30 Minutes Over Berlin With Guy Gibson

During the interwar years there was much discussion about the psychology of war and how the morale of the people could affect a conflict’s outcome regardless of the tactical situation on the battlefield. The Great War had shown this to good effect with the Russian Empire collapsing under the weight of a disheartened people coupled with the strains of war. The revolutions of 1917, while already being seeded long before the outbreak of war in 1914, was fuelled by the Russian’s inability to defeat German and Austro-Hungarian forces thus creating a useful distraction for the Marxists. The chaos in Russia itself saw the Russian Army retreating from the war and the Germans achieving what was effectively victory in the east.

This fact was not lost on British planners during the interwar years, particularly those who tried to envision the role of air power in the next global conflict. Much was written about how the damaging of a nation’s morale through the systematic destruction of large population centres could both crush the will to resist further and inspire dissent against the hostile nation’s government. This would destroy the enemy’s social infrastructure as well as his technical infrastructure and thus the country would be unable to function.

By the same token, it was important to keep one’s own people informed of what their armed forces were doing to destroy the enemy and win the war. The spirit of getting behind the boys at the front and not wanting to let them down at home was a vital resource to be tapped to keep up war production and the gelling of the nation towards the common goal of survival.

This was where the war correspondent came in.

For the majority of the nation the war correspondent was the only view of how the fight was progressing as they reported from the frontlines. Historically, war correspondents had often been serving officers or government officials who were assigned the role of spin doctor to put a positive twist on the truth at the front in order to keep up the morale of the people even if that meant lying. The Great War would see the pinnacle of this form of propaganda with stories of glorious actions written by respected authors such as Rudyard Kipling overshadowing the true tales of horror that returning soldiers from the front told at the local pub. The demilitarization of war correspondents and the increasing number of genuine journalists at the front did much to alleviate the growing cynicism towards the earlier let’s-go-get’em style of reporting which itself was proving counterproductive.

Richard DimblebyOne of the most influential of these new breed of war correspondents was Richard Dimbleby of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Born Frederick Richard Dimbleby in 1913, he was himself the son of a journalist and when his education was complete he went to work in the family owned Richmond and Twickenham Times before joining the BBC in 1936 as a radio broadcaster. In 1939 he was selected to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as they crossed to France and in doing so earned himself the accolade of being the BBC’s first war correspondent and he would more than live up to it.

Over the next six years, Dimbleby’s words would be broadcast in to every home in Britain and beyond that had a radio, narrating some of the most pivotal and often the darkest moments in the country’s history. From the first days of fighting on the western front when Hitler’s troops bypassed the Maginot Line to the evacuation of the BEF from the Normandy beaches to the battle of El Alamein, Dimbleby’s voice told the story of the fight against Nazi Germany’s lust for conquest but one feeling prevailed throughout the world during these broadcasts; Britain was on the defensive. The Army was fighting to stop Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Egypt while the Royal Navy was waging a bitter war against Dönitz’s U-boats in the North Atlantic that were close to starving Britain in to submission.

Only one force seemed to be waging a truly offensive war against Nazi Germany; RAF Bomber Command.

The fleets of aircraft and their international crews sourced from all over the Commonwealth that made up RAF Bomber Command had the potential to strike at the very heart of Germany and directly affect the country’s ability to wage war. Knowing that the RAF’s bombers were pounding Germany night after night inspired the British people in to the belief that not only was Hitler getting a bloody nose but that victory was still possible despite the sometimes dire situation the country found itself in during the early years. As long as the bombers kept going over to Europe with their deadly loads then Britain and indeed the free world itself was still in the fight.

And the grand prize of them all was Berlin.

British bombers first visited Berlin on August 25th 1940 in retaliation for Luftwaffe bombers engaged in the Battle of Britain accidentally bombing London. The target was Tempelhoff aerodrome but while the damage was light the psychological effect on Germany and Hitler was immense. The Nazis had promised that no bomb would ever fall on the capital city and now that promise was in tatters. After more visits by RAF bombers, Hitler pushed back and directed his bomber fleets away from RAF bases to retaliate against London. In doing so, the RAF was spared destruction in the Battle of Britain and as a result it became impractical for Germany to attempt an invasion.

