The need to evacuate citizens from a foreign nation is a function not be taken for granted. You’ll see it suggested when diplomatic relations get tense, and it has been carried out infrequently in recent memory, with dramatic effect. In 2011, the Royal Air Force dispatched C-130s across Libya to bring citizens out of the country during its Civil War. In 1997, the Royal Australian Air Force likewise sent C-130Hs to Cambodia to evacuate nearly 500 Australian and foreign citizens to Malaysia, bringing them out in a single day. In slightly more stable conditions, a number of nations did the same in 1979 before the Iranian Revolution took hold.
The circumstances requiring such airlifts often call for a military solution. While diplomatic evacuations have been an infrequent occurrence since the 1970s, the first such airlift of this kind occurred in 1928 in Afghanistan. Naturally enough, it was the Royal Air Force (RAF) who did it first. Following the First World War, few other nations invested in military airlift quite like the United Kingdom. But then, few countries had the same geographic responsibility.
The British Armed Forces emerged from the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18 in a very different fashion to how they entered it – key amongst them being the establishment of a new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF), in 1918. The greater Commonwealth grew significantly from territories formerly owned by the Ottoman and German Empires, although Afghanistan was now independent. Following the Great War, there was a competition for resources between the Army, Navy and Air Force, and much as been made of the rivalries faced by the RAF after it emerged as an independent service. Its survival hinged on establishing new and unique roles for itself, but fortunately for the RAF, it was not a level playing field. Breakthroughs in aviation allowed it to perform new roles which were well-suited for governing an Empire, and the RAF emerged in the 1920s as a ‘force multiplier’ for the other services.
One of these new roles was airlift. In 1921, the Vickers Vernon flew as the RAF’s first dedicated ‘heavy’ transport, taking the wings from a Vickers Vimy bomber and mating them to a new fuselage. Its range was paltry however – 270 nautical miles, at a speed of 65kts. Its open cockpit restricted it to fair weather flying, and long-range missions (such as a mail flight from Baghdad to Cairo) required crews to follow navigation trenches or roads, with frequent refueling stops. The RAF still saw promise in its military applications in the Middle East, and ordered 55 Vernons. Its cabin could hold 11 passengers who sat on canvas seating down the sides of the fuselage’s interior.
The Vernons fired innovation within the RAF in how it supported the other services. In 1923, Vernons of the RAF’s No. 70 Squadron in Iraq transported Sikh troops (figures vary from 280 to 500) from Kingarban to Kirkuk, helping to quash a Kurdish uprising – in effect, the first operational military airlift. The experience gained by No. 70 Squadron in the Middle East through the 1920s would soon pay dividends, as the seeds were being sewn for an even greater feat – this time, to the east of Iraq. In Afghanistan.
With the independence of Afghanistan in 1919, King Amānullāh Khān came to power in the capital of Kabul with an agenda of bringing his country into the 20th century. While the policies (and their benefits) proved popular in the capital, the tribes outside of the major centres – carrying with them deep-seated religious convictions – rejected his measures. They refused his attempts to enforce taxation, and baulked at the idea of sending their children to western-style schools in the cities. In November 1928, the Shinwari tribe in eastern Afghanistan saw the opportunity to oppose his rule, taking control of Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s East. This was an especially concerning development for the British – Jalalabad lay directly on the 160 nautical-mile route between Kabul and Peshawar, in British India.
In Kabul, the British Legation was one of several foreign diplomatic missions which had been attracted to post-independence Afghanistan, under King Ammanullah’s efforts to modernise his country. The loss of Jalalabad however raised a very real spectre of civil war. The Shinwarri also severed the telegraph communication wire link to British India, and raised an uncomfortable historical precedent. In January 1842, a British Army contingent of 16,000 soldiers led by General Elphinstone attempted a retreat from Kabul to Peshawar during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Its soldiers picked off by Afghan tribes, General Elphinstone’s army approached the icy Khyber Pass – gateway to British India – where it was subsequently massacred or killed by the elements. Only one survivor reached Peshawar. Nine decades later, none of the British Legation had forgotten this precedent.
