RAF History 1951 - 53

If the Royal Air Force found difficulty in justifying its existence and in finding a mission, the Royal Navy had a more serious problem. It had the advantage of much greater assets, even after the Imperial Gift had depleted its numbers of ships to a shadow of its previous self. It also had the advantages of an enviable if shadowy war record and a pre-existing number of trained men and bases. What it didn't have was a mission. When asked what the role of the Royal Navy was in the post-war age, the answer was an introspective silence.

There was another problem. The remaining ships were capital assets, expensive to own, expensive to run. However, they were also sources of income. They could be sold, preferably as warships (because that fetched more income) but always as scrap. By the end of 1947 and early 1948 the government was selling ships for scrap on a weekly basis to pay the wages of its civil servants and other employees. On this basis, it could not even afford to provide crews for the ships it had and most of the fleet was laid up. By mid-1948, the operational Royal Navy had been reduced to four destroyers and six submarines - and was still the most powerful Navy in Northern Europe. By the middle of 1949 the situation had not improved and there was a very real possibility that the Royal Navy would completely cease to exist as an operational force.

At this point, the new First Sea Lord, Lord Louis Mountbatten, cemented his reputation as the greatest Sea Lord of the 19th and 20th centuries combined. A charismatic figure he had first gained major public notice when his destroyer, HMS Kelly had been involved in some daring operations during the Norwegian Campaign. Kelly was under repair for many months and, by the time of the Great Escape, she was in port remedying boiler defects. It was considered unlikely that she would be ready for sea and Mountbattens orders were, if he couldnt get her out, to blow her up. This, he refused to consider. When German troops broke through the port defenses, they saw the inert and apparently derelict Kelly and raced towards her to take possession. At the last minute, the destroyer opened up with her full armament in a terrible blast of gunfire that swept the wharves clean of German troops (and proved beyond any reasonable doubt that a British 4.7 inch semi-armor-piercing shell fired at a range of less than 50 feet would penetrate the frontal armor of a German Panzer Mark IV). Kelly then got under way, spraying the German invaders with gunfire as she made her way down the harbor ways. Halfway out she came under attack from four Henschel Hs-123 close support aircraft. Despite the restricted waters, she outmaneuvered their attacks and shot down all four. Then, having finally gained the open sea, Mountbatten heard that a group of British soldiers that had formed part of the rearguard were trapped in another part of the port and were running out of ammunition. Mountbatten did not hesitate, he turned Kelly around, went back into the port, found the desperate soldiers and rescued them. Then, Kelly broke out again, inflicting more carnage on the way. Several days later and running out of fuel, Kelly met the American Navy tanker Monongahela and overcame some critical differences in fueling rig to take on enough oil to get to Churchill. It is a matter of record that he insisted on paying for the US Navys fuel oil with his personal cheque (which was presented and honored). Such was the man who took over the Royal Navy at its moment of greatest crisis.

Mountbattens message was simple. The old days were gone, forget about them. The old Navy is gone, forget about it. The old rules are gone, forget about them too. The Navy had to start with a clean sheet of paper and define what it could do and why it could do it. It took three months but eventually the Royal Navy strategic staff under Mountbatten came up with a plan that specified three primary objectives. One was to work with the Royal Air Force in protecting the British Isles and its surrounding waters. That alone, the suggestion the Navy should work with another service, was revolutionary. The second role was to protect shipping, again by collaborating with the Royal Air Force. The third was more revolutionary still. Mountbatten had pointed out that the Commonwealth now consisted of a lot of small properties scattered all over the world. These were all vulnerable to an attack by a local power. They could either be defended by an Army garrison at each (requiring large numbers of troops) or by mobile task forces that could deploy themselves as required. This, of course, would require good intelligence and expenditure of large sums on the Secret Intelligence Service. In an act of amazing prescience, Mountbatten identified the primary risk as being the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. The Navy presentation was a political master-stroke, gaining the Navy the support of the RAF and the Whitehall intelligence battalions.

