First published in 2008
The campaign waged by Bomber Command has been the source of much post-war controversy, mostly as a question of morality. But as we shall see, many decisions were based upon the realities and practicalities of available technology.
With the introduction of their new Halifax bomber casting, Corgi has now reproduced two of the famous trio of four engine bombers, as well as the early mainstay of bomber operations, the Wellington and they give a fascinating insight into the evolution of the bomber. The photographs illustrating this article have never been seen in a British publication before and are an evocative record of the lives of the young men of 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, based at Mepal, Cambridgeshire.
During the Great War, experience of night bomber raids led many to believe that such machines were practically invincible.
This idea would continue throughout the 1920s and 30s, propagated by the Italian general Giulio Douhet’s book ‘Command of the Air’, by Stanley Baldwin’s fatalistic remark that ‘The Bomber will always get through’ and made reality in the Sino Japanese and Spanish Civil wars.
Yet no one knew how effective bombers would be against a well defended target and this uncertainty would lead to many terrible consequences in future years.
During the 1930s, it soon became clear to the British Government that rearmament was a necessity. Well trained pilots were still flying biplanes that were little better than their First World War ancestors. It would be a Vickers designer, Barnes Wallis who would show the way and design the mainstay of Bomber Command in the early years; the Vickers Wellington.
Click here for exclusive WWII photos of the Avro Lancaster and models reviewed here:
The Wellington was first flown in 1936 and incorporated Barnes Wallis’ revolutionary ‘Geodetic’ (alloy mesh) construction. This gave the aircraft excellent rigidity and allowed it to absorb astonishing amounts of damage. Nevertheless, the entire body, wings and tail surfaces were covered in Irish linen. As with all fighting machines, it was an amalgam of compromises involving the necessities of defence, offensive capacity (bombs) endurance and speed. An additional, crucial factor for aircraft is altitude.
The greatest mistake and one which would dog Bomber Command and all the air forces of WWII, was the misguided notion that bombers flying in close formation on daylight raids, would be capable of defending themselves and each other in a barrage from their guns. With only two manually operated turrets and more that 100mph slower than the Me109, the Wellington and its six man crew was a sitting duck. Like its brothers, the Whitley and Blenheim, the Wellington was hacked to pieces in daylight raids.
As the Axis forces had also discovered, the RAF found many principles on which so much had rested were false and with virtually no research into night flying aids during the previous decade and the clamour to “Give it them back, only double!”, precision daylight bombing was thrust aside in favour of ‘area’ or ‘carpet’ bombing. In this capacity and as a valuable member of Coastal Command, the Wellington would fly throughout the war and continue in service until 1953.
Released by Corgi in September 2004 as AA34802, the model has subsequently represented marks 1a, III, VIII and X. The clever design allows for window variations in the fuselage and for the deletion of the front turret in favour of a fared-over nose or the early fixed glazing unit as on early versions of the MkIa. Attention to detail is very high, particularly on the Coastal Command aircraft, with their complex arrays of antennae. My only criticism is that the geodetic pattern on the wings seems quite pronounced. On all photos I’ve seen of real aircraft, the necessity of aerodynamic cleanness demanded a taut surface. The pattern on the fuselage is however, very accomplished and overall, when compared to say, the Brooklands museum MkIa, it’s an exceptionally accurate model. Unfortunately, the planned version of the RAF Hendon example has been cancelled and no new models have been released since October 2006.
Of the trio of heavies, the Short Stirling is the least well known and sadly, there are no surviving examples left anywhere in the world. Design origins go back to 1937 and significantly, the Stirling’s main weaknesses stem from the overall penny-pinching attitudes of the inter-war years. The Air Ministry required that in order to fit conveniently into existing hangars, the wingspan should not exceed 100 feet, although many hangars could accommodate spans up to 125ft. This resulted in a long takeoff run and in order to alleviate this, the undercarriage became a gangly affair that had to fold twice. A poor undercarriage and poor altitude performance made Stirlings (operational from 1940-1944) highly vulnerable to fly and dangerous to land. Yet they later found popularity as glider tugs and transports. As a bomber, the most significant shortcoming was the design of the bomb bay. Like its contemporaries, the bay was compartmentalised and designed to carry the 500lb and 1000lb bombs then standard in the RAF. No one had thought that bombs too would need to develop in future wars.
