Mysterious Flights Over the Kremlin


In the vicinity of Moscow, the night of 9/10 February 1943 was full of mysterious events. About 19.20 soldiers at Observation Post No. 2 of the 1204th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, located near the village of Chernaja Gryaz on the Leningrad highway, heard the faint noise of an engine. The observers took it for a car on the road. But then there was a series of explosions and machine-gun fire. Later it turned out that several other observers had seen a plane without any identification markings. By the sound of the engine, they had identified it as a Soviet R-5 biplane. No hostile aircraft could possibly be flying just 6km from the suburbs of Moscow Khimki and only 25km from the Kremlin itself! Only the crew of a searchlight position of the 251st Independent Anti-Aircraft Artillery Division suggested from the engine sound that it might be a German Hs 126. Seven high-explosive bombs were dropped by it, as a result of which houses in the village of Elino were destroyed and troops from a unit marching along the Leningrad highway were also killed or injured.

In fact, the aircraft was an He 46 of 1.Behelfsst LK Ost. This squadron was a German response to the actions of the harassing Soviet U-2 aircraft, which annoyed German troops every night. These biplanes flew at low level, suddenly appearing from behind the trees and dropped small bombs on the Germans’ billets. German biplanes repaid the Russians in the same coin. 1.Behelfsst LK Ost (in summer 1943 renamed 1./Stoer/LF6) used a variety of older aircraft such as the Ar 66, Go 145, He 46 and Fw 58.

In 1943, Moscow’s air defences were the most powerful in the Soviet Union. The Moscow PVO front consisted of fifteen anti-aircraft artillery divisions (ZenAD), three anti-aircraft machine-gun divisions, four anti-aircraft searchlight divisions and two VNOS divisions. They were armed with 1,447 guns, 30 fire-direction stations and several radar stations. The 6th Fighter Aviation Corps (6th IAK) consisted of 450 aircraft, including the British Hurricane, and the American Bell P-39 Airacobra and Curtiss P-40. But these forces were formidable only in the daytime. At night, the airspace around Moscow was in complete chaos. Many Russian bombers were carrying out air attacks on German-held territory. Despite strict prohibitions and penalties, Russian pilots regularly violated their instructions, flying directly over the cities and even the Kremlin. They often lost their bearings and dropped bombs on friendly towns and villages. For example, on the evening of 15 May, a Pe-8 heavy bomber dropped seven high-explosive bombs near the village of Sinitza, and an Il-4 bomber was caught in the searchlights over Moscow, but the pilot of the fighter sent to intercept it managed to correctly identify the aircraft before he opened fire. The next night, a Russian plane accidentally dropped an incendiary bomb on the village of Kudrino, resulting in the destruction of seven buildings. And such events occurred regularly.

This chaos was added to by the Luftwaffe. In the Moscow area night reconnaissance Do 217s of 2.(F)/Nacht, Bf 110 night fighters from NJG100 and the ‘disturbing bombers’ of 1./Stoer/LF6 all regularly flew. The Russians monitored their airspace, but in complete darkness could not correctly identify all aircraft. All this allowed the Luftwaffe to deliver agents directly to the vicinity of the Soviet capital.

A typical story took place in the Moscow region on the night of 2/3 May 1943. At 23.45 near the city of Aleksin a twin-engined aircraft was seen heading north-east towards the city of Kashira. VNOS posts confidently identified it as ‘one of our Il-4s’. Flying along the bend of the Oka river and past the city of Kolomna, it passed near the town of Yegoryevsk and turned to the north. There was nothing suspicious about this: almost every night dozens of Soviet bombers returned to their airfields around Moscow. Flying directly over Moscow was strictly forbidden, so all the crews had to go around it in an arc. But when the strange plane reached the city of Orekhovo-Zuyevo, it, later identified as an ‘Li-2’ (a licensed Soviet copy of the American DC-3 (C-47) Dakota), turned back, followed the same course to the south-west and at 01.22 retired towards the city of Orel.

Later it was reported that in the area of Gubino (east of Orekhovo-Zuyevo) one high-explosive and five incendiary bombs had been dropped by this ‘Li-2’. A few hours after that it became known that near the town of Petushki two agents who had been dropped from the lone plane had been arrested. In their testimony, they explained that the plane really was a Dakota.

Another flight by the German Dakota was recorded on the night of 12/13 May. At 23.10 it had attached itself to a flight of Russian bombers returning from a raid and was 10km south of the city of Kashira, north of Koloma. Then it separated from the bombers and, passing south of Yegoryevsk, disappeared to the east. At 02.11 it was sighted again, north of Ryazan, then it flew between the cities of Kolomna and Kashira, over Tarusa and Detchino and on into German-held territory. Given its long flight in Soviet airspace, it had probably delivered agents and saboteurs somewhere in the Gorky region. The headquarters of the Soviet air defences concluded that this captured aircraft was being used for secret missions. The crew obviously had knowledge of Russian air operation and routes, and knew the terrain.

At 00.57 on 26 May two agents were dropped from the German plane near the city of Pogoreloe Gorodishhe. In the morning one of them surrendered to the chairman of the local village council in the morning, handing over weapons and explosives given to him by the German secret service. The second agent was arrested by the council chairman and a gunner from the anti-aircraft battery near the village of Ivashkovo.

On the night of 3/4 July, flights by Bf 110s and Hs 126s were recorded over Moscow (as the Russians always identified the He 46s and Go 145s of 1./Stoer/LF6). In addition, a suspicious aircraft identified as a ‘captured Il-4 bomber’ was spotted. It flew over Airfield No 3 where it was illuminated by searchlights, immediately firing a flare signalling ‘I am a friendly aircraft’. Russian night fighters were unable to intercept any of the targets. At 00.14 near the village of Ochnikovo the mysterious aircraft dropped a group of three agents, one of whom in the morning surrendered to the Soviet authorities. The other two fled, but were later arrested by NKGB officers.

On the night of 5/6 July, agents disguised as Red Army captains were dropped from an aircraft (again identified as an ‘Il-4’) in several places (such as the village of Duhovka and Konstantinovka station), some of whom were detained ‘in hot pursuit’.

Late in the evening on 27 July, six aircraft identified by the Russians as ‘Me-110s’ (Bf 110s), conducted reconnaissance and bombing in the areas of Gzhatsk, Vyazma and Temkino. North-east of Vyazma alone fifty high-explosive bombs were dropped on various targets. The 263th OZAD opened fire fourteen times, expending almost 1,000 shells. Between 23.10 and 02.17 an aircraft, again identified as an ‘Il-4’, flew along the route Sychevka–Novo-Zavidovo–Pereslavl-Zalessky–Alexandrov–Dmitrov–Volokolamsk–Sychevka and then to Smolensk. In the forest north-east of Moscow the next group of agents was delivered.

On the night of 27/28 July, another group of agents was delivered from an unidentified aircraft south-east of the city of Ryazan (south-east of Moscow). One of them was arrested at noon the next day near the village of Bogdanov (17km south-east of Ryazan). When caught the ‘Red Army soldier’ was found with a radio, a revolver and 43,500 roubles. Some saboteurs were arrested immediately at the time of the sabotage. However, the object of the diversion raises a question about the intellectual suitability, both of the agent and his teachers in the intelligence school. On 27 July the commander of one of the VNOS posts, Makarov, arrested a German agent who was trying to set fire to a field of rye with an incendiary bomb.

