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A Flock of Flying Elephants

By Derek O’Connor
5/22/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Long before the famed Berlin Airlift, the Kabul airlift of 1928-29 established a precedent for all the aerial mercy missions that followed.

Shortly before an icy dawn on December 23, 1928, 23 women and children slipped quietly out of the British Legation in the capital city of Kabul, Afghanistan. An escort of heavily armed Afghan soldiers awaited them. Their cautious advance across the snow-covered ground was hastened by the whistle of shots from around the legation compound. Heads down, strangely aware of their own breathing, they trudged on through villages strewn with grotesquely stiffened corpses, recent victims of the conflict they now sought to escape. Gradually, as the weak sun climbed above the eastern horizon, they could just make out the great expanse of the Kabul plain and the vast and menacing outline of the Hindu Kush mountains beyond. An hour’s walk brought them to the Italian Legation, close to Kabul’s Sherpur aerodrome. There, chatting among themselves in low voices, they rested—and waited anxiously for their rescuers to arrive.

Some two hours later, the sharpest ears among them picked up a buzzing from the east, roughly from the direction of Peshawar, in British-ruled India. Soon the buzzing turned into the persistent throb of an aircraft engine. “I can see it,” piped up a very small but knowledgeable boy, his head stuck out of a window. “It’s a Westland Wapiti!” Half an hour later a gaggle of de Havilland DH-9As arrived, followed by the outsized dragonfly shape of a Vickers Victoria bomber-transport. Moments later, the women and children were ushered into cars and driven to Sherpur.

The twin-engine Victoria was from the Royal Air Force’s No. 70 Squadron, normally based in Iraq. While the huge biplane sat with its engines running and its chilled pilots perched on high in their open cockpit, the women and children were quickly guided into the 22 makeshift canvas seats within the bulbous fuselage. At 9:45, to a great roaring from its twin Napier Lion engines, the Victoria was away, heading for Peshawar. The DH-9As and the Wapiti followed with the baggage. The first major airlift of civilians had begun.

The sequence of events preceding the airlift was bizarre, even in a country notorious for its habitual turbulence and regular outbreaks of internecine warfare. In July 1928, King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan and his influential young queen had returned from a prolonged visit to Europe and the Middle East. Much impressed by what they had seen, the king set about introducing a number of Western-style social reforms. These included such highly controversial proposals as the creation of the first Afghan parliament, to be elected by the votes of all literate Afghans (that would have to wait until 2004), education for Afghan girls linked to the abolition of purdah for all females, the elimination of polygamy and a stipulation that all of Kabul’s visitors and residents should wear European attire, including top hats and tails for palace attendants. To reinforce his vision of the new Afghanistan, Amanullah lectured the country’s openly resentful leaders while standing in front of a huge picture of the American transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh, his beau ideal of a Renaissance man.

The modernizing Amanullah was certainly ahead of his time. He was also severely out of touch with the intensely held religious beliefs of his Muslim subjects and the ultra-conservative fabric of the country. In no time the infuriated mullahs had united against him, openly denouncing their king as a kafir (infidel).

Renunciation turned into open, ugly rebellion on November 14 when, incensed by Amanullah’s demands, the fanatical Shinwari (literally “Green Lords”) tribe attacked Jallalabad and plundered the royal palace there. The tribesmen cut off the city’s water supply and closed the arterial Kabul-to-Peshawar road, the route leading via the legendary Khyber Pass into India. The king responded by sending a gaggle of vintage Afghan Air Force DH-9s, flown by White Russian refugees, to bomb the rebels. Typically ill-judged, the deployment of airplanes piloted by “infidels” inflamed the situation still further and led directly to other tribes joining in the rebellion.

From the north came the charismatic bandit Bacha-i-Saqao (“son of the watercarrier”), otherwise Habibullah Ghazi, who rounded up a ragtag force of some 3,000 disaffected tribesmen and marched on Kabul. Habibullah’s attack on December 14 met with only token resistance from Amanullah’s dispirited royal army. He quickly made significant territorial gains in the north and west, though some of those were promptly lost to royalist counterattacks. Soon the jubilant tribesmen were advancing past the compound of the British Legation, firing wildly as they went and causing minor damage to the legation buildings and conservatory. Fearing for the safety of those within, the British minister, Sir Francis Humphrys, confronted Habibullah at the gates. The genial outlaw assured the minister that no one within the legation would be harmed and stressed that his quarrel was not with foreigners.

