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Tuesday 3 August 2021

Tuesday Talk with John F Millar, and his Father...


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JOHN H MILLAR and the SECOND WORLD WAR, as related to John F Millar, his son.

My father, John Humphrey Millar (1903-2006) died just short of his 104th birthday, and he was still firing on all cylinders when he died – he even got an amusing letter-to-the-editor published in the International Herald Tribune in Paris only two weeks before his death. After retiring from his aerospace career in his 80s, he had invented cutting-edge equipment for boiling water using the sun’s energy coupled with vacuum-tubes, heat-pipes, and double-parabolic reflectors; most of the fresh water used in Abu Dhabi and other Middle Eastern towns comes from his inventions (supplied by a company that did not believe in paying to license patents).

He failed out of Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey the third time through his 9th grade year (some British schools would say ‘3rd form year’), and we probably today would say that he suffered from ADHD, which of course had not been invented then. He got a job in advertising in London, and raced racing cars for Bentley on weekends, and also at age 23 drove a powerful Castle-class steam engine for the Great Western Railway during the great general strike of 1926. 

GWR 4079 Pendennis Castle
at Chester General station
before hauling the return
Birkenhead Flyer to Birmingham,
4 March 1967
(image: Wikipedia)

When he was eighteen, even though not apparently capable of handling class-work in school, he bought all the parts and built himself a radio receiver in the days when such a thing would take up most of a whole room, and he hung speakers outside the window so that people enjoying Regent’s Park across the street could listen to the BBC, which had only recently begun broadcasting.

In 1934, he had a great idea: take flying lessons and get a pilot’s license. The reason behind this was that he thought it would be a babe magnet: what girl could resist an offer of “How would you like to fly over to Paris with me to have lunch and then we can have dinner in London?”

He never said whether the plan worked, because shortly after he got the license he received a telephone call from an old friend, who was a Member of Parliament, much disliked by the rest of Parliament because he was constantly harping on how the Germans were re-arming and Britain would have to match them one-to-one. That was something that few British wanted to hear after the huge sacrifices made in the First World War. It was, of course, Winston Churchill. He invited Millar out to lunch at the Savoy.

Churchill said, “I can’t get anyone in Government to show any interest, but the Germans are re-arming, and our own Air Ministry stoutly maintains that if we start building new aircraft, that is the sort of thing that will annoy Mr. Hitler. Now, you are the only chap I know with a pilot’s license, so I am going to ask you to do something for your country. I want you to go to the USA and find out what each of their many aircraft manufacturers are building or designing so that we might be able to order at short notice.”

Millar came to the USA and applied for a job as a pilot for TWA. He sat for the pilot exam and passed top of about 60 applicants. They told him, though, that US law stated no foreigner could be paid to be a pilot for a US airline – “but don’t worry. We can get around that. You will technically be a volunteer, but we’ll pay all your living expenses and give you a huge clothing allowance.”

A DC-3 operated in period Scandinavian Airlines
colors by Flygande Veteraner
flying over Lidingö, Sweden in 1989

TWA (then Transcontinental & Western Air; it didn’t become Trans World Airways until many years later) was then the most advanced airline in the world. It flew passengers and mail from Newark, New Jersey to Burbank, California with about a dozen stops along the way on luxurious Douglas DC-3s, and all pilots were to make themselves familiar with all the jobs, such as engine overhaul and cabin cleaning, things we have special people to do these days. Since they were carrying mail, the chief pilot for any flight, who always sat in the left seat, was required to be a US citizen, so Millar always sat in the right-hand seat, and one of his jobs was to pump up the wheels after take-off (118 pumps up, and then 118 pumps down again for landing), and even in his last years of life his left arm was still stronger than his right arm as a result.

His first flight for the airline was Newark to Pittsburgh, and the pilot in the left seat was the Chief Pilot for the airline. When they got up to cruising altitude in thick clouds they took a fix on the Pittsburgh radio beacon, so they knew in which direction to steer, but they had no idea how long to fly. The Chief Pilot solved that: at cruising altitude, he lit a cigar. He didn’t smoke it, but just held it over his shoulder, and looked at it from time to time. When the cigar had burned down to a designated level, he announced that they would begin their descent into Pittsburgh, and sure enough, there was the runway in exactly the right place.

The airline’s hub was then in Kansas City, a place infamous for its organized crime. One day when he flew into Kansas City, he spent the required time cleaning the cabin and checking the oil level in the engines, and finally walked into the squad room, to find all the other pilots seated, looking at their watches – he had been holding them up. The door was closed and a reporter for the newspaper was introduced. The reporter said, “Now listen up, guys. We have just learned that the boys will be planting a pineapple at the corner of Third and Main tonight, so we don’t want any of you to be anywhere near there. Understand?”