LMF Hampden

Through 1941, Bomber Command visited Berlin time and time again but while they did wonders for the morale of the British people the raids themselves achieved little in strategic terms. Bomber Command’s aircraft such as the Vickers Wellington, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and the Handley-Page Hampden (Above) barely had the range to reach Berlin and carried warloads too light to seriously damage the city enough to produce the desired results. If that wasn’t bad enough, navigation was a major obstacle in the early years since there were few accurate ways to navigate at night over such long distances. This, of course, was to say nothing of German defences comprising of anti-aircraft fire and radar-directed nightfighters.

As 1941 dragged on the men of RAF Bomber Command were suffering badly while trying to deliver the expected knock-out blow against the Nazi capital. Anti-aircraft fire was so dense in some places that the concentration of exploding shells created shockwaves that literally shook aircraft to pieces. Coming under increasing pressure from Whitehall, the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshall Richard Peirse, ordered one of the largest raids against Berlin on the night of November 7th/8th 1941 involving 160 aircraft. By this time the crews of Bomber Command, bloodied and tired, felt an overwhelming sense of dread and despair over the news that they would be returning to Berlin. It was felt to such a degree that there were a handful of cases where crews refused to fly the mission regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, the mission went ahead and once again Bomber Command would pay a high price. Over 12% of the total force was lost to anti-aircraft fire and nightfighters. These losses coupled with poor results saw Peirse relieved of his position and replaced by the man most associated with Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris – “Bomber Harris”.

Harris believed wholeheartedly that air power alone could smash the German infrastructure and above all the will to fight. The poor results thus far shown by Bomber Command, he attributed to inadequate equipment and the chaining of his force to attacking targets to support the Army and Royal Navy. After the disaster in November 1941, Bomber Command stopped hitting Berlin and found itself primarily trying to knock FM213 Lady Orchid, Avro Lancaster KB895 WL-O VR-A Quinte Trentonout U-Boat production and supporting facilities to ease the pressure on the Atlantic convoys. While important work, Harris wanted his men to return to the German capital and to take with them their latest four engined heavies – Short Stirling, Handley-Page Halifax and of course the superlative Avro Lancaster (Right). The change of direction for Bomber Command in 1942 did at least offer Harris the chance to sufficiently build up his forces ready to hit Berlin again and with greater devastation than ever before. In January 1943, Harris was finally granted permission to send his bomber fleets back to Berlin. It would be the first mission to the capital since the disaster of November 1941 and was intended to show the Germans (and indeed the people at home) that the tide had truly turned against the Nazis.

Eager to exploit the morale value of the operation it was decided that a journalist should go along as an observer to report on the operation and the ideal man for the job was Richard Dimbleby who by now had experienced as much if not more combat than most frontline servicemen. It shouldn’t be underestimated how dangerous an assignment like this was for a journalist. In the air they were at as much risk as the airmen themselves since flak and nightfighters didn’t discriminate. If proof of this were needed, then it can be found on the night of December 2nd/3rd 1943 when two journalists were killed flying in separate aircraft on the same mission over Europe.

Guy Gibson Wing Commander DambustersDimbleby was assigned to join No.106 Squadron of Bomber Command based at RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire and equipped with the handsome-looking Avro Lancaster. While some commanding officers may have bawked at the idea of having to take a journalist along with them on an operational sortie, Dimbleby found 106’s commander to be quite enthusiastic about it hoping it would show what life was really like for the bomber crews. He was Wing Commander Guy Gibson who will forever be associated with the great Dambusters raid that would take place four months later in May 1943.

Even before he became a household name, Gibson had developed a fine reputation in the RAF as a competent leader and experienced combat pilot. In January 1943 he was serving out his third tour of operational flying having previously conducted a tour with No.83 Squadron flying Handley-Page Hampdens at the start of the war and then flying another tour with Fighter Command flying Bristol Blenheim and Beaufighter nightfighters scoring three confirmed kills on Luftwaffe bombers and a number of probables or damaged. Dimbleby was therefore in quite capable hands.

