(GALLERY) Bergen-Hohne Roundhouse

Located in Lüneburg Heath in Lower Saxony this impressive structure was built in 1935 for use as an officer’s mess for Wehrmacht units training in the area. The site was chosen due to the sparse population and varied landscape which offered opportunities for a wide array of training activities. The building displays the more glorious times for the German Wehrmacht when the country was casting off the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles which forbade them from establishing an army of any real strength. As such the building was lavishly designed and decorated with sculptures symbolising German history and of course the belief in German superiority.

At the end of the Second World War it was taken over by British occupying forces and some of its facilities were used as a liberation camp for survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The grand hall in the roundhouse became an overcrowded makeshift hospital where there were so many patients that they were literally squeezed in to any available space that could be found. In mid to late 1945 medical efforts began to wind down as the patients were transferred to Glyn Hughes Hospital after which it was briefly used as an accommodation block for British Army occupation forces before being handed over to the Jewish Central Committee of the British Zone for use as their Headquarters.

The Roundhouse continued to be used by the Jewish Central Committee until the camp was handed over to the BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) in 1950. Under British Army administration the site expanded rapidly as it became an integral part of NATO’s training program and at one time as many as 50,000 British, German and U.S. soldiers were based in and around the region making it the largest training site in Western Europe.

On April 1st 1958 the British Army relinquished administration of the site to the West German Bundeswehr.

All photos were kindly contributed to Defence of the Realm by Ali May Watts-Meredith


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The Biafran Meteor Caper

Biafra Gloster Meteor caper

The decolonisation process of Africa was a slow and painful process that in many respects continues today. Borders agreed upon by the United Nations didn’t always conform to how the indigenous peoples viewed the land based on history, religion and tribal ancestry. Such was the case of the Igboo people of Southern Nigeria who during the 1950s and 60s felt repeatedly persecuted by the Northern Nigerian based federal government and so in 1967 under the leadership of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu the south broke away to create the Republic of Biafra. A bloody civil war between the Nigerian government and the Biafran rebels ensued for nearly three years during which time the Nigerian military surrounded Ojukwu’s Biafra and attempted to starve the breakaway nation in to submission.

Bissau Fouga Magister fire

Constellation aircraft with Fouga Magisters onboard burns at Bissau (lae.blogg.se)

Ojukuwu knew he would need arms to secure his nation’s survival and in particular he had aspirations for a powerful Biafran air force equipped with jet combat aircraft. With world opinion greatly divided on the subject of Biafran independence he knew that acquisitions through the regular channels would not be easy and so he had his people find alternative ways of acquiring military aircraft. The Biafrans experienced mixed success in gaining aircraft to equip their embryonic air force. A small number of disassembled ex-Austrian Fouga Magisters jet trainers were successfully smuggled out of Europe aboard a chartered Lockheed Constellation in 1968 only to have them destroyed in a suspicious fire during a stopover at Bissau airport in Guinea.

In Europe the Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first jet fighter, was serving out its final days before retirement. The aircraft was exported well across Europe and many had been retired to scrap yards or private companies who operated them for a variety of testing purposes. Ojukuwu’s people began to realize that given the sheer number of airframes and parts scattered across Europe that the Meteor might be a more practical acquisition prospect and began making contacts with less than truly legitimate businessmen in the UK, France, Germany, Portugal and Sweden who would be willing (or alternatively unknowingly) assist them in acquiring Meteors. Despite it being almost an archaic combat aircraft by European standards the Meteor was still a potent aircraft in Africa but as the plan was set in to motion the Biafran requirements became more specific.

They needed a Meteor that could fly and fight at night.

The Nigerian effort to starve Biafra in to submission had provoked an angry response from international aid organizations. In an act of courage and compassion the International Red Cross ignored warnings by the Nigerians and began flying in aid to Biafra’s biggest airport at Uli. As well as their own aircraft the Red Cross chartered American Hank Warton’s North American Aircraft Trading Corporation and their small fleet of Lockheed L.1049 Super Constellations. Based (on paper only) in Miami, Warton had built up a strong relationship with Ojukuwu’s government and his company had become known in aviation circles as “Biafran Airlines”. Warton had almost no scruples when it came to flying in weapons or even narcotics to Biafra and after the Nigerian army captured the last Biafran sea port in 1968 his company became almost the only means of getting supplies in to the breakaway republic. Humanitarian flights on behalf of the Red Cross gave an air of legitimacy to his operation but in reality a lot of the aid was traded in for weapons at Faro in Portugal. Of the aid that did get in via Warton’s airline most of it went to Ojukuwu’s government or his forces leaving thousands to starve.

From 1968 onwards the only available airstrip in Biafra that could handle the flights was at Uli. The airport effectively became Biafra’s lifeline and as such the Nigerian air force gave it special attention flying fighters around the airport during the daytime to intercept any flights. Therefore operations had to be flown exclusively at night when the Nigerian air force day fighter-only MiG-17s couldn’t locate them. The Nigerians therefore adopted a different tactic to stop the flow of supplies in to the airport. Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 airliners were flown around the airport at night waiting for an incoming flight to trigger the landing lights. The Nigerian aircraft would then try to either warn the flight away by calling out to it over the radio claiming to be a fighter or would shadow the aircraft until it landed and then attempt to bomb it on the runway by hurling explosives down upon it. The Nigerians met with mixed success but the very threat of these “night intruder” flights was enough to provoke Ojukuwu who now demanded nightfighters to combat them.

