Bomber Harris, not a happy man (4)

One point the author, Roy Irons, makes very strongly in his excellent book “The Relentless Offensive”, is that at the beginning of the war, Bomber Command had some really dreadful aircraft in service. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley had, according to pilots, “little inherent stability”. It was “heavy and unpleasant on the controls” and “fatiguing to fly”. It was “difficult to navigate” and the most subtle of all, “as a flying machine, the Whitley has a very good undercarriage”. The Whitley also flew habitually at around 30° below the horizontal which caused an enormous amount of drag and very poor fuel consumption because of it:

The Hampden was a shocker, and a very narrow shocker at that, with a fuselage only three or four feet wide. Members of the crew could not pass each other, the body of the plane was so tight:

When the heavier bombers came in, two of them, in Harris’ view, were pretty useless. These were the Short Stirling and the Handley Page Halifax. Here is the Short Stirling:

The Short Stirling had “some vicious flying characteristics during take-offs and landings”. On take-off it exhibited a dreadful tendency to ground loop, which usually involved a collapse of the incredibly complex landing gear and the subsequent detonation of the bombload which would take the fuel tanks with it. On landing the Stirling had an unfortunate tendency to drop the last few feet, rather like the abrupt delivery of a hundred thousand bricks off the back of a lorry. This too would cause a collapse of the landing gear and a fire. Notice in this crash landing, how the front of the aircraft is completely burnt out. That, of course, is where the crew would have been:

It should perhaps be said that the argument could be put forward that the Stirling might possibly have been a much better aircraft if the original design had been followed. It was meant to be essentially a land-based Sunderland with a number of other modifications. This might well have produced a decent aircraft, but the Air Ministry also demanded a number of “extras”. It had to be easy to convert the bomber into a troop transport and there was a maximum figure not to be exceeded for the wingspan. With those “add-ons” the Stirling stood no chance.

Harris, though, was in no doubt whatsoever. He laid the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of the  the people in charge at Shorts:

“We shall get nothing worth having out of Shorts until Oswald Short and a good many others in the firm are thrown out on their ears. Sir Oswald Short is just an incompetent drunk. There should be a wholesale sacking of the incompetents who have turned out approximately 50% rogue aircraft from Short & Harland Belfast.”

Don’t hold back, Arthur, tell it to them straight!!

Here’s Sir Oswald:

As it was, Short’s didn’t do a great deal in six whole years of war. In satellite factories at Aldergrove and Maghaberry near Belfast they produced just under 250 Stirlings with a further 600 produced at Austin Motors at Longbridge in Birmingham. Blackburn Aircraft in Scotland produced 240 Sunderlands and a number of Handley Page Herefords which was a variant of the Handley Page Hampden. Both aircraft were shockers.

Can you spot the difference? No, it’s NOT that one of them is in the sky.

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

33 responses to “Bomber Harris, not a happy man (4)

  1. The Hampden was clearly not designed for social distancing.
    Is the Bomber Harris statue on the hate list do you know?

  2. It’s a wonder the planes achieved anything

    • Well, I suppose you’d have to do a special analysis, but off the top of my head, for these three aircraft, I don’t think that they did achieve a great deal. The main thing they managed was to kill off their crews. Only the Stirling was ever capable in a given area, namely when it was taken off bombing and turned into a transport aircraft.

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    Harris was a man who did not mince words.

    • He certainly was not! As a young man out in Rhodesia, he was used to solving problems himself, and found the attitude of the English upper classes, whether civil servants or high ranking officers, difficult to stomach. He was also probably well aware that he was in charge of the only force that, at that time, had any chance of retaliating against the Germans. That responsibility must surely have affected his stress levels enormously.

      • Pierre Lagacé

        I enjoy reading about him. I knew he was demonised by some people, but not by the servicemen.

  4. There’s always someone who wants to change the original design, eh?

    • There certainly is! There is a maxim that any good fighter aircraft is doomed to get slower and heavier, as people have the bright idea of adding various bombs and rockets and other weapons to attack the enemy with, should it have any spare time and nothing to do.

  5. For all its faults, the sterling was generally well liked by its crews. They say it could out-turn a fighter and take a lot of punishment before finally giving up. I personally love the look of the Stirling but it was dogged with problems not least of all of the ridiculous restraint upon it.

    • I presume that those restraints were because of the idea that aircraft would always have to be repaired in hangars, whereas in practice that seems to have happened less frequently the longer the war went on, as mechanics came out to the dispersal points to do the less time consuming jobs. I wonder how big the original wing span was designed to be? And has anybody ever looked at the possibility that the Stirling might well have been a really good bomber without the changes? Surely computer technology would be capable of solving something that I have always wondered about.

