DOGFIGHT – P-51 v Me262

I went down in a screaming dive, pushing everything forward – throttle, emergency throttle, propeller control and all. The Me262 had a good start, but I had the advantage of several thousand feet more altitude, and was gaining speed by diving. The wind shrieked against my windshield as the Packard Merlin engine bellowed, while the airspeed indicator needle moved steadily around its dial and on up past the four hundred miles an hour mark. The Mustang controls became heavier as we shot down like a dart. As I drew close to the first 262, I pulled back on the control column to bring my guns to bear on the wing section, knowing that if I hit an engine I could partially disable or even destroy the 262 with one pass. Even with a slight pull on the stick I could feel the g effects and my vision blur ever so slightly. I ended up being was a little way behind the 262 when I got down to his level, but I was gaining on him fast, because of the extra speed I had from my dive. I was holding my thumb over the firing button now and keeping my eyes glued to the unmistakable 262 silhouette ahead, except for an occasional glance at the rear vision mirror to see that I wasn’t being chased too. I could feel my heart pounding away in my chest as I got within firing range. The 262 grew steadily larger in the circle of my gun sight as I drew closer. I could tell its distance by the amount of space it covered in my sight. After strafing a B-17 and badly damaging it, the Me262 must have spotted me and began to turn. However, the Mustang could out turn a 262, I just had to ensure that I did not bleed off too much speed and could bring my guns to bear down in the next few seconds. My sights centered on it turning, as I banked slightly to my right and brought the guns to the correct firing position for a deflection hit. I squeezed the firing button with my thumb. B-r-r-rup-pup-u-pup! The sound came to me muffled by my heavy helmet; but it was a venomous sound, and I could feel the Mustang shudder and slow down slightly from the recoil as the six 0.50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns growled and spat out at least one hundred rounds in the one second burst of fire.

I felt the Mustang judder slightly as I hit the wake of the 262, most of which was caused by its jet engines on full power, I could hear them screaming away, as I pulled the stick, and brought the Mustang back on target for a final pass before the 262 could escape due to its greater speed. As it was already starting to pull away. I lined up and hit the fire button for another 1 second burst and scored a fatal hit, smoke began to belch out from the 262s port engine along with a quite obvious wing fire. I did not stick around, not wanting to be hit by debris, should the 262 explode and broke right to put some distance between myself and the 262.

With some distance I could now see the 262 had gone into a shallow dive and was in a slight spiral with flames emanating from the port wing. I have no idea to this day if the pilot managed to escape or not. I just saw the explosion, as the 262 hit the ground and I had chalked up my fourth confirmed kill.

Due to its speed the Me262 was a worthy adversary and if you got bounced, could do some serious damage with its four 30 mm MK 108 cannons.

I must have hit a rookie, as on other occasions I have not been able to catch a 262, but get them in a slow turn and the Mustang had the advantage. The Rookie 262 pilot had slowed down too much to hit a B-17 then had to wait for his engines to spool up and pick up speed. A real ‘schoolboy’ error that I had been able to take advantage of. My only other 262 kill had been on the ground just as it took off and was picking up speed. This, coupled with the low thrust at slow speeds and high chance of a flameout if the throttle was worked too aggressively, resulted in Me262 pilots being very vulnerable at takeoff and also being told to avoid low speed dogfights with the Allied piston-engine fighters.

The high speed of the 262 also presented its own problems for pilots when engaging allied aircraft, the high-speed convergence, allowing 262 pilots little time to line up their targets or acquire the appropriate amount of deflection. This same problem faced any aircraft that approaches another from behind at much higher speed, as the slower aircraft in front can always pull a tighter turn, forcing the faster aircraft to overshoot. The 262 faced this problem frequently as its cruising speed alone was up to 120 mph faster than that of any piston-engine fighter of the period. Luftwaffe pilots eventually learned how to handle the 262’s higher speed, and the 262 soon proved a formidable air superiority fighter, with pilots such as Franz Schall managing to shoot down 12 enemy fighters in the Me262, 10 of them American P-51 Mustangs. We were lucky that the number that entered service was not enough to turn the tide on the war and the lack of experienced pilots and reliability hindered the 262 further.

262 Pilots soon learned though that the 262 was quite maneuverable at higher speeds, despite its high wing loading and lack of low-speed thrust, especially if attention was drawn to its effective maneuvering speeds. The controls were light and effective right up to the maximum permissible speed and perfectly harmonized. The inclusion of full span automatic leading-edge slats, used on other Messerschmitt fighters dating back to the original Bf 109’s on outer wing slots of a similar type. These slats helped increase the overall lift produced by the wing by as much as 35% in tight turns or at low speeds, greatly improving the aircraft’s turn performance as well as its landing and takeoff characteristics. 262 pilots also found that due to the 262s clean design like all jets, it held its speed in tight turns much better than conventional propeller-driven fighters, which was a great potential advantage in a dogfight as it meant better energy retention in maneuvers.

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P-38 LIGHTNING Redux

“The P-38 was very unusual. Imagine what I felt when first climbing on board that airplane. Sitting on that tricycle landing gear, it was very high off the ground. There was a stepladder that dropped out of the tail end of the fuselage pod, and you took two steps up this ladder and the third step was onto the wing next to the canopy. … It was a good sized airplane. In comparison the P-39 was a midget, almost like a toy.

It was very fast and had good firepower. That gave a lot of people false confidence when they first went to P-38s. Their limitations on tactics were the same as those we were accustomed to in the P-40s, but even more so. You did not go looking for a close-in dogfight with an Oscar or Zero. Japanese planes were quicker … at slow speed. But new pilots did not always realize the consequences. If the speed bled off a P-38, which happened very easily, it could be in serious trouble against a Japanese fighter. Many of our men found out the hard way, particularly when we first started receiving the P-38s.”

Robert DeHaven, a P-38, 14-kill ace with the 49th Fighter Group

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was a formidable and unique fighter. With its distinctive twin booms each containing an engine and a single, central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament. Originally, due to be called the Atlanta, it was a failed RAF order for 143 aircraft that led to the Lightning name. As well as interception, the P-38 was used in night fighting, photo reconnaissance, radar and visual pathfinding for bombers and with drops tanks fitted as a long-range escort fighter.

The P-38 came about in response to a United States Army Air Corps specification in February 1937 known as Circular Proposal X-608. It was based on performance goals set by First Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey and First Lieutenant Gordon P. Saville. The specification was for a twin-engine, high-altitude “interceptor” having “the tactical mission of interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude.

  1. A speed of at least 360 mph at 20,000 feet. (The desired maximum speed was 400 mph).
  2. Climb to 20,000 feet in six minutes or less.
  3. Fuel for one hour at operating speed.
  4. Armament was to be designed around a Rapid-fire cannon, as destruction of enemy bombers was considered the primary function.

At the time these were the toughest proposals the United States Army Air Corps had set. The proposal also required a liquid-cooled Allison V-1710 engines with turbo-superchargers and gave extra points for tricycle landing gear.

Lockheed set to work on meeting the specification led by the famous Kelly Johnson who would go on to later design the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. Kelly considered a range of design proposals including having two engines back to back with a push pull propeller arrangement. The final design was contemporary for fighter design at the time and in some respects ahead of its time.

The XP-38 gondola mockup with armament, concentrated in the nose of the aircraft and was designed to mount two .50-caliber M2 Browning machine guns, two .30-caliber Browning’s, and a T1 Army Ordnance 23 mm autocannon with a rotary magazine In the YP-38s, a larger John Browning-designed, Colt-made M9 1.46 in autocannon with 15 rounds replaced the T1. Although the M9 did not perform reliably in flight. Further armament experiments from March to June 1941 resulted in the P-38E combat configuration of four M2 Browning machine guns, and one Hispano .79 in autocannon with 150 rounds. Having all the armament was a move away from almost all other U.S aircraft at the time. A P-38 could reliably hit targets at any range up to 1,000yd.

The Lockheed design also incorporated tricycle undercarriage and a bubble canopy with two 1,000hp turbo-supercharged 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 engines fitted with counter-rotating propellers to eliminate the effect of engine torque which was put into practice by engines that had engine crankshafts operating in opposite directions. Another new design feature was the use of stainless steel and flush riveted aluminum skin which along with its twin engines helped it become the first fighter to pass the 400-mph mark. The YP-38 won the competition on 23 June 1937 and a prototype XP-38 although the money awarded for the prototype did not cover the prototypes eventual cost which was nearly five times the amount awarded to build the prototype.

Construction on the XP-38 began in July 1938 and the XP-38 made its first flight on 27 January 1939. However, on 11 February the prototype crashed just short of Mitchel Field runway in Hempstead, New York due to carburetor icing. The XP-38 had proved itself enough in is few short number of flights for the USAAC to order 13 prototypes now designated s YP – the Y being for prototype and the X for experimental. Initial production faced delays due to the mass production techniques required making them substantially different in construction from the XP-38. Lockheed’s works also needed to be expanded to accommodate production.

