10 MORE of the Worst British military aircraft

10 more terrible warplanes from the United Kingdom

Image credit: Canon Bob/talkphotography.co.uk The Supermarine Swift was best at low level.

Back in 2016 we lambasted 10 air-shits from the land of curry-stained sportswear, regret and high-speed prime ministerships. Today we return to Europe’s dodgy uncle, to handpick a further 10 appalling aeroplanes to drag through the cobbled streets, lock in stocks and throw rotten Greggs pasties at. Some were diabolically dangerous ideas, some wayward money pits and others the unfortunate victims of bad luck, either way they all are aircraft that should have never left the hangar. Gulp down your tea from a polystyrene cup, wrap your body in Union Jack bunting and talk a drizzly walk down a Zone 6 suburb named shame, for here are 10 more terrible British military aircraft.

(The Beardmore Inflexible was saved from inclusion by being German)

10. RAF BE.9 ‘Pulpit’ (1916) ‘Hellfire from the pulpit’

The worst aspect of the BE.9 was undoubtedly the precarious position of the gunner: ahead of the propeller in a pulpit-like plywood nacelle. The reasoning for this alarming configuration was that it would combine the best feature of a pusher, an unrivalled forward field of fire, with the high performance of a tractor (an aircraft with the propeller at the front). However, the propeller was unshielded, and the only thing that prevented the gunner being sucked into the propeller and processed into human pastrami was his deathly tight grip on his Lewis gun. This successfully made what was already one of the most dangerous jobs in human history, even more perilous. To add to the danger, the placement of an engine and propeller between gunner and pilot effectively prevented meaningful communication, something vital for any reasonable chance of survival. The ‘Pulpit’ was too mad for even the Royal Flying Corps, and its mediocre performance was not worth the likely risks.

The BE.9 was an attempt to counter a German technological lead that was costing British lives. The German Fokker Eindecker had arrived on the Western Front in 1915 armed with machineguns that could fire safely through the propeller arc thanks to an interrupter gear. This allowed easy accurate fire and proved devastating to opposing Allied aircraft. The BE.9 was developed as the British had so far failed to create a reliable comparable interrupter gear. However, in August 1916, at the time the BE.9 was first being flown, a more practical solution to forward-firing machine-guns had arrived in the form of the Constantinesco interrupter gear, happily allowing plans for BE.9 production to be quietly dropped.

-Joe Coles

9. Westland PV.7 (1933) ‘Penrose in the thorns’

The story of how test pilot Harald Penrose ended up breathless in a field holding frantically trying to hold up his buttonless trousers is a cautionary one.

The chief designer, of the PV.7, Arthur Davenport, had been reluctant to accept that the aircraft had issues with wobbly insecure wings. In an early flight he had been on board, Davenport demanded Penrose dive to prove the aircraft safe. A modest dive satisfied Davenport, but Penrose insisted on showing the over-confident designer a faster dive with full aileron. Davenport, secretly knowing the limitations of his design, interrupted by shouting, “Stop it! You’ll tear the wings off!”

Despite this test flying continued. The Air Ministry wished the PV.7 to perform overload diving tests with the centre of gravity moved further back. As Penrose took off for this test, a telegram arrived from the manufacturer to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment urgently warning that the flight must be cancelled. The manufacturer, Westland, claimed that they had just discovered the aircraft was too weak to withstand such an experiment. The PV.7 was a high brace winged monoplane and, like its stablemate, the rather weird Pterodactyl, had a tendency to wing torsional flexure (overly bendiness) at higher speeds. The telegram arrived too late and Penrose carried out the manoeuvre. While diving through unexpectedly rough air, the port rear main bracing strut failed catastrophically. The left wing left the aircraft, slicing off the tailplane as it did so. Penrose battled high Gs to escape through the tiny side door and successfully parachuted from the cartwheeling aircraft (the first escape from a British aircraft with an enclosed cockpit). Penrose’s ankles were badly injured by a hard landing, after which a strong gust of window caught his ‘chute and dragged him across a stubble field. Fortunately, a hedge stopped the bewildered test pilot and he struggled to his feet. An ‘attractive young lady’ peered through the hedge as the pilot struggled to hold up his now buttonless trousers and asked him if needed help.

