Art by Rafał Zalewski
A specialised radio countermeasures squadron, No 462 RAAF, was part of 100 Group and flew Halifax B. IIIs from December 1944. The prominent masts indicate Z5-N MZ913 carries the high-powered Airborne Cigar radio jamming equipment.
Late war colours on a Halifax B. VI RG610 of No 102 Sqn based at Pocklington, Yorks. It was sold for scrap in 1949.
The Handley Page Halifax’s wartime career has always been compared with that of the Lancaster and it is invariably written up as ‘inferior’; whilst there is some truth in this, especially for the Mk I Halifax it is an over-generalisation. One Squadron Commander stated: ‘We were very favourably impressed by the flying qualities of the Halifax B.III with its powerful Bristol Hercules engines, which gave it a lively climbing ability and good all-round performance.’
As one of the trio of four-engined bombers designed to Specification P13/36 the Halifax first flew on 25 October 1939 (L7244). The type entered service with 35 Squadron in November 1940, the second of the ‘heavies’. The first operational sortie by the Handley Page Halifax (35 Squadron) took place on the night of 10/11 March 1941, the target being Le Havre. Six aircraft took part, four of which bombed the primary target. One aircraft aborted the mission because of hydraulic problems and one was shot down by a British night fighter.
Over the next few months the other squadrons of No. 4 Group re-equipped and the Halifax began to take an increasing role in bomber operations. Initial impressions of the Halifax were favourable but within weeks the first problems occurred and the aircraft were temporarily withdrawn from operations for modifications to hydraulic pumps and undercarriages. An attempt was also made to regulate the cabin heat as excessive heat had given rise to a good deal of sickness amongst crews. Modifications were also made to the front escape hatch as this tended to fly off in the air. Whilst the latter two points appear to have been cured, at least they do not crop up again in the official records, the undercarriage remained troublesome.
However, by early 1942 the Halifax was already under investigation as its loss rate was higher than that of the other four-engined bomber, the Stirling. An ORS report looked at loss rates for the period July 1941 to June 1942 with the Halifax having a 50 per cent higher loss rate on all except lightly-defended targets. The conclusion was that the aircraft was more vulnerable to fighter attack and that a major factor was the ‘greater visibility of the Halifax exhausts and its rather doubtful stability in making evasive turns.’ With a loss rate of over 6 per cent, rising to 10 per cent for August 1942, the decision was taken to reduce the scale of Halifax operations until the majority of aircraft had received additional modifications, including weight reduction. A new fin and rudder were tested on the prototype Mk III and when engine and propeller improvements were added the new variant was far better than its predecessors; indeed, it was close to the Lancaster in overall performance.
In October 1942 the Bomber Command Operational Research Section (ORS) was again investigating why the Halifax had a higher loss rate than other operational types. Once more it was the aircraft’s poor manoeuvrability that was highlighted as the most significant defect. The conclusion recommended that in order to gain experience and confidence, ‘The pilots posted to Halifax squadrons should be detailed to complete at least three, preferably five, sorties as 2nd Pilot or against lightly defended targets before being employed on main operations.’ However, this laudable aim was not always possible, indeed it was seldom achieved, and the higher than average loss rates of the early Halifax variants continued. The bomb load of 13,000 lb was a great improvement on that of the medium bombers and unlike the Stirling the bomb bay was of standard design and gave good flexibility of bomb load. The self-defence armament of four-gun rear turret and twin-gun front turret, with beam guns in some aircraft, was inadequate but was soon improved with the addition of a mid-upper turret.
The first Mk IIIs entered service with 466 Squadron at Leconfield in October 1943 and this ‘definitive’ variant gradually replaced the older variants and was to remain in service until the end of the war. By early 1944 the new aircraft had demonstrated their superior performance and the plan to replace all squadrons with Lancasters was reconsidered – or at least delayed. The Halifax was the standard equipment of No. 6 (RCAF) Group based in Yorkshire and the Canadian squadrons had few problems with serviceability or operational difficulties; loss rates stabilised and the Group was happy with its Halifaxes, although in recent years an ill-informed debate has been reopened as to why the Canadians were given ‘inferior aircraft.’