The Royal Navy plan identified ships that would be needed. Coastal patrol craft to protect the waters around the UK, frigates to provide trade protection capability and aircraft carriers plus their screen and fast troop transports to support the Commonwealth. Everything else should be scrapped, immediately or at the governments convenience, whichever came sooner. Land establishments were slashed back so that what money there was could be diverted to naval construction. After some anguished Cabinet debate, the Navys long-term reconstruction plan was approved and the Royal Navy was saved.

The first priority was to get the carriers back in service. On their return at the end of 1947, theyd been left in reserve and not maintained for over two years. Predictably, Formidable and Indomitable were in appalling condition and it was questionable if they could be saved. Not impossible; technically, any ship can be saved even if the repairs amount to lifting up the name plate and sliding a new ship under it. The question was, could they be saved given the resources available? More importantly, could they be modernized to handle the latest naval aircraft. The answer in the first case was yes, just, but it would take time. The answer in the second was no. The design of armored carriers precluded radical modernization except at exorbitant cost.

Oddly, this was actually a quite acceptable set of answers. A lengthy refit and partial modernization would allow the reconstruction of the Fleet Air Arm while the limitations on the carriers would prevent them gold-plating their aircraft to financial destruction. The question was, what aircraft? The RAF expedient of searching through the UKs bombed-out airfields for salvage, successful as it had been, was not an option for the Navy. As Mountbatten remarked The German is not an aquatic beast, there is no point in searching for his water wings. The Americans were approached for second-hand naval aircraft, only to be rebuffed with a withering Are you kidding us? Nobody else was in a position to supply the aircraft. The solution would have to come from within the UK

It came from the Blackburn Division of the newly founded BAC Group. In 1940 the group had started to design a heavy naval fighter powered by the Napier Sabre engine. The first prototype Firebrands had been rolled out in 1942 but had been destroyed when all hell broke loose. However, behind the scenes, Blackburn had continued to work on the design, refining it and widening the fuselage so that the aircraft could carry a torpedo. Aware that the Sabre engine would not survive the occupation, they redesigned it to use the 2,520 horsepower Centaurus radial engine. By the time of The Big One, the design was ready to go. Mountbatten gave the word and construction of the Firebrand TF.4 prototypes started at the end of 1949.

Flight trials in starting in July 1950 showed the aircraft to have some remarkable capabilities. The aircraft had a sea-level maximum speed of 350 miles per hour, almost 20 miles per hour faster than the RAFs Ta-152C. Incredibly, a Firebrand carrying a torpedo could match a clean, unloaded Ta-152C for speed. The Firebrands speed dropped off with altitude but that was a lesser consideration for a naval aircraft. In mock dogfights, the Firebrand could easily escape a Ta-152 simply by using its much greater weight to dive away, and then use its superior speed to extend and escape. Finally, the offensive warload of the Firebrand put the Ta-152 into the second-league. The big Blackburn could comfortably carry a torpedo and eight underwing rockets or up to four thousand pounds of bombs. The Firebrand may not have been the peak of aviation modernity but solid, reliable, and durable it was just what the Royal Navy needed. In June 1952, HMS Indomitable put to sea carrying a group of 30 Firebrand TF. IVA multi-role fighter-attack aircraft. The renaissance of the Royal Navy had started.


The early success of the Firebrand TF.IV might have suggested that the aircraft would serve as the RAFs much-needed replacement for the Ta-152. By 1950, this was approaching crisis point, spares for the aircraft were running out and they were becoming progressively less safe to fly. Indeed, the Firebrand might have been adopted by the RAF had it not been for the fact that they had already found a more suitable aircraft for their purpose.

