A Brief History
On March 15, 1939, German ambitions and lies combined with lack of British resolve pushed Europe to the brink of war when Germany occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia. After this duplicitous move, Britain and France could no longer stand by and allow Germany to encroach on any more territory. Whereas Germany had been ominously building up its armed forces, Britain and France had done nothing, but now they were forced to scramble to design and build appropriate arms for the coming conflict.
Events unfolded too fast for France to develop any wonder weapons to rank among the best of the war, but the British aircraft industry was well on its way to supplying the Royal Air Force (RAF) with Hurricanes and Spitfires to fight off the Luftwaffe and would soon finish development of the mighty Lancaster and Halifax bombers to take the war to Germany. The titanic struggle that was World War II demanded of the best and brightest engineers that they create weapons that could be assembled easily and cheaply with available materials and yet capable of defeating the enemy. This was quite a task.
British airplane designers at the de Haviland company were given the assignment of coming up with a twin-engine, high-speed light bomber that could outfly German fighters, thus needing no escort or even defensive armament. Their solution was the Mosquito, one of the greatest and most versatile aircraft of World War II, first flown in 1940 and fielded in 1941.
Constructed of wood because supplies of aluminum and other metals were tight, the Mosquito was also equipped with the wonderful Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the same motors that powered the Spitfire, Hurricane and Mustang (American P-51) fighters. When fitted as a bomber, the Mosquito could reach top speeds of 415 mph and thus was able to outrun German fighters. When fitted as a fighter, it could reach speeds of 366 mph and was used mainly at night against German bombers. Stripped-down versions with cameras but no guns were flown on reconnaissance missions and were the fastest planes in the sky until the Germans fielded jet aircraft.
The bomber version could carry as much as 4,000 pounds of bombs or could be outfitted with rails to fire ground attack rockets. Fitted with 4 x 20mm cannons and 4 x .303 caliber machine guns (one of the heaviest gun loads of any fighter WWII), the fighter version was well armed for blasting bombers or strafing. Some versions were made with modified engines and turbochargers to allow a service ceiling altitude of at least 37,000 feet, about 8,000 feet above the standard version. Even naval attack versions were built.
German aviators were so impressed, mighty efforts were made in Germany to copy the Mosquito, but German scientists never developed the glues necessary to create adequate plywood and keep wooden parts together. As far as glue and keeping things together were concerned, problems were experienced with Mosquitoes that had been sent to the Far East, where apparently the heat and moisture from monsoons caused the wood to delaminate.
In combat, the Mosquito proved extremely effective, with analysis showing that from a cost perspective, Mosquito bombing missions were almost 5 times as effective as those conducted in Lancasters. In other words, Mosquitoes could accomplish the same results as Lancasters at a fifth the cost. That is what we call a “Superplane!”
Nearly 8,000 Mosquitoes were built, including over 1,000 in Canada and over 200 in Australia. The RAF retired their Mosquitoes in 1950, but some other countries, such as South Africa and Israel, flew them longer. Only 2 are airworthy today.
The next time you hear people discuss the “best” airplanes of World War II, do not be surprised if you hear many nominate the Mosquito as the best all-around plane of the war.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite plane from World War II? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Thirsk, Ian. De Havilland Mosquito: An Illustrated History, Vol. 2. Crecy Publishing, 2009.