Churchill was one of the greatest men of his century – if not the greatest. I admire his lust for empire, his historical knowledge and his sense of being proud to be unapologetically British. He supported free trade, lower taxes, and was in all cases, a realist. The realism made him the great leader he was. Churchill had to deal with curs like Chamberlain. He had faults. Gallipoli fell at his feet during World War One. It was his greatest mistake. But he made up for it.
The Travels and Aircraft of Sir Winston Churchill, PM
Churchill’s travels began less than a week after he became Prime Minister. His first five sojourns were across the Channel during the Battle of France to bolster French morale and try and keep the French leadership in the fight. He usually flew 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 an all-metal light transport which held twelve to seventeen passengers. The Flamingos were registered G-AFUE, G-AFUF, and R2765, one was the second prototype, one formerly operated by Guernsey and Jersey Airlines and the third was ordered by The King’s Flight. The type was later used by BOAC to operate services from Cairo.
D.H. 95 Flamingo transports of RAF No. 24 (Commonwealth) Squadron, based at RAF Hendon, were used to ferry Churchill to France in 1940.
Always escorted by fighters (since German fighters were 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.
Churchill boarding his Flamingo for a flight to Paris in 1940
in January 1942, returning from meetings with Allied leaders in Washington and Ottawa, Churchill made his first flight across the Atlantic aboard Berwick, a Boeing 314A Clipper flying boat. She was a former Pan Am Clipper purchased by the British Overseas Airways Corporation and painted in RAF camouflage with large Union Flags under her cockpit windows. She was flown by BOAC aircrew under military command.
Berwiick 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 C-54 Skymaster transport towards the end of the war, Berwick was Churchill’s most luxurious aeroplane.
Berwick takes off from Bermuda wih WSC aboard in January 1942. BOAC bought Pan Am’s fleet of Clippers to maintain a Trans Atlantic air service after war was declared in 1939.
Headed for Bermuda to join the Royal Navy for the 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 Clipper that he asked Captain John Kelly Rogers whether Berwick could fly him all the way back to the UK. Assured that she could, Churchill cancelled plans to sail back from Bermuda aboard the battlecruiser HMS Renown. 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 in Scotland, flying non-stop to Baltimore. Ten days later, they returned on a northerly route via Newfoundland and Iceland.
Berwick at anchor at Bermuda. The BOAC Clippers provided a transatlantic service for Government officials throughout the war,
Churchill’s experience on the BOAC Clippers persuaded him to get a personal long-range transport. He needed a landplane so that he could fly across Central Africa to visit his commanders and forces in Egypt and drop-in on Stalin in Moscow (who refused to leave the USSR). A trip to the Middle East and on to Moscow in August 1942 involved the first aircraft assigned specifically for exclusive use by the Prime Minister: a brand-new Consolidated LB-30A which he named Commando.
Based on the earliest model of the B-24 Liberator bomber, Commando was one of a growing number of aircraft making the risky Atlantic crossing (nearly fifty aircrew were killed on Altantic ferry duties during the war). Commando was piloted by American volunteer William (Bill) J. Vanderkloot, who had flown airliners for TWA before the war.
Vanderkloot was appointed as Churchill’s pilot by Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal based on his formidable long range navigation skills. He, Commando and his mixed American and Canadian RCAF crew arrived from Montreal, conveying three Canadian VIP passengers to Prestwick, near Glasgow.
Commando in her 1942 ‘night bomber’ camouflage. After a hasty conversion, Commando still has roughly painted over nose glazing and her bomber paint scheme.
Despite being assigned to WSC, Commando was a far cry from the Boeing flying boats in terms of creature comforts. She had been hastily converted and her deep fuselage had few windows; most outside light came from the cockpit.
Commando was famously drafty, and at first there was no heating either. Shelving at the back of the cabin was the only sleeping accommodation, though a simple cooking stove was provided. Lacking cabin pressurization, Commando rarely flew over 8,000 feet, enough to get above most bad weather. Her name painted at a jaunty angle under the cockpit, the lumbering giant was at first painted in the Bomber Command night scheme and mostly flew at night.
LB-30 Liberator, AL504 Commando in March 1943. She took Churchill to Egypt and the Middle East several times, including the Casablanca conference with FDR that year.
