Otto-Werke GmbH

AGO C.1 by Ivan Berryman.

As Prussia started to develop its own aircraft manufacturing empire, so Bavaria looked to achieve the same. The rivalry and friction between the two states in the formative years hampered any form of co-operation within the German empire.

The Bavarian Army Inspectorate of Engineering embarked on training their pilots using private flying schools, whereas the Prussian Army’s pilots were taught to fly by the aircraft manufacturers as part of the purchasing agreement. The problems started when the Bavarian Army needed to expand their aviation section, which inevitably led to the need for more pilots. The Bavarian liaison officer at the Prussian Army’s Research Unit passed on information on flying training and the Prussians’ experience using manufacturers to train pilots. The Albatros Werke offered to train the Bavarian pilots and to supply the Bavarian Army with aircraft. The offer was declined.

At this point General von Brug, the Engineering Corps Inspector, decided that all flying training was to be carried out using a private school run by aircraft manufacturer August Euler. When asked about his choice of training establishments, von Brug remarked that ‘Frankfurt was closer than Berlin-Johannisthal and at least August Euler, if not a Bavarian, was not a Prussian.’ The Bavarian Army bought seven aircraft from the Euler Company and they trained the pilots as part of the agreement.

At the beginning of 1911, financier Gustav Otto founded the Bavarian state’s first aircraft manufacturing plant – Otto-Werke GmbH, Munich. This was not the first aircraft-manufacturing venture that Otto was involved with, as he had recently acquired a financial interest in the Pfalz Werke. By the end of the summer, the Otto-Werke plant employed forty people, much to the delight of General von Brug who was the Bavarian Inspector of Aviation and Motor Vehicles. Von Brug had recently negotiated the purchase of the flying school and renamed it the Bavarian Military Flying School. Von Brug almost immediately coerced Gustav Otto into supplying him with one of his mechanics to train the Army ground personnel.

The friction between the two states raised its head when Gustav Otto asked the Prussian Army to consider a proposal from him for supplying aircraft and pilot training. This was in addition to asking for entry into an aircraft competition that the Prussians had planned for September 1912. Initially, the application was turned down out of hand because the competition was only open to Prussian aircraft manufacturers, but it was decided to admit Otto-built aircraft on the condition that in the event that his aircraft was placed in the competition, the Bavarian Army would award him 60,000 marks and accept two of the award-winning Prussian-built aircraft. This was, in the eyes of the Bavarian Army, a bonus, because not only would they have a Bavarian aircraft participating in a Prussian competition, they would be able to obtain two of the best of Prussian aircraft manufacturers.

As it turned out none of this was needed, because Gustav Otto, being the entrepreneur that he was, founded the Ago Flugzeugwerke in Johannisthal and contracted to handle all the repairs, pilot training and other contracts with the Prussian Army. The Prussian Army also put the date of the competition back until the following year and eventually cancelled it altogether.

The Ago works, a subsidiary of the Otto Werke, Munich, started building Henry Farman aircraft under licence. The Farman was a tried and trusted aircraft, at least as far as any of the very early models could be, and gave them a good foothold into the aircraft-manufacturing world. The first of these aircraft, the Ago C.I, appeared in the summer of 1915. It had a twin-boomed fuselage powered by a 150-hp Benz III engine and was used purely as a reconnaissance aircraft. It was armed with a manually operated machine gun mounted in the nose, but this was just for defensive purposes.

At the beginning of 1913, the Prussian Army had asked for tenders from the German Bristol Works, Rumpler, Albatros, Aviatik, Euler, AEG and Fokker to build an aircraft that was capable of being dismantled and transported on a purpose-built vehicle. The manufacturer selected would win an order for twelve of these aircraft and the vehicles to go with them. On hearing of this competition, General von Brug contacted Gustav Otto and suggested that he put forward a tender, which he duly did. However, the powers that be informed the Bavarian War Ministry that the General Inspectorate of the Prussian Army were only considering aircraft manufacturers that had already built successful aircraft and because the Ago Works and the AEG Werke had not even built any aircraft of their own, they were removed from the list of participants.

The second of the Ago C-models, the C.II, appeared at the end of 1915 and still retained the twin-boomed fuselage configuration, but was fitted with a more powerful 220-hp Benz IV pusher engine. The C.III, however, was a smaller twin-boomed fuselage version and was powered by a 160-hp Mercedes D.III engine. At the beginning of 1916 came the first of the single-fuselage models, the C.IV. The C.IV was the result of a great deal of experimentation with the wing design, which was one of the more unusual features of the aircraft. The wings tapered not only in shape but also in thickness and although extremely efficient, took so long to make that it limited the number of aircraft built. In order to give the observer a forward field of fire, the inner front interplane strut was removed and the outer struts placed closer together to compensate. A total of 260 of these aircraft were ordered, but it is not known exactly how many were delivered, although over seventy were known to be flying between 1917 and 1918.

Meanwhile the company produced a floatplane for the Navy at the end of 1915, the Ago C.I W. It was in reality a C.I fitted with floats and only the one was built, and that was handed over to the Navy for trials. The results from the trials produced two Ago C.II Ws, Nos. 539 and 586. The latter was fitted with a four-bladed propeller and produced excellent results. It is not known how many were built resulting from the trials.

Also in 1915 there appeared a small single-seat aircraft, the Ago DV.3. It was an unarmed reconnaissance model powered by a 100-hp Oberursel U.I rotary engine, but trials of the aircraft were unsatisfactory and only the one was built. Towards the end of the war another version, this time a single-seat fighter, the Ago S.I, was built, but the war ended before it could be tested.

Gustav Otto realised that the Prussians had the monopoly on all the non-Bavarian aircraft manufacturers and that the friction between the two major states was not going away. It was obvious that in the event of a war, and signs of this were becoming more imminent, the Bavarian War Ministry would lay claim to the entire production of his aircraft. He made General von Brug aware of his concerns, and von Brug in turn went to the Bavarian War Ministry to also voice his concerns. He realised that the Bavarian manufacturers should become an integral part of the German aircraft industry and set aside any prejudices that the individual states may have to ensure that a strict level of manufacture was maintained.

The Bavarian War Ministry agreed that there should be some form of uniformity, but would not accept any of Gustav Otto’s aircraft because they considered them to be substandard. The fact that one of his biplane aircraft had crashed on a number of occasions during the Prince Heinrich Flight demonstrations did nothing to encourage confidence in the aircraft. The Prussian Inspectorate of Flying Troops in fact accused the factory of being incapable of building any reliable military aircraft. Strangely enough, Gustav Otto’s Ago factory became one of Germany’s leading manufacturers of seaplanes and supplied large numbers of the aircraft to the German Navy, but was never able to build an aircraft that was accepted by the Prussian Army.

Oesterreichische Flugzeugfabrik AG (Oeffag)

WWI Albatros D. III as Flown by Josef Kiss

Oeffag C.II

Oeffag/Mickl Type H

At the end of 1913, with the winds of war starting to blow through Europe, the Daimler Motoren AG Company, who were a subsidiary of Skodawerke AG, applied to the council in Wiener-Neustadt to build an aircraft factory. Daimler’s interest in aviation went back some years to when their technical director, Ferdinand Porsche, had designed a lightweight engine for the Etrich Taube aircraft in 1909. Permission was granted and construction of the buildings began at the beginning of 1915. The main investors of the company, Dr Karl Freiherr von Skoda, Ferdinand Porsche and the Austrian Creditbank, with backing from the Government, took control of the company on 3 March 1915. The company was known as the Oesterreichische Flugzeugfabrik AG (Oeffag).

Brought in to manage the new works was Ingenieur Leo Portsch from the Skoda Works; the technical director was Ingenieur Karl Ockermüller, who had been involved in the designs of the early Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft (Roland) aircraft. The first of the aircraft from the new company, the Oeffag C.I, appeared in March 1915. The designs for the aircraft had been completed in January 1915 and included experimental triple ‘I’ struts with the staggered, sweptback wings in place of the conventional ones. There were problems with this strut design right from the start and so the wing struts reverted back to the conventional design.

The prototype of the production models was delivered on 15 June 1915, powered by a 160-hp Daimler engine. The three-bay biplane was evaluated by LFT and on 17 July 1915, a total of twenty-four were ordered. The first of the production aircraft were assigned to Fliks 25 and 27, the remainder to Fliks 9, 11 and 18. At the end of 1916, the C.I was replaced and twenty-two of the surviving aircraft were turned into trainers.

At the beginning of 1916, the prototype for the Oeffag C.II appeared. This was slightly smaller than the C.I and had a two-bay, shortened wingspan that had no sweepback or stagger. The LFT evaluated the aircraft and informed Oeffag that it failed to meet the performance requirements laid down. Despite this, Oeffag signed a production contract for thirty-two C.II reconnaissance biplanes, but it wasn’t until October 1916 that the first nine of the aircraft were accepted and assigned to the Fliks operating on the Russian Front.

Reports coming back from the various Fliks complained that the observer’s cockpit was far too small to take the kind of equipment required by the observers when they went on a mission, including ammunition, bombs, cameras, map cases, machine guns and flare pistols. The controls were sluggish, visibility was limited, manoeuvrability was not good and the speed too slow. A second order was received at the beginning of December 1916 for a further thirty-two of the second series of Oeffag C.II biplanes, and these too were sent to Fliks on the Russian Front. Within weeks the reports coming back were almost identical to those on the first series of aircraft.

The success of the Oeffag-designed and -constructed aircraft was not the success that had been hoped for, and, in the autumn of 1916, the company obtained the rights to build the German Albatros D.III fighter. There were a number of reasons why Oeffag were able to obtain the rights: the war was by now well under way and the demand for good fighter aircraft was at a premium. The Albatros Company was unable to keep up with demand, so other companies were sought that could build Albatros aircraft under licence. One of these, the Albatros Company (Phönix), belonged to Camilio Castaglioni’s Brandenburg-Phönix-UFAG cartel that was starting to monopolise the aviation market. The War Ministry wanted to put a stop to this and awarded the contract to Oeffag.

