Stirling, wellington, and whitley

Chapter:

The third outstanding four-engined British heavy is the Short Stirling, made by the firm of Short Brothers, one of the oldest manufacturers of airplanes in England.

The firm was founded by the two brothers Eustace and Oswald Short, who were making balloons many years before airplanes were flying. During World War I, the Shorts built seaplanes for the British Admiralty, and afterwards turned their attention to the production of large flying boats with which the British intended to link their Empire by air. These were known as the G-type flying boat, and considerable comment was caused when these craft, whose hulls had been built at Rochester, on the Medway, by men and women descended from the craftsmen who built the ships with which Drake defeated the Spanish Armada, were launched down shipways.

Few of these boats ever got to the Empire air routes. The R.A.F. wanted them as long-range patrol bombers. Short Brothers were determined to build a flying boat for trans-Atlantic air-mail service, however, and they created a machine known as the "Pickaback." This consisted of one airplane on top of another. The larger aircraft used the power of the top and smaller plane for the take-off. Once in the air, the small plane was detached and the bigger machine proceeded under its own power. One of these machines made the flight from England to America in record time.

When the Air Ministry called for their B36 specifications, someone suggested that the Short Sunderland, or G-type, flying boat was a good design for a bomber. Short engineers went to work and did what they had previously done in building their flying boats, constructing a flying mock-up of the proposed giant, complete with four tiny Pobjoy engines and with seats for two test pilots only. The flying mock-up has the great advantage of pre-testing the machine before the final blueprints are made, and as a result of these flying mock-ups, both the Sunderland and Stirling are credited with being exceedingly efficient large airplanes.

The Stirling is a midwing monoplane designed to be powered either by four Bristol Hercules or by four Wright Cyclone engines.

When it made its first appearance, it was the heaviest armored bomber in the air. The Short designers had made considerable improvement on their slow and ponderous Sunderland. Everything in the big new bomber was of metal, and the bomb load was estimated to be in the vicinity of twenty thousand pounds. The first machines carried a crew of seven and were armed with eight guns in power-operated turrets, but recently the crew has been increased by an additional member.

The Stirling is not a pretty machine to look at. It has a square, thick, fuselage with a decided bump on the nose and is typical of British design. Seen from close by, this plane is a real giant. Its landing wheels are six feet in diameter, and it is twenty-two feet high.

The Stirling carries its bomb load, which equals that of nine Blenheims, in three electrically operated bomb racks which run almost the entire length of the fuselage. When the Stirling first went into action in 1941, many of the crews had previously been on Hampdens and Wellingtons. They were immensely pleased with the roominess of their new machines. The interior of the Stirling is so generous that the crew can walk around with perfect ease. There is a corridor extending the length of the machine, leading to the quarters of the tail gunner, who in most bombers is quite isolated from his fellows. All the crew are provided with comfortable armchairs and the flight engineer sits behind the pilots with a separate panel for his own instruments.

The Stirling was a distinct surprise to R.A.F. pilots when they first flew her. They had expected such a large machine to be heavy and unwieldy, but owing to the high wing loading, the Stirling proved to be extremely maneuverable. Certain criticisms have been leveled at the big bomber, one being that in spite of its flaps, it lands at high speed, about 120 miles per hour. When it became known that the first model of the Stirling crashed on its test flight, this landing speed became the principal criticism against the bomber, but nevertheless pilots flying the big ships soon became enthusiastic.

Although designed primarily as a bomber, considerable attention was paid to the arrangement of armament and the supply of ammunition in the Stirling. When attacked, this huge plane goes into action rather like a battleship. One of the crew directs the fire of all the gunners to whom ammunition is fed by means of a conveyor belt.

When these aircraft made their debut, they were as formidable to the German fighter pilot as were our own Flying Fortresses. On one daylight raid over northern France, a Stirling was attacked by three Messerschmitt 109's. The Stirling pilot turned his nose to the attacking fighters in approved combat fashion, and gunners quickly downed two of them. As the ship went round in a tight turn, the turret gunner accounted for the third German fighter, and the Stirling returned safely with nothing more in the way of damage than a few bullet holes in the wings.

During the days when it was essential to use the Stirling for day operations, one of the squadrons piled up a record of having definitely destroyed twenty-three German fighter planes in a single month's operations.

One of the most unusual encounters between German fighters and a Stirling took place during a raid on Brest in December, 1941. As it made its way to the target, the Stirling squadron was attacked by a squadron of twelve Messerschmitts. One of the Stirlings became separated from its formation, and the German planes concentrated on it. The crew of the bomber kept up such a blaze of accurate fire that three of the German planes went down in flames. The remaining nine rallied after the first attack and came down upon the bomber again. One by one they were beaten off. For the next attack, five returned . Again the Stirling gunners replied, and the Stirling was still flying. After this attack, the Germans decided to call it a day and the big machine went in over the target with its bombs.

How they managed it, is one of the mysteries of bombardment in this war. The Stirling had taken terrible punishment. One of the port engines was out of action. The tail plane had been severely damaged, and the undercarriage was dangling below the fuselage.

