AT the height of the Battle of Britain, there was only one way a civilian could fly in or out of Britain.

It was via the Imperial Airways flying boat service from Poole.

The eight years when Poole was the home of Britain’s seaplanes form a large part of Leslie Dawson’s book Fabulous Flying Boats.

Mr Dawson’s account of his subject begins in the era of the Wright Brothers, recalling how Henri Fabre achieved the first successful flight from water in 1910.

But Dorset’s part in the story begins in August 1939, when impending world war meant the Imperial Airways seaplane service had to move out of its home in Southampton. The city – where the new Supermarine Spitfire was being built – was considered a target for the Luftwaffe, so in August 1939, Poole Harbour was surveyed as a new base for the flying boats.

A speedy evacuation to Poole happened on September 1. The flying boat traffic section was moored alongside the Quay and allowed to use the single phone in the harbour master’s office.

Flying was controlled by vessels moored off Brownsea Island.

Imperial Airways’ office staff were moved back to Southampton a few weeks later – only to be sent back to Poole when Germany invaded the low countries in May 1940. They took up residence at 4 High Street, the building now occupied by Poole Museum.

Over the coming years, Poole provided a vital passenger link to Europe, Africa and even Australia.

“A lot of people forget that at the time of the Battle of Britain, flying boats from Poole were the only connection we had by air with the rest of the world because all other airlines had been grounded,” said Mr Dawson.

A high proportion of passengers for the flying boats were government officials and other VIPs.

Non-stop trains brought the VIP passengers from London to Bournemouth West station, their three coaches blacked out to preserve the identity of those inside.

In the early days, a Rolls Royce brought them from Bournemouth to Poole, although it was later replaced by an unmarked coach.

The RAF had marked and maintained five alighting areas for the flying boats, although only two were usable at high water.

Prevailing westerly winds ensured the longest, from Sandbanks to Wareham Channel, would be the main area. That meant the residents of Arne would be annoyed by flying boats turning at low level before setting course for France – although Arne itself was later to be depopulated and used as an Army range.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation later took over the Harbour Club at Salterns Way – now the Salterns Hotel – and relocated staff there from Poole and Hamworthy. The nearby Harbour Heights Hotel was requisitioned to provide overnight accommodation for crew and passengers.

In 1940, Imperial Airways’ flying boat division was absorbed by BOAC – at which point, Mr Dawson writes, “the Poole terminal embarked on eight full years that would prove unmatched in the annals of British flying boat operations”.

The war years saw many famous and influential people use the flying boat service, including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, press baron Lord Beaverbrook, President Roosevelt’s representative Harry Hopkins, film stars Gracie Fields, George Formby, Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger and singer Vera Lynn.

As German bombers targeted the south coast, Poole only lost one flying boat to a raid.

It happened on May 12 1941, when bright moonlight revealed the Poole terminus and moorings to the crew of a Heinkel bomber, heading home after failing to locate RAF BIcester.

Two bombs were dropped into the Parkstone Shoal Moorings. The explosion tour holes in the side of Maia, the flying boat that had taken part in the famous ‘pick a back’ trials and been converted for the Poole to Foynes shuttle. The wreckage was dumped on a mudflat near Hamworthy Quay.

The Heinkel took a hit to the tail from an anti-aircraft shell. The plane came down in the harbour between the Wytch and Middle channels, with the loss of three crewmen. The two survivors were captured.

The era of flying boats in Poole ended on Easter Monday, March 29, 1948, when the majority of staff and equipment left Lilliput on two coaches and eight furniture vans, en route to a new marine air terminal in Southampton. The last flying boat arrival and departure were handled by a skeleton staff the next day.

Councillors in Poole had declined an offer to keep the redundant flying boat Canopus for exhibition purposes. It was instead broken up at Hythe.

In eight-and-a-half years, 34,000 passengers had flown into Poole on seaplanes, with movements peaking at 463 in 1945.

Leslie Dawson, a pilot himself, interviewed many survivors from the flying boat era and researched his subject extensively, both for this book and his previous volume Wings Over Dorset.

His knowledge of aviation, and his respect for pilots, helped get former Imperial Airways staff to open up to him.

His aim was to give the reader a feeling of what it was like to be aboard a flying boat.

“The aircrew have my utmost respect. I wanted to convey what it felt like to be in the cockpit, or as a passenger, or a steward etc – in absolute detail.”

n Fabulous Flying Boats by Leslie Dawson is published by Pen & Sword Aviation at £25 and is due to be published as an e-book later this year.

The author will be signing the book at the Salterns Hotel, Lilliput – the former home of the BOAC flying boats in Poole – this Saturday, February 1, noon-1pm.