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The development of the routes to South Africa, India and Australia

CONTROL TOWER at Basra Airport, one of the finest aerodromes in the East and an important point on the England to India air mail route

CONTROL TOWER at Basra Airport, one of the finest aerodromes in the East and an important point on the England to India air mail route. The new airport buildings were opened on March 25, 1938. The Cairo to Basra section was the first to be inaugurated. That was in 1926 ; in 1929 the London-Cairo section was opened and the Cairo-Basra service extended to Karachi. Thus India was for the first time connected by a regular British air service with England.

THE first authenticated instance of an airborne letter was in 1841, a year after the appearance of the first adhesive postage stamp. Richard Gypson, a well-known aeronaut of the time, dropped a letter from a balloon during a demonstration ascent from Lympne, Kent. The letter was picked up from the ground later and eventually delivered to the addressee.

In spite of occasional further experimental balloon posts, it was evident that the free balloon, always at the mercy of the wind currents, could never become a commercial success as a mail carrier. Many attempts were made with steam and electricity to provide greater controllability, but no machine was found which could make headway against any but the slightest breezes.

The invention of the petrol engine, providing greater power for a given weight, provided a new stimulus and with the appearance of dirigibles, notably the first Zeppelin in 1900, the speed of controlled aircraft went up to nearly twenty miles an hour. Flying was, however, still impossible in any but the most favourable weather conditions. Even when the Wright brothers brought out their first power-driven aeroplane in 1903, and for several years afterwards, the small loads which

could be carried by these early machines and the unreliability of engines ruled out the possibility of their commercial use.

Development of engines and aircraft proceeded unchecked and in 1910 occurred the first British experiment with the carriage of mails by aeroplane. This was at Blackpool, Lancashire, where, despite squally weather, Claude Grahame-White succeeded in making a cross-country flight, with a mail-bag, of seven miles.

In the following year the first official Post Office experiments in air mail took place. To commemorate the coronation of King George V, a temporary air mail service was established between Hendon and Windsor, Berkshire. The special souvenir letters and postcards had to be posted in the boxes provided, from which they were collected to a central sorting office and taken to Hendon for transport by aeroplane to Windsor.

The experiments continued over a period during which about 100,000 letters were carried on the service and in the course of which Gustav Hamel attained, with the aid of a following wind, the unprecedented speed for those days of 100 miles an hour. From this experimental service has developed the great organization described in the chapter “Air Mails of the Empire”.

These and similar experiments which were carried out in other countries up to 1914 demonstrated clearly the possibilities of the aeroplane as a mail carrier, but still development had not proceeded far enough to provide the absolute reliability required of it for such service. Then came the war of 1914-18. By the end of the war the reliability of aeroplanes had improved to such an extent that former military machines could be converted for civil requirements and used for the carriage of mails and passengers.

One of the earliest of air mail services was operated by the R.A.F. Communication Wing between Kenley, Surrey, and Paris, transporting mail and passengers in connexion with the Peace Conference of 1919. By the time the Peace Conference was over the Communication Wing had transported 1,382 people and 710 bags of mail between London and Paris. In addition to this, the Communication Wing operated a daily air mail service between Hawkinge, near Folkestone, Kent, and Cologne, for the benefit of the British Army of Occupation on the Rhine.

The first British civil air line began operations on August 25, 1919, on the London-Paris route, but it was not at first entrusted with the carriage of mail. The Post Office was waiting to test the reliability of this service. The regularity maintained in face of operational difficulties astonished even the most sceptical; As early as November 10, 1919, all was ready for the first regular civil air mail to Paris.

So far the Government had given no financial assistance to the air lines, but it decided to do so when British air transport companies had to suspend operations because of the competition of certain heavily subsidized Continental air line companies.

After Government assistance had been given, several British companies were formed and began operations on various routes. It soon became apparent that these single companies were not strong enough individually to cope with the increasing competition of foreign lines. Moreover, their own services were to some extent overlapping, and there was also intense competition among them for air mail contracts. A Government Committee was entrusted with the task of investigating the situation of British air transport. This Committee recommended that the four companies then operating to the Continent should be combined into one great organization to operate the British European services and to develop Empire routes.

The four existing companies were Daimler Airways, Ltd., which operated the London-Berlin route; Handley Page Transport, Ltd., operating between London and Paris; the Instone Air Line, Ltd., then responsible for the London-Cologne route; and the British Marine Air Navigation Company, Ltd., which operated a service between Southampton and the Channel Islands.

After long negotiations these four companies were merged into Imperial Airways, Ltd., on April 1, 1924. The formation of Imperial Airways, with a settled Government policy towards air transport, was a big step forward, and brought much nearer the day when all Empire mails might go by air.

