As our series of features linked to the centenary of the Royal Air Force continues, we profile the ‘Wooden Wonder’ - the remarkable de Havilland Mosquito.
A radical concept
In the run-up to the Second World War, the British Air Ministry and the Royal Air Force were strongly wedded to the principle of developing a new breed of heavy bombers constructed mainly from metal and equipped with defensive machine guns mounted in several turrets.
Indeed, this conceptual mindset ultimately led to the production of several well-known bomber types including the Avro Lancaster and the Handley Page Halifax. However, aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland had other ideas…
Geoffrey de Havilland’s company, based at Hatfield in Hertfordshire, produced a series of successful biplanes for the civil market between the wars, but also developed the record-breaking DH 88 Comet Racer monoplane (for the 1934 England-Australia MacRobertsonAir Race) and the elegant DH.91 Albatross airliner.
As well as being fast for the times, both of these aircraft were mainly constructed from wood. de Havilland was convinced that a smooth surfaced, aerodynamically efficient bomber, made from wood and fitted with two very powerful engines could carry sufficient payload at a very high speed - indeed the aircraft would travel so fast that enemy fighters would struggle to catch it in a chase.
In such circumstances, defensive armament would not be needed, saving further weight.
This was indeed a radical concept, many officials were sceptical and de Havilland initially encountered a lot of disinterest in his proposal. But he pressed on, essentially developing the concept as a private venture.
He did however secure the backing of Air Vice Marshall Wilfrid Freeman, and gradually with Freeman’s support, the Air Ministry became more receptive to the idea.
Finally, on 29th December 1939, a prototype for the new DH.98 aircraft was commissioned, followed on 1st March 1940 by an order for 50 aircraft.
The Wooden Wonder
The prototype was designed and built at a secret location - Salisbury Hall, London Colney - rather than at de Havilland’s nearby Hatfield factory. The Air Ministry, still not entirely sure that an unarmed bomber was a good idea, subsequently altered the DH.98 order to include a solid-nosed fighter version armed with machine guns and cannon.
In early November 1940, the prototype (E0234, later becoming W4050) was transported by road to Hatfield and first took to the air on 25th November.
The aircraft, by now named the Mosquito, did not disappoint. It handled very well and, propelled by twin Rolls Royce Merlin engines, was exceedingly fast.
On 29th December, the Minister of Aircraft Production Lord Beaverbrook watched an impressive display by W4050, and a further 150 aircraft were ordered forthwith. The first production Mosquito entered RAF service in July 1941.
The aircraft quickly earned itself the nickname ‘The Wooden Wonder’. The Mosquito’s high speed, coupled with an impressive service ceiling, good manoeuvrability and general all-round adaptability made it a very versatile aircraft.
It was utilised successfully by the RAF as a bomber, a pathfinder, a day and night fighter, for photo-reconnaissance, for ground attack, for intruder missions and also on anti-shipping and submarine operations.
Of great help to the general war effort was the fact that the Mosquito’s wooden construction allowed key elements of production to be sub-contracted to companies who had no previous experience ofbuilding aircraft - such as furniture and piano manufacturers.
Furthermore, some smaller parts for Mosquitos could even be manufactured by members of the public in places such as garden sheds, garages and church halls. And of course, the use of wood reduced the pressure on wartime supplies of aluminium and steel.
The Mosquito’s role as a pathfinder, equipped with ‘Oboe’, was mentioned in our recent article on The Battle of the Ruhr. But it was through daring daylight precision raids that the aircraft achieved considerable fame and scored some important propaganda victories for the Allies.
On 30th January 1943 - the 10th anniversary of the Nazi’s seizure of power in Germany - Mosquitos from105 and 139 Squadrons knocked out the main Berlin broadcasting station while the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe Herman Goering was speaking on air, cutting off his broadcast.
On 18 February 1944, Mosquitos from No. 140 Wing of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force succeeded in breaching the outer walls and destroying buildings at Amiens Prison in occupied France, allowing many captured Resistance fighters to escape.
On 31 October 1944 Mosquitoes, again from 140 Wing, bombed the Gestapo headquarters at the University of Aarhus, destroying most of the Gestapo archives, including many files on the Danish Resistance.
A total of 7,781 Mosquitos were built but as these aircraft were made from wood, fewer than 35 exist today. The first prototype W4050 is however amongst themand, fittingly,it is now on permanent display (with two other ‘Mossies’) at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at Salisbury Hall.
Mosquito key facts
- A variety of wood (Ash, Balsa, Birch, Douglas Fir, Spruce and Walnut) was used in Mosquito construction and the airframe was held together by a combination of glue and metal screws.
- initially the glue was a Casein-based formulation, but later a synthetic resin called ‘Beetle Cement’ was used that was more resilient in humid conditions.
- Mosquitos were also manufactured at de Havilland plants in Canada (1,134) and Australia (212)
- from 1943 to the end of the war, Mosquitos in civilian markings were regularly used to transport high value cargo between Sweden and Scotland. Occasionally a single passenger was ferried in the adapted bomb bay.
- Hermann Goering was very envious of the Mosquito’s capabilities. It is said that German pilots were allowed to claim two kills if they shot down a Mosquito.
- The last of the RAF’s Mosquitos were retired from service in 1963.