NEWS: First World War U-Boat wreck identified

Despite having been discovered by divers working on behalf of Scottish Power Renewables and its partner Vattenfall in 2012 researchers have only now been able to positively identify a  German World War I U-Boat laying 56 miles off the coast of East Anglia. The wreck is of the Imperial German Navy’s U-31 which set sail for a war patrol from Wilhelmshaven in January 1915 – almost 100 years ago exactly. Contact with the 31 officers and men was lost soon after and it is now believed that the vessel was sunk by a British defensive mine.

Mark Dunkley, marine archaeologist at Historic England, told Sky News;

After being on the seabed for over a century, the submarine appears to be in a remarkable condition with the conning tower present and the bows partially buried. Relatives and descendants of those lost in the U-31 may now take some comfort in knowing the final resting place of the crew and the discovery serves as a poignant reminder of all those lost at sea, on land and in the air during the First World War.

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NEWS: First Sikh WWI memorial in UK unveiled

The Memorial (raf.mod.uk)

The Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum (raf.mod.uk)

A memorial commemorating the Sikh soldiers who fought with the British Indian Army in the First World War was unveiled by Major General Patrick Sanders CBE DSO, businessman Peter Singh Virdee and the monument’s chairman Jay Singh-Sohal at a ceremony at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. An ardaas prayer was recited and as well as the sounding of a traditional Sikh war cry, a one minute silence was observed by the guests.

The memorial is the first of its kind in the UK and serves to recognise the Sikh contribution to the British war effort. It was funded via a campaign on the Kickstarter website where more than 200 people from various faiths and backgrounds contributed anywhere between £1 to £1,000 to fund the cause.

Jay Singh-Sohal, the monument’s creator and charity chairman said:

It’s been a long time coming, but we finally have a dedicated memorial which will stand the test of time and attest to future generations the gratitude we have for the sacrifice and valour of our forefathers. This memorial is mindful of our glorious past and will inspire future generations to undertake public service as confident and proud British Sikhs. It is already attracting visitors from abroad, and will be a place of pilgrimage for people from all sections of our society to recall the bravery of a martial race that fought for Britain simply because it was their duty to serve and desire to seek glory in battle against tyranny and oppression.

Remarkably, while the Sikh population of India during the First World War was less than 1% of the total population they constituted around 20% of the British Indian Army. For their heroism, the Sikh soldiers received 29% of all Indian Orders of Merit awarded during the war and 24% of all Indian Distinguished Service Medals.

HMS D3 – A Case of Mistaken Identity

HMS D3 (histomar.net)

HMS D3 (histomar.net)

The First World War changed the nature of military conflict beyond recognition. Not since the Battle of Agincourt where French Knights in armour found themselves rendered obsolete by new weapons had war been revolutionised so quickly. The new wars being waged under the sea and in the air both came of age and on a handful of occasions these two arenas clashed. Unfortunately this led to tragedy in March 1918.

HMS D3 was commissioned on August 30th 1910 at a time when the infantile Submarine Corps was still considered something of a pirate branch of the Royal Navy being viewed in a similar fashion to how regular servicemen once viewed British privateers. The third of the D-class submarines, an improved version of the previous C-class, HMS D3 operated in northern waters for the bulk of the war helping to enforce the blockade against Germany and contain the Imperial German Navy. Her first taste of combat was anything but glorious however when the submarine fired on another submarine believing it to be a German vessel when in fact it was HMS E48. Fortunately the torpedoes missed but the incident would have ghostly echoes upon the story of HMS D3.

On March 7th 1918 the submarine set off for another war patrol of the English Channel under the command of Lieutenant William McKinstry Heriot-Maitland-Dougall of the Royal Canadian Navy. The situation at sea as well as on land had swung well in favour of the Allies although the German surface fleet remained alive it refusing to come out of port in force for the Royal Navy, now supported by the US Navy, to destroy it. This left the Imperial German Navy’s U-boat fleets to keep the fight alive and they had proven dramatically that they had the power to alter the course of the war first by demonstrating how vulnerable the Royal Navy was to submarines when three Cressey-class cruisers were sunk in a single engagement by just one submarine and then by sinking the liner Lusitania which effectively brought the United States in to the war on the side of Britain and France. U-boats therefore became high priority targets for the anti-submarine forces of the Allies.