An ORS report in July 1943 related loss rates to training as the Halifax had acquired a bad reputation for instability during hard manoeuvres. As the corkscrew manoeuvre was the standard tactic by which bomber pilots avoided enemy defences it was vital that pilots had the confidence to undertake the hard manoeuvring demanded by this technique. Report B160 looked at the, ‘Effect of operational experience on No. 4 Group Halifax losses’ and concluded that: ‘There is no reasonable doubt that pilots on their first two operations have a casualty rate well above the average and that those who have survived twenty sorties had a rate well below the average. This must be aircraft related as the Lancaster does not suffer the same problem.’ The report stated that the major problem occurred when aircraft attacked heavily defended targets. ‘New pilots are a bit nervous of the aircraft as it had gained a bad name for instability in manoeuvre. It thus may happen that a new pilot is reluctant, when he meets defences, to manoeuvre his machine sufficiently in combat or that in a sudden emergency he puts his machine into an attitude in which he has had no previous experience of controlling it.’
To the public, the Halifax was the highly capable stablemate of the Lancaster and together, the two four-engine machines were hailed as the fearsome harbingers of doom aimed at laying waste all that was evil within the Third Reich. But the day of the Halifax proved worth waiting for.
New engines, a strengthened structure and modifi ed aerodynamics gave the aeroplane the performance that had been promised two years earlier. The Mk III proved faster than the Lancaster and could climb quicker; by late-1944, Halifax losses dropped below those of the Lancaster, even though the former often outnumbered the latter on some of the big raids. Total figures for Bomber Command were 2,236 Halifax losses against 3,936 Lancasters.
The Halifax also saw action with Bomber Command as part of No. 100 Group, the airframe proving well-suited to this RCM usage and at one stage became the main type used by the Group. The main role of the Halifax RCM squadrons was Mandrel, although 462 Squadron was fitted with ABC, and the first effective mission was flown by 171 Squadron from North Creake in late October 1944. Indeed, it was 171 and 199 Squadrons from this Group that flew the Command’s last Halifax operation of the war, on 2 May 1945 against Kiel.
Total Halifax production was 6,176 aircraft and whilst some of these were specialist Coastal or Transport variants, the majority were bomber variants, including 2,238 of the Halifax MK III. There is no surviving complete Halifax today, although a number of well-preserved aircraft have been recovered from lakes in Norway and the museum at Elvington, Yorkshire has ‘built’ a Halifax, with parts coming from a variety of sources. This is an appropriate location as Elvington was home to two Free French Halifax squadrons. One of the recovered aircraft is being rebuilt in Canada as a tribute to No. 6 (RCAF) Group.
‘For Valour’ – the Halifax VCs
Just one Victoria officer Joe Barton Wg. Cdr Leonard cross was awarded who had initially commanded Halifax squadrons, but was not Gazetted solely for that. His award was for his unique contribution to operations with Bomber command. extracts from his Gazette entry are included below.
Cyril Joe Barton
Extract from `The London Gazette’ of June 27, 1944
`Pilot Officer Cyril Joe Barton (168669) RAFVR, No 578 squadron (Deceased).
On the night of 30th March, 1944, Pilot Officer Barton was captain and pilot of a Halifax aircraft [B.III Excalibur LK797 based at Burn] detailed to attack Nuremberg. When some 70 miles short of the target, the aircraft was attacked by a Junkers Ju 88. the first burst of fire from the enemy made the intercommunication system useless. One engine was damaged when a Messerschmitt 210 joined in the fight. The bomber’s machine guns were out of action and the gunners were unable to return fire.
Fighters continued to attack the aircraft as it approached the target area and, in the confusion caused by the failure of the communications system at the height of the battle, a signal was misinterpreted and the navigator, air bomber and wireless operator left the aircraft by parachute.
