Diary of a Navigator – Pt 18 – The Yalta Conference

Another instalment (Pt 18), now on the Blog, from John Mitchell’s diary of his VIP flying days with the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill during January and February 1945.

Yalta Conference 1945

Yalta Conference 1945 – from the history press

No sooner had I taken to few days leave with the family, now three of us, than we found that the four aircraft now comprising the York Flight would all be involved in the biggest non-combatant airlift to be organized up to that time, ‘Ascalon’ by now was under command of Squadron Leader ‘Ozzy’ Morris and his crew, all ex-511 Squadron, Lyneham. Another Big Three Conference was in the offing: Code-named Operation ARGONAUT. Once again, Stalin was not prepared to leave Russian soil while the war was still being fought. A rendezvous in Russia would have to be as far south as reasonably practical to be sure of good weather in January/February. We did not know the destination until summoned to the Cabinet Office for preliminary planning. Axis press feelers were suggesting that the Big Three would meet in Luxor but we had a hunch it might be in the Crimea, we had, after all, made use of Sarabuz near Simferopol, on the way home from the Moscow Conference. Some twenty-five 4-engined aircraft (RAF and US) were to stage through Malta where the Prime Minister would meet Roosevelt, arriving in the cruiser USS QUINCEY. The Western Big Two would then fly on to the Crimea in their respective Skymasters, the bulk of the supporting staff having gone before. They were to land within a short time of each other so that the official welcome and guard of honour could be carried off in one fell swoop.

We found that our destination was to be Saki, the SNAF base on the west coast of the Crimea 12 miles southeast of Eupatoria, a pre-Revolutionary health resort. We were soon to discover the terrible damage wrought by the Nazis on Russian towns and villages and by the fighting for their subsequent liberation. There was very little accommodation available and certainly nothing in the way of suitable buildings at the airfield. Because of the size of the Allied air-lift, the RAF had provided some weeks beforehand the essential elements of a staging post: air traffic control and a radio navigational beacon, a small meteorological forecasting station under the Chief Met. Officer, Wing Commander Davis from HQTC with the necessary radio teleprinters and, of course, a maintenance pdy, under Squadron Leader Ellis, as the CTO, plus all the messing facilities necessary for the personnel. All this in tented accommodation, with the agreement of the Russians who were glad to be relieved of much of the mechanics of handling so many visiting aircraft. All this was in place by the time we arrived. In addition, the 20,000 ton liner ‘Franconia’, chartered from Cunard, was steamed out to the Black Sea to lie offshore Sevastopol, as a communication centre for the British delegation and to be a stores and supply vessel for those basic living requirements that the devastated Russians could not supply. It also had ample cabin accommodation for the PM’s party and staff should this be necessary.

The two VIP aircraft were to have fighter escort through Greek and Turkish air space and across the Black Sea, provided by the USAF long range P38 twin-engined aircraft based near Athens. The Russians had provided an additional base for them at Sarabuz, near Simferopol, where we had landed in the previous October on our way home from Moscow.

29th January 1945. With a seven and a half hour flight plan we had originally been scheduled to leave Northolt at midnight to arrive in Malta in daylight. However, that evening we received additional briefing that the local weather was deteriorating fast and that snow flurries might reduce visibility below take-off limits. Messages were hurriedly passed to No 10 that we should be obliged to get away at 2100 hours local time. This was duly accomplished – all the domestic loading having been completed during the afternoon. The flight at 8,000 feet was directly across France from St Valery to Marseilles thence to Elmas (Cagliari) and so to Malta. En route, there were now very many radio navigational beacons available, so my work was becoming considerably less strenuous!

