AT 11am on January 31, 1943, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring stood up to speak. Primped and powdered in a uniform carefully tailored to flatter his bulk, the former First World War ace was in his pomp. Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe and the Third Reich’s most senior military officer, his address to the faithful in the Air Ministry building was to launch a day of celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of the Nazis’ accession to power.
Seated in front of him was a select audience; behind him an imposing 30-foot high carved mural of a spread eagle standing on a swastika.
Broadcasting live, the announcer introduced Göring to the millions listening on the radio. Then, instead of the Reichsmarschall, they heard the sound of exploding 500lb bombs followed swiftly by the cutting of the feed from the Air Ministry to be replaced by a recording of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony in E Major.
Having promised in 1939 that British bombers would never breach the Reich’s air defences, the Fat One’s very public humiliation by the Royal Air Force was substantial.
Berlin had been bombed in broad daylight by a revolutionary British aircraft that the general ordered by Göring to secure Germany’s skies was forced to admit he was “practically powerless against”.
It was the de Havilland Mosquito.And just to rub salt in the Reichsmarschall’s wound, Britain’s elusive new high-speed bomber, the world’s first multi-role aircraft, was made of wood!
“It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito,” Göring ranted. “I turn green 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.”
The audacious attack on Berlin was just one of the incredible stories I’ve brought to life in my new book, Mosquito. In writing about the legendary “Wooden Wonder’s” incredible career, I was spoilt for choice.
Yet this remarkable aircraft was very nearly strangled at birth.
When in late 1938, as the prospect of war loomed over Europe, designer Geoffrey de Havilland first suggested the idea of a lightweight twin-engined bomber that relied on high speed rather than defensive gun turrets to protect itself, the Air Ministry told him: “Forget it.”
Undeterred, he decided his company would build it anyway. And if the new machine was built from wood he would not only be able to get it into production much more quickly than a metal design, but would also avoid making any demand on vital supplies of the aluminium required to build other military aircraft.
In top secret, in the grounds of a moated stately home near St Albans – once home to Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn and, later, Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill – de Havilland’s team got to work on their prototype.
They were fortunate that despite the Air Ministry’s scepticism, their efforts enjoyed determined and far-sighted support from
Air Marshal Wilfred Freeman, the man responsible for research, development and production of new aircraft for the RAF.
Impressed as a young pilot in the Royal Flying Corps by the performance of an earlier de Havilland bomber design, Freeman circumvented the objections of Bomber Command to the notion of an unarmed bomber by ordering 50 of de Havilland’s sleek new Mosquitos to fulfil a separate RAF requirement for high-flying spy planes.
The Mosquito seemed safe. Until, that is, Freeman’s department was brought under the control of Churchill’s new Minister for Aircraft Production, Daily Express owner Lord Beaverbrook, who, demanding complete focus on a core of five existing aircraft, told Freeman to cancel it.
But Beaverbrook failed to put his demand in writing and so, without formal instruction from his boss, Freeman allowed de
Havilland to continue.
The “Tommy gun” the Air Marshal kept in the corner of his office was, it was said, only half in jest, to be used on Beaverbrook if there was any further attempt to pull the plug on the project.
And when the Mosquito first flew in November 1940, it was quickly apparent de Havilland had produced an aeroplane that was very special indeed.
Happily, even Lord Beaverbrook eventually came round. Powered by two of the outstanding Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that powered the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster, the Mosquito was capable of flying to Berlin and back with the same 4,000lb bomb load that was carried by Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress, yet flown by a crew of two instead of 10.
Following a remarkable flying display laid on for General Hap Arnold, the head of the United States Army Air Corps, in April 1941, he rated it “‘outstanding” and insisted on taking a set of the blueprints home with him.
Three months later, in the same week it entered frontline service, a Mosquito recorded a top speed of 433mph at a time when the RAF’s top fighter, the Spitfire V, topped out at 370mph.
It was equally capable of showing the Luftwaffe’s fighter force a clean pair of heels. Suddenly everyone wanted the Mosquito.
And, because of its unique wood and glue construction, furniture factories, cabinetmakers and musical instrument manufacturers around Britain were able to put their carpentry-skilled workforces to work helping keep up with demand for de Havilland’s masterpiece.