Briefings and pre-flight checks complete, Dimbleby settled in to the cramped cabin of the Avro Lancaster (although no doubt some of the older crewmembers would have pointed Lancaster_wireless_operator_WWII_IWM_CH_8790out how “luxurious” the Lanc’ was compared to the earlier aircraft) with the rest of the crew as Gibson taxied the Lancaster out. Dimbleby records that the Lancaster’s wheels left the tarmac at 1630hrs on January 16th 1943 and set off for the dark, wintery skies of occupied Europe. Dimbleby must have felt somewhat out of place amongst the well trained and experienced six-man crew who went about their duties in an almost robotic fashion but he would forever afterwards comment on their professionalism and declare that he was proud to have flown with them. The journey out proved almost mundane with very little activity but knowing that Berlin was the target ahead hung in the thoughts of all onboard especially Dimbleby for whom it was his first mission.

As they neared Berlin, the capital’s defences began to spring to life. From here on, Dimbleby took to recording the events as they happened ready for broadcast the next day. He also took a small video camera with him to record the events. In his own words Dimbleby described what he saw;

There was a complete ring of powerful searchlights, waving and crossing. Though it seemed to me that when many of our bombers were over the city, many of our lights were doused.   

Dimbleby is referring to the use of target indicator flares being used by the RAF to mark the target. Pathfinders flew ahead of the main force deploying these flares for the follow-up bomber force. Many of the bravest citizens of Berlin would rush out to try and put out the burning markers in an effort to save their city from destruction.

It was then that Dimbleby experienced what it was like to fly through anti-aircraft fire.

There was also intense flak. At first they didn’t seem to be aiming at us. It was bursting away to starboard and port in thick yellow clusters and dark smoky puffs. As we turned in for our first run across the city it closed right around us. For a moment it seemed impossible that we could miss it. And one burst lifted us in the air as if a giant hand had pushed up the belly of the machine.

Over Berlin, each bomber searched for their markers and began to unleash their loads. According to a declassified dispatch sent to Stalin by Churchill the next day regarding the raid, the RAF dropped 142 tons of high explosive bombs and 218 tons of incendiaries on the Nazi capital. Dimbleby, in Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Lancaster had a front row seat to the devastating spectacle.

Just then another Lancaster dropped a load of incendiaries. And where before there had been a dark patch of the city, a dazzling silver pattern spread itself. A rectangle of brilliant lights, hundreds, thousands of them, winking and gleaming and lighting the outlines of the city…Score after score of these firebombs went down and all over the dark face of the German capital these great incandescent flowerbeds spread themselves. It was a fascinating sight…At last our bomb-aimer sighted his objective below and for one unpleasant minute we flew steady and straight. Then he pressed a button and the biggest bomb of the evening, our three-and-a-half tonner, fell away and down. I didn’t see it burst but I know what a giant bomb does.

Known as a “cookie” bomb to the crews, the weapon Dimbleby is referring to was one of a RAF Lancaster Avro Cookie bombs bombernumber of large conventional bombs carried by RAF bombers. Weighing 8,000lbs, the Lancaster was one of the only aircraft capable of carrying such a heavy weapon without major modifications and it was often carried in conjunction with the much smaller incendiary devices (left). Together, this weapon configuration gave a single Lancaster the capability to destroy a typically sized Berlin street. To give an idea of just how far Bomber Command had come in just three years, the 8,000lb “cookie” alone weighed twice the maximum bombload of the Handley-Page Hampden twin-engine bomber that was one of the types that took the service to war.

I couldn’t help wondering whether anywhere in [the “cookie’s”] area of devastation such a man as Hitler, Goering or Himmler or Goebbels might be cowering in a shelter. It was engrossing to realise that the Nazi leadership and their ministries were only a few feet from us. And that this shimmering mass of flares and bombs and gun flashes was their stronghold.

The last words of his narration must have reaffirmed the British people’s belief in the need to strike hard at the German capital and the other cities of Germany. Harris frequently spoke on newsreels and the radio about the necessity to wipe out the cities and in doing so crush the enemy’s ability, and of course the will, to continue the fight. There was also a certain feeling of satisfaction in British cities that had suffered under German bombardment that now it was their turn.

