Aircraft of the Second World War at Sea
Part 3: British Bombers
By Steve Cabral
Britain entered the war with quite a variety of bombers and naval recon types. Most were typical European designs; under-gunned and often underpowered. But the mid-war Beaufighter and Mosquito were devastatingly effective. Today we'll look at British-built bombers of the Royal Air Force, including the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command.
Fairey Albacore: Designed as a replacement for the Swordfish, the Albacore biplane proved less useful in combat. In 1942 it equipped 15 Fleet Air Arm squadrons. A year later it was retired in favor of Barracuda and Avenger bombers.
Avro Anson: The Anson began as a four-passenger air liner in 1935. The RAF decided this was just what it needed, and the plane entered RAF and RAAF service in 1936. Armed with one or two machine guns and two 100lb bombs, this twin-engine aircraft was ill-equipped for combat. In an accidental attack on HMS Snapper a direct hit with a bomb broke four light bulbs on the sub. It had superb flying characteristics and was stable and forgiving. Quickly replaced starting in 1939 with the Hudson, it last flew ASW in 1940 thereafter was confined to Air Sea Rescue and a training. It remained in service until 1952 and the RAF was still flying one in 1968. Britain built 11,000 Anson aircraft, 6,000 of which were Mk I ASW/patrol planes.
Fairey Barracuda: Realizing the biplane was finished, the FAA ordered a new torpedo bomber, the Barracuda. It entered service in 1943 and was used in bomb attacks on Tirpitz. By 1944 there were 12 FAA squadrons in service. The aircraft was fitted with dive brakes and so also fulfilled the role of dive bomber. The plane saw Pacific service and lasted until the 1950s yet remains obscure in the shadow of the Avenger and Swordfish.
Bristol Beaufort: The Beaufort was twin-engine torpedo bomber developed from the Blenheim. The plane was used as a torpedo bomber against German warships in the French port of Brest and as a minelayer in the Mediterranean. The RAF considered the plane a failure due to very low attack speed, but it served as the basis for the devastating Beaufighter. It entered service in August 1940 in Britain and a year later in Australia. It was retired in RAAF service in 1944 and was mostly gone from Europe by 1943. Armament was four machine guns and either 2,000 pounds of bombs or a torpedo.
Bristol Beaufighter: Derived from the Beaufort, the twin-engine Beaufighter was designed and entered service in October 1940 as a heavy night-fighter with radar. It accounted for half of all night air victories in the Blitz. The USAAF operated four nightfighter squadrons until December 1944. Coastal Command converted it to a fighter-bomber in May 1941 and equipped it with a torpedo. It proved so successful against shipping it was used in Britain in this role, too. It sank 117 ships of 150,000 tons off the Atlantic Wall from 1942 through 1945. This was half the shipping sunk by all UK-based units in the same period. The RAAF made extensive use of the Beaufighter in the Southwest Pacific while the RAF used it in Southeast Asia. Armament was four 20mm cannon, four machine guns and one torpedo. The machine guns could be dismounted to allow the fitting of carry rocket racks. The aircraft was quite capable against U-boats; on one occasion five were sunk in a span of 48 hours by Beaufighters.
Bristol Blenheim: This twin-engine aircraft started as a fast civil airliner with more speed than any RAF fighter then in service. The RAF ordered a bomber version that entered service in 1937 just as fast monoplanes were arriving in the world’s air forces. It left front-line service in Europe during 1942 and in Asia in 1943. Armament was five machine guns and 1000lbs of bombs. A night-fighter version was built it served until replaced by Beaufighters in 1941. Finland operated 97 Blenheims in WW2.
Handley Page Hampden: An ultra-slim design, the Hampden was adopted by the RAF in 1938. Armed with four machine guns and 4,000 pounds of bombs the aircraft had long range but no survivability against enemy fighters. Eventually they moved to night operations after a disastrous encounter with the Luftwaffe on 29 September 1939. The planes were switched to minelaying with heavy use in Norway during the 1940 campaign. Out of 1,209 sorties, only 21 planes were lost. They were also fitted to launch torpedoes and performed well with Coastal Command, killing at least one U-boat. They left combat service with Bomber Command in 1942 and Coastal Command in 1943.
Handley Page Halifax: A four-engine, long-ranged, heavy bomber it entered service with Bomber Command in March 1941. It carried six to ten machine guns and 8000 lbs, of bombs. The GR, Mk II were designed for Coastal Command and featured a .50-caliber machine gun in the nose; they entered service in November 1942 and were credited with sinking nine U-boats. The Halifax served in the shadow of the Lancaster just as the B-24 was in the shadow of the B-17. Halifaxes served into the 1950s.
Avro Manchester: A twin-engine bomber, the Manchester entered service in February 1941 and was retired in June 1942; its engines tended to catch fire without warning. Manchesters carried out a number of attacks on German warships based in Brest. The first mission was a success as none were shot down and only one crashed, but no hits were achieved. The plane suffered a 75 percent loss rate, but was the basis for the successful Lancaster bomber.
