2Background to the Hampden and its Crew
In 1932 the RAF invited tenders for a replacement of their antiquated bombers. Handley Page, along with other manufacturers, submitted a tender. In 1935 orders were placed. The first production Hampden flew in 1938. By June 1939 the RAF had taken delivery of 180 of which 164 went into Squadron service. 10% of these were written off before September of that year. The RAF took a total of 1,432, the last of which was delivered in March 1942.
Hampdens ceased operational service in October 1943. Half of them were lost on operations (a term applied to any aircraft detailed for operations which, for any reason failed to complete the operation. It is a wider definition than "Failed to Return" which applied only to aircraft which failed to return to this country).
The total number of Hampdens lost on operations was made up as follows:
TOTAL LOST IN OPERATIONS 714 (50% of all delivered to RAF)
The Hampden was not a large aircraft. Its normal operational weight did not exceed 8,525 kilos. The military load (fuel and oil, crew, parachutes, ammunition and bombs) at this weight was 2540kg of which fuel and oil accounted for nearly one half. (The Lancaster bomber which came into service in late 1942 had an operational weight four times heavier and a 1980’s Boeing 747 about fifty times more.) On a trip to Berlin a Hampden’s bomb load would equate to four 500lb bombs plus some incendiaries. Its endurance with this load was just over ten hours. In still air its operational range at an economical cruising sped of 155 m.p.h. was 1,550 miles. Allowing for take off, reaching bombing altitude, lining up on target and awaitingpermission to land on return, the elapsed time on a Berlin raid could vary between nine and nine and half hours depending on weather conditions.
The longest operational endurance of which there is a record is P1354 of 85 Squadron returning from the first raid on Berlin on 25 August 1940. It was airborne for 10 hrs 40 mins. It ran out of fuel and ditched in the Wash. All of the crew were rescued. Six (13%) of the 43 Hampdens on that same raid ran out of fuel. L4085 of 44 Squadron which was returning from a raid on Misburg on 2nd August, crossed England in thick fog, finally identified the Irish coast, probably in much the same area as did AD730 some eight months later. The pilot turned to head back to base but ran out of fuel and landed in the sea off Aberystwyth at about 6 a.m. Over 270 Hampdens crashed in the sea but it is not known how many of these incidents were cause by fuel shortage.
The aircraft was fast, manoeuvrable and not considered difficult to fly. It had excellent visibility and light controls except if inadvertently it went into a skidding turn or sideslip, particularly when making a climbing turn to port or if the engine cut out. When this happened, unless there was instantaneous reaction from the pilot, the aircraft would turn on its back and get into a spin from which recovery was virtually impossible since there was no response from the aileron or rudder controls as it lost height at a rate of about 1,000 ft in 3 seconds. "Bomber" Harris was convinced that this was a design fault in the rudders and he predicted that the later Halifax which had a similar rudder design would suffer from the same fault. He was right. Until the Halifax rudder was changed after two years of operational service many crashed in a similar way to Hampdens. Sixty eight Hampdens were lost due to engine failure in flight but it is not known how many of these were due to this factor.
The Hampden was a particularly cramped aircraft for the four crew members. The external width of the fuselage was only 3 ft, about the same width as a Spitfire. There was no visual contact between any of the crew. The pilot and navigator had similar skills and were interchangeable (but not in flight). The pilot sat on an upper deck and to reach him in flight the navigator/bomb aimer/front gunner would have had to crawl below that deck and climb up behind him. He was located in the nose of the aircraft with most of his space taken up byammunition drums, oxygen bottles, bomb sight and release gear, a Course and Speed Indicator which, for practical purposes, was the only navigational aid and a folding map table. The two rear gunners, either of whom could act as wireless operator, had similarly constrained positions. Being at the far end of the ducted heated air supply they had the coldest positions on the aircraft. The radio had to be fitted on its side between the two gun positions (see Technical Illustration pages 18 and 19).
For any crew member to take control from an injured pilot was virtually impossible. A description of a practice incident reads "After letting down the hinged back of the pilot’s seat the first pilot lay back while the second took hold of the control column. Then, sitting aside the prostrate body of his comrade carried out the trickiest part of the exercise—that of removing the first pilot’s feet from the rudder pedals and inserting his own in their place. The final act was the removal of the first pilot by dragging out his prostrate body from under the posterior of his replacement". Even when this operation was carried out in training conditions there were fatal crashes and the exercise was finally deleted from the training manual as being too dangerous.
