Journey to Palapye Road - 100 Years of Flying in Botswana Part 1

By Jonathan Laverick

This year marks 100 years of powered flight in Botswana and Palapye airfield celebrates being one of the oldest aerodromes in the world. Coincidentally, the first aeroplane to land there was a South African Air Force DH-9 and this service also records its centenary this year. This series of articles will look how the Bechuanaland Protectorate came to contribute to one of the great early long-distance flights, from London to Cape Town.

When the guns fell silent at eleven o'clock on November the eleventh, 1918, bringing to a close the Great War, one would have thought there would have been a period of rest and reflection as the victors collected their thoughts. One would have been wrong. Just over three weeks after the armistice came into effect, a telegram arrived in Mafeking on the 28th, the seat of British power in Bechuanaland, announcing that a flight to Cape Town was being planned and that preparations should start immediately in order to support such a venture. When it is considered that at the start of the conflict, only four years earlier, aeroplanes were still very much a novelty that struggled to get into the air with a useful load, it is a valid question to ask how such an ambitious flight could even be considered.

Jan Smuts (right) was part of the Imperial War Cabinet and played a vital role in establishing the Royal Air Force.
The answer goes back to the Smuts Report, commissioned by the British government after London suffered a series of bombing raids, at first by German airships and then by Gotha bombers. The commission led by the South African Jan Smuts, aided by the effective founder of the Royal Flying Corps General David Henderson, was given a wide remit and looked not only at the defence of London, but also the future of British air power. Its recommendation was to amalgamate the Navy and Army aerial forces to create what was to become the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918 - the world's first independent air force.

While initially the change from the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service to the RAF had little effect on day to day operations, the new force was keen to show that air power could truly operate beyond solely supporting the two elder services. In a move that would become a raison d'etre for the RAF for the next 50 years (effectively until the nuclear deterrent moved to the Navy in 1969), an 'Independent Air Force' was created with the sole intention of carrying out the strategic bombing of Germany, free from the shackles of tactical support of the Army.

The Airco DH.9 was the successor to the brilliant DH.4, but was let down by its Siddeley Puma engine. (Courtesy of the Kees Kort Collection)

This unit needed effective aircraft and these were separated into what would become known as 'medium' and 'heavy' bombers. The former was represented by the excellent Airco DH.4 and its successor, the DH.9. The DH4 was a fast (its designer Geoffrey de Havilland later credited it as an inspiration for his WWII Mosquito) single engine, biplane with a two-man crew. It could carry just over 200kg of bombs, yet its performance was similar to or better than contemporary fighters. Its only real weakness was the large gap between gunner and pilot that made communication difficult. This was one of the improvements of the DH.9, an aircraft that suffered from an unreliable engine and only achieved its full potential when a new powerplant was found for what became the DH.9A - a type that would serve the RAF until 1930.

A 'Bloody Paralyser' of an aeroplane - the O/400

The only heavy to see useful service in the Great War was the Handley Page O series. The O/400 formed the backbone of the new bombing force and was a massive twin engine machine that could carry nearly a ton of bombs, and while more than 30mph slower than the 'fours' and 'nines', they carried 5 defensive machineguns that offered excellent protection against fight attacks. At the end of the war, nine of these machines were converted to civilian airliners used by Handley Page Transport while a further eight served as VIP transports in the RAF - ferrying politicians and Generals to the Versailles peace talks.

An impressive machine, deliveries of the DH.10 had just started at the end of the war and only a single example flew a single raid. (Courtesy of the Kees Kort Collection)

The DH.10 entered service just in time to fly a single bombing mission, and it terms of performance, fell half way between the DH9 and the O/400. It was soon overshadowed by the Vickers Vimy, which entered service too late in the war to make it to the frontline but was to become the mainstay of the RAF's bomber force for the next decade - it actually served in secondary roles until 1938! Powered by reliable Rolls Royce Eagle VIII engines and with a top speed of 100mph, a bomb load of 1,123 kg, and a range of 900 miles, it represented the height of technology in 1918.

Alcock and Brown set of from Newfoundland on the first successful trans-Atlantic flight

The Vimy would be used in a series of long-distance flights, culminating in the South African attempt. The first of these was Alcock and Brown's crossing of the Atlantic in the summer of 1919 in a Vimy modified to carry extra fuel tanks. They claimed a cash prize of £10,000 originally offered by the Daily Mail in 1913 to "the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 continuous hours." It should be noted that the Vimy's crossing was eight years before Lindbergh's solo crossing of Atlantic.

The Australian Vimy see with its crew. (IWM Q 72344)

The post-war Australian government matched this prize for the first flight from the UK to Australia. Keith Macpherson Smith, Ross Macpherson Smith and their mechanics Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers completed the trip in December 1919. Their aircraft is preserved in Adelaide, while Alcock and Brown's transatlantic machine resides in the National Science Museum, London.

The first section of the Cairo to Cape route as published in Flight, Feb 1920. magazine 1920

While these two amazing achievements were being made, a Cairo to Cape Town air route was having its finishing touches made. This route consisted of a series 24 airfields and 19 emergency landing grounds that were created from scratch from a series of desert outposts, tropical jungle strips and grassland landing grounds. To take on such a mammoth tasks, three RAF work parties had been sent out to carve out these virgin aerodromes to specific specifications. Unlike modern airports with their long runways, these early airfields were simply large (roughly 750 m by 750 m) squares, allowing aircraft to take and land into the wind, no matter what the direction of the breeze. This mammoth effort had started in January 1919 under the guidance of Major General Salmond, the CO of the RAF in the Near East. He organised three working parties to carve out these 43 aerodromes. The first worked from Cairo to Lake Victoria, the next section (and most challenging due to combination of tropical forest, lack of roads, and tsetse fly) covered the route south until the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika. The final stretch through to the Cape was led by Major Court Treatt.

The second section, including Palapye

Geoffrey Salmond had given much thought to the future of aviation in the region, seeing beyond the military connotations. He worked his plans on three principles. The first was that mail was going to provide the financial incentive. Secondly, loads must be large enough to cover their costs. Finally, the cost of maintenance must be built into any scheme. He calculated that any flight covering 1,000 miles would likely have to charge £500 for its load. Others, such as the then Prince of Wales, were looking at the benefits to the Empire. He said that geography would aid aviation and aviation would help geography when it came to moving around the Empire - he dreamt of flying to distant outposts rather than travelling by sea.

The final section of the 4,500-mile route

Bechuanaland was chosen to host a halfway point between Bulawayo and Pretoria partly because it lay on the railway line to the Rhodesian city. Palapye Road (now just Palapye) was chosen for its central location on the railway, despite being only a very small village at the time. However, it was near to the recently abandoned capital of Khama III, one of the most powerful chiefs in the Protectorate - indeed, he was one of the three leaders to travel to England in the late 1800's to ask Queen Victoria for British protection, ensuring that Bechuanaland kept a large measure of independence. When the water failed at Old Palapye (about 15km east of the railway), the Bangwato moved their capital to Serowe. This was quite an undertaking as the population was more than 30,000 at the time. Palapye Road was also on top on the Duke of Connaught's fact find mission to the protectorate in 1910.

The Royal Train of the Duke of Connaught stops at Palapye Road. (Digital Railway Images of South Africa project)

Khama III had a reputation as an enlightened leader (he was also known as Khama the Good) and not only was he happy to supply the labour to clear the ground at Palapye Road, which fell within his tribal land, but also created another suitable landing ground at Serowe, roughly 45 km to the west. Khama was content to cover the full costs of the aerodrome at his capital, but he requested that the British cover the expense of maintaining the field at Palapye. This was readily agreed to (the cost was estimated at £50 per annum) and a store of petrol and oil was shipped to the new aerodrome.

Khama III (sat right) during his trip to Britain

So, by the end of 1919 a practical air route covering nearly 4,500 miles of British controlled African territory was in place and the aircraft capable of covering such a route had already proved themselves on two other mammoth flights. The only question was who would be the first to actually fly to Cape Town.

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