If anyone is asked to name the most iconic allied aircraft of WW2, and of course if they had any interest at all, they may venture to suggest the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, the Avro Lancaster or even the Boeing B17.But I would throw my hat into the ring in support of the (Wooden Wonder) De Havilland Mosquito.
The Mossie was based on de Havilland’s Albatross airliner and was first proposed to the RAF as a fast light/medium bomber with no armament to save on weight. The lack of exterior gun turrets would also save on drag and be much less complicated and cheaper to produce.
The Mossie: light, fast and economical
The Air Ministry was at first sceptical about giving the go-ahead to a military aircraft with no defence capabilities. However, Geoffrey De Havilland was so confident with his new design that he put his own money and resources together and had the prototype built. During its first trials it proved to be faster than the Spitfire even though it was a much larger aircraft. The speed was not only the result of the lack of exterior drag, but it also had a lighter wooden frame, plywood skin and was propelled by two Rolls Royce Merlin engines.
The other benefits of constructing it out of wood was that it saved on the aluminium needed on other aircraft and it also employed the otherwise unused skills of joiners and cabinet makers, as there was very little call for drop-leaf dining tables, double adult wardrobes or wall-to-wall sideboards in wartime.
Versatile and in many ways superior to the Boeing B17
Its first flight was in November 1940 and the aircraft was commissioned into the RAF a year later. Because of its speed It was originally designed and used as a reconnaissance aircraft but it soon proved to be the most versatile of all aircraft in WW2. It was for a while the fastest aircraft in the sky, only passed by the later versions of the Spitfire and of course the German Messerschmitt ME262 jet fighter which was over 100 MPH quicker than all other aircraft but arrived when the German Luftwaffe had already been beaten.
The Mosquito was capable of carrying a similar bomb load as the huge American Boeing B17. The B17 was about the same size as our own Lancaster bomber but, being designed by Americans, it had to have lots and lots of guns.The later variants had 13: .50-inch Browning machine guns in six pairs, one at the front, back, underneath and top, two pairs in the waste, and even the radio operator had a single one to play with that fired upwards.
Eventually the B17 had a crew of ten and all their necessary big guns which meant that it had to sacrifice its bomb carrying capacity. To make use of all these guns, it had to be flown straight and level and in flying formation so that each aircraft could protect its neighbour. This also meant that it was a big lumbering target and vulnerable to both German fighters and to their excellent ground-based 88mm flak (flugabwehrkanone) guns, whereas the Mossie was too fast for the German fighters. Also, if they were shot down, there were only two potential casualties in the Mosquito but ten in the B17.
The most feared fighter
The two-man crew comprised the pilot and the navigator/bomb aimer.During the bomb runs, the bomb aimer had to crawl out into the Perspex bubble in the nose of the aircraft, which at times must have appeared like peering down into the jaws of hell while all the world was shooting back.The RAF carried out the night attacks while the Americans with their B17 defended with all their guns and the very capable Mustang P51 carried out daytime raids. The American P51 was yet another aircraft fitted with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine.
Eventually the full versatility of the Wooden Wonder was recognised, and the Perspex nose cone was removed and four Browning .303 machine guns and four 20-mm Hispano cannons were fitted. Almost overnight it became the most feared fighter and ground attack aircraft. It was also fitted with torpedoes, a six-pounder cannon, and rockets for its anti-shipping role.
In all, 7,781 were constructed between 1940 and 1950.
A special capacity for low-level flying
The role that the Mossie became best at was low-level target bombing. On many bombing raids it was used as marker and target spotter. Using its speed and low-level capabilities the crew would set off an hour or more after the main bombers and be over the target dropping different coloured bombs and flairs to show the target area before the main group arrived. The different colours denoted different target areas and were also to confuse the German defences who lit their own coloured flairs in the hope of confusing the allied bomb aimers.
The Mossie was also capable of flying 30 feet above the ground, targeting and menacing several Gestapo headquarters in occupied France by dropping bombs through their front doors.
Celebrating the Mosquito’s role in the Dambusters Raid
I took these two photos during the Dambusters 40th year celebrations over the Ladybower reservoir in 1983. The Lancaster bomber was used on the actual raid but the reason the Mosquito was at the celebrations was because that was the aircraft in which they practised their low-level flying.
This was the best free air show I have ever attended. There was an air-sea rescue demonstration, a flyover by a Hercules transport, the present 617 squadron flying their Tornadoes, and a very impressive Red Arrows display.
Guy Penrose Gibson: a complicated hero
Guy Penrose Gibson VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, LOM (USA) was the wing commander of the Dambusters Raid and proved himself to be an extremely brave and capable flyer, though unfortunately by many accounts he had a personality that was easy to dislike. Apparently, he was pompous, arrogant and treated his subordinates with disdain. He was killed while flying a Mosquito.
Following the Dambusters Raid, he became an overnight hero and was paraded around Canada and the USA for a year. On his return to active duty, he was posted to the elite 627 (pathfinder) squadron. According to the book Mosquito Men by David Price, published by Head of Zeus in 2022, he was given orders not to put himself in danger of capture, but being the character he was, there was no way he was going to be left out and, much to the surprise of the other target-marker crews, he was to be the flight co-ordinator for a forthcoming raid on Mönchengladbach.
His time away from combat activities and his arrogance in assuming he was up to the very complicated task of marking three targets simultaneously were likely to have been instrumental in his downfall. He crashed his plane in Steenbergen in the Netherlands during the return flight that he should not have been on. However, his death ensured his legacy as the brave, stiff upper lip, never say die British gentleman that many people will still regard as a hero.
Aircraft and airmen heroically defying nature
There were many other heroes in the RAF of course, one being the aircraft Mosquito LR 503 F for Freddie. It was flown on 213 missions in WW2 and survived, only to crash a few days after VE day.The pilot, F/LT Maurice Briggs DFC, and navigator, John C. Baker DFC & Bar, were carrying out low-level celebratory flights in aid of war bonds in Calgary, Canada, when they got it wrong and hit the flagpole on the control tower. F for Freddie was completely destroyed and both the crew were killed.
It takes a special person to fly an aircraft into the teeth of the enemy, men like Billy Bishop credited with 72 victories, George F. Beurling with 31 victories and of course the most famous of them all, Sir Douglas Bader with 22 victories.
These flyers don’t have a tree to hide behind or a hole to hide in. They are in the sky where at some point they are bound to be detected. Therefore, not only is the enemy on the ground hell bent on shooting them out of the sky, but nature is not really on their side either, for it has dictated for millions of years that if you don’t have feathers you shouldn’t be up there at all.