Much work had already been done by the Royal Air Force in preparing chains of landing grounds along sections of the Empire routes. Already, in 1921, the R.A.F. had begun a regular official air mail service between Cairo, Egypt, and Baghdad (Iraq). This service was later extended to carry civilian mail as well. But the work of the R.A.F. in opening up the Empire air routes had begun as early as December 1918, when three survey parties left Cairo for a simultaneous ground survey of the three sections into which the route from there to the Cape had been divided.

The difficulties and discomforts faced by the survey parties and by those who went out to prepare landing grounds on the sites chosen might well have been considered insuperable. But the difficulties were surmounted, quietly and efficiently. The work was done so quickly that the route was open the whole way by the end of 1919.

London to Capetown Pioneers

Then followed attempts by private pilots to gain the distinction of being the first to fly from London to the Cape. Success came to two young South Africans, Lieut.-Col. Pierre van Ryneveld, D.S.O., M.C., and Flight Lieut. Quintin Brand. These aviators, in the face of great odds and after some amazing adventures, reached Capetown on March 20, 1920, more than six weeks after they had left London (see the chapter “South Africa’s Air Routes”). As the aviators carried mail, this first flight from London to the Cape was also the first to carry air mail along the route.

It was not until nine years later, in 1929, that Imperial Airways, with the London-Karachi route in regular operation, were able to turn their attention to the African route. In the meantime, there had been all the difficulties and disappointments which attended the attempt to establish a route through from England to India.

The first section of the London-Karachi service to be operated was that between Cairo and Basra (Iraq), and the first departure took place on December 27, 1926. This service was a fortnightly one, carrying mail and passengers, and was timed at first to connect with the P. & 0. mail boat service between Marseilles, France, and Port Said. On this section Imperial Airways took over the air mail service which had been operated during the preceding six years by the R.A.F., which had laid down the route.


THE FIRST OFFICIAL BRITISH AIR MAIL EXPERIMENT was in 1911. To commemorate the coronation of King George V a temporary air mail service was established between Hendon and Windsor. The pilot, Gustav Hamel, seated in the aeroplane, is signing a receipt for air mail. More than 100,000 letters were carried on this service.

The R.A.F. had been able to do a good deal of preliminary survey during its routine work of policing the Middle East areas over which Great Britain held mandates. It was not, however, until 1921 that a proper ground and air survey was made of the direct route across the Syrian Desert from Amman (Transjordan) to Baghdad. There were few landmarks in the vast sandy wastes. Ground parties ploughed a deep furrow which could easily be followed by aviators flying above; the ground parties also prepared landing grounds, numbered I, II, III, and so on, every fifty miles along the route.

The carriage of passengers requires a much more complex ground organization than is necessary for the transport of mails and freight. Before taking over from the R.A.F., Imperial Airways had to supplement the existing organization.

In the first place, arrangements had to be made for the crew of a stranded aeroplane to communicate with the nearest aerodrome. Radiotelephony between aircraft and ground had already been developed to a practical stage on European routes. With the introduction of a telescopic mast to supplement the ordinary trailing aerial (which could not be used on the ground) and a small power-driven dynamo, each mail aeroplane on the route became a mobile wireless station able to communicate with ground stations either from the air or while at rest on the ground.

New aerodromes were laid out at points where it would be necessary to refuel and where meals could be served to passengers. At Rutbah Wells, Iraq, an isolated spot in the desert where one of these aerodromes was laid out, a fort was built for the protection of passengers and crews from the attentions of hostile tribes.

The other new aerodrome was at Gaza, in Palestine. Fully equipped aerodromes had already been established by the Royal Air Force at Baghdad and Basra. Ventilating equipment, beds and other furniture and fresh food had to be provided for the comfort of passengers.

These feats of organization were closely connected with the subject of air mail development, as the carriage of passengers and mail in the same machine (for economic reasons) had its effect on the development of aircraft for use on the Empire routes. Designers were already producing machines more suited to commercial use than the old warplane conversions, but they had not progressed beyond the twin-engined machine.

This type, although safer than the single-engined machine, could not remain in the air if one of its engines failed. The addition of a third engine would — it was argued — make it possible to design a machine capable of flying on two of its engines if the third failed. The increased power would make possible the use of larger machines with better passenger accommodation and greater capacity for mail. In 1926 Imperial Airways introduced the three-engined Armstrong Whitworth Argosy and the De Havilland Hercules air liner. The Hercules type was used at first to operate the desert route between Cairo and Basra.

Political Obstacles

The only obstacle at that time to the operation of the whole route from Cairo to Karachi was the difficulty of making an agreement with the Persian (now Iranian) Government about that part of the route which passed over Persian territory. It was not until 1929 that a settlement was reached which made possible the extension of the existing Cairo-Basra service to Karachi. The London-Cairo section was added at the same time, and on March 30, 1929, India was connected for the first time by a regular British air service with England.