Dresden destroyed.jpgThose opinions would change dramatically near the end of the conflict when the true horror of Bomber Command’s war became apparent to the world. Newsreel footage of the almost annihilated German cities of Dresden, Cologne and Berlin showed that allied bombing had inflicted atrocious devastation and casualties which resulted in public opinion swinging far against Harris and his men. Bomber Command enjoyed enormous prestige and respect in the darkest days of 1940 to 1944 only to end the war as something of an ugly, almost scandalous, truth that many in British politics wanted to sweep under the carpet as quickly as possible.

Regardless of the leadership decisions in the RAF and Whitehall that sent them there, Dimbleby’s description of Gibson’s crew and by association the crews of Bomber Command as a whole during the mission reflects their bravery and dedication to their duty.

I understand their hardship now. And I am proud to have seen the stars with them.

Both Dimbleby and Gibson would find their place in the history books albeit for different reasons. Dimbleby would fly another nineteen missions with Bomber Command before the war’s end. After the war he became a famed and almost revolutionary broadcaster helping to perfect the art of live broadcasts after the war often in unusual conditions including one notable time when he recorded a program for the BBC in a deep sea diving suit! Dimbleby would also be one of the presenters to launch the long running BBC current affairs television program, Panorama. He passed away in 1965 from cancer but left an enormous legacy in British journalism.

Guy Gibson would of course become almost inseparable from his leadership of No.617 Squadron during the Dambusters operation which overshadows his already excellent career. Sadly, on September 19th 1944 he would be lost in De Havilland Mosquito B.XX KB267 over the Netherlands. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain the source of some debate but his loss was felt deeply by the British people including Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Both Dimbleby and Gibson excelled in their respective fields and used their talents when their country needed them most. While many know of them individually, few realise that for one night in the war the two of them flew together on a mission over one of the most heavily defended targets in the world and the very heart of the Nazi machine.


Important Source: the transcript for Dimbleby’s broadcast can be found in Patrick Bishop’s excellent book “Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-45”

 

Advertisements

A Request For Information

LMF Hampden

Hello everybody,

I was recently asked to help research the details surrounding the death of a reader’s grandparent lost during World War II while flying operationally. The operation in question concerns No.455 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force attached to RAF Coastal Command flying Hampden TB.Is and took place on January 11th 1943.

The information I have is as follows;

  • The attack involved 12 aircraft which took off from RAF Leuchars at 1556hrs.
  • Their target was enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast.
  • All 12 aircraft returned to the UK but one aircraft, Hampden AD792/UB-P, crashed in the Scottish highlands attempting to return to base.
  • Two of the crew (Flying Officer P J Hill 122499 RAF and Pilot Officer WJ Rees 123457 RAF) were killed instantly. One (Sergeant R A Smithers 411656 RAAF) died a week later from his injuries. The last crewmember,  Sergeant R K Spohn 412208 RAAF, survived and died in 1995.

What I am looking for are details of the mission itself – location of the enemy ships, details of the attack such as were any of the vessels hit/sunk and anything else of importance. Additionally, I would like any details regarding the crash. As far as I can determine on my own the crash would appear to have been an accident but I need to know if this was entirely the case e.g. was the aircraft damaged by enemy action or was the weather poor since it was early January?

Any and all help would be greatly appreciated. You can either comment below or if you prefer you can email me at defenceoftherealm@gmail.com

Thank you in advance

Tony Wilkins

Should drones be allowed to carry out missions on their own?

Somewhere in the skies over Tajikistan, four of the most sophisticated US warplanes ever built are on a mission of the upmost importance; a warlord has captured some nuclear warheads and they need to be destroyed. Three of the planes are manned but one of them is an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle or UCAV; a drone! However, the pilots soon realise that if they do indeed attack then radioactive dust particles thrown in to the air from the explosion will rain down on a nearby village and then across the border in to Pakistan. The mission is scrubbed and the planes turn back to their aircraft carrier.

But the UCAV refuses the order and decides the mission is too important to be abandoned.

Going against its instructions the UCAV attacks the target thus destroying the warlord’s nuclear weapons but also irradiating hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not finished yet however and decides to attack another target. This time in Russia…

RAF Reaper drone UAV

An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)

So goes the story in the 2005 action and science-fiction movie, Stealth. The film was a box office flop that was dismissed by critics but to many military observers around the world it did raise a question that had been largely dismissed except of course in science-fiction. Could we really develop weapon systems that can in-theory identify and attack a target without any human intervention and if so, should we?

