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Library Reference Number: 091

The RAF Transformation During the 1930s

Andrew Jackson,DFC, AE, MID., Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

Being a member of RAFVR in 1939, Andrew Jackson recaptures some of the memories of the RAF's race to meet the challenges of World War 2.

Hamish Reid's account of having flown Hurricanes, Spitfires and other single-engine aircraft, and finally in 1944 flying an Air-Sea-Rescue Walrus in the Middle East, brought back memories of flying this aircraft in 1940 on similar duties. The `Walrus' was such an oddity and in the 1930s the RAF had others - the successors to the World War 1 biplanes. How on earth did the Royal Air Force achieve the transformation to modern metal monoplanes as we know them, by the outbreak of WW2?

Fortunately, many well loved types were scrapped. The aircraft replaced included the Vickers 'Virginia' a night bomber still appearing in the Hendon Airshow in 1937. Other front-line aircraft included the Armstrong Whitworth 'Siskin'; the Gloster 'Gamecock' (which gave present day 43 Squadron its badge) and the Hawker `Hind' & `Hart' belonged to an Air Force of mainly wooden bi-planes which had become wholly obsolete. As the UK was not under any threat, there was no compelling need to change that situation.

So it appeared, when in June 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and in October of the same year, Hitler took Germany out of the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations, Germany was rearming in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles.

This was the period of disarmament, especially against aerial bombing, the League of Nations was the instrument of National Security. Reality however overcame the disarmers, and the RAF started the process of replacing its obsolete aircraft with high performance, all-metal monoplanes. From 1934 Air Ministry specifications, the Hurricane and Spitfire were designed. The first steps were taken to develop the RAF Typex cipher machines. The first prototype was delivered to the Air Ministry on 30th April 1935 and in early 1937 around 30 Typex Mk I machines were supplied to the RAF. The machine was initially termed the "RAF Enigma with Type X attachments" In 1935 the construction of new airfields deployed on the East coast began.

In 1936, Air Ministry specifications were issued from which came the Stirling, Halifax and Manchester. In 1937 shadow factories were set up to expand production. The R.A.F.V.R. was created. A break-through in engine design came in 1933 when Rolls Royce built the PV12 (Private Venture 12-cylinder) later known as the 'Merlin.' (over 168,000 Merlins of 58 different varieties were produced between 1935 and 1951). The American Browning machine gun was also available. Eight would be required for each high-speed aircraft. Engaging the enemy in a two-second burst fired clear of propellers meant guns being mounted in the wings.

The Hurricane entered service in December 1937; the Spitfire in 1938; the Wellington January 1939; the Stirling August 1940; the Halifax January 1940; and Manchester, March 1941. When war broke out, air and ground crews were still trying to get to grips with an entirely new generation of aircraft. The new bombers arriving on the Stations were only permitted to fly over land, until a suitable dinghy was designed for all the crew. The new dinghies were installed but no provision was yet in place to rescue the crews if they ditched in the North Sea.

At the time in 1940, when I flew in Wellingtons with 149 Squadron from RAF Mildenhall, we experienced the tragic loss of crews who had ditched and waited in vain to be rescued. The Station Commander was extremely alarmed at the loss of valuable crews, and somehow acquired a `Walrus' aircraft P2206. I had just completed my first ops tour in October 1940, and was crewed up with P/O McDairmid to form a search and rescue crew. We carried out square searches from the positions reported by returning aircrews.

We did have the reward of locating a dinghy with the crew on board, and were successful in diverting a trawler who completed the rescue. On that trip, a Junkers 88 heading West, passed within sighting distance, but continued on its way: An anxious few minutes as we hugged the wave-tops.

Within a month, I had to leave behind this cushy number, and was posted to Canada for an Astro-Nav course. Did my short stay with Group Flight Mildenhall witness the beginning of Air-Sea-Rescue?

Footnote: Photos of the 1930s aircraft 'Virginia' 'Siskin' & 'Gamecock' may be seen in the 'Photo Section' of this Website.

One major event in the summer of 1940 changed the mind of many of the sceptics. During the Battle of Britain over 200 airmen were killed or went missing in the seas around England. With the formation of the Directorate of Air/Sea Rescue, rapid strides were made in developing a rescue system and rescue apparatus. By September 1941, the service had 24 Lysanders of its own and nine Walrus aircraft capable of landing on the water.

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