The first YP-38 was not completed until September 1940, with its maiden flight on 17 September. The final YP-38 being delivered to the USACC in June 1942. The YP-38 was actually lighter and the rotation of the propellers changed from inward to outward to improve stability as a gun platform. During test flights wat was initially believed to be tail flutter was found. The problem was that as the aircraft approached Mach 0.68, especially in a dive the YP-38s tail would start to shake violently and the nose pull downward making any dive even steeper. Once in the dive the aircraft would enter a high-speed compressibility stall. This was characterized by the controls locking up and the pilot being unable to pull out. In denser air there was a small chance the pilot would be able to pull out of the dive. In once such instance the pilot a Major Signa Gilkey managed to recover gradually using elevator trim. This issue was of a concern to Lockheed, but they also had the pressure of fulfilling the current order of aircraft. It was not until November 1941 that the engineering team had time to start tackling the problem. Several different solutions were tried including spring-loaded servo tabs on the elevator trailing edge that would give almost a power assistance to the controls once yoke forces rose to over 30 pounds. This however failed and an YP-38 and its pilot lost after a high G pull-out and the tail unit failing. The USAAC were positive it was caused by flutter and ordered the Lockheed design team to look at the tail. Flutter at the time, was a common issue with tails that were too flexible. However, the YP-38s tail was made from a rigid aluminum construction as opposed to the usual fabric construction common at the time. Lockheed skinned one tail with 63% thicker aluminum, but this did not solve the problem. Extra external masses were also tried but to no avail. Although these external masses were added to every new P-38 coming off the production line.

Finally, after tests, in a Mach 0.75 wind tunnel the compressibility problem was revealed to be the center of lift moving back toward the tail when in high-speed airflow. The problem was solved by changing the geometry of the wing’s underside when diving. This was achieved with quick acting dive flaps installed outboard of the engine nacelles. They extended downward 35° in 1.5 seconds. The flaps did not act as a speed brake; they affected the center of pressure distribution in a way that retained the wing’s lift. In February 1943 Lockheed’s test pilots proved this to be a successful solution. A kit was also designed so that the flaps could be retrofitted to existing P-38s. The flaps were incorporated into production line in June 1944 on the last 210 P-38Js. In the end, only the final 50% of all P-38s produced had the flaps factory fitted.

Johnson later recalled: “I broke an ulcer over compressibility on the P-38 because we flew into a speed range where no one had ever been before, and we had difficulty convincing people that it wasn’t the funny-looking airplane itself, but a fundamental physical problem. We found out what happened when the Lightning shed its tail and we worked during the whole war to get 15 more mph of speed out of the P-38. We saw compressibility as a brick wall for a long time. Then we learned how to get through it.”

Another issue found with the P-38 was it tendency to violently Yaw if it had an engine failure at takeoff. This was due to its unique design feature of outwardly rotating propellers which if failed caused a sudden drag to be induced yawing the nose and rolling the wingtip down on the side of the dead engine. If the pilot simply increased power to the good engine this made the situation worse and the P-38 would flip over. This issue was overcome by reducing power on the good engine feathering the prop on the failed engine and increasing thrust again on the good engine.

The first unit to receive P-38s was the 1st Fighter Group. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the unit joined the 14th Pursuit Group in San Diego to provide West Coast defense. The first Lightning to see active service was a P-38E in which the guns were replaced by four K17 cameras. They joined the 8th Photographic Squadron out of Australia on 4 April 1942.

Three P-38E F-4s were operated by the Royal Australian Air Force in this theater for a short period beginning in September 1942.

On 29 May 1942, 25 P-38s began operating in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The fighter’s long range made it well-suited to the campaign over the almost 1,200 mi –long island chain, and it would be flown there for the rest of the war.

After the Battle of Midway, the USAAF began redeploying fighter groups to Britain as part of Operation Bolero, and Lightnings of the 1st Fighter Group were flown across the Atlantic via Iceland. On 14 August 1942, Second Lieutenant Elza Shahan of the 27th Fighter Squadron, and Second Lieutenant Joseph Shaffer of the 33rd Squadron operating out of Iceland shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor over the Atlantic. Shahan in his P-38F downed the Condor; Shaffer, flying either a P-40C or a P-39, had already set an engine on fire. This was the first Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the USAAF.

After 347 sorties with no enemy contact, the 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups were transferred to the 12th Air Force in North Africa as part of the force being built up for Operation Torch. On 19 November 1942, Lightning’s escorted a group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers on a raid over Tunis. The P-38 remained active in the Mediterranean for the rest of the war. It was in this theatre that the P-38 suffered its heaviest losses in the air. On 25 August 1943, 13 P-38s were shot down in a single sortie by Bf 109s without achieving a single kill. On 2 September 10 P-38s were shot down, in return for a single kill. Kurt Bühligen, a German pilot, later said “The P-38 fighter along with the B-24 were easy to burn. Once in Africa we were a flight of six and met eight P-38s and shot down seven.” Experiences over Germany had shown a need for long-range escort fighters to protect the Eighth Air Force’s heavy bomber operations. The P-38Hs of the 55th Fighter Group were transferred to the Eighth in England in September 1943, and were joined by the 20th, 364th and 479th Fighter Groups soon after. P-38s soon joined Spitfires in escorting the early Fortress raids over Europe.

A little-known role of the P-38 in the European theatre was that of fighter-bomber during the invasion of Normandy and the Allied advance across France into Germany. The 370th participated in ground attack missions across Europe until February 1945 when the unit changed over to the P-51 Mustang.

After some disastrous raids in 1944 with B-17s escorted by P-38s and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, Jimmy Doolittle, then head of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, went to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), Farnborough, asking for an evaluation of the various American fighters. Fleet Air Arm Captain and test pilot Eric Brown stated, “We had found out that the Bf109 and the Fw190 could fight up to a Mach of 0.75, three-quarters the speed of sound. We checked the Lightning and it couldn’t fly in combat faster than 0.68. So it was useless. We told Doolittle that all it was good for was photo-reconnaissance and had to be withdrawn from escort duties. And the funny thing is that the Americans had great difficulty understanding this because the Lightning had the two top aces in the Far East.”

However, the P-38 found itself most extensively used with success in the Pacific theatre, where it proved ideally suited, combining excellent performance with very long range, and had the added reliability of two engines for long missions over water. The P-38 was used in a variety of roles, especially escorting bombers at altitudes between 18 and 25,000ft. The P-38 was credited with destroying more Japanese aircraft than any other USAAF fighter. Whilst the P-38 could not out-turn the A6M Zero and most other Japanese fighters when flying below 200 mph, its superior speed coupled with a good rate of climb meant that it could utilize energy tactics, making multiple high-speed passes at its target. Also, its focused firepower was even more deadly to lightly armored Japanese warplanes than to the Germans’. The concentrated, parallel stream of bullets allowed aerial victory at much longer distances than fighters carrying wing guns.

The end of the war left the USAAF with thousands of P-38s rendered obsolete by the jet age. The last P-38s in service with the United States Air Force were retired in 1949. A total of 100 late-model P-38L and F-5 Lightning’s were acquired by Italy through an agreement dated April 1946. Delivered, after refurbishing, at the rate of one per month, they finally were all sent to the AMI by 1952. The Lightning’s served in 4 Stormo and other units including 3 Stormo, flying reconnaissance over the Balkans, ground attack, naval cooperation and air superiority missions. Due to unfamiliarity in operating heavy fighters, old engines, and pilot errors, a large number of P-38s were lost in at least 30 accidents, many of them fatal. Despite this, many Italian pilots liked the P-38 because of its excellent visibility on the ground and stability on takeoff. The Italian P-38s were phased out in 1956; none survived the inevitable scrapyard.

Surplus P-38s were also used by other foreign air forces with 12 sold to Honduras and 15 retained by China. Six F-5s and two unarmed black two-seater P-38s were operated by the Dominican Air Force based in San Isidro Airbase, Dominican Republic in 1947. The majority of wartime Lightning’s present in the continental U.S. at the end of the war were put up for sale for US$1,200 apiece; the rest were scrapped. P-38s in distant theatres of war were bulldozed into piles and abandoned or scrapped; very few avoided that fate. This brought the end to a unique and legendary fighter, it was not without its issues and overshadowed by the P-51 but was without a doubt a great American warbird.