      • Interestingly enough, the original specification B.12/36 limited the wingspan to 100 feet to fit into hangars as you say. Another specification was that it should be able to be maintained ‘outside’. Shorts used the Sunderland as a basis and submitted a proposal of a Stirling with a span of 112 ft. Fearing larger aircraft needed longer runways (another reason for limiting the span to 100ft) the Air Ministry rejected shorts proposal and told them to reduce it below the 100 ft limit. This they did of course, which caused some problems with flying attributes. Many at the time thought the full specifications impossible and some specs were amended, but not the span. The potential of the Stirling was there, but sadly it was never allowed to be fully investigated and so it suffered as a result. Many faults weren’t found until it had been delivered, for example, the bomb lifts were too short to reach the ground and so in early models they couldn’t use a full load! Sad really.

      • I didn’t realise that the Stirling was supposed to be serviced outside and I had always automatically presumed that this was something to do with hangar widths. If the top brass were worried about the length of runways they must have been very short sighted. Aircraft around that time always became progressively more powerful and heavier, so their hopes were bound to be dashed eventually.
        I suppose that all Harris wanted to do was to drop large amounts of bombs and kill Germans, which, with all its many faults, the Stirling did not always manage. From Harris’ point of view, apart from the Sunderland, which was nothing to do with Bomber Command, Shorts did not produce too many quality aircraft of their own. If they’d had a bomber as good as the Lancaster, the Short Slaughterer, perhaps,he’d have treated them all to a slap up dinner with no limits on the wine!

      • I believe the idea of the specification was for a bomber that would operate anywhere in the world, hence the need for ‘outside maintenance’. Hangar space being limited in some far off lands. Certainly in this country the hangar size was a defining factor but not the only one. I think as well the desire for short (no pun intended!) runways was to appease those who opposed the continual demand for new airfields ie the NIMBY crowd. As the war went on, there had to be bigger and better bombers developed so it was almost a minor concession. Shorts did struggle, and I sure they’d have appreciated the slap up meal and limitless wine if it had been forthcoming!

  6. atcDave

    Fun post. No doubt every type had its faults, even the Lancaster was notoriously hard to escape in a hurry.
    I had not seen those criticisms of the Whitley before! Sounds very similar to critiques I’ve seen of the Airacobra (very good at taxiing).
    I thought I’d read pilots actually liked flying the Hampton though? Obviously that narrow fuselage causes crew problems on a long mission, probably load problems too? Of course you’re last pic is a Hereford with a Napier Dagger engine. Similar performance to the Hampton, but the engine was less reliable and apparently so noisy it was a sure headache generator. Most of the 100 ordered were converted to Hamptons.

    • That is an excellent comparison with the Airacobra! The Whitley’s biggest problem was the drag created by that nose down attitude when flying. The prevailing wind here in Merry Olde Englande is a south westerly so the enormous drag of the Whitley was even more of a headache on the way back from Germany. I read an old pilot once who said that when the great day comes and the North Sea runs dry, they’ll find 200 or so Whitleys on the seabed, all of them with empty tanks and twenty miles off the coast.
      What you say about the Hampden is largely right.It seems to have been a very nimble aircraft with a light load, but the crew packed in so tightly made it dangerous for them and the defensive armament made them easy prey in daylight at the beginning of the war.
      Do you know this website? It’s certainly good for British aircraft :

      Just take a look at “subjects” or “full index”…it’s totally encyclopaedic!

      (And correct about the Hereford, by the way)

  7. I read a book from a POW who was origin Sally part of a Halifax crew. He thought the Halifaxes were underrated and the Lancasters overrated. Harris certainly knew as much as anyone.

    • There has always been a lot of controversy about the Lancaster v the Halifax. At briefings though, the Lancaster crews would frequently cheer if they were told that either Halifaxes or Stirlings were part of the attacking force. These two bombers always attracted the German fighters as they were easy meat, flying a lot lower, and a fair amount slower. Those were the sort of reasons that made Harris think the way he did, as well as the inferior bomb load of the Halifax.

  8. It’s a wonderful plan my friend.

  9. Chris Waller

    It does make you wonder why a country which could produce such as the Spitfire, the Lancaster and the Mosquito also managed to come up with some complete lemons. That Hampden looks as if it is going to fall out of the sky at any moment. Once again one has to commend Harris’s forthrightness. Do you ever feel he missed his true vocation in the Diplomatic Service?

    • Yes, sometimes I have dreams of his efforts to negotiate Brexit, or perhaps asking some corrupt African nation what they did with the money we sent them. Arthur Harris’ major talent most certainly always was “Asking awkward questions and then shouting at people who give lame lies in response”.

  10. Fascinating. Thank you, Your posts tell me so much about planes and other details.

  11. I’m so glad that you enjoy them. I think that I am probably one of the many people who enjoy your stories about everyday life in India, a fascinating place to anybody English.

  12. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on RCAF 425 Alouettes and commented:
    Quatrième article de John Knifton sur Bomber Harris

  13. My son was telling me about this documentary in BBC World service. I thought you would find it interesting.
    BBC World Service – Spitfire: The People’s Plane

  14. Pingback: Flight Sergeant Russell McKay and… | RCAF 420 Snowy Owl

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