The Place to Find All Things Churchill

Getting There: Churchill’s Wartime Journeys

FINEST HOUR 148, AUTUMN 2010

BY CHRISTOPHER H. STERLING

Professor Sterling (chriss@gwu.edu) teaches Media Law and Policy at The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. 

ABSTRACT
In a time when the world leaders, and their spouses, fly jumbo jets stuffed with aides and staffers, we recall how an embattled Prime Minister traveled to more vital meetings rather less elaborately: an epic tale of Determination for a man his age.

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It’s easy to forget, in this time of daily jet travel, that long-distance flying was once rare, cumbersome and uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous. Flying transatlantic was unusual before 1940; navigation was complex yet rudimentary, landing places limited. And from September 1939, German forces were determined to destroy any British aircraft or ships they came across.[1]

Despite these facts, Churchill traveled farther and more extensively than any other wartime leader. He believed strongly in face-to-face negotiations with his overseas counterparts and their military. As Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945, he made at least twenty-five trips outside Britain, some ranging over several continents and lasting for weeks. He preferred to fly, simply to save time.[2]

And Churchill by then was neither young nor, at least on paper, particularly fit. Aged 65 at the outset of his premiership, working long hours and abhorring exercise, he seemed ill-equipped for stressful travel. Indeed he became seriously ill on one trip, and had health problems on others. He persevered despite the inconvenience and danger. We now know that Churchill was rarely in danger of German attack, but the tension of flying or sailing made planning for his trips complex and nerve wracking for his staff.[3]

On the plus side, Churchill was a seasoned traveler well before taking up residence at Downing Street. He had sailed on many passenger liners,[4] had briefly learned to fly and often flown as a passenger after 1918,[5] and regularly took Imperial Airways flights to the Continent during the 1930s. As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911-15 and again in 1939-40, he had visited or traveled aboard a variety of naval vessels. He substantially expanded this experience over the five years of his wartime premiership.

FLAMINGOES, FLYING BOATS AND COMMANDO

Churchill’s wartime travels began less than a week after he became Prime Minister. His first five treks were to France during the May-June six-week war, usually in one of three new de Havilland D.H. 95 Flamingo transports of RAF No. 24 (Commonwealth) Squadron, based at RAF Hendon. The twin-engine Flamingo was all-metal—though de Havilland had built only wooden aircraft up to that point. It held twelve to seventeen passengers. The Flamingos were registered G-AFUE, G-AFUF, and R2765, though none was given an individual name, a then-common practice.[6]

Always escorted by fighters (since German aircraft posed a growing threat), Churchill flew to Paris three times; then pursued the retreating French leadership on difficult and dangerous flights to Briare, eighty miles south of Paris, and later to Tours on the eve of French capitulation. The flights were uneventful—and, sadly, so were the talks. Eighteen months later, returning from meetings with Allied leaders in Washington and Ottawa in January 1942, Churchill made his first flight across the Atlantic aboard Berwick, a Boeing 314A flying boat[7] painted in olive drab camouflage with large Union Flags under her cockpit windows. She was flown by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) personnel under military orders.

The plane was comfortably fitted with peacetime luxury furnishings and food service for VIPs. Her cabin was divided into several compartments, including a dining area and separate bathrooms for men and women. Passengers could move about, and comfortable full-length bunks could be folded down from the bulkhead. Until the arrival of his Skymaster transport toward the end of the war, the flying boat was Churchill’s most luxurious airplane.

Headed for Bermuda and a sea voyage home, WSC climbed into the Boeing’s cockpit and happily sat opposite the pilot with a cigar clamped in his teeth. He was so taken with the plane that he inquired of Captain John Kelly Rogers whether Berwick could fly him home. Assured that she could, Churchill cancelled plans to sail back from Bermuda. Rogers took on a full load of fuel and saved the Prime Minister several days in transit.

Six months later, Churchill made his only Atlantic round trip by air during the war. Only a handful of prewar passenger flights had followed that route, though military aircraft were being regularly ferried across by mid-1942. On 17 June 1942, Churchill and his party boarded BOAC’s Bristol (a sister to Berwick) at Stanraer, Scotland, flying to Baltimore. Ten days later, they returned on a northerly route via Newfoundland.

