Monday, May 23, 2011

Leopoldville 1942 - U.S. Troops Upgrade Ndolo Airport

The German invasion of Belgium May 10, 1940 put the Belgian Congo in a problematic position, despite the great distance from the conflict in Europe and the absence of any immediate territorial threat.  The fundamental question was whether the Belgian Congo would fall to the Reich or would maintain its own identity. When Governor General Ryckmans came out on the side of the Allies, the Council of Ministers vested the administration of the colony (in the face of King Leopold III’s abdication) in the Minister of the Colonies, Albert deVleeschauwer.  The colony would not surrender to Germany.
After a brief stay in Vichy France, the Belgian Council of Ministers made its way to London.  The UK began immediately to solidify relations with the Congo.  As early as July, the British decided to send an economic mission to Congo under Lord Hailey, who was a close friend of Governor Ryckmans and expected to draw the Congo into the Allied cause.

de Gaulle arrives in Brazzaville

The position of the French Congo at Brazzaville, French Equatorial Africa (AEF), was also a concern for the Allies. At the beginning of August, the British flew de Gaulle’s representative, General deLarminat, in a BOAC flying boat from West Africa.  On his arrival in Leopoldville, Ryckmans initially accommodated deLarminat at Hotel ABC, then concerned about diplomatic repercussions moved him to a river boat in the middle of the channel opposite Brazzaville (See March 27, 2011).  By the end of the month the Free French authorities had engineered a “coup” and the Vichy authorities had ceded to DeGaulle, who named Felix Eboué as the Governor General of AEF. On October 27, 1940 de Gaulle flew to Leopoldville to consolidate Free French achievement in Central Africa.

At the beginning of December 1940, Colonial Minister deVleeschauwer arrived in Leopoldville, with a mandate from the Council of Ministers to administer the colony independently of the Belgian government in exile.  Not surprisingly, tensions would develop between deVleeschauwer and Governor General Ryckmans.

Congolia one of FIMA's ferry launches

The entry of Italy into the war as an ally of Germany and the sinking of the cargo “Kabalo” in June resulted in sequestration of German, Italian and other Axis allies’ nationals and seizure of their assets. Among these were Fioroli and Marconcelli, who operated the FIMA ferry service to Brazzaville and had several of their boats sequestered. Another was Righini, whose popular bar and garage on Place de la Poste was taken over by Arthur Hardy after Righini was interened in early 1941.
Social life in the European city was comfortable, despite the war.  At the end of May, l’Auberge Petit Pont opened opposite the Colectric power plant, with a Fr.40 cover.  Grocer Maurice Michaux announced the arrival of a range of imported Libby’s canned goods. A city-wide tennis tournament was underway with playoffs at the Amicale Francaise, la Cafria, the Cercle, and the Banque de Congo Belge, and Shell compounds.

l'Auberge Petit Pont

Righini Bar and Garage on Place de la Poste

June 1st, Governor Ryckmans opened a soccer match against Brazzaville in Stade Astrid.  Special buses were laid on to bring spectators from Kalina and Leo-Ouest.  In August, Hardy opened a new “Ballodrome” at Bar Hardy for pelotte enthusiasts.  At the end of the month, the river steamer “Luxembourg” arrived from the Kasai with fresh cold cuts, sausages, cheese and fish from Elisabethville and South Africa.  In October 1941, Rene Delvaux opened the Patisserie Nouvelle on Ave. Beernaert, an establishment still in operation today.
Patisserie Nouvelle - Ave Beernaert

In mid-August, President Roosevelt revealed plans for an airline to return pilots ferrying fighters across West and Central Africa to the Middle East.  The plan was to use Pointe Noire airfield, at the AEF port on the Atlantic, as a stop along the way to Stanleyville and Cairo.  Both the US Navy and US Army sent senior officers as Observers. By the end of the month de Gaulle assured US reporters that France would support the US effort, although the US Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which was negotiating the ferry line with American carriers, had learned Germans believed that the French would not allow planes on the Miami-Khartoum line to overfly French West Africa.
Pan Am's "Cape Town Clipper"

