Across African Skies
|The De Havilland DH9, christened Voortrekker, in which Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and Sir Quintin Brand completed their epic flight.
The British aircraft industry received such stimulus during World War One that before the end of that conflict aircraft were available that were capable of carrying a fair load in addition to their crew.
Towards the end of 1918, at the end of the war with Turkey, personnel of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East became available for other duties, and the Air Ministry decided to make several long-distance flights to pave the way for the civil aviation which, it was confidently believed, would follow when peace returned to the world. A Handley-Page bomber had already, in July 1918, flown from Cranwell to Cairo via Paris and Rome, and in November the same aircraft made the first flight from Egypt to India.
In pursuance of this policy it was decided to open up the air route from Cairo to the Cape, and in December 1918 three survey and construction parties were appointed to establish landing grounds at convenient intervals along the route.
No. 1 Party was responsible for the sector from Cairo to Nimule (Sudan), No. 2 Party for Nimule to Abercorn, and No. 3 Party, commanded by Major Chaplin Court Treatt,1 for the sector from Abercorn to Broken Hill and thence down the railway line to Cape Town.
Second-in-command of No. 3 Survey Party was Captain Shortridge, who was made responsible for the northern part of the sector, while Major Court Treatt devoted his attention to the southern area.
Some of the difficulties encountered are illustrated in the following contemporary press report: "In many places it was necessary to cut aerodromes out of dense jungle; to fell and dig up the roots of thousands of trees. The soil of innumerable anthills had to be removed by hand and carried away in native baskets, as practically no barrows or other equipment were available.
"Many of these anthills were 25 feet in height and anything up to 45 feet in diameter, and as one cubic yard of anthill weighs about 2 670lb (1 211kg), some idea may be gathered of the amount of work involved, in view of the lack of mechanical equipment. At Ndola, for instance, 700 Africans worked from April to August 1919, moving 25 000 tons of soil and filling in a gully 600 yards in width. Blasting was tried but was found to be ineffective."
Despite these obstacles, and numerous other hardships and hazards - including communications and transport difficulties, mosquitoes and tsetse flies, lions and other animals and reptiles - the task of the three survey parties was completed within 12 months, and at the end of December 1919 the Air Ministry declared the Cairo-Cape air route open.
Soon after this announcement several expeditions declared their intention to set out for the Cape. First, on Saturday, January 24 1920, was a converted Vickers Vimy bomber, sponsored by The Times of London. Within the next 10 days three more aircraft left England - a Handley-Page sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, a DH14 of Airco Ltd (neither of which got very far), and a second Vickers Vimy named the Silver Queen.
Silver Queen was sponsored by the Government of South Africa and was flown by two South African pilots, Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld, DSO, M.C., and Flight-Lieutenant CJ Quintin Brand, DSO, MC, DFC. With them, to attend to aircraft and engine maintenance, were a Mr Burton, an airframe engineer, and FW Sherratt, of Rolls-Royce.
The Times Vimy, after a relatively trouble-free flight across Europe arrived at Heliopolis, near Cairo, on Tuesday, February 3, and departed for Luxor on the following Friday. From then on the expedition was plagued with mechanical trouble as their water-cooled engines overheated and developed serious leaks. Time and again during the following three weeks they were forced to land to rectify the defects, but they pressed on; the crew must have been possessed of iron determination to have kept going under such strenuous circumstances.
The party arrived at Tabora in central Tanganyika on Thursday, February 26, and more will be heard of them later.
Silver Queen took off from Brooklands on Wednesday, February 4, the day after the arrival of The Times Vimy at Heliopolis. Before leaving, Van Ryneveld declared that they intended to reach Cape Town in "the shortest time that circumstances would permit" and that they would do their best to overtake The Times expedition.
Their flight across Europe to Gioja del Colli in southern Italy was more or less incident-free, and after refuelling there they took off at 9.30pm for Derna in Cyrenaica.
This flight, made in atrocious weather, was the first non-stop air crossing of the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa. Later one of the pilots remarked that it had been "an unforgettable nightmare ... an ugly impression which they would like to obliterate from their minds". The Rhodesia Herald, in an editorial on February 18, 1920, wrote: "Their grit and stamina were put to the severest test in that terrible voyage across the Mediterranean ... their 11-hour struggle against adverse atmospheric conditions will live in aviation history ... as one of the most noteworthy achievements."
Despite this ordeal they spent only one hour at Derna and then took off for Sollum where, upon landing, the aircraft's tail was damaged by a boulder. Ford car parts were adapted and after a two-day delay they left for Heliopolis, which was reached on the evening of February 9.
At 11.30pm the following day, Silver Queen took off from Heliopolis and flew into the night, heading south. All went well for the first few hours, but at about 5am a draining tap on the radiator of the starboard engine vibrated to the open position, allowing all the cooling water to escape and the engine overheated. They were committed to an immediate forced landing in pitch darkness near Kurusku, about 80 miles (128km) north of Wadi Halfa. Upon landing, the aircraft ran into a pile of large boulders and the fuselage was irreparably damaged, but the crew miraculously escaped serious injury.2
The engines were apparently undamaged, so the crew removed them and transported them back to Cairo by boat and train.3 After tests the engines were fitted into a second Vimy, provided by the Royal Air Force, Middle East, at the request of the South African Government. Mechanic Burton now stood down and was replaced by Flight-Sergeant EF Newman of the Royal Air Force.
