1945 World Air Speed Record – Herne Bay.

Before leaving Herne Bay in Trail 44, take a look out to sea and imagine yourself watching a Gloster Meteor flash by. On November 7th 1945, this very event occurred during which a new World Air Speed record was set.

On that day, two Meteor aircraft were prepared in which two pilots, both flying for different groups, would attempt to set a new World Air Speed record over a set course along Herne Bay’s seafront. The first aircraft was piloted by Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, CBE, AFC (the Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School, Cranfield); and the second by Mr. Eric Stanley Greenwood O.B.E., Gloster’s own chief test pilot. In a few hours time both men would have the chance to have their names entered in the history books of aviation by breaking through the 600mph air speed barrier.

The event was run in line with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules, covering in total, an 8 mile course flown at, or below, 250 feet. For the attempt, there would be four runs in total by each pilot, two east-to-west and two west-to-east.

With good but not ideal weather, Wilson’s aircraft took off from the former RAF Manston, circling over Thanet before lining his aircraft up for the run in. Following red balloon markers along the shoreline, Wilson flew along the 8 mile course at 250 feet between Reculver Point and  Herne Bay Pier toward the Isle of Sheppey. Above Sheppey, (and below 1,300 ft) Wilson would turn his aircraft and line up for the next run, again at 250ft.

Initial results showed Greenwood achieving the higher speeds, and these were eagerly flashed around the world. However, after confirmation from more sophisticated timing equipment, it was later confirmed that the higher speed was in fact achieved by Wilson, whose recorded speeds were: 604mph, 608mph, 602mph and 611mph, giving an average speed of just over 606mph. Eric Greenwood’s flights were also confirmed, but slightly slower at:  599mph, 608mph, 598mph and 607mph, giving an overall average speed of 603mph. The actual confirmed and awarded speed over the four runs was 606.38mph by Wilson*1.

The event was big news around the world, a reporter for ‘The Argus*2‘ – a Melbourne newspaper – described how both pilots used only two-thirds of their permitted power, and how they both wanted permission to push the air speed even higher, but both were denied at the time.

In the following day’s report*3, Greenwood described what it was like flying at over 600 mph for the very first time.

As I shot across the course of three kilometres (one mile seven furlongs), my principal  worry was to keep my eye on the light on the pier, for it was the best guiding beacon there was. On my first run I hit a bump, got a wing down, and my nose slewed off a bit, but I got back on the course. Below the sea appeared to be rushing past like an out-of-focus picture.

I could not see the Isle of Sheppey, toward which I was heading, because visibility was not all that I wanted.

At 600mph it is a matter of seconds before you are there. It came up just where I  expected it. In the cockpit I was wearing a tropical helmet, grey flannel bags, a white silk shirt, and ordinary shoes. The ride was quite comfortable, and not as bumpy as some practice runs. I did not have time to pay much attention to the gauges and meters, but I could see that my air speed indicator was bobbing round the 600mph mark.

On the first run I only glanced at the altimeter on the turns, so that I should not go too high. My right hand was kept pretty busy on the stick (control column), and my left hand was. throbbing on the two throttle levers.

Greenwood went on to describe how it took four attempts to start the upgraded engines, delaying his attempt by an hour…

I had to get in and out of the cockpit four times before the engines finally started. A technical hitch delayed me for about an hour, and all the time I was getting colder and colder. At last I got away round about 11.30am. 

He described in some detail the first and second runs…

On the first run I had a fleeting glance at the blurred coast, and saw quite a crowd of onlookers on the cliffs. I remembered that my wife was watching me, and I found that there was time to wonder what she was thinking. I knew that she would be more worried than I was, and it struck me that the sooner I could get the thing over the sooner her fears would be put at rest.

On my first turn toward the Isle of Sheppey I was well lined up for passing over the Eastchurch airfield, where visibility was poor for this high-speed type of flying. The horizon had completely disappeared, and I turned by looking down at the ground and hoping that, on coming out of the bank, I would be pointing at two balloons on the pier 12 miles ahead. They were not visible at first.

All this time my air speed indicator had not dropped below 560 mph, in spite of my back-throttling slightly. Then the guiding light flashed from the pier, and in a moment I saw the balloons, so I knew that I was all right for that.

On the return run of my first circuit the cockpit began to get hot. It was for all the world like a tropical-summer day. Perspiration began to collect on my forehead. I did not want it to cloud my eyes, so for the fraction of a second I took my hands off the controls and wiped the sweat off with the back of my gloved hand. I had decided not to wear goggles, as the cockpit was completely sealed. I had taken the precaution, however, of leaving my oxygen turned on, because I thought that it was just that little extra care that might prevent my getting the feeling of “Don’t fence me in.”

Normally I don’t suffer from a feeling of being cooked up in an aircraft, but the Meteor’s cockpit was so completely sealed up that I was not certain how I should feel. As all had gone well, and I had got half-way through the course I checked up my fuel content gauges to be sure that I had plenty of paraffin to complete the job.

I passed over Manston airfield on the second run rather farther east than I had hoped, so my turn took me farther out to sea than I had budgeted for. But I managed to line up again quite satisfactorily, and I opened up just as I was approaching Margate pier at a height of 800 feet. My speed was then 560 mph.

Whilst the first run was smooth, the second he said, “Shook the base of his spine”.

This second run was not so smooth, for I hit a few bumps, which shook the base of my spine. Hitting air bumps at 600 mph is like falling down stone steps—a series of nasty jars. But the biffs were not bad enough to make me back-throttle, and I passed over the line without incident, except that I felt extremely hot and clammy.

