The Rafwaffe – No. 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight

No.1426 Flight was formed on the 21st November 1941 with the task of demonstrating captured enemy aircraft to RAF and allied personnel with the aim of exposing them to their appearance, performance, and even their sound. Based at RAF Duxford all the aircrew involved in flying the captured types had engineering backgrounds so as to help with evaluation of the aircraft. The unit’s first aircraft was a Heinkel He.111 that was shot down over the UK in 1940. Landing relatively intact it was repaired and flown by the unit. Other aircraft included a Bf109 and a Ju88.

Over the course of the war the Flight acquired aircraft through numerous means. Most were the result of the aircraft being damaged in combat with Allied pilots. Some were captured on the ground during the fighting in North Africa and Italy while a handful were effectively “delivered” to the RAF when their pilots landed in the UK through navigational error and even the odd defector.

Over the course of the Flight’s wartime career numerous German types were evaluated and then lessons given to frontline crews. With the Americans entering the war in December 1941 the Flight began working closely with American evaluation units, even exchanging aircraft as well as experience. In early 1943 the Flight relocated to RAF Collyweston. At the time the US Amy Air Force was embroiled in a bitter fight with the Germans during their daylight raids and so the Flight took their aircraft on a tour of USAAF bases in England for the American crews to gain experience fighting some of the German fighters the Flight operated. One of the Flight’s Ju88s actually appeared in a wartime propaganda movie.

The Flight moved one more time in 1945, to RAF Tangmere, before being disbanded in December 1945. During the course of its existence the unit became nicknamed the “Rafwaffe” by the frontline squadrons. As well as German aircraft the unit also acquired an Italian CR.42 biplane fighter.

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The Franken-Spitfire

Spitfire DB605 (1)

Large numbers of aircraft were captured by opposing forces during the Second World War and in some cases these aircraft were airworthy allowing for the captor to assess its performance and develop countermeasures. One such aircraft was Supermarine Spitfire Vb EN830/NX-X which crashed in German-occupied Jersey having been hit by flak over France on November 18th 1942. It’s pilot, Pilot Officer (Sous Lt.) Bernard Scheidhauer of the Free French Air Force, crash landed the aircraft relatively intact in a turnip field and both he and his aircraft were transported back to Germany where he would later be shot for his part in a mass break out of allied PoWs.

The captured EN830 before fitting of the DB 605A-1 engine

The captured EN830 before fitting of the DB 605A-1 engine

With the aircraft repaired the Germans went about assessing it and it’s Merlin 45 engine comparing it to previous captured Spitfire marks and of course to their own Bf109 and Fw190 fighter aircraft. The aircraft was painted in Luftwaffe test markings in order to avoid any frontline Luftwaffe pilot mistaking it for an RAF machine and attacking it. Once these tests were completed talk turned to assessing how the aircraft would handle with a German engine installed. A similar experiment had been attempted on an earlier Spitfire with a DB 601 engine from a Messerschmitt Bf109 but it required too many modifications to be practical. The newer Spitfire Vb however had a much larger engine bay for its more powerful Merlin 45 and this afforded the Germans much more space to develop mounting brackets for the DB 605A-1 engine which would drive a Bf109 propeller. The project was given the go-ahead in early 1944.

The aim of the experiment was to establish whether the engine would dramatically improve the aircraft’s performance to the point far beyond that of the Luftwaffe’s fighter. The Germans knew they had an excellent engine in the DB 600 series and it was almost always slightly ahead of the Rolls-Royce Merlin series fitted to the Spitfire in terms of capability and technology. The results did indeed prove startling.  The similar engined Messerschmitt Bf109G still proved faster at low altitude thanks to its smaller dimensions whereas the larger Spitfire/DB 605 incurred more drag. However this advantage was lost over 11,000 ft where the speeds evened out and the Spitfire handled better. The DB 605A engine gave the Spitfire a ceiling of 41,666 ft, a staggering improvement of some 5,000ft over the original Merlin 45 engine and was around 3,200 ft. more than the Bf.109G. This showed the soundness of the Spitfire’s design but as iconic as it has become in aviation circles the Merlin proved it was not the wonder-powerplant the British would have liked.

However, by the time this Franken-Spitfire had been properly tested the original material was already out of date with the Spitfire V having been replaced by the superlative Spitfire IX. This had the Rolls-Royce Merlin 66 engine which actually produced an aircraft with similar performance to the German experiment. The experiment itself came to an end abruptly on the 14th August 1944 when the aircraft was destroyed in a US air raid.