Pilot Officer Barton faced a situation of dire peril. His aircraft was damaged, his navigational team had gone and he could not communicate with the remainder of the crew. if he continued his mission, he would be at the mercy of hostile fighters when silhouetted against the fires in the target area, and if he survived he would have to make a 4½ – hour journey home on three engines across heavily-defended territory. Determined to press home his attack at all costs, he flew on and, reaching the target, released the bombs himself.
As Pilot Officer Barton turned for home the propeller of the damaged engine, which was vibrating badly, flew off. It was also discovered that two of the petrol tanks had suffered damage and were leaking. Pilot Officer Barton held to his course and, without navigational aids and in spite of strong head winds, successfully avoided the most dangerous defence areas on his route. eventually he crossed the English coast only 90 miles north of his base [Burn, Yorks].
By this time the petrol supply was nearly exhausted. Before a suitable landing place could be found, the port engine stopped. the aircraft was now too low to be abandoned successfully. Pilot Officer Barton therefore ordered the three remaining members of his crew to take up their crash stations. then, with only one engine working, he made a gallant attempt to land clear of the houses over which he was flying. The aircraft finally crashed [at Ryhope colliery, near Sunderland] and Pilot officer Barton lost his life, but his three comrades survived.
Pilot Officer Barton had previously taken part in four attacks on Berlin and 14 other operational missions. on one of these, two members of his crew were wounded during a determined effort to locate the target despite the appalling weather conditions. In gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds, this officer displayed unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty.’
Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire
Extracts from `The London Gazette’ of September 8, 1944
`Wing commander Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, DSO, DFC, RAFVR, No 617 sqn
This officer began his operational career in June 1940. Against strongly-defended targets, he soon displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader. He was always ready to accept extra risks to ensure success. Defying the formidable Ruhr defences, he frequently released his bombs from below 20,000ft. Over Cologne in November 1940 [he was flying Whitley V P5005 of 102 Sqn from Linton-on-Ouse], a shell burst inside his aircraft, blowing out one side and starting a fire; undeterred, he went on to bomb the target.
At the end of his first tour of operational duty in January 1941, he immediately volunteered for a second. Again, he pressed home his attacks with the utmost gallantry. Berlin, Bremen, Cologne, Duisburg, Essen and Kiel were among the heavily-defended targets which he attacked [flying with the first Halifax squadron, No 35 at Linton]. When he was posted for instructional duties in January 1942 he undertook four more operational missions.
He started his third tour in August 1942 when he was given command of a squadron [No 76 at Middleton St George]. He led the squadron with outstanding skill on a number of missions before being appointed in March 1943 as a station commander [to Marston Moor as Group Captain].
In October 1943 he undertook a fourth operational tour, relinquishing the rank of Group Captain at his own request so that he could again take part in operations. He immediately set to work [as CO of 617 Sqn flying Lancasters] as the pioneer of a new method of marking enemy targets involving very low flying.
During his fourth tour which ended in July 1944, Wing Commander Cheshire led his squadron personally on every occasion. [He] has now completed a total of 100 missions [and would undertake three more to take his total to 103]. In four years of fighting against the bitterest opposition he has maintained a record of outstanding personal achievement, placing himself invariably in the forefront of the battle.’
Leonard Cheshire continued his extraordinary career, both within the Service where he witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, to his post-war Christian life when he set up the Cheshire Foundation Homes for the Sick. He died on July 31, 1992, aged 74.
Rootes Securities-built B. III LL553 in 1944. On delivery it was assigned to one of the two Free French squadrons attached to RAF Bomber Command, No 346 Guyenne Sqn, based at Elvington, Yorks
Halifax in French military hands
Armée de l’Air Halifaxes France began its association with the Handley Page Halifax following the establishment of `Free French’ squadrons in Britain in 1940, initially with Spitfires and later with Boston light bombers. In 1944, personnel who had experience on the twin-engine Loire et Olivier 451 bomber in the Middle East were brought together in England to form two heavy bomber squadrons equipped with Handley Page Halifaxes.
