August 15, 2013

Finest Hour 118, Spring 2003

Page 24


For the crucial early decades of the twentieth century, Winston S. Churchill held the relevant decision making posts as much of Britain’s aviation quite literally got off the ground. As he later noted, “Except for the year 1916, I was continually in control of one or another branch of the Air Service during the first eleven years of its existence….Thus it happens to have fallen to my lot to have witnessed, and to some extent shaped in its initial phases, the whole of this tremendous new arm….”1

While air transport—or what today we call airlines— never engaged him so much as its military applications, civil aviation also received its effective start under Churchill’s admittedly sometimes very indirect supervision. Though only a bit part in Churchill’s long career (it is not even mentioned in many of the standard biographies), his involvement with fledgling airlines is worth a closer look.

2024 International Churchill Conference

Join us for the 41st International Churchill Conference. London | September 2024


Churchill’s fascination with flying began early. As President of the Board of Trade in February 1909, only three months after the first “sustained flight” in Britain, he suggested that the government communicate with Orville Wright to help jump-start British aviation.2 Two years later as First Lord of the Admiralty he promoted what eventually became the fledgling Naval Air Service.3 For a time his interest in aviation included hands-on experience. He took hours of flying lessons in 1913, though already 34 years old, older than most beginning pilots. Churchill was fascinated with using the few instruments then available, making his piloting efforts unlike that of his contemporaries, and more akin to modern practice.As to flying abilities, one observer dubbed him “A very fair pilot once he was in the air, but more than uncertain in his take-off and landing.”5 The RAF’s Hugh Trenchard concluded he ‘was altogether too impatient for a good pupil.”6 Though he nearly accumulated sufficient hours to earn his own wings, he halted his efforts (after several near-misses and the loss of one of his own instructors) in the face of pleas from Clementine and several colleagues.7

Because of his need to be in both France and England while serving as Lloyd George’s Minister of Munitions during World War I, Churchill flew several times as a cross-Channel passenger with the Royal Flying Corps in 1917-18. He returned to his piloting efforts in 1919, reasoning that aircraft quality and safety had vastly improved thanks to wartime developments. Flying with an instructor (he never soloed), Churchill flew on several occasions from Croydon (which would serve as London’s primary airport from 1920 to 1939) to Paris. On 18 July 1919, however, the aircraft crashed, slightly hurting him and more seriously harming his instructor pilot. The crash could have killed them both, and the realization of this (and again Clementine’s pleas) led him to give up piloting for good.8 But his travel as an air passenger would continue. Indeed, his next government assignment would involve him even more closely in aviation.


After winning the “khaki” election of December 1918, Lloyd George moved to reorganize his coalition government. Churchill, who had headed the Munitions Ministry, was offered either the War Office or a return to the Admiralty, and was told that in either case, he could “take Air with you.” (The Air Ministry had been formed early in 1918 to oversee the new Royal Air Force.)9 He was eventually given the War and Air ministries.

The double-headed appointment “caused surprise, and even anger in several quarters,”10 though Churchill made clear his intent to keep both the Air Ministry and its service elements independent of the older War Office. On 9 March 1919, while Churchill was in Paris attending the Peace Conference, Clementine Churchill urged her husband by letter “to give up the Air” and focus on the demobilizing of 3.5 million British soldiers. She argued that while it would “be a tour de force to do [the two posts], like keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time” he should focus on being “a Statesman, not a juggler….”11

Despite the spousal advice, however, Churchill chose to retain both posts, serving as Secretary of State for Air from 10 January 1919 to 1 April 1921, two months longer than he would hold the War post. Indeed, his Air Ministry leadership would also overlap his first two months as Colonial Secretary.12 During the House of Commons debate on the air estimates for 1921, Lt. Col. Burgoyne (who may have known both of Churchill’s predilection for fancy hats and his recently-acquired painting hobby) noted, “I quite anticipate that in the next Academy [display of paintings] we shall see a picture of him with a wide-awake Colonial hat, smoking a corn-cob pipe, and leaning against an aeroplane, entitled ‘Portrait of an officer by himself.'”13 As one indication, however, that “the air ministry was small and new [and] had few friends,”14 its leader was not made a cabinet member until 18 months after Churchill had moved on.15

On arriving at the Air Ministry, Churchill appointed General John “Jack” Seely as his parliamentary undersecretary. Though a close friend, Seely unfortunately proved a mediocre administrator. Before long he was complaining that Churchill was trying to put the Air Ministry under his War Office, yet at the same time arguing that Churchill left him to his own devices too much!16 Seely was at least partially correct: Churchill was “spending only an hour or two a week in the Secretary of State’s room at the Air Ministry,” as his War Office concerns took up most of his time.17 These included the complex demobilization effort, the ill-fated British military incursion in Russia to beat down the Bolshevik revolution, and continuing tensions in both Ireland and the Middle East.

