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

Handley Page HP.15 V 1500 c

Handley Page V/1500 (flyingmachines.ru)

The end of the Great War brought little respite to British forces who still had an empire to protect and in May 1919 they became embroiled in a brief but bloody war with the Kingdom of Afghanistan. The fighting resembled more of what the British and Indian Armies were used to before 1914 and the modern technologies that had arisen from the Western Front seemed out of place in the battles against tribesmen and armed militia. Nevertheless towards the end of May a plan was being devised for an air strike on the Royal Palace in Kabul that would hopefully dissuade King Amanullah from further hostilities. The aircraft chosen for the long range mission was Handley Page V/1500 J1936. This aircraft was available because it had just completed a record breaking flight from Britain to India.

The aircraft was armed with four 112lb bombs on bomb racks that had to be sourced from a squadron of B.E.2cs while sixteen 20lb hand thrown bombs were carried in the fuselage to be tossed out over the target. On May 24th 1919 the aircraft took off from Risalpur with Group Captain Robert Halley at the controls and Lt Ted E. Villiers as observer/bombardier. The V/1500 reached Kabul in three hours and made its attack on the Royal Palace, the King’s forces having almost no defence other than to fire their bolt action rifles in to the air at the plane as it circled overhead making attack after attack.

Inside the palace there was chaos despite the fact that Halley and Villiers’ aim was not exactly precise and most of the bombs missed the main building. The horror of being attacked from the sky sent many of those in the palace rushing in to the streets to escape including many of the women of the King’s harem. Even after the attack was over King Amanullah found it difficult to control the situation, the psychological impact on the population being unprecedented and within a few days of the attack he began negotiating peace terms with the British. It was the first time in history that an aircraft had been the decisive factor in ending a conflict.


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

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NEWS: Five killed in British helicopter crash in Afghanistan

Puma HC.2

Four NATO service personnel and one civilian have been killed following the crash of an RAF Puma HC.2 in Afghanistan. The two RAF pilots, Flight Lieutenants Geraint Roberts from North Wales and Alan Scott from London, were killed along with two US military personnel and one French contracted civilian when their aircraft crashed in Kabul.

According to the British Ministry of Defence the helicopter crashed while landing at the headquarters of Operation Resolute Support; the ongoing NATO mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Army. The incident is currently under investigation but the MoD insists that the incident was the result of an accident and not the result of insurgent activity. An Afghan security guard who witnessed the crash in Kabul reported that he saw the aircraft strike the cable of a security observation balloon tethered to the ground near the complex before crashing.

NEWS: Former British base in Afghanistan at risk of being overrun by Taliban fighters

British troops on final parade in 2014

British troops on final parade in 2014

Camp Bastion, the former British Army headquarters in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan and now operated by the Afghan National Army (ANA), has been in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters after repeated attacks prompting the Americans to deploy Special Forces teams to protect it.

Demonstrating just how far security has collapsed in the province since Britain withdrew its forces last year, the United States has been forced to use 90 ‘Special Operations’ soldiers to keep the base in the hands of the ANA. For the ANA the tactical situation has become so dire that its officers are reportedly paying the Taliban thousands of US dollars not to attack them.

Camp Bastion was Britain’s largest operational combat base anywhere in the world since the end of World War II. Initially constructed as an airfield in 2006, it swelled to become the size of Reading and among other things included its own Pizza Hut restaurant. The published cost of setting up and running the camp between 2006 and 2014 is £20billion.

Handley Page HP.15 V/1500

Handley Page HP.15 V1500

Handley Page HP.15 V1500 (wp.scn.ru)

It is difficult for the modern mind so used to aviation being an everyday thing to comprehend just how new the aircraft was even by the end of the First World War; a conflict that advanced flying technology exponentially. Looking at the use of the aircraft as an offensive weapon during the course of the brutal four year conflict shows just how far it had come. From the first occasions of light spotter planes whose crews tossed grenades over the sides to the first bombing raids over London carried out by German Gothas the potential of the bomber was becoming more and more obvious and the need for bigger and better aircraft more pressing.

