A year or so ago I was very struck by an account of the way aeroplanes navigated across the desert between ‘Amman and Baghdad in the 1920s. There was a furrow ploughed into the land surface all the way, and the pilot simply followed it. This struck me as quite funny, an unexpectedly primitive way to navigate, and I was reminded of a wonderful story told by the Police Attaché to the embassy meeting in a European country that had better remain nameless, of drug smugglers in a light aircraft desperately following the motorway system, road atlas in hand, while a cavalcade of police cars roared along the tarmac below like Keystone Cops, keeping up with the plane. But in fact, I simply didn’t know much about the early days of flight.
Recently I came across an interesting book called Airway to the East, which deals with the very first attempts to set up an air route from London to Cairo, in 1919. The idea was simple enough. It was planned as a way of shuttling quite large numbers of Handley Page bombers, redundant on the Western Front after the Armistice, out to the Middle East where they were needed for action against the Arabs, who were unaccountably reluctant to fall in with Anglo-French plans for the future of the region. Bombing them seemed like a good idea (indeed Churchill, famously, went further: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes”) and planes were needed. The Handley Page O/100 was a monster, which when it first rolled out of the factory in late 1915 weighed twice as much as any aeroplane ever built, had a wingspan of 100 feet and a range of 400 miles. So wide was it that the telegraph poles in Colindale Avenue had to be sawn down for the prototype to reach Hendon aerodrome. Two years later a more powerful model, the O/400, could carry 2,000 lbs of bombs as against its predecessor’s 600 lbs. These were the machines that were destined for the Middle East
Aerial warfare was devastatingly effective against Turkish ground forces (and later, Arabs). A decisive attack on a Turkish column at Wadi al Fara’a by the RAF in September 1918 resulted in what the wonderfully named, if also wonderfully unattractive, Colonel ‘Biffy’ Borton described thus: “We bombed [them] incessantly for four hours, completely blocking the head of the column and creating the most appalling carnage. A length of road some five miles long was absolutely packed and you can get some idea of what it meant from the subsequent count – over 80 guns and 700 horses and motor transport were found in an inextricable mess on just this one stretch of road.” It is about as edifying as the American ‘turkey-shoot’ on the Mutla Ridge above Kuwait in 1991: overwhelming air superiority used to obliterate retreating infantrymen. Interesting that Biffy didn’t bother to enumerate the dead Turks, as he did the horses.
But the aeroplanes were very fragile. Made of flimsy doped cloth stretched over wooden frames, with propellers prone to warping and splitting in the heat and rubber petrol-tubes that disintegrated in sunlight, they had a short life-span at the best of times, and then only with very regular maintenance. The cloth peeled and split and needed constant repair. The whole machine had to be pegged down meticulously at night so as not to blow away. In the Mediterranean they suffered a terrible rate of attrition from natural forces. The HP’s wings were too heavy to support themselves, so they had to be kept up by wire rigging – and it was the business of the myriad riggers to re-rig – to check, tighten and replace the rigging wires – each day. On top of this, all controls were operated by physical wire-pulls which easily jammed, especially when thickened and roughened by rust which made them stick in their pulleys with disastrous results. With a theoretical range of 400 miles, the O/400 often managed only 200 into a headwind and sometimes much less (one flight into a strong headwind is recorded with an overland speed of 10 mph).
This meant that to get to Cairo, their destination, they had to be flown down a designated route with a great many landing fields for overnight stops and servicing; and a great many emergency fields for pilots caught short by a headwind or engine failure – or simply by getting lost. The route changed all the time, but a 1918 plan shows a start at Buc (outside Paris) and overnight stops at Lyons, Istres, Pisa, Rome, Barletta, Taranto, Athens, Suda Bay, and Mersa Matruh – which is to say an optimal ten days to Cairo, almost never achieved. The trans-Mediterranean leg, from Suda Bay to Mersa, was about 250 miles over water, and aeroplanes were supposed to be escorted by destroyers or sea-planes (“it had been discovered that there was no ferry service between North Africa and Crete”). It very seldom happened quite that way, and indeed “the escorting flying-boats were mostly mythical, and even when they did appear, could not carry passengers on the first half of the crossing because of the large amount of petrol they had to carry at take-off.” This would have rendered their ability to carry passengers on the second half of the crossing somewhat superfluous.