Air War over the Netherlands 1940

“Mower On the Prowl”
This is a depiction of the Fokker G.I.a 312 flown by P. Noomen with H. de Vries as gunner. It started as first G.I.a during the bombardment of Waalhaven (Rotterdam) airbase on the 10th of May, 1940. After shooting down 2 Heinkel 111s it landed back at Waalhaven with a punctured fuel tank and the right engine stopped. The closest Heinkel is 5J+DA, of stab KG4, which belly landed in St. Annapolder with one crew member killed. The geschwaderkommodore Oberst Fiebig and crew were captured unhurt. Wiek Luijken

The Dutch were relying on the natural obstacles provided by the Zuiderzee in the north and the numerous waterways at the mouth of the Maas in the south. In the west, the main defensive position was the Grebbe Line running along the Geld Valley. Behind that was a fallback position running from just east of Amsterdam to the east of Rotterdam. Both lines took maximum advantage of low-lying land that could be flooded. South of the Maas, the Peel marshes were only lightly held. The Dutch had chosen the shortest and easiest lines to defend. The disadvantage was that their main southern defences ran parallel to the Belgian northern Albert Canal defences, leaving a corridor between for the Germans to advance through.

The German High Command hoped to eliminate Holland on the very first day by landing troops inside ‘Fortress Holland’. Airborne troops were to capture three airfields (Ypenburg, Ockenburg and Valkenburg) around The Hague, from where they would push into the city and capture the Dutch Royal family. If this failed, paratroopers dropped on the Moerdijk, Dordrecht, and the Willemsbrug bridges and Waalhaven Airfield would clear a path for the 9th Panzer Division racing through southern Holland.

The German forces that landed in and around The Hague were soon in trouble. Many of the Ju 52 transports were either shot down, destroyed by obstacles erected on the airfields, or simply found the Dutch airfields were unable to support their weight. The damaged and wrecked planes that littered the airstrips prevented the follow-up waves from landing. Many had to force land on any nearby flat land they could find. The surviving German troops were soon fighting for their lives. Forty ground-attack sorties flown by Dutch fighters and light bombers supported the Dutch counterattacks. Further east, Dutch forces withdrew in fairly good order to the Grebbe Line. In the south, Panzers and the Ju 87 dive-bombers of Fliegerkorps VIII, the Luftwaffe’s short-range close-support force, had little difficulty blasting their way through the weakly held Peel Marsh defences.

As soon as the attack was underway, the air attaché informed the Dutch Army commander about the RAF plans to bomb advancing German columns, provided their location could be established. At 7.30 a.m., the Dutch told the air attaché that the German forces landing at Waalhaven were the most serious threat and asked for the airfield to be bombed. The message was passed on to London. When no attack came, the air attaché was bombarded with calls emphasising how critical the situation was becoming and demanding to know what was holding up the RAF.

The message certainly got through to Newall. Armed with the information provided by the air attaché, Newall told the morning cabinet meeting that the Dutch had matters in hand around The Hague, but Waalhaven was a problem and six fighter Blenheims were being sent to strafe the airfield. Newall explained that he had decided not to use bombers because of the risk of civilian casualties. In fact, Dutch aircraft were already bombing their own airfields. The six Blenheims were in fact the only Air Ministry attempt to implement the fighter support the Air Ministry had promised. Their primary mission was to shoot down enemy aircraft and only strafe the airfield if none were encountered.

By midday, requests were coming from Barratt in France for Bomber Command to intervene in the Netherlands. The missions subsequently flown appear to have been based on information gathered by reconnaissance planes rather than as a response to requests from The Hague. Twenty-four Blenheims attacked German forces in The Hague region, where, as Newall had explained to the cabinet, the Dutch felt they were in reasonable control. Twelve of the planes bombed Ypenberg Airfield after it had been recaptured by the Dutch. Early in the afternoon, nine Blenheims bombed Waalhaven. This was the only RAF bombing attack on the airfield that day, and even this appears to have been a response to Barratt’s demand for some action rather than the Dutch pleas via the air attaché. Three of the thirty-one Blenheim bombers were lost—ironically, two of them shot down as they attacked the recaptured Ypenburg Airfield. The Blenheim fighters operating over Waalhaven did not fare so well. The original plans for protecting Dutch airfields had proposed using Spitfires or Hurricanes where possible—using Blenheims would be risky. So it proved. Five of the six Blenheims were shot down by Bf 110s.

The next planned Bomber Command support for the Dutch was to be the attack on the Ruhr. The Air Ministry was expecting the government to give the go-ahead for the operation that night. The desperate appeals to do something about the growing strength of the German forces holding Waalhaven seemed to be falling on deaf ears.

By the end of the day, Dutch counterattacks had recaptured all the occupied airfields except for Waalhaven. Fortunately for the Dutch, the British Government did not authorise the Ruhr operation. A frustrated Portal ordered the Wellingtons of No. 3 Group to attack Waalhaven instead. The Dutch lit a bonfire to guide the bombers in, and thirty-six Wellingtons kept up a steady bombardment throughout the night. Flying at little more than 2,000 feet, the Wellingtons dropped 58 tons of bombs on the beleaguered German forces. The Dutch were delighted, and at 5 a.m. they requested a halt to the bombardment so that they could launch their next counterattack. Less appreciated or indeed even noticed were the nine sorties flown by the two Whitley squadrons against bridges just over the Dutch border, in German territory.

On the morning of the 11th, the Dutch attempt to retake the airfield failed. The RAF was asked to resume their bombardment while the few remaining serviceable Dutch planes focused their efforts on the German troops still holding both ends of the nearby Willemsbrug bridge. The aim at this stage was not to destroy any of the captured bridges. The Dutch wanted them intact so that the advancing French could use them to reinforce Fortress Holland. In the morning, and again in the afternoon, the two surviving Fokker T.V bombers, flying low and escorted by Fokker D.21s, scattered 50-kg bombs on the German troops around the bridge. The RAF attacks on the airfield, however, did not materialise; indeed, the air attaché was informed that there would be no more attacks. No reason was given. At around midday, an embarrassed air attaché told the Air Ministry the Dutch were ‘seriously upset’ by the decision and were pleading for it to be reconsidered. A succession of Dutch Army officers turned up at the embassy to emphasise the huge importance of eliminating the besieged German forces holding Waalhaven. The Dutch ambassador in London was told to try and speak to Churchill in person.

On the 11th, Fighter Command was more active over southern Holland. Crowds cheered as Hurricanes patrolled The Hague. However, a patrol by twelve Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in The Hague-Rotterdam area ended in disaster when the formation was surprised by Bf 109s and five were shot down. The next day, two out of a flight of three Blenheims were lost. A flight of three Spitfires was caught by Bf 109s, losing one of their number.

For many of the British-based pilots, this was their first experience of combat. The circumstances could not have been more demanding. They were not trained in fighter-versus-fighter combat, and they were confronted by confident, experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots. They were operating in small numbers—often lone flights of six, sometimes just sections of three—so they were invariably outnumbered. Operating in these circumstances, so far from their home bases, was not the ideal way to gain combat experience.

Something had to be done about the way British fighters were being taken by surprise and picked off by the high-flying German Messerschmitts. Instead of changing the tight vic  formations that were largely responsible for the problem, Defiants were assigned the task of covering the rear. It was a chance to test the theory that the turret fighter could be used to establish air superiority in skies dominated by the enemy. The composite Defiant/Spitfire formation had its first real test on the 13th. The formation was engaging Ju 87 dive-bombers west of Rotterdam when it was bounced by the German escort. The German pilots might well have mistaken the Defiants for defenceless single-seaters and been surprised by the defensive fire that greeted them, but their surprise was short-lived; five of the clumsy Defiants and a Spitfire were shot down for the loss of just one Messerschmitt. It seemed fairly conclusive proof that Dowding had been right—using the Defiant offensively could be no more successful than Trenchard’s offensive F.E.2 patrols of the First World War. However, the advocates of the turret fighter were still not convinced. The Defiants had claimed four Ju 87s before the German fighters intervened, and this was enough to ensure the experiment continued—once the battered Defiant squadron had recovered.

On the ground, the situation in the south of the Netherlands was already becoming critical. On the 11th, forward elements of the French 7th Army approaching Breda were brushed aside by the 9th Panzer and its supporting Ju 87 dive bombers. The French instinctively sought sanctuary in a safe defensive line and lost all interest in helping recapture the Moerdijk Bridge. General Winkelman, the Dutch Army commander, now realised that there was little likelihood of any help from the French; the only hope was to try and destroy the captured bridges to the south of the city and hang on in Fortress Holland. The Grebbe Line was just about holding. The main Dutch concern was still the German forces clinging on to their foothold inside Fortress Holland, around the Willemsbrug Bridge and nearby Waalhaven. The air attaché in The Hague was still furiously relaying Dutch appeals for air support to the Air Ministry, but getting no response. In desperation, the Dutch asked the military attaché at the embassy to pass on a message via the War Office, begging ‘most earnestly’ that Waalhaven be bombed. The only response came from the Navy; while Portal’s bombers waited for permission to bomb the Ruhr, at dusk on the 12th, six Coastal Command Beauforts and nine Fleet Air Arm Swordfish attacked the airfield. By this time, the 9th Panzer Division had reached the German paratroopers holding the Willemsbrug Bridge.

