Forgotten Aircraft: Avro’s First Bombers (Part 3)

<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 1)
<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 2)

The Avro 557 AvaAvro 557 Ava N171

World War I had completely changed the world’s perspective on the aeroplane as a weapon of war. Whereas before it was seen as little more than a tool for reconnaissance, now it was directly challenging age-old beliefs about the superiority of armies and navies. Nevertheless, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was still fighting for its continued existence and in order to prove its worth it had to show that it had the potential to truly affect the future battlefield. For Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Hugh Trenchard this was no easy feat as the RAF was constantly strapped for cash in the face of peacetime cuts.

Both the Army and Navy lobbied for abolishment of the RAF now that the war was over and to have their respective air arms reinstated but Trenchard and his political supporters put up a staunch defence. In order to prove the RAF’s worth, Trenchard was careful but ambitious about his service’s reequipment program in the 1920s hoping to make the most out of what little he had. One such role he envisioned the RAF undertaking was the defence of Britain against surface warships using air launched torpedoes. During the war, Britain had suffered humiliating attacks by German battleships which shelled coastal towns like Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby and those who supported the RAF believed that aircraft could prevent further attacks using both speed and firepower to intercept the raiders out at sea. Trenchard went further adding that in his opinion, combat aircraft had the potential to render the battleship entirely obsolete.

In 1922, the Air Ministry issued specification 16/22 aimed at acquiring an aircraft to fulfil the challenging role. Like the specification that produced the Avro Aldershot which was at that time undergoing flight testing, it was conceived around a possible war breaking out with France which was now the only real European superpower able to threaten Britain with Germany being crushed by the Treaty of Versailles and Austro-Hungary having broken up. The specification called for an aircraft capable of carrying a 21-inch (533mm) torpedo to a target around 500 miles from its base allowing it to attack shipping as far as Denmark and the entrance to the Baltic Sea. This was no easy feat since the 21-inch torpedo was over 3,000lbs in weight but Trenchard believed this weapon was the bare minimum needed to sink a battleship. To increase the type’s usefulness, the specification also stipulated that the aircraft was to be used as a bomber and carry the equivalent weight in bombs.

Avro and Blackburn Aircraft were both shortlisted to produce prototypes for testing with Avro’s project being led by the talented Roy Chadwick. Both companies had to work under a strict veil of secrecy however since at that time there were calls for world-wide disarmament and it was believed by some that an aircraft capable of sinking a battleship might be perceived as contrary to this. Initially, Chadwick opted for a single engined design centred around the 1,000hp Napier Cub engine which Avro had been testing on the original Avro Aldershot prototype. Blackburn adopted the same engine for their design but eventually Chadwick dropped it in favour of producing a twin engined design equipped with individually less powerful engines that combined produced even more power; something the Air Ministry was looking more favourably upon.

Chadwick’s design was for a three-bay biplane of wooden construction with a biplane tail that had a triple rudder arrangement. The two uncowled engines were mounted close to the fuselage but forward of the main wing resting on pylons that extended down to their relative undercarriage. Chadwick settled on the Rolls Royce Condor III V12 engine which churned out 650hp to power the type. The aircraft was to have a crew of five with two pilots sat in an open cockpit located at the top of the forward fuselage slightly ahead of the propellers. The navigator/bomb aimer worked in the enclosed cabin during the flight but could occupy a “dustbin” gun turret that retracted down from beneath the aircraft when it was under attack. The aircraft also had two dedicated gunners with one located in the extreme nose and the other in a dorsal position behind the wings. Each gunner was equipped with a single .303in Lewis machine gun.  The main offensive armament was carried on racks underneath the fuselage between the two innermost undercarriage wheels.

Avro 557 Ava (1)

The first prototype of the new aircraft was completed in 1924 and given the in-house number 557 and the serial number N171 before the name “Ava” was assigned to it. The origin of the name is unclear but it is likely a derivative of the Latin word “Avis” which means “bird”. Avro test pilot Bert Winkler was at the controls during the type’s first flight and being a man of rather short stature, he had to be propped up in the seat with a few cushions to allow him to see forward over the nose. Not long in to the test program, the central rudder was removed as it was deemed unnecessary. Work also began on a second prototype, N172, which was to be of all-metal construction reflecting this growing trend amongst aircraft manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Blackburn Aircraft had begun test flying their own aircraft to meet the Air Ministry’s specifications known as the Cubaroo – a name likely inspired by its powerful Napier Cub engine. Despite the Air Ministry emphasizing a preference for a twin-engined design, Blackburn submitted their single-engined Cubaroo which was at that time the largest single-engined military aircraft in the world. Despite this fact, flight trials showed that it had good flight characteristics although Blackburn would suffer a temporary setback when the prototype crash landed in January 1925.

