10 days to fly from Zambia to England

Frances Sinclair, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) volunteer uncovers audio of a journey from Africa to England just before the Second World War.

Photo of Frances Sinclair

Frances Sinclair

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage volunteer

It’s hard to imagine taking 10 days to fly from Africa to England as a single journey! Yes, I did say ten and fly.

But that’s what Gervais Clay tells us about going home between tours as a District Commissioner in Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia.

During a 1½ hour interview he and his wife, Betty, talk about life there as a new Oxford graduate, a new wife and raising a family together during the Second World War.

Gervais talks about travelling on the Imperial Airways’ Heracles, and it certainly looks more comfortable than my last budget airline flight! However, both he and the interviewer, Jill Chapman, describe the dreadful bumpiness of the flight, making them feel sick. Although, Gervais had another reason to feel unwell…

Image: Heracles class Imperial Airways cabin

So I think I’ll stick to modern planes with their comparatively smooth flights, even if they are cramped.

In addition the Heracles had to stop every two hours to refuel. During the day it would take off again straight away but they had to overnight in places such as Mbaya, Nairobi, Uganda, Khartoum, Cairo and Greece. This allowed for some sight-seeing…

Interestingly, Gervais talks about pre-war politics in his flight. The occasion that he is describing is not long before the Second World War and Mussolini is in power.

After stopping over at the above places, they requested permission to fly over Italy.  Permission was granted on the condition that they used an Italian pilot but they declined, stopping in Brindisi and taking the train to Paris…

Every interview I work with at UOSH has at least one story that opens a window into a different life, or offers a different perspective on something that I thought I knew.

I love listening to people talk about their lives: the naive public-school educated Oxford graduate entering colonial service in Africa, the church-school educated girl in Bristol whose father got fined for keeping her at home to help with the books, the young man whose brother was so traumatised by the early bombing raids at Filton that he hid in the Hotwell tunnels for a week.

Every one of these personal stories, told in their own voices, gives us something that the history books never can – they give us a little piece of themselves.

Find out more about the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.