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Spitfire Vb  312 (Czech)Sqn RAF March 1942

 A Brief History of the RAF:

 The RFC, which gave birth to the RAF, was formed in 1912. It comprised a Military Wing, a Naval Wing, The Royal Aircraft Factory and the Central Flying School. Eighteen months after its formation, the Naval Wing of the RFC was reformed into the Royal Naval Air Service.

 It was from these branches that the RAF was formed on 1st April 1918. Whereas the RFC squadron numbers were largely retained from 1 to 199, the number 200 was added to that of each RNAS Squadron, thus 3 Sqn RNAS became 203 Sqn RAF.

 In 1918 the combined strength of the RAF was 188 squadrons but with the massive disarmament programmes instituted following the slaughter of the previous years this was quickly reduced to 12 squadrons. Additionally, it was generally believed that in any future war offensive air power would be decisive, thus the statement made by Stanly Baldwin in 1932 that "..the bomber will always get through" was accepted as a fundemental truth and was never seriously questioned for nearly twenty years.

 Under the guidance of Sir Hugh Trenchard, Britain formed an Air Force independent of Army or Navy control. It was also developed as the first strategic air force in the world at the time. The emphasis was therefore on bombers. Indeed, nearly all aircraft development in the inter-war years was directed towards bombing. Fighters, being defensive weapons, were considered an irrelevance. To illustrate this doctrine, the F2b Bristol Fighter introduced on the Western Front in 1916 was still in RAF Service in the early 1930s!

 Another area that was in need of massive improvement, and for which Trenchard was primarily responsible, was training. During the First World War pilots had arrived at front-line airfields often with less than 20 hours total flying time. Operational losses were very high, particularly for these novice pilots but training accidents too took an unacceptably heavy toll. The life expectancy for a front-line pilot was six weeks, but most novices were killed in their first or second sortie. An Air Training Command was formed in 1936

 In the inter-war years training was given a high priority but with little consideration as to the role the RAF might be asked to play in the event of a future war. Air-gunnery, bombing, navigation (especially at night or through undercast) and radio communications were all sadly neglected in favour of pilot training and fair-weather navigation during daylight. Air-gunners, flight engineers and bomb aimers were all volunteer ground crew who carried out this role in their spare time and were not specifically trained in their tasks, for which they received an additional sixpence a day, (2 ½ pence in today's currency). The result, coupled with aircraft design based on the experiences of the last war, was to leave the RAF woefully unprepared the the needs of the future. Had it not been for the much argued development of the metal-skinned monoplane fighters, including the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, Fighter Command would still have been equipped with lightly armed, open-cockpit biplanes. As an example of this philosophy, the Bristol Blenheim entered RAF servive in 1937. The same year that the latest RAF fighter, the Gloster Gladiator, was also introduced.

 Germany's rearmament programme and the development of the Luftwaffe caused great alarm in Britain. This resulted in a shift in policy towards fighter production, although this was largely dictated by cost rather than military thinking. However, much credit for this later development and many other initiatives must be given to Sir Edward Ellington, Chief of Air Staff 1933-37. It was under his leadership and the far-seeing programmes of his subordinates, Sir Hugh Dowding (Fighter Command) and Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt (Bomber Command), that the RAF was able to rise to the challenge and start to shape a grossly neglected air-arm into an effective fighting force.

  It was almost too late. RAF expansion did not begin until 1934 and the aircraft manufacturing industry was not designed or equipped to deal with large orders for military aircraft. That is not to say that the RAF was ready by 1939, it wasn't, but the process had begun that would enable the RAF to respond with increasing effect over he next six years.


Supermarine Spitfire MkI
19 Sqn
Fowlmere, Cambs 1940


Designed by RJ Mitchell and first flown in 1936, the Spitfire Mk1 was introduced into RAF service in 1938 with 19 Sqn at Duxford. Twenty four fighter, fighter-bomber and photo-reconnaissance variants were later produced and from the Mk XII onwards were powered by the Rolls Royce Griffin, rather than the Merlin engine.

