Category Archives: Aviation

The Battle of Britain (2)

Deep in the bowels of the RAF Museum at Hendon is the Battle of Britain section where the lighting is of a strange purple colour so that delicate ancient paint is not faded by direct sunlight. That’s an extra excuse for these rather weird photographs. First of all, the baddies, with that old favourite, the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, an aircraft used in the blitzkrieg to dive bomb defenceless refugees:

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Here’s a Heinkel He111 which was all right as a bomber but which didn’t carry a particularly significant bomb load. Even so, it performed well at Guernica, Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places as the Germans invented the much criticised concept of “area bombing”.

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The fighters were the Messerschmitt Bf110, a rather slow aircraft for daylight use which would eventually finish up having to be escorted by better performing fighters:

This is the Junkers Ju 88, a twin engined and very versatile aircraft which was arguably, a competent Bristol Blenheim or a poor man’s De Havilland Mosquito:

Last and certainly not least is the famous Messerschmitt Bf 109, a decent fighter, but an aging design which was prepared in response to a Reichsluftfahrtministerium specification of 1933. Bf 109s couldn’t carry enough fuel to fight for very long over Southern England. And a Spitfire, in theory, could always escape them by turning tightly inside them:

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The Bf 109 at Hendon does not really allow you to stand back and get a decent general photograph. Here is one I found on the Internet. It certainly is a stunning photograph:

The Hendon individual is a Bf 109E-3 and it may have been painted as a yellow nosed member of Jagdgeschwader JG26, “The Abbeville Boys”. There must have been a little plaque in front of it, but I can’t remember what it said. Its detailed history can be accessed here.

And in the blue corner…….the Supermarine Spitfire. Here’s my effort at a picture:

As one writer said,

“It was one of the most beautiful aircraft ever conceived with elegant, flowing lines that make it look perfect from every angle.”

And the most stunning Spitfire ever was the Mark I or Ia or the Mark IIa.

This gallery of photographs comes from the Internet. With a little bit of luck, you should be able to see what I mean about a beautiful aircraft:

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And there’s also a Hawker Hurricane, an aircraft which, as we all know, shot down more German aircraft in the Battle of Britain than the Spitfire. The scores were roughly 60% to 40%. The Hurricane was a design which looked backwards to its biplane ancestors, especially the Hawker Fury:

On the plus side the Hurricane was a lot easier to repair than its cooler cousin, the Spitfire. It was easier to make as well, 10,300 man hours rather than 15,200 for the Spitfire. And easier to make meant cheaper, of course. Here are my unworthy efforts:

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And now some proper photographs:

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And next time, the Old Nottinghamians make an appearance.

 

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The Battle of Britain (1)

We visited RAF Hendon on July 22nd 2010. It seems an age ago. Hendon is a fantastic museum, easy to get to from the M1 and FREE ENTRY. What is there not to like?

The first few photographs show the display outside the museum. One is a Hurricane and the other is a Spitfire. I’ll leave you to work out which is which. Here’s an aircraft with a cannon in each wing which, I think, means that it cannot have been a Battle of Britain participant:

Here’s another view of the very first aircraft:

And the second aircraft again… This is as close as I get to that weirdo artistic sort of photograph:

Here’s the last picture of aircraft No 1 and 3:

And here’s a free clue to the identity of this aircraft. American readers…”Sorry!”

And here’s aircraft No 2 and 4 again:

Well, the odd numbers are the Hawker Hurricane and the even numbers are the Supermarine Spitfire, originally called the Supermarine Shrew. The way to tell them apart is that the Hurricane, or “Harry Kane” to give you the answer to the clue, has one huge radiator under the fuselage and the Spitfire always has two smaller ones, one under each wing.

It was months after our visit that I found out that both aircraft outside the museum were counterfeit. Made of plastic, apparently. The museum people don’t make that particularly obvious. I suspect that they’re scared that they’ll be killed in the crush of middle aged men who all want one for the front lawn.
The Spitfire was, of course, designed by Reginald Joseph Mitchell who worked for Supermarine Aviation of Southampton. Here he is:

Many Germans could not separate RJ Mitchell from the man who played him in the film, Leslie Howard. Here’s Leslie Howard:

They could be identical twins, couldn’t they?