This decision turned out to be the saving grace for the Oeffag Company because the Albatros D.III (Oef) that they produced turned out to be the Austro-Hungarian Air Force’s most successful fighter.

The original Albatros D.II appeared at a time when the Brandenburg D.I fighter, which it was to replace, was giving serious cause for concern regarding its stability and manoeuvrability. A contract signed by Oeffag on 4 December 1916 called for fifty aircraft to be built: twenty Albatros D.IIs (only sixteen of which were actually built) and thirty D.IIIs.

The Oeffag-built Albatros D.II was fitted with a 185-hp Daimler engine and the wing chord increased. There were some other minor alterations to the fuselage, and they were fitted with two Bernatzik synchronised machine guns. The completed D.IIs were assigned to Fliks on both the Russian and Italian Fronts. There were very few criticisms to come back from the Fronts, which was a pleasant surprise for Oeffag, who by this time had become used to scathing reports about their aircraft. Because of the relative inactivity on both the Fronts at the time, the Albatros D.II (Oef) was relegated to training duties as it was slowly replaced by the D.III (Oef)

The Albatros D.III (Oef) shared the same fuselage, undercarriage and tail section as the D.II (Oef). Because of reports coming back from the Western Front of wing failure on the Albatros D.II, the wings and airframe were strengthened considerably from the original German design, making it capable of taking increasingly bigger and more powerful engines. The result was the appearance of one of the toughest fighter aircraft of the First World War. The first reports coming back from the LFT vindicated the Oeffag engineers, who had been criticised for not adhering to the original design. The reports stated that Oeffag engineers and designers had made significant improvements, culminating in one of the best fighters of the time.

Production of the aircraft increased rapidly, but once again the problem of obtaining parts not manufactured by Oeffag, like the synchronisation machine gun mechanisms, slowed deliveries down. In an attempt to solve the problem, the company decided to manufacture some of the more precision parts themselves. The first of the Albatros D.III (Oef) arrived at the Russian Front at the beginning of June 1917. The pilots were delighted; they now had an aircraft that could be flown comfortably by any competent pilot and was superior in every way to the Brandenburg D.Is they were currently flying. A number of minor problems were found: poor quality cowling fasteners and a weak tailskid, both of which were quickly resolved without affecting the Fliks’ operational status.

The reputation of the Oeffag Company was further enhanced when the Austro-Hungarian Navy requested that they build the Hansa-Brandenburg W.13 flying boat. Designed by Ernst Heinkel, this single-engine flying boat carried a crew of two and was used for reconnaissance and bombing missions. It was also built under licence by Ufag, but it was the Oeffag-built model that was preferred by the crews. The fuselage was of a simple wooden and fabric construction with a single-step hull. Powered by a 350-hp Daimler pusher engine, cut-outs in the trailing edges of the upper wing provided the clearance for the tips of the propeller. The two-crew positions were in a side-by-side configuration. It is not know how many were built.

The production of the first series of Albatros D.III (Oef) ended in July 1917 and immediately production of the next series, which was powered by a 200-hp Daimler engine, began. This new, more powerful model was fitted without a spinner, because German wind tunnel tests had shown that the spinner was liable to fly off and could damage the airframe. The report from Flars praised the new model, stating that the 200-hp D.III was the first of the fighter aircraft capable of engaging the French Hanriot and the British Sopwith Camel as an equal. A total of 201 Albatros D.III (Oef) of the second series were produced, all of which were assigned to various Fliks on both the Russian and Italian Fronts.

The next series of D.IIIs to appear came from a contract for 230 of the aircraft on 18 May 1918. These were to be powered by the latest 225-hp Daimler engine, all to be delivered by the end of December 1918. The first units to receive the new aircraft were Fliks 61/J and 63/J, whose pilots rated the aircraft the finest they had ever flown. There was virtually nothing to complain about: the aircraft did everything asked of it and never caused them a moment of problem. In July 1918, two of the Albatros D.III (Oef) aircraft from the second series took part in the Fighter Evaluation Trials at Aspern. Of the twenty-four participants in the competition, only three were production models: the two Albatros D.IIIs (Oef) and the Aviatik D.I. The performance of the two Albatros aircraft delighted the War Ministry as the aircraft out-flew all the other participants in every category.

The production lines turned the aircraft out, and by the end of October all but twenty-nine of those ordered had been delivered. The end of the war saw the end of production, but not the sales of the aircraft already built. Poland bought thirty-eight of the aircraft and extolled their virtues in a letter of commendation to the company the following year.

There was even talk of the company building the Friedrichshafen G.IIIa bomber under licence but this came to nothing. The Oeffag Company, from such a relatively disastrous start, produced some of the finest fighter aircraft of the First World War, but was unable to survive the post-war depression that followed.

English Electric Lightning

In 1960, Fighter Command received an interceptor, the performance of which was beyond anything then in service. With a speed of over Mach 2, more than twice the speed of the Hunter, the technologically advanced Lightning was the RAF’s first truly supersonic aircraft. Its initial climb rate of 50,000ft per minute and ceiling of over 60,000ft made it an exceptional interceptor. Hampered by a characteristic short range, the addition of a refuelling probe along with overwing tanks and a larger ventral fuel tank in later versions doubled its fuel capacity. Immensely popular with pilots, ground crew and public alike, the Lightning became one of the most iconic British aircraft of the Cold War.

The English Electric Lightning belongs even today amongst the most successful interception fighters, and it was the first British aircraft to fly at twice the speed of sound. Yet at first, the Lightning as the P.1 was only a research airframe to examine flight attitude in the supersonic arena. In order to offer the least possible resistance, the experimental version was given a slender fuselage with one engine above the other. The leading edges of the wings were swept 60º as was also the tailplane. The prototype flew for the first time on 4 August 1954 with test pilot Roland Beaumont at the controls. A week later he exceeded Mach 1 for the first time. It is interesting to note that the supersonic speed was achieved without an afterburner. The second prototype P.1A was fitted with two cannons and while still in the flight testing phase the British Air Ministry decided in July 1955 to procure the fighter version P.1B, later given a larger fin. The P.1B prototype took off for its maiden flight on 4 April 1957 with a Rolls-Royce RA.24 Avon engine. This flight was made under a baleful star, for on this day the British Ministry of Defence announced that all fighter projects were cancelled with immediate effect because the day of the ground-to-air missile had dawned. Fighter aircraft were therefore no longer required. As it happened, the P.1B was so far advanced in its development that it was not possible to cancel the programme, and in July 1957 it flew at Mach 1.72, an unofficial world speed record. Twice the speed of sound was exceeded in November 1958. Only a month before the aircraft had been named “Lightning”, and in July 1960 deliveries began to No.74 Squadron RAF as the Lightning F.1. 74. Squadron was the first of eight RAF active units which operated Lightnings in the following 28 years. In Great Britain, all Lightning squadrons were stationed on the East Coast for tactical reasons, namely in order to intercept Soviet bomber formations if they ever came. Furthermore there were groups stationed in Cyprus, Singapore and not least at RAF bases in West Germany.

The Lightning had a first-class performance, an enormous thrust:weight ratio and was also excellent at low level in dogfighting tactics. The Lightnings in Germany were given an olive-green livery, while those stationed in the British Isles received a greengrey camouflage coat over the unpainted metal to the end of their service, sometimes varied to air superiority-grey.

There were a number of sub-variants amongst the 337 machines built. In 1962 the T.4 appeared as a trainer with dual controls, tutor and pupil sitting beside each other. The final and probably the best balanced version was the F.6 with modified wings with more strongly curved and extended leading edges and a larger tank at the belly. The enormous performance of the Lightning came at a price, however: the endurance in flight without refuelling was only around fifty minutes. Even if the Lightning had pronounced spectacular flying characteristics, from the technical point of view it became obsolete very quickly. Nevertheless the RAF operational squadrons kept their Lightnings until 1988 when the last of them were replaced by the Tornado F.3.

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After the Second World War, relations between the West and the Soviet Union deteriorated and the former wartime allies became adversaries. The blockade of Berlin from June 1948 indicated the Soviet Union’s bellicose intentions in Europe and the world seemingly faced the prospect of another conflict. In Britain, war weariness and an economy in near total collapse, led to rapid demobilization and a general decline in RAF strength after 1945 and by 1948, the RAF found its front-line squadrons ill equipped for the Cold War.

In August 1949, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Basil Embry, began to strengthen Britain’s air defences. Outdated wartime aircraft were struck off and by 1952, all front-line air defence squadrons were equipped with jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor and de Havilland Vampire and Venom. Obsolete in comparison to the Soviet MiG-15, the Meteor was replaced as principal day fighter by the vastly superior Hawker Hunter. Introduced to service with 43 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in July 1954, the Hunter was serving in eighteen squadrons by 1959. The Gloster Javelin took up the night fighter role in August 1956 and together with the Hunter, provided Fighter Command’s airborne defence for the rest of the decade. By 1964, both aircraft had been superseded by the supersonic English Electric Lightning, which entered service with 74 Squadron at RAF Coltishall in 1960, equipping all UK air defence squadrons until 1969 and the arrival of the Phantom.

In Germany at the start of the 1950s, the Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF) operated only thirteen Vampire day and three Meteor night fighter squadrons. Previously considered part of an occupation force, in 1951 2TAF’s squadrons were assigned to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), becoming an integral part of European air defences within NATO’s order of battle. The Command expanded to a peak of thirty-five squadrons by 1955, including ten squadrons of Canadair Sabre F.4s. In the following year, thirteen squadrons reequipped with the Hunter, followed in August 1957 by the first Javelins, which entered service with 87 Squadron at RAF Brüggen. In 1965, the Lightning came to Germany, equipping 19 and 92 Squadrons.