Millar looked puzzled. “I’m sorry, I’m rather dense and I speak only English. Who are the boys, and what does planting a pineapple mean?”

The reporter replied, “Oh, you. I might have known you wouldn’t understand. OK, what it means is this: the Pendergast Gang wants to make an example of a Chinese laundry that won’t pay protection money, so a bomb is going to go off there tonight.”

Millar then asked, “If you already know this, surely we should call the police right away?”

“No,” said the reporter, “the police already know all about it, and they have scheduled all their patrols to be in a remote part of the city at that time.”

Most of the US aircraft industry was located on the West Coast, so every time Millar reached Burbank he would have four days off. He would rent a light aircraft and fly along the coast to visit different aircraft manufacturers. He soon had their top people on a first-name basis, like the people at Boeing, and Donald Douglas and Jack Northrop, or Major Reuben Fleet of Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego (the name has been changed to General Dynamics in the space age).

Millar, who was admittedly quite handsome, soon had a number of invitations from Hollywood to do screen tests, but he steadfastly declined, saying that he had an important job to do. One studio even cut to the chase: “We may have to go with this other English guy David Niven, but we’d rather have you.” No deal.

After about two years of this, Millar had the dealerships for all US aircraft companies in his pocket, meaning technically that if he sold any aircraft to the British he would get a 10% cut. He went back to England and offered the Air Ministry his dealerships for free, and they replied rather rudely that first, Great Britain had no need of new aircraft because there was not going to be a war, and second, if there were a war British aircraft were easily up to the job, so there was no need to import aircraft from the USA.

The first thing Millar did after returning to Britain was to establish his own aircraft company, which he initially called Millar Aviation, but later renamed Avica Equipment Corporation. He advertised that he could supply parts for any British, American, or European aircraft, many of which would be made on-site. His first customer was Sir Frank Whittle

Sir Frank Whittle

In an age today when everyone has heard of Thomas Edison as the inventor of the light bulb, you would think that everyone would also know Whittle’s name, but most people have never heard of him, even though he invented the Jet Engine in 1937. Whittle needed Millar to supply parts for his new invention, so by default Millar was one of the team of perhaps a dozen men who built the world’s first ever jet engine; it had a thrust of about 500 pounds, whereas today there are turbo-fan engines of over 130,000 pounds thrust. 

A restored OA-10 Catalina in
US Army Air Corps colors

Next, he returned to the Air Ministry and told them that out of his own pocket he had rented a Catalina flying-boat from Consolidated, and it was arriving tomorrow morning on a non-stop flight from San Diego; there was no other aircraft in the world that had an equivalent range, which would be just perfect for patrolling the Atlantic for submarines (for this flight, it had additional fuel tanks added). Millar wanted them to send some top brass to take a ride in it.

“Do we have to?” 

“Yes, you do!”

The RAF top brass took their ride in the Catalina, and as soon as they got up to cruising altitude, the pilot started yacking away on the radio.

“Who’s he talking to?” they asked.

“He’s talking to the base in San Diego.”

“Rubbish!” they said: “there’s no radio in the world that can handle such a great distance.” 

“Actually, we have one on this aircraft!” 

“Oh, well, in that case, let’s order five of them!” They added behind their hands “and reverse-engineer the radio.” 

They actually ordered the cut-price version of the Catalina that did not have wheels for getting about on land, which was a mistake, because, after all, you can’t leave flying boats in the water indefinitely, especially if German bombers may be looking to attack them. When Millar spent his own money to purchase beaching gear for the Catalinas, the Air Ministry ordered him to interfere no more. In any case, that is how the British had five Catalinas when the war broke out, and one of them (with an American pilot) was responsible for spotting the German battleship Bismarck escaping and calling in the air-strike that crippled her. If that spotting had not been made, who knows what mischief the battleship could have wrought.

Next, Millar visited the Gloster Aircraft Company, as he thought they would be a good fit for manufacturing the Lockheed Hudson medium bomber under license, which experts said was the best bomber of its size in the world at the time. Gloster loved the idea, but when they ran it past the Air Ministry they were told that their license to build any aircraft at all would be removed if they were to take on that project. “Besides,” they said, “you claim that this bomber has a maximum speed and range far greater than any other bomber in its class, and we frankly don’t believe it can do that.” [Actually, it could.] 

