November 2nd 1951 – Ist Infantry Division flown in to Egypt

Up to 6,000 British troops from the 1st Infantry Division were flown in to the Suez Canal Zone of Egypt as Egyptian resentment to the British presence in the area continued to grow. Royal Air Force Handley-Page Hastings and Vickers Valetta aircraft brought in most of the 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards from Tripoli in Libya as part of an effort to try to quell anti-British disturbances in the region although this would ultimately have the opposite effect.

In October 1951, the Egyptian government had dissolved the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the terms of which granted Britain a lease on the Suez base for an additional 20 years. However Britain refused to withdraw her garrison from Suez citing that the original agreement still stood. Local Egyptians began to refuse to cooperate with British forces and there were numerous strikes amongst Egyptian workers servicing British assets along the canal.

In the first week of November additional men and equipment would arrive from the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards and 1st Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders. Three weeks later, Britain was forced to move out thousands of its citizens trapped in their homes by sporadic gun battles between British soldiers and Egyptian security forces however British forces remained.

On January 25th 1952, British forces attempted to disarm Egyptian police officers at the barracks in Ismailia following repeated clashes. The police refused and in the gun battle that followed, 41 Egyptians were killed. This sparked anti-Western riots in Cairo which saw the deaths of several foreigners, including 11 British citizens, in retaliation. This proved to be a catalyst for the removal of the Egyptian monarchy which opened the door for a military coup by the Egyptian nationalist ‘Free Officers Movement’ on July 23rd 1952. Among its ranks was future Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

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An Interview with Graham Buckle of the Meteor NF.14 WS788 Restoration Project

As long time followers of Defence of the Realm will know I have something of a love affair with the Gloster Meteor. I was therefore thrilled when Graham agreed to speak to me about his team’s work to restore Meteor NF.14 WS788, one of the last nightfighter variants of this iconic British aircraft.

Armstrong Whitworth Gloster Meteor NF.14 WS788 (1)

WS788 in January 2016


Could you tell us a little of the history of the aircraft and its service with the RAF?

The nightfighter version of the famous Gloster Meteor was derived from the 2 seater Meteor T.7 trainer. The Gloster factory was too busy to handle yet another variant of the Meteor though, so they outsourced design, development and production to Armstrong-Whitworth. WS788 is an NF mk.14, the last of the breed. She was built in 1953, and was ready for collection from the factory in February 1954.

In July 1954 she entered operational service, with 152 Squadron at RAF Wattisham. Her time as a front line night fighter was short though, as she was delivered to RAF Kirkbride for conversion to navigation trainer specification in August ’57 after barely 3 years service. In May ‘59 she was issued to 2 Air Navigation School at RAF Thorney Island, moving to 1 ANS at RAF Stradishall in ’62. In their hands she had a Cat.3 accident in 1964 but was repaired, and returned to duty training budding navigators until January 1966, when she was retired and flown to RAF Kemble for storage and eventual disposal.

What has the airframe been doing since being withdrawn from service?

After her flying career came to an end, she was issued the instructional airframe number 7967M, and in 1967 issued to the radar station at RAF Patrington on the East Yorkshire coast for display and gate guard duties. In 1974 she was moved to RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire to guard the gate there, being refurbished in 1982 which led to her masquerading as WS844 for several years. In 1988 she was declared surplus and moved onto the airfield pending disposal, and in 1989 was moved to her new home at the Yorkshire Air Museum.

Where is the aircraft currently located?

At the Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington.

How did the plan to restore the aircraft come about?

The aircraft had been stood looking unloved for a long time. Last year the outer wings and nose fairing were removed to get the aircraft indoors for restoration to begin in the hands of another group, however not a great deal was achieved before the aircraft had to move outside once more. The aircraft ended up in a corner partially dismantled. I found myself looking for a new project around this time and had wanted to help the poor Meteor for a while so I offered to take the job on!

How many people are currently involved in the project?

Currently three are involved with the aircraft as our main project for the museum. Myself, Richard Woods, who has recently joined the museum after a number of years working with the Shackleton Preservation Trust and Alison Mellor, my better half and fellow Victor XL231 veteran/survivor!

What is the ultimate goal of the restoration? (e.g. display standard, ground running)

Armstrong Whitworth Gloster Meteor NF.14 WS788 Buccaneer B.2We hope to get the aircraft to a point best described as ‘mostly live’. As we have no engines taxying is currently out of the question, but we hope to get the electrics working to at least the point where all internal and external lights will work off either the battery or an external power source. In addition we would like to get the flap and airbrake hydraulic systems operable on the hand pump. As well as being an extra live system on the jet and another thing to catch the public’s attention, this would serve the practical purpose of easing access to some areas of the jet for cleaning and maintenance.

Both the electrics and the hydraulics will need some splicing in the looms and plumbing, as the looms and pipework were cut at the transport joints many years ago. The first priority has to be resolving the corrosion the aircraft is suffering, specifically the lower surfaces of the inner wings. But as we work our way through the jet’s systems and components, our intention is if we can return it to working order we will do.

How is the project being funded?

The museum pays for most things we require. I have bought a few small items for the aircraft myself though out of my own pocket. And we have been extremely lucky in that we have received two substantial donations of very useful parts.