It was not long before Ojukuwu’s demands looked like they were about to be met when four ex-Danish Gloster Meteor NF.11s converted to target towing aircraft and operated by a Swedish company on behalf of the Danish government were put up for sale. The aircraft received some refurbishment work in Sweden by Svenska Flygverkstäderna although it is not known if the company realised the aircraft were destined for Biafra or whether they were told they would be used in Europe by another private company offering target towing services. In March 1969 two of these aircraft were secured by Danish merchant Keld Åge Mortensen who got the aircraft delivered to Gosselies in Belgium. There he planned to have more work carried out on them that would effectively re-militarise them and then ferry them down to Faro in Portugal before on to Biafra.

Swedish Meteor (lae.blogg.se)

Swedish Meteor (lae.blogg.se)

In order to operate the aircraft with an air of legitimacy over Europe, West German registrations were applied for them and reserved as D-CAKU and D-CAKY. Included in the application was a ferry plan to take the aircraft to Lisbon in Portugal. The plan fell through however when US authorities warned the West German Aviation Authority that they suspected the aircraft were destined for Biafra and the application was rejected leaving the aircraft stuck at Goselies. Ojukuwu’s European agents attempted to continue the plan by trying to hoodwink the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in to granting a registration but that plan failed when the CAA noticed that the cheque was dated two weeks after the requested start date of the application. They never flew again and remain in Belgium to this day albeit in a very poor state.

The next effort to acquire Meteor nightfighters was the most successful. Gloster Meteor NF.14 WS829 had been struck off charge with the Royal Air Force in 1963 and had entered the UK civil registry as G-ASLW working under the prestigious umbrella of Rolls-Royce Aviation. The aircraft was used by Rolls-Royce as a “hack” aircraft meaning that it was used to ferry important people who needed to be sent somewhere quickly or to simply keep test pilots’ hours up. The acquisition of a Hawker-Siddeley HS.125 in 1969 meant that the Meteor had become almost surplus to requirements and so Rolls-Royce approached Templewood aviation with the goal of valuing the aircraft for sale. Templewood however had supplied a number of aircraft to Biafra already through various means and was part of the aforementioned effort to deliver Fouga Magisters to the embattled country. A businessman who had close links with both the Biafra regime and Templewood, Tony Osborne, seized the opportunity to acquire the Meteor nightfighter for Biafra and on the 4th of July 1969 he purchased the aircraft through Templewood for £5,500.

Now Osborne had to get the aircraft from Rolls-Royce’s test field at Hucknell air field but when his own contracted pilot failed to turn up he politely asked Rolls-Royce themselves to spare a pilot who could fly the aircraft to Bordeaux, France. Rolls-Royce were willing to spare a pilot for a small fee to Osborne but refused to fly it out of the country since he lacked any paperwork permitting export. They therefore agreed to fly the Meteor to the airfield at Hurn in Bournemouth for Osbourne who in the meantime had worked through his contacts at Templewood to find a replacement pilot. He was successful but the pilot he found hadn’t any experience on this particular Meteor type and therefore travelled to Hucknell to fly with the Rolls-Royce pilot on its transfer from Hucknell to Hurn. The aircraft took off at 0930hrs on the morning of Sunday 6th of July 1969 and upon landing a little over an hour later it was formally handed over to Osborne still resplendent in its beautiful Rolls-Royce livery.  The Rolls-Royce pilot left and Osborne quickly went about getting the aircraft refuelled. The refuelling team at Hurn operated by Shell began to refuel the aircraft after solving a problem with a nozzle attachment not knowing that the aircraft was no longer operated by Rolls-Royce who were later billed for the fuel – Osborne remained quiet about who the real owner was. While the aircraft was readied for its next flight to Bordeaux, Osborne went about gathering a temporary export license for the aircraft from the Civil Aviation Authority which was granted on the basis that it was to fly to France for use by Target Towing Aircraft Co Ltd on behalf of a German businessman who planned to use it for a Luftwaffe contract. The temporary license was passed and later that day the Meteor took off from Hurn and landed at Bordeaux over an hour later.

It was from this point that the as-yet wholly legal effort to get the aircraft out of the UK came to an end. It spent only a few hours at Bordeaux before it took off again and climbed to almost 41,000ft; far above commercial traffic and where its engines would have the maximum fuel efficiency in order to fly south-west through Spain and Portugal before landing at Faro airport on the southern tip of Portugal which was known for its pro-Biafran stance. Strangely, both the pilot and navigator sourced through Templewood aviation reportedly flew the entire flight in total radio silence until reaching Faro meaning Spanish and Portuguese authorities did nothing to stop the aircraft. Osborne flew his own private aircraft to the airport a short time later to inspect it and make sure it would be ready for the next phase; remilitarizing the aircraft and then flying it to Biafra. His aircraft carried a number of spares for the aircraft that was included in the deal with Rolls-Royce and these would be used to keep the aircraft flying.

More spares were to be flown out by another pilot, Dick Kingsmill, in a Cessna a short while after and it was here the plan ran the risk of being discovered when Kingsmill was asked to produce an export license for the equipment his aircraft was carrying at Hurn. Kingsmill claimed that the Meteor was still at Bordeaux and had been rendered unserviceable due to a malfunction in the braking system. He argued that the export license was irrelevant since the materials he was flying out would be returning to the UK when the Meteor returned at the end of its export license. The rouse worked and Kingsmill was permitted to fly out. A few hours later he landed at Faro where the Meteor was waiting ready for its flight to Africa.

Meteor NF.14

Meteor NF.14 (Defence of the Realm)

In the meantime efforts were underway to acquire a second Meteor nightfighter. An acquaintance of Osborne, Tony Paris who worked for P.B. Export Sales Ltd but also had links to Templewood Aviation, had contacted the Ministry of Defence to enquire about any Meteors for sale. With the export license for the first Meteor about to expire which was expected to alert British authorities to what was going on a new cover story was created which was that Paris was working for a movie production company who wanted to use the aircraft for filming. It was not without precedent for in 1948 four Bristol Beaufighters were refurbished and sold to a film company for making a movie. In reality the “film crew” were working for the new state of Israel and once purchased Israeli pilots flew them out of the UK down to Israel where they became part of the embryonic Israeli Air Force.

