Do we remember? Planes, I think, more than people. This is an appendix about planes, but it begins and ends with people, because it's people who order, and make, planes.
There's an article I read once. I've got a photocopy from the microfilm of the old journal, although it's available online. I've linked to it in the past many times, but the link goes to the idiosyncratic archives of Flight, and links aren't always clicked through.
That's unfortunate, because this article deserves a wider reading,* published on 9 November 1944 in "Flight, "Official periodical of the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain," and written by "Catapult." Someone really needs to do a literary study of the interaction of evidence and authority claims here. (If literary scholars ever develop an interest in articles about "Fleet Air Arm Equipment." I guess it could happen.) The convention, even if it's not spelled out here, is that a pseudonymous author published in a "respectable" periodical of this kind, especially one backed by a (Royal) club, has unassailable authority. More specifically, I think the convention ins that he is a serving officer on active duty. My entirely speculative reading between the lines is that the author is future Admiral of the Fleet Sir John D. Cunningham, currently CinC Mediterranean, and First Sea Lord 1946--8. And, no, I haven't omitted his peerage. He didn't get one, not even a KB, like Harris and Freeman. And that is strange. Perhaps in his memoirs, if they exist, there's the usual excuse about lacking the money to support a peerage. But then he got on as a director with a petroleum company, so I think his posterity was pretty much set.
Okay, let's look it all, and think about what it tells us.
First of all, again for those who do not like links, John D. Cunningham was born 1885, and was a sea cadet (1901) entrant. That meant that he entered the Royal Navy's educational stream with a few cruises under his belt, and a developed technical interest, in this case, in navigation. The "navigation" specialisation was an unusual one for a future Admiral-of-the-Fleet, and a look at Cunningham's early career suggests that this was more than just pro-Gunnery branch prejudice. At the age of 36 in 1920, at the rank of Commander. Cunningham was posted to Hood as navigator, becoming Roger Keye's squadron navigator for the battle cruiser squadron, slightly ahead of his 1923 formal appointment as Master of the Fleet. In other words, like other technical experts, Cunningham's professional responsibilities ran ahead of his substantive rank. This is the kind of officer who gets poached by private industry.
But consider his particular position in 1920. The Admiralty has come out of the most strenuous Mahanite challenge in its history, or at least since the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Two fleets in being have spent four years glowering at each other across a narrow, oil-filled (if they only knew!) water, and itbecame glaringly obvious on both sides of the German Bight that the Germans were Doing It Wrong. Borrowing a page from the old Great General Staff's most obstreperous critic, German naval strategists pivoted post war to talk about a "double poled strategy." In practice, what that mean (apart from invading Norway) was that instead of swinging in the Jade for four years, the next generation of German warships would cruise. They would raid British commerce in distant waters, but, taking Mahan seriously, they would not just practice guerre de course, but rather concentrate on and destroy the anti-raiding squadrons, gradually securing naval superiority by picking on the weak link in British global strategy. (Check out the first volume of Salewski, Deutsches Seekriegsleitung, if you can find it.)
To this, the Admiralty replied, "Nuh-unh," and imposed draconian treaty restrictions on the displacement of German warships to ensure that they were limited to coastal waters. The Germans came back with a a very impressive technological ""Yeah-unh," in the form of diesel-powered pocket battleships and light cruisers. That they didn't actually work was far less important than the vision, better implemented in practice by rapidly improving steam turbine plants, of fast raiding forces of warships that transformed the scale of commerce protection from a local into a global problem. (You can argue that the 1914 campaign against Graf Spee's squadron was the real strategic turning point, but then you wouldn't get to talk about diesel-powered pocket battleships.)
The problem facing a young John Cunningham was one of finding an enemy squadron on a scale encompassing the whole, say, South Atlantic. Or, as it turns out, western Pacific. This is a strategic (and even tactical) problem with a navigational solution. The problem is one of optimising search patterns, and this brave new world has aeroplanes in it. and this is how, in the fullness of time, John Cunningham became the Vice-Chief, Naval Staff (Air), and, slightly later, the first Fifth Sea Lord (Air), before going to war in 1939. Long before those appointments, Cunningham had staff appointments. The reason that I think "Catapult" is Cunningham is the proprietal tone he takes as he discusses a series of aircraft beginning with the Fairey Fleetwing, and moving on through the Hawker Osprey to the Fairey Fulmar to the Firefly.
If you've ever read that the Fleet Air Arm's fighter procurement was hampered by the Admiralty's insistence that fighters need a navigator, you're basically reading about what John Cunningham thought, with the caveat that he doesn't claim responsibility for the Blackburn Skua and Roc. However, Cunningham does not say that naval fighters, in general, require navigators. He stresses that the Osprey was naturally complemented by the Hawker Nimrod, a navalised Hawker Fury, and that the Gloster Sea Gladiator was ordered to replace the Fury in a timely fashion, an assertion that is at variance with other accounts of the origins of the Sea Gladiator, and which is conceivably a CYA moment. Taking the old Hawker pairing as "Catapult's" ideal, the argument is that while the single-seat fighter provides fleet defence and strike escort, the Osprey is a "fighter/reconnaissance" type, which means that it goes out and finds enemy ships (reconnaissance), and then disengages successfully (fights its way clear). The key task, as noted by James P. Levy in the current number of War in History, is that of finding the enemy in order to bring them to battle. That's what the Osprey is for.
Moving ahead, we have the period when, as "Catapult" puts it, "different ideas ruled." I take that to be a reference to the era when Chatfield was First Sea Lord and former Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers Reginald Henderson was Controller of the Navy. (That is, in charge of buying the big ticket items). Since Reggie was, after all, a Henderson, and since Third Sea Lords generally became either CinC Home Fleet or First Sea Lord, one wouldn't cross Reggie, and he had some very definitive ideas about the future of air power, of the "bomber will always get through" school. Combine that with Lord Chatfield's somewhat traumatic Jutland experiences, and you get a stout faith in armour and, well, stoutness, over evanescent fantasies of fleet defence by air fighting.
The result was the armoured flight deck carriers of the Illustrious family. Henderson, famously, attacked the preceding Ark Royal, which was very carefully designed with maximum internal volume so that it could be listed in Jane's as being able to carry 72 aircraft. This was an important PR point, since at the time American carriers were routinely credited with 100 or more (not inaccurately in the ferry role). It also, of course, had some small bearing on combat capability. Ark Royal had two internal hangars, and this was the criteria for the listing, but at the cost of omitting a (thick) armoured deck for horizontal protection. As Henderson put it, however, modern aircraft were much larger than older ones, so the number really ought to be reduced by more than a third, bringing it under 48, and since air people always wanted their planes in squadrons of 12, effectively Ark Royal could only carry 36 aircraft, which was really no more than a single-decked aircraft carrier with an armoured flight deck could carry.
Naturally Reggie also wanted a fighter that was a bomber. At least, that's probably a best explanation of the Skua on offer that isn't already suggested by the story of Illustrious and Chatfield's demand that the armour belt of the King George V be thickened to 15.5" over the magazine, which is that the Admiralty just plain enjoyed challenging British industry. (One is not entirely accidentally reminded of all those retired admirals going into directorships.)
-"Let's see, you want a naval fighter. With folding wings. And you want guns in the wings. And an undercarriage that also folds into the wings. And dive brakes. On the wings. Anything else? Landing flaps, maybe? Oh. Okay. Anything ---you know what, never mind. This'll be enough."
Henderson died in 1939, just as John Cunningham stepped into the role of Fifth Sea Lord. "Catapult" takes up the story:
"The significant point is that no direct successor to the Osprey two-seater reconnaissance-fighter was introduced for a long time. In the R.A.F. this type of aircraft was represented and just before the war numerous squadrons were equipped with the Faire Battle day and night bomber-fighter-reconnaissance monoplane. Scandinavian countries had a two-seater naval recce. aircraft in the Fairey P4/34..."
"Catapult" is referring to an aircraft design tendered under a 1934 specification for a replacement for the Fairey Battle. Since the Battle was very much a contingency aircraft, ordered in case disarmament talks placed weight limits on military aircraft, the actual need for a replacement was up in the air. The Hawker tender to the specification ended up as a target tow aircraft,** while production of the Fairey tender was pushed through by a Danish order for the aircraft as, well, as "Catapult" says. Fairey might not be the biggest name in British aviation manufacturing, but it was one of the larger names in British co-production agreements thanks to Avions Fairey,*** so it is perhaps not surprising that the P.4/34 was taken up for a licensed production contract at the Copenhagen Arsenal. Or perhaps there was a backdoor deal to keep the design alive until the Fairey Fulmar could be ordered.
