The Hudson

by Kurt Rand

Fighter, patrol plane and dive bomber all in one, the Lockheed Hudson was converted from an airliner into one of the most legendary of the war's fighting planes.

An airliner, with the passenger seats torn out but with the windows left in, went into the war in Europe as a stopgap in 1939 and has come out a legend. American aircraft manufacturers like to think of such unconventional situations as typical of the kind of airplanes being built by the people who invented the airplane in the first place. And well they might, for it isn't every run-of-the-mine airliner that can sail away over enemy territory and come home again hours later with an engine shot out by antiaircraft, shell holes clear through the wings and fuselage and half the crew dead. It isn't often that an airplane designed to carry you from Kokomo to Tallahassee can be flown into a full-fledged war as was the Lockheed Hudson to serve variously as dive bomber, fighter, reconnaissance machine and personal transport for His Majesty the King.

The name "Lockheed Hudson" has become a household word throughout the British Empire; with the Coastal Command of the RAF, in the countries that cluster about the Mediterranean; in Australia, Malaya and Singapore. Wherever the British Lion takes its stand there are Hudsons somewhere about — hundreds of them, and still more hundreds are on the way. These first American-made warplanes to see action in substantial numbers have built for themselves a reputation for ruggedness, durability and the ability to "take it."

The praise comes from the mechanic who works in shops at airdromes where the planes come for repairs and from the King who lives in a palace. Workers say that the Lockheeds are structurally built as warplanes should be; that it is comparatively easy to replace vital parts that are bullet-riddled without too much loss of time. And the King's praise is evidenced by the fact that a Hudson has been specially fitted as his private plane. The interior has been rearranged to carry six passengers and the craft has increased armor plating. He flies in it with Wing Commander E H Fielden as his pilot. Occasionally the King takes over in the air.

Mechanics, when the first Lockheeds arrived, had but one complaint. They couldn't understand the "shop talk" of the American engineers. Such words as gasoline for "petrol," engines for "motors," weren't confusing; but structure for "chassis"; plumbing for "petrol feed pipes"; wobble for "fuel pump"; horizontal stabilizer for "tail," stumped them. The American experts quickly taught them the slang phrases. Now the British use them.

Britain has received more than 1,500 Hudsons, some by boat, others by air. More of them have flown the Atlantic than all other types of planes put together. Only one has been reported lost by the Ferry Command in delivery flight across the ocean. But the Hudson is the military version of the Lockheed 14, a veteran of Atlantic crossings. It was in this type ship that Howard Hughes spanned the Atlantic in 1938.

The story of the Hudson began at home. It started as a business tip, became a mock-up, progressed into a stage of draftsmanship and design, became a small model, and finally emerged a masterful hunk of salable material which Lockheed turned into a $25,000,000 contract — the biggest ever landed by a domestic aviation company prior to the war's outbreak.

The tip came from "a friend" in the east who called a Lockheed sales manager long distance and informed him that five Englishmen — members of a British Purchasing Commission — were in this country touring eastern aircraft plants looking for a good medium reconnaissance bomber with a fairly long range and fine stability, which could serve as a patrol bomber with the RAF Coastal Command.

In Lockheed's grab bag of military airplanes there was one ship — the XP-38 still in the experimental stage and a confidential project for the Army Air Corps. The company had never built a military airplane save a few regular transport models for the Army which were military only in the sense that they belonged to the Air Corps, bore US Army markings. Furthermore, the company had no particular desire to build one. There were no military designs on paper for a bomber of any sort in the engineering laboratories. But the $25,000,000 prospective order looked good to Lockheed's financial advisors and they decided to get a chunk of it.

Engineering initiative, a requisite of the company since the creation of its fastest commercial transport (Model 14) a few years back, went to work with all its ingenuity. Within 10 days, two alternate wood mockups — military versions of the famous 14 — were ready for the British commission to see. The prospective buyers came and looked and were impressed.

A few days later, Sir Henry Self of the commission invited officials of Lockheed to London — the trip to be paid for by Lockheed if a deal was closed, but a free boat ride at the expense of the British if no contract materialized. Five men — Courtlandt S Gross, then head of the New York office and now Vega's President; Carl B Squier, Vice President and General Sales Manager; R A Von Hake, Vice President in Charge of Manufacturing; C L (Kelly) Johnson, Chief Research Engineer, and Bob Proctor, attorney — made the trip.

