Llandudno Home Front Museum

The Llandudno Home Front Museum aims to allow the people of today the chance to experience the sights and sounds of civilian life during the second world war.

All photos kindly donated to Defence of the Realm by Hayley Butler.

If you would like to visit the museum you can view their own website by clicking here.


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Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 259th Birthday

Today marks the 259th birthday of one of Britain’s most famous sailors. Horatio Nelson was born on September 29th 1758 in a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. He was the sixth of eleven children of the Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine Suckling.

On January 1st 1771, he began his naval career by reporting for duty aboard HMS Raisonnable then under command of his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He joined the ship’s company as an ordinary sailor but was soon appointed a midshipman and began his officer training. Nelson would serve on a number of ships during his career and would participate in several expeditions including an effort to find the fabled Northwest Passage; a route through the Arctic to India. In 1778, Nelson received his first command namely the 12-gun brig HMS Badger.

During his career he saw action in the American War of Independence and in the Wars of the Second and Third Coalitions against post-revolutionary France. It was during this last conflict that Nelson led a British fleet in the battle that would make him a legend – the Battle of Trafalgar.

On October 21st 1805, the now Vice-Admiral Nelson led twenty-seven British ships of the line from his flagship, HMS Victory and defeated thirty-three French and Spanish warships under the French Admiral Villeneuve in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the war and ended French ambitions to invade England but it would cost Nelson his life when he was shot by an enemy sniper.

Admiral Horatio Nelson nelson's columnIn 1809, Nelson was commemorated with a large granite pillar capped by a statue of his likeness at the top in the centre of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, Ireland. In 1843, the similar Nelson’s Column was erected in Trafalgar Square, London and has become an important symbol of the city. In 1966, over 40 years after the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the UK, Irish Republicans bombed the pillar in Dublin which sent the statue at the top crashing to the ground. It was never rebuilt.

Earlier this year, in the wake of a wave of protests in the US against statues to Confederate Generals of the American Civil War, Journalist Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian newspaper;

It is figures like Nelson who immediately spring to mind when I hear the latest news of confederate statues being pulled down in the US…The colonial and pro-slavery titans of British history are still memorialised.

Her article called for Nelson’s Column and a number of other statues of British Empire figures to be taken down but she has been met with strong opposition.

 

Interview with Wing Commander Roland Prosper Beamont

In this interview, Wing Commander Roland Prosper “Bee” Beamont, CBE, DSO*, DFC* talks about his experiences during the Second World War with Group Captain (Retd) J P (Phil) Dacre MBE DL RAF at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell in April 1991.

Wing Commander Beamont served as a fighter pilot with Fighter Command from the start of the War until he was shot down and captured in October 1944 on his 492nd operational mission. After the War, Wing Commander Beamont went on to become a leading test pilot on aircraft such as the Meteor, Vampire, Canberra, Lightning and even the ill-fated TSR.2 as well as writing several books. He passed away just over ten years after this interview on November 19th 2001.

September 23rd 1938 – British Anti-Aircraft Units Mobilise During Munich Crisis

On September 22nd 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler to discuss the issue of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After the political map of Europe was redrawn following World War I, many ethnic German speakers found themselves living in Czechoslovakia and Hitler had vowed to return them to the Fatherland. Chamberlain had agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland but Hitler made demands that he wanted to seize Czechoslovakia completely.

Naturally, Czechoslovakia was opposed to this as were most European powers and began to mobilise for war. As the situation deteriorated, Britain began making preparations for war and on September 23rd 1938 the anti-aircraft units of the Territorial Army were activated.

Among the units mobilised were;

  • 26th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting London with just 41 AA guns
  • 35th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting the important naval base at Portsmouth
  • 42nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Glasgow
  • 43rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Teeside
  • 54th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting towns and cities in the West Midlands

Many of these units found themselves armed with little more than World War I Lewis machine guns until heavier weapons could be distributed to them.

The crisis was eventually resolved as far as Britain was concerned with the Munich Agreement  and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to Hitler’s will. The Czechoslovak government could not hope to fight the Nazis alone and reluctantly agreed although they felt betrayed by Britain and France.

On September 30th 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain and gave one of history’s most notorious speeches proclaiming “peace in our time” however the Territorial Army anti-aircraft units would remain mobilised right up until the following September when peace was finally shattered in dramatic fashion.

