Monday, 1 April 2013

Where's my Thunderbird? Or how Gerry Anderson helped fool the Soviet Union

The death of Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson on Boxing Day last year marked the end of an era, at least as far as I'm concerned. Still my all-time favourite children's television programme, Thunderbirds marked the apogee of Anderson's career, a livelihood spent converting technological prognostication into high drama. Following the recent announcement that a new version of the series will be produced here in New Zealand it seemed a good time to examine a bizarre aspect of the show - along with some of its sister series - that only recently came to light. A combination of freshly declassified documents by the U.K.'s Ministry of Defence (M.O.D.) and the publication of highlights from a bundle of letters by Anderson's once-business partner Reg Hill have caused something of a minor sensation amongst the techno-SF cognoscenti.

A cursory look at even a small number of the craft that appear in the various TV shows reveals something extremely curious: most of the designs look far more Warsaw Pact than NATO. To elaborate, let's start with a survey of a few of the vehicles that helped to inspire such enormous affection in Anderson's television shows. For example:
  1. If you examine Thunderbird 3 or the Sun Probe from the same series there is an eerie similarity to various Soviet space rockets of the late 1960s, including the Soyuz and Proton series. Whilst there were some details of these vehicles available in the West at the time, the USSR's ill-fated N1 manned moon rocket remained a secret until spy reconnaissance in 1968. Yet several of Anderson's rockets of the period have rather more than a passing resemblance to the giant failure.
    Gerry Anderson rocket design
    Gerry Anderson rocket design
  2. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105 Spiral space plane, which only went as far as atmospheric flight tests, bears a remarkable likeness to the Dove shuttle seen in the Anderson scripted and produced 1969 film Journey to the far side of the Sun. Yet again, the project was unknown in the West (at least outside of security bureaus) until after its cancellation in 1978.
    Gerry Anderson spacecraft design
  3. The Spectrum Cloudbase in the series Captain Scarlet is echoed by the experimental aerial missile platform the Yakovlev VVP-6, although it seems doubtful if the latter ever got off the drawing board.
    Captain Scarlet Cloudbase
  4. There are various jetcopters and helijets making guest appearances in Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, with several similar in design to the Bartini Beriev VVA-14 which first flew in 1972.
    Gerry Anderson helijet design
One resemblance could be put down to chance, but this random selection shows just how uncanny Anderson's teams' designs were in matching real-life Eastern Bloc ventures. The question is how could the Soviet projects have served as the blueprint when no-one in the West knew about them? Remember: these television series were made during the 1960s, when Cold War paranoia severely restricted knowledge in both directions, especially of advanced hardware (always excepting the material that made it to the opposing side via diplomatic baggage). In addition, the Anderson shows often preceded the equivalent Russian design by several years.

Bearing this in mind, the only explanation I can find is what if the reverse was true? Could the Soviet Union have based the development of some of their aircraft, rockets and spacecraft on the fictional designs seen in Gerry Anderson programmes? As absurd as this sounds, the idea begins to make sense when considering some of the more unusual excerpts from Reg Hill's letters.

Hill, who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, was both a producer and designer on most of Anderson's classic output. His years in the RAF gave Hill a certain amount of first-hand knowledge in aircraft construction and piloting, which proved extremely handy when it came to creating vehicles for the shows (along with the better known crew members Derek Meddings, Brian Johnson and Mike Trim).  Reg Hill's letters cover the period 1959 to 1976 and would seemingly be of little interest to all except the most diehard Fanderson. However, a small number refer to Hill's meetings with mysterious representatives of the British security services, to whom Hill gave the James Bond (or if you prefer, Men in Black) appellations of Messrs A through H. Although the writing is guarded, Reg Hill gives the impression that as of 1964 he was asked to supply these enigmatic men with - of all things - detailed blueprints for some of the production company's fictional craft. As to what purpose Hill thought these requests were intended, he makes no mention. No doubt as an ex-serviceman he understood the need for national security and thus placed patriotism ahead of curiosity.