The answer to the first question is undeniably, yes. The most cutting edge combat aircraft such as the US Army’s AH-64E Guardian attack helicopter or the RAF’s Typhoon FGR.4 have sensors so advanced that they can detect and identify a hostile target such as an enemy vehicle or aircraft from great distances and present the information to the pilot. The pilot then has to select what he deems to be the appropriate weapon to prosecute the target and can essentially allow the aircraft’s computers to carry out the attack. It would not be difficult therefore to design computer software to take over the decision-making process on how to attack what the aircraft’s sensors have detected.

But here’s the catch!

The aircraft’s computer systems identify a target by looking at the sensor data and trying to match that data with whatever information exists in its own digital memory. It knows what a T-55 tank is supposed to look like and if, for example, an infra-red image returns a similar vehicle then it will reason it is a T-55. A pilot however can look at the image and determine exactly what it is through logic and reasoning rather than relying solely on the data from the onboard sensors. It may very well be a T-55 tank but it could also be a truck whose image is distorted by it being crammed full of refugees. The drone maybe programmed to attack anything that looks like a T-55 but the pilot can take in to account the fact that the vehicle is travelling in a convoy of refugee vehicles and therefore less likely to be a tank or at the very least this warrants further investigation. Even if it is proven to be a tank the pilot can decide that attacking it is not worth the civilian loss of life and abort. Such an attack by an automatic drone where there would be heavy loss of civilian life by mistake would be a political and human disaster.

It is for fear of that very mistake being made by an autonomous drone that groups demanding greater international laws preventing fully autonomous weapon systems comes in to play. This movement flourished in the early 2000s as drones took centre stage in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and in 2009 the quite science-fiction sounding organisation, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) was founded. The committee is composed of experts in the fields of robotics and international law and aims to address what they view as the growing dangers of increased autonomous weapon systems.

In 2010, the committee issued a statement in Berlin, Germany outlining many of its recommendations on the restrictions of autonomous weapon systems such as UCAVs. These restrictions included limiting unmanned weapons’ ability to make any of the following decisions independently of human control;

  • The decision to kill or use lethal force against a human being.
  • The decision to use injurious or incapacitating force against a human being.
  • The decision to initiate combat or violent engagement between military units.
  • The decision to initiate war or warfare between states or against non-state actors.

In 2014, supporters of the committee’s Berlin statement felt they had won their biggest victory to date when on February 27th of that year the European Parliament voted 534-49 to ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons which enables attacks to be carried out without human intervention. The committee had wanted the restrictions to go further including limiting range and payload of all drones, even those under human control from the ground, but to this there was much stronger opposition from European governments many of whom such as France and the UK place great emphasis on them.

MQ-9 Reaper RAF Brimstone Hellfire missile UAV UCAV RPV

The MQ-9 Reaper RPV has carried out the bulk of RAF drone strikes in Iraq and Syria

Proponents of more sophisticated drones however, argue that no drone regardless of its sophistication is truly autonomous. A human decision has already been made to launch the drone against enemy forces and therefore the intention for the drone to kill has already been displayed before it even takes off. The autonomous drone would carry out the mission on behalf of its human commanders purely within the confines of its programming in the same way that a human can decide to fire a bullet at an enemy soldier; it’s true the human has no further control over the bullet but it is carrying out the human’s intent to kill. They also argue that a manned aircraft is theoretically a more unstable option because the human occupant is just as if not more fallible than an automated weapon system. A pilot can be prone to moral or psychological factors that may inhibit them from carrying out the mission even if the attack on the target is justified. Alternatively, a psychologically unbalanced pilot may have no regard for civilian lives whatsoever increasing the death toll on the ground.

If we were to consider a scenario whereby an air strike has been ordered on a terrorist weapons factory in Syria but from two perspectives; one of a manned aircraft and one of an autonomous drone. Both drone and pilot would carry out a risk assessment before deploying weapons which would look at potential threats to the aircraft and potential collateral damage to civilians. Once this assessment is complete the appropriate weapon would be selected and the attack carried out. Proponents of autonomous systems argue that the drone is safer because no attack would be carried out if the drone detected what it determined as civilians in the blast zone and being unable to violate its mission parameters would abort the mission. The human pilot on the other hand can still drop the weapon if he so chooses as could a human-controlled drone. Also, the more obvious concern with a manned aircraft is the risk to the pilot from enemy defences.