The crew of HMS D3 (histomar.net)

The crew of HMS D3 (histomar.net)

After being escorted to the patrol area by a British destroyer so as to allow the submarine to pass through British defences without being mistaken for a German vessel the destroyer turned back for the Isle of Wight leaving D3 to begin hunting for German vessels. A World War One submariner’s life was a tough one even more so than later in the Second World War. Their vessels themselves were just as likely to kill them as the enemy and so just volunteering for the Submarine Corps was an act of courage alone. Even when everything was running smoothly as far as the submarine was concerned life was cramped, uncomfortable and lacking in privacy as the crew almost literally lived on top of one another. Officers and crew transferring from big ships were often amazed at how lax the discipline on submarines were in comparison for there just wasn’t the room for the usual pompous nature of life in the Royal Navy but this in turn bred new types of crew. Submarine crews were tighter teams and the feeling of brotherhood amongst those who served in the underwater branch of the Royal Navy was unparalleled so losses, and there were many, were felt throughout the force.

On March 12th 1918 HMS D3 was just two days from being relieved of her duties by another submarine when at shortly after 1400hrs the lookouts on the coning tower spotted an object above the horizon to the south-west of their position. They quickly identified it as an airship and reasoned that it must be an allied aircraft given that by this point in the war German airships seldom ventured beyond the Western Front in France. The officer of the watch saw the airship turning towards them and having identified French roundels on the aircraft ordered that recognition rockets be readied to signal that they were a friendly vessel. A series of signal rockets were set up aft of the coning tower and the order was given for them to be fired. The brightly lit rockets shot upwards and in the wind arched over in the direction of the airship passing ahead of it as it droned forward towards the submarine.

In just a few seconds all hell broke loose on the deck of the submarine as bullets raked the hull from a machine gun mounted on the French airship. It was immediately obvious that the French had mistook the signal for an attack and were retaliating. Knowing the airship had bombs onboard Lieutenant Heriot-Maitland-Dougall gave the order to dive and the crew tried desperately to clamber inside their vessel as the airship droned closer, its machine gun still spewing bullets at the exposed crewmembers. As the submarine disappeared beneath the waves the airship was almost overhead and dropped two of its four light bombs which fell around 20m from the submarine.

The airship then made a second attack and dropped four bombs around the last known position of HMS D3. One by one the bombs exploded sending huge plumes of spray up in to the air before suddenly the coning tower broke the surface again. Heavily damaged from the French attack the crew made an effort to abandon their vessel but only four crewmembers made it off before the submarine disappeared below the surface for one last time.

The French airship cut its engines and began to descend in an effort to rescue the men and take them “prisoner”. Without the noise of their engines they heard the men speak as one of them shouted in English, “You’ve got us!” It was only then the French realised their mistake and made frantic efforts to organise a rescue for their Allies but it was all in vain. The French were unable to radio for assistance nor offer assistance themselves and by the time a vessel did reach the area the survivors had joined their comrades in the watery grave of HMS D3.

Naturally an investigation was launched and the commander of the French airship designated AT-0, Lieutenant Saint-Remy, was initially blamed by the British for the loss. However the investigation revealed that there was a certain degree of blame for both sides to accept. Attention was brought on the signal rockets fired by D3 which Saint-Remy took for an attack. It seems that the rockets were somehow rendered ineffective for the purposes of identification either because of atmospheric reasons such as haze or that the French crew, busy flying their airship, failed to properly identify them before they passed nearby leading them to the conclusion that they were under attack.

The investigation placed some blame on the British crew also. Signal rockets were common practice for the Royal Navy but the French Navy operated on the tactic of using smoke markers on the rear of their ships to identify them to Allied aircraft. The French argued that had the British crew done this instead of firing rockets then the attack would never have happened. But even they conceded that both sides should have been aware of their opposite number’s methods of identification. In the end Lieutenant Saint-Remy and his crew were exonerated of blame.