If anyone does want to push some funds towards the restoration, the museum does have a ‘Sponsor a Plane’ initiative running. The details can be found on the YAM website.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Ask me that again in six months time when we are really on with the project! The biggest problem we have faced so far is freeing the airbrakes off. They have been shut for probably 50 years! To get to them and clean out the accumulated crap and service the workings they have to be open. It is going to be a long drawn out process I think…! Also the badly dented ventral tank will have to come off for skin repairs. To say it is less than eager to come off would definitely qualify as an understatement…

Have you made contact with any air or ground crew who may have operated the aircraft in service? What have they said about the project?

Only one at this time, a chap by the name of Peter Verney, who was a Meteor NF navigator. He flew in 788 several times, and has supplied me with an air to air photo he took of the jet over Lowestoft. It would appear that former NF Meteor drivers thin on the ground though. I suspect this is partly due to the vintage of the jet, and partly down to the type’s comparatively short service career. It would be nice to hear from others who remember 788 in service though.

Are you working with any other project team or organisation to help complete the project?

Armstrong Whitworth Gloster Meteor NF.14 WS788 cockpitWe have received a lot of information and parts from Sandy Mullen of Meteor Flight, who are responsible for the restorations of the immaculate Meteor NF.14 now residing in Malta and the Meteor T.7 now flying in the UK. In addition the chaps looking after the ATC NF.14 at Royton have been and continue to be helpful and supportive, having provided us with a copy of the Vol.1 which is basically everything you ever needed to know about the workings of the Meteor NF. Before we had that, Martin Garrett of RAM Models had got us started by providing electronic copies of the Meteor T.7 and F.8 manuals to be going on with.

What parts/documents are you still looking for to help complete the project?

Anything is welcomed! A nice shiny new canopy, full set of weather covers and two Rolls Royce Derwent IX engines would be nice. But we are always interested if anyone has useful Meteor bits they wish to pass on.

How can people interested in the project keep abreast of the latest developments?

Either via the Key Publishing forum where we run a restoration thread, or Facebook where WS788 has her very own page (Click here to view).


Graham has agreed to keep me in the loop regarding the project so expect regular updates on Defence of the Realm in the future.

– Tony Wilkins

 

The Would-be Plague Ship – Operation Cauldron and the Carella Incident

The Carella Incident

The Cold War. Just the very mention of it conjures up thoughts of spies, paranoia and political brinksmanship while civilisation itself sat literally minutes away from nuclear Armageddon but there was another, perhaps even more frightening angle to the stand-off between east and west. While the nuclear arms race took centre stage, behind the scenes another just as deadly arms race was on; the development of the perfect biological weapon that could quietly, cheaply and effectively destroy the enemy and Britain was in it from the beginning.

Britain had an active biological and chemical weapons program in place since the First World War situated at Porton Down, Wiltshire. It was established in the wake of the German use of poison gas on the Western Front; an act which opened a Pandora’s Box in terms of biological and chemical warfare to break the stalemate of the trenches. The site was used to develop both new types of poison gas and employment techniques as well as developing countermeasures to an enemy’s weapons. Eventually the site morphed in to the Microbiological Research Establishment which further advanced research in to weaponised nerve agents for use on the battlefield and possibly beyond should British cities ever be attacked first – it was this threat of retaliation that eventually stopped Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany from employing biological and chemical weapons against British cities.

The romance between the east and west born out of the need to destroy Nazism died almost as quickly as the war ended and both sides viewed their former allies with suspicion over the future. Without question the spoils of the war lay in the advanced German weapons research leading to both sides scrambling to get their hands on data, equipment and of course the scientists themselves believing they would not only speed up the rebuilding process but also give an advantage over the opposition in the newly gestated Cold War.

MRE Porton Down reseacrh NBRC

Exercise at Porton Down (Kent.ac.uk)

German research in to nerve agents such as tabun, sarin and soman was especially sought after by Britain and the United States not just for application in their own inventories but also to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining by the technology. In the wake of the devastation of World War II which saw entire cities and their populations on the brink of annihilation a brutal theory began to develop regarding how the next war could possibly be fought. If one side could develop biological weapons that could eradicate an enemy population, then it would leave all the enemy country’s valuables intact for plundering and all this would be achieved at very little expense. It was hardly a new idea since biological warfare stretched back to antiquity when infected bodies would be dropped down wells or thrown in to besieged towns and villages to contaminate the people but now there was a very real possibility of it being perfected to a science.

The staff at Porton Down wasted no time in its race to further develop the captured German research as well as continue their own research projects. This led to a series of trials carried out in 1952 intended to test the effectiveness of various pathogens released in to the air and study how they would disperse and infect a target area. Called Operation Cauldron, the tests required cooperation between the team at Porton Down, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force (primarily for logistical purposes) and the local government in Scotland. The plan required the use of live animals, in this case guinea pigs and monkeys, to be infected out in the open air by clouds of weaponised pathogens released by the researchers in order to study the infection and lethality rates. To do this without risking contamination of the general public the tests were to be conducted at sea off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

The extremely secretive tests began in May 1952 and continued until September making use of the calmer weather of summer. The Royal Navy granted the team use of HMS Ben Lomond (below) under the command of Captain Phillip Welby-Everard to act both as the control ship for the tests and as a field laboratory for the scientists. The unfortunate animals used in the tests would be taken from Ben Lomond’s hold and restrained aboard a floating pontoon, in fact a converted mulberry harbour barge from the war, where they would be exposed to various pathogens.