The catastrophic 1957 Defence White Paper outlined a defence policy that prioritized nuclear over conventional forces and envisioned a surface-to-air missile system to protect the bomber bases, supported by a minimal force of manned fighters. As a result, Fighter Command was drastically reduced. From a post-war peak in 1956 of 600 front-line aircraft in thirty-five squadrons, by April 1962 it had shrunk to a mere 140 aircraft shared between eleven squadrons. The Second Tactical Air Force was initially cut from a total of thirty-five squadrons to seventeen, and by 1963 there remained just two air defence squadrons in Germany. The effect of these cuts was dramatic with squadrons disbanding almost overnight. This reduction in capability, compounded by further cuts in subsequent years, had an effect on the morale of RAF personnel for the next twenty years.

By 1970, despite cuts in numbers of aircraft and squadrons, RAF personnel in Britain and Germany had for twenty years successfully maintained interceptors and strike aircraft on permanent standby, ready for orders that could have signalled the start of nuclear war.

Following the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in August 1949, the potential threat to British cities from each unidentified radar contact grew considerably. Early interception was crucial. British air defences were, for the first time since the war, brought to a state of heightened readiness. From July 1950, day and night fighter squadrons provided a minimum of two aircraft at two-minute cockpit readiness under plans called Operation Fabulous. Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs) were built alongside the runway, with Telebrief communication lines installed enabling aircrew to receive the order to scramble directly from the Sector Controller. From the early 1950s, improvements in ground-controlled interception and early warning radar increased Fighter Controllers’ speed and accuracy in directing pilots to the contact before it reached the coast.

Initially, the principal threat was from the antiquated Soviet Tu-4 Bull, a copy of the American B-29. With the development of a Soviet long-range bomber and reconnaissance force, by the early-1960s the threat was from the Tu-16 Badger, Tu-95 Bear and the M-4 Bison, far more capable aircraft, which frequently approached UK airspace to test RAF defences. Working with the NATO early warning chain in Norway and Europe enabled much earlier detection, enabling interceptions further out at sea, and essential when Soviet aircraft started to carry stand-off missiles. In 1961 with UK air defence increasingly integrated with NATO, Fighter Command and UK air defences were assigned to SACEUR.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, air defence squadrons continued to maintain aircraft on heightened readiness. By the mid-1960s and now known as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), this was held at just two Lightning-equipped air stations, RAF Leuchars, and alternately either RAF Binbrook or RAF Wattisham. Lightnings initially on the ORP were held at ten minutes’ readiness in a dedicated QRA shed near the runway, which also provided accommodation for air and ground crews.

The RAF on D-Day and beyond…

In January 1944 Tedder and Coningham were recalled to Britain to join Eisenhower for the countdown to D-Day. They brought with them enormous experience, the glow of victory and a shared outlook. The nature of the air war fought through North Africa, Sicily and Italy had to some extent been formed by Coningham’s ideas and leadership. In February 1943, he was given command of the British and American tactical forces in Tunisia. The team carried the Allies through the expulsion of the Axis forces from Tunisia, the Sicily landings and the invasion of Italy. At every stage lessons were learned and technologies and tactics were refined that would be applied triumphantly in the next stage of the air war.

On D-Day, 171 squadrons roamed over the troops toiling ashore. The almost total lack of opposition meant they were barely needed and hopes faded for a decisive first-day battle that would wipe the Luftwaffe from the skies. When dusk fell, the bag was a paltry twelve Junkers 88s. On 10 June, tactical support and air-cover units began to move across the Channel. Waiting for them at Sainte Croix-sur-Mer was an airfield, thrown together from portable components by the RAF Servicing Commandos and Airfield Construction Branch wings. By the time the Normandy campaign was finished there would be thirty-one in the British zone and fifty in the American area of operations, most of them constructed under fire.

For Britain-based ground crews who manned the invasion force bases, Normandy would bring a dramatic change to their routines. Harry Clift, an armourer with 175 Squadron, arrived by Dakota on the morning of 17 June. They touched down at airstrip B5 at Le Fresne-Camilly, north-west of Caen. Before landing they were told to unload as quickly as possible and then carry aboard a party of wounded who would be lying on stretchers by the runway. The aircraft threw up clouds of dust, alerting the German 88mm gunners who opened fire on the runway. He and his comrades scrambled out and flung themselves to the ground ‘much to the amusement of the wounded’. The shells landed a hundred yards away and they were assured by the veterans that they would soon get used to it. ‘After that we only dropped to the ground for the close ones and ignored the others.’

In sunny weather – by no means constant in a summer of freakish cloud and rain – the thick dust, a compound of limestone and powdered dirt, was a menace. Each take-off and landing would send it swirling around the airfield forcing the armourers to swathe their heads in scarves and shield their eyes with anti-gas goggles to protect them from the blast from the propellers. It worked its way into the 20mm cannon, causing many stoppages and clogging the air intake system of the Merlin engines, so that desert filters from North Africa had to be fitted. The problem would eventually be reduced by laying bitumen-coated strips on the runways and spraying them with water at night.

Life was tough for the crews, working all the hours of daylight, subject to frequent shelling and strafing, sleeping in tents, or at least trying to against a constant background roar of aircraft and artillery. There were many compensating satisfactions. They were right on the front line and the 175 Squadron armourers ‘could watch our Typhoons take off … form up over the sea, fly inland to the target, dive on to their target, release their rockets, pull out of the dive and circle the strip ready to land. It gave us the feeling that we were personally involved in the attack.’

The pilots provided a running commentary on the progress of the battle. Sometimes the ground crews made their own direct contribution. At Le Fresne-Camilly, exasperated at the attentions of the Luftwaffe who would shoot them up on their way back to their bases after attacking the beachhead, they made a gun-pit out of sand bags and installed twin Browning .303s. One day they brought down a marauding Focke-Wulf 190.

For once there was a feeling that, further up the chain, the effort was appreciated. One day they received the ultimate accolade. ‘We were told to smarten up and gather at the side of the runway,’ Clift recalled. ‘When we arrived there we found a large crowd of all ranks who like us were wondering what it was all about.’ After a while a light aircraft landed and rolled to a stop nearby. ‘In the rear cockpit was Winston Churchill who stood up … and gave us a pep talk, telling us how he and everyone back home were thinking of us and how proud they all were at the way we were fighting the enemy.’

Harry Clift would go all the way to Germany but it was the first weeks that stuck most vividly in his mind. ‘It was hard work, we were in danger most of the time, but we had an important job to do and we were allowed to get on with it without interference or red tape. In those early days we found a feeling of camaraderie between all ranks which was to stay with us throughout the campaign.’

Among the British pilots were many who had been fighting since the beginning of the war. They could remember the daunting odds, the scant resources, the desperation and the exhaustion of the Battle of Britain. Now there was a lavish supply of aeroplanes and pilots and the only shortage was the paucity of enemies to come up and fight. For some, Normandy was an opportunity to pay off old scores.

Geoffrey Page had baled out over the Channel in August 1940. He was badly burned when they picked him up and spent the next two years at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, where he was one of the pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe’s ‘guinea pigs’, undergoing multiple operations. Sometimes the orderlies would push the patients out onto the hospital lawn, where they watched Spitfires on their way to sweeps over northern France. ‘How my heart yearned to be one of them, and not just a burnt cripple,’ he wrote. ‘I made a bitter vow to myself that, for each operation I underwent, I would destroy one enemy aircraft when I returned to flying.’ He overcame many bureaucratic obstacles to get a chance to fulfil this promise and in June arrived in France at the head of 132 Squadron. Initially, he was disappointed by the Luftwaffe’s absence and had to content himself shooting up targets of opportunity on the ground. Although he ‘exulted in the sight of my cannon shells ripping into the lurching vehicles as they careened about the narrow Normandy lanes like stricken animals, my lust lay in the desire to destroy enemy aircraft’.

Then, one day, while on a test flight with another pilot thirty miles behind the enemy lines, he got his chance, running into a formation of thirty Me 109s near Lisieux. Despite the odds, he plunged to attack. In the dogfight that followed Page was hit by a cannon shell and wounded in the leg. The red mist cleared. He dived to tree-top level, and pulling out, looked round to see only a lone Messerschmitt was now dogging him. ‘Hatred brought with it a new strength,’ he wrote. His opponent pulled up the nose of his aircraft to get enough deflection on his target. The move was fatal. Already on the point of stalling when the pilot opened fire ‘the recoil slowed the [aircraft] sufficiently to flick over and strike the trees twenty feet below. Circling the funeral pyre I watched the column of black smoke rising with morbid fascination.’

For Pierre Clostermann, Normandy represented a further opportunity to restore the honour of France. He was a diplomat’s son with family roots in Alsace and Lorraine who was studying aeronautical engineering at California Institute of Technology at the start of the war. Before he could return home, France had fallen. He made a circuitous journey to England, and after training joined first 341 (Alsace) Squadron, before transferring to 602 Squadron, where he flew Spitfires over France. Five days after D-Day, he set foot again in his homeland. The squadron was told to overnight at the landing ground at Bazenville, just south of the British landing beaches. He and his friend Jacques Remlinger were given the honour of putting down first and dressed for the occasion in their best dark blue uniforms. The great moment was a let-down. They landed in a cloud of dust which ‘penetrated everywhere, darkened the sky, suffocated us … for 500 yards round the landing strip all green had disappeared – every growing thing was covered by a thick layer, stirred by the slightest breeze’. Their first night was interrupted by the drone of a twin-engine aircraft and the swish of a falling bomb. ‘I dived under a lorry … the earth quivered, a burning gust of air slapped our faces and glowing splinters bespattered the tent, the trees and the lorry and bounced back sizzling on the dew-covered grass.’