Amidst the wind-down of Britain’s war effort, however, important ground was being laid for a constructive use of airplanes. As part of Churchill’s structuring of the Air Ministry, formation of a Department of Civil Aviation was announced to the House of Commons on 12 February 191918 Maj. Gen. Frederick H. Sykes became its first Controller-General despite his concern (well founded, as it turned out) about Churchill’s preoccupation with military concerns.


Sykes’s department moved quickly to lift wartime aviation restrictions. On 1 May 1919, civil flying resumed, and ministry officials began to license civilian pilots and issue certificates of airworthiness for civil aircraft.19 Two months later, on June 30th, when presenting a £10,000 prize to the first non-stop trans-Atlantic fliers, Churchill spoke of the “advance of aviation.”20 Years later he recalled, “Well do I remember presiding at the banquet broad Atlantic in their little machine and landed safely in Ireland in 1919, and saying to the pilot, then knighted as Sir John Alcock, ‘You ought to stop now and leave off a winner; you must have used up all your luck.’ In a few months this warning proved to be only too well founded.”21

A demonstration flight by Handley Page Transport from London to Brussels in mid-July 1919 was followed by a thrice-weekly passenger and mail service in September given to the two British airmen who actually flew the A month later the company introduced lunch baskets—the first airline meals—on this route.22 The world’s first scheduled daily international air service began on 25 August 1919, when Aircraft Transport and Travel initiated a London to Paris run. “A single pilot and a single passenger set off from Hounslow for Le Bourget, with a cargo of newspapers, grouse and Devonshire cream. The journey took two and a half hours.”23 ATT began the official airmail service on this route in November, which guaranteed at least some income when passengers were scarce. From these tiny beginnings would eventually develop a plethora of airports and airliners. But it was very slow going at first.

In mid-1920 in a memo to Sykes, Churchill suggested regular weather reports from the several navigational lightships moored in the Channel to assist pilots on the flights to the Continent.24 Churchill could be markedly prescient—in an early memo to his secretary he pinpointed civil aviation’s key value to its passengers:

“The whole economy of the Paris service is affected [by the saving of 25 minutes]…every endeavour should be made to shorten up the time of getting to the aerodrome and getting off from there….It is the key of the whole matter. Time must be calculated from door to door, not from aerodrome to aerodrome. It is awful to waste 25 minutes.”25 Clearly the time to be saved proved valuable, for in just less than the first two years of British service to European airports, more than 110,000 passengers were carried over 1.5 million cumulative miles—in tiny airplanes capable of carrying only a few at a time.26

Time-savings would be even greater over longer distances. Churchill invited Lord Weir (his predecessor as air minister) to chair an advisory committee to suggest potential Empire air routes for mail and eventually passengers. The committee concluded that the best initial route would stretch from England to Egypt and then, with later extensions, out to India (and eventually all the way to Australia and the Far East) and down to South Africa.27 Such long aerial voyages would have to take place in a series of short hops owing to the limited range of the contemporary biplanes. The committee also recommended government financial support for airline service—advice that would at first fall on deaf ears.

In December 1919, Churchill decided to assign high priority to the development of air service between Cairo and India. It would, as he put it, “have the effect of buckling the Empire together in a very remarkable manner, because by the saving of time it ought to be possible to fly in two…or in three days…from Cairo to Karachi, and that saves a large part of the eleven or twelve days which would be spent at sea….It brings Australia that much nearer. It is the pick of all the civil and commercial aviation routes which exist. On every ground, military as well as commercial and civil, it is the best.”28

More than a year later (in a memo on the forthcoming Imperial conference in Cairo), he reiterated that “Great advantages are to be gained both in and by the Dominions through the development of air communication. An efficient Air Service capable of carrying mails and passengers from Karachi via Baghdad to Cairo would shorten up the journey from Australia by ten days. The climate is perfect for flying at all seasons of the year and the whole scheme is already within the bounds of practicability.”29 This was advanced thinking: it would take many more years before such through service was a reality.

