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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Night Fighters

The Rise Of The Night-Fighters – Devastating Aircraft in Two World Wars

 Andrew Knighton

415th Night Fighter Squadron Northrop P-61B-15-NO Black Widow 42-39684.

Fighting between planes began in daylight which allowed pilots and gunners to see what was going on so they could target their prey and see enemies attacking. There were advantages to flying at night though, so work began on the techniques and technology of night fighting.

Night Fighting in WWI

The first serious night fighting took place over Britain during WWI.
German airships, sent to bomb British cities, made use of the darkness to provide cover. They were flying over enemy territory far from home and needed every advantage they could get.
The British responded as well as they could with the resources they had. Bristol Fighters and Sopwith Camels soared into the sky, just as they did during the day, to take on the aggressors. They had no specialist equipment to help them see in the darkness. They had to rely on their eyesight, hoping for a bright moon to illuminate the bombers. Their successes were small.

Camels being prepared for a sortie.

The Start of WWII

During WWII night fighting was much more significant. Huge waves of bombers used darkness to protect their lumbering and vulnerable frames from enemy fighters and anti-aircraft guns, as they pounded their enemy’s military and industrial facilities. First in the Battle of Britain, then in Allied strikes against Germany, and then in attacks on mainland Japan. Night-time bombers struck the heartland of all the combatants.
Technologically, things had changed a little. Bright searchlights scoured the skies above cities, trying to illuminate bombers as they came in on their attack runs. It was a hit or miss business.
Radar was a more important step forward. Ground-based radar stations identified incoming enemy aircraft and directed fighters to them.
Once the planes were in the sky, everything was much as it had been during WWI. Pilots rushed around in the darkness, flying the same planes they used in daylight, trying to shoot enemies illuminated by the moon and stars.

ATS officers-in-training crew a searchlight in Western Command, 1944.

Enter Airborne Radar

America, Britain, and Germany were all working on technology that would change the game entirely. It was airborne radar.
If a plane could be equipped with its own airborne radar, then it could target enemy aircraft without having to see them. The gun sights of planes had already moved away from basic physical ones. It was the logical next step.
The British, working in secret, were the first to achieve success with airborne radar.
They had already moved Bristol Blenheim fighters, outclassed in daylight by the German Bf109, into a night fighting role. They equipped some of those planes with radar.
In July 1940, a Blenheim destroyed a Dornier Do 17 in a night fight. It was the first successful intercept using airborne radar.
Night fighting was coming into its own.

The nose of a Lichtenstein radar-equipped Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 night fighter.

The Bristol Beaufighter

Retro-fitting radar onto existing planes was a useful step, but what was really required was a purpose-built night fighter. Designed for the unique circumstances of fighting in the dark, with its radar equipment built in, it would give its pilots a huge edge.
The British, building on their success with the Blenheim, were the first to field a high-performance purpose-built night fighter. It was another Bristol model; this time named the Beaufighter.
The Beaufighter was fast and maneuverable if a little difficult to handle on takeoff. With four 20mm cannons and six 7.7mm machine-guns, it had the heaviest armament of any fighter in the air. Its radar had a range of four miles, allowing pilots to close in on their enemies for the kill.

Bristol Beaufighter Mk X, NE255/EE-H, of No. 404 Squadron RCAF at RAF Davidstow Moor.

American Efforts

Beaufighters were purpose built for night fighting, but it was not the role the aircraft had originally been designed for. Instead, they were a purpose-built variant on an existing model. The first purpose-designed night fighter was American.
The Northrop P/F-61 Black Widow was designed in response to the RAF’s night fighter success in 1940. It entered production late in 1943 and first saw action in July 1944. In its first European engagement, the Black Widow destroyed four German planes. Around the same time, it had its first successes against Japanese planes in the Pacific.
Interim measures were needed while the Black Widow was designed and produced. For the first few years of the war, American forces used the Douglas P-70 as an adapted night fighter. In Europe, they also used British Beaufighters.

The first YP-61 Black Widow night fighter to arrive at Orlando Army Air Base, November 1943 is met by a 349th Night Fighter Squadron Douglas P-70 “Black Magic”.

German Nightfighters

Although ahead of the Allies in many areas of military technology, the Germans were behind in the race to field airborne radar. They spent the first few years relying on day fighters, ground radar, and searchlights. It was not until the summer of 1942 that they started fielding fighters that carried their own radar.
Two German planes became particularly noteworthy night fighters.
The Messerschmitt Bf110 had served well during the early days of the war, escorting bombers on their missions. Enemy fighters outclassed it and, like the Bristol Blenheim, it was relegated to night-time defense duties. When the first German airborne radar became available, it was fitted to the latest model, the Bf110F-4. With its four machine-guns and two cannons, it became a hard hitting night-time interceptor.
Also noteworthy was the Junkers Ju 88. A versatile three-seater aircraft, it carried several guns that fired diagonally upward, allowing it to attack high-flying bombers from below. It was one of Germany’s most effective defensive measures.

Bf 110 G-4.