The MoD told Paris of a Meteor being used as a “hack” by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford. Incredibly it too was an NF.14 version carrying the military serial WS804 and Paris acquired it on behalf of Osborne on the 27th of August 1969. Acquiring this aircraft was not as easy as the previous aircraft however as the MoD put on a number of provisions to the sale including that it was not to be sold to Target Towing Co Ltd due to an outstanding fee the company had yet to pay. Osborne registered the aircraft as G-AXNE the following day and after a new Certificate of Airworthiness was acquired an RAE Bedford pilot flew the aircraft to Blackbushe for delivery. While the Rolls-Royce livery of the first aircraft had been an unexpected bonus for Osborne and his people the military markings of this aircraft were a problem and would no doubt create unnecessary attention when travelling abroad. Osborne therefore went about having the aircraft’s military markings removed and the civilian serial G-AXNE painted on the tail. To reinforce the cover story “Enterprise Films” titles were painted on the nose. The aircraft was flown to Exeter airport and then again to Bordeaux on the 7th of September 1969 after another temporary export license was agreed with the CAA. Unfortunately for Osborne’s plan the aircraft was damaged during the flight possibly due to the pilot’s unfamiliarity of the aircraft. Either way it would be another two days before the aircraft was repaired and flown to Faro where it was parked up next to the first aircraft while Tony Paris had sourced a third aircraft in the UK.

Biafra Meteor NF.14 WS804 G-AXNE

Biafra’s fleet of Meteor nightfighters was growing.

The third Meteor, an unusual NF.11/14 hybrid being used for radar trials by Ferranti in the UK, would prove a Meteor too far for Osborne and his associates. The MoD blocked the sale of the third Meteor which would have included an extensive stock of spares that would have been extremely useful when the aircraft arrived in Biafra after the MoD’s bureaucrats discovered that they had lost contact with two of their former Meteors. Osborne therefore had to settle for the two he had in Faro.

11034210_761906070596533_4289369719516250476_nBefore they could be delivered they needed to have their weapons restored. In RAF service they were armed with four 20mm Hispano V cannons (left) but upon decommissioning the weapons were removed by the MoD. The Hispano V was a common weapon in Europe especially with the number of British built aircraft operated on the continent that were armed with them such as the Gloster Meteor and the De Havilland Vampire. Eventually enough parts were collected to assemble eight guns (four per aircraft) from various sources and delivered to Faro including a selection of parts delivered by Dick Kingsmill who would later be arrested and tried for illegally exporting weapons. The Portuguese government knew what was going on and had largely turned a blind eye to what was happening at Faro but when efforts were made to fit ammunition to the newly installed guns they demanded that they stop and that the aircraft should depart for Biafra quickly.

Thus on the 20th of September 1969 the aircraft were made ready for their delivery flight which began the next day. The two aircraft took off from Faro and landed in Funchal, Portuguese Madeira. The plan was for them to then fly on to Dakar and then to Bissau in Portuguese Guinea before finally flying to Biafra. It was a well-known route as many aid flights flew this route as had previously delivered aircraft. The transit would prove frustrating however. Both aircraft made the initial flight to Funchal but were rendered unserviceable for a variety of reasons. G-AXNE was able to fly again shortly after landing and so it went on to Dakar and then a few days later landed in Bissau where it was again damaged by the poor conditions at the airfield thus rendering it unserviceable.

G-ASLW had taken longer to repair in Madeira and it would be several days after its compatriot had left that it finally got airborne again flown by a pilot working for Templewood Aviation. The aircraft flew some way out to sea to avoid detection by either friendly or pro-Nigerian pilots who might report the aircraft but for some reason the pilot felt it necessary to drop his plans to fly to Dakar and then on to Bissau and fly directly to Bissau. The pilot either had not grasped just how much range his aircraft had probably due to his unfamiliarity with the type or had unknowingly travelled too far out to sea before turning back in for Bissau but either way it was not long before he realized that he was not going to make it. His aircraft was running so low on fuel that any chance of making landfall became out of the question. He therefore descended and searched for a ship and upon finding one ejected in front of it allowing the ex-Rolls-Royce Meteor to go tumbling in to the sea. The passing ship picked him up and took him to Cape Verde where he boarded an airliner back to Lisbon, Portugal.

G-AXNE

This just left the ex-RAE Bedford Meteor G-AXNE at Bissau. Plans were made to repair the aircraft quickly and get it to Biafra. The worry was that the aircraft would be sabotaged or destroyed by pro-Nigerians as had happened to the earlier Magisters at the airport but in the end it would be the British Foreign Office who would “destroy” the aircraft but with the pen rather than the sword. The full weight of British diplomacy was thrown behind efforts to impound the aircraft and the authorities at Bissau eventually caved in dragging the aircraft to a corner of the airfield where it was exposed to the African elements that ensured it never flew again. For many years it remained there (above) growing dilapidated before disintegrating.

Ojukwu never realised his dream of a jet nightfighter force and within four months his country would cease to exist as Nigeria finally crushed Biafra. British authorities were already investigating Osborne and his associates when G-AXNE was discovered in Bissau and Osborne, Paris, Kingsmill and several others were all arrested and heavily fined for their involvement thus bringing to a close the incredible story of the Biafran Meteor Caper.

Rogozarski LVT-1 – The “Hurrischmitt”

How the Hurricane looked with the DB 601a engine installation (Nenad Mukslev)

How the Hurricane looked with the Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine installation (Nenad Mukslev)

The Hawker Hurricane is one of the greats of military aviation. Forever sitting in the shadow of its more famous comrade-in-arms, the Supermarine Spitfire, its unassuming looks hide a fascinating and pivotal role it played in history. While its service with the Royal Air Force and Britain’s allies has been well documented less is known of its equally fascinating story with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia Army Air Force (Jugoslavensko kraljevsko ratno zrakoplovstvo).