29 men died when HMS D3 sank in an example of what is now termed as friendly fire. The vessel has the somewhat sad distinction of being the only submarine to have been successfully engaged and sunk by a French aircraft in World War One.

Airco DH.2 vs. Fokker Eindecker III

Airco DH.2 Fokker Eindecker III

A myth about the type of war the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was involved in developed quickly in the First World War. Serving as a distraction from the gory and unpleasant scenes of the trenches below them the men of the RFC and their wonderful flying machines were seen as having the most glamorous and exciting job in the war sipping French wine and eating fine food in between brief joyrides over the lines. In reality while their accommodation may have been better than a trench the RFC fought just as deadly and brutal a war as the men in the infantry. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the average life expectancy of an ordinary soldier in the trenches was longer than that of a pilot or observer in the RFC because as well as the enemy he had to contend with what was still a new and quite dangerous military occupation partially as a result of very primitive machines and partially because of appallingly insufficient training procedures.

Nevertheless in the traditional British make-do attitude the men of the RFC persisted in their reconnaissance and artillery spotter roles both of which they became quite proficient in. So proficient in fact that soon the Germans knew that bringing down the spotter planes of the RFC like B.E.2c and Avro 504 would have to become a priority. Initially pilots of both sides who encountered an enemy plane would take a few pot-shots at it with a pistol or a rifle carried by the observer. The results were very poor and the encounters often ended with the two pilots exchanging waves or salutes before breaking off reiterating the belief that there was still a code of honour amongst airmen.

This code of the air would have a short lifespan however as on both sides more and more effort was put in to bringing down enemy planes. Putting guns in single engine aircraft on trainable mounts was difficult, cumbersome and produced little-to-no results thanks to the difficulty of being able to train the gun on the enemy plane. The key was to instead use the aircraft itself to aim a fixed gun but this too had its problems. Mounting guns on the wing of early fighters was out of the question because the wings were so flimsy that they couldn’t support the weight while putting guns on the forward fuselage would risk damaging the propeller. The only saving grace for the RFC was that the Germans too had to contend with the same problems.

Fokker EindeckerThen in mid-1915 RFC pilots reported the occasional sighting of what appeared to be French Morane-Saulnier H monoplanes in areas they shouldn’t have been in. At around the same time RFC losses began to skyrocket and it was not long before the RFC realised that rather than being French aircraft they were in fact German single seater fighting scouts – aircraft designed to shoot down other aircraft and the forerunner of today’s air superiority fighters. The Germans had built a machine based loosely on the French aircraft called the Fokker Eindecker but more importantly they had developed synchronisation gear for its single machine gun allowing the pilot to fire his weapon through the propeller arc in between the turning of the blades. Now all the pilot had to do was point his aircraft at the target and squeeze the trigger. It was the beginning of the Fokker Scourge; a nine month period where the RFC was effectively at the mercy of the Eindecker.

Vickers FB5 GunbusThe RFC had its own dedicated fighting scouts. The Vickers F.B.5 “Gunbus” (right) was the first aircraft to be designed from the ground up as a fighter aircraft and as such when No.6 Squadron equipped with the type in November 1914 it was able to claim the distinction of being the world’s first fighter squadron. The F.B.5 was a pusher aircraft (the propeller was at the rear of the aircraft) and had a crew of two with the observer seated at the front with a single .303 machine gun. However against the Eindecker it was hopelessly outclassed being too slow to pursue or escape the German monoplane and too cumbersome to outfight it even with a trainable machine gun in the nose.

Airco DH.2In Britain the need for a new fighting scout to combat the Eindecker became a top priority for Britain’s aircraft manufacturers. One of them, Airco, had already built the DH.1 an aircraft designed by Geoffrey De Havilland that was remarkably similar to the F.B.5 and thus just as obsolete. With British engineers as yet still unable to produce their own synchronisation gear the pusher configuration remained the only way to mount a fixed machine gun on the front of an aircraft and use it in the same way as the Eindecker. De Havilland went to work on an improved version of the DH.1 which dispensed with the observer leaving the pilot to be solely responsible for his aircraft in combat. This freed up a lot of weight and with a more powerful engine the new aircraft offered greatly improved performance over the other fighting scout pushers. With its fixed machine gun unhindered by a propeller the DH.2 (above left) was able to take the fight to the Eindecker on almost equal terms and it helped bring an end to the Fokker Scourge.