Early in 1920 Churchill’s Air Ministry took over government supervision of aircraft production; by April 1st, the Air Ministry employed more than 2,800 civilian staff. But of total air expenditure, the civil side received only six percent. “Yet with this, Sir Frederick Sykes would have to plan air routes in Britain and abroad, examine and advise on all schemes for commercial aviation, and superintend the registration and licensing of aircraft and pilots.”30 This dearth of support was largely owed to financial exigency—there were simply not enough funds to develop both the RAF and civil flying at the same time.

Faced with this dilemma Churchill argued, in an oft-quoted March 1920 speech to the House, that “Civil aviation must fly by itself; the government cannot possibly hold it up in the air.”31

Often cited as an example of Churchill’s wrong-headedness, his initial denial of subsidies for air transport must be understood in the context of the time and contemporary budget conditions. Whether he personally believed early airlines could make it on their own is unclear at this remove. In any case, a change in government policy was soon forced by French and Dutch government subsidies to their respective airlines.

In March 1921, faced with the early demise of British air service in the face of subsidized foreign (chiefly French) competition, Churchill appointed a “Cross-Channel Committee” to decide how to revive the air service. When he departed to join the Colonial Office at the end of the month, his cousin Frederick Guest became Air Minister and received the recommendations of this committee—which again called for state subsidy of airline service. Specifically, two private cross-channel services (one operated by Handley Page and the other by the Instone shipping interests) were “guaranteed a profit of 10 percent” up to £25,000 a year to resume service. Both soon did.32 Government subsidy of British airlines would continue until the Thatcher government privatized the industry in the early 1980s.


In Churchill’s final fiscal year (1921-22) at the Ministry of Air, civil aviation was allotted £1 million, of which fully a quarter was designated to support development of commercial airships.33 Though they looked impressive floating aloft, since his Admiralty days Churchill had been skeptical of the value of rigid airships, given their fragility and high construction and operational costs. “Churchill believed in the aeroplane and regarded the airship as a place of semi-retirement for over-age pilots.”34

Under political pressure from airship supporters in Parliament and the military, however, the Air Ministry took over the few surviving British rigid airships (and some German ones, given to Britain as war reparations) in 1920. Seely strongly favored an effort to determine whether a commercial service was viable.35 Plans were put in place to develop the needed airship mooring masts and sheds (hangars) in Egypt and elsewhere.36 Airship sessions were a feature of the first Air Conference in mid-October 1920, though that multi-day conference focused on developing Empire airplane routes.37

Churchill retained his own negative outlook on airships, asking in early 1921, “In view of the general failure of the [Naval] airship service, why can it not be struck out of the Estimates of 1921-22 altogether?”38 But airships had strong support, and remained part of the estimates despite his resistance.

Fascination with the potential of long-distance airship service (in an era of limited-capacity aircraft) fed airship supporters. Five years later Churchill expressed further concern over still more expenditure on commercial airships. By then Chancellor of tlie Exchequer, he noted in an internal 1926 memorandum that “I am not prepared to agree to any expenditure on Airships beyond what is necessary to complete the two experimental airships [the R. 100 and R.101] which are now far advanced….I do not want to abrogate my right to criticise all this waste of money. “39

Once again, he proved sadly prescient when four years later the R.101 crashed in France en route to India. All aboard were killed, including the Air Minister, Lord Thomson, at whose insistence the trip had been made.40

The surviving R. 100, which had made a successful flight to Canada and back, was broken up for scrap. In addition to the lives lost, the cost of Britain’s commercial airship venture had totaled millions of pounds.41


After resigning his post in frustration late in 1921, Frederick Sykes would express considerable bitterness about Churchill’s lack of budgetary support for his efforts: “[Until 1921 civil aviation had to content itself with the indirect assistance of the State, which consisted mainly in the adjustment of international flying; the laying-out and equipment of aerodromes on the air routes; and provision of wireless communication and meteorological information; research and the collection and issue of general information concerning aviation.”42 Yet commenting on Churchill’s departure from the Air Ministry, the editor of the trade weekly Aeroplane, C.G. Grey, concluded that “aviation and all concerned therewith owe Mr. Churchill a deep debt of gratitude for all that he has already done for aircraft” and went on with considerable prescience to suggest that “there is no reason why Mr. Churchill, who is now only 46, should not be Premier during the Great Slav War in 15 or 20 years time….”43 On the other hand, The Times argued that under Churchill “Civil aviation has been systematically cold shouldered. Subordination of Air Ministry to War Office is to blame.”44