The developing civil war soon came to Kabul, as a Rebel King, Habibullāh Kalakāni (known as ‘Bache Saqqaw’, or Son of a Water Carrier), united a Rebel Army against the government. In December 1928, with the onset of a harsh Afghan Winter and a conflict in the capital, both sides assured the British Legation that they would be safe. The reality was the British Legation was besieged by gunfire and artillery shells by both sides. The need to evacuate was clear, and two men – one in Kabul and the other in British India – would be key to its success.
Both men had experience in the ‘Great War’ and subsequent emergence of the Royal Air Force. Sir Francis Humphrys had served with the RAF in 1918, but thereafter passed in to the foreign service, where he became the inaugural British Minister in Afghanistan in 1921. Air Vice-Marshal Sir Geoffrey Salmond meanwhile was a member of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force, and since 1926 had served as the Air Officer Commanding India. With the situation deteriorating in Kabul, on 3 December 1928, Sir Francis sent a wireless message to Sir Geoffrey requesting preparations for an airborne evacuation of family members at the Legation.
At the time, the only aircraft Sir Geoffrey had available in India were two squadrons of DH9A biplanes and a pair of Westland Wapitis. The DH9As were conducting reconnaissance of Kabul and attempting contact with the Legation (all the while being shot at by the rebel tribes, who thought they were Afghan Air Force DH9s come to bomb them). The tools Sir Geoffrey needed for the evacuation however were all in Iraq. His 10-seat Handley Page Hinaidi transport was there on a task, but even it would be insufficient by the time it returned. What he really needed was an aircraft he’d brought in to service during his previous posting with the RAF’s Supply and Research Division. It was an aircraft which had replaced No. 70 Squadron’s Vernon transports at Baghdad, and was now the stalwart of fixed-wing airlift in the Middle East. It was called the Vickers Victoria.
The first flight of the Victoria came in 1922, only a year after the earlier Vernon, but the new aircraft could accommodate 22 passengers on canvas seats in its bigger fuselage, although its pilots still sat in an open cockpit. The Victoria also had a new wing and more powerful Napier Lion engines, offering better speed and range – 96kts and 670 nautical miles respectively. Early Victorias were constructed from wood, but production soon switched to all-metal. No. 70 Squadron in Baghdad began equipping with Victorias in 1926, and soon had a mix of wooden and all-metal aircraft. Bombs could be carried beneath the wings, but the Victoria success was in airlift, with its fuselage able to carry cargo, mail, or personnel. Spare engines could even be mounted on the wing. As the largest military transport of its day, it was exactly the right aircraft for evacuating Kabul.
The first Victoria departed Baghdad on December 15, arriving in Karachi on December 17. Piloted by Squadron Leader RS Maxwell, the Victoria flew on to Karachi and then Quetta, where it would face its first test. The majority of No. 70 Squadron’s experience was with flying the Victorias from airfields close to sea level. Kabul (and Quetta) sat at an altitude of 6,000ft higher, and conducting the evacuation flights would mean overflying the 10,000ft mountains of the Khyber Pass. With remarkable foresight of what was to come, Squadron Leader Maxwell conducted a series of performance trials with a Victoria in Quetta, an experience critical to the safety of the evacuation to come. The already spartan Victorias were stripped of all non-essential weight (including the wireless operator), and evacuation flights from Kabul would be restricted to ten passengers per Victoria. Squadron Leader Maxwell flew the Victoria to Risalpur airfield (near Peshawar). On December 22, Sir Francis sent a wireless message to Sir Geoffrey that it was safe for the RAF to begin sending is aircraft to Kabul. The scene was now set for the world’s first diplomatic evacuation by air.
Shortly after dawn on December 23, a party of 23 women and children, escorted by Afghan soldiers, made their way from the British Legation in Kabul to the Italian Legation, opposite Kabul’s aerodrome. Three DH9As and a Wapiti landed that morning, which would carry luggage and coordinate the airlift. At 9.30am, the Vickers Victoria arrived, where the 23 women and children all boarded. In spite of his earlier declaration that aircraft would be limited to ten passengers, Squadron Leader Maxwell would frequently carry the Victoria’s full complement throughout the evacuation. His aircraft departed Kabul mid-morning, and while the journey only took less than two hours, the passengers were wrapped in heavy coats and blankets. Not only was the Victoria’s fuselage unheated and unpressurised, but the passengers needed to be prepared in the event the aircraft came down in the Khyber Pass.