Currently, there are no die cast models of the Stirling. Enthusiasts will have to continue with the Airfix version which, though long in the tooth, is still a fantastic kit. But wait a minute, stop the press! A source at Corgi headquarters has informed me that the company is very keen on producing a Stirling in the near future. Not only that, but if things go to plan, an additional model will be released of the Airspeed Horsa glider. Keep your fingers crossed and remember, you read it in Model Collector first!
Handley Page Halifax
The Unsung Hero
Behind every great aircraft there is a bloody-minded, determined chief engineer/designer/Managing director. Sir Frederick Handley Page was such a man.
The largely unhindered competition between British aircraft manufacturers was always intense and resulted in greater and faster leaps in technological advances. One such was the Halifax bomber.
Designed to the same 1935 specification as the Avro Manchester, Sir Frederick must have got wind that the Rolls Royce Vulture engine was a ‘stinker’ and quickly moved to Bristol Hercules engines. Then the Air Ministry threw more spanners in the works and demanded suitability for dive bombing, tropical capability, a strengthened floor and an additional two engines. All four engines had to be Merlins. From the outset then, the Halifax was a compromise that conveniently allowed adaptations for towing, transportation, paratrooper and bombing duties. An unintentional bonus was that, should a crew have to face the terror of ditching in the sea, the extra floor strength meant their chances were far better than a Lancaster crew’s. Also, the Halifax floated for longer than a Lancaster – apparently!
However, all this adaptability had a price. The redundant requirement for dive bomber characteristics had led to a thicker wing which included cells for bomb carrying. This led to reduced performance and crucially, reduced altitude. Even when Sir Frederick got his way with the dropping of the front turret and adoption of four Bristol Hercules engines, the Halifax still used more fuel and carried 2000lb less ordnance than a Lancaster. Yet it was much appreciated by its crews, particularly those of coastal command and from introduction in November 1940 till the end of the war and during the early years of post-war transportation, the Halifax proved a sturdy and reliable workhorse.
Two restored examples exist. The one at the excellent Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington (just off the A64 York ring road) is a ‘bitsa’, made up of genuine components and decorated in the markings of ‘Friday the Thirteenth’, one of many illustrious Halifaxs. The other, NA337 was recovered from Lake Mjosa in Norway during 1995. Restoration was completed in 2005 and the Special Duties MkVII now resides at the RCAF Memorial Museum, Trenton, Ontario. An additional Halifax, W1048, was recovered from Lake Hoklingen, Norway, in 1973 and can be viewed in mostly un-restored condition at the RAF Museum, Hendon. This is the only extant Merlin powered Halifax MkII. During 2006, the remains of a transport Halifax, JP276 were found approximately 60 miles from Warsaw. There is some speculation that enough of the aircraft survives to warrant restoration and exhibition at the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
After some delay, the Corgi Halifax B.II and B.III have now been released and they are worth every minute of waiting! Corgi has taken an expensive risk inasmuch that many components, including the wings, are unique to either the B.II or B.III. Similarly, nose glazing, engines, tail plane and the infamous dorsal turrets (Sir Fred hated them) are all different components. The shape is about as perfect as you can get and the addition of crew and working features are no hindrance to accuracy. The cockpit glazing in particular, has been achieved with particular finesse. Perhaps the only and very minor issue is that the guns are slightly over-scale, however, to make them any finer would lead to impossible delicacy.
AA37201 represents Halifax B.II TL-S of 35 Sqdn. which failed to return from a raid on the Tirpitz in 1942. Indeed, it is this aircraft which now survives in the RAF Museum at Hendon.