After he had completed his four attempts, Greenwood described how he had difficulty in lowering his airspeed to enable him to land safely…

At the end of my effort I came to one of the most difficult jobs of the lot. It was to lose speed after having travelled at 600 mph. I started back-throttling immediately after I had finished my final run, but I had to circuit Manston airfield three times before I got my speed down to 200mph.

The two Meteor aircraft were especially modified for the event. Both originally built as MK.III aircraft – ‘EE454’ (Britannia ) and ‘EE455’ (Yellow Peril) – they had the original engines replaced with Derwent Mk.V turbojets (a scaled-down version of the RB.41 Nene) increasing the thrust to a maximum of 4,000 lbs at sea level – for the runs though, this would be limited to 3,600 lbs each. Other modifications included: reducing and strengthening the canopy; lightening the air frames by removal of all weaponry; smoothing of all flying surfaces; sealing of trim tabs, along with shortening and reshaping of the wings – all of which would go toward making the aircraft as streamlined as possible.

Related image

EE455 ‘Yellow Peril’ was painted in an all yellow scheme (with silver outer wings) to make itself more visible for recording cameras.*4

An official application for the record was submitted to the International Aeronautical Federation for world recognition. As it was announced, Air-Marshal Sir William Coryton (former commander of 5 Group) said that: “Britain had hoped to go farther, but minor defects had developed in ‘Britannia’. There was no sign of damage to the other machine“, he went on to say.

Wilson, born at Westminster, London, England, 28th May 1908, initially received a short service commission, after which he rose through the ranks of the Royal Air Force eventually being placed on the Reserves Officers list. With the outbreak of war, Flt. Lt. Wilson was recalled and assigned as Commanding Officer to the Aerodynamic Flight, R.A.E. Farnborough. A year after promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1940, he was appointed chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (R.A.E.) who were then testing captured enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Wing Commander, 20th August 1945, retiring on 20th June 1948 as a Group Captain.

Eric Greenwood, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot, was credited with the first pilot to exceed 600 miles per hour in level flight, and was awarded the O.B.E. on 13th June 1946.

His career started straight from school, learning to fly at No. 5 F.T.S. at Sealand in 1928. He was then posted to 3 Sqn. at Upavon flying Hawker Woodcocks and Bristol Bulldogs before taking an instructors course, a role he continued in until the end of his commission. After leaving the R.A.F., Greenwood joined up with Lord Malcolm Douglas Hamilton (later Group Captain), performing barnstorming flying and private charter flights in Scotland.

Greenwood then flew to the far East to help set up the Malayan Air Force under the guise of the Penang Flying Club. His time here was adventurous, flying some 2,000 hours in adapted Tiger Moths. His eventual return to England saw him flying for the Armstrong Whitworth, Hawker and Gloster companies, before being sent as chief test pilot to the Air Service Training (A.S.T.) at Hamble in 1941. Here he would test modified U.S. built aircraft such as the Airocobra, until the summer of 1944 when he moved back to Gloster’s – again as test pilot.

It was whilst here at Gloster’s that Greenwood would break two world air speed records, both within two weeks of each other. Pushing a Meteor passed both the 500mph and 600mph barriers meant that the R.A.F. had a fighter that could not only match many of its counterparts but one that had taken aviation to new record speeds.

To mark this historic event, two plaques were made, but never, it would seem, displayed. Reputed to have been saved from a council skip, they were initially thought to have been placed in a local cafe, after the cliffs – where they were meant to be displayed – collapsed. The plaques were however left in the council’s possession, until saved by an eagle-eyed employee. Today, they are located in the RAF Manston History Museum where they remain on public display.

To mark the place in Herne Bay where this historic event took place, an information board has been added, going some small way to paying tribute to the men and machines who set the world alight with a new World Air Speed record only a few hundred feet from where it stands.

Part of the Herne Bay Tribute to the World Air Speed Record set by Group Captain H.J. Wilson (note the incorrect speed given).

From Herne Bay, we continue on to another trail of aviation history, eastward toward the coastal towns of Margate and Ramsgate, to the now closed Manston airport. Formerly RAF Manston, it is another airfield that is rich in aviation history, and one that closed with huge controversy causing a great deal of ill feeling amongst many people in both the local area and the aviation fraternity.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Guinness World Records website accessed 22/8/17.

*2 The Argus News report, Thursday November 8th 1945 (website) (Recorded readings quoted in this issue were incorrect, the correct records were given in the following day’s issue).

*3 The Argus News report, Thursday November 9th 1945 (website)

*4 Photo from Special Hobby website.

The RAF Manston History Museum website has details of opening times and location.

The Manston Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial museum website has details of opening times and location.

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Trail 44 – Kent (Part 3) – Sir Barnes Wallis – His Later Years.

We continue, in Trail 44, looking at the life of Sir Barnes Wallis, a man known for his expertise in engineering and design. Following on from his early works in airship design, we now turn to his Second World War and post war work.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, new designs of aircraft and weapons were much-needed. Wallis’s geodesic design, as used in the R100, had been noticed by another Vickers designer Rex Pierson, who arranged for Wallis to transfer to Weybridge, where they formed a new team – Pierson working on the general design of the aircraft with Wallis designing the internal structures. This was a team that produced a number of notable designs including both the Wellesley and the Wellington; both of which utilised Wallis’s geodetic design in both the fuselage and wing construction.

What made Wallis’s idea so revolutionary was that the design made the air frame both light-weight and strong, and by having the bearers as part of the skin, it left more room inside the structure thus allowing for more fuel or ‘cargo’. An idea that helped provide greater gas storage for the R100.

