Serial killer Dennis Nilsen wasn’t the only killer from Cricklewood, there was also the Handley Page Halifax. This heavy bomber is always overshadowed by the Lancaster but matured into an excellent aircraft depsite an undeservedly poor reputation. We spoke to author Jane Gulliford Lowes to find out more.
“The early marks were all supplied with two homing pigeons who travelled on board and were kept in a basket behind the flight engineer and the wireless operator’s positions. If the aircraft was forced to ditch in the sea, the wireless operator would write out the coordinates of the aircraft’s position put the message into the little canister on the pigeon’s leg and send them on their way. There are recorded instances of crews being rescued by this very low-tech method!”
The Halifax was…
“… the unsung hero of Bomber Command. The Halifax did so much of the graft and got none of the glory… I describe it as the workhorse of the strategic bombing campaign.
There were 6, 178 Halifaxes built, and they flew 75, 532 sorties, from late 1940 right up until the end of the war. As well as taking part in strategic bombing, they were used extensively to lay sea mines, and were also utilised by Coastal Command. The Halifax was used to drop SOE agents into occupied Europe – some were even adapted with a special hatch and chute for this purpose; it flew operations to drop supplies to the Polish Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. At every point, in just about every air battle, from the early raids on the Tirpitz through the Battle of the Ruhr, the Battle of Berlin, and the Normandy campaign, to towing gliders for Operation Market Garden, the Halifax was in the thick of it. It even took part in the Berlin airlift.
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I am on a one-woman mission to rehabilitate the Halifax here in Britain – I want to educate people on the historical importance and massive contribution that the Halifax made to the war effort.
As well as being a workhorse, the later marks of the Halifax are BLOODY GORGEOUS to look at. That Perspex noses! It is exquisite! The Lancaster has looks like a bulldog chewing a wasp, whereas the Halifax looks like a Saluki that has just been to the grooming parlour….sleek, sexy, and magnificent.
However, there is no denying that the Halifax had a very chequered past ; quite frankly the earlier Marks were lethal for the crews and the aircraft only came into its own with the roll out of the Mark III in early 44. The Halifax’s subsequent record has been overshadowed by those earlier failures and high loss rates.”
How did the Halifax evolve?
The development of the Halifax really originates from 1936 and the reorganisation of RAF into 3 commands – Fighter, Coastal and Bomber. The Air Ministry wanted two new heavy bombers; it was anticipated that whoever had the better strategic or long-range bomber would win any coming war. Various plans submitted but the two designs which were accepted were what would eventually become the Short Stirling, and the Handley Page Halifax. Orders went in January 1938, and the first prototype had its maiden test flight on 25 October 1939. The second, and the first to be fully armed, flew for the first time on 17th August 1940.
35 Sqn was specially reformed to introduce the new bomber in November 1940, followed by 76 Sqn in Spring 1941. Mass production techniques were introduced and gradually both Sqns were supplied with the brand-new Halifax B Mk I Series I.
The original Mk Is had a ceiling of 18,000 ft, a range of about 1700 miles and a crew of 6 ( there was no upper gun turret). It was armed with two machine guns in the front turret, and four in the rear.
The Mk I had that ‘double fronted ’ look, rather like a Lancaster. The Series 2 had gun positions either side of the fuselage, but only 25 of those were ever built. The Series 3 had the new more powerful Merlin XX engines and an increased fuel capacity, and this eventually evolved into the B Mk II series, which became the “standard” operational Halifax.
The Mk II had four Brownings in the tail, 4four in the upper gun turret and a single gun in the nose. I have a great affection for the Mk II, as it was flown by the crew featured in Above Us the Stars for the entire duration of their operational tour.
So … it was all looking good for Bomber Command. It had its brand new four- engined heavy bomber, which was much better than anything the Germans had… except for one thing.
It was a death trap.”
Why did the earlier Halifaxes have such a bad reputation? Was this justified?
“The design was constantly being tinkered with, and as a result the aircraft got heavier and heavier as more equipment was added on. Naturally, the aircraft became increasingly difficult to fly. The newly fitted upper gun turrets caused a lot of drag, as did the flame damping exhaust system, which was also visible to enemy night-fighters. The engines just weren’t powerful enough for what it what the aircraft was expected to do. There were also problems with the tail design , which meant that the aircraft was likely to stall when trying to take evasive action (for example if the pilot had to throw the aircraft into a corkscrew manoeuvre to evade searchlights or enemy fighters).