The Spitfire’s wing was of an innovative shape at the time. I didn’t know though, that there was a good deal of input from Beverley Strahan Shenstone, a Canadian engineer. Here he is. He isn’t in the film. The British  always seem to have kept Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders well out of their films:

Beverley Shenstone studied in Germany under Hugo Junkers and Alexander Lippisch. I found this out in a marvellous book I read recently called “Secret Wings of World War II” by Lance Cole. Here it is. It’s an excellent book:

To quote the author:

“By 1932, Shenstone had authored several papers stemming from his German studies…he was soon employed by RJ Mitchell, Shenstone was the man who within four years had shaped the Spitfire’s ellipsoid wing, its wing fillet and many of its aerodynamic design features.”

A wing fillet is the smooth curve between the fuselage and the wing. It improves air flow. It isn’t particularly obvious in the plastic Spitfire above but there will be a Spitfire Mark I appearing soon and it’s a lot more obvious on that aircraft.

Hugo Junkers was beyond the cutting edge of aircraft design in 1945. This is his Junkers Ju 287 bomber with forward pointing wings. And yes, it flew perfectly:

Even in the 1930s, his designs were astounding. Swept back wings with propellers:

 And a flying wing, the J 1000 Super Duck:

Alexander Lippisch was even better than Hugo Junkers. Here he is:

His first aircraft was not very good:

But after that, by the standards of 1940, WOW!

 The Americans are still flying around in his thoughts and ideas:

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the Gloster Meteor at Hendon (2)

Last time I was talking about my visit to RAF Hendon where I saw the Messerschmitt Me 262, and I also saw the first RAF jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor F8. I ended the post by saying what the Meteor’s good points were:

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Set against the positives of the Meteor, though, is its dreadful safety record which soon led to the new jet fighter being called “The Meatbox”.

Almost 900 were lost by the RAF, the peak year being 1953 with 145 crashes:

Factors to blame were apparently poor brakes, the landing gear, completely different flying characteristics from piston engined aircraft, a flight endurance of less than 60 minutes which caused pilots to run out of fuel and lots of difficulties when only one engine was working. Even with two engines, response times were very sluggish. To add to the list, when pilots in those days were taught how to fly on one engine, the other engine was switched off completely so, to quote the forum where I found it, “you had no chance if you fouled it up”. The aircraft also apparently had a nasty habit of diving straight into the ground when any flap or the undercarriage was lowered when the wing mounted airbrakes were out. There were no ejection seats in early aircraft and it was therefore very difficult to bale out of, although it was extremely easy to hit the tail on the way out. The foreign air forces had the same kind of difficulties. Here is a Belgian crash:

According to one account I found, the Coroner at Darlington actually subpoenaed the commander of the local base to make him come and explain the steadily increasing size of the RAF section of the municipal cemetery. No problem for the commander. All he needed to do was to invoke the Official Secrets Act and it was problem solved. At least one student pilot on every course was being killed. No 74 Squadron had three killed in as many months:

In “The Meteor Boys” by Steve Bond there is an account by a prospective young pilot of his going on a course to learn to fly Meteors at RAF Driffield. He went to a funeral on his first Thursday and then to another the following Monday, and a third on the following Thursday.
In foreign service in the Netherlands, the Meteor was the second most dangerous jet aircraft they ever had with almost 36 crashes in every 100,000 hours of flying. (And the winner is…… the F-84 Thunderjet with almost 56 crashes per 100K hours):