The earlier take-off however would make our arrival time about 04:30 hours local time in the morning – still dark on the tarmac at Luqa. The ADC, Commander Tommy Thompson, had gone to considerable trouble to make a signal informing the Cabinet Office representative in Malta, General ‘Pug’ Ismay, who had gone on ahead, that the PM would not disembark on arrival but would remain sleeping in his very comfortable cabin until 0800 hours or so when he would go by car to Valetta harbour to embark on HMS ORION – his accommodation for the next three nights. He was not feeling particularly well, being plagued once again by the injection and pills given him before departure. Unfortunately, this signal never reached ‘Pug’ Ismay nor, in turn, the Governor or any other senior officer. Furthermore, our own ETA of 0330 hours GMT sent on RAF channels was misinterpreted as Local Time (all operating signals are made in GMT). So when we landed we found (or rather the ADC found) a guard of honour and band, plus the Governor, General Sir Edmond Schreiber, the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, who had been waiting over an hour in the cold pre-dawn. It had been described as a tarmac ‘laced with gold braid’. For a short while there was some embarrassment, causing maximum inconvenience to the highest personages on the Island, especially as the PM had announced, or rather given orders, that he wanted no noise – no aircraft engines to be run, etc, after he had landed. We had taxied in particularly gently. The guard of honour dispersed quietly, the VIPs rather grumpily. Some hours later the PM ‘went ashore’ at 1030 to his accommodation: in HMS ORION. He was not at all well. After he had gone and the other passengers had followed, Lord Moran put his head out of the curtains of his upper bunk and asked a rather tired Bill Fraser who was passing “How far are we from Malta?”. Bill, with a straight face, said “Nine foot six, Sir”. His Lordship was not amused! It was indicative of the quietness of the aircraft and its smooth handling on the ground that he had slept though it all!

This was not the first occasion the Lord Moran had fallen sound asleep in an RAF aircraft on the ground. When the PM was flying home in the Liberator ‘Commando’ from his Middle East visit in February 1943, the aircraft had developed a mechanical defect just before take-off from Maison Blanche, Algiers, for Lyneham. It had to taxi back to the tarmac and temporarily disgorge its passengers, for they were to remain overnight while the engine was fixed. On this occasion, after everyone was thought to have disembarked, the doors of the bomb bay were shut and Lord Moran left in the dark interior. Only later was he discovered missing and locked in. He was recovered, however, to where the party was staying at the Villa Klene in Algiers, none the worse for his snooze but perhaps disappointed that he was no nearer home.

Getting some twenty-five VIP aircraft punctually away from Malta at ten-minute intervals, carrying over 500 passengers in all, was quite a job: a large number of them belonged to the USAF. Tragic to report, one of the 51 1 Squadron York’s ex-Lyneham, MW 116 flown by Flight Lieutenant Eaton Clarke crashed in the sea off Lampedusa out of fuel, on route to Malta, with a number of Army and RAF Officers on board, including CIGS’s ADC, Captain Barny Charlesworth, who had been on his staff since Dunkirk. There were also members of the Cabinet Secretariat and Foreign Office lost: only 4 of the crew and three out of the 18 passengers survived. The reason for running out of fuel and not finding Luqa, with its very powerful radio beacon, was never satisfactorily resolved.

The President’s ‘sacred Cow’ had arrived empty at Luqa to meet him, flown in by Colonel Otis Bryan (ex TWA Chief Executive, temporarily serving in the US ATC). His Skymaster had been modified to carry additional fuel in the wing tanks, thus dispensing with the huge internal tanks we carried. It had also been fitted with more powerful engines which gave him an edge on us in cruising speed.

3rd February 1945. The air fleet was dispatched to the Crimea during the preceding day and night. The ‘Sacred Cow’ was last to leave and with its slightly higher cruising speed would catch us up by the time of arrival, thus giving the Russians a chance to do the honours to both VIPs together. It was a cold, starlight night as we prepared for departure at 0330 hours. The Owner had dined with Roosevelt on the USS Quincey and had gone straight to bed before take-off. We headed east toward Kythera and then turned northwards to rendezvous with our fighter escort which would make a dawn take-off from Hassani (Athens). These six P38 ‘Lightnings’ would then formate on us all the way to Saki where they would peel off and land independently at their temporary base at Sarabuz. A similar group of six would ‘intercept’ the ‘Sacred Cow’ as it followed ten minutes behind us.

