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Halfway House Hawkers

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From Two to One ... or How Hawker Biplanes caught Mono

In early 1935, Hawker Aircraft was on a roll. The Air Ministry had just ordered Hawker's Interceptor Monoplane to Air Ministry Specification F5/34. This advanced fighter, sketched out in 1934 by Robert Lickley, was taking shape at Kingston upon Thames as the prototype Hurricane. Roy Chaplin was left to finalise Hurricane while Chief Designer Sydney Camm tackled the design of a light bomber derivative to P.4/34. Bottlenecks were already forming in the design office, finding factory floor space to produce two fully-modern types was going to make matters worse.

The situation was reversed at the Hawker Siddeley subsidiary in Gloucestershire. The Gloster SS.37 had received a small production order as the Gladiator under Specification F.14/35. But this order for 23 x Gladiators was reversed in September 1935, leaving Gloster's Hucclecote facility with available floor space. It was decided that Hawkers were focus on producing the priority Hurricanes while Glosters built the Henley light bomber. While the latter design was being finalised at Kingston upon Thames, the Air Ministry put forward a consultant's suggestion for making interim use of the Hucclecote plant.

Sydney Camm thought the Air Ministry suggestion to rebuild existing Hawker biplanes as monoplane was a waste of effort (although Sir Sydney worded his objections with more colourful language). Refusing to engage with the Ministry on this subject, Camm delegated this work to Bob Lickley. Instructed to expend as little time on the project as possible, Lickley devised a bolt-on wing centre section to adapt typical Hawker steel-tube fuselages to new outer wing panels.

In the case of Hawker 2-seat bombers, these outer wing panel were almost identical to the fabric-covered metal structure of the pending Hurricane fighter. Lickley's concept was submitted to the Air Ministry and, to the surprise of all at Hawkers, was immediately accepted. Gloster then received a contract for wing construction [1] and their integration with RAF-provided airframes. This began with ex-RAF Hart bombers but was followed by Hind 2-seat bombers and Audax army cooperation aircraft.

Enter the Hawker Harbinger Attack Aircraft

The process of converting Hawker Harts to monoplanes was more complex than simply replacing wings. The wings themselves differed somewhat from those of the Hurricane fighter in having a flexible armament arrangement. Hart conversions emphasized ground strafing. As such, their wings held four Vickers machine guns with an option for twin, underwing bomb racks. As light bombers, former Hinds would have only two wing guns (along with the twin synchronized Vickers guns) and four underwing bomb racks. Audax conversions lacked wing guns but had provisions for four underwing racks (250 lb GP each) with an option for supplemental light bomb racks. All conversions would retain the single defensive 0.303-inch Lewis gun on a flexible mount in the rear cockpit.

Much to Sydney Camm's annoyance, the first Hart conversion was rolled out of the Kingston experimental shed in late October 1935. This aircraft - now renamed as a Harbinger Mk.I - made its maiden flight from Brooklands with Hawker's chief test pilot George Bulman at the controls. The aircraft proved tractable. It was not the highly-manoeuvrable performer it had been in its Hart incarnation but the aerodynamically-cleaner Harbinger was somewhat faster than that biplane. Gloster's first Harbinger conversion had flown from Brockworth Aerodrome by the end of December 1935. Deliveries of Harbinger Mk.I and Harbinger Mk.Ia (differing in internal equipment) to the RAF began in February 1936.


[1] This work was seen as a great introduction to Hawker construction techniques for Gloster. Due to similar structures, Hucclecote would face no great challenges in switching production lines to the new Henley in future (or even providing Hawkers with wings panels for Hurricane fighter production if ever required).

'Hasty Pudding' - The Hawker Monoplane into RAF Squadron Service

Seen as 'rushed jobs', the light bomber conversions were dubbed Hawker 'Hasty' by RAF wags. And the conversions had been made a high priority as events on the Continent made clearer how unprepared for war the RAF really was.

At the beginning of 1936, No.18 Squadron was stationed at RAF Bircham Newton in Norfolk on Hawker Harts. In February, 'C' flight of No.18 was split off to make up the basis of a reformed No.49 Squadron RAF. No.49 would become the first RAF squadron to receive Harbinger Mk.I light day bombers. Two of No.49's aircraft were Harbinger Mk.I DC (Dual Control) two-seat  trainers. This helped ready the reformed squadron's personnel but it was also intended that No.49 should act as an informal OTU for the new monoplane Harbinger. That didn't work out quite as planned.

On 07 March 1936, the German Wehrmacht marched into the Rhineland - remilitarising this border region in contravention of Versailles and Locarno. Neither Britain nor France was inclined to a direct military response. A week after the entry by German troops, Hitler made a rather bellicose speech in Munich regarding the Rhineland. That helped to lessen official British resistance to fulfilling its "continental commitment". British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden stuck to his government's policy of appeasement but saw no great harm in "general purpose" RAF units making 'good-will visits' to French airfields. The first such tour would be flown by new Harbingers of No.49 Squadron RAF. [1]

The deployed No.49 aircraft visited a number of Armée de l'Air bases over a period of a week before arriving at a disused French military airfield 160 miles east of Paris. The Aérodrome Toul-Croix de Metz - which would become known to the RAF as Gengault Airfield - was only 30 miles flying distance from the German border. For a small deployment, the choice of basing made a clear statement. After settling in, No.49 began flying familiarisation flights with local members of the Aero-club Toulois as well as visiting Armée de l'Air personnel. As was explained to the French press, these flights were flown along the Franco-German boundary simply because the border demarkations simplied navigation  ;)

Top Hawker Harbinger Mk.I day bomber of No.49 Squadron RAF at Gengault Airfield, Moselle département, May 1936. Like all Harbingers, this aircraft wears the new RAF Temperature Camouflage scheme. However, while deployed in France, Harbingers adopted red-white-blue rudder stripes in the French fashion.