This aircraft had been turned up by the same process that had resulted in the discovery of the Firebrand. The Martin-Baker Company had been investigating fighter designs and had produced the Martin Maker MB.3. The prototype of this aircraft had first flown in August 1942, just prior to the German take-over in the UK It had crashed when its Sabre engine had failed and the design had apparently been abandoned. In reality, the Martin-Baker designers had continued to refine the aircraft and produced the Martin Baker MB.5. In 1948, the RAF had ordered this aircraft developed as a Ta-152 replacement, using the new Griffon engine coming out of Rolls Royce. The prototype Martin Baker MB.5 first flew in May 1949 and proved to be a major advance over the Ta-152.

In a series of combat trials carried our during the winter of 1949-50, the new MB.5 proved to be a stunning 60 mph faster than the Ta-152C at sea level and 35 miles per hour faster at best-speed altitude. The use of MW-50 and GM-1 boost reduced the MB.5s speed advantage to 20mph at sea level and gave the Ta-152 a marginal 12 miles per hour superiority at its best altitude. In other words, even with chemical boost, the Ta-152C was at best equal and usually inferior across most of the speed spectrum - and the MB-5 wasnt wrecking its engine in the process. In terms of rate of climb, the MB.5 showed a 25 percent superiority over the German aircraft, almost 1,000 feet per minute better and it sustained that higher climb rate to greater altitudes. The MB.5 had a better roll rate, could turn tighter and its greater weight allowed it to out-accelerate the Ta-152 in a dive. Only in terms of service ceiling did the MB.5 not surpass the German fighter by a handsome margin.

As a result of these trials, the MB.5 was immediately ordered into production as the BAC Bandit F.1. Putting a new piston-engined fighter into service in the early 1950s was anachronistic to put it mildly and probably, under other circumstances the MB.5 would have remained one of the designs that was good but not quite good enough. However, the Bandit F.1 turned out to be one of the designs that was the right aircraft at the right time. A number of European countries were looking for replacements for their 1930s vintage fighters but cost, maintenance and fuel shortage issues spoke against the adoption of jets. Spain lead the way with an order for 100 Bandit F.51 aircraft to replace their old Messerschmitt 109s. These were identical to the RAF aircraft except for different radios and the use of MG-151 cannon in place of the Hispano guns used by the RAF.

The Spanish order opened the floodgates. Italy also needed a new fighter to replace its obsolescent Fiat G56 Centauros and signed up for 120 Bandit F.52s, identical to the Spanish variant. These were followed by a repeat order for 80 Bandit F.52As that were fitted with an improved radio navigation system, suiting them for operations over the sea and in Italys North African colonies. Switzerland joined the pack with an order for 150 Bandit F.61s, these having uprated Griffon engines modified for increased high-altitude power.

The most significant order came from France. The French had tried to jump the advanced piston engined fighter stage and go direct for jet-engined fighters. In the end, this policy would pay off with the Mystere and Mirage series fighters but their development was delayed by technical problems and inadequate resources. The French discovered that the Germans hadnt been aware of any of the problems involved in building transonic jets and these had to be solved before the Mystere could be built. As an interim, the French Air Force swallowed their pride ordered more than 200 Bandit F.53 aircraft.

The downside of this stream of orders was that deliveries for the RAF suffered as production bottlenecks had to be cleared. Nevertheless, by the end of 1951, the Ta-152 had vanished from RAF service, lamented by nobody, and the RAF fighter squadrons had standardized on the Bandit F.1 and the slightly-modified F.2. In 1953, the Bandit T.3, a twin seat fighter conversion trainer entered production and prompted another stream of export orders from the users of the single seat fighter, now in service with an astonishing twelve countries. In its turn, the Bandit T.3 gave rise to the Bandit NF.4, a radar-equipped nightfighter. The weight of an airborne intercept radar took away some of the Bandits sparkling performance but the aircraft still remained a viable performer.

