Lancaster and Halifax THE British developed bombing into a fine art during World War I, and although successive postwar governments were extremely careless and disregardful of the march of events in Germany, there were fortunately realistically minded men inside the Air Ministry who were looking into the future. These nameless heroes who survived the stupid and brutal slashing of the R.A.F. immediately after World War I to 10 per cent of its wartime strength knew that if ever another war burst over Europe, the bomber would be the key to victory. They knew too that they would most likely have to bomb Germany.
In spite of niggardly allotments by short-sighted politicians, and in the face of fierce opposition, these professional soldiers always managed to keep bomber development moving forward. Airplanes in those days were handmade and exceedingly expensive. It must have taken a lot of time and hard work to explain to politicians just why you should spend a million dollars on bombers. Somehow these men got what they wanted, and British bombardment designs were fairly progressive, although no one gave serious thought to the development of the four-engined model that had appeared at the close of the last war. Men thought a twin-engined bomber could carry sufficient weight of bombs anywhere England might want to strike, and so most of England's bombers were in the medium class.
Some of these medium bombers had very creditable performances in range, particularly the Vickers Wellesley. Two Wellesleys flew from Egypt to Darwin, Australia, a distance of 7162 miles, without stopping off. This aircraft is an important link in the chain of British bomber development. It demonstrated the reliability of British engines, and also the sturdiness of the geodetic basket-weave method of construction. Data provided by its record-breaking flight was of immense importance in the construction of future bombers.
In the fall of 1935, the men behind the scenes at the Air Ministry began giving serious thought to the task ahead. They decided first to build fighters to enable Britain to fight a defensive war, and they decided that when the time came for bombing German industry they would do a thorough job, dropping a heavier weight of bombs per plane than had ever been dreamed of.
In the conference room of the great Air Ministry building was held a meeting that may well be said to have helped in deciding the history of Europe. It is difficult from this point in air history to overestimate its importance. Suppose, after that meeting in January of 1936, the Air Ministry had not called for specifications for fourengined bombers? Suppose it had been their decision to equip the R.A.F. Bomber Command with twin-engined heavies, supported by medium bombers? What if Britain had decided to follow the example of the Germans, to concentrate on the fast medium-weight bomber? Two countries were preparing to bomb each other, and what was sauce for the goose would be good enough for the gander? As far as those men at the conference table knew, the airfields to be used by R.A.F. bombers would be on the French side of the Rhine, with Berlin an easy distance for a machine carrying a two- or threeton bomb load.
Someone may have remembered the lessons of the last war, the grief and pain at starting too late, and the four-engined HandleyPage giants that went into action only after the Armistice, in India.
Another may have contributed the suggestion that a 500-pound bomb could do a lot of damage, but that a 2000-pounder would be even more conclusive. The minutes of that conference may never be made public, but we know that with heaven-sent inspiration and belief in the axiom, "If you intend to do a thing, do it well," which every British school boy writes in his earliest copybook, the R.A.F laid plans for the super-bombardment of Europe by asking the British aircraft industry to construct four-engined bombers, armed and armored, each to carry some eight tons of bombs over a 2000mile range.
Three firms took up the specifications, which became known as B36, signifying a bomber built in the year 1936. They were the Handley-Page Company, the Short Brothers, and the Avro Company of Manchester, all seasoned manufacturers of military aircraft.
The Germans continued blissfully building their medium bombers, dive bombers, and fighter-bombers, writing the pattern for defeat in the swift standardization of their production.
The result of this clear thinking has paid heavy dividends in action . The Germans failed to do crippling damage to the comparatively tightly packed island of England, using mainly 250- and 500pound bombs, with an occasional 1000-pounder aimed at a special objective. British four-engined machines are nightly hauling 8000pound block busters to German industrial centers. The explosion of one 8000-pound bomb can damage a built-up area of some twenty thousand square yards. The effect of a hundred of them falling simultaneously can be imagined. I remember the building in which I was working in London being struck by a 500-pound German demolition bomb. The result was messy, but not fatal. If it had been an 8000-pound bomb, I cannot by the wildest feat of imagination see myself or anyone who was with me surviving as we did, with nothing more than shock.
The British went about building their bombers on a steady plan. In principle, they followed the maxim laid down by the great military strategists of the past, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon: Disperse to journey; concentrate to strike. They dispersed to manufacture and concentrated to build. Parts of the huge aircraft were made by small factories and by individuals. These parts were then assembled into units and dispatched to the assembling plants, to be welded into the complete airplane.