Communication with base was by Morse code. Particularly when wearing gloves the radio was difficult to tune. Apart from a brief "Target attacked" signal on completion of a mission it was normally only used when the returning aircraft was within 30 miles of the English coast. But even at that relatively low altitude the temperature could still be –10°C. Both transmitter and receiver had to be tuned manually and errors in frequency could lead to a total breakdown in communication between aircraft and base.
In April 1941 50 Squadron lost five aircraft. Fourteen crew members were killed and five became POW’s. The total number of Hampden crew casualties up to the end of the planes operational life in August 1943 was 3,030 made up as follows:
It is salutary that one quarter of all the fatalities were on non operational flights.
Hampden Raids on Berlin and Casualties 1940/1941
The first Hampden raid on Berlin was carried out on 25 August 1940 immediately after a heavy German attack on London. Forty six Hampdens from four different squadrons were involved (as well as Wellingtons from other Squadrons). Of these six were lost, five through fuel shortage and one missing believed also to be from the same cause. Two of these losses were from 50 Squadron. The last raid was on 21 September 1941. Over the period of thirteen months twenty Hampden raids were made averaging twenty six aircraft per raid. The largest concentration involved fifty aircraft and the smallest ten.
During the period 34 aircraft were lost of which 23 (58%) were due either certainly or probably to fuel shortage. By contrast only seven were attributed to enemy action. 50 Squadron lost nine aircraft, of which seven (including AD730) were out of fuel, one shot down by enemy action and one through a forced landing due to engine problems. There were six fatal casualties (including four on AD730) and two POW’s. These figures are typical of the other Squadrons involved in the Berlin Raids (Appendix 2)
Background to an Operation
The normal routine for aircrews in a bomber Squadron in 1941 was for all the crews to muster at around 1000 hrs each day. Those detailed for operations that night would go to their aircraft to tell their ground crews (six per aircraft). Engines, radios and guns would be tested and the aircraft thoroughly inspected all round once the ground crew had completed their work.
After lunch the crew assembled for detailed briefings on the night’s operations. The Intelligence Officer covered the aiming point and alternative targets and gave details of known defences. The Signals Officer detailed home airfield identification beacons and the Very light colours for the day. The Armoury Officer gave bomb load and its distribution by type of bomb within the aircraft and the Engineer gave the fuel load. The Met. Officer gave the expected weather, including both cloud cover and wind speeds, en route, over the target, for the return journey and for landing conditions on return to base. Finally, take off times for each aircraft were notified. In the early 1940’s after take off the crew were virtually on their own so far as route and altitude were concerned.
After the briefing the crews studied their charts and maps in order to plot their own routes. It was essential to establish a course which gave landmarks such as river bends, lakes or railway junctions which would be easily identifiable in moonlight and helped the navigator to plot any changes in wind speed or direction once airborne. It was important that all of the crew knew the flight plan, first because the rear gunners could confirm landmarks as they flew over and second because if they were forced down they would have some idea of the direction in which to go to escape. Preparations completed, the crew would take a couple of hours rest and a pre flight meal then, dressed in their heavy flying clothing, were ready for take off at the appointed time. Given an eight to nine hour flight, from start of pre-flight briefing to finishing debriefing on return about 0600 hrs the crew would have been on virtually continuous duty for sixteen hours.
The pressure at which crews sometimes had to operate is illustrated by an extract from this letter to his parents from Sgt Lamb, the navigator. On 15/16 April AD730 bombed Kiel, a flight of over six hours. After debriefing, he wrote to his parents "I was over Kiel last night bombing . . . it was a pretty rotten trip. The forecast was fine weather over the target but the cloud we ran into went up to 18,000 ft. I was pretty cold up there –30°C . . . We managed to find Kiel though some blokes didn’t and turned back. We flew around for a while but couldn’t find a break in the clouds to find our particular target so we waited until we were in a ring of searchlight and flak and let our bombs go . . . I didn’t get to bed until about 6 am." The full text of the letter is in Appendix 4.
Next day, April 17, he attended the briefing for what turned out to be his last flight.
Weather forecasts in the early days were seldom accurate, not surprisingly as the Met. Officer had very little data with which to work. Crews used to joke that the Met. Officers briefing always gave a forecast of not more than 2/10ths cloud over the Dutch coast on the way out and breaking up for the return journey. The conditions which affected operations were not only wind speed and direction and cloud cover. At operational heights temperatures of – 40°C were not unusual. Not only could wings and engines ice up. It was known for all instruments except the turn and bank indicator (a sort of flying spirit level) to ice up. Neither altimeter nor airspeed indicator could be functioning. Internal latches and hinges on bomb doors and escape hatches could also be frozen. Three of the crew of AE394 of 50 Squadron were killed on 22 February 1942 returning from a mission to Koblenz. The plane had run out of fuel and the captain gave the order to bale out. It is believed that, because the escape hatches had frozen due to the appalling weather over all of Europe when even ice floes were floating in the North Sea, the crew were unable to release the hatches and all were killed except for the pilot. Another example: on 28 January 1942, ten Hampdens of 50 squadron were detailed to attack Munster. Due to atrocious weather conditions not one reached its target and four of the ten 106 Squadron aircraft were lost. The 50 Squadron commander who was on the raid is reported as "having abandoned the task. It was snowing so hard in the cockpit that he was unable to see the instruments". On 7 July 1942 an aircraft (P4374) of 40 Squadron iced up completely at 12,000 ft and literally fell out of the sky until control was regained at 400 ft.
In flight, navigational aids apart from a compass and air speed indicator were virtually non existent. Electrical interference could affect the radio (for which Morse code was the method of communication), icing affect the instruments including the airspeed indicator thus upsetting flying by dead reckoning (the method of navigating in bad visibility by flying on a compass bearing for a fixed time at a fixed speed) and static electricity or lightning affect the accuracy of the compass. Navigation in thick cloud was very much by guess and by God and aircrews were as much at risk from getting lost as from enemy action. (see operational reports of Squadrons 44, 50, and 88 in Appendix 1 and Summary of Hampden Berlin Operations in Appendix 2).
Harry Moyle, a navigator in 44 Squadron and author of "The Hampden File" who died in 1995 wrote and later confirmed to me personally "Fog was the main weather hazard which affected returning bombers because Lincolnshire was particularly prone to fog . . . every airfield within range could be blotted out . . ." On 2/3 September 1941 fifty one Hampdens were operating against Berlin and other targets. Five were lost over enemy territory and because of dense fog on their return, eight more were written off on crash landings and a further five seriously damaged . . . "the attacks on Berlin were really beyond the safe range of the Hampden and allowed no time for a returning aircraft to search around for a landing place".
The return from the target usually involved all of the crew helping to obtain a pinpoint on crossing the enemy coast and the navigator asking the wireless operator to obtain a fix for a course to steer to base. The radio was neither very powerful nor reliable. In 10/10 cloud with damaged or faulty radio plus the possibility of compass error the above are only some examples of very frequent incidents.
It was therefore not surprising that an aircraft could be many many miles away from where the crew thought it was. The crew of one Hampden (AD768) bailed out over Donegal after returning from a raid on Karlsruhe on 2nd October 1941. A few minutes more flying time and they would have been over the Atlantic. Another Hampden (L4045) force landed undamaged on the Curragh race course near Dublin in May 1940. Contrary to International law the obliging Irish provided two hundred gallons of fuel which enabled the plane to land at Aldergrove, N. Ireland in a very short time.
Not only Hampdens experienced this problem. On 24 October 1941, a Wellington (T2506) crashed in Co. Clare on returning from a raid on Frankfurt. The crew baled out safely and were interned in Ireland. Seven Wellingtons of 103 Squadron based in Coningsby, Leicester were detailed to bomb Frankfurt. Two failed to take off due to engine problems. The cloud was 8/10 over the sea up to 10,000 ft and 10/10 over the target at 15,000 ft. Enemy opposition was reported to have been slight and inaccurate. Two attacked the target with good results, one aborted, one hit a balloon cable and force landed at Colerne in Wiltshire. The seventh was T2506.
The circumstances of that raid were similar to those of the Hampden squadrons on 17 April 1941 noted in Appendix 1.
By the date of my brothers crash there were no satisfactory aids to navigation or target location. If the ground was obscured by cloud, navigation was very much by dead reckoning. Apart from coastal pin-points and wind drifts observed by rear gunners from flares dropped in the sea the navigator had nothing to help him on the way to the target which, at that stage of the war, had no Pathfinder marking to illumin-ate the target centre. Orders to the squadron, apart from take off time, were far from prescriptive. Precise routes were left to individual crews. If targets could not be identified the crews brought their bombs back.
If the target was inside Germany and was obscured by industrial haze or smoke (which was quite common in the Ruhr) the crew might bomb on Estimated Time of Arrival. Based on the navigators calculations which were founded on forecast windspeeds rather than those which had actually been experienced on the flight, bomb loads could in fact be dropped many miles from the target without the crew being aware of it.
Bomb sights were primitive, the speed, height and course having to be set manually once the target had been identified. Then, on reaching a predetermined position the bombs were released. Once released a brief coded message was sent (but not necessarily received) and radio silence was then observed until the enemy coast had been crossed.
Photo via C. G. Jefford
A 50 Squadron crew poses with a couple of 200 lb bombs and