Vultee Vengeance

Vengeance Mk.IIa Unit: 12 Sqn, RAAF Pilot – Flt.Lt.John Hooper. Cooktown AB, Queensland, Australia, September 1943.

Vengeance Mk.II Unit: 45 Sqn, RAF India, 1943.

No. 45 Sqn new the Vengeance for 15 months in the Far East, where it achieved limited success. This example is a Vengeance Mk II shown whilst based in India in 1943. The Vengeance was based on the German idea of the ‘Stuka’, and similarly needed fighter cover to operate with any success.

Think of the most effective dive- bomber of World War Two and one would be forgiven for believing that honour might go to the German Junkers Ju 87 `Stuka’, the Russian Petlyakov Pe-2 `Peshka’ or the American Douglas Dauntless.

But another American type takes the top slot for delivering the maximum number of direct hits for the minimum amount of losses. It was an aircraft its crews came to love and the Japanese learned to fear, yet it never went to war with US forces: the Vultee 72 A-31 Vengeance.

Like many aircraft developed before 1939, the birth of the Vengeance was not especially easy. Although the French had been first to consult the Americans on a new dive-bomber design, with l’Armée de l’Air officers urgently seeking to address their ailing military aircraft programme, the Vengeance ultimately evolved to a British specification.

The Model 72, brainchild of Richard Palmer, head of engineering for Vultee, was a twoseat single-engined monoplane with a distinctive wing shape. It was specifically built as a divebomber, with all-metal stressed skin construction and airframe loads adjusted accordingly. Its powerplant was a 1,700hp (1,268kW) Wright Double Cyclone R-2600-A5B-5, which gave it a maximum speed of around 279mph (448km/h) and the ability to climb to a little above 24,000ft (7,315m). Its range was comparatively limited, but it was never intended that the Vengeance should fly far to its target.

Among pilots asked to test the new type as part of the British Air Commission was Battle of Britain veteran Wg Cdr Mike Crossley DSO DFC. Satisfied, the British signed an initial contract for 400 Mk. Is and 300 Mk. IIs.

The honour of being the first RAF unit to operate the Vengeance fell to 82 Squadron, although its sister unit, 84, became the first to bomb Japanese targets. Two other RAF outfits – 45 and 110 Squadrons – were also equipped.

The Indian Air Force flew the Vengeance, 7 and 8 Squadrons taking the type, and a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) unit, 12 Squadron, began receiving it in October 1942 too; others were to follow.

All three air arms shared the same early frustrations. Oil leaks, faulty piston rings and temperamental electric fuel pumps caused equal concern. Many aircraft returned home with the air gunner’s hand cramped from continually pumping the hand-drive wobble pump.

The mounting for the twin 0.30in machine guns in the rear cockpit was inadequate and the similar-calibre four guns in the wings tended to overheat and jam. Some Vengeances would come back with all their defences out of action.

The CO of 82 Squadron, Wg Cdr Dennis Gibbs, reported it was not until April 1943 that he obtained serviceable aircraft which could be flown every day! Gibbs was later be awarded the DSO for his period in command, one of only a handful of Vengeance aircrew to be recognised

– a cause of considerable frustration and anger at the time and since. Early Vengeance sorties comprised sea patrols, hunting with little success for elusive Japanese submarines. Between the first deliveries in the late autumn of 1942 until operational readiness was achieved the following spring, most of the time was spent in local flying and intense bombing practice.

Squadrons also experimented with tactics, including the optimum flying formations, the ideal length of dive and angle of attack. `Vics’ of up to a dozen aircraft were considered ideal, diving from 10,000ft to 4,000ft to achieve an accurate drop and allowing for a suitable margin to descend lower if required. Terminal velocity with dive brakes extended and one-third throttle was recorded at 320mph at 90°, or 290mph at 75°.

Pilots were soon getting the hang of things, some being able to place their bombs within 15 yards (13.7m) of the objective. This encouraged an official report declaring the Vengeance as ideally suited to being “used with good effect against small targets”.

The crews of 110 Squadron celebrated a `Red Letter Day’ on March 19, 1943 when a box of six Vengeances bombed a Japanese headquarters in Htizwe village on the Arakan Front in Burma, supporting Allied troops who were heavily engaged. All 12 bombs burst in the centre of the target, causing considerable damage. More sorties were flown against enemy strong points and pillboxes over the next few days, prompting a congratulatory signal from the Air Officer Commanding, Bengal.