The Dutch did the best with their own dwindling air resources. After flying most of its ground-attack missions on the 10th without fighter escort, for the remainder of the campaign the Dutch Air Force provided their low-level bombers with close escorts. This put the fighters at a tactical disadvantage, but it did mean they could actually help the bombers if they encountered enemy fighters. If no enemy fighters were around, they were in a good position to join in the attack. Anthony Fokker had lost none of his flair for designing fighters; the Fokker D.21, with its fixed undercarriage, might have lacked the speed of more modern fighters, but its superb handling and agility gave the Dutch pilots a fighting chance. With an escort, the hedgehopping Fokker C.V and C.X biplanes managed to deliver their attacks without incurring the crippling losses suffered by the Battle squadrons.

On the third day of the invasion, the Dutch Air Force was engaged all along the front. Operating from emergency airstrips away from their main airfields, ground-attack missions were flown against German forces threatening the defences that secured the northern end of the dyke at the mouth of the Zuiderzee. Retreating remnants from The Hague landings, trying to fight their way south to Rotterdam, were also targeted. Waalhaven was bombed. Troop columns and artillery positions around the Wageningen sector of the Grebbe Line, where the Dutch defences were under particular pressure, were also attacked. The numbers were tiny—the largest operation was just seven Fokker C.Xs with six Fokker D.21s escorting. The smallest was a lone Fokker T.V with a single D.21 escort. The attacks may not have been devastatingly effective, but they were at least in the areas the Dutch Army needed them. Just the sight of their own planes roaring in at low level raised the spirits of the Dutch troops.

By the evening of the 12th, German troops had achieved a shallow penetration of the Dutch defences in the Wageningen sector, forcing the Dutch back to their last line of defence. The Grebbe Line was in danger of collapsing. The Dutch Defence Minister personally asked for the RAF to bomb the Moerdijk Bridge (to halt the advance from the south) and the roads leading to Wageningen (to slow down the German advance from the east). He was told the bridge was far too solid to be destroyed by air attack, which was true, and that attacks on roads could only bring temporary relief. This was also true, but that was what was all the Dutch wanted. No. 2 Group in East Anglia could not help, but, rather bizarrely, the Dutch request was passed on to Barratt in France to see if his Battle squadrons south of Reims could lend any support.

Dutch frustration was growing. The Air Ministry had refused Dutch pleas to base RAF squadrons in the Netherlands. Could they at least use Dutch airstrips to refuel, as French aircraft were doing? The Air Ministry came up with all sorts of reasons why this was impossible: Dutch fuel hoses were the wrong size; British planes needed different fuel. In truth, if the Air Staff and Dowding were reluctant to send fighters to France to support the British Army, they were hardly likely to send them to the Netherlands to support the Dutch Army. The Dutch were told that there were always more crucial battles elsewhere and the RAF was needed there. This was true, but it was not true that the RAF was fully engaged in these crucial battles. Most of the Wellington, Hampden, and Whitley squadrons were just sitting on their airfields, waiting for the offensive against the Ruhr to start. Two-thirds of RAF fighter squadrons were waiting for the German bombers to come.

Dutch pleas now became ultimatums. The Dutch Foreign Minister spelt it out—first to members of the Air Staff, and then to Ismay, Churchill’s military advisor. Either the British provided air support or the Dutch government would have to consider surrendering. No assurances were forthcoming, and the Dutch government and Royal Family prepared to leave the country. Winkelman was given full authority to cease fighting if he judged the military situation had become hopeless.

Far from stepping up its efforts, Fighter Command was reducing the scale of its operations. Too many fighters had already been lost. Cover was provided for the evacuation of British citizens from Ostend and the Dutch Royal Family and government from The Hague, but there was nothing in the key battlezone. Early on the morning of the 13th, the last Fokker T.V, escorted by two Fokker G.1s, set off for the Moerdijk Bridge with 300-kg bombs. The damage these large bombs could inflict on the huge structure was never put to the test; only one hit the bridge, and it failed to explode.

On the Grebbe Line, a Dutch counterattack on the morning of the 13th on the Wageningen sector was defeated by heavy German artillery and Luftwaffe air support. A withdrawal to the final ‘Fortress Holland’ line became the only option. With the Luftwaffe dominating the skies, this was not possible until the sun had set. It would be a desperately difficult day for the Dutch Army. Low cloud provided some respite from German air strikes, and despite the weather, the Dutch Air Force was still flying and provided as much support as possible. Around twenty Fokker D.21s, C.Xs, and G.1s strafed and bombed German artillery positions and troops in the Wageningen area. Yet another plea to the British Embassy revealed the staff had joined the exodus to Britain. Despite the problems, during the following night the Dutch forces successfully withdrew along the entire front to their last line of defence.

On the morning of the 14th, the situation looked relatively stable. The Dutch forces were well-established in Rotterdam; the German forces holding the northern end of the bridge could not be dislodged, but Dutch guns were preventing any movement across the waterway. In the east of the country, the Germans were only slowly following up the Dutch withdrawal from the Grebbe Line. Hitler, frustrated by the slow progress, ordered an intensification of effort on all fronts. An assault on Rotterdam would be preceded by the bombing of the Dutch Army positions on the north bank. The target area would stretch as far as the city centre. The Dutch were warned an air attack was on the way and given one last chance to surrender.

Winkelman was not convinced there was any immediate need to surrender. The Dutch were certainly in no hurry to come to a decision—there was no reason to fear this particular German bomber threat more than previous bombing. The German Air Force had been bombing the country for four days. A second deadline was approaching and the negotiations were still in progress. Ninety He 111s of KG/54 were already heading for Rotterdam. The German commander tried to delay the attack, but only half the force saw the warning red Very lights. Fifty-four Heinkel bombers dropped 97 tons of bombs on the designated target area. There was no anti-aircraft defence, and the last serviceable Dutch fighters, five Fokker D.21s and five G.1s, were further north, providing cover for the troops still pulling back from the Grebbe Line. The Heinkels were able to drop their bombs with precision from 2,000 feet.

Unopposed bombing from low level can be particularly destructive. Even so, nobody anticipated what was about to happen. The bombs were high-explosive rather than incendiary, but the target area contained warehouses full of inflammable produce. These were among the first buildings to be hit, and flames soon engulfed the wooden houses of the historic city centre. One square mile of the city was devastated; 800 people lost their lives. Winkelman was severely shaken by the scale of the destruction. The German commanders on the spot were just as stunned. The German propaganda machine was quick to exploit the situation. If the Dutch did not surrender, a similar fate would befall Utrecht, which was also now in the front line. Winkelman ordered all Dutch forces on the mainland to lay down their arms.

At the time, the death toll in Rotterdam was put as high as 30,000. It seemed the prophets of doom had been right; bombing alone could bring a country to its knees. Whether the same decision would have been made if the bombing had occurred on 10 May, with Allies apparently coming to Holland’s aid, is open to question. By the time the attack was launched on the 14th, the Dutch government had in principle already taken the decision to surrender. Nevertheless, for the Air Staff it was conclusive proof of how destructive and decisive bombers could be and a reminder of why Britain had to keep fighters back to defend British cities.

Lack of British support was not the only reason for the Dutch defeat, nor even the main one. The French reluctance and inability to engage the Panzers in mobile warfare around Breda was at least as significant. Nevertheless, the Dutch might have reasonably expected more support from a major military power like Britain. Given the importance attached to preventing the Netherlands from falling into German hands, Britain might have been expected to provide it. Not even the fear of invasion or heavier bombing raids on London, or the advantage of having friendly territory on the approach to the Ruhr, could induce the Air Staff to use the RAF as Dutch Army commanders wanted.

Another useful ally had been lost to the Allied cause. It was one thing to allow Poland, a valiant ally on the other side of Europe, to be overwhelmed by a powerful neighbour, or indeed Norway, a nation many hundreds of miles from our shores. It was quite another matter to allow a similar fate to befall an equally valiant ally just the other side of the North Sea. Britain could not afford to lose allies so easily.

Operation Bolton

A Tornado GR1 equipped with a TIALD pod extends its airbrakes during an Operation Bolton sortie.

Since the end of the Gulf War the UN had been monitoring Iraq’s compliance with UN directives on biological and chemical warfare. The work of a team of inspectors established by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) had largely been unnoticed by the media, but they were thrown into the limelight during late 1997 when the Iraqis stopped co-operating with UNSCOM. As part of the diplomatic response to Iraq, the UK initiated Operation Bolton in October to reinforce British presence in the region. The Saudis were unwilling to allow offensive operations to be carried out from their territory, so initially Operation Bolton comprised the deployment of HMS Invincible, augmented by the Harrier GR.7s of 1 Squadron, to the Persian Gulf. They arrived in theatre in late January. However, in the meantime the Kuwaitis had expressed a willingness to host combat aircraft and on Friday 6 February, just three months after completing their previous operational tour, 14 Squadron at Brüggen was given 48hrs notice to return to the Middle East. Crews were immediately recalled from leave and detachments. ‘I was skiing in Val d’Isere,’ recalls Flt Lt S.E. Reeves, ‘when I got a call saying “come on back” so I had to hire a car and drive back to Brüggen.’ The squadron also had crews taking part in the night Tactical Leadership Training (TLT) exercise at Leuchars: ‘the TLT staff came and instructed the two 14 Squadron crews to return to Brüggen immediately’ recalled Flt Lt K.R. Rumens. ‘At the time we had absolutely no idea why. The next day back at Brüggen the Boss briefed all of the 14 Squadron aircrew and engineers and informed us that first thing Monday morning we would be taking nine Tornado GR1s out to a base in Kuwait. We were to get ready for war immediately.’