At that point, Harry Folland, the chief engineer of Gloster, announced that he was quitting in order to found his own company, Folland Aircraft, and he would take up that Lockheed license. The Air Ministry’s reaction was that if he did so they would have him sent to prison on some sort of national security charge. As a result, when the war broke out, Britain had no medium bombers to speak of, and they had to buy a number from Lockheed directly, which took additional time; one of the Hudsons they bought was responsible for capturing a German submarine, by the simple means of bombing it until it could no longer submerge, and then flying in circles around it until a British warship could arrive to take the surrender – the first time a submarine had ever surrendered to an aircraft.

As the war drew ever closer, Millar decided to join the Royal Navy and offer to fly for them (he had had quite enough of the attitude displayed by senior RAF officers). The Navy offered to take him on with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, even though he had never completed high school. Before he had to report for duty, he received a telephone call from Reuben Fleet at Consolidated, who said, “Since I last saw you, I designed a four-engine flying-boat [the Catalina had only two engines] that I call the Coronado. It has a high-speed wing, so it can go more than twice as fast as the Catalina, and it still has a great range. Unlike other flying boats, it can land and take off safely in heavy sea conditions. Trouble is, the US Navy says it is too good for what they need. So, I drew plans for a rebuild as a land-based heavy bomber, much faster than the Boeing Flying Fortress B-17, but the US Army Air Corps say they have no interest in it. I’m about to put the plans into the files and they will never see the light of day again, but I thought I would give you a call to see if you thought the British might like to buy some. What do you think?” 

Millar’s reply was simply, “Build it, man, and they will buy it. I think the shooting war is going to start in about two weeks!” 

He did build it, and it became known as the Liberator B-24, one of the key aircraft in the whole war, but it is entirely possible that it would never have been built otherwise.

The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm sent Millar to Washington DC, where he shared a desk in the Pentagon with his opposite number in the US Navy. Their entire job was to vet every new US aircraft that came out, and see if it could be profitably utilized by their respective navies. The two lieutenant-commanders (the US guy’s name was Miller, so Miller and Millar shared a desk) had plenty of opportunities for getting into trouble together, which of course they did, but they did a useful job.

For example, the Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, to be manufactured in Long Island, was far superior to any other in the world. I once saw an empty one at an air show, and it took off with a run of only about fifty feet. Millar pointed out that it had a lot of glass area in the cockpit.

 “I wonder,” he said “if it’s watertight.” 

Miller looked at the literature, and said that it was supposed to be. 

“Yes,” replied Millar, “but I still wonder.”

“OK,” said Miller. “Here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to sit in the cockpit and you spray me with that fire-hose and we’ll see if any water gets in. I’ll be on the radio so you can hear me.”

Half a second after the firehose was turned on there came a frantic shout: “Turn the damn thing off! I’m getting soaked in here!” 

So, they sent it back to Bethpage, Long Island to be re-engineered. Imagine how many of these aircraft might never have safely come out the other side of a Pacific rain-squall if that had not been done. They also tested Grumman’s carrier-borne interceptor, the Hellcat (a great improvement over the earlier Wildcat), which they found to be just what the Royal Navy needed.

One aircraft the two men tested was another excellent carrier-borne interceptor, the Chance-Vought Corsair, which had a strange inverted gull-wing, specially designed so that the landing-gear struts would not have to be too long in order to keep the huge propeller blades from chewing up the deck. It was also easily the fastest naval aircraft of the war (maximum level speed: 450mph), but it was difficult to land on carriers, and many US pilots died trying. At that point, the US Navy decided not to buy it, leaving the US Marine Corps (who did not use carriers in those days) as its only customer. 

Millar’s commanding officer, Captain “Dick” Smeeton went way out on a limb by ordering 200 Corsairs for the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy without first wasting time asking permission from London (which he was always supposed to do). Smeeton did that entirely on the say-so of Millar. Smeeton (1912-1992) sometimes did the unorthodox, which may be why he ended his career as a vice admiral and Deputy Supreme Allied Commander 1962-4. 

British pilots had heard about how many American pilots had died from landing accidents in this aircraft, so when the first flight of six “hose-noses” arrived for them to take over, there was a lot of grumbling. However, the six ferry pilots stepped out of the cockpits – and they were all women! No more grumbling after that. British pilots quickly figured out what strategy worked for landing the aircraft safely on a carrier: not coming in straight from astern, but instead coming in from the port side of astern so you can always see past the bulky nose to where the deck is.

Millar was introduced to an attractive woman ten years younger than himself: Adelaide Whitehouse (cousin of the 2020 US Senator from Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse). She was the secretary to Mrs. Davis, who was the national head of the US Red Cross. In those days, if you needed a poster to represent your organization, you didn’t hire a model: you used the boss’s secretary, so Adelaide was on all the US Red Cross WWII posters. They decided they ought to get married, but Millar’s commanding officer Captain “Dick” Smeeton was a bachelor nine years younger than Millar, and he also had his eye on Adelaide. One day, he called Millar into his office. 

