Kenley to Cairo - Lawrence of Arabia and the Forgotten Record Breakers
From April to September 1919, No.1 (Communications) Squadron was based at Kenley as part of No.86 (Communications) Wing. Their work, transporting dignitaries and documents to the Paris Peace Conference and beyond, stretched the boundaries of what was possible at the dawn of air travel.
One of the Wing’s most challenging flights commenced on 21st June, 1919, when two Canadian Flight Lieutenant’s from No.1 (Communications) Squadron set off to deliver a diplomat to the Middle East, narrowly avoiding disaster along the way and gaining a charismatic passenger, Colonel T. E. Lawrence – later known as “Lawrence of Arabia.”
A British Betrayal..
In 1917, the Balfour Declaration promised the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine, contradicting an earlier promise to the Arabs which guaranteed them independence if they helped the British drive the Ottoman Turks out of Palestine and Syria. Having stuck to their side of the bargain and driven out the Turks, the Arabs were incensed by this betrayal and the British Army were unable to quell the ensuing unrest.
To support the British Army, the RAF were tasked with setting up an aerial route from London to Cairo in order to send a fleet of Handley Page bombers to the Middle East. The precedent for this ambitious endeavour had been set by the record-breaking flight of RAF Major A.S.C. MacLaren and Brigadier Borton, in the Summer of 1918. After considerable preparations had been made, they “hopped” from London to Cairo in fifteen and a half days without a great deal of incident.
Setting up a regular London to Cairo ferry route, however, required mechanics, spares, fuel, ferry pilots and suitable airstrips along the way, a considerable logistical challenge, but the idea was received enthusiastically by many in the high command of the RAF and Air Ministry. However, Major General E. H. Ellington, The Comptroller of Equipment, RAF, who had experience of ferrying aircraft over the much shorter distance from England’s Air Acceptance Parks to the Western Front, considered that the scheme had nothing to commend it. Nevertheless, MacLaren’s idea was set in motion.
In the Summer of 1919, fifty-one bombers set off from England and France for Cairo, along ‘No.1 Aerial Route RAF.’ Of those, seventeen crashed or were destroyed and eight airmen were killed. When the story broke in the British press a Court of Enquiry was ordered, but the whole episode was such a fiasco that Hugh Trenchard, Chief of Air Staff, held the enquiry behind closed doors and Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for Air, suppressed the findings.
A Secret Mission.
One of the aircraft trying to follow this perilous route from London to Cairo was carrying a VIP passenger – Harry St. John Philby, (Father of the spy, Kim Philby), an India Office diplomat whose presence was urgently required to mediate between territorial rivals Sherif Hussein and Ibn Saud.
The crew comprised two Canadian Lieutenants, Harry Alexander Yates and Jimmy D. Vance, along with mechanics Stedman and Hand. They would be flying down the route at the same time as the rest of the bombers but, as time was of the essence, they decided to attempt to reach their destination in three days, smashing Borton and MacLaren’s record of the previous summer.
The Man for the Job.
In June 1919, Harry Yates was celebrating the success of his recent record-breaking multi-engine flight from London to Paris. He had shown promise as a pilot from the beginning of his flying training and had served as a bomber pilot for the RAF during the Great War. It’s easy to see why he was chosen to get Philby to Cairo in record time – after all, he had trained MacLaren to handle the giant Handley Page bombers without ever knowing the exact nature of MacLaren’s mission, and probably wondered why he wasn’t given the chance to attempt it himself. On a personal level, Yates had no time to lose. He had been suffering from chronic stomach pain which had become so severe that it had necessitated surgery to remove half his stomach – the prognosis was that he only had six months to live.
The Adventure Begins..
Yates and Vance had been given a brand new Handley Page 0/400, (HP F318). These Great War giants were roughly the same size as the American Flying Fortresses of WW2 and could carry 23 people or more than a ton of bombs, but despite their size and weight, their canvas covered wings made them quite fragile.
It is unclear whether Yates and Vance left Kenley on the 20th June, flying down to Lympne and leaving there at dawn the following day, or whether they set off from Kenley on the 21st. Either way, they made a good start and arrived in Paris that afternoon.
Their problems began the following day when the ground support, promised by the Air Ministry, failed to appear at Lyon and they had to refuel the bomber themselves. Despite this, they decided to push on to Marseille the same day, where they found the landing strip strewn with boulders, which blew out two tyres. During a lunch break, their maps were stolen. In an age before radio, radar or direction-finding beams, this was catastrophic. However, the crew obtained a local encyclopaedia, traced the maps they required, mended the tyres and refuelled again, continuing on to Pisa the same day.
Remarkably, the following day they reached Taranto, having stopped briefly in Rome and crossed the hazardous mountains of Italy’s ‘boot’ successfully.