But having chosen wood partly to avoid a shortage of raw materials, there was now concern that supplies of the lightweight balsa that, sandwiched in between plywood, made up the Mosquito’s skin, might run out.
To try to ensure it didn’t, an expedition was sent out to explore the jungles of Central America in search of alternative sources of the lightweight wood.
After first entering RAF service with a photo reconnaissance unit, the first Mosquito bomber squadron formed a few months later.
The operations of the fledgling 105 Squadron remained top secret for nearly a year until, in September 1942, after a successful low-level raid on a Gestapo HQ in Norway’s capital, Oslo, the Mosquito’s existence was revealed to the public in enthusiastic reports that noted its ability to “outpace the latest Focke-Wulf”.
Four months later, 105 Squadron spoiled Herman Göring’s big day in Berlin. Geoffrey de Havilland always maintained that simply being the “right size” was a crucial component of any successful aircraft design. With the Mosquito, he’d judged it to perfection.
It had a sort of goldilocks quality that made it incomparably versatile. It’s the job of any air force to provide air defence, the means to strike at the enemy, to gather intelligence and transport men and materials.
Each made very different and often contradictory demands of an aircraft, but the Mosquito was, perhaps uniquely, successful in all four roles.
In dropping a total of nearly 27,000 tons of bombs on the enemy, Mosquitos suffered fewer losses per thousand sorties than any other aircraft in Bomber Command.
And so accurate were they that, after the campaign to destroy V-1 flying bomb launch sites in the autumn of 1942, records showed Mosquito crews required less than a quarter of the tonnage of bombs to destroy each target than the next most effective bomber.
There were single nights either side of D-Day when Mosquito fighter-bombers would destroy nearly 1,000 separate pieces of German motor transport.
As heavily armed eight-gun fighters – especially as radar-equipped night fighters – Mosquitos shot down more than 800 enemy aircraft.
Such was the fear that they created within the Luftwaffe in the latter stages of the war as they loitered around German airfields after dark, ready to pounce on anything coming in or out, that the term Moskitopanik was coined.
As spyplanes they crisscrossed Europe with near impunity gathering critical photographic intelligence that, among other things, helped delay the threat from Hitler’s V-2 ballistic missile. But it was their adoption by BOAC, the British Overseas Airways Corporation – the forerunner to British Airways – that saw the Mossie provide the fourth pillar of the air power quartet.
Flown by civilian crews, BOAC’s small fleet of Mosquitos were employed to haul high-quality Swedish ball bearings back through dangerous skies from Stockholm to their base at RAF Leuchars in Scotland.
They were also equipped to carry a single passenger. “The British pilots put me in the bomb bay,” laughs Niels Bohr, played by Kenneth Branagh, in Christopher Nolan’s epic Oppenheimer.
The Nobel-prize winning nuclear physicist was one of a number of high-value passengers including spies, downed aircrew and even artists on cultural visits who were carried to and from the Swedish capital inside the felt-lined fuselage of the war’s most unlikely airliner.
By the war’s end more than 5,500 Mosquitos had been built in factories in the UK, Canada and Australia. As well as operating as a fighter, bomber, spy plane, and transport aircraft, it was also developed into a devastating close air support platform, U-boat killer, radio relay, rocket-equipped ship hunter, weather reconnaissance asset, pathfinder, carrier-borne torpedo bomber, naval target tug and, after initial trouble with glue weakening in the tropical humidity, an effective weapon in the Far East in the war against Japan.
But for all its myriad accomplishments, it was the audacious low-level daylight raids against heavily defended pinpoint
targets across occupied Europe that would come to define de Havilland’s Wooden Wonder in the mind of the public.
It was one of these eye-catching operations against the Gestapo in Copenhagen – a real-life Top Gun: Maverick – that inspired me to write Mosquito: The RAF’s Legendary Wooden Wonder And Its Most Extraordinary Mission.
The Spitfire, as the subtitle of one recent bestseller had it, may have represented a very British love story while the Lancaster forged a British legend for itself, but the Mosquito was, in the view of Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry, the senior RAF officer responsible for many of its most difficult and demanding precision raids that sealed its reputation, it was simply “the finest aircraft, without exception that the British had ever built”.
- Mosquito: The RAF’s Legendary Wooden Wonder And Its Most Extraordinary Mission by Rowland White (Transworld, £20) is published today. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25