HMS Ben Lomond.jpg

(For more details about how Cauldron was conducted you can view the video at the bottom of this article)

Among the pathogens tested were;

  • Brucellosis – A disease known under many local names such as Malta Fever or Gibraltar Fever as it was quite common in the Mediterranean. A highly contagious disease, it can be caused by the ingestion of unpasteurized milk or undercooked meat from infected animals or by close proximity with their secretions. Symptoms include profuse sweating and joint and muscle pain with a 2% mortality rate. A weaponised version could be used to incapacitate an enemy force or population reducing effective resistance.
  • Tularemia – More commonly known as O’Hara’s Fever or Rabbit Fever. Symptoms include very high temperature (fever), lethargy, loss of appetite, signs of sepsis and if left untreated death will occur. It is highly virulent in humans meaning large numbers could be infected quickly and given its long incubation period there is a reduced chance of an enemy becoming aware that their troops have been infected and taking appropriate countermeasures before large numbers of people are contaminated.
  • Pneumonic plague – One of the three main forms of plague caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis it is far more contagious than bubonic plague (v.) but fortunately much rarer. This form of plague aggressively attacks the lungs and is contracted from inhalation of fine infective droplets which can be transmitted from human to human without involvement of fleas or animals. Without urgent treatment death occurs in up to 90% of all cases even with 2015 medical technology to say nothing about 1950s medicine.
  • Bubonic plague – Perhaps the most well-known form of plague thanks in no small part to its place in history where it wiped out millions across Europe in medieval times, bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system and is most predominantly contracted from the bite of an infected flea. Bubonic plague creates a vast array of painful and disabling symptoms including muscle cramps, very high fever, seizures, vomiting blood, gangrene in the bodies extremities such as fingers and toes and the decomposition of skin while the person is still alive.
MRE Porton Down research Operation Cauldron

Preparing the guinea pig boxes (Crown)

Initially the animals were infected on the pontoon by being sprayed with clouds containing the pathogens but in later tests to determine their suitability for military applications, bombs were exploded near the pontoon that contained the pathogens in an effort to disperse their spores over the target animals. These tests eerily echo similar tests carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army’s notorious Unit 731 biological research unit based in China during the 1930s up to the end of World War II except in those instances the Japanese used living humans instead of animals. 3,492 guinea pigs and 83 monkeys were used in the test program almost all of which were killed and then meticulously dissected aboard the Ben Lomond to study the effects on their bodies the weaponised diseases had.

By mid-September 1952 the tests were drawing to a conclusion. The weather was becoming more and more of an issue as a Scottish autumn set in leading to the final day of testing to have to be delayed until September 15th. Captain Welby-Everard and the research team was under increasing pressure to complete the day’s trials or scrap them and attempt again the next day; an undesirable proposition since the weather forecast showed that conditions would continue to deteriorate overnight with an unfavourable wind for the trials on the 16th. Finally, at 1800hrs the first test was allowed to begin with the pathogens being spread across the pontoon at 1809hrs. The infected test animals were then moved away and replaced with “clean” samples. A second test was carried out at 1839hrs and again the animals were replaced with a third and final batch. The final batch were to be used in the testing of an air detonated explosive device fitted with bubonic plague bacteria.

It was as the preparations for detonation were getting under way that Captain Welby-Everard was alerted to the presence of an unauthorised vessel approaching the target area. The vessel was quickly identified as the fishing trawler Carella, a nineteen-year-old, 421-ton vessel of the famed Fleetwood trawler fleet with a crew of eighteen aboard and under the command of skipper E. Harris. The ship had apparently ignored visual warnings that the area was restricted and was nearing the test site north of the target pontoon at a range of two miles. Welby-Everard ordered that the vessel be signalled away by radio and signal lamp and continued on with preparations for the test. A similar occurrence earlier in the test program had ended without incident and he saw no reason why this time it should be any different reasoning that with the Ben Lomond and two supporting vessels all displaying warning flags and hailing the fishing vessel with signal lamps that the trawler was bound to turn away before it could get in to any trouble regarding the test.

carella 2.jpg

The Carella (Fleetwood)

Captain Welby-Everard therefore ordered the test to proceed and at 1902hrs the bomb was detonated engulfing the pontoon in a cloud of plague-carrying particles which was then carried away by the wind. Efforts to signal the Carella continued to fail however forcing one of the supporting craft to intercept the trawler and try to make direct contact. The trawler continued on oblivious to the fact that it was soon two miles downwind of the pontoon and in very real danger of coming in to contact with the invisible cloud of plague particles. Lookouts aboard the supporting craft and the Ben Lomond noted that the entire trawler’s complement were below decks which goes some way to explaining why the signals were not spotted but when the supporting craft made contact with them the crew of the Carella claimed they had attempted to signal the Ben Lomond but without success. This claim has been denied as a lie by the Royal Navy personnel on watch that night.

Captain Welby-Everard couldn’t legally stop the trawler from continuing on its journey, at least not without revealing the very secret nature of the tests to the crew who remained completely oblivious to what was really going on and composed a coded, cryptic message which he sent to the Admiralty regarding the incident and requested instructions;

During Cauldron trails of Agent L at 1900hrs 15th September the steam-trawler CARELLA Number H4 of Hull bound Fleetwood from Iceland(C) disregarded signals and crossed danger area after release of agent. Vessel passed two miles to leeward position of pontoon sixteen minutes after time of release. Wind speed six knots. Consider vessel may have passed through toxic cloud.

