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)
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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.”

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.

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