The problem of course is that a lot depends on the quality of the programming of the drone and its sensors. Just what kind of parameters should be programmed in to the drone to define civilians? There is even the risk that the drone could misinterpret hostile forces for civilians and not carry out the attack the result of which could be that weapons developed in the factory could be used against allied forces or even civilian targets in western cities. There are more basic moral concerns as well such as war appearing to become cleaner and therefore less repulsive – at least to the country that’s operating the autonomous drones – since bombing missions can be carried out without the risk of losing sons and daughters to enemy forces.

No one would argue that being able to defend your own country without the risk of losing the lives of your troops is attractive. Many of us in the UK remember the scenes of C-17s landing at RAF Brize Norton and coffins draped in the British flag being unloaded live on the BBC during the years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and no one wants to see that again. The political fallout of heavy casualties can affect an early withdrawal of troops even if the military objective has not yet been completed regardless of the wider consequences but could this bloodless type of war actually increase the chances of military conflict? The ICRAC argues that autonomous drones are taking away the human decision to initiate armed conflict because they operate on a set of restrictions limited to their own situation and ignorant of the wider scenario but most importantly are free of the implications of their actions unlike a human who could be prosecuted for illegally initiating combat. In this regard there is indeed a higher chance of conflict being unintentionally initiated with autonomous, weaponised drones and if this were to occur between two technologically sophisticated nations then it would only be a matter of time before the drones were defeated and lives would be lost as troops and manned aircraft/ships go in to battle.

Taranis UCAV UAV RPVIt’s the nightmare scenario that is driving the campaign to restrict truly autonomous drones. One of the most advanced drones currently in development is the UK’s BAE Systems Taranis (left); a high performance warplane that when development is complete will be able to conduct air defence and strike missions with equal prowess to that of a manned aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II but even this is semi-autonomous. It still requires human intervention to make decisions but beyond that the drone carries out the mission itself in the same way that an Air Marshall at a command centre has passed instructions to pilots in combat in the past. This balance of man and machine would appear to offer the best of both worlds; all the advantages of unmanned aircraft but retaining the human factor.

There is still one problem however.

The operation of even a semi-autonomous drone relies on communication between the drone and the command centre. Any wireless signal can be broken either through malfunction or enemy interruption. If a semi-autonomous drone was to lose contact with its command centre should it then be allowed carry out the mission on its own or should it be programmed to return to base? The latter would of course best appease the current international feelings on the subject but what of the aforementioned terrorist weapons factory scenario whereby a Taranis aborting the mission would result in civilian deaths in the UK from terrorist actions?

The fact of the matter is that as free-thinking human beings we are naturally suspicious of entirely automated weapon systems. No matter how well programmed or advanced a drone is there will always be a question hanging over whether or not we can trust it to carry out our military intentions exactly. It is also important that someone be accountable for the use of military force otherwise human life on the whole is devalued which would only lead to more suffering. One final point to make however is that human beings armed with guns have been responsible for more unintentional deaths in combat than any other weapon and for that fact alone we shouldn’t completely dismiss the advantages technology offers us in the decision making process. They have the potential, if the programming is sophisticated enough, to significantly reduce collateral damage in combat. One thing is for sure; drones/UCAVs/RPVs use by western forces will only increase in the years to come and consequently so will the debate.

 

 

 

 

May 24th 1919 – Bombing the King’s palace in Kabul

Handley Page HP.15 V 1500 c

Handley Page V/1500 (flyingmachines.ru)

The end of the Great War brought little respite to British forces who still had an empire to protect and in May 1919 they became embroiled 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 in Kabul that would hopefully dissuade King Amanullah from further hostilities. The aircraft chosen for the long range mission was Handley Page V/1500 J1936. This aircraft was available because it had just completed a record breaking flight from Britain to India.