Perhaps we should put these figures for the Meteor in RAF service in context, though. One forum I came across said that in 1953 the RAF lost 486 aircraft with 334 fatalities. The other years of the 1950s are believed to be 1950 : 380 aircraft lost and 238 fatalities, 1951 : 490 aircraft lost and 280 fatalities, 1952 : 507 aircraft lost and 318 fatalities, 1954 : 452 aircraft lost and 283 fatalities, 1955 : 305 aircraft lost and 182 fatalities, 1956 : 270 aircraft lost and 150 fatalities, 1957 : 233 aircraft lost and 139 fatalities, 1958 : 128 aircraft lost and 87 fatalities and 1959 : 102 aircraft lost and 59 fatalities

If my trusty calculator is correct, that makes 3,353 aircraft lost and 2,070 young men killed. My quick mental arithmetic says that you had, therefore, a 61.73575902177% chance of a premature death if anything went wrong with your 1950s RAF aircraft.

It must have been this kind of situation that provoked Prime Minister Winston Churchill to ask the Air Minister “Is the RAF training or killing its pilots?” The Air Minister told Churchill not to worry as these kind of figures were merely par for the course.
None of this takes away from the Meteor, though, the honour of being the first ever British jet fighter:

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My Dad came across a Gloster Meteor once:

“one day in late 1944, everybody was in the mess at Lossiemouth, eating their lunch and drinking their cups of tea. Suddenly the door was flung open, and a very excited young man came in shouting “Quick ! Quick ! Come outside and see this ! There’s a crate out here without any props ! ”

And sure enough, outside the mess hall, on the runway, stood one of the RAF’s first jet aircraft, a Gloster Meteor, a fighter plane which did not have any propellers. The mechanics could not believe that the strange aircraft would even be capable of flight. But then they realised…..

“ No more prop changes ! ”

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Fred joins the RAF (4)

We left Fred last time in Blackpool doing his basic training with Sergeant Parry. All of the RAF’s young volunteers were billeted in boarding houses which, in peacetime, would have accommodated holiday makers. Here are Fred and his friends:

And here is the section with Fred in it. It always reminds me of the RAF version of “Where’s Wally?”:

The boarding house landladies in Blackpool were paid for every recruit they took, but a substantial minority saw this as a fine opportunity to profiteer, accepting money for meals that were never to materialise in the quantities that the payments might have implied. Instead, these unscrupulous women either ate the food themselves, or, more frequently, sold it to their neighbours, who were themselves short of food because of rationing.

In the boarding house where Fred was billeted, thanks to their particular greedy grasping landlady, the individual portions served, were, at best, markedly small. One day, after Physical Training on the beach, Fred and his friend Jacques, came back early from their exercise.

Jacques was Fred’s best pal at this time. He was the son of a Yorkshire farmer, with the physical build, and indeed the appetite for food, to match his origins. Here is the group as a whole in a formal class photograph:

And here are Fred and Jacques as a close-up :

If you remember,  Fred and Jacques had come back early from their Physical Training on the beach. Fred went straight upstairs to wash and make sure he was properly dressed for the meal. Jacques, however, went immediately into the dining room where he found a whole ham, meant for twelve hungry young recruits, waiting in the centre of the table. Jacques, clearly accustomed to Yorkshire farmer sized servings, immediately presumed that the meat was for him and without further ado, he ate the lot.

The reaction of his colleagues when they eventually arrived from their afternoon’s exertions, has not been recorded for posterity, but at best, they were not very impressed.

One of the other men in Fred’s boarding house had  a knowledge both of chemistry and of the behaviour of dogs. One fine, sunny day he went down to the local chemist’s shop, and bought a very large quantity of aniseed concentrate which he then proceeded to dilute:

He took this magic potion and laid scent trails through the streets of Blackpool, all of which led back to the boarding house. He then continued the trails inside the building, entering through both the front and the back doors, leading up the stairs to the different floors, then onto the landings, into the bedrooms and into the bathrooms. In short, his aniseed trails reached every single square inch of the property. Aniseed is desperately attractive to dogs. Once they get the scent…

…off they go, like addicts to their next fix:

They just cannot resist that aniseedy smell:

The result was one glorious afternoon of revenge, as every dog in Blackpool, driven crazy by the overpowering and intoxicating scent of aniseed, arrived at the house and ran berserk, up and down the stairs, careering backwards and forwards along the landings, chasing in and out of the rooms, widdling, piddling and scent marking up every wall and in every recess and corner as they went.