RAF Set To Retire Older Typhoons, Chinooks And Other Types Following The Defence Review. Here’s Our Analysis. — The Aviationist

The Defence Review, which will radically transform the Royal Air Force, Army and Navy by the next decade, has been described as one of the largest since the Cold War. The UK’s government published the […] The post RAF Set To Retire Older Typhoons, Chinooks And Other Types Following The Defence Review. Here’s Our Analysis.…

RAF Set To Retire Older Typhoons, Chinooks And Other Types Following The Defence Review. Here’s Our Analysis. — The Aviationist


Thomas Murray was born in Dorset at the end of May 1918, four months after the RAF was created from the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Thomas’s father, a former Royal Marines officer, had been involved at its inception, setting up the RAF’s secretarial branch, and rising to the rank of Group Captain. Charles Murray, however, wanted his son to go into his old service – the navy – and although young Thomas grew up in an RAF family, he hadn’t initially felt any great interest in flying himself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t make model aircraft or read books about the heroics of the early aviators. But in 1929, when his father was stationed at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire, all that changed.

‘I remember the moment I knew I was going to be a pilot. I was lying in a field near my school, right next to the airfield. The sun was out and I was watching a Hawker biplane. He performed a spin right over my head! I was totally captivated – as he spiralled down, he was pointing straight at me. I knew, at that moment, I would go into the Air Force. My first flight was at the age of eleven at RAF Halton. The pilot told me what a wonderful privilege it was to be up in the air, at one with the birds. To show this, he found a heron flying along a stream, which he formatted on!’

Thomas underwent a full medical examination at his father’s RAF station and had several hours’ experience under his belt by the time he went up to the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. On 5 February 1937 he first went solo – ‘Fifteen glorious minutes of freedom! – Aerobatics and spinning, with some low flying thrown in for good measure!’ He also learned that ‘just flying the aircraft, performing aerobatics well, and formation flying, were not the only skills to be mastered for the new era of RAF pilot. The importance of being able to fly on instruments [flying ‘blind’ in cloud or at night] was becoming a higher priority.’

Thomas joined the RAF at a time when it was expanding and changing. Bomber Command was formed in July 1936, and during the second half of the decade a number of twin-engined bombers were belatedly developed – Blenheims, Hampdens, Whitleys and Wellingtons. But there was a need for heavier, longer-range aircraft that were also capable of carrying a bigger bombload.

The first of these four-engined bombers to enter service was the Short Stirling – notoriously difficult to handle on take-off and landing – in 1940. The Handley Page Halifax followed in November that year. It wasn’t the answer either. Crews quickly nicknamed it the ‘Halibag’. It could carry a 14,500lb payload, but not high enough to avoid enemy interceptors. More powerful engines were installed, but the capacity of its bomb bay couldn’t be increased. The Stirling was withdrawn from Bomber Command service about halfway through the war. The Halifax flew on operations until the end. But something better was needed.


The Avro Lancaster was something better. It came into existence almost by accident, and as a result of private determination rather than official encouragement, born of its forerunner, the ‘Manchester’.

A. V. Roe & Company was founded in 1910 in Manchester by Alliott Verdon Roe and his brother Humphrey. In 1911, Alliott hired the volatile but gifted eighteen-year-old Roy Chadwick as his personal assistant. By 1918, Chadwick, a talented draughtsman, had become a designer in his own right. Avro ran into financial difficulties owing to a lack of post-First World War orders, and by 1935, both founding brothers having left the company, it had become a subsidiary of Hawker Siddeley. Chadwick stayed on as designer-in-chief, and paired up with a new managing director, the energetic and equally fiery Roy Dobson, who’d joined in 1914 at the age of twenty-three. By mid-1940, they were working on a new, improved version of their twin-engined bomber, which they’d named after the city of their birth.

At the time of the Manchester’s introduction in November 1940, Thomas Murray was an experienced and seasoned pilot on Hampdens. Thomas flew his first sortie as a second pilot/navigator on 21 December 1939 against the pocket battleship Deutschland, holed up in a Norwegian fjord. ‘We never found it as we had no radio transmitters then, and had to send each other coded letters via a signal lamp, which made things even more complicated. I remember seeing something which looked like a pocket battleship, so we all roared towards it with open bomb doors. It turned out to be a lighthouse on a low-lying island! We must have scared the lighthouse-keeper somewhat.’

Mine-laying and ‘nickelling’ sorties (dropping propaganda leaflets over German cities) followed. At this early stage of the war, ops were usually limited to small numbers of aircraft. The crews were trailblazing for Bomber Command – six-hour night flights, with no autopilot, navigating by compass and stopwatch – and the lessons learned would be invaluable later.

When the first Manchesters were delivered to Thomas’s squadron at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, they were seen as a big improvement on the twin-engined aircraft already in service with Bomber Command. With a crew of seven, it was ultimately powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Vulture IIs, comprising four cylinder blocks from the earlier Peregrine engine, joined by a common crankshaft and mounted on a single crankcase. They delivered around 1,500 horsepower, about 250 less than anticipated, and once in operational service, from early 1941, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t capable of climbing above German anti-aircraft fire. Worse still, the engines were prone to sudden failure, and if one Vulture failed, the remaining engine couldn’t bridge the gap. Improvements were attempted, but with little effect.

Thomas Murray took a Manchester up for the first time on 1 May 1941, and then flew them for a week or so to ‘really get to grips with its handling’, prior to his unit’s conversion from Hampdens. ‘My first impression was that it was a very big aircraft compared with the Hampden. Although it was pleasant to fly, light on the controls, it was colossally underpowered. Our training was on the squadron and not all that methodical – we learned as we went along. These were desperate times, so the aircraft was rushed into service long before it was operationally fit, and while it still had many teething problems. It was light on the ailerons, but unfortunately not at all reliable.’

The authorities had indeed been frantic to get a new, improved bomber into the skies, and turned a blind eye to the Manchester’s failings. Always a man of measured judgement, Thomas Murray became increasingly sceptical. ‘When you were taxiing out with a full bombload, the centre of gravity was slightly wrong, so that the tailwheel would shimmy and be damaged. It meant changing that wheel before you took off. That delay killed a friend of mine. He was at the end of the runway waiting to have his tailwheel changed. As he took off and climbed away, a [marauding German] fighter took him out.’

He had further concerns: ‘The engines themselves were totally unreliable. There were spots where the coolant couldn’t reach so the engines would overheat and start engine fires after a few hours’ running. The hydraulics system, on which the operation of the flaps, undercarriage, bomb doors and turrets depended, was subject to leaking and consequently failure.’

Thomas felt that flying a Manchester demanded the advanced skills of a test pilot, rather than those of a ‘regular’ bomber pilot. Unnervingly, the aircraft were grounded again and again during May 1941 due to recurring engine problems, and when they did fly, ‘I remember my first full bombload take-off. I got the thing airborne and that’s all I could do. It flew along the runway but it looked as if I’d hit the hedge at the end. So I banged the aircraft back down on the ground and fortunately it bounced back into the air, staggering over the hedge. RAF Waddington is on a ridge, and as I went over the edge I managed to get the aircraft’s nose down and increase the speed sufficiently to climb away. We had to fly straight ahead, carrying on for about 5 miles before we dared turn. If you had an engine go on take-off you were a goner.’