As work on both aircraft continued, the grey clouds of cancellation began to form over their respective aerodromes. Naval observers of the project argued that these relatively large and lumbering aircraft would offer an easy target to the newer anti-aircraft guns being fielded aboard surface warships around the world. They also argued that they would be vulnerable to interception by modern carrier aircraft equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Fairey Flycatcher which was significantly faster than either the Ava or the Cubaroo when carrying their torpedo.

Avro 557 Ava N172In 1924, the Fleet Air Arm was formed within the RAF to handle shipboard operations and this new branch argued for smaller torpedo-carrying carrier aircraft to fulfil essentially the same role as was envisioned for the Ava and Cubaroo. These aircraft would be equipped with the 1,800lb Mark.VIII torpedo so could be smaller, faster and tougher to shoot down with defensive fire. The Air Ministry agreed and had rescinded specification 16/22 by 1926 rendering both the Ava and the Cubaroo surplus to requirements. With the veil of secrecy having been lifted, Avro demonstrated N171 during the 1926 Hendon Air Pageant while at the same time continued work on the second prototype which would not be completed until 1927, flying for the first time on April 22nd. In terms of design, the only difference between the two prototypes was that the second prototype had more rectangular shaped wing tips than the first prototype.

Avro quickly began scouring the Air Ministry’s order books for a requirement that the all-metal Ava could possibly fulfil and settled on the recently issued B19/27 which was designed to produce a replacement for the Vickers Virginia and Handley Page Hinaidi bombers. With some more development, the Ava could just about squeeze in to this requirement which demanded a night bomber capable of carrying a 1,500lb bombload, 920 miles from its base at an average speed of 115mph. However, Avro faced stiff competition from Bristol, Fairey, Handley Page and Vickers all of whom were working on newer designs with Fairey even offering up a new monoplane design in the shape of the Fairey Hendon. The Air Ministry weren’t interested and the Ava joined the list of Avro’s failed attempts to produce an operational bomber.

SPECIFICATIONS

Crew: 5
Length: 58 ft 3 in (17.75 m)
Wingspan: 96 ft 10 in (29.51 m)
Height: 19 ft 7¾ in (5.99 m)
Empty weight: 12,760 lb (5,788 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 19,920 lb (9,036 kg)
Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Condor III water cooled V-12, 650 hp (485 kW) each
Maximum speed: 115 mph [3] (100 kn, 185 km/h)
Armament;
3 × 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis Guns (Nose, dorsal and retractable ventral positions)
1 × 21 in (553 mm) torpedo or 4 × 550 lb (250 kg) bombs

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Crashed in Iran: Final flight of Vulcan XJ781

In 1955, the UK entered in to an alliance that with the benefit of hindsight seemed doomed to failure. It was known under a few names, it initially being referred to as the Baghdad Pact or the Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO) but was most commonly referred to as the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). The origins of the alliance can be traced back to a year prior when Turkey and Pakistan signed a treaty of mutual cooperation on defence matters. Encouraged by the United States in 1955, a new agreement was penned that added Iraq, Iran and perhaps most significantly the United Kingdom however the US itself was held back from formal involvement until 1958.

In a nutshell, CENTO’s role was modelled along the lines of NATO in Western Europe with the goal being to establish a series of militarily powerful countries on the Soviet Union’s southern flank and to counter any communist revolutionary forces emerging in the Middle East. It was headquartered in Baghdad, Iraq until 1958 when Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim of the Iraqi Army overthrew and killed the last King of Iraq, King Faisal II. Iraq then withdrew from CENTO and the headquarters was moved to Ankara in Turkey.

The 1960s were a tough time for the organisation. It’s existence was heavily criticised for its lack of action to help curb the first Indo-Pakistan War, the Six Day War, tensions between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and it’s seeming lack of ability to prevent Communist revolutionary forces rising up across the Middle East. Even the UK and US, who should have been its biggest supporters, often bypassed it when dealing with specific issues and countries in the region. The US had to especially tread carefully when dealing with CENTO because of the strong pro-Israel lobby in Washington which viewed the alliance with suspicion.

For the UK, its military bases on Cyprus were of high importance for the alliance with the RAF’s Near East Air Force providing a nuclear strike capability with Avro Vulcan B.2s from early 1969. The aircraft were operated by Nos.9 and 35 Squadrons out of RAF Akrotiri which was by then the only RAF station left on the island after RAF Nicosia was forced to close in 1966 to become Cyprus International Airport.