Whilst both the Wellesley and the Wellington went on to be successful in the early stages of the war (11,400 Wellingtons saw service), they were both withdrawn from front line service by the mid war years, being replaced by more modern and advanced aircraft that could fly further and carry much larger payloads.

Saddened by the rising death toll, Wallis put many of his efforts into shortening the war. His idea was that if you attack and destroy the heart of production, then your enemy would have nothing to fight with; in this case, its power supply. To this end he started investigating the idea of breaching the dams of the Ruhr.

Wallis’s idea was to place an explosive device against the wall of the dam, thus utilising the water’s own pressure to fracture and break open the dam. Conventional bombing was not suitable as it was too difficult to place a large bomb accurately and sufficiently close enough to the dam to cause any significant damage. His idea, he said, was “childishly simple”.

Using the idea that spherical objects bounce across water, like stones thrown from a beach, he determined that a bomb could be skimmed across the reservoir over torpedo nets and strike the dam. A backward spin, induced by a motor in the aircraft’s fuselage, would force the bomb to keep to the dam wall where a detonator would explode the bomb at a predetermined depth, similar in fashion to a naval depth charge. The idea was simple in practical terms, ‘skip shot’ being used with great success by sailors in Nelson’s navy;  but it was going to be a long haul, to not only build such a weapon, the aircraft to drop it, nor train the expert crews to fly the aircraft; but to simply convince the Ministry of Aircraft Production that it was in fact feasible.

Wallis began performing a number of tests, first at his home using marbles and baths, then at Chesil Beach in Dorset. Both the Navy and the Ministry were interested when shown a film of the bomb in action, each wanting it for their own specific target; the Navy for the Tirpitz, and the Ministry for the dams. Wallis still determined to use it on the dams, carried out two projects side-by-side,  “Upkeep” for the dams, and “Highball” for the Navy*3.

“Upkeep” was initially spherical, and the first drop from a modified Lancaster took place in April 1943 at Reculver near to Herne Bay, where this statue is located. He persevered with aircraft heights, speeds and bomb design modifications, carefully honing them until on April 29th 1943, only three weeks before the actual attack, the bomb finally worked for the first time.

Wallis’s plan could now be put into action, and with a new squadron of the RAF’s elite bomber crews put in place, the stage was set and the dams of Ruhr Valley would be the target.

The attack on the dams have become legendary, and of the 19 aircraft of 617 Squadron that took off that May evening in 1943, only 11 returned, some after sustaining considerable damage. Operation Chastise saw two of the three dams, the Mohne and Eder, successfully breached and the third, the Sorpe, severely damaged forcing the Germans to partially drain it for safety.

Scampton September 2015 (17)

The names of the crews of 617 Squadron at RAF Scampton. Those with poppies next to them, did not return.

Following the success of Operation Chastise, Wallis went on to develop other bombs capable of devastating results. His initial plan, a Ten ton (22,000lb) bomb, had to be scaled back to 12,000lb as there was no aircraft capable of dropping it at that time. Codenamed ‘Tallboy’, it would be a deep penetration bomb 21 feet in length with a hardened steel case and 4 inches of steel in the nose. The bomb contained 5200lbs of high explosive Torpex (similar to that used in the Kennedy Aphrodite mission) and would have a terminal velocity of around 750 miles per hour.

The idea of Tallboy, was to create a deep underground crater into which structures would either fall or be rendered irreparable. With a time fuse that could be set to sixty minutes after release, it was used on strategic targets such as the Samur Railway Tunnel in France, rendering the tunnel useless as it had to be closed for a considerable amount of time.

The rubble was cleared from the craters in the tunnel, just in time for the Allies to take it over. The RAF Officer standing on the edge of the crater gives scale to the power of the Tallboy bomb

The crater made by Barnes Wallis’s Tallboy bomb above the Samur Railway Tunnel, 9th June 1944. *4

Soon after this, Wallis began developing his Ten Ton bomb, the “Grand Slam”, a mighty 26ft in length, it weighed 22,000lb, and would impact the ground at near supersonic speeds. Wallis’s design was such that the bomb could penetrate through 20 feet of solid concrete or 130 feet of earth, where it would explode creating a mini earthquake. It was this earthquake that would rock the foundations of buildings and structures, or simply suck them into a crater of massive proportions*5.

Production of the Grand Slam was slow though. It took two days for the casting to cool and then after machining, it took a further month for the molten Torpex  to set and cool. The first use of the Grand Slam occurred on 14th March 1945 against the Bielefeld Viaduct in Germany, on which one Grand Slam and 27 Tallboys were dropped. Unsurprisingly, the viaduct collapsed and the railway was put out of action.

Wallis had created more exceptionally devastating weapons, they were so successful that 854 Tallboys and 41 Grand Slams were dropped by the war’s end.

Scampton September 2015 (4)

The Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, designed by Barnes Wallis.

Post war, Wallis carried on with his design and investigations into aerodynamics and flight. He was convinced that achieving supersonic flight with the greatest economy was the way forward, and in particular variable geometry wings. The government was keen to catch up with the U.S., awarding Vickers £500,000 to carry out research into supersonic flight. Wallis’s project received some of this money, and he researched unmanned supersonic flight in the form of surface-to-air missiles. Codenamed ‘Wild Goose‘ (later ‘Green Lizard’) the project ran to 1954 when it was terminated.

Wallis continued with his research into swing wing designs, his first being the JC9, a single seat aircraft 46 feet in length. It was produced but never completed and was scrapped before it ever got off the ground. Wallis wasn’t put off though, and he continued on developing the ‘Swallow’, a swing wing aircraft that could reach speeds of Mach 2.5 in model wind tunnel investigations.