In Britain one name became synonymous with bomber design during World War One more than any other; Handley Page. While most companies such as Sopwith and the Royal Aircraft Factory rarely built anything over a two-seater single engine design, Handley Page built bigger multi engine aircraft with the sole purpose of putting bombs on the enemy behind the lines. This resulted in the superlative Type O series of bombers – the O/100 and the O/400. At the time of the introduction of the O/100 it was the biggest aircraft ever built in Britain and the second largest aircraft in the world. They had such an impact on the British military flying scene that for many years after the war bombers were called “Handley Pages” even if they were built by another company.

Gotha IV German bomber (commons.wikimedia)

Gotha IV German bomber (commons.wikimedia)

Bombing operations on the Western Front primarily concerned with tactical targets – bridges, troop concentrations, supply facilities – but on May 25th 1917 everything changed. A flight of 23 German Gotha IV bombers attacked targets around Folkestone and Shorncliffe but it was obvious their original target was London itself. Typical London overcast meant that the bombers had to divert to these secondary targets but nevertheless over 100 people were killed. Attacks on the British mainland from the air were nothing new as the country had been on the receiving end of numerous Zeppelin raids but the lumbering air ships had been largely ineffective and their threat nullified by new defences. The Gotha raids however were a new kind of terror being able to bring widescale devastation with shocking effectiveness that both terrified the British people and reenergised the German propaganda machine.

For the British Air Ministry the situation was intolerable. The British had to show they were capable of responding in kind to this new type of German aggression and to do that they needed their own heavy bomber that could fly to Berlin with a respectable bombload. In the subsequent British Air Board 1917 specifications for the next series of aircraft for the Royal Flying Corps a requirement was included for a bomber capable of carrying a 3,000lb bombload from South East England to Berlin.

All eyes were on Handley Page to meet the requirement and they didn’t fail to rise to the challenge. Handley Page knew their Type O was a sound design for the era but could not hope to meet the Air Board’s requirements. If more was needed from the aircraft then they needed more of an aircraft and so they began scaling up the design which was given the in-house designation of HP.15. The design team increased the wingspan from 100ft in the O/400 to 126ft in the new design but retained the same overall configuration with four-bay biplane wings. Strangely, while the aircraft was slightly taller than the O/400 it was in fact marginally shorter but featured a much more substantial crew section which gave the aircraft an almost slab-like appearance from the side. Like the O/400 it was constructed of wood and fabric materials.

Groundcrew standing under the wings of the aircraft give an impression of its size (flyingmachines.ru)

Groundcrew standing under the wings of the aircraft give an impression of its size (flyingmachines.ru)

A bigger aircraft needs more power and very quickly it was becoming clear that no two engines were available that could generate the necessary horsepower. The answer therefore was to double the number of engines to four and in order to not overstress the airframe by placing them further out along the length of the wing Handley Page decided to place the four engines on two mounting brackets located close to the fuselage. This necessitated two of the engines facing forward pulling the aircraft along while the other two engines faced aft in a pusher configuration.

The engine chosen for the aircraft was the 12-cylinder liquid cooled Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII inline-vee unit that on its own developed 375hp; an impressive figure for the time. The liquid cooling of the engine was necessary given the powerplants performance but was something of a cause for concern since liquid cooled engines were more prone to breakdowns and were more susceptible to enemy fire. Another unusual feature of the aircraft was that the forward propeller was two bladed while the aft propeller was four bladed. This was in order to not overly disrupt the airflow to the aft engine. The four Eagle VIIIs combined to give the aircraft an awesome 1500hp and to reflect this fact the number “1500” was included in the type’s service designation – Type V/1500. To put this figure in to perspective the O/400 and the Vickers Vimy bombers had a total power output of 720hp while the Gotha IV that attacked Felixstowe only produced 520hp.

The aircraft also had a much larger crew than previous aircraft although just how many crew remains a source of speculation as various sources claim different figures. Some claim eight crew while others claim only six. Crew positions within the aircraft included pilot, navigator/bombardier and three gunners including the somewhat revolutionary position of tail gunner which became a necessity following combat service with the Type O. It is likely that a second pilot or air mechanic was included in the crew numbers given the relative complexity of the aircraft and it is rumoured that up to three mechanics were included on early flights which may account for why some sources claim the aircraft had a crew of eight. It seems more likely that such a number of mechanics would have been involved in the testing but that this was not a typical crew complement as later flights (as we shall see) flew with a crew of three when the gunners were not needed which means that operationally a crew of six was the norm.

