Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary
Spearhead of Bomber Command's daylight operations at the outbreak of World War II, the Blenheim caused something of a stir when it first took to the air. The Bristol Company had designed an executive aircraft at the request of Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, who had been impressed with the Douglas DC1 twin-engined aeroplane then being built in the USA.
The specification called for a six-seater, twin-engined monoplane capable of 240mph - a speed in excess of the fastest RAF fighters of the time - and the aircraft, known as the Bristol 142, made its maiden flight in April 1935 and cost Lord Rothermere the princely sum of £18,500. Named 'Britain First', the aircraft was donated to the nation by his Lordship, and the aircraft transferred to the RAF. By this time Bristol had offered an improved version of the aircraft to the Royal Air Force as a medium day-bomber capable of carrying 1,000lb of bombs and with a top speed of 280mph.
The aircraft was moved to Martlesham Heath for trials, and so successful were they (the Type 142 achieved 280mph at 16,500ft) that the Air Ministry issued a Specification, B28/35, for an aircraft with performance similar to that of the Bristol 142. In response, Bristol offered the Type 142M which was essentially the same as that built for Lord Rothermere but with the wings now in the mid-fuselage position to accommodate the bomb bay and Bristol Mercury VIII engines. One hundred and fifty were ordered off the drawing board for immediate service, with provision made for a further 450 aircraft.
The first production Type 142M, now known as the Blenheim, made its first flight on 25 June 1936, and moved to Boscombe Down on 27 October 1936 for trials. The first squadron deliveries were made to No 114 Squadron at Wyton on 10 March 1937, the event being marred when the first Blenheim to land was totally wrecked after the pilot evidently applied the brakes too harshly, causing the aeroplane to overturn and break its back. By the turn of the year Nos 44, 90, 139 and 144 Squadron had been similarly re-equipped.
With Blenheim production accelerating early in 1938, Hawker Hinds began to be withdrawn from operational squadrons during the last eighteen months before the War, being replaced by Blenheims often following a short spell with Ansons to provide twin-engine training. By the time of the Munich crisis in September 1938, Blenheim I bombers had reached 16 bomber squadrons in three Groups and the first deliveries had also been made overseas, Blenheim Is replacing Hawker Hardys on No 30 Squadron at Habbaniya, Iraq, in July 1938.
By early 1938, however, it was becoming evident that the Blenheim I was already obsolescent. Despite its much advertised maximum speed of 280 mph, it proved unable to exceed 215mph when carrying full bombload of four 250lb bombs and full fuel and, with only one rotatable defensive gun, was obviously extremely vulnerable to the new generation of single-seat interceptor fighters. This situation was confirmed during the RAF defence exercise of August 1939, when the pilots of No 111 Squadron's Hurricanes claimed to have 'run rings round' every Blenheim they encountered.
Fortunately, the designers at Bristol were working on improving the basic Blenheim design. Blenheims had been exported to Finland, Turkey Yugoslavia with Canada looking at a longer-range version of the aircraft for its Air Force. This would also feature several other improvements including a redesigned nose to provide an improved wireless operator's/bomb aiming position. The revised aircraft was initially known as the Bolingbroke, but later changed to Blenheim IV. (Bolingbroke was retained for those aircraft built under licence in Canada). The reprofiled nose caused some difficulties for the pilot and a further modification was introduced where the top of the glazing was cut away to improve forward vision.
With 250 Mark Is in service with the RAF, the focus now switched to the improved Mark IV and over 2,200 Blenheims IVs were built in the following two years. Number 53 Squadron, RAF Odiham, was the first recipient of the Blenheim IV in January 1939, and by the end of that year the unit had been joined by 14 others, as the Mark I was withdrawn from front-line squadrons at home.
The first RAF aircraft to fly over Germany during the Second World War was a Blenheim IV, serial number N6215, of No 139 Squadron, when, on 3 September 1939, Flying Officer A Macpherson carried out an armed reconnaissance over German warships in the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven. The next day, five Blenheim IVs of No 110 Squadron and five of No 107 set out from Wattisham to attack German warships in the Heligoland Bight, led by Flight Lieutenant KC Doran of No 110. The aircraft each carried two 5001b semi armour-piercing bombs, and the two squadrons made their way out independently. Doran' s formation attacked the German pocket-battleship Sheer, lying off Wilhelmshaven, and scored three or four direct hits but, owing to the low level at which the attacks were carried out, the bombs failed to explode as their eleven-second delay fuses had insufficient time to work off their safety devices. The ship was out of action for no more than five weeks. The Blenheims of No 107 Squadron, as well as five others from No 139 Squadron, failed to achieve any damage. Five Wattisham-based Blenheims failed to return.
At the turn of the year, the first of four Blenheim squadrons from No 2 Group were ordered to France to join the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF), in defence and support of British forces already in theatre. With German offensive in the West opening in May 1940, the Blenheims were heavily engaged in armed recce and bombing patrols, but suffered terribly at the hands of the German fighters and two squadrons (Nos 114 and 139) were effectively wiped out on the ground by surprise German attacks before being withdrawn to Britain to re-equip and re-train.
Blenheims were also heavily involved in the Middle and Far East (6 squadrons; 5 with Blenheims Is) as well as the Mediterranean where Nos 84 and 211 Squadrons participated in the abortive Greek campaign of 1941. In these regions, the Blenheim soldiered on with fighter escort until 1943.
The daylight attacks which became a feature of Blenheim operations with No 2 Group were often dangerous, but very dramatic operations and one such raid by aircraft from Nos 105 and 107 Squadrons, under the command of Wing Commander H I Edwards, an Australian, attacked Bremen in broad daylight on 4 July 1941. The attack was made at less than 100ft, and of the 12 aircraft involved, only 5 returned. Edwards was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.
Home squadrons in Bomber Command flew Blenheims until the end of 1941 when they were replaced by a number of American-designed aircraft such as the Boston and Ventura.
Date Last Updated : Wednesday, April 6, 2005 2:40 AM
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