The Spitfire Mk I was the first operational version of this superb fighter which saw action during the Battle of Britain. Armed with eight, Browning .303 machine guns. This version did not have the fire-power of the cannon-armed Bf109E but later, interim versions armed with 20mm Hispano cannon were plagued by stoppages until the MkVb, when this problem was eventually solved.

Wingspan 36ft 10in
29ft 11in
Laden Weight 6,785lb
Engine Rolls Royce Merlin II 12 cylinder "V" type
Ceiling 31,900ft
Range 395 miles
Max. Speed
Armament 8X .303 Brownings
Crew 1


Hawker Hurricane MkIIb
310 (Czech) Sqn
Fowlmere, Cambs 1940

First flown in late 1935 the Hurricane was the first monoplane fighter to enter service with the RAF in 1937 with 111 Sqn. It is seldom remembered now that it was the Hurricane, rather than the Spitfire, that bore the brunt of the Battle of Britain. Hurricanes destroyed more enemy aicraft than all other air defences combined, including anti-aircraft fire and ballons.
310 (Czech) Sqn formed at nearby Duxford in August 1940 and became part of the Duxford 'Big Wing' under the command of DRS Bader. Hurricane IIb aircraft of 133 (Eagle) Sqn also flew from Fowlmere and were later reformed into 4thFG at Debden together with 71 and 121 Sqns.


Wingspan 40ft
Length 32ft 2¼ in
Laden Weight 8,100 lbs
Engine Rolls Royce Merlin XX 1,280 hp 12 cylinder V type
Ceiling 35,600ft
Max Speed 329mph
Armament 8X .303 Browning rcmg
Crew 1


Boulton Paul Defiant I
264 Sqn
Fowlmere, Cambs 1940

First flown in 1937 this was the smallest aircraft to accept a two man crew entering service with the RAF with 264Sqn in 1939.
Defiants based at Duxford and Fowlmere in March and June 1940 showed initial successes during the withdrawel from Dunkirk, being mistaken for single-seat interceptors. However, within a very short period their inferior speed and lack of forward firing armament resulted in appalling losses after which Defiants were withdrawn and only used operationally as night fighters.
Wingspan 39ft 4in
Length 35ft 4in
Laden Weight 8,600lbs
Engine 1,260hp Rolls Royce Merlin XX 12 Cylinder V type
Ceiling 31,800ft
Range 480miles
Max Speed 315mph
Armament 4X .303 Browning rcmg
Crew 2


Hawker Typhoon Ib
266 Sqn
Duxford, Cambs 1942

First flown in 1940 this fighter-bomber entered service in 1941. With the intention that it would succeed the ageing Hurricane as an interceptor. Early versions suffered from engine failures and structural faults resulting in a number of fatal accidents. However, the deployment of this aircraft as an interceptor was limited and it was soon withdrawn. The Typhoon was redeployed in a ground attack role where its ability as a gun-platform at low altitudes allowed it more success.

The Typhoon was eventually put into use by 48 RAF squadrons in the ground attack role and was used extensively during the Normandy Landings to destroy pockets of armour.

Wingspan 41ft 7in
Length 31ft 11 in
Laden Weight 13,980lb
Engine 2,180hp Napier Sabre IIb 24 cylinder "H" type
Ceiling 34,000ft
Range 510 miles
Max. Speed 405mph
Armament 4X 20mm Hispano cannon
Bomb load 2,000lb or 8X 3in rockets
Crew 1


Hawker Tempest MkV Srs
3 Sqn Bradwell Bay
Essex March 1944

The Tempest was developed as a successor to the problem-stricken Typhoon which had not been able to fulfill its design concept as an interceptor.