The aircraft had been built to meet Air Ministry specification G.4/31, which included dive-bombing. Dive-bombing requires an extremely strong airframe, something the PV.7 clearly did not have. (The overly ambitious G.4/31 requirement was then won by the Vickers-Armstrong Type 253 biplane. But Vickers designers knew the 253 to be obsolete and instead schemed a far superior monoplane, which with a similar Pegasus engine was 70mph faster, could carry twice the load and had twice the range. This monoplane was the extraordinary Wellesley.) Westland failed to kill Penrose with the PV.7, but tried again with the Welkin (which gave him pneumonia) and the Wyvern (which would give any pilot the chills) – but he somehow survived all of these assassination attempts.

In the same way that most 20th century biographies feature a horrible father siring a great hero or heroine, the beastly PV.7 led to the wonderful Westland Lysander.

-Joe Coles

8. BAC TSR2 ‘Tory ‘spiracy rants 2’

In nominating the TSR2 as my choice of the worst British aircraft, I do so without making any adverse comment on the efforts of those highly skilled personnel at the British Aircraft Corporation and its predecessor companies who were engaged in the programme. Yes, it experienced teething troubles during its truncated flight test effort, but which advanced new aeroplane doesn’t? In that sense, there have been many far worse British aircraft — plenty, indeed, that should never have progressed any further than the drawing-board, if that. The likelihood is that those maladies would, given time, have been ironed out, with the result being an effective operational type. Again, nothing unusual there.

Rather, my antipathy towards the TSR2 concerns the way in which it has become totemic as a symbol of British decline, and, worse, of the simplistic notion that the nation’s military capability is unsafe under a Labour administration. Most readers of this piece will be familiar with the arguments. They have it that, with the TSR2’s cancellation, Britain’s aviation industry was dealt a blow from which it never recovered; that without the infamous decision by Harold Wilson’s government, we would have gone on producing indigenously designed front-line military aircraft in our own factories, without the need to engage in multi-national collaboration. Oh, I nearly forgot: I should have stressed, as so many authors for some reason feel the need to do, that it was down to Harold Wilson’s Labour government, lest anyone forget which party wielded the axe.

In both cases, its symbolism is entirely specious. It would, in my view, be a romantic, even a naïve observer who feels a go-it-alone attitude could have persisted much longer in the case of major programmes such as the TSR2. Never has any credible, hard evidence been presented to support theories of deliberate American sabotage of broader TSR2 sales prospects, such as to Australia. In any case, an Australian order would in no way have ridden to the programme’s rescue, and it is generally considered not to have been the right aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force — unlike the F-111, which was selected instead. Those who similarly contend, with hindsight’s benefit, that the TSR2 was the wrong aircraft for the RAF also have a point. This was an air force increasingly optimised for conventional operations on NATO’s Central Front, rather than the delivery of tactical nuclear weapons east of Suez or deep inside Warsaw Pact territory. Again, the TSR2 and its crews may very well, once in-service maturity had been achieved, have performed most effectively in any assigned role. But, in a quote attributed to various individuals down the years, it was a very expensive way of delivering high explosive.

And therein lies the nub of the TSR2 issue. It had simply become too costly. To cancel a project on the basis of significant budget over-runs, both existing and projected, was and is nothing unusual. In this instance, it can be seen to make sense. Without canning the TSR2, it is likely the pan-European MRCA programme would never have been embarked upon, yet in the resulting Tornado the RAF received a type very much optimised to the realities of both the developing strategic environment and the prevailing economic situation. Yet still, after more than half a century, there is widespread refusal to face up to these basic truths. Britain couldn’t afford it. International collaboration was inevitable and advantageous. None of the conspiracy theories about overseas interference, the rapid destruction of the jigs and toolings, Harold Wilson being a clandestine Commie and so forth hold water. And Conservative governments were responsible for just as many significant project cancellations during their contemporary periods in office as were Labour ones.

The TSR2 was not a bad aircraft. But its influence on decades of discussion about British aviation, and specifically British defence procurement, has been uniquely malign.

Ben Dunnell, Editor of The Aeroplane

7. Hawker Tornado ‘Shitenado’

The fast well-armed Tornado got everything right, well apart from the wings, cockpit and engine. It is saved from a higher ranking by dint of rarity, as mercifully only four were created. Its tiny cursed life makes it all the stranger that the name would make a comeback in the 1970s starting a convention of naming European fighter-bomber after flawed Hawker designs from the 1940s. Weirder still, the namesake designs would be twin-engined, an approach detested by Hawker.