The CAB awarded the ferry line to Pan American Airlines, despite a challenge from American Export Airlines and in mid-October, Pan Am signed an accord with the colonial authorities for the New York-Congo line.  On November 16, 1941 Pan Am’s “Cape Town Clipper”, a four-engine Boeing-314 flying boat, arrived in Leopoldville on the initial proving flight.  Capt. Gray and crew were welcomed by U.S. Consul Patrick Mallon, as well as the Colony’s chief engineer and the head of the postal service.  A reception followed at the U.S. Consulate. The overall reaction of both official and public milieux was “excellent”; the decision to link Congo to the U.S. had revitalized the colony. Pan Am announced fortnightly flights to begin December 11.  Although the flight was delayed 24 hours, the turnout at the FIMA ferry landing on the 12th was tumultuous -- Europeans and Africans, flags and bunting, a military band, girls presenting flowers – welcomed the new Allies (5 days after Pearl Harbor). Despite the heat, the crowd cheered as the launch brought the 12-member crew to the bank.  Consul Mallon and District Commissioner leBussy welcomed the crew and made speeches.
A fanciful press release on the new route to Africa sent to media houses in the U.S.

The next “Cape Town Clipper” flight was also delayed, arriving from Lagos during the night of January 3, 1942.  Another Pan Am aircraft, the “Pacific Clipper” had arrived unexpectedly on New Year’s Day from Khartoum on its way to New York on a round the world flight that originated in New Zealand.  The plane was en route to Aukland from San Francisco when news of Pearl Harbor flashed over the radio.  Capt. Ford, knowing how strategically important the big Boeing flying boat was and with the Pacific blocked, sought instructions to return to the US via a westerly route across Australia, Java, Sri Lanka, Karachi and Bahrain to Sudan.
The next morning, Pan Am’s agent loaded the plane with 5,100 gallons of aviation fuel.  The day was hot and no wind to aid take-off. Ford headed downstream towards the rapids, hoping the current would assist with take-off speed. But, heavily laden with fuel, the craft wouldn’t take off.  Normally, take-off averaged 30 seconds, but this one took twice as long, finally lifting off just before the thundering rapids.  Even then, the plane’s weight and effect of the fuel in the wings affect the control surfaces.  The Clipper scudded down the river gorge throttles wide open.  Ford was afraid of burning out the engines but had no choice.  Finally, they cleared the gorge, climbing over the ocean and set course for Natal, Brazil, nearly 24 hours away.

Maurice Michaux grocery (L) and corner of Nicaise (R)

January 1942 also brought a butter crisis.  The refrigerated wagon was not transferred to the “Luxembourg” at Port Francqui (Ilebo) at the end of December.  Hotel ABC advised its clientele that due to the crisis, it would reduce portions served with its meals.  Profrigo announced January 15 that the “Kigoma” was expected on the 17th with an important supply of Cape butter.  At the end of the month, another patisserie, Nicaise, opened next to Michaux’s on Ave. du Port opposite the Cercle.  The Bata shoe company opened a retail outlet in the Nicaise store.
Nicaise building after rennovation in 2004 - Michaux block on right

An aspect of the Lejeune House - Grand Corniche

The Grand Corniche was being developed above the rapids on Mount Stanley.  Local insurance agent Charles Lejeune obtained a lot there and engaged a family of wood carvers from Brazzaville to carve all the woodwork in the extensive house.
In February, the Council of Ministers in London decided to establish a 50 KW radio station in Leopoldville to broadcast Belgium’s war aims and propaganda to the world.  In April, the radio station began operation at the Jesuit complex at 7 Ave. Lippens, coincidently the location of the British Institute. College Albert’s cultural center was completed in that year, providing the base for Radio Congo Belge.
The Belgian Congo Engineers Association visited Ndolo Airport, which served SABENA’s domestic network in June to assess progress on upgrading the airfield. Ave. Olsen (Flambeau, now Kabasele) linking the airfield with downtown was also being upgraded.

When Colonial Minister deVleeschauwer arrived in Leopoldville from the US on the Clipper June 20, 1942, Antoine Allard, an obscure Baron who had sought refuge in the Congo from war in Europe, attempted a putsch against deVleeschauwer and Prime Minister Pierlot.  His plan was to use the Force Publique armored units outside the town to kidnap the Ministers and establish a “Union Nationale”.  An heir to the Allard bank, with interests in Congo through the Comuele commercial firm, the Vici-Congo railway in the Ueles and the Geomines tin mining firm in Katanga, Allard was interned at Clinique Reine Elisabeth.
Despite the positive relations with the Free French, the US continued to experience friction over use of Pointe Noire airfield.  In April 1942, the US obtained access to the airfield in exchange for 8 Lockheed bombers and sent a Consul to Brazzaville.  The US Army Air Force decided to establish the 13th Squadron for the ferry and supply route across central Africa.