Never make an enemy of the RAF.

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the Gloster Meteor at Hendon (1)

On the very same visit to RAF Hendon when I saw the Messerschmitt Me 262, I also saw the first RAF jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor F8:

To be honest, compared to the German thoroughbred, the Meteor looked a bit of a tub, to say the least:

On the other hand, the engines were lots better than the German ones and eventually the Meteor would be purchased by Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Biafra, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, France, West Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Syria and the United States. Here are aircraft from Argentina, Belgium and Brazil :

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Having been initially negative about the Meteor, it is only fair to say that in the in-service trials between the Meteor and the propeller driven Hawker Tempest, the Meteor was judged the winner on all counts, except, conceivably, manœuvrability. Pilots of propeller driven aircraft often said that the Meteor was “exciting to fly”. Norman Tebbit, the politician and ex-RAF pilot, said of the Meteor:

“Get airborne, up with the wheels, hold it low until you were about 380 knots, pull it up and she would go up, well we thought then, like a rocket”.

The first Meteors to see action were with 616 Squadron who began by chasing V1 flying bombs over south eastern England from July 27th 1944 onwards. In early 1945, they moved out to Belgium and then Holland, carrying out armed reconnaissance and ground attack sorties but without meeting any Me 262s. The Meteors were painted all white to avoid friendly fire issues:

After the war, the Meteor came into contact with the Soviet Mig-15 both in Korea and in the Israel-Egypt war in the mid-1950s. It was found to be lacking in many respects.

More on the Meteor’s shortcomings next time.

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Fred joins the RAF (3)

For ab initio training, new recruits to the RAF were often sent to Blackpool. The popular seaside resort had an abundance of boarding houses and small hotels to provide accommodation and food. There were plenty of nice, wide promenades to practice marching:

There were lots of even wider beaches for improving physical fitness:

In Blackpool, Fred was taught how to salute, to hold a rifle, to march, and, in general, how to behave as an Aircraftman Second Class, by Sergeant Parry. It was Sergeant Parry’s proud boast that

“One day you’ll be walking along the street, years after this war has finished, and you’ll suddenly hear me shout “Ah..ten…SHUN ! ! ” and you’ll pull up straightaway, and come to attention, even if you are 55 years old.”

In actual fact, this never happened to Fred, but when he was 75 years old, he was admitted to Burton-on-Trent Hospital, where, although he was eventually to recover, he was for some length of time, gravely ill. The Victorian ward he was in had very large metal framed windows, pale green and beige walls, and a yellowish grey light. It clearly reminded a very confused Fred of his original RAF barracks, and the nurses reported that on more than one occasion he was heard to call out, in his delirium,

“It’s all right, Sergeant Parry, I’m coming, don’t worry, Sergeant Parry, I’ll be there in a minute.”

Presumably, Sergeant Parry was marginally more pleasant than the only other drill instructor that Fred ever mentioned. Ironically, Fred never actually met the man in question face to face.

Instead, shortly after arriving at a training base where he was to serve, Fred heard the story of a sergeant instructor who regularly shouted and screamed at the young men in his charge and who, in his treatment of them, regularly overstepped the mark by a considerable distance. He was a bullying, aggressive man, and basically, everybody soon grew to hate him.

One day, a German raider arrived and began strafing the airfield:

The instructor raced away across the grass and jumped into one of the many slit trenches which crisscrossed the base, constructed for surviving just such an occasion as this. What he did not realise when he jumped in was that the trench was almost completely filled with water.

Unable to swim, he drowned. There were men there who could have helped him but they chose just to watch him thrash about in the water. They could have saved his life, but he had abused too many of them for anybody to want to help him now.

Here are seven of Fred’s instructors during his “ab initio” training, probably at Blackpool:

They are Messrs Newman, Pascoe, Turner, Flight Sergeant Prentice, Hirst, Clark and Hanson.