In its bomber form it would have been equivalent in size to the American B-1, with a crew of 4 or 5, and a cruising speed of Mach 2. It would have a range of 5,000 miles whilst carrying a single Red Beard nuclear bomb.

Whilst not selected to meet the R.A.F.’s OR.330 (Operational Requirement 330), which was eventually awarded to TSR.2, they were interested enough for him to proceed until the 1957 Defence White Paper put an end to the project, and it was cancelled.

Looking for funding Wallis turned to the U.S. hoping they would grant him sufficient funds to continue his work. After many meetings between Wallis and the U.S American Mutual Weapons Development Program at NASA’s Langley research facility, he came away disappointed and saddened that the Americans used his ideas without granting him any funding.

American research continued, eventually developing into the successful General Dynamics F-111 ‘Aardvark’, the world’s first production swing-wing combat aircraft.

Wallis continued with other supersonic and hypersonic investigations; designs were drawn up for an aircraft capable of Mach 4-5, using a series of variable winglets to link subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic flights, many however, never went beyond the drawing board.

Wallis didn’t stop there, he continued with many great inspirational projects: the Stratosphere Chamber, a test chamber where by simulated impacts on aircraft travelling at 70,000 feet could be safely tested and analysed; the Parkes Telescope, a radio telescope in New South Wales; the Momentum Bomb, a nuclear bomb designed to be released at low-level and high-speed, enabling the release aircraft to escape the blast safely, and in the 1960s, a High Pressure Submarine designed to dive deeply beyond the range of current detection.

In recognition of his work, Wallis was knighted in 1968, and he was also made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Wallis, after working beyond his forced retirement, died at the age of 83, on 30th October 1979, in Effingham, Surrey. He is buried in the local church, St Lawrence’s Church, in Effingham, a village he contributed greatly to. He was the church secretary for eight years, and an Effingham Parish Councillor, serving as Chairman for 10 years. He was also the Chairman of the Local Housing Association, which helped the poor and elderly of the village to find or build homes; and as a fanatical cricketer, he was Chairman of the KGV Management Committee who negotiated the landscaping of the “bowl” cricket ground, so good was the surface, it was used as a substitute for the Oval in London.

There are numerous memorials and dedications around the country to Wallis, and there is no doubt that he was both an incredible engineer and inventor who made a major contribution to not only the war, but British and world aviation in general.

His statue at Herne Bay overlooks Reculver where the first “Upkeep” bomb was dropped by a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War, and it is a fine tribute to this remarkable man on this trail.

Barnes Wallis at Work

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis.

From here, we continue to travel east, toward the coastal town of Margate. A few miles away is the now closed Manston airport, formerly RAF Manston, an airfield that is rich in History, and one that closed causing such ill feeling amongst many.

Sources and further reading

*3 The Mail online published a report on the discovery of a Highball bomb found in Loch Striven, Scotland in July 2017.

*4 Author unknown, photo from the Royal Air Force Website.

*5 The Independent news website– “Secrets of the devastation caused by Grand Slam, the largest WWII bomb ever tested in the UK.” Published 22/1/14

The Barnes Wallis Foundation website has a great deal of information, pictures and clips of Barnes Wallis.

A list of memorials, current examples of both Upkeep and Highball bombs, and displays of material linked to Barnes Wallis, is available through the Sir Barnes Wallis (unofficial) website.

 

Trail 44 – Kent (Part 3) – Sir Barnes Wallis – His Early Years

After visiting the many museums and former airfields in the southern and central parts of Kent (Trail 4 and Trail 18) we now turn north and head to the northern coastline. Here we overlook the entrance to the Thames estuary, the Maunsell Forts – designed to protect the approaches to London and the east coast – and then take a short trip along the coastline of northern Kent. Our first stop is not an airfield nor a museum, it is a statue of the designer of one of the world’s most incredible weapons – the bouncing bomb. Our first short stop is at Herne Bay, and the statue of Sir Barnes Wallis.

Sir Barnes Wallis – Herne Bay

Sir Barnes Wallis

The Barnes Wallis statue located at the eastern end of the town overlooking the sea at Reculver.

There cannot be a person alive who has not seen, or know about, the famous Dambusters raid made by 617 Sqn. It is a story deeply embedded in history, one of the most daring raids ever made using incredible ideas, skill and tenacity. There is so much written about both it, and the man behind the idea – Sir Barnes Neville Wallis CBE FRS RDI FRAeS – a man famous for his engineering prowess and in particular the famous ‘Bouncing Bomb’ that was used by Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron in that daring raid of 16th May 1943. But there is so much more to Barnes Wallis than the Bouncing bombs; he made a huge contribution to British Aviation, weaponry of the Second World War, and later on in his life, supersonic and hypersonic air travel.

He is certainly one the Britain’s more notable designers, and has memorials, statues and plaques spread across the length and breadth of the country in his honour. But he was not just a designer of the Bouncing bomb, his talent for engineering and design led him through a series of moves that enabled him to excel and become a major part of British history.

Born on 26th September 1887 in Ripley, Derbyshire, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, he went on to study engineering in London, and shortly afterwards moving to the Isle of Wight. With the First World War looming, he was offered a chance to work on airship designs – an innovative design that would become widely used by the Naval forces of both the U.K. and Germany.

Wallis cut his teeth in marine engines as an engineer and draughtsman. He began his career in the London’s shipyards, moving to the Isle of Wight after which he broke into airship design. He followed a colleague he had met whilst working as a draughtsman with John Samuel White’s shipyard, together they would design His Majesty’s Airship No.9 (HMA 9).