A trip to the Middle East and on to Moscow in August 1942 (see article following) involved the first airplane assigned specifically to WSC: an American-built Consolidated LB-30A named Commando. Based on the four-engine B-24 bomber but with a single tail like U.S. Navy variants, she was one of a growing number of bombers and transports flying the risky Atlantic (nearly fifty air personnel were killed in the ferrying process over five years). Commando was piloted by William J. Vanderkloot, who had flown airliners before the war. With his navigation and piloting experience, he was appointed as Churchill’s pilot by Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal. He and the plane had arrived from Montreal, conveying three Canadians to Prestwick, near Glasgow.[8]

Despite being assigned to the PM, Commando was a far cry from the flying boats. Her deep fuselage lacked windows (the cargo plane on which she was based didn’t need them); the only outside light came from the cockpit. There were drafts, and at first no heat; the shelves in the back of the cabin were the only sleeping accommodation, though a simple cooking stove was provided. Lacking cabin pressurization, Commando rarely flew over 8000 feet, enough to surmount most bad weather. Her name painted at a jaunty angle under the cockpit, the lumbering giant was painted matte black, for she often flew at night.[9]

None of Churchill’s airplanes was pressurized. Since he was susceptible to pneumonia, a special oxygen mask was made for him by the Institute of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough. He slept wearing it, even with Commando’s low altitude.[10] Some time later a transparent pressure chamber was devised, into which Churchill could crawl, cigar and all, if the aircraft had to climb. But it would not fit into any of his aircraft without disassembling the rear fuselage, and was rejected out of hand.[11]

Churchill ventured abroad four times in 1943, including two of his longest wartime journeys. On 12 January he flew on Commando from RAF Lyneham to Casablanca. The trip lasted nearly a month, including subsequent stops at Nicosia, Cairo, Tripoli and Algiers, and was his final journey on that aircraft.

ASCALON AND THE SKYMASTER

For a visit to the troops in the Middle East six months later, Commando was replaced by a new Avro York, the only British-built transport of the war. Designed in 1941 and first flown in mid-1942, it used the wings, tail, Rolls-Royce Merlin engines and landing gear of Bomber Command’s famous Lancasters, but had a more capacious square-section fuselage. Assigned to RAF Northolt in March 1943, the York also flew King George VI. More than 250 of the type were built, some serving through the 1950s.

Churchill’s York, the third prototype, had eight rectangular windows rather than the standard round perspex windows, an improvement on Commando’s claustrophobic fuselage. She was named Ascalon, after the sword St. George used to slay the dragon, a name suggested by No. 24 squadron’s commander.[12] Ascalon featured a telephone for talking to the flight crew, a bar and a table with an ashtray, and carried a thermos flask, the latest newspapers and books. Engineers even came up with an electrically heated toilet seat, though Churchill complained that it was too hot and it was disconnected.

In August 1944, with Bill Vanderkloot in command, Ascalon flew Churchill to Algiers and then Naples to visit the Italian theater. There were several other segments of this journey before Ascalon returned home. Two months later, in her third, very lengthy and final trip, Ascalon carried Churchill to Moscow by way of Naples and Cairo, then across Turkey and the Black Sea.

True luxury aloft arrived in November 1944 when Churchill was presented with a brand new four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster from America. President Roosevelt already used one, dubbed the Sacred Cow.[13] The first C-54 to arrive in Britain under Lend-Lease, Serial EW999 bore no specific name. She was his first aircraft with tricycle landing gear, which meant no more climbing “uphill” while boarding. But since her deck was more than nine feet off the ground, she carried her own boarding steps—no airport then had such equipment. More than 1200 C-54s were constructed during the war; many were converted for airline service (as DC-4s) afterwards.

The Skymaster arrived with an unfinished interior, but Churchill voiced a vague desire that she “look British.”[14] Armstrong Whitworth in Coventry created a paneled conference room with a table seating twelve, sleeping accommodation for six including a stateroom for the PM with a divan, wardrobe, easy chairs and desk. The C-54 reached RAF Northolt in early November 1944, and soon departed on her first Churchill trip, a brief flight to Paris (and back from Rheims three days later) as the PM visited British commanders.

On Christmas Eve 1944, Churchill boarded the Skymaster for Athens, where he mediated the Greek civil war. His pilot was now RAF Wing Commander “Bill” Fraser.[15] His next important wartime trip was to the Big Three conference at Yalta in February 1945. The Skymaster flew first to Malta, and then, adding fighter escort, across Turkey and the Black Sea for the Saki airport serving Yalta. Fraser parked her next to the Sacred Cow, and both planes were guarded by the Red Army; even their crews had difficulty gaining access.

In late March, the Skymaster departed Northolt with the PM’s wife Clementine, who had been invited to inspect Russian Red Cross and hospital facilities. The trip took several days due to a holdover in Cairo while Russian transit arrangements were made. She returned after VE Day via Malta. The PM’s twenty-fifth and final wartime trip was on the Skymaster to Bordeaux (where he relaxed and painted for a week); and then on to Berlin for the final summit at Potsdam. On July 25th, it flew him home for the election returns that ended his wartime travels.