The route was quite perilous. On departing Risalpur airfield, the Victoria struggled for altitude over 40 nautical miles before it reached the Khyber Pass, and still needed to navigate some valleys and passes before it reached sufficient height to overfly the 10,000ft mountains. Cresting the snow-capped peaks, the Victoria flew on a more-or-less direct route over Afghanistan to Kabul. For the return journey, there was more distance between Kabul and the Khyber Pass to gain height, but the Victorias were loaded with passengers, making this route no less perilous. Amidst the freezing temperatures in Kabul during later evacuation flights, the Victorias kept their engines running on the ground as they loaded passengers.
Following the first mission by a Victoria from Kabul, the realisation came that the British were the only ones capable of pulling out all foreign citizens from Kabul. On December 24, the second evacuation mission was launched, using a Victoria, a Wapiti, and no less than 11 DH9As. It evacuated 28 foreign citizens, including French and German women and children, a Swiss and a Rumanian. That same day, another two Victorias were dispatched from Iraq, one arriving in British India on December 29, the other delayed by a week due to a broken engine.
No evacuation flights were made on Christmas Day, but on December 26, a Victoria returned to Kabul with four DH9As to bring out 23 women and children. One German woman was seriously injured when she was struck by a DH9A’s propeller, and evacuated at a later date. On December 27, the 10-seat Handley Page Hinaidi arrived in British India, and on December 29, flew its first evacuation mission. A second Victoria joined the evacuation flights the following day. The combined efforts of these three aircraft (along with the DH9As and Wapitis) meant that by January 1, all foreign women and children had been evacuated from Kabul – 132 people in all.
In the New Year, the situation in Kabul had eased somewhat. A Victoria commenced mail and stores flights into Kabul, although the RAF also used the brief ‘lull’ to conduct much needed maintenance on its transport aircraft. Meanwhile, Rebel King Habibullāh had withdrawn his Army from the city after he had suffered a bullet wound to the shoulder, and was pursued by the Afghan Army. Outside the city, the Rebels counter-attacked, setting the stage for them to re-enter Kabul. On January 14, King Amānullāh Khān fled Kabul by motorcade (some say in disguise), heading for Kandahar.
Assuming control at the King’s Fortress on January 14 was Inayatullah Khan, brother to the previous King, who was confined to the walled-stronghold protected by 5,000 troops. The Rebel King had amassed 16,000 troops however, which led to him being presented with the new King’s terms of surrender. Inayatullah would relinquish all claims to the throne if he could go safely in to exile. Otherwise, the Rebel King could waste the lives of his troops in a costly attack on the stronghold. Needing to keep his Rebel Army intact, Habibullāh granted Inayatullah his favoured terms. On January 18, King Inayatullah arrived with his family at Kabul’s aerodrome, which sat between the Rebel and Government Army, and boarded one of the two RAF Victorias which had arrived from Risalpur. He flew to India, becoming the first head of state to flee into exile by air.
As Habibullāh Khan installed himself as King, the former King Ammanullah (now in Kandahar) was rumoured to be gathering forces in the South to re-take the throne. Meanwhile, other tribes were sizing up the new leader, and the view apparent to the foreign Legations in Kabul was that the conflict was not over. Once the snows melted, the likelihood of a wider civil war was high. Despite still fostering good relations with all sides of the conflict, Sir Francis Humphrys, British Minister in Afghanistan, received his orders to leave Kabul on February 9.
By mid-February, there were seven Victorias and a Hinaidi operationg from Risalpur. Another Victoria had been lost on January 29, crash-landing in rough country on the Afghan side of the Khyber Pass. The crew of two survived (one of whom, Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman, went on to become an Air Chief-Marshal), and the culprit was found to be water-contamination of the fuel – it formed ice in the fuel filters at high altitudes, starving the engines. On the crew’s return, strict actions were taken to ensure fuel quality at Risalpur, including test flights of aircraft each morning. The measures were prudent – following the order to evacuate all foreign diplomats from Kabul, the city was blanketed in 17 inches of snow.
