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The following article on British WW2 aircraft is an excerpt from Barrett Tillman’ D-Day Encyclopedia. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

British WW2 Aircraft: Avro Lancaster

The Lancaster evolved from the Avro firm’s ill-fated Manchester to become one of the great bombers of World War II. With two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines, the Manchester lacked reliability for combat operations and was abandoned after limited production. However, to retrieve as much of the investment as possible, Avro extended the Manchester’s wings and put four Merlins on its airframe; pilots were delighted with the result.


The Lancaster Mark I could carry a maximum load of fourteen thousand pounds, and though the average operational loadout was much less, the potential was easily recognized. Stable, easy to fly, and capable of 280 mph at altitudes above most other RAF bombers, the ‘‘Lanc’’ was loved by its aircrews.

Though not built in the variety of its Halifax stablemate, the Lancaster nevertheless demonstrated its versatility. The most famous Lancaster mission occurred in 1943, when No. 617 Squadron’s modified Avros made low-level attacks on the Rhine dams using Dr. Barnes Wallis’s revolutionary skip bombs. The same squadron later used Wallis’s awesome eleven-ton ‘‘earthquake’’ bombs. On 6 June 1944 Lancasters participated in saturation bombing of German coastal batteries to suppress opposition on the beaches, as well as in attacks on the Le Havre river bridges.

From 1941 to 1945 some eighty Lancaster squadrons flew 156,000 sorties over Occupied Europe, dropping 681,000 tons of bombs—an average of 4,300 pounds of bombs per sortie. The Lanc’s peak strength occurred in August 1944 with forty-two operational squadrons, including four Royal Canadian Air Force, two Australian, and one Polish manned. Attrition was heavy, especially during the ‘‘Battle of Berlin’’ in early 1944, but production exceeded 7,300 aircraft (87 percent were Mark I and III) from six manufacturers, including Victory Aircraft in Canada.

British WW2 Aircraft: Bristol Beaufighter

One of the most effective strike aircraft of the war, the Bristol Beaufighter was adapted from the firm’s twin-engine Beaufort bomber. The RAF lacked an effective long-range fighter when the war began, and Bristol—one of Britain’s oldest aircraft companies—jumped to fill the gap.

Beginning with airframe parts of the Beaufort, Bristol redesigned the older aircraft’s fuselage to include a short, pugnacious-looking nose that gave superb forward visibility for the pilot. The observer-navigator sat in a separate cockpit well aft, which proved fortuitous because it afforded ample room for an airborne radar.

The Beaufighter was a powerful aircraft in every respect. It was powered by twin Hercules radial engines, rated at 1,375 horsepower, and it was armed with four 20 mm cannon. The Mark I flew in July 1939 and arrived in squadrons barely a year later. By late summer of 1940, the AI Mark IV radar had been installed, and the Bristol began its successful career as a night fighter. A few American night-fighter squadrons also flew Beaufighters in Britain and the Mediterranean.

Wartime development resulted in several models, including the Merlinpowered Mark II. To enhance its strike capability, the Beaufighter received six machine guns in the wings, but its full potential was not reached until the Mark VI and later. RAF Coastal Command relished the Bristol’s exceptional offensive punch, with rockets and a torpedo for antishipping strikes. The Mark X had upgraded Hercules engines of 1,770 horsepower, pushing its top speed over 300 mph.

The early model Beaufighters were regarded as difficult to fly; they were heavy and had to be landed with power on. Later aerodynamic improvements, such as a larger vertical fin and dihedral in the horizontal stabilizers, did much to tame the type’s bad habits.

Beaufighters were part of the air order of battle for D-Day, particularly useful for attacking German defenses and coastal shipping. The type also was deployed against Japan, and 364 of the total 5,928 were built under license in Australia.

British WW2 Aircraft: DeHavilland Mosquito

The plywood Mosquito was a serious challenger for the title of most versatile aircraft of World War II. It performed virtually every mission asked of a land-based aircraft: day and night fighter, light bomber and nocturnal intruder, antishipping and photo-reconnaissance aircraft. The ‘‘Mossie’’ accomplished each task with excellent results and was so successful that Germany attempted to build its own Moskito.

