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Flight 100 - History 1939-1948

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By Bill Gunston

Soon after war was declared on 3 September 1939, the increasingly expansionist nature of Hitler's Germany at last began to trigger responses by the UK. A meeting in London on 10 October 1939 set up the Empire Air Training Scheme. Eventually this would be an enormous activity, with schools in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for training 28,000 pilots and other aircrew each year. Later, Royal Air Force cadets would be training in South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and the USA.

The RAF was in action from the first day of the war, with Bristol Blenheims photographing German warships. Sporadic missions to the German coast culminated on 18 December with a "reconnaissance in force" by 24 Vickers Wellingtons to Wilhelmshaven. Unknown to British intelligence, their progress was followed on radar, which guided Messerschmitt Bf109 and Bf110 fighters to intercept them. The result was that 12 were shot down and most of the remainder were damaged or crashed on return. The RAF switched to operating over the continent almost exclusively at night.

Following the Battle of Britain in 1940, Germany's unexpected attack on the USSR on 22 June 1941 drew attention to the fact that British knowledge of Russian aircraft was largely based on pre-1937 information. Similarly, Japan's unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1942, highlighted similar ignorance of Japanese aircraft.

 Flight Jan 20 1940
 Flight reports on early RAF photo-recce


On 31 May 1942 the RAF mounted its first "1,000-bomber raid" on Germany, a modest fraction reaching the primary target, the city of Cologne. Not a word was reported on the development of electronic aids, such as Gee, Oboe and H²S, which over the next 18 months would transform Bomber Command's ability to reach its targets. In contrast to the tight security over Europe, the mighty Battles of the Coral Sea in May 1942, and Midway a month later, were filmed and reported in detail.

British spirits were lifted on 17 May 1942 by the stirring news of the low-level precision attacks on German dams, by a special squadron of Avro Lancasters, although the key features of the weapon used (a backward-spinning drum) remained secret. A little of Bomber Command's increased night prowess was revealed two months later, when repeated raids devastated Hamburg, in a firestorm of a kind never seen before. By this time the Lancaster had come to the fore as the superior bomber, and it alone could carry newly developed giant bombs: the 12,000lb (5,450kg) Earthquake, used against the Dortmund-Ems canal in September 1943, and the 22,000lb Grand Slam, used in 1945 to destroy the Bielefeld viaduct and sink the Tirpitz.

In 1941 RAF fighter pilots engaged in flying dangerous "daylight sweeps" over France began to report encountering a formidable fighter with a radial engine. This was the Focke Wulf Fw 190, the prototype of which had been tested in public view in Bremen since July 1939. Astonishingly, in June 1942 one was landed by mistake at RAF Pembrey, in South Wales, giving up its many secrets. One was its BMW 801 engine, another its MG 151 cannon, and a third the fact that its accessory power was not hydraulic but electric.

While the war was raging in Europe the USA had moved ahead in its civil transport development with such classic piston airliners as the Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed's beautiful Constellation. It became clear that, war or not, the UK had to set a plan in motion to ensure it was not left behind. So in December 1942, Lord Brabazon had formed a committee to plan the UK's new civil transport aircraft development, for use after the war. Work went rapidly ahead on the all-new designs, some of which were to have turbojet or turboprop engines. While many of the creations from this plan would fail to make any impact, two designs were set to revolutionise air transport.


In January 1944 the exciting news was released that there was a new kind of aircraft, able to reach high speeds without a propeller. There were many pictures of jet-engine pioneer Frank Whittle, by now an RAF group captain, but none of jet aircraft - except the pointless Italian Caproni-Campini - until a photograph of the Gloster E.28/39 (flown in May 1941) was released in September 1944. A month later pictures were released of the USA's Bell XP-59A Airacomet, powered by two General Electric 1-A turbojets based on Whittle's design.

In the summer of 1944 Germany's twin-turbojet Me 262 fighter began to be encountered by allied aircraft over Germany and soon the UK's first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, became operational, one destroying an Fiesler Fi103 "doodlebug" flying bomb in the first "jet-versus-jet" encounter.


In a desperate last-ditch effort, Operation Boden­platte, on 1 January 1945, saw more than 900 Luftwaffe fighter and attack aircraft strafe and bomb 15 RAF airfields in France and Belgium. Over 300 of the attackers were shot down, while the aircraft they destroyed were quickly replaced. It was an ignominious end for a once-proud service, which produced such aces as Erich Hartmann (score, 352) and Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer (121 heavy bombers at night), scores which gave rise to disbelief by some of Flight's readers.

