A Flying Fortress seen head on: Picture by Nick Collins
TO many of those who watched pensioner Tony Foulds being given his star in the pavement ‘Walk of Fame’ outside Sheffield Town Hall on Monday he is a hero. This is a man who has spent a lifetime honouring the stricken crew of an American bomber which crashed in wartime Sheffield.
And it is through him that thousands packed the park to watch a USAF and RAF flypast on the 75th anniversary on 22 February.
To others, though, he’s a fantasist – Phony Tony, the 83-year-old who has duped the BBC and the local and regional Press with his claims.
No one is denying he has spent time cleaning and tending the war memorial to the ten dead aircrew of the American bomber Mi Amigo which crashed there in February 1944. The question is, for how long?
Certainly not, as BBC television news reported on 21st February this year “for the last 75 years.” For a start, the memorial wasn’t erected until 1969. The truth is, as he explained on video in December 2018, is that he had done it only for the previous two years. In his telling and retelling of the story, it had gone further and further back.
Just as important is that his recollection of what he says he witnessed in the park as an eight-year-old boy back in 1944 bears no relation to the facts. His dramatic story is that is that the pilot waved to him and his friends playing there to get out of the way before crashing.
On frequent television appearances it has been compelling viewing as the tears well up, his handkerchief comes out and he speaks of the “guilt” he feels that the airmen died trying to save him and his friends. Yet none of the other children has come forward to back his story. Nor has he named them.
Hardly surprising, as this is an urban legend which first appeared in the Nineties. One has only to think for a minute of the absurdity of a Flying Fortress trying to land at great speed on a pocket handkerchief of a park to realise this could not have happened.
For a detailed analysis see my earlier post here
With so many holes in his story you would have thought the BBC and the local newspaper, the Sheffield Star, would have checked. They haven’t.
Author David Harvey with his book
One way, apart from looking up their files to see the account did not tally or asking themselves how Phony Tony had managed to escape the attention of their reporters down the years, would be to ask historian David Harvey who spent four years researching the incident for his book Mi Amigo: Sheffield’s Flying Fortress.
To this day he has had no call from the Sheffield Star or the Yorkshire Post. It was only after this abject failure of journalism that I published on my blog.
For Harvey, the events of this year have been painful in that all the publicity has been about Foulds and his “devotion” rather than the bomber crew. “What gets my goat is that the story should be about the ten crewmen. Sheffield had a lucky escape that day. It’s one of the city’s greatest stories.”
He adds: “I despair of it. It is something which means a great deal to me and to see it distorted I think is quite sad.”
There is no denying that Foulds, whose chance encounter with BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker in the park early in tbe New Year propelled him to national attention, has done well out of the affair.
He has been feted, lauded, and laden with Man of the Year awards. The Americans from the ambassador downwards have made him a VIP. He has been given a free flight over the supposed route of the Mi Amigo before it crashed (all the evidence shows it came from the opposite direction) and at least £1,500 has been raised by online crowdfunding in his name to help the upkeep of the memorial.
It is unclear what has happened to this money. In any event the memorial belongs to the city council, whose staff tidied the monument every year in advance of the annual memorial ceremony held there.
Wreckage from the Mi Amigo
Oddly, you might think, Foulds never attended the ceremony until the last two years.
And despite the money he still borrows a broom from Jon Pullin who runs the nearby children’s amusement park so he can be seen and photographed by visitors sweeping away the leaves. The monument, once dignified, has been turned into a gaudy shrine complete with flagpost.
Poor Jon lost money when his amusements were taken down for the day because they blocked camera angles. By contrast, Ashley Charlesworth, owner of the park café, would have been paid thousands for hiring it out as the BBC ‘Green Room.’
It’s all good, heart-warming stuff and Foulds himself has been great telly. The BBC Breakfast coverage of the flypast of USAF and RAF planes over the park on the 75th anniversary in February, seen by millions, concentrated on him. Out came the handkerchief during a live link-up between him and the BBC’s Walker, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for Children in Need. The religious ceremony being performed at the same time was given short shrift.
When a viewer wrote to the BBC to complain about its portrayal of the facts after seeing my story on Foulds (which has received over 10,000 hits and the link is now banned by Facebook as contravening community standards) a spokesman insisted: “Remembrance of the men who died . . . has always been the main focus of this story: our social media hashtag for the event was #remembertheten.”
The reply neglects to mention that almost immediately Walker instituted another hashtag, #GetTonyAFlypast which resulted in the ceremony. He tweeted without checking Foulds’ story. He has never spoken to historian Harvey. Local people who disagree have contacted him to no avail and adverse comments have been taken down from BBC websites.
The BBC response also claimed that Harvey had been consulted. He hadn’t. He was asked one question live on TV, about the fate of the plane’s mascot, a dog.
Interestingly the BBC’s reply also says “Tony has not claimed to have tended the memorial site for decades. He regularly visited but has only been looking at it daily for the last few years.” Yet its own Twitter feed continually repeats the false claim that he has “been looking after the memorial ever since” (1944).
The city council, when asked by the same viewer if it checked the facts before honouring Foulds, passed the buck to the BBC. Chief Executive John Mothersole wrote: “Given the role of the BBC in picking up on the story and initiating the event I think that any fact checking should fall to them.”
Dan Walker was walking his dog when he met Tony Foulds
He makes clear that the star is in recognition “of the impact of the commemorative event had in drawing together so many people in such a passionate and reflective way.”
(Obviously the city council views Foulds’ achievements, in getting a few million viewers on breakfast telly, as equal to other Sheffield Legends, such as astronaut Helen Sharman or film star Sean Bean.)
But not all those thousands watching in Endcliffe Park in February felt the same. “I cried when the flypast happened because this was the wrong history,” said one.
And others, the park users, the dog walkers, those who worked and lived nearby, wondered how it was they had never seen nor heard of Tony Foulds before Dan Walker came along and tweeted his story without checking.
There are few names in this account because vitriol has been directed at those who question this version of events. Foulds himself has colourfully described me on tape as “a piece of sh*t.” Twice comments on the Sheffield History Facebook page have been suspended because of abuse. It is above ironical that people interested in local history should refuse to accept the facts.
Many people ask why does this matter? It’s a good story, why spoil it? But doesn’t the truth matter? Why did no one, the city council, the Sheffield Star and, shamefully, the prestigious Yorkshire Post, feel big enough and brave enough to challenge the BBC?
As one contributor on the Sheffield History page, echoing the newspaper editor in John Ford’s Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, said: “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.”
Tony Foulds: Hero or villain?
*There is a video based on my earlier blog post at https://youtu.be/c5q8uMouXRg
AND IF YOU’RE STILL NOT SURE:
#In the 1990s local publisher Alistair Lofthouse, planning his own book on the Mi Amigo, put up posters at the memorial asking for information. That way he contacted David Harvey and agreed to publish his book. Despite allegedly keeping vigil there, Tony Foulds did not come forward.
#Dan Walker tweeted excitedly at 12.25pm on 2 January, within hours of meeting Foulds. He had no time to check and it was seriously inaccurate. “Just met an amazing man in Endcliffe Park, Sheffield. Tony Foulds was an 8-year-old playing in the park when a US plane crashed in Feb 1944. He has diligently maintained the memorial ever since. He was planting new flowers. Almost 75 years of service. What a man. I’m in bits.”
#Friends of Porter Valley, volunteers who help maintain and tidy the park, including the memorial, had never heard of Foulds until Dan Walker.
#Despite being contacted by local people who raised their doubts about the story the BBC ignored them.