Like the German army, the Luftwaffe used what resources they had to great effect. The narrow bridgehead behind the landing beaches was so choked with troops, ammunition dumps, concentrations of armour and aircraft that, as Clostermann said, ‘they could scarcely fail to score a bull practically every time’. The greatest hazards faced by Allied pilots in Normandy were the expertly operated 20mm light flak guns that protected airfields and the 88mm anti-tank guns of the infantry. After the initial avoidance of air-to-air combat, the Germans did come up to fight, sometimes with devastating effect.

The Luftwaffe, though, had no hope of turning the battle. Their enemy overwhelmed them in every department. The first units ashore arrived with radar systems and mobile air–ground control posts, allowing commanders to request air strikes which, most of the time, materialized.

Coningham pressed on with the methods he had developed in North Africa and Italy. The essential challenge of close air support was how to concentrate firepower on tactical targets in the shortest possible time. Coningham’s solution was the ‘cab rank’ system. It involved placing an air controller with the advancing troops, who could call on permanent air patrols loitering on the edge of the battle zone. The aircraft would carry a list of pre-arranged objectives but could be switched immediately if required to targets of opportunity or to relieve an immediate threat.

In Normandy, the system reached its apotheosis, finally fulfilling the devastating potential of air–armour fusion glimpsed on the battlefields of the Western Front a generation earlier. On the road to Berlin, the ‘brown jobs’ and the Brylcreem Boys marched side by side. On the British side the new methods were incarnated in the muscular form of the Hawker Typhoon (for the Americans it would be the P-47 Thunderbolt), loved by every Allied footslogger, dreaded and hated by his German foe. The ‘Tiffy’ was a speedier, deadlier descendant of the Fighter Command stalwart of the Battle of Britain. Its development had been marred by technical setbacks and, initially, it earned a reputation among pilots as a killer when put into a dive. By the summer of 1944 it was the perfect machine for the campaign, capable of 400mph and packing firepower that made the eight Browning .303-calibre machine guns of the 1940 Hurricane seem like peashooters.

According to Harry Clift, a typical armament load consisted of ‘four boxes of 20 mm ammunition. Each box contained a belt of 140 rounds, made up alternatively of two High Explosive and two Armour Piercing/Incendiary shells throughout the belt.’ Next came ‘eight rocket motors weighing 20lbs each and already fitted with fins and saddles by the armourers’ assistants working at the bomb dump’. Screwed into each was a 60lb High Explosive Warhead. The rockets were mounted on rails under the wings and fired electrically. A newsreel commentary claimed one Tiffy could deliver the equivalent of a destroyer’s broadside and just one missile could transform a tank into a hunk of glowing metal.

The Germans received their first taste of what fighter bombers could deliver at dawn on D-Day plus one. The Panzer Lehr division was caught as it moved forward in five columns from Alençon, eighty-five miles south of the beachhead. The attacks went on all morning. Before they had even sighted the invasion forces they had lost ninety supply lorries, forty fuel trucks, eighty-four half-track fighting vehicles and several 88mm guns.

Only five days after the landings, Rommel reported to Field Marshal Keitel that ‘the enemy has complete control of the air over the battle area up to a distance of about 100 kilometres behind the front [which] immobilizes almost all traffic by day on roads or in open country … in the country behind, all roads are exposed to continual air attack and it is therefore very difficult to bring up the necessary supplies of fuel and munitions …’ Generals were as vulnerable as everyone else. On 17 July, Rommel’s staff car was caught in the open by a Spitfire of 412 Squadron, a Canadian unit. Rommel was badly wounded and invalided back to Germany, never to return to the battlefield.

The defenders were under attack on sea as well as land. The attempt by U-boats to stem the flow of men and logistics across the Channel exposed them to the attentions of Coastal Command which, in four days following D-Day, attacked twenty-five submarines, sinking six of them.

The picture on the ground was rather different. The continuing inability of the British to take Caen prompted Leigh-Mallory, eight days after the invasion, to suggest a raid by light and heavy bombers to ‘unfreeze’ the situation. The tactical use of heavies had been tried before in February during the battle of Monte Cassino in southern Italy when American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on a hilltop monastery overlooking the Allies’ route to Rome. The attack achieved little. There were no troops on hand to follow up and German paratroopers moved into the rubble to establish strong defensive positions. The proposal was rejected by Tedder, apparently on the grounds that Leigh-Mallory was trespassing on Coningham’s area of responsibility. Bomber Command and the US Strategic Air Force were anyway opposed to the operation, fearing the front lines were too close and accuracy too questionable to prevent friendly casualties.

Three weeks later, with the capture of Caen no nearer, Montgomery grabbed at Leigh-Mallory’s plan. On 7 July, AEAF HQ at Stanmore in Middlesex discussed a request for Bomber Command to blast a path for a renewed assault by carpet-bombing the northern approaches to Caen. Tedder, who had been leading the criticism of Monty, disliked the development, believing it could encourage continual Army requests for heavy bomber support, diverting them from more pressing duties, but did not object.

In one hour on the late evening of 7 July, 457 Bomber Command aircraft dropped 2,363 tons of bombs on northern Caen. The effect was spectacular but the results relatively insignificant. Two days of bitter fighting followed, resulting in the capture of half the city but the bombardment seems to have brought few advantages. apart from boosting morale. There was no proper co-ordination between air and ground and though the defenders were shaken up, few were killed. Showing the same fanatical determination that would mark every stage of the German retreat, they fell back to positions on the south of the city to block any further advance and the strategic position remained the same.

Despite the disappointing results, Montgomery gave a wildly optimistic account of the episode and British and American heavy bombers launched six further massive air raids before German resistance in Normandy cracked. The risk to civilians was obvious. About 3,000 French men, women and children were killed in Caen alone between 6 June and 19 July. The French historian Henri Amouroux put the civilian death toll for the campaign at more than 50,000.20 The bombs had the same effect on French towns as they did on German ones. About 75 per cent of the fabric of Caen, ancient churches, university and all were demolished by the attacks. Nor were the liberating troops spared from the inevitable inaccuracies. The preparatory bombardment for Operation Cobra, the American attack on Saint-Lô at the end of July, killed about a hundred GIs and wounded another 500.

The effort was an attempt to break out of the cramped hedge and lane ‘bocage’ of the Cherbourg Pensinsula and into the easier country to the south where the US divisions could sweep west to secure the ports of Brittany and east towards Paris. The massive air assault of 25 July involving 1,500 heavy bombers dropping 3,400 tons of bombs, opened the first big cracks in the German defences.

Fire-breathing Rockbeaus I

Air Commodore E W “Bill” Tacon

Tacon’s most outstanding wartime successes took place in 1944, after he converted to Beaufighters, joined 236 Squadron, and rapidly began to demonstrate dead-eyed accuracy with his front guns and rockets. On June 23 he attacked four R-boats entering Boulogne harbour; although his aircraft was badly hit and his navigator killed, R 79 was sunk, earning Tacon a Bar to the DFC he had won in 1940.

Tacon, who was based at Davidstow Moor, was soon involved in helping the Navy destroy the remaining Kriegsmarine vessels off western France. In the first of these attacks, at Les Sables d’Olonne, nine Beaufighters sank a German Jupiter escort ship with armour-piercing rockets weighing just 25lbs, using a procedure devised by Tacon and the armaments officer at North Coates.

They had calculated that, in a 25-degree dive from 1,500 feet at 230 knots, the pilot should always score hits if he closed to a distance of about 800 yards. While not popular with all aircrews – for it involved flying steadily at the target whilst ignoring the return fire – the method worked. The Jupiter vanished under a hail of cannon fire, with no loss to the attackers.

The second attack was equally successful. On August 8, 15 Beaufighters of 404 Squadron and nine of 236 Squadron, led by Tacon, set off on another armed sweep, working with the naval squadron Force 26. In the shallow Bay of Bourgneuf, they found four M-class minesweepers. Flak rose to meet them and one Beaufighter exploded but, as the remaining Beaufighters left, all four vessels were ablaze.

By now the strike wings’ attacks, combined with those of Bomber Command and the Navy, had all but destroyed the remains of Marinegruppekommando West. The surviving U-boats had departed for Norway and the Germans were scuttling many of their damaged surface vessels. Two important warships remained afloat, however: the destroyer Z 24 and the torpedo boat T 24, which had survived the thwarted attack on the western flank of the Allied invasion forces.

Still well-armed, the two ships were thought to be at Le Verdon on the southern tip of the mouth of the Gironde estuary. On August 15, the naval Force 27 had damaged T 24 near La Pallice, but the German warships were in the shelter of coastal batteries, so an air attack was needed.

This was the last big strike required of the Davidstow Moor wing. Tacon was to lead 10 Beaufighters from 236 and 10 from 404, all armed with cannon and 25lb rockets. Taking off at 4.15pm, they were scheduled to attack near the limit of their range, with the prospect of returning in darkness.

Two Beaufighters of 404 Squadron turned back en route with mechanical trouble, but the remaining 18 aircraft made their landfall and turned north to the Gironde estuary. Spotting the two warships in the harbour of Le Verdon, Tacon called: “Keep down low, everyone. We’ll head to the estuary first and fly along it for our climb. Then straight out to sea after the attack.”

Tacon hoped to take the enemy by surprise, but the two vessels had steam up by the time the Beaufighters dived, and the flak was the most intense the crews had ever experienced. Nevertheless, every Beaufighter followed Tacon’s leadership in one of the most dangerous attacks made by a strike wing. Several 25lb warheads penetrated T 24 below the waterline, causing an uncontrollable rush of sea-water into the hull and the warship to sink almost immediately.

Z 24 received numerous hits above and below the waterline. Her starboard engine was disabled but she remained afloat, and there was time to tow her the short distance to a quay at Le Verdon, where she was made fast alongside the harbour railway station. Frantic efforts to patch the underwater holes were to no avail; five minutes before midnight she capsized and sank.

