It is difficult for the modern mind so used to aviation being an everyday thing to comprehend just how new the aircraft was even by the end of the First World War; a conflict that advanced flying technology exponentially. Looking at the use of the aircraft as an offensive weapon during the course of the brutal four year conflict shows just how far it had come. From the first occasions of light spotter planes whose crews tossed grenades over the sides to the first bombing raids over London carried out by German Gothas the potential of the bomber was becoming more and more obvious and the need for bigger and better aircraft more pressing.
In Britain one name became synonymous with bomber design during World War One more than any other; Handley Page. While most companies such as Sopwith and the Royal Aircraft Factory rarely built anything over a two-seater single engine design, Handley Page built bigger multi engine aircraft with the sole purpose of putting bombs on the enemy behind the lines. This resulted in the superlative Type O series of bombers – the O/100 and the O/400. At the time of the introduction of the O/100 it was the biggest aircraft ever built in Britain and the second largest aircraft in the world. They had such an impact on the British military flying scene that for many years after the war bombers were called “Handley Pages” even if they were built by another company.
Bombing operations on the Western Front primarily concerned with tactical targets – bridges, troop concentrations, supply facilities – but on May 25th 1917 everything changed. A flight of 23 German Gotha IV bombers attacked targets around Folkestone and Shorncliffe but it was obvious their original target was London itself. Typical London overcast meant that the bombers had to divert to these secondary targets but nevertheless over 100 people were killed. Attacks on the British mainland from the air were nothing new as the country had been on the receiving end of numerous Zeppelin raids but the lumbering air ships had been largely ineffective and their threat nullified by new defences. The Gotha raids however were a new kind of terror being able to bring widescale devastation with shocking effectiveness that both terrified the British people and reenergised the German propaganda machine.
For the British Air Ministry the situation was intolerable. The British had to show they were capable of responding in kind to this new type of German aggression and to do that they needed their own heavy bomber that could fly to Berlin with a respectable bombload. In the subsequent British Air Board 1917 specifications for the next series of aircraft for the Royal Flying Corps a requirement was included for a bomber capable of carrying a 3,000lb bombload from South East England to Berlin.
All eyes were on Handley Page to meet the requirement and they didn’t fail to rise to the challenge. Handley Page knew their Type O was a sound design for the era but could not hope to meet the Air Board’s requirements. If more was needed from the aircraft then they needed more of an aircraft and so they began scaling up the design which was given the in-house designation of HP.15. The design team increased the wingspan from 100ft in the O/400 to 126ft in the new design but retained the same overall configuration with four-bay biplane wings. Strangely, while the aircraft was slightly taller than the O/400 it was in fact marginally shorter but featured a much more substantial crew section which gave the aircraft an almost slab-like appearance from the side. Like the O/400 it was constructed of wood and fabric materials.
A bigger aircraft needs more power and very quickly it was becoming clear that no two engines were available that could generate the necessary horsepower. The answer therefore was to double the number of engines to four and in order to not overstress the airframe by placing them further out along the length of the wing Handley Page decided to place the four engines on two mounting brackets located close to the fuselage. This necessitated two of the engines facing forward pulling the aircraft along while the other two engines faced aft in a pusher configuration.
The engine chosen for the aircraft was the 12-cylinder liquid cooled Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII inline-vee unit that on its own developed 375hp; an impressive figure for the time. The liquid cooling of the engine was necessary given the powerplants performance but was something of a cause for concern since liquid cooled engines were more prone to breakdowns and were more susceptible to enemy fire. Another unusual feature of the aircraft was that the forward propeller was two bladed while the aft propeller was four bladed. This was in order to not overly disrupt the airflow to the aft engine. The four Eagle VIIIs combined to give the aircraft an awesome 1500hp and to reflect this fact the number “1500” was included in the type’s service designation – Type V/1500. To put this figure in to perspective the O/400 and the Vickers Vimy bombers had a total power output of 720hp while the Gotha IV that attacked Felixstowe only produced 520hp.
