could expect no such clemency. As not only a traitor but also a Jew, he would be shot. ‘To fly with this knowledge as well as the ordinary stresses,’ the squadron medical officer said of him, ‘must have taken immense courage.’ And while all forms of aerial combat were dangerous, being a rocket-firing Typhoon pilot was particularly hazardous. Flying at such low altitudes, they were desperately vulnerable to being hit by the vast amounts of light flak that usually accompanied any attack. Unlike those fighting several miles high, there was little room in which to get out of trouble should they be hit. The Typhoon was robust, but although its wings and fuselage could take a fair amount of damage, the engine and the huge radiator slung beneath it were highly vulnerable. ‘You only needed a stray bullet in there and you were in serious trouble,’ says Ken. Diving into attack was also an dangerous manoeuvre. ‘You went as low as you dared,’ he says, ‘but there were potentially two problems. First, you had to be careful not to be hit by explosions from your own rockets, and second, if you tried to pull up out of the dive too quickly, the Typhoon had a nasty habit of stalling at high speed, flipping over on its back and plunging into the ground.’
He was, he admits, sometimes ‘shit-scared’ but he was fortunate to be part of such a tightly-knit squadron, a squadron that was infused with the particularly British traits of team spirit and understatement, but which was made up from young men from many of the Allied nations: Belgians, Dutch, French, Canadians, Americans, Australians, Norwegians, Poles. Klaus was no different from any of the other pilots speaking English with a thick accent. ‘Everyone treated the job of combat flying as though it were a game of rugby or cricket,’ says Klaus– a defence mechanism, but an effective one, all the same. ‘There would be very little outward emotion,’ he says. Watching one of his comrades bursting into flames, his first thought would be relief that it was not him plunging to his death. Only later, back on the ground, would he think about these losses more deeply. He never saw anyone go to pieces, despite the many deaths the squadron suffered, although admits ‘there was a lot of vomiting going on behind the aircraft’ – not that anyone ever made any comment.
Klaus– or rather, Klaus – had been born in 1921, the third of three brothers and a sister. His had been an idyllic early childhood. His parents were upper middle class Berliners; his father ran a famous German sports store – S. Adam – which had been founded by Klaus’s grandfather in the 1860s. ‘It was very upmarket,’ says Ken, ‘more like Burberrys than Lillywhites.’ His father financed a number of high-profile expeditions and projects, and Klaus met a number of well-known explorers and adventurers, including Amundsen, the conqueror of the South Pole. As well as the large house in Berlin, there was a holiday home on the Baltic coast, where the Adam family would go for Christmas and the summer. Both practical and with a lively imagination, Klaus would spend his time building ever-faster sledges and sailing around the inlet on which their country farmhouse was built.
His parents were also exceptionally liberal. Although Jewish, they were not at all religious. Klaus was never made to go to a synagogue and nor was he sent to a Jewish school. Rather, he was educated at a highly prestigious French academy in Berlin. Neither of his parents seemed to sense what was coming, not even when the store went bust in 1932. ‘The business failed partly because of the rise of anti-semitism,’ admits Ken, ‘but also because its location had become unfashionable.’ Undeterred, Herr Adam opened another store in a different part of town. ‘He was an adventurer,’ says Ken. ‘A great German but not a very good businessman.’ Having been a decorated cavalry officer in the First World War, Klaus’s father had refused to believe that his future was in jeopardy from the Nazis and so ploughed all his remaining capital into the new – and doomed – venture.
Klaus was equally unaware that their lives would soon be thrown into turmoil. He was conscious that dramatic changes were taking place – he saw storm troopers in the streets, and witnessed a number of arrests – but did not realise how it might soon affect him; and although he heard plenty of anti-semitic remarks, he barely understood what they meant. Only Klaus’s eldest brother, Peter, older by seven years, seemed to sense which way the wind was blowing. ‘He was the brightest in the family,’ says Ken, ‘and studying in France at the time. Living outside Germany, where the press was hostile to the Nazis, he could see what was happening.’ Not until Herr Adam was arrested 1933 did Klaus’s father finally begin to understand that their lives were becoming threatened. On this occasion he was lucky – an employee high up in the Nazi party secured his release after forty-eight hours. Soon after, Peter came back to Berlin. ‘I remember on Sundays we children always had breakfast together with our parents in their gigantic double bed,’ says Ken. ‘One such Sunday, Peter came in and told my mother and father that they had to send us away.’ It was Klaus’s mother who supported Peter and finally persuaded Herr Adam that Klaus and his younger brother should be whisked abroad to safety.