Due to the highly secret nature of the operation the message was met with a more lukewarm response than it deserved. Just what “Agent L” referred to was known by only a few individuals even at the Admiralty and it would not be until noon the next day that a response was sent back to Welby-Everard. The Admiralty and the staff at Porton Down assessed the situation and deemed the threat to the Carella to be negligible requiring no further action on the part of Welby-Everard and his people. With a six knot wind recorded over the pontoon at the time of detonation of the weapon then the trawler would have left the danger area before the plague spore-carrying particles could have made contact with it. Even if some of the plague spores did reach the trawler then in all likelihood they would be dead by that point not having a host within which to incubate.

This sigh of relief was short lived.

A follow-up report noted that the original report of a six knot wind over the pontoon did not mean that the wind speed was consistently six knots up to the trawler’s position. It was quickly determined that in actual fact the wind speed at a distance of two miles north of the pontoon would actually be in the region of anywhere between five and nine knots increasing the chances of the plague-carrying spores reaching the Carella. To exacerbate the perceived threat to the trawler a reassessment of the distance of the vessel by the Ben Lomond showed that the crew had been in error of around 400 yards meaning it was that much closer than first thought. This meant that there was now a very real chance that the Carella had indeed come in to contact with the invisible cloud and its deadly contents.

Duncan Sandys

Duncan Sandys (commons.wikimedia)

Alarm bells within the Admiralty rang out and an emergency meeting was held by late afternoon, almost 24 hours after the incident, to assess the danger. In attendance were Duncan Sandys, Minister of Supply (and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law), and representatives of the Admiralty, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Supply who had an umbrella of authority over Porton Down and their activities. During the meeting, Sands was given all the information available and after intense debate they concluded that the likelihood of the Carella’s crew being in any danger was still remote but not beyond the realms of possibility.

The next question therefore was to how best respond to the situation. A plan was considered whereby the crew of the trawler would be ordered to a secure British port and given injections of streptomycin for several weeks under controlled conditions while the vessel itself was detained and thoroughly decontaminated. But there was a problem. If they proceeded on this course of action, then it would prevent any outbreak but it would also almost certainly blow the lid on the intense secrecy of Operation Cauldron and confirm that Britain was developing “plague weapons”. Given the low chance of the crew having been infected it was decided not to implement the plan and thus keep the secret safe from the oblivious trawler crew and the world at large.

This of course begged the question; what if? The Carella was on its way to the rich Icelandic fishing grounds and it was not uncommon for Fleetwood trawlers to dock in Icelandic ports either for rest or repairs. If the crew had been infected, then there was the chance they could infect the people of Iceland which would not only potentially kill countless innocent people but cause a major diplomatic incident and blow the secret anyway. Put simply, Sands and the Admiralty couldn’t just ignore the problem. Therefore, a plan was put in place to monitor the Carella’s crew as they went about their trade in the cold Icelandic waters.

HMS Zambesi z-class destroyer

HMS Zambesi (IWM)

A Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Zambesi, was tasked to clandestinely track the Carella with only the senior medical officer onboard knowing the exact nature of the operation. In order to maintain the secret of Cauldron’s tests even the Zambesi’s captain was kept in the dark as to why he was tracking a British trawler although he was told that there was a chance the crew were infected with a contagious virus. Zambesi’s orders required the Royal Navy ship to stay out of sight of the crew so as to not alert them to the fact they were being tracked. To keep track of their quarry therefore the ship monitored the trawler’s regular communications with the owners in Fleetwood who had been instructed to keep in contact with them by the Ministry of Supply but again weren’t told why.

The Zambesi was to only break its cover on the following conditions;

  1. If the crew signalled for medical assistance indicating that a crewmember had been infected and was showing symptoms. The senior medical officer onboard had been given a consignment of antibiotics and instructions on how to treat the crew should this happen.
  2. If the vessel attempted to dock at an Icelandic port regardless of the medical condition of the crew.
  3. The crew attempted to make direct contact with another vessel.

These instructions were memorised by the officers and then promptly destroyed.

With regards to timescale the decision was taken that the danger would not pass until October 6th by which time any symptoms would have manifested itself amongst the crew. If no symptoms presented themselves by that time, then it was clear that either the crew weren’t infected or if some of the spores did reach the trawler then they had long since died and were no a longer a threat.

HMS Truelove Algerine-class minesweeper

HMS Truelove (IWM)

The Zambesi trailed the Carella as it reached the rich Icelandic fishing grounds until on September 22nd another vessel, HMS Truelove, took over the surveillance operation. Truelove was one of a number of Algerine-class minesweepers built in Canada during World War II for the British and Canadian navies. Like a few of her sisters she had been relegated to the fisheries protection role and had become a common sight to British trawlers. Truelove was therefore a less suspicious vessel to be roaming the fishing grounds at the same time as the Carella should the trawler crew have spotted her. Truelove operated under the same orders as Zambesi and monitored the Carella’s radio transmissions and movements through until the end of September and in to October 1952 all the while maintaining a distance of around 50 miles.

In the meantime, the government was looking for someone to blame and Captain Welby-Everard found himself in the firing line. He was accused of committing an error of judgement regarding continuing the test while aware that the trawler had not yet cleared the area. He was also criticised for not highlighting the urgency of the situation in his initial dispatch, however some blame for the latter has to go to the Admiralty itself for not having officers on duty to receive the dispatch and know exactly what it meant since Welby-Everard did inform them of what had happened using legitimate coded language for the operation.

