@ewansomerville in Endcliffe Park
The spirit of Sheffield was captured and the lifelong dream of a pensioner fulfilled as thousands descended on Endcliffe Park for a historic flyby like no other – it was Tony’s flypast.
An overwhelmed Tony Foulds, 82, watched along with the nation on Saturday morning as British and American air forces roared through Sheffield’s blue skies to mark the conclusion of an extraordinary 75-year-long story that came to life after a chance encounter.
Broadcast live on BBC Breakfast from Endcliffe Park, crowded with tens of thousands of people, the special flyby paid homage to ten servicemen who never landed after taking to the skies on February 22, 1944.
The B-17 Flying Fortress in which they were flying, known as Mi Amigo, is believed to have come down among the trees of the popular park, minutes away from where the University of Sheffield’s main student accommodation stands today.
But for years Tony, who witnessed that fateful night aged eight, has been tending to the bright plants, poppies, stones and plaques that form a memorial that he dedicated to the soldiers, all aged between 21 and 24 when they died.
Such a powerful story
Taken aback, Tony said in front of the tearful crowd: “This was worth waiting 66 years for”.
After a member of the crowd shouted ‘three cheers for Tony’, he said: “Thank you. I can’t believe all this. This is just unbelievable.”
Steph McGovern, who presented the special BBC Breakfast from a red sofa in the middle of Endcliffe Park to a nation of hearts weeping, described it as “mega” and a story with an impact far beyond the Steel City.
Speaking to Forge Press, McGovern said: “I cover lots of different stories but there are very few which have touched me like this one because I actually cried on air and I’ve never cried on air before.
“Definitely it’s going to be something I remember because it’s such a powerful story that means so much to so many people, and even if you didn’t know the story it’s so reflective of lots of peoples stories from the world wars, it’s just touched a lot of people.”
A chance encounter
Tony built the memorial because he felt guilty – he was only a boy in the park with some friends on that night exactly 75 years ago and thought the pilot crashed into the trees to avoid him.
He was just doing his normal thing on a dull January day, brushing the leaves, tending to the flowers, kissing the plaque for the men who he says are his “family”.
The day was nothing special for BBC presenter Dan Walker either, as he walked his dog among the tweets and chatter of the leafy surroundings.
Little did he know there was such a haunting story and a lifetime of hope behind the stone and the wood.
Little did Tony know that six weeks later, after Walker campaigned for permission from the US Ambassador to Britain and top figures in two national air forces, his dreams would come true as Sheffield’s skies filled with thunder without a dry eye in sight.
A tear in the eye
That day was yesterday. Alarm clocks weren’t needed as bleary eyed students woke up to the roar of US and British air forces tearing through the bright blue skies of the Steel City on a beautiful morning.
Walker, who once wrote in these pages as a student in Sheffield, watched the “amazing” scenes from Tanzania where he is climbing mount Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief.
“it’s a feel good story in many ways of sacrifice, I had a tear on my eye when those planes came over”
“Probably best I wasn’t in the park today,” he tweeted. “It could have been messy…I don’t think I was the only one.”
One among the crowd, Fiona Walton, a teacher at Birkdale School who helped fund the flagpole at Tony’s memorial, said the morning was “really moving” and typical “Northern love”.
“It was a remembrance of the men who died and their sacrifice, but also I came really to support Tony and everything he’s done over the years, I just think it’s incredible how he’s tended to that memorial and remembered those men.
“I just think that it’s a feel good story in many ways of sacrifice and care and everybody seemed pleased for Tony, I had a tear on my eye when those planes came over.”
An impact far beyond the Steel City
Michael, a US air force soldier clad in navy uniform with polished black boots, described the day as simply “awesome”, and was visiting the Steel City for the first time.
“Coming through to Sheffield we were talking about how beautiful it is,” he told Forge Press. “When you come to the United Kingdom it’s [usually] London, Scotland, Wales… all those places but it’s the smaller hidden gems [like Sheffield] that are beautiful to see.
“In history it’s not only a crash with loss of life but it was the 48th fighter bomber wing so having our jets doing the flyover as a heritage is where we came from and it means a lot from then to now to show the US and UK are still great partners.”
Carol and Margaret, who have been living in France for several years but are originally from Sheffield, said the atmosphere at Endcliffe Park was “fantastic”.
“It’s important really that guys like Tony are remembered for their dedication”
“I just happened to be here this week by a complete stroke of luck and my aunt who is 96 told me about this when I saw her on Sunday so I thought I’ll come along and see so I’m really glad I came it’s fantastic,” Carol said.
“Bravo to him and he finally got this after all these years.”
“What an amazing guy, and I didn’t know there was a memorial there even before this…bravo, such a nice man,” Margaret added.
‘Proud for Tony’
Chris, who had travelled from Derbyshire with his family, said: “I’m proud for Tony, it’s fabulous. I’ve been following it on Twitter for weeks and its culminated in today it’s brilliant.
“It’s important really that guys like Tony are remembered for their dedication – a lot of people would leave the monument to rot and he hasn’t so i just had to be here for that.”