Published in June 2015 issue

The last of a three-part series: The legacy left behind by one of the world’s most iconic air carriers.

By Dacre Watson


Not long after he became Chairman of BOAC in 1943, Viscount Knollys cast his mind forward to the time when the war would at least be over, if not won. The Government was also giving thought to the issue but, sadly, neither side was discussing this with the other. Though Knollys had sent the Air Ministry papers laying out his vision, these had largely been ignored. In fairness to the Ministry, the Orders dictated to the airline on April 1, 1940 were still in place and the government was still in the position of stating which routes would be flown and what aircraft types were to be used, and also dictating the operational policy that was to be implemented. In one area at least, there was no doubt about the government’s intentions for BOAC: “You must assume for the present that you will be the sole chosen instrument for overseas operations.”

A further thought process was the desire to meet the post-war aspirations of the Dominions, assuming that they would still wish to operate reciprocal services to London, thus continuing the policy of cooperation that had existed between Imperial Airways and QANTAS. Canada and South Africa had already made clear that they wished to operate in parallel. The colonies would be given help in setting up local air services which would feed into BOAC’s trunk routes.

It was really not until May 1944 that the Government started to formulate a policy involving a Commonwealth Corporation covering the route to the Far East, as far as New Zealand, to be administered by an Empire Council. BOAC countered this by arguing that there had to be reciprocal arrangements between the UK and the Dominions, which could be a joint Commonwealth Corporation operating a ‘round-the-world’ service stopping in British and Commonwealth territory only. There would be “Chosen Instruments” for services to foreign countries, which would involve both shipping and railway interests. It should be remembered that five shipping companies had already got together to set up British Latin American Airways (BLAA).

These were all very grand schemes, but they had little in common with the reality that would set in once post-war peace became a reality in August 1945. However, the Chicago Convention of November 1944 was a sound reality check during which BOAC argued for capacity restrictions rather than frequency restrictions, probably because the Tudor 1 was only going to be able to carry 12 passengers versus the 44 anticipated for the DC-4 and Constellation. In the end, the UK Government had to accede to full access for all airlines with reciprocal arrangements.

The resulting policy would therefore be that BOAC would operate the main Empire routes, as well as those to Canada and the USA. Across the Pacific there would be a joint operating company with BOAC, co-managed by interests in Australia and New Zealand, which would provide service to the USA and Canada.

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Local feeder services in Commonwealth countries would be flown by local companies with BOAC either owning them as subsidiaries or providing the infrastructure and expertise.

Europe could be served by a separate company and the South American and Caribbean routes would be controlled by the shipping companies which had set up BLAA.

The government would have total control over policy and route allocation. There was even a suggestion that BOAC would be re-named British Commonwealth Air Services. Both shipping and surface transport would have a major role to play and British aircraft would be used exclusively.

However, the general election held in July 1945 was won by Labour, a party which had very differing views from those of the previous Conservative government. Labour policy was relatively simple: there would be three corporations, under public ownership, that would take overriding priority in air transport, and there would be no financial participation by existing surface transport interests.

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On December 20, 1945, the government issued a White Paper (the Civil Aviation Act 1946) to set up the three corporations under public ownership and control. BOAC would operate Commonwealth routes as well as those to the Far East and North America. South America and the Caribbean would be allocated to a new corporation named British South American Airways (BSAA), while UK domestic and European routes would be flown by British European Airways (BEA), already effectively in operation as Transport Command’s 110 Wing.

On January 1, 1946, the European Division of BOAC took over the service previously operated by 110 Wing and, on August 1 of the same year, BEA came into being with 21 DC-3s, as did BSAA with six Lancastrians and four Yorks.

One would have thought that BOAC could now expand on a commercial basis; however, during the three years after the war, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MCA), working through the Priorities Board, had first call on the capacity of all the airlines, both freight and passengers, and only released space at very short notice, thus limiting what could be offered to the public at large. Fortunately, this ruling ended in July 1948, after which the airline could develop some form of marketing strategy for the future.

BOAC emerged from the war with a financial interest in only two other airlines: a 50% holding in QANTAS and 38% one in TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways, Ltd., of New Zealand). The shareholding in QANTAS was bought by the Australian Government in 1946 (one has to remember their dissatisfaction with the pooling arrangements), but Viscount Knollys had quietly persevered in his vision of developing air services in the many colonies with the services of BOAC as a catalyst.