AA3702, a Halifax B.III, celebrates the amazing achievements of Cyril Barton VC.
Wartime and civil transport versions are planned, including versions with underbelly panniers.
The Shining Sword
Avro’s chief designer, Roy Chadwick knew that the twin engined Manchester was a good aircraft. Designed to cope with the stresses of dive bombing and to carry torpedoes, it had immense strength and a large, partition free bomb bay. But it was dogged by the under developed Rolls Royce Vulture engine, whose construction (bolting two 12 cylinder engines round a common crankshaft) led to catastrophic unreliability.
Faced with the ignominious Air Ministry instruction to build Halifax bombers instead, Chadwick worked feverishly in association with Rolls Royce and produced what was arguably the greatest bomber of WWII. With a ceiling of up to 24,000 feet and an eventual load carrying ability greater than its entire weight, the ‘Lanc’ was not only prized by the Brass hats, but much loved by its crews for its ability to get them out of trouble with near fighter agility, yet take off, cruise and land with genteel docility.
From its first operational sortie in March, 1942, some 7,377 aircraft were made, flew 156,000 missions and dropped 608,612 tons of ordnance-that’s two thirds of all the bombs dropped by Bomber Command during the war. But there was always a price to be paid. Over 4,000 Lancasters, together with their seven man crews, were lost.
The Lancaster was far from a blunt instrument. That capacious bomb bay allowed Barnes Wallis to design the bouncing Upkeep bomb, the 12,000lb Tallboy and the 22,000lb Grand Slam all of which were specific, tactical weapons. Arguments over the effectiveness of these weapons miss the point; that Bomber Command and its leader, Arthur Harris, would always adopt new technology that would aid precision bombing. As you can see from the amazing photographs generously supplied by John Aitken, Lancasters also played a crucial role in daylight operations before, during and after D-Day and additionally, were the preferred aircraft for the Pathfinder forces and in developing the first effective air-to-ground Radar navigation system; H2S.
Corgi first released a 1:144th version in 1998 as a representation of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight WS-J. On all versions, the fuselage is quite narrow and the front, from the cockpit on, seems to extend too far. Unlike this model, subsequent issues (there have been nine so far) have a glazed bomb aimer’s position. For a desk top display, it’s good, if not quite as good as the model of the Short Sunderland (when will Aviation Archive bring out a 1:72nd version of that?)
The 1:72nd Aviation Archive Lancaster is a much grander offering in every respect. Introduced in 2001, the model is well proportioned and very detailed. In fact, both detail and finish have been slowly improved over the years. The teardrop cut out in the dorsal position has allowed for early (B.I) and late (B.III) turreted versions as well as turret-less specials, such as the Dam Buster and Tallboy versions. Sound and vision versions have been produced, but as yet, no civilian examples have been offered. My only criticism of the model is that on the turret with raised fairing versions (usually B.III marks) the add-on effect is more pronounced. That said, it was and still is a major move forward for affordable quality in scale model aircraft and one of my personal favourites.
One final thought. For all those who argue the morality of Bomber Command’s actions, there are 55,000 men who would tell them they would go out on another mission if only they could and there are 55,000,000 people who would cry out that this most monstrous of wars couldn’t have ended a day too soon. But they are silent now, for they are all asleep.
I would like to dedicate this work to the crew of ‘U’ Uncle, 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, whose photographs speak more volumes than any words I have written:
John Aitken; Pilot
Duncan W. Hodgson (deceased); Navigator
Ronald D. Mayhill; Bomb Aimer
Graham Coull (deceased); Replacement Bomb Aimer
Gordon Grindlay; Wireless Operator
Dick Taylor (Killed In Action); Flight Engineer
Bob Cunningham (deceased); Replacement Flight Engineer
Henry Monk; Mid Upper Gunner
William Monk; Rear Gunner
No member of Bomber Command has ever received a campaign medal.