YRAF_Hawker_HurricaneWith Europe rearming in the face of an increasingly aggressive Nazi Germany the Yugoslavian government signed an agreement with Hawker in the UK to acquire up to 24 Hawker Hurricane Mk.Is with kits to produce more aircraft locally in the future. Production of Yugoslavian machines was split between the factories at Rogozarski and Zmaj and a total of 100 machines were planned. At the same time the Yugoslavians acquired Messerschmitt Bf109Es from Germany as well as undertake a domestic fighter program and it was these three factors that would conspire to create perhaps the most unique of Sydney Camm’s Hawker Hurricanes.

Rogožarski IK-3 (aviastar.org)

Rogožarski IK-3 (aviastar.org)

The story of this unique machine begins with the development of the Rogožarski factory’s IK-3 fighter. The latest in a series of successful fighters designed and built by the factory for the Yugoslavian Air Force the IK-3 was powered by an Hispano-Suiza 12Y-29 liquid-cooled supercharged V12 engine imported from France. The aircraft consequently bore a strong resemblance to the French Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 and in tests against Yugoslavian Hurricanes and Bf109Es it was found to be a very competent combat aircraft. It was faster than the Hurricane at nearly all altitudes while at the same time being more manoeuvrable than the Bf109E.

Production machines began to reach frontline squadrons in 1940 by which time, with commendable foresight, the engineers at Rogožarski realized that they needed to start work on improved versions to keep it credible in the face of rapidly advancing German technology that was being spurred on by the outbreak of war with Britain and France in 1939. They therefore began to look at alternative powerplants for the IK-3 imported from overseas. Three engines were shortlisted the first of which was the French Hispano-Suiza 12Y-51, an improved version of the engine already fitted to the IK-3 that developed 1100hp. The other two engines shortlisted were the 1080hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A (as in the Messerschmitt Bf109E) and the 1030hp Rolls-Royce Merlin III (as fitted to the Hawker Hurricane). These were all sensible choices as the factory and the air force both had some kind of experience with all three. The Hispano-Suiza engine was seen as the low-risk option and plans were beginning to get underway to start production on aircraft fitted with the more powerful version when the Germans overran France in June 1940.

With France now subjugated gone was any chance of acquiring the engine and neither was importing DB 601s from Germany a possibility. It was suggested therefore that plans should be put in to place to fit around 30 spare DB 601 engines Yugoslavia had for their Bf109Es to the IK-3 but not wanting to burn their bridges just yet it was agreed with the Yugoslavian Air Ministry to continue comparison testing with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Building two prototype IK-3s –  one powered by the DB 601A and one powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin III – would be a costly and time consuming effort but the Yugoslavians came up with a cunning plan. They already knew how the Rolls-Royce engine performed in the Hurricane so they decided to fit a DB 601A engine in to one of their Hurricanes and see how the aircraft performed.

Hurricane converted to DB 601 A engine

Rolls-Royce Merlin powered Hurricane Mk.I compared to DB 601A powered version (below)

It was decided to undertake the conversion at the Ikarus factory in the town of Zemun just outside Belgrade and Hurricane Br.2301 (c/n L1751) was selected for the purpose. It was hardly a straightforward conversion. For one thing the DB 601A’s 12-cylinders were arranged in an inverted-Vee as opposed to the Merlin’s upright-Vee arrangement. This meant that the nose section had to be redesigned with the propeller mounted noticeably lower down the nose along with the exhausts (see image left) giving the aircraft an almost droopy appearance. The aircraft retained the Hurricane’s standard armament of eight .303 Browning machine guns.

The impressive conversion was completed in March 1941 and testing began immediately of what Rogozarski now designated the LVT-1 (Lovac-Vazduhoplovno Tehnički-1). Air force test pilot Captain Milos Bajagić carried out the first flight and immediately noticed a dramatic improvement in performance over the original Merlin engined Hurricane especially in the vertical plane. Further testing revealed that the DB 601A engine gave the Hurricane/TSV-1 a higher top speed over the original aircraft although it was still slightly slower than the Bf109E given the limitations of the original airframe. The TSV-1 climbed faster than the Hurricane yet maintained the excellent turning circle which gave it a real advantage over the Bf109E. Finally, the direct fuel injection system fitted to the DB 601A meant that the TSV-1 could handle much higher g-forces including negative-g (where the pilot experiences weightlessness) which often left the carburettor equipped Merlin engine struggling to take fuel. The aircraft did demonstrate a somewhat nose-heavy feel however indicating that the weight of the DB 601 did unbalance it somewhat. The tests proved conclusively for Rogozarski that the DB 601A was the superior engine but any hopes of fitting it to an improved IK-3 would quickly be dashed as history intervened and incredibly the sole TSV-1 would have its part to play.

On April 1st 1941, less than a week before the German and Italian invasion of the Balkans, a Messerschmitt Bf110C “Zerstorer” took off from Vienna bound for Romania on a flight path that would take the aircraft through Hungary. The aircrew comprised of pilot Lt. Hans Diehter and navigator Wilhelm Pries and included a mechanic, Eugen Schaufelle. Mid way through the flight the aircraft strayed off course and wandered in to Yugoslavian airspace. At the same time the LVT-1 was being readied for a test flight with Capt. Sinisa Nikolic at the controls from the airfield at Kraljevo. With tensions between Yugoslavia and Germany at an all-time high news of German aircraft over Yugoslavian territory saw pilots scrambling to their aircraft and armourers quickly loading rounds in to their guns. Nikolic was no exception and his DB 601A powered Hurricane was prepared for combat. The aircraft took off with a formation of Yugoslavian fighters to search for the Bf110C and stumbled upon the aircraft trying to make its way to Romania having realized its mistake. The Yugoslavian planes spotted the Messerschmitt and made high speed passes on the aircraft firing warning shots. It is reported that Nikolic too fired his guns during the incident which forced the outnumbered Messerschmitt crew to surrender and land back at Kraljevo.