A desperate plan was concocted to fly a Manchester continuously around the country until an engine failed, in the hope that the aircraft would nevertheless be able to land safely, the faulty component be identified and sent to Rolls-Royce for examination. On one such flight, Thomas Murray’s own squadron commander headed for Land’s End before turning north towards the Isle of Man. Hardly had he done so than the starboard engine caught fire. He immediately lost height, and ordered the crew to jettison the guns and the dummy bombload to lose weight. He changed course again – for a fighter base near Perranporth in Cornwall, where the strip was too short to land the giant bomber so they had to retract the undercarriage. Skidding along the runway they smashed through two hedges and across a road before a parked lorry finally brought them to a standstill. ‘So Rolls-Royce got their engine and I had to fly down and pick up the crew the following day.’

Thomas Murray flew his last raid in a Manchester over the Krupp’s plant in Essen, in the Ruhr industrial area – ‘Happy Valley’ as the bomber crews called it – with a new navigation system on several of the aircraft. Known as GEE (Ground Electronic Equipment), it received two synchronised pulses transmitted from Britain and determined its position – accurate to within a few hundred yards and effective at up to 350 miles – from the time delay between them. But there were teething troubles. During Thomas’s Krupp’s raid, the GEE-equipped aircraft marking the target with flares were followed by bombers with incendiaries, which obscured the view of the target, causing the next wave to drop their high explosives to little effect.

‘It was one of the worst trips I had to the Ruhr,’ Thomas recalled.

This failure added to the increasing despondency of Manchester pilots. Pip Beck, a nineteen-year-old WAAF radio operator at Waddington, summed up the situation: ‘Anyone who could survive a tour on a Manchester could fly, and was also lucky!’

Further development of Vulture engines was cancelled at the end of 1941 – ‘much to the relief of Rolls-Royce’, as Thomas said – and the Manchesters were withdrawn in mid-1942, after nearly two years’ service, during which they managed 1,269 sorties and dropped 1,826 tons of bombs. Only 209 were built, a disastrous 40 per cent were lost on operations, and a further 25 per cent crashed.

The Ministry of Aircraft Production requested that the Avro plant now be turned over to production of the Halifax, but Avro’s Chadwick and Dobson believed that within their failed twin-engined bomber lay the seeds of a much better, four-engined aircraft. And many of the machine tools used in the production of the Manchester could continue to be used in its production, thus avoiding huge extra costs. So it was that Roy Chadwick persisted in the teeth of initial indifference and even obstruction in official circles, and he and Roy Dobson finally won through. Their partnership – overseeing design and production respectively – was, fortunately for Britain, a brilliant one.

After a series of successful test flights at Ringway (now the site of Manchester International Airport) by test pilot Harry Albert ‘Sam’ Brown, the first four-engined Manchester III BT308 was delivered in late January 1941 to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire for evaluation. As well as a distinctive twin-finned tailplane, it boasted an extra fin at the rear of the fuselage. A second prototype, fitted with four improved Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engines, took to the skies in mid-May, minus the middle fin. This prototype, DG595, was to be the model for future production, which continued with little variation, except for adaptation for specific tasks and to carry specific bomb-loads, throughout the war.


The new engine, deriving from a Merlin type that had been in development for eight years and was powering the increasingly successful Spitfire fighter, arrived with perfect timing. The twelve-cylinder, 60-degree, upright V-shape engine delivered 1,280 horsepower and was to become its standard plant, propelling the aircraft and providing the hydraulic power for the gun turrets and other onboard functions.3 The Merlins drove four three-bladed propellers with a diameter of 13ft, and could get the crew home even if only two were functioning. One engine was enough to keep the bomber airborne, often for long enough to make the difference between capture and safety, death or survival.

There was to be no co-pilot, unlike in the Manchester; a flight engineer would take overall responsibility for the aircraft’s mechanical smooth-running, and act as support pilot should the need arise. The Manchester, for all its faults, had paved the way for a revolutionary new aircraft, the most advanced bomber the world had yet seen.

After the Boscombe Down tests, the design was approved and officially adopted, and its new name formally accepted. On 28 February 1941, a new British legend, the mighty Lancaster bomber, was born. Its fuselage was just over 69ft long, and its wingspan 102ft. It stood a little over 20 feet high, and was powerful enough to take off at an overall maximum weight, depending on variant, of 68,000lb. In the air, it could achieve speeds of up to 282mph and could climb to a height of 21,400ft, at a rate of 720ft per minute, carrying a normal bombload of 14,000lb. Protected by two 0.303-inch Browning Mark II machine guns in the nose and mid-upper turret, and four in the rear turret, the aircraft was designed to carry the largest possible number of bombs the greatest possible distance. It was an airborne bomb carrier, built to the highest specifications, and its business was destruction.

With sleek yet businesslike lines, massive and reassuring to its friends, menacing and deadly to its foes, it was like nothing that had come before. Its fuel capacity of over 2,000 gallons and range of 2,530 miles meant it could take the battle to the very heart of Nazi Germany, and, alongside the young men training to fly her, the Lancaster would have a profound effect on the course of the war.

Thomas Murray had his first crack at flying a Lancaster prototype early in October 1941 and was an immediate and enthusiastic convert. ‘It took off like a startled stallion.’ It was as light as a feather and handled beautifully, almost dancing in the air. Amazingly manoeuvrable, Thomas found it ‘a tonic after the lumbering Manchester’. Very soon, the bomber had acquired its affectionate nickname – the ‘Lanc’. And, as promised, ‘It flew happily on one of its four engines!’

The early-production Lancaster, the B1, took its maiden flight on 31 October 1941. Almost two months later, 44 Squadron, based at Waddington, took delivery of the operational aircraft.

Pip Beck remembered their arrival.

‘On Christmas Eve 1941, 44’s first Lancasters arrived – a magnificent Christmas present for the squadron. It was with intense interest that everyone in Flying Control watched their approach and landing. As the first of the three taxied round the perimeter to the Watch Office, I stared in astonishment at this formidable and beautiful aircraft, cockpit as high as the balcony on which I stood and great spread of wings with four enormous engines. Its lines were sleek and graceful, and yet there was an awesome feeling of power about it. It looked so right after the clumsiness of the Manchester. Their arrival meant a new programme of training for the air and ground crews and there were no operations until the crews had thoroughly familiarised themselves with the Lancasters. There were one or two minor accidents – changing from a twin-engined aircraft to a heavier one with four engines must have presented some difficulties, but the crews took to them rapidly. I heard nothing but praise for the Lancs.’4

There was a special feeling of bonhomie on Christmas Day 1941, as the officers, in time-honoured tradition, donned aprons and served the ‘other ranks’ their Christmas dinner. That winter was a particularly bitter one, but somehow hope had now dared to raise its head. One of Pip Beck’s special friends was a Rhodesian named Cecil, after his country’s founder, Cecil Rhodes. Cecil had come to Britain to work as an RAF aircraft fitter while waiting for a place on a pilots’ course.

‘Cecil had a food parcel from home containing all sorts of good things, including a gorgeous rich fruitcake. He decided to have a party, since discipline was somewhat relaxed for Christmas Day. We fell on the contents of the food parcel with great enjoyment and appreciation, demolishing the rich tinned soup, tinned ham, and sweetcorn served on toast – and, of course, the fruitcake and some chocolate. It was all delicious. The only thing not available was alcohol, but I don’t think we noticed; our spirits were high enough anyway.’

Hope was in the air. Perhaps Christmas 1941 might be the last Christmas at war?


