British Aircraft

by John S Buchanan
John S Buchanan, CBE, is Director-General of Aircraft Production. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and also of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences (USA). He was born November 23, 1883, and attended the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, Scotland. In 1908 he was HM Inspector of Factories and later became a lieutenant commander in the RNVR. Also a one-time squadron leader in the RAF. Mr Buchanan later became Assistant Director of Research and Development of Aircraft at the Air Ministry. He was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1934.

In 1939, Britain — since 1918 disarmed "to the edge of risk" — found herself at war with a country possessing the most powerful air force in history. True, Britain's newest fighters were better than any German type and her bombers were equal to or better than those of the enemy. This was in large measure due to the development of two things, the eight-gun fighter and the power-operated gun turret. But the number of her aircraft was small and many aircraft even then obsolescent were still in service.

How well those British fighters and bombers fought and bombed has been told by others, and need not be referred to here: the object of this article is to describe how Britain has developed her aircraft since war began.

The British aircraft in France were Hurricane fighters, Army Cooperation Lysanders and Battle and Blenheim bombers. The bomber force based in Great Britain comprised Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens. At home there were also Gloster Gladiators, the last of the biplane fighters.

Here are some technical details about them as they were at that time: —

Gloster Gladiator ................

Maximum speed 250 mph, four machine guns.
Hawker Hurricane ..............
Maximum speed 335 mph, eight machine guns.
Westland Lysander ....... . ......
Maximum speed 220 mph, three machine guns and a number of light bombs.
Fairey Battle ...................
Maximum speed 257 mph, two machine guns, single engine, bomb load about 1,000 pounds for circuit of action of 1,000 miles.
Bristol Blenheim ................
Maximum speed 285 mph, two machine guns, twin-engined, bomb load 1,500 pounds for circuit of action of 1,000 miles.
Vickers-Armstrong Wellington .....
Maximum speed 250 mph, six machine guns, twin-engined, bomb load 4,500 pounds.
Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley ....
Maximum speed 245 mph, six machine guns, twin-engined, bomb load about 3,500 pounds.
Handley-Page Hampden .........
Maximum speed 265 mph, three machine guns, twin-engined, bomb load 4,000 pounds.

These were the aircraft with which the Royal Air Force met the German blitzkrieg which burst over Holland, Belgium and France in May, 1940. On May 10, the British Advanced Air Striking Force in France had 135 bombers serviceable. During the following five days 75 of them were lost in action. By June 20, 40 per cent of the Force's total front-line strength had vanished. Its Hurricane squadrons supported by many more from Great Britain fought the Luftwaffe without ceasing and shot down scores of the German fighters and bombers.

All the time the home-based bombers had been thrown into the battle in attempt to arrest the German onrush. When the fighting neared the Straits of Dover home-based fighters lent their aid too. But the odds were too great. France was smashed, the British Army was evacuated from Dunkirk, the RAF squadrons flew back to England and the British people went to work in a fury of determination to redeem the military disaster which had befallen them.

While the Battle of Britain was raging in the skies above their heads, the factory workers toiled at producing the new aircraft with which Britain was to strike back. With bombs falling on their homes and workshops, the men and women of Britain stuck it grimly and got on with the job of restoring and increasing the strength of the RAF. They were beyond praise.

Now Britain has bombers more powerful than any Germany possesses. Types classed as "heavy bombers" two years ago have become "medium bombers," the Blenheims — then "medium" — are now "light," and the Battles have passed into history as have many other types of aircraft operating in 1939.

The Hurricanes and Spitfires of today are as different from those of the Battle of Britain as the new Curtiss P-40F from the original P-40, and there are newer types of fighters — such as the Typhoon — being built. The new "heavies" are the giant four-engined Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters, carrying loads many times as great as those bombers which fought with such gallantry to stem the enemy attack in France.

World-famous aircraft designers such as Gouge of Short Brothers, Volkert of Handley Page, and Chadwick of A V Roe have done their work well. It is they who have produced these three tremendous bombers, it is they who will have done so much to bring Hitler to justice.

Glance again at the technical details of those early aircraft near the beginning of this article, and then read this: —

Short Stirling .... . .............

Four 1,600-hp Bristol Hercules engines, wing span 99 feet, length 87 feet, 3 in., height 22 feet, 9 in., gross wing area 1,460 square feet, loaded weight 70,000 pounds, maximum speed at 14,000 feet nearly 300 mph Maximum bomb load eight tons, crew of seven, two guns amidships in upper turret, four guns in tail turret.
Handley Page Halifax ...........
Four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines of 1,175 hp, wing span 99 feet, length 70 feet, height 22 feet, mainplane area 1,250 square feet, loaded weight 60,000 pounds, maximum speed approximately 300 mph Maximum bomb load five and one-half tons, crew of seven, two guns nose turret, two guns midship turret, four guns tail turret.
AV Roe Lancaster .............
Weighs 30 tons. The fastest and deadliest bomber for size and bomb load in the world. Carried out the famous daylight raid on the submarine engine works at Augsburg, which so surprised the Germans.