6. Nimrod AEW.MK 3/MRA.4 ‘Psychopathia Cometrosexualis’ + ‘Black Rod’

“Is it not a fact that the Mark 3 Nimrod saga is the worst procurement scandal since World War II? Will my right honourable friend have the courage to grasp the nettle and not put more good money after bad, but rather procure the E3A Sentry, which works, and which will bring commonality with the rest of air defences in western Europe?”MP John Wilkinson, House of Commons debate, 11 February 1986

Perhaps subconscious, was there a modicum of nostalgia in Britain’s overly long relationship with the Nimrod? The Nimrod was a derivative of the first jet airliner, the Comet and as such, looking to US airframes may have been a sad reminder that grand British visions of aviation supremacy were long gone. The Comet and later the Nimrod had a protracted history of representing the best and worst of British aeronautical endeavours. The odd mixture of great ideas let down by carelessness, bodging improvisation or overly ambitious attempts at domestic solutions.

The Shackleton AEW2 was as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Much like the tiresome line about the chocolate fireguard it should have been retired in the mid 1970s (along with the chocolate teapot joke and the EE Lightning).

By the 1980s, the bizarre British reluctance to properly funding AEW&C aircraft left them what was essentially a 1940s bomber with a 1940s radar set. The Shackleton had no place in 1980s warfare and Britain set a course to make its next AEW&C, the best in the world. This new aircraft was intended to be better than the US’ E-3 as it would not have the obvious blindspot that a radar dish on the upper side has, instead the radars were in obscenely bulging nose and tail fairings and their ‘radar picture’ would be cleverly stiched together to form one fabulous all-round view. This advanced notion would have one element of risk and cost removed by using an existing proven airframe, that of the RAF’s Nimrod, a superb anti-submarine and maritime attack aircraft. Like pretty much all British defence programmes that happened during the Thatcher years (see SA80 for details) it was a disastrous and expensive project. The technology was really pushing the limit of what was possible, the central computer was expected to process data from the two radar scanners (which refused to sinc), the ESM (signal gathering) system, IFF (to identify friends or foes) and inertial navigation systems with a comically tiny 2.4MB. Meantime between failures was two hours (despite data loading taking 2.5 hours). There was also technical issues relating to detection and resolution of slow moving targets, such as maritime and land vehicles.The US JSTARS (below) aircraft would use Sideways Looking Airborne Radar to perform the latter, but the AEW3 antennae ‘looked’ fore and aft, not side-to-side, and were unsuitable. Among myriad other issues, the sensors were also confused by ocean waves. The technology could not be made to work and it left the British taxpayer with a staggering £1 billion loss with nothing to show for it. Essentially the aspiration of the project was a good one: two antennae pointed in opposite directions able to be integrated to provide a 360 deg picture (very much like today’s successful electronically scanned Wedgetail). The BIG problem being that airborne e-scan radars hadn’t been invented yet.

Britain learnt its lesson and never attempted a high tech upgrade of the Nimrod again. Well, not until the 1990s anyway, when it decided to junk all the systems in the trusted Nimrod MR.2 and replace them all, including wings, engines, sensors and weapon systems with lovely new stuff. Pretty soon it was £789 million over-budget and over nine years late. Rumours abounded that the irregularities in the size of pre-digitally constructed aircraft had not been taken into consideration and many components simply did not fit. Safety tests in 2010 found there were several hundred design non-compliances, including bomb bay doors functionality, and question marks about the landing gear and fuel pipe safety. The MRA.4 cost billions, and its failure left the UK without adequate defence of its waters for several years.

Some would argue that the MR4 was a missed opportunity, and could have been excellent. The case for the MRA4 would cite its superb mission system, which formed the basis of the Poseidon which eventually took the role, coupled with a massively more efficient propulsion system than the older Nimrod. Concerns leading to its cancellation included the risk of converting old airframes, each of which were likely to have had different corrosion issues, and worries regarding airworthiness management raised by the Haddon-Cave report into the tragic loss of Nimrod MR2 XV230 over Afghanistan in 2006. The aircraft was brought down by a British tradition more foolhardy than than cheese-rolling, that of adding a dangerous new flaw to the Nimrod every ten years*. But, recognising the risks, the aircraft were to have new-build wings, and the issues concerning XV230 should have been able to be resolved given lessons learned from the report. However, the government lost confidence in the suppliers’ ability to deliver the programme, and later opted for the US P-8 Poseidon instead, where risks generally fall on the US Navy and Australia. BAE Systems had also been very wary about its commercial position in relation to the project and the rising costs. Regardless of ‘what-iffery’ the actual result of MRA4 was a ‘capability holiday‘ and lot of money lost.

