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War Plans


It is not widely known that BOAC had detailed contingency plans

in place when western Europe erupted in early 1940, in the process
cutting off civil air services between Britain and its Empire. Copies of
the Imperial Airways and BOAC War Books survive in the archives of the
Civil Aviation Historical Society in Australia. PHIL VABRE looks
at what these plans involved


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ABOVE: When BOAC required ying-boats to supplement those already in service, six Short Sunderland IIIs
were taken from the production line at Rochester in December 1942 and converted for use on BOAC and RAF
Transport Command priority passenger and mail routes. Given the type name Hythe, they were stripped of turrets
and had bench seats only, a far cry from the comfort of the pre-war Empire Flying-Boats. BOACs Hythe G-AGHZ
Hawkesbury is seen demonstrating its ability to y on two engines. THE AEROPLANE

he British Overseas Airways

Corporation (BOAC) was
formed in November 1939 out
of a government-sponsored
merger between Imperial Airways,
Britains chosen instrument for
imperial air communications, and
British Airways, an intra-European
operator. The newly formed BOAC
took over on April 1, 1940, and its
operations were almost immediately
thrown into turmoil by the German
invasion of France, Belgium and
BOAC was not unprepared though. Plans
had been drawn up covering a range of
contingencies, including the increasing
likelihood that Italy would join the war on
Germanys side.


These contingency plans were initially

issued in August 1939, just prior to
the outbreak of war in the form of the
Imperial Airways War Book, which was
classied Secret. The plans were revised by
amendment in early 1940, and updated and
reissued in a second edition as the BOAC
War Book in June 1940 after the German
invasion of France and the Low Countries
had commenced, but before the fall of
The fundamental basis of the contingency
plans, set out in the BOAC War Book, was
that the organisation and maintenance
of Empire air communications was an
important part of the national war effort.
Accordingly, during wartime BOAC would
operate air services at the direction and
expense of the British government.

Problems and initial


Three major problems were foreseen by

BOAC. These were, rstly, possible attacks on
BOAC bases in the United Kingdom; secondly,
possible closing of the Mediterranean due to
Italy entering the war and thirdly the problem
of cooperation with the civil air eets of
allied nations.
Some assumptions were made that
governed the design of the contingency
plans. The rst, obvious, assumption, was
that if Italy entered the war the MarseillesAlexandria section of the Empire trunk route,
which passed through Italy, would be closed.
However, it was also assumed that transit
rights would continue to be available over
French, Portuguese and Dutch territory in
Europe, Africa and the Far East. Finally, it



RIGHT: Very rare Douglas DC-2-115F SP-ASL (c/n 1378) of Polish airline LOT was one
of only two powered by Bristol Pegasus VI engines. It is seen here at Lydda, Palestine,
in about 1938, now Tel Avivs Ben Gurion International Airport. Following the German
invasion of Poland in 1939, SP-ASL was own out to Romania. Intended to come to
Britain, it was registered to Imperial Airways as G-AGAD on November 7, 1939, but
the Romanian authorities refused to release the aircraft. It was subsequently taken
over by Romanian airline LARES as YR-GAD in 1941 and destroyed, probably by
German strang, at Boteni, Romania, in 1944. LC-DIG-MATPC-22393

was assumed that no signicant military

operations would take place in Singapore or
Australia to disrupt services in the Far East.

Emergency messages

To implement various parts of the

contingency plan, a system of ve-letter
codes was established. For example, YRUTU
meant Service or aircraft indicated to
proceed immediately to place named. In this
case, the code would be accompanied by the
service number (in those days each service
was numbered sequentially) or aircraft
registration concerned, and also the place
concerned. The location information was to

be sent in Bentleys Second Phrase Code, a

non-secure commercial code.
These coded messages were intended to
be sent to down-route stations by telegram
and to aircraft using their own radio
communications. Because it was anticipated
that there would be difculty sending
telegrams containing codes to Italy, a system
of elaborate cover-phrases was provided
for passing by telephone, with the rst or
second letter of each word spelling out the
appropriate code. An example was YOUR
TONNAGE which spelled YRUXT, meaning
Stand by.

