‘From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the Good Lord deliver us…’
These words form part of the so-called Thieves’ Litany, uttered in Mediaeval Yorkshire as a leave-taking ‘prayer’ between two thieves as they parted. Hell was to be feared, course, as was Hull Gaol (in Yorkshire) with its evil reputation. Halifax – also in Yorkshire – was one of those towns granted the right to a ‘gibbet’, a particular savage form of early guillotine, and was notorious for its quick use against suspected villains. The well-known Yorkshire saying was also uttered by Lord Halifax at Radlett Airfield in September, 1941. His Lordship had just seen Lady Halifax release a bottle of champagne which had swung forward and smashed against a steel bar held between the two Browning .303″ machine guns in the nose of one of Handley Page’s latest aircraft. His Lordship named the four-engined heavy bomber, ‘Halifax’, and he “hoped that it won’t be long before that prayer will be constantly upon German and Italian lips”.
The British Government had finally seen the light in the late 1930′s, when it was realized that Hitler was not going to stop either his rearmament or his ever growing demands for ‘Lebensraum’ for the ‘Deutsches Volk’. As fast as possible, the Air Ministry issued specifications to manufacturers for new aircraft for the Royal Air Force. One of these was Specification P.13/36 for a new twin-engined ‘medium’ bomber. This gave rise to the Avro Manchester with two of the disastrous Rolls-Royce Vulture engines. The Handley Page Aircraft Company also tendered for the contract, but having seen the difficulties the Vulture engine was experiencing, received permission in July, 1937 to install four of the superb Merlin engines, instead. One hundred of the resulting Handley Page H.P.57 were ordered ‘off the drawing board’ in January, 1938.
The first flight of the aircraft was from RAF Bicester, on the 25th October, 1939, a little more than a month after the outbreak of the war. Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Talbot, Handley Page’s Chief Test Pilot was at the controls – sadly, he was to be killed in the crash of the prototype Handley Page Hermes airliner, on its maiden flight in 1945. The Halifax’s leading edge was swept, giving rise to an excellent view for the pilot, as the outer engines were ‘set back’. The four Merlin X engines (each of 1,280 hp) were equipped with three-bladed, wooden Rotol propellers, and de-icing was provided for including the leading edge of the tailplane. The aircraft was equipped with Handley-Page patent slotted flaps – of course! ‘Flight’ Magazine commented on the ‘great depth of fuselage’ and made mention of the fact that ‘the radio operator and navigator side directly below the pilot’. This meant some shuffling of duties amongst the crew of seven, as the flight engineer was positioned close to the astrodome, and it was he who now had to take star sights (if needed) and pass this information to the navigator, so that the aircraft ‘plot’ could be kept up to date. ‘Flight’ concluded their assessment, by mentioning that movement around the fuselage was easy, and that their were no large wing spars to clamber over in the dark. This was a direct jab at the Avro Manchester (and all its successors, including the Lancaster) which had a huge main wing spar stretching across the fuselage. One thing that was noticeable in the Halifax Mk I was that although there was a twin-gun Boulton Paul Type C turret in the nose and a four-gun B.P. Type E turret in the tail, there was no dorsal turret. The lack of a powered gun turret in this position was overcome – in part – by the installation of two .303″ Vickers ‘K’ guns in ‘beam’ positions.
The first unit to receive the Halifax was No. 35 Squadron in November, 1940, and it was found that former Whitley bomber pilots needed a lengthy conversion course; consequently, the squadron’s first operation with the new bomber did not take place until the night of 10/11th March, 1941, against Le Havre. However, by November of that year, the Halifax had already bombed Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Mannheim, Essen, Stettin, Kiel and Hamburg in Germany and had flown clear across the Alps and back to attack the Royal Arsenal in Turin, Italy. A daylight raid against the German battleship ‘Scharnhorst’, however, which was in dock in La Palice, France, brought strong opposition by Messerschmitt Bf109F fighters of the Luftwaffe, and losses were such that a program of daylight attacks was not renewed until much later in the war.
The Mark I was quickly followed by the Mark II, which addressed the defensive shortcomings by adding a twin-gun Boulton Paul turret amidships. Unfortunately, this bulky, almost egg-shaped turret, along with increased weight, caused a major reduction in performance, one that even the 1,480 hp Merlin XX engines could not overcome. The result was the Mark II, Series I (Special), which had both front and dorsal turrets removed to save weight, and Merlin 24 engines of 1,620 hp. A smooth, shapely nose cone was fitted which carried a single Vickers ‘K’ machine gun. All these changes made for increased speed, but there were a number instances of these early Halifax suddenly entering a inverted spin which was unrecoverable (e.g. B. Mk II, Series I, ‘V9977′, the first to be fitted with H2S radar, which crashed killing several radar technicians). It was found that the original triangular vertical tail surfaces could cause a fin stall, leading to rudder overbalance and loss of control. These were replaced by large trapezoidal tail surfaces, which were also applied to the last major bomber variant, the B.Mk III.
