Is the Mosquito the greatest warplane of all?
The Spitfire is more famous but, discovers Jasper Copping, the de Havilland Mosquito can claim to be the plane that won the war
While the Spitfire and Hurricane are remembered as the machines that saved Britain from Nazi invasion, the Lancaster and Halifax are lauded as the warhorses that took the fight to the Third Reich. But there is an argument that the country’s greatest aircraft of the Second World War was none of these, but the less heralded de Havilland Mosquito. This versatile, two-man machine, designed by the British aviator pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland, served with distinction as a fighter, bomber, U-boat hunter and night fighter, as well as in reconnaissance roles and as a pathfinder on large-scale bombing attacks.
It was behind some of the most stunning raids of the war – among them the precision operation to attack the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo, Norway; and another to breach the walls of a prison in Amiens to allow the escape of condemned resistance fighters.Its greatest attribute, its speed, came from its unusual construction. To preserve metal reserves, it was made of wood, its parts crafted by carpenters and joiners in workshops turned over from furniture and cabinet-making. The components, from spruce, birch, balsa and plywood, were then put together with glue. But at the end of the war, this unique characteristic became its biggest weakness. While metal-framed aircraft endured, most Mosquitos simply rotted away in their hangars.
For almost 20 years, there have been no airworthy Mosquitos since the last one crashed at an air show near Manchester in 1996, killing both crew members. This lack of airborne Mosquitos and the higher profile enjoyed by the Spitfire and Lancaster, in particular, has led some to overlook the contribution made by the so-called “Wooden Wonder”. But tonight, a Channel 4 documentary, The Plane that Saved Britain, seeks to correct that. And for the presenter, Arthur Williams, the show is also a more personal quest. The former Royal Marine has been fascinated with aviation – and, above all, the Mosquito – since childhood. But he took up flying only after a car crash in 2007 had left him in a wheelchair.
In the show he traces the history of the Mosquito: he speaks with a designer who overcame official doubts to create the revolutionary machine, as well as several of those who flew it. But he also travels to the US in an attempt to get aboard a newly restored one.
Overcoming last-minute health-and-safety concerns linked to his disability, he is able to fly the aircraft, which has been rebuilt by Jerry Yagen, an American aviation enthusiast, following an eight-year, £2.6m restoration. Back on land, after the flight, Williams says: “It seems kind of ironic that the whole journey that started me off on my flying career was the worst day of my life, which was the car crash that put me in my wheelchair. And now, six years down the line, we’re here, and I’m experiencing, by a long way, the best day of my life. It feels like two bookends.”
Williams, 27, had served in Sierra Leone before he broke his back and severed his spinal cord in the car accident near Pershore, Worcestershire, where he had been visiting family.
He trained as a Paralympian wheelchair racer and hand cyclist before switching to broadcasting and getting a job with Channel 4 during last summer’s Games. But he said it was flying that gave him a “crutch” and restored the confidence he had lost following the accident. “I had struggled with how to reassert myself as a man after the crash. It might be my old Royal Marine mentality, but becoming a pilot has helped me do that,” he said last week. “People look at you in a wheelchair and perhaps assume you are spoon-fed. When you tell them you are a pilot, their jaw drops.
“Flying also gives you a freedom. Down here, I am restricted in what I can do physically, which can sometimes frustrate me. When you are flying, you are strapped in and become part of the aircraft.”
The title of tonight’s show makes a bold claim on behalf of the Mosquito, but Williams has marshalled strong support for the aircraft.
Eric “Winkle” Brown, a wartime test pilot, tells him: “I’m often asked, what type of aircraft saved Britain. My answer is that the Mosquito was particularly important because it wasn’t just a fighter or a bomber. It was a night fighter, a reconnaissance aircraft. A ground-attack aircraft. It was a multi-purpose aircraft.”
Sir Max Hastings, the historian, agrees: “The Mosquito helped transform the fortunes of the bomber offensive. It was obvious that this was a real gamechanger. In many ways, from the outset it became plain that the Mosquito was a much more remarkable aircraft than the Lancaster. Yes, the Lancaster is the aircraft that everybody identifies with Bomber Command, but in many ways the Mosquito, although it has received much less attention, was a much more remarkable aircraft.”
He adds: “You’ve got the range, the height, the speed. It can do anything and in that sense, I think some of us would argue this is a more remarkable design achievement than the Spitfire.”
The Germans had nothing equal to the Mosquito and it sapped their morale. Its fighter pilots were allowed to claim two “kills” for each one they were able to shoot down.
As well as enhancing the accuracy of heavy bombers by flying ahead and dropping “markers”, one of the Mosquito’s greatest contributions was in creating a new form of aerial warfare – surgical strikes, many of them for propaganda purposes.
As well as the Oslo and Amiens attacks, one of the most celebrated was a raid on the Berlin radio station on which Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, was about to deliver a speech. The British newsreel gleefully reported afterwards that the “fat Field Marshal” had been delayed by one hour.
Indeed, never mind the judgment of historians such as Hastings or the reminiscences of former pilots, the greatest tribute to the aircraft came from Göring himself, who said it made him “green and yellow with envy”.
He added: “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.”
Source and read more: Telegraph