The Wooden Wonder – The Mosquito

After its first flight on the 25th November, 1940, the de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito was immediately adopted as a high-flying, ultra-long range, photographic reconnaissance machine, and with rather more reluctance as an unarmed bomber, by Royal Air Force Bomber Command.

It was obvious from the first that the Mosquito, which had always been designed to carry four 20mm cannon under the cockpit floor would make a superb, long-range fighter, and given the parlous state of Britain night-time defences during the winter of 1940/41, the Mosquito was hastily modified to meet the threat. The Mosquito NF.II, with its first generation AI Mk. IV radar, reached the squadrons in the Spring of 1942, and began supplementing, then supplanting the Bristol Beaufighter as the RAF’s premier night-fighter (the Mosquito FB.VI, seen here, is at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum, London Colney).

It wasn’t until early 1943, that an attempt was made to combine the attributes of the fast, low-level Mosquito bomber, and the hard-hitting punch of the fighter. An NF.II, serial number ‘HJ662/G′, was modified as the prototype FB.VI(the letter ‘G’ – usually indicating a high level of secrecy – which was placed after the serial meant that when the aircraft was not flying, it was to be under armed guard at all times. Initially, this version was referred to as the ‘Intruder’, which was a very apt description of one the future Mark’s major roles. A brief programme of trials at the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down during July 1943 was abruptly brought to and end when engine failure on take-off caused a crash, which wrote HJ662/G off. Never the less enough had been seen to recognize the excellent fighting capabilities of the FB.VI.

In the FB.VI, the NF.II’s machine gun and cannon armament were retained, and the underfuselage doors divided into two sections, the first portions covering the 20mm cannon breeches and ammunition feeds, and the rear section (operating independently, of course) covering a bomb bay holding 2 x 250lb bombs. Two further 250lb bombs could be carried under the wings. Powered by the reliable Merlin 21 or 23 engine of 1,460hp, this was designated the FB.VI, Series 1. This only applied to the first 300 similar aircraft however, because, as always with the Mosquito, the specification was upgraded. The FB.VI, Series 2 had a stronger wing, and had the Merlin 25 of 1,620hp; this version could carry 500lb bombs internally (with special telescopic tails designed by de Havilland) instead of the 250lb ones. Also, the underwing hard-points (with local wing-strengthening) were ‘plumbed’ for under-wing long-rank drop tanks (50 gallons each side); the same hard-point was capable of carrying a 500lb bomb, giving a maximum bombload of 2,000lb for the Series 2. As well as this, depth charges could be carried, and even the rather obscure 315lb SCI, or Smoke Curtain Installation (something that I have never heard of being actually used in action by a Mosquito) but the most effective underwing store was probably a load of 8 x 3 inch rocket projectiles, four under each wing. These could carry either 25lb armour-piercing heads – deadly against the thin hulls of ships, as they punched clean through, and tore large holes in the ship’s bottom or its boilers – or 60lb high explosive heads. When thus equipped it was said that a salvo of all eight rockets was equivalent to the broadside of a 6 inch gun cruiser! If the internal bombload was not carried, then an overload fuel tank of 63 gallon capacity could be fitted instead. The definitive FB.VI had a top speed of 378 mph (cruise speed, 255 mph) with a maximum range of 1,855 miles.

Production was ramped up quickly; 1,218 were eventually to built by de Havillands at the main Hatfield Works themselves and 300 by Airspeed Ltd (a subsidiary of de Havilland), but it just wasn’t enough. During 1942, de Havilland were encouraged by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to disperse Mosquito production to other areas of the country, away from the more vulnerable South of England, where the majority of the U.K’s aircraft production was concentrated. The Government’s ‘shadow’ factory system was in full swing by now. Sir Kingsley Wood, the Secretary of State for Air, had been pushing manufacturers to accept Government funding for the establishment of new factories, dedicated to various defence projects since 1938, and one of the success stories had been Ford, who at their Trafford Park plant, in Manchester, were producing thousands of the excellent Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Now a new source of the Merlin-powered Mosquito was needed.