Although none of the Beaufighters was shot down, 15 were damaged. They were a long way from home, with darkness ahead. Tacon’s “Call in, anyone in trouble” elicited several responses. After instructing one of the crippled aircraft to ditch near the naval force (the crew was picked up after 10 hours) Tacon led five Beaufighters to Vannes aerodrome, planning to leave three of the damaged aircraft, before returning to England in the remaining two.

One of the aircraft crash-landed, however, and there was no alternative but to leave the two crew there and hope that medical help would arrive before long. With Davidstow Moor closed due to fog, the 12 remaining Beaufighters were redirected to alternative landing strips in the South-West. Their fuel was almost exhausted, and one landed just as its engines cut out. Tacon eventually landed at Portreath, six hours after take-off. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

The destruction of the two German warships caused much excitement in the Admiralty. Some naval officers were incredulous; others were alarmed that such powerful destroyers could be defeated by the tiny 25lb warheads. Tacon took command of 236 Squadron the day after attack on the Gironde, and the detachment returned to North Coates. He continued to fly with the same determination until September 12 1944, when he led 40 Beaufighters from North Coates and Langham against a convoy assembling in Den Helder harbour.

Diving down against a hail of fire from the ships and the harbour, his Beaufighter was badly hit in the wing and fuel tank. Tacon fired his rockets for the last time, before his aircraft was hit in the fuselage. Ammunition in the cannon boxes caught fire and exploded. His navigator cried out and Tacon turned round to see him lying dead on the floor. He began to climb, tugging on the lanyard of his bottom escape hatch, but this remained closed.

As flames licked around him, burning his face and helmet, he almost gave up hope. When his Beaufighter was hit for the third time, Tacon could see the gun post firing at him and decided to take the gunners with him. He rolled the Beaufighter on its back and dived straight at the post. His last recollection was of the airspeed indicator showing 360 knots. Then there was a violent explosion and he floated through the air, pulling his ripcord just in time.

He landed on the island of Texel, so badly burned around the eyes that he could hardly see. He was soon taken prisoner by German soldiers, who bundled him roughly aboard a boat which took him to Den Helder. On arrival, he was surrounded by a group of sailors and kicked violently before being marched him off to the local jail.

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In June 1943 a new weapon of unparalleled virulence for its size was introduced into the anti-shipping war. This was the rocket projectile. Previously, the firing of heavy calibre guns from aircraft had been limited by the capacity of the structure of the aircraft to withstand the recoil; but this problem disappeared with the rocket projectile, because the recoil was taken up by the high velocity gases ejected by the rocket itself. These gases blew beneath the wing surfaces, where they did not affect the aircraft so long as no part of its structure lay in their path. During the firing of its 20-millimetre cannon the Beaufighter shuddered violently; but it flew steadily on its course during the firing of the R. P., which was released at a low velocity but gained speed after release through the recoil action of its gases.

The Beaufighters’ 20-millimetre cannon, when pressed well home by three aircraft against an escort vessel, was devastating in its effect on gun crews, amongst whom it caused terrible casualties. But a well-aimed R. P. salvo could do more than kill the escort’s gun crew and quell the flak; it could completely destroy the escort vessel. The tactical sequence therefore became the cannon attack on the escort, the R. P. attack, and finally the torpedo attack on the main target.

Various improvements had been made to the torpedo over the years, so that it could be dropped at a slightly increased speed and from a greater height; but its destructive power was little altered, and fundamentally it was the same weapon that Beauman and Francis had dropped in the first Beaufort torpedo attack of the war in September 1940. The torpedo had stood almost still while the bomb had multiplied its weight and destructive power many times over; yet, because of its power to strike below water, it remained the most lethal anti-shipping weapon.

For smaller ships not warranting the use of a torpedo, however, rocket projectiles, preceded by cannon attack, began to be used alone. The writing was on the wall for the aerial torpedo.

Along both the Dutch and Norwegian coasts there were many stretches of shallow water, and since enemy shipping usually sailed close inshore, and stretches of open deep water were few, torpedo attacks had always been to some extent restricted. This was especially true of the Norwegian coast north of Stavanger, where coastal shipping made its tortuous way through the Leads. The rocket projectile, however, was not baulked by these conditions. It was not affected by depth of water, or by a rough sea, which sometimes spoiled the run of a torpedo; and being launched in a dive, from a greater height, it gave the aircraft more freedom of manouvre.

Before the end of 1944, many daring R. P. attacks had been carried out in the extremely confined spaces of the Norwegian fjords, where mountains on either side were precipitous and there was barely room for an aircraft to dive down at the target, pull out, and climb away. In the open sea, however, the torpedo still remained supreme, and the combined endeavours of all other aircraft of the strike wings were employed so that the Torbeaus could get a clear run and drop from close range at the main target. The elements of success then were exactly the same as they had been at Malta under Gibbs; good prior reconnaissance, careful briefing, inspired leadership, the saturation of defences, and a close range of drop.

The enemy’s respect for the strike wings grew, so that even the employment of a whole wing, plus a large fighter escort, was insufficient to quieten the flak defences of some of the convoys. Under these circumstances, losses could quickly have become prohibitive again. But if there was one thing better than a strike wing, it was two strike wings. On 15th June 1944, nine days after D-Day, two wings were employed together, as a single strike force, for the first time.

Some days earlier, a report had filtered through from the Dutch underground that a large convoy was preparing to leave Rotterdam for the Baltic, consisting of two new vessels which had just been completed and would be on their maiden voyage, the 8000-ton merchant vessel Amerskerke and a 4000-ton naval auxiliary, escorted by no less than eighteen smaller vessels. The disruption and chaos wrought amongst German rail and road communications prior to D-Day had forced the Germans to rely more than ever on their sea routes, so that the destruction of these two new vessels, almost as soon as they were launched, would represent an important contribution to the breaking down of the enemy’s power to resist and to the shortening of the war.

The advance information given by the Dutch resistance gave us the chance to plan a large-scale operation, the biggest of its kind so far. A new wing had been formed at Langham in Norfolk to deal with enemy shipping that might attempt to interfere with our invasion convoys, and it was decided to send two squadrons of this wing together with two of the North Coates wing, the whole to be escorted by ten Mustangs of Fighter Command.

Of the four squadrons, three were to dive on the convoy and smother the defences with cannon and rockets, and the fourth was to come in at low level and aim torpedoes at the two new ships.

The two squadrons of the Langham wing, 455 (Australian) and 489 [New Zealand), had done most of their earlier operations off the Norwegian coast, too far from base to allow escort by single-seater fighters. They operated in the same way as Gibbs and his formations had operated at Malta-the whole formation flew out low on the deck, and when the target was sighted, the anti-flak aircraft went on ahead, climbed to 2000 feet, and then dived down on the convoy. The North Coates wing, however, operating mostly off the Dutch coast, could generally rely on the luxury of a strong single-seater fighter escort, and they were not so worried about fighter interception. They therefore approached their targets at the height required for the actual attack-the anti-flak and R. P. aircraft at 2000 feet, the torpedo aircraft on the deck. The fusion of the two wings thus threatened a collision over tactics. Fortunately, thanks to the warning given by the Dutch, there was plenty of time to thrash out the squadrons’ differences and arrive at a conclusion. The two North Coates squadrons, 236 (anti-flak and R. P.) and 254 (Torbeaus), flew down to Langham on 14th June, and the arguments began.

Fire-breathing Rockbeaus II

The strike was to be led by Tony Gadd, formerly a flight commander with Gibbs on 22 Squadron, now wing commander flying of the North Coates wing. The leadership was given to North Coates because of their greater experience of operating off the Dutch coast.

Gadd was a tall, slim, rather typical R. A. F. figure, of fair complexion, equable temperament and supreme self-confidence. Uniform sat easily on him. He had been an instructor at Gosport, and had dropped over a thousand torpedoes in practice, besides completing his tour on 22 Squadron. He was not over imaginative, but was quick to grasp essentials and discard irrelevencies. Life for him was never complicated. He had the unshakable practicality of the man who is adept at making things with his hands. Gadd was quite unmoved by the pressure put on him by the men of the Langham wing to revert to their tactical approach. There was no stubbornness about it; he was absolutely sure of his ground and did not for one moment consider giving an inch. Eventually the men of the Langham wing, aware that, since Gadd was to lead, the success of the strike must be resigned to his leadership, acquiesced.

When the reconnaissance report came through on the night of 14th-15th June, Gadd disposed his forces. Leading the convoy were six R-boats, 1 proceeding two by two. Behind them were four minesweepers. Then came the naval auxiliary, followed by the merchant vessel. Four more minesweepers were spread round the port side of the big ships (the seaward side) and two more were stationed to starboard. Bringing up the rear of the convoy were another minesweeper and an R-boat. The whole convoy was proceeding almost due east a few miles off the Frisian Islands opposite Emden, at a speed of ten knots. The draught of the main ships, however, had forced the convoy to take to deep open water. The torpedo could therefore be applied as the primary weapon.

Gadd decided to send cannon-firing aircraft against all the escort vessels, one squadron on his left to attack the leading vessels and a squadron on his right to take the close screen to seaward and in rear of the main targets. He himself, in the centre of the formation at 2000 feet, would carry eight rockets, with three other aircraft similarly armed. The rocket attack would be made on the big vessels in the centre of the convoy, sixteen rockets being fired at each.

The whole anti-flak formation would sweep into the breadth of the convoy in line abreast on the port side, synchronizing their attacks. At the moment of the dive down from 2000 feet, when cannon and rockets were tearing into the port beam along the whole length of the convoy, the torpedo aircraft would reach dropping position. Six of the torpedo aircraft were to attack the Amerskerke and four the naval auxiliary.