Like Bristol’s Beaufighter, the Mosquito was conceived as an in-house project by the DeHavilland Company. In 1938 the lightweight, twin-engine DH-98 was regarded as a fast, unarmed bomber. The molded plywood airframe gave rise to the nickname ‘‘Wooden Wonder,’’ but the RAF was slow to warm to the concept. However, work progressed, and the prototype first flew in November 1940.

Mosquitos were produced in startling variety, with approximately twenty fighter and thirty bomber variants from 1941 onward. Throughout the type’s life it was powered by two Rolls-Royce Merlins rated between 1,230 and 1,700 horsepower. Exceptionally fast, some marks were capable of 425 miles per hour at altitude, and during the V-1 ‘‘Buzz Bomb’’ campaign of 1944–45, Mosquitos were among the most successful aircraft at intercepting and destroying the speedy robot bombs.

Entering squadron service in 1942, Mosquitos proved ideal for the pathfinder mission, marking target areas for multi-engine bombers. They also performed low-level strikes against precision targets, such as Gestapo headquarters in Oslo and the Nazi prison at Amiens.

RAF Coastal Command valued the Mosquito as a partner to the Bristol Beaufighter in the antishipping role. Long-range missions against German-controlled shipping in Scandinavian waters were flown with rockets and heavy cannon armament. Mosquitos also logged combat in the Middle East and the Pacific, while American reconnaissance squadrons flew them in Europe and Africa.

During the Normandy campaign, RAF squadrons committed a monthly average of not quite three hundred Mosquitos. From June through August, seventy were shot down and twenty-eight damaged beyond repair—33 percent of the total available.

Mosquito production approached seven thousand, built in Britain, Canada, and Australia, with the last aircraft delivered in 1948. Mosquito pilots and navigators were proud of their machine, knowing they flew one of the most capable combat aircraft of its generation.

British WW2 Aircraft: Fairey Swordfish

One of the most remarkable military aircraft of all time, the Swordfish was a biplane designed in 1933 and was still in combat in 1945. It was conceived as a carrier-based torpedo plane powered by a Pegasus radial engine of some six hundred horsepower, with a nominal crew of three: pilot, observer, and gunner.

The Mark I entered Royal Navy service in 1936 and appeared little different from most carrier planes of its day—an open-cockpit biplane. Already regarded as obsolete when war began three years later, the ‘‘Stringbag’’ had, however, the priceless advantage of availability. It proved its worth repeatedly over the next few years, including a stunningly successful night torpedo and bombing attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor in 1940. The example set by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish so impressed the Japanese navy that the Pearl Harbor operation was based in part on the Taranto strike.

In 1941 Swordfish off HMS Ark Royal torpedoed the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, leading to her destruction by surface forces. That same year Swordfish attacked Italian ships in the Mediterranean battle off Cape Matapan. In 1942 the land-based Swordfish attempted to stop the ‘‘Channel Dash’’ by German battle cruisers and were nearly all destroyed by German fighters.

Perhaps the Swordfish’s greatest contribution during its long service was in the realm of antisubmarine warfare. Flying from escort carriers, late-model aircraft with radar persistently hunted U-boats in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and northern waters. During D-Day, land-based Swordfish conducted antisubmarine patrols in the Channel and its approaches.

Nearly 2,400 of the type were constructed, and one of the many ironies of the Swordfish’s career is that it outlived its intended replacement, Fairey’s closed-cockpit Albacore. Even when the more advanced Barracuda monoplane arrived in fleet squadrons, the ‘‘Stringbag’’ soldiered on, in its own way irreplaceable.

