British medium bombers

Chapter:

When the war broke out, the British were caught short on mediums , and on attack and dive bombers. The Handley-Page Hampden was becoming obsolescent, but was pressed into service as a night bomber, and the role of medium bomber was passed on to the Bristol Blenheim, which was in reality a light bomber and fighterbomber.

From medium bombing, the Blenheim passed to long range, fighting , dive bombing, night interceptor work, night bombing, mine laying, photography, and practically every other task that could be given to an airplane.

Its ability to fulfill these multiple roles is a tribute to its ancestry, for it is a direct descendant of the famous Bristol Fighter, the most efficient fighter-bomber of World War I, and probably the machine with the longest service life of any warplane. The Bristol Fighter made its debut in France in 1917, as a day bomber. It finished the war carrying mails, food, and brass-hats, to continue as a bomber in the Middle East and India, and was still flying ten years after the close of hostilities, surely an all-time record for durability.

The Blenheim indirectly owes its development into a warplane to an American Lockheed airliner, forerunner of the Hudson. In 1935, Captain Frank Barnwell, designer of the Bristol Fighter, the Bristol Bullet, and other successful warplanes, turned his attention to commercial aircraft. To the 1935 Paris Aero Show he sent an all-metal twin-engined airliner. With the exception of a few newspapers , no one took very much notice of the new machine. German and French technical magazines published reports, but there were no bids from British airline operators for the metal plane, although it showed distinct potentialities regarding speed and general performance.

About this time Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the London Daily Express, and later Britain's Minister of Aircraft Production, became extremely air-minded. He had bought a Lockheed plane to enable him to visit the French Riviera and North Africa to get relief from his asthma. Being a newspaper man, he gave considerable publicity to his new toy.

Lord Beaverbrook's bitter rival in newspapers was Lord Rothermere . He had been England's Air Minister during World War I and inherited the Daily Mail from his brother, Lord Northcliffe.

Not to be outdone by his rival, Lord Rothermere set about looking for an all-British product to equal that of his Canadian-born rival.

He found it in Frank Barnwell's twin-engined "convertible airliner ." Rothermere bought the machine, and when it proved faster than anything in the air, he called it "Britain First" and offered to present it to the British Air Ministry. By one of those miracles that can happen in a democratic England, in spite of red tape and political prejudice, the Air Ministry accepted the plane.

Once the plane had been accepted, Rothermere and his energetic writers determined that the Air Ministry should not forget it. Soon it was announced that a new version of the "Britain First" was being manufactured as a bomber. It was named the Blenheim.

Five different types of the Blenheim have been manufactured since the first machine made its appearance, the latest, the Blenheim V, being called the Bisley, an attack bomber which operated with considerable effect in Marshall Tedder's day and nigkt assault against Rommel in North Africa.

The first Blenheim had two radial Bristol Mercury engines each with 920 hp. It had a span of 56 feet, 5 inches, was 42 feet long, and had a wing area of 469 square feet. The plane weighed 8100 pounds empty and carried 4400 pounds' load, including 300 gallons of gasoline. With a range of 1900 miles, the Blenheim was exceedingly fast, as machines went then, being capable of 295 miles per hour at 20,000 feet.

Barnwell, who himself had actual experience as a pilot in World War I, intended his bomber to be self-defended. He fitted gun turrets and armor. Few people could have imagined at the time just what these Blenheims were going to be called upon to do, or that the design would develop into two of the most outstanding machines the R.A.F. has ever put into the air—the Beaufort torpedo plane, and the deadly Beaufighter.

Blenheims had the distinction of taking part in the first British raid of the war, when a mixed squadron of Blenheims and Wellingtons left England on September 3, 1939, to bomb the Kiel Canal.

The pilots were met by heavy antiaircraft fire, and although they executed what in those days seemed to be a heavy bombing attack, the results were never made public. Five of the aircraft were reported missing. The losses were caused by antiaircraft fire, and not by German fighters, so military observers at the time were not fully convinced that it was necessary to give fighter protection to day bombers, a theory which was later to prove costly.

When the Germans invaded Norway, the British had no fighter planes capable of flying from British bases to operate over the irregular coast of the invaded country. Someone had the bright idea of increasing the armament of the Blenheims and reducing their bomb load. Several squadrons of Blenheims were fitted with extra machine guns and sent into action. With their speed of better than 300 miles per hour and extreme maneuverability, they soon proved themselves formidable long-range fighters. They not only took on the German Me-109's, but they ground-strafed the airfields that the Germans had taken over and bombed the frozen lakes on which the German Stukas were landing. One squadron of Blenheims made repeated attacks on a German airfield and succeeded in putting it out of action, destroying all the German bombers which had landed there.

This success of the Blenheims focused attention on their possibilities as all-rounders, and the British with their facility for improvisation applied themselves to the task of further increasing the armament of the machines.