The Royal Navy’s Battle with Bolshevik Submarines in The Baltic, 1918 – 19

HMS Vindictive Royal Navy aircraft carrier Russian civil war 1918

Although she arrived halfway through 1919, HMS Vindictive played a major role in the last half of the fighting.

Even before the guns of World War I had fallen silent in Europe, the great powers were already finding themselves embroiled in another great conflict that was sparking up in the east. Having seemed constantly on the verge of revolution for two decades, the Great War finally broke the Russian Empire and on March 15th 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a provisional government was installed to replace him.

Then on October 25th, the socialist Bolsheviks under Lenin who had been in exile during the war rose up against the provisional government and seized power. Almost immediately, Russia descended in to civil war between the Bolshevik “Reds” and the “White Russians” – a loose alliance of factions each with their own goals but united in their desire to destroy Bolshevism. The old powers in western Europe such as Britain, France and Germany viewed the situation in Russia with horror, concerned that their own countries could be torn apart by their own Marxist uprisings. They therefore committed equipment, ships and troops to support the White Russians in fighting the Red Army and Navy.

Volk Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

Russian Bars-class submarine

The Royal Navy had already been active in the Baltic Sea with a large submarine presence supporting their Russian Navy allies in preventing the import of iron ore from Sweden to Imperial Germany since 1914 but now those allies were likely to be hostile towards them if the Russian crews supported the Bolsheviks. Russian pride in their navy’s major surface combatants was still tainted by their defeat at the hands of the Japanese at Tsushima in 1908 and its ability to function had been further inhibited by the loss of experienced officers in the revolution and the general breakdown of discipline amongst the remaining crews. However, the Russian submarine force remained a significant threat with their smaller crews having a greater sense of loyalty to one another than in the bigger ships. They were also equipped with quite capable submarines built during the force’s expansion upon the outbreak of World War I such as the Bars-class which were armed with a single 57mm deck gun and eight 18inch torpedoes.

With Germany and the Bolsheviks negotiating for peace at the end of 1917, a flotilla of eight British submarines found themselves trapped between two hostile powers and were ordered to Finland where they remained until April 1918 when, with German forces closing in, they were taken to sea one at a time and scuttled. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended and the focus was now turned entirely to defeating the Bolsheviks including sending a British naval taskforce in to the Baltic. Dubbed Operation Red Trek and commanded by Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, the taskforce sailed on November 28th and comprised of a number of fairly modern destroyers and cruisers as well as a number of submarines that had survived the First World War in the Baltic. Red Trek had four primary goals;

  • To contain Bolshevism.
  • To protect Britain’s interests in the region.
  • Maintain the freedom of the seas.
  • Prevent the newly declared independent states of Estonia and Latvia from being seized by Red forces or remnant German units.

Opposing Alexander-Sinclar’s taskforce was Russia’s Baltic Fleet that still included a number of capital ships such as the Gangut-class battleship Petropavlovsk but was seriously weakened by the manpower shortage and so did little to stop the British ships from landing troops and equipment in Estonia. The British did suffer their first casualty during this time however when the light cruiser HMS Cassandra struck a mine on December 5th near Saaremaa in the Gulf of Finland. The mine had been laid by the Germans during the war and the British were unaware of the minefield’s presence. Mines would prove to be the number one threat to the British in the coming year accounting for a number of losses.

Leaving five of his ships to support the Estonians, Alexander-Sinclair then sortied south to asses the situation in Latvia and lend support to that country’s security. The Bolsheviks decided to launch an attack against the weakened British force to punish them for meddling in Russian affairs sending a flotilla of their ships to attack them. This flotilla almost completely disintegrated as it sailed out to intercept the British due to a combination of poor leadership, even poorer discipline among the crews and generally low reliability amongst the ships to the point where only two destroyers – the Avtroil and Spartak –  made a valiant attack on their own. Unfortunately for the Bolshevik crews, courage did not translate in to success. During the engagement off Reval in Estonia, one crew got disoriented and ran aground while the other tried to make an escape but became surrounded and so elected to surrender rather than become martyrs.

The Bolsheviks worked hard over the next few weeks to address the problems typified by the whole affair and aware that if they were to succeed then they could brush away Alexander-Sinclair’s force with their battleships, the British sent the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan to the Baltic. Cowan was a forceful commander who wanted to exercise a more aggressive approach to tackling the Russians when he took over command of the mission in early 1919. His efforts were initially inhibited however by the harsh winter which slowed progress and lowered British morale considerably. The Bolsheviks put to sea again in May 1919 but were forced back by Cowan’s fleet leaving mines and submarines as the only real way they could fight the British.