Handley Page V/1500 at Cricklewood (flyingmachines.ru)

Handley Page V/1500 at Cricklewood (flyingmachines.ru)

Construction of the aircraft could not be carried out at Handley Page’s Cricklewood factory due to other commitments such as producing the Type O bombers so a compromise was made. The components for the aircraft were built in Belfast, Ireland by Harland and Wolfe, more famous for building ships than aircraft, and then shipped to Cricklewood for final assembly. The decision to assemble the aircraft at Cricklewood and not in Belfast was possibly made for security reasons and it is likely that the War Office were concerned about pro-German (or at least anti-British) spies operating at the yard in the wake of the Easter Rising. Assembly of the prototype, E4104, was completed at Cricklewood in May 1918 and the aircraft took to the air on May 22nd with testing being carried out shortly after.

Tragedy befell the program when on June 8th 1918 during its 13th flight E4104 crashed with Capt. Vernon E. G. Busby at the controls. While cruising along at 1,000ft all four engines cut out at once and so Busby attempted to turn the aircraft back to the airfield but in doing so stalled the aircraft and it entered an uncontrollable spin. Of the six aboard four were killed in the resulting crash including Busby while a fifth crewman died shortly after from his injuries. The aircraft was completely lost in the crash so an accurate investigation couldn’t be carried out leaving the verdict of fuel starvation as the only possible explanation given the description of what happened from the only survivor.

Despite this setback the successor to the Army’s Royal Flying Corps, the newly established and independent Royal Air Force (RAF), gave production of the aircraft a high priority and demanded 210 machines from Handley Page. Handley Page found it impossible to meet this demand on their own and so much of the work was contracted out to Harland and Wolfe, Beardmore, Graham White and Alliance Aircraft.

The RAF in the meantime went about forming a specialised squadron to operate the aircraft and this came in the guise of No.166 Squadron which formally stood up at RAF Bircham Newton, Norfolk on June 13th 1918. While officially designated as a heavy bomber unit the crews selected to train on the “Super Handley” as it was called were under no illusions about what their real mission was; bomb Berlin. Very quickly No.166, despite having no aircraft yet, was becoming an elite unit due to an extremely intensive training regime. Nearly all the pilots and crews selected for the squadron had previous combat experience mainly on the older Handley Pages and the FE.2b night bombers. The navigators especially had to attend a special course to allow them to learn the art of very long range navigation at night. Finally, in October 1918 the first three assembled Handley Page V/1500s were delivered to RAF Bircham Newton and after nearly four months of training the crews were eager to familiarise themselves with the new aircraft so they could carry out their mission.

As October gave way to November of 1918 that order had yet to come. Despite all the effort to get No.166 Squadron ready and their aircraft delivered the morality of the mission to Berlin was now being called in to question. Peace seemed to be just around the corner following the capitulation of the Austro-Hungarians and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany. Using the V/1500 for regular bombing operations over the Western Front was seen as an unacceptable risk to such valuable aircraft and personnel for if they were lost to enemy defences then the Berlin mission could never go ahead.

Handley Page HP.15 V/1500 (RAF Museum)

Handley Page HP.15 V/1500 (RAF Museum)

Finally, on the 8th of November the squadron received its orders. They were to take off from Bircham Newton and fly to Berlin where they would drop their weapons before proceeding on to Allied-occupied Prague. There the aircraft would be re-armed and re-fuelled before taking off back over Germany to bomb Dusseldorf before landing back in the UK. It looked set to be an epic mission. Then just hours before it was due to start an inspection of one of the aircraft showed that all four engines needed replacing despite protests from crews who claimed the mechanic was being overly forceful by insisting the change take place before the mission. With only two aircraft remaining the mission was cancelled. Just two days later the aircraft attempted the mission again but as they literally started to taxi out they were called back with news that an armistice had just been declared and the war was over. The mission to Berlin would never take place.

Post war Britain was nearly bankrupt and advanced aircraft projects were cancelled in a near-orgy of cutbacks as their war was now over. The Versailles Treaty was intended to strip Germany of any war making ability and already there was talk of new arms limitation treaties among the remaining powers to make sure another Great War could never happen. Against such a backdrop few advanced aircraft survived with the RAF having to make do with wartime types for many years after. The promising V/1500 was one such aircraft to survive the cull although it did not come off unscathed. Of the planned 210 airframes only 60 frontline aircraft were manufactured excluding the three prototypes.

