As we’ve seen in Part 1, the RAF’s first Douglas C-54 Skymaster, serial EW999 (C-54B 43-17126/0100), was luxuriously fitted out for the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The work was overseen by Armstrong-Whitworth Aviation at Whitley, Coventry and the new aircraft was ready for ‘The Owner’ in November 1944.
A dedicated crew
Apparently the PM disliked new faces or changes to his immediate staff, so the regular crew of his Avro York LV633 Ascalon would transfer to the new aircraft with him.
Command Pilot was Squadron Leader (later Wing Commander) Ernest ‘Bill’ Fraser, an RAF veteran who had joined as an apprentice in 1928, qualified for competitive Sergeant Pilot training in 1934, and flown as a transport pilot since before the war ahead of a long stint as co-pilot of the York.
I’m struggling to confirm who the right-seater was. I think it was Flight Lieutenant Stephen Cliff, who had previously been with Ferry Command operating from Canada. [This has now been confirmed by Flt.Lt. Cliff’s grandson Richard. See his comment below.]
The Navigator was Flight Lieutenant (eventually Air Commodore) John Lewis Mitchell, an air force reservist who was called up at the outbreak of war. By February 1941 he had already served (survived) a 24-mission tour as Navigator on Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bombers, before he was transferred to the VVIP Flight at RAF Northolt.
Their Flight Engineer was the highly qualified and resourceful Flight Lieutenant Sydney ‘Jack’ Payne, ex Bristol Aircraft and RAF Boscombe Down; while the Wireless Operator was Flight Lieutenant William ‘Jock’ Gallagher, a Glaswegian who had served with RAF Coastal Command.
Payne went sent to Santa Monica to learn the aircraft’s systems during July, and Bill Fraser had taken a conversion course at McDill Field, Florida at the start of September.
With no other Skymasters in the RAF, they would have to be largely self-reliant in Britain as well as on Churchill’s overseas trips.
A private yacht
Aptly named Paralos for the sacred ancient Athenian trireme that was kept ready to embark on vital diplomatic missions, the C-54 had arrived at RAF Northolt on June 9th, 1944. The crew treated themselves to several days of ‘familiarisation flying’ before they delivered the big propliner over to Armstrong-Whitworth on the 13th.
In between their other flying duties, the crew made several trips to Coventry for progressive flight tests, starting with a sound insulation check on July 21st – although Armstrong’s own Chief Test Pilot, Squadron Leader Turner Hughes, insisted on doing the flying.
The PM was particularly excited about his new aircraft, making regular enquiries into its progress as the anticipated delivery lagged from early autumn into late October and then November.
Not quite Paris
Amstrong-Whitworth finally released EW999 on November 10th and the crew went north to Coventry to collect it. With Turner Hughes again in command, they spent four hours flying over Britain testing various systems before landing back at Northolt.
The aircraft was then re-weighed to account for all its modifications and put through final serviceability trials – including air tests of the vital IFF transmitters, radios and other systems – over England and the Irish Sea.
And so ‘The Old Man’s Skymaster’ wasn’t quite ready in time to take Churchill on his latest overseas trip. For that – a flight to newly liberated Paris to join General Charles de Gaulle for the city’s first free Armistice Day celebrations on November 11th – he had to settle for a 24 Squadron Dakota.
From Paris he travelled by road to meet British field commanders in the north of France, before flying home from Rheims in the Dakota three days later.
Montreal and back
As soon as the Skymaster was declared fully serviceable, the crew asked Downing Street for permission to make a proper proving flight.
This wouldn’t be another quick run up and down the coast either: The plan was to find and iron out any wrinkles on a 5,620 nautical mile trip to Montreal and back.
With the appropriate approvals they left Northolt on November 24th and, cruising at 10,000 feet, flew across to Iceland in daylight. On landing at Reykjavik the crew found that the nose wheel shock absorbers had lost their hydraulic fluid but, with no C-54 parts or mechanics in the country, they could only take off again and get the issue resolved at Montreal’s airport, Dorval.
They also discovered that Iceland’s sub-zero overnight temperatures caused splits in the aluminium fresh water pipes above the galley. Back in England, most of this weight-saving plumbing would be replaced with copper pipes.
13 hours, 10 minutes
The flight continued to Dorval the next day where careful handling and the reduced fuel weight helped with landing on the vulnerable nose gear. Repairs were arranged by the local USAAF liaison officer and, on the morning of December 3rd, the crew flew 300 miles east to Presque Ile in Maine, where the USAAF was able to conduct final retraction tests.
The Skymaster took off for home the same evening – leaping aloft in just 1,200 yards despite her fully topped up tanks.
