Travels with Churchill
A World War II flight engineer dishes on the most “I” of the VIPs he flew with.
- By Graham Chandler
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
Library of Congress
(Page 2 of 3)
In the days of navigation by maps and checkpoints, Vanderkloot’s skills were critical. “It was obvious that if you were really going to stay alive, you better know how to use celestial navigation,” Vanderkloot told his son. During much of his time in England, he had worked on perfecting the art, learning it from RAF navigation officer Bill White, “someone [who] really knew it.” Vanderkloot and a handful of other aspiring celestial navigators would spend night after night on London’s rooftops practicing with the sextant. “Be it summer, winter, rain or whatever, we’d take our shots, then go downstairs and plot them,” said Vanderkloot. “We learned celestial navigation in a hurry. It sure put me in good stead for later on.”
Indeed, Vanderkloot did nearly all of his own navigating. It was unusual for a pilot, “but…I figured if I’m going to get in trouble, I’m going to do it [myself]. I’m not going to have some other guy do it.”
When Affleck arrived in London and met Vanderkloot, they learned they were to fly a newly modified B-24 Liberator, number AL504, nicknamed Commando. “The bomb bays were sealed, of course,” said Vanderkloot. “The bomb racks were taken out and…kind of a half-baked cabin was put inside. We had no windows, so it was dark. The only place where it was light was up on the flight deck, where you had windows on the side and the front. So the poor passengers sat in the back, [in] four rows of single seats.” Up under the wing, with the big gas tanks, was a sort of berth about the size of two king-size mattresses where Churchill could sleep. “The other fellows had to sleep in their chairs,” Vanderkloot recalled. “His doctor sat in one seat. Sawyer [his valet] sat in the other.” There were maybe 15 people on the flights, including many admirals and generals. “Churchill had his ADC [aide de camp], who was Commander Thompson. There was the man from the CID [the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard], and always some other ministers with him.”
Transporting VIPs over dangerous territory didn’t faze Affleck. “Some people said later, ‘Aren’t you feeling a lot of responsibility?’ I said ‘No, I’m going to get there; so as long as they stay with me, they’re all right.’ It didn’t bother me who [Churchill] was. I never was impressed by ranks, or by who they were. I always looked at them and thought they do the same things as I do.
“I can’t say that I admired [Churchill], other than for what he was as a person. He was a great actor, he was a great egotist; oh, his ego was as big as a mile.”
Affleck says Churchill didn’t interact much with the crew. “We were only lowly mechanics.” But, he says, the prime minister talked to Vanderkloot, whom he greatly respected.
He remembers Churchill’s vices: “He liked to drink. And always, he wanted his cigar. Fortunately, you could open a small blister window right beside each of the pilot’s seats and it would vent, so you could keep the smoke out.”
As they normally flew in darkness, “[Churchill] would have his pajamas and slippers and dressing gown and he’d come up and ask, ‘Where are we?’ Then he would go back to bed,” says Affleck. “We had like a camp stove, and they would prepare nice sandwiches—that kind of thing.”
Affleck came to prefer the company of other passengers. “The nicest guys were [British politician] Anthony Eden, [Chief of Combined Operations] Lord Louis Mountbatten, and all the generals,” he says. On occasion the aircrew themselves were treated like VIPs. “When Lord Louis was head of Southeast Asia Command, we stayed at his summer palace in New Delhi,” Affleck says. “And he had the whole crew down for dinner—all the top-brass Americans and Brits—at the same table.”