The design process of HMA 9 was dynamic to say the least. Early non-rigid airships were proving to be very successful, and the new rigids that were coming in – whilst larger and more capable of travelling longer distances with greater payloads – were becoming the target for successive quarrels between the government and the Admiralty. World unrest and political turmoil was delaying their development even though plans for HMA 9 had already been drawn up.

Joining with his colleague, H.B. Pratt in April 1913, at the engineering company Vickers, the two designers began drawing up plans for a new rigid based along the lines of the German Zeppelin. HMA 9 would be a step forward from the ill-fated HMA No. 1 “Mayfly”, and would take several years to complete. Further ‘interference’ from the Admiralty (One Winston Churchill) led to the order being cancelled but then reinstated during 1915. The final construction of the 526 ft. long airship was on 28th June 1916, but its first flight didn’t take place until the following November, when it became the first British rigid airship to take to the Skies.

HMA 9 (author unknown*1)

With this Wallis had made his mark, and whilst HMA 9 remained classed as an ‘experimental’ airship with only 198 hours and 16 minutes of air time, she was a major step forward in British airship design and technology.

The Pratt and Wallis partnership were to go on and create another design, improving on the rigids that have previously been based on Zeppelin designs, in the form of the R80. Created through the pressure of war, the R80 would have to be designed and built inside readily available sheds as both steel and labour were in very short supply. Even before design or construction could begin there were barriers facing the duo.

Construction started in 1917, but with the end of the war in 1918, there was little future as a military airship for R80. Dithering by the Air Ministry led to the initial cancellation of the project, forcing the work to carry on along a commercial basis until the project was reinstated once more. With this reinstatement, military modifications, such as gun positions, were added to the airship once again. With construction completed in 1920, she made her first flight that summer. However, after sustaining structural damage she was returned to the sheds where repair work was carried out, and a year later R80 took to the air once again. After a brief spell of use by the U.S. Navy for training purposes, R80 was taken to Pulham airship base in Norfolk and eventually scrapped. Wallis’s design had lasted for four years and had only flown for 73 hours.

However, undaunted by these setbacks, the Vickers partnership of Pratt and Wallis went on to develop further designs. In the 1920s, a project known as the 1924 Imperial Airship Scheme, was set up where by a Government sponsored developer would compete against a commercial developer, and the ‘best of both’ would be used to create a new innovative design of airship that would traverse the globe. This new design, would offer both passenger and mail deliveries faster than any current methods at that time.

The Government backed design (built at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington) would compete against Vickers with Wallis as the now Chief Designer.

The brief was for a craft that could transport 100 passengers at a speed of 70 knots over a range of 3,000 miles. Whilst both designs were similar in size and overall shape, they could not have been more different. Wallis, designing the R.100, used a mathematical geodetic wire mesh which gave a greater gas volume than the Government’s R101, which was primarily of stainless steel and a more classic design. This geodesic design was revolutionary, strong and lightweight, it would prove a great success and emerge again in Wallis’s future.

Built at the Howden site a few miles west of Hull, the R100 was designed with as few parts as possible to cut down on both costs and weight; indeed R100 had only 13 longitudinal girders half that of previous designs. Wallis’s design was so far-reaching it only used around 50 different main parts.

The design plan of Wallis’ R-100 airship (author unknown*2

The 1920s in Britain were very difficult years, with the economy facing depression and deflation, strikes were common place, and the R100 was not immune to them. Continued strikes by the workers at the site repeatedly held back construction, but eventually, on 16th December 1929, Wallis’s R100 made its maiden flight. After further trials and slight modifications to its tail, the R100 was ready. Then came a test of endurance for the airship, a flight to Canada, a flight that saw the R100 cover a journey of 3,364 miles in just under 79 hours. Welcomed as heroes, the return journey would be even quicker. Boosted by the prevailing Gulf Stream, R100 made a crossing of 2,995 miles in four minutes under 58 hours. The gauntlet had been thrown, and Wallis’s airship would be hard to beat.

The R101 would face a similar flight of endurance, this time to India, and it would use many of the same crew such was the shortage of experienced men. On October 4th 1930, R101 left its mooring at Cardington for India. Whilst over France she encountered terrible weather, a violent storm caused her to crash, whereupon she burst into flames and was destroyed with all but six of the 54 passengers and crew being killed.

The airship competition became a ‘one horse race’, but an inspection of the outer covering of Wallis’s R100 revealed excessive wear, only cured by replacing the skin, an expense the project could barely swallow. With plans already in place for the R102, the project was in jeopardy, and eventually, even after offers from the U.S. Government, it was deemed too expensive, and by 1932 R100, the worlds largest airship and most advanced of its time, had been scrapped and the parts sold off.

Wallis’s airship career had now come to an end, but his prowess and innovation as a designer had been proven, he had set the bench mark that others would find hard to follow.

In the next part, we look at the work carried out by Wallis both during the Second World War and in the later years of his life.

Sources and further reading

*1 Photo from The Airship Heritage Trust website.

*2 ibid

Battle of Britain Memorial, London

In this the 75th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain, it is rather apt to include a mention of a further part of a Trail of major memorials. Another found in London outside the Ministry of Defence Building on the Northern Embankment, is that of the Battle of Britain.


Even on a cold and wet winters day it is an inspiring memorial placed near the busy junction at Westminster Bridge.

Sculpted by Paul Day, work on the site began in February 2005 with erection of a 82ft long granite base, in two parts, on which to stand the bronze sculpture. Created initially in wax, the sculptures were cast in bronze by Morrris Singer in sections, each section depicting a scene relating to the Battle. The memorial was finally opened by HRH the Prince of Wales on 18th September 2005.