The last major production version of the Bandit was the Bandit F.5 that featured a new, uprated Griffon engine that delivered 2,650 horsepower. This, plus some minor airframe refinements and the use of thrust-enhancing exhaust stubs boosted the Bandits best speed to 525 miles per hour at 20,000 feet, a speed that the designers were quick to point out was comparable to the early generation jets. This claim (not entirely justifiable) was picked up in the 1970s when General Sir John Hackett wrote a rather unlikely alternative history story called Britain Fights On. This postulated that the Halifax-Butler Coup in 1940 failed, that Churchill remained Prime Minister and continued the war against Germany. The story suggested that a great air battle in 1940 ended any hope of Germany driving the UK out of the war and that, after many rather strained tribulations and unlikely set-backs in North Africa and Italy, a UK-American alliance invaded France in 1944 leading to a German collapse and surrender in April 1945. In an addendum to the novel, Hackett suggested that the appearance of German jet fighters in October 1944 could have lead to the accelerated production of the Martin Baker MB.5 and its use in the last few days of the fighting.

Its fictional appearances apart, time was running out for the Bandit. By 1957/58, the program of oil refinery reconstruction and modernization had ended the kerosene shortage and the price of jet fuel worldwide plummeted. At the same time, the slow conversion of the worlds airline fleets to jet aircraft demanded the development of more reliable and economical engines and this was reflected in military aircraft propulsion. Jet fighters ceased to be expensive luxuries affordable only to the extremely-rich or desperately-fighting and became a practical operational option for all the worlds powers. That eliminated the whole reason for the Bandits success and the aircraft quickly vanished from front line service. The fighter versions went first but the trainer remained in service. In fact, demand for the trainer actually increased, the type proving an excellent conversion aircraft from basic trainers to jets. The late 1950s saw many surplus single-seat Bandit fighters converted to twin seaters to fill this role.

The success of the Bandit probably saved the UK aircraft industry, in the short term at least. For a while it became a major British hard currency earner and opened official eyes to the possibility offered by a successful export fighter. Less obvious was the fact that it owed that success to an unusual convergence of historical and technical trends that was unlikely to be repeated. It opened official eyes, certainly but also gave rise to excessive expectations that were to have serious implications later on.

The availability of the Griffon engine directed British eyes at their York transport fleet. Surely, that extra power could produce a more viable and economical transport? A York was fitted with four Griffon engines in place of its Merlins and trialled as the York T.4. The results were not as successful as hoped; the aircraft did have improved cargo capacity (30 rather than 24 passengers) but speed was barely increased and range actually fell due to the Griffins higher fuel consumption. It was the aerodynamics of the fuselage that limited performance and correcting that required an entirely new design.

That new design emerged but not as a transport aircraft. The Airpseed Oxfords used for coastal patrol were a rough and ready solution, the best that could be done with what was available. A larger, more effective, preferably four-engined aircraft was needed. The Miles division of BAC designed a new aircraft that mated the wings of the York T.4 with a new fuselage that was optimized for maritime patrol duties. The aircraft was armed with six 20mm guns, two in the nose, two in a dorsal turret and two in the tail. A large bomb-bay occupied the middle of the aircraft and was organized to handle depth charges, homing torpedoes, sonobuoys and the other paraphernalia of anti-submarine warfare. During testing the nose guns were deleted in favor of a search radar and the tail guns in favor of a MAD stinger. In this form, the aircraft was type-classified as the BAC Shackleton MR.1.

The Shackleton was hardly an impressive aircraft in the military sense. It was inferior to comparable aircraft being produced in America and Russia. This was hardly surprising, the design traced its lineage back over twenty years and its wing structure was still identical to the Manchester bomber. Despite efforts to sell the type worldwide, there were no export orders for the Shackleton and the aircraft remained restricted to British service. On the other hand, it survived in the UK into the mid 1980s and was still giving effective service up to its retirement. Sometimes modernity does not equate to effectiveness.

