…continuing from Part 2 of this series
A vigorous supporter of aid for Russia since October 1941, Mrs Clementine Churchill had been invited to tour Red Cross facilities across Russia in March 1944.
The invitation was seen as a thank you for Clementine’s years of dedicated fundraising in support of the Russian Red Cross …and possibly as a propaganda assault by the Soviet leadership ahead of the expected peace.
Winston Churchill insisted that his wife be taken on EW999, with ‘his’ crew to ensure her safety.
The southern route
Travelling with her private secretary Miss Grace Hamblin and secretary of the British Red Cross ‘Aid To Russia’ fund Miss Mabel Johnson, Mrs Churchill and the C-54 crew would be obliged to take the long southern route through the Mediterranean and over Black Sea.
Even this late in the war, Russia was liable to shoot first and ask questions later if any aircraft approached it from the west. Even approaching from the south with an explicit clearance, inbound aircraft had to be visually identified over Saky before proceeding into Russia.
The party took off from Northolt at 9.15 pm on the night of March 27th, 1945, for a 12-and-three-quarter hour, non-stop flight to Cairo. After enjoying smooth conditions, they landed at 11 am (local time) the following morning.
While Mrs Churchill pursued a couple of days’ work for the Red Cross in Cairo, and celebrated her 60th Birthday on April 1st, the Skymaster crew made arrangements for their entry into Russian airspace. Their weather forecast became less detailed the further into Russia the route progressed, with just a ‘risk of showers’ for Moscow. Fortunately they had enough fuel to fly all the way back to Cairo if necessary!
They took off at midnight on April 1st in order to cross Saky in daylight the following morning. Their route took them north over Alexandria at 7,000 feet, then along the eastern coast of Turkey as far as the Dardanelles, before turning northeast to pass west of Istanbul and out over the Black Sea.
As a distinctively gleaming four-engined aircraft, rocking their wings at Saky and radioing their position to Moscow control was sufficient for them to enter Russian airspace without interference. From there they took a direct track to Moscow, steadily descending to 2,000 feet for the last hour to remain under the solid overcast.
By the time they reached the capital they were flying at rooftop height in steady rain, but Fraser new the city well enough from his trips with Mr Churchill to land safely after just over 11 hours in the air.
With Mrs Churchill’s visit scheduled to last a whole month, and the grateful Russians providing a luxurious private train for her ground transport, the Skymaster crew flew home two days later, on April 4th. Lifting off at 7 am, their route took them south past Saky, over the Dardanelles and around the southern tip of Greece to Luqa on Malta. They landed just after dark, having been in the air for 11 hours and 15 minutes.
They rested at Malta for one day, then lifted off again at 10 pm on the 5th and landed safely at Northolt eight hours later, at 7.15 the following morning.
Within a week EW999’s crew were recalled from leave and told to prepare the aircraft so Churchill could fly to Roosevelt’s funeral in the US. In the end, however, cabinet’s desire for the PM to stay in England prevailed and Anthony Eden was sent instead – to Churchill’s lasting regret.
The aircraft’s next outing began on May 3rd, when the crew were detailed to fly back to Moscow to bring Mrs Churchill home. The brief was to be in position for her departure on May 7th, so they left RAF Northolt and climbed to 12,500 feet for a long flight around Europe’s Atlantic coast to Rabat in Morocco. This was to take them around persistent bad weather over France, and get them to Cairo with plenty of time to arrange their clearance into Russian airspace.
After 7 hours in the air, they reached Rabat at 4.20 pm, stopping just long enough to eat and refuel, before lifting off again on the 12-hour leg to Cairo. They arrived there without incident and had time for a good rest while arrangements were made with the Russians for the C-54 to cross the Crimean coast early (but in daylight) on the 6th and arrive in Moscow before midday.
The aircraft duly lifted off from Cairo West at 11.30 pm on May 5th and headed directly north over Cyprus, Amasra on Turkey’s Black Sea coast and Saky; then swung slightly east and tracked to Moscow. Having crossed Turkey at 12,500 feet in fine weather, they had been reduced to 3,000 feet in persistent rain, again, by the time they landed in Moscow on time after ten hours aloft.
After both VE Days
In the end, Mrs Churchill didn’t leave until after both VE Days – the 8th for the British and the 9th for their Russian hosts. A 10 am scheduled departure was delayed by numerous well-wishers on board the aircraft. At one point the Skymaster was nearly tipped on its tail, saved only by the stewards rushing themselves well forward of the aircraft’s CG.
Eventually all the extra bodies were disembarked and EW999 took off for Malta, flying the now-familiar route at 7,000 feet and arriving just after dark.
They only took a quick meal at Luqa and refueled, before carrying on for Northolt just after midnight, the passengers all comfortably in their bunks for the night flight.
The flight went smoothly and they landed back at Northolt at 8 am on the 12th, where Churchill was on hand to welcome his wife home.
It was a profound demonstration of the C-54’s speed, safety and efficiency.
Beginning of the end
Peace in Europe brought a distinct change of pace to Britain and the Skymaster spent most of the next two months in its hangar at Northolt.
It wasn’t called back to duty until July 7th, when it carried Churchill to Bordeaux for a week of painting and well-earned rest before ferrying him on to the Potsdam Conference outside Berlin from July 15th. There he was to hammer out the future of Europe with Joseph Stalin and new US President Harry Truman, who had flown in on The Sacred Cow.
While the deliberations at Potsdam were difficult enough, Churchill also had a general election hanging over his head. A stalwart of democracy, he flew back home on the evening of the 25th (now in civilian clothes instead of his wartime uniform) to be in the country for the result.
By morning, he was no longer Prime Minister.
