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Civilian fatalities and the war in the skies

Posted in Aerospace, Aviation, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Tuesday, 6 December 2011

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This edited article about civil aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 868 published on 2 September 1978.

BOAC Liberator, picture, image, illustration

A BOAC Liberator was accidentally shot down by a British fighter, by Graham Coton

On 1st June, 1943, Flight 777 was flying south across the Bay of Biscay. At just before one o’clock in the afternoon, its radio operator, Cornelius Van Brugge, signalled Whitchurch in England that his Douglas DC3 belonging to KLM, the Royal Dutch Airline, was being followed. Then came his last desperate words – “I am being attacked by enemy aircraft. From G-AGBB to GKH, am attacked by enemy aircraft.”

Cannon shells from eight German Junkers Ju88s blew the unarmed airliner apart and four people fell from the plane as its blazing wreck plunged seawards.

Had there really been spies on board, as the Nazis claimed, or had one of Germany’s own spies mistaken a passenger named Alfred Chenhalls for Winston Churchill? The truth will probably never be known, though this particular tragedy made headlines. One of Britain’s most popular film actors, Leslie Howard, died in the crash.

The DC3 was Dutch, but carried a British registration because it was operated by an airline in exile. After the Germans conquered Holland, KLM based itself in England. It and Britain’s new international airline, BOAC, then flew a regular service to Lisbon, in neutral Portugal, where their crews rubbed shoulders with men from many other airlines, including Germany’s Lufthansa.

By 1943, few planes from enemy airlines were to be seen outside Europe, although the Italians had kept open their long-distance route to South America until the start of 1942. Airline communications were, of course, more important to Britain, America and the USSR, than to the Axis powers. While the Germans and Italians found themselves defending an ever-decreasing area of central Europe, the Allies were scattered as they attacked Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” from all sides.

This problem affected their airlines as much as it did their generals. The air-ways had to be kept open, despite disasters like the destruction of Flight 777 and the even worse incident when an RAF night-fighter mistakenly shot down a BOAC Liberator near Eddystone lighthouse.

Many airlines continued to operate throughout World War Two, but the undoubted hero of those dark years was BOAC. The backbone of its fleet were adapted from the military C-47 Dakota, itself developed from the DC3.

The unarmed, camouflaged BOAC airliners wore red, white and blue stripes in addition to their normal registration numbers. Sometimes they carried temporary military markings for some special duty, while most of their crews had two uniforms – one BOAC and one RAF.

The airline also operated other aircraft, of course, and most famous were those that crossed the Atlantic to and from the USA. Even in 1940, the acknowledged experts on North Atlantic aviation, RAF Coastal Command, declared that an all-year transatlantic service was impossible. But within months, BOAC, employing a variety of British and foreign aircrew, both men and women, inaugurated a regular Atlantic Ferry Service. They delivered American aircraft for RAF use while at the same time carrying passengers in extreme discomfort and cold.

Rather more civilized were BOAC’s three Boeing 314A flying-boats, based on the Atlantic coast of America, that operated a splendid wartime luxury route across the ocean via Bermuda.

America was, of course, not in the front line and although many of its civil aircraft were commandeered for military use, various American airlines were able to maintain an impressive scheduled air service right up to 1945. This included Pan Am’s service to England throughout the height of the Battle of Britain. So many people wanted to use it that the British government had to insist on mail taking precedence.

Far to the east, another of the Allies had even greater communications problems. The Soviet Union was still an underdeveloped country, though its main airline, Aeroflot, had built up a large network before war broke out. Desperately short of men and machines, Aeroflot kept open the vital supply routes to Siberia, many of them across dangerous Arctic terrain. It also supported the Russian army and even flew over 40,000 flights behind enemy lines dropping propaganda leaflets and helping partisan units.

Ferrying passengers was important, but even more vital were the air mails. Regular letters from home kept up the morale of the fighting men, while their military and political leaders needed to keep in touch with governments in London, Washington and Moscow. In fact many of the things we now take for granted when writing air mail letters were introduced during the war. Aerogrammes, specially-printed and ready-stamped lightweight letter sheets, first appeared in 1941. Those inscribed “Prisoners of War Air Mail” and sent via the Red Cross, cost 2 and a half old pence, while those for use by the Armed Forces cost 3d. Civilians had to pay a full 6d.

During the war years, Britain’s airlines learned much about advanced American systems of navigation and air traffic control. On the other hand, the British aero-industry was concerned solely with military aircraft after the British government agreed to rely on America for air freighters. The Avro company did develop a passenger version of its famous Lancaster bomber, but, when peace finally came in 1945, there was no doubt which country was in the best position to take the lead in civil aviation. It was to be the United States – and American domination has remained virtually unchallenged to this day.

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