Despite its successful adoption of an advanced generation of piston engined fighters, the British knew they had to transit to the jet age. The problem was that no headway was being made in designing a viable jet engine. The Shackleton provided one driver to the ultimate solution. Operating far from home, the lumbering Shack needed long-range all-weather fighters to provide cover. The Bandit NF.4 was barely a stopgap solution let alone a viable one. US interceptors were already turning into heavy nuclear-armed fighters, blindingly expensive and designed to operate within the environment of a complex and comprehensive air defense system. The solution was a Canadian aircraft, the CF-100 Canuck. A twin jet, twin seat aircraft, this was designed to operate over the trackless wastes of Canadas far north. It was ideally suited to Britains requirements.

Also, in 1953, the Labor Government that had been elected in 1948 was defeated in a General Election, returning Winston Churchill and the Conservatives to power. They started a rapid reconstruction of the economy that slowly but surely brought the country out of the pit of despair it had been wallowing in since 1947. By 1955 there was actually money available to import things. The RAF got its share with the order for 50 CF-100 Mark 6 aircraft, these being essentially the RCAFs Mark 4 but with a belly pack of 20mm Hispano guns replacing the wingtip rocket pods. In May 1956, the first CF-100 arrived in the UK, whereupon it was taxied into a hangar and was never seen again. Its engines were stripped out and one each delivered to Rolls Royce and Armstrong Whitworth who proceeded to dismantle them and reverse-engineer their components. Britain was back in the jet engine business after almost 15 years.

The same improving economy allowed the Royal Navy to look at replacing its two old carriers. Two new ships were approved, the same size as the older ships at 22,000 tons standard, 27,000 tons full load but but were completely unarmored, allowing them to be significantly larger. They were equipped with two catapults and two elevators, one centerline, one deck edge. They were armed with four 4 inch guns and four twin 40mm weapons. Their quadruple screws drove them at a respectable 33 knots. Courageous and Glorious were ordered in 1955 and entered the fleet in 1960 and 1961 respectively. To the astonishment of all, a third member of the class, Furious, was ordered in 1958 and was completed in 1964.

The new carriers were designed to carry 36 aircraft, nominally the same as the older Formidable and Indomitable. There was, however, a critical difference. The older carriers were designed for pre WW2 aircraft and were severely restricted in the numbers of modern aircraft they could really carry (20 and 24 respectively). The Glorious class were designed to carry 36 aircraft that were 50 percent larger than anything currently flying, allowing great room for future aircraft growth. The question was, what aircraft.

The Firebrand had served the Navy well but was undoubtedly obsolete. Blackburn had designed a turboprop version of the aircraft that offered much better performance. However, Blackburns design staff were heavily involved in a project secretively described as something rather special which would eventually emerge as the BAC Buccaneer S.1. They therefore handed the turbo-Firebrand over to Airspeed who built it as the BAC Wyvern S.1. that was the strike part of the group seen to, but what about fighters? Eventually, the Royal navy swallowed its pride and went back to the Americans, hoping perhaps for some F9F Panthers or F2H Banshees. After all, a new administration was in power.

Why the decision was made, nobody knows. President LeMay was not a man known for kindness or sentimentality and his administration reflected that mind-set. However, when the stunned British delegation left Washington they had been given - not sold - sixty F11F-2 Tigers, a transonic fighter that was only just entering US Navy service. The F11F was just capable of exceeding the speed of sound in level flight, it was short ranged and a handful to fly but it was modern and could stand against pretty much anything in the world at the time. Even more stunningly, the British had been able to purchase the new Sidewinder air-to-air missile to go with their new fighter. They were back in the naval aviation game with a vengeance.


All this left the transport aircraft situation unsolved. The British issued three requirements for transports. The first was for a civil airliner/troop transport that could carry 100 passengers of 130 troops for 4,000 miles at 450 miles per hour. The second was for an aircraft that could carry 100 troops and their equipment, drop them by parachute over a radius of 800 miles. The third, tossed in as an afterthought was for a tactical transport that could carry a platoon of men and their equipment for a radius of 250 miles at 150 miles per hour. That last requirement would destroy the British military aviation industry. (To be continued)

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