The anti-flak aircraft were not briefed to attack any particular ship, since the exact disposition of the convoy might change. But the two target vessels would be certain to be in the centre of the convoy, so that the squadrons on either side of the four R. P. aircraft would fall naturally on to the front and rear vessels respectively. Experience taught a pilot to choose his target on the run in. Diving down from 2000 feet to 300, at over 300 miles an hour, there was no time to change one’s aim.

Gadd made the briefing as straight-forward as possible. He warned the crews that nearly every ship was flying a balloon, but he did not stress the many dangers inherent in an attack on so large a convoy. They were known and feared well enough.

Many of these dangers would be heightened by the employment of so large a striking force. There would be over fifty aircraft converging on the convoy at high speed, and the smallest error in timing or flying discipline could be disastrous. They ought to be able to silence the flak, yes; but the last few moments of that 300-mile-an-hour dive, and the pull out afterwards, were another matter. With so many aircraft concentrated in time and space, collision was an ever-present threat. Many crews had been lost in this way. The Beaufighter was extremely stable at high speed, but the controls were leaden, and pulling out from that powered dive could so easily be too late. There were the masts of the ship to miss, and then the balloon cables. And the rest of the formation was coming in right behind you, aiming their fire as best they could, but not too discriminately. It was easy enough to get hit by the chap behind. Gadd himself had had a rocket clean through his port wing on his last operation, and right through the outer petrol tank at that, severing the aileron control and spreading petrol all over the wing. Miraculously it had not caught fire or broken up.

All these were occupational hazards, quite apart from the flak and the fighters. Every man’s mind would dwell for a moment on each of them. There was no need to remind them.

The crews drove from the operations room out to their aircraft in darkness. An airfield was a chill, cheerless place at night, even in midsummer. This was the time when one took two or three deep breaths, to steady the nerves.

The crews climbed into their aircraft, allowing themselves the momentary luxury of wondering about their personal fate. Then the engines roared into life, their bridges were burned, and their nerves were gone.

The Beaufighters took off and formed up at first light, picked up their fighter escort a few minutes later over Coltishall, and set course at 05.00. They expected to intercept the convoy within forty-five minutes. The German ships, however, had made better progress than had been anticipated. The strike force made their landfall on the Dutch islands some way short of the progress of the convoy.

This was the first setback. The only feasible direction of attack was abeam of the convoy, to smother all the escort ships simultaneously. But they would now come up on the convoy from astern. They would have to execute a complicated manouvre to get into position. No one had ever flown on a shipping strike before in such a large formation, and there was no telling what would happen.

There was another factor, too. So large a force patrolling off the Dutch islands would not go unobserved. They had proof of this a moment later when the shore batteries began to fire at them.

And the weather conditions had deteriorated. There was a lot of sea fog about, and at 2000 feet there was six-tenths’ cloud, so that the anti-flak squadrons had only an intermittent view of the sea below them and a restricted view ahead. Gadd could not see the Torbeaus at all.

But difficulties of communication, which had been the downfall of 86 Squadron in the attack on the Prinz Eugen two years earlier, and which had often hampered 39 Squadron in the Mediterranean in 1942, had been solved by the fitting of V. H. F. wireless equipment in all strike aircraft. Gadd was able to talk to the whole formation, telling them what he planned to do.

At 05.50, off Schiermonnikoog, near Borkum, they had their first glimpse of the escort vessels astern of the convoy, only four miles ahead. Then they sighted the two major vessels, standing out from the minesweepers and R-boats like a brace of swans with their cygnets.

Now, thought Gadd, for that complicated manouvre. But at least it was only in one dimension. How much more complicated it would have been if the anti-flak aircraft had not already been at the attacking height.

He called the formation. “I’m going to make an `S’ turn, to bring us up abeam of the convoy. “First I shall turn to port, out to sea, come up level with the convoy, and then turn back to starboard, delivering the attack at an angle of ninety degrees as planned. Aircraft on the left of the formation will have to open up as they’ve got further to travel. Aircraft on the right will throttle back and give the others a chance to get into position.

“Turning to port now.”

The whole formation swung away to port, kept on until it was almost abreast of the convoy, and then turned in towards land. The crews could never quite stifle the thought, in the still moment after the thrill of the sighting and before the clamour of the attack, that they might not come through.

The final turn in was made like an enfilade of guardsmen, the aircraft on the inside of the turn standing on their props, almost marking time, while the aircraft on the outside swept forward like a wave.

Included in the strike force were many aces of the strike wing period, with a leavening of the men of the Beauforts, now on their second tour. Colin Milson, the Australian who had distinguished himself at Malta with 39 Squadron, was in the anti-flak formation. Ewan Gillies, a contemporary of Milson’s on 39, one of the men to go to Malta with 86, was with the Torbeaus. Roy Cannell, a contemporary of Ray Loveitt’s on 42 Squadron, was with 489 on the left. Tony Gadd was leading. The anti-shipping torch had been jealously passed on. And of the newer men, Wing Commander Paddy Burns led the Torbeaus, cursing the manouvring of the aircraft above him over the intercom in his Irish brogue; and Squadron Leader Billy Tacon, a short, slight, wiry New Zealander, perhaps the greatest of all exponents of the rocket projectile, was No. 2 to Tony Gadd in the centre.

Most pilots, wisely enough, used their 20-millimetre cannon purely to silence the flak. But not Tacon. His faith in the rocket was reminiscent of Gibbs and the torpedo. He believed in it as a primary weapon, the primary weapon. And he used his cannon as a sighter for his rockets. What he did was to go into the dive, wait until he was at about 1000 yards’ range, hold his sight on the target, press the tit of his cannon without allowing for bullet drop, watch the cannon shells tearing up the water short of the target, lift the nose gently until the trail of cannon fire crept along the water into the ship, and then fire his rockets. This way, he reckoned he could not miss. It meant accepting all the fire that the ship could hurl at him meanwhile, but he thought it was worth it. His percentage of hits fully supported his view.

The whole formation was now in position abeam of the convoy, going through those moments of fear and frustration when they were within range of the convoy’s guns but still out of range with their own. For twenty seconds the flak rose at them, first an isolated burst, then a steady barrage, then a curtain of fire.

“Attack! Attack! Attack!”

Immediately on the signal, the thirty-two anti-flak Beaufighters, in line abreast, tore down from 2000 feet into the convoy, each pilot selecting his own target. Half way down in the dive, with the world beneath them tilted at a steep angle, the pilots began firing their cannon. And as each man fired, the whole aircraft juddered, the cockpit filled with acrid smoke which blew back from the barrels of the guns, and the pilot screwed up his eyes and squinted down through the flak at his target, still firing, immensely comforted by the thunderous racket of the ammunition feed behind him and the guns in front.

And then to pull out, just in time, swerving to miss the masts, swinging away to avoid the balloons, flying across the fire of the rest of the formation. None of them knew for certain, in the smell and the noise and the juddering, whether his aircraft had been hit.

On the left 489 attacked the leading R-boats and minesweepers with such devastating effect that the flak from the van of the convoy was silenced completely. 455 attacked the close screen of minesweepers and the R-boat astern. 236, in the centre, went for the major vessels. As the four R. P. aircraft fired their rockets, thirty-two bright arrows of flame raced on ahead of them, two by two, their quiet sibilance heard only by the men on the ships under attack. There were ten rocket hits on the naval auxiliary and eight on the merchant vessel. The flak, which had filled the sky as the Beaufighters began their dive, was silenced.

Paddy Burns, in the leading torpedo aircraft, had watched the Beaufighters manouvring above him like a flock of migrating birds, and had held his own formation in check so as to time the torpedo run exactly. Now the Torbeaus of 254 Squadron launched their torpedoes. One of the pilots lost position and was squeezed out on the final run in, but the other nine dropped unopposed from a perfect position. Two hits were scored on the Amerskerke and two on the naval auxiliary.

As the R. P. formation crossed to the far side of the convoy they silenced the flak on that side with their cannon, so that the Torbeaus flew straight through without having a shot fired at them. Five of the anti-flak Beaufighters had suffered superficial damage as they dived down through the barrage at the beginning of the attack. But in a complex strike employing an air fleet of forty-two Beaufighters against one of the biggest convoys ever attacked, not a single aircraft had been lost.

As they turned short of the islands, climbed to 1500 feet, and formed up for the return flight, the crews looked back through the mist and smoke and cloud at the stricken convoy. The 8000-ton Amerskerke and the 4000-ton naval auxiliary were both down by the stern, listing badly, and sinking. One of the minesweepers blew up as they came away, and five others were on fire.

Stretched out behind the ship-busters was an awful scene of carnage to contrast with the peaceful progress of twenty ships a few minutes earlier.

At long last the anti-shipping squadrons, Cinderellas of the air forces for so long, possessed the strength and equipment necessary to guarantee the concentration of firepower which every strike pilot knew was the first essential to success against well protected convoys in daylight. The most formidable defences were parried and then swept aside, stunned by a barrage of minor blows, leaving the way clear for the torpedo or rocket to deliver the knock-out punch.

The attack of 15th June was the pattern for many more combined strike wing attacks in the ensuing months. The offensive was maintained in the North Sea; and at the same time the rapid overrunning of western France by our armies increased the importance of operations in the Bay of Biscay.

Two new landmarks in the anti-shipping war were reached in August 1944. First, the Swedish Government announced that, due to the repeated hammering which their ships had taken, they would no longer insure them for trading with German or German-occupied ports. This was a body blow to Hitler’s hopes of fighting on. And secondly, a strike of profound significance took place on the 24th of the month, when a German destroyer and a motor torpedo-boat were sunk in the Gironde estuary by rocket attack alone. Bill Tacon, who fired the rockets that sank the destroyer, was thus confirmed in his view that the rocket was potentially a primary weapon, and that the Torbeaus could now be dispensed with, except perhaps against capital ships.