When the Battle of France became a rout, squadrons of Blenheims with the R.A.F.'s advance striking force not only acted as medium bombers, but also undertook many low-flying missions. Additional guns had been fitted beneath the fuselage, and the aircraft dealt out severe punishment to the Luftwaffe, especially since their long range and weight-carrying capacity enabled them to carry more ammunition than the Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Blenheims seemed to be everywhere during those dreadful days, and many scenes of heroism were enacted in the cockpits of these tough machines. One of the most heroic episodes in their battle history was the attack on the Maastricht Bridge across the Albert Canal in Belgium, when the Germans were crossing the Meuse.

The Germans were pouring troops across the bridge and a squadron of Blenheims was sent out to destroy it. Theirs was a suicide assignment, as the careful pre-invasion plans of the enemy had provided for a large formation of antiaircraft batteries to cover the bridges and had also moved up a wing of fighter squadrons.

The Blenheims reached the bridge and began to drop their bombs. In the middle of the operation, they were attacked by a squadron of Me-109's. As the Germans attacked what they must have considered "sitting birds," the squadron leader of the Blenheims observed that the bridge had received a direct hit and would be out of action for the rest of the day at least. He gave his pilots the order to rally in formation, and the Blenheims sailed into the Messerschmitts. The British gunners delivered such a well-directed fire that the German formation broke up with what appeared to be many casualties.

The Blenheims flew back to their base. Some of the aircrews had been killed, some wounded, and every plane had been damaged, but their objective had been achieved and the Luftwaffe pilots taught to respect the "slow" British bombers.

Twelve Blenheims were later dispatched from a British base to attack a German tank column threatening to widen the gap already made in the French lines. The planes flew in formation, but before they reached their target, they were separated by intense antiaircraft fire. They were then attacked by German fighters. They fought off the fighters, reached their target and finally dropped their bombs, but only one of them returned.

One night during the Battle of France, when it was imperative that Calais be defended at all costs, a Blenheim squadron stationed in the south of England was pressed into service to carry water and ammunition to the citadel of the French coastal city being defended by British marines and soldiers. The planes loaded up with containers of water in place of bombs, each carrying ten gallons attached to a parachute. The squadron set out just before dawn, flew through German fighters and antiaircraft fire, and dropped their loads from about fifty feet. They made two sorties. One of the Blenheims took time out after unloading the water and small ammunition to shoot down two Stuka dive bombers which were attacking the citadel.

When the Germans won the battle for Greece and launched their invasion against Crete, Blenheims again were the only aircraft with sufficient range to carry a load of bombs to the Greek mainland from British Mediterranean bases. One squadron of Blenheims made a devastating raid on German troop concentrations and airfields in Greece. They dropped their bombs and the pilots returned to carry out a succession of machine-gun attacks on enemy transport planes, gliders, and bombers. So successful was this operation, that the actual invasion of Crete was considerably delayed.

To Blenheims fell the honor of opening the R.A.F.'s campaign against Occupied Europe, with a sortie against German airfields at Dieppe and Calais during January, 1941. On this occasion, all the Blenheims returned safely, and one gunner was credited with having shot down a German fighter.

Again the Blenheims had acquired a reputation to which they were not really entitled, and again this remarkable bomber was dispatched on a comparatively long-range bombing expedition, unescorted . This time the squadron was intercepted by a strong formation of German fighters, and a large number of planes were lost. It was then decided that the Blenheim, which was comparatively slow beside the modern fighter, should be used for medium night bombing with escort, or for daylight attack bombing, also escorted.

As a night bomber, the Blenheim proved itself well suited for its task. Squadrons of Blenheims raided the Ruhr, Holland, and the French coast. Their pilots brought back many stories of encounters with German night fighters. One rear gunner related how he had spotted a Dornier flying in the R.A.F. formation returning from the Ruhr, with the intention of discovering their airfield and blasting the machines as they came down to land. He warned his pilot that there was a stranger in their midst. The pilot reduced his speed and when the Dornier was almost colliding with the Blenheim, the rear gunner opened fire and blasted the audacious German out of the sky.

Blenheim pilots seemed to be imbued by the pugnacious attributes of their machine and liked nothing more than to go looking for trouble after they had dropped their bombs. One pilot returning from a raid on Cologne spotted an enemy airfield 8000 feet below him, near the French coast. He had no bombs, but decided to go down to strafe it. He dived, and suddenly the bright moonlight revealed he was between two German Junkers 87's, patrolling over the airfield.

He did the only thing possible, attacking them both while still in his dive. Both German planes burst into flames and went down. As he pulled out of his dive and found himself just 200 feet above the airfield, there in front of him was an Me-no, about to land. He used his remaining ammunition on this and watched it crash on the flare path. Then he made for home. For his extemporaneous action , he was awarded the DFC.

Blenheims are high in the lists of machines that get home after suffering severe damage. One R.A.F. wing commander who had been leading a squadron attacking an enemy airfield in March, 1941, was severely shot up by antiaircraft fire as he dropped his bombs. He decided to make one last run to machine gun the hangars, when a small caliber antiaircraft shell burst near his cabin and wounded him.