* “Design flaws introduced at three stages played a crucial part in the loss of XV230. First, the original fitting of the Cross-Feed duct by Hawker Siddeley12 in about 1969. Second, the addition of the SCP by British Aerospace13 in about 1979. Third, the fitting of the permanent Air- to-Air Refuelling modification by British Aerospace in about 1989.”

5. De Havilland Venom NF.3 ‘Steamy Widowmaker’ (1953)

CREDIT: Mary Evans collection

Quite how the superb Vampire transmuted into the nightmarish NF.3 is anybody’s guess, but what is clear is that as an all-weather night fighter the NF.3 was a catastrophe. Let us start with the NF.3’s single engine, which had a tendency to flame-out, stop or catch fire. As much of the aircraft was ‘fuel-soaked wood’, fires spread extremely rapidly. One would hope for a reliable fire warning system for such a risky aircraft, but this would have been unjustified optimism, as the erratic system often gave false warnings. Crew were instructed to escape the aircraft in the event of an engine fire, though no ejection seats were provided. The two crew sat cramped side-by-side with a cockpit insufficiently roomy for the new ‘bone-dome’-style helmets. Visibility was practically zero from the windshield in rain (hardly ideal for an all-weather fighter), it would mist up at high altitude, and had a tendency to crack. The A.I.21 radar, the primary sensor, suffered extremely poor serviceability. The fuel gauges lied, the electrical system was unreliable, the aircraft was exhaustingly unstable demanding constant attention, it had lower performance than the earlier far lighter NF.2, the air brakes were poor and provided no use at all below 200 knots… the catalogue of failings goes on and on. We’ll leave the final word to Flying Officer Paul Hodgson as quoted in Peter Caygill”s brilliant book, Jet Jockeys, ‘The Venom NF.3 was the most unpleasant aircraft I have ever flown, and perhaps, the least suited for its intended role.’

4. Supermarine Attacker ‘The Spiteful Death of the Spitfire”

Flush from the success of making 22 slightly different versions of the same aircraft during World War Two Supermarine submitted a design to fill an Air Ministry requirement for a single engine jet-propelled fighter with a laminar flow wing. At this point the cynical aerosexual may think Joe Smith’s design team were phoning it in. While the good comrades at Mikoyan-Guervich were developing the MiG-15, Supermarine devised a way to put the same Nene turbojet in a Spiteful. Which if we’re being honest should just have been called the Spitfire Mk 25.
After the RAF lost interest in an aircraft whose performance was no better than the jets it already possessed Supermarine needed to find someone with a vague contempt for its aircrew to sell the Attacker to. Enter the Admiralty. To navalise it Supermarine added an arrestor hook and, showing the contempt for naval aviation that produced the Seafire, a derisory wingfold that reduced each wing’s span by about three feet. This would lead to the loss of at least two Attackers which had their controls lock up in flight after one of the wings folded, the first conducting a ‘safe’ 200 knots landing while the pilot of the second made the perfectly reasonable decision to eject. The use of an enlarged, but otherwise unmodified, Spiteful wing also meant the Supermarine design team provided the RN with the last tail dragging jet fighter to enter front line service, three years after the Yak-15.
By the time this happened in August of 1950 the US Navy’s F9F Panther had already scored its first kill over Korea. Which showed what you could do with a straight wing and a Rolls-Royce Nene derivative if you put your mind to it. For example, it had the benefit of hydraulicly boosted controls which gave Grumman’s cat lighter control forces and a faster roll rate. While a Panther pilot managed to down four MiG-15 in 35 minutes the Attacker was attempting mock dogfights with the Meteor where its performance was described as that of a ‘very average aircraft’.
Only in front line service from 1950 to 1954 true to form Supermarine managed to cram three variants into this short period, the final FB2 allowing the option of carrying bombs or rockets in addition to the four 20-mm cannon. In an apparent attempt to damage relations with the newly formed nation of Pakistan a de-navalised version of the latter was pressed on their air force as the only foreign sale, entering service in 1951 and equipping one squadron until they were replaced with F-86 Sabres in 1956. Which is what they probably wanted in the first place.
Some may attempt to excuse the Attacker’s lacklustre capabilities as Supermarine’s first try at a jet. But given how woeful the follow-on attempts were maybe fighters just weren’t their thing.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up. He is a contributing author to The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes

3. Tarrant Tabor ‘Godalminger’

Walter George Tarrant was a developer in Surrey and the Tarrant Tabor serves to demonstrate that it is not necessarily a good idea to let a builder make an aeroplane. The first thing one can’t help but notice is that the Tabor was, appropriately enough, the size of a building, and quite a big building at that. On completion it was, in fact, the world’s largest aircraft, and was intended to fly from British bases to bomb Berlin. Designed by Walter Barling and Marcel Lobelle (who would later be responsible for the highly successful Fairey Swordfish), the Tabor featured a vast and beautifully made lightweight wooden monocoque fuselage built of layered ply veneers that possessed great strength and an excellent aerodynamic shape. As originally designed it was to be a biplane featuring four 600hp Siddeley Tiger engines mounted in push/pull pairs. Unfortunately, production of the engines was delayed and the decision was taken to use six 450hp Napier Lions instead and add a third wing above the existing two. Four of the Lion engines were mounted in pairs as before but with the further two added between the upper two wings, a decision that was to have calamitous results.

The war for which the Tabor was designed came to an end before the aircraft was complete but construction continued as it was thought that it might make an excellent transport aircraft. Completed in May 1919, the Tabor was awesome to behold, with a wingspan 6 metres greater than an Avro Lancaster this was an aircraft that was vast by the standards of the day but its 11.36 metre (37ft 3in) height was utterly unprecedented. On 26 May after taxiing in a mile-wide circle to check ground handling, the first take off was attempted. Pilots Dunn and Rawlings accelerated the huge machine across the field, then the two upper engines were throttled up, the Tabor pitched forward and buried its nose expensively in the ground and all five of the crew on board were seriously injured (sadly Dunn and Rawlings both died later of their injuries).

To be fair, it may not have been entirely due to the problematic placement of the engines that the Tabor’s first attempt at flight proved so disastrous. The situation may also have been affected by the half ton of lead that was shoved into the nose just before the first flight (against the designers’ wishes) due to fears the Tabor might prove tail heavy. 

And that would have been that – but then General Billy Mitchell somehow contrived to have Walter Barling design a distinctly familiar-looking six-engine triplane bomber of enormous size, the XNBL-1, for US service. No one could accuse Barling of failing to learn from his mistakes as this time all the engines were sensibly mounted between the lowest wings. Unfortunately the triplane layout proved to be essentially a built-in headwind and the huge aircraft could not exceed 154km/h (96mph) and boasted the tremendous range of 270 km (170 miles) rendering it essentially useless. This also suggests that, had it flown, the only thing that would have proved impressive about the Tabor were its insane dimensions. The XNBL-1 was unceremoniously burned in 1930. Meanwhile WG Tarrant built many houses all over Britain and, perhaps wisely, never attempted to construct an aircraft again.  

2. Hawker Typhoon ‘The Sabre Rattler’

by Edward Ward (with some nitpicking by Calum E Douglas)

An undoubtedly charismatic aircraft, the wartime RAF would nonetheless have been better off had it never had to deal with the brutish Typhoon. Despite being the first British fighter with a genuine 400 mph capability, and eventually possessed of a fearsome reputation as a ground attack fighter (a role, significantly, for which it had never been intended) the fact is that there was little that the Typhoon offered that could not be matched or bettered by other aircraft and with significantly less chance of experiencing engine seizure, or catching fire, or gassing the pilot, or simply falling apart in the process. No other major combat type used by the British Commonwealth caused so much heartache.