OVER THE SEA IN SHIPS

Though Churchill preferred to fly, surely his most comfortable journeys were aboard His Majesty’s Transport Queen Mary[16], flagship of the Cunard Line and longtime Blue Riband holder for the fastest North Atlantic crossing. Commandeered for war transport in 1939, she was painted a flat naval grey, and was soon equipped to carry thousands of GIs to Britain (and prisoners back to North America). But some first class cabins staterooms were maintained in pre-war splendor for use of VIPs including Churchill.

Churchill’s first wartime voyage on Queen Mary was from the Clyde to New York in May 1943; three months later, he sailed again from the Clyde, this time for the first Quebec Conference. About a year later, Queen Mary brought him to Halifax, where he entrained for the Second Quebec meeting. This time he enjoyed her amenities both ways, for the Queen also carried him home from New York.

Another former passenger liner used by Churchill during the war was HMT Franconia, a Cunarder since 1923. She provided accommodations, communications and supplies for the PM at Sebastopol during the Yalta talks.

Other seaborne transport was provided by the Royal Navy, including three modern battleships, an older battlecruiser, and two light cruisers. Conditions here were more austere, but WSC would occupy the admiral’s cabin if there was one, or the best cabin otherwise, while deck officers were bumped down or doubled up to accommodate WSC’s party. Staff meetings were held in the officers’ wardroom.

Accompanied by “a retinue which Cardinal Wolsey might have envied,”[17] the PM boarded the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales at Scapa Flow for his August 1941 trip to visit Roosevelt in Newfoundland. Observing radio silence so as not to attract German attention, the battleship carried Churchill’s party to a secret rendezvous in Placentia Bay, which resulted in the “Atlantic Charter”[18] Movie newsreels showed both leaders, their staffs and ships’ crews singing hymns at Sunday morning services on her aft deck. Sadly, many of those sailors were drowned just four months later when the Japanese sank Prince of Wales off Malaya early in December. (See Finest Hour 139:40-49.)

After the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and British Southeast Asia, Churchill left the Clyde for America on 13 December aboard the new battleship HMS Duke of York (a sister to the ill-fated Prince of Wales). Sailing across the North Atlantic in mid-winter was hardly a pleasant trip. But WSC, a good sailor, was indifferent as the 45,000-ton ship pounded gale-force winds before finally reaching Hampton Roads, Virginia.

In August and November 1943, Churchill traveled aboard the aging battle cruiser HMS Renown. Indeed, his longest journey began in mid-November when his party left Plymouth on Renown for Gibraltar, Algiers, and Malta. (See Vic Humphries, “Glimpses from the ‘Taxi’: HMS Renown 1943,” FH 113:24-25, Winter 2002-03.) Though he had hoped to fly home, a serious bout with pneumonia during the trip saw him consigned to the battleship HMS King George V, which arrived at Plymouth in mid-January 1944. His aircraft Ascalon stayed on at Gibraltar for several days, seemingly under repair, in an attempt to confuse German spies watching from nearby Spain.[19]

SMALL CRAFT, SHORT VISITS

On at least three occasions, Churchill spent short periods on destroyers. Six days after the Normandy landings, he took a one-day outing to view the invasion beaches aboard HMS Kelvin which, to his delight, fired on German shore positions while he was aboard. The ship sailed from and returned to Portsmouth. Ten days later he boarded the destroyer HMS Enterprise off Arromanches, France to witness the invasion’s progress. And in August 1944, he was aboard HMS Kimberley to observe troops going ashore on the French Riviera.

He briefly traveled on two light cruisers: Early in 1945, traveling as “Colonel Kent” en route to Yalta, he spent two days aboard HMS Orion in Malta’s French Creek. He used the admiral’s cabin to sleep and shake a fever, and to meet with aides.[20] Homeward bound after Yalta, he rested for a few days aboard the cruiser HMS Aurora in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

Churchill made numerous short hops to visit troops on the Continent on C-47 Dakota twin-engine transports, usually flown by the RAF. Some 10,000 were manufactured; this military version of the ubiquitous DC-3 airliner saw service in every theater. Seating twenty-one in airline service, but twenty-eight or more in military guise, the C-47 carried anything and everyone. Americans dubbed it “Skytrain” for its flexible capacity. The Dakota was the largest of the twin-engine aircraft which carried WSC.

In addition to the Flamingo for his French flights in mid-1940, Churchill also flew on Lockheed Lodestars. Based on the civilian Model 18 airliner, the military Lodestar first flew in mid-1941 and saw extensive use with multiple services and countries in most theaters. Supplied to the RAF under Lend-Lease, Lodestars served as VIP transports operated by RAF No 173 squadron in North Africa beginning in mid-1942.21 And Churchill flew aboard a U.S. Navy Lodestar from Norfolk to Washington on one of his American trips.

Churchill’s exhaustive wartime travel and vast array of conveyances demonstrate his determination to overcome time and distance, even in the face of discomfort and potential danger. The logistics in arranging these trips were complex; many were pioneering flights over huge distances. But he was a great believer in personal diplomacy, and his methods helped him cement the personal relationships he saw as so valuable to international relations.

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ENDNOTES

1. For the chronology, see Lavery, Pawle and (though less detailed) Celia Sandys, Chasing Churchill: Travels with Winston Churchill (London: HarperCollins, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003). As for the substance of these trips, there are shelves of books, including Churchill’s own six volume war memoirs.

2. The best and most complete account of most (though not all) of these journeys is in Brian Lavery, Churchill Goes to War: Winston’s Wartime Journeys (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007). Lavery’s maps, diagrams and photos are especially helpful.

3. The first detailed account of the arrangements that lay behind these many trips is in Gerald Pawle, The War and Colonel Warden
(London: Harrap, 1963) whose title is one of Churchill’s travel code names. Pawle’s book is based on the recollections of Royal Navy Commander “Tommy” Thompson, who closely planned many foreign trips and was present for most.

4. For a summary, see Christopher Sterling, “Churchill Afloat: Liners and the Man,” Finest Hour 121 (Winter 2003-4),16-22.

5. Christopher Sterling, “Churchill and Air Travel: Ahead of His Time,” Finest Hour 118 (Spring 2003), 24-29.

6. Email communication, Robert Duck to Richard Langworth, 9 December 2007.

7. Three of the craft, huge for their time, had been purchased for a million dollars each from Pan American Airways, which retained nineothers for its Pacific and Atlantic routes. The purchase was made about the time Churchill was making his aerial round-trips to France.

8. Vanderkloot’s adventures flying Churchill (he died in 2000 at age 85) are related in the accompanying article by his son, and in Bruce West, The Man Who Flew Churchill (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1975). Unfortunately, the book is filled with fictional “conversations” and suppositions of what people were thinking, and it lacks an index. See also Verna Gates, “Churchill Was His Copilot,” Today’s Officer (October 2004), available here. Vanderkloot’s son recently addressed our Georgia affiliate.

9. Commando was not always black. One of the few photos of the complete aircraft shows her in natural metallic finish, but not the olive drab then so common. See Peter Masefield and Bill Gunston, Flight Path (Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 2002), 131. Masefield claims Churchill flew this trip on a different though similar transport, the Marco Polo, but no other source—including Churchill’s own memoirs—agrees.

10. T. M. Gibson and M. H. Harrison, Into Thin Air: A History of Aviation Medicine in the RAF (London: Robert Hale, 1984), 80.

11. Jerrard Tickell, Ascalon: The Story of Sir Winston Churchill’s War-Time Flights 1943 to 1945 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1954), 79. The subtitle is anachronistic, since Churchill was knighted in 1953, not during World War II. The book is now difficult to find.

12. Donald Hannah, The Avro York (Leatherhead, England: Profile Publication No. 168, no date), 4. Lavery is mistaken when he says this airplane was lost over the Atlantic in 1945 (371). In reality she served for a decade after flying Churchill. The lost aircraft was Commando.

13. Arthur Pearcy, “Douglas DC-4,” Chapter 8 of Douglas Propliners DC-1 to DC-7 (Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1995), 105-16. Douglas began designing a larger follow-on airliner to its world-beating DC-3 in the late 1930s. First flown in 1938, the DC-4E (for experimental) was deemed too large by airline managers of the time, and the prototype was sold to Japan. Reworked to a trimmer size, the new aircraft first flew in early 1942. Army and Navy demand for a larger transport meant that none would enter their intended airline service until after the war. Instead, designating them C-54 “for the duration,” Douglas began turning out bare bones four-engine transport aircraft.

14. Several sources quote this line. See, for example, Lavery, 301 (and the previous page, which includes a diagram of the special
Skymaster’s layout).

15. Pearcy, 108.

16. This journey was Churchill’s first trip aboard a ship he would sail on often in later years. He published an article about the Queen Mary at the time of her maiden voyage, in The Strand Magazine, May 1936. A reprint is in Finest Hour 121 (Winter 2003-04), 23-28.

17. John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (New York: Norton, 1985), 424.

18. A good contemporary account of the trip is in H. V. Morton, Atlantic Meeting (London: Methuen, 1943).

19. Tickell, 69-70.

20. Douglas Austin, Churchill and Malta: A Special Relationship (Stroud, England: Spellmount, 2006), 161.

21. David J. March, ed., British Warplanes of World War II (London: Amber Books, 1998), 171.

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