Throughout aviation history there have been cases of two distinct aircraft types that have wrestled with one another for control of the skies but this was the one of the very first. Along with the two-seat Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b pusher and the French Nieuport II the DH.2 helped restore parity in the air until the arrival of the famed Fokker Albatross tipped it back in the German’s favor.

So just how well matched was the DH.2 against the Fokker Eindecker? For this comparison we will be comparing the Airco DH.2 against the Fokker Eindecker III which was the main production version of the German aircraft.


Configuration Considerations

Airco DH.2 2

The DH.2 was an equal span biplane with a pusher configuration and a single tail unit joined to the main fuselage by an unskinned frame. The pusher design meant that the pilot had an excellent forward field of view compared to tractor aircraft as well as adding a degree of safety if the engine caught fire since the pilot wasn’t getting blasted with flames or doused in leaking oil and petrol. However, like all pusher aircraft the DH.2 was easier to stall since the propeller was mounted behind the wings meaning there was no propwash over them that would increase lift as in tractor aircraft. The propeller was also less effective behind the fuselage (see below). Additionally having the engine mounted in the aircraft’s centre of gravity helped with agility in all three planes of flight but additionally made the aircraft more of a handful to inexperienced pilots. Given the especially poor training in the RFC this meant that accidents were high and later in its career the DH.2 would serve as a trainer to ensure pilots became more accustomed to this type of flying. The pilot sat in the main fuselage in a bath-tub style compartment that also housed the engine and fuel tank.

To modern eyes, at first glance the monoplane design of the Eindecker III coupled with its reputation as a destroyer of lumbering British biplanes seems quite sophisticated for the time. In fact the opposite was true with it being quite primitive. The aircraft can trace its origins to a touring aircraft built before the war and retained much of the aerodynamic technology including a lack of ailerons in the wings as in the DH.2. Instead the aircraft was controlled by using pulleys to flex the wings similar to how one controls a kite. This resulted in a rather poor roll rate as compared to many other aircraft of the era including the DH.2 and F.B.5. The aircraft was skinned in fabric around a wooden frame and featured an all moving rudder and taileron arrangement which gave good pitch and yaw performance but made level flight something of a dicey affair for new pilots due to their sensitivity in the controls. The mid mounted wings were situated in-line with the pilot which dramatically reduced his all-round vision especially to the port and starboard low areas.

Powerplant

Airco DH.2 4

The DH.2 was powered by a license-built version of the French Gnôme Monosoupape 9 B-1 nine cylinder rotary engine that developed 100hp. This was translated in to forward motion via a four bladed wooden propeller. The effectiveness of this propeller was reduced somewhat by the pusher arrangement as airflow was often disturbed by the passing over of the forward fuselage before reaching the blades. Like many early engines it was controlled by restricting its ability to function which in the DH.2 was done with the fitting of a blip switch on the control column which cut out the engine’s ignition causing it to lose power and thus slow down. The engine was air cooled and lubrication was on the total-loss principle meaning that it would burn or discharge all its lubricant by the end of the flight.

Fokker Eindecker III 2

The Eindecker III was powered by a single Oberursel U.I nine cylinder air-cooled rotary piston engine which also produced 100hp but had a lighter airframe to contend with than the DH.2’s Monosaupape engine. This drove a two-bladed propeller mounted in the tractor position in the nose of the aircraft and early fears that synchronising the gun to the engine would inhibit performance proved unfounded. The pilot of the Eindecker had to pump additional fuel in to the engine around eight times an hour to keep fuel running in to a small tank that gravity-fed the engine. It was not uncommon for the engine to cut out as a German pilot neared the enemy and his mind became distracted from this task.