In order to neutralize the effect of enemy bombing, every item of construction was duplicated or multiplied many times. If it happened that one factory was destroyed, or a part of it put out of service, three or four other factories would immediately be able to produce the same parts, using identical jigs or assembly tools. Thus at no time were the assembly plants starved of material.
The giant British Lancaster is said to be the bomber the Germans fear most. This huge aircraft has handed out more punishment by weight of bombs than any other British aircraft. As bombers go, the Lancaster is middle-aged. As pedigrees go, it has probably the longest of any airplane flying today, one that dates back to the very earliest days of aviation.
The name Avro, the parent company of this huge four-motored bomber, was known in aviation almost before airplanes flew.
A. V. Roe, now Sir Alliott Verdon Roe, founder of the Avro Company , is popularly credited with being the first Englishman to get off the ground in a machine of his own construction. He achieved this at Brooklands motor-racing track in England in 1908, just two days after the American S. F. Cody had made his flight at Aldershot , then the home of British military aviation.
There has always been an argument as to whether A. V. Roe was the first Englishman to fly, but no one can deny that he has played a considerable role in the development of England's aviation. He began as a marine engineer, a status he earned by going to sea before the mast, and serving as a greaser and stoker. His hobby, however, was building model airplanes, and when one of his models won a prize, he decided to build a full-sized airplane.
His first machine in which he made the much-discussed flight crashed. But Roe was not discouraged. With the help of his brother, a regular soldier, he began an aviation company in 1910, and started building a series of biplanes into which he fitted converted motorboat engines.
By 1914, the Avro Company had progressed considerably, and its 5 04 biplane became the standard trainer of the British Army and Navy. So efficient was this little trainer that its use persisted right through World War I and became a familiar feature of the air forces of most countries, including France, Italy, and Japan.
The 504 was distinguished by a skid, rather like a ski, that protruded from the front between the wheels of the undercarriage.
Popularly known as the "toothpick," this was intended to save the machine from landing on its nose and breaking its propeller, in case the pupil misjudged his landing.
After the outstanding success of the 504, Avro went on to build commercial and military aircraft, and when the R.A.F. called for specifications B36, Charles Dobson and Roy Chadwick began work on the Lancaster, a direct descendant of the two outstanding Avro machines, Anson and Manchester.
The Anson, now used as a bomber-trainer, is powered by two 350-hp. air-cooled Cheetah engines and carries a crew of three, pilot, navigator-bombardier, and radio operator-rear gunner. The Anson has been in service in this war as a Navy reconnaissance plane, but owing to its comparatively slow speed, it was withdrawn from combat work.
The Manchester, which has a very close resemblance to the Lancaster , ranks to date as the biggest of the twin-engined bombers. It was originally designed to be powered by two of the new X-shaped Rolls-Royce Peregrines. These engines developed certain defects, so the design was abandoned, and the R.A.F. decided to concentrate on the four-engined Lancaster. The Manchester was a fast ship, with considerable range and capable of carrying almost as much weight as the Lancaster, but the urgency of war production allowed no time for delay while engine defects were being traced.
The Lancaster, powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins, is fast and maneuverable. According to pilots, it is as easy to fly as it is good to look at, with its conventional wing design, good streamlining, and generally pleasing appearance. When you see the Lancaster from a distance, you hardly realize its immense size, because of its beautiful proportions. Not until you stand beside it on the ground do you realize its height is just over nineteen and a half feet. The Lancaster's wing span is 102 feet, and its length is 69 feet and 4 inches. Its total weight empty is 3 5,000 pounds, and its maximum loaded weight is 60,000. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engines tug it along at a speed just over 300 miles per hour, fully loaded. The bomb load is so arranged that it can be alternated with gasoline, additional tanks being easily fitted into the plane.
The story of the building of the Lancaster is a romance in itself. It is the romance of engineers facing the most difficult problem in the world—maintaining production under the rain of enemy bombs.
Production of the Lancaster, which began early in 1940, has never stopped, even in the fiercest of the German air attacks during the Battle of Britain and during those harassing nights when the Luftwaffe sprayed bombs at random over the English countryside.
Thousands of men and women were putting in valuable hours constructing these aerial mammoths that were later to spread destruction over Germany.