Flying through the night, the crew made a direct crossing back to RAF Northholt, arriving 13 hours and ten minutes after leaving Maine and with another 7 hours’ worth of fuel still on board.
Mission to Athens
On Christmas Eve 1944, Churchill decided it was time to impose his will and personality on the efforts to defuse a nascent civil war, which was flaring up in Greece after the German withdrawal. In secrecy and with less than 24 hours’ notice to the crew, he flew to Athens in the Skymaster.
Takeoff was scheduled for midnight, however Churchill arrived at Northolt uncharacteristically early and spent the ensuing time fussing proudly over his new ‘flying yacht’ and bossing his fellow passengers about.
Even though the aircraft had just demonstrated its considerable range, the party staged via Pomigliano near Naples in both directions. In keeping with habit from his previous aircraft, Churchill came forward and spent time in the cockpit as they flew over France.
While fast and comfortable, EW999 was clearly no hotel. The unusually bitter winter saw Vesuvius capped with snow at Pomigliano, and efforts to use the aircraft’s conference room for meetings and briefings in Greece had to be abandoned because it was so cold. Churchill transferred to the cruiser HMS Ajax, anchored at Piraeus, where he met with Greek leaders and did his best to help the summit broker an acceptable ceasefire.
They began the return trip on December 28th, spending the night in Naples again, before continuing on to Northolt the next day.
All aboard seemed very happy with the spacious and quiet new aircraft – to the point that Churchill complained about the ticking of the clock in his stateroom! The only hitch was a typical winter fog over much of southern England, which meant the Skymaster was diverted to the USAAF base on higher ground at Bovingdon for their homecoming on the 29th.
While Churchill went home to Chequers, the crew drove to Northolt for a squadron party, and flew EW999 back to its base the following morning.
The Big Three Conference
Churchill’s next trip on the Skymaster was easily his most important – to attend the ‘Big Three’ conference in Yalta, on the Crimea in February 1945. He travelled with his daughter Sarah, and a handful of senior advisers.
The first leg was southeast to Malta, scheduled to depart at midnight on January 29th for a 7.30 am arrival and reception at Luqa Airport. However an Atlantic storm was bearing down on England so the take-off was brought forward to 9.30 pm.
Sarah later wrote that they enjoyed a delicious dinner after take-off, but that the plane was so cold at first Churchill had to huddle in his army greatcoat. Once the Janitrol heater kicked in, though, they were all hot and ‘pink as tomatoes’.
For no purpose
The route for this leg was a simple one and was close to their standard route for flights to the Med. Mitchell plotted a course from Northolt toward St.Valery-en-Caux, near Dieppe on France’s Channel coast. They then flew directly across the country to Marseille on the Mediterranean; over Cagliari on the southern shore of Sardinia; and southeast along the Sicilian Strait to Malta.
(Normally they would cross France a little further west, via Toulouse, before coasting out near Marseille.)
Having left Northolt three hours early and skipped the Toulouse waypoint, they landed at Luqa at 3.30 am (local time). But even though the earlier arrival had been passed on to Malta, no-one had called off the official reception. So a lot of very senior ranks were out of bed and arranged on the apron for no purpose!
Worse, Churchill had a cold. He stayed in his bed aboard the Skymaster until 10.30, when he transferred to a cabin aboard HMS Orion, which was standing by in Valetta Harbour.
Churchill hosted a series of meetings aboard Orion over the following days, and Roosevelt arrived in Malta aboard USS Quincy on the 2nd. The Sacred Cow had crossed the Atlantic without him and flew into Luqa the same day. The two leaders had dinner together aboard Quincy.
That evening, the British learned that an Avro York carrying 20 more officers and staff to Luqa had ditched off the island of Lampedusa from fuel exhaustion, after circling for several hours in the belief they were over Malta.
As mentioned earlier, Churchill and his flight crew had made many trips in the Avro York Ascalon before the Skymaster, so it must have been very immediate and sobering news. A tragic navigational error had cost them comrades, squadron mates and talented commanders.
After dinner with Roosevelt, Churchill retired to his stateroom aboard EW999 in anticipation of an early take-off.
A massive airlift
The tripartite conference at Yalta involved a massive airlift by the western allies, including some 700 personnel, comprehensive logistical support from US Army North Africa Command, and dozens of advance flights ahead of ‘the main event’.
That began long before dawn on February 3rd when the first of 20 C-54s, four Avro Yorks and several C-87s began roaring down the runway at Luqa, bound for the Crimea.
EW999 joined the procession at 3.25 am, flying west until dawn where she met an escort of P-38s south of Athens (Bulgaria and Crete were both still in German hands) before swinging northeast across Turkey and Black Sea.
