Tag Archives: Whitley

Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley

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.

Wednesday, 26 February 1941


At 1746 Dishforth signals that a Whitley aircraft destined for 419 Flight will leave Dishforth for Stradishall at 1800. This is either T4165 or T4166, two of the Whitleys used on the Tragino Aqueduct raid in Italy. They are highly suitable for the Flight, for they have already been converted for parachuting, and both are equipped with four additional 66-gallon tanks.

Wednesday, 22 January 1941

Stradishall – Coventry

The January moon period has ended; the last night on standby was the 20th.

F/Lt Keast flies Whitley P5029 to the Armstrong Whitworth’s factory at Baginton, on the south-east outskirts of Coventry). He takes five crew. (The airfield was built on the site of Whitley Abbey Farm, hence the aircraft’s name; nothing to do with Whitley Bay.)

There is no recorded explanation for the trip. Maintenance and repair/replacement of a Whitley’s normal equipment – engines, etc. – would have been carried out at an RAF base operating Whitleys; 419 Flight uses Abingdon’s facilities. This trip is to fit or modify non-standard kit, such as a shroud to cover the tail wheel (to prevent parachute canopies from snagging), or to modify and test the parachute cable mounting points inside the fuselage. It is also possible that two or more long-range tanks are fitted to extend the range; although part of a Whitley’s range of optional equipment, fitting them is a non-trivial task, well outside the capabilities of the Flight’s ground-crew. It is also unlikely that Abingdon’s fitters would be familiar with the procedure, as theirs is a Training base.


FJB Keast logbook

Tuesday, 19 November 1940

RAF Stradishall

At 19.20, information about a planned sortie is passed to 3 Group by phone. At 2300 Group is informed that a Whitley may take off at 23.15, but that a decision cannot be made due to the weather. At 23.20 Whitley ‘L’ takes off, and Group is informed.

According to a summary written in February 1941 the destination is Leiden, Holland. Keast’s logbook says that he and F/O Oettle fly a 4 hour, 45 minute operation in Whitley T4264. The Stradishall Ops Officer’s Log says that they land at 03.57.

The agent appears to have been Cornelius ‘Kees’ van Brink, a Dutchman who had been in Australia in 1939. He arrived in England at the end of July 1940. He was recruited by SIS and parachuted in November. Though the date given by Dutch sources is 18-19 November, there was no sortie on that night.

Van Brink was the second agent parachuted in to Holland. He was dropped near Kippenburg, about 15 Km west of the Tjeukemeer where Lodo van Hamel had been arrested the previous month. Finding that the contact addresses he had been given in London appeared to be under surveillance by the Germans, he made his way to Rotterdam. Though after sending several messages and apparently completing his task he wanted to return to the UK. He appears to have pre-arranged to be picked up by Heije Schaper, the Dutch Air Force pilot who had attempted to pick up van Hamel and only narrowly escaped. But London wanted van Brink to remain in place, possibly because of the previous debacle. Instead, he made his way to Marseille. From there he travelled via Spain, Portugal, Curaçao, the USA and Canada, and from thence to England, where he arrived on 18 September 1942. He was unusual: he had survived.

RAF Ringway

A fatal accident results from a failure of the strop hook, the end of a parachutist’s ‘static line’ attached to a frame inside the aircraft. The other end is attached to the bag containing the parachute canopy and lines. As the paratrooper leaves the aircraft his weight pulls the canopy and lines from the bag, leaving the bag streaming beneath the aircraft under the tail. If the hook becomes detached from the frame there is nothing to pull the parachute out. There was no reserve ‘chute, and no method for the parachutist to deploy the canopy manually. A strengthened strop is quickly developed and tested.


Dutch Wikipedia entry for Cornelis van Brink
RAF Ringway ORB

Thursday, 14 November 1940

RAF Stradishall – Baginton, Coventry

F/Lt Keast flies Whitley P5029 to the Armstrong Whitworth factory at Baginton, just outside Coventry. He takes one crewman with him: the Whitley could have been flown single-handed except that in an emergency the manual lowering of the undercarriage has to be operated by a third party. (Think of the climactic ending to the film Memphis Belle.) Wireless operators often went up on pre-operation air tests as they used the opportunity to test their sets, especially the D/F (direction-finding) apparatus, but the real reason for being aboard was to lower the undercart if necessary.

F/O Oettle flies the new Whitley T4264 to Baginton, where he picks up Keast and his crew, and they return to Stradishall. P5029 appears to be undergoing some unspecified modification (perhaps the installation of a shield for the tail wheel) or a repair. A similar installation is fitted to all Whitleys at Ringway on the 16th, but the shields have a tendency to fall off when taxiing over rough ground.