It was now broad daylight as we flew over Samothrace and so one to Alexandropoulos and Midye, having a fine view of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus which were to our starboard. Breakfast  was served to our passengers: besides the PM, we had Section Officer Sarah Oliver (we had taken  her to Teheran a year earlier), Lord Moran, Sir Edward Bridges (Secretary to the Cabinet), Tommy  Thompson the ADC, Mr Martin and Mr Rowan (Private Secretaries), Hughes the Detective, and, of  course, Sawyers.

We had a smooth flight in sunshine but increasing cloud cover beneath us obscured the Crimean coastline. We had no difficulty in picking up the Saki radio navigational beacon but our fighter escort leader told us he was having difficulty making contact with the fighter controller at his destination airfield, Sarabuz. Without such contact and directions he was ‘lost’: could we guide him below cloud and give him a steer when in sight of the ground? We told him to form close formation behind us and we would take him down through the overcast, like a guide dog, on a predetermined bearing and then send him and his mates on their way from overhead Saki. We presumed, or hoped, he carried maps of the Crimea! This we accomplished without further ado and they made their destination successfully.

The VIPs set out for Yalta by road some eight hours driving away, after the greeting ceremony. The weather was dull and the spring thaw resulted in mud everywhere, except on the hard standings and concrete taxi-ways. The ‘Sacred Cow’ landed shortly behind us and when the President had been lowered to the ground by the lift in his aircraft a small procession was formed up to inspect the guard of honour. Molotov and Vishinski had been sent to greet them. From our vantage point we could see that the President looked terribly ill.

Saki was an airfield of the Soviet Naval Air Force. It had one concrete runway 1300 yards long with flat approaches in all directions, and a second concrete strip or taxiway used for parking aircraft. In the distance was a line of some twenty or so Bell Airocobras (P39) covered and looking unused. There were no night-flying facilities of any sort. We were glad to find the rather rudimentary, tented staging-post set up by the RAF. Not only did this encampment provide servicing facilities for the RAF aircraft coming and going throughout the VIP’s stay at Yalta, with the attendant passenger handling, but also an air-portable Meteorological Station, complete with teleprinters and radio- communications, linked to Malta and Cairo.

On decanting our party, Jack Payne at the bottom of the steps and in charge of the block and tackle of our portable stairway, quickly assessed that the wet and dirt of our surroundings would soon make a mess of our interior, even just unloading the baggage, etc. The damp would soon turn our bed linen, etc, mouldy. It would be most unlikely that several fan heaters could be provided to keep going day and night for the next ten days or so, which we expected the conference would last. We discovered that Otis Bryan, the President’s pilot, had already made urgent arrangements to fly the ‘sacred Cow’ to Payne Field, Cairo (the USAF base) for the duration of the conference and would return 48 hours before the VIPs departed. Bill Fraser quickly sought out our ADC before he left by road for Yalta with the VIPs and a similar dispensation was granted to us.

So, three hours after landing we flew out for Cairo, routing ourselves directly over Turkey to Nicosia, thence to Cairo West airfield, without any niceties of diplomatic clearances. In the dark, the risk of interception over Turkey was nil. The ADC had asked us to take three Foreign Office officials from our Moscow embassy who were making their way to the UK after assisting with the administrative details of the Conference. They were Messrs Balfour and Barclay, (the former became Sir ‘Jack’ Balfour) and Brigadier ‘Pop’ Hill, the Intelligence Liaison Officer from 30 Mission (though there was precious little intelligence exchange ever offered from the Russian side). It was a five and a half hour flight and the only incident I can recall was Jack Payne forbidding the passengers to put their boots on the furnishings. The Owner’s Stateroom was, of course, out of bounds!

It was dark when we landed in Cairo – about 2030 hours local – and the arrival of the PM’s Skymaster caused quite a stir amongst our local RAF friends. They knew ‘Ascalon’ and the crew of old. Furthermore, the location of the projected Big Three meeting had not yet been released to the world press. The emergence of ‘Pop’ Hill with a cigar, short and fairly tubby, in a British warm coat and a Russian black fur hat was as good a take-off for the PM as any ‘double-act’ could be, and this entirely accidental. As is so often the case, accidental deception is more effective than a planned counter-intelligence event. Berlin Radio gave it out the next morning that the PM had arrived in Cairo and that the Big Three were to meet in Luxor. This was just before the official Yalta announcement. We the crew, anyway, were off to the Hotel National and the aircraft was warm and dry, clean and secure. So the crew never got to Yalta, not that we would have done so even if we had stayed at the Saki staging post. Twenty years later I was to return to the Crimea and to Yalta, several times during my tour as the Air Attach6 in Moscow – but never to visit Saki or Sarabuz.