Roy Chadwick’s aim had been to keep the design as simple as possible. The Lancaster would be built in a series of sections, each fully finished, so that they could be transported – by road and rail – from any given factory to a different assembly site, close to an airfield. Each Lancaster cost around £50,000 to produce – more than four times as much as a Spitfire5 – but its simplicity made for shorter man-hours, and as 1941 and the first half of 1942 saw the Germans still in the ascendant, the need for a speedy production line was vital.6

‘Keeping it simple’ may have been Roy Chadwick’s watchword, but a great deal went into achieving that, involving thousands of male and female workers, huge factories, vast drawing offices and an efficient, smooth-running timetable. The process wasn’t always perfect, and simple though its essential design was, each Lancaster was made up of around 55,000 separate parts, if you included the rivets and nuts and bolts that held it together. To assemble a Lancaster took 500,000 different manufacturing processes, occupying over 70,000 man-hours. Nevertheless, 7,377 rolled off the production lines during the five years of its manufacture.

Ted Watson visited a factory and was enormously impressed.

‘We could watch the Lancasters being assembled – here were some of the machines I would go to war in. We were even allowed to help on the production line. The process was impressive and it gave confidence that everything was being done correctly! We had a tour round a brand-new Lanc and it looked so smart and pristine, everything was in order, it was clean and calm, and as we looked over each crew position it looked like an impressive workshop – a nice place to work. Of course, I had no idea how that sense of calmness would change when we were working in the Lanc in its proper role!’7

The oval fuselage, aluminium sheets riveted onto a light-alloy skeleton, was designed to be produced in five sections, which not only made transport easier, but meant that if one were damaged, it could be easily replaced. The wings comprised fourteen segments. The central sections were attached by massive spar booms which crossed the fuselage at thigh height. Lancasters were built to dispense bombs, not for comfort. The main spar was just aft of the radio operator’s seat; the rear one about 8ft further back, near a stowage area for parachutes. This crucial assembly, checked and checked again before release from the factory, was vital to the Lancaster’s safety. Tailplanes were also divided into units: the 12ft fins and the 33ft span.

The final touch was the paint; greens and browns on the upper surfaces, matt black underneath. The RAF roundels and the identification numbers and letters were the only bright spots on the entire aircraft. Painting was not an easy job, however. Protective face masks were not yet used, and conditions for workers weren’t easy overall. Machinist Lilian Grundy8 recalled working ten-hour days making bolts for the Lancaster. The conditions were dreadful: ‘It was like going into a dungeon and the noise was horrendous. They had you at the machines all the time.’ At the height of production, shifts were twelve hours long, and the factories worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Chadderton, Avro’s massive factory near Oldham, complete with an impressive art-deco façade, was responsible for producing over 3,000 Lancasters. It was built in 1938 with the help of a government grant of £1 million. With a floor area of around 750,000 square feet, it was by far the largest aircraft factory of the time, twice the size of any other, and by 1939 it had become Avro’s headquarters. Initially used to build Blenheims, it was given over to Lancaster production from autumn 1941. At night the factory was cavernously dark – the only lights were those used to illuminate the workbenches and the work areas – and the noise was perpetually deafening. Panel-beaters, working without ear shields, had one of the worst jobs. Geoff Bentley, aged fourteen when he started at Chadderton, described it as ‘a hell of a factory’.

‘You could see the Lancasters for miles, fifty of them lined up at a time. Chadderton was a lovely building at the front, with a beautiful big reception and staircase, a bit like a film set. But the factory was so noisy. The riveters would be going all day. I worked for a while in the machine shop, and when those massive presses dropped down, the whole place shuddered.’9

The hard work at the factories soon began to pay off. Thomas Murray’s squadron was stood down to convert to the Lancaster shortly after their last disastrous raid on Essen in a Manchester.

‘At last we had a reliable aircraft with an excellent bombload, rate of climb, and operational ceiling,’ Thomas said. Everyone was more than ready to welcome the new arrival, with new hope and vigour in their hearts. And it wouldn’t be very long before the new aircraft would be getting its first taste of action. Early in 1942, Lancasters were being delivered to Bomber Command squadrons for operational use, replacing outmoded models faster and faster as production increased. Thomas could almost hear the aircrews’ sigh of relief. The effect on morale was palpable.

George VI and Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to the largest factory at Yeadon, Yorkshire, in March 1942. Two recently completed Lancasters were named in their honour. The Times later reported that the King and Queen had both displayed extensive technical knowledge of aviation in their conversations with Chadwick and Dobson – the ‘two Roys’ as they’d become known.

Triumphantly reported by Pathé Gazette, another visit to the Avro factories a month or so later by Squadron Leader John Nettleton and his much-decorated crew from 44 Squadron had an even greater significance for the panel-beaters, pop-riveters, electricians, hydraulic engineers, draughtsmen and everyone else who contributed to the creation of the new bomber. They had recently returned from the Lancaster’s first significant venture, during which Nettleton had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest award for valour, in recognition of his ‘unflinching determination and leadership’.

Kay Mitchell had a newspaper picture of John Nettleton pinned to her workbench instead of the portraits of film stars favoured by the other factory workers. She was overjoyed when the Squadron Leader, looking every bit as pleased and shy as she did, was invited to sign it.

Air Support – Kursk

The campaign against the Soviet Union in 1941 began in the same manner, in what had now become standard Luftwaffe doctrine. The Russian Air Force was attacked with great effect, which resulted in the destruction of over 1200 Soviet aircraft by noon of the first day. Support was then shifted to aiding the army in making penetrations and providing Close Air Support to rapidly moving ground units. However, it quickly became evident that the Luftwaffe was not large enough to cover the extensive expanses of the battlefields on the eastern front. Even as early as 1941, Luftwaffe units were subject to frequent lateral movements on the front in order to provide Close Air Support to outnumbered German ground forces to allow them to maintain momentum.

By the end of 1942, the use of airpower along the front lines in direct support of the army no longer assured victory. Because of the increasing capability of the Soviets to re-supply and reinforce the front lines, the Luftwaffe began to shift its emphasis toward interdiction. Changes were made to make the tactical forces of the Luftwaffe more flexible. At the same time units became more functionally oriented. This new orientation led to the creation of such elements as night harassment squadrons, used against Soviet troop concentrations; anti-tank squadrons using Hs-129, Me-110, Ju-87 and Ju-88 aircraft; and railway interdiction squadrons using the Ju-88.

The backbone of the Luftwaffe’s tactical support inventory was the Ju-87 Stuka. This aircraft was a single-engine, fixed-gear dive-bomber crewed by a pilot and a rear-facing gunner. It was developed during the 1930’s by Ernst Udet, the head of the Air Ministry’s production division. Udet had been infatuated by dive-bomb tactics developed in the United States. The Stuka was built not so much for its load-carrying capacity or range but because of its accurate ordnance-delivery capability. It was accurate because it could withstand the steep dive angles necessary for pin-point bombing. The Stuka proved itself well in the role for which it was designed, but in later years of the war its limited speed and maneuverability became liabilities in the face of increased Soviet counter-air capability.

The aircraft which was to take the place of the Stuka was the FW-190. This aircraft was much more maneuverable, although it carried about the same bomb load as the Ju-87. One advantage of the FW-190 was the outfitting of some models with heavy caliber rockets, allowing the Luftwaffe to institute low altitude delivery techniques against concentrations of troops and supplies. These tactics decreased exposure to antiaircraft fire and greatly increased the survivability of the FW-190 as compared to the Stuka. Later versions were equipped with 30mm cannon and given a purely anti-tank role. However, production was not started on the FW-190 until late 1941 and then only in an air-to-air version. Despite its effectiveness, it was not delivered to ground attack squadrons until just before the Battle of Kursk, and then in limited numbers.