Britain’s new leader, Clement Attlee, would step into Churchill’s place in Potsdam. He boarded the Skymaster on July 28th and flew directly to Berlin’s Gatow Flugplatz and Britain’s seat at the conference table. It must have all seemed very curious to Joseph Stalin.
The meeting concluded on August 2nd and Attlee flew back home to finish his cabinet appointments and begin reshaping the nation for peace.
It was the beginning of the end for EW999.
Inappropriate and unappealing
There seems to be little rationale for the argument that the C-54 was returned so promptly because Truman had called time on Lend-Lease, or that he specifically wanted the RAF’s C-54s sent home in order to protect America’s airline industry from foreign competition.
After all, the rest of the RAF’s small Skymaster fleet continued in British service until July 1946. Meanwhile BOAC had no trouble launching its transatlantic air service at about the same time, using even faster Lockheed Constellations purchased directly from US military C-69 production orders.
Having come to power as a staunch egalitarian, the aristocratic charms of Churchill’s Skymaster were simply inappropriate and unappealing for Attlee.
More importantly, Douglas had quoted $100,000 for a full refurbishment – including upgrading all four engines and replacing the two fuselage fuel tanks with E-model wing tanks. And Attlee knew as well as anyone that Britain was bankrupt.
Attlee also realized that American withdrawal from Europe would leave Britain alone and exposed to the 11-million-strong Soviet army at the dawn of the atomic age. Recognizing what a fundamental power shift that was, he boarded EW999 on November 10th and flew to Washington via New York to discuss the future of atomic weapons with Truman and Canadian PM MacKenzie King.
A second Skymaster, carrying the chief of British atomic research Sir John Anderson and his staff, took off shortly afterwards.
Truman, Attlee and King would release their Tripartite Declaration on November 15th.
Attlee then flew to Ottawa on the 18th for further meetings with King, before flying back across the Atlantic late on November 19th. Once again, fog at Northolt delayed the landing the next morning and, after circling over the UK for several hours, the Prime Minister’s Skymaster eventually got down into RAF Tangmere at 2.31 pm.
I can’t confirm whether Attlee came back home in EW999 or the second Skymaster that carried Anderson to the US. It’s quite possible the aircraft was turned around at Northolt and flown back to the States later that same week, however it would make more sense to me (and a budget conscious Attlee, I guess) to have left EW999 stateside.
What I do know is that ‘Churchill’s Skymaster’ was returned to the USAAF as Lend-Lease materiel no later than November 25th, 1945, via the US-British staging facility at New Castle Army Air Base near Wilmington, DE – just a half-hour hop from Washington, DC.
Back in American hands
Once back in American hands, the proposed overhaul was swiftly completed and the luxurious aircraft was soon found an appropriate role within The Air Transport Command – as a personal transport for General of the Army George C Marshall.
Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower both had C-54s at their permanent disposal at this point. Given the incessant comparisons that dog high rank, it would have been seen as important and justified for their superior officer to have a superior aircraft.
What’s more, the superbly appointed Skymaster would prove its practical and political value almost immediately.
The perfect backdrop
Just weeks after 43-17126 rejoined the USAAF, President Harry Truman tapped Marshall to broker a peace between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists. The powerful combination of American engineering and British craftsmanship was the perfect backdrop for his diplomacy.
General Marshall touched down in Shanghai on December 20th, 1945 and began a remarkable exercise in what we’d now call ‘shuttle diplomacy’ between the Communists and the Nationalists.
This all adds weight to the idea Churchill’s Skymaster was cashiered in the early weeks of November, rather than as late as the 25th.
With the impressive C-54 announcing his presence, Marshall was able to negotiate a highly improbable ceasefire between the two sides by March 1946. He would stay in China until early 1947, trying to build a lasting accord.
However, the C-54’s prowess – like Marshall’s peace – was not to last.
A ‘minor accident’…
On October 13th, 1946, the Skymaster suffered an unlucky accident while taxying at Nanking.
In this charming letter to his old comrade-in-arms, General ‘Hap’ Arnold, Marshall described how his plane ‘Churchill’s old one’, had run into soft ground while turning on the Chinese city’s Tai Chiao Chang airport (now Nanjing Dajiaochang Airport).
According to Marshall’s letter, the big propliner sank one wheel ‘in deep’ and slewed sharply, tearing the nose gear away and twisting the fuselage out of alignment as it did so.
Sources that mention the Nanking accident tend to describe it as ‘minor’ and simply add ‘WFU’ (Withdrawn From Use) to the record. Some say it was stored until 1970 and then scrapped.
From Marshall’s first-hand account, however, it’s unlikely the crippled aircraft ever flew again – let alone as far as a boneyard back in the States.
Meanwhile, Marshall was quickly found a replacement VC-54E, serial 44-9149 (MSN 27375/DO321), and that aircraft was later stored at Davis-Monthan until it was broken up in 1973.
…and a definitive conclusion
Replacing a nose wheel in the field was certainly within the capabilities of Army Air Force mechanics. Repairing a twisted fuselage was another matter. That would rate as Category 4 or 5 damage anywhere, let alone in a distant country that was recovering from one bitter war and teetering on the brink of another.
Besides, the world was awash in surplus war materiel at the time. Even C-54s could be had at knock-down prices; until they were desperately needed for the Berlin Airlift two years later, anyway.
A more likely scenario is the one related by John Mitchell in Churchill’s Navigator: That the twisted airframe was abandoned at Nanking. Presumably the valuable engines were salvaged first, even if the elegant furnishings and remarkable galley facilities were not.
So, just two years after she was taken on charge at RAF Northolt, Churchill’s luxury C-54 was left to decay on the other side of the globe; overrun by a new war and scavenged for useful materials.
It seems a sad and unfitting end to what could have become a priceless piece of history.
And as for those other RAF Skymasters, I’ll tell their story in Part 4…
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.