Established with RAF help, the two squadrons were No 346 Guyenne Sqn and 347 Tunisie Sqn assigned as part of No 4 Group based at Elvington, near the ancient town of York. The French crews undertook refresher training at No 20 (Wellington) Operational Training Unit at Lossiemouth followed by a short familiarisation course at Driffield on early mark Halifaxes. On May 16, 1944, 346 Guyenne Sqn assembled at their new airfield under the command of Lt Col GE Venot.
The squadron was allocated an establishment of 20 Halifax B. Vs, 16 in use with four in reserve and after working up on their new charges, the squadron was declared operational. Proudly carrying French blue-white-red roundels on the sides of its new aircraft, the squadron set out on its first mission on June 1/2, 1944, an attack on a German radio-listening station at Fermed’Urville. The French squadron contributed 12 aircraft to a total force of 101 Halifaxes, bombing on the coloured markers. Unfortunately, the results were frustrated by cloud and haze, each aircraft dropping five 1,000lb and ten 500lb bombs.
On June 20, 1944, No 347 Tunisie Sqn was formed at Elvington, under the command of Lt Col M Vigouroux. After a spell on local training flights it joined its sister squadron Guyenne on operations from June 27/28 when 12 aircraft took off to bomb Mont Candon, dropping 175 500lb bombs on the target.
At the end of June, Halifax B. IIIs arrived to replace the B. Vs with 346 Sqn and at the end of July, No 347 followed suite. Through August the targets were V1 sites and support for the Allied forces in Normandy and in September, both squadrons assisted with the transport of fuel to Melsbroek, Brussels, to keep the armoured units mobile in their on-going pursuit of the enemy. Bomber Command returned to its night offensive against German targets in October and both French squadrons took part in attacks, notably against Heligoland in daylight on April 18, 1945.
Seven days later, both 346 and 347 Sqns, now flying B. VIs, flew their last attack of the war when the gun batteries on the island of Wangerooge were bombed in daylight causing heavy damage. Over the following days and after the end of hostilities, the crews conducted a series of training and support duties, including dumping stocks of unwanted bombs into the sea, and communication flights to and from France.
On October 6, 1945, after flying with the RAF for 11 months and making 1,479 sorties, No 346 Guyenne Sqn transferred to the French Air Force. Its sister unit, No 347 Tunisie Sqn transferred in November after ten months and 1,355 sorties with Bomber Command. By the end of October, the two squadrons had returned home.
In France, a revitalised Armée de l’Air incorporated the two Halifax squadrons into its Groupes de Bombardement as GB. II/23 Guyenne and GB. I/25 Tunisie, based at Bordeaux-Marignac. To maintain serviceability on their B. VIs, the French requested and received from the RAF at least four Halifax B. IIs and Vs for ground training at Rochefort.
The two squadrons undertook a number of different duties, GB. I/25 flew met flights and SAR missions, while GB. II/23 was tasked with long-range transport for which their aircraft were modified with seating for up to 20 passengers. Flights were made to Algeria and Tunisia, and later to Indo-China and France’s far-flung outposts across the Pacific, and to South America on diplomatic and casualty relief work. The strength of the French Halifax units was around 31 aircraft in 1947 and another batch of 14 surplus RAF B. VIs arrived by October.
Bastille Day July 14, 1948, was the last appearance of the Halifax in public when five took part in a fly-past over Paris. The type was officially withdrawn from air force use in October 1951, but some continued to fly on experimental work with organisations such as the Centre d’Essais en Vol (CEV) at Bretigny and Istres. The final Halifaxes, believed to be RG703 and RG828, conducted air tests with missiles until the spring of 1953, long outlasting the type in RAF service which all but consigned its bomber fleet to the scrap-man.
Halifaxes known to carry French colours include the following: JP327, JN978, LL392, LL467, PP165, RG491, RG500, RG510, RG562, RG590, RG605, RG606, RG607, RG625, RG645, RG647, RG653, RG655, RG661, RG670, RG703, RG705, RG752, RG788, RG798, RG816, RG819, RG821, RG828, RG867, RG868, RG869, RG874, ST797, ST799, and ST800.