Countering the Nightfighters

The success of the night fighters led to counter-measures. Among them was “Window,” an RAF technique in which bundles of aluminum strips were dropped from bombers. They confused the radar, making it hard for the Germans to attack them.
Such simple measures could not change the fact that night fighting was here to stay. Purpose-built planes with purpose-built equipment could fight each other effectively at night. The war in the skies would never be the same.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fairey Firefly

The Fairey Firefly Recon Fighter – Fast Recon In WW2

 Andrew Knighton


A Plane Made for Two

The Fairey Firefly was a two-seat fighter and reconnaissance aircraft used by the British during WWII.

A Naval Plane

The Firefly was deployed by the Royal Navy, providing air support for ships at sea.

One in a Series

The Firefly was one in a series of planes that had fulfilled a similar role for British naval forces. Beginning in 1926 the Fleet Air Arm first commissioned a fast two-seat fighter to act as a reconnaissance plane.

Coming into Service

The Firefly entered service during WWII. Its first flight took place on December 22, 1941, just after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing America into the war. Its first flights, therefore, were at a time of change and escalating conflict.

Becoming Lead Fighter

The Firefly soon proved its worth as a plane. From July 1943, it was the Royal Navy’s primary carrier-borne fighter. It was the first time the British Royal Navy had made significant use of aircraft carriers, making the Firefly an important plane.

Attacking the Tirpitz

The first major action in which Fireflies took part was a series of attacks against the Tirpitzin July 1944. The Tirpitz and its sister ship the Bismarck were the most powerful battleships in the German fleet. The were a source of fear and an important target for Allied fleets serving off the coast of Europe.

First Kill

On January 2, 1945, a Firefly scored a kill in an aerial combat for the first time. It took place during a dogfight over Sumatra, as part of an attack on oil refineries there. A Firefly from No. 1770 Squadron shot down a Japanese Oscar fighter.

Supply Drops

During the weeks following Japan’s surrender, thousands of Allied prisoners remained trapped in severe conditions in the Japanese prisoner of war camps. Fireflies of the Fleet Air Arm dropped supplies to POWs in camps in mainland Japan.

Firefly Mk IV

Later Wars

Fireflies were involved in British forces action during subsequent wars. They served in Korea, which was the first time jet versus jet combat was used in war and which heralded the end of planes like the Firefly. They also carried out ground attacks during the British intervention in Malaya in 1954.

International Service

The Netherlands Air Force also used fireflies; AS4s in Indonesia in 1962.

Not a Fast Plane

The Firefly was equipped with a Rolls-Royce 1990hp Griffon XII engine. It was a step up from the Merlin engine which its predecessor, the Fairey Fulmar had. With a maximum speed of 416 miles per hour, it added an extra 40 miles per hour to the speed of Britain’s shipboard fighters. However, it was slow in comparison with other fighter planes taking to the skies around the same time.

Good Manoeuvring

The Firefly handled well at low speeds. With limited space on board aircraft carrier decks to take off and land on, it was important the plane operated well at relatively low speeds.

Fairey Fireflies aboard HMS Indefatigable after attacking Pangkalan Brandan, Sumatra.

Cannons in Place of Machine-Guns

The Fulmar was equipped with eight machine-guns, letting it put a large volume of firepower into the air. On the Firefly, they were replaced with four 20mm cannons.
The move to cannons was in line with changes made by the majority of air forces in WWII. Most planes had metal fuselages, making them tougher than the aircraft of earlier eras. Explosive shells fired from cannons were far more likely to do damage to those planes than machine-guns could.
A new development in fuel tanks also played a part. The Germans had created a self-sealing fuel tank, coated in layers of vulcanized and non-vulcanised rubber. If a tank was punctured, the leaking fuel caused the non-vulcanised rubber to expand, sealing the gap. As a result, just putting holes in the tank was not enough to send a plane up in flames. If a shell hit the fuel tank and exploded, no amount of expanding rubber could save the aircraft.

The N.F.2

The first attempt to create a night fighting version of the Firefly was the N.F.2 model. It was given recently developed airborne radar with which to target enemy planes in the dark.
The weight of the equipment changed the Firefly’s center of gravity. To counter it, the fuselage in the N.F.2 was lengthened by 18 inches.

The F.R.1

Changes in the way the radar was mounted meant the N.F.2 was not produced in large numbers. Instead, a different night fighting Firefly was developed repositioning the radar; the F.R.1.

Exhaust Dampers

One of the most important signs that could give away a night fighter in the darkness was the glow from the engine exhaust. To counter it, all Firefly night fighters were equipped with exhaust dampers.

A Fairey Firefly about to land on HMS Pretoria Castle.

Shifting Radiators

The first Fireflies had their radiators mounted underneath the engine. It was changed in later models when the radiators were moved into the wings, altering the appearance of the plane.


The Firefly had a wingspan of 44 feet 6 inches. To fit inside an aircraft carrier, the wings were folded back leaving a wingspan of only 13 feet 3 inches.


The fuel capacity of the Firefly gave it a range of 1,300 miles, enabling it to carry out reconnaissance over a wide area around its carrier base.

Heights Reached

The Firefly could climb 15,000 feet in just under ten minutes. It could fly at heights of up to 28,000 feet.