The Halifax soon began to develop a reputation for being a dangerous aircraft to fly in, shoddily built and technically unreliable, and there were heavy losses not just in combat but also due to accidents in training.
Working closely with the Air Ministry, the aircraft was put through a stringent programme of adjustment and testing by the Handley Page team, resulting in the Halifax B Mk II Series 1. The front turret disappeared altogether and was replaced with a streamlined nose fairing. Some of the bulky mid upper gun turrets were removed, and many other adjustments made the Halifax lighter and more streamlined.
As a result of this re-design, it was half a ton lighter than its predecessors. The Halifax B MkII Series 1 was first flown on 15th August 1942 and rolled out to Squadrons in 4 Group Bomber Command that Autumn.
However, despite the considerable effort and significant expense, it was still a pile of junk and heavy losses continued.
Back to the drawing board…
The Air Ministry decide to carry out tests on aircraft that had been flying operationally to try to establish where the problems lay. Their investigations revealed a panoply of problems, including:
- Poor construction in the factories, compounded by poor maintenance on Squadron.
- Poor take off performance – the slightest mistake by the pilot could be fatal.
- The aircraft rarely reached its ‘operational ceiling’ – it didn’t get much beyond 15,000 ft, and only 13,000 ft in hot weather. This made it a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe and German anti-aircraft defences.
- Pilots couldn’t take sudden evasive action otherwise they would just lose control; this was not ideal by any stretch of the imagination.
Test flights were arranged to investigate the problems, but the test crew were all killed on their first flight. That could have marked the end of the Handley Page Halifax, but when the wreckage was examined, it was quickly established that part of the rudder had been torn off, which meant the aircraft was uncontrollable.
The designers and test engineers eventually worked out the problem was with the shape of the tail fins; the triangular shaped originals were redesigned into a square D shape, which solved the stalling problem immediately.
Now we have the B Mk II Series 1A which started to be dished out to Squadrons in June 1943. The 1As also had some other notable differences to their predecessors, not least the new sexy Perspex nose cone, and a low profile more aerodynamic upper gun turret. It’s basically a completely different aircraft.
What was it like on board for the crews?
“One of the two remaining Halifaxes on British soil, Friday 13th, lovingly restored and cared for, can be found at the Yorkshire Air Museum. One cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer size of the beast. It is enormous. The wingspan is vast, the four Bristol Hercules engines huge; thoughts automatically turn to the crews of these aircraft, many of them just boys. The inside of the aircraft seems so much smaller than one would expect, a sort of Tardis in reverse. Access is by means of a ladder and small door behind the port wing.
Behind the pilot, facing in the opposite direction, is the flight engineer, with his panels of controls, dials and fuel gauges. A drop-down seat is located on the wall of the fuselage just opposite, though in reality a flight engineer was usually kept so busy that he barely had time to sit down once the aircraft had taken off.
A drop-down seat was also available for a passenger (usually a trainee pilot learning the ropes, or a Special Operations Executive agent who was to be dropped by parachute behind enemy lines).
On the other side of the wireless operator’s position, and further towards the front of the aircraft, is the navigator’s table, his maps and charts and calculations spread out before him, his compasses and navigation equipment mounted onto panels at eye level. A double drop-down seat accommodated both the navigator and the bomb aimer, until it was time for the latter to take his position in the nose.
The bomb aimer would normally aid the navigator, as he had little to do until the aircraft began to approach its target. There is so little room that the navigator sat almost “knee to knee” with the wireless operator.
Further back, on the “backbone” of the aircraft, is the mid upper gunner’s position; he would have to lift an access hatch which doubled as his seat once he was in position, climb up into a harness and sit in his perspex bubble, ready to swivel round his four Browning machine guns in case of attack by Luftwaffe fighters. Constantly on the lookout for enemy aircraft, and with a 360-degree view, he couldn’t allow his concentration to lapse for a single moment.
It would be wrong to place more importance on any particular crew role, or indeed to downplay any other. Each crew member was essential to the functioning of the aircraft, the successful execution of its mission and the survival of his comrades.
Why is it less famous than the Lancaster and is this fair?
“We as a nation have a love affair with the Spitfire and the Lancaster. You would think they were the only two aircraft the British flew in the Second World War. I think that’s partly to do with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – those are the aircraft with which many people are most familiar, and which are rightly loved and venerated.
