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March 2014 Meeting Report

Andrew Little on The History of the Air Defences of Great Britain

In a last minute change to the programme, due to the unavailability of the planned speaker, Andrew Little gave a very interesting and profusely illustrated talk on the history of the air defences of Great Britain.

The first powered flight by the Wright brothers was in 1903, and was for less than the wingspan of a jumbo jet, but things rapidly advanced, and in 1909 Bleriot made the first cross channel flight.  At first the military were slow to recognise the potential of this new technology, but in 1912 units of the army and navy were combined to create the Royal Flying Corps.  The combination was not a happy one, and the navy separated in 1914 to form the Royal Naval Air Service. The separation continues to this day in the form of the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm.

The oldest military aeroplane, dating from 1909 is the Blackburn monoplane, which is still flying,  but the RFC had a great fear of the wings falling off monoplanes, and insisted on biplanes.  Among their early planes was the Bristol Boxkite, and even the Avro Triplane. Armament was a problem on these early aircraft, as they had to be careful not to  shoot their own propeller off.  Lewis guns were mounted on top of the upper wing, and the pilot was required to pull the gun back down in order to change the magazine while still flying the plane, and presumably avoiding enemy aeroplanes. One solution was provided by the Vickers Pusher, in which the engine and propeller were mounted behind the pilot, who could now have a machine gun in front of him.

1915 saw the first casualties from air attacks by Zeppelins on east coast towns.  At first there was no defence against them as they were able to fly higher than aeroplanes, but the Avro 504 provided the first retaliatory bombing raids, and the introduction of incendiary shells meant that by 1916 Zeppelins were things of the past.  The Germans introduced night bombers instead, and the Sopworth Pup was the British response, but without modern radar they had a hard job to find their targets.

Technological development proceeds at a very fast rate in time of war, and Fokker were the first to introduce the interrupter gear, which allowed guns to fire through the propeller without damaging the blades.  Early aircraft had rotary engines which were smoother running but could not be throttled back when landing, so had to be continually stopped and started to control their speed at this time.  The Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 had a conventional in-line engine and  was reckoned the best fighter of the First World War.  The Bristol Fighter was a two seater with a rear facing machine gun for use by the second crew member.  The RFC became the RAF on April Fool's Day 1918.

There was little development during the inter-war years, when the size of the air force greatly reduced.  However, the Air Ministry did recognise the importance of keeping manufacturers in business with small contracts, and the radial engine was one innovation from this time.  It had the important advantage over the rotary engine that it could be throttled.  It was during these years that the RNAS became the Fleet Air Arm, with the Fairy Flycatcher a more robust aircraft suitable for deck landings.

By 1938 the RAF had two squadrons of Hurricanes, and two Supermarine Spitfires, so it was probably a good thing that Chamberlain was able to come back from his meeting with Hitler to declare peace in our time.  By the outbreak of war numbers had increased to 18 Hurricane squadrons and 16 Spitfire squadrons.

The Spitfire went through continuous development during the war up to the mark 24.  Pilots said of it that you did not fly it, you wore it. It was originally armed with eight 303 machine guns, but later copied the Messerschmitt 109 which had 20mm cannons. The ME109 also had fuel injection rather than the Spitfire's carburettor, so it did not stall when upside down.

At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe concentrated on attacking airfields and Radar masts. Radar was vital to the RAF as it meant that squadrons could be launched only just in time. Once enemy aircraft had crossed the coast, the Observer Corps took over and information passed to Fighter Command, who could move squadrons accordingly.

Accidental German bombing of London led to a retaliatory raid on Berlin, which in turn led to a change of policy by the Luftwaffe to switch from bombing airfields to cities.  An attack on German bombers by Douglas Bader's Big Wing of 60 aircraft may or may not have been the right tactics, but it did persuade Hitler that the RAF was far from beaten, and the invasion was called off.

Britain continued to be bombed by night. The bombers followed one radar beam and a second beam crossing the first told them where to drop the bombs.  The British Mosquito night fighter was equipped with radar to find the target, and the RAF also had aircraft that could bend the beam.

The Gloucester Meteor was the first British jet fighter, and was invaluable against the V1 doodlebug. It did not attempt to shoot them down as the resultant explosion could have been fatal. Instead it used its wing to tip the V1 off course.  Messerschmitt had also produced the ME262 jet, but another of Hitler's irrational decisions meant it never saw active service.

The Spitfire remained in service until the 1950's to be succeeded by a series of aircraft including the Vulcan and Hawker Harrier but the last slide was fittingly a picture of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight of a Lancaster, Spitfire, and Hurricane.

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