One of the advantages of being a member of CENTO was that British military units could undertake deployments to member states which for RAF crews allowed them to gain invaluable experience operating over the Middle East. It was not uncommon for the long range Vulcans to fly to Iran or Turkey on goodwill flights or to train with their respective air forces and one place they would regularly visit was Shiraz Air Base in south-west Iran.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 B.2On May 23rd 1973, one such visitor to Shiraz was Avro Vulcan B.2 XJ781 operating with No.9 Squadron which, having completed a routine training mission turned towards the Iranian base for landing. In this instance, the usual crew of five were joined by a sixth man, an officer from the Imperial Iranian Air Force who was aboard acting as an observer. This was not uncommon but often proved problematic for the British crews as the observers almost never spoke any English leading to safety briefings being conducted with pointing at things hoping he understood. The observers also liked to smoke during the flight.

All had gone well until it came time to lower the undercarriage ready for landing. While the nose and starboard undercarriage legs lowered successfully, the port leg refused to budge despite the efforts of the crew. Low on fuel, the crew had no choice but to attempt an emergency landing at Shiraz. The ground personnel at Shiraz immediately went in to action and began spraying down foam across one of the two runways at the base in an attempt to cushion the port wing when it inevitably made contact with the ground and reduce the chance of fire. With the runway sufficiently doused down, the aircraft made its landing attempt.

The Vulcan touched down on its starboard undercarriage with pilot Flight Lieutenant John Derrick fighting to keep the wings level before the nosewheels made contact with the ground. The aircraft ran on just the starboard and nose wheels for a short while before the port wing was lowered as carefully as possible on to the ground. With the wing scraping along the foam-soaked runway it began pulling the aircraft to the left, sending it veering off the runway and across an adjacent gully that was not marked on any maps of the airfield. The nosewheel fell in to the gully and was sheered off followed quickly by the starboard undercarriage leaving the Vulcan to slam down on to its belly before finally sliding to a halt. As the aircraft slid across the ground, the bomb aimer’s window in the blister under the nose shattered sending clouds of dust in to the lower deck of the cockpit while the navigator’s table collapsed temporarily trapping the two navigator’s by their knees. Aside from the bruised knees, the five crew and the Iranian observer were all unhurt and with the crew hatch stuck against the ground they left the aircraft through the canopy which had been ejected after the undercarriage collapsed.

Avro Vulcan XJ781 Iran Shiraz crash

Flight Lieutenant John Derrick in front of the crashed XJ781 at Shiraz (Courtesy James Rich)

A maintenance team from Akrotiri was flown out aboard a Hercules cargo plane and immediately declared the crash as a Category 5(C) meaning it was beyond repair or salvage. The Iranians agreed to accept the airframe as scrap but insisted that British engineers familiar with the aircraft remove key military components. Thus, after twelve years of service XJ781 ended its days being broken up on a dusty Iranian airfield.

In many ways the crash of such a symbol of British military power as a V-Bomber symbolised the ailing position Britain found itself in when dealing with CENTO. A year after the crash, Turkey invaded Cyprus in defence of Turkish Cypriots following a military coup organised by the Greek Junta. This forced Britain to withdraw all military support for Turkey and consequently CENTO itself which from then on existed only on paper. In 1979, whatever remained of CENTO was dissolved in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.


Thanks to James Rich, Flight Lieutenant John Derrick’s nephew.

 

The Final Flight of Hampden TB.I AD729

This article was researched and written by request of Gareth Evans whose great uncle was Pilot Officer William Rees.

In the closing hours of January 11th 1943, a formation of bombers grumbled their way towards the Scottish coast. They were twelve Handley Page Hampdens of the Royal Australian Air Force’s No.455 Squadron attached to RAF Costal Command and based at RAF Leuchars, Fife. The aircraft were returning from a late afternoon anti-shipping operation off the Norwegian coast using the early darkness of winter to cover their escape back to Britain. No.455 Squadron was a veteran unit having a wealth of experience on the Hampden that ranged from minelaying to attacks on the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The previous year the squadron had also deployed to Russia to support the arctic convoys before training Russian crews on how to operate the aircraft.

no-455-squadron-royal-australian-air-force-handley-page-hampden

No.455 Squadron Hampden (ADF-Signals)

By this stage in the war the Hampden was becoming increasingly obsolete. During the early operations, like much of Bomber Command’s aircraft it suffered horrendous losses at the hands of German fighters forcing them to switch almost exclusively to night operations. The exceptionally narrow fuselage and slab sided cabin earned it the affectionate nickname “The Flying Suitcase”. As more powerful and capable designs flooded Bomber Command’s ranks the Hampden saw increasing use by other services such as Coastal Command for maritime operations where the fighter threat was not perceived to be as great as over mainland Europe. Maritime duties had their own dangers however such as severe weather and the difficulty of navigating over large areas of sometimes featureless ocean.

