Travels with Churchill

A World War II flight engineer dishes on the most “I” of the VIPs he flew with.

The sturdy B-24 that served as Churchill's personal transport. (Library of Congress)
Air & Space Magazine

Winston Churchill was anxious to leave the country. It was July 1942, and he wanted to go to Cairo and Moscow to confer with his generals and with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, but the pilot assigned to fly him urged caution. “I’d like…a bad night to get out of England to go to Gibraltar,” William J. Vanderkloot told the British prime minister. Years later, he explained to his son, Bill, “I didn’t want to get shot down over England.”

Vanderkloot was recounting, in a taped interview with his son, how he came to be the captain of a B-24 Liberator bomber that had been turned into a VIP transport. “Mr. Churchill said, ‘Go ahead, pick your night,’ ” Vanderkloot recalled. “ ‘I can give you a 10-day envelope.’ ” The long-range Liberator, painted black in an early attempt at stealth, flying at night, with no one but the crew knowing the flight plan, was considered the safest bet to transport a prime minister on a route that was within range of enemy fighters.

In the late summer of 1942, Churchill was faced with critical decisions, notably what to do about weaknesses in the leadership of the British Eighth Army, which was facing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s formidable Afrika Korps, as well as how to persuade Stalin to reinforce Europe’s eastern front. “It had become urgently necessary for me to go there and settle the decisive questions on the spot,” Churchill wrote in The Second World War. But such a trip would have ordinarily involved six days of flying and several nasty inoculations. “However,” he continued, “there arrived at the Air Ministry a young American pilot, Captain Vanderkloot, who had just flown from the United States in the aeroplane ‘Commando,’ a Liberator plane from which the bomb-racks had been removed and some sort of passenger accommodation substituted…. I could be in Cairo in two days without any trouble about Central African bugs…”

Vanderkloot had been flying U.S.-built bombers across the north Atlantic, known for its deadly weather, for the Royal Air Force’s Ferry Command for some 18 months and had logged over a million miles, occasionally carrying VIPs to exotic sites. Such credentials, along with renowned navigation skills, brought him to the attention of Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, responsible for transporting Churchill through Africa. When Portal asked Vanderkloot how he would fly to Cairo, the Ferry Command pilot told him: “Certainly not through the Mediterranean with the Germans flanking both sides,” and suggested a route with a single stopover in Gibraltar. Portal hired him on the spot, and Vanderkloot chose the B-24. “That was some airplane, the Liberator,” Vanderkloot later said. “Nicely built.”

Commando got under way. In Cairo, Churchill eventually replaced Eighth Army General John Eyre Auchinleck with Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. On October 24, the Associated Press reported, “Britain’s rebuilt and refreshed 8th Army charged into the Axis’ El Alamein line today in…what may be the battle to decide the fate of the Mediterranean this winter.” Liberators were part of the action. The September 3, 1942 issue of Britain’s Flight magazine ran the headline “Liberators over Egypt: Anglicized Heavies in Western Desert.” In Moscow, Churchill met with Averell Harriman, representing the United States, and Stalin to plan the North African campaign.
Churchill was enthralled with flight. He celebrated his 39th birthday by taking his first flying lesson. According to Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert, when the prime minister’s instructor was killed shortly afterward, Churchill’s wife and family expressed their sentiments about his taking up a pastime “fraught with so much danger to life,” as his cousin, Sunny Charles, ninth Duke of Marlborough, put it. “It is really wrong of you,” the duke continued. After takeoff at London’s Croydon airport, Churchill stalled his trainer in a tight turn, plowing into the ground and injuring his instructor. He vowed never to fly as a pilot again.

But he still enjoyed air travel. “He used to like to come up [to the cockpit],” Vanderkloot said. “He’d stay maybe an hour, and he’d ask questions about things. He was a good old sport, he’d have his scotch up there and look around.”

Commando was usually flown by Vanderkloot and another American, copilot Jack Ruggles. Flight engineers John Affleck and Ronnie Williams and radio officer Russ Holmes were Canadian. Today, Affleck is the only surviving crew member. He joined Vanderkloot on the first run with Churchill in August 1942. At the time, the young civilian flight engineer and racing car enthusiast was in West Palm Beach, Florida, fresh off a Liberator that had flown ammunition to Africa for the Eighth Army. “You didn’t have to be in the military to do that—they’d take anybody,” says Affleck. When asked if he would go to Cairo that night, he said, “Sure, I always wanted to see Cairo.”
At 93, Affleck still walks nine holes at the Saskatoon Golf & Country Club. Relaxing at his home in Saskatchewan in khaki chinos and a golf shirt, he remembered that night in 1942. “So they said, ‘Get the car, get some clothes, and come back.’ I was on the way to Prestwick [Scotland] that night.”

From Prestwick they flew to Lyneham Royal Air Force base and on to London. “And there is where we learned we were to fly Churchill out to Cairo and Moscow,” says Affleck. It was also there that he learned he was to fly with the legendary William J. Vanderkloot. “I didn’t know him well because our paths hadn’t crossed,” says Affleck, “but I knew he was a good pilot—in fact an excellent, super pilot. And a super navigator too.”

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.”

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