De Havilland Mosquito: One of the finest twin-engine aircraft of World War II was initially rejected by the RAF. However the project continued and the first model met designers' claims that it was faster than current fighters, a claim the old fast bombers failed to keep when biplane fighters were phased out. Initially used for recon (PR. Mk I) a bomber model (B. IV) followed in the summer of 1941. A night-fighter (NF. II) appeared in May 1942 and the inevitable fighter-bomber followed a month later (FB. VI). Coastal Command began using the plane in late 1943. The objective was attacks on fighter and flak-protected surface convoys. When code breakers established that a U-boat was docking, Mosquitos were dispatched and eventually credited with eight kills. The two fighter versions each had four machine guns and four 20mm cannon, two 500-pound bombs and rockets in the FB. VI. The bomber and recon variants carried no guns; the bomber carried four 500-pound bombs.
Avro Lancaster: A four-engine, long-ranged heavy bomber, it entered service with Bomber Command in March 1942. Developed from the failed Manchester, the Lancaster became Britain’s primary night bomber. Capable of carrying tremendous bomb loads, it sank the battleship Tirpitz in Norway with an 11,000-pound “Tallboy” bomb in 1944. A bouncing bomb was developed to burst dams and a 22,000-pound "Grand Slam" was carried externally and was designed to burrow through 30 feet into the ground. It had 10 machine guns and could carry up to 22,000 pounds in bombs.
Blackburn Skua: This plane was designed as a fighter/dive bomber; the Skua entered FAA service in 1939 but that was two years later than requested. It was the first FAA plane to score a kill, a Dornier on 26 September 1939. It sank the German cruiser Konigsberg in 1940 in a Norwegian harbor, the first large warship sunk by aircraft in World War Two. A later attack on German battle cruisers saw two Skua squadrons lose eight of 15 aircraft in the attack. Armed with four .303 machine guns, it could take on bombers but was decimated by fighters, particularly Bf-109s. Its bomb load was either a 500- or 250-pound bomb or the 100-pound depth bomb found useless on the Ansons. It was withdrawn from service in 1941. The Roc was a variant replacing the wing guns with a Boulton-Paul Defiant turret; it flew air cover over Scapa Flow in 1940-41. It made a better dive bomber than fighter and left service in 1941 and was only fully retired by 1943. The Roc served in land-based Skua squadrons only.
Short Stirling: The first four-engine RAF bomber of World War Two entered service in 1940 and commenced operations in 1941. The aircraft was hampered by design flaws including weak engines and limited bomb loads. The plane suffered very heavy losses over Germany. By mid-1943 the plane was removed from front-line duty and relegated to minelaying and glider tug duties.
Short Sunderland:A large four-engine flying boat developed from a civilian airliner. In service throughout the war, the plane was not only a nemesis to U-boats but other planes as well. It once shot down three of six Ju-88s it encountered and chased the others away. It mounted 12 .303 machine guns and two twin .50 machine guns plus 3,900 pounds of bombs/depth charges. It is credited with sinking 27 U-boats. Its only flaw was a lack of ultra-long range. This was not solved until the B-24 Liberator entered into ASW duty.
Fairey Swordfish: The standard British torpedo plane called “Stringbag” by her crews equipped 12 carrier squadrons in 1939 aboard HMS Ark Royal, Courageous, Eagle, Furious and Glorious. The aircraft was used for successful attacks at Taranto and against Bismarck. In 1942 they flew into the teeth of German air superiority and were wiped out during the Channel Dash. The Swordfish showed it could get the job done under the right conditions but like all biplanes was doomed in the face of enemy fighters. The Swordfish remained in service throughout the war, flying its last mission in June 1945. The plane is credited with sinking 21 U-boats.
Supermarine Walrus: Adopted by the Royal Australian Navy for the Perth class light cruisers, the catapult-launched Seagull V was later adopted by Britain and called Walrus; “Shagbat” to her crews. The aircraft had three or four crewmen aboard with two machine guns and 760 pounds of bombs or depth charges. Shagbat claimed five subs sunk or damaged, including one Vichy French boat. Other than her large size making her a small flying boat, the biplane’s single-pusher engine was slow at 135 mph. She had folding wings for shipboard storage and was maneuverable enough to both loop and bunt, though any excess water aboard would cause problems trying these acrobatics in practice.
Vickers Wellington: This twin-engine bomber entered service in 1939 and flew combat missions until April 1945. It was built in larger numbers than any other RAF bomber. It flew its last Bomber Command mission from England in November 1943 but continued in other theaters. Coastal Command received Wellington magnetic mine sweepers starting in April 1942. It was eventually assigned to ASW duties and sank 28 U-boats. It carried four machine guns and 4,500 pounds of bombs.
Armstrong Whitley: This two-engine heavy bomber entered RAF service in 1937. Bomber Command phased it out of service in April 1942. Coastal Command received one squadron of Whitleys in September 1939 when it was already obvious that the Anson would not get it done. More followed after the Battle of Britain. In 1941 it began ASW duties and sank five U-boats. It was armed with five machine guns and up to 5,500 pounds in bombs.
Vickers Vildebeest: A single-engine RAF biplane torpedo bomber that first flew in 1928; it was obsolete when World War Two began and was assigned to Pacific backwaters. It carried one torpedo or 1,000 pounds of bombs and was armed with two machine guns. It saw combat in Southwest Asia during the opening of the war in the Pacific and soon disappeared from service. The Vincent was a nearly identical machine with no torpedo capability.
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