Fleetwood trawlers

Fleetwood trawlers (Fleetwood)

September gave way to early October and the Truelove reported that they were now following the Carella back to its home port at Fleetwood. They estimated that the trawler would arrive in port between the 4th and 5th of October and requested instructions since technically the trawler was not yet in the clear. With no sign of any illness amongst the trawler’s crew there was a general consensus that given the low probability of infection in the first place and with no symptoms having manifested yet that the trawler should be allowed to make port unmolested unless the situation aboard changed during the transit home. Thus the Carella arrived home with her catch on October 5th 1952. Covert measures were taken by the Ministry of Health to monitor the whole crew in the days after their return but it was clear to all concerned that the danger had passed.

All that remained now was for the Admiralty and the Ministry of Health to cover up the mess to avoid any embarrassment. Their efforts were so successful that the crewmembers of the Carella would only learn the truth of what they nearly exposed to and the military operation to track them when the BBC made a documentary on the incident some fifty years later!


 

Here is an official film made by the research team involved in Operation Cauldron that was not released to the public until 2012. Even then the MoD wanted part of it restricted showing just how secret the operation was.

If I have included it for those who would like to know more about Cauldron BUT BE WARNED if you are upset by the sight of animals being used in testing. It does show the animals being prepared for the tests and while it doesn’t show them getting infected there is a section showing the dissection of the poor creatures. Other than that it is quite dry in places but quite fascinating for those who have an interest in the Cold War and biological weapon research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RAF Movie – High Flight (1957)

High Flight RAF Hawker Hunter 1957

High Flight takes its name after a poem written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator who flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) who lost his life in 1941 over RAF Cranwell where the film is set. Excuse the cynicism but there is something apt about that, for this film appealed more to American audiences than it did British who largely dismissed this film.

The story revolves around a new cadet to RAF Cranwell named Tony Winchester (played by Kenneth Haigh). Winchester is forever making a nuisance of himself as he believes his own skills as a pilot means he is exempt from the same rules as everyone else. Normally this would get him thrown out of the RAF but his senior instructor has history with Winchester’s father who was killed during the war and so a lot of his antics end up getting tolerated. In the end a team is put together to display the Hawker Hunter at the Farnborough air show and Winchester must learn to put his ego aside and work with the others in his unit.

This film, like a lot of contemporary American movies, prefers to look glitzy than realistic with all the flight scenes while playing on the myths of military life. It has all the excitement young boys dreaming of flying in the RAF would have in the 50s but this results in a movie that feels detached from reality. Winchester would be thrown out of the service in his first scene when he lands his personal plane at Cranwell without permission and almost colliding with a De Havilland Vampire but is kept on!

The flying sequences are brilliantly filmed however. There is logic in the progression from Provost basic trainers up to Vampires and then on to Hawker Hunters. There is also a fascinating scene where the cadets are flying in a Vickers Varsity navigation trainer but the rest of the movie is then just high-jinks and light heartedness all of which contrast to what is supposed to be a serious undertone regarding the instructor and Winchester’s father.

Give it a try. There is some enjoyment to be had out of it but fans of The Dambusters may be a bit disappointed.

RAF Movie – Conflict of Wings (1954)

Conflict of Wings 1954 De Havilland Vampire

The great thing about YouTube is that sometimes it will open you up to movies forgotten by time and this is one such movie. Set in 1950s Norfolk the story concerns the local population of a village as they learn that a nearby stretch of land called the Island of Children is going to be used as a weapons range by the RAF. The once pleasant relations with the nearby RAF base quickly turn sour as both put forward their arguments leading to a surprisingly tense climax.

This is a simple movie that has that 1950s innocence to it with undertones of the serious nature of the early Cold War world. From a military enthusiast’s point of view there is plenty here to keep you interested such as footage of an active RAF base in the 1950s and an albeit brief glimpse at squadron life. One of the most interesting scenes is a training session covering the use of rockets against ships and tanks.

The flying eye-candy primarily concerns the squadron’s De Havilland Vampires that are being re-roled from a fighter to a ground attack tasking hence the need for a new weapons range. Other aircraft that feature include a Gloster Meteor T.7 and perhaps best of all a pair of pre-production Supermarine Swifts that visit the base. The two Swift pilots joke about the Vampires being museum pieces which is somewhat ironic since the Swift’s career was nowhere near as successful as the Vampire’s.

The rest of the movie addresses an important topic that is as relevant now as it was back then; the military’s impact on the environment. This is not an action packed movie although it has some nice flight scenes. It has good pacing and at just under an hour and a half it’s not too long. Got a quiet afternoon and like aeroplanes and local history then this might be for you.

Vickers Valiant B.2 – A Tragic Irony

To view Defence of the Realm’s YouTube video on the Valiant B.2 CLICK HERE

Vickers Valiant B2

Few incidents have had such a profound impact on military thinking than the shooting down of Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 spy plane by the Soviet Union in 1959. Since the dawn of the bomber military planners had seen height as an ally since bombers with their greater wingspan could fly above fighters and ground based defences trying to shoot them down. Now the altitude advantage had been stripped away from them and American and British bombers appeared naked to the new threat – Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs).