Intended as a replacement for both Hawker’s own supremely successful Hurricane and an obscure little fighter called the Spitfire, the new Hawker F18/37 airframe was sensibly ordered with two alternative brand new (massive) engine designs, the Vulture from Rolls-Royce and Napier’s Sabre powering aircraft named the Tornado and Typhoon respectively. Both offered power in the 2000 hp class and in the event one were to prove unsuccessful the programme could go ahead utilising the other. Unfortunately both proved to be, at best, highly problematic. To be fair to Napier, although the Sabre was (initially at least) woefully unreliable and prone to catastrophic failure, the Vulture was worse still and quickly discarded. Nonetheless the heavy and complicated Sabre’s reliability was appalling: when the Typhoon entered squadron service in 1941 the time between major overhaul of the Sabre was a mere 25 hours (though regularly it failed to achieve even this pathetic total and seized). For context, the recommended time between overhaul of the Rolls-Royce Merlin in the same tine period was 240 hours. 25 hours is the same figure as the famously unreliable Jumo 004 turbojets of the Me 262 of 1945 but the Jumo represented the application of a completely new technology in a failing state where the supply of even basic materials was impossible and the industrial complex was in the process of collapse – a situation that could not be said to apply to Napier’s Acton factory in 1941. Throughout 1942 Napier farted about with experimental superchargers trying to improve the Sabre’s altitude performance without attending to its basic reliability issues. So bad was the situation that the Government enforced the takeover of Napier by the English Electric company who promptly cancelled the supercharger development and improved reliability with impressive speed.

Despite the huge improvement in the Sabre’s reliability, the engine remained difficult to start, particularly in cold weather and was prone to catching fire. If the pilot inadvertently opened the throttle more than 5/8ths of an inch, the engine would flood and fail to start (and probably catch fire). Even were the pilot to adjust the throttle correctly, if the engine failed to start first try, there was an 80% chance of it catching fire on the second attempt. This all sounds like marvellous fun and probably serves to explain why there are no Sabre powered aircraft flying today. Provided the engine started successfully, the pilot then had to contend with carbon monoxide leaking into the cockpit, a problem that was never entirely solved, necessitating the use of an oxygen mask at all times the engine was running, which was just dandy in an aircraft known for its unpleasantly high cockpit temperature. To further delight pilots and ground crew alike, the Sabre was a very loud and high-pitched engine, which may not have been dangerous but was profoundly wearing.

Happily for the pilot the Typhoon was generally easy to fly and handled well. As a fighter it was noted for its exceptional steadiness, and despite possessing 24 cylinders and weighing over a ton, the Sabre was a notably smooth engine when it wasn’t catching fire or seizing. Unfortunately the Typhoon had a bunch of other disappointments and potentially deadly problems on offer. Firstly, although it could get to 400mph it was never as fast as Hawker said it would be and its speed performance was a disappointment to manufacturer and customer alike. The relatively thick wing was prone to compressibility, a condition where localised airflow exceeds the speed of sound, which results in very high levels of drag. Furthermore climb performance was below expectation due also to the wing thickness and high wing loading – the aircraft had ended up considerably heavier than intended. But to be fair the average Typhoon pilot was probably more concerned with the propensity of the tail to fall off – an aerodynamic quirk of the elevator led to aeroelastic vibration in the tailplane (flutter) at relatively low speeds when no ‘g’ was being applied. The flutter, over time, would lead to metal fatigue and failure in the rear fuselage and the inevitable loss of the aircraft and although easily solved by structural strengthening and adjusting the elevator balance, locating the problem in the first place was difficult with many Typhoons destroyed before the problem was rectified. And if you were unlucky enough to find yourself in a Typhoon without a tail, your mood probably would not have been lifted by the fact that it was extremely difficult to get out of. Early Typhoons were fitted with car-style side-opening doors which were virtually impossible to open at speed. The top of the canopy could be jettisoned in an emergency but the fact that this configuration was nicknamed the ‘coffin hood’ gives a fair idea of the affection in which it was held and in the first nine months of its service, more Typhoon pilots were killed in accidents than through enemy action. The very first Typhoons were also possessed of an extremely poor rearward view from the cockpit. When air ace Hugh Dundas complained to designer Sydney Camm, Camm retorted that his aircraft was “so bloody fast you will not need to look behind you!” Thanks Sid. It is notable that the Typhoon eventually got one of the earliest teardrop canopies fitted to a fighter and is said to have inspired the same modification to the superlative Mustang. 