By September all enemy shipping had been driven from the Dutch coast by day, and few targets could be found even at night. And on the Norwegian coast, shipping now skulked by day in landlocked fjords and in small defended anchorages. But even here the strike wings sought them out, flying boldly, if not fearlessly, into precipitous retreats where there was hardly room to turn, knowing that German fighters were now concentrated in Norway, facing as many as forty fighters on occasion. They had the protection of the Mustangs, and they still wrought havoc amongst enemy shipping; but casualties were often severe.

The climax did not come until the last week of the war. Then, as the defeated German forces fled for Norway and the northern Danish ports in every kind of craft, all the strike wings were thrown in against them.

Amongst the Germans, the lucky ones were those left behind. Terrible damage was inflicted on every type of ship, nearly all of them crowded with troops, in the final débacle of the German armed forces.

The Javelin ‘In Action’

Being a product of the Cold War, the Javelin was very fortunate never to have been involved in a conflict during its operational service career. The majority of home-based squadrons serving with Fighter Command during their Javelin period would have been involved in a seemingly endless round of QRAs (Quick Reaction Alerts) and PIs (Practice Interceptions), not to mention a large number of exercises. The latter would have included Fighter Command and NATO-organised exercises plus a number of squadron exchanges.

In West Germany, the potential for scrambles and a resulting interception was much higher, although the four Javelin units, Nos 3, 11, 87 and 96 Squadrons, which covered a period from February 1958 until January 1966, had to compete with a number of other NATO air forces, including the USAF, who all had their own ‘Battle Flight’ arrangement.

The following is a summary of the Javelin’s more interesting deployments and encounters.

Berlin 1961–62

In the summer of 1961, the Soviets threatened to blockade Berlin again and, to bolster the four squadrons already in place, two more were sent from the UK. These were No. 41 Squadron, who sent a dozen aircraft to RAF Geilenkirchen in August, and No. 85 Squadron, who moved to RAF Laarbrüch in September 1961. No. 29 Squadron also took a turn to deploy to West Germany, the unit arriving before Christmas at Geilenkirchen. The crisis continued into 1962 and the need to call upon RAF fighters to keep the Berlin air corridors clear still remained a possibility. No. 33 Squadron also took a turn with a four-month detachment with four Javelins at RAF Gütersloh, an airfield that was considerably closer to the Berlin corridors. The Luftwaffe also made Celle available for the No. 33 Squadron commitment, which took a hit when one of their four aircraft, F(AW).9 XH794, overshot the runway at Wildenrath on 9 March 1962 following a hydraulics failure.

A dozen Javelin F(AW).8s of No. 41 Squadron joined the West German party when they arrived at Gütersloh on 3 April 1962. This was bolstered by a further three aircraft the following day, which actually gave No. 41 Squadron the capability to put together a flying programme as well as maintaining a high state of readiness. By late 1962, the tension had subsided and the UK-based units began to return to normal again while those at the ‘sharp end’ in West Germany waited for the next crisis to take place.

The Far East 1961–68

Originally equipped with the Meteor NF.14, No. 60 Squadron, based at RAF Tengah, Singapore, began to receive the much-awaited Javelin F(AW).9 from July 1961. Actually delivering the aircraft to the Far East was a major logistical challenge which involved a two-stage deployment, flying from RAF Waterbeach through Istres, Luqa, El Adem, Diyabakir, Tehran, Bahrain, Sharjah, Masirah, Karachi, New Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, Rangoon, Bangkok, Butterworth and finally Tengah. This epic journey was not achieved without loss – of the second batch of aircraft to head east, one was damaged in a refuelling accident and F(AW).9 XH791 went down over the Ganges Delta on 5 August 1961 with the loss of the pilot.

By September 1961, No. 60 Squadron had a dozen Javelins on strength, which was a sufficient number to take part in a number of exercises and detachments before the unit’s first real operational task. This came on 23 May 1962, when the squadron was ordered to come to 15 minutes’ readiness because the Indonesian Air Force was equipped with the AS-1 air-to-surface missile-armed Tupolev Tu-16KS ‘Badger’. Based at Medan in Northern Sumatra, these were the first examples of the Tu-16 to be seen operating outside of the Soviet Union and they posed quite a threat. A pair of Javelins had been deployed to Butterworth and they scrambled for the first time on 29 May but the Tu-16s remained inside Indonesian airspace, well clear of the approaching No. 60 Squadron aircraft. More Tu-16s were delivered to the Indonesian Air Force in June and this time a pair of No. 60 Squadron Javelins managed to intercept five of them between them, taking photographs to confirm.

Tension in the region continued to mount when, in January 1963, a policy of ‘Confrontation’ was announced by the Indonesian government. In response, Operation Tramp was initiated and No. 60 Squadron was ordered to provide 24-hour QRA, which was made up of a pair of fully armed Javelins at permanent 30 minutes’ readiness. By September 1963, Operation Tramp was increased to six Javelins and, from 21 October, Tramp was increased further with two aircraft at 2 minutes’ readiness at Butterworth. The latter scenario was alleviated slightly thanks to the Sabres of No. 77 Squadron, RAAF, based at Butterworth, who covered the daylight hours while the No. 60 Squadron detachment covered the nights. By November 1963, a four-strong detachment from No. 64 Squadron, who were already in India, was diverted to support Operation Tramp; this was a sign of things to come because No. 64 Squadron was based at Binbrook at this time but would later be moved in its entirety to Tengah. No. 60 Squadron’s area of operations continued to grow as, by late 1963, they also included Borneo. The answer was to create a new ‘C’ Flight at Butterworth, which was duly equipped with four F(AW).9Rs, led by Sqn Ldr J. G. Ince, and operated by No. 23 Squadron crews under the banner of Operation Merino. The longer range F(AW).9R was greatly appreciated in the region and raised the number of operational Javelins at Butterworth to eight.

During the early hours of 25 February 1964, the Sarawak and Sabah boundaries were declared as an ADIZ thanks to an Indonesian declaration that they would supply guerrilla forces in Borneo from the air. As a result, the OC of No. 60 Squadron led a pair of Javelins and a detachment of No. 20 Squadron Hawker Hunters 400 miles east of Tengah to Kuching and a further four Javelins were relocated to RAF Labuan, another 360 miles further away. The Javelins were kept at a high state of readiness and a number of low-level standing patrols were flown, not to mention escort duties for RAF and RNZAF transport aircraft on supply drops.

Now stretched across a 1,000-mile-long front, No. 60 Squadron had two Javelins at Labuan, another pair at Kuching, two more at Butterworth and four at Tengah, all on QRA. Wg Cdr Fraser was very concerned about how over-stretched the squadron was at this time stating that ‘…..the Javelin is not the aircraft for operating away from base without considerable technical backing’. However, the ground crew worked long hours and serviceability rates remained high thanks to their efforts.

The Indonesians became increasingly active in Borneo during April 1964 and one Javelin crew was lucky to remain unscathed when sixty 12.5 mm rounds were fired at their aircraft while they were escorting a supply drop; luckily none of them hit the fighter. A second Javelin F(AW).9, XH876, was also fired upon in the region a few weeks later and, after landing at Kuching, a single hole in an engine intake showed how close they had come to being seriously damaged. In another incident, on 16 May a pair of Javelins from Kuching played a significant role in the capture of a launch which was refusing to comply with orders from a patrol vessel to stop. However, after a couple of full reheat low passes over the launch, the captain of the launch quickly surrendered before it was boarded by crew from HMS Wilkieston.

Javelin F(AW).9R XH896 was hit by ground fire on 16 October during a low-level patrol over Borneo but, once again, the crew were fortunate not be injured and the damage to the aircraft was minimal. During November, the tension continued to rise and standing patrols were carried out at night over Kuala Lumpur while the Indonesians continued to enter into the Sarawak and Sabah regions. One particular incident involved the 1st Battalion, 2nd King Edward VII’s Own Gurkhas, on 10 December, who were ambushed by approximately 100 guerrillas. The Gurkhas called for air support and fortunately Flt Lt R. E. Lockhart and Flt Lt S. H. Davies were already on a routine patrol out of Labuan in F(AW).9R XH908. There was no chance of using the Javelin’s guns to deter the guerrillas; however, the aircraft’s reheat was once again used to full effect and was lit as Lockhart flew over the Indonesians at very low level. The noise was so intense that the guerrillas thought they were being bombed and withdrew.

On 29 March 1965, Flt Lt J. S. C. Davies and Lt R. Patterson, RN in F(AW).9R XH959 flew the 1,000th operational sortie over Borneo. Incursions into Sarawak continued during April and, during one such incident, a No. 60 Squadron crew was called upon to provide air support for ground troops south of Tebedu. Unable to directly assist, the crew managed to call up a gaggle of ground attack Hunters and the problem was quickly resolved. A similar incident took place a couple of weeks later when the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, was attacked by a larger force near Pang Amo, not far from Kuching. A pair of Javelins in the air at the time made sure that a Hastings and Valetta made it safely into the region to drop supplies to the paratroopers.

No. 64 Squadron was officially reformed at Tengah on 1 April 1965, having operated as a pair of flights between Binbrook and the Singaporean airfield. Just like No. 60 Squadron, No. 64 Squadron was quickly employed to provide air defence, with one detachment covering Singapore and the Malay Peninsula and a second covering Borneo, which helped to take some pressure off No. 60 Squadron’s extensive commitments. Within a few weeks, it was No. 64 Squadron’s turn to perform Operation Tramp for real when a pair of scrambles was made, both of them intercepting Indonesian Tu-16s.

75 per cent of No. 64 Squadron’s sorties were taken up while operating over Borneo and, in September alone, the Javelins flew 179 sorties. Advance warning of potential interceptions was always a frustration for the crews, who were given very little time to pick up aircraft crossing the Malaysian border with Kalimantan. One incident that still causes a stir to this day took place in September 1964 when a No. 64 Squadron Javelin met an Indonesian Lockheed C-130 Hercules at low level, head-on. The incident took place in a ‘valley close to the border’ and before the Javelin had a chance to engage, the Hercules made an evasive manoeuvre and slipped back across the border.