The Foreign and Colonial offices also had an interest, and, in fact, it was through these two agents that the stimulus came to develop air transport in the colonies.

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The first such venture was broached in December 1944, when the BOAC Board was presented with a proposal to found and support an airline in East Africa, based in Nairobi, and involving the Governments of Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Zanzibar. The airline would be named East African Airways Corporation (EAAC) and would replace the pre-war Wilson Airways, which had been taken over by the RAF (Royal Air Force). In this first instance, BOAC would provide the senior staff and the aircraft (six de Havilland DH-89 Dominies), and, once the airline was up and running, would step back from direct control, though it would retain an advisory capacity for many years.

East African came into being in January 1946; this was followed a year later in West Africa, where Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and the Gambia were brought together to set up West African Airways (WAAC), which was to operate throughout that area of Africa.

British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines (BCPA), the joint venture with Australia and New Zealand, was set up at the same time to fly the Pacific between Sydney and Auckland, and on to San Francisco and Vancouver. As it turned out, BCPA was a very successful airline until Australia decided it wanted the route for QANTAS in 1954.

Not all of these ventures were set up directly by the Colonial Office. Sometimes it issued a directive to the airline that it should proceed in a certain direction depending on the political climate in the area in which it wished to have an aviation influence. For instance, in October 1945, the Board of BOAC received the following instructions from the MCA:

“I am directed to inform you that this Ministry has been considering in conjunction with the Colonial Office the future requirements for British Air Transport in the Red Sea area. The Civil Attaché in the Middle East has been instructed to investigate the traffic possibilities of local services based at Aden as well as a link with Jeddah and Palestine and it is accordingly Lord Winster’s wish that the investigation referred to above should be completed as rapidly as possible.”

This directive resulted in the setting up of Aden Airways, in 1949, as a direct subsidiary of BOAC. Aden Airways later bought Arab Airways (Jerusalem) on behalf of BOAC so as not to inflame anti-colonial sentiments in the region. In the same manner, Hong Kong Airways was set up in the colony in 1947, though this enterprise was less successful as a result of opposition from the local government, which was less than willing to be dictated to from London.

In 1949, the policy for involvement was reflected in the Annual Report (perhaps tacitly and quietly acknowledging the end of the Empire):

“An important aspect of the policy of the Corporation is to take a prominent part in the development and integration of air communications throughout the British Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire. To this end, the operational and commercial experience of the Corporation is made available to foster the development of services connecting with the Corporation’s trunk routes.”

In addition to the airlines and regions already mentioned, over the following years, shareholdings were taken in the Middle East with Middle East Airlines (MEA), Cyprus Airways, and Gulf Aviation (later to become Gulf Air), while management contracts were set up with Kuwait Airways and Iraqi Airways.

In the Far East, BOAC became similarly involved with Malayan Airways (the antecedent of Malaysian Airline System and Singapore Airlines), Borneo Airways and Fiji Airways.

When BSAA was merged with BOAC in 1949, it brought in British West Indian Airways (BWIA), as well as British Caribbean Airways and Bahamas Airways. BOAC then went on to become involved with Caribbean International, British Colonial Airways, British Guiana Airways and Jamaican Airlines.

On every occasion in which BOAC became involved with a fledgling airline, it brought in a key management infrastructure such as accounts, flight operations and engineering, leaving a template for the training of future employees, many of whom would, one day, rise to senior management positions after independence. We have an excellent example of this in Singapore Airlines today.

The title of this article refers to the Legacy of BOAC. For its direct descendant, British Airways, there is a rich seam of history which is exemplified by a world class archive of images and a comprehensive record of all that has occurred over the last 80 years in British Civil Aviation, though I think that it is a great pity that the Speedbird has been lost in all but the airline call sign.

However, there is a case to be made that the main beneficiaries of BOAC’s post-imperial activities were the many subsidiary airlines, some of which would develop into the flag carriers of newly independent countries, perhaps a fitting reversal of the relationship established under Imperial rule. Fledgling national airlines such as Singapore and TEAL (forerunner of Air New Zealand) were able to exploit the benefits of BOAC’s expertise, infrastructure and assets to create a blueprint for continued success into this century.

It is, in my view, one of the best examples of the colonial altruism that has left a lasting and enduring gift from a fading Empire.