The Standard Motor Company Ltd, had produced excellent quality cars before the war, and was fully engaged in war work, with their workforce of 4,500 building Bristol Beaufighter fuselages, Bristol Mercury radial engines – suitable for Bristol Blenheim bomber and the Miles Martinet target tug – and the Airspeed Oxford. Given the company’s demonstrated expertise, and their existing link to the de Havilland company (Airspeed was a wholly owned subsidiary of de Havilland), it was logical that Standard would be chosen as a major supplier of Mosquitoes. Mr Ted Grinham of de Havilland was instrumental in the establishment of the production line at Standard’s plant at Canley (airframes were assembled and test-flown from the nearby airfield at Ansty)The variant chosen by MAP was the FB.VI, the ‘all-rounder’ in the Mosquito family. The very first ‘Standard’ Mosquito FB.VI, serial number ‘HP828’, was delivered to the RAF in May, 1943, and a veritable flood of these potent fighter-bombers followed – totalling 1,066 in all.

Assembling Mosquito parts made by companies such as Mulliners, a firm well-known for the high-class bodywork used on Rolls-Royce cars, and Perfecta Motor Equipment (Birmingham) Ltd., which began building the FB.VI steel-tube framework cockpit canopy and fitting it with Perspex panels and its Triplex armour-glass windscreen, Standard soon had a whole network of companies in the Coventry and Birmingham area feeding parts into its production line. A large spray booth, called the ‘Fuselage Dope Room’, and capable of taking two Mosquito fuselages at a time, was established. Some of the newly recruited workers described their excitement at being recruited to build the fast and heavily armed Mosquito, and they had to get used to something else which was common to every Mosquito factory – an all-pervasive smell of wood glue! When the fuselages and wings had been sprayed, they were placed on RAF ‘Queen Mary’ low-loaders and driven the 8 miles or so to the former Air Service Training facility (a subsidiary of Armstrong Siddeley Motors) at Ansty Airfield. There, final assembly took place with control surfaces, instruments and the magnificent Merlin engines being fitted before a short flying test programme was carried out. Sometimes Bill Wanley, one of the Standard test pilots, would fly low and fast over the factory in Canley, to let the workers see and hear what would be shortly terrifying the Axis powers! Typical of these low-level attacks was the ‘surgical strike’ from RAF Lasham on 11th April, 1944 by just six FB.VIaircraft of No. 613 ‘City of Manchester’ Squadron RAF under command of Wing Commander R.N. Bateson, RAF on the Dutch Central Population Registry, which was being held by the Gestapo in a five-storey building in The Hague, Holland. The Gestapo was using the Registry to root out Dutch Resistance workers carrying forged papers, and to deport Jews from Holland to the extermination camps in Germany and Poland. The bombing by 613 Squadron (from a height of 50 feet) was so accurate that other aircrew saw Wing Commander Bateson’s 500lb HE bombs ‘enter by the front door’. After these had exploded (they were fitted with 30 second delay fuses, for safety), a second pair of Mosquitoes saturated the wrecked building with incendiaries to ensure that the scattered records caught fire. A final pair of Mosquitoes completed the work of destruction. Wing Commander Bateson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order – an award only surpassed by the Victoria Cross – for this raid. Such was the demand for this versatile version of the Mosquito that it became impossible for de Havillands to contemplate changing priorities and asking Standard to manufacture any other Mark, due to the possible interruption in the flow of finished aircraft.

The work of high-precision, ultra low-level attacks on European targets was continued by units such No 464 Squadron, RAAF and No 487, RNZAF, which, as part of No. 2 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force subjected German targets to an absolute reign of terror. Valuable targeting tips were passed to them via Resistance movements – ‘Immobilize the steam locomotive of this leave train, then strafe the rear coach – that is where the German officers sit, well away from the locomotive’, ‘This Luftwaffe flying school has been established on the Baltic coast in Poland’ – the result? Two Junkers W.34 trainers butchered in circuit as a pair of FB.VI swept in from the sea, and an ‘early generation Bf109 damaged’, before the airfield hangars were bombed. ‘The U-boat crews have a rest home here; they always sleep in late on Sundays, after a big party on Saturday nights’ – the rest home was bombed early Sunday morning, with heavy enemy casualties.