Bf110 captured Yugoslavia

Messerschmitt Bf100C captured by the Yugoslavians on April 1st 1941 and painted in Yugoslavian markings (wp.scn.ru)

The capture of the aircraft and the internment of its crew did much to improve morale amongst the strongly anti-Nazi Yugoslavian people but only further worsened the situation between Hitler and Belgrade. Yugoslavia was never an intended target for Hitler’s armies but rather it was invaded out of necessity. In March 1941 Hitler demanded that Yugoslavia submit to his wishes to have his forces use the country in the war against Greece. The Yugoslavian Prince Regent turned to Britain for help but when the British couldn’t offer the support he wanted he felt compelled to submit to Hitler’s request. This angered the Yugoslavian people on a large scale and within days Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was forced to abdicate and the agreement was quite literally torn up. Hitler decided to teach the Yugoslavians a lesson and ordered plans for a Blitzkrieg assault to be drawn up. On April 6th 1941 his orders materialised in to a fullscale invasion.

Heavily outnumbered, the Yugoslavians put every aircraft they had in to the air including the LVT-1. On April 7th the aircraft took off with Pantelija Grandić (rank unknown) at the controls to join in an attack on German forces around the Kacanik gorge area. Grandić and his comrades approached using heavy cloud for cover before diving through and strafing German troops and vehicles. As they formed back up the LVT-1 was seen with white smoke streaming from the engine bay. It is unclear whether this was a result of combat damage or simply a mechanical breakdown as the aircraft had previously suffered a coolant puncture during testing that produced a similar result. Grandić flew on for a short while before crashing the aircraft in to a field in modern day Kosovo. Grandić survived the crash and abandoned the aircraft.

In the chaos of a German occupied Yugoslavia and the birth of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia just what happened to the aircraft afterwards remains a mystery. Sadly, any specific test data or even photographs have also disappeared and we only have pilot notes on how the aircraft looked and handled. A true oddity in aviation the story of the Hurricane with a Messerschmitt Bf109 engine is a tale of a handful of committed and intelligent people making the most of what they had and it is a true testament to the unsung genius of Yugoslavian aviation.

The Irish Walrus Defection Attempt

Supermarine Walrus L2301 at Yeovilton FAA Museum

Supermarine Walrus L2301 at Yeovilton FAA Museum (Author)

Located in Hall 1 of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset sits a rather unsuspecting aircraft. Compared to the Phantom, Buccaneer and Sea Harrier jet fighters this rather utilitarian looking amphibious biplane is a Supermarine Walrus; arguably one of the least glamorous names ever bestowed on an aircraft. The Supermarine Walrus is one of those aviation oddities where on the surface it seems uninspiring, unexciting and even uninteresting but the fact of the matter is it was also an aircraft that engaged in some truly daring exploits. Its unassuming exterior camouflages the heroic efforts of its crews be they spotting for the Royal Navy’s guns or pulling downed airmen out of the English Channel while under heavy enemy fire. The aircraft at Yeovilton too has its own fascinating history but perhaps not the type you would normally expect of such an aircraft.

Irish Air Corps Walrus No.19 delivery scheme (Asisbiz.com)

Irish Air Corps Walrus No.19 delivery scheme (Asisbiz.com)

The story begins in 1939 before the outbreak of war when the Irish Air Corps ordered three examples of the type from the UK. One of these aircraft was the example now at Yeovilton and at the time carried the number “18”. However things didn’t go entirely according to plan when on the delivery flight bad weather forced the aircraft down in to a very angry Irish Sea. During the course of the water landing the wings were damaged rendering it unable to take off again leaving the poor crew to try and taxi its way to land. Fortunately a passing fishing boat saw them and took them under tow before a lifeboat launched from the shore came to their assistance and brought them home. It made the final leg of its journey to Baldonnel Aerodrome on the back of a truck where work began on repairing the aircraft.

In the meantime Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Poland and after years of appeasement the British and French finally took action declaring war on the 3rd September 1939. For the relatively infant Republic of Ireland (Eire) it was an unnerving and difficult time despite declaring itself neutral. On the one hand the Irish had as much to fear from Nazi Germany as the rest of Europe. The German invasion of Belgium and the lowlands proved that neutrality, no matter how strongly it was proclaimed, was no guarantee of protection. Worse still the Irish defence forces were small and ill-equipped to face a German attack. To ally themselves with Britain would invite German reprisals especially by 1940 when it seemed that even Britain would fall under the Nazi Jackboot.

But there was another, more passionate reason for not working with Britain against the Germans. The Republic of Ireland itself was born out of rebellion against centuries of British domination where English landowners became rich off the backs of the Irish people. With the Republic not even two decades old there was barely an Irish family that didn’t have some story of their part in freeing themselves of the “English yoke” and to be drawn in to a conflict that at the time was seen as a predominantly British problem would appear to be a step back. Even more worrying for the British position was that many in Ireland remembered German support for the 1916 uprising and viewed Nazi Germany as a potential ally in “finishing the job” (i.e. taking over Northern Ireland making the Emerald Isle entirely Irish again).

The situation had largely changed by the time America entered the war but a few hardliners remained and wanted to fight against the British on the side of the Germans. One such man was Irish Air Corps pilot Alan Thornton who by late 1941 had become increasingly frustrated with his country’s position and he convinced three of his fellow servicemen to join him in defecting to the German Luftwaffe. With the promise of adventure fuelling the spirit of resistance against the British the three men agreed to follow him.