The main and most significant section shows pilots as they ‘scramble’ to their waiting aircraft. Around this, are scenes referring to the women who helped not only in the factories and munitions works, but those who ferried the vital aircraft to their airfields. Other scenes depict: workers in a slit trench watching the battle rage overhead, the gunners defending the airfield, a dogfight, observers, mechanics and fitters all of whom worked tireless to keep the damaged aircraft flying. Further depictions show pilots at rest, drinking tea and relaxing telling tales of heroism and narrow escapes. A prominent picture that came out of the battle and the following blitz, was that of Saint Paul’s Cathedral standing proud of the smoke as all London burns around it. This too has been immortalised in bronze on another of the 14 scenes.

The detail of each panel is incredible. The emotion behind the eyes of those depicted grabs the passer-by and holds them, captured momentarily in time.


The entire battle is described through these characters, the romantic idea of the battle as seen by the farm workers, the joy of a victory from returning  crews, the tiredness after yet another sortie, and the fear as they run not knowing if this were to be a one way journey.

Around the scenes are the 2,937 names of the airmen who took part in Battle. As many records from the day were inaccurate, mislaid or destroyed it had to be decided upon what criteria  would be set in order to ‘qualify’ for a listing. This was that the pilot had to have flown between 10th July and 31st October 1940 and to have been awarded the Battle of Britain Clasp after flying at least one operational sortie in one of the recognised squadrons. A daunting task that took many hours of reading and research but was eventually completed and finalised as the 2,937 that appear today.  

There are 15 countries listed, covering 544 pilots who died during the battle and 795 who were to die by the end of the war. Interestingly, there is no Israeli mention, yet in the 1969 film made famous by its incredible cast, an Israeli pilot is mentioned. Perhaps this is due to the criteria used or inaccuracies in records used by the film.

Winston Churchill’s immortalised words ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’ are etched into the  base of the memorial bringing the entire structure to life.

The detail on this memorial is incredible, just glance and you’ll miss it. The way each scene is depicted in great detail even down to the ruffles in the clothing, the emotion behind the eyes and the position of the various people, it is an awe-inspiring memorial that proudly and aptly reflects those who gave so much for so many.

The memorial is found on the Victoria Embankment opposite the London Eye to the East of Westminster Bridge.

Other major memorials can be found here.

Battle of Britain Memorial Capel-le-Ferne, Kent.

A recent revisit took me back to the Battle of Britain memorial at Capel-le-Ferne between Folkestone and Dover, in Kent. It sits high on the cliff-top, in a windy corner, a stones throw from the international docks at Dover, and the Battle of Britain airfield at Hawkinge. A ‘recent’ addition to the range of memorials, it is a poignant reminder of the young men who, from many nationalities, gave their lives in the name of freedom and the defence of this country.

Last time I was here, work was starting on the new visitor centre and the two replica aircraft, a Spitfire and Hurricane, had both been removed.

The replica Hurricane.

This week, on May 25th 2015, I went back to see what had been done.

The new centre is superb. First of all it has a good car park with ample space for a large number of cars.

The visitors centre itself has a bright open reception area and a small shop for souvenirs (I had to buy a book!) and upstairs a new cafe with a balcony overlooking the monument and across  the English Channel to France.

The Visitors center behind the ‘Wall of Honour’.

Entrance to the memorial is still free, but there is the option to try the ‘scramble’ experience, which I believe costs £6.00.

The Spitfire and Hurricane are both back, admittedly both are metal replicas but up here it gets very windy and the weather can change dramatically in seconds, so it’s probably for the best. They are certainly good replicas. 

The carved Pilot, sitting in the centre of a three-bladed propeller, gazes patiently out to sea, watching for his missing friends. Designed by Harry Gray of the Carving Workshop, Cambridge, the pilot is surrounded by the creats of those squadrons who took part in the famous battle in the Kent skies.

To either side, two large mounds, signify the locations of anti-aircraft batteries, now silent and filled in, perhaps two replica emplacements might add to the ‘feel’ of the site, although sometimes less is more.

As before, the monument is a quiet and moving place to sit; to read the names of those who gave their lives for us, and to absorb yourself in the battle through the numerous information panels around the site. From here you begin to imagine the vapour and smoke trails high above you and to think that Hitler and his invasion forces, stood not more than 30 miles away in the distant haze on the coast of France.

A big improvement to a very moving place.

RAF West Malling revisited. 

Around two years ago, I visited West Malling airfield in Kent to see what was left of this once historic place. Surprisingly, quite a bit did still survive albeit hidden amongst new buildings and office blocks.

Many of the ‘H’ blocks were left as was the Officer’s quarters and the control tower. The tower was shrouded in scaffolding and well hidden in the depths of a housing estate.

This May, I was in the area once more and decided to pop in and see what had become of the tower. Was it an office block, a museum dedicated to the men and women who were stationed here, or a modern cafe with retro decor? It was actually a bit of all of them.

Let me explain. The ground floor is partly a Costa Coffee shop with its ‘modern’ interior, but the original walls and windows are still used. A 1940s building, they have decorated the walls with photographs taken during West Malling’s operational time. I have to admit it is rather tasteful for a coffee bar, and they have maintained the feel quite well.

The outside provides a quiet seated area.

Next door, is a property development company,  who occupy both the ground and upper floors. The ground floor entrance is a small reception in which hangs a number of large photographs, again taken from West Malling’s operational time. There are no captions to the photographs but as a visitor, you can freely browse them, or at least I did and the lady behind the reception desk didn’t seem to mind.

