London Survey

by Peter G Masefield
Mr Masefield worked as a designer at the Fairey Aviation Company before he embraced the profession of his cousin, John, Great Britain's poet laureate, and embarked on a career as a writer. His bent for technical details led him to his present post as the technical editor of The Aeroplane. He is also air commentator for the London Times.

An English authority discusses the aerial offensive plans of United Nations airpower

The many people on both sides of the Atlantic whose particular interest is the combat performance of Allied and Axis aircraft have been presented with much new material for study recently. The big Boeing and Consolidated bombers of the United States Army 8th Air Force, based in England, have shown their paces over Germany in daylight, North American Mitchells (B-25Bs) and Lockheed-Vega Venturas (B-34s) of the RAF have been over France in daylight for the first time, while de Havilland Mosquitoes have visited Berlin. The Luftwaffe has replied by sending into action some of the new Messerschmitt Me-210 fighter-bombers, several of which have fallen to the guns of the Hawker Typhoon fighters, also in action for the first time. Taken all round the technical interest packed into recent weeks has been great.

European weather is one of the chief factors which influence the course of bomber or fighter missions from England at this time of year. Rarely is there a day without cloud. Sometimes there will be as many as three or four unbroken layers of cloud between 3,000 and 20,000 feet. During the past year the RAF has taken advantage of these conditions to dispatch more than 3,000 aircraft sorties over Germany in daylight. Although these attacks have been very successful in holding up production by sending workers to shelter and have been made with small losses, no great weight of attack has been put on any single target in daylight except in about half a dozen instances.

By carefully choosing their weather the bombers of the 8th Air Force have begun to increase the weight of daylight attack. The experience they gained on the "nursery slopes" over France is now being turned to good account over Germany. Although at the time of writing the American crews have been over Germany only twice, so that too hasty conclusions should not be drawn, the results at present look promising for the future when the greatly augmented weight of attack, promised by General Andrews, materializes.

Having had the privilege of flying in one of the 8th Air Force's B-17Es and having discussed these longer raids with pilots who have been on the two missions over Germany, one can appreciate both the possibilities and the tactical problems involved. There is no doubt that these longer raids are tough propositions. No one would minimize the strength of the defenses or the quality of the Nazi opposition. Yet the American bombers, in shooting down 22 enemy fighters for the loss of three on the first raid over Wilhelmshaven, and 25 for the loss of five on the second raid over the Ruhr, have shown that they can give better than they take.

The fine defensive armament is the thing that strikes one most of all about the Fortress after flying in it. In particular the ball turret under the belly of the fuselage is tremendously effective. We in Britain have unfortunately neglected the qualities of the 0.5-inch machine-gun, a neglect which the Fortress and Liberator have fully shown up. So far, in all operations from England, the United States Army 8th Air Force has destroyed 236 enemy fighters for the loss of 56 bombers and eight fighters — a ratio of nearly four to one in favor of the Americans, a ratio which must be giving the Luftwaffe a severe headache. In the ratio of air crews lost the picture is not quite so good; the Americans have lost 566 men against about 240 enemy airmen, not counting those who may have escaped by parachute. Even so the American bomber losses average only some five per cent of the sorties, which in daylight is about the same as that of the RAF's night attacks.

Taken all round the American contribution seems likely to be a most valuable step towards that ideal of the 24-hour offensive against the Reich. Here, in England, the peculiar conditions of the air war at present are developing specialized tactics on both sides by way of harassing raids. Allied and German air bases are separated by the narrow waters of the English channel — still "English" thanks to Allied air superiority. In some places hostile fighter aerodromes are only 30 miles apart, little more than five minutes flying at 300 mph. As a result fighter-bombers are constantly in action, British Hurricanes, now carrying two 500-pound bombs, are beating up the German fields while the enemy attempts to reply with Focke-Wulf Fw-190s and Messerschmitt Me-109Fs. Very low-flying tactics are the order of the day because by that means the raiders can get below the range of the radio-location apparatus.

Another pleasant job in the same category is the shooting up of railroad locomotives in France, thus interrupting the enemy's communications. The North American Mustangs (P-51s) of the RAF Army Cooperation Command are doing particularly well at this. Their sea level speed of 320 mph is faster than anything the enemy can put up against them and their battery of four .50-inch and two .303-inch guns is deadly. On one of the few occasions when the enemy tried the same "loco-busting" trick over here, the boiler exploded, a piece hit the marauding Fw-190 and brought it down. Large headlines "Locomotive brings down German raider" appeared in the British newspapers.

The Allied fighters operating from England, which now include Supermarine Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, Lockheed Lightnings (P-38s), and North American Mustangs, have been joined recently by squadrons of the new Hawker Typhoons with the 2,350 hp Napier Sabre 24-cylinder H-type liquid-cooled motor.

The Typhoon was in action for the first time during the raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942. Teething troubles with the radically new engine held up the Typhoon's appearance on a large scale for some time but now it is doing well. Although no definite figures can be quoted yet, the Typhoon is certainly the fastest single-seat fighter in operational service today and also the biggest single-motor type with the exception of the Republic Thunderbolt. In the Typhoon and the new Spitfire IX the RAF has two fighters in action both of which can exceed 400 mph in normal operation with full load and armament, a fact which gives Allied squadrons a real edge over the Germans flying the Fw-190 and the Me-109F.

