Following the end of World War I, there was growing need for fast, regular airmail services from Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. Michael Waugh introduces us to the first flights to operate to and from the region, in particular those made by two rival airlines, KLM and Imperial Airways.
The need for faster postal services from both Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) after the nadir following the Great War was self-evident. Airmail was developing in Europe and Australia, but it depended on progress in engineering – mechanical for aircraft and civil for suitable sites for aerodromes. The future of airmail also depended on the willingness of civil and military authorities to allow flying across their territories. And in the time of depression, financing was always an issue.
This article aims to interest the reader in the fascinating scope of pre-war airmails from Malaya during a time of deep political change in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States. In particular, it discusses the competition between two major airlines, KLM and Imperial Airways, who were both eager to establish regular airmail routes. It also touches on Siam and, of course, the NEI’s vital role in the development of airmail in this region.
Aerophilately is fascinating, not only for postal rates, which in the main are too complicated to explain in detail here, but for all those interested in aircraft and schedules and the economic/political background in which it all exists.
KLM’s early days
In the Netherlands, the skills combination of Albert Plesman (1889–1953) and Anthony Fokker (1891–1939) brought about the rapid development of KLM (Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij – Royal Aviation Company), which was also backed by the Dutch Government. On 1 October 1924, a Fokker VII took off from Schiphol, Amsterdam, for Batavia, now Jakarta, eventually completing its journey on 24 November.
In June 1927, van Lear Black, the publisher of The Baltimore Sun, chartered a KLM F.VIIa to fly from the Netherlands to Batavia, via Singapore in 13 days. The return journey, via Medan in Sumatra, took 14 days, with some mail being carried from Bangkok to Java. This led to a series of experimental flights in 1928 using F.VIIb aeroplanes. The first four being one-way flights as the aircraft were to be used for setting up services for KNILM – KLM’s daughter company in NEI.
A curious ‘Accelerated Mail Service’ commenced from 6 October 1928. Post was carried from both Malaya and Siam by ship and train from Penang via India to Marseilles. It was then flown by Air Union to Paris and London (Fig 1). This allowed for a mere improvement of one day.
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