Tempests first flew in 1942 and were entered into service in 1944. In their early deployment they were used to destroy V-1 flying bombs, being one of the few aircraft at that time with sufficient speed, when diving, to intercept the flying bombs. In some cases this involved flipping the V1 over by lifting the wing-tip with the wing of the Tempest. A highly dangerous manoeuver but with better future career prospects than using the guns at short range on a metal casing packed with high explosive!

Later, during and after D-Day, Tempests were fitted with racks of 3 inch rockets and were used very successfully in a ground attack role.

Wingspan 41ft 0in
Length 33ft 8 in
Laden Weight 13,540lb
Engine 2,180hp Napier Sabre IIA 24 cylinder "H" type
Ceiling 36,500ft
Range 740 miles
Max. Speed 426mph
Armament 4X20mm MkII cannon
Bomb load 2,000lb or 8X 3in rockets
Crew 1


Curtiss Tomahawk Mk1a
168 Sqn
Bottisham, Cambs
August 1941

The Curtiss Warhawk was the principal USAAF fighter used to defend Pearl Harbour and had already entered service with the RAF renamed as the Tomahawk.

It was however, inferior to other contemporary aircraft of the time, being underpowered. This was one of the reasons that prompted the development of the highly successful P-51 Mustang.

168 Sqn, stationed at Bottisham, flew Tomahawks on fighter reconnaissance and were one of 13 operational RAF Squadrons to use this aircraft exclusively in the European theatre before converting to Typhoons.

Wingspan 37ft 4in
Length 33ft 4in
Laden Weight 11,400lb
Engine 1,360hp Allison V-1710 81 inline piston
Ceiling 38,000ft
Range 240miles
Max. Speed 378mph
Armament 6X .5 Brownings
Bomb Load 1,500lb external
Crew 1


De Havilland Mosquito XVI
692 Sqn
Gravely, Cambs 1944

This primarily wooden aircraft was developed as a private venture and was first flown in 1940, entering service in a photo-reconnaissance role in 1941.

Night-fighter variants from 1943 onwards sometimes incorporated nitrous oxide boosted engines. Few night fighters could catch Mosquito's with the notable exception of the He219 Uhu (Owl) which accounted for 60% of Mosquito losses in night operations.

Mosquito's from 61 Squadron stationed at Castle Camps were used in 1944 to intercept and destroy V1 flying-bombs.


Wingspan 54ft 2in
Length 40ft 4in
Laden Weight
Engines 2X 1,460hp Rolls Royce Merlin 21/23 12 cylinder "V" type
Max. Speed 425mph
3,350 miles
Ceiling 36,000ft
Armament 4X 20mm Hispano cannon. 4X .303 Browning
Bomb load 4,000 (not in NF versions)
Crew 2


Bristol Blenheim IV
254 Sqn
Stradishall, Suffolk 1939

Prior to 1938, when the Vickers Wellington was first introduced, the Bristol Blenheim was the RAFs principal twin-engined light bomber having entered service in 1937.

Vulnerability to attack in daylight from superior Luftwaffe interceptors resulted in different versions being modified for use as fighter-bombers, night-fighters and deployment with Coastal Command.

The Blenheim, often referred to as the “Forgotten Bomber”, was the mainstay of Bomber Command and flown by 115 RAF Squadrons.

Wingspan 56ft 4in
Length 42ft 7in
Laden Weight
Engine 2X 920hp Bristol Mercury XV radial engines
Ceiling 22,000ft
1,460 miles
Max. Speed
Armament 5X .303 Brownings
Bomb Load 1,320lb internal and external
Crew 3


Fairey Swordfish MkI
810 Naval Air Sqn
HMS Ark Royal
May 1941

The Stringbag, as it was affectionately known, was an anachronism. Underpowered, slow and lightly armed This biplane was completely outdated by the outbreak of war. However, Swordfish production continued until 1944.

Despite the disadvantages, this aircraft had incredible success against the Italian fleet at Taranto, when three battleships were sunk. The crippling of the Bismark and the suicidal attacks on the Scharnhorst, Gneisau and Prinz Eugen in 1942 were carried out against all odds by Swordfish crews but with terrible losses.