In the Typhoon, as in the Spitfire, the secret of the performance lies in the engine. This new Napier Sabre is probably the most compact power plant ever made. The whole engine, which lies on its side with the 24 cylinders placed horizontally, is packed into a space only seven feet long, including the reduction gear. It is a very high-revving engine for its size and is the first application of sleeve valves to a motor of this type. To watch a squadron of Typhoons fly low over an aerodrome at high speed, with the thunder of nearly 30,000 hp in the air, is a sight — and sound — which cannot be described.

One of the first victims of a Yorkshire squadron of Typhoons was a Messerschmitt Me-210, the enemy's newest fighter-bomber. Although the Me-210 was a complete wreck by the time the Typhoon had finished with it, a good deal of interesting information was nevertheless gained from it.

The Me-210A1 seems to be a German design effort along the same lines as the Mosquito. Its purpose is both swift daylight raiding with up to 2,000 pounds of bombs in an internal bay in the nose, and night interception over Germany. Powered with two 1,395 hp Mercedes-Benz DB-601E liquid-cooled motors it has a top speed of 365 mph at 20,000 feet.

The most interesting point about the machine is the armament — two 20-mm cannon and two .311-inch machine-guns fixed in the nose and two 13-mm machine-guns in remotely controlled blister-type "barbettes" on each side of the fuselage behind the cockpit and the wings. These "barbettes" are controlled through the most extraordinary complex succession of gears, and are aimed through reflector sights in the rear cockpit. The layout of these remotely controlled gun positions is an example of German ingenuity and detail concentration applied to doing a job in the most difficult manner possible. The shortage of aircraft in the Luftwaffe today can be traced in no small degree to the number of man hours spent in producing highly complicated gadgets — such as the link operation of the Junkers fuel injection system and the new Messerschmitt remotely controlled gun-aiming gear. Certainly a far simpler solution would have been found had the same problem come up for solution in England or the USA.

Taken all round the Me-210 is much inferior to the de Havilland Mosquito, the all-wood two-motor monoplane which, as a bomber, so rudely interrupted Goering's speech in Berlin on the 10th Anniversary of the Nazi Regime and, as an intruder fighter, is now flying from Malta and harassing the enemy's supply lines. The Mosquito is among the fastest aero planes in the world today — one neutral source has quoted its top speed as 430 mph — yet it carries a ton of bombs and can be armed with four cannon and four machine-guns. It is a delight to fly and can be looped and rolled like a fighter.

One of the most thrilling experiences that flying holds today is to fly in the Mosquito and, cruising normally at well over 300 mph, to put the nose down a fraction and watch the needle of the airspeed indicator flick over the 400 mph mark.

The armament of the Mosquito, grouped in the nose, has an extremely concentrated punch. The effect of a rate of fire of 2,600 cannon shells and 4,400 machine-gun bullets per minute on any target is devastating. And, talking of armament in general, there appear to be so many misconceptions on relative weights of fire that some figures may prove interesting. The table sets them out.

Boeing B-17E ………twelve .50-caliber guns
one .30-caliber gun
1,185 580
Bristol Beaufighter……four 20-mm cannon
six .303-caliber guns
815 815
deHavilland Mosquitofour 20-mm cannon
four .303-caliber guns
760 760
Messerschmitt Me-210…two 20-mm cannon
two 13-mm cannon
two .311-caliber guns
667 532
Hawker Hurricane IIcfour 20-mm cannon650 650
Focke-Wulf Fw-190A3…four 20-mm cannon
two .311-caliber guns
623 623
Grumman Wildcat……six .50-caliber guns580 580
Supermarine Spitfire IXtwo 20-mm cannon
four .303-caliber guns
445 445
Bell Airacobra I………one 20-mm cannon
two .50-caliber guns
four .30-caliber guns
422 422
Avro Lancaster I……ten .303-caliber guns275 220
Messerschmitt Me-109F …one 20-mm cannon
two .311-caliber guns
268 268

These figures show that the United Nations have the hardest hitting bombers and the hardest hitting fighters in all categories. They also reveal certain weaknesses which can be overcome. Whereas the latest British thought favors a fighter armament of four 20-mm cannon (650 pounds per minute weight of fire) — an armament installed in the latest Spitfire — American practice appears to favor six 0.50-inch machine-guns (580 pounds per minute weight of fire). Each is excellent and has particular applications for which it is most suited and these high fire powers considered in conjunction with the important qualifications of fighting efficiency — speed, climb, range and maneuverability— amply demonstrate the technical superiority enjoyed.

This technical superiority in all categories combined with the great productive efforts in America and Great Britain are founding an air mastery which will be decisive in the war. We in England, who have watched this transition from numerical air inferiority during the Battle of Britain, to the present strength, have no illusions about the significance of America's entry into the war and the work of the British aircraft industry. Flying over the British countryside one is rarely out of sight of some fighter, bomber or training aerodrome. Goering spoke the truth, for once, when he referred to this Island as "that stationary, menacing aircraft carrier lying off the coast of Europe…."

This column was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Flying magazine, vol 32, no 5, pp 44, 161-162.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of Mr Masefield and a table (above) detailing the firepower — in lb/min — of eleven combat planes used in the European Theater.
A PDF of this article [ PDF, 3 MiB ] has been prepared.