Many people wondered why it was that Germany could not crippie Britain's aircraft production. When you look at your map, and realize how much smaller England is than Germany, it seems that a German air armada flying over England could not fail to hit a vital spot. Had the German raids been organized with the same painstaking precision as those being undertaken by the air forces of the United Nations, history might have a different story to tell.
But the British not only designed their Lancaster as a bomb truck, they designed it in such a way that it could be manufactured in dispersed areas. The machine is first of all divided for production purposes into three main portions: fuselage, wings, and tail. These three portions comprise thirty-six different assemblies. Each of these assemblies is manufactured separately, some in private homes, some in underground factories tunneled into hillsides, and some in normal factories converted from peacetime functions. It is estimated that fifty thousand parts go to make one Lancaster, and that no more than two of these parts are made in the same place.
Big bombers cost money. You can figure about $300,000 as the net cost of a Lancaster, but when a bomber is lost, it is not only a matter of expendable material, but also of trained manpower. The seven or eight men who operate the Lancaster cost about $32,000 in training alone, and so when you read in your newspaper of a thousand of these big planes taking part in a raid, you can calculate that $32,000,000 worth of manpower is flying over the target in $300,000,000 worth of aircraft. Gasoline costs are terrific. These four-motored giants consume an average of fifty gallons of highoctane fuel per hour. On a five-hour trip over Germany, one thousand Lancasters would consume 250,000 gallons, quite a considerable amount.
The Lancaster carries a crew of eight, a pilot and a co-pilotnavigator , bombardier, radio operator-flight engineers, and three gunners. Although not as heavily armed as the Boeing Fortress, since it is normally fitted with .30-caliber guns against the Boeing's .50caliber , the Lancaster can look after itself. The British are proud of the fact that there are no blind spots on the Lancaster, with its four hydraulically operated gun turrets. From whatever angle an enemy fighter approaches, Lancaster gunners can sight it, an arrangement that has enabled this bomber to pile up an astonishing box score against German fighters, both by day and by night.
Flying in formation, Lancasters are particularly formidable. On one daylight sortie, a dozen, flying in tight formation, reached their targets deep in Occupied Europe, dropped their bombs and got back to their station in England within a few hours, in spite of fifteen separate attacks by German fighters. Five of the German planes were definitely destroyed, and a large number damaged.
Like all British heavy bombers, the Lancaster was designed primarily for night bombing and for strict utility purposes, that is, to carry a heavy load of bombs. Used by daylight, these bombers rely on a fighter escort and on their speed to protect them from enemy attack. When carrying a comparatively small load of bombs, the Lancaster is capable not only of a surprisingly long range, but also of high speed. One of the most outstanding and daring exploits of a Lancaster squadron was the daylight raid on the German submarine engine works at Augsburg, Bavaria. The British decided that a heavy contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic would be made if the factories at Augsburg were knocked out.
Lancasters roared over the coast of France at little more than fifty feet above the ground. They were divided into two tight formations, so arranged that the air gunners of each craft could support the others by means of cross fire. Similarly, the gunners of the rear formation could drive off fighter attacks made on the front of the other formation. The usual method of fighter attack on bomber formations is to knock off the machines on the outside.
Squadron Leader Nettleton arranged his formation to make this difficult. He knew that by keeping close to the ground, the Germans would not be able to get their full operational speed, so he started out with what he considered a strike in favor of the Lancasters.
Flying at top speed at house-top level the two formations of six reached the Paris area before running into trouble. Then it came in the shape of two squadrons of FW-190's and a squadron of Me-109's which attacked the first formation led by Squadron Leader Nettleton, the officer in charge of the sortie. The gunners of the Lancasters put up a terrible barrage of cross fire, flying as they were almost wing tip to wing tip. They were hopelessly outnumbered, however, and the odds were against them.
"There were fighters all around us," recalls Nettleton. "Our fellows were putting up terrific fire. The first casualty was Sergeant Rhodes' aircraft. He was flying to starboard and when his port wing caught fire, he came straight for me, out of control. For a moment I thought we were going to collide, but we missed each other by a few feet, and I saw him crash below. Two others of our formation went down almost at once, and I saw another on fire.
"I didn't have much time to think, myself, because I was too busy. One bullet chipped out a piece of our cockpit, which hit my second gunner in the neck. I heard him say, 'What the hell?' and we both laughed." Four of the big planes were separated and never heard of again.
The remaining planes of the two formations flew on across the rich fields of France, where they could see the peasants working below, unworried by the flight. Some waved their hands. As they crossed over into Germany, the pilots noticed that the fields were absolutely empty, and there was no traffic on the roads.
Some distance from Augsburg, the winged armada ran into the first antiaircraft fire in Germany. Because they were flying so low, the Germans could not depress their guns low enough to hit them.
The Lancasters swarmed in over the target and dropped their bombs with one terrific salvo. One of the planes was hit by small antiaircraft fire from a roof top, but he landed safely two miles out of town. Another Lancaster pilot recalled later that they were flying so low that German fire was actually knocking off the roofs of houses.
The second formation of Lancasters, led by Squadron Leader Sherwood , made the entire journey without seeing a single German plane. Flight Lieutenant Deverill, one of the pilots, related afterwards that as they were crossing the German frontier they saw a man in the uniform of the storm troopers run into a post office, presumably to telephone of their approach. Then they swept low over a field where hundreds of German soldiers were doing exercises. The rear gunners could not resist the temptation to liven up the Nazi's morning activity and had the satisfaction of watching as many as could make it dash to shelter.
Sherwood's formation came over the target just as the last of the first group were dropping their bombs. The light antiaircraft was now terrific. A Lancaster gunner noticed a solitary German sitting on a flat roof working a machine gun. He knocked him off in passing.
Over the target, one Lancaster, piloted by Warrant Officer Mycock , received a direct hit from a large-caliber shell and caught fire.
Instead of turning away and making a forced landing, Mycock flew on, released his bombs, and then fell in a mass of flames.
As Deverill was approaching the target, his Lancaster was hit many times and began to burn. The radio operator managed to extinguish the flames, and Deverill made the run over the target. Then the outer port engine stopped, but restarted later, and somehow the crippled plane was one of the five that managed to return to its base.
Reconnaissance photographs later showed that the Diesel engine works had been shattered by direct hits, and that the production of submarine engines at Augsburg had been seriously affected. Commenting on this, Prime Minister Churchill said: "No life was lost in vain." For his valor and resource in leading the raid, Squadron Leader Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross. All pilots and their aircrews were rightly decorated.
This raid proved very definitely that low-flying bombing was a potent force in aerial warfare, and also that the Lancasters were capable of flying fast enough to outpace Germany's crack interceptors.
When Lancasters gang up for mass raids on production centers, there is sure to be trouble from the ground, no matter how heavily defended the plane may be. It is now well known that it is practically impossible for any type of bomber to get over its target without being detected by the German version of radar, which works in close conjunction with searchlights and antiaircraft fire. To get to its target, drop its bombs, and return to base, a plane must be fast and maneuverable. The Lancaster seems to have all that it takes.
One of the most spectacular raids of the war was that made by a thousand or more bombers over Cologne on the night of May 30, 1942. The majority of these bombers were Lancasters flying in formation without night-fighter protection. One Lancaster tail gunner reported the destruction of three enemy fighters. There were numerous other casualties among German planes attempting to intercept the swarm of bombers, but because the R.A.F. never allows airmen to take credit for enemy planes unless they are seen to fall, these casualties are rarely recorded after night operations.
Since the beginning of the United Nations' all-out air blitz against Germany, Lancasters have taken part in practically all of the big raids. They have bombed Bremen and Emden; they rained four thousand tons of bombs on Dusseldorf in one night, at the rate of three a minute.
On July 11, 1942, one of the largest armadas of Lancasters ever to take off in daylight flew from the British coast to Danzig, some 1800 miles' round trip, and entirely shattered the huge shipbuilding yards there, with what the R.A.F. reported as the "heaviest bomb load ever carried by daylight."
Before the North African coast fell to Allied hands, Lancasters were employed to carry British block busters to Italian industrial centers. They rapidly became a scourge to the Italians. In October, 1942, a squadron of Lancasters made a daylight raid on Milan. Fighters escorted them over the Channel, and when the fighters were obliged to turn back because of their limited range, the Lancaster squadron leader ordered his machines to form in Indian file. They then dove to within fifty feet of the ground and flew down the Rhone Valley, so low that the rear gunners could see the tops of the trees bending in the wind and the French people waving to them.
They reached the Alpine district toward sunset and climbed gradually until they ran into thick clouds. When they reached Milan, they found their target completely covered by clouds. One by one the bombers dropped through the blanket and deposited their bombs.
The wing commander in charge of the squadron said: "All was quiet below, and we dropped our bombs, some of them 4000pounders , very quickly on the targets. We were so near that it was impossible to miss. When we had finished, some Italian Macchi 202's and CR.42's came up to attack, but they simply didn't have the speed to catch up to us."