 

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Fred joins the RAF (2)

By 1941, inspired no doubt in part by the exploits of “The Few” in the previous year’s Battle of Britain, Fred had made up his mind to join the RAF. To do this, he had to walk to the recruiting office in Derby, a journey he had made so many times before with his father to see Derby County play football at the Baseball Ground:

It was a lot less built up and a lot quieter in 1941 than it is now:

Fred duly arrived at a two storey building in the middle of  Derby, where all three of the services were busily enrolling volunteers.

As he walked in, Fred was immediately offered a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters, but he refused this generous opportunity and continued on up the stairs to the RAF. Here, he was asked to spell two words correctly, and he had passed their entrance examination. The words were “horizon” and “bicycle”. Fred was now a proud member of the RAF, an organisation which most of the population believed were “the cream of the nation”. He would wear this for the best part of five years:

When Fred returned home, he told his parents what he had done. His father congratulated him on his bravery, but his frightened mother slapped his face, and said “You wicked boy!”

Not everybody saw it in such a negative way. In October 1941, Fred was still working in Swadlincote at the office of Bert Orgill, a local business man, when Colonel Guy German from nearby Ashby-de-la-Zouch called round, and asked about him, perhaps even seeing Fred as a likely recruit for his own regiment.

Mr Orgill said that Fred had recently volunteered for the RAF, and Colonel German generously gave him a five pound note for having done so. Eventually, Fred would look like this:

At this time, as was briefly mentioned above, the RAF was considered to be the élite force of the three, a fact which was strongly emphasized in the personal letter sent to every man who joined the RAF by Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for War. He said that

“The RAF demands a high standard of physical fitness and alertness, and I congratulate you on passing the stringent tests”.

They were also told they had a “great task to perform” and that

“The honour of the RAF is in your hands. Our country’s safety and the final overthrow of the powers of evil now arrayed against us depend on you and your comrades.”

They were encouraged to “keep fit, work hard, live temperately”. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

Perhaps as a direct result of this generous praise, there were so many volunteers for the RAF that young men were often sent away for up to a year or more, until a place on a suitable training course became available. This may possibly have been what happened to Fred, although, at this late stage, we have absolutely no way of ever knowing the truth, as his RAF records are far from exhaustive, shall we say!

Nobody of Fred’s social class had ever done any flying. Few had ever been inside an aircraft. Hardly any could even drive a car. To have volunteered for the RAF, and to have been accepted, no matter how low he said their standards of spelling may have been, must have suffused him with immense pride. In this, of course, he was not alone. Thousands of young men across the entire nation had read books and magazines about aviation throughout the 1930s and now, as they reached their early twenties, they were only too willing to join the youngest service:

We do know that when Fred volunteered, he was within just a couple of months of his nineteenth birthday. At the age of eighteen, he still had the right to choose which service he entered. Had he waited those last two months, until he was nineteen years old, the government would then have had the right to conscript him, and he would have lost the right to decide in which arm of the services he was to serve.

It is, however, actually possible to disprove one apparently neat theory, namely that Fred, as a keen cinema goer, might well have been inspired to join the RAF by seeing a famous documentary film, which he would talk about ceaselessly in later years. It was entitled “Target for Tonight”.

“Target for Tonight” was a Crown Film Unit propaganda film, using real RAF personnel throughout and chronicling a night raid on Germany by the Vickers Wellingtons of 149 Squadron of Bomber Command, with, coincidentally, “F for Freddie” as the main aircraft. It is a nice idea that Fred was inspired to join the RAF by seeing this film but it cannot be true, as the film was not released until at least October 1941, almost a full month after Fred volunteered.  He still spent the rest of his life as an enormous fan of  Charles Pickard, the hero of the film:

One thing that Fred was always to joke about, however, was the immediate impact that his joining the Allied Forces was to have on the conflict. Montgomery’s victory over Rommel at El Alamein followed his enlistment reasonably quickly, and not long afterwards, the Soviets were to win the Battle of Stalingrad.

You can watch “Target for Tonight” here:

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