Most important of recent developments in Great Britain is the decision to set up an Air Transport Command of the RAF corresponding in some respects to the command of the same name in the US Army Air Forces. It is intended to do much the same work. Its function will be to transport by air those arms, stores and people urgently needed in military operations in distant places.
It must not be confused with the Army Cooperation Command already in existence. That command has its transport obligations. Apart from its primary purpose of affording fighter cover, bomber support and reconnaissance service to the army, it is responsible for delivering paratroops and glider-borne troops to the scenes of their prescribed operations. Beyond that and the dropping of supplies by parachute to troops in advanced or exposed positions its transport duties do not go.
All the rest of the air transport work must presumably be done by the Air Transport Command. If the question is asked as to how the transport work has been done hitherto the short answer would be: "By ship." In the interests of precise accuracy I must acknowledge the deliveries made to the army and air force in Egypt by the US Air Transport Command and the carrying by British Overseas Airways of certain urgent stores from Great Britain to West Africa and thence, not only to army headquarters in Egypt but right forward to the advancing troops in Libya. An airliner of British Overseas Airways, in fact, was the second British plane to land at Tripoli.
The volume of airborne traffic which contributed to the victory of the Eighth Army was negligible in relation to the millions of tons of material delivered by ship to the army and air force in Egypt. And yet the beginnings of an air transport service were to be seen during the long pursuit from El Alamein to Tunisia. The RAF Middle East Command carried hundreds of tons of fuel and other necessary equipment forward as the army advanced. Some of these things were for the army; some were for the air force.
So swift a pursuit over scorched desert earth would not have been possible without this help, especially up to the time when Benghazi became open to Allied shipping. At the extremity of the service, these improvised and borrowed transport planes were working at a range of fully 600 miles from the main bases. A great many of them were British bombers filled with whatever room could be found for; others were American aircraft including a few of the transport types now so largely in use by the US Army Transport Command.
Since those days the work of the US Transport Command has shown how much can be done with aircraft to supplement carriage by ship. During the past year and a half Great Britain has had enough experience in the delivery of aircraft across the Atlantic through her Ferry Command to show the possibility of a big carrying service. The impetus towards the establishment of a British Transport Command is thus easy to trace. Examples from the United States and experience over the Atlantic and in North Africa are combined in the resolution. A natural decision on the practical side was to make the new command embrace the older Ferry Command and to put British Overseas Airways under its wing.
The strength of the American example is seen in that. Probably there is a deeper reason for the wholesale adoption of the American model in this respect. Some form of civil air transport is obviously needed by all the belligerents for maintaining contact with neutral nations. British Overseas Airways has been working exclusively on government business for a full two years, but that fact was not evident to the outsider. Now there can be no further doubt.
As far as we can see, the new RAF Transport Command will need a good deal of support from the United States. A certain number of converted bombers will be supplied to it. The best of them, like the York, which is the transport version of the Avro Lancaster, will serve its purposes well, for it boasts an entirely new fuselage. The others are not likely to undergo much modification. They will more probably be just bombers without the gun turrets and the bombing equipment and they will not be capacious enough for the more bulky loads.
No real transport plane is in production in Great Britain and no news of plans for the production of transport aircraft is in the air. If a start were made now on transport types, three or four years would pass before these could be ready for service. Designers in this country have not been at liberty so far to prepare civil designs. The control of labor, even in the drawing office, by the government has prevented firms from doing any work in that direction. Furthermore, draftsmen have announced their unwillingness to be put on work which they considered had no direct relation to the war effort.
This is not to say that no British designer has a design for a civil plane up his sleeve but it does mean that no firm in the British aircraft industry has been able to prepare detailed designs for a transport plane. We may even now be too optimistic in assuming that the formation of a Transport Command must be followed by the issue by the Air Ministry of specifications for transport aircraft, but there is no doubt that, apart from bomber conversions, there can be no delivery of transport aircraft from the British industry for fully three years.
Were orders given at once to the British industry to begin work, the number of transports it could undertake to supply would be but a small fraction of the output of transports promised by the American industry in the current year. Great Britain is committed to the production of big bombers and fighters. Its Aircraft industry is just approaching the peak of that production. Labor is now the limiting factor, as it is in Germany. No big diversion of production to transport types of aircraft can therefore be expected. No big diversion has been asked for by any of the critics who have agitated during the past year. What they have demanded is that air transport should not be neglected by the British or handed entirely to the United States.
When all the circumstances are examined, the probable need of American aircraft for the RAF Transport Command seems undeniable. The likelihood that some of the Lend-Lease transports will be supplied to British Overseas Airways for Transport Command work seems equally high. There will be an economy in operating types similar to those which already are being used by the US Air Transport Command in Europe and Africa, because spares and service stores for them already are being laid down.
Other news which has become available lately in London is of the more detailed kind. An interesting disclosure about the de Havilland Mosquito is that it now is being used as a fighter on intruder patrols from Malta. In fighter form it is armed with four cannon of 20 mm and with four machine guns of .303 caliber. With its high speed and relatively long range, the Mosquito should have an important future in this new form.
Some information concerning the Messerschmitt Me-109G as a competitor of the Spitfire is also of interest in view of the putting into commission of the new German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, The Me-109G has a pressure cabin and a ceiling of more than 40,000 feet. If the Germans should put that type in their aircraft carrier, the best the Fleet Air Arm would be able to set against it at present is the Seafire which is the equivalent of the Spitfire V and is armed with two cannon and four .303 machine guns.
A few facts which have an oblique bearing on the possibilities of the new Napier Sabre engine have been allowed to leak out nearly three years after the event. Up to now the fact that a special plane designed for an attempt on the world's speed record was finished in 1940, by Heston Aircraft Ltd, had been kept secret. That plane was fitted with the first of the Sabres. Unfortunately it crashed on its first test flight and therefore no evidence of its speed ever became available. Independent calculations suggested that it should have been capable of about 480 mph. The crash was caused by engine trouble which compelled the test pilot to attempt to land after having made a half circuit of Heston after taking off. The plane stalled at about 20 feet from the ground, broke its back and has never been rebuilt.
Since those days a great deal of development work has been done on the Sabre and, during the past six months, the engine has had the benefit of extensive service trials in RAF squadrons equipped with the Hawker Typhoon. Some of those squadrons are now dealing with the Focke-Wulf Fw-190s which make sneak raids at sea level on coastal towns in southeast England. The success already won by the Typhoons warrant high hopes for the Sabre and the fast planes in which it is likely to be used.
This column was originally published in the June, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 6, pp 37, 173-174.