While the aircraft may not have carried out its intended mission of bombing the Kaiser’s capital city the V/1500 was about to make its mark on history in other more peaceful ways. Its long range performance was brilliantly demonstrated when one aircraft flew to Karachi in British India (modern day Pakistan) in just under a month making stops at Rome, Malta, Cairo, and Baghdad along the way. The next year another V/1500 attempted to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight taking off from Newfoundland in Canada but running in to mechanical difficulties it was forced down in Nova Scotia. The goal was later achieved by a Vickers Vimy twin engined bomber flown by John Alcock and Arthur Brown. The same aircraft did however later carry out the first airmail run between Canada and the United States.

Handley Page V/1500 (flyingmachines.ru)

Handley Page V/1500 (flyingmachines.ru)

For a time it seemed that the V/1500 would never drop a bomb in anger but the horror of the Great War failed to bring about the anticipated world peace and in May 1919 British forces were again fighting for the Empire in a brief but bloody war with the Kingdom of Afghanistan. The fighting resembled more of what the British and Indian Armies were used to before 1914 and the modern technologies that had arisen from the Western Front seemed out of place in the battles against tribesmen and armed militia. Nevertheless towards the end of May a plan was being devised for an air strike on the Royal Palace of King Amanullah in Kabul. The aircraft chosen for the long range mission was in fact the same aircraft that made the record breaking flight from Britain to India; V/1500 J1936.

The aircraft was armed with four 112lb bombs on bomb racks that had to be sourced from a squadron of B.E.2cs while sixteen 20lb hand thrown bombs were carried in the fuselage to be tossed out over the target. On May 25th 1919 the aircraft took off from Risalpur with Captain Halley at the controls and Lt E. Villiers as observer/bombardier. The V/1500 reached Kabul in three hours and made its attack on the Royal Palace, the King’s forces having almost no defence other than to fire their bolt action rifles in to the air at the plane as it circled overhead making attack after attack.

Inside the palace there was chaos despite the fact that Halley and Villiers’ aim was not exactly precise and most of the bombs missed the main building. The horror of being attacked from the sky sent many of those in the palace rushing in to the streets to escape including many of the women of the King’s harem. Even after the attack was over King Amanullah found it difficult to control the situation and within a few days of the attack he agreed peace terms with the British. It was the first time in history that an aircraft had been the decisive factor in ending a conflict.

Despite these successes the aircraft was extremely complicated to operate and maintain and with no real long range bombing requirement any longer the RAF decided to withdraw it in 1920. The Handley Page HP.15 V/1500 was every bit the spiritual ancestor to the four engined Handley Page Halifax that took the war to the heart of the Third Reich in World War Two. History at large may have forgotten the contribution to aviation this remarkable aircraft has made but in both peace and war it helped lay the foundation for the future.

Crew: 6-8
Role: Heavy Night Bomber
Maximum speed: 99mph
Range: 800 miles (approx operational range)
1,300 miles (ferry range)
Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII inline vee piston engines (375hp each).
Service ceiling:11,000ft
Length: 64ft 0in
Wingspan: 126ft 0in
Height: 23ft
Defensive Armament: 3/6 .303in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns in nose, dorsal and tail positions
Offensive Armament: 3000lbs of bombs

NEWS: One-third of RAF combat aircraft unserviceable

Panavia Tornado

According to the Daily Express newspaper a third of the Royal Air Force’s fast-jet force has been rendered unserviceable pending repairs as a result of near continuous combat operations in Afghanistan, Lybia and Iraq. According to the newspaper MoD figures reveal that 36 of the RAF’s 91 Eurofighter Typhoons and 39 of the 96 Panavia Tornado GR.4s have been taken off frontline duties for major repair work. With the Harrier force retired prematurely and operations against Islamic State in Iraq set to rise the worry is the situation could worsen.

The revelations came after Labour MP Madeline Moon raised the question in parliament. They responded with a rather vague statement saying;

Aircraft availability rates change considerably over very short periods of time.

Loosely translated what the RAF are trying to say is that the fact of the matter is intensive operations will take a toll on aircraft serviceability rates. These are complex machines being made to work in quite austere and punishing conditions and it is inevitable that some of them will develop some kind of malfunction that needs repair. This is not a situation unique to the RAF but to all military flying forces. The concern is that unlike the US Air Force or indeed the Royal Saudi Air Force the RAF simply doesn’t have the reserve forces to make up for the shortfall after savage cuts by the coalition government in 2010. The loss of the Harrier fleet is now being felt by the RAF who are carrying out a dangerous job with the usual professionalism and commitment that the British public and their government seem to take for granted these days which has led to this situation in the first place.

