Saturday, January 26, 2008
Weekend Wings #4: The Last Stand Of The Biplane
Following my last Weekend Wings post, which looked at the line of descent between the Sopwith Pup biplane fighter of World War I and the Lockheed F-35B STOVL variant of the Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, I had a few queries from readers asking when the last biplanes saw combat.
The answer might surprise you. You see, biplanes served in several theaters of combat all the way through World War II and in the Korean War. Indeed, a biplane is still in military service in at least three nations, including two current major powers!
During the 1930's most military aircraft saw rapid development. Wood and metal tube fuselages covered with fabric gave way to stressed metal skins and monocoque construction. Fabric-covered wings and ailerons were replaced by metal. Engines grew more powerful. The first pressurized transport aircraft were developed. However, biplanes were still common, and served as front-line fighters right up to the beginning of World War II. In the Spanish Civil War biplanes were used in front-line service by both sides. Franco's Nationalists and their German Condor Legion allies flew Heinkel He-46's and He-59's, and Mussolini's Fascists flew Fiat CR-32's. The Republican side flew Russian-sourced Polikarpov R-5's and I-15's (the latter is shown below).
During World War II virtually all nations used biplanes as basic training aircraft. The USA used the Stearman; Britain used the Avro Tutor and de Havilland Tiger Moth; Germany the Bücker Bü-131 Jungmann and Heinkel He-72 Kadett; the Soviet Union the Polikarpov U-2/Po-2; and so on. Details and photographs may be found at the links provided.
For actual combat service, let's look at each of the nations involved in turn.
The Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy used biplanes very successfully throughout the war. The Fairey Swordfish was its primary torpedo-bomber in home waters (it used the US Grumman Avenger in the Pacific). The Swordfish played a vital role in Operation Judgment, the air-strike on the Italian naval base at Taranto in November 1940 (which was a major inspiration to the Japanese in their planning for the air attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941) and in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. The aircraft also gave stellar service in anti-shipping strikes in the Greek campaign of 1941, and served in the Western Desert, dropping flares to illuminate bombing targets at night, and from Malta to strike ships trying to supply and reinforce Axis forces in North Africa. They also equipped several land-based squadrons in England carrying out anti-shipping attacks across the English Channel. During the latter part of World War II they equipped anti-submarine forces aboard escort carriers in the North Atlantic.
The replacement for the Swordfish, the Fairey Albacore, was another biplane: but its performance was little better, and it ended up being withdrawn from service even before the Swordfish! It gave good service, but appears never to have been as popular with its crews as its predecessor.
Another biplane, the Supermarine Walrus, an amphibian, equipped British warships as a catapult-launched spotter aircraft. It served throughout the war, sinking at least five German submarines. It also provided air-sea rescue facilities in the English Channel and in the Pacific, where American pilots were amazed to see a biplane on active service as late as 1944/45!
The Gloster Gladiator was the last in a long line of biplane fighters, and several squadrons were still in front-line service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the beginning of World War II. Two squadrons were sent to Norway to operate from a frozen lake-bed during the German invasion, but were hopelessly outclassed by the more modern Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters of the Luftwaffe.
Three Sea Gladiators (a variant adapted for carrier landing and used by the Fleet Air Arm) were flown by the Hal Far Fighter Flight in defense of the island of Malta in 1940-41. They were named 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity' and provided a huge boost to Maltese morale. The fuselage of 'Faith', the only one of the three to survive the war, is today displayed in the Malta War Museum.
The Gladiator was beloved of its pilots and superbly aerobatic, as this video shows.
The only sustained biplane-versus-biplane combat in World War II appears to have been in the East African campaign of 1940-41. The RAF and the South African Air Force (SAAF) in Kenya and the Sudan operated a large variety of biplanes. Hawker Hart light bombers (and their derivatives, the Hind, Audax and an Audax derivative, the Hartebees) and Hawker Fury fighters served with distinction against Italian Fiat CR-32's and CR-42's during the Abyssinian campaign. The Hart and CR-32 are shown below, in that order.
SAAF Vickers Valentia biplane transports were also involved. One is illustrated below.
An SAAF Valentia carried out what was perhaps the most madcap bombing raid of World War II. The aircraft had landed at a Kenyan forward base in 1940 to deliver supplies. Over supper that night (probably including a fair amount of the local beer) the airmen were told of an Italian fort at Namoroputh in Somalia which was 'simply waiting to be bombed'. Nothing loth, the intrepid airmen concocted their own 'bomb', consisting of a 40-gallon drum containing '386 sticks of dynamite, parts of a sewing machine, a motorcar differential and two packets of incendiary bullets', according to a contemporary report. Lacking an impact detonator they wired it up to a length of slow-burning mining fuse.
Next morning the aviators (by now doubtless nursing severe hangovers) loaded their bomb into their slow, lumbering transport (its maximum speed - in a dive - was about 120 mph!) and took off. As they approached the fort they lit the fuse and tried to throw the bomb out of the door of their transport. To their horror it stuck fast in the doorway, leading to much pushing and shoving - and language that probably turned the sky a considerably deeper shade of blue than usual! Eventually they managed to heave the bomb out. It scored a direct hit on the fort, which disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The airmen returned to their base to a right royal roasting from their superiors (whose permission for the strike they had neglected to obtain) and three rousing cheers (and many more beers!) from their squadron-mates. (I learned about this 'raid' from my father, who served in the RAF during the Abyssinian Campaign. He has lots of interesting stories like this one, which was later reported in Time magazine, minus some of the more interesting details!)