A Canadian pilot in the rear of the Lancaster formation was attacked by two Italian fighters. He knocked down one of them in flames, while the other remained at a distance of a thousand yards, from which he kept firing discreetly, but with little effect. All the Lancasters returned from this sortie without a loss.
One of the toughest assignments ever handed to a bombing squadron was that given to the Lancaster outfit sent to bomb the dams controlling Germany's Moehne and Sorpe reservoirs, which hold about two-thirds of the water storage of the Ruhr, and the Eider Dam which controls the headwaters of the Weser and Fulda valleys and provides electric power for the Ruhr industries.
Crews of these Lancasters were given special training over a period of months. They were isolated from their companions and put to work to study the terrain which they were to attack. Their training included special rehearsals with dummy bombs to insure accuracy . Then one moonlight night they took off to effect what is probably the most damaging blow yet struck by airplane. The accurately placed bombs released 336,000,000 tons of water over the entire area which the dams were constructed to serve. Reconnaissance photographs taken after the raids show that large areas of the countryside were under water, and that all rail and road transport was crippled.
Approximately two hundred Lancasters figured in the R.A.F.'s raid on Duisburg in April, 1943. In a period of forty-five minutes as much as thirty tons of explosives were dropped every minute.
According to the Air Ministry's communique, the Lancasters used on this raid were carrying a larger bomb load than ever had been carried previously. It was the fifty-ninth raid of the war on Duisburg , and cost the British seventeen bombers. It left the city a carpet of flames, however, and the attack was so heavy that Canadian pilots arriving in the second wave of attacking planes stated the first bombs had literally swamped Duisburg's defenses.
Lorient, Nazi submarine and naval base, was another objective of Lancaster bombers. After one raid in which the heavy block busters had been used, reconnaissance photographs revealed that ten acres of the naval arsenal had been devastated and 75 per cent of the offices of the German commandant had been completely gutted by fire. The pictures also showed damage to two power stations and three near-by sheds. One block of foundries had been demolished by a direct hit. Another direct hit on a large crane at the end of one of the slipways blew the crane out of sight—presumably into the sea.
The same set of photographs also showed that the civic gas tank had been destroyed, and a block of buildings containing the naval officers' club completely demolished. Altogether, the Lancasters had done a good job on Lorient.
Another British heavyweight has a pedigree to match the Lancaster , and, moreover, one that is closely associated with warplanes.
This is the giant Halifax, the latest member of the Handley-Page family of planes which have served England so well in peace and war. It would be difficult indeed to imagine the British fighting a war without Handley-Pages, and since 1914 some type of HandleyPage bomber has been in R.A.F. service.
Handley-Page, their designer, is a big man with a leaning for big hats. He graduated from engineering to flying when his little workshop began to make gadgets and parts for airplane designers, most of whose planes would not fly. Handley-Page learned a great deal from these screwball ideas and quietly went to work to build his own machine. His first model actually flew, and he produced another in which he and other pilots began to barnstorm England with great profit, in competition with a number of French pilots who found the English exceedingly air-minded.
When war broke out, Handley-Page was asked by the British Admiralty if he could build a bomber. His little factory was already busily engaged in making the standard BE-2e aircraft adopted by the R.F.C., but he went to work in 1914 and produced the first twinengined biplane bomber on record. Like most Handley-Page machines , this bomber was far ahead of its time. No one can quite judge why the tall bulky designer had such an exact idea of what war in the air would be. His foresight was remarkable when you consider that he designed this bomber in the days when men in airplanes were firing at each other with shot guns.
This Handley-Page bomber, which made its first flight in 1915, not only carried a ton of bombs—an unheard-of weight for those days—but its gasoline tanks and the fuselage around the pilots were actually armored. It was a long time, however, before the machine saw active duty. Actually it was not until 1917 that the first of the huge planes crossed the Channel, and this journey itself was a disaster. The pilots mistook the landmarks and landed in Germany, presenting the Germans with the most up-to-date aircraft of the time.
By the end of 1917, several squadrons of the twin-engined bombers were in action in France, the most notable bomber station being that near Dunkirk, from which the British Royal Naval Air Service unloaded an astonishing weight of bombs on the German north flank.
Another squadron was operating from Greece, and the HandleyPages were making numerous raids on Constantinople and on Bulgarian towns, which entailed a round trip of nearly a thousand miles.
