More than 70 years ago two Lancaster men embarked on an amazing 5,000-mile flight in a Sunderland Flying Boat, their adventures coming straight out of the pages of a Jules Verne extravaganza
This account was taken entirely from letters sent home by Mr James Geoffrey Seddon-Brown recounting his experiences on an incident-packed journey to India which saw him flying over the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy, over the pyramids of Egypt and through a violent electric storm.
*J G Seddon-Brown continues his journey into Cairo.
“Our depression, fatigue and fears were dispelled by the ease of our arrival and everyone was cheered by the sight of the brilliantly lighted houseboat and the blue uniforms and bright red fezzes of the Egyptian Police and Customs Officials. We were given comfortable cabins and a good dinner. However, the most exciting discovery we made on the houseboat was a shop, full of silk stockings, chocolates and everything a starved Briton’s heart could desire.
Merckel and I took a taxi to see Cairo by night.
The journey through the suburbs of Cairo to the centre of the city gave us a very good idea of how the people in the poorer districts lived. Our route lay along the riverside and we had to pass through some of the worst quarters in Cairo.
One could not avoid a feeling, almost of despair, at the appalling poverty, obvious disease, ignorance and lack of all attempts at cleanliness and order.
The cabaret we visited to see a floor show shocked us by the tenth-rate nature of the performance, the surroundings and misbehaviour of the audience.
Not even Shepherd’s Hotel, where we paused for a drink cheered us up as it was so obviously an oasis in a sea of Oriental misery.
Egypt appeared to be in a poor way, and one feared it would get worse as remaining British influence withdrew.
One was reminded of the worst type of Balkan State, with all the bad features multiplied several times.
Many of the people seemed beyond hope and had not even the saving grace of good physique which one finds in the Balkans.
We went to bed rather depressed and miserable at what we had seen.
Sleep was difficult in the sticky heat of the river bank and next morning we were glad to get off to an early start.
The weather was pleasantly warm after a hot night with a gentle breeze coming from the surface of the Nile.
Climbing out of Cairo, we were stirred by the site of the vast space of desert stretching below us, the contrast between the sand and the cultivated areas, the lovely citadel and inevitably, the Pyramids, a suitable background and reminder of the past glories of ancient Egypt. In the far distance another group of pyramids relieved the desert horizon.
Now we began to leave the river with its palms and native boats, and everyone searched eagerly for the Suez Canal.
Visibility was exceptionally good, probably a hundred miles the Pilot said, and one began to understand what the desert meant.
Sand – brown, black, ochre and yellow, sand everywhere and nothing to relieve the monotonous hills and gullies which go to make up the desert.
Merckel felt very ill and went to lie down on the top deck in a spare bunk they had up there.
He had apparently contracted a bad attack of “Gippy Tummy”.
The Navigator said it was probably the Egyptian beer he had drunk the night before.
One bottle is apparently quite sufficient to dispose of the strongest European; of course, we should not have touched a drop.
After leaving Cairo we flew over more sand, thousands of square miles of it and even Palestine appeared to consist mostly of this ubiquitous mineral.
Certainly, the Dead Sea looked dead and Jerusalem in the far distance was equally unimpressive.
The worst thing the Arabs could do to the Jews would be to let them have it back.
The main impression gained on the trip so far had been this appalling waste of desert space.
Someday, perhaps, when the world needs more space, the land will be irrigated and made habitable.
We pressed on to the Euphrates river which we picked up just before Basra, passing Amara and Ur of the Chaldees.
It was here that Sir Leonard Woolley discovered a civilisation dating back to 5,000 B.C.
In fact, a whole fossilized city with fossilized sentries still on guard at the gates of the Palace and the most wonderful golden ornaments, helmets, etc., were unearthed.
They told us that the golden pieces recovered, as well as the fossilized bull which was discovered, are now to be seen in the British Museum. From the heights we clearly saw, in the blazing sunshine, the excavations and traces of the ancient city.
If one kept a sharp lookout to “port” at this stage of the journey, one could just see the snow-capped peaks of the Persian mountains, a hundred miles away.
It is here that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers combine to help the local inhabitants with their date growing before flowing into the head of the Persian Gulf.