One such Bolshevik submarine was the Bars-class Pantera under the command of 24-year old Alexander N. Bakhtin which left the port of Kronstadt on the night of July 23rd/24th. Bakhtin was one of the more experienced commanders amongst the Bolsheviks having served successfully aboard the Volk during the fighting with Germany. Bakhtin and his men had orders to attack British vessels off Kaporia Bight, the second submarine crew to be dispatched on this mission with the first, the Vepr, having been forced back to port with engine troubles. They did not have to wait long to encounter a British force spotting two British submarines travelling on the surface the next day. Keeping the sun at his back to conceal his position, Bakhtin launched an attack by firing a single torpedo at the furthest British submarine which spotted it early enough to evade it.

Pantera Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

The Pantera (after the Russian Civil War)

Bakhtin then turned the Pantera on to the closer submarine, HMS E40, and launched two torpedoes in its direction. He then ordered his crew to turn away and dive deep in order to evade a counterattack. Again, Bakhtin’s efforts proved fruitless as the two torpedoes were quickly evaded by the E40 which continued turning until her bow was brought to bear on the diving Pantera. The E40 dispatched a torpedo towards the Pantera but had as much luck as the Russians with it passing alongside the Bars-class sub as it dived. A nearby British destroyer, HMS Watchman, conducted a depth charge attack but Bakhtin and the Pantera escaped back to Kronstadt.

Having been repaired, the Vepr made a second attempt to intercept the British a few days later on July 27th. Early the next day, the Vepr detected two British warships and fired a salvo of torpedoes towards them but without success. Having been detected, the Vepr attempted to escape as it was attacked with depth charges that inflicted significant damage on the submarine including to the electrics which plunged some of the crew in to absolute darkness. Despite having difficulty maintaining their depth due to damage, the crew of the Vepr managed to avoid destruction by the two destroyers – HMS Valorous and Vancouver – and later avoided an attempted attack by the British submarine HMS L15 to limp back to Kronstadt for repairs.

PLEASE NOTE – It is sometimes reported that the submarine involved was actually the Ersh but according to Geoffrey & Rodney Bennett in their book Freeing the Baltic 1918–1920 there is no evidence to suggest the submarine was in the area on July 28th 1919. Record keeping was not a priority in Russia at this time.

Despite the lack of success thus far on the part of the Russians, Rear Admiral Cowan was particularly concerned by the attacks and the potential they could have on his force which now included the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive. As part of the effort to contain the Russian fleet, Cowan’s forces instigated a widescale mining operation around Kronstadt and neighbouring ports held by the Bolsheviks. Submarine nets were also deployed near his own harbours to protect his ships from being ambushed as they sailed in to the Baltic while the addition of the Third Destroyer Flotilla increased the number of British ships equipped with hydrophones to listen out for the submarines as they cruised submerged. Cowan committed most of his assets that were not directly supporting land operations to hunt and destroy the submarines including some of his cruisers and aircraft from Vindictive.

On July 30th, he ordered the planes from Vindictive to make a bold early morning attack on Kronstadt one of the aims of which was to target the submarine tender Pamiat Azova. Anti-aircraft fire over Kronstadt was very heavy but the pilots reported scoring a hit on the vessel and claimed a hit on a nearby drydock. It would later be learned that the pilots had mistook the oil tanker Tatiana for the submarine tender which remained undamaged. On August 18th, Cowan’s forces attacked the harbour with a force of coastal motor boats supported by Vindictive’s aircraft. This time they scored hits on the Pamiat Azova after which it sank and lay on its port side in the shallow water.

This aggressive reaction typified Cowan’s style as a commander and appeared to alarm the Bolsheviks to the point where their submarines didn’t venture out of port for the best part of the following month. In the wake of the attack on Kronstadt, it was late in the month when Bakhtin and the Pantera ventured out to face the British again. On August 31st, Bakhtin’s men sighted two British warships including the modern V-class destroyer HMS Vittoria under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Vernon Hammersley-Heenan and which had been configured for laying mines. Bakhtin and his men stalked the British ship for over a day spending much of the time submerged to avoid detection.

