Hedge-Hopping in World War II

Think the Panavia Tornado or Blackburn Buccaneer introduced the RAF to low level flying? Think again!

This remarkable footage from British Pathé news shows what it was like to fly at ultra-low level on a daylight raid over Holland in 1942. Aircraft include the Lockheed Ventura, the De Havilland Mossquito and the Douglas Boston. Flying low level helped the aircraft avoid German radar and improved their chances of hitting the target. It also made it harder for enemy aircraft to intercept them as they went in hugging the ground.

But of course low level flight has its own risks and as the narrator puts it;

Some of these planes returning to base have received hits while others have left bits of their fabric hanging on trees.

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De Havilland Hornet F.3 vs. Dornier Do.335A-1 Pfeil

Battle of the Super Twins

Do355 De Havilland Hornet

Twin engine fighter designs met with mixed success during the Second World War. Some, like the P-38 Lightning or Bristol Beaufighter met with considerable success. Others however such as the Messerschmitt Bf110 or Westland Whirlwind didn’t enjoy as much at least in the daylight role. The concept was not lost entirely on aircraft manufacturers however who realized that in order to be successful against single engine types a twin engine fighter needed to be as light as possible or fitted with two powerful enough engines to compensate for the extra weight. The advantages to twin engine fighters was enough to spur this development. Twin engine fighters could carry more fuel making them excellent escort aircraft for bombers. They could also carry heavier armament and have radar installed for a night fighter capability.

Towards the end of the war the single engine types such as the Spitfire, P-51 Mustang and Fw190 were still the rulers of the sky but a steady stream of new twin engine fighters had started to make their mark also. In the UK the De Havilland Mosquito had proven a superlative weapon being able to adapt to numerous roles and excelling in nearly all of them. Encouraged by this success the engineers at De Havilland took the basic design and scaled down the fuselage in to an even lighter and more streamlined design for use by a single pilot and this produced the De Havilland Hornet fighter.

In Germany they had taken an entirely different approach however. As early as 1938 German engineers had realized that one of the biggest problems encountered by twin engine types was the increased drag from having the two engines on the wings and the weight penalty this incurred on agility. They therefore began experimenting with mounting the first engine in the forward fuselage and a second engine in the rear of the fuselage turning a pusher propeller. This had the advantage of creating a much more streamlined aircraft that had the power of a twin engine fighter but with the aerodynamic efficiency of a single engine type. Bizarrely, the German Air Ministry initially insisted this configuration be developed in to a bomber first but the project eventually collapsed before being revised again late in the war with the need for a new twin engine fighter. Fortunately for allied bomber crews the resulting Dornier Do.335A-1 Pfeil never entered service before the war ended.

For this comparison I am looking at the Hornet Mk.III (Hornet F.3) compared to the Do 335A-1 Pfeil. Neither of these aircraft reached frontline service before VE-Day and therefore it is a fair comparison of what they could have achieved against each other in combat. One important thing to note is that the Do 335A-1 was not as developed as the Hornet and therefore we can’t claim for certain that how the aircraft appeared in 1945 is not necessarily how the production version would have appeared. That being said the early plans for the Do 335A-1 were in this configuration so it is possible that this is how it would have gone in to combat at least initially.

Performance

DH 103 Hornet

The De Havilland Hornet was powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Merlin 130 12-cylinder inline engines mounted in pods on the wings. These developed an impressive 2,080hp each and this hurtled the Hornet to a speed of 472mph at 22,000ft but this began to drop off considerably around the 30,000ft mark it reaching a speed in the region 340mph and further still when it reached its service ceiling of 35,000ft. These figures would be improved in later variants.

do335a-1

The Do 335A-1 was powered by two of the proven Daimler Benz DB-603A-2 inverted-V engines producing 1,750hp each; 3,500hp in total. The DB-600 series of engines, like the Rolls-Royce Merlin family for the Allies, were the engines that took the Luftwaffe fighter force through the war. They were tough, reliable and generally considered to be superior to the equivalent Merlin variant except in the later stages of the war when Allied engine technology caught up. These engines took the Do 335A-1 to a very respectable 478 mph at 28,000 feet in tests; something that most single seat fighters struggled to achieve even in 1945. The aircraft had a service ceiling of 37,400ft and could climb to its normal operating height of 26,000ft in just under 14 ½ minutes.