After the European war ended on 8 May 1945, Allied intelligence teams combed a devastated Germany, discovering an amazing array of new prototypes and propulsion systems, including jet aircraft with swept-back wings. Meanwhile, war in the Pacific became ever more desperate, as Japanese pilots flew suicide mission crashing bomb-laden aircraft into Allied ships. The most dangerous were the MXY-7 Ohka rocket aircraft, which dived on their target at 500mph (780km/h or 420kt).

From June 1944 devastating attacks on Japan by the pressurised Boeing B-29 Superfortress reeked destruction by fire on several cities. The carnage was brought to an end by two nuclear weapons, dropped by special B-29s, one on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and the second, of a different type, dropped on Nagasaki three days later. The following day Japan capitulated.

On 7 November 1945 Grp Capt "Willie" Wilson piloted a Gloster Meteor IV, powered by Rolls-Royce Derwent engines, to a world speed record of 606mph, beating the previous piston-engined record by 137mph. Over the next decade the record would be broken many times, often by regular production fighters. At least as significant was the landing of a Vampire jet fighter on an aircraft carrier, HMS Ocean, on 3 December 1945. The pilot wasLt-Cdr EM "Winkle" Brown, who was at that time also engaged in trials in which a Vampire was landed wheels-retracted on a rubber mat.


With war over, the UK set about reconstructing its fledgling airline industry, while work had already begun on a new London airport that saw the village of Heath Row bulldozed into the ground. On 1 January 1946 British Overseas Airways was joined by two new national carriers: British South American Airways (BSAA) was formed with Avro Lancastrians and placed orders for Avro's new four-engined Tudor airliner. British European Airways began operating from Northolt, using Dakotas, and former German Junker Ju-52/3m aircraft known as Jupiters, whilst awaiting delivery of its Vickers Vikings.

Junkers JU-52
BEA began operations from Northholt in 1946 using German JU-52 "Jupiters"

The enormous new airport at Heathrow was provided with primitive tented accommodation, and on the same New Year's day went into civil use as the home base of BOAC and BSAA. A BSAA Lancastrian, Star Light, made the first commercial departure, bound for Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo.

On 30 June 1946 the UK Ministry of Supply held an open day at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough - itself set up in 1908 as the Royal Aircraft Factory and renamed in 1918. One exhibit was a small model of a supersonic research aircraft, tucked away in a corner. This project, the Miles M52, had been cancelled on 28 January 1946, when the first example was well advanced in construction. The Miles company had been warned to say nothing in public, but Flight drew attention to the M52 model, and to the programme to replace it by rocket-powered models. What nobody then knew was that Miles had been instructed to hand everything to the USA, where Bell was working on a rival aircraft, the XS-1.

No restrictions were placed on reporting the successive failures of the air-dropped models, which continued - costing 10 times as much as the M52 - until one actually worked on 10 October 1948. This was a year after the XS-1 had exceeded Mach 1. This historic event actually took place on 14 October 1947, but was not reported until Aviation Week broke the momentous story.

In June 1947 headlines reported the decision of the British government to send the latest turbojets - 30 R-R Derwent 5s and 20 Nenes - to Moscow. This was seen as a clumsy way to curry favour with a former ally, which had been in no way attracted by the UK's election of a Labour government. Indeed, relations between the two countries sank to a new low in June 1948, when the Soviet administration in Berlin sealed off all road, rail and barge traffic. The result was the world's biggest and most sustained airlift, keeping the beleaguered city supplied with all essentials, notably food and coal. The USSR finally backed down on 12 May 1949, restoring surface links.

In the immediate post-war years the UK had been impoverished, and was unable to match the speed with which the USA introduced new jet aircraft. In particular, in 1947, while North American Aviation began testing the XP-86 Sabre, on 17 December Boeing's Seattle plant rolled out the XB-47, a striking long-range bomber powered by six General Electric turbojets and featuring highly swept wings.

Bill Gunston was Flight's technical editor from 1951 to 1964

Continue reading The Flight Century

Chocks away - 1909 - 1918
Britsh aviation made a slow start, but within the decade the country was making aircraft and the RAF had formed

Peace ... and war - 1919 - 1939
The inter-war years were a time of renaissance, innovation and record breaking and the creation of the air travel industry

Flying into a jet age - 1949 - 1958
Despite its problems, the Comet was a revolution in air transport. But this would be a decade of firsts, many of them British

Faster and higher - 1959 - 1979
The jet was king and the Jumbo Jet proved bigger was definitely better. Meanwhile, the Harrier showed the UK could still lead

Electric jets and stealth - 1979 - 1999
Innovations of the 1980s brought far-reaching changes in virtually every area of aviation - and Flight became truly International

Flight 100 - history of 21st century
As we entered the 21st century fuel efficiency and green design were beginning to take over from the quest for size and speed

Flight into the future - The next 100 years
We covered exciting, almost unbelievable, breathtaking developments in our first century of  publishing. What might feature on our pages in the next 100 years?

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