‘RF610’, another Standard-built aircraft was coded ‘DM-H’ when on the strength of No. 248 Squadron, which was part of the Banff Strike Wing (Nos. 235, 248 and 333 Squadrons – the latter being a Royal Norwegian Air Force manned unit) of RAF Coastal Command, in 1945. The Wing was commanded at this time by no less a person than Group Captain Max Aitken, DSO, DFC, RAF; this swash-buckling pirate of an airman led his Wing of Mosquitoes from their Scottish base against German shipping targets all up and down the Norwegian coast.

Many of the ‘Standard’ Mosquitoes were ear-marked for the Far East, with No. 1672 Mosquito Conversion Unit being formed at Yelahanka, India in February 1944. Nos. 45, 47, 82, 84, 110 and 211 Squadrons all operated in the South East Asia Command area, with No. 110 taking part in the attacks on, and liberation of, Rangoon, Burma. The Far East was where the Mosquito suffered its most difficult losses – not due to the enemy, but to the degradation of the early version of their glued wooden joints (using casein glue in an unsuitable climate) leading to structural failure – sometimes in the air. Early production aircraft which were in India and Burma were condemned on inspection, but later examples in which formaldehyde-based glue rather than the milk-protein based casein were used, were passed as fit to fly. No. 82 Squadron had been, formerly, equipped with the Vultee Vengeance – a less-than stunning American dive-bomber – and were happy to acquire the Mosquito, including ‘HR558’ from Standard, which was finished all-over silver by the time it was ‘struck-off charge’ in July, 1946 at Cox’s Bazar (now, Bangladesh). No. 84 Squadron moved to Java, post-war and conducted operations against Indonesian terrorists; No. 110 Squadron followed 84 to Java in October, eventually disbanding at Labuan (now part of Malaysia) in April, 1946.

One Standard-built Mosquito, HR502, relieved production problems with the Australian-builtFB.40, by being shipped out to that country as the first of a batch of 38 FB.VI which were used to re-equip No. 1 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (‘HR502’ was taken on strength by the Royal Australian Air Force as ‘A52-200’, and coded ‘A-NA’; ‘A52’ being the Australian type code for the Mosquito). A52-200 survived until an aborted take-off in April, 1946, at Labuan airfield, caused it to be written-off.

There was a very secret rôle for a batch of 12 Standard Mosquitoes which were shipped to Australia from Liverpool in 1945. There were assembled by the Commonwealth Aircraft Factory at Fisherman’s Bend, Melbourne and issued to No. 618, who were waiting for clearance to use Barnes Wallis’s highly secret ‘Highball’ bouncing bomb against the Japanese Navy’s capital ship in the Pacific. The FB.VI aircraft were intended to to be used by 618 to keep pilots and crew ‘current’, whilst not running up the hours on the Squadron’s highly modified Mosquito B. Mark IV ‘Highball’ machines. Unfortunately, the political problems of operating RAF aircraft in an area controlled by the US Navy proved intractable, and No. 618 was disbanded on the 29th June, 1945, well before the victory over Japan. ‘HR621’, the sole survivingFB.VI of this batch, is now in the Camden Museum of Aviation, New South Wales, Australia, and is subject to an ambitious rebuild to static exhibition standard.

Post-war the FB.VI was still in demand, and many Standard-built aircraft were shipped overseas; for example, RF858 was sent to New Zealand, where it was taken on charge by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in August, 1947. Possibly the last ‘formal’ appearance of Standard-built machines occurred when ‘RF932’ and others from No. 36 Squadron, RAF took part in the commemorative flypast of Royal Air Force aircraft over central London, in September, 1947. The post-war and foreign service of the FB.VI has barely been touched on, but you can see that the type was massively important in the fight against the Axis Powers.

The Standard Motor Company produced their lastFB.VI, ‘TE628’ in December 1945, and the major assemblies were towed – as all others had been – to Ansty airfield for assembly. A photograph exists of ‘TE628’ with three new production Standard cars ranged in front of the aircraft. The company had rapidly switched back to its usual ways, as the demand for private vehicles was intense, despite the fact that petrol rationing was still in force – and would remain so until 1950! However, there was a sense of pride in a job well done amongst the Standard workers, and with good reason – for from 1943 to 1945, 1,066 Mosquitoes had taken off from Ansty, and struck powerful blows against the country’s enemies.


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