75th anniversary of the first Qantas flying boat service to South East Asia

4 AUGUST marked the 75th Anniversary of the first official Qantas flying boat flight to South East Asia - from Rose Bay in Sydney to Kupang, Bima, Surabaya, Batavia (now Jakarta, capital of Indonesia) and Singapore. The three-day-a-week route's final destination was Southampton, England, a nine-and-a-half days journey.

One journalist wrote, "In the air the flying boat was as graceful as an albatross; her four Pegasus engines,

each of 920 horsepower (686Kw), set in a line in her outstretched wings, seemed to run as silently as motor cars."

The aircraft carried 15 first-class passengers and a crew of five, as well as 3000 pounds of mail and cargo. Cabins were converted into sleeping accommodation at night, in "much the same way as on a rail journey".

“Getting up out of his chair, a passenger could walk about and, if he had been seated in the main cabin, stroll along to the smoking cabin for a smoke, stopping on the way at the promenade deck with its high handrail and windows at eye level to gaze at the world of cloud and sky outside,” said Hudson Fysh, one of the founding members of Qantas and managing director at the time.

Former Qantas employee George Roberts recalled that the ticket cost at that time was £220 and the cabin was so spacious passengers could play minigolf. "I remember one flight that I took up the coast here where the first officer called up the skipper and he said, 'Skipper, hold the aircraft steady, we're putting'."

The outbreak of World War 2 did not curtail scheduled Qantas flights until advancing Japanese forces closed in on Malaya and Singapore.

In early 1942 a Qantas operational base was established at Broome in Western Australia so that urgent war supplies could be ferried across to Cilacap, on the south-west coast of Java, to help in the defence of the Dutch East Indies (NEI). On their return trips to Australia, the flying boats carried civilians seeking refuge.

On 30 January 1942, the Qantas flying boat Corio was attacked and shot down by Japanese Zero fighters while ferrying refugees from Surabaya to Darwin. Only five of the 18 passengers and crew survived.

Qantas flights from Surabaya to Darwin were rerouted to Broome until Surabaya came under continuous attack and the nightly shuttle service between Batavia and Singapore was abandoned on 6 February 1942.

On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese army. Four days later the Japanese launched the largest single attack mounted by a foreign power on Australia, with the first of their air raids on Darwin. One of the Qantas flying boats, the Camilla, was moored in the harbour at the time. Avoiding the wrecks of burning and sinking ships, the plane was able to take-off during the raid and managed to escape to Groote Eyelandt, "miraculously undamaged".

As the Japanese advanced rapidly through Java, Qantas and KLM flying boats were urgently required to help evacuate stranded diplomats and civilians to Broome. The Batavia leg of the Qantas Batavia-Cilacap-Broome service, which had commenced on 8 February was discontinued on 19 February but Qantas continued and increased the supply and rescue missions to Cilacap as long as possible.

Early in the morning of 28 February 1942, the last two Qantas flying boats moored at Cilacap,  the Corinthian piloted by Captain Stephen Howard and the Circe piloted by Captain William Purton took off for Australia. The Circe - carrying 16 Dutch nationals and four Qantas crew members - was lost at sea, possibly following a fighter attack.

At low tide in Roebuck Bay, Broome (WA) remnants of flying boats destroyed by the Japanese air attack in 1942
(Photo via www.sventastic.nl)

Later that day, 17 flying boats, mostly Dutch, rode at anchor off the coast of Broome and were attacked by Japanese aircraft. Many of the flying boats were still loaded with civilians and their families waiting to be transferred to the coast while some were refueling. RAAF Empire A18-10, previously Centauru, the Qantas Corinna and 13 other flying boats were destroyed in the attack and 88 lives lost.

The international use of the flying boats by Qantas did not resume after the war. The loss of so many of its aircraft and rapid technological changes for long-distance flying saw the remaining flying boats relegated to Pacific islands and domestic use, particularly from Sydney to Lord Howe Island.

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