What’s your favourite aircraft from the Second World War? I’m sure at least half of you will say the Spitfire, with maybe a few Hurricanes and Lancasters in there. Well, unfortunately we won’t be talking about those, because I’m in charge and yesterday was the first flight of the ‘Wooden Wonder’ and my personal favourite aircraft; the de Havilland Mosquito.
In September of 1936 the Air Ministry issued a specification to Aircraft companies in Britain; P.13/36 requiring a fast medium bomber capable of carrying a 3,000lb load at 270mph at 15,000ft for 3,000 miles. Most manufacturers put forward ‘Heavy’ designs with four high powered engines and defensive turrets that led to aircraft like the Avro Manchester and Handley Page Halifax.
The de Havilland Aircraft Company took a widely differing approach, combining specification P.13/36 with a different Air Ministry requirement for a bomber made with non-strategic materials. As the war progressed aluminium and steel would be much harder to come by, thus designs using alternative materials were urgently needed to help the war effort. Geoffrey de Havilland, working with his chief engineer Charles Walker, produced a number of different aircraft designs incorporating wooden construction, none of which were taken up by the Air Ministry. Not to be dismayed, in 1939 de Havilland, Walker and Eric Bishop, another de Havilland company engineer, set to work on the prototype that would become the Mosquito; DH98.
Scepticism about the design persisted however, and the Air Ministry and Lord Beaverbrook, Minister for Aircraft Production, told de Havilland he must stop working on it following the Battle of Dunkirk. De Havilland ignored the order to halt until June 1940, when once again the Air Ministry called for him to focus on production of current orders such as the Tiger Moth trainer and repairs to Hawker Hurricanes.
It wasn’t until July that the work resumed and was made a priority by Lord Beaverbrook after de Havilland promised 50 airframes by December 1941. Ultimately de Havilland didn’t meet that promise, with only 20 delivered by December, the other 30 joining them by March of 1942.
E0234, the prototype Mosquito, rolled out of the factory in early November 1940 and was assembled at Hatfield for engine tests with the new Rolls-Royce Merlin 21s. Taxi tests were made on 24th November 1940 in preparation for Flight Tests. Geoffrey de Havilland took the prototype up into the sky himself the next day, a startlingly rapid 11 months after the start of detailed design work.
There were still problems to iron out, as with any new aircraft, but the framework was there for a fast bomber. Further trials with the second prototype, W4050, against a Spitfire Mk II later in the year showed that the Mosquito was substantially faster, reaching a top speed of 392mph compared to the Spitfire’s 360mph. Later versions, fitted with newer Merlin engines, were capable of reaching a speed of 428mph - much faster than conventional fighter aircraft could manage.
Mass production was ordered in June 1941; 19 photo-reconnaissance (PR) models and 176 fighters were ordered. A further 50 were unspecified but, in July, the Air Ministry confirmed that these would be unarmed fast bombers. By the end of January 1942, contracts had been awarded for 1,378 Mosquitos of all variants, including 20 T.III trainers and 334 FB.VI bombers. Another 400 were to be built by de Havilland Canada.
The ‘Mossie’, as it was affectionately called by the crews, rapidly grew in capability as the potential of the airframe was realised. What had started as a fast, unarmed light bomber had evolved into a photo reconnaissance aircraft, then a fighter and night fighter. By the end of the war, the Mosquito could carry a devastating 4,000lb bomb, rockets for close air support to ground units, torpedoes for use with Coastal Command and even radar avionics packages.
The Mosquito is probably most famed in its bomber role, being a precision strike aircraft almost unmatched in an age where 1000 bomber raids were considered strategically necessary to get around such requirements as accuracy in bomb delivery. Perhaps the best use of Mosquitos in a precision strike role was in two raids on Berlin, Germany.
On the morning of 30th January, 1943, No. 105 Squadron RAF, equipped with the Mosquito B Mk IV, took off from its base in the UK. At that same time, in Berlin, a certain Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Chief of the Luftwaffe, was due to give a speech to a parade commemorating the rise of the Nazis to power. At 11:00am 105 Squadron blitzed Berlin, destroying the main broadcasting station, forcing Goering off the air for over an hour and gave the lie to his claims that such a mission could not be carried out. To add salt to this wound, in the afternoon a second flight of Mosquitos, this time from 139 Squadron, interrupted Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels addressing the same parade!
Mosquitos were so good at precision bombing that they were used as pathfinder units for conventional Heavy Bombers like the Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax. The Mosquito pathfinders, equipped with radio navigation, would fly ahead of bomber forces and mark targets with flares. This dramatically increased the chance of RAF Night Bombing missions actually striking their intended targets.
On 21st May 1945 the Mosquitos flew their last mission of the war, hunting U-Boats that the RAF believed might try to prolong the fighting. However, 143 and 248 squadrons only found passive E-Boats on their patrol and returned to base. Sadly the aircraft was retired in the 1950s, as Jet power rapidly outpaced anything propeller driven. The last combat mission undertaken by a Mosquito was in the Royal Australian Air Force service, mapping Communist positions in Malaya.
For me the Mosquito will be forever be immortalised in the 1964 film ‘633 Squadron’, which used 10 original aircraft scoured from RAF bases, as well as authentic military vehicles and equipment, not a feat easily matched by today’s £100 Million blockbusters. The film showcased exactly what the Mosquitos did in the war, that is carry a few bombs, very fast and very far into Germany, and drop them with unmatched accuracy.