Performance

Airco DH.2 3

The pilot’s handbook for the DH.2 put its top speed at sea level in the region of 81mph however many pilots claimed it could go faster with speeds of around 90mph being achievable in the right atmospheric conditions. Some adventurous pilots dived their aircraft to gain even more speed with reports of 120mph or more but this was discouraged by commanding officers except in the most dire of conditions such as escaping a superior enemy for fear of structurally overstressing the aircraft. As altitude increased the speed invariably dropped off with speeds nearing 60mph at its service ceiling of nearly 14,000ft. In order to attain this height the unfortunate pilot would find himself climbing for nearly three quarters of an hour! Endurance was in the 2 ½ hour region while range was around 250 miles.

Fokker Eindecker III 3

When it first appeared in mid-1915 the Eindecker III’s top speed of 87mph was enough for it to run circles around the RFC’s existing types including the Vickers F.B.5 “Gunbus” which was almost 20mph slower at sea level. Another great advantage the Eindecker had over RFC types including the DH.2 was its ability to climb relatively quickly for although it had a similarly powerful engine the aircraft was nearly a 100lbs lighter. This also improved agility but as has been previously mentioned this made it less stable and more unforgiving to new pilots. The Eindecker III took just 5 minutes to reach 3,281ft while the DH.2 took closer to 7 minutes. However as the altimeter reached 10,000ft DH.2 began to catch up as the Eindecker’s engine began to lose steam the nearer to its 11,000ft service ceiling it got. In a continuous climb both aircraft could reach this altitude in around half an hour before in the final few hundred feet of climb the DH.2 would leap ahead. Endurance for the Eindecker III was a full hour less than the DH.2 but since the aircraft operated in defence for much of the time this was less of a concern.

Armament

Airco DH.2 5

The DH.2 was equipped with the tried and tested .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis machine gun fitted with a 47-round drum magazine that the pilot had to reach over and replace once its rounds were exhausted. This weapon had the capability to fire up to 600 rounds a minute at a velocity of 2,440ft/sec. The effective firing range of the Lewis gun was 800m although combat rarely approached anywhere near that figure.

Fokker Eindecker III 4

The Eindecker III was fitted with a synchronised 7.92 mm (0.312 in) lMG 08 Spandau machine gun positioned just offset to starboard to improve forward visibility when training the weapon on to a target. This had an exceptionally high rate of fire being in the range of 900rds/min but synchronising the weapon to the propeller did lower this figure slightly. This high rate of fire was not achieved without problems however with the early weapons being prone to stoppages. The synchronisation gear developed by Anthony Fokker was also prone to breaking down and several pilots found themselves shooting up their own propeller when firing their guns. If the propeller wasn’t destroyed then the unfortunate airman had to fly an increasingly unstable aircraft away from battle. A major advantage on the battlefield over the Lewis gun was that it had almost double the range but again combat rarely if ever occurred at those kinds of ranges.

Conclusion

The DH.2 had high altitude performance on its side which meant that the higher the arena the greater his aircraft would perform compared to the Fokker. The Eindecker enjoyed a higher degree of agility however particularly in the longitudinal plane where the rudder of the DH.2 had to work harder to keep up thanks to the heavier airframe it was turning. With most engagements taking place at lower levels the Eindecker could also outclimb the DH.2 in this arena and inflict greater damage with its heavier armament. While it could dish out plenty of punishment the Eindecker certainly couldn’t take it in return proving a much more flimsy machine. In truth the DH.2 was not exactly bulletproof either and it only took a few bullets in either aircraft’s engine to render it inoperable.

Overall the DH.2 has a slight edge over the Eindecker III except when below 4,000ft but as in most cases the outcome of an air-to-air combat would be determined primarily on the pilot playing his aircraft to its own strengths. More than anything it would be determined by who spotted who first as that pilot would have the immediate advantage of being able to tailor that all important first attack that would initiate combat. Using superior speed at altitude the DH.2 pilot has a higher chance of making that killer first attack by diving down on to the enemy but if he was to fail in bringing down the Eindecker in this initial first attack then the German aircraft would give a good account of itself in the hands of an experienced pilot.