Although the Adam children had all been brought up to speak French, it was to Britain that they were eventually sent. There was an English aunt – her part of the family had moved there the previous century – with whom Peter had a good relationship. She had links with a refugee organisation in London called The Woburn House, and so in 1934, Klaus and his younger brother left Germany, sailing on a tramp steamer from Hamburg to Grimsby, and leaving behind their parents, friends and all that they had ever known. Klaus would not set foot again in the country of his birth for ten years – and when he did finally return to Berlin, the glittering city of his childhood lay in ruins.
After a brief period at a bleak public school outside Edinburgh, Klaus and his younger brother were joined in Britain by their parents and sister and the family moved to London. These were difficult times. His father was much changed, both emotionally and psychologically. He tried working as a salesman – a humiliating experience – but had aged terribly. Tragically, he died two years later, in 1936. It was left to Klaus’s mother to hold the family together. Despite having never worked in her life, she proved to be an incredibly strong character. She bought a large house in Hampstead and opened a boarding house, principally for refugees from all over Europe, while Peter became a successful chartered accountant in the city. By selling a couple of Renoirs and a Bechstein piano, as well as with help from Peter, she was able to send Klaus and his brother to St Paul’s public school, while their sister, whose health was not good, was educated in Switzerland.
Klaus’s time in Edinburgh had not been happy but St Paul’s was a different matter. Slowly becoming accustomed to his new circumstances, he settled in well. ‘Like most European immigrants, one wanted to be integrated into this country,’ he says, ‘to be more English than the English.’ The educational system in England impressed him greatly – not so much the academic side of life, but rather, the emphasis on team sport. ‘In Germany it was all gymnastics and so on – we didn’t play soccer, cricket or rugby like we did at St Paul’s.’ A broken collar-bone soon ended his rugby career, but he loved cricket.
At seventeen he left St Paul’s and went to University College, London, to study architecture. Although a student, he still had to be articled, and was taken on by CW Glover & Partners, where he was considered something of a rebel for his modernist tastes, influenced largely by the Bauhaus movement in Berlin. It was now 1938, and Glovers were designing air raid shelters and bomb-proof buildings. Klaus found himself illustrating instruction manuals for them. Understandably, he felt the coming of war more keenly than many his age. He’d been outraged by the Anchluss in Austria and by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia – he may have come from an apolitical family and been too young to fully comprehend what had been happening back in 1934, but at seventeen he had become fervently anti-Nazi, influenced not only by his own family’s experiences but also by listening to the many refugees who boarded with them in Hampstead. ‘Many of them were intellectuals and highly politically motivated,’ he says. ‘They all hated Hitler and Nazism.’
Klaus was determined to do his bit, and fully prepared to fight against his countrymen. He’d always been fascinated by aeroplanes and had often taken his model aircraft to fly in Regent’s Park – so it was the RAF that he hoped to join. The attitude to German refugees had suddenly changed, however. First, he was refused entry into the University Air Squadron for being a German. Then he and his family were forced to face a tribunal to establish whether they should be considered as ‘threatening aliens.’ He passed this, but when, after war broke out, he tried to join the RAF, he was turned down. Instead, he was accepted into the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. With his experience in the Cadet Force at St Paul’s, he was made a corporal and sent to Ilfracombe in Devon, where he was told to organise the French legionnaires rescued from Narvik.
He persisted with the RAF, however, and much to his surprise, was finally accepted in early 1941, as the Blitz still raged over London. His medical showed up a defect in his eyes, however, and so it was not for a further six months, once the problem had been corrected, that he eventually began initial and elementary training in Yorkshire and Scotland. With all these obstacles overcome, he was, to his very great relief, selected for flying training, rather than as air crew, and sent to Canada. He reached Nova Scotia in the spring of 1942.