Vulnerability at home

The principal BOAC base for overseas

operations was the ying-boat base at Hythe,
near Southampton. Being located on the
south coast and close to strategic military
targets, such as the Supermarine factory, it
was considered to be particularly vulnerable
to air attack from Germany. The BOAC
contingency strategy was to remove as much
activity as possible to other locations.
Flying-boats were to spend as little time
as possible at Hythe before being own to
Poole, about 30 miles further westward.
Provision for further dispersal was made
with Air Ministry permission being obtained
to use RAF moorings at Plymouth, Falmouth
and Pembroke Dock in an emergency. All
modication work being done on Empire (C
Class) Flying-Boats at Hythe was stopped
and the aircraft returned to service. This had
the dual effect of increasing the number of
aircraft available while also allowing them to
be own away overseas where they would be
less vulnerable.

By early June 1940 BOAC had already taken

steps to transfer men and equipment to
Durban, in South Africa. An engine overhaul
workshop was being established, expected
to be operational by the end of July, with
an initial capacity of producing sufcient
overhauled Pegasus engines to support a
twice-weekly Empire Flying-Boat service
from Durban to Sydney via Egypt and India.
In Australia, Qantas was also establishing
an overhaul facility at Sydney for Pegasus
Apart from an Armstrong-Whitworth
Ensign service to Egypt, home-based
landplane services were mainly short-haul to
the continent. BOAC had bases at Gatwick,
Heston and Whitchurch (Bristol). Because
many of the landplane services at this time
were Air Ministry charters, it was desirable to
continue operating from the aerodromes near
London for as long as possible. However, if
south-eastern England became unworkable,
all BOAC (and Air France) services would
transfer to Whitchurch.
Landplane engine overhauls would
continue to be carried out at Croydon, which
was considered to be a well-defended area

ABOVE LEFT: A wartime Qantas Empire

Airways advertisement announcing its
continued ying-boat services. VIA AUTHOR
pti air
e Misr
Misr Ai
rk was part
of the cooperation between Allied airlines.
During the Second World War the Egyptian
Government took over the operation and
changed the name to Misr Airlines, post-war
becoming Misrair and later Egyptair. This de
Havilland D.H.89A Dragon Rapide SU-ABU
Heliopolis (c/n 6313) was registered to Misr
Airwork in November 1935 and served
throughout the Second World War, surviving
until at least 1946. LC-DIG-MATPC-18472



although in the event it did suffer heavily

from bombing later in 1940. Engine overhaul
facilities for landplanes on the African service
were also available with Misr Airwork in
Cairo and for the Hong Kong branch service
in Singapore.

Closing of the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean was a particularly

vulnerable point for
British Empire air
communications as
the routes to India
and Australia, as
well as the British
colonies in Africa,
ran through it. The
main Empire yingboat route at that
time ran down France
to Marseilles, then
to Lake Bracciano near Rome (Italy), then
Brindisi (Italy), Athens (Greece), a refueling
stop if necessary at Mirabella or Suda Bay
(Crete) and nally to Alexandria (Egypt). The
deteriorating situation with Italy was of great
signicance as it not only dominated the

Mediterranean itself, but also controlled vital

parts of North and East Africa in the form
of colonies in Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia and
Italian Somaliland.
Initially BOAC drew up plans for an
alternative route through the Mediterranean
that used French territory in North Africa to
bypass the Italian section of the route, but it
was recognised that should open hostilities

covering the cancellation of mainline services

and the disposal of aircraft to various parts
of the route, the dumping of loads for later
shipping, the evacuation of personnel from
vulnerable places and the reorganization of
BOACs operating divisions. Although BOAC
used the term dumping, it was used in the
sense of caching for subsequent transport, as
opposed to jettisoning.
If Serial C was
enacted, all yingboats were to be
immediately cleared
from the section of the
route from Biscarosse
or Bordeaux (France)
to Alexandria.
Landplanes west of
Malta were to return
to the United Kingdom
while those at or east
of Malta were to proceed to Alexandria.
Outbound ying-boats east or south of
Alexandria were to continue on to their
destination. Homeward bound ying-boats
were to proceed to the rst encountered
of Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Durban,