In those days the British were slow in the development of air power, and it was not until dynamic "Boom" Trenchard became a power in the Air Ministry that the British began to increase the production of what was undoubtedly the best bomber of World Warl.
Handley-Page continued to concentrate on military aircraft even during the slump that came after the war. His twin-engined Hyderabad won the Air Ministry's first prize for a commerical transport plane as far back as 1920 and became the first commercial airliner in general use in England and on Empire air routes. The Hyderabad was virtually a flying Methuselah. It never seemed to be out of date, and some of the type are probably still flying.
Toward the end of the twenties came the Hinaidi, an all-metal bomber that was somewhat in advance of its time, and the Harrow, one of the first big monoplane bombers, with a speed of over 200 miles per hour and a range of nearly two thousand miles. The Har row was produced in comparatively large quantities and became the standard bomber of the R.A.F. When the Air Ministry began to look ahead and called for a bigger and more efficient bomber, HandleyPage produced a queer-looking machine known as the Hampden.
The Hampden, powered by two Bristol Pegasus engines with 980 hp. each, was able to carry ten thousand pounds of load, including crew and fuel, over 1500 miles, at a speed of 212 miles per hour. On this showing, it ranked exceptionally high for its time in bomber performance.
The Hampden had one quality that was later to play an important part in British aircraft construction. When the machine went to the drawing board, Handley-Page called in his production manager and they built their bomber on rather unorthodox lines. The long narrow fuselage was built in two parts, split down the center like a lobster, so that many operators working at the same time could fit all electrical equipment, oil lines, and accessories into the halves of the aircraft with considerable ease. When this work was completed , the two halves were welded together. Other parts of the plane were designed to be built in sections, which is a practice now prevalent in the British aircraft industry.
When the present war broke out, Hampdens were out of date, but the R.A.F. Bomber Command, faced with the problem of offsetting the terrific numbers of the Luftwaffe, had to use them. Like the Bristol Blenheims, the Hampdens distinguished themselves on many occasions. As a bomber the machine had many disadvantages, the main one being that it was exceedingly underarmed. Early models had only one gun firing to the rear, and one in front. This was rectified as soon as possible, but there was another difficulty which could not be overcome. The long fuselage was so narrow that the pilot and bombardier could not sit side by side, and if the pilot was killed or wounded, it was extremely difficult for the bombardier to get to the controls.
Then again the rear gunner was in a tough spot. He was in the narrowest part of the machine and could not budge. If he was built along ample lines, he could hardly breathe. Many jokes were made about the Hampden, which was at one time called 'Tying Pencil" by the R.A.F., a name subsequently applied to the German Dorniers.
To a squadron of Hampdens fell the task of dealing an early heavy punch at German industry. Near the German marshaling yards at Hamm, the largest assembly of railroad lines in the world, were two aqueducts of the Dortmund-Ems Canal. Along this canal passed a huge volume of river traffic from the Ruhr to the sea. It had been constructed at considerable cost and ingenuity, and these crossings presented a unique feature, two waterways over a river.
The Germans were quick to recognize its vulnerability and arranged what was then the heaviest concentration of antiaircraft and night fighters around the area.
The Hampden pilots chosen for the raid had been put in training with many hours of reconnoitering over the area. They had flown first on pamphlet raids, and they had made special trips over the canal on their return from other bombing attacks. The night chosen for this attack was bright moonlight. Five of the planes were allocated for the task. They flew in two-minute intervals at a height of 300 feet.
The Germans had been warned of their approach, and twenty miles from their objective the first barrage of antiaircraft fire blazed into the skies. The pilots dived low, so low that the Germans could not readjust their guns to the altitude. Then the Hampdens went in over the target. The first machine was badly hit before it could release its bomb load. The second exploded. The third machine was set on fire and went down out of control.
The fourth Hampden flew in and dropped its bombs, to survive only by what one of the crew referred to as "the grace of God." Flight Lieutenant Brooke Learoyd was pilot of the fifth machine.
He had been circling around the target watching the terrible punishment German antiaircraft was handing out to his comrades. The Germans had planned their defenses so that practically every approach to the aqueducts was a lane of antiaircraft fire. A machine wishing to venture over the target had to fly down one of these lanes. To escape from the searchlights coupled to the German guns was impossible.