RAF V-Bombers - Victor, Vulcan & Valiant

RAF V-Bombers – Victor, Vulcan & Valiant

Britain’s nuclear deterent lay in it’s triad of V-Bombers. The Avro Vulcan, Handley-Page Victor and Vickers Valiant made headlines the world over in the 1950s for their speed, agility and of course their high altitude performance. These aircraft resplendent in their white paint schemes were even the envy of their USAF counterparts who watched in awe as the mighty delta wing Vulcan was rolled at the Farnborough air show knowing that their B-52 Stratofortress would snap in half if they tried to do the same. Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down at an altitude higher than any of the V-Bomber fleet could fly and so overnight the RAF’s deterrent was effectively nullified. The balance had to be redressed as a matter of urgency.

After years of reaching for the stars the V-Bombers took a step backwards to the days of World War II and the technique of hedge-hopping; flying under the radar to avoid detection. The beautiful anti-flash white schemes were ditched as the aircraft adopted camouflage schemes more akin of tactical aircraft like the Hawker Hunter. For aircraft designed to fly in the very thin air of 50,000ft+ it was a hard transition to now be thrown around in the very dense air at low altitude as they avoided mountains, buildings and bridges. For one of the V-Bombers, the Valiant, it would be fatal. The extra stresses of low level flight caused premature fatiguing and inter-crystalline corrosion in wing spar attachment castings and after a number of in-flight failures the type was withdrawn. The Valiant would therefore be remembered as the bomber that couldn’t hack it down low.

Pathfinder

Flares mark targets for an RAF bomber over Germany

There is another, much earlier, chapter to this tail of woe however; one that could have reversed this opinion entirely and produced what would have been the finest low level V-Bomber of the trio. The V-Bomber concept was developed in the post-war era and all the lessons of that titanic conflict were put in to it’s specifications. One such lesson was the need for a pathfinder force whose job it would be to fly ahead of the main attack force and mark targets. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in military aviation and also had the drawback of alerting an enemy to where the attacking force was heading. Nevertheless it had proven successful over Germany and so a similar role was envisioned for the V-Bombers.

This called for a bomber with very high speed performance at low altitudes. It also called for an aircraft to have greater internal fuel volume than the aircraft of the main force. The reason for this was two-fold; firstly at lower altitudes the denser air meant that the engines would burn a greater volume of fuel. Secondly, unlike the high altitude main force that could fly straight to the target the pathfinder was going to have fly around some of the more densely defended areas in order to reach the target therefore increasing the distance the aircraft would have to fly. The three companies involved in building the V-Bombers were instructed to develop versions of their aircraft to meet this requirement but only Vickers took the role seriously. Both Avro and Handley-Page believed that their aircraft could navigate and locate the target independently and so there would be no need for a pathfinder. Vickers too believed the same of their Valiant but perhaps hoping to gain a monopoly with the RAF went ahead with their pathfinder-Valiant.

Vickers Valiant B2 2In order to increase internal fuel volume it was decided to relocate the main wheels outside of the wing in large faired over pods similar to the Soviet Union’s Tu-16 “Badger”. This freed up considerable space in the wing for additional fuel but perhaps more importantly the strengthening need for high speed low altitude flight. This strengthening produced a much more brutish aircraft. If the new aircraft was a plank of wood then the original Valiant B.1 was a sheet of paper!

The new wheel arrangement upset the balance of the aircraft because when the wheels were raised they actually hung behind the wings. In order to negate this problem therefore a fuselage plug was put in forward of the main wing which increased the aircraft’s length to 112ft as opposed to the original Valiant B.1’s 108ft. A less obvious change was the replacement of the Rolls-Royce Avon engines (as in the B.1) with Rolls-Royce Conways which were the same as the engines powering the Handley-Page Victor. This engine had marginally lower power than the Avon but was far more gutsy at low level whereas the Avons performed better at high altitude which was why it was used in so many fighters including the English Electric Lightning.

Vickers Valiant B2 4As September 1953 dawned the aircraft was nearing its first flight. Then, as has happened so many times in the history of advanced aircraft development in the UK, a series of events began to conspire against it. The role for which it was envisioned to carry out was finally declared an obsolete form as the V-Bombers proved they could find their targets independently. Even before this was realized however the aircraft became a victim of the bank manager and the acquisition of 17 of the newly designated Valiant B.2 was cancelled for financial reasons. On the 4th of September 1953 the only Vickers Valiant B.2, painted in a stunning black scheme and carrying the serial WJ954, took off for the first time in to an uncertain future.

Testing nevertheless continued in order to support the Valiant B.1 and the rest of the V-Bombers including testing Rocket Assisted Take Off (RATO) procedures that were adopted operationally. Although the role had gone the testing of the aircraft in the low level penetration role went on and the results spoke for themselves. A Valiant B.1 could attain a speed of 414mph at sea level. The Valiant B.2 on the other hand could comfortably attain speeds in excess of 600mph (the aircraft was actually cleared to fly to 640mph at low altitude). None of the other V-Bombers ever achieved speeds that could come close to this at altitudes just above sea level. In fact the B.2 was marginally faster than a Vulcan operating at high altitude (625mph at 39,000ft)!

Vickers Valiant B2 3The sole B.2 continued testing until 1958 when it was sent to Foulness to have a series of weapons fired at it to test the damage resistance of modern aircraft. A tragic end to a promising aircraft that eerily echoes the story of another advanced low level aircraft – the TSR.2 which met a similar fate. Just a year later Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down.