HMS Vittoria v-class admiralty destroyer Royal Navy

HMS Vittoria

Finally, the next day Bakhtin was presented with his opportunity to attack as the Vittoria and HMS Abdiel anchored off the island of Seiskari in the Gulf of Finland. Bakhtin fired a pair of 18inch torpedoes toward the British ship one of which missed but the other struck the side of the vessel blowing a hole in the hull. Less than five minutes after being hit, the 22-month old Vittoria had completely sunk taking eight of her crew with her. Bakhtin observed the Abdiel powering up and with depleted batteries, decided to withdraw rather than attempt to attack it too thus allowing the British ship to go to the rescue of their comrades who had survived the sinking of their ship.

Despite this victory, the Russian submarine threat was proving more of a concern for British sailors than their actual impact on the strategic situation. The main threat to British ships remained the many minefields that had been laid in the region with another V-class destroyer, HMS Verulam, being lost to one just three days after the Vittoria was sunk. Unfortunately for the British Admiralty and Cowan in particular, these losses had a profound impact on the already suffering morale of the British crews. The British government had repeatedly made claims that those British servicemen fighting in the Russian Civil War were volunteers but it seemed this did not extend completely to the Royal Navy. Many of the British sailors were quite sullen over the fact that the war they had joined up to fight was now over yet they were still being ordered to risk their lives in combat on behalf of a foreign nation. Added to this was the threat from the much-vaunted underwater menace that was the submarine which along with the hundreds of mines meant many sailors were left wondering if their ship would suddenly blow up from underneath them. This mood was only worsened by the freezing weather experienced in the early months of 1919, the poor conditions onboard many of the destroyers in which crews had to spend a considerable amount of time and Cowan’s repeated cancellation of shore leave in order to achieve his latest aims.

What started as a morale problem quickly escalated and even spread beyond the ships in the Baltic. The First Destroyer Flotilla was due to set sail for the Baltic Sea in early October 1919 but upon hearing this, over 150 seamen abandoned their posts and attempted to make their way to London to present their protests to Whitehall. Over 100 of them were arrested as they travelled by train but 44 of them made it to London although the effort was in vain and they too were arrested and imprisoned. The First Destroyer Flotilla was reinforced with volunteers from battleships and cruisers and set sail on October 14th although with only half the number of destroyers it had expected to have. Even if the crews reported to their ships there still seemed to be a conspiracy to stop them. Socialism was spreading amongst the working class in Britain after the Great War that was seen as a calamity brought upon them by the ruling classes. This led to support for the Bolsheviks and resulted in several refusals by dock workers to load ships headed for the Baltic.

Cowan’s biggest ships weren’t exempt from disruption by disgruntled sailors. In November 1919, discipline aboard Vindictive was seriously breaking down in the wake of cancelled leave during a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark leading to Royal Marines having to break up a group of protesters. Later, two stokers were caught trying to sabotage the engines and when news of this got out it only encouraged further dissent leading to the captain enforcing harsh punishments on men he identified as ringleaders. The following month, aboard the cruiser HMS Delhi a quarter of the crew refused to report for duty.

By now the situation on land was becoming more and more hopeless for the White Russians and their foreign allies. While the Royal Navy had largely kept the Bolshevik fleet at bay, the failure of the White Russian General Nikolai Yudenich to capture Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the continued collapse of anti-Bolshevik forces made the allies realise that the war was lost and in December 1919, Cowan began withdrawing his fleet. They had however secured the independence of Estonia and Latvia but it had cost 112 British sailors’ lives. Cowan would continue on in the Royal Navy commanding the Battlecruiser Squadron from HMS Hood before retiring as a full Admiral only to return to service in World War II. He was captured by the Italians in 1942 in Libya but was repatriated a year later. He retired a second time in 1945 and died in 1956 aged 85, the last of the Cowan Barons.

Alexander Bakhtin and his crew returned home as heroes with the Pantera itself finding a special place in the hearts of the revolutionary Russians, it being the first submarine of the Red Navy to sink an enemy vessel in combat. It later dispensed with its imperial-given name, instead adopting the name Kommisar and remained in service long after its surviving sisters had been withdrawn ending its days as a harbour training vessel.

Bakhtin however would not be so fortunate. His immediate fame was short lived when in 1924, two years after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power in the new Soviet Union, his noble heritage was made public and he was stripped of all his revolutionary accolades before being sent to the Solovki gulag in the Solovetsky Islands of the White Sea. There he endured five years of hard labour that seemed to considerably age him beyond his 34 years when he was released in 1929. Two years later he contracted tuberculosis and died almost unnoticed by the people of the revolution he had fought and killed for.