Armament

Hispano

The De Havilland Hornet was armed with a quartet of 20mm Hispano cannons mounted in the forward fuselage. This arrangement was becoming standard practice for RAF fighters as it provided the best balance of hitting power and weight considerations on the aircraft. These offered an effective rate of fire of 6-700 rounds a minute with a muzzle velocity of around 860m/s which was enough tear a Messerschmitt Bf109F in half. Ground attack ordinance covered a wide array of bombs and unguided rockets. Up to two 1,000lb bombs could be carried on hardpoints under the wing. Alternatively, eight 60lb RP-3 rockets could be carried which was reported to give aircraft like the Hornet the same firepower as the broadside of a battleship armed with 5.5inch guns.

MG120

The Do 335-A1 sported a powerful MK-103 30mm cannon firing through the spinner of the forward propeller in a configuration proven by both the Bf109 and the Fw190 albeit with smaller calibre weapons to suit their size. The explosive warhead of this shell could inflict very heavy damage on an enemy aircraft and was optimized for bringing down the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator quickly before their defensive guns could be brought to bear on the attacking aircraft. It was capable of firing up to 380 rounds a minute and was ideal for quick slasher attacks on bombers. This weapon was backed up by a pair of 20mm MG151/20 cannons(see above image)mounted in the forward engine cowl. This was one of the great air-to-air weapons of World War II and saw use on a variety of aircraft ranging from the Bf109 to the Me262 jet fighter. Depending on the type of shell being fired the weapon had a rate of fire between 600 and 750 rounds a minute and was the weapon of choice for engaging enemy fighters. For a projected ground attack role the Do-335A-1 was able to carry up to 1,000lbs of ground attack ordinance.

Manoeuvrability

DH 103 Hornet2

The Hornet suffered from the same problem that all multi-engined aircraft that house their engines on the wings suffer; heavy rotational inertia. In layman’s terms this is having to overcome the weight of the engines being mounted further away from the aircraft’s centre of gravity than on an equivalent single engine type to such an extent that roll rate falls off substantially. To reduce this as much as possible designers tried to place their engines as close to the fuselage as possible but in piston engine aircraft this was made difficult by the diameter of the propeller. Thanks to the unique construction methods employed by De Havilland, namely of the balsa-ply configuration, the aircraft remained very light despite its size compared to single seat types and with its two Rolls-Royce Merlin engines it achieved 400hp per ton.

do335 3

The disadvantages of having its two engines mounted in pods on the wings was totally negated by the Do335A-1. It therefore enjoyed a high rate of roll, superior to that of the Hornet and other similarly configured twin engine types, but the weight of the second engine in the tail slowed it down in the latitudinal plane particularly when in the nose down attitude when the aircraft was working against its lift forces to achieve flight. It was still a heavy aircraft and its two engines developed approximately 363hp per ton.

Misc

Hornet

Without question the Hornet pilot enjoyed one of the best views out of the cockpit compared to many other types thanks to its teardrop shaped canopy. As proven by its Mosquito forebear it was also relatively easy to produce compared to all-metal fighters thanks to its wood-based construction of the fuselage and wings. This also made repairing it considerably easier.

do335 2

The Do.335A-1 pilot had a much poorer view from his cockpit than the Hornet and many contemporary fighters. This was especially true in the aft most quadrants and was largely a result of the positioning of the rear engine and fuel tanks. This would probably have been addressed in later models but the urgency with which the aircraft was needed meant that it work had to go ahead with getting the aircraft in to service. Construction of the Do335A-1 was no easy feat as there had been no other aircraft like it before and so converting existing production facilities to accommodate the new type was wrought with difficulty. This was made immeasurably worse by destruction of many of those facilities by allied bombing raids.

Conclusion

The Hornet was an exceptional aircraft and proved most adept at the ground attack role (ironically the original role envisioned for the Do335) but in the air the Dornier “wonder weapon” was the superior aircraft enjoying a higher speed at altitude and a superior roll rate. It’s worth noting that the differences between the two aircraft’s performances are of a similar percentage to those between the Supermarine Spitfire V and the Focke Wulf Fw190A and in that instance the Fw190A’s advantages inflicted a heavy toll on the Spitfire V. Therefore there is the highest probability that in combat with one another the Do335A-1 would better the Hornet.

do335 4

The Hornet had the bigger punch however thanks to its four 20mm guns which when total firepower is considered out-punched the Do335A-1’s mixed calibre arrangement. Also the close coupling of all the Hornet’s guns made training them all on to a single target significantly easier as opposed to the cowl and spinner mounted weapons of the Do335A-1. The Hornet pilot also had superior vision which was crucial in a dogfight.

There is one final note worth mentioning about the differing configurations of these two aircraft. The Do335A-1’s inline arrangement of its two radial engines meant that an attacking enemy fighter could lay down a stream of bullets along the fuselage and potentially knock out both engines in a single pass especially in an attack from the forward hemisphere. The Hornet on the other hand with its two engines mounted much wider apart would be a much more difficult aircraft to knock out in a single pass.