When the machine got back over its own airfield in England, the interior of the fuselage was reaking with gas and oil fumes, and the oil was stained with blood. Three of the crew were wounded, and one was already dead.

As the Stirling came down, things began to happen. The starboard wing fell off in flames when the wheels touched the ground. All of the giant tires had been punctured. Minus the starboard wing, the big bomber turned over on its side and began to burn fiercely. The young pilot stayed at his post and methodically ordered the crew to evacuate. They brought out the wounded and the dead man. Said the captain afterwards, commenting on the raid: "These machines are tough. Somehow I never thought I'd get back." Another Stirling taking part in that action is known by a name as well as by an identification letter. This is "MacRobert's Reply." Lady MacRobert, a fine type of Scottish woman, lost first one son, then another, and then a third in action with the R.A.F. Each time the mailman brought the sad tidings, the courageous lady would make her reply by buying a fighter plane or a bomber to strike back at Hitler. "MacRobert's Reply" was in memory of two of her sons.

Five times the defending Me-109's attacked the big bomber over Brest, and each time they were beaten off. When the crew returned to England, they were able to report two more German fighters downed and one damaged. MacRobert had replied.

A daylight attack on enemy shipping off the island of Borkum, in which eight Messerschmitts attacked a small section of Stirlings, saw four of the German planes shot down and several others damaged.

The fight lasted twenty-five minutes. One of the Stirlings had been damaged by a direct hit from flak before the engagement opened. It fought the battle with its bomb doors hanging open and with two engines out of commission. Its gunners accounted for one German fighter, and the pilot brought the machine home safely.

Stirlings have been used extensively on bombing raids over Berlin and Italy. Many of them have been shot down, but again and again they have demonstrated their toughness and justified the belief of their designers in the advisability of creating a battleship of the air.

Whether the British are likely to build any new bomber types during this war is a matter of conjecture, but if this industrial miracle should be achieved, in all probability the super-bomber will follow closely along the lines of the sturdy Stirling.

The oldest of Britain's heavy bombers still flying is the doughty old Vickers Wellington, named after the famous duke who took on the arduous task of beating Napoleon on land, and who because of his stern, tough, and unrelenting determination to see the task through became known as the Iron Duke. To Wellington is attributed the axiom that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In the case of the Wellington bomber, it may well be said that part of the air battle for Germany was won in the shipyards , for the two-engined Wellington comes from a line of warplanes , like its companion the Spitfire, that were mass-produced in the shipyards of England, Scotland, and northern Ireland.

Even before World War I, the Vickers Company, Britain's leading armament manufacturers, was building airplanes and teaching soldiers to fly. The first warplane of note produced by this company was a little pusher biplane known as the Vickers "Gun Bus." It was the first machine to be fitted with a machine gun in the nose, and it did remarkable work in the early days of 1915. From it, the British evolved the FE-2b, a larger pusher biplane which later became a night bomber.

When the British Air Ministry in 1917 called for machines capable of bombing Germany in retaliation for the Gotha attacks on England , the Vickers Company produced a twin-engined heavy bomber which was called the Vimy. Although the machine arrived in action too late to be used effectively, it achieved fame for the name of Vickers and for the British aircraft industry by making the first nonstop west-to-east Atlantic crossing in 1919, piloted by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown.

Another Vimy flew to Australia from England, and the Vickers designers decided to concentrate on military planes, in spite of the slump that hit the aircraft industry after the Armistice. The Vimy was followed by the Vernon and the Virginia; the latter became the standard heavyweight bomber of the R.A.F. and at the outbreak of the present war was still in operation as a transport and training plane.

In 1939, a squadron of Wellingtons took part in the first daylight raid on Bremen, and since then the "Wimpies," as the R.A.F. affectionately calls the big bombers, have visited practically every target bombed by the R.A.F. They undertook the early raids on Berlin, they fly with the four-engined heavies over the Ruhr, and they dump tons of explosives on Emden, Hamburg, Keil, and Wilhelmshaven . Their geodetic or woven construction, rather like basket weave in steel, makes them the toughest of the older bombers. Wellingtons have returned from raids with fuselages and wings practically stripped, apparently unflyable. One Wellington returned from Bremen and landed safely in England without flaps, with its undercarriage out of action. It had a hole big enough for two men to pass through in the starboard wing, and over two thousand holes in the fuselage. Nine feet of fabric had been burned away forward from the rear turret. It had half a fin, half a rudder. Over the target it had been little more than a torch, but it "flew" home.

The honors list of Wellington air crews is as high as any in the R.A.F. Even if losses of the old bomber have been high, it is still in service on all fronts, and still in production. It is likely to end the war faster and more formidable than ever, the result of good basic design.

One task handled by the Wellingtons has been mine laying and the extremely risky job of neutralizing German magnetic mines in British coastal waters. To effect this, the bombers were fitted with magnetic hoops which, working on the "degauzing" principal employed by ships, release the mines from their moorings under the water and cause them to rise to the surface.