Escorts and escorted swapped roles on approach to Saky, when the P-38s were obliged to formate on the Skymaster formated and be guided down through the solid cloud cover. Once safely in the clear, the fighters peeled off to find their temporary base at Sarabuz.
After seven hours in the air, the Skymaster landed at Saky just minutes off the scheduled ETA that had been telegraphed to the Russians over 24 hours earlier.
Rooselvelt’s C-54 had taken off after EW999 but, with more powerful engines, had passed them en route to land a little earlier and just 2 minutes off its ETA of 1210 pm. Over the whole 1,360 mile airlift, not one of the 25+ aircraft missed its ETA by more than ten minutes, a level of precision that astonished the waiting Russians.
Bill Fraser parked Churchill’s Skymaster alongside the Presidential C-54. The PM walked across to The Sacred Cow and waited as the clearly fading Roosevelt was lowered, grumbling, in his aircraft’s special elevator and lifted into a car.
EW999’s Navigator, John Mitchell, snapped a photo of EW999 and The Sacred Cow C-54s parked side by side at Saky. I don’t have permission to use it, but you can see it at the bottom of this page.
As the motorcade prepared to drive to Yalta, the British crew learned that their American counterparts had secured permission to fly directly across Turkey and lay over in the warmth of Cairo. Thinking quickly, the British got a similar ‘escape pass’ from Churchill’s Aide de Camp just as the cars were leaving, and flew south to wait out the conference in sunshine.
EW999 flew north again on February 8th, unsure when Churchill would be ready to leave. While they roughed it in Russian barracks near Saky, Churchill left Yalta on the 12th, spent two nights aboard HMT Franconia at Sevastopol, and arrived at the plane on the 14th.
Meanwhile, the Americans took The Sacred Cow for a short test flight on the 11th, in preparation for Roosevelt’s return, and landed with one engine pouring smoke. Within seven hours a replacement engine had been requested from Cairo and delivered to Saky by C46 Commando. The engine was changed overnight and the crew flew President Roosevelt out of Yalta on the 13th, as scheduled.
Bill Fraser conducted his own test flight of EW999 on the 12th and also came back with one engine belching smoke and shut down. The problem was traced to a broken rocker box axle that had then destroyed the exhaust valves on the number one cylinder.
With no spare engine in Cairo and no available transport for it even if they did, the crew cast a desperate eye over Saky Airfield. Then they remembered The Sacred Cow’s faulty engine was still waiting to be shipped out and resourcefully scavenged the parts they needed from it.
Jack Payne worked through the night and by the following afternoon the C-54 for was ready for a test flight, which went flawlessly. They could then catch up on lost sleep before Churchill’s party arrived the following morning. And so, on February the 14th, they took off for Athens shortly after noon.
Farewell to FDR
Having spent the night in Athens, EW999 and her complement flew down to Alexandria, where Fraser landed the C-54 in only half of RAF Aboukir’s 1,000 yard runway. Churchill had his last ever lunch with Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy that afternoon, before flying on to Cairo in the evening for four days of meetings.
The crew then made a direct flight from Cairo back to the UK on February 19th, flying at 8,0000 feet via Malta, Marseille and Cherbourg. However fog had rolled in on RAF Northolt while they were in the air, so the Skymaster was diverted to RAF Lyneham, near Swindon, where Mrs Churchill and the Prime Minister’s special train were waiting.
The C-54 was flown back to Northolt the following morning.
War in the West
The PM was back aboard his Skymaster ten days later, flying from RAF Northolt to Brussels with an escort of Spitfires on March 2nd. From there, they flew a (very) short 45 minute hop to Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at Rheims and returned to Northolt on the 6th.
While Churchill was generally considered ‘The Owner’ of his luxury C-54, he didn’t simply run it as a personal limousine. He was content to fly in No.24 Squadron Dakotas for his shorter trips to Paris and Brussels between January 3rd and 5th; from SHAEF to several forward bases during the March 2nd trip; and to General Montgomery’s headquarters for Operation Plunder – the crossing of the Rhine – between March 23rd and 26th.
Using a Dakota ahead of the Rhine assault was a sensible strategy, effectively hiding the Prime Minister’s needle in a haystack of other C-47s. In contrast, the large silver C-54 would have been an incongruous and obvious sight in the lead-up to battle.
To Russia, with love
However the Skymaster was also being prepared for another flight at the time: Churchill’s wife Clementine had been invited to inspect Russian Red Cross facilities and hospitals and the Prime Minister had asked that she be taken on the Skymaster.
And we’ll pick up the rest of this remarkable aircraft’s story in Part 3…
Sources and references:
Air Commodore (RAF, ret’d) John Mitchell, Churchill’s Navigator, Grub Street Press 2010. ISBN 97 819 0650 2744
So you could always use this opportunity to give yourself a late Christmas gift.