Handley Page had, from the first, designed the Halifax to be built in modular units. This facilitated the rapid expansion of sub-contracting and new companies were soon brought online. As well as the second Handley Page plant at Samlesbury in Lancashire (later to become English Electric Ltd), which produced over 2,000 Halifax bombers, the Rootes Group (a car company) at Speke, Liverpool and the Fairey Aviation Company at nearby Stockport joined in. Perhaps the most impressive effort was the London Aircraft Production Group, headed by London Transport along with plants from Chrysler, Duple, Express Motor & Bodyworks Limited, and Park Royal Coachworks, involving 41 production units and over 51,000 people. At the peak of production, the LAPG was turning out one Halifax per hour.
This Mark signaled a change to the powerful, 1,615 hp Bristol Hercules XVI radial engines, and an increased wingspan of 104 feet; also, the Mark III carried not one but two four-gun turrets, the second being a Boulton Paul type – amidships – as fitted to the Defiant fighter. The Mark III had a maximum speed of 282 mph at 13,500 feet (the ceiling was 24,000 feet), when carrying a 13,000 lb bombload, and this definitive bomber version began reaching the squadrons (which by now included Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, Free French Air Force and Polish squadrons under RAF command) in February, 1944, joining the Avro Lancaster in the night campaign against German targets. This was trumpeted as forming half of a ’round the clock’ attack, the other half being comprised of the 8th Air Force and 15th Air Force B-17s and B-24s of the USAAF.
The ‘Halibag’ – as the RAF affectionately called it – was far more versatile than its stablemate, the Lancaster. It was used for maritime reconnaissance by RAF Coastal Command over the wide Atlantic, as a paratroop aircraft and glider tug supreme (the only RAF aircraft capable of towing the immense ‘tank carrier’ Hamilcar glider) for the Airborne Forces, and as an excellent freight aircraft, with an 8,000 lb capacity underfuselage pannier. They were also used by ‘Special Duties’ Flights and Squadron – units which were involved in dropping secret agents behind enemy lines, and supplies to Resistance cells. Late production versions were approaching the performance of the Lancaster (with the exception of the ability to carry single, large capacity, bombs) and joined in on late war mass daylight raids, when air superiority had been well and truly won by the Allies. Soon after VE Day, the Halifax was withdrawn from Bomber Command, although some were used on secondline duties until 1947.
Interestingly, the civilian Halton transport version of the Halifax played a secondary but important role in the 1948-9 Berlin Airlift, and was used by various small British Airlines as initial equipment. Despite the retirement of the Halifax from RAF service, it surprisingly surfaced in two new theatres of war. A number of Halifax aircraft were exported to the Royal Egyptian Air Force (later to become the Egyptian Air Force) to equip No. 8 and 9 Squadrons – just in time to be destroyed, mostly on the ground, by the newly-formed Israeli Air Force. The Pakistani Air Force used two Merlin-powered Halifax to drop supplies during the Kashmir Conflict of 1948, and No 12 Squadron of the PAF were equipped with 6 B. Mk VI Hercules-powered versions in 1949, and took part in a mass flypast during at least one Independence Day Parade. They were put into storage in 1954, having been the last active examples of the type (the last was scrapped, it is said, in 1961).
If the Halifax could be said to have a more powerful enemy than the Luftwaffe, it might well have been Air Chief Marshall Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Bomber Command, during the latter stages of WW2. He really was not a supporter of the aircraft, and the only reason that it was kept in production was because it would have been far more disruptive to stop building it, and change the factories over to building the Lancaster (even this might have been difficult due to the ‘modular’ nature of the Halifax). Harris was planning on an ALL Lancaster Main Force for RAF Bomber Command had the war lasted into 1946, pushing the remaining Hercules into secondary roles. I have a feeling that ‘Bomber’ Harris and I would NOT have seen eye to eye – on many subjects!
The aircraft you can see above is nothing short of a miracle. It is on display at the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial, on the outskirts of the city of York, on a former Halifax base at RAF Elvington – former home to the Halifaxes of No. 77 Squadron RAF, and then those of 346 ‘Guyenne’ & 347 ‘Tunisie’ Squadrons of the Free French Air Force. It is the marriage of a Mark II fuselage (found being used as a chicken coup on the Isle of Lewis following a forced landing in 1945), and the wing from a post-war Handley Page Hastings transport (rescued from RAF Catterick). The wing of the Hastings transport is very similar to that used on the late Marks of Halifax, apart from the positioning of the four, later model, Hercules engines, as the Hastings wing was originally intended for a development of the original Halifax bomber. The markings carried on the port side of the nose are in honor of LV907, ‘Friday the 13th’, which completed 128 operations with No. 158 Squadron, RAF, and those on the starboard side, represent ‘N-Novembre’ from No. 347 ‘Guyenne’ Squadron, Free French Air Force, based at RAF Elvington. A ten-year labor of love produced the magnificent reconstruction you can see here. Even though it is – technically – a composite ‘Mark II/III’, it is still a stunning aircraft.
Total production of the Halifax ran to 6,178 aircraft, of which no less than 1,833 were lost on operations.
The Handley Page Halifax – an underestimated multi-purpose aircraft of World War Two, tough as Yorkshire folk, and equally as full of character!