Irish Air Corps Westland Lysander (wp.sc.ru)

Irish Air Corps Westland Lysander (wp.sc.ru)

On the 9th of January 1942 the four men made their move; secretly fuelling Supermarine Walrus No.18 and then quickly taking off. There was much confusion at Baldonnel as to what was happening but when it was realized that the aircraft didn’t have permission to take-off an Irish Air Corps Westland Lysander was quickly scrambled to go after them. However the defectors had got too much of a head start and the Lysander was unable to locate the lumbering Walrus as it flew south east. Thornton and his followers were aiming for Cherbourg where they intended to display their aircraft’s neutral colours to any intercepting Luftwaffe fighters in the hope this would be enough to avoid getting shot down on sight. This was an extremely dangerous thing to do as Luftwaffe pilots were well aware of the shape of the British-designed and built Supermarine Walrus aircraft that regularly operated in the channel. Knowing they couldn’t fly directly over the extremely heavily defended UK they planned to fly around the tip of Cornwall and then make a dash for the French coast.

While they had passion and enthusiasm by the bucket-load it soon became apparent that they were somewhat lacking in their skills as navigators particularly over the Irish Sea where there are few landmarks to plot. They began wasting valuable fuel trying to get their bearings but with a large landmass in sight they decided to risk flying over it to try and identify just where they were. To their horror they soon found they were heading straight for Cornwall itself and no sooner had this realization come to them that they truly experienced what a country at war is like when four high speed monoplanes swooped down on them. They were another Supermarine product – Spitfires.

RAF St. Eval crest (rafweb.org)

RAF St. Eval crest (rafweb.org)

RAF St. Eval was a busy RAF base during the war despite being on the western side of the country away from occupied France where much of the action was taking place. Primarily a Coastal Command base, aircraft flew from St. Eval predominantly on anti-submarine and convoy protection missions. On January 9th the air traffic controllers received word that a formation of Spitfires were escorting an aircraft to the base which was to have priority landing. The high speed fighters contrasted sharply to the lumbering biplane amphibian that solemnly lowered its landing gear and touched down, its crew knowing they had failed in their attempt to join the Luftwaffe. As the aircraft was taxied off the runway it garnered a lot of fascination by the RAF personnel many of whom were unfamiliar with the orange, white and green Irish markings which led to some believing they were looking at a Dutch aircraft despite Holland having been overrun by Germany almost two years earlier.

Thornton and his men gave no resistance as they were arrested by the RAF Police. After being held in the UK for a short while both the men and the Walrus were returned to Ireland. Thornton himself was found guilty of theft and as the leader of the group received a 16-month jail sentence. Walrus No.18 continued serving with the Irish Air Corps until the end of the war at which time it adopted a civilian registry apparently for use with Aer Lingus although this never happened. It changed hands several times including a brief stint with No.615 (County of Surrey) squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. It was retired in 1948 and left to rot at a dump in Oxfordshire until it was recovered in 1963 and handed over to the Fleet Air Arm Museum where it now resides painted as FAA Walrus L2301.

Operation: Condor (1966) – Argentina Invades Stanley Racecourse

DC-4 Condor

It was supposed to be just a regular flight for the crew of the Aerolineas Argentina DC-4 airliner. On the morning of the 28th September 1966 at Buenos Aires airport the pilots worked through their checklist as the thirty five passengers boarded. Among them were eighteen members of a scrap metal union and a journalist named Dardo Cabo. The flight took off as scheduled and the passengers and crew seemed to settle in for their flight to Rio Gallegos.

However, shortly after take off the metal workers and Cabo rose up and took control of the aircraft in what was one of the first major hijackings in South America. The other passengers and crew expected to find themselves being held hostage but were astounded (some even joyous) when they found out that the hijackers planned to fly the DC-4 to Los Malvinas but known in the English speaking world as the Falkland Islands.

Their plan was simple; to “liberate” them from the British.

This bizarre incident took place during one of the most volatile times in Anglo-Argentine relations over the islands. Over the previous year the Argentinians had stepped up their efforts to reclaim the islands through an extremely aggressive diplomatic program. The British government actually seemed to be supporting the idea of handing them over preferring to promote good relations with Argentina who was a major trade partner in the region over retaining the windswept islands that seemed to have little strategic or economic importance anymore.

DC-4 Condor 3The island’s population however had other ideas and lobbied the British government to retain the islands. The islanders had tended to their land for generations and weren’t just about to give it up because Whitehall said so. As political support for the islanders grew in the UK the government was forced to accept the islanders’ wishes. It became such a sore subject that when the England football team beat Argentina during the World Cup that year Argentine television claimed that first the English had stolen the Malvinas and now they had stolen their World Cup aspirations. This prompted the metal workers and Cabo to take action and to do that they needed a plane to get to the islands.

As the DC-4 approached the islands the pilots were becoming increasingly concerned. They knew that there was no airfield on the islands (Stanley Airport was opened a few years later) with which they could land on but the hijackers/liberators had already thought of that and told the pilots to head for Stanley racecourse; the flattest and firmest terrain near the capital of the islands. The islanders’ sleepy lives were shattered by the drone of the aircraft as it swooped low over their homes with its landing gear down. The Argentine markings caused panic as they rightly believed that an invasion was taking place.

The islanders weren’t exactly defenceless. The Falkland Island Defence Force could trace its origins back to the Falklands Volunteers founded during the Crimean War in 1854 to protect against Russian warships. In 1966 it comprised of a handful of local volunteers and six full-time Royal Marines who provided training. They were lightly armed with rifles, pistols and shotguns and were no match for the well equipped Argentine military. Nevertheless the volunteers and the Marines mobilised supported by local residents who were determined that if their islands were to fall then they weren’t going down without a fight.