The machine itself was in bad shape. Part of the port wing had been shot away, and the stabilizer was damaged. The navigator looked back and saw that the top of the fin was missing. Add to this the bad news that the port engine was smoking as if ready to break into flames at any moment, and you can imagine the pilot felt he had little chance of getting home.

He decided to try, and he headed the crippled Blenheim toward the coast. Another antiaircraft shell burst near the plane and damaged the starboard aileron. The shock of this explosion, plus the pain he was already suffering, caused the pilot to lose consciousness for some time.

He came to, to find the machine still flying, although it had deviated from the course. To his astonishment, the engine had stopped smoking and picked up its revolutions. He asked for a radio fix, and found his airfield. Then he found the undercarriage release gear was hopelessly smashed and he had to make a belly landing, which was somehow accomplished without further damage.

The pilot was taken to the hospital, and the R.A.F. repair crew gathered to compute the damage done to the hardy bomber. They agreed further inspection was useless, for by all rules the Blenheim should never have covered the two hundred miles back to its airfield . It was, to use the term of one of the squadron, "just a mess." Blenheims featured largely in the combined operations raid on Dieppe, while Spitfires and Hurricanes provided a protecting umbrella . Squadrons of Blenheims and American Bostons roared down to attack the ground targets and to lay smoke screens. How successful were the bombers on this occasion is shown by the fact that out of ninety-eight British machines lost, only three were bombers.

The Blenheim is still in operation as a medium bomber and fighter-bomber on various battlefronts. Some of its work has been taken over by the Douglas Bostons and Havocs, but it is still fighting valiantly and is in mass production in England.

The Blenheim's predecessor, and unhappily for its pilots its companion in the early conception of medium bombing, was the Fairey Battle, built by the Fairey Aviation Company which specializes in producing planes for Britain's Fleet Air Arm.

The Battles were produced in 1932 and followed closely on the lines of a previous experimental single-engined bomber that had been fitted with an engine reputed to have greater horsepower than anything previously taken to the air. Neither the engine nor the airplane were put into production at the time, but the design had pleased the men in power at the Air Ministry and later the Battle was produced in large numbers, without much consideration being given to the use for which it was most fitted. It was an all-metal, but lightly armored, machine, with a Rolls-Royce Merlin and armed with two forward-firing guns and a .30-caliber Vickers gun in the rear cockpit.

The original conception of the Battle was that it should be used for medium daylight bombing attacks, with fighter escort, much as the De Havilland 9 a was employed in the last war. When it became evident that the Luftwaffe was equipped with large numbers of dive bombers, the British decided that the unhappy Battles should be employed as the British equivalent to the Stuka.

The men who flew the Battles must have known their mounts were entirely unsuitable for this kind of work, especially as their losses in night bombing were extremely high, so high in fact that they were switched back to day bombing as losses went even higher.

This should have been taken as a warning that there was something wrong with the machine. Its superlative defect was age. It belonged to the World War I conception of a bomber, and it should have been respected as such, and discarded.

In the middle of the Battle of France, when German Panzer units were roaring westward, Battles were called upon to execute missions that in the light of history can only be compared to the foolhardy episode of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, of which the poet wrote, "Someone had blundered." The fields of France became strewn with shattered Battles. During the R.A.F. assault on German troops advancing across the Meuse, half the Battles sent out in one day were destroyed by German fighters and antiaircraft fire.

On May twelfth, when the combined attacks of Blenheims and Hampdens had failed to destroy the vital bridges across the Albert Canal, one squadron of Battles was called up to undertake the job.

Every flying member volunteered. The final selection was made by drawing lots, and the machines set out to fly through a wall of antiaircraft fire.

Only one machine came back—and that crashed in flames inside the Allied lines. One of the Battles had accomplished the mission by crashing on the bridge. The pilot, Flying Officer Garland, and Sergeant Gray, his gunner, were awarded VC's for their part in the raid from which they did not return.

Two days later the Battles were out again on a similar mission. By a miracle all returned, although several of the crew were wounded. Later in the day four other bridges were scheduled for destruction. Out of sixty-five Battles used in the attack, only thirtyfive returned, probably the heaviest R.A.F. casualty list by percentage of the present war.

The Squadron concerned was No. 12, which was one of thirty R.A.F. squadrons to be awarded the Royal Standard by King George VI as an appreciation of its twenty-five years of service, and distinguished war record. The standards will not be made until after the war, but their presentation raises the status of an airplane squadron to that of an infantry regiment which has its colors handed down from generation to generation. No. 12 Squadron R.A.F. chose the emblem of a Fox as its squadron insignia, being the only R.A.F.

Squadron equipped with Fairey Fox machines. Its motto is "Leads the Field." When it was withdrawn from active service the Battle became a pilot trainer.