Churchill soon made friends with [BOAC Captain] John Kelly Rogers, “a man of high quality and experience.” He entered the cockpit smoking his usual cigar, and Kelly Rogers waived the rules and let him continue, even allowing him to strike a match when it went out. He tried the controls of the huge craft, as Kelly Rogers whispered into the co-pilot’s ear, ordering him to apply corrections only if it looked as if the plane was getting out of the Prime Minister’s control…
Churchill was allowed to do a couple of slightly banked turns, and was photographed by one of the official cameramen. He talked about his own flying career which had begun in 1913 when he founded the Royal Naval Air Service, and compared the Boeing Clipper with the primitive aircraft he had known then. When Kelly Rogers made radio contact with the [accompanying] Pan American planes, Churchill asked if he could speak to them, but the captain ruled that out as too much of a security risk…
After about four hours they arrived at Bermuda and Kelly Rogers offered a sightseeing flight around the islands. The Prime Minister was summoned from his seat below and he and the Governor [of Bermuda, Lord Knollys] came on the flight deck to view the sights. Then they landed inside Darrell’s Island, the main flying-boat station in Bermuda…
— Lavery, Brian. “A Flying Hotel in the Fog.” Churchill Goes to War: Winston’s Wartime Journeys. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007. 94.
This is Captain J.C. Kelly-Rogers, Berwick‘s commander for that flight (and the subsequent return flight from Bermuda to Britain). Regular readers of this space may find him familiar as I have used his likeness here previously as an avatar—a deliberate choice, as the man was one of Imperial Airways’ most experienced and capable captains.
John Cecil Kelly-Rogers was born in 1905, in the seaside town of Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin. At the age of 14, he joined the training ship HMS Conway—famed for its high-quality merchant marine graduates—and later became an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. In 1927 he joined the RAF and flew “army cooperation” craft; a loose term describing those aircraft that served as observers, artillery directors and couriers.
Kelly-Rogers joined Imperial Airways (forerunner to BOAC) in 1935, and due to his good airmanship, experience and leadership, was frequently called upon for more hazardous and prestigious assignments. In 1937 he flew the first Empire flying-boat service along the Nile to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. He was in regular rotation as a captain on the lengthy Egypt-India-Australia route as well. In 1939, he flew Imperial’s first transatlantic service to Canada and the United States. Most famously, in 1940, Kelly-Rogers rescued the Empire flying-boat Corsair from the swamp in the Belgian Congo where it had lain stranded for 10 months.
Corsair had gotten off-course due to faulty maintenance with its direction-finding radio; it was forced to land in a swampy, brackish river to avoid fuel exhaustion and had struck a rock and holed itself in the process. Captain Edward Samson Alcock—brother of famed Sir John William Alcock, who had made the world’s first successful transatlantic crossing—managed to beach Corsair before she flooded and sank. The flying-boat had subsequently been repaired in an Herculean effort that saw the creation of a small town full of engineers and hired African labour—nicknamed Corsairville, naturally. Regrettably Alcock wrecked it again on another rock, in an abortive attempt to get it airborne on the Dangu River’s narrow, short waterway, and Corsair was forced to spend another few months undergoing a second repair. For the second attempt, the river was dammed to create a lake, and ace pilot Kelly-Rogers was the man that finally got it airborne and back to Britain.
Following the war, Kelly-Rogers returned to his native Ireland and became a pilot for Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus. He subsequently became a deputy general manager (and later, director) of the airline. In 1969 he also became the curator of an Irish aviation museum hosted at Dublin Airport. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge that museum no longer exists and the disposition of its artifacts is unknown. One has to presume as well that by the present date, J.C. Kelly-Rogers is dead, although I can find no notice of his passing.
RELATED: Captain J.C. Kelly-Rogers gives his own impressions of the Prime Minister (and the flight from Bermuda to Britain) in the February 2, 1942 edition of LIFE magazine.