The Henschel Hs-129 was a twin-engined aircraft designed as a tank destroyer. It was heavily armored and heavily armed with from 30mm up to 75mm cannons. The 75mm gun fired a round with a weight of 26 pounds, capable of penetrating any armor. Hs-129 squadrons were responsible for repulsing the attack of an entire Russian tank brigade during the Battle of Kursk. However, as was the case with many German aircraft by the end of the war, increased numbers of Soviet aircraft made the Hs-129 extremely vulnerable to the point where per mission losses were excessive, sometimes running as high as 20%.

Two bombers made up the remainder of the Luftwaffe’s direct support forces. The first, the Ju-88, was a twin-engined bomber served by a crew of four. It could carry a bomb load almost three times that of the FW-190 or the Ju-87 and was equipped with 30mm cannon on some versions. The second bomber, the Heinkel He-111, also had two engines but one more crew member than the Ju-88. The He-Ill was significantly slower than the Ju-88 and had shown itself to be vulnerable to fighter attack as early as the Battle of Britain. These two bombers were used in this role mainly due to the lack of sufficient numbers of ground-attack fighters. By late 1943 both were switched back to the mission of strategic bombing.

A point here about equipment needs emphasis. The Luftwaffe’s slowness in developing and fielding the ground-attack version of the FW-190 was a significant error. The Ju-87 needed a minimum ceiling of 2600 feet to operate effectively. This limitation often denied ground forces support in time of poor weather. Additionally, the high altitude approaches required made dive bombing a highly vulnerable tactic in the face of effective antiaircraft fire. In fact, as early as 1934 von Richtofen had stated that advances in antiaircraft made dive bombing techniques “complete nonsense.”  Until the Battle of Kursk, however, the Luftwaffe had been very successful with the Ju-87. Therefore, they neglected the FW-190 as a ground-support aircraft and the warnings of von Richtoffen as well.

The Luftwaffe was also ill-prepared to face the Soviets with regards to the proper types of munitions. Standard high-explosive bombs were not effective in stopping heavily armored vehicles and tanks. Rapid work was done to improve and deploy ordnance with penetrating capability such as cannon and shaped-charge munitions. This development was somewhat successful, although the fitting of a particular weapon to an aircraft was often done in an improvised manner as exemplified when external cannons were mounted on the Stuka. The result was a decrease in speed and maneuverability in an aircraft already lacking in these critical areas.

Headquarters were organized two different ways. Initially they were assigned directly to the Army Command. In such cases the army decided the tasks to be carried out; however; the Luftwaffe staff made all decisions regarding mission execution, This concept was modified in 1942 in order to give the Luftwaffe more operational control over its own forces. After that time, Air Fleets were attached by air liaison office to the army command, normally at the Army Group level. This new system economized on the size of Luftwaffe staffs. An attempt was still made to align an Air Fleet to each Army Group’s area of operation.

Luftwaffe personnel were trained early in their service in the intricacies of providing tactical support to the Army and in army tactics in general. These tactics were taught at the Luftwaffe Air Command and General Staff College as well as in other joint schools. There was also a separate dive-bomber school which specialized in the tactics of providing Close Air Support, Training doctrine always emphasized that the Luftwaffe was designed to attack the enemy’s rear areas in the interdiction role. In the field, the army maintained an instructional staff at Luftwaffe units to keep them well briefed on the latest ground tactics. Additionally, many tactics bulletins were disseminated, giving the views of senior Luftwaffe and army tacticians.

By mid-1943, the doctrine embraced by the Luftwaffe was a modification of that which had been originally printed in Air Field Manual No. 16. As late as the eve of the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, interdiction was considered by Luftwaffe leaders to be the most decisive mission for airpower and this point continued to be stated doctrine. Attacks were to disrupt the enemy’s flow of supplies, troops and equipment to the front. Since these targets would be large and concentrated they would prove to be extremely vulnerable to attacks by the Luftwaffe. Attacks along the front were to be avoided since the targets there were necessarily dispersed and would not provide good results. Finally, Luftwaffe commanders felt airpower used to improve force ratios of ground units was to be avoided at all costs since such use was least effective. This last mission was later to become the one most commonly assigned to the Luftwaffe at Kursk.

The planning for Battlefield Air Interdiction missions was begun at Army Group – Air Fleet levels where the Luftwaffe’s capability to carry out a mission was analyzed. If the Luftwaffe staff determined that the mission was within the capability of the Luftwaffe, the mission statement was issued. The assignment of specific missions was accomplished by the flying units themselves. The combination of fighter-bombers and fighter escorts was determined by the Air Fleet staff based on aircraft availability and the status of the Soviet threat. The Luftwaffe operated under the overall tactical principle that once a target was engaged it would be engaged by multiple attacks until it was destroyed. Therefore, extensive use of aerial reconnaissance continued. Dive-bombers were generally assigned point targets which required greater accuracy, while low-level attacks were used against area targets. It was also felt that low-level attacks could produce the extra benefit of affecting the enemy’s morale.

Timely engagement of interdiction targets was critical. By early 1943 the Luftwaffe realized that strikes at interdiction targets would have an effect on the front line siguation within a few days. Soviet strategy all along the eastern front was to fight a battle in one area and then shift emphasis to another. Lateral mobility became an extremely important factor in Soviet and German plans. By 1943 interdiction became essential in combating the lateral movement of Soviet forces. Later in the war, notably after the fall of Orel in August 1943, the inability of the Luftwaffe (and the entire German war machine for that matter) to move rapidly to counter Soviet thrusts would prove to be decisive to Soviet victory.

The Soviets were fond of massing troops in large concentrations close to the front lines in preparation for any operation. In 1941, the Luftwaffe often engaged Soviet troop columns in excess of 100 34 yards wide.  However, the best target was the Russian rail system. This was true for a number of reasons, of which the lack of an effective road system over which large amounts of heavy equipment could be transported was primary. Rainy weather often made the few available roads impassable. The Luftwaffe had initial problems in determining the correct way to go about interdicting rail traffic. Luftwaffe planners assumed that interdiction of single track routes where no bypass could easily be constructed would be most effective. For this reason transshipment points and railway depots were neglected. Later, however, it was discovered that rapid repairs could be made to sections of track along primary routes with relative ease. In fact, the only real result of attacks made on track was the tying up of a great deal of Soviet manpower in prepositioned sites as railway repair crews. Attacks on transportation centers were more successful since they usually destroyed a certain amount of supplies and equipment and effectively cut routes for a longer period of time. One drawback was that such critical areas were easier to defend and Soviet antiaircraft often took a heavy toll. A Soviet air defense officer at the time confirmed that Russian air defense fighters and the bulk of antiaircraft artillery were stationed very close to transshipment points like railway junctions. Another method of cutting routes on a more permanent basis was to concentrate on destroying railroad bridges. Bridges, however, were also easy targets to defend. (This was a lesson which the USAF was destined to relearn in attacks against the transportation system of North Viet Nam.) The most effective way of cutting the rail system was to attack locomotive repair facilities and the locomotives themselves. The Soviets attempted to deceive Luftwaffe pilots by instructing their engineers to release quantities of steam to simulate destruction. This tactic proved ineffective since the timing of the deception was critical. Luftwaffe pilots soon became adept at determining when a locomotive was truly hit.

The Luftwaffe developed an excellent system of studying areas of expected action ahead of time to determine the vulnerabilities of the rail transportation system. This information was then compiled into a publication entitled “Instructions for the Strategic Assembly and Conduct of Combat Operations.” This detailed study was coordinated ahead of time with the army so that German mobility would not be effected. Such coordination was not as important later in the war when movement of the front was generally east to west. What was especially noteworthy about this system was that it gave the Luftwaffe the option to plan action early and allowed timely attack of enemy concentrations and routes.

Certain realities prevented the Luftwaffe from carrying out a more extensive and effective interdiction campaign. Principally, by 1943 the Luftwaffe was tied to an overall strategy whose objective was to blunt Russian offensive action and force the Soviets to collapse due to heavy losses. To this purpose, Hitler decreed that battles of attrition were to be fought and forced the German Army to hold every piece of ground as if it were located in downtown Berlin. Defensive patterns were static and even encirclements were accepted in hopes that the Soviets would wear themselves out in such actions. Therefore, the Luftwaffe was tied more and more to the success or failure of the ground forces by bolstering the wall against which the Soviet forces would expend their might. Additionally, air superiority became more fleeting as Soviet air forces began to recover from the disasters suffered in 1941. Also, by 1943, the most experienced pilots were being drained from the eastern front to counter the air threat of the strategic attacks against Germany by forces of the RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force. Consequently, less escort was available to allow fighter bombers to attack safely behind the front lines. Armed reconnaissance missions which had been successful under earlier situations of at least local air superiority could no longer be accomplished effectively.  Such was the state of the Luftwaffe as it made preparations in early 1943 for the Battle of Kursk.

Sukhoi Su-11 (1947)

Since the Su-9 was first proposed as a TR-1- powered fighter, things had come full circle. The airframe and guns were unchanged from the Su-9, only the Su-11 ‘s engine nacelles and position on the wing had been altered to any visible degree. The Su-11 (also known as ‘Izdeliye LK’ for aircraft ‘K’ fitted with Lyul’ka engines) made its first flight on 28th May 1947, but the engines gave insufficient power, preventing the fighter from reaching its specified performance. In addition it suffered from a lack of longitudinal stability at high speeds plus several other problems, and so was soon abandoned. By the end of April 1948 the aircraft had been scrapped but its wing went to TsAGI for static structure testing. In flight the Su-11 showed only a slight increase in ceiling over the Su-9 to 13,000m (42,651ft) but took just 3.6 minutes to reach 5,000m (16,404ft).

ManufacturerOKB Sukhoi
Year of construction (s)1947
length10.55 m
Wingspan11.8 m
Wing area21.4 m²
drivetwo Lyulka TR-1
power12.7 kN each
Top speed925 km / h near the ground
940 km / h at an altitude of 800 m
Rise time3.2 min at 5,000 m
Service ceiling13,000 m
Range900 km
Empty weight4,495 kg
All-up weight6,350 kg
crew1 pilot
Armamenttwo 23 mm MK NS-23,
one 37 mm MK N-37 or
one 45 mm MK N-45

Tornado GR.1A in the Gulf War

The Tornado multirole aircraft is operational in five different forms: Tornado GR 1 interdictor strike aircraft for close air support; counter air attack and defence suppression; GR 1A tactical reconnaissance aircraft; Tornado GR 1B long-range maritime attack aircraft and Tornado F3 long-range air defence fighter. The GR 4 is a mid-life update of the GR 1.

The Tornado entered service in 1980 and ceased production in 1998. The Tornado was manufactured by Panavia, a consortium of BAE Systems, EADS (formerly Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace) and Alenia Aeronautica.

Aerial reconnaissance has come a long way since the first jet reconnaissance mission in the summer of 1944. Today it is a multi-faceted business employing aircraft and drones flying over enemy territory at ultra-low or ultra-high altitude, planes standing-off outside the reach of the defences and looking in or listening from there, and satellites orbiting high above the combat zone. During the recent war in the Persian Gulf the Royal Air Force sent its Tornado GR.1A reconnaissance aircraft into action for the first time. These state-of-the-art planes carry no conventional optical film cameras; instead, they use an electro-optical system similar in concept to the family camcorder to record the scene passing below the aircraft. Photographs are no longer the main product of aerial reconnaissance — now it is ‘electro-optical imagery’.

In January 1991, a few days before the start of the aerial onslaught against Iraq, six Tornado GR.1A aircraft and nine crews drawn from Nos 2 and 13 Squadrons joined the Royal Air Force Tornado detachment at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The GR.1A is optimized for the low-altitude reconnaissance role flying at night or in bad weather, and it carries no optical cameras or conventional film. In the space that had been occupied by the cannon and ammunition magazines in the attack version of the Tornado, the GR.1A carries an in-built electro-optical reconnaissance system. The main sensor is the Vinten 4000 infra-red linescan equipment, which scans from side to side, perpendicular to the line of flight, from horizon to horizon, from a small blister beneath the fuselage. Supplementing this cover, looking to each side of the fuselage, are a pair of British Aerospace/Vinten sideways-looking infra-red sensors. The electronic images seen from these three sensors are fed to six separate video-recorders.

Infra-red photography using conventional film has been around for a long time. Tactically, it has the great advantage that it functions in lighting conditions ranging from bright sunlight to the darkest of nights and requires no artificial illumination (i.e. flares) that would betray the presence of the aircraft. Another well-proven technique is to link the reconnaissance system electronically to the aircraft’s navigational computer, so that the latter places in the corner of each image a small block giving the aircraft’s position, heading and other details at the time the image was captured; also, as he passes through the target area, the navigator can press a button to put an ‘event marker’ on any image of particular interest. These features are of considerable assistance to the interpreters who will later examine the imagery. In the Tornado reconnaissance system these features are incorporated and their capability is enhanced.

While the imagery produced by the infra-red electro-optical equipment lacks the crystal sharpness produced by conventional film cameras under optimum conditions, for military intelligence purposes this is a small handicap. The important advantage of the new system compared with normal photography is the reduction in the delay in getting the intelligence to those who need to use it. There is no need to develop or print the imagery before it is viewed. In the aircraft the navigator can observe the video imagery on a television screen in his cockpit in real time (and at night the screen will show things that his eyes may not see), and he can pass on, by radio, any significant discoveries that may have been made. He can even replay in flight particular parts of the imagery if he wishes to identify specific objects on the ground. After the aircraft has landed, the video cassettes can be played immediately for analysis.

During the Gulf conflict the Tornado GR.1As operated as part of a multi-faceted Coalition reconnaissance effort that included several types of drone, F-14s carrying reconnaissance pods, RF-4C Phantoms and Lockheed TR-ls and U-2s. Ground surveillance was carried out by Boeing E-8A (J-STARS) aircraft using a powerful sideways-looking radar to detect traffic movements deep in enemy territory. Electronic reconnaissance (elint) was the domain of the Boeing RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’, the Lockheed EP-3E ‘Aries’ Orion and the BAe Nimrod R.1. Overseeing the area at regular intervals were the US satellites with their own secret range of reconnaissance sensors.

Each separate system — the low-and the high-flying aircraft and drones, the radar surveillance planes, the electronic eavesdroppers and the satellites — possessed its own unique advantages for intelligence-gathering. That of the Tornado GR.1A was the ability to conduct searches of specified areas or routes at relatively short notice, and to do so at night and beneath a solid layer of low cloud (which would preclude effective optical or infra-red searches by higher-flying systems).

To avoid optically aimed anti-aircraft fire, the GR.1As operated only at night. Flying singly over enemy territory, these aircraft normally cruised at speeds around 645mph using their terrain-following radar to maintain a constant altitude of 200ft. Although the aircraft had provision to carry a couple of AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles for self-protection, the threat from Iraqi fighters was considered minimal and crews preferred to leave the missiles off and so avoid their weight and drag penalty.

