Speedbird Goes to War – BOAC Operations 1939 – 1945

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Illuminated by a Chance Light, civilianised Mosquito FB Mark VI, G-AGGF (formerly HJ720) of BOAC, taxies onto the flare path at RAF Leuchars, Fife, prior to a night flight to Stockholm. Sweden. G-AGGF was lost on 17 August 1943 when it crashed at Invermairk, killing its crew

The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was created in 1940 by the merger of Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd. BOAC was state-owned and continued to operate overseas air services throughout World War 2. In 1971 by Act of Parliament, BOAC was merged with British European Airways (BEA), effective from 31st March 1974 to form British Airways.

Imperial Airways and BA Ltd had been conducting joint operations since war had been declared on 3rd September 1939. Their operations centre was moved from London to Bristol and BOAC started operations as a single company on 1st April 1940. After the Fall of France in 1940, BOAC continued to keep Britain connected with its colonies and Allies, despite having a shortage of truly long-range aircraft on its inventory. All of BOAC’s aircraft had the logo of either or both the Union Flag and the Speedbird symbol.

The Routes

BOAC inherited the Imperial Airways flying boat services to British colonies in Africa and Asia. With the loss of the route over France and Italy to Cairo, operations had to use the “Horseshoe Route” for the flying boats, routed between Sydney, Australia, and Durban, South Africa, via Singapore and Cairo. Mail could then be sent by sea between South Africa and Britain. Using Short Empire C Class S23 and S33 flying boats, BOAC operated the section between Durban and Singapore while QANTAS Empire Airways operated the section between Singapore and Sydney. In October 1941, QANTAS took over the Karachi – Singapore section as BOAC were short of pilots. Operating the “Horseshoe Route was very taxing for BOAC and required a vast infrastructure to support and sustain these operations.

In 1934 Imperial Airways and QANTAS had formed a new company, QANTAS Empire Airways Limited (QEA) and commenced operations that year, flying between Brisbane and Darwin. In 1935 QEA flew internationally when the service to Darwin was extended to Singapore. Once the Second World War started, QEA lost six aircraft to enemy action, over half of its fleet. Flying boat services resumed in 1943 between Swan River in Perth and Koggala Lake in Celyon, where it linked with the BOAC operations to complete the journey to Britain.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
A BOAC Boeing 314 Clipper lands on Lagos Lagoon, 1943

Spain denied access to British aircraft, but the Portuguese welcomed BOAC’s civilian aircraft for the revenue these flights brought the country. However, the route from Lisbon or Gibraltar was dangerous and risked enemy air attack. The long East Africa route was instigated, involving an over water route by flying boat via Lisbon, Bathurst (now Banjul in Gambia), Freetown, Lagos then by conventional aircraft to Khartoum on the Horseshoe Route.

The old Imperial Airways route had used landplane sections using Handley Page 42s, but these old biplanes were totally unsuitable and were replaced by but the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign and de Havilland Albatross ordered to replace the ‘Heracles’ biplanes had proved disappointing, leaving the Short Empire flying boats as the backbone of the wartime fleet. Only a handful of these had long range tanks but many were eventually upgraded with larger tankage and operated at overload weights.

The 1,900 mile Lisbon-Bathurst leg pushed the Empire flying boats to the limit and Spain eventually allowed refuelling at Las Palmas in the Canary Isles. By 1941, longer range Consolidated Catalinas, Boing 314As and converted Short Sunderlands were introduces and the Lisbon – Bathurst leg became non-stop. BOAC’s bases for flying boat operations in Britain were Southampton and Poole in Dorset. Another base using Foynes in Southern Ireland became operational, thus avoiding the possibility of German interception by Junkers JU 88 long-range fighters over the Bay of Biscay for some flights. BOAC had bases at Durban, Asmara, Alexandria and a pilots’ school at Soroti, Uganda

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Lockheed Lodestar, G-AGCM “Lake Marut”, of BOAC, flying over Cairo before landing at Heliopolis

Imperial Airways had made pre-war experimental flights across the North Atlantic, using air-to-air refuelling, with the first trans-Atlantic service by Short Empire flying boat, BOAC’s Clare and Clyde to Le Guardia in 1940. The organisation was tasked with operating a Return Ferry Service to reposition ferry pilots, who had flown American-built bombers to Britain. The route operated between Prestwick and Montreal, staging at Iceland, Gander or Goose Bay. By 1944 BOAC had made 1,000 trans-Atlantic crossings. By 1942 the company was operating with Consolidated Liberators, a rudimentary conversion from bomber to passenger aircraft.

The Ball Bearing Run

Throughout the Second World War Sweden was a major producer of high-quality steel for precision machinery and the finest quality ball bearings. Britain desperately needed such items for its war effort, but just as importantly it wanted to prevent Germany from acquiring them. Additionally, the British government wanted to maintain a diplomatic air link to neutral Sweden, to support its neutrality, which Germany constantly put under pressure given the large number of Swedish Nazi sympathisers. BOAC began air operations between RAF Leuchars in Fife and Bromma at Stockholm. Initially converted Whitley bombers were used, stripped of guns, but they were slow and very vulnerable. Lockheed Loadstar and Hudsons were also used, but the route was dangerous and Sweden had two DC 3s shot down on flights to Britain.

