The following guest post article has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print). His own blog can be viewed at www.frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com and his website is www.frontiersmenhistorian.info
For part one, please see the previous entry here: Wings Around the World, Part 1
The Sheikh of El Jid’s daughter
Finally, they got the plane airworthy and were able to leave France and fly to Rome via Pisa. Blake made arrangements for a replacement for Broome to join them at Rome. The film contract was a vital part of the finances and Broome was most obviously only an amateur incapable of shooting the quality of films needed. Blake managed to persuade probably the best-known aerial cameraman of the day, Geoffrey Malins, to join the expedition. Malins had photographed the First War both from the air and from the ground and those films can still be seen today. In more recent years there have been questions raised as to whether Malins had ‘staged’ some of his more dramatic pictures. It was also the beginning of a friendship between Macmillan and Malins. At Rome, Broome left for Japan, where it was to have been his duty to organise the stage of the flight over the dangerous northern Pacific section.
The next stop was Naples and they could not resist the dangerous exploit of flying up to look at Vesuvius. They began badly by flying into a long radio aerial which nearly dragged them down, but they managed either to break it or drag themselves clear. They flew right over the summit of Vesuvius, which was a breathtaking sight and probably the first ever flight over an active volcano. Italian Customs had sealed the camera, but Malins yielded to temptation and broke open the seals to photograph the scene. Sadly, the motion picture seems not to have survived and all we have is one grainy still photo. Apart from the suffocating sulphur fumes, they flew through electrical storms that sucked the little plane suddenly up five hundred feet and then threatened to cast it down into the heart of the volcano. It was with great relief that they made it to the other side and eventually landed at Brindisi, which appeared to be deserted. In fact no plane had landed there for months. Yet again the plane was damaged when they hit an overgrown ditch at the end of the runway smashing yet another airscrew. More delays as they waited for a replacement to arrive from England, although they did manage to repair the undercarriage that had been damaged at the same time. They spent the first night in the derelict officers’ quarters, only to find that the building was infested with countless biting inspects so they sought refuge in a hotel. The replacement airscrew arrived, needless to say damaged in transit. Eventually the plane was airworthy and they took off, only to be forced to return after about twenty miles with engine trouble. They were given a lift back to the hotel in his car by a British officer. He then crashed his car avoiding a donkey and Macmillan damaged his left foot. This swelled so much and was so painful that Macmillan was forced to wear a carpet slipper on it. Injured foot or not, Macmillan still carried on for a painful trip to Greece where they were well treated. The plane was checked over and refueled without charge while Macmillan gave his foot two days rest on doctor’s orders.
My Dear Pilots and Ground Wallahs
The Pets are moving steadily on their way and have now reached Athens. Of course they have not yet caught up with Jerry’s friend who is walking round the world dumping their spares for them, but then of course they don’t expect to…Jeff is doing splendidly and thinks he is taking much better photographs than did Broome…Well I think they will probably still be at Athens next week…
(The Aeroplane, July 5th 1922)
At this stage, the “Mac, Broome and Wilfred” spoof and cartoons came to the attention of the backers in Britain. An angry solicitor’s letter arrived at the offices of The Aeroplane threatening legal action for defamation. This brought a swift end to the spoof and a full apology, although the magazine could not resist a brief comment that “…those mishaps having been met with so near home and so soon after the start prompted our commentator to criticisms and suggestions which we now appreciate were not quite fair…” One is left to wonder who was the mole who was giving the magazine some accurate information all along the route.
Queen Sophia and Prince Nicholas personally came to see them off and the Queen presented them with some most welcome provisions. They then made the first ever direct flight from Athens to Egypt. The Air Officer Commanding would not give permission for the D.H.9 to fly to Baghdad unaccompanied as there had been recent disturbances in what was then Transjordania. They were instructed to meet up with a Vickers Vernon transport troop-plane at Ziza and travel with this to Baghdad. The official water ration was one gallon per person per day. The weight of that for five days would have added the equivalent of an extra person to the plane so the water and their rations were to be carried in the Vickers. The Vernon was far too slow even for the underpowered D.H.9 and when the Vernon had to land halfway to Baghdad on one of the emergency grounds provided for the regular incidents of engine trouble, the world-fliers decided to disobey orders and go on alone. As the Vernon was in regular contact by radio with both ends of the route it was considered that they would be safe.
After flying for some time, the radiator of the D.H.9 started to steam in the intense heat so they put down at another marked emergency landing ground by the village of El Jid. They were concerned that the Arabs might be hostile and when some heavily-armed locals arrived they became even more nervous. What the aviators did not know was that a couple of years earlier, when the desert was first crossed by air, some airmen had found the sheikh of El Jid seriously ill. They flew him to Baghdad where he was successfully operated on for appendicitis. Because of this, the sheikh was a great supporter of flying and any airman who landed at his village would be sure of the utmost hospitality. Whether the hospitality would still be the same today is probably uncertain. The village of El Jid (Jidd or El Djid) is in Iraq situated close to both the Syria and Jordan borders.
A welcoming party, headed by the sheikh in person, insisted on kissing Blake, Macmillan and Malins. Neither group could speak the other’s language, so Macmillan tried to indicate by signs that the aircraft was thirsty and needed a drink. His signs were misunderstood and an Arab arrived with a goatskin containing rancid goats milk. Good manners dictated that each man should drink three cups; six cups would be a compliment to the host. They could think of no way to explain that the aircraft was thirsty rather than the men. Macmillan and Malins just managed their three cups but Blake, who had some experience of Arab ways, drank six. That was almost his undoing, for the delighted sheikh put a very grubby hand deep into the goatskin and came up with a lump of clotted milk well adorned with goat hairs. This he rolled into a ball and thrust into Blake’s mouth. With an enforced smile, Blake swallowed it. For years afterwards, the memory of the horrid sensation in his mouth stayed with Blake.
Blake jumped up and busied himself with the plane until they finally found a way of explaining to the Arabs that the D.H.9 also needed a drink. Water was fetched and the radiator filled. When some of the beautiful young girls of the tribe arrived, the men were almost tempted to risk further hospitality and stay overnight. Each of the three men commented in later writings on the exceptional beauty of the girls, and especially the sheikh’s daughter. Some eight years later Malins did succeed in travelling round the world, but using the humbler transport of motorcycle and sidecar. When he arrived in Sydney Australia he was asked to talk on their night-time radio. Malins obliged with the story of the sheikh’s daughter. He possibly embroidered the story, saying that he had gone off in the moonlight to collect water with the girl.
He was away with the girl for a rather long time.
Malins’ explanation was that he and the girl were “just talking”, but as neither spoke the other’s language this is rather difficult to accept. Before finally taking off, Macmillan had to resist the temptation to stop longer as the sheikh’s daughter dressed in what seems to have been a rather diaphanous robe climbed up to the cockpit with him to examine the aeroplane. All the girls made it very obvious that they would like the flyers to stay a while as the guest of the sheikh. A parting gift from the sheikh, a newly-killed sheep still warm and dripping blood, was wrapped in some spare fabric and stowed in the back locker of the fuselage. In return they handed out handfuls of cigarettes, chocolate and foreign coins. The coins delighted the girls as they were decorated with bangles of foreign coins. The sheikh showed them his great treasure, a signed letter in Arabic from Lawrence of Arabia. The sheikh asked them also to write their names on paper for him, which they all did, adding expressions of gratitude for the sheikh’s hospitality. When they arrived at Ramadi, some twenty miles from Baghdad where they refueled they presented the sheep’s carcass to the local aircraftmen. The flyers took two days resting at Baghdad where they told the story of El Jid and the sheikh’s daughter to a number of eager listeners.
It was claimed that for many months afterwards Royal Air Force records from the area noted a very large number of “forced landings” at El Jid!
In part three: flying through India in the monsoon and how two of the flyers came close to losing their lives.
This article is subject to ongoing research, so part 3 will follow within the next few weeks.