As a diplomat with wide experience in the North West Frontier territory and Afghanistan, as well as an ex-RAF pilot, Humphrys was not one to take such assurances at face value. Indeed, on December 3, anticipating that the hostile backlash to Amanullah’s reforms would include the disruption of all normal lines of communication, the minister had approached Air Vice Marshal Sir William Geoffrey Salmond, RAF commander in India, about a possible requirement to maintain contact through an emergency airmail service. He had also submitted a contingency plan for the evacuation of the legation’s personnel by air.

Although Salmond immediately agreed to both proposals, he had a serious concern. The RAF in India in late 1928 was a shoestring operation, with just six squadrons of two-seater biplanes of World War I design allocated to the vast subcontinent. The only large transport plane available was Handley Page HP-33 Hinaidi No. J7745, a unique aircraft that had started life as an HP-24 Hyderabad before being modified, through the installation of two air-cooled Bristol Jupiter engines, to become the prototype Hinaidi. But the Hinaidi was undergoing an engine change in Baghdad. Salmond therefore arranged for the 10 Iraq-based Victorias of No. 70 Squadron to be temporarily reassigned to India.

The transfer required each Victoria to make a 2,800-mile journey from the Middle East over wildly inhospitable terrain that was also noted for turbulent climatic conditions. This was a minor odyssey in itself in those days of open cockpits, constant hands-on flying without navigational aids and sometimes unreliable engines. Moreover, with a groundspeed seldom averaging more than 90 mph and limited fuel capacity, each aircraft needed to make eight or nine laborious hand-pumping refueling stops along the route.

With a design derived from the Vickers Virginia bomber, the inelegant but functional Victoria was designed to a specification calling for a plane to carry 25 fully armed troops at 100 mph for 400 miles. Early versions drew criticism from RAF squadrons in the Middle East due to their poor climb and cruise performance, propeller flutter, dope finish and problems with pilot visibility. After various modifications, however, the Victoria soon gained a reputation as a tough workhorse capable of operating reliably under adverse desert conditions. As such it pioneered a number of air routes for fledgling Imperial Airways, notably the airmail route between Cairo and Baghdad.

First to reach India was the Victoria flown by Squadron Leader Reginald Stuart Maxwell, which arrived in Karachi on December 7. A dashing World War I fighter ace with nine confirmed victories who had earned the Military Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross, Maxwell then flew the hulking transport on to Quetta for performance and altitude tests. At 6,000 feet, Quetta was at the same altitude as Kabul. To enhance its high altitude performance, the aircraft had already been stripped of all nonessential equipment.

Meanwhile on December 18, a DH-9A of No. 27 Squadron was ordered to fly a reconnaissance over the British Legation and to drop a Popham Morse code signaling panel into the legation grounds. By opening and shutting the slatted panel against an elastic resistance, an operator could send “dots” and “dashes” to a plane overhead. At the express request of Minister Humphrys, the aircraft carried no armament, not even sidearms for the aircrew. Humphrys wished to ensure that in the event of a forced landing their peaceful intentions would be immediately apparent.

At the controls of the DH-9A for what was intended to be a 280-mile round trip was Flying Officer Claude Trusk, with 22- year-old Leading Aircraftsman George Donaldson as his wireless operator. Donaldson was typical of the “aircrew on the cheap” system then operated by the cash-strapped RAF, at a time when the only officially designated aircrew category was that of pilot. Ground personnel could, in addition to their demanding other duties, volunteer to fly as second crewman in aircraft such as the DH-9A and Wapiti. Those who also qualified for the winged bullet airgunner’s badge were entitled to an extra few pence a day when operational. In truth, their role as air-gunner/bomb-aimer/wireless operator/photographer was virtually identical to that performed by the (mainly commissioned) observers of WWI.

