Winston Churchill had completed his visit to the White House and was now returning to the United Kingdom. The battleship HMS Duke of York, with an escort of fast destroyers, was sent to Bermuda to collect him. After flying to Bermuda by flying boat he decided that it might be preferable to return to England all the way by air, accompanied by only the most important members of his staff, including Sir Dudley Pound, Chief of the Naval Staff and Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff.
A transatlantic air flight was no small undertaking at this time. On the morning of the departure it appears that Churchill had some second thoughts about the journey:
I woke up unconscionably early with the conviction that I should certainly not go to sleep again. I must confess that I felt rather frightened. I thought of the ocean spaces, and that we should never be within a thousand miles of land until we approached the British Isles.
I thought perhaps I had done a rash thing that there were too many eggs in one basket. I had always regarded an Atlantic flight with awe. But the die was cast. Still, I must admit that if at breakfast, or even before luncheon, they had come to me to report that the weather had changed and we must go by sea, I should have easily reconciled myself to a voyage in the splendid ship which had come all this way to fetch us.
It was, as the Captain had predicted, quite a job to get off the water. Indeed, I thought that we should hardly clear the low hills which closed the harbour. There was really no danger; we were in sure hands. The flying-boat lifted ponderously a quarter of a mile from the reef, and we had several hundred feet of height to spare.
There is no doubt about the comfort of these great flying-boats. I had a good broad bed in the bridal suite at the stern with large windows on either side. It was quite a long walk, thirty or forty feet, downhill through the various compartments to the saloon and dining-room, where nothing was lacking in food or drink. The motion was smooth, the vibration not unpleasant, and we passed an agreeable afternoon and had a merry dinner.
These boats have two storeys, and one walks up a regular staircase to the control room. Darkness had fallen, and all the reports were good. We were now flying through dense mist at about seven thousand feet. One could see the leading edge of the wings, with their great flaming exhausts pouring back over the wing surfaces. In these machines at this time a large rubber tube which expanded and contracted at intervals was used to prevent icing. The Captain explained to me how it worked, and we saw from time to time the ice splintered off as it expanded. I went to bed and slept soundly for several hours.
The next day as they approached Britain disaster very nearly did strike. A navigational error in not sufficiently correcting for the prevailing winds, took them south of their intended landfall. When they did not pass over the Isles of Scilly at the expected time it was realised that they were heading for the port of Brest, the most heavily defended of all the German occupied towns in Europe.
They were only six miles off when the decision was made to turn abruptly north, and the Luftwaffe planes scrambled to investigate a raider heading in from the sea never found them. They were lucky again as they approached the Royal Navy base at Plymouth. Coming in from an unexpectedly southern direction they were now thought to be a German raider and “six Hurricanes from Fighter Command were ordered to shoot us down”. Fortunately they too failed to locate the flying boat.