None of Churchill’s aircraft were pressurized. Since the PM 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 when Commando flew at low altitude. 24 (Commonwealth) Squadron RAF, now at Northolt near London, remained the parent unit for Commando and other long range VIP types. 24 Squadron became ‘The King’s Flight’ after the war.
Churchill on the flight deck of Commando with some of her travel stickers in 1942. She was the most famous and yet most uncomfortable of his wartime transports.
Churchill travelled abroad four times in 1943, This included two of his longest wartime journeys. On 12 January he flew from RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire 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. Commando was then rebuilt by Consolidated with a new tail from a PB4Y Privateer and more windows.
LB-30 Liberator, AL504 Commando after her modification and reconditioning by Consolidated from September 1943-March 1944. By this time she had been replaced as the PM’s transport and was used to transport senior military commanders across the Atlantic. She was lost close to the Azores in 1944.
For a visit to the Allied commanders in the Mediterranean after the Husky landings in Sicily six months later, Commando was replaced by a new Avro York, Ascelon. The York was the only British-built long range transport of the war. First flown in mid-1942, it used the wings, tail, Rolls-Royce Merlin engines and landing gear of Bomber Command’s Avro Lancaster, but had a more capacious square-section fuselage.
Ascelon (and Churchill) arrives at Algiers, August 1944..
Assigned to the VIP squadron at RAF Northolt in March 1943, Ascelon also flew King George VI and Churchill to France after D-Day. More than 250 were built before and after the war, some serving into 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
Churchill arriving at Naples aboard Ascelon in 1944.
She was named Ascalon, after the sword St. George used to slay the dragon, a name suggested by No. 24 squadron’s commander. 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.
Avro York – Churchill’s York differed from the standard military transport version.
A transparent pressure chamber was devised, into which Churchill could crawl, cigar and all, if the aircraft had to climb. But it would only fit into the aircraft by disassembling the rear fuselage.
In August 1944, with Bill Vanderkloot in command, Ascalon flew Churchill to Algiers and then Naples to visit the Mediterranean theatre. There were several other segments of this journey before Ascalon returned home.
Churchill’s York Ascelon, and his abortive pressure chamber.
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. In North Africa and Italy during these trips, Churchill was often taken to the front in the SACMED’s RAF Dakota which was aptly named ‘Freedom’.
Churchill’s battlefied taxi in the Middle East in 1944 was a Dakota called Freedom. She was the personal transport of 4 Star Gen Henry ‘Jumbo’ Maitland-Wilson, Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean. Sqn. Ldr. Penfold, pictured, flew both The King and the Prime Minister in this aircraft.
Luxury aloft arrived in November 1944 when Churchill obtained a brand new four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster from America. The first C-54 to arrive in Britain under Lend-Lease and the 100th production aircraft, EW999 bore no specific name. Since her cabin was more than nine feet off the ground, she carried her own boarding steps.
Churchilll’s C-54 Skymaster was fitted out for VIP duties by Armstrong Whitworth in Coventry. At the end of WW2 she was returned to the US and replaced by another Avro York – Ascelon II.
The interior was installed by Armstrong Whitworth in Coventry and designed to have a ’British’ country house look. They 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 trip, a brief flight to to take Churchill to Paris and back from Rheims three days later to allow the PM to meet British commanders.
Cutaway of the interior of Churchill’s C-54 Skymaster. The blanked out section behind the cockpit in this illustration for Flight magazine is the communications ‘office’ with long range radio, radar jamming and encryption equipment,
On Christmas Eve 1944, Churchill boarded the Skymaster for Athens, where he mediated during the Greek civil war. His pilot was now RAF Wing Commander “Bill” Fraser. 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, flew across Turkey and the Black Sea for the Saki airport serving Yalta. Fraser parked her next to the Roosevelt’s C-54, the Sacred Cow.
Churchill’s C-54 Skymaster KL977 in flight. The aircraft was returned to the USA and operated by the US Navy until 1970! The airframe is still extant in Alaska.
In late March, the Skymaster departed Northolt with the WSC’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 Big Three summit at Potsdam. On July 25th, it flew him home for the election returns that ended his wartime career.
Churchill arriving at Potsdam in his C-54, July 1945. He arrived in triumph yet returned in ignominy to election defeat and retirement. He would return office once again in 1950.