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Thunderbirds – What’s In A Name?

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Many enthusiasts of Gerry Anderson’s arguably most famous creation, Thunderbirds, know that the inspiration for the series had something to do with his older brother Lionel, who fought and died flying for the RAF in the Second World War.

Many believe too that the name, Thunderbirds, stems from Lionel’s wartime pilot training in the United States, flying from an air base known as ‘Thunderbird Field’.

But whereas the first part of the statement is true, that the inspiration does indeed stem from Lionel’s wartime adventures, and in particular his time in the US where he mixed with Hollywood stars, the second part is a myth, and a myth that continues to this day.

The truth behind the name, however, is perhaps rather more interesting, and was uncovered while researching and writing Lionel’s biography last year entitled ‘A Thunderbird in Bomber Command.’

Lionel had always wanted to fly. Volunteering for the Royal Air Force, he was selected for pilot training, and despatched with a small group of other fledglings to the United States to train, away from the dangers of war-torn Britain.

Returning to the UK in the winter of 1942, and having successfully completed his training, Lionel was posted to 515 Squadron to fly secret‘Mandrel’ operations, creating a ‘screen’ within the German radar defences through which the Allied bombers could pass unseen. Lionel flew 32 Mandrel operations with 515 Squadron between February and July 1943, and came through unscathed but nevertheless exhausted by his experiences. Many of his friends were killed in what were extremely hazardous missions.

Returning for a second tour, Lionel converted from one engine to two, flying the FBVI variant of the wooden wonder, the De Havilland Mosquito. The role of the squadron also changed to become ‘Intruders’, flying ahead of the bomber force to cause maximum disruption to the German defences. Lionel went missing on his first ever sortie as an Intruder pilot. His Mosquito came down near Deelen, a few kilometers to the north of Arnhem. Both Lionel and his navigator were killed.

Throughout his time in the United States and afterwards, Lionel wrote regular letters home to his parents. In them, however,  he never once mentions the name ‘Thunderbirds’ in respect of the base from which he conducted his flying training. And there is a simple reason for this. Although the airfield received the title long after the war, and the owners (Southwest Airways) had wanted it to be known as Thunderbird Field III when it was originally acquired, during the conflict it was only ever referred to by its RAF name, ‘Falcon Field’.

‘I have just found out that I am not the only “Flying Yid” at Falcon Field…’ he writes in one of his letters, to illustrate the point. And in another, ‘we left Falcon last Sunday and arrived here early yesterday morning.’ 

What Lionel does refer to, however, in a number of letters is his excitement at taking part in a Hollywood Movie in which he, and many of his contemporaries, are roped in as ‘extras’ to ‘star’ alongside Gene Tierney and Preston Foster in a romantic flying drama. And the name of this block buster? The Thunder Birds.

The movie makers were on ‘set’ for more than three weeks with their enormous arc lamps, cameras, clapperboards and other such paraphernalia. The RAF contingent, along with a group of American airmen and a similar group of Chinese cadets brought in for the purpose, were used throughout the film, but especially in the opening sequences, the RAF marching past the camera in their best blue.

The glamour of Hollywood held a magnetic attraction to the older Anderson boy, who wrote home excitedly about his new-found friends and experiences:

I have already written to tell you about the film we have been making here.  It has helped me to meet a few celebrities.

I am in quite a few of the crowd scenes or rather marching scenes. Besides me, Jack Holt (an American Army Officer) Reginald Denny (an RAF Officer) Preston Foster (a civilian in love with Gene Tierney) and John Sutton (an RAF Cadet) are in it.  There are quite a few extras, camera men, electricians and whatnots hanging around.

As well as the actors on set, the filming attracted visits from other notable stars of the time:

I danced with Joan Fontaine. I like her. There is no swank about her and she is rather attractive. She dances very nicely. Nearly as well as me! So you see I am meeting quite a few celebrities here. Gracie Fields is coming to Phoenix next week and will probably come over here to our ‘drome.

Lionel did not allow his passion for Hollywood to remain on the base. He hitch-hiked more than 400 miles to take up an open invitation from Preston Foster to visit the 20th Century Fox Film Studios any time he was in town! Of the studios he wrote:

There were marvellous replicas of a Hawaiian Island, a bombed London street, Wild West Town, Indian Village and dozens of other things like that.  I really can’t write down everything I saw.  The Fox’s lot is simply terrific. It is a town in itself.

He also got to meet some more of the leading ladies of the time:

We watched Sonja Henie making some scenes for a film called ‘Iceland’, and met her along with Judy Garland and several lesser known actors and actresses.  We had a marvellous time. 

Lionel returned to Falcon exhausted but exhilarated in equal measure, and with a signed photograph of Preston Foster in his pocket with the legend: ‘with best wishes from your pseudo flying instructor!’

There is no doubt that Lionel’s letters home had a clear impact on his younger sibling, who soon after abandoned his plans of working in the building and architectural trade and instead applied for his first role at a photographic studio.

So while it is perhaps easy to understand how Gerry was inspired by his brother’s talk of Hollywood, and of the excitement of flying some of the fastest and most modern aircraft of their time, why does the myth persist about how Thunderbirds got its name?

Some have suggested that Gerry himself was responsible for explaining that the Thunderbirds name came from the airfield and not the film, but his brother’s letters leave no room for ambiguity. Indeed, in one of his letters he writes in relation to his visit to see Preston Foster:

‘Of course we know him as he has been to Falcon Field several times to make the film Thunderbird….’

It is inconceivable that Lionel would not have linked the name of the field to the name of the film. The logical conclusion is that in later years, Gerry simply ‘mis-remembered’ how the name came about in good faith, and as such the story has since become established as fact. Stephen La Rivière cites several examples where Gerry’s memory played tricks on him, and history has been effectively re-written as a result.

Perhaps now, however, the time has finally come to set the record straight.

Our thanks to Sean Feast for this fascinating glimpse into the life of Lionel Anderson, and the legend of how Thunderbirds got it’s name. ‘A Thunder Bird in Bomber Command’ is available to purchase from the Official Gerry Anderson online store

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Andrew Clements

A writer, film maker and self confessed Gerry Anderson fanatic. Free to good home.

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