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 24th 1919 the aircraft took off from Risalpur with Group Captain Robert Halley at the controls and Lt Ted 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, the psychological impact on the population being unprecedented and within a few days of the attack he began negotiating peace terms with the British. It was the first time in history that an aircraft had been the decisive factor in ending a conflict.


For more on the incredible Handley Page V/1500 click here.

The First British Fighter Pilots

During the summer of 1912 the British Army based at home in Britain conducted their annual military exercises to hone skills and test new techniques. As normal, two opposing forces were assembled to “fight” each other designated Blue Force and Red Force but in 1912 both sides were given an air component from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The RFC was barely out of the womb having been formed on April 13th of that year and the small cadre of pilots were keen to show their stuff. With the aircraft themselves being very primitive the only real mission they could carry out was reconnaissance and so the pilots went about tracking the “enemy” forces as they made their way to the battlefield. This gave an unparalleled view of the tactical situation to the opposing generals whose orders were given based on the intelligence the new-fangled machines offered. In fact, it was an aeroplane that allowed Blue Force to defeat Red Force when a Blue aircraft spotted a concentration of enemy troops and reported them back to the Blue Force commander, Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson. Grierson was therefore able to meet them on more favourable terms for his own side which led to his men’s success.

Despite this there was still a lot of scepticism in the Army about the importance of military aircraft in the wake of the exercise, especially amongst officers assigned to Red Force, but Grierson immediately recognised both the advantages and the dangers they brought to the battlefield. With remarkable foresight he wrote of the aircraft’s role in the future;

So long as hostile aircraft are hovering over one’s troops all movements are likely to be seen and reported. Therefore, the first step in war will be to get rid of hostile aircraft.

Wright flyer machine gun

Wright brothers with their armed Military Flyer (Wright-Borthers.org)

Unwittingly, Grierson had in a sense made some of the first comments on the importance of control of the air above the battlefield before the term “air superiority” came in to common usage. In America, Britain, France and Germany experiments were already being carried out to arm aircraft for combat with even the Wright Brothers themselves suggesting a machine gun could be fitted to their revolutionary Wright Flyer – the very first true aeroplane! However, the experiments were still largely experimental when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 sparking World War I. Thus the armies of Entente (Britain and France) met the Germans and Austro-Hungarians with aircraft carrying out their vital reconnaissance role and just like in 1912 they were proving very good at it.

The need to take down enemy fliers was obvious and some airmen became obsessed with finding ways to do just that. Some pilots in the field experimented with all kinds of possible methods to deprive the enemy of the advantages of flight the most legendary of which was the grappling hook method whereby one plane would attempt to snag the wings of an enemy plane as it passed over it. While almost comical now, the aim of bringing down enemy fliers was no joke to these men and the first aircraft to be deliberately brought down by another in combat was actually the result of a ramming by a Russian pilot on 8th September 1918 of an Austrian reconnaissance plane.

The obvious answer of course was to take a gun up and shoot the enemy plane to either disable its engine or kill its pilot but this brought a whole host of problems with it since the machines were not suited to combat or carrying heavy weapons. As a stop-gap measure pilots and their observers carried pistols and rifles with which to shoot at any enemy planes they may encounter while carrying out their reconnaissance duties. This was an extremely difficult task for even the best shot. The aircraft were hardly stable gun platforms and the target aircraft was often manoeuvring in three dimensions and returning fire with their own rifles.

It would be two Frenchmen who would be credited with the first air-to-air victory using aerial gunnery. On 5th October 1914, Joseph Frantz and his observer Louis Quenault flying a Voisin LA fitted with a machine gun attacked a German reconnaissance plane sending it crashing to the ground. The French machine was hardly suited to the fighter role and the weight of the crew and the gun severely restricted performance but true air combat had, somewhat clumsily, been born.

The Royal Flying Corps were already well in to developing the first dedicated fighter aircraft in the shape of the Vickers FB ‘Gun Carrier’, a pusher-plane with a machine gun mounted in the nose but it would not be ready for deployment to France until mid-1915. In the meantime, the RFC’s reconnaissance planes such as the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 and the Avro 504 had to rely on the observer firing the standard infantry weapon, the Lee-Enfield .303 bolt action rifle, at any enemy planes they might encounter. The comparatively small number of aircraft available to both sides in the early days of the war meant that there were few encounters and when there were it would often end with both sides running out of rifle rounds and then resorting to waving as they both turned for home.