The de Havilland Mosquito was introduced for the Sweden run in 1943, during the short summer nights and periods of the Aurora Borealis. The stripped down Mosquitos operated at very high altitude, over 35,000 feet and were too fast to be caught by conventional German night fighters. Exhaust shrouds were removed from the Merlin engines, which is estimated to have added around 30 miles per hour to the aircrafts’ performance. German aero engineers experimented with fitting JU 88 night fighters with GM-1 nitrous-oxide injection, to boost the aircraft’s speed to 382 miles per hour at 28,000 feet, hoping to catch the Mosquito on the approach into Sweden. However, none of the BOAC Mosquito flights were lost to enemy action.  The GM-1 equipped JU 88s had a degree of success against Pathfinder Mosquitoes, target marking with the Oboe blind marking system over the Rhur.

The typical cargo for these Mosquito Speedbird flights was mail and diplomatic baggage, plus gold, ingots or Sovereigns to pay for ball bearings. A single passenger could be carried in the aircraft’s bomb bay, with their own oxygen supply, but once airborne, would unreachable by the crew of two. He or she would be given instruction on how to operate the intercom and oxygen system, a flask of coffee and told to hope for the best.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
A passenger travelling in the bomb bay of a De Havilland Mosquito of BOAC, on the fast freight service between Leuchars, Fife and Stockholm, Sweden

Niels Bohr the Danish atomic physicist was aware of the possibility of using uranium-235 to construct an atomic bomb, referring to it in lectures in Britain and Denmark shortly before and after the war started. The Germans regarded Bohr as Jewish and the Danish resistance helped Bohr and his wife escape by sea to Sweden on 29 September 1943. When the news of Bohr’s escape reached Britain, Lord Cherwell sent a telegram to Bohr asking him to come to Britain and join the “Tube Alloys” department, Britain’s research project into the development of nuclear weapons. The huge amount of Tube Alloys research and personnel would be gifted to the Americans by Churchill for use in the Manhattan Project.

A BOAC Mosquito was sent to Sweden to bring the physicist to Britain. During the flight, Bohr did not wear his flying helmet as it was too small, and consequently did not hear the pilot’s intercom instruction to turn on his oxygen supply when the aircraft climbed to high altitude to overfly Norway. He passed out from oxygen starvation and only revived when the aircraft descended to lower altitude over the North Sea. Between 1939 and 1945, 6,000 passengers were transported by BOAC between Stockholm and Great Britain, fortunately for them not in the main in Mosquitos.

Thirteen Mosquitoes were operated by BOAC, of which five were lost, not due to enemy action. They were HJ898, HJ985 and LR524 (not given civilian registrations, as well as G-AGFV, G-AGGC, G-AGGD, G-AGGE, G-AGGF, G-AGGG, G-AGGH, G-AGKO, G-AGKP and G-AGKR. GD, GF, GG and KP crashed on landing or approach. KR went missing over the North Sea in August 1944.

Operating constraints and BOAC’s wartime legacy

BOAC had been asked to do a lot with very little during the Second World War. The organisation was forced to use a vast array of different aircraft types, with all the logistical and supply problems this entailed. Its air routes were long, many over water and contested by enemy aircraft. It was constantly in competition for scarce resources, particularly in the Middle East and Far East areas of operation, as the RAF was setting up the Air Transport Command from 1943 and RAF crews seconded to BOAC were taken back to staff the new command.

By 1945 the world was a different place, and the colonies were beginning to change attitudes about how they would be governed in the future. Airlines were still very much an instrument of government policy, but BOAC was in a uniquely difficult position by the end of the war. British aircraft design had been concentrated on producing bombers and although there were thousands of them all round the world, they were not necessarily compatible with the aspirations of modern air transport. For example, the Lancastrian, a bomber conversion, could only carry nine passengers in extremely rudimentary conditions. Politically, the Atlee government wanted to keep the British, (and as it transpired, Russian) aeronautical industry viable and while Britain still had outstanding design teams, the Americans had the capacity to build comfortable, long range aircraft.

Brilliant though the jet-powered Comet was, it’s fatal depressurisation due to metal fatigue did for it and the American aircraft manufacturers were only too happy to capitalise on British misfortune. Even the VC10, a wonderful and fast aircraft, had been built to operate out of smaller, higher altitude airfields in the former colonies such as Nairobi and lacked the passenger carrying capacity. But how I miss them and remember watching movers at Akrotiri, jump up and down on the wing to get the side cargo door shut. They were as well as the Andover, a superb aircraft for Aeromedical Evacuation.

And so we are where we are. But as I recently waited for my daughter to arrive from Italy at Stanstead Airport, watching the mice in their million hordes and surly, bearded, tattooed and ostentatiously over-armed police strut through the terminal, I imagined myself back in a different time, brandy sour in hand, Panama hat pulled down low, smoking a cheroot on a bar veranda at the side of the lagoon, waiting for the lighter to take me out to that Empire Class flying boat, glistening silver on the turgid water.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

© Blown Periphery 2018

Audio file