They say hindsight is 20:20 and in the case of the Valiant B.2 its clear the RAF could certainly have used the aircraft’s low altitude performance during the 1960s as the V-Bomber force went low to maintain Britain’s nuclear detterent until the Polaris submarines took the duty away from them in 1969. As early as 1955 however there were those in the RAF who could already see the cancellation was a mistake as the new technologies threatened the V-Bomber’s effectiveness at high altitude.

One question of the whole story remains unanswered however; why paint it black? Rumours abound as to why a black scheme was adopted. One rumour states that it was intended to contrast sharply with the anti-flash white Valiant B.1 to show it had a totally different role. Others simply state that it was designed to be striking or that the public expected a pathfinder to be black. The most popular story however is that when test pilot Brian Trubshaw first saw the design for the brutish aircraft he simply uttered;

Paint the f***er black!


 SPECIFICATIONS

Crew: five – two pilots, two navigators (one navigator plotter + one navigator bomber), air electronics officer
Length: 112 ft
Wingspan: 114 ft 4 in (34.85 m)
Height: 32 ft 2 in (9.80 m)
Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Conway turbofans, 9,250lbs each
Maximum speed: 567 mph (493 knots, 913 km/h) at 30,000 ft (9,150 m)
Range: 4,280 miles on internal fuel only (B.1 – 4,500 miles with external tanks)
Armament (as B.1)
1 × 10,000 lb (4500 kg) Blue Danube nuclear bomb
21 × 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs

Armstrong-Whitworth (Gloster) Meteor Night Fighters

NF14

In the immediate post-war period the RAF took very little interest in night fighter development. With the Luftwaffe destroyed and the lack of any credible night bomber threat from Eastern Europe the proven wartime De Havilland Mosquito force remained the RAF’s primary means of night bomber interception. Development of a jet powered night fighter was for the moment delayed until such a time a requirement was deemed necessary and the infantile technology had caught up to compensate for the weight penalty the night fighting equipment imposed.

TU4

Tu-4 “Bull”

Then on August 3rd 1947 military observers in Moscow were stunned to see what appeared to be B-29 Superfortresses taking part in the Aviation Day parade. In reality these were reverse engineered B-29s built as the Tupolev Tu-4 “Bull” and they caused a lot of concern in the west for it showed that the Soviets now had a genuine strategic bomber with very high speed and altitude performance. The west would later discover that the Tu-4 was inferior to the B-29 but nevertheless it allowed the Soviet aviation industry to leap-frog ahead and the technological lessons learned from the Tu-4 would be put in to more advanced designs later (in fact the Tu-16 “Badger” and the mighty Tu-95″ Bear both owe a lot of their fuselage design to the B-29/Tu-4). With the blockade of Berlin a year later and the start of the Cold War a confrontation with the Soviet Union was looking increasingly likely. If that happened the RAF’s Mosquito night fighters would prove inadequate against the Tu-4 and with more powerful jet engines now available it was decided to proceed with development of jet night fighters.

De Havilland Vampire NF.10

De Havilland Vampire NF.10

The RAF was not the first air force to contemplate using jet night fighters. The wartime Luftwaffe tested their advanced Messerschmitt Me 262 in the night fighter role producing the Me 262B-1a/U-1 and these scored a handful of kills against RAF night bombers. In the late 1940s the RAF decided that an interim jet powered night fighter based on the jets already in service should be developed pending the development and introduction of a dedicated new aircraft. The De Havilland company had already produced a jet powered night fighter by mating the radar, equipment and cockpit from the Mosquito to a Vampire airframe. This produced the Vampire NF.10 which was primarily for the export market but with an embargo in place against its main customer, Egypt, the RAF decided to take them on and this became the first operational RAF jet night fighter in 1951. The RAF was not overly impressed by it however and it was seen as a short term solution until a more powerful jet powered Gloster Meteor could be produced in sufficient numbers. This actually put the Vampire NF.10 in the unenviable position of being an interim aircraft until the “interim night fighter”, the Meteor, became available.

Meteor T.7

Meteor T.7

Gloster had begun work on a night fighter version of the Meteor as far back as 1946 when the RAF issued specification F44/46 calling for studies in to future night fighter designs. The natural starting point was the Meteor T.7 trainer as this already had provision for a second crewmember. When the RAF became serious about producing a jet night fighter Gloster decided that they were going to start from scratch with a new design that ultimately lead to the Gloster Javelin all-weather fighter series but the RAF needed a powerful night fighter in the interim and so Armstrong-Whitworth were commissioned to produce the Meteor night fighter. Armstrong-Whitworth had extensive experience building Meteors under a sub-contract with Gloster and so the tooling was largely in place. Gloster handed over their own studies and provided them with an early Meteor T.7 to serve as the prototype.


Meteor NF.11

Meteor NF11

To produce the NF.11 the T.7 was modified with an enlarged and lengthened nose to house the AI.10 radar set. This was the same radar set that had guided De Havilland Mosquitoes against the German Luftwaffe in World War Two and was essentially an American SCR-720 set developed for the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. The radar antenna spun around on its vertical axis through an entire 360 degrees 10 times every second while at the same time it slowly nodded up and down to provide altitude coverage between +50 and -20 degrees. This provided the observer with a 150 degree scan in front of the aircraft which produced a c-shaped image on his screen due to the transmitter switching off when it was pointed back towards the aircraft. In order to fit the motor that drove the scanner assembly a small bump under the nose was required and this became one of the distinguishing features of this variant. This set had a range of almost 10 miles against a bomber sized target when atmospheric conditions were good.