Note that no Squadron badges or other unit identifiers were worn. [2] Other than national markings, only individual aircraft letters were applied (in Medium Sea Grey). No.49 Squadron established the practice of painting a smaller version of the individual aircraft letter on cowlings as well. On the night of 12/13 September 1936, this aircraft overflew Homburg on a leafletting mission accompanying CO, Sqn Ldr H. Peake. [3]

In late October 1936, No.49 Squadron returned home to RAF Bircham Newton, having been relieved at Gengault by a new, 'full-time' detachment of No.609 (West Riding) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force. [4]

Hinds to Harbingers - The Harbinger Mk.IIs

As noted, Harbingers differed depending upon their 'donor' airframe and the equipment fitted - all Harbinger Mk.Is being Hart conversions. The wireless-equipped Harbinger Mk.Ic was not issued to operational squadrons but the more-powerful, Hind-based Harbinger Mk.IIa was essentially similar. The Harbinger Mk.IIb varied only in having some armour plating attached to its belly - low-level attack being the key planned role for the 'IIb. No Harbinger Mk.IIc was built - all being field conversions with two bomb racks removed along with other weight-reducing measures.

The Harbinger Mk.II first saw overseas service with No.83 Squadron RAF in the Spring of 1937. This unit shared a field - the Aérodrome de Thionville-Yutz in Moselle - with a detachment from the 2e escadrille du GC I/4 on Dewoitine D.501 fighters. [5] Like Gengault, 'ThionYutz' was very close to the German boundary - less than 8 flying miles from the border at its closest. Most missions were 'flag showing' flights along the Franco-German border. But, like No.49 at Gengault, No.83 Squadron was also assigned leaflet-dropping missions on occasion.

The drill for leaflet-dropping was gaining as much altitude as possible while still over French territory. Then, from an altitude close to 25,000 feet, the RAF formation would enter a gentle dive. The German frontier would be crossed at speeds of 230 mph or more - higher than the maximum speed of the Luftwaffe's latest Arado Ar 68 fighters. This shallow dive would be continued over the leafletting target and on until recrossing the border back into French airspace. To 'raid' Saarbrücken, this involved a direct flight line of only 85 miles round trip (although that does not include the circling required to initially gain altitude).

Bottom Hawker Harbinger Mk.IIb day bomber, No.83 Squadron RAF, Thionville-Yutz, France, August 1937 (inset, RAF rank pennant of pilot, S/L Leonard Snaith). Note that the RAF Type B fuselage roundel has been overpainted to simulate a Type A - to better match contemporary French practice. As Commanding Officer, Snaith's aircraft did not carry an individual aircraft identifying letter on its rear fuselage (although, for convenience, erks had applied a small 'A' identifier to the cowling).

No.83 Squadron was the last RAF unit to drop leaflets over the Tird Reich in peacetime. By late Spring of 1938, the Luftwaffe had begun to detail Messerschmitt Bf 109B monoplane fighters to Feldflugplatz Saarbrücken-Sankt Arnual to attempt interceptions of RAF overflights. Although high-altitude approaches narrowed the speed difference between these new Luftwaffe fighters and Hawker Harbingers, the British government was not willing to risk RAF aircraft being shot down over the Third Reich. On 01 May 1938, all RAF overflights of German territory ceased until the declaration of war.


[1] Eden was interpreted as having prohibited the deployment of heavier bombers to France in 'peacetime'. The Harbinger was seen as a relatively non-threatening aircraft while not presenting as an out-dated type.

Around the time of the No.49 deployment, a  flight of Armée de l'Air fighters were detailed to visit Norfolk. Six Dewoitine D.501s of 42e escadre mixte (normally based at Reims) of GCI/3 de Châteauroux toured southern England from RAF Bircham Newton for three weeks in May 1936.

[2] As can be seen here, at this early stage, anonymity included aircraft serials. This Harbinger Mk.I retained its original Hart serial of K4907 but this number would not be applied until No.49 Squadron had returned to Norfolk.

[3] On that 12/13 September leaflet mission, No.49 Squadron's commanding officer, Sqn Ldr H. Peake, also dropped a somewhat battered Homburg hat. It was only realized later that the 'donated' headgear had actually been named for Bad Homburg - a spa town in Hesse, 160 km to the northeast of the Saarland's Homburg.

[4] The 'parent' unit of this detachment, No.609 (West Riding) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadron remained at RAF Yeadon. These Yorkshire-based elements operated a mixture of Harbinger Mk.Is and Hind biplanes.

[5] This French unit had roots at the Aérodrome de Thionville-Yutz. Prior to leaving for Reims, 2e GC I/4 had been designated SPA 153 which had been based at Thionville until September 1933.

In the thumbnail, #83 looks like it has spats...

I really like that.

Nice design

Thanks Brian. I had fun with this one  :D

--- Quote from: Frank3k on June 23, 2021, 08:37:39 AM ---In the thumbnail, #83 looks like it has spats...

--- End quote ---

I didn't notice that Frank ... but, yeah it does  ;D

I based the main gear leg coverings on those of the Hurricane prototype. Not sure why they had all of those 'inny-outy' cuts (trying to cut weight, maybe) ... but it gives 'em a different look from later, production Hurricane undercarts.


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