Other RAF units were soon in the fray, among them 82 Squadron. Attacks were made throughout May and June 1943 before 82’s place was taken in the line by 45 Squadron to maintain momentum. Targets in and around Akyab Island became the priority to disrupt the landing and transportation of supplies to Japanese forces.

An unusual task was a precision strike on a photorecce Spitfire that had crashed behind enemy lines. The Allies did not want its camera equipment falling into Japanese hands so 45 Squadron was ordered to destroy it.

As well as front-line objectives, Vengeance units were also briefed to support the behind-the-lines activities of the famed General Orde Wingate and his `Chindit’ special forces. When the first columns moved off, 84 Squadron, under Sqn Ldr Arthur Gill, was ready in support and relieved soon after by its counterparts in 45 Squadron.

Increasingly the RAF units worked alongside one another in a pattern not dissimilar to the `cab rank’ system perfected by Hawker Typhoon squadrons over Northern Europe. With increased liaison with ground forces, Vengeances could drop down from the skies to pick off targets where they were most needed. For example, on January 17, 1944 two dozen Vengeances from 45 and 110 Squadrons attacked a Japanese stronghold at Kyauktaw twice in the space of less than 20 minutes, with devastating effect.

The action was one of the last the men of 45 Squadron were involved in before being pulled out of the line to re-equip with DH Mosquitos. Sadly, on the unit’s last-ever Vengeance operation, Plt Off Hedley Jewell’s aircraft was shot down.

Consigned to the “Forgotten War” but gained a reputation for incredible accuracy, and was ergo much praised by the army. Also, it was a very strong aircraft that kept bringing its crews back (“45 missions was not uncommon” – direct quote of OC 84 Sqn who commanded the unit whilst it was equipped with Vengeances).

Powerfully influenced by the successes achieved by the German Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber in the early months of the war, the British in 1940 ordered several hundred Vultee V-72 aircraft from the USA, a type that had not then been selected for the US Army Air Corps, and production lines were established at Vultee’s Nashville plant and the Northrop plant at Hawthorne, California. Before the first British aircraft was delivered in 1942, however, the United States had entered the war, and further aircraft were ordered for the USAAF, The American aircraft (designated the A-31 and A-35, but generally referred to as the V-72) did not match up to expectations and almost all were relegated to target towing and other training duties from the outset.

Missions by Australian Vengeance squadrons (12, 21 `City of Melbourne’, 23 `City of Brisbane’, 24 `City of Adelaide’ and 25 `City of Perth’) mirrored those of their RAF counterparts. Although they were initially on invasion alert, operations in earnest began in New Guinea in September 1943 from Tsili, hitting Japanese radio location installations on the islands of Kaial and Wonam and supporting the Australian 9th Division’s amphibious landing on Satelberg.

Nadzab in northern New Guinea became a focus in the winter of 1943- 1944, with strikes on enemy positions that were holding up the advance of the Australian 5th and 7th Divisions moving along the Huon peninsula. At one fortress known locally as `Shaggy Ridge’, RAAF Vengeances from 24 Squadron dropped nine tons of bombs in an initial attack, and in less than a week a painful thorn in the Australians’ side had been removed.

Throughout February, the RAAF units combined to bring even greater weight to their strikes and on the 24th of the month, 23 and 24 Squadrons hit enemy anti-aircraft batteries in Hansa Bay. Sadly, they lost two of their aircraft in the strike – including one carrying an army captain as an observer.

The Vengeance saw considerably more service in the RAF, a total of 1,205 being delivered, the Vengeance Nik I, Vengeance Mk II and Vengeance Mk III corresponding to the American A- 31, and the Vengeance Mk IV to the A-35. Tests with the first Vengeance Mk Is led to numerous alterations, and it was not until late 1942 that deliveries started in earnest. By that time the tactical weakness of the dive-bomber had been recognized, and it was decided not to employ the Vengeance in Europe where it would be easy prey for the excellent German fighters. Instead the type was sent to equip RAF squadrons in India and Burma where, operating under top cover provided by Hawker Hurricanes (and later by Supermarine Spitfires and Republic Thunderbolts), it would represent the best weapon against difficult jungle targets.