The aircraft also had a much larger crew than previous aircraft although just how many crew remains a source of speculation as various sources claim different figures. Some claim eight crew while others claim only six. Crew positions within the aircraft included pilot, navigator/bombardier and three gunners including the somewhat revolutionary position of tail gunner which became a necessity following combat service with the Type O. It is likely that a second pilot or air mechanic was included in the crew numbers given the relative complexity of the aircraft and it is rumoured that up to three mechanics were included on early flights which may account for why some sources claim the aircraft had a crew of eight. It seems more likely that such a number of mechanics would have been involved in the testing but that this was not a typical crew complement as later flights (as we shall see) flew with a crew of three when the gunners were not needed which means that operationally a crew of six was the norm.
Construction of the aircraft could not be carried out at Handley Page’s Cricklewood factory due to other commitments such as producing the Type O bombers so a compromise was made. The components for the aircraft were built in Belfast, Ireland by Harland and Wolfe, more famous for building ships than aircraft, and then shipped to Cricklewood for final assembly. The decision to assemble the aircraft at Cricklewood and not in Belfast was possibly made for security reasons and it is likely that the War Office were concerned about pro-German (or at least anti-British) spies operating at the yard in the wake of the Easter Rising. Assembly of the prototype, E4104, was completed at Cricklewood in May 1918 and the aircraft took to the air on May 22nd with testing being carried out shortly after.
Tragedy befell the program when on June 8th 1918 during its 13th flight E4104 crashed with Capt. Vernon E. G. Busby at the controls. While cruising along at 1,000ft all four engines cut out at once and so Busby attempted to turn the aircraft back to the airfield but in doing so stalled the aircraft and it entered an uncontrollable spin. Of the six aboard four were killed in the resulting crash including Busby while a fifth crewman died shortly after from his injuries. The aircraft was completely lost in the crash so an accurate investigation couldn’t be carried out leaving the verdict of fuel starvation as the only possible explanation given the description of what happened from the only survivor.
Despite this setback the successor to the Army’s Royal Flying Corps, the newly established and independent Royal Air Force (RAF), gave production of the aircraft a high priority and demanded 210 machines from Handley Page. Handley Page found it impossible to meet this demand on their own and so much of the work was contracted out to Harland and Wolfe, Beardmore, Graham White and Alliance Aircraft.
The RAF in the meantime went about forming a specialised squadron to operate the aircraft and this came in the guise of No.166 Squadron which formally stood up at RAF Bircham Newton, Norfolk on June 13th 1918. While officially designated as a heavy bomber unit the crews selected to train on the “Super Handley” as it was called were under no illusions about what their real mission was; bomb Berlin. Very quickly No.166, despite having no aircraft yet, was becoming an elite unit due to an extremely intensive training regime. Nearly all the pilots and crews selected for the squadron had previous combat experience mainly on the older Handley Pages and the FE.2b night bombers. The navigators especially had to attend a special course to allow them to learn the art of very long range navigation at night. Finally, in October 1918 the first three assembled Handley Page V/1500s were delivered to RAF Bircham Newton and after nearly four months of training the crews were eager to familiarise themselves with the new aircraft so they could carry out their mission.
As October gave way to November of 1918 that order had yet to come. Despite all the effort to get No.166 Squadron ready and their aircraft delivered the morality of the mission to Berlin was now being called in to question. Peace seemed to be just around the corner following the capitulation of the Austro-Hungarians and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany. Using the V/1500 for regular bombing operations over the Western Front was seen as an unacceptable risk to such valuable aircraft and personnel for if they were lost to enemy defences then the Berlin mission could never go ahead.
