The early days of flying in Kenya

The county government of Taita Taveta will on the 08th of October this year celebrate and commemorate the 101st anniversary of flight, not just in Kenya but the entire East Africa.
As written two days ago, with links to articles written by this correspondent on the topic, this event holds dear the memory of flight but also reminds us of the sacrifices which were made on the battlefields below the skies of Taita Taveta.
There is but one expert who knows more than any of us, in fact more than all of us combined, and that is James Willson Esq., who in his book ‘Guerillas of Tsavo‘ meticulously described what happened over a hundred years ago on what this correspondent calls ‘Battlefield East Africa‘.
With his kind permission is his article below reproduced with thanks not just to James and his family but also ‘Cross and Cockade Magazine‘ for being allowed to reproduce their pictures attached to this article.


Early Days of Flying in East Africa

By James G Willson Esq.

Apparently the first attempt at ‘flying’ in East Africa was in 1909 using a lighter than air balloon. This was provided by an American newspaper millionaire, William D Boyce from Chicago, with the purpose of photographing wild animals during Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting safari in East Africa that same year. The attempt was a failure although the balloon did rise to about 200 feet from where it was tethered to the ground in Parklands, Nairobi.

The first powered flight in East Africa was by a Pfalz built Otto Pusher and it took place outside Dar es Salaam in German East Africa, flown by owner pilot Bruno Büchner. Having arrived in mid 1914 from German South West Africa, where Büchner was to set up an air mail service linking the German settlements, but with the outbreak of the Great War his aircraft was requisitioned by the Schutztruppe, the German Colonial Protection Force and shipped to East Africa.

Figure 1 The Pfalz Otto Pusher in Dar es Salaam, German East Africa

The Pfalz Otto Pusher was powered by a 100 hp Rapp engine. When the First World War broke out in August 1914 it had been planned to have this aircraft flown in support of the German Navy cruiser SMS Königsberg but because of mechanical problems, heavy landings and finally the lack of gasoline, the machine was scrapped after only a few flights. This was however not before intelligence had leaked out of rumors in the early days of the war to the European residents in British East Africa (now Kenya) that the Germans across their southern border had numerous aircraft available and were about to start bombing missions over Nairobi and Nakuru.

Serious flying started in British East Africa after the successful Royal Naval campaign in mid July 1915, against the Indian Ocean commerce raider SMS Königsberg that had retreated into the Rufiji River Delta in Southern German East Africa. The ship had finally been disabled with the help of aircraft flown by members of the Royal Navy Air Corps. This had been one of the earliest occasions where the Royal Navy had used aircraft as a means of reconnaissance and to spot the fall of the attacking ships artillery shells.

Figure 2 The wreck of the SMS Konigsberg in the Rufiji River Estuary

With the Königsberg now out of commission and shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean relatively safe, the question as to what to do with the men and aircraft then hold up on Zanzibar and Mafia Island. The unserviceable aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Float planes were sent to Mombasa where a temporary hanger had been erected at Shimanzi Point. Several test flights took place from there but difficulty with the right fuel mixture prevented any useful flying taking place. In September 1915 any serviceable land based aircraft and personnel were then offered to the British Army in support of the planned spring offensive against Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck commanding the forces defending German East Africa.

Two new arrivals in the form of the French manufactured Caudron GIII were dispatched in their wooden crates by rail via the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Voi and on along the just completed military line to Maktau to join General Tighe forces based there, arriving on 10th September 1915. Two collapsible Bessonneau Hangers, aviation spirit, stores and spares were included in the inventory.

Figure 3 Crated Caudron GIII arrives by rail in Maktau being unloaded by porters

Figure 4 A Caudron GIII being readied for takeoff at Maktau, note the ratings holding on to the aircraft

Under the command of Flight Commander J T Cull, the small Royal Navy Air Service party of two pilots and thirteen personnel found Maktau Camp was located just 60 kms from the Anglo German border at Taveta and 18kms from the nearest enemy fortified camp at Mbuyuni. After several short test flights starting on 1st October and delays caused by the altitude effect on the aircraft engines and by poor weather conditions, the first operational reconnaissance flight out of Maktau airfield took place around mid day on the 12th October 1915. Flying from Maktau was to prove hazardous at the best of times, often with heavy mist shrouding the area in the mornings whilst later, the increasing heat created turbulence making flying difficult for these light aircraft.

Figure 5 The Bessonneau Hanger

Figure 6 Caudron GIII on finals to Maktau returning from a bombing raid on Salaita Hill

At Maktau it was found that there was inadequate space within the confines of the protective perimeter of the military camp, this meant that the landing ground of 180 square meters had to be leveled outside the camp bounds, with the hangers erected within the camp close by. Every morning before flying took place the airstrip had to be checked for hidden mines, followed by an armed party sent out to secure the area against the possible attention of enemy snipers.

Figure 7 Transport arrives for the RNAS at Maktau

Early in November 1915 a third Caudron GIII arrived together with a mobile workshop lorry to supplement flying operations which by now were hampered by a shortage of spares. During the same month a further three Caudron GIIIs arrived providing a total of six machines, a further 20 ratings, with three more pilots arrived on 22nd November.

Meanwhile, reconnaissance sweeps and bombing sorties using 20lb Hales Bombs and rifle grenades, were carried out over enemy occupied territory towards Taveta and Salaita Hill. Photograph reconnaissance became increasingly important and soon the well known wild life photographer, Lieutenant Cherry Kearton, who had volunteered earlier in the war and joined Colonel Driscoll’s Legion of Frontiersmen (25th Royal Fusiliers), found himself engaged by the Flying Corps at Maktau, using one of the Caudron’s travelling crates as a studio to develop the films.

Figure 8 Lieut. Cherry Kearton and Capt Appleby outside the dark room at Maktau

On 31st January 1916, No 26 Squadron Royal Flying Corps with squadron strength of 220 personnel, comprising of mainly South African pilots arrived in Mombasa enroute to the former enemy camp of Serengeti on the Tsavo-Serengeti Plains within site of the German occupied Salaita Hill. BE2c’s were the main aircraft employed by them but later Henry Farmans and Voisin 5’s, appeared on the scene. The eight BE2c’s had arrived with the incorrect propellers but the ground crews were able to modify the supplied propellers and soon had five aircraft airworthy. Their first flight took place using BE2c No 4357 on 9th February 1916, where they flew over the nearby Salaita Hill. This aircraft only just cleared the trees at the end of the airstrip and took nearly half an hour to climb 500 feet above the plains before heading for its reconnaissance run. It was some time before they received the correct propellers.

Figure 9 2 BE2c’s ready to proceed on a reconnaissance flight from Maktau

From here on, various different aircraft types found their way to support the British Allied Forces during the East African Campaign. These were often aircraft that had become obsolete over the European War Front with the advancement of flight technology. The older slower aircraft were now better suited for support work since the Allies had control of the air over German East Africa but were vulnerable to ground fire. With no competition in the air these different aircraft saw service not only in East Africa but in Mesopotamia and Palestine during the First World War.

© Guerrillas of

© Photographs reproduced courtesy of Cross & Cockade Magazine

4 Responses

  1. Dear Wolfgang: What a great account of flying at Maktau and early aerial photography of enemy positions! My grandfather, Dr Norman Jewell, was there and recorded events in his diary and photographs (as he did throughout the whole WW1 in East Africa Campaign 1914-1918). This account of events has now been published based on the personal and official diaries (in UK National Archives) in the book On Call in Africa 1910-1932. 145 of Norman’s photographs are in the book and a larger collection 210 photos are available online at Mary Evans Picture Library. These include various shots of Caudron G111 in action and crashed! Norman, being a keen photographer, also helped Cherry Kearton with the processing of images at Maktau. The following links might be of interest for you and readers: (book website) (picture library) (facebook page)
    @gillyflower_pbl (presence on twitter)
    Or search the web for the tag #oncallinafrica
    Please do not hesitate to be in touch for any additional information or discussion.
    Yours sincerely, RIchard Jewell

    1. Thanks so much for your contribution and the details about the book.
      I have again copied the particular so that my readers can get hold
      of it and learn all about the East Africa campaigns. (book website) (picture library) (facebook page)


  2. The book On Call in Africa describes the psychological impact on all the troops who would not have seen a plane before and certainly not in war. African soldiers described being wounded by the early bombs as having been hit by the bird’s eggs.

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