The June 19, 1940 Halifax-Butler coup was, predictably, a body-blow form which the British aviation industry never really recovered. The fall of the industry took place in two stages, the first being the period of uneasy armistice that lasted from June 20, 1940 through to The Great Escape in 1942. During this period, an appearance of normality acted as a cover under which critical parts of the industry were dispersed, hidden or simply destroyed while key industrial research and engineering personnel quietly departed the country. Among the key people who left in this matter were Frank Whittle who followed the route trodden by so many others - train to Liverpool, ferry over the Irish Sea to Belfast, car south to Dublin then by Pan-American Clipper to the United States. At the time this route was so well established that it became known as The Brain Drain. People asking after a colleague who was suddenly no longer at his desk were told Hes probably a little unwell, last time I saw him he looked a bit flushed.
This period had two effects. One was that the cream of British aircraft design and engine technology left the country and reassembled to set up shop elsewhere. Their first destination was Canada, but later, many of these key staff members went on to Australia and India and helped found the aviation industries there. Canada retained the Hawker/Gloster group along with Avro and Fairey. Eventually, Bristol, Westland and Short ended up in Australia while India pulled of a major coup by attracting de Havilland. In the fullness of time, much of the Canadian industry moved to Australia, forming much of the backbone of Australias Commonwealth Aircraft Industries and the multinational Alliance Aviation. De Havilland and a newcomer, Folland, became the basis of Hindustan Aviation in India. Of all the companies that left the UK between 1940 and 1942, only Fairey were to return.
The other effect was that essentially research and development in the UK came to a complete halt. Technology was frozen at the 1940 level and remained there. In 1942, when the Germans seized the Supermarine Woolston plant, the Luftwaffe was hoping to put the much-vaunted Spitfire into Luftwaffe service. They found the factory was still building Spitfire Mark Ia aircraft, essentially identical to those being produced in 1938/39. They were, of course, long obsolete by that time. Thus, when the German seized the British aircraft industry in 1942, their hopes of a sudden and dramatic increase in aircraft production capacity proved to be thwarted. Any advanced work, whether basic research or engineering, had long left the country along with the people who were capable of such developments. The British had carefully, and very efficiently denied their aircraft production capacity to the Germans.
The occupation years finished the work in question. The Germans adopted a double-pronged policy towards their captured aviation production assets. One was to identify which components were useful to them and the other was to convert what wasnt useful into producing things that were. It turned out that there wasnt much in the first category. German engineers were appalled to find out that there was virtually no level of commonality between British and German tools or machinery. British aircraft engines could, for example, use metric, imperial or whitworth spanners for their bolts - and frequently used all three in the same engine. To use British engines in German aircraft, or indeed British aircraft in German service, meant accepting a nightmarish supply situation. The Germans did use Merlin and Hercules engines for some niche applications but by and large they simply werent worth the trouble.
The obvious thing was to convert the factories over to produce German engines and aircraft. This was done but the results fell short of German expectations. British production rates were low, quality was appalling and the reliability of the products was abysmal. The Germans also didnt understand the bloody-minded relations between British management and workers. On at least one occasion, they tried to put an end to what they considered to be sabotage by shooting the management of one engineering company - only to find the workers at that company were cheering the firing squads on. It is even rumored that several other local workforces stepped up their non-cooperation in the hope the Germans would come along and shoot their management as well. While there is little doubt that the British trade unions raised non-cooperation to new heights of industrial immobility, that wasnt the real problem. The truth was that German equipment was designed to be produced by a German industrial system and it just didnt match up with the industrial methods used in Britain. Thus, the Germans half-converted factories, half tried to carry on with what they had and ended up by crippling the asset they most prized.
Even if they hadnt, a terrible blow was about to descend on the struggling British aviation industry in the form of the swarm of dark blue American Navy fighter-bombers. When the carrier air raids started in late 1944, they quickly proved to be devastating. The carriers would lurk out to sea, out of sight of land based reconnaissance, then run in, usually at night, and launch massive air strikes that would swamp a given area with hundreds, later thousands of aircraft. By the time the German Air Force could respond and move reinforcements to that area, the carriers would have recovered their planes and be gone. The Americans had excellent target intelligence from the British aviation personnel who had escaped and their bombers, striking from rooftop level, proved to be deadly efficient. Their accuracy was far from perfect of course and some of their weapons, especially the big 12.75 inch rockets, were inherently inaccurate but they were far more precise than the medium and high-level bombers pre-war planning had envisaged. The trouble was that they not only devastated their targets but they flattened most of the surrounding areas as well - and that was where the skilled workers lived. The raids in 1944/45 were bad enough; after the destruction of the German Navy in the Battle of the Orkneys in late 1945, the carriers had little else to do and their efforts in 1946/47 were truly cataclysmic.