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

Forgotten Aircraft: Avro’s First Bombers (Part 2)

<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 1)

The Avro 549 Aldershot

AvroHaving expanded exponentially over the previous four years, the end of the war in 1918 and the vicious cull of advanced aircraft projects for the still infant Royal Air Force threatened the very existence of the plethora of British aircraft manufacturers that had emerged. Even producing some of the war’s most legendary aircraft was no guarantee of survival as was proven by Sopwith who having made a name for themselves with their Camel and Pup fighters, disappeared in 1920 after entering voluntary liquidation and then having their assets absorbed by Hawker.

The name A. V. Roe (Avro), had become most associated with trainer aircraft during the war and so was less of a household name than the more glamorous manufacturers like Bristol, Sopwith or the Royal Aircraft Factory. This overshadows the importance of types such as the Avro 504 trainer to the war effort which as well as being used as a warplane in its own right, produced thousands of pilots for the front. Avro used this experience after the war to begin producing sporting aircraft for the civil market to be bought up by many of the demobilised military pilots who wanted to keep flying. This would then generate the money to keep it functioning while waiting for impending lucrative government contracts.

An early success story for the company came in the form of the Avro 534 Baby which went on to take part in numerous races and set distance records at the hands of the “Australian Lone Eagle” Bert Hinkler. On May 31st 1920 he made a non-stop flight from Croydon to Turin, a distance of 655 miles, in 9 hours 30 minutes. Another Avro Baby made the first ever flight between London and Moscow in 1922 while another example was expected to support Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition but vital components for the aircraft failed to arrive in time before he set off.

Avro 555 Bison carrier aircraftUnfortunately, these technological successes failed to truly translate in to financial success and Avro was forced to sell off much of its land holdings it acquired during the war in order to keep the company going. In 1921, Avro secured one of the few highly coveted government contracts when it’s Avro 555 was selected to meet a requirement for a carrier-capable reconnaissance and gunnery spotting aircraft. A total of 53 Avro 555 Bisons were eventually built in two main variants and helped keep Avro’s foot in the government’s door.

In 1920, the Air Ministry began finalising the specifications for a new interim bomber to replace a number of the RAF’s wartime types still in service. The new specification was quietly centred around a possible war breaking out with France now that Germany and Austro-Hungary ceased to be any real influence on the continent. France was increasingly feeling threatened by the influence the British Empire’s economy had on the world stage much to her own detriment while Britain was suspicious of France’s resistance to disarmament efforts. As a result the specification envisioned a bomber powered by the Rolls Royce Condor engine that was capable of carrying a 1,800lb bomb in excess of 500 miles so that it could attack targets in and around Paris from bases in south-east England.

Whereas during the war, the time between drawing board to prototype to production order could be measured in just a few months there was now less urgency which allowed engineers more time to perfect their designs before construction began. It also allowed the Air Ministry to be a little more fussy about selecting designs to be funded at prototype level. Avro was one of a small number of companies who responded to the requirement which had garnered some controversy amongst RAF and aviation industry leaders over its use of only one, albeit powerful, engine when at least two was the norm for an aircraft of this type.

The thinking behind the Air Ministry’s decision was that the single-engine shape should allow for higher levels of performance while aircraft with two or more engines were often more costly, more problematic, more unreliable or in some cases their performance was simply lacking compared to single-engined types. Opponents argued however that two or more engines increased reliability and survivability in the air and that the technology was advancing to overcome these shortcomings albeit at greater expense.

Avro and De Havilland were both shortlisted and given contracts to produce prototypes for testing. Avro’s design was for a three bay biplane with wooden wings and a steel-framed fuselage covered in plywood and fabric. It had a wingspan of 68ft, a length of 39ft and was nearly 15.5ft tall sitting on four large main wheels when on the ground. The crew comprised of a pilot, navigator/bomb-aimer and up to two defensive gunners armed with .303 (7.7mm) Lewis machine guns; one in the rear fuselage and one in the ventral position although the latter position would seldom be used. As dictated by the Air Ministry, the new aircraft was fitted with the Rolls Royce Condor V-12 engine. This was a more powerful development of the earlier Rolls Royce Eagle which powered the Vickers Vimy bomber but could churn out around 650hp.