Wingspan 45ft 6in
Length 35ft 8in
Laden Weight
Engine 750hp Bristol Pegasus XXX Radial piston
Ceiling 19,250ft
Range 546miles
Max. Speed
Armament 2X 0.303 machine guns
Bomb Load 1X 18in torpedo
Crew 3


Vickers Wellington MkI
11 OTU
Bassingbourn, Herts

 First flown in 1936 and designed by Barnes Wallace, the Wellington joined RAF Service in 1938 where it served as the main daylight bomber but was later converted to a night bomber as the defensive armament proved inadequate against modern monoplane fighters

On April 10 1941 Wellington L4253 of 11 OTU was shot down over Ashwell, one of a number of victims to intruder attacks in the area. Earlier in the year Wellington R1334 was intercepted by a Ju 88-C2 flown by Leutnant Heinz Volkman of NJG .2, based at Gilze Rijen in Holland,. After being hit the Wellington swerved into the path of the Ju88, both aircraft crashed in flames near Ashwell. There were no survivors.

Wingspan 86ft 2in
64ft 7in
Laden Weight 29,500lb
Engines 2X 1,500hp Bristol Hercules XI 14 cylinder radials
Ceiling 19,000ft
1,540 miles
Max. Speed 255mph
Armament 8X .303 Brownings
Bomb load 4,500lb internal
Crew 6


Short Stirling BI
7 Sqn Oakington, Cambs

The Stirling was the first four engined bomber to enter service with the RAF with 7 Sqn.

Of the three types of heavy bomber the Stirling was the least popular, it’s short range, low speed and low altitude increased the danger of night operations . In addition, this aircraft was relatively lightly armed.

Two VCs were awarded posthumously to Stirling pilots: Flt/Sgt Middleton of 149 Sqn and Flt/Sgt Aaron of 218 Sqn.

Unarmed Mk IV Stirlings were used to tow Horsa gliders for airborne forces

Wingspan 99ft 1in
87ft 3in
Laden Weight
Engine 4X 1,650hp Bristol Hercules XVI Radial pistons
Ceiling 17,000ft
Max. Speed 270mph
Armament 8X 0.303 Brownings
Bomb Load 14,000lb
Crew 7/8


Handley Page Hampden MkIII
35 Sqn
Gravely, Cambs 1943

The original Halifax was designed as a twin-engined bomber using Rolls-Royce Vulture engines but this was changed in favour of four Merlin Engines. The Halifax Mk I. II and IIA were all powered by in-line engines but differed in their defensive armament arrangements. The Halifax MkIII, with an increased wing-span, was powered by 4, Bristol Hercules XVI radial engines which gave improved performance.

This aircraft first came into service with 35 Sqn in 1940 who took Halifax III’s on charge in late 1943 before converting to the Avro Lancaster in March 1944.

Wingspan 104ft 2in
Length 71ft 7in
Laden Weight
Engine 4, 1,800hp Bristol Hercules 100 Radial engines
Max. Speed 312mph
Ceiling 24,000ft
Range 1,260miles
Armament 9X .303 Brownings
Bombload 13,000lb
Crew 7


Avro Lancaster BI
100 Sqn
Grimsby, 1944

The Lancaster succeeded the failed twin-engined Manchester as a heavy, four-engined night bomber and first flew in 1941 entering service with the RAF in 1942.

Undisputedly the finest bomber of the war this aircraft underwent several modifications to accommodate specialised loads including the Barnes-Wallace "Bouncing-Bombs" and the 22,000lb "Grand Slam".

Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings comprised the bulk of the heavy night bomber force, with Lancasters coming to epitomise the bomber as did the Spitfire for the fighters.

514 Sqn were formed at Foulsham in September 1943 having recently converted to this type from Stirlings. In November the Squadron re-located at Waterbeach near Cambridge.