Camels and Elephants were used to clear the runway, and on February 24, four Victorias arrived to bring out the remnants of the French, German, and Italian Legations. Now the only foreigners remaining in Kabul was the British Legation. At 7.45am on February 25, seven Victorias and the Hinaidi rumbled into the air from Risalpur, and disappeared in to the mountains to the west. They climbed through the snowy peaks of the Khyber Pass, and flew on over Afghanistan, before descending in to Kabul and settling on to the cleared runway. Their engines still running, they were met by the remaining members of the British Legation. The last to arrive at the airfield was Sir Francis, who’d run back to the Legation’s grounds to fetch the Union Jack which had flown during the siege.
All eight transports returned to Risalpur safely, and the response was rapturous. In all, 586 people had been evacuated over two months, with 84 missions conducted. Including the distance flown by the eight Victorias and a Hinaidi from Iraq, 57,438 miles were flown. The aircraft and their crews were paraded at Risalpur on February 26, before being ordered to Dehli for another reception the following day. Covering the 600 miles to the capital of British India, they once again arrived to a massive reception. Immediately afterwards, the Victorias were up again – back to their home base in Iraq, to resume their work with the RAF in Iraq.
Beyond the machines used for the Kabul Airlift, many people had excelled during the evacuation. The pilots of No. 70 Squadron – along with the RAF India pilots with their DH9As, Wapitis, and Hinaidi – had overcome an Afghan winter and the Khyber Pass to evacuate 586 people, without a single loss of life. Two aircraft were lost – the fuel-starved Victoria, and a DH9A shot down over Kabul in the early stages of the siege, which was later repaired and flown out. British wireless operators in the Legation were, for the large part, the only link to the outside world, and ensured the likes of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Geoffrey Salmond knew exactly what to send to Kabul. While the hostility of Rebel and Afghan armies forced the foreign citizens to evacuate, the hospitality of Kabul’s people was key to keeping the airfield open during the evacuation. But some of the greatest achievement came from the technicians – mechanics, riggers, and other trades needed to keep the aircraft flying.
Most of No. 70 Squadron’s experience with the Victorias had been in the heat of a Middle Eastern desert, where crews shut off their engines immediately on landing, or else they risked overheating their engines. During the Kabul Airlift, they faced icing conditions, fuel contamination, and cantankerous engine performance in a completed new operating environment. Countless repairs were conducted through the nights of that Winter, including numerous engine changes in the open air, as the Victorias and Hinaidi were far too large for local hangars. The performance and success of these aircraft is a testament to the hard work of these technicians.
By curious chance of history, the Royal Air Force’s modern contemporaries of aircraft like the Victoria and Hinaidi are well-versed with operating in to Iraq and Afghanistan. The fleet of Chinook and Merlin helicopters carry more passengers than the Victoria, and offer far greater airfield performance. Both the Chinook and Merlin are able to evacuate passengers from the source, rather than relying on them to travel to a suitable airfield.
The Vickers Victoria was the ‘heavylift’ transport of its day, a role now fulfilled by the Boeing C-17A Globemaster and the Airbus Military Voyager in Royal Air Force service. Much as the Victoria provided flexible airlift for the British in Iraq and Afghanistan, the C-17A is providing the Royal Air Force with a degree of mobility that continues to ‘force multiply’ for the other services – whether it be in the Falkland Islands, Afghanistan, or for short-notice deployments in West Africa. The Royal Air Force’s transport fleet will be supplemented in 2014 by the Airbus Military A400M Atlas, which will be operated by – coincidentally enough – No. 70 Squadron. Compared to the Victoria’s capacity of around 20 passengers during the Kabul Airlift, the Atlas can accommodate 116 passengers; the RAF’s C-17As can carry more than 138, and the Voyager in excess of 250. Moving 586 passengers out of Afghanistan could be accomplished in a single day. If comfort and safety were no object, the C-17A could likely carry all 586 in a single hop.