Finally, on the 8th of November the squadron received its orders. They were to take off from Bircham Newton and fly to Berlin where they would drop their weapons before proceeding on to Allied-occupied Prague. There the aircraft would be re-armed and re-fuelled before taking off back over Germany to bomb Dusseldorf before landing back in the UK. It looked set to be an epic mission. Then just hours before it was due to start an inspection of one of the aircraft showed that all four engines needed replacing despite protests from crews who claimed the mechanic was being overly forceful by insisting the change take place before the mission. With only two aircraft remaining the mission was cancelled. Just two days later the aircraft attempted the mission again but as they literally started to taxi out they were called back with news that an armistice had just been declared and the war was over. The mission to Berlin would never take place.
Post war Britain was nearly bankrupt and advanced aircraft projects were cancelled in a near-orgy of cutbacks as their war was now over. The Versailles Treaty was intended to strip Germany of any war making ability and already there was talk of new arms limitation treaties among the remaining powers to make sure another Great War could never happen. Against such a backdrop few advanced aircraft survived with the RAF having to make do with wartime types for many years after. The promising V/1500 was one such aircraft to survive the cull although it did not come off unscathed. Of the planned 210 airframes only 60 frontline aircraft were manufactured excluding the three prototypes.
While the aircraft may not have carried out its intended mission of bombing the Kaiser’s capital city the V/1500 was about to make its mark on history in other more peaceful ways. Its long range performance was brilliantly demonstrated when one aircraft flew to Karachi in British India (modern day Pakistan) in just under a month making stops at Rome, Malta, Cairo, and Baghdad along the way. The next year another V/1500 attempted to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight taking off from Newfoundland in Canada but running in to mechanical difficulties it was forced down in Nova Scotia. The goal was later achieved by a Vickers Vimy twin engined bomber flown by John Alcock and Arthur Brown. The same aircraft did however later carry out the first airmail run between Canada and the United States.
For a time it seemed that the V/1500 would never drop a bomb in anger but the horror of the Great War failed to bring about the anticipated world peace and in May 1919 British forces were again fighting for the Empire in a brief but bloody war with the Kingdom of Afghanistan. The fighting resembled more of what the British and Indian Armies were used to before 1914 and the modern technologies that had arisen from the Western Front seemed out of place in the battles against tribesmen and armed militia. Nevertheless towards the end of May a plan was being devised for an air strike on the Royal Palace of King Amanullah in Kabul. The aircraft chosen for the long range mission was in fact the same aircraft that made the record breaking flight from Britain to India; V/1500 J1936.
The aircraft was armed with four 112lb bombs on bomb racks that had to be sourced from a squadron of B.E.2cs while sixteen 20lb hand thrown bombs were carried in the fuselage to be tossed out over the target. On May 25th 1919 the aircraft took off from Risalpur with Captain Halley at the controls and Lt E. Villiers as observer/bombardier. The V/1500 reached Kabul in three hours and made its attack on the Royal Palace, the King’s forces having almost no defence other than to fire their bolt action rifles in to the air at the plane as it circled overhead making attack after attack.
Inside the palace there was chaos despite the fact that Halley and Villiers’ aim was not exactly precise and most of the bombs missed the main building. The horror of being attacked from the sky sent many of those in the palace rushing in to the streets to escape including many of the women of the King’s harem. Even after the attack was over King Amanullah found it difficult to control the situation and within a few days of the attack he agreed peace terms with the British. It was the first time in history that an aircraft had been the decisive factor in ending a conflict.
Despite these successes the aircraft was extremely complicated to operate and maintain and with no real long range bombing requirement any longer the RAF decided to withdraw it in 1920. The Handley Page HP.15 V/1500 was every bit the spiritual ancestor to the four engined Handley Page Halifax that took the war to the heart of the Third Reich in World War Two. History at large may have forgotten the contribution to aviation this remarkable aircraft has made but in both peace and war it helped lay the foundation for the future.
Role: Heavy Night Bomber
Maximum speed: 99mph
Range: 800 miles (approx operational range)
1,300 miles (ferry range)
Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII inline vee piston engines (375hp each).
Length: 64ft 0in
Wingspan: 126ft 0in
Defensive Armament: 3/6 .303in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns in nose, dorsal and tail positions
Offensive Armament: 3000lbs of bombs