De Havilland DH.91 Albatross

DH91

The DH.91 Albatross is one of the most attractive aircraft to have ever served with the Royal Air Force yet it has largely been forgotten thanks in no small part to the fact only two ever served in RAF markings. The DH.91 started life thanks to an Air Ministry requirement for a transatlantic mail plane. De Havilland opted for a sleek looking monoplane design powered by four De Havilland Gypsy Twelve engines each of which produced 525hp. In order to keep weight down much of the aircraft was constructed out of wood with only weight supporting spars being metal. The wooden body was constructed of plywood and balsa in a sandwich configuration (ply-balsa-ply). De Havilland repeated this method of aircraft construction with the Mosquito which became one of the finest aircraft of World War II.

DH91A

Although born out of a requirement for a mail plane De Havilland was quick to realize the potential as an airliner and designed a 22 seat passenger version. Of the seven airframes completed two were built as mail planes and the rest were in the passenger configuration. The aircraft entered service with Imperial Airways (later BOAC) in 1938 but after less than a year the Second World War broke out. This would be fatal to De Havilland’s ambitions with the type. The Air Ministry wanted warplanes and De Havilland was briefly committed to building frontline aircraft of competing companies. As the war turned against Britain and France in 1940 De Havilland actually found itself building combat versions of its Tiger Moth trainer to help repel an expected German invasion. Under these conditions the Albatross was effectively dead in terms of production.

DH91B

For the Albatross the war brought a change of owner for the two mail planes as they were impressed in to RAF service as communication aircraft. Their main function was to act as couriers between Britain and Iceland under the banner of No.271 Squadron. This was a tough job for the two aircraft and their crews with severe weather, rough landing conditions and the threat of German aircraft and surface ships being a constant worry. Ultimately it would prove too much for the aircraft and both were lost in landing accidents at Reykjavik; the first on the 11th August 1941 and the second one on the 7th April 1942. Unfortunately none of the seven aircraft built survive today.

Statistics 

Crew: 4 (pilot, copilot, radio operator and steward)
Length: 71 ft 6 in (21.80 m)
Wingspan: 105 ft 0 in (32.01 m)
Height: 22 ft 3 in (6.78 m)
Wing area: 1,078 ft² (100.2 m²)
Powerplant: 4 × de Havilland Gipsy Twelve (525 hp each)
Maximum speed: 195 kn (225 mph, 362 km/h)
Cruise speed: 183 kn (210 mph, 338 km/h)
Range: 904 nmi, (1,040 mi, 1,675 km)
Service ceiling: 17,900 ft (5,455 m)

Mosquito LR503 – A Unique Record

LR503

De Havilland Mosquito ‘LR503’ was one of only 54 B.IX models of the famous “wooden wonder” and holds a unique place in the annals of aviation in that it flew more combat missions than any other allied aircraft during World War II. In total the aircraft flew 213 operations against German forces in Europe.

Mosquito ‘LR503’ was built at the De Havilland plant at Hatfield, England in early 1943 before being delivered to No.109 Squadron at Wyton, Huntingdonshire.  No.109 Squadron was one of the original Pathfinder Force which made history flying the first radar blind bombing system known as “Oboe” on the night of the 20th and 21st December 1942. Upon joining the squadron ‘LR503’ received the unit code letters HS-C.

p_freddie5

The aircraft began it’s epic combat flying career on 28th May 1943 by marking targets in the city of Krefeld along the Ruhr for a force of heavy bombers. Ten months after delivery to No.109 Squadron the aircraft was transferred to No.105 Squadron at RAF Bourn and on June 3rd 1944 the aircraft flew its 100th mission. Just three days later, on D-Day, the aircraft was especially busy flying two missions in direct support of the landings. It was with No.105 Squadron that the aircraft received it’s ‘F’ identification code and from then on was always known as ‘F-for-Freddie’.

The last year of the war was especially busy for ‘F-for-Freddie’ with the aircraft averaging at least one mission every three days. ‘LR503’ flew its last combat operation on April 10, 1945 with the target being the Wehren marshalling yards in Leipzig. Less than a month later the war in Europe was over. Unfortunately, just two days after VE Day, the aircraft crashed while on a goodwill tour in Canada killing it’s crew;  F/Lt. J. Maurice W. Briggs, DFM, DFC, and DSO and F/O John C. Baker, DFC and Bar.


SPECIAL THANKS
Thanks to Aviation Trails for bringing this story to my attention. Anyone interested in visiting Britain’s historical airfields should take a look at the site.