Once in Canada, a number of potential pilots were siphoned off to train in America at civilian flying schools as part of the Arnold Scheme. ‘I had a girlfriend in New York,’ says Ken. ‘I’m not sure how I wangled it, but I was determined to be one of those sent to the US.’ His girlfriend was soon forgotten, however, once he reached Georgia, and where he learned to fly with both British and American pilots. He soon met other girls anyway. ‘I was quite a womaniser,’ he admits, and celebrated his twenty-first birthday with his female navigation instructor. And he was a natural pilot. At one time, his class were stationed near and all-girl college. At the end of the course, Klaus flew low over the college giving an impromptu aerobatics display to impress the girls. His instructors were far from pleased, especially since a number of is fellow trainees had soon followed suit. Even so, it didn’t stop him from gaining his US silver and RAF wings with an above average rating and a likely commission in the RAF. Then came a setback. He was awaiting his first posting when his American commanding officer called him in and told him that ‘pending further investigations,’ he was not to be commissioned after all, but to be sent back to England as a sergeant pilot. ‘To this day, I have never found out why,’ he says, although his nationality was almost certainly the reason for this sudden demotion.
It was disappointing, but he was pleased to be heading back to England and to be flying operationally. With his high marks, he had been half-expecting to be posted as an instructor, something he had most certainly not wanted. So it was that after flying Hurricanes at his Operational Training Unit in Scotland, he was posted, in October 1943, to 609 Squadron, a former pre-war auxiliary squadron based in the West Riding in Yorkshire and a unit with one of the best records throughout the Battle of Britain.
‘I was amazed,’ admits Ken. ‘To have been viewed as somehow suspicious and then to be sent to one of the top-scoring fighter squadrons in the RAF seemed extraordinary.’ He was also fortunate that although many RAF squadrons were filled with pilots from all around the world, this was particularly the case with 609. Made to feel at home immediately, Klaus was struck by the incredible sense of camaraderie and team spirit that pervaded the squadron. This was in part due to their current and highly inspiration commanding officer, Squadron Leader Pat Thornton-Brown. Loved dearly by all his men, he was utterly imperturbable and a high-class fighter pilot. New pilots like Klaus were not only welcomed warmly, but nurtured until their fighting skills were sufficiently honed. ‘Charming!’ was Thornton-Brown’s usual response to anything unpleasant such as flying through intense flak. It was from him, as much as anyone, that Klaus learnt the benefits of under-statement in a time of war.
Klaus had joined the squadron at Lympne, in Kent, on the day 609 celebrated its 200th aerial victory. At this time they were still operating independently, but a part of 11 Group. Although much of their time was spent protecting shipping, or carrying out sweeps in support of American bombers, they had begun flying ‘ranger patrols’ – low-level ‘hedge-hopping’ sweeps using auxiliary fuel tanks that enabled them to surprise and shoot up German airfields in France normally considered out of range to Allied fighters.
But it was on a supposed bomber escort that tragedy struck, just four days before Christmas. 609 had been ordered to provide close support to a number of American Marauder bombers. Only six Typhoons were available, so the plan was for two Typhoons to escort each of the three formations of Marauders. Klaus was one of those due to be flying, but as soon as he reached his aircraft, he realised it hadn’t been equipped with long-range auxiliary fuel tanks. ‘I thought, ‘To hell with it,’’ he says. ‘Surely it wouldn’t take long to escort a few bombers over to France?’
His youthful optimism soon proved to be misplaced. Having taken off, the Typhoons, led by Thornton-Brown, headed out over the coast, climbed to 20,000 feet then circled around Beechy Head waiting for the Marauders to appear. Only after twenty minutes burning precious fuel did they eventually spot the bombers and begin the mission, and by the time they reached the French coast, Klaus’s aircraft was beginning to splutter. Although he was able to successfully switch over to his reserve tank, he was now acutely aware of how foolhardy he had been: the reserve tank would not last long and he was now flying over enemy territory. He called Thornton-Brown on the R/T and explained his predicament. ‘You bloody fool,’ the CO told him. ‘Reduce your revs. Get a homing from Manston and try and glide as much as you can, and you might get back.’
Chastened, Klaus did as he was told, dropping out of formation and turning for home. Five minutes later, he heard panic on his radio. The Typhoons were under attack, not from the Luftwaffe, but from US P-47 Thunderbolts who had mistaken them for Focke-Wulfs. Recognition signals were hurriedly given, but to no avail. The American, Arty Ross, was hit by his countrymen, as were the Canadian, Chuck Miller, and Thornton-Brown himself. Neither Miller nor the CO made it back – Thornton-Brown’s wife had been due to join him for Christmas the following day. Klaus was more fortunate. His engine finally cut out just as he touched down at Manston. Even so, it was, he says ‘a terrible day.’
609 Squadron’s independent status changed early in 1944 after they had been retrained as a rocket-firing unit. By this time they were beginning to take part in active preparations for the Allied invasion. The 2nd Tactical Air Force had been formed and the squadron became attached to 123 Wing, part of 84 Group. Now based at Thorney Island, near Portsmouth on the south coast of England, they had become primarily aerial artillery, given the task of carrying out regular ground-attack ‘shows’ on targets in Northern France. Early May began with a flurry of missions: an attack on a road bridge near Cherbourg on the 2nd; the following day, nearly a hundred rockets were fired by the squadron at railway sheds near Amiens. On May 7, targets included a shipping canal and another bridge.
Four days later – May 11 – Klaus was on a show to attack a radar station at Fécamp, near Le Havre. It was a big operation and their attack was preceded by not only American bombers, but other Typhoon squadrons as well. ‘We were the last in,’ says Ken. ‘The German flak was trained on us by the time our wave of Typhoons came in.’ Moreover, they had been ordered to attack from inland and out to sea. The first four of 609’s planes attacked in line astern, ie, one behind the other, and two were promptly shot down, and a third badly hit. Flying behind, Klaus watched in horror as Flight Lieutenant Wood’s Typhoon burst into flames, hit another Typhoon and then plunged to the ground. Realising what sitting targets they were, he immediately fell out of the line astern formation, and made his attack from a different angle. This decision probably saved his life. ‘Junior Soesman hit and bailed out but didn’t get into dinghy,’ Klaus noted in his logbook. ‘Woody was also hit. Caught fire, collided with Adam and crashed into houses, exploding. Damned tough luck.’ To lose three aircraft (and two pilots) out of eight was, as Klaus points out, ‘a big hit.’
Losses were mounting. Five pilots were killed in May, four in June, five in July, and six in August – over 100% casualty rates in under four months. In France, where precision was so important a new system was introduced, copied from the 1st Tactical Air Force in Italy. This was ‘VCP’ – Visual Control Point – whereby an experienced RAF ground controller would travel about the front line in an army tank, and, equipped with a radio set tuned to the correct squadron frequency, would direct the Typhoons onto very precise targets. The pilots, working in flights of four, would operate a ‘cab-rank’ system: with the same maps as the controller on their knees, they would take it in turns to take off, climb to 8,000 feet, and circle around waiting to be directed onto a target. ‘The controller would say, “Right, here’s the grid reference, and in fifteen seconds you’ll see red smoke. Go down and attack,’” says Ken, ‘and then we’d find a Tiger tank or an 88mm gun and fire our rockets.’ Flying so often and at such low altitudes, it was not surprising the squadron began to suffer.
‘It was hard,’ says Klaus of the number of losses. To avoid dwelling on such matters, there was a lot of drinking in the evenings, and much time spent gambling. If he woke up the following morning with a hangover, he usually found that flying at 10,000 feet with the oxygen on full would soon clear his head. By the middle of 1944, the RAF was struggling to recruit pilots for the rocket squadrons, so the Air Ministry decided that once a month, pilots could fly their aircraft back to England on a forty-eight hour pass. On such occasions, Klaus would head straight for London, meeting up with girlfriends and doing his best to forget about the war for a couple of days. On the return trip, the pilots were expected to fly back with the gun bays crammed full of alcohol and whatever other goodies they could get their hands on. ‘Then we would have a party,’ says Ken.
In October, he lost his great friend Norman Merrett. ‘He was always volunteering for the most ridiculous missions, which no-one else would have done,’ he says. Norman’s luck finally ran out when, one day, he was asked to go on a weather reconnaissance flight. Spotting a train, he told his number two to stay at 8,000 feet, while he dived and attacked. His salvo of rockets missed, so he turned and attacked again. ‘That was stupid – he should never have done that,’ says Ken. On his second sweep over the train Norman’s Typhoon was hit and he crash-landed. His number two watched him clamber out, and it was assumed he had become a prisoner of war. ‘But he was so badly injured or beaten,’ says Ken, ‘he died at wherever it was they took him.’
Various squadron COs had repeatedly asked for Klaus to be given a commission but the request had been consistently refused. Around this time, he decided he had had enough and told his Wing Commander that he didn’t mind risking his life from morning to evening, but wanted to be treated like everyone else, and so if he wasn’t made an officer he would demand to be posted to Coastal Command. Wing Commander Scott immediately wrote to Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary – who had also been his tennis partner – and sure enough, soon after Klaus finally received his commission. The threat had worked, although he was glad that he did not have to carry it out. Despite the fatigue, he still felt ‘absolutely rooted’ to the squadron.
In November, he suffered a bad hernia and was sent back to England for an operation. It was probably just as well, because although he refused to admit it to himself at the time, he now recognises that he was beginning to feel considerably ‘washed up’ after thirteen months of almost continual active duty. Even so, three months later he was back, despite being scarcely fit to fly. ‘I could barely walk,’ he says.
With the war drawing to a close, he found himself back in Germany once more. It was an emotional experience for him. Soon after, he was asked to go into the nearest town and bring back as much drink as he could. Finding the mayor, he told him he was going to clear out the town hall’s wine cellar. One woman watching him burst into tears. Klaus couldn’t help feeling moved by her distress. Not until after the war, however, did he finally returned to Berlin. ‘It was October, 1945,’ he says. ‘There was nothing left…our house wasn’t there, just the ruins.’
Klaus stayed in the RAF on an extended commission until 1946. It had been his intention to make a career of it, but his older brother, who had already been demobilised and had embarked on a successful career in London, talked him out of such a move. ‘If you’re lucky,’ he’d told Klaus, ‘you might make Group Captain in three years, but that’ll be it. You’ll never be properly accepted. It’s not like America.’ So Klaus began working for his brother, but only lasted a week; a career in the City was not for him. For a while he was doing nothing except wasting time and spending his money. Good fortune had spared him during the war, and it came to his rescue again now. His sister was working at the American Embassy, and one day a buyer on a film came in asking for help in supplying American props. In the course of their conversation, she told him about her brother and explained that he was looking for work. Klaus was taken on, and with his architectural background and artistic gifts soon began to do well. Before long he was making a name for himself as a production designer.
By the 1960s, Ken – as he had now become – was working on some of the most successful films of the period, responsible for set design on Dr No, Goldfinger and a number of other Bond films as well as Dr Strangelove and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. ‘They were fun,’ he says, ‘because I could let my imagination go. I am sure my childhood and wartime experience had a lot to do with it.’ In his long career he has also earned two Oscars, the first for his work on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and again for The Madness of King George. He was knighted in 2003. Curiously, he has never worked on a war film, despite being asked to be production designer on The Battle of Britain. ‘I would have done it,’ he says, ‘but was working on Chitty Bang Bang at the time.’
He has found himself thinking more about his wartime experiences of late. Unearthed film footage of him flying his Typhoon in France and making an attack with his rockets brought a number of memories flooding back. Yet although many of these are painful, he remains enormously grateful for the friendships he made during those traumatic times. ‘We established relationships back then,’ he says, ‘that just don’t exist any more.’
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