Imperial Airways have encountered their fair share of the political obstacles which every aviator flying abroad has to face, but which, with permanent air lines, sometimes become important bargaining points between nations. At the beginning of the England-India service, British air liners were not able to enter Italy from France and the alternative Alpine route was dangerous. The service had, therefore, to be broken at Basle, in Switzerland, for a train journey to Genoa, whence passengers and mail continued by flying boat to Alexandria.

Later, British flying boats were unable to use Italian ports, and Imperial Airways’ Mediterranean crossing had to be made from Salonika (now Thessaloniki), in Greece. This involved the use of a route through Central Europe, good enough from a flying point of view in summer, but difficult in winter, especially in the south of Yugoslavia. The section from Skoplje, Yugoslavia, to Salonika had to be operated during winter by train. Even when international relations became normal, further considerations made it necessary to operate the service by train from Paris to Brindisi, in the south of Italy.

Meanwhile the agreement with Persia had expired and an obligatory route through that country had been specified. The report of the ground and air survey carried out by Imperial Airways proved that this route would be costly and virtually impossible to operate during winter. Two extensions — totalling six months — of the original agreement were granted.

The Canopus is one of the Empire flying boats used on the Empire air mail services.

TAKING OFF AT ROCHESTER, KENT. The Canopus is one of the Empire flying boats operating on the England-South Africa and England-Australia service. One of thirty-nine ordered for this service, she is a high-wing cantilever monoplane, powered by four Bristol Pegasus X.C. nine-cylinder radial air-cooled engines, with a normal output of 743 horse-power each. There is accommodation for twenty-four passengers by day or sixteen by night, as well as for one and a half tons of mail. The crew numbers five.

At the end of this period, Imperial Airways, still unable to come to an agreement with the Persian Government, moved their route over to the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf. This move took place on October 1, 1932, after six months of hard work in the development of the necessary ground facilities. Landing grounds had to be selected and prepared, the whole route surveyed for landplane operation, and negotiations hurriedly pressed forward with local sheiks for the use of the landing grounds selected. In all these matters the ready assistance of the R.A.F. proved of the utmost value.

The R.A.F. itself was rapidly pushing farther and farther out along the route towards Australia. Its valuable pioneer work in the survey and development of the route from Calcutta to Singapore was to be of the greatest assistance in the extension of the commercial service from India when negotiations in progress had been completed. These negotiations covered a considerable period. Even at the end of 1932, only Delhi, Bombay and Madras were served by air mail connecting with Imperial Airways at Karachi.

In the following year there was formed a new Indian air transport company, called Indian Transcontinental Airways, to operate jointly with Imperial Airways in conveying mail across India and on to Singapore. The great Empire route to Australia advanced three more stages: to Calcutta on July 1, from Calcutta to Rangoon on September 23 and from Rangoon to Singapore on December 9, 1933. The final stage, from Singapore to Brisbane, was Australia’s responsibility. With the ready cooperation of the Dutch and Portuguese Governments in granting permission for the use of aerodromes already laid out on their territories in the East Indies, the London-Singapore service was extended to Australia on December 8, 1934. There was promise of further developments in the British Government’s announcement later the same month of the Empire Air Mail Scheme for the carriage of all first-class mail by air along the Empire routes without surcharge (see the chapter “Air Mails of the Empire”).

Fifty Emergency Landing Grounds

In November 1929 Imperial Airways began their survey in conjunction with Air Ministry representatives of the air route from Cairo to Cape Town.

About ten years had elapsed since the route had been opened by the R.A.F. survey parties. Although flights had been made over it at intervals by R.A.F. machines and by private fliers, notably Sir Alan Cobham (see the chapter “Cobham’s Pioneer Empire Flights”), an immense amount of work was waiting to be done before a commercial service could be operated over the whole route. The authorities sought the cooperation of the Dominion and Colonial Governments through whose territories the air line would pass. This cooperation was readily granted, with the assurance that the Governments concerned would not only contribute financially but would also provide the necessary ground organization. Then began the task of clearing a way for the air mail from end to end of the vast African continent.

Personnel had to be trained at home to man the stations along the line. While these men were being trained, others were building the air stations, with their hangars, workshops, accommodation for passengers and air line personnel. Transport of the necessary fuel and other supplies was arranged for by those concerned. In the vast swampy area of the Sudd, which stretches away south from Khartoum to Lake Victoria, few landing grounds were found which would not in the rainy season become seas of mud.

For the time being, therefore, nothing could be done in this area but to arrange moorings in the River Nile and to operate by flying boats the section from Khartoum to Kisumu (Kenya), on Lake Victoria. As the southern terminus of this section, Kisumu was provided with sheds and a slipway up which the flying boats could be hauled when it was necessary to take them from the water for overhaul or repair. Later, hardened runways were laid down on suitable sites ashore to make them available as all-weather aerodromes and the section was operated by landplanes.