Silver Queen II left Heliopolis early on Sunday, February 22, and reached Wadi Halfa that afternoon. Here a delay was caused by a careless mistake in which a fuel tank was inadvertently filled with water, and it became necessary to drain the entire fuel system. (The crew's remarks of the crew do not appear to be on record!)
Some slight engine trouble was encountered on the next sector of the flight, but this was rectified at Khartoum;4 thereafter the journey was uneventful for the next few hundred miles and at 1.45pm on Thursday, February 26, they landed at Kisumu on Lake Victoria, from which The Times Vimy had taken off at 7.30 that morning.
Silver Queen II left Kisumu at 7am next day with the intention of flying non-stop to Abercorn, but engine trouble forced them to divert to Shirati on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria (near the Kenya/Tanganyika border), and they spent the rest of the day working on the engine.
That same morning, February 27, The Times Vimy took off from Tabora at 6.50 and within minutes was obliged to return due to engine trouble. The distance between Shirati and Tabora being about 300 statute miles, the position at mid-morning was that little more than three hours of Vimy flying time separated the two expeditions.
After working on the engines all morning The Times party boarded their aircraft at 2pm to depart for Abercorn, but this time the starboard engine failed completely on take-off. The aircraft swerved into the bush, was wrecked beyond repair and the flight had to be abandoned. According to reports "some regrettable language was used".
Silver Queen II, her engine defects rectified, left Shirati early on February 28 and, overflying Tabora, landed at Abercorn at 2.45pm. The crew later reported having sighted the aerodrome at Tabora but "no sign of The Times machine".
Abercorn being 5 400 feet above sea level and the airfield none too large5 the pilots made the prudent decision to lighten the aircraft's burden by offloading what they described as "an enormous quantity of spares and ... much of our own kit, flying boots, etc". They also revised their plan to fly direct to Broken Hill and decided instead to make for the intermediate landing ground at Ndola which, being nearer, would of course require less fuel and so further lighten the machine for its take-off from Abercorn.
Having thus re-organised the loading of the aircraft, they took off for Ndola at 6.55am on Sunday, February 29. The sector Abercorn-Ndola is singularly devoid of geographical features, and must have proved a severe test of their navigational skill. Their aids to navigation consisted of a magnetic compass and a map (almost certainly small of scale and devoid of detail). Added to this, serious trouble developed in the starboard engine, and they began to contemplate the possibility of landing in the bush, but then, as the Livingstone Mail put it, "happily the engine recovered sufficiently to bring the machine to Ndola", where they landed, probably with considerable relief, at five minutes after noon.
Heavy rain fell the following day, and this delayed their departure until Tuesday, March 2, when they managed to stagger off the waterlogged field at 6.10am en route for Broken Hill, where they landed at 7.40.
After breaking their fast and refuelling the aircraft, the party took off at 10.15am for Livingstone;6 considering the navigational headaches which they must have experienced in the remote areas to the north, it was no doubt a relief to follow the "iron compass"7 without much regard to their instrument panel.
Excited railway officials at isolated stations and sidings kept the stationmaster at Livingstone informed of the aircraft's progress by means of the railway telegraph ... Lusaka 11.00 ... Kafue 11.38 ... Mazabuka 12.05 ... Kalomo 1.40 ... Zimba 2.20 and then, after circling the Victoria Falls, Silver Queen II touched down at Livingstone at 2.42pm.
The Bulawayo Chronicle of March 12, 1920, described the scene in the following terms: "Arrangements had previously been made for the town to receive a warning of the aircraft's approach by means of gun signals and at 10.20am these signals sounded at the police camp.8 Cars and cycles immediately hurried to the aerodrome ... excitement mounted ... work practically ceased throughout the town as almost the whole population, black and white, assembled at the landing ground.
"After landing, the aviators were received by the Administrator, Sir Lawrence Wallace, and Colonel Stephenson, spokesman for the 'Aviators Welcome Committee'."
Heavy rain fell on Tuesday night and the aerodrome became so sodden that the airmen decided to postpone their departure until Thursday. However, engine trouble again manifested itself and they did not finally leave for Bulawayo until 8.40am on Friday, March 5.
A stiff south-easterly wind was blowing and progress was slow; at times their ground speed was less than 60 mph (96kmh). Wankie 9.40 ... Dett 10.20 ... Ngamo 11.10 ... Sawmills 12.00 ... Nyamandhlovu 12.29.
In Bulawayo excited crowds thronged the race course which was to be used as a landing ground; in anticipation of the need to control the crowds Major AJ Tomlinson and Lieutenant D McLean of the British South Africa Police took charge of policing arrangements. Earlier, as at Livingstone, the authorities had given warning by gun and hooter that the aircraft was on its way.