Although an Australian squadron, like most British Commonwealth units there were a number of nationalities that made up the ranks of No.455 Squadron and this was typified by the crew of Hampden TB.I AD792/UB-P that wintry night. The only two actual Australians were wireless operator Sergeant Reginald Smithers and gunner Sergeant R.K. Spohn. At the controls was 22-year-old Flying Officer Phillip J. Hill from Gloucestershire who had joined the reserves before being called to active duty when war broke out and then posted to No.455 Squadron.

The navigator/bombardier was Pilot Officer William Rees who hailed from Abercarn in South Wales. Having attained a degree in Latin and Greek from Cardiff University, Rees had begun teaching shortly before the war broke out and decided to enlist in the RAF. He was soon made Sergeant (Aircrew) and having gained operational experience with Bomber Command was granted a commission and sent to Canada to train as a navigator as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (please take time to visit Pierre Lagacé’s blog about this program by clicking here). Upon completion of his training he was posted to No.455 Squadron which was fresh from its Russian endeavour. The night of January 11th 1943 was to be his first mission with the squadron.

At 2213hrs, the aircraft was instructed to turn on to a QDM (magnetic bearing) of 218 degrees to start the next leg of the return flight to Leuchars. Ground radio stations heard a brief response by Sergeant Smithers but it ended abruptly. After waiting for the aircraft to signal again they tried to re-establish contact but nothing came back. During the course of Smithers’ transmission, Hampden TB.I AD792 crashed in to a blackened Scottish hillside in Kincardeshire. Poor weather had obscured the view from the aircraft until it was too late and responding to the course change the aircraft came upon the sloping hillside which struck the Hampden under the nose.

Being in the forward section of the aircraft, Hill and Rees were both killed on impact. The two Australians survived the crash but while Spohn was able to clamber out of the wreckage, Smithers was in a bad way and couldn’t be moved.  Spohn was left with the agonising decision of either remaining with his comrade and hope they were found soon or leaving him there and trying to find help. He chose the latter and set off in to the night walking for several hours before he was finally able to contact Leuchars and get help for Smithers. Smithers was rescued in the early hours of the morning and rushed to hospital but sadly his injuries were too severe and exactly a week later he succumb to them and died.

Flying Officer Phillip Hill was buried in Fettercairn cemetery while Sergeant Reginald Smithers was buried at Leuchars. Pilot Officer William Rees’ body was returned to Abercarn in Wales and Spohn travelled down to attend his funeral and meet his family. Spohn himself returned to flight operations and survived the war, returning home to Australia where he lived out his life until he passed away in 1995.

Vickers FB27 VIMY Replica ‘NX71MY’ at Brooklands Museum

A collection of pictures of Vickers FB27 VIMY Replica ‘NX71MY’on display at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey.

All photos were taken on April 5th 2016
Photos: Tony Wilkins


The Vickers Vimy on display at Brooklands is a replica aircraft built in 1994 as part of a project led by Peter McMillan the aim of which was to re-enact three long distance flights carried out by the type between 1919 and 1920. The aircraft first took to the air on July 30th 1994 in California hence the US registration.

Not long after it flew it carried out an incredible flight to Australia crewed by McMillan and Lang Kidby on the 75th anniversary of the original flight. Five years later it successfully flew to South Africa with Mark Rebholz and John LaNoue at the controls. To complete the “hat trick”, in July 2005, the Vimy successfully re-enacted Alcock & Brown’s historic trans-Atlantic flight from St Johns, Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland, making the flight in just under 19 hours.

In 2006 ownership passed to the American ISTAT Foundation and the aeroplane was maintained to airworthy standards at Dunsfold Park by Brooklands Museum volunteers. It was finally donated to Brooklands Museum Trust on 26th August 2006.

For more images of British military equipment and museums please visit the Galleries sectionor follow Defence of the Realm on Instagram

If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website/blog/social media account.

 

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.

Vickers (Loch Ness) Wellington 1A N2980 at Brooklands Museum

A collection of pictures of Vickers Wellington 1A N2980 on display at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey.

All photos were taken on April 5th 2016
Photos: Tony Wilkins


 

Built in 1939, the aircraft was lost during a training flight on New Year’s Eve 1940 when it developed engine trouble and ditched into Loch Ness. While the crew all managed to bail out of the aircraft the rear gunner, 20-year old Sergeant John Stanley Fensome, was killed when his parachute failed to open.

In 1976, the aircraft was discovered by an American team of monster hunters searching for the infamous Loch Ness Monster. In 1985 the aircraft was successfully salvaged and despite having been under water for over four decades it was remarkably intact with even the tail-lights still in working order. The aircraft was delivered to Brooklands Museum later that year.

Perhaps appropriately, the day of my visit coincided with a video appearing on the internet apparently showing “Nessie” on holiday in the Thames.

For more images of British military equipment and museums please visit the Galleries section or follow Defence of the Realm on Instagram

If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website/blog/social media account.