The Avia B-534 was a biplane fighter produced just too late to resist the German takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938 (and the remainder of the country, then titled Slovakia, in 1939). The Slovak Air Force was forced to assist the German Luftwaffe in the invasion of Poland in 1939, and sent two squadrons of B-534's to do so. The aircraft also served alongside the Luftwaffe in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Some B-534's were supplied to Bulgaria, and were used to intercept USAF B-24 Liberator bombers during their attacks on the Romanian oilfields at Ploesti in 1943. Interestingly, a B-534 scored the last known air-to-air victory by a biplane fighter when, in 1944, one shot down a German Junkers Ju-52 transport during the Slovak National Uprising against Germany.
During its invasion of Poland in 1939 Germany used Heinkel He-50 biplane dive-bombers to good effect, although they were already second-line aircraft, having been replaced in first-line service by the famous Junkers Ju-87 'Stuka'. The remaining He-50's were used for dive-bomber pilot training from then on, until in 1943 they were reactivated for combat service after the Germans had experienced (to their unpleasant surprise) the attentions of the 'Night Witches' of the Soviet Air Force (see below). From mid-1943 until September 1944 the He-50's were used for night harrassment raids, copying the Soviet example.
Heinkel He-59 seaplanes were used for reconnaissance, mine-laying and air-sea rescue during the first few years of the war. The Germans painted the Red Cross symbol on some of them to pick up pilots shot down in the English Channel and North Sea during the Battle of Britain. Needless to say, Britain wasn't about to allow their pilots to be taken prisoner like this or have German pilots returned to service against them, so the RAF shot down several of the 'rescue missions'. The video below is from a contemporary British newsreel, clearly filmed with propaganda intentions but showing the He-59 to good advantage.
Italian Fiat CR-32 and CR-42 biplane fighters saw action over France and against England in 1940, with disastrous results against the more modern British fighters. They were rapidly replaced in front-line service by monoplane aircraft with higher performance. However, they continued to serve in 'minor' theaters of war. CR-42's saw combat against Yugoslav Hawker Fury fighters in 1941, and were also involved in the Abyssinian and Western Desert campaigns.
The Soviet Union was caught unprepared by the German invasion in 1941, and suffered losses of thousands of combat aircraft in the first six months. Its Air Force was not fully equipped with modern aircraft at the time, and many hundreds of biplane fighters (such as the Polikarpov I-15) were destroyed in the air and on the ground.
The Polikarpov Po-2 trainer was pressed into service in the tens of thousands as a liaison and partisan supply aircraft and light night bomber. In the latter role it achieved worldwide fame in the hands of the female pilots of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, popularly known as the 'Night Witches'. They developed specialized tactics and carried out thousands of raids against German positions, keeping the exhausted troops from sleeping. Members of the unit won twenty-three Hero of the Soviet Union awards and dozens of Orders of the Red Banner. They flew over 24,000 sorties and dropped several thousand tons of bombs.
The little Po-2 was superb in this application. Its maximum air speed was slower than the stalling speed of the German fighters which opposed it, so it could dodge them with relative ease. Its tiny 100hp engine wasn't very hot, so it couldn't be tracked by infra-red very easily as a heat source, and the plane's wood-and-canvas construction made it very hard to detect on radar.
The video below is of a Po-2 at a 2007 air show.
AFTER WORLD WAR II
The stellar service rendered by the Polikarpov Po-2 was not forgotten by the Soviet armed forces, who kept it in service for some years as a night intruder. During the Korean War it became notorious among American GI's as 'Bedcheck Charlie', keeping them from sleeping at night. Two very interesting accounts of such raids (from the receiving end) may be read here and here.
The Soviets went further, and looked for a replacement. In 1947 the prototype of the Antonov An-2 flew for the first time. It was one of the largest single-engined biplanes ever produced, using a fuselage cross-section similar to that of the Douglas DC-3 transport (which the Soviets had received in large numbers during World War II, and manufactured their own version under license as the Lisunov Li-2. The An-2 used a 1,000hp radial engine and could carry two pilots and up to 12 passengers or over 4,000 pounds of cargo. It was manufactured in colossal numbers: it's estimated that in its original Soviet version, plus production in Poland and in China (as the Shijiazhuang Y-5) over 40,000 have been produced, making it the most-manufactured aircraft in history. Incredibly, it's reportedly still in production in China!
The video below shows a short pleasure flight in an An-2. It provides good detail shots of the cabin interior, the flight deck and instruments.
A later version, the Antonov An-3, had a turboprop engine: it's still available from its Russian manufacturer.
The An-2 is still in military service with North Korea, where it's used as an assault transport for special forces. Its tiny radar signature, slow speed and ability to land on almost any surface make it valuable as a means of getting an assault force to a pinpoint target (although it's unlikely any of the aircraft - or their passengers - would survive such missions). It's also still in service with the Russian and Chinese air forces, as the video below demonstrates. This was taken of a joint parachute drop by Russian, British and US parachutists in 1998.
So, the biplane didn't end its wartime service after World War I. It soldiered on right through World War II and beyond: and if war should break out on the Korean Peninsula in the next few years, it's likely that the biplane will be in action once again.