Avro 504

Avro 504 (Ed Coates)

That changed on 25th August 1914. No.5 Squadron RFC was operating Avro 504s from an airfield at La Cateau in Northern France and amongst their number was Second Lieutenant C. W. Wilson and Lieutenant Euan Rabagliati. On this particular day, news fed back to La Cateau that a German aircraft, a Taube, had been spotted by ground forces to the south of the airfield. The squadron’s commanding officer, Major John Higgins, ordered Wilson and Rabagliati to take off in their Avro 504 and go after it. The terms “scramble” or “Quick Reaction Alert” had not yet been brought in to existence within British military aviation but this sudden launching of aircraft to intercept an enemy machine was very much in that spirit. The aircraft lifted off with Rabagliati in the observer’s seat armed with his Lee-Enfield and over one hundred rounds of ammunition.

Taube aeroplane

Taube aeroplane (commons.wikimedia)

Proceeding south towards the last known position of the Taube, the two British airmen must have known that their chances of shooting down the German plane were slim to say nothing of finding it in the first place; once airborne they were out of contact with the observers on the ground who first spotted the aircraft. Their Avro 504 chugged its way south with both men scouring the sky with their eyes looking for the unique shape of the German-built Taube and soon they spotted their bird-like quarry soaring almost majestically over the British side of the lines. Given the slow speeds of the two aircraft (less than 80mph) any attempt to sneak up on the German was futile and it was not long before the solitary pilot spotted the British biplane coming towards him.

The first dogfight between a British and German aircraft was about to begin.

The German pilot was no beginner and knew enough that he lacked the speed to outrun the 504 and if he flew straight and level then he would make himself a tempting target for Rabagliati with the rifle. He therefore took out his Mauser pistol fitted with a wooden stock and turned in to the direction of the British aircraft. The two planes began circling each other like two lions battling to be the alpha of their pride while both the German and Rabagliati exchanged fire with their respective handheld weapons. A pattern was set whereby the two aircraft flew in tight circles to keep the other from getting a clear shot while exchanging fire as the distance closed and reloading as the distance opened. At more than one point, in the heat of the fight, the two planes came unnervingly close to colliding but even at this distance hitting one another was frustratingly difficult and after expending nearly all his ammunition Rabagliati knew he only had a few shots left before they would have to disengage.

Then suddenly, after discharging yet another .303 round at the German with the hefty rifle the German aircraft pitched upwards before the nose dipped forward. Rabagliati saw that the pilot, having been hit by one of his rounds, had slumped forwards on his controls sending the Taube in to its final descent to Earth. It crashed ahead of an advancing British infantry unit which rushed to the scene of the crash and confirmed the pilot was dead. As such Rabagliati is credited as scoring the first British air-to-air victory but it had been a close call; an ammunition check upon his return to La Cateau showed he had astonishingly fired over 100 rounds with his bolt action rifle during the battle.

NEWS: Typhoon Phase 2Ea testing begins

Typhoon FGR.4 RAF

RAF Typhoon (commons.wikimedia)

Testing of the Eurofighter Typhoon “Phase 2Ea” by the Royal Air Force has begun at Warton in the UK. An aircraft upgraded to the new standard has been flown by pilots of No. 41(R) Test and Evaluation Suadron at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire. The test program will likely continue throughout 2016.

The Phase 2Ea upgrades include enhanced software and avionics systems as well as new features added to the radar, defensive aids systems, situational awareness and targeting pods. These enhancements will improve Typhoon’s targeting capabilities particularly in the air-to-ground arena as the 2019 out-of-service date for the Tornado GR.4 creeps ever closer. From 2019 onwards the Typhoon will have to carry the burden of the strike role as well as the air defence role until the F-35 Lightning II becomes fully operational. To that end the RAF has launched Project Centurion which aims to ensure a painless transition between Typhoon and Tornado duties by 2019.

Wing Commander Steven Berry, Officer Commanding of No.41(R) squadron said to the press;

The enhancements mean as an air-to-surface platform, Typhoon has the simplicity and flexibility in the design to be easily employed in close air support missions or more complex scenarios like convoy over-watch.