Forgotten heroes – the secret Indian Ocean Mail Service
During 1942 and much of 1943, the Japanese Navy made the Indian Ocean a dangerous place to cross and had, in fact severed the mail route from the Indian subcontinent to Australia. By early 1943, Qantas Managing Director Hudson Fysh was trying to re-establish connections with the UK without having to travel through America, which was the only option by then. And he thought it could be done by using Catalina’s.
His crews had done it before. Captain Lester Brain and his crew collected the first RAAF Cat at San Diego and took 22 hours to cover the 4828 kilometres to Honolulu. On arrival, the aircraft still had enough fuel to fly for another 4 hours. On the next flight, Captain Russell Tapp had flown direct from Canton Island to Sydney – a distance of 5 149 kilometres. And there was the fact that Qantas wouldn’t be first to do the trip. Five Catalinas from the Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service flew Perth to Ceylon in March 1942, to re-join the part of their squadron which had escaped to the west when Java fell. Convinced it could be done, Fysh only had to find Catalinas…
That task proved to be the hardest of all.
Arthur Corbett, the director-general of Civil Aviation, told Fysh there was no point asking the Americans because they had none to spare. He also was against the Indian Ocean proposal because it would put the lives of crews in danger. This was a strange attitude from a man, who’d asked Qantas to send unarmed flying boats into parts of Indonesia to evacuate civilians and troops to Australia under the noses of the Japanese – flights which had seen 2 aircraft shot down and the crews and passengers killed.
Fysh then talked to the British government. To his relief he was able to borrow 5 Royal Navy Catalinas which were based at Matilda Bay in the Nedlands area of Perth and at Lake Koggala in Ceylon. Captain Bill Crowther was in overall charge of the operation and at his suggestion each aircraft was named after one of the stars used for celestial navigation. Each one had a British civil registration and the Royal Navy used large numbers under the tail fin to identify each one.
The single Indian Ocean hop of 5,652km would be the longest non-stop regular passenger flight ever attempted in the world. Celestial navigation had to be used to maintain radio silence over waters patrolled by enemy aircraft. To accomplish this, the five ex-RAF Cats were stripped of all non-essential equipment, including de-icing equipment and insulation.
Eight 66 gallon auxiliary fuel tanks were installed in the flight engineers compartment, increasing the fuel capacity to 1,988 imperial gallons (9,040 L), which gave the Catalina a range of 3,600 nautical miles (6,700 km; 4,100 mi). This weight of fuel limited the Catalina’s load to only three passengers and 69kg of diplomatic and armed forces mail.
At take-off, the Cat would have an all-up weight (AUW) of 35.400 lbs (16.100 kgs), an overload of about 4 tons. And failure of one engine during the first 10 hours of flight would have made a ditching inevitable. Fortunately, this never happened.
The Royal Air Force did the first of 7 survey flights along the route in May 1943. The last flight on June 25th saw the the delivery of the first Cat for Qantas. And on June 29, 1943, Russell Tapp, (now Senior Route Captain), First Officer / Navigator Rex Senior, Engineer Frank Furniss and Radio Operator Glen Mumford took-off for the first scheduled service. 28 hours and 10 minutes later, they moored at the RAF terminal at Lake Koggala, Ceylon.
Experience showed 99 knots or 183 kilometres an hour was the most economical cruising speed with the engines being adjusted as weight burned off to have a constant burn of 22 gallons or 100 litres an hour. The average length of the flight was 28 hours; the shortest was 27 hours and the longest 32 – a long time for passengers to be jammed in a tight and noisy space, wondering if a stray Jap might shoot them down.
That’s why the service was called ‘Double Sunrise’. Passengers and crew always saw the sun rise twice on each flight. Hudson Fysh drafted a certificate which was given to passengers, although they couldn’t show it to anybody because the route was secret!
Two bunks were fitted in the cabin and these were primarily to enable rest periods for the off duty crew members. Occasionally a passenger would occupy one of the bunks though three chairs were installed in the blister compartment. A small toilet was fastened to the after bulkhead, regrettably with little privacy available. A British MP, who flew the Double Sunrise, was Baroness Edith Summerskill, a formidable and forceful lady. There’s no reason to believe she has been shy about answering nature’s call in such circumstances.
By the time the operation ended on 18 July 1945, the Cats had completed 271 crossings of the Indian Ocean. They had carried 648 passengers, 51,600 kilograms of microfilmed mail and 6,728 kilograms of freight with a total distance travelled of 956,630 miles or 1,539,546 kilometres.
The “Double Sunrise Cats”
|Vega Star||G-AGFL (FP221)||tail code 1|
|Altair Star||G-AGFM (FP244)||tail code 2|
|Rigel Star||G-AGID (JX575)||tail code 3|
|Antares Star||G-AGIE (JX577)||tail code 4|
|Spica Star||G-AGKS (JX287)||tail code 5|