Friday, February 11, 2011

From Zed to Air Ambulance

On Britain's National Archives Flickr Photostream is a set simply marked 'Somalia', which covers a fascinating expedition which proved to be the genesis of inter-war air control, a concept of great importance for the RAF, the Empire and, not least, the legacy of such activities down to today.

This was the 'Zed Expedition' or 'Z Force'. In the first two months of 1920, RAF units were involved in operations with the Camel Corps in British Somaliland (now Somalia) to overthrow Dervish leader Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, known to the British at the time as the "Mad Mullah". The airborne intervention was "the main instrument and decisive factor" in the success of the operation. A dozen DH-9s were dispatched to form 'Z Force', and were used for bombing, strafing and - after the radios failed, communications. In colonial terms, it was a remarkably successful, cheap, effective and operation with very few British casualties. The Dervish losses don't seem to have been of interest. Seen from a military point of view, the success was complete. After 17 years of defiance, crushing the opposition took 23 days, and the British lost two other ranks and four wounded and the Mullah fled without possessions or followers and never regained political power.

The DH-9 Air Ambulance. Note that a temporary red cross has been draped over the fuselage for the photograph, and was presumably not used in practice. The attendant's small window can be seen between the airman's head and the flag. [National Archives]

The story of the expedition is fascinating, but perhaps for another day, as here we take just one intriguing element. Part of the expeditionary force was a single Airco DH-9 (D.3117, according to J.M. Bruce in Flight and confirmed by the images) reconfigured as an aerial ambulance, which by this account may well be the first successful employment of such a machine. Although primitive and vulnerable to modern eyes, this machine was doing exactly the same job modern helicopters and Casevac aircraft do - taking an injured casualty quickly to where more advanced treatment can be given and where other transport will be inadequate. It appears from the Somalia campaign, as well as the inhospitable and barren landscape to be traversed, the only other forms of travel were foot (maybe mule) or camel. The images in the National Archives collection show no wheeled transport up country at all.

In the February 26, 1920 edition, Flight reported:
The Secretary of the Air Ministry is instructed by the Secretary of State for Air to issue the following statement:— "The Air Force unit ... included a considerable medical staff equipped with a very complete hospital outfit. The aeroplanes with which the unit operated were 12 De Havilland 9's[*] with B.H.P. engines. One of these aeroplanes was fitted up as an aerial ambulance to take a stretcher case with attendant.
The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine**, carried an article - "The Zed Expedition: the world's first air ambulance?" by American-based authors M D Scholi MD and C L Geshekter PhD. They wrote:
The RAF medical unit that supported the Zed Expedition was commanded by the army medical officer William Tyrrell. ... In November 1919, Tyrrell and an RAF officer had visited British Somaliland surreptitiously, in the guise of petroleum engineers, to evaluate the medical logistical needs of the forthcoming campaign. In early January 1920, Tyrrell returned to Somaliland as Medical Officer of the RAF medical detachment for the Z Unit.
They went on to describe the DH-9 modification candidly as "A coffin-like structure was constructed within the rear fuselage, enclosing the stretcher."

The text by the original image is quite clear: 'First cot case arriving from El Afweina'. [National Archives]

They go on to elucidate the work of this single aircraft, and its single stretcher position:
Tyrrell's medical unit was busy during and after the air attacks. From his notes:
'Three cases evacuated by aerial ambulance from Eil Dur Elan to Berbera:
(1) Captain James Godman, aged 45, w/necrosis of phalanges, middle toe left foot.
(2) Cpl. Edward Linnington, age 28, w/inguinal lymphadenitis secondary to Ulcus Molle***.
(3) AC/2W Sleath, age 19, petrol burns hand/arm.
Five others were evacuated by aerial ambulance b/t 15-24 February 1920, but not admitted to the hospital."
No doubt the patient was mighty relieved to have completed the journey, which then would have seemed a major technical achievement, despite looking extremely primitive now. He is also able to shield his eyes with his 'Bombay bowler' while the inevitable paperwork (in the hands of the man on the left) is checked. [National Archives]

The summary goes to Flight, in their January 19, 1922 issue, which included, on page 34, comments on the report of the 1920 'Health of the RAF':
It is stated in the report that, although of a primitive nature, the air ambulance has had an opportunity of proving its worth, and "the old blood wagon," as the air ambulance (a converted "D.H.9") was generally called, did such good work as to call forth the following statement, reprinted in the report : "Thus the aerial ambulance has shown that, especially in operations over country where other transport is so tedious and trying, the aeroplane is a veritable godsend for sick and wounded."

*The correct name is de Havilland DH-9 or Airco DH-9, depending on the date.

**Volume 82 November 1989, page 679. [Note the paper does not credit the origin of the images, which have been seen with various other attributions. It appears the authors have been confused by the engine exhaust collector box into thinking the DH-9 was "dual purpose" armed with a "machine gun mounted forward" in 'Fig.2' - the top image here. It appears unarmed, the normal fixed forward firing machine gun not being evident. However the aircraft is in full military camouflage and markings, and no red cross (or crescent) can be seen in the images.]

***It seems the corporal may have been misbehaving with local women as the diagnosis 'Ulcus Molle' relates to a sexually transmitted disease as described here.


  1. Wow, these are fantastic pictures. Thanks so much for finding them, as well as the great blurbs from Flight. I had thought the air ambulance was an invention of World War II. I had no idea that medical aircraft had a history dating back to the early 1920s. Great information here. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks! Interestingly, the *idea* for Air Ambulances dates back to even before the Great War, but that's a story for another day.