As someone who's not a fan of conspiracy theories I had difficulty understanding what the references pertained to. After all, the letters could be forgeries or the results of a strange sense of humour. But then a series of M.O.D. documents dating from the same period were made available to journalists in late 2012 under the UK's Freedom of Information Act, subject to all the usual blanked-out details that encumber such material. Luckily, the missing content mostly related to names, places and times, leaving the gist of the events intact. The upshot of reading the documents is that they confirm the narrative supplied in Hill's letters: the British Government paid (token amounts, it has to be said) for copies of blueprints to vehicles that were designed to appear in children's television series. As this point I said to myself, move over X-Files!

When I found out that Reg Hill and Gerry Anderson had formed a short-lived production company in the late 1950s called Pentagon Films I wondered if the outfit's name had given the British Secret Intelligence Service the idea of deliberately leaking aero- and astronautical disinformation to the Eastern Bloc. Or alternatively, MI5/MI6 may have been aware of similarities between the ramp-launching technique of Fireball XL5 (from the 1962 series of the same name) and a never-implemented Soviet scheme for deploying ICBMs. If accepted as genuine, Hill's drawings could have served several purposes, from tying up Soviet design bureaus in analysis of fictional machines to the wasting of countless rubles in technological dead-ends.

It might seem ridiculous that the deception would work, not just once but repeatedly, only it should be remembered that senior scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union frequently attained their status from acute political rather than scientific skills. The best known example of this is Trofim Lysenko, the untrained researcher and Stalinist crony whose pseudo-scientific theories were used in crop production for decades instead of Mendelian genetics. In the field of astronautics, when the rocket and spacecraft 'Chief Designer' Sergei Korolev suddenly died in 1966 the Soviet manned lunar landing programme stalled and never recovered. Ironically, the USSR was its own worst enemy in this field, since many other capable rocket scientists had been killed in Stalinist purges.

In addition, projects were frequently rushed for political purposes: Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika on a pioneering if one-way trip into orbit, was designed in less than a month! It is well known that the latest Western technology often found a surreptitious route to Moscow, with Warsaw Pact design bureaus deconstructing the material in order to produce their own versions at rapid speed. A good instance of this was the Tupolev Tu-144, a poor quality reworking of the Concorde supersonic airliner that beat the latter into the air by two months but was then two years behind its Anglo-French rival in entering commercial service. Indeed, there are rumours that the Concorde manufacturers deliberately leaked inaccurate schematics in order to mislead the Tupolev team!

Bearing all this in mind, is it possible the Soviets would repeatedly fall for such seemingly obvious ploys as British (and possibly American) security services' reworked plans of vehicles designed for children's TV shows? Perhaps the speed with which the Russian teams had to work prevented them from realising they had been duped. In general, their aviation technology remained markedly inferior to the West's until the 1980s, as was shown by the shocking revelation in 1976 (thanks to a defecting pilot) that their most advanced - and record-breaking - interceptor largely relied on vacuum tube avionics. By the early 1970s Hill stopped receiving visits from the shadowy intelligence figures, so perhaps the Soviets had at last caught on to the ruse - but of course failed to advertise this in order to avoid embarrassment.

As bizarre as all this sounds, other disinformation strategies employed  in the West were if anything even more elaborate, from creating fake infra-red 'shadows' for advanced spy planes to leaking wildly inaccurate yet plausible designs for stealth aircraft that even made it as far as plastic model kits. By comparison, reworking the Anderson craft and passing them off as new NATO projects seems a relatively easy - and inexpensive - method.

It's often stated that truth is stranger than fiction. So if you consider the foregoing a plausible hypothesis you might want to ponder the real meaning behind the Thunderbirds' famous call-sign F.A.B. or its Captain Scarlet equivalent S.I.G. Personally, my money's on "Fooled All Bolsheviks" and "Soviets Is Gullible".  Or is that just plain daft?