At 12.40 a speck in the sky to the north-west heralded the approach of Silver Queen II and a few minutes later she touched down smoothly on the grass - the first aeroplane to land on the soil of Southern Rhodesia.
Formal addresses of welcome were then read by Mayor James Cowden and Acting Town Clerk F Fitch, after which the party proceeded to the Grand Hotel for a civic luncheon.
Next morning, after the engines had been warmed up, Silver Queen II taxied to the downwind end of the field, turned into the wind and, at about 7.55, commenced to take off for South Africa. The Bulawayo Chronicle of Monday, March 8 gave the following account of subsequent events: "The aircraft ran right across the cleared space and ... lifted into the air only a few yards from the tangled bush beyond the field. There were gasps of relief from the watchers and then a delighted cheer. But it soon became evident that ... all was not well. Heading towards Hillside ... only a few yards above the bush ... she disappeared from view. Apprehensions grew when the engines became silent.
"Some [of the crowd] started running towards the Matsheumhlope River ... others rushed to cars and cycles ... motors scurried along tracks on the commonage between South Suburbs and Hillside. Then [the first to reach the scene] saw the wreck of the aircraft in the bush beyond the river.
"Both officers were dishevelled and severely shaken but not seriously injured, while the mechanics sustained minor bruises."
The dejected crew returned to their hotel, where they soon began to receive messages of sympathy from far and wide. The most welcome of these would have been the telegram from General Jan Smuts advising them that another aircraft would soon be on its way from Pretoria to enable them to complete their journey.
During their enforced delay in Bulawayo the aviators enjoyed much entertainment and hospitality. The pilots were driven out to the Matopos by AG Hay and were guests of honour at a Civic Luncheon on March 11, while Messrs Newman and Sherratt were entertained at the Palace Hotel on March 9 by the Mechanics of Bulawayo and on March 12 by the Bulawayo Comrades at the Carlton.
Later, Flight-Lieutenant Brand delivered a lecture on their flight down Africa to the cadets of Milton School, after which the Headmaster, EB de Beer, proposed a hearty vote of thanks to him.
The replacement aircraft provided by General Smuts was a DH9 of the South African Defence Force,9 which was flown from Roberts Heights to Bulawayo via Palapye by Lieutenant John Holthouse, with Major Court Treatt as navigator, and which arrived at 2.20pm on Tuesday, March 16.
At 6.30 the next morning the two pilots10 took off on the final stage of the journey. A strike of rail and postal workers was in progress at the time and it is on record that R Lanning, Native Commissioner at Plumtree, managed to get a message to Colonel van Ryneveld asking him to drop a few copies of the Bulawayo Chronicle as he passed over the village. This was agreed to and as the aircraft swooped low over Plumtree School the papers were duly dropped to Lanning. It is reported that one of them was endorsed by him and is now preserved in the National Archives at Salisbury.11
The flight of van Ryneveld and Brand from Bulawayo to Cape Town in Voortrekker was relatively uneventful, apart from the tremendous acclaim accorded them by their fellow countrymen at each landing place; They landed triumphantly at Cape Town at 4pm on Saturday, March 20 1920, the first men to fly from England to the Cape, and for which magnificent achievement both were later knighted.12
Before concluding this chapter let us spare a thought for poor Newman and Sherratt, who without doubt played a vital role in maintaining the aircraft in serviceable condition during its epic flight down Africa and whose names nowadays are all but forgotten when the saga of Silver Queen is discussed.
1. Major Court Treatt, an able and adventurous man, had made a hazardous journey from the UK to Timbuktu shortly before World War One, and was later to achieve fame for his leadership of a Cape to Cairo motor expedition (September 1924 to January 1926).
2. The author has seen a photograph of the wreckage, and the term "miraculous escape" seems to be no understatement.
3. By Nile steamer to Aswan, thence by rail to Cairo.
4. Spare engine components were taken aboard at Khartoum, including, very sportingly, some cylinders for The Times Vimy, in case they should overtake it.
5. The tenuous atmosphere at this altitude would adversely affect the performance of a low-powered aircraft of this type.
6. Then capital of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
7. A term denoting "railway" used 15 years later by pilots of Rhodesian and Nyasaland Airways.
8. That is, five minutes after the aircraft's departure from Broken Hill.
9. The aircraft was No. H 5648, named "Voortrekker" (Pioneer).
10. The DH9, being a two-seater aircraft, no accommodation was available for Newman and Sherratt, who therefore followed by rail.
11. Early events in history of flying in S. Rhodesia, by NHD Spicer (in New Rhodesia, Vol. 14, 12 September 1947, p22).
12. Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, who rose to become Chief of the General Staff, Union Defence Forces, retired to his farm near Pretoria in 1949. Sir Quintin Brand, after a distinguished career in the RAF and the British Air Ministry, came to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), where he now lives quietly on his farm near Umtali. From: Rhodesiana, No. 13, December 1965