When war clouds gathered in the 1930s, Winston Churchill and a minority of others in the British government urged accelerated development and production of military aircraft as it became increasingly apparent that Germany, rearming in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, was creating a large and advanced air force. The outbreak of war caught Britain with an undersized air force, and the nation consequently relied heavily on a variety of U.S.- supplied aircraft. However, the British aircraft industry also produced some of the most important planes of the war.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley V. Powered by two 1,145-horsepower RR Merlin X engines, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley entered into Royal Air Force (RAF) service in March 1937. The first of the heavy RAF night bombers, the aircraft was a mediocre performer, with a top speed of 222 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 17,600 feet. Range was 1,650 miles. After 1942, it was used by the RAF exclusively as a trainer and glider tug. A total of 1,737 (all versions) were built. The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm operated the aircraft until 1945.
Avro Lancaster I. Becoming operational in March 1942, the Avro Lancaster was powered by four 1,460-horsepower RR Merlin XX engines and had a wingspan of 102 feet, a loaded weight of 68,000 pounds, a top speed of 308 miles per hour, and a ceiling of 24,500 feet. Its effective range was 1,600 miles. This military workhorse, produced in a quantity of 7,377, could carry a maximum bomb load of 22,000 pounds and was one of the great bombers of World War II, deserving a place beside such American aircraft as the B-17, B-24, and B-29. Lancasters were the most heavily used of British bombers, flying in excess of 156,000 operations and delivering 608,612 tons of bombs on target. Reflecting the monumental cost of the Strategic Bombing of Germany, 3,249 Lancasters were lost in action.
Bristol Blenheim Mark IV. This bomber was developed from the Bristol model 142 civil transport, and when it first became operational (in the Mark I version) in 1937, it was actually faster than most RAF fighters. The Mark IV version, operational by 1939, had a top speed of 266 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 22,000 feet, and a range of 1,460 miles. With a wingspan of 56 feet 4 inches, it was powered by two 920-horsepower Bristol Mercury XV engines. Maximum bomb load was 1,325 pounds.
The Mark I version of the aircraft had the distinction of flying the first Allied operational mission of the war, a reconnaissance over Germany. Mark IV was used extensively as a light bomber and also as a fighter, a reconnaissance aircraft, and a close-support aircraft. The aircraft was crewed by three. A Mark V was developed, which increased the service ceiling to 31,000 feet and range to 1,600 miles. In other respects, however, its performance was disappointing, and the Mark V was used almost exclusively in the Far East.
Relatively slow by 1940s standards and with only light defensive armament, the Blenheims were especially vulnerable to fighter attack. They were withdrawn from the bomber role in 1943. About 6,200 (all versions) were built.
De Haviland Mosquito XVI. One of the war’s great aircraft, the Mosquito was flown as a night fighter, fighter bomber, bomber, and reconnaissance plane. Crewed by two, it had a remarkable top speed of 425 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 36,000 feet. In bomber configurations, the XVI version carried no defensive armament but relied on its speed and maneuverability, which could outperform most fighters. Maximum range was 3,500 miles.
Affectionately dubbed the Mossie, the aircraft was first flown late in 1940 and became operational with the RAF in 1942. It served in Europe and Asia and proved so adaptable that it remained in service well after the war, until 1955. A total of 7,781 (all versions) were built.
The Mark XVI version was driven by two 1,680- horsepower Rolls Royce engines. Wingspan was 54 feet 2 inches, and maximum bomb load was 4,000 pounds.
Fairey Battle I. Introduced in 1940, the Fairey Battle I was a two-place light day bomber powered by a single Rolls-Royce Merlin II piston engine, which delivered 1,030 horsepower. With a 54-foot wingspan, it had a top speed of 241 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 23,500 feet, and a range of 1,050 miles. Armed with a forward-firing .303-inch fuselage- mounted Browning machine gun and a rear-facing .303-inch Vickers K machine gun, the aircraft could carry a 1,000-pound bomb load.
Deployed in France at the outbreak of the war in 1940, the Fairey Battle quickly proved inadequate as a day bomber and was withdrawn from such service very early in the war. However, it continued to operate with the RAF as late as 1949 as a trainer, target tug, and communications aircraft. Some 2,200 were built.
Handley Page Halifax VI. This four-engine bomber first flew in prototype in 1939, and the first Mark I version was delivered in 1940. The Mark VII entered production in 1944 and was powered by four 1,800-horsepower Hercules 100s and had a wingspan of 104 feet 2 inches. Maximum speed was 312 miles per hour with a service ceiling of 24,000 feet and a range of 1,260 miles. Maximum bomb load was 13,000 pounds. Although not nearly as well known as the Avro Lancaster, the Halifax was a highly successful heavy bomber, produced in a quantity of 6,176 (all versions).
Handley Page Hampden I. Powered by two 1,000-horsepower Bristol Pegasus XVIII engines, this medium bomber was designed beginning in 1933 and went into production in 1938. With a wingspan of 69 feet 2 inches and a maximum bomb load of 4,000 pounds, the aircraft could make 254 miles per hour and reach a service ceiling of 19,000 feet. Slow and vulnerable to fighters, it made its last bombing raid in September 1942 and was used mainly for training purposes thereafter. A total of 1,430 were built.
Short Stirling III. The Mark I version of this large four-engine bomber was delivered to the RAF in 1940. The first Mark IIIs were flying by 1942. Powered by four 1,650-horsepower Bristol Hercules XVI engines and with a wingspan of 99 feet 1 inch, this heavy bomber could deliver 14,000 pounds of bombs. However, it soon proved unpopular with aircrews because of its low ceiling (17,000 feet) and inadequate maneuverability near its maximum altitude. By 1943, the Stirling III was withdrawn from bombing missions and relegated to duty as a glider tug and transport. Some were adapted as Mark IVs and used as paratroop transports. Total production for all versions was 2,374.
Vickers Wellington III. First flown in prototype in 1936, the Mark I version of this medium bomber entered RAF service in 1938. It proved successful in a variety of roles, and 11,461 were produced before production ceased in October 1945. The Mark III version was powered by two 1,375-horsepower Bristol Hercules III or two 1,425-horsepower Hercules XI engines. Top speed was 255 miles per hour, service ceiling was 19,000 feet, and range was 1,540 miles. The aircraft could deliver a bomb load of 4,500 pounds. Defensive weapons included eight .303-inch machine guns, two in the nose, four in the tail turret, and two in fuselage positions.
At the beginning of World War II, the Wellington was the principal British bomber, and although it continued to fly bombing missions until the end of the war, it was largely supplanted in this role by heavier, four-engine bombers. The Wellington continued to be used very extensively for antisubmarine attacks and for transport duties.
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