Learoyd was cool and calculating as he made his run in. He approached the target at some 500 feet, and as soon as the antiaircraft fire opened up on him, he dived. He continued his approach at 150 feet. The few minutes before he came over the target were indescribable. He had to fly by instruments. The glare of nearly a thousand searchlights was blinding him, and the machine seemed to be flying through a hail of bullets. The crew heard ominous shattering noises, as fragments of shell and bullets struck the wings and fuselage. Above this din, the navigator was directing Learoyd over the target.
The gallant crew made it and dropped their bombs smack on the aqueducts. Reconnaissance photographs later showed that no barges would cross the canal for many months.
When the Hampden arrived back over England, its wings and fuselage resembled a pepper pot. The navigator had been wounded.
The undercarriage release gear had been shot away, and the pilot was faced with the alternatives of having his crew bail out or attempting a crash landing in the dark. He got the plane down safely, however, and became one of the first bomber pilots to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Another member of a Hampden crew received Britain's highest award. Shortly after the fall of France, the Germans began to assemble invasion barges at every inlet on the European coast which could be used as a harbor. The R.A.F. began at once to plaster these invasion bases with bombs day and night. On one of these flights, Sergeant Hannah, a nineteen-year-old Glasgow boy, was radio operator for a Hampden. The machine had just dropped its bombs when a stream of incendiary shells sewed a trail of fire along the bottom of the narrow fuselage. One of the shells remaining in the bomb bay began to fill the interior of the plane with flames and smoke. To make matters worse, there were gas fumes. Hannah knew why. One of the gasoline tanks had been pierced and the gasoline was trickling along the outside of the fuselage, held to it by wind pressure.
At any moment the plane might explode. Then began one of those extraordinary epics of personal courage that have been a feature of the bombing crews of this war. Hannah was determined to fight the fire. He crawled along the fuselage to get to the fire extinguisher. It must have been like crawling along a narrow drainpipe with flames and smoke pouring on you from all angles. When he got halfway along, he was confronted by a solid wall of flame.
His clothes were on fire, but he managed to continue, to discover that the rear gunner in his "dustbin" turret had been forced to bail out because of the heat.
The metal fixtures at the entrance of the turret were red-hot. Hannah set to work methodically with the fire extinguishers and after five minutes he had succeeded in putting out the fire in one section. Then he collapsed. He came to in the midst of a fire-works display. The heat of the flames was exploding the turret gunner's ammunition. Hannah quickly scooped up the drums and began pitching them through a gaping hole in the floor. Then he collapsed again. The intense heat of the aluminum floor, already melting, brought him to, and he suddenly had the bright idea of using oxygen to revive himself.
The oxygen mask protecting his badly burned face, Hannah found enough strength to continue to battle the flames. He grabbed the plane's logbook and attacked them wherever he could. He was gradually fighting his way along to his own glass-covered cockpit.
Here the situation was even worse. The wind was fanning the gascharged flames into a blowtorch, and the entire front of his cockpit had been burned away.
Now he went after the flames like one possessed. He tossed out burning parts of the machine and beat the flames out with his hands. He pressed his body against the sides to smother the fire, and finally he had the satisfaction of seeing only smoke.
The Hampden got back to its base, and Hannah, who later said he looked more like a "smoked herring than a man," was rushed to a hospital to be treated for his severe burns. When he had sufficiently recovered, he went to Buckingham Palace to receive the Victoria Cross from the King.
With such an ancestry it might well be expected that the Halifax would have all the best qualities of a heavy bomber. The British pay it the compliment of stating that the Halifax is "a central peg in Britain's air strategy, having been built round its bomb bays." When you look at the well-designed bomber it is difficult to realize that it is as large as the Stirling, for the simple reason that it is beautifully proportioned, with slim wings and graceful fuselage. It is difficult as well to appreciate that twenty-two feet of this fuselage together with the center section of the wings are packed with bombs, which emerge from twenty-two separate bomb doors. The Halifax is definitely the "glamor boy" of British heavies in appearance , but for some reason or other it has never captured the imagination of the public on either side of the Atlantic, perhaps because it bears the same name as Lord Halifax, the British ex-foreign minister who symbolizes the Chamberlain regime to the British. Actually the big machine was named after the city of Halifax in Yorkshire famed for its woolens and textiles.
