Thursday, 6 March 1941

RAF Middle Wallop, RAF Boscombe Down and RAF Stradishall

Group Captain John Bradbury, DFC, and S/Ldr Knowles visit RAF stations Middle Wallop, Boscombe Down & Stradishall to examine candidate aircraft for the role of agent dropping by parachute. The issue is one of finding possible alternatives to the Whitley. It equips a front-line bomber-group (No. 4 Group, in Yorkshire), and every Whitley diverted to SD work potentially reduced the available bomber-force, hence the pressure to find an alternative. Subsequent generations of aircrew have looked back at the Whitley as slow, draughty and cold, but it is a sturdy and stable aircraft, with a long range and a respectable bomb-load. Bradury and Knowles examine the Harrow, the Manchester, the Stirling and the Wellington.

The Harrow preceded the Whitley as a front-line bomber. If the Whitley is slow and draughty, the Harrow is worse. It was originally designed also to function as a transport, which the Whitley has never been. Bradbury reports that the Harrow is suitable only for short-range work: its radius of action with 6 parachutists is limited to about 400 miles. It has two turrets, each with only a single machine-gun, but agents can be dropped from the rear door after their modification to open inwards and backwards. (In 1940 Ringway had looked at alternatives for paratroop-dropping; it had not even bothered to consider the Harrow, not least because there were only six in the UK.) It has a major operational drawback in that it lacks self-sealing fuel tanks; these cannot be retro-fitted.

The Avro Manchester is a twin-engined bomber that entered service in mid-1940, but it has only recently completed its first raid. Its unreliable engines will eventually be replaced by four Merlins to become the Lancaster, but this is all in the future. The rear door cannot be used for agent-dropping as it is too close to the tailplane, but its ventral hatch could be enlarged. Its range (650 miles) is suitable, but it is too new to be considered for SD work.

The Stirling, first of the four-engined heavy bombers to enter service, and it has started its operational career only the previous month. For SD duties its rear fuselage door is as impractical as the Manchester’s; the ventral hatch is also too small but can be enlarged, but this is academic: like the Manchester it is presently unavailable for SD duties. The Stirling’s inability to fly operationally much higher than 15,000 feet, a major shortcoming for a bomber over Germany, has yet to become apparent. In 1944 the Stirling will replace the Halifax in the SD squadrons, where its long range, low-altitude manoeuvrability (at which it excels), cavernous interior fuselage space and a large ventral hatch make it highly effective in the SD role.

The Wellington is also a front-line bomber, but will become obsolescent in this role once the four-engined ‘heavies’ arrive in quantity. The mounting ring for the ventral turret in the Wellington is too small, only two feet wide. It is also too near the tail, where the fuselage is too narrow for a despatcher and agents; their position there would upset the Wellington’s centre of gravity. However, a pencilled note states that future Wellingtons could be modified, though it does not state how.

419 Flight to 1419 Flight

Their trip is summarised in a memo written the same day (AIR 2/5203) by G/C Bradbury. In it he still refers to 419 Flight. The next day the Flight is first recorded as No. 1419 Flight in the Stradishall Ops Officers’ log.

The re-numbering is due to the Canadian government’s insistence on the formation of Canadian (RCAF) squadrons within Bomber Command. The Air Ministry has decided to use squadron numbers from 400 upwards for these new squadrons, and so the SD Flight is prefixed with ‘1’ to avoid confusion with No. 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron, RCAF.