British WW2 Aircraft: Handley-Page Halifax

The four-engine, twin-tail Halifax bore a general resemblance to its more famous counterpart, the Avro Lancaster, and shared the ‘‘Lanc’s’’ rags-to-riches story. The Lancaster evolved from the Avro Manchester; similarly, the Halifax began life on the drawing board as a twin-engine bomber but was altered to the multi-engine configuration. Originally powered by four 1,280 hp Rolls-Royce Merlins, the Halifax Mark I first flew in October 1939, barely a month after the war began. However, developmental problems delayed its combat debut until March 1941. The original version, as well as the Mark II and V, retained Merlins until increased demand for Lancasters, Spitfires, and Mosquitos mandated an engine change.

The most common Halifax variants were the Mark III, VI, and VII, all powered by Bristol Hercules air-cooled radials of 1,600 to 1,800 horsepower. The later models also had a different silhouette, with the original front turret deleted in favor of a more streamlined nose to improve top speed. The Mark III was rated at 277 mph.

Halifaxes dominated RAF Bomber Command’s No. 4 and 6 Groups but also flew in Coastal Command and Transport Command. Like most British bombers, the Halifax was a single-pilot aircraft, with six other men completing the crew: flight engineer, bombardier (bomb aimer in the RAF), navigator, and gunners. In four years of RAF Bomber Command operations, Halifaxes logged 75,500 sorties with an average bomb load of three thousand pounds.

Extremely versatile, the Handley-Page bomber doubled as a maritime patrol plane, electronic countermeasures platform, paratroop transport, and glider tug. The latter duty was an especially important aspect of the Halifax’s contribution to Overlord. In June 1944 at least twenty Halifax squadrons flew from the UK with Bomber Command while others served in the Mediterranean theater.

Total production was 6,176 aircraft, including some postwar manufacture. The type remained in RAF service until 1952.

British WW2 Aircraft: Hawker Typhoon

The 1938 replacement design for the Hawker Hurricane was the Typhoon, probably the heaviest and potentially the most powerful singleseat fighter proposed until that time. Originally called the Tornado, following a series of engine changes it emerged as the Typhoon in early 1940.However, a difficult development period occupied the next year and a half before engine and airframe problems were resolved.

The first production Typhoon was tested in May 1941 with the 2,200 hp Sabre IIA engine. The new fighter was committed to combat sooner than it should have been, but by late 1942 it was successfully defending British airspace from Luftwaffe hit-and-run raids. Maximum speed was 417 mph at 20,500 feet.

The ‘‘Tiffy’’ earned a hard-won reputation as an excellent tactical support aircraft. Distinctive with its chin-mounted radiator, its rugged airframe was able to withstand considerable battle damage and still return home. The Typhoon’s armament was optimized for ground attack, with four 20 mm cannon and underwing rails for eight rockets as well as two five hundred-pound bombs.

These rugged British planes were ideally suited for the ground-attack role, and Typhoons took a major toll on German armor and transport during the Normandy campaign.

During the Normandy and Falaise campaigns, Typhoons perfected ‘‘cab rank’’ tactics and reported a heavy toll of German transport and armor (one thousand tanks and twelve thousand other vehicles were claimed) but sustained heavy losses. From June through August, 243 Typhoons were lost in action and 173 damaged beyond repair, the heaviest loss rate of any RAF aircraft in the campaign. Hawker produced 3,300 Typhoons before the type was phased out in favor of the bigger, faster Tempest in 1944. Tempests played a limited role in the Normandy campaign, with an average monthly availability of fifty-fifty aircraft.

British WW2 Aircraft: Short Sunderland

The Short Brothers company gained considerable prewar experience with its ‘‘Empire’’ series of transoceanic airliners, so it was no surprise that the Sunderland became Britain’s premier flying boat of the Second World War. The prototype, first flown in October 1937, was powered by four 1,065 hp Pegasus radial engines. The Mark V, delivered in 1943, used American Pratt and Whitney radials of 1,200 horsepower. With as many as a dozen crewmen, the big boat had enormous range (nearly three thousand miles) and could remain airborne for more than thirteen hours, cruising at about 135 mph.

Most Sunderlands in Great Britain were assigned to RAF Coastal Command general reconnaissance squadrons, conducting patrol and antisubmarine missions. Various marks had different armament, but all included at least bow and tail turrets; a dorsal turret also was added. On rare occasions when aerial opposition was encountered, the seemingly ungainly Sunderland could protect itself against enemy twin-engine aircraft.