The Tornado GR.1As flew their first combat mission on the third night of the war, 18/19 January. Soon after dark three of these aircraft took off from Dhahran to conduct separate searches of areas from which ‘Scud’ surface-to-surface missiles were being launched against Israel or Saudi Arabia. Squadron Leaders Dick Garwood and John Hill, assigned to search the area to the south of Habbaniyah, completed their mission without incident. When their imagery was examined afterwards it was found to show a ‘Scud’ launching vehicle in the open. F-15E attack planes were directed to the area but low cloud prevented them from finding the vehicle.

A second wave of GR.1As also took part of the ‘Scud-hunting’ effort that night. Flight Lieutenants Brian Robinson and Gordon Walker conducted a search in the Wadi al Khirr area. Later analysis of their imagery showed at least two camouflaged sites thought likely to contain ‘Scud’ support vehicles.

During the night of 19th/20th Flight Lieutenant Mike Stanway and Squadron Leader Roger Bennett had a brief tussle with the defences. Their mission was a search of the western end of the main Baghdad — Ar Rutbah highway, an area from which ‘Scud’ missiles were being launched against Israel. Stanway flew along the highway using the aircraft’s moving-map display to follow the line of the road, which, apart from the headlights of an occasional vehicle, remained unseen in the darkness. The search continued without incident until the aircraft was some 20 miles east of Ar Rutbah, then, as Bennett later explained, the mission took on a more exciting turn:

I suddenly noticed a bright glow over my left shoulder in my 8 o’clock. I thought it was an ER, guided missile, either one of the shoulder-launched variety or an SA-9, and it was guiding towards us on a disconcertingly constant bearing. Mike broke hard left and climbed into it to evade. I selected flares, but the dispenser was faulty and they refused to eject. Fortunately the evasive manoeuvre by itself was enough: the missile went sailing past us and detonated some way away.

Subsequent examination of the imagery revealed a ‘Scud’ launching bunker with a man standing outside it. It was clear that the man or someone near to him had fired the SAM because the imagery showed that almost immediately afterwards Stanway had banked the aircraft sharply to avoid the upcoming missile.

Invariably it was the highly skilled photo-interpreters (PIs), viewing the expanded imagery on large TV screens in the Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre at Dhahran, that made all the important Scud finds rather than the aircraft navigators. As Bennett explained,

One of the PIs found the camouflaged bunker. Once he had pointed out what it was, it was almost obvious. But it required an expert to do it. Everybody tried to find the ‘Scuds’, but they were not left out into the open waiting to be found. After each firing, the vehicles dispersed and ran back under cover.

Mike Stanway and Roger Bennett had their most memorable sortie during the small hours of 26 February, two days after the start of the Coalition ground offensive. They took off as an airborne reserve in support of two other Tornados that had been allocated specific tasks, but on the way they received orders to fly a route reconnaissance along the main roads linking An Nasiriyah, Al Amarah, Basrah and Jalibah in eastern Iraq.

First the crew had to rendezvous with a Victor tanker over northern Saudi Arabia in order to take on fuel, and that proved no easy task. Thunderstorms in the area caused considerable turbulence, with dense cloud extending from an altitude of 26,000ft down to below 3,000ft. Bennett recalled:

Normally we would tank at around 10,000 feet. The Victor tanker had tried every level, and at 3,000 feet he was still in cloud and in turbulence. We found the tanker by using our attack radar as an AI [airborne interception radar]. Visibility was down to about 100 metres, with thunderstorms and lightning, and we tanked at 3,000 feet. There was a lot of turbulence, the tanker was moving violently up and down and there was a serious risk of mid-air collision. The weather was awful and getting worse. After a struggle Mike got the probe into the basket but it immediately fell out; he got it back in again and we started to fill up but then the probe fell out again. I looked at the fuel and said, ‘Right, we’ve got enough.’ We left the tanker with about 7½ tons of fuel, climbed out the top of the weather at 26,000 feet and headed off to the north.

Just short of the Iraqi border, the Tornado let down to low altitude and headed for Tallil. Bennett continued:

Still the weather was pretty awful. We did not break cloud until we were below 1,000 feet. At 200 feet we were in the clear, with a solid overcast and no turbulence at that level — perfect conditions in which to do a reconnaissance in a GR.1A!

Near Tallil an SA-8 missile control radar locked on to the aircraft. Stanway hauled the Tornado into a tight turn and Bennett released chaff, and the lock-on ceased. Despite the two pairs of wide-open eyes quartering the sky around the aircraft, no missile was seen and it is likely that none was fired.

The initial part of the reconnaissance, of the highway from An Nasiriyah to Al Amarah, revealed little traffic. Just short of Al Amarah the aircraft turned south and followed the highway to Basrah. The crew saw a moderate amount of traffic, most of it heading north:

As we ran along that road we were fired at by AAA but fortunately it was not tracking fire — it was unaimed. It looked as if they were firing at our engine noise, and at 560 knots [645mph] at 200 feet they did not hear us until we had gone past. So all of the tracer went behind us — it looked quite pretty!

Short of Basrah the crew turned again, this time on to a westerly heading to follow the highway to An Nasiriyah:

The road to An Nasiriyah, part of the main Basrah to Baghdad highway, was chockablock with traffic. It looked like the M5 during the rush hour. I didn’t need to look at the imagery: we could see the vehicles out of the canopy. They had their lights on, and as we approached they heard us and the lights went out. They probably thought they were about to be bombed. There were all types of military vehicle, including transporters with tanks, all moving west about five yards apart. They were not going very fast, about 10mph. The whole time we were looking out for SAMs, but none came up at us.

Later the crew learned that they had stumbled upon the start of the Iraqi massed withdrawal from Kuwait, later termed ‘The Mother of all Retreats’, ordered by President Saddam Hussein earlier that morning. Bennett reported the findings by radio to the AWACS aircraft monitoring activity in the area. The Tornado followed the highway for some 60 miles without reaching the head of the column then, its task complete, it turned south and headed for base. The crew had spent more than an hour over Iraq, all of it at low altitude. Dawn was breaking as Stanway and Bennett left enemy territory and they made the final 40 minutes of the flight in daylight. It was the only daylight operational flying time they logged during the entire war.

The build-up of Iraqi traffic was also observed by the Boeing E-8 J-STARS radar aircraft over Saudi Arabia, and several flights of B-52 bombers were diverted to attack the concentrations of vehicles.

During the Gulf conflict the Tornado GR.1A force flew 125 reconnaissance missions, the great majority of which were designated ‘successful’. Like most types of intelligence-gathering operation, these carried none of the panache and spectacle associated with the more aggressive types of air operation. Nevertheless, in determining the positions of worthwhile targets, the reconnaissance planes significantly increased the effectiveness of the Coalition attack aircraft.

Henschel Hs 129 Tank Buster!

Henschel was one of four companies (the others being Focke-Wulf, Gotha and Hamburger Flugzeugbau) to which, in April 1937, the Technische Amt of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) issued a specification for a twin-engine ground-attack aircraft. It was required to carry at least two 20 mm MG FP cannon and to have extensive armour plating protection for crew and engines. The two designs for which development contracts were awarded on 1 October 1937 were the Focke-Wulf Fw 189C and Henschel Hs 129. The latter was another Friedrich Nicolaus design with a light alloy stressed-skin fuselage of triangular section. It contained a small cockpit with a restricted view, necessitating the removal of some instruments to the inboard sides of the engine cowlings. The windscreen was made of 75 mm (2.95 in) armoured glass and the nose section was manufactured from armour plating. Nose armament comprised two 20 mm MG FF cannon and two 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 17 machine guns. The prototype flew in the spring of 1939, powered by two 465 hp (347 kW) Argus As 410A-1 engines, and two further prototypes were flown competitively against the modified Fw 189 development aircraft for the Fw 189C.

“…in a shallow dive, or in the case of the Hs 129, a controlled plummet…”

Although the Henschel aircraft was considered to be underpowered and sluggish, and to have too small a cockpit, the company was awarded a contract for eight pre-production Hs 129A-0 aircraft, and these were issued initially to 5 (Schlacht)./LG 2 in 1940, but transferred to 4./SG 101 at Paris-Orly in 1941, with the exception of two which were converted at Schonefeld to accept Gnome-Rhone 14M 4/5 radial engines. It was with this powerplant that 10 Hs 129B-0 development aircraft were delivered from December 1941; improvements included a revised cockpit canopy and the introduction of electrically-actuated trim tabs, and armament comprised two 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon and two 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 17 machine guns. The production Hs 192B-1 series went into service first with 4./SchG 1 at Lippstadt in April 1942 and also became operational on the Eastern front, where the type was to be used most widely, although it served also in North North Africa, Italy and in France after the D-Day landings. Sub-variants of the M 129B-1 series included the Hs 129B-1/R1 with additional offensive armament in the form of two 110 lbs (50 kg) bombs or 96 anti-personnel bombs; the Hs 129B-1/R2 with a 30-mm MK 101 cannon beneath the fuselage; the Hs 129B-1/R3 with four extra MG 17 machine-guns; the Hs 129B-1/R4 with an ability to carry one 551 lbs (250 kg) bomb instead of the Hs 129B-1/R1’s bombload; and the Hs 129B-1/R5 which incorporated an Rb 50/30 camera installation for reconnaissance duties.

By the end of 1942 the growing capability of Soviet tank battalions made it essential to develop a version of the Hs 129 with greater fire-power, leading to the Hs 129B-2 series which was introduced into service in the early part of 1943. They included the Hs 129B-2/Rl which carried two 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon and two 13 mm (0.51 in) machine-guns; the generally similar Hs 129B-2/R2 introduced an additional 30 mm MK 103 cannon beneath the fuselage; the Hs 129B-2/R3 had the two MG 13s deleted but was equipped with a 37 mm BK 3,7 gun; and the Hs 129B-2/R4 carried a 75 mm (2.95 in) PaK 40L (‘L’ for Luftwaffe) gun in an underfuselage pod. Final production variant was the Hs 129B-3 of which approximately 25 were built and which, developed from the Hs 129B-2/R4, substituted an electro-pneumatically operated 75 mm BK 7,5 gun for the PaK 40 (Panzer Abwehr Kanone 40). The lethal capability of the Hs 129B-2/R2 was amply demonstrated in the summer of 1943 during Operation ‘Citadel’, the German offensive which was intended to regain for them the initiative on the Eastern Front after the defeat at Stalingrad. During this operation some 37,421 sorties were flown, at the end of which the Luftwaffe claimed the destruction of 1,100 tanks. However accurate these figures, not all of those destroyed could be credited to Hs 129s, but there is little doubt that the 879 of these aircraft that were built (including prototypes) played a significant role on the Eastern front. In spite of its small numbers and deficiencies, proved extremely successful in the anti-role, however, it suffered heavy losses and not many examples survived the war.

The Hs 129B equipped three Staffeln of the 8th Assault Wing of the Royal Romanian Air Corps. On 23 August 1944 there was a coup in Romania, as a result of which the country changed from being an ally of Germany to becoming an enemy. These Hs 129Bs, accordingly were used against the German armies, finally being combined into a unit equipped with the Ju 87D Stuka.

In late September 1944, the entire manufacturing programme was abandoned, along with virtually all other German aircraft production except the ’emergency fighter programme’. Total production had amounted to only 879, including prototypes. Because of attrition and other problems, the Hs 129 was never able to fully equip the giant anti-tank force that could be seen to be needed as early as winter 1941-42, an overall effect on the war was not great. Towards the end, in autumn 1944, operations began to be further restricted by shortage of high octane petrol, and by the final collapse of Germany only a handful of these aircraft remained.

The Cockpit

Because of the triangular-section fuselage and the need to keep the airframe as small as possible the cockpit of the Hs 129 was very cramped. So cramped in fact that the Revi C 12/C gunset was mounted on the aircraft nose outside of the cockpit and certain engine instruments were mounted on the inboard side of the engine nacelles for the pilot to view. The entire nose section formed a welded armoured shell 6 mm to 12 mm thick around the pilot, with toughened 75 mm thick glass in the canopy. The total weight of the nose armour was 2,380 lbs (1080 kg). A large pilot would have a great deal of trouble in handing the aircraft in ground attacks and a short control stick required a great deal of strength to move even in the modest manoeuvres.

New Weapons

The massive build-up in Soviet armour strength with thick-skinned tanks contrasted with the faltering strength of the Sch.G. units, which continued to be afflicted by poor engine reliability despite the addition of properly designed air filters. The overriding need was for more powerful anti-armour weapons, and on 10 January 1944 a special unit, Erprobungskommando 26, was formed at Udetfeld out of previous Sch.G. units to centralise the desperate effort to devise new weapons and tactics. Its Hs 129s soon appeared with various new armament, some of which were too much for what was, after all, a small aircraft.

The outstanding example of the new weapons was the radically different Forstersonde SG 113A. This comprised a giant tube resembling a ship’s funnel in the centre fuselage just behind the fuselage tank. Inside this were fitted six smooth-bore tubes, each 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) long and of 77 mm calibre. The tubes were arranged to fire down and slightly to the rear, and were triggered as a single group by a photocell sensitive to the passage of a tank close beneath. Inside each tube was a combined device consisting of a 45 mm armour piercing shell (with a small high-explosive charge) pointing downwards and a heavy steel cylinder of full calibre pointing upwards. Between the two was the propellant charge, with a weak tie-link down the centre to join the parts together. When the SG 113A was fired, the shells were driven down by their driving sabots at high velocity, while the steel slugs were fired out of the top of each tube to cancel the recoil. Unfortunately, trials at Tarnewitz Waffenprufplatz showed that the photocell system often failed to pick out correct targets.

Another impressive weapon was the huge PaK 40 anti-tank gun of 75 mm calibre. This gun weighed 3,303 lbs (1500 kg) in its original ground-based form, and fired a 7 lbs (3.2 kg) tungsten-carbide cored projectile at 3,060 ft/sec (933 m/sec). Even at a range of 3,280 ft (1000 m), the shell could penetrate 5 1/4 inches (133 mm) of armour if it hit square-on. Modified as the PaK 40L, the gun had a much bigger muzzle brake to reduce recoil and electro-pneumatic operation to feed successive shells automatically. Installed in the Hs 129B-3/Wa, the giant gun was provided with 26 rounds which could be fired at the cyclic rate of 40 rounds per minute, so that three or four could be fired on a single pass. Almost always, a single good hit would destroy a tank, even from head-on. The main problem was that the PaK 40L was too powerful a gun for the aircraft. Quite apart from the severe muzzle blast and recoil, the sheer weight of the gun made the 129B-3/Wa almost unmanageable, and in an emergency the pilot could sever the gun’s attachments and let it drop.