Secretly, upon arrival, they rented living quarters on an unobtrusive street off Piccadilly Circus. Several times they changed dwellings, using assumed names in order that their presence would not become known to the press or British manufacturers. But all the while, they were working — transacting business with almost every department in the British government. All they had with them was a set of blueprints, confidence in the ability of their rather limited manufacturing facilities to do the job and a reputation for turning out fast, reliable, record-breaking airplanes. When they left they had a juicy contract.

By its terms, the company was to build 250 military versions of the 14. All of the planes were to be delivered by the end of 1939. The order was a big one for a company with only 240,000 square feet of space and less than 2,000 employees.

Here was a typical production problem: The skin on the Hudson was a little thicker than the covering on the commercial transport. Riveters, who were expert at putting together the 14 found they couldn't do the job with equal ease on the bombers. There was an entirely different "feel" to the riveting. For a while the riveting on the first bombers had to be done over until skilled labor could be schooled to the problem.

Turning the commercial transport into a military version was not too tough a job although it did present many difficult problems. The windows were left along the sides of the cabin because it was easier to leave them there than to change the design and take them out, and because it is the job of a reconnaissance plane to see things. Cabin heating and many other comforts of commercial aircraft were left in the plane as a boon to the men of the RAF who must spend long, relentless hours in them, and the Sperry automatic pilot was included as standard equipment just as it had been in the airliner.

Commenting on these features an RAF pilot remarked: "From the standpoint of comfort, there is nothing that can beat the Hudson. And comfort means a lot to us when we have to spend long hours cruising over the North Sea towards the coast of Scandinavia. The layout of the instrument board is superb. It shows the influence of motor car manufacturing principles on aircraft design. They don't sell warplanes on a popular appeal basis, so it is very pleasing when we see commercial ideas coming to the aid and comfort of military airmen."

The first bomber came off the line, completed all its tests and was flown to New York for delivery to London late in January, 1939. By the end of June only 50 of the planes had been completed. This meant 200 more had to be built in the next six months — six planes more than the company had produced in the first six years of its existence. At the same time, the task had to be accomplished without interfering with the company's production schedule on a full line of commercial airliners whose purchasers were in all parts of the world. The aviation industry was betting against it, as the task seemed an impossible one. Then Lockheed turned on the heat. Personnel was increased from 3,000 to 7,000; production lines buzzed with activity: big hydraulic presses stamped out bomber parts like automobile fenders; a well-stocked supply room kept materials coming in without any halts. Seven and one-half weeks ahead of schedule the last of the 250-plane order was finished. However, the company did not stop building the bombers. Again and again the British have renewed their order for these planes that they named after the famed British navigator and explorer, Henry Hudson, who piloted the fast, sleek sailing ship Half Moon across the Atlantic and discovered Hudson Bay in Canada. And it is from secret landing fields along the shores of this very Bay that the fast, sleek bombers hop off, Britain bound.

The military version of the 14 was to meet these performance figures: Normal power rating to 6,700 feet, 900 hp per engine, of which there are two, Wright Cyclones or Pratt & Whitney Wasps. Takeoff power, 1,100 hp at 2,350 rpm. Critical altitude, 8,000 feet. Maximum speed, 246 mph. Cruising speed, 220 mph at 12,000 feet. Landing speed, 70 mph. Initial rate of climb, 2,180 feet per minute. Climb to 10,000 feet, eight minutes. Single engine ceiling, 11,000 feet. Absolute ceiling, both engines, 26,000 feet. Takeoff run at sea level, 920 feet. Operating range, 1,960 miles.

These performance figures have since been improved upon in later models in order to keep pace with the developments of the war. The British are silent about the present speed, altitude, range, but they say the latest planes carry more armament. There are window guns, installed in England; two fixed machine guns in the nose; two turret guns and a tunnel gun. More powerful engines have been installed. Flush riveting has added many miles per hour to the speed, upped the ceiling and increased the range. The Hudson's performance has proved that it is possible to convert a civil airplane into a military aircraft and combine the better features of both.

When a finished Hudson rolls down the line at Burbank, it is test flown by Lockheed pilots. (The company was one of the few in the US with foresight to hire many good civilian pilots for testing its ships, now has some of the best in the country working for it at top prices.) Minor changes are made after the test flight and the ship is pronounced ready for delivery. American Army pilots in the Ferry Command, and civilians, fly the ships to Canada where they are taken over by Canadian or British pilots and flown from "departure points" to England. The planes fly a route across the continent that includes stopovers at Detroit and Patterson Field near Dayton, OH, where they are cleared by customs officials. Extra gasoline tanks installed in the ships give them a range close to 3,000 miles. Some or all of these tanks can be later removed when the plane goes out on bombing operations.

Under actual fire the Hudsons have proved more than just reconnaissance bombers. They are being used as raiders, dive bombers, convoy patrol planes and are equipped with special devices for locating submarines.

No German bomber has been able yet to consistently outfight them. Only the Nazi fighters can do that and even they have been shot down by the score in thrilling air battles. The American-built ship is more maneuverable than any bomber the Germans are sending on long range duty over sea. The German bombers, it is reported, avoid combat with the Lockheeds and enemy fighters do not have the range to follow them far out to sea.

There is the story of the Lockheed on night sea patrol near Borkum, German North Sea island, which sighted a Heinkel seaplane resting on the waves. The ship was easy prey for the RAF pilots but they thought it "unsporting" to attack a resting bird. The Hudson dived twice at the Heinkel with its powerful wing lights flashing a challenge to "come up and fight." The German accepted. But the first burst from the British bomber's guns tore strips of burning fabric from the enemy's craft. The Heinkel's cockpit was lit up by the glow of tracers striking home. Its crew tried desperately to avoid further attack and to reach the Dutch coast, flying only a few feet above the water. After a 20-minute chase the Hudson forced down the Heinkel and with machine-gun fire sank it.

Another time a Hudson on Atlantic patrol duty spotted a four-engined Focke-Wulf Kurier maneuvering for position to attack a convoy bound for the isle. Closing in at full throttle the RAF gunners opened fire at point-blank range. Fire broke out instantly in the German plane. It turned sharply, lost altitude and crashed into the sea. An escort vessel with the convoy went to the rescue of the German crew.

Lockheeds on coastal patrol discovered a supply ship of 3,500 tons at the entrance of the fjord north of Bergen, Norway. One bomber dived to within 50 feet of the ship, released a stick of heavy bombs with delayed action fuses and zoomed back to his lofty perch to watch the results. The sight he beheld was a flaming inferno as the ship was aflame from bow to stern.

It was a Hudson that first discovered the prison ship Altmark with British captives aboard, in a Norwegian fjord. Another was the first to report that the great German battleship Bismarck was on the prowl. The Hudson's crew flashed a warning which set the British navy on the alert. One of the most valuable convoys of the war was nearing the Irish coast, and the German battleship — mightiest for her size in the world — was out to sink it. What happened is history: the sinking of the battleship HMS Hood, the chase after the Bismarck, her discovery by a Catalina flying boat, and the epic sea battle that resulted in her being sunk by British warships after aerial torpedoes had been rammed into her hull.

Tales of the exploits of the Hudsons are legion. They range from simple reconnaissance expeditions or the dropping of bombs on a German ship to death battles in the skies. They begin with the first day of the war and daily there are new ones to tell. On that cold September day in 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Germany a lone Hudson limped home to its Scotland base. Mack Pritchett, Lockheed inspector, describes it: "The tail was almost off. The pilot reported that he had encountered a Blohm & Voss seaplane off the coast of Norway. Jerry had shot away the Hudson's control rod on one rudder and the vibration loosened every rivet in the tail assembly. The pilot couldn't keep his feet on the pedals. Yet he got the ship down safely, while the Blohm & Voss was a probable loss. The RAF pilot received the first DFC awarded an operating Hudson squadron."

Don Dunning, another factory representative, reports: "At Dunkirk the Lockheeds did a splendid job. The station where I happened to be at the time, had four squadrons of 28 ships each. Sent over in waves of 12 every 15 minutes, they protected the troops on the beach at Dunkirk by dive bombing the encircling Germans, strafing the Nazi infantry, bombing the German boats and giving protection to the British ships bringing the Tommies back across the channel.

"I saw these planes come back from the hell above Dunkirk with the upper skin of their wings wrinkled from diving and pulling out. They were never built as a dive bomber, but they served as that over Dunkirk. Sometimes we had to put on new sets of wings, an operation requiring about four hours. But as fast as the job was done the ships were refueled, loaded up with bombs and put back into the air. Each made from six to eight trips and more than 100 of them saw action. There were seven lost."

Dunning also recalls the plane that came back from France with its hydraulic system so badly shattered that it was impossible to close the bomb doors which happened to be open at the time of the attack. The landing gear was partially down, and in landing on the grass airport the pilot used the bomb doors as skid runners. The only damage was to one bomb door which had to be replaced. The fuselage was found to still be in perfect alignment.

In the early days of the war when the Hudsons were used exclusively as reconnaissance planes, it was found that the rear turret did not have sufficient protection against three Messerschmitts attacking from behind. Several "Tail-End Charlies" (as RAF pilots nickname their rear gunners) were pretty badly shot up as the result. One of the Messerschmitts would get directly behind the bomber out of range of its gunners, and the other two would stand off at an angle just in back the rudders, which made it impossible for the bombers' turret gunners to fire without sending machine gun bullets through their own ship's rudders. This resulted in the loss of several ships. Lockheed engineers and RAF officers decided to remove the plexiglass from the fifth window on each side of the cabin and install machine guns. This was tried as an experiment. The three Messerschmitts attacked in usual fashion. But this time the two flankers were shot down by the surprise fire from the window guns. Within a week machine guns appeared in the windows of the German Heinkels when they came over.

One of the most notable actions of the Hudson bombers was the first capture in history of a submarine by an airplane. The four crewmen and a 32-year-old Yorkshireman, captain of the bomber, tell it this way: "Patrolling far at sea, we dive bombed a submarine just as it was breaking the surface. A gunner shouted when he saw it rise almost on an even keel, surging up through a mass of whitecaps. We turned about to attack.

"Machine gun them," was the cry.

"Then, with all guns blazing we dived across the U-boat. Its conning tower hatch was thrown open and about 12 Nazis dropped to the deck. We thought they were manning antiaircraft guns, so we kept firing. The tracers peppered the conning tower and kicked up spurts of water all around.

"There was confusion aboard the submarine. Those on deck ran into others trying to come up. We came around again and gave them another dose. Our next time around the submarine surrendered. One of its crew held a white shirt above the conning tower and waved it violently. Our guns ceased firing, but we continued to circle. We sent out word for help by radio. Soon a large Catalina arrived to take over the watch, and just before dark a British warship steamed up. The next morning the sub was towed to a British port."

Another RAF pilot related:

"The other day we were looking for targets on the Dutch coast. Messerschmitts came up to us like a cloud of mosquitoes. We really tested our Lockheeds as they were never tested before. We dived the ships at better than 400 mph and that's far faster than the manufacturers ever thought their planes would be likely to travel. We had to throttle flat out for 35 minutes and the instructions allow us only three minutes at maximum. Fifty feet above the sea, still trying to dodge the Nazi fighter ships, we pulled out and rode and threw our bombers about all over the place. They took it like hawks."

These are but a few of the exploits. There are many others. Stories of widespread bombing raids over Norway and the Bay of Biscay; tales of a trail of havoc across Stavanger air field in Norway; of taking photographs of aerial-torpedo damage at Taranto; of a stick of bombs falling across a munitions dump in the harbor of Feje Island, the explosion of which tossed the plane 900 feet off its course; of interrupting a camp's Sunday dinner arrangements at Kristiansand; of an attack on the gas works at Esbjerg in Denmark. They go on and on —

Such is the Legend of the Hudson.

This article was originally published in the February, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 2, pp 20-23, 86, 88.
The original article includes 8 photos and a 3-view silhouette drawing.
Photos and drawing are not credited.

Photo captions: