British Empire Books

The Baghdad Air Mail

AuthorWing Commander Roderic Hill
First Published1927
This Edition2005
ISBN No.1845880099

Rarely could a postman's story be so entertaining and full of danger, romance and adventure. This book is a reprint of Wing Commander Hill's 1927 memoirs of his time as a pilot flying between Egypt and the newly acquired mandates of Palestine and Iraq. It recounts a lost age of experimental air transportation as the Imperial authorities tried to bend air power to the benefit of the empire. The 1920s was a period when all aspects of air power were tested. After World War One, it was hoped that the Air Force would offer opportunities to project power over vast areas at a fraction of the cost of standing armies. Some of these experiments were more successful than others. In this book, Wing Commander Hill gives the mechanics of one relatively successful use of Imperial air power - the Baghdad Air Mail Service.

The route between Iraq and Palestine had always been a backup communications route of the imperial authorities as they sought to keep communications open between India and Britain. However, for geographical reasons, the Suez route (even before the canal) was a far more practical and economic communications route: at least until the advent of aircraft. The Baghdad Air Mail route was principally to connect Baghdad to the ocean liners bringing sacks of mail to the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. However, it was also a strategic experiment to practice long distance flights in the desert and to create a viable section of an air route on the way to India - which is what actually happened - although after Hill's tenure in the desert. But as Hill mentions in the book, his squadron was at the forefront of this kind of long distance air travel and he discusses the procedures and difficulties experienced in some considerable detail.

In many ways it is odd reading a book set in the desert in the 1920s and yet feeling remarkably familiar with the places described. Hill himself is obviously a product of a traditional classics based education system who is familiar with Egyptian, Roman and Babylonian history and of course with the stories of the Bible. For modern readers, the places mentioned are more relevant due to the modern events of the Middle East which once again finds British soldiers and airmen in many of the places discussed by Hill. Fellujah, Basra, Tekrit, Nasiriyah are all places mentioned by Hill but which also fill today's newspapers and television screens. And the names on the Palestinian side of the flights are equally familiar as current affairs force these town names into our consciousness. This 1927 reprint feels remarkably fresh.

Despite the modern connections, Hill definitely describes a long lost landscape. He talks of flying over airship landing masts, of watching tribes of Bedu move over the desert, of whole countries without any significant roads at all - certainly no tarmac! In fact, it is the relative lack of wheeled transport in this part of the world that allows the planes to successfully navigate the featureless deserts between Cairo and Baghdad. Armoured Car Convoys had carved out a track between the airfields linking the parts of the journey. It was surprising to read that this was the major navigational aid of the aircraft on their journeys. The shuddering and shaking aircraft made their compasses too inaccurate to take accurate readings from and there were too few features in the desert to use as reliable landmarks. So Hill tells us how the planes had to fly low enough to be able to see these tracks to avoid getting lost. On more than one occasion, the tracks blew too faint to follow, or a forked track lead the planes in the wrong direction for several miles. Their reliance on these tracks was so complete that they could not climb over any intervening cloud banks to avoid bad weather - either they had to fly through them, or land and wait for the weather to clear.

In fact, for all the bravery, hard work and enthusiasm for this air route, the overwhelming feeling the reader gets is how amateurish it all seemed - chewing gum used to stop oil leaks, crew leaning out of the aircraft holding flares so that they could land at night. Of course, it is harsh to use modern day standards of aerial safety to judge these pioneers of flight. The book recounts a more innocent era of a boy's own adventure style of flight. And in fact, the flimsiness, cheapness of materials and low speeds actually gave these pilots of the 1920s many advantages over their modern day counterparts as they could literally drop out of the sky and land on any flat land available - modern day jets can only land and take off on specially designed airfields that are few and far between. These pilots could get a real feeling for the area they were flying over. They could easily land and give aid to anyone they saw in trouble. Indeed, they were expected to give intelligence reports on completion of all flights detailing anything unusual that they saw or updates on their own troops movements.

This book would be of particular interest to anyone interested in aeronautics. He goes into a lot of detail about the mechanics of flying, of the effects of weather, air temperature, pressure, etc... He explains why planes of this era had a ski undercarriage in addition to wheels - to stop the plane from going over on its nose during landings or take-offs - which seems to happen with alarming regularity in these stories. He explains the jobs of the crew - which even includes the seemingly redundant job of a rigger - until you remember that these planes were still made out of wood and canvas.

The only major criticism I have of this book is the lack of specific plates for the pictures. The book does have some very interesting pictures to accompany it. Unfortunately, they are printed within the text itself on rather thin paper. This has the effect that the pictures seem to suffer from streaked lines as the text from the following page bleeds through the paper. Luckily, the lovely maps at the end of the book seem to suffer less from this problem. I do also wish that the author had had more time to explain the workings of the Nairn Transport Company - a private overland equivalent of the Air Mail Service set up by an extravagant New Zealander. The company is mentioned time and time again - but never in enough detail to satisfy your curiosity.

So, for a glimpse at a period of the golden age of flight, this book would make a fine jumping off point. You become familiar with the stresses and worries of these pioneers of flight in a part of the world that can be inhospitable at the best of times. Although, you can also get lost in Hill's imagination as he sets stories to the landscapes and landmarks that he passes on this remarkable air mail route.

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by Stephen Luscombe