THE ‘SAGA’ OF FLYING BOATS
Flying Boats? Do you or your relations have memories of flying boats in peace or wartime? If so, please write to…
This inquiry in the October 2008 issue of Saga Magazine was tentative, proffered in hope rather than expectation. It appeared under the ‘Seeking’ subheading in the Reunions section and felt like throwing a message in a bottle into deepest ocean. I had planned that my book about the Empire Flying Boats would focus on the people whose lives were touched by the existence of these remarkable aircraft: pilots and passengers, aircrew and aviation pioneers. I wondered how many of them scoured the small ads in Saga. Or whether I was too late and the time for detailed memories had passed.
The response was heart-warming: some 125 replies fell through my letterbox, two or three a day for months after the notice first appeared. The last of them arrived in July 2009. Often, the response was from someone who had chanced upon a copy of the magazine in a doctor’s waiting room, or who had been passed it by a solicitous friend (‘Didn’t you once travel by flying boat?’) With many of them, a protracted correspondence followed. Photographs – invariably black and white – arrived: of Sunderland flying boats flying over the China Seas in the 1950s; of someone’s mother perched coyly on the wing of an Empire Flying Boat in Durban before the war; of the earliest flying boats looking unnervingly fragile, and sometimes just plain broken. There were diaries and letters too, describing flights from Southampton to Karachi via Marseilles and the Sea of Galilee in October 1939, a month after war had broken out in Europe; to Sydney on board the converted Sunderland Henley with Captains Powell and Mackenzie starting in November 1947; and a journey to Hong Kong in the same month.
My father-in-law had been a navigator with BOAC flying to the Far East at the same time, and I imagined him passing leaflets describing speed, weather conditions and expected times of arrival to these very same people all those years ago.
No Empire Flying Boats exist now: the first was launched in 1936 and all but one of the 42 built had been scrapped – or destroyed by wartime action or peacetime catastrophe – by 1947. In the pre-war years, flying Imperial Airways in an Empire was unparalleled luxury: slow and stately progress at a height from which the detail of the landscape could be tenderly scanned. An aura of imposing grandeur surrounded the pilots who looked down on the world from a capacious flight deck. Passengers strolled the promenade deck and wondered at the game galloping on the African veldt below, spooked by the thundering leviathan in the sky. This was travel as it should be: slow enough to savour the experience, an easy rhythm to the day, with languid descents for lunch, tea and dinner on a series of lightly disturbed stretches of water, and a night stop in a Nile houseboat in Cairo or a fort in Sharjah on the Persian Gulf.
Behind the apparent ease and elegance of the flights to Bermuda, India, Rangoon or Australia, there was danger too. By May 1940, less than four years since the first flying boat, Canopus, was launched, 11 Empires had been lost, in a series of mishaps. Flying boats crashed with unsettling regularity: one hit a French mountain in a snowstorm; another came to grief in the Atlantic, downed by a loss of power caused by icing; a third careered into the water when alighting, its pilot confused by the glassy nature of the surface; a fourth hit debris as it tried to take off … Behind the façade of effortless travel, politicians fumed, lawyers rubbed their hands and Imperial Airways’ Chairman, Sir John Reith, was issued with a subpoena on his visit to the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. A further 15 were destroyed in the war years, ten of them during 1942. One of my correspondents was the daughter of the Radio Officer aboard a flying boat lost off the coast of West Africa in September of that year. She sent me copies of papers relating to the loss of that aircraft and eventually we met in a coffee bar in Sheffield where she loaned me two precious photographs, one of her father and the other of the monument in Bathurst – now Banjul – that commemorated the loss of the poor souls on board Clare.
My correspondents were not confined to passengers or crew. One letter was from Cyril Harrison, an ‘apprentice detail fitter’, working at the Short Brothers’ Rochester factory in the 1930s. His job was to help finalise the flying boat’s construction; because of his slight boyish figure he could clamber over the wings, in slippered feet, avoiding any damage to the nearly completed aircraft. I received letters from three members of the same family, all of whom were ex-Short Brothers’ workers. Later I received a photograph of a painting that Cyril had completed illustrating one of the Rochester flying boat workshops, a hive of industrial activity, all pulleys, lathes and cacophonous noise. He had subsequently sold the painting and lost touch with its whereabouts. We later met at the Medway Archives in Rochester and he was reunited with his lost artwork.
Another lost artwork provided my book’s cover. One correspondent wrote to me about a picture by the war artist R Vivian Pitchforth. It shows Sunderland flying boats at Mount Batten in Plymouth during the war. I loved it – so evocative of an age. I had some difficulty in tracking down the original and finally discovered that the War Artists’ Advisory Committee had commissioned it in 1942, and then, when the war was over, had despatched it – with a harking back to imperial largesse – to the art gallery in Bendigo, Australia. Now my book had a cover, thanks to Bendigo Art Gallery’s warm-hearted curator, and, of course, my Saga correspondent.
I never failed to be excited when a Saga letter arrived. Opening the envelope I wondered what the story would be: a wartime flight from Durban to Cairo; an awed description of the moment of take-off (white water past the windows); a scribbled note commenting on the great age of both correspondent and aircraft – on a 1932 photograph of a flying boat; a set of newspaper cuttings from the daughter of the Chief Steward on the SS Kensington Court, rescued by flying boat after being sunk by a U boat early in the war…
The publication of Flying Boats of the Empire came too late for some correspondents. While some were relatively young, others were less so, and several passed away before they could set their eyes on what their collective memories had contrived, the book itself, with Pitchforth’s arresting illustration on the cover. After all, well over two years had passed since I had first sought help from those with stories of flying boats to tell.
Frequently I was moved by the determination to tell stories from the past, moments in personal histories that meant so much. I became used to, but never bored by, those statements which recalled what seemed to many, the most golden of times, when the preferred way to travel was at ten thousand feet above the Murchison Falls, or the Bay of Corinth, in what was, for a brief decade, the cutting edge of aviation technology. For those voices from the past, I am indebted to the living archive that is Saga’s readership. It was that collective experience and humanity which breathed life into my book.
Richard Knott’s book Flying Boats of the Empire was published at the end of January 2011 by Robert Hale.