Wingspan 102ft 0in
69ft 4in
Laden Weight
Engines 4X 1,460 Rolls Royce Merlin XX 12 cylinder "V" type
Ceiling 24,500ft
1,730 miles
Max. Speed 287mph
Armament 8X .303 Browning
Bomb load 18,000l- 22,000lb
Crew 7


Armstrong Whitworth Whitley B MkV
102 Sqn
Topcliffe 1941

First flown in 1935 these slow, lightly armed bombers carried out the bulk of the "Nickel" leaflet raids in 1939.

Whitley’s of 51 and 78 Sqn were used on the first bombing raid on Berlin in 1940. The last offensive raid was in 1942, by which time they had become too vulnerable to fighter attacks for further use.

These aircraft were then redeployed for use as a glider tugs and, fitted with ASV radar for anti-submarine duties with Coastal Command where they sank the first U-Boat, U206, in the Bay of Biscay.

Wingspan 84ft 0in
Length 69ft 3in
Laden Weight
Engines 2X 1,145hp Rolls Royce Merlin X inline pistons
Ceiling 17,600ft
1,650 miles
Max. Speed 222mph
Armament 2X 0.303 Brownings
Bomb Load 7,000lb
Crew 5


Bristol Beaufighter VIf
29 Sqn
Bradwell Bay, Essex
June 1943

 This was the first purpose-built night-fighter to be used by the RAF. A few were active in September 1940 but most were not in service until the following year.

As the de Havilland Mosquito began to take over the night fighting role, Beaufighters, fitted with ASV radar and torpedo’s or rockets were used extensively for anti-submarine and anti-shipping deployments with RAF Coastal Command.

The Beaufighter served in all theatres with notable success in the Pacific where it was known to the Japanese as “Whispering Death”.

Wingspan 57ft 10in
Length 41ft 8in
Laden Weight
Engines 2X 1,670hp Bristol Hercules VI Radial pistons
Max. Speed 333mph
Range 1,480miles
Armament 4X 20mm cannon 6X 0.303 machine guns
Crew 2


Westland Lysander MkIII
161 (Special Duties) Sqn
Tempsford 1942

The Lysander entered RAF service in 1938 in an army co-operation role. In 1939 four Lysander squadrons were sent to France with the BEF. They were no match for modern single-seat fighters and they were quickly withdrawn to UK after sustaining 118 losses.

One of their later roles was that of dropping and picking up agents in Occupied Europe where their short take-off and landing characteristics gave them a distinct advantage. In this role the aircraft flew unarmed with an external fuel tank slung on racks between the wheels. An additional feature was a metal ladder welded to the port side of the fuselage so that the 'parcels', (agents) , could be given speedier access.

Wingspan 50ft
30ft 6in
Laden Weight 6,318lb
Engine 870hp Bristol Mercury XX Radial
Max. Speed 212mph
Range 600miles
Crew 2


Consolidated PBY-5a Catalina "Black Cat"
RAF(Special Duties) Sqn

 The Catalina was first ordered for the US Navy in 1933 and the prototype flew two years later in 1935 establishing a distance record of 5508Km. The PBY Catalina was essentially a flying boat but the PBY-5A was amphibious. Over 500 Catalina’s were used in Coastal Command by the RAF, entering service in 1941.

It was an RAF Catalina, piloted by an American, that first spotted the German Battleship Bismark, while other anti-submarine versions destroyed over 196 U-Boats.

This versatile, long-range aircraft was also deployed in an air-sea rescue role.

In the Pacific theatre all-black Catalinas, known as “Black Cats” were used to attack Japanese shipping at night and to carry out special duties for SOE (Force 136). RAF versions were painted midnight blue with pea-green splashes.


Wingspan 104ft
65ft 10in
Laden Weight
Engines 2X900hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-64 Radials
Max. Speed 178mph
2,110 miles
Ceiling 20,800ft
Armament 2X 7.62mm ; 2X .5 machine guns
Bomb Load 4X 1000lb
Crew 7/9