Well, now we are fairly in it. The last time I wrote I said that war might break out at any moment now. It did. Since then we have been in and out of Norway, barring the bit at the top end which we want, presumably so that we can draw our quota of that special breed of iron from the Swedish iron mines which supply Germany through the Baltic when the ice is gone. Even up there German bombers worry us, but now we seem to have some fighters which worry the German bombers. So things are not so one-sided as they were when we came out of Norway.
Also we have been in and out of Belgium. And here is where the Royal Air Force has shown what it can do.
Official statements have been made that we have got four-fifths of the British Expeditionary Force out 330,000 men, including a lot of French and some Belgians. Practically all came out through Dunkerque; hardly any came through Calais, before the Germans captured the town and the harbor.
Some of us are wondering how much of the BEF would have got out of Flanders if we had been as short of fighters there as we were in Norway. The RAF, won a great victory.
Probably nobody has explained to the United States why we were short of fighters in Norway. Quite briefly, most of Norway is vertical. If you want to make an aerodrome you have to blast away a mountain, and the Norwegians had not done enough blasting before the war started. The Germans collared the two aerodromes at Oslo, and the aerodrome at Stavanger, and the little landing field at Trondhjem, before we could get there.
That was not the fault of the RAF. Somebody else can discuss whose fault it was. Consequently although our troops were able to land in comparative ease North and South of Trondhjem, as soon as they started work they were considerably blasted by German bombers and were finally blasted out of the country.
We did put a squadron of Gladiator biplanes on a frozen lake North of Trondhjem, but the German bombers blasted the ice from under them. The only other fighters available were those of the Fleet Air Arm flown off the Navy's aircraft carriers. And the North Sea, even as far North as that, is not a healthy place for lightly-armoured aircraft carriers.
Lately they seem to be working up at Narvik by the sound process of keeping the ships too far North for the German bombers to reach them, but near enough for their fighters to cover Narvik. Presumably they have their own means for protecting themselves against German submarines, of which, at the moment of writing, we have heard nothing for some six weeks. We assume that they are being saved up for some big attack on our shipping.
The Belgian affair shows what can be done with fighters. We have poured squadron after squadron of fighters across the Channel from British aerodromes, and the result has appeared in the official communiques. Anything between 30 and 80 German machines destroyed in a day shows what can be done with adequate forces of fighters. Even in its most cock-a-hoop moments the RAF never flattered itself that it could take on Gemarn fighters at three-to-one odds as a normal procedure and that it would come to regard ten-to-one as fair odds.
Our people here never underrated the guts of the German fighting man, and the way the Germans have used parachute troops shows that the Germsns have plenty of courage. Where the RAF has scored is, I am pretty sure, in experience, quickness in snatching opportunities, and what on might describe either as war-worthiness or the Cavalry Spirit.
In the last war, although the Germans had some of the finest individual fighting men in the air, our people found that in the mass the German pilots did not like man-to-man combat. They preferred working in masses.
We found just the same thing on the ground. The ordinary English soldier could extemporize where the German went flat if he had no instructions for the particular emergency which met him.
One of the surprises of the war has been the superiority of our eight-gun fighters, the Vickers-Supermarin Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane over the Messerschmitt 110 twin-motor canon-carrying fighters. That has been followed by a still greater surprise in the success of the Boulton Paul Defiant.
This machine was built to please section of the Air Staff which has its own theories about air fighting. Hitherto, as everybody knows, though there has been little discussion of the subject, the pilot of an aeroplane has automatically been the captain of the ship. In a single-seater he is captain and crew as well. But in a two-seat fighter he has had his guns in front and has fought the ship so as to bring his own guns to bear and his aft gunner has been there to prottct his tail against enemy craft which were either faster or came down on him from behind.
Here and there one came across a pilot and gunner who had worked out tactics for themselves so that when the pilot had done his best with his front guns, he manoeuvered to get in a secondary attack by his aft gunner. The Sopwith 1½-strutters and the Bristol Fighters, and to a certain extent the old RE-8s, specialized on that form of combined fighting in the last war. But always the aft gunner was just the aft gunner, he was never the main attack.
In the Defiant the gunner, who has a four-gun turret, is the captain of the ship, the pilot, who has no guns in front, is just the pilot to put the ship where the captain tells him, naturally a good crew so work together that the pilot will of his own accord bring his gunner into the best position.
