In 1935, the Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, tried to buy the Airspeed Viceroy, an aeroplane which had been built to order for the London-Melbourne air race the year before. The Viceroy (above) was a one-off, customised version of Airspeed's successful Envoy, a twin-engined civil transport which could carry six passengers in addition to its pilot. Improvements included more powerful engines, an auxiliary fuel tank and a higher take-off weight. But it failed to complete the air race, pulling out at Athens due to mechanical troubles. Still, it would have made a nice plaything for an emperor, you might think; but that's not why he wanted it. He wanted it for a bomber.
Nevil Shute, then managing director of Airspeed, tells the story in his autobiography, Slide Rule. In autumn 1935 he was approached by 'Jack Norman' (a pseudonym chosen by Shute) wishing to purchase the Viceroy on behalf of a client, Yellow Flame Distributors, Ltd, 'whose business was the rapid transport of cinema films between the various capital cities of Europe'. 1 As the Viceroy had just been sitting in a hangar for months after being recovered from its former owner (who had refused to pay for it and indeed sued Airspeed for their troubles), Shute was very glad to shift it and so set his men to work getting it ready for flight. But then Norman came back and told Shute that Yellow Flame were worried about the inflammable nature of celluloid and asked, 'Could we fit bomb racks underneath the wings to carry to films on?'
This was where Shute got suspicious. Italy was by then embarked on its invasion of Abyssinia, and Shute told Norman that he was selling a civil aircraft to a British company, not a bomber to a foreign concern. Norman asked if Airspeed could instead fit 'certain lugs' under the wings, to which Yellow Flame could attach whatever they wished. To this Shute agreed, though the distinction seems a fine one to me.
Then Norman asked if Yellow Flame's pilot could test fly the Viceroy. This pilot, who Shute calls 'Ernst Schrader' (again, not his real name), turned out to be a stateless ex-Luft Hansa pilot who was on the run from the Gestapo after having 'spoken disrespectfully of Adolf Hitler in a beer tavern'. 2 Or perhaps he was, as Airspeed's own test pilot, Percy Colman, claimed, 'one of the most famous German pilots of the day', who Colman had recently met in Berlin and who Shute again gives a pseudonym, Weiss. At this point Shute had had enough and demanded that Norman tell him what was really going on. Norman admitted that Yellow Flame was just a cover story and that the real buyer was Abyssinia:
The army of Haile Selassie had no hope of standing up against the Italian invaders of their country unless modern arms and equipment could reach them. The Emperor had the pitiful sum of £16,000 to spend on modern aircraft with which to defend his country. With this he was buying our Viceroy for £5,000 and the remainder was to be spent on three fighters, Gloster Gladiators I think, to shoot down the Italian planes that were harrassing his troops. All four machines would, of course, be flown by soldiers of fortune from Europe. 3
The Abyssinians had a specific mission in mind for the Viceroy:
The job of the Viceroy was to bomb the Italian oil storage tanks at Massawa and so halt their mechanised advance. The Viceroy was a good deal faster than any aircraft the Italians had in Abyssinia, and this mission was well within the capabilities of the machine. It was, however, vital to maintain complete secrecy, because if the Italians were to get to know about the Viceroy they would move a squadron of first-class fighters from Italy to defend Massawa, with the result that the Viceroy would almost certainly be shot down. 4
This bold plan came to nothing in the end: Abyssinia fell to the Italians before the Viceroy (and its weaponry) could get there.
But the whole story, colourful as it may be, illustrates the idea of the commercial bomber, a civil transport aeroplane converted into a military bomber. This was a cheap and usually desperate way of creating airpower. Abyssinia wasn't the only country doing it, either; Airspeed's history provides several other examples. Early in 1936, for example, a more formal conversion was carried out on seven Envoys for the South African State Railways:
It reflected the condition of the world at that time, that these were civil aeroplanes for use on an airline but they were to be readily convertible to military purposes. Bomb racks and release gear were to be provided, a mounting for a forward firing gun, and the roof of the lavatory was detachable and replaceable by another roof which carried a gun turret. 5
Shute notes that when the Spanish Civil War broke out, demand for such ersatz bombers surged: 'by August  agents for one side or the other were buying up every civil aeroplane that would fly'. 6 In fact, thanks to the war Airspeed sold off all of its old stock of Couriers and Envoys in one go. Even its very first Envoy, a test machine with a lot of miles on it, was sold -- for £6,000 in cash -- to the Spanish Nationalists. (We know this because it later flew into the side of a mountain while carrying General Mola, one of Franco's best commanders.)
And the Viceroy itself ended up in Spain too, this time flying in Republican colours. After the Abyssinian episode, Airspeed sold the Viceroy to two airmen planning to compete in an air race from London to Johannesburg. They were once again approached by a middleman, who bought it from them for £9,500. Shute says only that they 'handed over the Viceroy, which left for France without delay and was never seen again'. 7 But here is a very grainy photograph of it in Republican service:
What uses the Viceroy was put to in Spain is unclear. What is clear is that this piece of advanced civilian technology had a double life as an object of military desire. And that it was not alone.
Image source: airwar.ru.
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- Nevil Shute, Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer (London: Vintage Books, 2009 , 212.
- Ibid., 213.
- Ibid., 213-4.
- Ibid., 214.
- Ibid., 229.
- Ibid., 232.
- Ibid., 217.