Beware the Mosquito's Sting - the de Havilland Mosquito Fighter Bomber

By John Dudek 16 Jul 2015 0

The 19 twin engine British Mosquito Mk VI light bombers flying at well over three hundred miles per hour roared in fast and low at church steeple altitude through the slate grey, late morning winter skies of 18 February 1944.  Their bombing target was the German Gestapo prison in the French town of Amiens.  Inside its high masonry concrete prison walls were held 717 French resistance fighters and other political enemies of the German Third Reich.  In less than ten minutes the Mosquito's bombs breached the prison walls, completely destroying the Gestapo barracks and killing most of its soldiers within who were then eating their lunch.  As nearly 300 French prisoners escaped through the newly opened, still smoking walls, the Mosquito bombers quickly departed, leaving behind the shell shocked, incredulous Germans to wonder what had just hit them. 

 

 

The raid's culprit was by now all too well known for making these effective low level bombing raid missions. The orphan "all wood" British Mosquito light bomber, largely built in former piano factories, and one that almost no one within the British armaments industry wanted to build, had just scored one of the greatest and most precise low level, pin point attack missions of WWII.  The de Havilland DH. 98 Mosquito was perhaps the most versatile multi-role combat plane ever to serve during the war.  During its operational life it served successfully as an unarmed fast bomber that was easily converted towards several other incarnations including a low to medium-altitude daytime tactical bomber, a high-altitude night bomber, a pathfinder, a day or night fighter, fighter-bomber, intruder, maritime strike aircraft and a fast photo reconnaissance aircraft.  Few if any other aircraft used in WWII successfully served in so many varied roles and was so loved and respected by its aircrews.  Affectionately known as the "Mossie" or "the wooden wonder" by those who flew in it, the Mosquito was a robust, extremely fast, well armed aircraft with VLR or very long range capability It was a plane admirably suited to each and every role it assumed.

In the late 1930's the drums of war were beginning to sound ever more loudly throughout Europe, especially with Germany quickly re-arming and threatening its neighbours. The British idea of building an aerodynamically clean, extremely fast medium bomber originally came about from a concept paper written by the chief designer at Handley Page Aircraft, George Volkert, in May 1937. The gifted and competing "Whiz-Kid" aircraft company owner and designer Geoffrey de Havilland took the concept one step further, arguing the warplane should be built primarily of all wood construction because of the obvious coming wartime shortages of steel and aluminum. 

In spite of a large number of other aircraft already then on his company drawing boards, de Havilland decided to design an entirely new aerodynamically clean aircraft, built nearly entirely of wood and powered by twin Rolls Royce Merlin engines.  Such a plane would be much faster than any known enemy aircraft of the day, but no one as yet knew just how fast the future Mosquito would be capable of flying.  However at a meeting in early October 1938, the British Air Ministry showed little interest in de Havilland's revolutionary aircraft project.  Instead they argued that de Havilland and his aircraft company become a sub-contractor for other British bomber projects.  Undeterred and knowing full well he'd "captured lightning in a bottle" with this potentially unparalleled new plane design, de Havilland continued in his quest to get the Mosquito into full production. 

After nearly two years of haggling and arguing with the British Air Ministry, de Havilland was finally given the green light to build one prototype of the plane in March 1940.  However in June 1940, following the Battle of Dunkirk, further work on the prototype was again cancelled by the new Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook for lack of availability of aircraft production factory space.  Work on the prototype was again halted only to be reinstated the following month after de Havilland's production manager promised Beaverbrooke that 50 Mosquito bombers would be ready for combat by December 1941.  The first Mosquito prototype rolled off the assembly line in November 1940.  With the end of the Battle of Britain that same year the Mosquito's production order was again changed in favor of producing 20 bomber and 30 fighter aircraft variants. De Havilland modified a single plane into a fighter, giving it a modified canopy and a solid nose, mounting 4x.303 caliber Browning machine guns and 4x20mm Hispano Mk.II cannon.  Such a heavy array of armament gave the Mosquito fighter a truly formidable offensive punch found in few other aircraft of the day.

The first prototype plane had its own share of "teething problems" needing correction, like any new aircraft. However, by January 1941 test pilot John Cunningham wrote that he was "greatly impressed by the lightness of the controls and generally pleasant handling characteristics" of the new plane.  He concluded by saying the Mosquito would be "..a perfect replacement for the Bristol Beaufighter" then in service.  During its initial trials that same month, a Mosquito easily outran a competing Spitfire fighter plane at an altitude of 6,000 ft. in spite of it being over twice the weight and size of the single engine plane.  At a full speed of just under 400 miles per hour, the Mosquito was over 20 miles per hour faster than the Spitfire.  No German plane then in existence could catch a Mosquito in level flight.

Following the official aircraft trials in February, the Mosquito was judged to be a superior aircraft and the first mass production order was placed with De Havilland Aviation on 21 June 1941 consisting of several variants, fighters, high-speed photo reconnaissance planes, fast bombers and trainers.  By January 1942, the RAF ordered 1,378 aircraft to be built, both in England, under contract in Canada and later in Australia.  These were the first of 7,781 Mosquitos that would be built during and after the war.  In April 1941 a demonstration was staged before a rapt Allied military audience that included US Army Air Force General Henry Hap Arnold and his aide.  The Mosquito's performance greatly impressed the Americans, especially its ability to make a rolling climb using but one engine.  However the Americans did not pursue their interest as it was thought the Lockheed P-38 Lightning could handle the same duties just as easily.  Arnold believed the Mosquito's design had received short shrift and its performance was deliberately down played.  He also knew full well the USAAF had no such dual-purpose reconnaissance aircraft in its itinerary of planes.  Immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a request was made for one Mosquito to be sent for testing and evaluation. Over 40 Canadian built Mosquitos were purchased by the USAAF and eventually nearly 200 served in the US Air Force in something of a reverse "Lend-Lease".

The first Royal Air Force light bomber squadrons equipped with Mosquitos quickly caught the attention of the Germans after a series of successful low level daylight bombing raids throughout occupied Europe.  The Mosquitos ranged as far afield as the German capital of Berlin during the summer of 1942.  Whenever the Germans tried to intercept them with either their Messerschmitt Bf 109's or the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters, the Mosquitos simply outran them to return safely to England.  Aside from their heavy use of anti-aircraft fire, the Germans seemed powerless to stop the Mosquito raids.  To further illustrate the Mosquito's effectiveness as a light bomber two incredibly daring Mosquito, pin point daylight raids were flown on 30 January 1943 against Berlin on the ten year anniversary of the Nazis coming to power.  The first bombing mission was flown with split second precision and accuracy at 1100 hours, knocking Berlin radio off the air while completely disrupting Reichsmarschall Herman Goring's bombastic speech before a large morning parade.  The second Mosquito raid came in the late afternoon interrupting a speech by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels at the Berlin Sports Palace.  Both air raids kept Berlin radio off the air for several hours.  Goring bitterly hated the Mosquito bombers and later harangued a large audience of German aircraft manufacturers by saying:

"In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops. After the war is over I'm going to buy a British radio set - then at least I'll own something that has always worked."

By early 1944, the Gestapo secret police in the Amiens area had rounded up several hundred French Resistance operatives and other political prisoners, placing them in the city prison. Over a hundred of them awaited a sentence of death behind its high walls.  After two Allied intelligence officers were caught and placed in the prison, a French Resistance operative began radioing London with this information as well as the details of the prison's defences, its layout, even the guard's duty rosters.  A request was made for a low level, pin point precision bombing raid on the prison's walls and the nearby German guard's barracks and mess hall.  It was decided to mount the attack at noon so as to catch as many guards as possible at their lunch and kill them.  The chance of causing friendly casualties was a necessary risk and therefore inevitable. But considering that many prisoners were already under a death sentence, there was a better than even money chance that many would survive and escape following the raid. The job was given to the British 2nd Tactical Air Force

The Mosquito fighter bomber variant used in the Amiens Gestapo prison raid was the FB Mk VI.  It was powered by two 1,460hp. Rolls Royce Merlin 21 or 25 engines, giving it a fully loaded top speed of 384mph.  Its basic bomb load was 2x 500lb bombs tipped with 11 second delayed action fuses.  The planes carried the same standard cannon and machine gun armament of other Mosquito fighter planes.

 

 

Nineteen Mosquito Mk.VI aircraft (6 aircraft of No 487 (RNZAF) Squadron, 6 aircraft of No 464 (RAAF) Squadron, 6 aircraft of No 21 Squadron and one aircraft of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU)) were detailed to attack the north and east walls and buildings of Amiens Prison.  Meanwhile, two other Mosquitos would bomb the town's railroad station as a diversion to draw off any German reinforcements and keep them from reaching the prison.

 

 

The Mosquito strike force took off at 1050 hours. They flew over the English Channel just above wave top level to escape German radar detection until after they made land fall. Then they continued flying at low altitude or "nap of the land" to continue confusing German radar.  The Mosquitos arrived right on time at noon and started their bombing runs from an altitude of 50 feet. The first bombs were released at 1203 hours, hitting the prison's eastern wall, five feet above the ground, destroying a guard house and blowing a massive hole in the wall. Another bomb struck a large prison building, flattening the western end of it.  In addition a large hole was made in the north wall and dozens of prisoners were observed fleeing the prison through it. 

 

 

Meanwhile, a British photo reconnaissance plane circled the area for ten minutes, filming the raid in real time. Fires and thick smoke now obscured the prison and prevented any further bombs from being accurately dropped.  Circling the area at 500ft., the photo reconnaissance plane signalled the remaining Mosquitos of No. 21 Squadron to head for home.  As he turned to do so himself, a diving German Fw.190 fighter plane deliberately slammed into the after part of his plane, ripping off the tail.  Both pilot and observer were killed in the crash.

 

 

The raid was a startling success.  Out of 700 prisoners, 255 escaped although 182 were later recaptured.  Fifty of the German guards were also killed in their mess hall. The diversionary raid on the railroad station was also successful and delayed the German troop’s arrival at the prison by two hours.  Two planes were lost during the mission, the aforementioned reconnaissance plane and one other.  It was last seen attacking a German flak gun position at low altitude and was never seen again.  Three other planes suffered some battle damage but returned safely home to base.

By this stage of the war, the Mosquito had long since hit its stride in its exceptional role of being an endless nightmare to both the German military and its citizenry to contend with.  With their many variants, Mosquitos represented the proverbial “death from a thousand cuts” to the Nazi German nation.  In its night time Pathfinder bomber role, Mosquito bombers marked vital German military targets with incendiary bombs well in advance of the incoming British heavy bomber streams.  In its night fighter role, radar equipped Mosquito fighters’ hunted German bombers in the night time British skies.  Before and after the German "Baby Blitz" or "Operation Stein Bock" of early 1944, Mosquitos successfully intercepted and shot down over 600 German bombers in three years over England, decimating much of the remaining German bomber force based in France. 

The Mosquito strike wings of Coastal Command hunted German sea borne convoys of merchant ships, blockade runners and surfaced U-boat submarines.  Armed with a highly effective and accurate 57mm. Molins automatic cannon with 25 rounds plus bombs and 8 wing mounted rockets, Mosquitos prowled the day and night-time skies over Europe in search of German ships and submarines.  The newly equipped and heavily armed Mosquitos soon proved their worth in battle against the Germans by sinking surfaced U-boats, seven of them by the end of the war. Entire German convoys also felt the Mosquito's wrath in varying degrees.  On 5 April 1945 a squadron of Mosquitos jumped a convoy of five German ships in the Kattegat, the body of water separating Sweden and Denmark and sank them all killing over 900 soldiers and sailors.

 

 

 

When used in a night time bomber escort and support role Mosquitos flew to known assembly points for German night fighters (usually visual or radio beacons) and attacked any in the area. B Mk IVs and PR Mk XVIs were used for Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) operations, using special equipment to detect and identify German radar and radio transmissions. Some 258 Luftwaffe night fighters were claimed destroyed by the Group, for the loss of some 70 Mosquitos. The omnipresence of the potent night fighter threat led to what the Luftwaffe crews dubbed "Moskitoschreck" (Mosquito terror), as the German aircrews were never sure when or where they might come under attack from the marauding 100 Group fighters, and indirectly led to a high proportion of aircraft and crew losses from crashes as night fighters hurried in to land to avoid the Mosquito threat, whether real or imagined.

Mosquito fighter bombers continued their vendetta against the German Gestapo, especially the prison and headquarters buildings in Copenhagen Denmark and the Hague Netherlands. They bombed both of these into ruins before the end of the war, killing many German soldiers while setting a number of Allied prisoners free.  At war's end, Mosquitos continued operating in the RAF for several years. Production of the Mosquito continued until they were finally retired in 1950 and replaced by the Canberra jet bomber.  A number of Allied air forces around the world continued using the Mosquito until the late 1950's.  Pretty good for an orphan "all wood" airplane that nobody wanted to build.

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