They marched on the racecourse where the aircraft had touched down digging a long trench in the grass as it’s wheels struggled to bring it to a stop. The Royal Marines immediately took command of the situation and decided to contain the Argentine “paratroopers” in their aircraft. What they saw however was anything but a highly trained military force. Instead they saw a rough looking, disorganized mob emerge from the aircraft and plant an Argentine flag in the racecourse. It would have almost seemed comical had it not been for the fact that before the aircraft could be secured the Argentinians captured three curious locals.

DC-4 Condor 2From here however their plan seemed to be collapsing around them. They realized that they were vastly outnumbered by the frightened locals lead by the competent Royal Marines who had them completely surrounded and any chance of fighting their way out would be almost impossible. However news of what was happening was already reaching back to the mainland and crowds gathered in the capital demanding that the Argentine military follow the hijackers/liberator’s lead.

Argentinian and British diplomats began a frantic round of negotiations as the scene on Stanley racecourse remained stagnant save for a few crude exchanges of words. The hours passed and the brutally cold night set in. The Royal Marines and the islanders seemed to receive a never-ending supply of warm food, drinks and clothes from a grateful population while the Argentinians shivered under the wings of the airliner. A Catholic priest was sent out to them and gave mass before convincing them to surrender 36 hours after the aircraft landed.

Over the next day the Argentinians were repatriated to face charges in Argentina. However only three of them would actually be prosecuted for the hijacking such was the popular support for their action. One of them was the journalist Dardo Cabo who was expecting to write the story of the liberation of the Malvinas. The incident not only failed to succeed but actually forced the British government to reinforce its position on the islands by increasing the permanent military presence there in the form of around 20 Royal Marines. The incident destroyed any political hope for the Argentinians gaining control of the islands but the will remained.

Thus the scene was set for the 1982 invasion.

The story was all but forgotten about until the current Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in her seemingly ceaseless efforts to rouse her country in to a blind frenzy over the islands, put the flag carried by the Argentinians on display to celebrate the incident. Furthermore she gave all the surviving members extremely generous pensions claiming them to be heroes despite the fact that they hijacked an Argentine airliner.

The Closest We Ever Came….

nuke

Before reading this article I would like to ask you the following question; what were you doing on Wednesday January 25th 1995?

I don’t blame you if you don’t remember because I haven’t a clue what I was doing but I can hazard a guess. I was 10 years old and with it being a Wednesday I would no doubt have been getting up from bed at around 7am which would see my mother rushing me off to the bathroom to wash before getting in to my school uniform. At around 8:15am I would start the march to Blaencaerau Junior School where I was in Mrs Lewis’ Year 2 class. Morning prayers at 9:15am. Maths 9:30am – 10:45am followed by a quick break (recess). English 11:00am to 12:15pm followed by lunch and then geography or history lessons in the afternoon. Home by 4pm where I either watched children’s TV or played with friends until about 6pm and with it being a Wednesday that would mean Star Trek: The Next Generation on BBC2. The evening would then be devoted to games, reading or other activities before bed time at around 9pm to 10pm.

Sounds hugely mundane doesn’t it?

That’s what I was doing and it summed up a day like a million others. So when I tell you that while I was having just another innocent day at school the world had been literally three minutes away from nuclear Armageddon it seems unthinkable. That’s quite a bold statement for anyone to make and I am sure that many of you are reading this are thinking that I am exaggerating for dramatic effect. Afterall the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we ever came to Nuclear War right?

Wrong!

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was indeed a time of genuine tension when the armed forces of both East and West braced themselves for a nuclear showdown but the fact of the matter is that at no other time in the history of the Cold War were the leaders of both sides so engaged in what was happening. This insured that both Kennedy and Kruschev could control events as best as possible to keep both sides away from hitting the big red button. There were some isolated incidents of independent actions by the men in the field such as the downing of a U-2 spyplane but on the whole the entire crisis was well controlled. What makes January 25th 1995 so frightening is that not only did it take place after the end of the Cold War when the threat of nuclear war was supposed to have diminished but also just how uncontrolled events were up until the very last few seconds when we were pulled back from the brink. And almost nobody outside of a few select people knew it happened.

The incident began as a result of a seemingly innocent scientific experiment. A team of American and Norwegian scientists were planning to conduct research into Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, by launching a rocket carrying sophisticated scientific equipment over Svalbard; an archipelago in the Arctic circle. The scientists were not idiots and realized their research rocket would be detected by Russian radars. They therefore informed the Kremlin authorities in Moscow in advance of the launch, something that had been done many times before without incident.

The Black Brant XII scientific research rocket

The Black Brant XII scientific research rocket launched the Americnas and Norwegians

Unfortunately, the Russian authorities in 1995 were not what their Soviet equivalents were just a few years earlier. While the Soviet Union was steeped in bureaucracy the system at least worked. The 1995 system was appallingly patchy however and this nearly had disastrous consequences because when the Russian military radar controllers started their shift at the Olenegorsk early warning radar station in Murmansk Oblast that morning they had no idea of the launch that was about to take place in Norway.

The operators therefore looked at the blip on their screen in horror. Everything they had trained for sent alarm bells ringing for the object which was flying like a nuclear missile was in a known flight corridor for missiles launched from US bases in North Dakota to strike targets in and around Moscow. The big question was why only one missile if this was an attack? One missile was not enough to start a war surely? Or was it?

One of the scenarios that the East and West played out during their many war games of the Cold War was to use a single nuclear missile to detonate high above an enemy country ahead of the main wave. The Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) from the blast would be so great that it would damage or destroy any communication and radar equipment over a vast area of territory thus inhibiting that country’s ability to respond to the main attack that would be minutes behind it.