The fundamental basis of the contingency

plans, set out in the BOAC War Book, was
that the organisation and maintenance
of Empire air communications was an
important part of the national war eort
with Italy break out, then this route would be
so vulnerable as to become unworkable.
A more likely scenario was that the
Mediterranean would be totally closed to civil
air trafc. In this case, BOAC would instruct
the implementation of Serial C, a code

BELOW: BOAC continued to use Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Palestine, as
a refuelling stop on the Horseshoe Route connecting South Africa with New Zealand. This
pre-war photo shows Short S.23 Empire Flying-Boat G-AETY Clio (c/n S.841) taking on fuel
from the Shell launch at Tiberias. In the background is the snow-capped Mount Hermon,
marking the border between Syria and Lebanon. On the outbreak of the Second World
War Clio was impressed into RAF service as AX659. It crashed at Loch
Indal, Scotland, on August 22, 1941. LC-DIG-MATPC-03650




view of the Imperial Airways, LOT and
Misr Airwork joint booking ofce in Jerusalem.

With ccomplementary
ther than competing
tin route
out networks,
etwork cooperation
ati bet
n IImperial
Airways, LOT and Misr Airwork extended to before the Second World War. For example, these
airlines maintained a joint booking ofce in Jerusalem in the late 1930s. On the other hand, Dutch
airlines KLM and KNILM were direct competitors to be guarded against, although cooperation at
an operational level seems to have been always been cordial. LC-DIG-MATPC-08742

Mombasa or Kisumu where they were to

dump their mail and freight. Passengers were
to be offered disembarkation at any port up
to and including the dump locations.
Landplanes on the West African service
were to continue on to Lagos or Kano
(Nigeria) as appropriate and wait. Indian
internal services were to continue operating,
as was the branch service between Bangkok
(Siam) and Hong Kong. As the ying-boat
service to Singapore would be temporarily
it might be
necessary for the
Hong Kong service
to be extended
from Bangkok to

vulnerable due to its position on the coast.

All BOAC operations and personnel were
to be transferred to Cairo, some 100 miles
With the Mediterranean routes cut, there
would also no longer be a requirement for
the BOAC depot ship MV Imperia, which
had been stationed at Crete since 1929, to
remain there. It was to remain in position
until all the ying-boats had cleared the
Mediterranean, working them by radio in

Division 1: United Kingdom to Central

Africa via the Sahara or West Africa, and
European services.
Division 2: The existing West African
services from Khartoum (Sudan) to Takoradi
(Gold Coast) via Lagos.
Division 3: Durban to Singapore via Egypt,
Iraq and India or alternative routes between
Africa and India if the Middle East became
Division 4: The Karachi to Calcutta section
of the main line and internal Indian services.
Division 5: The Hong Kong service,
extended to Singapore if necessary.
The overall plan envisaged re-establishing
Empire air communications by operating
landplane services
through France and
French territory
in North Africa to
We Africa, where
they would connect
wi the existing
trans-African service
to the east. This in turn would connect with
a new service using the Empire FlyingBoats trapped at the eastern end of the
Mediterranean, operating along the existing
routes from Durban through to Singapore.
This service would continue to connect with
the existing Qantas service to Sydney, which
connected with the TEAL service across the
Tasman Sea to New Zealand.
The threat to Egypt should war
break out with Italy was taken
seriously. It was envisaged
that the Nile valley might
become impassable to
civil aircraft and that