Years later, after reviewing Churchill’s two years at the Air Ministry, biographer Martin Gilbert concluded that “Military aviation, not civilian flying, was Churchill’s priority.”45 Chris Wrigley agreed that “Churchill took considerable interest in the military side of aviation, but was less energetic in his support of the civil side.”46 Geoffrey Best suggested that “[Churchill] simply had not the time to fight the Treasury on behalf of the airmen as doughtily as he otherwise might have done. It seems, moreover, that what fighting he did do tended to benefit only the military side. He showed no interest in the work of the small staff labouring under Sir Frederick Sykes to establish good foundations for civil aviation….For Britain’s lamentable falling behind in the development of civil air transport, Churchill has to carry his share of responsibility.”47

Churchill had one more important aerial role to play. After leaving the Air Ministry, he was a central figure at the 1921 Imperial Conference held in Cairo to inaugurate the Middle East Department of the Colonial Office. He was a key figure behind the decision that the RAF was to operate as a kind of aerial police over British-controlled territory, and as one part of that effort, to open a regular airmail service between Cairo and Baghdad. RAF pilots would thereby test what just a few years later would become a commercial route.48

The full benefit of all these early developments fell first to Imperial Airways, formed by the government in 1924 from several smaller private ventures. Until superseded in 1940 (by the formation of British Overseas Airways Corporation, BOAC, predecessor to today’s British Airways), Imperial served as Britain’s “chosen instrument” to develop extensive air Empire routes in stages down to South Africa, out to Australia, and eventually luxurious trans-Atlantic flying boat services.49 During his decade in the political wilderness, 1929-39, Churchill often flew to Europe (usually on Imperial Airways’ biplane HP-42 airliners) in pursuit of details for his many writing projects, one of them a newspaper article on the positive roles of air transport.50

His pre-war flying was eclipsed, of course, by his extensive wartime air travel to various war fronts and to conferences with Roosevelt and Stalin. Over the 1939-45 period Churchill would fly thousands of miles in progressively larger and more modern aircraft. He began as an uncomfortable passenger in (barely) converted British bombers, progressing to the more suitable York bomber-based transport. Later he used more capable American aircraft, including his C-87 (B-24) “Commando” aircraft, and then purpose-designed transports such as the C-54 (DC-4). On several occasions he traveled aboard BOAC’s majestic Boeing 314 flying boat—where he was photographed once again ensconced in a pilot’s seat, cigar firmly in place.

Dr. Sterling has taught media and public affairs, and telecommunications, at George Washington University for the past two decades. He edits The Churchillian for the Washington Society for Churchill


1. Winston S. Churchill, “In the Air,” Nosh’s Pall Mall, June 1924, as reprinted in Thoughts and Adventures (London: Odhams Press, 1948), 133.

2. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. II, Young Statesman 1901-1914 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), 672, citing extract from the “Report of the Sub-Committee on Aerial Navigation.”

3. Ibid., p. 672.

4. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston S. Churchill, vol. I (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), 445.

5. Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, “Churchill the Airman,” in Charles Eade, ed., Churchill by His Contemporaries (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), 129.

6. Manchester, op. cit., 446.

7. Randolph S. Churchill, op. cit., 688. As WSC wrote to Clementine on June 6, 1914, “I will not fly anymore….this is a wrench, because I was on the verge of taking my pilot’s certificate. It only needed a couple of calm mornings….”

8. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. IV, The Stricken World, 1916-1922 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 208-11.

9. Indeed, according to Mary Soames, there had been earlier talk of Churchill taking the Air Ministry because of his interest in flying. See Soames, Clementine Churchill, 2nd. ed. (London: Doubleday, 2002), 190. For one account of the Ministry see C. G. Grey, A History of the Air Ministry (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1940).