An advance party of engineers was despatched to get the airfield ready for operations. As he disembarked from the aircraft, Ch Tech Spanswick was reminded of the disparaging comments he had made a few months beforehand when he had first seen Al Kharj. ‘We arrived at Ali Al Salem at about 04:00hrs with thunderstorms all round, and in the darkness we could just make out collapsed tents and rivers of mud and waterlogged sand everywhere. I said “Finchy, do you remember what I said when we arrived in Al Kharj… well it just has got worse” In my opinion Ali Al Salem was a unique deployment: to my knowledge it was the first time an RAF Tornado squadron had deployed, completely on its own (with no support from any other squadron and certainly no help form the Americans) to a bare-based operating location, especially being so close to the Iraqi border. It was quite scary, as we had no idea what was going to happen, no idea how long it was going to last, nor when we would get home. All we knew was that we had twenty-four hours to get the place up and running to accept thirteen Tornados being deployed from UK and Brüggen. A couple of years earlier I had driven past Ali Al Salem when going to a Kuwait bombing range and saw the devastation of the base with bombed out HASs and building et cetera. However, it was all extremely exciting in a very nervous way and we pulled together as a complete squadron. Twenty-four hours later, the runway was clear and we had sorted out the aprons in front of the HASs to accept the aircraft. It was quite an awesome sight to see thirteen Tornados taxi in, in pitch-black conditions at a bombed out airfield in the middle of the Kuwait desert. And on top of that it was only a few hours later the jets were ready for their first mission over Iraq. And so on a diet of boiled rice and boiled chicken our adventures began… again.’

Back at Brüggen the whole station worked over the weekend to get the aircraft ready and on 9 February 1998, nine Tornados left Brüggen heading for Kuwait. A further four aircraft deployed directly from the UK. Ali Al Salem Air Base, which lay some twenty-five miles to the west of Kuwait City, had been re-occupied by the Kuwaiti Air Force (KAF) after the Gulf War, but details about the airfield were scant. ‘As squadron QFI,’ continued Flt Lt Rumens, ‘I was tasked with briefing the squadron with what facilities the airfield had. The brief was pretty lean. We had no charts/plates, no information on radar services or approach aids. I had worked out from satellite imagery the approximate runway direction and length and it looked like concrete. In fact the only thing we knew was phoned through to us from Tom Boyle, our former Boss, who was already in theatre. Tom informed us that Kuwait City International Airport would see us into the area on their radar and then chop us to Ali Al Salem Tower for which a frequency was provided.’ After a 7½hr flight, the Tornados reached Kuwait in darkness. The runway lighting showed up well, but on taxying off the runway Flt Lt Rumens discovered that ‘there were no lights anywhere else on the airfield so we were waved off of the runway by a few engineers who had torches and we shut down and chocked nine Tornados in a tight “gaggle” on a bit of concrete just off the end of the runway. The next day in the light the engineers had to tow aircraft to the parking places.’ The airfield was still in the semi-destroyed state in which it had been left after the Gulf War.

Over the next two days, the squadron established a dispersed operating base in one of the HAS sites. Each of the large HAS had an enormous hole in the roof, thanks to the attention of Coalition aircraft during the Gulf War. Despite the holes, the shelters provided ideal storage space for engineering equipment. In one HAS the operations and engineering facilities were set up inside long tents, each of which was protected with sandbags. Initially the aircraft were parked in the open outside the shelters but later on, as the temperatures rose, light-weight canopies were constructed to protect airframes, engineers and aircrew from the sun. Weapons were delivered to Ali Al Salem and the TIALD pods being used by 17 Squadron for Operation Jural were flown in from Al Kharj. Forty-eight hours after arriving in Kuwait, 14 Squadron declared itself ready for operations.

In the end, the Tornados were not required for attack operations. Diplomatic initiatives had quickly defused the crisis and a new agreement between Iraq and UNSCOM was signed on 17 February. However the squadron remained in Ali Al Salem for the next three months to fly Jural-type sorties in the southern NFZ. Within each pair of aircraft, the leader would be TIALD-equipped and also be loaded with two Paveway II LGBs; his wingmen would carry the Vicon pod. Flying continued around the clock and most crews flew a mixture of day and night missions. When compared to Dhahran or Al Kharj, Ali Al Salem was much close to Iraq, resulting in much reduced transit times to Iraqi airspace: sortie times were therefore shorter than on previous detachments, typically being around 2hr. As previously, Coalition aircraft took the opportunity of being in Iraqi airspace to carry out practice attacks on military installations and on occasions the Tornados were partnered with Harrier GR.7 aircraft from 1 Squadron which were now operating ashore from Ahmed Al Jabbar south of Kuwait City.

Between the operational sorties there was an opportunity for some training, low-flying in Kuwait and using the ranges at Al Abraq and Udari. There were also Air-Combat Training sorties as well as fighter affiliation training with KAF F-18 Hornets and more combined training sorties with the Harriers.

Operation Bolton had replaced Operation Jural and now included all RAF operations in the southern NFZ. Thus when 12 Squadron took over responsibility for the Kuwait detachment in early May, the Tornado GR1 force was supporting three simultaneous operational detachments: six aircraft remained at Incirlik for Operation Warden, and six more were at Al Kharj with a further twelve at Ali Al Salem for Operation Bolton. With a full calendar of training exercises and the MLU programme in full swing, the Tornado squadrons would be stretched to cover all the commitments; however responsibility for Operation Warden was returned to the Jaguar force at the end of September.

Over the summer months 617, 17 and 14 Squadrons took part in Exercise Maple Flag from CAF Cold Lake base. The exercise included aircraft from Germany, UK, New Zealand and the US as well as the Canadian hosts. Domestic exercises included a station exercise at Lossiemouth, during which aircraft were sent to Kinloss in a simulated chemical threat environment, to practise the ability to deploy at short notice.

Strategic Developments

The Strategic Defence Review (SDR), published by the British Government in July included some far-reaching developments for the Tornado GR1 force. The WE177 nuclear weapon had already been withdrawn earlier in the year, so the strike role, once the primary role of the Tornado GR1 in Cold War days, had been given up completely. The SDR also signalled the end of the maritime role for the Tornado GR1B, although 617 Squadron would complete one last JMC exercise in October. In this latter exercise the squadron took part in large antishipping packages, flying against ships from Germany, France, Netherland and the Royal Navy as they sailed around the northern coast of Scotland. The exercise alternated daily between blue water and coastal operations and the squadron mounted two daily waves each of four or five aircraft simulating Sea Eagle tactics.

The final fallout from SDR was the confirmation that RAF Brüggen would close in 2000 and that 17 Squadron would be disbanded in early 1999. ‘I had been tipped off by a mate at High Wycombe (and sworn to secrecy) that the squadron was going to go while we were at Goose Bay,’ recalled Wg Cdr Coulls, OC 17 Squadron, ‘so I was the only one who knew it was coming, although rumours had been flying for a couple of months. Jock Stirrup, at the time AOC 1 Group, came down about halfway through to tell us formally. The leadership challenge was an interesting one… we had been away from home for five of the previous six months and still had a month left in Kuwait and now a massive dose of uncertainty had been introduced. However, we got away with it and left with a good reputation.’

In September 1998, 14 Squadron resumed Operation Bolton from Ali Al Salem (AAS) Air Base. The operational pattern was much as it had been earlier in the year, except that political tension was mounting once more, after Iraq declared in August that it would not, after all, cooperate with UNSCOM. Following further diplomatic activity, on 31 October Iraq announced that it would cease all forms of interaction with UNSCOM. Even so there was very little activity below the NFZ over the next two months, making the flying over Iraq pretty dull. Apart from ‘counting flies by the thousand, interspersed with particularly uninspiring (and very definitely alcohol free) evening meals at the Kuwait Officers’ Mess,’ Flt Lt D.W. Hales thought that the ‘operational highlights were forty-five degree dive with [inert] PW II at Udairi range and a few opportunities for HE strafe at Al Abraq.’ The squadron also carried out some air-combat training and some affiliation training with the KAF F-18 Hornets. At the beginning of November, 14 Squadron handed over to 12 Squadron.