The radar and accompanying equipment in the rear cockpit added almost 3,000lbs to the weight of the aircraft and this required structural and aerodynamic changes to compensate. The wings were modified to feature the longer outer wings of the high altitude PR.10 variant. The original Meteor day fighters had four 20mm cannons in the nose but the fitting of the radar made it almost impossible to retain the guns here and so they were relocated to the wings just passed engines; a major modification as it meant the access doors had to be designed to help take the stress of high speed flight. The NF.11 had four Hispano V 20mm cannons each with 160 rounds of ammunition. One of the last features added to the aircraft was the fitting of a Meteor F.8 tail which was more streamlined than the T.7.

The modified T.7 prototype first flew in 1949 albeit without radar. The first full NF.11 flew on May 31st 1950 and the RAF was suitably impressed to order 200 examples with service entry beginning in 1951. Pilots transitioning from Mosquitoes were pleased with their new mount which offered height and speed advantages over their wartime aircraft. Pilots coming from day fighter Meteor squadrons were not so impressed however. The aircraft was significantly slower with its Derwent 8 engines taking it to just 578mph compared to the Meteor F.8 which topped out at 616mph. It was nevertheless capable for intercepting the Tu-4 which was seen as its main quarry and so the speed criticism was largely irrelevant.

One thing that was retained from the T.7 that was universally loathed by aircrew, groundcrew and enthusiasts alike was the heavily framed canopy. This was an exceptionally heavy component for its purpose that was awkward to handle and restricted the view outside the cockpit. It’s strange that Gloster adopted this design and no doubt newly qualified pilots were amazed at the view the actual fighter version afforded them after qualifying in the trainer.Gloster Meteor Fireflash NF.11 A Meteor NF.11 conducted the first launch of a British air-to-air missile in 1951 when a modified example fired the first Fairey Fireflash missile.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,700lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor NF.12 

Meteor NF12

As the NF.11 was solidifying itself in service work was underway on a more capable version that featured an Anglicised version of the American APQ-43 radar in an even longer nose. Known as the AI.21 in British service this radar featured a 200kW transmitter gave a range of up to as much as 25 miles (40 km) when conditions permitted. It also included various beacon homing modes, as well as an air-to-surface mode for detecting ships. The Mk.21 differed from its APQ-43 forebear in that it was fitted with a British strobe unit and had variable pulse repetition frequency settings.

To help address the balance issues that resulted from this the tail was given a noticeable extension that had an almost crooked appearance. The new radar offered much improved signal processing over the AI.10 installed in the NF.11 but it was never able to supersede the older model and only 97 were built. To help compensate for the marginal weight increase more powerful Derwent 9 engines were fitted that produced a mere 100lbs of extra thrust each. The NF.12 entered service with the RAF in 1953.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 9 (3,800lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor NF.13 

The Meteor NF.13 also appeared in 1953 and was essentially a tropicalised version of the NF.11 for use by the Middle East Air Force. In the 1950s the RAF still had huge commitments in the region and with the Soviet Union taking more of an interest in supporting Marxist and anti-western uprisings the need for modern jet night fighters became more evident. The NF.13 was produced by the fitting of enlarged intakes for the Derwent 8 engines that helped compensate for the ambient heat in places such as Aden that reduced thrust in jet aircraft. The aircraft were also fitted with a radio compass to help with navigation over large featureless deserts and to improve crew comfort a cold air unit was fitted that blew cool air in to the cockpit. Forty examples of this version were delivered to the MEAF and they would serve in the Suez War in 1956.


Meteor NF.14

Meteor NF14

The Meteor NF.14 was the definitive night fighter variant of the Meteor. Effectively an updated NF.12 the aircraft finally dispensed with the loathed heavily framed canopy inherited from its Meteor T.7 forebear. Instead a “full blown” two piece canopy was developed that afforded the crew a superb view of the outside world. As well as saving a few pounds in weight and being easier to handle the new canopy was intended to help the crew spot their targets at night and observe their tracer fire more effectively to allow them to make corrections if needed. The aircraft retained the Anglicized APQ-43 radar set designated as the AI.21 from the NF.12.

Despite efforts to save weight the aircraft was at the end of its development life and the Derwent 9 engines couldn’t propel it any faster than 576mph under the best of conditions. By the time the NF.14 was making its presence known in frontline squadron service the Soviets were deploying the Tu-16 “Badger” bomber which was almost 70mph faster than the Meteor making interception nearly impossible. This fact served to spur on development of the Javelin and from 1954 the Meteor night fighter squadrons began to disband and re-equip with new types. The first models to go were the NF.11s which were drawn down between 1954 and 1955 followed by the tropicalized NF.13 variant which left frontline service in 1958. Strangely, two Meteor NF.11 squadrons found a new (albeit short) lease of life in the coastal defence role strafing surface vessels. In the remaining years the aircraft had left it primarily served abroad in areas where the threat level was not as sophisticated as in Europe such as the Far East although night fighter Meteors remained in Germany until 1960.

No.60 Squadron was the last Meteor night fighter squadron, disbanding at RAF Seletar, Singapore in 1961. It therefore also holds the accolade of being the last frontline Meteor fighter squadron in RAF service. In 1969 the Biafran government attempted to smuggle two Meteor NF.14s to the African breakaway republic to help in its war against Nigeria but the effort failed when one crashed in to the sea on its delivery flight while the other was impounded at Bissau in Portuguese Guinea.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,700lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 576mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons