The Halifax – that ‘other’ aeroplane in Bomber Command’s arsenal – was badly maligned for much of WWII. Leo McKinstry, for example, in his recent book Lancaster: The Second World War’s Greatest Bomber, records Sir Arthur Harris trying to close down Halifax production lines in favour of the Lancaster.
The earlier Halifaxes – Mk IIs in particular – were indeed pretty poor aeroplanes. Ron Houghton, a 102 Sqn Halifax skipper, spoke at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Sydney Branch meeting in late August 2010. He described his first flight in a Halifax at a Heavy Conversion Unit in mid 1944. It was a B MkII series I, and was seriously underpowered and too slow for its purpose. The nose design, with a front turret, meant lots of drag. Half way down the 1100 yard runway on its take-off roll, with full power selected, the aircraft had barely reached 65 miles per hour.
“I don’t like this”, Ron said to his instructor.
“Keep going”, was the reply.
900 yards down and speed still barely above stall.
“I really don’t like this”.
They dragged the aeroplane reluctantly off the ground, just clearing the trees at the end of the runway. Climb rate was negligible. Wide-eyed, Ron asked the instructor, “How does this thing handle with a full bomb load?!?”
Ron told us that the Mk IIs had a 99-foot wingspan and squared-off wingtips, designed like the unfortunate Short Stirling to fit inside the standard 100-foot-wide RAF hangar. This combined with the high drag from the front turret and the lack of enough power gave them a service ceiling of only around 12,000 feet – well inside range of German flak guns. They also had a nasty reputation of entering an unrecoverable spin if stalled with one engine out, caused by a faulty rudder design. No wonder, then, that Ron spoke of his delight at arriving at 102 Squadron at Pocklington to discover that the squadron had on that day received the first of their much-improved Halifax Mk IIIs. With no front turret, redesigned rudders, new slightly wider wings and vastly more powerful Bristol Hercules engines, the new generation ‘Hallybag’ had a 24,000’ ceiling and held much better survival prospects.
They were still complicated machines however. Ron related the requirement for pilots who were converting onto the Halifax to be able to draw a diagram of its fuel system from memory – all 17 tanks and many, many taps and lines and switches. There was, Ron said, “an awful lot of juggling of fuel”. The fuel tanks themselves had an ingenious system by which nitrogen was added to each one as it emptied, thus vastly reducing the risk of an explosion should a bullet or shell pierce it. There was just one piece of armour plating that Ron could remember, placed like the Lancaster on the rear of the pilot’s seat.
Ron mentioned crashed Halifaxes in Germany being recovered, restored and then flown into the bomber stream, crewed by Luftwaffe airmen, to follow and attack other bombers. This was I thought an interesting idea that I must admit I have not seen any documentary evidence of – if anyone is aware of this please get in touch!
The most important question, however, concerned the relative merits of the Halifax vs the Lancaster. The Halifax reputation suffered considerably from the faults of the earlier variants, but by war’s end the Mk III was close to the Lancaster in performance, if not in bomb-carrying capacity. Having flown both Ron was in a good position to compare ‘which one was the better’, but ever the gentleman he is he would not be drawn into judging one way or the other, saying only that the two were “pretty equal”.
So there we have it – a potted history of the Halifax, by someone who was there. Ron’s talk was fascinating. At its conclusion I got the chance to speak to him briefly and I will make sure to get in touch in the next little while to talk about it in more detail. Ron spent 35 years after the war flying for Qantas… and I’ll bet he has some stories to tell about that as well!
(c) 2010 Adam Purcell