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Secret Mail Service


The “Double Sunrise ” Cats

Forgotten heroes of WW2 – the secret Indian Ocean Mail Service

During 1942 and much of 1943, the Japanese Navy made the Indian Ocean a dangerous place to cross and had, in fact severed the mail route from the Indian subcontinent to Australia. By early 1943, Qantas Managing Director Hudson Fysh was trying to re-establish connections with the UK without having to travel through America, which was the only option by then. And he thought it could be done by using Catalina’s.


Quantas Catalina “Spica Star” (G-AGKS) loading in Matilda Bay, Nedlands, early 1944. “Spica Star” only made six crossings before being taken out of service due to severe fuel tank problems.

His crews had done it before. Captain Lester Brain and his crew collected the first RAAF Cat at San Diego and took 22 hours to cover the 4828 kilometers to Honolulu. On arrival, the aircraft still had enough fuel to fly for another 4 hours. On the next flight, Captain Russell Tapp had flown direct from Canton Island to Sydney – a distance of 5 149 kilometers. And there was the fact that Qantas wouldn’t be first to do the trip. Five Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service PBY-5 Catalinas had flown bon-stop from Perth to Ceylon in March 1942, to re-join the part of their squadron which had escaped to the west when Java fell.
Fysh was convinced it could be done; now he only had to find Catalinas. And that task proved to be the hardest of all…

He first went to see Arthur Corbett, the Australian director-general of Civil Aviation, who told Fysh there was no point asking the Americans for Cats because they had none to spare. Corbett also was against the Indian Ocean proposal because it would put the lives of crews in danger. This was a strange attitude from a man, who’d asked Qantas to send unarmed flying boats into parts of Indonesia to evacuate civilians and troops to Australia under the noses of the Japanese – flights which had seen 2 aircraft shot down and the crews and passengers killed.
Fysh then turned to the British government. To his relief he was able to borrow 5 Royal Navy Catalinas which were based at Matilda Bay in the Nedlands area of Perth and at Lake Koggala in Ceylon.
Fysh put Captain Bill Crowther in overall charge of the operation and at his suggestion each aircraft was named after one of the stars they would use for celestial navigation. Each Cat had a British civil registration and the Royal Navy painted large numbers under the tail fin for easy identification.


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The single Indian Ocean hop of 5,652km would be the longest non-stop regular passenger flight ever attempted in the world. Celestial navigation had to be used to maintain radio silence over waters patrolled by enemy aircraft. To accomplish this, the five ex-RAF Cats were stripped of all non-essential equipment, including de-icing equipment and insulation.
Eight 66 gallon auxiliary fuel tanks were installed in the flight engineers compartment, increasing the fuel capacity to 1,988 imperial gallons (9,040 L), which gave the Catalina a range of 3,600 nautical miles (6,700 km or 4,100 miles). At take-off, the Cat would have an all-up weight (AUW) of 35.400 lbs (16.100 kgs), an overload of about 4 tons. And failure of one engine during the first 10 hours of flight would have made a ditching inevitable. Fortunately, this never happened. Because of the amount of fuel to be carried, the Catalina’s max payload was restricted to three passengers and 69kg of diplomatic and armed forces mail.


‘Double Sunrise Cats’ Antares, Altair and Vega at Nedlands, Western Australia, during 1943

The Royal Air Force did the first of 7 survey flights along the route in May 1943. The last flight on June 25th saw the the delivery of the first Cat for Qantas. And on June 29, 1943, Russell Tapp, (now Senior Route Captain), First Officer / Navigator Rex Senior, Engineer Frank Furniss and Radio Operator Glen Mumford took-off for the first scheduled service. After an uneventful flight of 28 hours and 10 minutes, they moored at the RAF terminal at Lake Koggala, Ceylon.


Experience showed that 99 knots or 183 kilometers an hour was the most economical cruising speed. As fuel weight burned off, the engines had to be constantly monitored and adjusted to maintain a constant burn-rate of 22 gallons or 100 liters an hour. 

The average length of the flight was 28 hours; the shortest was 27 hours and the longest 32 – a long time for passengers to be jammed in a tight and noisy space, wondering if a stray Jap might shoot them down.


The service was soon nicknamed the ‘Double Sunrise Route’, because passengers and crew always saw the sun rise twice on each flight. Hearing this, Hudson Fysh drafted a certificate which was handed out to passengers who had made the trip. The downside was that they couldn’t show it to anybody because the route was secret!




The certificate issued to passengers on the “Double Sunrise” Run


Two bunks were fitted in the cabin and these were primarily to enable rest periods for the off duty crew members. Occasionally a passenger would occupy one of the bunks though three chairs were installed in the blister compartment. A small chemical toilet that offered very little privacy was fastened to the after bulkhead. A British MP, Baroness Edith Summerskill, flew the ‘Double Sunrise Route’ , and there’s no reason to believe that this formidable and forceful lady has been shy about answering nature’s call in such circumstances.

The operation ended on 18 July 1945 and by that time, the Cats had completed 271 crossings of the Indian Ocean, travelling a total distance of 956,630 miles or 1,539,546 kilometers. They carried 648 passengers and hauled 51,600 kilograms of microfilmed mail and 6,728 kilograms of freight. .




The Quantas Catalina service memorial in Perth




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