On day four, the aim was to reach Suda Bay in Crete, but when their starboard petrol pump failed, Yates and Vance decided to try for Athens. They didn’t make it and had to attempt a forced landing in a partially dry river-bed beside the Gulf of Corinth. The landing was so perilous that the two pilots shook hands before attempting it, but they managed to bring the 0/400 in with only a punctured tyre and damaged tail skid. They transferred fuel from the fuselage tank to the starboard wing tank and helpful locals lifted the tail of the aircraft, so that repairs to the tail skid could be carried out. A strip was cleared of boulders for take-off and they were soon back on course for Athens with the mechanics hand-pumping fuel the entire way.
The next setback occurred when it was realised that the fuel supplied at Athens contained water. This led to a ten hour delay, while it was syphoned off and filtered through chamois leather.
On day five, the 25th June, the intrepid aviators left for Crete, still hand-pumping fuel, but worse was yet to come. They were airborne when their port propellor split causing a violent vibration – now flying on only one engine, an exhausted Yates struggled to maintain enough height and only just managed to avoid ripping off a wing on the approach to Suda Bay, where the landing strip was in an extinct volcano.
No advance arrangements had been made with the seaplane base at Suda, and the airmen were left to themselves to sort out food, accommodation and the necessary repairs to the Handley Page 0/400. Their propellor was unrepairable, so Yates cannibalised one from another aircraft, and set about repairs.
“Lawrence of Arabia”
Meanwhile, Philby had run into Colonel T. E. Lawrence, who was stranded at Suda having “hitched a ride” from Paris with another H.P. 0/400 that had crashed at Centocelle, near Rome on 17th May, killing it’s two pilots.
Lawrence had been attending the Paris Peace Conference as Prince Feisal’s representative, but had become so disillusioned with the Machiavellian actions of the British and French governments, that he had walked out. He made for Cairo, to pick up documents from the Arab Bureau which he needed to complete his account of the Arab revolt against the Turks, (later published as “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”).
When the 0/400 had crashed at Centocelle, Lawrence had been in the rear gunner’s cockpit, and escaped with concussion, a broken collar bone and bruised ribs. Having recovered in hospital, Lawrence resumed his journey, “hitch-hiking” with the fleet of bombers heading down to Cairo, and arrived at Suda Bay on the 15th June.
Effectively stranded until a serviceable machine began the onward journey, Lawrence amused himself by visiting Knossos to see the remains of the Minoan civilisation, but had returned to Suda by the 29th June, when Yates and Vance were ready to continue their journey, now with Lawrence as well as Philby on board.
As they were making final preparations to depart, a “signal” arrived from the Senior Naval Officer at the seaplane base, asking why the arrival of the bomber had not been reported. Colonel Lawrence was now the senior officer in the Handley Page party, and sent back a reply asking the Naval Officer where he had been hiding. The senior RAF officer (Henderson, C.O. of No.58 squadron) suggested that an apology might be more appropriate, but Lawrence was having none of it!
Cairo at Last…
Nine Handley Page 0/400’s finally left Suda Bay on 29th June, but when the flying boat escorting them failed to become airborne, all but two turned back. Yates and Vance were one of crews that continued out over the Mediterranean to Libya, though all on board realised how perilous this might be without a flying boat on hand. They didn’t even carry life-jackets or a dinghy. Prior to this, only three aircraft had succeeded in making the crossing, now the RAF were attempting to get fifty across!
The situation looked grim when, yet again, a fuel pump failed, but by mid afternoon they had arrived over the deserts of North Africa. After re-fuelling, the determined crew pressed on to Cairo, still pumping fuel by hand, but couldn’t find the airport! Yates was blinded by the evening lights of Cairo and Lawrence stepped-in to save the day by crawling out onto the wing to get a better view!
The battered bomber and her weary crew finally touched down in Cairo on the night of the 26th June. Although they hadn’t achieved their aim of delivering Philby in three days, they had shattered MacLaren and Borton’s record of 15 1/2 days – making the epic journey in five days, although only 36 hours of that had been spent in the air!
Philby and Lawrence were last seen by Captain Hendersen heading in to the Shepheard’s Hotel Cairo, an elite establishment that only welcomed guests from the officer class. They were both anti-Zionist, and disillusioned with British Foreign policy.
The flight was an outstanding achievement, but Yates and his crew were prevented from speaking to journalists in Cairo because of the “political sensitivity of their mission.” The pilots returned to their base in England, only to find that their Squadron Leader had listed them as having been killed in a crash at Marseilles – news which had even been reported in the Daily Mail! Although they were nominated for the Air Force Cross, Yates and Vance weren’t recognised for their outstanding achievement because of their status as ‘colonials’. They returned to Canada in late 1919.
Justice was done when Harry Yates and Jimmy Vance were finally awarded the Air Force Cross after the Canadian Prime Minister, Robert Borden, interceded on their behalf, arguing that their treatment by the RAF was unjust.