Between 1915-16 the DH.2 didn’t help win the battle for the skies but it did restore parity thus helping to significantly reduce the danger to the RFC’s reconnaissance operations. Such was the speed of development in wartime that by mid-1916 both these aircraft were already outclassed by even newer types after just a year in action.

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

Sopwith Snark

Sopwith Snark showing off its triplane configuration (flyingmachines.ru)

Sopwith Snark showing off its triplane configuration (flyingmachines.ru)

Sopwith’s Last Fighter

The famed blood-red triplane design of the Red Baron Manfred Von Richthofen’s Fokker Dr.I became the iconic image of the air war over the Western Front of World War I. Richthofen’s Dr.I became an indispensable tool for the German propaganda machine and in an age of countless biplane designs there was a feeling in the general public that this “extra wing” was what made Richthofen so unbeatable in the air.

In reality the triplane design was something of fad in aviation design that was quickly falling out of favour. Triplanes had the advantage of being able to use shorter span wings with the same or even greater levels of agility than an equivalent biplane which made them smaller targets in the air than an equivalent De Havilland DH.4. The trade-off however was that triplanes were often heavier than their biplane counterparts and incurred far more drag. They were also prone to cross wind interference which was especially dangerous on landing. As the air war dragged on over the trenches it became increasingly obvious that speed was going to be the deciding factor and the newer biplanes were able to surpass even the feared the Dr.I in this respect.

1917 Sopwith Triplane (Commons.wikimedia)

1917 Sopwith Triplane (Commons.wikimedia)

Nevertheless some aircraft designers persevered with the configuration believing they could find a balance between the agility a triplane offered and the speed of the latest biplanes. One such company was Sopwith of Great Britain who had produced the near legendary Sopwith Camel, Snipe and Pup fighters. Sopwith had long been a proponent of triplane designs and in early 1917 their appropriately named Sopwith Triplane fighter entered very limited service with the Royal Naval Air Service.

Spurred on by this brief success Sopwith decided to return to the triplane configuration when in early 1918 the Air Ministry requested proposals for a replacement for the Snipe. Sopwith knew that the triplane was falling out of favour and took no chances designing a common fuselage and tail section that could be fitted with either a biplane or triplane configuration. This produced two aircraft the Snapper (biplane) and the Snark (triplane). As designed the Snark had a wooden monocoque fuselage with equal span single-bay wings each fitted with ailerons for a high degree of agility. The wings were unequally spaced and staggered with the gap between the mid and upper wings being less than that between the lower and mid wings.

Included in the specification was the requirement for the aircraft to be powered by the ABC Motors Ltd Dragonfly I 320hp engine then under development. The Dragonfly was an air cooled radial engine which promised very high performance and based on this promise the Air Ministry decided it was to become the main engine for the next series of combat aircraft for the newly formed Royal Air Force. For the aircraft manufacturers this would prove to be a frustrating and costly decision for the aeroengine proved extremely problematic and ABC constantly had to push back its service entry. This delayed numerous aircraft projects such as the promising Avro 533 Manchester bomber and Sopwith’s Snark.

Snark prototype (Aviastar.org)

Snark prototype (Aviastar.org)

Despite the problems with the engine the Air Ministry was sufficiently interested in Sopwith’s Snark to order three prototypes for testing on May 14th 1918. One of the aircraft’s main selling points was that for its day it had an exceptionally heavy armament. Nearly all British aircraft of the period had the proven configuration of two .303 (7.7mm) Lewis machine guns mounted forward of the pilot synchronized with the propeller and indeed the Snark did feature two such weapons. Additionally however the aircraft featured four more Lewis guns under the lower wing firing outside of the propeller arc; a configuration more akin to World War Two fighters. Despite the fact that the pilot couldn’t reach these weapons in-flight to reload them or correct a jam it did mean that the Snark had huge potential as a bomber destroyer although the weapons did add even more weight to the aircraft.