The Vengeance was first in action in July 1943 in Burma, having started to replace the veteran Bristol Blenheim with the RAF; it eventually equipped four squadrons (Nos 45, 82, 84 and 110) as well as several in the Indian Air Force. As expected, however, the Vengeance proved extremely vulnerable in the presence of Japanese fighters and so seldom ventured abroad without strong fighter escort. The type did nevertheless prove very effective during the Arakan campaign, and in a number of successful raids destroyed a large number of Japanese vehicles and quantities of stores being assembled in the jungle.

By the last year of the war conventional fighter-bomber tactics were seen as the best means of ground support, and demands for the Vengeance diminished rapidly. The Vengeance squadrons’ powers reached their zenith in the spring and early summer of 1944. Crews were engaged in all the major actions along the Indo-Burmese border and in particular the battles in and around Imphal and Kohima.

Flying hundreds of sorties, the dive-bombers were pushed to the limit of their endurance. Two `ops’ per crew per day were not uncommon, with some attacks delivered on enemy targets within a few yards of friendly forces. Even a near miss could cause terrible damage, so accuracy was essential and the 14th Army was once again full of praise for their air force colleagues.

Despite the increase in volume and frequency of strikes, casualties were remarkably low. Losses to Japanese aircraft were virtually unheard of: enemy fighters seemed unwilling, or unable, to engage. The Vengeances that did fail to return inevitably did so as a result of flak or, at the point of pulling out of a dive, to small arms fire. At least one of the squadrons worked out a new tactic: attacking the target in two `vics’ from opposite directions to divide the enemy’s antiaircraft fire. A misjudged approach could have fatal consequences. Occasionally a Vengeance would be caught in the blast from the bombs of the aircraft in front of it, although the fuses were timed to avoid this.

Under the command of Sqn Ldr Hemango Choudhuri, the crews of 7 Squadron, Indian Air Force, were briefed on May 25, 1944 to bomb a strategic bridge near Imphal. The structure was of vital importance to the Japanese army’s lines of communication and nothing short of total destruction would do.

The Vengeances swept down through thick cloud to register a direct hit, seriously delaying the Japanese advance. Other raids on similar bridges were attempted but never with the same degree of success.

The start of the monsoon season in June signalled the beginning of the end for Vengeance operations in the Far East. In what appeared to be undue haste the squadrons were withdrawn and re-equipped.

It was fitting that the Vengeance’s final combat operation was flown by 84 Squadron, the unit that had first taken the dive-bomber into action. Appropriately, it was led by the CO, Sqn Ldr Gill, with Flt Lt Alan Blackburn in the rear seat.

Twelve Vengeances made an early afternoon attack on an enemy ammunition dump on July 16. The sortie was completed with the usual high degree of accuracy, most of the bombs and incendiaries falling in the target area. All the aircraft returned safely to base.

While the Vengeance was enjoying its swansong, thousands of miles away in the US the decision had been taken to cease production and the last one rolled out of the factory on June 2.

New roles were found for those yet to be delivered, some becoming garishly painted target-tugs and sturdy or reliable station `hacks’. Trials were even undertaken to use the Vengeance to carry poison gas.

By mid-1945 most had been relegated to target-towing duties.

In total, 1,528 of all types had been built, of which 1,205 were passed to the RAF – some purchased outright and others on Lend-Lease.

So how does the Vengeance rank in the list of the all-time greats? Comparing various bombers in the Far East for their bombing accuracy, a study by the Indian Air Force found the B-24 Liberator registered 50% hits and the B-25 Mitchell 60%, whereas the humble Vengeance achieved 100% accuracy.

It’s time that Vultee Vengeances – and the men that crewed them – are given the recognition they so richly deserve.

Specification

Vultee Vengeance Mk I

Type: two-seat dive-bomber

Powerplant: one l,700-hp (1268-kW) Wright R-2600-A5B-5air-cooled radial piston engine

Performance: maximum speed 449 km/h (279 mph) at 4115 m (13,500 ft); climb to 4570 m (15,000 ft) in 11 minutes 18 seconds; service ceiling 6795m(22,300ft); range1930km(1200 miles)

Weights: empty 4672 kg (10,300 lb); maximum take-off 7440 kg (16,400 lb)

Dimensions: span 14,63 m (48 ft 0 in); length 12.12m (39ft 9in); height 3.91 m (12ft 10in); wing area 30.84m2 (332 sq ft)

Armament: four wing-mounted 7.62-mm (0.3-in) machine-guns and two 7.62-mm (0.3-in) machine-guns in the rear cockpit, plus a bombload of four 227-kg (500-lb) bombs carried internally.

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