In Cairo, Bill Fraser had been forewarned by the ADC to contact the AOC of 216 Group for the PM might wish to visit Alexandria on his return flight from Yalta. Suitable airfields in the vicinity were to be surveyed with a view to their use by the Skymaster. We therefore called on Air Commodore Witney Straight and instead of using our own expensive aircraft for local flying as it were, he lent us his own small twin-engine communication aircraft, a 6-seater Beechcraft Expeditor (C45 in USAF parlance) and his personal pilot. We flew first to Gianaclis, an RAF training base located south of the city of Alexandria, on the fringes of the salt marsh of Lake Maryut. Plenty large enough for the Skymaster but poor roads and access to Alexandria through the slum outskirts. The PM would probably want to go to the harbour. We flew on to Aboukir for lunch: a lovely spot and an RAF flying boat base with the Officers’ Mess looking straight out over the bay to the scene of Nelson’s victory in 1798. There was one runway only, 1,000 yards long, and that bisected by a level-crossing of a light railway line. Local senior officers were worried that in a cross wind the Skymaster might not cope but little did they know that she handled like a large Avro Anson, and with the steerable nose wheel cross-winds were little problem. The aircraft would be fairly light of fuel anyway so, on Bill’s assurance that he would accept the conditions, the choice was made and we returned to Cairo to await developments.

We already knew that it was likely that we should fly to Athens after leaving the Crimea: now it was a stop off at Alexandria where the PM had in mind to intercept the President to make his farewells. The President would be sailing home to the United States in the cruiser USS Quincey which had been waiting for him in the Bitter Lakes. After ten days in Cairo, the Skymaster was ordered back to Saki to be ready for the end of conference and departure. Unaware of the close relationship the crew enjoyed with the ADC, the RAF had added another 48 hours to the safety margin we had arranged, so we returned far too soon.

8th February 1945. We took off empty at 0800 hours local for the five and a half hour trip to Saki, flying the same route northbound over Nicosia and west of Ankara to land well before dark. On arrival Jack Payne and the two stewards were to remain on board, in conformity with the PM’s instructions never to leave the aircraft unattended in Russia, in far greater comfort than the rest of us who had to enjoy the facilities in Eupatoria with the rest of the RAF crews. We were driven over to our accommodation in a Russian truck, through a sea of mud and slush. Once off the taxi-way on the airstrip there was no such thing as a paved road. We were billeted in bungalow-type accommodation that might well of once been part of a hospital or sanatorium. Made of wood and plaster, it was surprisingly warm, heated by the traditional wood stoves with their flues let into the walls. Everywhere was that characteristic smell of burning wood and Russian cigarettes. This smell is as all-pervading in Russia as that of Gauloise in France. Our collection of huts housed most of the RAF crews and ground staff. The Americans were similarly situated. There were no paved roads as such but only rows of cottages and huts in the mud. It was fair to remember that the wretched place, along with the rest of the Crimea, had been scorched by the retreating Russian troops and then shelled by the advancing Germans. The process of destruction had been repeated by the Russians recapturing their land.

The people were very quiet and silent; some shapeless women came in to tidy up our rooms and stoke our wood stoves. We ate our own tinned rations and drink had also been imported specially for us, whisky and beer. The beds were iron-framed and all the blankets that I saw came from the Canadian Red Cross. It was a curious camp. We even had a communal bath house: a sort of steam affair operated by these ageless Russian women. It was the only building of any size and, like our bedrooms, was wired for sound. Loudspeakers kept up a never-ending blare of Russian music, a deafening cacophony of Balalaika tunes. There was only one way to switch it off and that was by cutting the leads. The day before the main departure (10th February) the Russians gave a ‘Flyers Party’ for us all. What an orgy! It must have started early in the afternoon and went on until the small hours. It really was a disgusting drunken brawl. Bodies lying around everywhere, some sleeping it off in snow-filled ditches. A good deal of exchange of emblems went on and I secured a Russian soldier’s hat badge without too much trouble. One or two came away with medals in exchange for a few RAF uniform buttons. It was reckoned to be a good do, on all sides.

There was some uncertainty about the date of our own departure; most of our VIPs had left in their Yorks on 10th February. Out on the airfield on 1lth February to check over the aircraft, we learned that the President was leaving on the 13th and Colonel Otis Bryan was giving the ‘Sacred Cow’ a quick trip ’round the houses’ to ensure that all was well. They were programmed to fly to RAF Ismailia with their VIP passengers who would then rejoin the cruiser USS Quincey for the voyage home by sea. He came in to land with smoke pouring from one engine. Checking with his crew, we were told that a con rod had snapped on one cylinder and he would have to change the engine. With customary American speed, they radioed the USAF base at Payne Field, Cairo on the ‘Sacred Cow’s’ own radio set and placed their order. Within some seven hours (five and a half of which were flying time) a Curtiss ‘Commando’ C46 freighter arrived with a new engine and portable lifting tackle. The engine change job was done overnight and they were able to get away on 13th February as planned.

We learned later that our family party had already left Yalta on the l2th and were driven to Sevastopol, there to spend two nights on board the SS ‘Franconia’ in some comfort before coming to  Saki to fly out on l4th February. Our Skymaster needed an airing to blow out the damp and the cobwebs so on the 12th we too flew around the houses, only to find that one of our engines was belching oil smoke. On landing with three engines, Jack quickly discovered our problem: a rocker box axle had come adrift and mangled up the exhaust valve on one cylinder – number 1 cylinder and the master cylinder for the magneto timing, the worst of all to replace. No spare Pratt and Witney engine for us in Cairo – no means of flying it in, even if there should be one – and no spare parts on hand. Jack had a brain-wave, to take a good cylinder off Otis Bryan’s dud engine which, fortunately, had been left behind at Saki. He worked all through that night, with the aid of a small Russian floodlight – removing the ruined cylinder and taking the good one off the USAF engine and fitting it to ours. Jack was a master craftsman. The rest of us could offer nothing but unskilled manual help and the delivery of hot drinks and food. It rained on the open air operations and was bitterly cold but Jack had finished by midday the following day and we briefly tested the aircraft that afternoon (13th), all was now satisfactory. It was curious, in retrospect, that both these important aircraft should have similar engine failures, almost at the same time: sheer coincidence or perhaps Murphy again.

14th February 1945. The VIP party drove over from Sevastopol in the morning for Saki, a relatively short distance of three hours compared with the journey from Yalta. There was still a thin film of snow on the ground. Guard of honour and band in attendance. We did not have to hang around for long. The destination was Athens, then Aboukir and Cairo, for the PM wanted to see how the new Greek government was faring now that the Communist uprising had been suppressed. Field Marshal Alexander came with us, otherwise it was our usual family circus of passengers.

Airborne at midday we were soon in glorious sunshine accompanied by our six P38 ‘Lightning’ escort of the USAF. Jock Duncan produced an excellent lunch and everyone was cheerful, glad to be out of the discomforts and worries for the consequences of the Conference.

After lunch, as we were reaching the Bosporus, the PM came forward and sat in the co-pilot’s seat. He was joined by Sarah, his daughter. They had a wonderful view of the ground and he spoke as we flew in sight of the Gallipoli beaches of the ghastly failure of what might have been a brilliant strategic stroke if the commanders only had had the courage of the troops. We flew over Samothrace, Lemnos, caught sight of Mount Athos in the distance to starboard, over Skyros and Marathon and so to Athens. Here there was a very different reception from six weeks before.

We stopped only one night because the PM was anxious to rendezvous at Alexandria with the President. We left Field Marshal Alexander in Athens to proceed independently to Italy in his own aircraft: Randolph Churchill joined us. He had a knack of turning up when VIP comforts were around. He was certainly not popular with senior officers who, I believe, thought that he brought tittle-tattle to his father’s ears and, perhaps, spoke out of turn about information he gleaned. After all, he was only an Army Captain with limited but exotic fighting experience. On the other hand, the PM loved to have his family around, particularly Mrs Churchill. Sawyers, the valet, warned us about allowing Randolph to stock up with cigarettes from the aircraft’s stores. He, Sawyers, told us that he always got the money from his mother!

l4th/15th February 1945. After a tumultuous welcome in Athens and dinner at the Embassy, the PM returned to the Skymaster to sleep on board: we were to take off at 0530 hours local time in the morning, before breakfast. It was only a three and a half hour flight to Aboukir with what wind there was at 5,000 feet right behind us. The Skymaster was landed very skilfully by Bill in half the length of the short runway, much to the astonishment of the VIP’s present. We disembarked the party at about 1000 hours local time and the PM went straight on board HMS Aurora in Alexandria harbour where he intended to spend the night. Meanwhile, the baggage was unloaded and Sawyers, I recall, had difficulty in negotiating the aircraft’s steps. Certainly, everyone had had a good trip, breakfast and other refreshments served.

The crew were taken over to the beautifully situated RAF Mess for a late lunch. We had barely been allocated our rooms and were planning a swim in the Med when word came to return to the aircraft. Evidently, the President had arrived very much sooner than expected from the Suez Canal and there was time only for a quick lunch aboard the Quincey where the PM said his goodbyes, for the last time as it turned out. The President was a very sick man.

Sawyers was not best pleased to have to reload the baggage at short notice, but as it was for a 40 minute flight only to the RAF base at Cairo West, I suspect the Owner’s clothes were hung up somewhat haphazardly. Departing from Aboukir at 1700 hours local time there was scarcely an opportunity for more than a cup of tea as we flew along the western edge of the green Nile delta before landing in the dusk. We were to spent four more sunny days in Cairo before leaving for England. The weather was absolutely grand at this time of the year in Egypt.

19th February 1945. We took off from Cairo in the cool just after midnight by UK time, climbing across the desert to El Adem and Benghazito cruise at 8,000 feet out of the bumps. Overhead Luqa in just under six hours, we continued at this comfortable height by way of Elmas (Cagliari) and Istres (near Marseilles) and on westwards to Toulouse before turning NNW to Cherbourg and so over the Channel and home. As we flew across France, local forecasts for Northolt reported landing there to be impossible – fog. There was nothing for it but to obey our diversion instructions and land at Lyneham where we arrived soon after lunch, taking thirteen hours forty minutes from Cairo. Cars were waiting to take the PM to Swindon where a special train was waiting for Paddington. At Reading Mrs Churchill was waiting to intercept him not knowing the latest information on our diversion. the crew remained at Lyneham with the aircraft and brought it over to Northolt the following morning when the fog had cleared. So home, after just three weeks away and our son nearly two months old.

As for the Moscow Conference in October’44,the RAF had again provided the PM with his Cabinet papers during the stay in Yalta, a daily courier service for the diplomatic bags by 544 Squadron at Benson with its Mosquito aircraft. It was routed via San Severo, in the Heal of Italy, the base of the RAF Middle East PR Wing, No 336, almost exactly halfway between Benson and Saki. This route avoided having to fly over hostile territory. This remarkable courier service was maintained daily, without a hitch, from 31st January to 18th February and covered Athens, Aboukir and Cairo for the PM’s return journey. This squadron had also provided courier aircraft in support of the PM’s emergency dash to Athens, via Naples, a month earlier (26th-28th December).

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One Response to “Diary of a Navigator – Pt 18 – The Yalta Conference”

  1. Anthony Kirkham. Says:

    Very interesting. My father, Sergeant Ralph Kirkham, RAF Transport Command, was the Airfield Controller at Saki. His notes recall how Churchill’s aircraft arrived early and he had to make it circle for 20 minutes because Mr Molotov had not yet arrived (from Yalta) to greet it. The wooden building you were housed in was marked (in Russian) Sanatorium no 1.

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