That the Typhoons problems were not just the result of exaggerated historical revisionism is made plain by the serious consideration given to cancelling the entire programme during 1942, the very moment when as the fastest British fighter it was most sorely needed to combat the Luftwaffe’s highly successful campaign of ‘tip and run’ raids utilising the new Focke Wulf Fw 190. Indeed a Typhoon contract for 270 aircraft actually was cancelled at this time. Nonetheless, the aircraft staggered on largely due to the enthusiasm of one man: Roland Beamont, CO of 609 squadron, who introduced the Typhoon to its second career of ground-attack sorties over Europe. This was lucky for the Typhoon as the Spitfire IX was available by the second half of 1942 and also possessed the performance necessary to deal with the Fw 190. Its career as a fighter bomber was famous but there is a lingering suspicion that the Typhoon was an overrated ground attack asset – postwar analysis of destroyed tanks found that only 4% of Typhoon tank claims by rocket attack could be verified but the results of this analysis are themselves questioned. What is not in doubt is the psychological effect of these attacks – however had they been delivered by another aircraft would the results have been any different? The Hurricane had already operated as a rocket firing aircraft for example, with sufficient escort to protect against interception would their losses have been any different to the more expensive and troublesome Typhoon? For Typhoon losses were themselves appalling, for example 90 were lost during August 1944 alone, virtually all to ground fire. Like all liquid-cooled aircraft, even a small calibre bullet hit to the radiator will cause the engine to seize within minutes and the almost inevitable loss of the aircraft. The P-47 Thunderbolt (coincidentally another fighter originally intended for high altitude combat), was fulfilling the same rocket firing tank-busting role for the Americans at the same time as the Typhoon was making its mark as a ground attack asset. But the Thunderbolt, with its air-cooled radial engine had an almost unbelievable ability to take battle damage and survive, there were occasions when Thunderbolts returned with entire cylinders shot off. Would British needs have been better served by simply buying or licence-producing Thunderbolts?

Even once the worst of its traits were largely ameliorated, the Typhoon programme was arguably a huge misappropriation of resources that could have been better spent elsewhere, simply on more Spitfires for example, a fact that did not go unnoticed even at the time. That the Typhoon painfully matured into a (probably) effective ground attack aircraft was due to almost superhuman persistence and was attained at the cost of many lives. Its greatest contribution was to give rise to the superlative Hawker Tempest II, powered by the Bristol Centaurus radial engine (flown on a Typhoon back in October 1941) which was likely the best RAF fighter to enter production during the war. It seems oddly fitting to the whole sorry Typhoon saga that the Tempest II failed to enter service before the end of hostilities.

Tempest II prototype

-Edward Ward

  1. Avro Manchester ‘Manchester, so much to answer for’

Of 193 Avro Manchesters that saw service, 123 were lost. It was with good reason that assignment to the Manchester was seen by many in Bomber Command as a death sentence – and the aircraft described as a ‘bastard’. Mournfully underpowered by two unreliable Vulture engines, loss of  power in one engine (an all too common event) was often disastrous. Up to February 1942, the average amount of serviceable Manchesters at once never exceeded 31*. When the Manchesters were not grounded or catching fire in flight, their were cases of hydraulic fluid spraying into the cockpit and temporarily blinding the crew. Even without engine or other system failures the unlucky aircrew were extremely cold, as there was initially no heating systems and the heated clothing intended to solve this proved dangerous. The Manchester was introduced in November 1940, and sensibly out out to pasture in 1942. The replacement of the two troublesome Vultures with four Merlins, showed the true promise of the airframe and merited a name change, to Lancaster.

-Joe Coles

(*which may seem terrible but astonishingly was better than the respective figures for the Halifax which was 23 and the Stirling at 21).

One comment

  1. Mark Laity

    There are certainly a few clunkers here, but adding the Typhoon is simply bizarre. It’s early problems are there for sure, and I would not put it among the greats, but the fact is it become an extremely effective fighter bomber. Would the the P-47 have been better, perhaps, although I doubt large scale acquisition for the RAF was feasible, but it is irrelevant. Whether or not the Jug was better does not mean the Typhoon was bad and its 20mms were far more destructive than the P-47s .5s. It is also unfair to talk about the real effectiveness of the Typhoon’s rockets, as if they were unique to the Typhoon when all the allied aircraft used them. The fact remains though that the ground attacks of Typhoons and P-47s were battle winners for the allies but German AAA made it very hazardous for anyone flying at low-level. It was the mission that was hazardous far more than the platform.

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