The new Avro aircraft was given the in-house number of 549 before adopting the name “Aldershot” and the prototype, J6952 made its first flight during October 1921 from Hamble Aerodrome in Southampton. There was little time to celebrate however for De Havilland’s aircraft, which was now known as the DH.27 Derby, achieved its first flight within days of the Aldershot. Testing of both aircraft began which for Avro revealed poor directional control from the tail resulting in the aircraft being taken back to the factory to have a 6ft extension added to the rear fuselage to alleviate the problem. The landing gear was also later revised which saw the two inner wheels removed.

Avro Aldershot III J6952

These improvements were made to the second prototype whilst it was under construction. At this time, the Air Ministry began revising its specification regarding the offensive armament the aircraft was expected to carry. Originally it was expected to carry a single 1,800lb bomb but this was changed to either four 500lbs or eight 250lbs. Fortunately, this didn’t require major modifications and the Aldershot could carry the four 500 pounders externally while a bomb bay allowed it to carry the smaller weapons internally which decreased drag significantly.

The De Havilland Derby on the other hand had to carry all its weapons externally which hampered the aircraft’s performance that was already at a disadvantage to the Aldershot being 420lbs heavier while powered by the same engine. Comparing the two aircraft through 1921 it was obvious the Aldershot was the superior type and on January 26th 1922, Avro was awarded a contract for 15 production aircraft built to Aldershot III specification that was essentially the same as the second prototype.

With the conclusion of the test programme, it was decided to adapt the first prototype to undertake trials with the Napier Cub engine. This had the potential to be an awesomely powerful aeroengine for the time being the first in the world to churn out 1,000hp and like the Aldershot was developed in response to the Air Ministry’s interest in large, powerful single-engined bomber types. It achieved this figure with 16 cylinders arranged in an “X” pattern with the bottom rows angled more narrowly than the ones on top to Avro Aldershot II Napier Cubease the pressure on the crankshaft.

In order to accept the 35% more powerful engine, the Aldershot’s airframe had to be considerably strengthened and the nose section had an extra set of exhaust pipes to expel the gases from the lower bank of cylinders (Right). The original two-blade propeller was replaced with a large four-bladed prop each blade of which was 18in at its widest point.

Known as the Aldershot II, the Cub-powered aircraft first flew on December 15th 1922 and was at that time the most powerful single-engined aircraft in the world; something Avro was quick to publicise. Some of Avro’s own literature started referring to the aircraft as the Avro “Cub” although this was not officially adopted and they claimed a top speed in the region of 140mph. This was 30mph faster than the regular Condor-powered Aldershot III that the RAF was taking on charge but this speed came at the cost of reduced endurance.

The RAF began to receive their first operational Aldershot IIIs in July 1924 with the aircraft being taken on charge with No.99 Squadron based at RAF Bircham Newton. Delivery had been delayed by the adoption of the newer Condor III engine but the 15 aircraft ordered was enough for the squadron to form two separate flights during that summer. No.99 Squadron used the aircraft primarily for the night bombing role although unusually they flew in the silver colour scheme that was adopted by day units of the time.

Avro Aldershot III

Conceived as an interim type until more advanced aircraft were available, the Aldershot was never going to have a stellar career in the RAF but the increasing dissatisfaction with both it and the thinking behind its conception conspired to doom the aircraft to having one of the shortest frontline careers in the service’s history. Confidence in the single-engined heavy bomber concept proved short lived but even more damning was that for all its technical innovation, the Aldershot was little better (and sometimes worse) than the wartime types it was expected to replace. With the RAF deciding against any further acquisitions,  No.99 Squadron would gain the somewhat unique distinction of being the only frontline operator of the type in history. They would relinquish their last Aldershots in March 1926, just 20 months after they first arrived, replacing them with Handley Page Hyderabads.

The first prototype and the sole Aldershot II, J6952 would actually outlive the production types it spawned. It continued testing the Napier Cub engine until late 1926 by which time its development was cancelled after just six engines had been built. J6952 was then re-engined once again, this time with the Beardmore Typhoon I slow-revving engine. This engine aimed to produce higher power with lower revolutions than a standard aeroengine. J6952 was redesignated as an Aldershot IV and first flew with the Typhoon on January 10th 1927. Testing showed that the new engine gave the aircraft a much smoother ride than either the Condor or Cub engines but government support for it was already fizzling out and no production order was made.

This brought an end to the story of the Avro Aldershot itself. It formed the basis for the Avro Andover flying ambulance and transport aircraft but like its forebear, the Andover was less than spectacular and only four were built. Experience gained with the Aldershot would influence some of Avro’s later design work but the aircraft itself occupies a mere footnote in aviation history.