“Millar,” he said. “I’ve put through a transfer for you. You’ll be flying to Ceylon in three weeks.”

Millar quickly popped the question, so they got married immediately in New York City (where some of Adelaide’s family happened to be at the time), and Smeeton had to stand as Best Man. He apologetically said that he could not rescind the transfer, but he gave Millar the rest of his three weeks off. They had their honeymoon on Adelaide’s godmother’s plantation “Landfall” near Wilmington, North Carolina, and then off he flew to Ceylon; I was born nine months later on 19 January 1945.

When Millar got to Ceylon, he found things in rather a mess. Everything in greater India seemed to move at no more than walking speed. The Japanese were known to be planning to assault Ceylon and India, and they would likely be able to walk in almost unmolested. He told his new commanding officer that there should be a military airline for India. The CO agreed, but said that this would normally have to be the RAF’s job, and they refused to do it. The RAF’s transports were all being used over Burma and China in supplying troops there. The Navy would be severely criticized for overstepping its bounds.

“Look, sir,” said Millar. “I worked for two years for TWA, and there’s nothing I don’t know about setting up an airline properly. If you find room in your budget for it, I will do it and you can blame me if there are any repercussions.” 

The CO agreed that this was so important a project that he ordered it immediately. Within weeks, Millar had his airline flying all over India, using mostly Beechcraft Expeditors, but also any other aircraft they could get their hands on temporarily, probably such as rented Douglas DC-3s, Curtiss Commandos, Lockheed Electras and Super-Electras, Boeing 247s, Boeing 307s, and Douglas DC-4s as they became available, and it was a great success. Lockheed’s Constellation, also called Starliner, developed for TWA, was not available in time.

The inevitable telephone call came in from the Commander-in-Chief of the RAF in New Delhi, probably Air Marshal Keith Park. 

“I want to see you in my office at 09:00 Monday morning.” 

So, Millar flew up to Delhi on Sunday, and rang up the RAF office just to let them know that he had arrived. The Commander-in-Chief, alone in the office at that hour, answered the phone, and then asked him, “Tell me, Millar, where are you staying?” 

“The Viceroy [Field Marshall Lord Wavell] is a family friend, so I’m staying with him.” 

“Oh, well, then, I tell you what, Millar. It won’t be necessary for you to come in and see me tomorrow after all, so just fly back to Ceylon.” 

Success often depends more on who you know rather than what you know!

Ceylon is famous, among other things, for its sapphires. Millar had not had enough time (or money) to buy Adelaide an engagement ring, so he acquired a lovely star sapphire set on a white-gold ring, and at the same time a group of additional clear sapphires, all because the jewel dealer craved having a radio. Millar had built for fun a small-ish radio, which he then exchanged for all the jewels, neither of them knowing that only a few years later the invention of the transistor would make good-quality extra-cheap portable radios ubiquitous.

We are told that the Japanese re-assessed the possibility of assaulting India, and that while lots of things still moved at walking speed a significant number of people and goods were now moving about in aircraft at high speed, so they gave up on any invasion.

As soon as the war was over, Millar (being RNVR) was immediately demobilized and sent home to England. The RAF took over the operation of his airline, and a few weeks later that RAF officer in charge of the airline was given a knighthood for having done such a good job with the airline during the war. Nobody dared to point out that he had not been involved with it at all.

Millar found that his company back in England, which had been running itself competently during his absence, could be expected to continue doing so. He therefore came to America to be with Adelaide. Adelaide’s home was Newport, Rhode Island, so they lived there for a time. Millar quickly realized that all the jet engines being made in the United States were British designs made under license, and therefore if he was supplying parts for them in the UK he could also set up a company in Rhode Island to do the same thing there. He founded Avica Inc. in a disused cow barn in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and was soon selling sophisticated parts to Pratt & Whitney, General Electric (the successor to Wright radial piston engines), Westinghouse, and Allison for all their jet engines, including new designs unrelated to any British licenses. For that he had to qualify for a top security clearance, which he did, until the FBI rescinded it during the McCarthy era, simply because he was a foreigner holding a top-security clearance. 

But that’s another story.

© John F Millar

Helen and a friend enjoying breakfast,
 hosted by John,
at Newport House

Visit John at Newport House, Williamsburg for an entertaining, comfortable and enjoyable B & B stay located just outside Colonial Williamsburg. Highly Recommended!

 * * *   * * *

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