After more diplomatic manoeuvring at the UN, the Iraqis reneged on an agreement to cooperate with UNSCOM and as a result it withdrew all its personnel from Iraq on 11 November 1998. The following day, the US and the UK warned Iraq that it would face a substantial military strike if it did not return to full compliance with UN Resolutions. On 14 November, the US and the UK authorized the launch of an initial wave of strike aircraft. The Tornado crews in Kuwait had planned and briefed their mission and were just about to walk for the sortie when they were cancelled. At the last minute, Iraq had agreed to ‘unconditional resumption of cooperation’ with UNSCOM, so the planned air strikes were called off. However, Iraqi cooperation was short-lived and only a month later the political tension had escalated once more

In early November, Wg Cdr S.G. Barnes, OC 12 Squadron, had taken over as detachment commander at AAS and had ensured that a number of contingency plans were in place in case the squadron was called upon again for operations. ‘As things progressed, and the op looked more likely,’ recalled Wg Cdr Barnes, ‘the formation leaders were co-opted into the plan. Throughout, the squadron engineers were tremendous and produced the aircraft we needed for each wave. They moved equipment and weapons to satisfy the requirement for four aircraft per wave with TIALD pods (we had only four) were they could.’

RAF ground crew of 14 Squadron at Ali Al Salem (AAS) air base, Kuwait, during Operation Bolton. In the background is a battle-damaged HAS.

Desert Fox – Night One

The deadline for Iraqi compliance with the UN resolutions passed on 16 December and US and UK forces were authorized to fly airstrikes, which the US military named Operation Desert Fox. The detachment at AAS flew three operational waves early that evening. As there were just four TIALD pods available for all of the operational waves, only the leader and Number 3 within each four ship carried TIALD pods: thus within each pair one aircraft self-designated before cooperatively designating for the wingman. The first four ship was led by Wg Cdr Barnes with Flt Lt J.E. Linter with each aircraft armed with two PW II. They were tasked against the SAM-3 site near Basra (with each pair attacking a different radar system within the site) and then bombing a radio-relay site just to the north. The attack was planned so that SAM site and relay station were far enough apart for each TIALD aircraft to mark two different targets. As they neared the target area, the Tornados met with light anti-aircraft fire, but no missiles were fired at them. The lead aircraft attacked the SAM-3 site successfully, but the TIALD pod on Number 3 aircraft did not work, leaving Flt Lt Linter to use the only serviceable pod to mark both of the Desired Points of Impact (DPIs) at the radio-relay station.

Sqn Ldrs M. Royce and L. Fisher led the second wave against targets on Tallil airfield and a radio-relay station just to the north at An Nasiriyah. ‘The lead pair dropped [destroyed] a large hangar on the northern side of the airfield with three PW IIs and the back pair removed a pair of HAS on the southern side of the runway,’ wrote Flt Lt Royce later. ‘One HAS exploded quite spectacularly turning night into day for about twenty seconds; such was the force of the residual explosion.’ In the Number 4 aircraft, Fg Off A. Robins recalled that: ‘all targets were hit, including a massive secondary explosion on the HAS… a very large mushroom cloud came up to meet us… we thought we’d hit a nuke… someone said “OOH that’s gotta hurt” (a Fast Show quote) and we all sped off hurriedly in batwing and burner. I remember that nobody landed with any extra fuel that night… USN had thoughtfully loosed off some HARMs at a SAM-6 site, and there was loads of triple-A as they put up a lot of stuff against us.’ It later transpired that the hangar at Tallil had contained the ‘Drones of Death’ – Czech-built L-29 Delfin (Dolphin) training aircraft, which were being modified as remotely-piloted vehicles to carry biological weapons and the HAS had been an ammunition store. ‘Satellite imagery the following day showed scorched land and no sign of there ever having been a HAS.’ reported Flt Lt Royce.

The third four ship, led by Flt Lt J.P. Griggs and Sqn Ldr T.N. Harris, took off shortly after the first one. They were to attack a Republican Guard barracks at Al Kut and once again all aircraft were armed with two PW IIs, with only lead and Number 3 carrying TIALD pods. ‘We decided we would do a “double run” guiding our own bombs then, as soon as they impacted, switching to the target for Number 4’s bombs which were already in the air,’ reported Sqn Ldr D. Armstrong, who was flying the Number 3 aircraft. ‘In the event, this was a bad idea… not enough time to get fixed on the second target and too much pressure on our own target run knowing the bombs were already flying.’ The sortie also ended with some excitement. ‘Our leader got Roland launch warnings linked with a flash on the desert floor as we approached the Kuwaiti border on the way home,’ continued Sqn Ldr Armstrong. ‘He immediately went into his evasive manoeuvre and banged the wing tanks off. Jez said it was the longest two seconds of his life after he hit the jettison button’ As it turned out, the flash on the desert floor was caused by US Navy aircraft dropping their weapons on a ‘dump’ target, of which the RAF detachment was unaware because of communications difficulties with the USN ships; it transpired that the simultaneous Roland warning was also spurious, caused by microwave links in the desert. ‘The engineers gave Jez the bill for the tanks,’ added Armstrong.

In the meantime, six crews from 617 deployed to AAS on 17 December to support the operations. ‘We arrived just after the first trip had taken off and we awoke the next morning to the participants mooching about having faced the reality of combat’ remembered Sqn Ldr A.K.F. Pease. ‘They had had a couple of close calls with Roland launches… Jez Griggs had jettisoned tanks and taken evasive action. Those of us who deployed from 617 Squadron were not used in anger. We did some training flights in Kuwait and having deployed thinking we would be away for a couple of months we actually got home in time for Christmas which was a bonus.’

Desert Fox – Night Two

On the second night of the operation, 18 December, the Tornado waves were launched with enough time spacing between them for all aircraft could carry a TIALD pod and self-designate their own targets; in turn, this allowed a much more compressed attack. Wg Cdr Barnes led his formation against the SAM-3 site at Tallil, attacking the Low Blow and Perfect Patch radars and two HQ buildings within the complex. Once again the attackers were met with very light triple-A, but no SAMs were fired. As Wg Cdr Barnes later summarized the sortie ‘the plan “ran on rails” and all DPIs were hit successfully.’

‘Night two saw us doing a coordinated bombing run on the Republican Guard Barracks at Al Kut,’ recalled Sqn Ldr Royce, ‘with a whole bunch of US bombers and the standard SEAD and fighter escorts. The enemy sent up quite a fierce triple-A defence but no missiles (though I’m sure the EW assets had neutralized whatever they may have had to hand; I had never seen so many HARMs fired at one sitting).’ Once again, however, the difficulty in coordinating with the US Navy was illustrated when their formation ahead of the Tornados slipped back on their ToT. ‘We later calculated that their bombs were within 10sec of dropping through our formation/canopies and hitting the lead aircraft,’ reported Fg Off Robins.

The third wave carried out their attack in the early hours of 19 December. This successful mission, led by Flt Lt Griggs and Sqn Ldr Harris, was also tasked against targets in the Al Kut area.

Desert Fox – Night Three

On the third night of operations the Tornados were armed with the new PW III 2,000lb weapon. ‘DPIs were running out and I had argued (forcibly) with HQ that some of the targets were not worth risking lives over,’ recalled Wg Cdr Barnes. ‘I had proposed sending a two ship only, but we were re-allocated more sensible targets. The target area was Al Kut, close to the 32nd Parallel, and the targets were Low Blow, Perfect Patch and two HQ buildings (déjà vu). There were real problems with coordination as we couldn’t contact the ship… we didn’t get the correct detail and we ended up doing our own thing de-conflicted by height and time, but running in a clockwise direction with the rest of the package going the opposite way. There was a lot of triple-A en-route and particularly in the target area. SEAD reported some missiles fired at the package… but I did not see any. Three DPIs were hit, and Number 3 guided his weapon safely into open desert having misidentified the target. I think this was the first operational use of PW III and at the very least validated tactics and procedures with this weapon. The ground crew piped me into the shelter on return (a piper standing on top of the cab of one of the tractors) leading the aircraft to the shelter, which was very emotional.’

A second wave, led by Sqn Ldr Royce took off shortly after the first wave. This formation, tasked against bunkers and another radio-relay station just outside Basra, was also loaded with PW IIIs. However, the mission was cancelled while the formation was flying a holding pattern before they crossed the border into Iraq, and the aircraft returned to AAS with their weapons.

‘In all 12(B) Squadron dropped forty-eight PW II and four PW III accurately,’ concluded Fg Off Robins. ‘Notable moments were the US Navy trying to kill us… and a fine young navigator, Jonny Meadows, dragging a bomb off the DMPI into the desert because he wasn’t (correctly) happy with his TIALD picture. The poor navigators had to “stir the porridge” on some dreadful pre-acquisition pictures in the early-ish days of TIALD: often pictures would not bloom until very late, very tricky in the increasingly legal world of targeting.’

 

Debunking the Flying Porcupine Myth

A Sunderland in Action

The Aeroplane – Published April 12, 1940

A Short Sunderland four-motor flying-boat of the Coastal Command was engaged with six two-motor Junkers Ju. 88K bombers while on convoy duty off the coast of Norway on April 3. The Sunderland shot down one of the Ju. 88s in flames, another was forced to land in Norway, where the crew set it on fire before being arrested and interned. The rest tried, unsuccessfully, to bomb the Sunderland. The Sunderland’s first and second pilots were both slightly injured by bomb splinters, and some of the boat’s controls were damaged, but it returned to its base at the end of its patrol. The Sunderland had previously driven of a German reconnaissance aeroplane which had been shadowing the convoy. Later, four bombers (believed to be Ju. 88Ks) made an attack on the ships but were driven off by anti-aircraft fire. Soon afterwards, the six Ju. 88Ks appeared. They probably intended to renew the attack on the convoy, but paused to dispose of the Sunderland first – a move which proved a tactical error.

The Sunderland was often called the `Fliegende Stachelswein’ in the British press – but was that just a propaganda myth?

From the earliest days of service, the Sunderland was regarded as a heavily armed aircraft by the British and Empire press, even to the extent of using terms like `Flying Fortress’. This was mainly due to the four belt-fed Browning .303 guns in the tail turret. It’s often overlooked that the three other guns were pan-fed .303 Vickers K guns, with a far lower rate of fire and small ammunition supply. It is unlikely that the Luftwaffe was impressed by this armament, having larger calibre, longer range and more powerful cannon in their machines.

The initial inadequate armament was boosted throughout the war with the addition of the mid upper turret and guns below the wings in the galley hatches. By the summer of 1943, the Sunderlands of Coastal Command faced the threat of long-range German fighters with a success rate that has become legendary. The Ju88s of V/KG-40 patrolled in packs but on more than one occasion, a lone Sunderland was able to fight off the assault and return to base. Perhaps the most frequently quoted battle is that of Flt Lt Colin Walker and crew, flying EJ134 of 461 Squadron, on June 2, 1943. As their patrol ended, eight Ju88s were spotted and in the ensuing 45 minute battle, they claimed three fighters shot down and several others damaged, although Luftwaffe records do not show a loss that day. One gunner on the Sunderland was mortally wounded and the aircraft so badly damaged it was beached at Praa Sands in Cornwall.

This is commonly cited as evidence for the Germans having nicknamed the Sunderland `Fliegende Stachelswein’ – the `flying porcupine’. But how likely is it that the Germans gave the enemy such a name? And how likely is it that a German nickname would become well known in the UK?

Actually, the 1942 propaganda booklet, `Coastal Command’ describes the Sunderland as having `a very wide range and an armament formidable enough for it to have been nicknamed `flying porcupine’ by the Germans.’ An earlier 1940 Christmas Quiz in The Times asked: `What British aeroplane do the Germans call `Fliegende Stachelswein’?’ Clearly they expected their readers would know the phrase. But just what incident was the question referring to? A clue lies even further back in The Times of September 11 that year in an article `A year’s work of the RAF Coastal Command,’ which stated:

`The Germans have a wholesome respect for them, and it is a pilot of more than average courage who would dare to tackle one unaided. With their guns sticking out at all angles, they seem to be able to fire in any direction. Because of their bristling armament, the Germans call them Fliegende Stachelswein.’

There were at least three incidents that the public would have known about in 1940 which proved the Sunderland’s reputation for defence: two occurred during the Norwegian campaign, although perhaps the most dramatic was over the Mediterranean when Italian fighters attacked an aircraft with the War Correspondent Alexander Clifford on board. Sunderland L5804 encountered three Macchi Mc200s on July 28: claiming one shot down in a long battle described in some detail in Clifford’s write-up for several newspapers.

Equally dramatic was an encounter on April 3, in Sunderland N9046, piloted by Flt Lt Frank Phillips. The Sunderland was on patrol of the Norwegian coast, when they had a skirmish with two Ju88s before running into six more. The official Air Ministry announcement stated, `While engaged in patrol duties over the North Sea yesterday (Weds) afternoon, a flying boat of Coastal Command, RAF, encountered six enemy aircraft of the Junkers type. One of the latter was shot down and seen to fall into the sea. The remaining Junkers broke off the engagement and our aircraft resumed patrol.’

The stark statement hides the reality of the battle in which Cpl Lillie in the rear turret was cool enough to hold his fire until the Junkers was only 100 yards away. He watched his prey turn away sharply and spin into the sea. After the badly damaged Sunderland made it safely home, Phillips was awarded a DFC and Lillie the DFM.

It seems that N9046 was the original `Flying Porcupine’. The incident was even used in adverts by Short Brothers soon after the attack.

Later that month, another Sunderland, N9025, fought off a Bf110 over Molde Fjord. The 110 was later reported to have crashed as a result of the damage it received. But the Germans had their share of success against the Sunderlands over Norway, with L5799 lost on April 7 and L2167 lost on April 9, both to a Bf110.

Ironically, the British wartime public never got to see one reason the Germans might have regarded the Sunderland as a porcupine. For much of the war, Sunderlands operated with the dipole ASV radar aerials on the rear fuselage, making it look rather like a spiky hedgehog. But any images showing these aerials were censored in the British wartime press. Even today, these retouched photos are still often used and consequently continue to obscure the importance of radar in the U-Boat battle. And there’s no evidence that the aerials led German aircrew to call the Sunderlands `Stachelswein’.

In 1940, the British needed to be able to celebrate how good their aircraft were – even if only when fighting off attackers. So it seems someone just invented the name.

First Jet Warplanes

In the time since man first battled with his fellow man, aerial warfare takes up a milli-second. Heavier-than-air flight is less than a century old and it was not until 1910 that a military firearm was fired or a dummy bomb dropped from an aeroplane in flight. In the following decade, World War I accelerated aviation technology out of all recognition and airplanes had become an important weapon.

In five short years, they had photographed the front line from the air, sunk submarines, bombed capital cities, and pursued and shot down other aircraft. Over the next two decades, military aviation marked time, with developments of World War I biplanes being used by most air forces until war clouds again loomed over Europe in the late 1930s.

From the first day of World War II, it was clear that aerial warfare would play a crucial role in the outcome of the conflict. The German Blitzkrieg unleashed over Poland, Norway, the Low Countries, and France swept all before it. RAF fighter aircraft saved the British Isles from a German invasion during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, while the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor just over a year later at first caught the world’s most powerful nation totally unprepared, but unleashed aerial retribution such as the world had never witnessed before.

For the next five years, the race for superiority saw unprecedented advances in aviation technology ranging from the development of the jet engine, radar, aircraft carriers, airborne assaults, helicopters, pressurized cockpits, and hydraulically operated folding wings for naval aircraft. Weapon technology saw the introduction of 30mm cannons, flying bombs, guided missiles, “Grand Slam” bombs, ballistic rockets, and the atomic bomb.

By the end of the war, air power could now reduce the world to a wasteland and an even longer struggle for air superiority was about to begin. The dying months of the conflict had seen the so-called Allies involved in a deadly race to capture German aviation designers, technicians, and the experimental aircraft that they had been developing. The results of the captured German research, which were divided between the victorious nations, mainly the United States and the Soviet Union, were integrated with that carried out by their own designers, paving the way for a quantum leap in technology over the next decade.

The impetus for these advances was yet another war, one of a different kind—the Cold War that “broke out” following the Soviet blockade of Berlin in June 1948. This blockade was defeated by an unprecedented US and British airlift to sustain the city that lasted for more than a year. US and Soviet defense budgets mushroomed as the two “Superpowers” raced to replace outdated World War II combat aircraft with state-of-the-art jet warplanes. Some idea of the pace of change can be measured by the world absolute air speed record which stood at 486mph (777kmh) at the end of the war and would more than double in the next decade.

When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the conflict was about to test Soviet and US aviation technology as the Cold War threatened to escalate into World War III. The latest combat aircraft from both “Superpowers” faced each other in a desperate battle for air superiority in the remote Southeast Asian skies. The most successful fighters involved in the Korean War were very similar in design, size and performance. Both the North American F-86 Sabre, which first flew in October 1947, and the Soviet MiG-15 which flew a month later, benefited from German swept-wing research while the Soviet fighter also utilized British jet-engine technology by reverse engineering the Rolls Royce Nene. However, the US fighter had a 10-to-1 kill ratio over the MiGs by the time the conflict ended in July 1953, the Sabre’s ability to absorb battle damage, and the quality of its pilots, being the deciding factors.

The Korean War further escalated the Cold War arms race. The largest slice of the US defense budget at the time went to the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) which ordered more than 2,000 B-47 Stratojet global mission bombers. The futuristic three-man nuclear bomber, powered by six turbojets fitted in pods under a thin swept wing that again was based on German research, had an unrefueled range of nearly 3,000 miles (4,800km). Vast amounts of money was also being poured into the development of supersonic “second generation” fighters which culminated in the American Century Fighter series in the mid-1950s. The first of these was the F-100 Super Sabre which was quickly followed by the F-101 Voodoo and F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart.

Early Post-War Soviet Night Fighter Aircraft

Tu-1 (63P)

MiG-19PM

In 1945 the USSR found itself in possession of not only vast new tracts of land, where it swiftly set up puppet governments, but also thousands of German engineers and scientists, and countless previously unknown items of hardware. Many of the latter were Allied developments, but the greatest effort was put on finding out about German jet and rocket engines. New electronics, especially radar, came a close second. Tens of thousands of prisoners were screened to separate out those with knowledge of these subjects. Very little had been done on radar prior to VE-Day (8 May 1945); Russians said, ‘We were too busy fighting’.

By 1946 substantial research and design teams had been organised to make up for the deficiency, and these naturally made the maximum use of existing German hardware and projects. By the end of that year various radars had flown in Pe-2 and Tu-2 aircraft, and on 22 March 1947 flight-testing began on the Tupolev 63P (P for Perekhvachik, interceptor), with Service designation Tu-1. Distantly derived from the Tu-2S, this impressive three-seater had the awesome armament of two devastating NS-45s under the forward fuselage and two NS-23s in the wing roots, plus upper and lower 12.7 mm UBTs for rear defence. The 63P was the first Soviet aircraft designed to carry AI radar, the installation (called PNB-1 Gneiss-7, gneiss the same word in English) being based on the German FuG 220, with tail warning.

By January 1948 the V-VS (air force) and PVO (air-defence forces) firmed up a long and detailed specification for a jet-propelled night and all-weather interceptor, to be fitted with radar and have the highest possible flight performance (maximum speed was to be not less than 1,000 km/h (621 mph). To support this effort, on 7 December 1948 the Council of Ministers issued a decree calling for the development of the radar, leading to high-priority effort by three specially formed OKBs (experimental design bureaux). Meanwhile, the four principal fighter OKBs also beavered away on the aircraft. Predictably, they all chose to use the imported Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet, which was the most powerful fully developed and flight-cleared engine available. With the Soviet designation RD-45, it had been rushed into production at a complex which originally grew to include five major factories.

Remarkably, three of the OKBs settled on a unique aircraft configuration, which enabled them to use two engines on the centreline. The Lavochkin, MiG and Sukhoi prototypes all had a nose inlet feeding one engine low in the front fuselage, with the jet nozzle under the wing, and a second engine behind the wing with the jet nozzle at the tail. All three used the Toriy (thorium) radar, developed by the KB of A.V. Slepushkin, which provided search, track and gun-ranging using a single mechanically scanned antenna. A minor problem was that the first examples of this radar could not operate at the 8g design limit set for these aircraft. Lavochkin designed the La-200, with the scanner in the centre of a circular nose inlet. Wing sweep was 40°. The MiG R, or I-320, and Sukhoi P, or Su-15 (no relation to a later Su-15), both had an almost untapered wing swept at 35° and the radar scanner in the 12-o’clock position at the top of the nose, above the inlet. Yakovlev used the derived Korshun (kite) radar, and boldly put it above the nose of a small single-seater which was also bold in having bicycle landing gear (like a Harrier) and wing sweep of 45°.

Before any of these prototypes could fly, Mikoyan put prototypes of the Toriy radar into a modified MiG-15bis, and got it on flight test on 23 April 1949. MiG-factory pilots Col. Gregoriy Sedov and A.N. Chernoburov later also tested five more conversions with the improved Toriy-M, but NII-VVS (air force) testing resulted in the conclusion that a single-seat interceptor was simply too difficult, pilot workload being excessive. Mikoyan suggested to Slepushkin that he should work on automatic lock-follow radars, and meanwhile switched his aircraft designers to the Izumrud (emerald), a 60 kW radar with one dish for search and a second for locked-on target tracking, gun aiming and ranging. Meanwhile, the specially designed interceptors were on flight test, the Su-15 on 11 January 1949, the MiG R-1 (first I-320) on 16 April, the Yak-50-I on 15 July and the La-200-01 (without radar) on 9 September 1949. Each had good and bad points, the most serious problems being that, having had to abandon the Su-15 in flight because of violent flutter, the very experienced LII-VVS pilot Sergei Anokhin found that the neat little Yak-50 suffered severe Dutch roll (an uncontrollable oscillation) above Mach 0.92, and in a crosswind or on an icy runway it was uncontrollable.

In any case, none of this first generation went into production, and the first interceptors to do so were SP-7 versions of the single-seat MiG-17, their service designation being MiG-17P (perekhvatchik). These were fitted with the RP-1 Izumrud, with the scanning antenna in the upper lip of the nose inlet and the tracking/ranging dish in a small radome in the centre. Used as trainers by the PVO and AV-MF (naval aviation), they posed the pilot with the problem of a high and sustained workload, and the upper scanner made the view ahead on landing marginally worse. Armament was two NR-23s, each with muzzle horsepower 5.5 times that of a 20 mm Hispano and almost ten times that of a 0.50 in Browning. By 1951 the MiG-15 had been replaced by the 15bis, with the more powerful VK-1A engine, in turn replaced by the completely redesigned MiG-17. In 1953 the MiG bureau rolled out the SP-6, a MiG-17 prototype filled with RP-1U Izumrud which had the capability of providing a circularly polarized beam, locked-on to the target. Along this beam could fly K-5 AAMs (air-to-air missiles) developed by P.D. Grushin’s OKB-2 Almaz (diamond) bureau. Four of these were carried on underwing rails. In 1955 the missile went into production as the RS-1U, and these equipped a small series of production SP-6 aircraft, which received the Service designation MiG-17PFU. These had no guns, and, after upgrading with the RS-2US missile, served as trainers for pilots selected for the MiG-19PM.

The MiG-19 was a completely new design, made possible by slim axial-compressor turbojets designed by S.K. Tumanskiy. He was working in the engine KB of Aleksander Mikulin, so the first of this engine family was designated AM-5. First tested in early 1950, it was rated at 1,900 kg (4,189 lb), and a side-by-side pair were used in the MiG SM-1, or I-340. This was basically a MiG-17, and it reached Mach 0.997 in level flight. Mikoyan’s team were by this time building the SM-2, or I-360. This was a totally fresh design, with a longer fuselage, slim wings swept at 55° and a high T-tail. Fitted with twin AM-5A engines, it flew on 24 May 1952, and led to the production MiG-19, with many changes, including a low-mounted tailplane. The MiG-19S introduced an all-moving (so-called ‘slab’) tailplane, and by 1954 it had led to a series of SM-7 prototypes which in turn led to the production MiG-19P. These were gun-armed interceptors with RP-5 Izumrud radar and two of the devastating NR-30 guns, the engines being the AM-9 each rated at 3,250 kg (7,165 lb) with afterburner. Level speed was Mach 1.35. By 1957 surviving aircraft were brought up to the standard of the MiG-19PM, fitted with RP-2U Izumrud 2 and four RS-2U missiles. By this time newer interceptors were available, and only about 260 MiG-19PM aircraft were delivered, of which half went to Warsaw Pact countries. More significantly, five were sent in crates to China, where such aircraft were to become much more important.

By 1951 the need for a night and all-weather interceptor had become urgent, to counter the menace of the USAF Strategic Air Command with jet bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons. On 10 August of that year the Council of Ministers, accepting that the first crop of such aircraft (described previously) were inadequate, issued a decree calling for a superior aircraft. Tupolev’s OKB was overloaded with large strategic aircraft, Sukhoi’s had been closed, and Mikoyan was fully occupied with the small aircraft already described, and with plans for much faster aircraft with delta (triangular) wings. Lavochkin persisted with the La-200B, with the engine installation modified with three inlets (the bottom one feeding the front engine, the side inlets serving the rear engine) leaving the nose free for a large radome housing the 1 m scanner of the RP-6 Sokol (falcon) radar. First flown on 3 July 1952, it could be seen from the start to be a basic design developed too far, and not in the same class as its Yakovlev rival.

The Yak-120 was virtually the little Yak-50 scaled up, retaining the same arrangement of nose radar, mid-mounted wing and bicycle landing gear. The differences were that under the wings were two of the slim AM-5 engines, each rated at 2,000 kg (4,410 lb), and behind the pilot was a second cockpit for a radar operator. The ailerons and elevators were hydraulically boosted, and fuel capacity was no less than 3,445 litres (758 Imp. gallons). The radar was to be RP-1 Izumrud, and there was a most comprehensive fit of all-weather avionics for navigation and blind landing. Armament comprised two of the awesome N-37L cannon. The first of two prototypes flew on 19 June 1952, and by late 1954 the production aircraft had entered PVO service, with the designation Yak-25 (a designation which had been used previously for a much smaller jet fighter). After delivering sixty-seven aircraft, production switched in 1956 to the Yak-25M, with RP-6 Sokol radar, RD-5A engines (AM-5A redesignated after Mikulin’s departure) rated at 2,600 kg (5,732 lb) and various other changes. The production plant (GAZ-292, at Saratov) delivered 406 Yak-25M aircraft by early 1957.