There still remains a fair amount of scaffolding around the top of the tower, but the overall building refurbishment seems to be complete. Even the garden area to the front, adorned with children’s comments from airshows long gone, are tastefully cared for. Whilst they have made every endeavour to preserve this historic building, it is somewhat enclosed by houses and a large supermarket. There is no reference to what role the building played or even why it is here. The whole area has been rebuilt with upmarket restaurants and boutiques and all looks very pleasant. I do wonder how long it will retain this stylish appearance?

The cafe uses the original windows and walls, displaying photographs from an era long gone.

When I was there in 2013, I distinctly remember seeing a ‘blue plaque’. These are given to specific buildings to identify them as a site of special historical interest. On visiting this time, I could not find it and as a last resort stopped and asked a suited gentleman if he knew where it was. He introduced himself as the Estates Manager and said there is no blue plaque. Maybe I was mistaken. He then proceeded to tell me that the building I was sat outside of, was the original officer’s mess and that he would show me around if I so wished.

The Officer’s Mess. The board dedicating it to Guy Gibson, is to the left of the door.

I of course jumped at the chance, and he took me around to the front of the building and showed me a board naming the building as the ‘Gibson building’ in dedication to Guy Gibson.

He unlocked the doors and we went in. The walls here are adorned with photographs, squadron badges and other personal items from those who served at West Malling during its operational time. We then went through further doors into what was the billiard room. The gentleman explained that all the wooden doors, skirting and ceiling decorations are original. He also said that the fireplace was original too and that the lighting whilst not, was the same design and shape as the original lighting.

The local toilets reflect the tower’s design.

Then we walked through to what is now the council meeting room, he again explained that the doors and ceiling decorations were originals. He went on to explain that the fireplace here too was original and showed me a photograph of the room as it was before closure, it was indeed virtually identical – all apart from the modern furniture.

We then went to what is now the public reception at the back of the building, passing on the way, the dining room. This has been made much smaller with a false wall but again much of the 1940s architecture is still evident.

“These buildings are now grade 2 listed, and as such cannot be altered without permission” he explained, and he went on to describe how on some of the buildings you can still see traces of the original camouflage paint work.

A closer look reveals the original camouflage paint.

He went on to tell me the stories behind a number of the photographs on the wall. How they got them from local people and who they were of. I asked him about other remaining buildings on the site, and he explained how all other minor structures and hangers were long since gone; this building, the ‘H’ blocks, and the control tower being the only surviving buildings.

We talked about properties near to the site such as the local pub “The Startled Saint”, which was built to keep the RAF personnel ‘on base’. He also mentioned the initial officer’s quarters, now a private residence, which has on one of the ceilings, all the names of the crew members written with candle smoke. Apparently this property is open once a year for public viewing!

Before we said our goodbyes, he gave me a booklet written in 1989 to commemorate the life of West Malling airfield and the crews and personnel stationed here before its closure.

I did not get his name, but he is the Estates manager for the property, now owned by Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, and I am truly grateful for the time he took to explain everything to me and for the booklet which I shall read and keep with pleasure.

I can certainly say that whilst the majority of the airfield has gone, what they have done with these last few buildings is both a surprise and real pleasure to see. They have tried to retain the original identity of the airfield through its architecture and road names. A number of small notice boards detail the events that occurred here from its inception until its final closure in the 1990s.

Whilst flying has long since ceased and all major features are gone, West Malling as an airfield has died. However, the centrepiece of this site, the fabulous memorial of the sculpted airman running for his plane, and the tastefully refurbished buildings, not only hold many secrets and tales, but give a hint of the atmosphere of this once historic and important Kent airfield.

West Malling was originally visited in 2013, in Trail 4. I shall be updating the trail shortly as a result of this latest visit.

Diary of a Luftwaffe pilot

A recent visit to an antiques shop, led to the purchase of two books, one detailing the events of the Battle of Britain, the second included short diary entries of Luftwaffe pilots. Sadly, not many Luftwaffe diaries exist today, all but a few being destroyed in case they fell into enemy hands! As a result, records are sketchy, few and far between.

Some of these Luftwaffe entries refer to the Battle of Britain.  I tried to make a comparison, maybe one entry would refer to the other – sadly they were not sufficiently detailed enough to be certain. This aside, I was intrigued to see the Germans portrayed their part in the battle and how they might compare in terms of recounts.

After the fall of France, the Germans built up strong groups of fighters, transports and bombers in readiness for the coming invasion of Great Britain. Five main groups (Luftflotte ‘air fleets’ similar to the RAF groups) operated across the German empire. Covering the eastern borders were Luftflotte 1 and 4, to the north in Norway and Denmark was the newly formed Luftflotte 5 and in Belgium and France , Luftflotte 2 and 3 respectively.Total servicable aircraft facing Britain amounted to 3,157.

Jagdgeschwader 3 (fighter ‘wing’ made up of 3 Gruppen*1 and 1 Stab) normally stationed on the eastern front, had been brought in to bolster numbers in Luftflotte 2 and were now based at Samer not far from Boulogne. Commanded by Hauptmann Hans von Hahn*2 (himself a German Luftwaffe ace and recipient of the Knight’s Cross), Luftflotte 2 were able to field 23 Messerschmitt Bf 109Es at the start of September.

The mid part of September had been dogged by poor weather, on the 12th 13th and 14th, the Luftwaffe launched only small raids and reconnaissance missions with minimal numbers of aircraft. Many fighter pilots were given the luxury of rest periods some even taking in local sites.

