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 3 of 3)
The crew always had to be wary of enemy eyes. The Allies “were a little apprehensive in Cairo because the Germans were only 75 miles away,” recalls Affleck. Despite the best efforts to maintain secrecy, he says, the Germans seemed to know where they were. When Commando first got to Cairo, RAF photographers “took a picture of the airplane. It had ‘504’ on the side, but they blanked out the number” on the copies the photographers gave to the crew members. “But when we left Cairo and went to Moscow, there was the headline in the [Cairo English-language] paper, ‘Churchill arrives in Cairo,’ and a picture of the airplane with ‘AL504’ on it. We laughed a lot about that.”
The Germans were desperate to shoot down Churchill’s aircraft. Affleck says the Germans “knew our takeoffs because Lord Haw Haw [nickname of German propaganda broadcasters] was saying that Churchill left so-and-so tonight. Somebody always knew something.”
Just two of Commando’s excursions included Churchill and his retinue. “We flew him to Cairo, Moscow, and Turkey,” says Affleck. “We also went to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and Libya in 1943.” A few improvements had been made for the later series of flights, including the addition of primitive heaters that Churchill thought a bit dangerous. They were turned off, prompting the cold-soaked prime minister to drape himself in blankets in strategic places. “The P.M. is at a disadvantage in this kind of travel, since he never wears anything at night but a silk vest,” wrote his physician, Sir Charles Wilson, in his diaries. “On his hands and knees, he cut a quaint figure with his big, bare bottom.”
When he flew with the prime minister, Affleck says he wasn’t allowed to keep a logbook. “They didn’t want anyone to know where we had been”—such as LG224, the code for RAF Cairo West—he says, showing me a yellowed carbon copy list of the airplane’s flights, which he had obtained from Britain’s Air Ministry after the information was declassified.
After the second extended trip, Churchill never again flew in Commando, instead switching to the York, a passenger version of the Lancaster bomber. In September 1943, Liberator AL504 was withdrawn from VIP service and flown to a Tucson, Arizona U.S. Air Force base, where it underwent major modifications and emerged as a one-off transport with single tail fin, extended fuselage, and upgraded engines. AL504 flew again in March 1944 as the trial version of the U.S. Navy’s RY-3 transport. Vanderkloot and the crew continued to fly it—Affleck’s last logbook entry for AL504 is November 24, 1944.
In early spring the following year, with a new crew, Commando made its last trip: After taking off from the Azores, it was lost without a trace. Affleck remembers testifying at a Board of Inquiry. “The last message they got was—and it was the only message—there was an oil leak on number-two engine,” he says. “No signal, no SOS. And there was nothing in the German records to say they had shot it down.”
Affleck knows Liberators well, and suspects that the oil leak could have caused the crash. He says the Wasp engines normally never leaked. But “they had a big oil tank, and you only filled them about two-thirds full to allow for foaming. If you overfilled them it would push [oil] out.” And hot oil burns. “It would soon put a hole in that bulkhead and then, BOOM, because that’s where all the gas was.”
During his service on Commando, Affleck was offered a commission in the Royal Air Force, but turned it down. “It was easier to get things done as a civilian,” he says, “because you could talk directly to the generals without having to work your way up the chain of command.”
Vanderkloot received the honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire in November 1942. He occasionally used the ribbon to fasten panels in Commando to keep the sun off Churchill. Commando’s crew members were recognized for their Royal Air Force Ferry Command service and their safe transport of wartime VIPs; Affleck also received a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In 1944 Vanderkloot wrote Handbook of Air Navigation, which a reviewer described as “literally tremendous in scope…an air-navigation encyclopedia.” The following year, Vanderkloot returned to the United States and became a corporate pilot. For years, he and Churchill remained a mutual admiration society of two.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Calgary-based freelance writer Graham Chandler can be reached at www.grahamchandler.ca.