But the chief feature of the Defiant is broadside attack. Hitherto there has been a belief that firing broadsides from machine guns in high-speed aeroplanes was useless. Obviously if a machine is flying or diving at 300 mph, more or less, as a bullet leaves the muzzle of the gun it is hurled through the air sideways at the speed of the aeroplane, and bullets are not intended to travel sideways 30 mph if I remember rightly is 45 ft/sec, so 300 mph is 450 ft/sec, or 150 yd/sec sideways. And that does not make for good shooting.
A certain Dr Magnus worked out theoretically, and some gunnery establishment in France at a place called Cazeau proved, that the spin of the bullet throws it up when fired on one side of the machine, and throws it down on the other. And the amount of throw up or down varies according to the speed of the machine. This is called the Magnus effect, or the Cazeau effect. And because of it no gunsights can be devised to give accurate shooting.
But what Dr Magnus and Cazeau had not reckoned on was that guns which shoot at the rate of 1,200 shots a minute when firing four at a time tracer or incendiary bullets which leave a streak in the air, can be aimed as one aims a hose, and don't want any sights.
The result is that when the Defiants attack bombers the pilot dives outside the restricted arc of fire of the German guns, brings his machine alongside his victim, and the four guns just blast a hole in it.
Of course the Germans will, in due time, have power-driven turrets of their own. In the meantime we owe a debt of gratitude to Captain Archie Fraser Nash, the well-known racing motorist, late RFC and RAF in the last war, who invented the power-driven turret, and to Bouton Paul Aircraft, Ltd, who produced the particular variety of power-driven turret which they fit in their own machines and are being fitted in the Lockheed Hudsons. Meantime we have some quite nice new things of our own coming along.
At the moment of writing we are waiting to see what is going to happen next in this country. You of course have read all about our anti-parachute troops, made up of local people ranging from retired General Officers and Admirals, down through time-expired or maimed soldiers of the last war to farmers, farm-hands, professional men and so forth, all ready to repel parachutists.
In the Napoleonic Wars we built Martello towers along the Southeast Coast each within gun-range of the next, to repel Napoleon's armies at Boulogne. In the last war we barb-wired our East Coast and built concrete machine-gun emplacements against possible German landings as prophesied in that brilliant book the Riddle of the Sands written before 1914 by that patriotic Englishman Erskine Childers, who later went mad and became a Sinn Feiner and was shot as a rebel in Ireland.
Whether our "parashooters" will be any more useful remains to be seen. But we have to be prepared for death-or-glory squads of German parachutists landing on our aerodromes and destroying valuable aircraft, or alternatively landing near our aircraft factories and damaging them. Just how much more damage parachute squads could do than could be done by bombs is not clear.
One imagines that troop-carrying aeroplanes full of parachute troops would stand much less chance of getting through than bombers. And, although a certain number of bombers will always get through, especially if they come over in the dark in bad weather, flying blind through cloud, and take to indiscriminate bombing of the civil population they are still going to have heavy loss.
The Germans have always been bad psychologists. And even now they don't seem to have grasped the fact that the ordinary Englishman of Saxon origin, who is still the bulk of the population of this country, is slow to anger, but when he does become angry he becomes a very unpleasant person, and is difficult to stop.
We are just waiting to see what the Germans do. They may in accord with their threats, proceed to bomb our ports. The distance across England is so small that an hour's flying would cross it in its widest part. But even that means two hours flying over enemy territory, if the West Coast ports are to be attacked, with that much extra chance of being brought down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns, if the attackers start in bad weather hoping to catch us unawares and, as is quite likely, run into fine weather coming up from the West, as is its habit.
Indiscriminate night bombing will produce reprisals on a scale which the German High Command does not expect. Although Germany is such big country compared with England, and although its munition industries are spread over a large area, yet one cannot assemble aeroplanes in small workshops whatever one may do by subcontracting bits and pieces. And we do know where the big German aircraft factories are, ” as the result of training our bomber crews over Germany for about nine months.
By the way, you might do some thing, as the most influential as well as the oldest aeronautical journal in the United States, to stop the US Press agencies from sending us her fool stories about Mr Ford being ready to produce a thousand aeroplanes a day within six months of the word go. Perhaps you might discover who started the story and how he proposes to get instruments and armament and all the bits and pieces that go into a warplane.
Also you might explain to the good kind 600 private owners who, according to report, have offered to sell their private aeroplanes to us as training machines, that even in this country we realize that something like standardization of equipment is desirable, and that our Flying Training Schools are very nicely equipped with standardized trainers.
This article was originally published in the August, 1940, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 39, no 8, pp 56-57, 150.
The original article includes 4 photos.
All photos credited to British Combine.