On the day that Britain declared war on Germany September 3, 1939 squadrons of RAF Coastal Command aircraft set out in search of U-boats and Nazi shipping. They formed the spearhead of a great offensive which has continued without respite for nearly three years. Lockheed Hudsons known affectionately as "Old Faithful" throughout the RAF were out with Coastal Command on that fateful day, and they were the first American designed and built aircraft to have a crack at the Hun. Before the war was a month old a Lockheed Hudson had its first encounter with a U-boat. They can now claim to be the first American aircraft to take part in a thousand-bomber raid on Germany hunting U-boats at their base at Bremen, instead of on the high seas.
As far back as June, 1938, the British Government recognised the high qualities of American aircraft and placed orders in the United States for several hundred planes for reconnaissance and advanced training duties, and the following year Lockheed Hudsons began to arrive for Coastal Command.
Primarily intended as a reconnaissance plane, the Hudson has proved its versatility by turning bomber or fighter as occasion has demanded. Its striking power has been felt from the Arctic to the swamps of Malaya. A Hudson found the prison ship Altmark slinking back to Germany with nearly 400 British seamen aboard. In August, 1941, a Hudson made history by capturing a German U-boat. Hudsons fought over the Dunkirk beaches and escorted British ships home after the Bismarck had been sent to the bottom. When the yellow hordes swarmed on to the Malayan beaches, it was "Old Faithful" which struck the first blow.
Night after night the new Mark Vs powered by Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps, patrol the enemy occupied coastlines, harrying Nazi shipping. "It is one of the most reliable aircraft we've ever had in the RAF," is the summing up of the Lockheed Hudson by a seasoned RAF pilot.
Another established favorite at Coastal Command is the Consolidated Catalina, PBY-5s in the U. S. Navy.
The Cat hit the headlines when it spotted the Bismarck and was instrumental in bringing the warship to battle and ultimate destruction. It was a Cat, too, which guarded the U-boat which surrendered to the Hudson. The Consolidated Liberator, sister-ship of the Cat, is now operating with Ferry Command. A Liberator recently made a non-stop operational flight of 2,800 miles. With one stop for refueling it completed the trip of 5,000 miles in 23 hours. Two Catalinas, piloted by Dutch naval pilots, also flew 2,800 miles non-stop from Australia to Colombo recently.
The Martin Maryland, direct descendant of the twin-engined bomber of 1918, is a veteran of the Libyan campaigns. What the Halifaxes, Stirlings and Wellingtons have done and are doing to Germany's industrial targets, the Marylands have done to Benghazi, Derna and others of Rommel's strongholds. In November, 1941, a Maryland patrolling the Mediterranean sighted an enemy convoy of 11 ships. Units of the Royal Navy were directed to the spot and within a few hours most of the convoy had been sent to the bottom. The Martin Baltimore known as the "Flying Torpedo" is now following in the Maryland tradition.
The Douglas factory at Santa Monica, Calif., is striking hard at the heart of Germany's war effort in Occupied France, as well as at vital points in Libya. The Boston III figures almost daily in Air Ministry communiques. On March 8 this year a formation of these bombers led the daylight attack on the Matford Works at Poissy, till then producing 20 lorries a day for the German army. The docks at Calais, Cherbourg, Boulogne and Le Havre as well as the Le Trait shipbuilding yards on the Seine have all felt the weight of Boston attack.
RAF pilots speak highly of the Boston's performance. They are handy, fast on the controls, and can stand up to heavy punishment. Powered by Wright Cyclone engines, these Boston IIIs are developed from the Douglas DB-7 a pioneer type of medium-sized bomber built by America for France a few years ago.
The Douglas Havoc night-fighter is a close relation of the DB-7 and has won high regard from British and Dominion air crews. With the Boulton Paul Defiant, Havocs rank as Britain's "Night Commandos" of the air. Combining the speed of a Hurricane with much greater endurance, these nighthawks have taken heavy toll of German bombers over Britain in the last 12 months, as well as ambushing the returning raiders over their own aerodromes.
In the battle of the desert and in the Far East, American aircraft have achieved enduring fame. For obvious reasons it was simpler to send American-built aircraft direct to Libya, although this meant diverting to another front aircraft which would have been welcome in Britain. The soundness of this policy has never been in doubt. Tomahawks, Kittyhawks, Marylands, Martlets, Mohawks, Bostons, Flying Fortresses, Catalinas planes representing all that is best in American design and workmanship, are playing their vital role in the great struggle, flown by pilots of all the free nations.
The Curtiss Tomahawk fittingly so-named from the American Indian word to "knock down" has a long list of victories to its credit, dating back to the early days of the Libyan battles. Before France fell, a deadly little American fighter appeared on the Western front. It was called the Hawk. Fitted with a more powerful Allison liquid-cooled motor it reappeared, first in Russia and then in the Middle East, as the Tomahawk. In one of their first major engagements these fighters destroyed 12 Axis aircraft. Me-110's, Ju-88's, Fiat G-50's, Cant 1007's every type of German and Italian plane has learned the fighting quality of the little Tomahawk.
Following close on the Tomahawk came the Curtiss Kittyhawk. It has figured in nearly every RAF communique from Cairo since it took its place in the front line early this year. Fitted with a 1,325 hp Allison V-1710 12-cylinder liquid cooled-motor, it has reported top speed of about 380 mph, carrying six machine-guns in its wings. A few weeks ago a Curtiss fighter squadron scored a spectacular success by shooting down 13 Ju-52 troop-carriers and two Me-110 fighter-bombers. In this one engagement the Kittyhawks sent to their doom 15 Hun aircraft and from 200 to 250 men. Besides escorting Douglas Bostons on bombing raids, Kittyhawks are bombing and ground-strafing enemy positions and troop and MT concentrations.
Nearly a year has passed since bombs were dropped for the first time by Boeing Flying Fortresses. On July 24, 1941, they took part in the great daylight attack on the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sheltering at Brest. They flew at such a height that they could not be seen or heard from the ground. Four days later a Fortress dropped a load of bombs on Emden in daylight. Kiel, Bremen, Rotterdam, Cologne, as well as Bengazi and other towns in the Middle East, have also been attacked by the huge Boeing bombers.
Grumman Martlet fighters have proved their worth among naval aircraft in the Middle East, their first successes being recorded as far back as Christmas, 1940. The Vought-Sikorsky Chesapeake is another naval aircraft. The little Piper Cubs and Taylorcrafts, originally designed as "honeymoon planes" which could be parked in the back garden, have now put on their warpaint and are being used as trainers. Several other American types are destined for the RAF, including the new Bermuda, a Brewster aircraft, as was the famous Buffalo (variously known as the "Peanut Special" or "Flying Barrel" ) which was used in the Far East.
In the early days of the war, American aircraft were shipped to Britain by freighter. After the collapse of France and Belgium, large numbers of aircraft ordered by our Allies were diverted to Britain. It was soon found possible for ferry service pilots to fly bombers to Britain and as a more recent development they are now flown direct to their destinations. While operational and climatic conditions have called for frequent alterations and adaptations in their armament and equipment, the adaptability and versatility of American planes notably the Douglas DB-7 series has made them invaluable. The peak of American aircraft production has not yet been reached. But the day is already in sight when American planes, with American pilots and crews, will be taking their place in full strength alongside the RAF in the greatest air offensive in history.
This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force" issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 161, 274.
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