The radar operators alerted their chain of command and the situation was deemed so serious that it reached Russian President Boris Yeltsin who was informed of the EMP theory by his senior commanders. It was at this point that the incident surpassed the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of its seriousness – the Russian President was handed the nuclear briefcase (known in Russia as the Cheget) that controlled all of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The Russians worst fears seemed to be confirmed when radar operators saw the “missile” seem to break apart indicating that it was equipped with multiple warheads (MRVs) that would saturate the north eastern sectors of the Russian frontier with EMP. In reality the scientist’s rocket was a multi-stage vehicle and it had just separated a spent rocket motor and fuel tank. Yeltsin ordered Russian submarine commanders to battle readiness and their missiles were made ready to fire but he was not ready to flick the switch yet.

File photo of Russian President Yeltsin gesturing as he speaks in Moscow

Boris Yeltsin, 1995

Very little is known about what happened around Yeltsin at this crucial time but for three minutes he would no doubt have his commanders pleading with him to launch before the “MRVs” detonated and blanked out thousands of miles. Yeltsin probably experienced a level of stress unparalleled in history as he tried to grasp the rapidly escalating situation. For three minutes he was one word away from unleashing Armageddon.

Then a rather relieved radar operator at Olenegorsk reported that the “MRVs” were now descending but not on to Russian territory as feared but in to the Arctic Ocean. Finally able to take stock of the situation Yeltsin realised that this was not an attack and ordered his commanders to step down from battle readiness as an investigation was launched that uncovered the truth.

At no other time in history had the leader of a nuclear superpower been handed their nuclear briefcase in a real emergency. This situation shows that while the Cold War may have ended with the fall of the Soviet Union the danger of mistake or misunderstanding means that the threat of nuclear annihilation remains and with increased tension between the West and Moscow over the Ukraine it’s as real now as it ever was.

So – what were you doing on Wednesday January 25th 1995?

In 2006 I finally watched the BBC drama Threads for the first time. Made in 1984 (the year I was born) it portrayed the events leading up to a nuclear attack on the UK and what would happen in the subsequent years to both society and environment. No film has ever scared me as much as this one and everytime I watch it with the pregnant Ruth trying to survive during the nuclear attack I think of my own mother being pregnant with me at the time and how she would have been if that had happened. This made the film all the more personal to me.

One of the most well known scenes in the film is not some special effects ridden moment of nuclear holocaust but is of a woman standing in the street during the first missile attack. This rather posh looking well dressed woman is so terrified at the sight of the mushroom cloud that she loses control of her bladder. This wholly primal reaction emphasizes the extreme terror she experienced in that moment better than anything else could. So with that in mind how would you have felt if what started as any other day suddenly became the long feared nuclear holocaust? Every world leader who has nuclear weapons should be forced to sit down and watch Threads during their inauguration so they can grasp the power they have.

Threads

BBC’s Threads (1984)

So what were you doing on Wednesday January 25th 1995?

The Franken-Spitfire

Spitfire DB605 (1)

Large numbers of aircraft were captured by opposing forces during the Second World War and in some cases these aircraft were airworthy allowing for the captor to assess its performance and develop countermeasures. One such aircraft was Supermarine Spitfire Vb EN830/NX-X which crashed in German-occupied Jersey having been hit by flak over France on November 18th 1942. It’s pilot, Pilot Officer (Sous Lt.) Bernard Scheidhauer of the Free French Air Force, crash landed the aircraft relatively intact in a turnip field and both he and his aircraft were transported back to Germany where he would later be shot for his part in a mass break out of allied PoWs.

The captured EN830 before fitting of the DB 605A-1 engine

The captured EN830 before fitting of the DB 605A-1 engine

With the aircraft repaired the Germans went about assessing it and it’s Merlin 45 engine comparing it to previous captured Spitfire marks and of course to their own Bf109 and Fw190 fighter aircraft. The aircraft was painted in Luftwaffe test markings in order to avoid any frontline Luftwaffe pilot mistaking it for an RAF machine and attacking it. Once these tests were completed talk turned to assessing how the aircraft would handle with a German engine installed. A similar experiment had been attempted on an earlier Spitfire with a DB 601 engine from a Messerschmitt Bf109 but it required too many modifications to be practical. The newer Spitfire Vb however had a much larger engine bay for its more powerful Merlin 45 and this afforded the Germans much more space to develop mounting brackets for the DB 605A-1 engine which would drive a Bf109 propeller. The project was given the go-ahead in early 1944.

The aim of the experiment was to establish whether the engine would dramatically improve the aircraft’s performance to the point far beyond that of the Luftwaffe’s fighter. The Germans knew they had an excellent engine in the DB 600 series and it was almost always slightly ahead of the Rolls-Royce Merlin series fitted to the Spitfire in terms of capability and technology. The results did indeed prove startling.  The similar engined Messerschmitt Bf109G still proved faster at low altitude thanks to its smaller dimensions whereas the larger Spitfire/DB 605 incurred more drag. However this advantage was lost over 11,000 ft where the speeds evened out and the Spitfire handled better. The DB 605A engine gave the Spitfire a ceiling of 41,666 ft, a staggering improvement of some 5,000ft over the original Merlin 45 engine and was around 3,200 ft. more than the Bf.109G. This showed the soundness of the Spitfire’s design but as iconic as it has become in aviation circles the Merlin proved it was not the wonder-powerplant the British would have liked.

However, by the time this Franken-Spitfire had been properly tested the original material was already out of date with the Spitfire V having been replaced by the superlative Spitfire IX. This had the Rolls-Royce Merlin 66 engine which actually produced an aircraft with similar performance to the German experiment. The experiment itself came to an end abruptly on the 14th August 1944 when the aircraft was destroyed in a US air raid.