Prior to D-Day, Sunderlands covered the Bay of Biscay on a daily basis, suppressing U-boats and tracking coastal convoys. It was tedious, unglamorous work but an important part of the Allied effort.

The Sunderland remained in production until war’s end, by which time 739 had been delivered, and it was kept in service until 1958.

British WW2 Aircraft: Supermarine Spitfire

No single aircraft has so captured the world’s imagination as the Royal Air Force’s sleekly elegant Spitfire. Tracing its ancestry to a successful line of racers, the Spitfire was designed by Supermarine’s chief engineer, Reginald J. Mitchell, who had produced the Schneider Trophy champions of the 1930s. First flown in March 1936, the prototype was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin, a liquid-cooled V-12 of one thousand horsepower.

Production Spitfires were delivered in June 1938, and they equipped eleven RAF squadrons when war broke out in September 1939. Over the next year their strength increased; nineteen squadrons were available at the start of the Battle of Britain. The 199 Spitfire Ia models constituted not quite one-third of the RAF’s frontline fighter strength.

By 1944 the most significant types were the Mark IX fighter and the Mark XI, a high-altitude photo-reconnaissance platform. ‘‘PR’’ Spitfires were flown by U.S. Army Air Forces units as well. The Mark IX featured a Merlin 60 engine, two 20 mm cannon, and four .303 caliber machine guns; its top speed was 400 mph at twenty thousand feet. Though considered an interim ‘‘anti Focke-Wulf ’’ design, the Mark IX proved itself versatile and long-lived, accounting for one-quarter of total production of the type.

One unusual aspect of the Spitfire’s career involved training U.S. Navy pilots to fly the British fighter. Realizing that naval gunfire spotting would be an important part of Overlord, cruiser-based aviators were qualified in Spitfires on the theory that it was easier to transition a trained spotter to fighters than to train a fighter pilot in gunfire support. Because the spotters had to fly over hostile territory, the Curtiss SOC biplanes ordinarily used would have been highly vulnerable to German flak.

During the Normandy campaign nearly half of all RAF fighters were Spitfires, which roamed almost at will over northern France, attacking German transport and lines of communications. Despite its potentially vulnerable liquid-cooled engine, the Spitfire was well suited as a tactical support aircraft owing to its speed, armament, and dive-bombing capability. Some 365 Spitfires were shot down from June through August, with nearly three hundred written off—41 percent of the nearly two thousand available.

Later in the war, more powerful Griffin engines were mated to the Spitfire airframe, resulting in even better performance. Additionally, both modified and specially built Supermarines were flown off British aircraft carriers as Seafires, bringing a degree of fighter performance previously unknown to the Royal Navy.

Total Spitfire and Seafire production reached twenty-two thousand units, in at least forty marks.

British WW2 Aircraft: Westland Lysander

The gull-wing Lysander established a notable record on RAF special operations during World War II. Originally received as Army Co-Operation Command’s first monoplane in 1938, it was powered by a Bristol Mercury or Perseus radial engine of 870 to 905 horsepower. Top speed was rated at 219 miles per hour. Its two-man crew comprised a pilot and observergunner, with room for a passenger in the middle cockpit.

The Lysander was designed to land in confined spaces, affording liaison between army units or the army and air force. With aerodynamically activated slats and flaps, it could be flown down to airspeeds as slow as 65 mph. Though the seemingly ungainly machine carried three machine guns and could drop small bombs, it was seldom used offensively. It was more often employed in liaison and tactical reconnaissance missions as well as target towing and air-sea rescue.

In support of D-Day, Lysanders were often the machine of choice in delivering British, French, and other Allied intelligence operatives and agents into Occupied Europe. Lysanders succored resistance forces as well.

Total production was 1,425 aircraft.


This article is part of our larger education resource on the Army Air Corps. For a comprehensive post on the history of the Army Air Corps, click here.

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