Post-war, the British government faced two questions. Should they rebuild an aircraft industry and if so, could they? Neither question was easy to answer. Britain in 1947 was a defeated power, like the rest of Europe it had suffered the disaster of being defeated by the Germans but did not reap the benefits of the American victory. Its industry and infrastructure shattered, its people ground down by five years of occupation, its treasury empty and its international assets gone, the obvious question that anybody proposing the re-institution of an aircraft industry had to answer was, why? Britain faced no obvious enemy. Nobody in Europe could threaten them and the Americans had made it very clear they would not tolerate the resumption of hostilities in Europe by anybody. Britains every resource was needed simply to provide its people with enough food to eat and to give them homes to live in. Why build military aircraft the country did not need?
Why indeed. The simple truth was that Britain didnt need significant armed forces; indeed the return of what forces she had left (the Free British Army, the Royal Navy and the vestiges of the Royal Air Force) were more military power than she could afford. The one major asset, the Royal Navy, was quickly dispersed between the major Commonwealth powers as the Imperial Gift. The Royal Air Force (in reality, a few British-crewed squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force) consisted essentially of a handful of long-range patrol aircraft. While useful it was hardly a balanced or independent force. The army was a mixture of special forces group that had performed valuable service in preparing for the invasion of Europe and some infantry formations that had been equally valuable in the Kola Peninsula. This, at least, was a formation that had some immediate discernible value.
As 1947 moved into 1948, the chaos of post-war Europe appeared to be immovable. The Great Famine was already biting hard and only massive food aid from Italy, Spain, the U.S. and the rest of the world was preventing a human catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. In Britain, the shape of the Commonwealth was already beginning to emerge and, for traditional Britons, it was not a reassuring picture. India and South Africa had already quietly intimated that they planned to leave the Commonwealth (South Africa did so at the end of 1949, India in 1951). Australia eventually stayed in, but its membership was purely nominal and was very much secondary to its role as a founder of the Triple Alliance. The Commonwealth, in reality, became a UK-Canadian organization with a few African countries as dependencies and a scattering of bases around the world. This was the new basis of British policy and, ironically, it was actually quite a good one. It offered an opportunity for the British to punch above their weight in political terms without offering much in the way of force requirements.
The UK itself was only threatened in a very limited sense. The most probable cause of an attack was seen as being a dispute over food supplies, particularly offshore fisheries. The Baltic herring fisheries were destroyed and/or inedible and most of the North Sea fisheries had shared the same fate. By a quirk of geography and oceanography, the fishing grounds close to the UK had been spared that fate and were, with caution, usable. It was easy to imagine another European country, desperate for food, trying to seize or at least exploit, those grounds. If unpoliced, those fishing grounds could be either taken or over-fished to extinction. They had to be patrolled and protected, a task best done from the air. So there was a need for an Air Force after all.
From an air force point of view, the requirements quickly distilled down to a few simple objectives. One was to provide some form of limited air defense of the United Kingdom. This was eased by the fact that all of the countries within striking range of the UK were in as bad, if not worse, condition than Britain itself. A second task was to provide a maritime patrol capability to protect British offshore resources and the shipping needed to keep the UK supplied with essential goods. Another was to provide an air transport capability to link what was left of the Commonwealth and to provide the ability to move troops around in case threats to Commonwealth members developed.
So, a rationale for the re-founding of the Royal Air Force was established and the roles of that force were defined. This answered the first question. Now the second took over the thoughts of strategic planners. Could a new Royal Air Force be founded? The first step was to survey what assets were available and determine how best they could be used. In terms of aircraft, the answer was essentially none. The squadrons returning from Canada had been equipped with largely American aircraft supplied under MAP. These aircraft had to be returned once the war was over and those the Canadians were keeping, they needed for their own purposes. Canadian built aircraft were also needed by Canada. So, the RAF returning from Canada offered trained and experienced personnel but little else.
A second source of assets were the aircraft available in the UK after the German collapse. These were actually quite numerous and modern. As might be expected, they were primarily German types with Ta-152, He-162 and Me-262 fighters being the most common. There were a handful of ground attack aircraft, some modern Arado bombers and some old, obsolete Ju-88s plus a variety of British types used in secondary roles. This, at least, offered a foundation for an interim force.
The third source of assets was the British aircraft industry itself and here, the analysts had a very pleasant and welcome surprise. While the first-line British aircraft companies were gone, and given the state of Europe were unlikely to return, there was a second tier of small companies who had remained in place. Companies like Miles Aviation, Martin-Baker, Bolton-Paul and Airpseed had survived by flying under the radar, not drawing attention to themselves, going out of their way to present themselves as capable and reliable but essentially insignificant sub-contractors. Their design staffs had been carefully hidden but had continued work. This discovery was a godsend; the Government swiftly reorganized the small companies as a single, state-owned corporation called the British Aircraft Corporation or BAC.
The aircraft engine factories were a mess, mostly devastated by bombing and most of their key workers killed but they had survived and offered a source of powerplant production. Best of all, the remainder of their design staff had continued work and designed, in secret, a new liquid-cooled piston engine that offered much more power than the old Merlin. With the German occupation over, work on this engine could be accelerated. This gave rise to the first question. Was the new RAF to adopt piston-engined aircraft or go straight to jets?
On the surface, the answer was obvious. The piston-engined aircraft, with the sole exception of the high-altitude bomber, was obsolete. Keeping them in service, or indeed building more, was folly. Only, as is so often the case, the obvious answer was over-simplified. Jet aircraft were demonstrably more effective but they were also much more expensive to maintain, to operate and they had technical problems all of their own. In addition, they used kerosene fuel and the explosion of jet engined aircraft development had put severe strains on the supply of this commodity. Kerosene was very expensive and hard to come by. In the final analysis, most of it came from American refineries and the US made certain that its own needs were satisfied first. It would be over a decade before this situation would change.
Another factor bore heavily here. The British jet engine industry had gone to America between 1940 and 1942 and its records had either gone with it or been destroyed. Starting again would mean starting from a 1940 level of technology and that was hardly acceptable. The German jets were underpowered, the most powerful of them delivering barely 2,500 pounds of thrust and had critically short service lives, as little as 20 - 30 hours. By way of comparison, equivalent American engines were delivering more than 6,000 pounds of thrusts and had service lives measured in hundreds of hours. There were new German jets being developed that offered more power and longer service lives but development of these had proved extremely troublesome. Rolls Royce and Bristol looked at the three engines in question, the HeS-011, the Jumo-012 and the BMW-018 but quickly realized that the basic design of these engines was so faulty that they not only could not work, they could never be made to work. Initially at least, if the RAF went for jets, the engines would have to be imported and that was economically impossible.
Operating economics made the choice of a piston-engined interim generation inevitable. At first, it seemed like this requirement could be filled by the left-over Luftwaffe aircraft on British airfields. By far the most numerous fighter was the piston-engined Ta-152, an advanced version of the old FW-190D. Most of the aircraft available were the low-altitude Ta-152C model but some of the high-altitude rated Ta-152H models were also present. There were enough of the former to equip several squadrons and at least sufficient of the latter for a single specialized interceptor squadron. By the middle of 1949, this had been done and Ta-152s in British colors were to be seen flying over the UK.
This situation was hardly satisfactory but it would serve. The next question was the coastal surveillance and maritime reconnaissance role. The interim solution to this problem could also be found on British airfields although, in this case it was a British-built solution. Just before the war, the RAF had introduced the Airpseed Oxford into service as their basic navigational and gunnery trainer. The type had remained in production throughout the war as a utility and general purpose hack for Luftwaffe units and, indeed had been steadily improved. Even better, its engines were still in production. Its armament might be weak (a single light machine gun, either British .303 or German 7.92 depending on what was available and up to 250 pounds of bombs) but that was perfectly adequate for its mission. Its range was unexciting, 960 miles, but that was no problem for an aircraft intended to operate within a few miles of the coast. Critically important was the fact that it was economical and inexpensive to fly, required only minimal base facilities and was docile enough to be operable in bad weather. The Airspeed Oxford became the RAFs coastal patrol, crew trainer and general utility aircraft.
The third category, that or transport, was far less tractable. There were simply no suitable German aircraft available. Transports had never been the Germans string suite and their inventory, a mixture of ancient Ju-52s, flimsy FW-200s or the outstandingly mediocre Ju-352. Attrition had been savage and the parts of the fleet that had survived, most having been shot up beyond redemption, were worn out and unsafe to fly. The stockpile of aircraft on Britains battered airfields was of little help in fulfilling this requirement.
The solution to the problem came from Canada. Back in 1940, Avro engineers escaping from the UK had taken with them plans for a new heavy bomber, the Manchester. To call this a heavy bomber was risible by the standards of 1947 but, at the time, it was a fairly spectacular aircraft - on paper. It was a twin-engined aircraft designed to use a very powerful liquid-cooled engine, the 1,700 horsepower Vulture and to carry a 10,000 pound bombload for a tactical radius of 600 miles. Unfortunately the Vulture engine was not available in Canada and no tooling existed to build it. The Manchester, in its original form, was abandoned and it is the subject of much speculation amongst aviation enthusiasts as to what great successes this bold attempt to build a twin-engined heavy bomber might have lead.