The Wellington may well finish the war with the distinction of having done every possible kind of job that can be asked of an airplane. Recent reports from the Mediterranean battle area reveal that in addition to pounding Sicily and Naples, and undertaking routine bombing missions, the Wellingtons have been fitted with torpedo racks and used for long-range attacks against Axis shipping.

Other Wellingtons are being used as convoy escorts, submarine hunters, transport and hospital planes.

The Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley was built in 193 5 and is still in service with the R.A.F. Coastal Command. It is a descendant of the R.A.F.'s Big Ack fighter-reconnaissance-bomber of World War I, and cousin of the three-engined Argosy airliners used by British Imperial Airways for many years prior to this war. The Whitley is an efficiently armed, metal and fabric bomber, with a crew of five and capable of carrying a substantial load. It first appeared with two 850-hp. radial engines, but was later fitted with two n45-hp.

Rolls-Royce Merlins, which have brought its speed up to something over 250 miles per hour. It has a service ceiling of 26,000 feet and a maximum range of 2000 miles.

The Whitley began its service in this war by making the famous pamphlet raids over Germany. It took part in the first bombing assaults on German troops and installations during the Battle of France, and later began carrying its 4000-pound bomb load deep into Germany, by day as well as by night. The majority of these aircraft are now being used to transport troops and to train paratroopers . The Whitley was the British bomber best known to the public in England during the Battle of Britain, because it could be easily identified by its appearance of flying nose downwards.

Whitleys have featured in many battles with German fighter planes, and although the machine was primarily intended for bombardment , the Whitley gunners have chalked up numerous victories over Me-109's and FW-190's.

There is one story told in the messes of the R.A.F. Bomber Command which has an ironic touch. One morning a Whitley was dispatched to search for the crew of another bomber which had been shot down by German antiaircraft fire. While flying over the coast of France, the Whitley pilot sighted three German Ju-88's which immediately sailed in to attack the British bomber. The German pilots probably thought this would be an easy job because between the three of them there were twelve machine guns and cannon to the Whitley's six small-caliber guns.

The Junkers 88 is a fast, fairly maneuverable machine which was used as the spearhead in Germany's attack on Britain. The Whitley gunners opened fire on all three planes simultaneously, and as a result of their first burst one of the Junkers planes went down smoking. The others began to circle around over the Whitley, making furious diving passes at it.

A dogfight between bombers is not in the book of rules, but these three heavy ships continued to fight it out, turning and weaving and diving like fighter planes. The Whitley was taking severe punishment . Her first casualties were the second pilot, Flight Officer McHarrie, and Sergeant Russell, who was under instruction. Both were wounded in the leg. Then the rear gunner was hit. Immediately McHarrie crawled to the rear and took over his gun. He seemed to have beginner's luck, because he got the two remaining Junkers with his first burst.

While the crew were patching up the wounded, the Whitley continued its search. Presently, on the sea below, the pilot spotted a human figure clinging to a lifebuoy. He swept down to investigate and saw that it was a German pilot. A short distance away were two British destroyers which had evidently shot down his machine. The Whitley signaled to the destroyers to come to the aid of the German, and circled over them as they churned their way through the sea to effect the rescue.

This errand of mercy almost ended in disaster, however, for three FW-190's dropped out of the sky and began to make rings around the Whitley. They attacked from underneath, from stern, from starboard. Shells from their cannon splashed the water all around the unfortunate German pilot.

The Whitley crew were not in good shape. Sergeant Russell was helpless because of his leg wounds. McHarrie was so weak from loss of blood that he could barely drag himself around. He made it to the rear gun once more and opened fire. Russell crawled along and began handing him up drums of ammunition. The other gunner, Pilot Officer Stuart, of Montreal, was doing good work. Two of the German fighters came in at close range, to be met by a stream of bullets from Stuart's gun. One of them went out of control, then into the sea in a headlong dive; the other, to use Stuart's words, "staggered away across the sky." At this, the third turned tail and broke off the engagement.

Said McHarrie, who had proved his skill as an aerial gunner: "He was heading toward home, but it isn't likely he got there, because there was smoke pouring from his engine." The Whitley was now showing signs of combat fatigue. It had received severe damage in the wings and fuselage, and halfway home, one of the engines spluttered and died out. The flight continued on the other engine. Then the pilot discovered that the hydraulic system which controls the undercarriage had been damaged. This meant that the huge craft would have to make a belly landing. Pilot Officer Gordon Day, the navigator, had been trained in hydraulics in civilian life, however, and he volunteered to inspect the "works," while the pilot circled the airfield, to see if anything could be done.

Presently he announced with a grin that in a few minutes he would have everything under control. Using a hand pump, he managed to substitute air for the hydraulic fluid, and one of the gunners after poking his head out at the side was able to announce to the pilot that the undercarriage was down. The Whitley landed safely, after what the crew called "quite an adventure."

Before the war ends, there will be new heavy bombers, but we must never forget the tremendous task undertaken by these early models. We should be eternally grateful that in 1935-36 men on both sides of the Atlantic began to turn their attention to problems about which the man in the street and the politician never gave a thought. We should be thankful too that the Nazi military brains did not give as much attention to heavy bombers as to dive bombers and tanks.