Once through the awesome mountain passes, Trusk and Donaldson quickly spotted the white legation with the Union Jack flying over it and the message “FLY HIGH. DO NOT LAND. ALL’S WELL” spelled out in large letters on the lawn. During a low pass, looking for signs of life, they came under concentrated rifle fire from antigovernment tribesmen on the ground. Turning around to speak to his pilot, an astonished Donaldson found that Trusk was covered in oil. The pilot shouted: “We’ve been hit! I’ll have to land!” But at Donaldson’s urging he coaxed the stricken DH-9A into a last climb, while the wireless operator tapped off a final message to Peshawar: “Been hit. Radiator burst. Landing Sherpur.” In fact they had taken a bullet in the oil pan.

Sherpur airfield was then still under the control of the supposedly friendly Afghan Air Force. Notwithstanding that, once on the ground—despite their lack of military hardware—Trusk and Donaldson were promptly arrested, roughly handled and accused of being spies. Fearing for their lives, they were hustled before the commandant, a menacing giant of a man in a Balaclava helmet with a bandolier draped across his chest. They need not have worried. Gruffly dismissing all suggestions of espionage, the giant cordially invited them to lunch in his office.

While they were eating, one of the AAF’s Russian pilots came in and casually asked their host for a bomb. Rising ponderously from the table, the commandant went to a large safe in his office from which, to the disbelief of the British airmen, he produced a 20-pound Cooper bomb. He handed it to the pilot, who put it into a suitcase before strolling back to his airplane. When Trusk and Donaldson later inspected some of the DH-9s flown by the Russian mercenaries, they were dismayed to find that not only were these war-weary aircraft poorly maintained but they had been stripped of virtually all their instruments. Not long after that they witnessed the death of one of the Russian pilots, whose DH-9 crashed in flames inside the grounds of the British Legation.

Four frustrating days passed before Trusk and Donaldson managed to reach their legation, running a gantlet of fire from the opposing armies to hurl themselves through the open French windows. Rising from the floor, they found themselves under the amused scrutiny of several children and their governess. Later, using wireless equipment salvaged from their DH-9A and an aerial looped by Donaldson (under fire) around the top of the legation flagpole, they managed to reestablish the radio link with Peshawar and Miranshah. Among the power sources employed was the battery from Humphrys’ Rolls-Royce.

Fearful that the legation might be overrun and its inhabitants massacred, Humphrys took advantage of a swing in the fighting that once more placed Sherpur airfield in the hands of the king’s troops. He sent a message to India requesting that the rescue flights commence on the following day, December 23. After this first evacuation was successful, further flights took place on December 24 and 26. Not long after that, the small force was augmented by two additional Victorias from Iraq and the by now serviceable Hinaidi. By January 1, 1929, a total of 132 passengers had been airlifted back to India. Eventually eight Victorias would participate in the airlift, flying into Kabul from their temporary base at RAF Risalpur. The evacuees were then taken to Peshawar, only 145 miles away.

By that time, however, the writing was on the wall for King Amanullah. A week later, Habibullah’s tribesmen defeated a royal army and were once again menacing Kabul. They had also regained control of the airfield. On January 14, Amanullah abdicated and sped off to Kandahar by car. Before leaving he had hastily renounced the throne in favor of Inayatullah Khan, his self-indulgent younger brother. Inayatullah reigned for three inglorious days before handing over the emirate to the besieging Habibullah, on the condition that he, his family and his harem would be allowed to leave by RAF aircraft.

Two Victorias were assigned to the royal evacuation. Squadron Leader Maxwell’s aircraft transported most of the king’s harem of wives and concubines to Peshawar, while Flight Lt. Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman flew out Inayatullah and his court officials. Ivelaw-Chapman, another WWI veteran, had earned a DFC in France as a 19-year-old flight commander with No. 10 Squadron.

Later, on January 29, Ivelaw-Chapman’s Kabul-bound Victoria suffered the only double engine failure of the evacuation, caused by ice forming in the fuel filters. After a miraculous forced landing, in which he somehow side-slipped the big airplane onto a tiny plateau in the Kabul River valley, Ivelaw-Chapman and his co-pilot found themselves surrounded by an armed mob of shouting and gesticulating tribesmen. At first mistaken for the hated Russians—they were wearing RAF blue uniforms instead of the usual British khaki—they were eventually treated as political prisoners and held at a rest house in Jagdallak. Various adventures followed before, three weeks later and none the worse for their Afghan ordeal, the airmen were flown out separately to Peshawar in a Bristol F.2B Fighter. The “Brisfit” had landed on an airstrip hacked out of the bush by Ivelaw-Chapman and the co-opted followers of a local religious leader, wild men who were frequently diverted from their labors by the regular exchanges of fire between bands of local skirmishers.

With Habibullah now in charge, at least for the moment, Humphrys wasted no time in seeking the new monarch’s permission to continue the evacuation by air of the remaining British personnel, plus those from the other foreign legations who wished to leave. Habibullah willingly assented, even offering to provide guards at Sherpur to guarantee the safety of the evacuees and aircraft. How long Habibullah’s guarantee would last was anybody’s guess, as his stewardship was proving anything but a popular new era of peace and tranquility for Afghanistan. Already various tribal factions had turned against him, and plots to secure his removal were being hatched around campfires.

Passengers on evacuation flights were allowed to bring along only one suitcase each: 20 pounds for an adult and 15 pounds for a child. But no one had thought to specify how many layers of clothing could be worn, ostensibly to ward off the penetrating cold. This oversight sometimes had bizarre consequences. Hinaidi pilot Flight Lt. David Anderson had been tasked with evacuating, among other legation occupants, the German ambassador and his wife. Anderson recalled: “I was therefore aghast to see two rotund figures emerge from the German Embassy car and approach the one and only, and all too small, door in the fuselage. How many suits and overcoats His Excellency was wearing I hesitate to guess, but Her Excellency certainly had three hats topping off whatever she wore below….Fortunately their rotundity proved to be squeezable and they were successfully injected into the fuselage.”

On a later flight into Kabul, Anderson “took as passenger Herr von Rotor, the pilot of 3-engined Junkers presented to King Amanullah by the German government.” Anderson later learned that, just before Amanullah’s abdication, von Rotor had flown part of the royal entourage to Kandahar. But he never established why the German pilot was returning to Kabul. (The plane referred to by Anderson was in fact a single-engine, all-metal Junkers F.13fe monoplane, purchased by Amanullah during his German visit. In 1968 the F.13’s damaged fuselage was discovered on a Kabul scrapheap. Today the restored F.13 is on display in the Aeronautics Hall of Munich’s Deutches Museum, one of four surviving examples of this revolutionary aircraft.)

Flying conditions, meanwhile, were deteriorating, the lowest recorded temperatures for many years accompanied by heavy snowfall. In their open cockpits, the RAF pilots suffered agonies of cold both on the ground as well as in flight as they coaxed their heavily laden aircraft at full throttle up to 6,000 feet, the minimum altitude necessary to negotiate the dangerous passes between mountains that were from 10,000 to 15,000 feet high. Anderson wrote: “The winter had set in with a vengeance and icy blasts from the Russian Steppes had driven the mercury down to zero degrees Fahrenheit or below. The first indication of this in the open cockpit of the Hinaidi was when I saw the formation of an icy bridge of condensed breath joining my moustache to the scarf I was wearing around my neck.”

Another crewman recalled his impressions of a typical evacuation flight into Afghanistan: “The terrain between the Khyber Pass and Kabul is awe-inspiring in its rugged grandeur, rank upon rank of jagged peaks, most of them snowcovered….I was cold—I remember the cold more than anything—it seemed to penetrate to the bone, in spite of extra woollies and our ‘Sidcot’ suits. On our return trip our passengers were all native women, completely veiled, not even their eyes showing and although they were shivering in the low temperature refused to take advantage of the extra blankets we carried for their comfort. I think they were more frightened than cold.” In addition to enduring the bitter cold, many of the passengers must have experienced airsickness during their flights through the turbulent mountain passes in the slow biplane transports.