The Avro Lancaster gets all the attention, perhaps because of its almost mythological status in connection with Operation Chastise, and because it’s still flying, but also because there were more Lancasters built. The Lancaster was by far the better aircraft when compared to the Halifax Mk 1 and Mk 2, and it could take a bigger bombload; however, there was very little difference between a Halifax Mk III (and subsequent marks) and the Lancaster, in terms of performance and capability. But watch any war film about the bombing campaign and it’s very unlikely that you’ll see a Halifax – it’s just not really a part of our national consciousness or the current ‘collective memory’ of strategic bombing by the RAF.
The somewhat cramped interior is anything but luxurious – bare metal mainly, painted pale green, across which run miles of cables, pipes and wires. A single rudimentary Elsan toilet (basically a bucket with a lid) constitutes the bathroom facilities. At the nose of the aircraft, almost on the underbelly, is a large perspex bubble, where the bomb aimer would lie on his stomach, trying to visually identify the target, before pressing the button which released the payload. The pilot sits high up on the left, with the radio operator’s position tucked into a cubbyhole beneath him.
There’s just enough space for one man at a time to walk to the rear. There are several steps to negotiate, and the atmosphere on board is incredibly claustrophobic.
Then, right at the far back of the aircraft, far away from the rest of the crew, with whom he could only communicate by intercom, was the “tail-end Charlie” or rear gunner, in the most isolated, vulnerable and awkward spot from which to escape in the entire aircraft. At his disposal were four Browning machine guns, each supplied with 2500 rounds of ammunition ( that sounds a lot but in reality, it’s only around two and half minutes’ worth). The rear gunner’s position is incredibly cramped, and its occupant would sit there for hours at a time, his knees tucked up towards his chest, unable to stretch out or move around. The turret is too small to store belts of ammunition; instead, the bullets were fed into the turret along a hydraulic track positioned in the main body of the aircraft. Many gunners never fired a single bullet in anger; there was no point wasting valuable ammunition unless an enemy aircraft was spotted approaching and was within range.
As most bombers would be targeted by enemy fighters approaching from the rear, the rear gunner was incredibly vulnerable. He was also at risk from bombs falling from higher aircraft. Several aircraft arrived back at their bases with their rear turret (and their rear gunner) missing, sheared off by a falling bomb. At the height of the Bomber Command campaign ( mid 43 to mid 44), a rear gunner would be lucky to survive five missions.
I’ve interviewed veterans who flew both – several said they actually preferred the Halifax.
The Halifax did have a couple of advantages over the Lancaster; its sectional construction meant that it was likely to break into sections during a crash landing, which increased the survivability for the crews; statistically it was slightly easier to bale out of Halifax than a Lancaster. The Lancaster’s central spar made escape very difficult, and the escape hatches were smaller.
The Halifax is massively popular in Canada, because so many Canadian crews flew it, both in 6 Group Bomber Command, and in other groups. Something like 70% of all the Canadians who flew with Bomber Command flew Halifaxes, and the aircraft is still held in great affection there. There is a beautifully restored Halifax at the RCAF Museum in Trenton which was fished out of fjord in Norway; the same team, led by Karl Kjarsgaard, are currently involved in raising another.
I think the fact that the Halifax is largely ignored here is partly because Sir Arthur Harris loathed it…”
Why? What did Bomber Harris think about the Halifax?
“The Lancaster was his darling. He famously did not get on with Sir Frederick Handley Page and he called the Halifax a ‘perpetual embarrassment’. Harris blamed it for the large proportion of Bomber Command losses, even though the figures didn’t entirely stack up.
Harris hated the Halifax so much he even lobbied to get production scrapped entirely; he was only ever interested in the Lancaster. However, much to his disgust, production continued right throughout the war. The Air Ministry told him in no uncertain terms to get on with it and make use of whatever resources he had. Huge amounts of money, time, natural resources and lives had been put into the development and production of this aircraft.
However, Harris’ views certainly made Handley Page pull their socks up, and the later Marks of Halifax had a hugely improved performance.