On Christmas Eve 1965, all of No. 64 Squadron’s aircraft and groundcrew had been withdrawn from Borneo and Butterworth and were finally centralised at Tengah. This scenario was to be short-lived because problems flared up in Borneo yet again and by February 1966, No. 64 Squadron found itself back in the theatre along with No. 60 Squadron, who contributed another four Javelins, basing them at Kuching. Just a few days later, on 17 February, Flt Lt C. V. Holman and Sqn Ldr G. Moores in F(AW).9 XH777 were involved in another ‘reheat’ confrontation. Sqn Ldr Moores spotted some suspicious movement on the ground and so Holman began a series of low-level passes, once again using the aircraft’s reheat to pin the guerrillas down. Holman kept this up for nearly 30 minutes before a nearby patrol of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, attacked the guerrillas, resulting in one dead and five captured.

Despite the reduced tension, Tu-16 intercepts continued during the spring and early summer of 1966 before the ‘confrontation’ officially ended on 11 August. The very last operational Javelin sortie took place five days later and it was not long before both Nos 60 and 64 Squadrons were cut down to size. The former had been the RAF’s largest Javelin squadron with thirty aircraft on strength at its peak. However, before August 1966 was over, the two squadrons had been reduced to just twelve aircraft with sixteen aircrew apiece.

Both squadrons, while still continuing Operation Tramp to a lesser degree, slumped into a period of routine, practice flying and exercises until 15 June 1967, when No. 64 Squadron was disbanded. No. 60 Squadron, who had a local reputation for large formation flying which began when celebrating their own 50th Anniversary on 30 April 1966, followed suit on 2 May 1968 with a final ‘Diamond Nine’. The Javelin had worked hard in the Far East and it was most fitting that it was in this theatre that the aircraft was operationally ‘bowed out’.

Cyprus 1963

Britain found itself between a rock and hard place when, in December 1963, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots began fighting. Trouble had been brewing since Cyprus had gained her independence in August 1960. No. 29 Squadron, which was based at RAF Nicosia at the time, was on the front line thanks to regular low-level passes by Turkish fighters and increasing threats on the ground from armed gangs. The squadron was relocated to the more secure RAF Akrotiri during a very short notice move, which was carried out swiftly at night, and from there began a number of operational sorties. These mainly involved flying standing patrols with the objective of stopping Turkish fighters from flying low-level incursions. No. 29 Squadron briefly returned to Nicosia, only to settle back at Akrotiri from mid-January 1964 onwards. Here, one aircraft was maintained at 2 minutes’ readiness during the day and another aircraft at 10 minutes’ readiness at night while a second aircraft was also kept in reserve at 30 minutes’ readiness. The majority, if not all, of the Turkish aircraft were Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks and, without exception, they would drop their tanks and turn north to vacate the area once a Javelin had intercepted them. Under strict orders not to engage the Turkish Air Force aircraft once they were turning away, the No. 29 Squadron Javelins would stay with the intercept for 20 or sometimes 30 miles before being recalled back to their patrol zone or back to base. The final interception took place in April 1964; it was to be the last of sixty-two operational sorties.

Zambia/Rhodesian Crisis Dec. 1965 – Aug. 1966

Tension in southern Africa peaked when the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) took place on 11 November 1965. The United Kingdom’s response was more political than military and began with economic sanctions, followed by the movement of military units into Zambia to make the Rhodesians think twice about attacking the Kariba Dam. No. 29 Squadron, based at RAF Akrotiri, was the nearest Javelin unit by some margin but it would still take a multi-stop, long-range operation to get the fighters to the region. Things happened fast, though, and on 19 November all flying was stopped so that long-range tanks could be fitted and, just five days later, the aircraft were already carrying out proving flights between Akrotiri and RAF Luqa. Ten Javelins were prepared for the trip while ground personnel were placed at 12-hour readiness. Led by the CO, Wg Cdr K. Burge, the ten Javelins departed Akrotiri on 28 November, travelling via Diyabakir, Dezful/Vahdati and ending the day at RAF Masirah. Onwards to RAF Khormaksar on 29 November and further south to Kenya where, at midday on 1 December, the ten Javelins arrived at Nairobi. The No. 29 Squadron detachment remained at Nairobi for three days and then nine aircraft departed for Ndola in Zambia, where they were joined by the rest of squadron, who had arrived in three No. 70 Squadron Handley Page Hastings.

Operationally, Ndola was adequate for a Javelin squadron’s needs, thanks to the Zambian Air Force facilities; however, the domestic arrangements were slightly below par. The RAF would make do, but one serious commodity that was in short supply was fuel and, thanks to the United Kingdom’s sanctions, Rhodesia had turned off the oil pipe into Zambia. This obviously had a direct impact on No. 29 Squadron operations and a major airlift of fuel from Aden into Zambia, via RAF Bristol Britannias, was begun. At first, there was only enough fuel for three sorties per day; as the detachment continued this situation did improve, but No. 29 Squadron operations would be continually restricted during their time in Zambia.

In order to place No. 29 Squadron much closer to Rhodesia, four aircraft were deployed to Lusaka, a mere 55 miles from the border. Compared to Ndola, Lusaka was pretty primitive; Squadron Operations was a tent while accommodation, located at the local showground, could only be described as substandard. Lusaka was located at 4,000 ft ASL and, with only a 6,600-foot-long runway, the Javelin was on the cusp of being able to actually fly out of the airfield. As a result, flying was restricted to scrambles only and a pair of aircraft were kept fully armed, one at 10 minutes’, and the other at 30 minutes’ readiness.

With only a couple of scrambles per month on average, against targets that never ventured near the Rhodesian border, let alone over it, morale began to decline due to the poor accommodation at Lusaka and the lack of flying. By the summer of 1966, sufficient fuel had been flown in to support up to 120 Javelin sorties per month and a combination of more rotations between Lusaka and Ndola and the increased opportunity to return to Akrotiri when an aircraft needed servicing, morale began to rise again. The Javelin had performed well in very difficult conditions and, during the nine-month-long detachment only two incidents, both as a result of undercarriage fractures, had occurred, although both aircraft were damaged beyond repair (DBR).

Fg Off. M. B. Langham and Fg Off. R. J. P. MacRae carried out the last operational scramble in Zambia on 11 August 1966 in F(AW).9R XH891. By the end of the month, No. 29 Squadron was back home at Akrotiri.

Xian H-20 bomber

The latest edition of Modern Weaponry—a magazine published by Chinese state-owned defense giant Norinco—contains four computer-generated images of the upcoming Xian H-20 bomber. The pictures confirm the bomber’s internal weapons bay, flying wing design, and dark grey radar-absorbent coating, according to the South China Morning Post. These are the first renderings of the H-20 bomber to be published by a semi-official source. Although the images don’t tell anyone anything that they didn’t already suspect based on prior leaks and a brief promotional clip, they do confirm some of the core concepts informing the H-20 bomber’s design.

As with its U.S. B-21 Raider and Russian PAK-DA counterparts, China’s next-generation bomber will prioritize stealth performance and deep penetration capabilities over raw speed and maneuverability. The latest details reaffirm that the H-20 bomber is not being developed as a technical successor to China’s workhorse Xian H-6, itself a license-built variant of the Soviet Tu-16 heavy bomber. Rather, the H-20 bomber is set to drastically expand China’s threat projection capabilities against its U.S. adversary. The new bomber “will be able to strike targets a long distance away, perhaps in the second island chain and beyond,” military expert Jon Grevatt explained to the South China Morning Post. “That means it would threaten U.S. assets and interests in the Asia-Pacific. If the aircraft becomes operational, it has the potential to be a game-changer,” he added.

The second island chain commonly refers to the space between Japan and Micronesia. In Chinese military doctrine, the waters and territories off China’s east coast are divided into three interlinked regions, or “chains”—Beijing’s island chain concept is adapted from U.S. Cold War-era strategic thinking. The H-20 can threaten U.S. assets operating in the second chain, notably including the American military bases in Guam, in ways that China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) previously could not. Even more alarmingly for Washington, the H-20 bomber would place Beijing within striking distance of the third island chain that starts roughly at the Aleutian Islands and extends beyond Hawaii. 

The H-20 bomber’s specifications remain under wraps, though current industry insider speculation points to a payload of around twenty to forty-five tons and an operational range of 8,500 to 12,500 kilometers. The bomber is all but guaranteed to fly at subsonic speeds and is widely believed to carry as many as four next-generation hypersonic cruise missiles, but the full extent of its arsenal remains unclear. Earlier estimates speculated that the H-20 bomber may be powered by the Russian NK-321 engine, but more recent reporting points to an upgraded variant of China’s domestically produced WS-10 engine as a likelier possibility. 

In keeping with the PLAAF’s focus on investing in next-generation toolkits, the H-20 bomber will likely boast extensive electronic countermeasures features and information processing capabilities similar to the F-35 fighter jet’s sensor fusion. 

The H-20 bomber is expected to enter mass production into the mid-2020s, with the PLAAF reportedly to begin accepting the first serial units by the turn of the decade.

For the PLAAF, the H-20 is a luxury. An expensive, prestigious weapon that, while nice to have, probably won’t make much of a difference in the kind of war China is likeliest to fight, said Tom Cooper, an author and independent aviation expert.

“Reunifiying” Taiwan, by force if necessary, is the central aim of China’s foreign policy. And China already has all the weaponry it needs to achieve that goal, in Cooper’s estimation.

“The H-20 would become relevant only once it enters service, in about 10 years from now,” Cooper said. But Taiwan’s air-defenses “are nothing the PLA couldn’t overcome already, now.”