However, the lower-powered Merlin engine was available in Canada, being built under license by Carr Foundry. Avro Canada therefore redesigned the Manchester to use four Merlins rather than two Vultures. In fact, they designed two aircraft in parallel. The first was the Lancaster, a straightforward heavy bomber adaptation of the Manchester to four engines. This design proceeded fitfully through to 1944 when it was apparent that it stood little chance of penetrating German defenses and was quietly abandoned.
The second design was considerably more successful. The Avro Canada engineers designed a large, box-shaped fuselage to which the married the four-Merlin adaptation of the Manchesters wings. This aircraft became the Avro York and went into production as a military transport. The first examples flew in April 1943 and the type entered Canadian Air Force service in May 1944. By the end of the way, more than 250 had been built and they played an important role in keeping units fighting in the Kola Peninsula supplied. While hardly and ideal or economical transport, its total personnel capacity was five crew and 24 passengers or the equivalent in freight, it was tough, reliable, relatively easy to fly and apparently indestructible. One York, on a airdrop supply flight from Murmansk to the Karelian Front became a very rare item - a transport credited with an enemy fighter kill. I-Ink was about to start its drop run when it was ambushed by a pair of Me-109K fighters. One was driven off the Russian fighter escort but the other, apparently badly damaged, deliberately rammed the lumbering York. And bounced off. As the stricken Me-109 disintegrated in mid-air, the York, although badly damaged completed its supply drop and returned to Murmansk where it was repaired and resumed its duties - with a cross painted under the Pilots cockpit.
After prolonged negotiations, the Canadians agreed to donate the surviving York transports, approximately 150 aircraft, to the British along with the plans, jigs, tooling and other production necessities. In truth, the Canadians were hardly being generous, For all its virtues, the York was obsolete and with the flood of surplus Lockheed Constellations, Douglas Skymasters and Convair Cloudliners hitting the market, there was no hope of selling any more. Getting rid of any future claims with this act of generosity was probably a shrewd deal. Nevertheless, for the British, the York, especially free Yorks, were exactly what they needed. They were supportable, usable and filled the requirements without placing too much of a burden on the nations resources. They even made reasonable airliners, especially when it is remembered that British legislation at the time forbade Britons from riding on anything other than British airliners.
So, by late 1949, the RAF was refounded and was a superficially quite adequate force. It had seven squadrons of Ta-152 fighters (six with Ta-152Cs, one with Ta-152Hs), ten squadrons of Airspeed Oxfords fulfilling a variety of roles and five of Avro Yorks. More Yorks were flying with the newly-founded British Overseas Airlines Company (BOAC) . This was a force that certainly stood comparison with anything in Western Europe.
The RAF commands, though, were not deceived by their undoubted (and highly commendable) success in raising a viable force out of dust and ashes. The present situation was not stable and could not be long-lasting. The major concern was the fighter arm. German propaganda had always presented the Ta-152 as a wonder weapon, a piston engined fighter second to none. In fact, as was so often the case with German wonder weapons, reality fell far short of the myth. The secret of the Ta-152 was a twin fuel injection system, MW-50 that injected a methanol-water mixture into the fuel mix and GM-1 that did the same with nitrous oxide. The effect of MW-50 was to significantly increase power at low altitudes, giving improved speed and acceleration. Nitrous oxide injection did the same at high altitude, when used at its maximum rate giving an extra 360 horsepower that, in theory, gave the Ta-152H a service ceiling of 48,550 feet. Unfortunately, the MW-50/GM-1 system had two problems. The capacity for the chemicals was limited, restricting boosted power to 10 minutes for MW-40 and five minutes for GM-1. After this point, the weight of the system actually resulted in performance significantly worse than the FW-190D-14. The other problem was that both injectants thoroughly wrecked the engine, causing excessive wear and premature failure. All the RAF Ta-152s had serious engine problems but the Ta-152Hs were by far the worst.
Nor was their performance all that it seemed. For some unknown reason (probably no more that youthful exuberance) an RAF Ta-152H, flown by one Pilot Officer Prune, attempted to intercept a brand new B-36P, Age of Aquarius in transit from Barksdale AFB in Louisiana to Sheremetevo AFB in Russia. High in the sky over Leeds, Prune had the experience shared by so many of his contemporaries in that era of having his aircraft hanging on its prop at around 48,000 feet while Age of Aquarius sailed serenely past, at least 3,000 feet over his head. As his GM-1 tank emptied and the power boost faded, the Ta-152H stalled went into a flat spin from which it did not recover. Prune bailed out safely at 30,000 feet and was able to report that the last thing hed seen before his aircraft stalled was Age of Aquariuss tail guns unerring tracking his Ta-152H. The incident caused a minor diplomatic spat that was resolved when the British government apologized for attempting to intercept a SAC bomber.
By then, it was already obvious that the Ta-152 would have to be replaced and, in fact, a replacement was already in the works. (To be continued).