There is absolutely no doubt though that in early 1944, the situation was dire indeed. Losses in later 1943/early 1944 ( particularly during the Battle of Berlin) were so high that Harris ordered the complete withdrawal of Halifaxes from bombing operations over Germany, unless there was a “maximum effort” raid, when it was a case of all hands (and aircraft) to the pump. In the meantime the Halifax Squadrons were focused on mine laying operations in preparation for the forthcoming invasion, or attacks on transportation targets on France. This was an incredibly valuable contribution to the war effort and one which is so often overlooked in the historiography of the strategic bombing campaign.
Losses of Halifaxes continued to mount. I’ve researched the experiences of 10 Squadron over this period . 10 Squadron was a typical Halifax bomber Squadron, and by this stage of the war was based at RAF Melbourne in Yorkshire, which was part of 4 Group Bomber Command.
10 Squadron lost 4 Halifaxes in one night in Jan 1944 (bear in mind a squadron would usually have 20-22 operational aircraft, some of which were probably in maintenance, so to lose maybe 20% of your operational force in one night is devastating). By 20th February 1944, the Squadron had lost 10 aircraft and 70 men in the space of a month, which was typical of other Squadrons in the group at that time.
After a disastrous raid on Leipzig on 19th February, in which Bomber Command lost 78 aircraft, the Halifax Mk IIs were withdrawn completely from operations over Germany. 34 of the 255 Halifaxes sent out that night were lost, an attrition rate of over 13%.
However – all was not lost for the Handley Page Halifax. By this time, the Mk III was already being introduced and delivered to Squadrons. 10 Squadron took delivery of their first Mk III on 7th March 1944.”
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So what was different about the Halifax Mk III?
“The Mk III was an absolute game changer.
As early as late 1942, the plans for the Mk III were already well underway – a prototype flew in October 1942, and the first Mk III rolled off the production line on 29th August 1943. Throughout the War, we see this constant process of evolution and refinement as both production techniques and the onboard technology evolve.
Everybody raves about the famous Merlin engines, which powered so many other aircraft of the period, but the Halifax and the Merlin were not a match made in heaven.
For the Mk III Halifax, the Merlin inline engines were replaced by Bristol Hercules radial engines. They were also fitted slightly lower on the wing ; along with other refinements, the result is a massively improved performance.
- Up weight of 65,000 lb
- Bombload of 13, 000 lb
- Top speed 282 mph
- Ceiling of 24,000 feet
- Maximum range 2350 miles.
- Initial wing span same as earlier marks 98 ft 8 inches, later increased to 102ft 4 inches.
- More Mk IIIs produced than any other Mk, and it was eventually used by 41 different Sqns, the majority in 4 group ( the group to which 10 Sqn belonged) and the RCAF Sqns of Group 6. In fact Group 6 were the first to take delivery of the Halifaxes in November 1943, before they were eventually rolled out across Bomber Command. This marked the beginning of a long love affair between Canada and the Halifax, which continues today, as previously mentioned.
By early 45, we’re onto the Mk VI, which was even better still than the Mk III, and which outperformed the Lancaster. It had a higher up weight, faster rate of climb, and was slightly faster. It had a new more efficient fuel system, but the Mk VI was only really rolled out to Squadrons in February/March 1945, so it’s difficult to assess its impact. However, by the end of the war the Halifax was already being phased out in favour of the Lancaster. 6 Group’s Halifaxes were being replaced with Lancasters. The vast majority were scrapped after the war, although a few did take part in the Berlin airlift, or were used as cargo/transport aircraft; some were bought by the Egyptian and Pakistan Air forces. And then the Halifax pretty much disappeared.
What should I have asked?
“About the pigeons! Yes, that’s right – pigeons. The early marks were all supplied with two homing pigeons who travelled on board and were kept in a basket behind the flight engineer and the wireless operator’s positions. If the aircraft was forced to ditch in the sea, the wireless operator would write out the coordinates of the aircraft’s position put the message into the little canister on the pigeon’s leg and send them on their way. There are recorded instances of crews being rescued by this very low-tech method!”
Jane Gulliford Lowes is an author and historian from County Durham. Her second book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story was published in 2020 and tells the true story of 20-year-old Jack Clyde and his Halifax bomber crew at the height of the strategic bombing campaign.
“If one was looking for an account of how it was for RAF Bomber Crews, this is as good as it gets…a wonderful and beautifully written publication, probably the most engaging account of an ‘ordinary’ bomber crew member and his comrades that this reviewer has ever had the privilege of reading” – Andy Saunders, for History of War Magazine.
You can read more of Jane’s work at www.justcuriousjane.com.