The Brindisi sta were given an hour to

leave the country. They were evacuated by the
eastbound travelling G-ADHM Caledonia

Evacuation off sta


In the face of increasing international

tension, the wives and families of staff based
in Italy were evacuated on May 16, 1940.
Plans were also drawn up for the evacuation
of the remaining staff, as well as staff based
in other locations considered vulnerable. In
the event of the implementation of Serial C,
the plan was for staff in Malta to evacuate
on the last civil ight bound for Tunis. From
there, they should clear the last BOAC
aircraft through Tunis and Bizerta, before
proceeding themselves to Algiers and thence
In Egypt, Alexandria was considered


the normal way. Once the aircraft were clear,

Imperia was to leave Crete on instructions
from the British naval authorities, evacuating
the Mirabella and Suda Bay staff if necessary.
The ship was to maintain a listening watch,
but otherwise radio silence except in
emergency or when acknowledging messages
addressed to it. Imperia was to make for Port
Said, then through the Suez Canal where it
was to wait at Suez for further instructions.

Reorganisation of operations
If the Mediterranean closed, BOAC intended
to reorganise operations into ve Divisions,
as follows:


alternative routing from Africa to Ceylon

via the Seychelles and Diego Garcia or the
Maldives might be required. This would
necessitate extra range from the Short
Empire ying-boats, which were optimised
to carry heavy loads over relatively short
legs. To that end, a scheme to increase the
tankage of all the Empire Flying-Boats was
put in hand.
The BOAC contingency plans noted that
an inter-Allied committee was being formed
to coordinate the employment of the civil air
eets of each nation. The airlines involved
were Air France, Air Afrique (France), SABENA
(Belgium), KLM (Netherlands), LOT (Poland)
and BOAC.

What really happened

After a period of relative inactivity during

the Phoney War, in April 1940 hostilities
erupted in Europe. The initial German
attacks on Denmark and Norway were soon
followed by invasions of France, Belgium and
neutral Holland. Guderians Panzers quickly
surrounded and cut-off the Allied forces in
north-eastern France and Belgium, forcing
them back against the coast. Between May
26 and June 4, a large proportion of the
trapped forces were evacuated from Dunkirk,
however on June 5 a second German attack
outanked the French Maginot Line further
to the south and pushed deep into France.
Five days later, with the remaining French
defences collapsing, Italy opportunistically
declared war on France and Britain and
invaded southern France.
The War Book plan was immediately
put into action. With Serial C enacted, the
16 Empire Flying-Boats east or south of
Alexandria were safe for the time being and
continued their services. Three others were
in the Mediterranean. They had already been
instructed to avoid Italy and y via Malta
and Navarino (today Pylos) in Greece. The
BOAC staff in Rome were granted diplomatic
status and left by train, but the Brindisi staff
were given an hour to leave the country. They
were evacuated by the eastbound travelling
G-ADHM Caledonia, which came back and
ew them to Athens, then they made their
way by road and rail through Turkey, Syria
and Palestine to Egypt. Caledonia then
continued eastbound to Alexandria and
G-AFKZ Cathay was at Ajaccio in Corsica
heading westbound and continued its ight
home. The situation for G-AFCX Clyde was
more difcult as it was in Malta. Despite
reduced power in one engine it was able to
safely make it home to Britain, refuelling at
Biscarosse on the way. The Malta and Tunis
staffs were withdrawn to Algeria and Imperia
sailed for Egypt as planned.
Poland had already capitulated to the
German and Russian invasions by June 1939.