10. Gilbert, vol. IV, 197.

11. Mary Soames, ed.; Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill (London: Doubleday, 1998), 219.

12. Gilbert, vol. IV, 197.

13. Quoted in Robin Higham, Britain’s Imperial Air Routes 1918 to 1939 (London: Foulis, 1960), 28.

14. Gilbert, vol. IV, 208.

15. The change occurred in May 1923 under Baldwin.

16. Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), 349.

17. Ibid.

18. Air Ministry, Synopsis of Progress of Work in the Department of Civil Aviation, 1st May 1919 to 31st October 1919 (London: HMSO, Cmd. 418, 1919), 1. Flying had been allowed briefly over Easter weekend as well.

19. Ibid.

20. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963 (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1974), vol. Ill, 2808.

21. Churchill, “In the Air,” 135. Alcock was killed in December 1919 at a Paris air demonstration flight.

22. This and many more details are found in the fascinating chronology (with photos and maps) by John Stroud, Annals of British and Commonwealth Air Transport, 1919-1960 (London: Putnam, 1962), 33.

23. Gilbert, vol. IV, 215.

24. Martin Gilbert, ed. Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume IV, Part 2, July 1919-March 1921 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), 1151.

25. Ibid., 1227.

26. Air Ministry, Department of the Controller-General of Civil Aviation, Half-Yearly Report on the Progress of Civil Aviation (October 1st, 1920-March 31st, 1921) (London: HMSO, Cmd. 1342, 1921), table A, 18.

27. Air Ministry, Advisory Committee on Civil Aviation. Report on Government Assistance for the Development of Civil Aviation (London: HMSO, Cmd 770, 1920).

28. Rhodes James, op. cit., Ill, 2910.

29. Gilbert, Companion IV:2, 1360-61.

30. Gilbert, vol. IV, op. cit., 206.

31. Rhodes James, op. cit., Ill, 2967.

32. Air Ministry, op. cit. (note 26), 9.

33. Ibid., 14.

34. Robin Higham, The British Rigid Airship, 1908-1931 (London: Foulis, 1961), 72. This is by far the best overall assessment of the British airship program, both military and commercial, and includes a number of references to Churchill’s role and influence.

35. So were many others. See, for example, H. B. Pratt, Commercial Airships (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), which examined prospective routes, airship designs, and economic aspects. Pratt was the chief engineer for airships with Vickers and worked closely with airship designer Barnes Wallis.

36. Higham, Airship, 199.

37. Air Ministry, Proceedings of the Air Conference 1920 with Appendices (London: HMSO, Cmd. 1157, 1921). Two further wide-ranging conferences on commercial air service would follow after Churchill left the ministry, the second in February 1922, and a third a year later. Each offers an extensive transcript of speeches and discussion.

38. Gilbert, Companion IV:2, 1037.

39. Martin Gilbert, ed. Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume V, Part 1: The Exchequer Years 1922-1929 (London: Heinemann, 1979), 626.

40. Peter G. Masefield, To Ride the Storm: The Story of the Airship R.101 (London: Kimber, 1982) offers fullest the discussion of the disaster and of Thomsons role.

41. Higham, Airship, op. cit.

42. F. H. Sykes, Aviation in Peace and War (London: Edward Arnold, 1922), 122, emphasis added. Ministry subordination of civil to military aviation priorities continued, however, for in 1922 (after Churchill departed) the civil department was reduced to a mere directorate.

43. As quoted in Harald Penrose, British Aviation: The Adventuring Years (London: Putnam, 1973), 83.

44. Comment from issue of 5 April 1921, as quoted in Penrose, 99.

45. Ibid., 215.

46. Chris Wrigley, Winston S. Churchill: A Biographical Companion (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2002), 11.

47. Geoffrey Best, Churchill: A Study in Greatness (London: Hambleton & London, 2001), 94-95.

48. For more on this fascinating episode, see Roderic Hill, The Baghdad Air Mail (London: Longmans, 1929). See also Penrose, cited above, note 43.

49. The classic study of Imperial Airways and its predecessors is Higham’s Britain’s Imperial Air Routes (note 13).

50. “The Effect of Air Transport on Civilization,” News of the World (8 May 1938), as reprinted in Michael Wolff, ed. The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, vol. IV: Churchill at Large (London: Library of Imperial History, n.d. [1976], 427-34.

A tribute, join us




Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.