The final phase of the evacuation began on January 29, in the face of even more horrendous winter conditions. Snowstorms swirled through the valleys, and the sky was leaden. But Maxwell brought in a Victoria, closely followed by Anderson in the Hinaidi, and between them they managed to evacuate 31 women and children, including Italians, Germans, Indians, Turks and Syrians—all of them swathed in many layers of clothing.

Evacuation flights continued through February. Toward the end of the month, however, Sherpur airfield was covered in 17 inches of snow, effectively ruling out using the Victorias and Hinaidi. Until, that is, the resourceful Humphrys rounded up every living soul he could find and, with the tetchy assistance of a number of camels and elephants, stamped out a runway on the compacted snow.

The morning of February 25 saw the final sorties of the evacuation, as seven Victorias and the Hinaidi flew in from Risalpur. Against a background of gunfire and mayhem in Kabul as Habibullah’s enemies sought to overthrow him, the pilots kept their engines running and took on board the remainder of the 586 men, women and children to be evacuated. Last to leave were Trusk, Donaldson and Sir Francis Humphrys, who carried the legation’s furled Union Jack tucked under his arm. During the 84 evacuation sorties, the RAF’s aircraft had flown a total of 28,160 miles and carried, in addition to the passengers, 24,193 pounds of baggage.

Habibullah clung to power for a further nine chaotic months before being ousted by forces under the command of General Nadir Khan, who assumed the throne himself. Habibullah was later executed. Ex-King Amanullah sought refuge in Italy, where he died an exile in 1960 at the age of 68.

Another unlikely “casualty” of the Afghan crisis of 1928-29 was the legendary Colonel T.E. Lawrence of Arabia. Seeking pseudoanonymity in the enlisted ranks of the RAF as Aircraftsman Shaw, a lowly general-duties aircraft hand, Lawrence had been posted to Miranshar near the Afghan border. Somehow his presence there became known to the international press, which concocted stories of his alleged involvement with the Shinwari rebels, supposedly while he was disguised as a holy man. Although those claims were unfounded, the embarrassed RAF felt it had no option but to send Lawrence/Shaw back to England, where he joined a flying boat squadron.

In recognition of their outstanding airmanship during the evacuation, the British government awarded Air Force Crosses to Maxwell, Henderson, Ivelaw-Chapman and Trusk. Donaldson, the only enlisted man honored, received a rare Air Force Medal; he was later commissioned. Maxwell had personally made 19 flights to and from Kabul, evacuating a total of 218 passengers. Another Victoria pilot, Flying Officer Lionel Anness, who would also received an Air Force Cross, had flown a total of 12 trips and evacuated 138 passengers.

Of this extraordinarily successful airborne mercy mission, the London Times reported: “In those winter weeks the great airplanes went to and fro in all weathers over mountainous country of the most forbidding kind, where landing was practically impossible and any sort of failure in skill or in material must have meant disaster. There was no disaster. In more than seventy journeys, nearly 600 men, women and children were rescued, and not one suffered serious injury. It is a great thing to have won the Schneider Trophy. It is a greater thing for the country and for the future of travel by air, to have effected the rescues from Kabul.”

More poignant were the words of Hinaidi pilot David Anderson’s wife. She and her young son had taken a close personal interest in these exciting events from their garden at the edge of Risalpur airfield. Mrs. Anderson recalled, “Nearly every morning we got up at dawn to watch the awkward old aircraft go lumbering off like a flock of flying elephants into the mountains; never once did we fail to be waiting on the fence just before dusk to count the returning numbers and make sure nothing had gone wrong that day.”

The achievements of the RAF pilots and crewmen who participated in the Kabul airlift of 1928-29 have now been all but forgotten. But given its chronological place in aviation history—and taking into account the relatively primitive airplanes and navigational aids available at the time—the evacuation was a milestone every bit as significant as the Berlin Airlift of 1948, even though it was essentially different in intention and scale. Pitting sheer grit and superb piloting skills against some of the worst flying conditions outside the Arctic Circle, the RAF crews accomplished what must be acknowledged as a minor miracle of airmanship.

 

A frequent contributor to Aviation History, Derek O’Connor writes from Amersham, Bucks, England. For additional reading, try: Wings Over Kabul: The First Airlift, by Anne Baker and Air Chief Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman.

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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