Basra, of course, to the passengers of any aircraft passing over, means just heat and dates (the best in the world), and apart from a modern hotel, which received us hospitably when we dropped down on the river and gave us tea in pleasant surroundings, there was nothing else remarkable in this little river port. The last lap of the day was a short one, from Basra to Bahrein, two hours down the Gulf following the coast under a new moon.
Now we began to feel the heat for the first time, and, perhaps because of it, the ship was thrown about a good deal.
Most of the passengers took it well this time; at least there were no casualties in our cabin.
We came down to a perfect night landing at Bahrein in a fine calm sea.
Merckel was still very unwell and I felt so alarmed about his appearance that I insisted on the Skipper visiting him.
The ship’s officers decided finally that they would have to give him some drastic local medicine (whisky and Epsom salts), and they seemed to think this would encompass his cure.
I must admit that I still felt very worried about him as he had gone bright yellow in colour and appeared to be hardly breathing.
Bahrein by night was a complete Hollywood idea of an oriental town: low white square houses, red huts, mysteriously-veiled women and sinister hooded men.
The hotel, however, was very modern and very well run. Merckel, who appeared to have responded somewhat to the drastic prescription, managed to get up and stagger ashore.
After a wash up and a meal, four of us went out to walk through the Arab town.
A café with its strangely-robed customers intrigued us, and before long we were in earnest conversation with an Indian who spoke English and offered to take us to a pearl dhow owner’s house.
It must have been amusing to have seen the four of us solemnly squatting on the carpets of the floor of this ancient worthy’s house, surrounded by about fifteen of the most cheerful cut-throats one can imagine.
My eyes, I admit found it difficult to accept the evidence when the oldest and dirtiest gentleman present produced a bundle of rags from under his robes, and presently rolled out on the carpet several thousand pounds worth of pearls.
They were passed round and discussed by the dhow captains and I began to bid for one about the size of a large marrowfat pea.
It was a really beautiful pearl and would have made a superb ring.
He asked £59 for it and (not knowing that we were transgressing all the laws) I had quite a battle with him but could not bring him down to a price I felt like paying.
This was perhaps fortunate for me as there are strict custom examinations on leaving the port, and I should never have been allowed to take the pearl away. We certainly had an interesting evening and several of the Arabs kept us entranced with accounts of their pearl diving days, when they could stay down below water for three minutes, and with accounts of their narrow escapes from sharks and poisonous rays.
After a good night’s sleep, I was pleased to find that Merckel appeared much restored and we were glad when the launch came to take us to the ship again.
The Skipper’s medicine certainly seemed to have been effective.
The last lap of the flight from Bahrein to Karachi was over Arabia and the Persian Gulf and apart from a lot of sea and a good deal more sand, included only some high snow-capped peaks, which rose to over 8,000 feet.
The trip was smooth and without incident; the Captain seemed pleased that flying was going well and invited the passengers, in turn, on to the flight deck of the Sunderland.
Having piloted a Sunderland on several occasions during the war, when stationed at Calshott, I was very interested to see the civilian version of the ship’s controls.
Beside two pilots they carry a navigator, a radio officer and an engineer Officer. The engineer officer sits in front of a most intricate instrument panel watching the performance of each of the four 1,100 horse power engines. Everything is recorded, from the temperature of the cylinder heads to the rate of fuel flow.
As I arrived on the flight deck there was slight trouble with one engine, but it responded to treatment and the overheating of the cylinder heads was brought under control within a few minutes.
As a passenger I was greatly comforted by the care and precision devoted to every aspect of the ship’s progress.
Our fellow passengers were a very mixed crowd: a Burma rice planter, a jockey and his French wife, an American engineer joining his ship in China, and a textile engineers, being amongst the most interesting.
Finally, in the early afternoon, Karachi was sighted, a vast sprawling city and port with massed lines of masts and native boats tied up along the quays.
We came down to a smooth final landing and were soon dodging between rubber tyred carts drawn by enormous trotting camels which proceeded down the main street at full gallop.
The odd, humped, timid, and often sickly cows, straying at will everywhere, the noise from this colourful crowd and the dull ever-present heat indicated clearer than any words that we had arrived in India.”
Read the first part of this interesting article HERE