Designed to be an all-round ship, the Halifax is probably the nearest approach to the American Flying Fortress in the matter of defensive armament and armor. It literally bristles with guns. There is a tail turret, and center turret after the pilot's cabin, and a forwardfiring turret, making eight .30-calibers in all, with the possibility of the addition of heavier weapons in recent types. It has armor exceeding one thousand pounds and the leading edges of the wings are equipped for armor and a special device for cutting the cables of barrage balloons. Its bomb load is in the neighborhood of six tons, but its speed with its four H75-hp. Rolls-Royce Merlins is in the neighborhood of 270 miles per hour. The Halifax excels over the Stirling and the Lancaster in having a greater range. The men who fly in a Halifax are particularly happy about the heating. Intense cold is the enemy of bombardment aviation, and many crews have suffered terrible agonies when their electrically heated suits have been out of action during operations. Halifax crews have none of this inconvenience, and, next to the Mosquito, the Handley-Page Halifax is the warmest and most comfortable of all bombers. One disadvantage, however, is that de-icers are not fitted to the wings because of the armor plating previously mentioned. Large numbers of planes have been lost through ice on the wings.
Its crew consists of two pilots, a navigator who is also the bomb aimer, radio operator, flight engineer, and two gunners. Although primarily designed for night work the Halifaxes have made a number of successful daylight sorties. The most outstanding of these was a raid by an unescorted force of Halifaxes on the Scharnhorst at La Pallice, in western France. The big bombers flying in tight formation came over the target at medium altitude, and were immediately attacked by droves of German fighters. The Germans doubtless expected an easy victory, especially as the bomber formations were unescorted by British fighter planes. The first volley of fire from the Halifaxes knocked several of the attacking fighters out of action. One Me-109 dived into the middle of the Halifax formation , and went down in flames after having narrowly missed colliding with one of the bombers.
While the gunners were fighting off a second attack by the fighters, the Halifax pilots went in for their bombing run, and scored two direct hits on the battleship. One section flying lower than the others shot down a German fighter as it was rising to intercept. After the bombing raid which left the dock area wreathed in smoke the Halifaxes reformed and fought their way back through another fighter plane attack, reaching their home base with many machines damaged, crew men wounded, but without loss.
On night raids the Halifaxes have proved they are as tough as most planes when it comes to getting home. After a visit to Berlin, one Halifax captain found himself with three of his crew wounded, his co-pilot dead, and one of his engines out of commission. To make matters worse the tail gunner reported that a German night fighter was creeping up on them. "Keep going as you are, Sir," called the gunner. "I'm going to take a shot at him." Presently he called again, "I think I got him, Sir."
A few minutes later another night fighter made an attack. His bullets set one of the three remaining engines on fire. The tail gunner spotted the plane as it came in to attack and drove it off. The Halifax pilot had to consider whether it was a case for bailing out or trying to make the English Channel. He sent the bomb aimer back to report on the wounded men. He returned to say they all wanted to stay, to get home. "You've got to make it, Captain," said the turret gunner, who had fixed a tourniquet on his leg shattered by a 20-mm. shell. "My landlady is saving an egg for me for breakfast tomorrow."
The pilot decided to keep the machine flying. Over the coast of France the Halifax ran into more trouble, searchlights and flak. One shell burst under the tail, and put the machine in a crazy dive, from which the pilot righted it with difficulty. The altimeter then showed they were flying at 1000 feet, and with two engines running efficiently and one spluttering, the prospect of gaining altitude was not good. "It looks as if we'll have to ditch, boys," he announced to the crew. Only one answered, the tail gunner. "I think it would be better if we touched dry land, Sir, we'll make it." It does not take a bomber traveling at 250 miles per hour long to cross the narrow thread of water separating France from England, but this particular crossing was, as one of the crew afterwards described it, as exciting and fast as a slow bicycle race. The big plane seemed to be stalling at every second, but actually it was gaining height, and arrived at an R.A.F. airfield, where the pilot made a belly landing on discovering that his landing gear had been damaged by the last burst of flak.
Halifaxes have featured in many of the big raids on Berlin, but for the strangest reason they are rarely mentioned in the communiques . The glory goes to the Lancasters and the Stirlings. The men who fly the Halifaxes don't mind, however. They know they have a plane that will do a good job at high speed, and they say that beside a Halifax the Lancaster looks like a mail truck, but that is just R.A.F. kidding.
The Lancaster is undoubtedly the white-haired boy of the R.A.F.'s heavies, and its name appears on more communiques than any others, but usually wherever the Lancasters go, the Halifaxes are there as well. Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Diisseldorf, Mannheim, and Kiel are only a few of the German centers to come under the shadow of the wings of this big bomber.