Sopwith’s engineers worked steadily to produce the three prototype airframes by October 1918 but the Dragonfly I engine was nowhere to be seen and so the three prototypes sat grounded until finally the first Dragonfly I aeroengine was delivered in early 1919 well after the armistice ended the war it was designed to fight in. The aircraft finally took flight sometime in July 1919 (exact date is unknown) and the first flying prototype arrived at Martlesham Heath for official trials on the 12th of November 1919. The other two prototypes still had to wait for their engines to be delivered and the second prototype didn’t reach Martlesham until March 17th 1920 while the third prototype, which was fitted with a 360hp Dragonfly la engine, didn’t arrive until much later in the year.

Testing must have been a sullen experience for those involved from Sopwith. The company was in trouble and a lot was riding on the Snark’s success. Testing of the first two prototypes revealed that it had fine handling qualities being quite responsive although not as nimble as previous triplanes. It achieved a top speed of 130mph, 9mph faster than the Snipe it was to replace, but this came at a price. The loathsome Dragonfly engine was not yet finished ruining the Snark’s prospects and proved horribly unreliable being prone to overheating in flight. Testing continued at a relaxed pace in to 1921 but by then the requirement for a Snipe replacement was brought in to question as the RAF found itself watching every single penny almost lecherously. The detection of deterioration in the fuselage structure sounded the death knell for the Snark and all three were written off by the end of the year.

It was a sad end to the great Sopwith Company who had been at the forefront of British fighter technology throughout the war. Even before the Snark project ended the company had gone in to liquidation it being unable to survive in the harsh post war climate where its expertise in fighter design was no longer wanted.


SPECIFICATIONS 

  • ENGINE: 1 x 320hp ABC Dragonfly radial engine
  • MAX SPEED: 130 mph
  • WINGSPAN: 8.08m (27ft 6in)
  • LENGTH: 6.25m (21ft 6in)
  • HEIGHT: 3.30m (11ft 10in)
  • WING AREA: 29.91 m2 (321.95 sq ft)
  • ARMAMENT: 6x .303 (7.7mm) Lewis Mchine guns

Defence of the Realm – Worldwide

These are stories that primarily revolve around other countries armed forces but have a British element to it such as using British weapons or even against British forces.


The Biafran Meteor Caper
The incredible true story about the effort to smuggle two Gloster Meteor NF.14 nightfighters to Biafra for use in the Nigerian Civil War.

Rogozarski LVT-1 – The “Hurrischmitt”
What happened when the Yugoslavians put the DB.601 engine from a Messerschmitt Bf.109 in to a Hawker Hurricane.

Soviet Hawker Hurricane Specials
Soviet pilots may not have liked the Hurricane very much but that didn’t stop them from making some interesting modifications.

The Franken-Spitfire
The Germans tested a captured Spitfire V with one of their own engines the powerful DB.605.

Operation: Condor (1966) – Argentina Invades Stanley Racecourse
In 1966 a group of Argentinians hijacked an Argentine airliner and tried to “liberate” the Falklands.

The Irish Walrus Defection
Although the Republic of Ireland was neutral in World War II there were those Irishmen who wanted to fight for the Germans and in 1942 a group of men stole a Supermarine Walrus flying boat to do just that.

The Closest We Ever Came…
What were you doing on Wednesday January 25th 1995 and did you know how close we came to the apocalypse?

Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-35MKI “Flankers” at RAF Coningsby
Collection of images of Indian Air Force Su-30MKIs at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire for Exercise: Indra Dhanush IV in July 2015. 

Bergen-Hohne Roundhouse
Collection of images of the Bergen-Hohne Roundhouse officer’s mess in Lower Saxony, Germany used by the British Army in the 1950s as a training site.

Hind, Hound, Hip & Hare – Russian/Soviet Helicopters
Collection of images of Soviet-era helicopters at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare, UK. 

UH-1 Iroquois, OH-6A Cayuse & Piasecki HUP-3 Retriever
Collection of images of three American manufactured helicopters at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare, UK. 

French warship Aquitane at Leith Harbour, Scotland
Collection of images of the French destroyer Aquitane D650 during its visit to Leith Harbour, Edinburgh in October 2015. During its stay a number of British World War II veterans were invited onboard to receive French honours.