One of the biggest days of the Battle of Britain, now celebrated as Battle of Britain day, was Sunday 15th September 1940. It saw a major change in Luftwaffe policies. The weather was misty but promised to improve, and the Germans saw this as an opportunity to bring a severe blow to London and the RAF; this would be the ultimate prelude to invasion.

The Unit war diary for 1 Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 3, September 15th 1940*3, reads:

12:00.

Escort (by 12 aircraft) Do 17s against London. Oblt Keller shot down the Spitfire, Leutnant Rohwer a Hurricane. Fw Wollmer dived into the channel; the impact was seen by Lt Springer. This crash appears not to have been caused by enemy action. After a long dive Wollmer’s machine rolled a quarter turn into a vertical dive and he did not succeed in bailing out. A motorboat detached from a German convoy near Cap Gris Nez and went to the scene of the crash.

15:10.

Operation by nine aircraft to escort He 111s against London. At 1,500m there was almost total cloud cover. Over the Thames estuary and to the north of London there were gaps in the cloud. During the flight in there was contact with Spitfires. The bombers flew in loose formation to the north of London. Strong and accurate flak. The Spitfires came from above, fired, and dived away. Hauptmann von Hahn shot down the Spitfire, Lt Rohwer probably destroyed a Hurricane. During an attack by Spitfires Oberleutnant Reumschuessel became separated from his wing-man, Obfw Olejnik, and has not returned (this aircraft crashed near Charing, Kent; the pilot bailed out and was taken prisoner). After he was separated from the formation Obfw Hessel was heard on the radio, but he failed to return (this aircraft crash near Tenterdon; The pilot bailed out was taken prisoner). Obfw Buchholz’s aircraft was hit in the cooling system and forced down in the Channel. Oblt Keller made contact with the rescue aircraft nearby, which picked up Buchholz. He had injuries and was taken to the military hospital a Boulogne. The body of Lt Kloiber has been washed ashore near St. Cecile, and buried. Lt Meckel and two Feldwebeln attended the funeral. During the last few days news has been received from the Red Cross in Geneva that Oblt Tiedmann, Oblt Rau, Oblt Loidolt, Lt Landry (these last two wounded) and Obfw Lamskemper have been captured by the British”.

 An interesting read, if only there were more!

Notes:

*1 The singular is ‘Gruppe‘ and each Gruppen operated with three Gruppe. Each Gruppe would operate from one airfield but moved as a Gruppen.

*2 Hauptmann Hans von Hahn more infomration can be found at http://www.luftwaffe.cz/hahn3.html or http://falkeeins.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/hans-von-hahn-and-his-stab-ijg-3.html

*3 The Luftwaffe Data Book, Dr. Alfred Price (1977) Greenhill Publications pg196-197

What the Luftwaffe failed to do, the local council have finally managed.

Many of Britain’s airfields have hung on desperately to a small corner of history. Hawkinge is sadly one of those that has been buried deep beneath housing, schools and shops. Sadly, one of England’s most historic airfields, has finally been defeated not by Goring’s Luftwaffe, but by local planners.

Hawkinge was at the forefront of the Battle of Britain, it was repeatedly attacked by the bombers of the Luftwaffe. Because of its location, just minutes from France, crews would often have little warning and would have to take to the sky unprepared. Many returning aircraft would use its runways as a safe haven returning battle damaged and weary; Hawkinge fire crews were some of the busiest Britain was to have. It was used as a transport depot in the First World War, became a mecca for international pilots, saw some of the first ‘drones’ and was used in the filming of the 1969 film ‘The Battle of Britain’.

Today a small museum, utilises what’s left of the original buildings whilst housing creeps like poison ivy, ever further across the airfield.

The nearby cemetery is home to not only RAF pilots but also fallen Luftwaffe crews, ironically remaining in the land they tried to take all those years ago.

As part of a second aviation trail around historic Kent, Hawkinge is a must for any follower of history, aviation or the Battle Of Britain.

See the full story and Kent’s second trail here.
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Eisenhower stopped off at Lashenden

It was during this time, on July 4th 1944, that General Eisenhower stopped off at Lashenden following one of his many flights over the German lines in Normandy. His pilot, Brig. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada, veteran of 90 sorties, was berated by his superiors for such a ‘foolish’ act. In response he said, “When a five-star general says ‘Go,’ you go!”

Lashenden, also known as Headcorn, was an advanced landing ground, built initially for the RAF, it was taken over by the US Ninth Airforce who used to to fly P-51s and P-47s out over France.

Today it is a thriving airfield, whose annual reenactments bring back the nostalgia of 1940s Britain. Find out more about Lashenden’s history and other airfields in Kent. Click on this link.

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1940s Britain is reenacted on the Former Lashenden Advanced Landing Ground used by the Ninth Air Force.

 

Polish Fighter Ace Turned a V1 on its back.

The first V1 for 315 sqn was shot down by Flt Sgt Jankowski at 13:10 on July 11th. There were three more the following day and several others would meet similar fates. Shooting down a V1 was dangerous, many aircraft being caught in the subsequent blast. Other, less conventional methods would include tipping the wing of the V1 destabilising the gyroscopic guidance system within, sending it tumbling to the ground. On one occasion, WO Tadeusz Szymanski managed to completely turn a V1 onto its back using such a method.

Brenzett, was an advanced landing ground, built to be temporary, but even so, it produced some remarkable stories.

As part of a second trail around Kent, we visit three more of Britain’s airfields, Hawkinge, Brenzett and Lashenden. Each with its own story to tell. Want to know more? click here to go back to 1940s England and then see what has happened to these historic places.

Brenzett village sign

Brenzett Village Sign Depicts its Aviation History