BOAC War Book Emergency Codes

These are some examples of the emergency code messages set out in the BOAC
War Book, Second Edition.
Take urgent action
Tension relaxed; cancel YRUXT (see main text)
No homebound aircraft to proceed beyond Biscarosse or Bordeaux
without special instructions from the United Kingdom
Homebound ying-boats to avoid scheduled home airport and proceed to
(place given)
Aircraft cannot be sent to evacuate staff
Service or aircraft indicated to leave load at Alexandria and proceed
immediately to (place specied)
Imperia to stand-by to proceed to Port Said
Imperia to proceed to Port Said immediately and observe wireless silence
except in emergency and maintain listening watch on 6590 kcs

ABOVE: Passengerss disembark

rk from
fro Empire
mpi Flying-Boat
G-AETZ Circe
Cir on a oating
g jetty
at Imperials
Southampton terminal in April 1938. Circe was shot down by a Japanese ghter in February 1942.
BELOW: Dutch airline KLMs Douglas DC-3-194B PH-ALT Torenvalk (Kestrel) (c/n 1941) was a
Fokker-assembled machine, delivered in April 1937. In 1940 it escaped the German invasion
of The Netherlands and transferred to the Dutch East Indies airline KNILM as PK-ALT in June
that year. In January 1942 it was damaged by Japanese ghters while taking off at Samarinda,
Netherlands East Indies, and in late February PK-ALT escaped from Java to Broome, Western
Australia. The aircraft was subsequently sold, along with nine other surviving KNILM aircraft,
to the USAAF, allocated serial 41-1941 and using the radio callsign VHCXD. On August 17, 1942,
it was damaged in a Japanese air raid on Port Moresby, but repaired, acquiring the name Holey
Joe due to the number of bullet holes in it. In December 1942 it was assigned to Australian airline
ANA, and operated on behalf of the USAAF on services to New Guinea. On May 5, 1945, while
being own by ANA Captain W. Clark and an RAAF crew, it crashed on approach in poor visibility
near Higgins Field, Bamaga, Queensland, killing all six on board. The aircrafts remains still exist in
a fenced-off memorial at Bamaga.




ABOVE: A period colour cutaway showing

the internal layout of Short S.23 Empire
Flying-Boat G-ADHL Canopus.

Some of its civil aircraft managed to escape

and BOAC was able to charter one Lockheed
14, with the possibility of obtaining another.
Some nine months after the fall of Poland,
Belgium and The Netherlands too had been
over-run. SABENA moved its headquarters
to Marseilles, a temporary expedient as
it turned out, and KLM had transferred
its remaining operations to Batavia in
The Netherlands East Indies. A number of
KLM aircraft escaped to Britain and were
subsequently used under BOAC control
to establish a tenuous air link to neutral
Portugal, supplemented by a ying-boat
service via Foynes in Ireland.
In the event, the situation evolved much
faster than envisaged. Although the closing
of the Mediterranean had been foreseen,
nobody had really predicted the rapid
collapse of France.
With the fall of France, the main air
route out of England to the Empire was
also severed. But it was worse than that.
To the west of Italian Libya, the French
Vichy Government, a German puppet,
controlled Tunisia and Algeria, and to the
south, Chad. Even if France itself could
somehow be bypassed, there was no easy
way south through Africa as envisaged in the
contingency plans.

Douglas DC-2-115F SP-ASL of Polish airline LOT takes

take on
n fuel at Lydda, Palestine,
in 1938.

With Britain now all but cut off, Durban

became the western terminus of the
remaining Empire air routes. As provided
for in the contingency plans, a new service
was established encompassing a great arc
through Africa, the Middle East, India and
down to Australia along what became known
as the Horseshoe Route. Passengers and
mail bound for Britain transferred to ship
at Durban. The rst eastbound Horseshoe
service, NE1, departed Durban for Sydney

remarkably quickly on Wednesday, June 19,

1940, operated by G-AEUH Corio, later to
be shot down off Timor in 1942 (Aeroplane,
January 2009). It was the beginning of a
long war for BOAC.
Phil Vabre is vice-president of the Civil
Aviation Historical Society and webmaster
of its website www.airwaysmuseum.com.
He would like to thank James Kightly for his
assistance in the preparation of this article.

BELOW: An Imperial Airways launch takes the crew to G-ADUW

Castor, which survived the war to be scrapped at Hythe.