In fact the whole functioning of No. 1 Aerial Route RAF was an unmitigated disaster. It was badly planned, badly managed, and undermanned by officers and men whose main preoccupation was being demobilised. The crew on the landing strips were idle and often absent; the pilots were prone to taking time off to see the sights; the spare parts were never where they were needed; the escorts were almost always unavailable; the chain of command was incompetent; the availability of weather forecasts and wirelesses pathetic; maps were inadequate; there was no petty cash or expenses. So disastrous was the whole doomed enterprise that the very existence of No 1 Aerial Route was afterwards routinely denied by the RAF and the Air Ministry, and only dug out of the archives by the author of this book, whose father, stationed at Suda Bay in Crete, had kept press cuttings and photograph albums.
The story told in this book, though it’s much too heavy on technical detail for anyone but a terminal aviation history buff to savour in full, would be very funny were it not for the young lives lost in crash after crash along the Route. “They changed propellers at Suda but the replacements, which were cannibalised from Liberty flying boats, had brass tips and were twelve inches too small in diameter. This meant they could not fly higher than 2,000 feet and had to fly round the west end [of Crete] to avoid the mountains” – “During the night a gale blew up and the plane was blown from its moorings. A sister machine was also blown on top of the petrol shed” – “One machine made a forced landing on the Greek coast at Amyro because it had run out of petrol. It was impossible to get petrol to it by lorry and so HMS Swallow was sent from Alexandria” – “D5418 came in to land at Pisa, but when only 400 feet from the ground, the elevators jammed and the machine crashed on its nose on the airfield” – “One engine ran out of oil and seized and they found the plane was unable to maintain height on one engine alone … the machine came down in a gentle glide on to the sea and the pilot, concentrating on the landing, forgot to undo his safety harness … the machine tipped up on its nose … and the pilot went under water with the cockpit” – “At Athens they were delayed for ten hours because the petrol supplied contained water and they had to empty all the tanks and strain the petrol through chamois leather” – “One of the replacement machines never even started the journey before it was wrecked. A gale blew up at Buc, outside Paris … and while the machine was being hurriedly wheeled into a hangar, the tail was blown off the skid trolley and the fuselage cracked” – “HP J2246 had five forced landings while it was crossing France … the pilot got lost and came down in the sea at St Aygulf.”
At the end of September 1919, the situation could be summarised thus: “twenty-nine machines were either in Egypt or more or less airworthy en route, and thirteen had been written off. That still left nine machines dotted about …” It constituted a 30 percent failure rate, and eleven deaths. The accidents alone had cost £110,000. The whole story was the subject of an RAF inquiry which was carefully manipulated by the high command resonsible in order to bury the scale of the disaster. The patronising, self-assured and self-protective incompetence with which very senior officers handled money, young lives and the truth is still shocking a century later.
One final aspect of all this that I found very revealing was the attitude of the aircrew to the Arabs. The author comments drily that “Each of the crew had been issued with a side-arm in case the machine made a forced landing along the coast of North Africa where the native Senussi tribesmen were hostile because they were in the pay of the Turks. Orders then were to destroy the aircraft and then shoot oneself before unspeakable things were perpetrated by the locals. Unsurprisingly the crews chose the northern Mediterranean route (via Crete) rather than the African one (via Malta).” Unsurprising indeed, though it suggests a slightly unexpected coyness from RAF aircrew (Biggles would have used the revolver to fight his way out: Biffy apparently not.) But much more unspeakable is this episode, in the course of Major Stuart McLaren’s flight to Delhi in a Handley Page in 1919, recorded by the insouciant pilot:
Soon after leaving Bandar Rig we had a little amusement at the expense of one of the natives of the country. We were flying at about 100 feet when we saw, a short distance ahead, an unlucky native who was attempting to bathe by the banks of a small stream and was consequentially not in a position to argue his point with us. We put the nose of the machine down and headed straight for this unhappy mortal, who, already petrified with fear, at once threw up his arms to Allah and called loudly for help. At a distance of 50 yards I fired a green Verey’s light at him which burst into flames in front of his feet. His morale became extremely disorganised and he fell flat on his face into the stream.
Well, in fact, of course it was McLaren’s morale – or at least his morals – that were extremely disorganised, and this little vignette tells us a great deal about the sheer, bloody arrogance of imperial power. And now the natives of the country are bringing down European aeroplanes with their own amusing explosions. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
 Clive Semple, Airway to the East 1918-1920 and the Collapse of No. 1 Aerial Route RAF, Barnsley 2012.