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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics



The Complete History of BOAC

Robin Higham

IB Tauris, May 30 2013


ISBN: 9781 780 764627

Buy It Here

Speedbird has had a tortured and prolonged gestation. Higham, an ex RAFVR WW2 pilot, and long since a Professor of History in the USA, was first approached by the then BOAC chairman to write a corporate history more than fifty years ago. Company developments forced publication to be abandoned in 1963. In 1974 interest was rekindled, and he restarted work, finishing the revised volume four years later. But the Legal Dept, (followed by that of BA which acquired BOAC) stopped publication. This nonsense was characteristically lifted by Rod Eddington  when he came CEO in 2000. Revising and more legal vetting delayed the process until 2003. By then publishers had lost interest, and Higham had other furrows to plough. It has only now seen the light of day. That much of the material was written many, many moons ago explains why much of the prose seems a little stilted to modern ears.


I found the book depressing – not merely on account of its style, but its subject matter. Because Speedbird chronicles decades of missed opportunities in British aviation. Most of this can be laid at the fault of successive British governments. Indeed part of the problem was that there was a very rapid turnover of Ministers responsible for civil aviation through the period covered by this book (32 from 1940 to 1976) – a problem endemic in British politics to this day. Aviation demands long-term strategic thinking because of the timescales of procurement; this remains vividly the case in 2013, with politicians struggling for vision beyond the next election. One however was more pragmatic than others: Reggie Maudling is reported as saying in 1955 that “Britain should not look at an aircraft as a mystical symbol of national prestige but as a means of transport.” There is no evidence that he practiced what he preached.


The Lancastrian - a Lancaster by any other name

BOAC was started in the darkest hours of WW2, and its early days were coloured by its being the poor relation of the RAF’s Transport Command.  The airline in one sense started on the wrong foot: the Government had total control of aviation, and therefore all BOAC’s strategy, operations, and finances were heavily circumscribed. Its efficiency was handicapped from the outset by its equipment being cast-offs from the RAF – either types that had become worn out, obsolescent, or which had never proved themselves fit for military service. A rag tag of types was always going to be difficult to manage. Amongst the dross was the odd gem: BOAC received its first Mosquito in 1942. However its passenger load was restricted to a grand total of one – prostrate in the bomb bay.  Further, much of the wartime route structure was determined by propaganda value (e.g. to Madrid in 1944). Yet planning for post-war operations had started even in the dark hours of 1942. The long haul operations, in particular its North Atlantic run, engendered plenty of friction with the RAF. This was usually occasioned by a fight for scarce resources – including aircrew and management.


The immediate post-War period was scarcely more successful for the airline. Re-equipment was with hasty conversions of RAF designs such as the Lancastrian or the Halton – both bodged bombers with a narrow fuselage designed for carrying its maximum load at its base, which were never going to be optimal for an airline. Then the York was which barely more than  a box-section fuselage slung beneath Lancaster wings. And then the Tudor – ostensibly a  fresh design, but one bedevilled with fatigue problems (these days overshadowed by those of the Comet). Higham pours the scorn of hindsight onto some of these procurement decisions.


After the York came the lamentable Tudor - detecting a pattern here?

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