U.S. Independence day July 4th was a major event in Leopoldville. Governor Ryckmans organized a “Soirée Belgo-Américaine” at the Cercle, with a cold buffet, dancing and “surprise” at Fr.75 person.  Consul Mallon and his wife were honored guests. Evening or military wear was de rigueur. 
The Cercle on Ave. du Port
At the end of the month, Capt. Vann of the U.S. Army Engineers ordered the SS “Calhoun” to Matadi as the French were raising issues about unloading the ship and holding out for the 8 planes, claiming the US presence would make them a target for the Axis.  The 38th Engineer Battalion was part of the 8012 US Army Composite Group and had built airfields in Senegal, Nigeria and Morocco. Because of the vacillating attitude of the French, the US decided to transfer the entire unit – hospital, engineers, post office – to Leopoldville and only use Pointe Noire as a refueling station.

Force Publique troops exiting Camp Leopold, now Camp Kokolo
(period photo used in U.S. media)

On August 29, the 27th Quartermaster Truck Regiment, the lone “Negro” unit in the Group, was unloaded in Matadi.  The Belgians were outraged.  The Colonial administration had long sought to subvert claims by millenarian sects that black American soldiers would come to liberate the Congolese from colonial tutelage, a situation which the demands of the war effort helped to accentuate.  The black troops were re-boarded.
At the beginning of September, with American troops arriving in Leopoldville, the Free French reached an accord for use of Pointe Noire airfield, but the priority had passed to Ndolo.  By September 21 there were 1500 US troops in Leopoldville without any transport except 5 jeeps.  The Colonial Force Publique provided 20 Chevrolet trucks and an ambulance to the US forces.  At the same time the 23rd Station Hospital was established, with nurses initially lodged in the Hotel ABC.  Pre-fabs were established at Clinique Reine Elisabeth.  The US base, initially named for Roosevelt, was eventually named Presnell for one of the missing in action in the Philippines. On Armistice Day 1942, US troops passed over the Brazzaville for ceremonial observations there.

Congolese troops of the Force Publique fought decisively in Ethiopia in 1941 with British forces, capturing the towns of Gambella, Asosa and Saio, now prominent streets in Kasavubu and Ngiri-Ngiri Communes in Kinshasa. The Force Publique also served in Nigeria, the Middle East and Burma.
U.S. Troops march to the ferry landing to Brazzaville, Nov. 11, 1942

Despite claims by Pan Am in December 1942 that there were no plans to terminate the “Clipper” service to Congo, the company did in fact do the same the following January.

The first Pan American DC-4 arrives at Ndolo Airport

Following Allied successes in North Africa, the Central African airway became less strategic and in March 1943, the 23rd Hospital was airlifted to Morocco.  Ndolo airfield became a central base for Sabena’s domestic network, with daily flights into the interior.  The US presence transitioned from military to economic with the arrival of the Bureau of Economic Warfare (BEW) and the Foreign Economic Administration (FEA) in 1943.  The Americans ruffled not a few feathers in Leopoldville.  Another agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), broadcast from the Congo radio noting, “Leo is always full of people who escaped the Nazis in Belgium…worn out by the difficulties of escape”. Combat correspondent Ernie Pyle, also visited Leopoldville, describing it as a “city of beautiful homes…a big surprise (expecting) a large village of tin roofed trading posts…suddenly amazed to see so many white women”. In March 1944, Pan Am resumed Clipper service, but the era of the flying boats was passing.  The first DC-4 landed at Ndolo airport January 19, 1946.

·        l’Avenir Colonial Belge, Leopoldville, 1940-45.
·        Le Courier d’Afrique, Leopoldville, 1940-45.
·        Ferry, Vital &  Robert Esperou, 2006. Du Trimoteur au Quadrijet, Paris: Le Gerfaut.
·        Fetter, Bruce S. 1988. "Changing War Aims: Central Africa's Role 1940-1941, As Seen From Leopoldville" African Affairs, July.
·        Flynn, George L. 1997, Escape of the Pacific Clipper, Boston: Branden Publishing Co.
·        U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Relations of the United States,

1 comment:

  1. I was in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville) from 1933 to 1950 and as such a witness of many events, including the upgrading of the Ndolo airfield during which I had a ride on the Caterpillar graders sold by my father.