AT KISUMU, KENYA, on the England-South Africa route

AT KISUMU, KENYA, on the England-South Africa route, before the introduction of the Empire flying boats. Passengers are being transferred from the Horsa (right) to the Andromeda (left). The Horsa is one of the Hannibal class of Handley Page 42 four-engined biplanes. The Andromeda belongs to the Atalanta class. The Atalanta Armstrong Whitworth four-engined monoplanes have a cruising speed of 125 miles an hour. They were specially designed to meet the geographic and climatic conditions on the African route.

Other aerodromes were situated in the heart of the jungle and special precautions had to be taken to guard against the incursions of wild animals. In addition to the twenty-seven main

aerodromes on the route through Africa, there were prepared fifty intermediate emergency landing grounds. At seventeen of the main aerodromes wireless stations were built. Petrol supplies had to be maintained at all the landing grounds, some of which could not be reached in the early stages except by bush paths, along which supplies had to be carried by native porters.

A special survey was carried out by the Marconi Company, in conjunction with Imperial Airways and the Air Ministry, to investigate the conditions which made radio communication difficult in Equatorial regions and to attempt to solve the problems to which this fact gave rise. This special survey was successful and the new apparatus introduced to enable two way communication between ground and air on medium and short wave-lengths enabled aeroplanes to be in constant touch with ground stations throughout the whole journey from Cairo to the Cape.

Early in 1931 organization of the route had progressed as far as Mwanza, in Tanganyika Territory, and on February 28 of that year there was begun a weekly service for mail and passengers between London and Mwanza. In less than a year the remaining half of the route was completed, the service being extended to Capetown on January 20, 1932.

The route from Cairo to the Cape was at first operated with three-engined air liners and flying boats released from the Indian route and Mediterranean section by the introduction on those routes of new four-engined Handley Page air liners and Kent flying boats. But the special geographic and climatic conditions to be met throughout Africa called for aircraft specifically designed to meet those conditions, and such machines were later used to operate the southern half of the route.

These were Armstrong Whitworth air liners of the Atalanta class, four-engined monoplanes with a cruising speed of 125 miles an hour and capable of carrying a payload of about two tons. This type was used also on sections of the Australian route beyond Karachi. The northern half of the African route from Cairo was operated by the larger Handley Page biplanes, carrying eighteen passengers and-a ton and a half of mails and freight. Both these types of aircraft are illustrated in the photograph on page 615 of a transfer of passengers at Kisumu, Kenya.

Transatlantic Flights

Traffic on the Empire routes continued to increase and, with the announcement of a non-surcharged Empire air mail, it was decided that still larger aircraft must be planned. Every relevant factor was carefully weighed and the decision was taken to operate the two main Empire services with flying boats. This decision was quickly followed by an order to Short Brothers of Rochester, Kent, for no fewer than twenty-eight Empire flying boats to be used on the new services. This order was later increased to thirty-nine. Plans allowed for three flying boat services a week to Australia and for two landplane services to Calcutta.

The first all-air service to South Africa left Southampton on January 26, 1937, and the first all-air service to Australia left on February 6, 1937.

Scarcely had the “all air” services started, it seemed, than the Empire Air Mail Scheme was being inaugurated and the first mail aeroplane to leave Southampton under the new scheme took off on June 29, 1937.

The year 1937 saw the beginnings of two further Empire routes. The first of these was the North Atlantic route to Canada, for which a series of experimental transatlantic flights was successfully concluded by Imperial Airways’ long-range Empire flying boats. The other originated in the departure in November of a party sent' out to survey the route from England to West Africa. British Airways, Ltd., was the company chosen by the Government to operate this new route and its extension to South America.

The survey party for the second half of the South American route along the east coast of South America left Southampton on June 11, 1938. On the results of the survey will be based the decision to operate the route throughout either by landplanes or by flying boats or by combination of both. The report of the survey will also recommend the ports of call for the British Airways machines operating along the route. This is likely to go through Lisbon and Bathurst (Gambia) or Freetown (Sierra Leone), across the South Atlantic to Natal (Brazil) and so down the coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

A THREE-ENGINED AIR LINER OF 1926, the De Havilland Hercules

A THREE-ENGINED AIR LINER OF 1926, the De Havilland Hercules Three-engined aircraft were not only safer than the two-engined type hitherto in use, but were also able to carry more passengers and mail. The Hercules type was used at first to operate on the desert route between Cairo and Basra, in Iraq. The now obsolete registration marking on the tail will be noticed (see the chapter “Aircraft Markings”).

You can read more on “Air Mails of the Empire”, “Cobham’s Pioneer Empire Flights” and

“South Africa’s Air Routes” on this website.

Advance of the Empire Air Mail