Vector 6×6 Protected Patrol Vehicle (PPV)

Vector1

The Vector Protected Patrol Vehicle (PPV) is a six-wheel drive armoured vehicle employed by British forces during operations in Afghanistan. The vehicle is based on the Pinzgauer 6×6 all-terrain utility vehicle and was built by BAE Systems with the aim of providing British forces in Afghanistan with a patrol vehicle that offered greater protection from small arms fire and mortar detonations than previous vehicles such as the Land Rover Snatch. The vehicle was placed in to production following an Urgent Operational Requirement issued by the British Army in 2006. 180 units were eventually ordered including 12 configured as ambulances for the CASEVAC role.

Vector 2The vehicle retains the same basic chassis and motive components as the Pinzgauer thus easing logistical support requirements as the infrastructure is already largely in place. The armoured shell comes largely in the form of kevlar panels fitted around the vehicle’s body while the windows are made of laminated ballistic resistant glass. In many ways the Vector is the spiritual successor of vehicles like the Saxon armoured truck which was essentially a Bedford M-series truck with an armoured body. Additionally the vehicle was fitted with a a radio jammer designed to disrupt the ability of insurgents to detonate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) by wireless remote.

The Vector has a top road speed of 65mph and has a range of approximately 700 miles but this can be extended with the fitting of additional fuel tanks for extended endurance patrols. It is powered by a 109hp diesel engine that meets European emission requirements. It is normally operated by a crew of two with up to four fully armed troops in the rear compartment on blast resistant seats. Alternatively up to 1600kg of supplies can be carried internally and externally to support the patrols or resupply forward positions.

Vector 3In Afghanistan the vehicle was used primarily for urban and rural patrolling where it could expect to get caught up in close quarters combat with insurgents. Unfortunately the vehicle’s protection proved less than ideal against the latest IEDs although it has to be remembered that it was still an improvement over the Land Rovers used previously. It could protect reasonably well against small arms fire but their poor under-belly armour made them too vulnerable to roadside bombs. Also their standard Pinzgauer suspension proved unable to cope with the extra weight of the armoured body and electronic countermeasures equipment fitted in the conversion. Combining this with a shortage of spares (something that shouldn’t have happened since the Pinzgauer vehicle it was based on was in widespread service), the Vectors serviceability rates fell below 60% in 2008 and later that year it was withdrawn from service after just two years on the frontlines.

Aircraft Gallery: Herrick Harriers

6

Between 2004 and 2009 Harriers of Joint Force Harrier (JFH), which comprises the RAF’s 1(F) and IV(AC) squadrons and the Royal Navy’s 800 Naval Air squadron (NAS), were deployed to Afghanistan to support the troops on the ground, fighting a resurgent Taliban and other militant forces. As well as 16 pilots, around 125 engineers and technicians and all the squadron’s Ops personnel were in Afghanistan. Maintenance crews worked hard, undertaking 12-hour shifts day and night for ten days at a time. During its time in Afghanistan the Harrier GR.7/7A became a highly prized asset and as such a dramatic series of upgrades were implemented improve its ability to detect and destroy Taliban forces in cavernous mountain ranges of Helmand. This resulted in the superlative Harrier GR.9/9A.


Kandahar Harrier Crash

On 14th May 2009 two Harriers were returning from a sortie including Harrier GR.9A ZG478. The wingman landed first due to low fuel but received a hostile missile alert and released flares. ZG478’s turn onto finals was too short and 6,500ft higher than normal. Throughout the approach the rate of descent was too high and ‘Hover Stop’ was selected in an attempt to correct this.

At 180ft full power was selected but the tail struck the ground 30ft from the threshold. The outriggers and main undercarriage collapsed as did the nose wheel when the aircraft pitched forward. The under wing stores (bombs, rockets, recce pod, targeting pod and drop tanks) caught fire as it slid along the runway for 4,000ft. During the slide the pilot turned the aircraft away from a formation of four aircraft waiting to take off then ejected when it came to a stand. The fire spread to engulf the whole aircraft