The Wellington now is fitted with Bristol Hercules engines of far greater horsepower than before; its speed has therefore greatly increased and its general performance remarkably improved. So much so, indeed, that its latest performance may not be quoted here. This is one of the most consistent bombing aircraft in any air force, Allied or enemy, and — thanks to its geodetic construction — a most difficult plane to shoot down. It has fought in almost every campaign since the war broke out, in all sorts of conditions, and has stood up to them all with a competence and sturdiness which has justified the work of R K Pierson, who designed it.

The Manchester — designed by Chadwick of the A V Roe Company — was for a time the fastest and most powerful twin-engined bomber flying for the RAF, but there is little point in describing it in detail as it is being superseded by the Lancaster.

Among other heavy planes flying with the RAF is the Short Sunderland flying boat, a type which has flown thousands of miles for the British Coastal Command. Powered by four Bristol Peqasus engines of 1,000 hp, the Sunderland's maximum speed is 210 mph, with a range of 2,880 miles at 178 mph. Loaded it weighs 45,700 pounds and has a span of 112 ft 10 in, a length of 85 ft 4 in, a height of 32 ft 11 in, and a wing area of 1,487 square feet. Cruising out over the Atlantic on convoy protection, and on long-distance reconnaissance work generally, the Sunderland has shown qualities of reliability and endurance equal to the importance of its duties. Guns bristle from its nose and stern and from amidships on either side, and it also carries a substantial bomb load. Endurance is its main characteristic; a Sunderland lately forced down through engine trouble in the South Atlantic was taken in tow by a Naval corvette and towed hundreds of miles through a heavy swell, a severe crosswind and bad electrical storms. The tow lasted 74 hours and the Sunderland received a terrible buffeting.

The Bristol Beaufort bomber and torpedo carrier flies at over 300 mph and has a span of 57 ft 10 in, length of 44 ft 2 in, and a height of 14 ft 3 in. The twin engines are 14-cylinder sleeve-valve air-cooled Bristol Taurus, of over 1,000 hp, and this aircraft has done brilliant work for Coastal Command. Heavily armed, it is a first-class torpedo aircraft and bomber, carrying a crew of four.

That, roughly speaking, completes the summary of Britain's modern bombers. In addition, of course, the faithful old Hampdens, Whitleys and Blenheims continue to fly with the RAF.

A reference must be made to the British training aircraft. The first plane handled by a fledgling pilot is the famous de Havilland Tiger Moth, which has been so consistently successful in all sorts of flying over many years. It was on an early Tiger Moth that the late Amy Johnson made her amazing record flight to Australia years ago, and today's version of the Moth is one of the most efficient and reliable light aircraft in the world. Other trainers are the Airspeed Oxford and the Miles Master. The Oxford has a wing span of 53 ft 4 in. a maximum speed of nearly 200 mph and a range of almost 1,000 miles; it is powered by two 350-hp Armstrong-Siddeley Cheetah engines. The Master (built by Phillips and Powis) is a small and neat aircraft of excellent design; maximum speed is 250 mph, with a range of 500 miles.

The Avro Anson, which did great work with Coastal Command at the beginning of the war, is now a trainer and communications aircraft. It has two Cheetah engines, a maximum speed of 188 mph and a range of about 800 miles.

Finally there are the modern British fighters. If ever a country owed a debt of gratitude, Britain owes that debt to Sidney Camm and the late R J Mitchell, designers — respectively — of the Hawker Hurricane and the Vickers-Armstrong Spitfire. The Hurricane was always the most adaptable of the RAF's fighters, flying and fighting equally well in all countries and in all kinds of conditions. Its latest offensive armament now gives it many times the firepower of the days of her youth, and many Hurricanes are even fitted with bomb racks beneath each wing for fast light bombing. The combination of increased power in the Merlin engine and of firepower has made the Hurricane one of the most reliable and versatile fighter planes in the world,

The Spitfire — the schoolboy's dream — fought superbly in the Battle of Britain and has fought superbly ever since. Mitchell's design developed from his famous Supermarine seaplanes which won the Schneider Trophy for Great Britain. The latest Spitfire is a fast-flying fighter of exquisite lines; speed about 400 mph, powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin, offensive armament includes two cannons and four machine guns. It is justifiably world famous.

The Bristol Beaufighter is the most heavily armed fighter aircraft in the world, with six machine guns and four cannons. It is used for night fighting and long-distance fighting in which it has been notably successful. Its maximum speed is 330 mph, and it is powered by two 1,400-hp Bristol Hercules radial air-cooled engines.

There are many other aircraft in the service of the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm; this short summary cannot describe them all. Its purpose has been to give as many details as may be given safely of the principal types of which Britain — and Britain's aircraft industry particularly — is very proud.

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 159-160, 258, 260.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author and 4 photos.
Photos from the RAF.

Photo captions: