Did you know about Churchill's personal B-24 bomber?

“Commando,” Churchill modified personal transport plane
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

In the ninth, last episode of Masters of the Air, Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal's B-17 was shot down, and he made his way back to England with Soviet help via a circuitous route. He recounts how the last leg of that journey was on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's personal B-24 Liberator. Today's reaction article is about Commando, the modified Liberator in question.

Commando returning home with Churchill after the Casablanca Conference
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

In July 1942, Churchill had to get to Cairo and Moscow to confer with his generals and Joseph Stalin about the course of the war. Flying over Nazi-occupied Europe and the Mediterranean, however, was a perilous prospect thanks to the Luftwaffe. The job of flying Churchill there and back fell to William Vanderkloot, a U.S. volunteer who was flying for Royal Air Force Ferry Command, getting American-built planes across the Atlantic. Vanderkloot was a superb pilot and navigator, whose skill at navigating by the stars allowed him to take long flights at night.

Churchill, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal and other VIP passengers disembarking from “Commando,” Churchill’s personal transport
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The trip was taken in Commando, a modified B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. Its bomb bay doors were sealed shut, the bomb racks removed, and a small passenger section built. Churchill himself had an unheated sleeping berth, but the other passengers, including his doctor, his valet, his aide-de-camp, a police investigator and several high-ranking military officers, had to sleep in their seats. Hot sandwiches were made on a camp stove, and Churchill, who loved flying, regularly visited the cockpit while wearing his pajamas and slippers. The trip went without hiccups despite German intelligence – and the press – getting their hands on some of the details of Churchill's excursion.

Passenger seats onboard Commando
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Churchill took a second trip to various African locations in 1943, then traded Commando for Ascalon, and Avro York transport plane based on the Lancaster bomber. (Read our earlier article) Commando returned to America, underwent further modifications into a one-off transport craft, and continued flying VIP transport missions – this was the time period when Rosenthal also traveled in it. The plane took off on its last flight on the night of March 26, 1945, flying from England to Canada with a stop at the Azores (with a different crew than her original one). The plane disappeared after taking off from the Azores, and was never found, though some yellow dinghies, a small amount of wreckage and an oil patch were later found along her planned route. The cause of the plane's loss was never identified for certain, though John Affleck, its original flight engineer, later suspected it might have been due to overfilling the oil tanks. The tanks were normally only filled to two-thirds capacity to leave enough volume for the oil to froth. An overfilled tank would have leaked, causing the oil to get through the bulkhead and into the fuel, igniting it.

Commando after its conversion, with a single-fin tail (the B-24 normally has a two-finned one) and a longer fuselage
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
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