Mondays in January in the United Kingdom can be bleak, dreary affairs, but at Brooklands aerodrome, there was excitement on the twenty-fourth day of 1920, as Vickers Vimy Commercial G-EAAV took off on its first leg on the way to Cape Town. In distant Palapye, a small village in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, preparations for its arrival into quite different conditions had started months before.
June 1919 saw much communication between Mafeking and Palapye Road, the effective capital of the Bechuanaland protectorate and a small settlement on the railway roughly halfway to Bulawayo. F.H. Kirkman was excited enough by the prospect of an aeroplane visiting his home in Palapye that he wrote to Mr Macgregor to discuss possible arrangements for the welcome and refreshment of the gallant airmen. Lunch, breakfast, and even midnight suppers were discussed. Kirkman thought the aircraft would arrive within a month based on stories in The Times, while Mafeking felt October was the most likely. Lieutenant John Holthouse, in Pretoria, advised them to expect two machines by late August. Fortunately, Palapye waited before preparing the refreshments - however, the airfield would later gain a reputation for its snacks provided by the Palapye Hotel.
While the British government had invested much money and manpower in creating the route from Cairo to Cape Town, added interest and incentive to be the first to complete the journey was provided by Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail and Times Newspapers. He offered the same prize money, £10,000, as he had for the first crew to cross the Atlantic for the first aeroplane to arrive at the Cape. This money attracted four serious teams.
Northcliffe's own team - Vickers supplied the crew and aircraft
The weather forecast was a basic affair although all telegraph stations along the route were ordered to give 'Met' updates and news of the aircraft priority.
The first to set off was the Vimy Commercial piloted by Captain Stanley Cockrell and Captain Frank Broome, DFC. Both had seen action over the Western Front during WWI before becoming test pilots for Vickers; together they were popularly known as the 'Heavenly Twins'. Their entry was sponsored by Lord Northcliffe himself, with the aim of giving the post-war British aviation industry a much-needed boost. The aircraft chosen was the prototype Vimy Commercial, a much modified Vimy bomber which was one of the first effective passenger carrying designs aimed at the nascent airline industry. Its rotund fuselage was capable of carrying eight passengers in relative comfort, with large wicker chairs providing the seating. For the Cape trip, five of these were removed to allow spares, tools, and more fuel to be carried. Two of the remaining three seats were taken up by Sergeant Major James Wyatt (mechanic), Clarence Corby (rigger). The final seat was reserved for Dr Mitchell, a Times journalist, who would join the party in Cairo.
The Cairo to Cape Town aerial route climatic chart
Second to leave was the Handley Page O/400 piloted by Major Herbert Brackley, DSO, DSC, and Captain Frederick Tymms, MC. Brackley had failed to cross the Atlantic in the four engine 0/1500 and was desperate to win the latest cash prize. Sticking to a Handley Page aircraft, he won sponsorship from the Daily Telegraph. One of the big rivals to Northcliffe's papers, the Telegraph was determined to raise its own profile while at the same time taking the money from the rival newspaper baron. The 0/400 used was a standard bomber with armament removed and it departed from Cricklewood for le Bourget (Paris) on January 25.
Sidney Cotton departs on his attempt in the DH.14.
The next aeroplane to depart was one of only three Airco DH.14's built. The DH.14 was designed to replace the DH.9 and looked like a scaled-up version of the 'Nine' but with a much bigger and more reliable engine. The aircraft used for the race was intended to be used for the transatlantic crossing and the race to Australia, but was not completed in time for either. It was modified with an enclosed cabin and extra fuel tanks and was piloted by Sidney Cotton - famous at the time for his 'Sidcot' flying suit. It took off from Hendon on February 4, only to have to immediately divert to Cricklewood with an oil leak. Suitably repaired it had got as far as Naples by the 21st, but it was damaged when it made a forced landing on the beach at Medini having failed to find the aerodrome. While it would fly again, this was the end of the race to the Cape.
Upside down on the beach, this was the end of Cotton's attempt
Taking off almost simultaneously with the DH.14 was another Vickers Vimy, this time a standard bomber version - though with armament removed and painted in a smart silver scheme. It also had specially modified engines to cope with the difficult conditions expected on the African leg of the journey. This aircraft had been purchased by the South African Government on the orders of now Prime Minister, Jan Smuts. Smuts was truly 'air minded' and had not only sat in the Imperial War Cabinet but had played a pivotal role in the creation of the Royal Air Force. Despite his excellent relations with London, he was still proud of his Afrikaans roots and was determined that the race should be won by a South African. G-UABA, aptly named 'Silver Queen', took to the air at 7.30 on the morning of February 4, a full ten days after the first Vimy had departed. It was piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Hesperus Andrias van Rynveld, DSO, MC, who was known to one and all as Pierre and Captain Quintin Brand. Both men had served with distinction with the Royal Flying Corps and they both officially still held commissions in the RAF, though seconded to the South African military. Some contemporary reports gave their new RAF ranks which were Wing Commander and Flight Lieutenant, respectively.
Brand and van Ryneveld in front of the Silver Queen
The South African team had a lot of catching up to do by the time they departed. The front runners, Cockrell and Broome, in their Vimy Commercial were already in Cairo and working on their Rolls Royce Eagle engines. The Eagle had already developed a reputation for overheating in 'hot and high' conditions, not helped be their water-cooling system which was susceptible to leaks. Various tweaks to the systems were being implemented by their ground crew to try and improve their reliability for the most challenging part of the trip.
Cockrell and Broome depart Egypt
The Telegraph sponsored Handley Page team were in Italy by this time, but had been delayed by tragedy. When trying to leave Brindisi, the aircraft's right undercarriage became bogged down. Their mechanics, Knight and Stoten, jumped down to free the wheel with the engines still running. Stoten was hit by a propeller which fractured his skull and he died on the journey to hospital. His skull also did damage to the propeller and co-pilot Tymms had to travel to Athens by sea to source a replacement. Unfortunately, this suffered water damage on the return journey and a new propeller had to be sent out from England by rail. This held them up until the 19th of February and looked like putting them out of the race. Undeterred, they pushed on to Cairo where the RAF helped prepare the aircraft for the African leg of its journey. Unfortunately, structural failure in the form of tail flutter meant that the large bomber had to make an emergency landing with no rudders and ineffective elevators. Brackley's flying skills saved the crew, but the undercarriage failed to cope with the crosswind landing and G-EAMC buried its nose into the desert sand at El Shereik in Sudan, bringing their attempt to a grinding halt.
The Vimy Commercial had more luck in the Sudan - the area where the Handley Page's attempt came to a sticky end
In a desperate attempt to catch up with the other Vickers, van Ryneveld decided to fly directly from Taranto in Italy to Derna on the north Libyan coast. To give an idea of the risks involved and the courage required to cross the Mediterranean at one its widest points, this flight ended up taking only two hours less that Alcock and Brown's successful transatlantic crossing. They reached Cairo on the 9th February and, thanks to the short cut, they were only 640 miles behind Cockrell and Broome - potentially within a good day's flying. Setting off the next day, it seemed the gods were on their side with a strong tail wind meaning that they covered the first 530 miles towards Khartoum at a ground speed of more than 100 mph. Then disaster stuck through a leaking radiator. Realising that unless they landed the engine would soon seize itself solid, van Ryneveld made an emergency landing. Unfortunately, the large aircraft failed to stop before it encountered an outcrop of boulders. The ensuing impact destroyed the airframe, but miraculously the vital modified engines survived intact.
On hearing of the accident, Smuts immediately arranged for the RAF in Cairo to supply a replacement aircraft and all material that could be salvaged, including the powerplants, was railroaded back to Egypt to be fitted into what became the Silver Queen II. The RAF mechanics in Cairo worked miracles - and gave the South African team preference over the Telegraph's 0/400 which arrived while they were preparing the new Vimy - and van Ryneveld was on his way again by February 22.
Cockrell and Broome were awarded the Air Force Cross for their attempt. Photo © IWM (Q 73265)
As the South Africans left Cairo for the second time, the Vimy Commercial of Cockrell and Broome was already in Uganda. However, only four days later an engine failure on take-off at Tabora (in what is now Tanzania), led to a collision with a termite mound. Another team were out of the race. For their gallant efforts, the pilots were awarded the Air Force Cross and the mechanics the Air Force Medal.
Bypassing Tabora, van Ryneveld was unaware of the fate of his rivals until he reached Abercorn. In theory this meant that the final 2,500km should have been plain flying, but, as the other teams had found out, in Africa, nothing was simple.
By the second of March they had landed at Livingstone, fortunately drawing a large crowd of Africans to see their first flying machine. The landing field was waterlogged and it took the combined efforts of all those present to trample the ground down to form a surface long and hard enough to allow the Silver Queen II to depart three days later.
As the second Silver Queen neared Rhodesia, there was a flurry of telegrams back and forth from Mafeking to Pretoria. The Resident Commissioner recognised the contribution that Khama III had made in building the airfield at Palapye Road and wanted to ensure that not only was the airfield used, but that a visit was made to his capital, Serowe. The forward-looking chief had not only cleared the field the British wanted, but had built his own aerodrome and it was felt that it was politically important that the new airfield received at least a fly-past. Replies made it clear that despite Palapye being an official refueling stop on the Cape-Cairo route that van Ryneveld intended to fly directly from Bulawayo to Pretoria. The official British view was that it was 'urgent' and an 'important political necessity' that Khama received the visit that both his position and assistance deserved. Pretoria felt that van Ryneveld would most likely accede to a personal appeal by telegram from Khama himself.
Bulawayo Racecourse - March 5th 1920. DRISA Archive
The Vimy drew another large crowd when it arrived at Bulawayo just after lunch on Friday the fifth, becoming the first aeroplane to fly in Rhodesia. An even larger gathering was present on the racecourse the following day to see the aircraft depart. It was still not clear whether a visit to Khama and Bechuanaland was part of the plan as the Vimy clawed its way into the thin African air. The roar of the engines was replaced by a short-lived silence and then there was a crash. So near - whichever route they took, they would have received a massive welcome in South Africa that day - but the attempt looked to be over.
March the 6th, 1920. Silver Queen II failed to climb away from Bulawayo's Racecourse and was wrecked - bringing to an end to the race? Photo © DRISA Archive