That's the upshot of all of this: the Fairey Fulmar, one of the more obscure fighters of WWII, and Catapult's longed for (interim) Osprey replacement. Even more than the Skua, which at least has the excuse of its dive bomber capability, the Fulmar is the poster child for the crippling effect of the second crewman. With superchargers optimised for low level performance, the Fulmar's Merlin VIII/XXX could draw high-pressure near-sea-level air at high boost, giving it a 1300hp rating at 7,500ft, amazingly high for an engine of July 1940, and giving the Fulmar an all-up thrust to weight ratio of 0.14 hp/lb. This isn't exactly high, compared with the Grumman F4F Wildcat at 0.171 or even the Brewster Buffalo at 0.167, but those figures reflect, I think different approaches to engine ratings that may somewhat favour the American versions.
That being said, there's no doubt that the Fulmar was pretty sluggish for a fighter. It's just that the sluggishness has more to do with the wetted area of the fuselage reducing drag than with an overloading of the engine. This is important to note, because the Fulmar was the interim design. At the same time that it was being ordered into rapid production, plans were proceeding to equip the Fleet Air Arm with a successor, the Fairey Firefly. The specification for this aircraft, written up in the middle of 1939 and submitted in that very busy September, may have been the first to call for the Rolls Royce Griffon engine, although Supermarine was already working on a Griffon-equipped Spitfire (the IV), to extend the lifespan of that design.
The Griffon would give 1730hp in its initial production version, giving the Firefly a power-to-weight ratio of 0.123, but that just reflects the huge increase in permitted takeoff weights of late war aircraft. The Vought F4U was similarly cleared to take off at 14,000lbs. So since its engine was similarly rated at between 1800 and 2000hp in early production runs, the quintessential carrier fighter of the war actually has a thrust-to-weight ratio comparable to the Firefly and inferior, on paper, to the Fulmar's. The key questions, of course, have to do with actual fighting weight. That's why it is silly to compare the Corsair to the Wildcat or (God forbid) Fulmar. The comparison with the Firefly is more telling. Again, "Catapult's" navigator/observer, by increasing wetted area, not weight, is pulling the fighter's speed down by about 50mph.
Does "Catapult" feel any contrition? Not a bit of it, because, there was the Firefly's counterpart. The idea that the old Nimrod and Osprey were complementary isn't just after-the-fact rationalisation. A contract was let in 1940 for a modern counterpart to the Nimrod, or, actually, several of them, although only the Blackburn Firebrand saw the light of day. Eclipsed by the Seafire and hobbled by the developmental issues of its engine, the Sabre, the Firebrand eventually emerged as a torpedo fighter.
Nevertheless, the two-seat fighter has a key role in fleet defence, Catapult points out. Precisely because it has a navigator, it can be controlled from the carrier in the difficult task of sneaking up on and shooting down an enemy reconnaissance plane before it detects and reports the location of the fleet. This is a very challenging interception mission, and, if I recall correctly, still part of the rationale for the back seater in more modern naval fighters such as the F4 Phantom and F-14. How many times, Catapult ends, did the slow two seat fighters of the fleet save Force H not from a sustained air attack, but from being attacked at all. And how different would have been Tom Phillip's fate if he'd had carrier support available to shoot down Japanese reconnaissance types before they made touch with him? He goes on to point out that the sea is vast, and the range of vision, from either a mast head or the cockpit of a plane, small. The ability to navigate through this space is the ability to command it.
Which brings me to one of the weird things about the "Catapult" article. It is not that common for Flight to publish material that is, in hindsight, oppose a new service aircraft with one still on the Secret list. It's a "Secret" list for a reason! But there are two such responses to the "Firefly." In March of 1944, old test pilot B. J. Hurren, in "Backbone of the Fleet," writes what is ostensibly a response to Alexander Seversky's ongoing anti-aircraft carrier campaign.* In it, he gets into a massive digression on the subject of an old single-seat torpedo fighter that he test flew once, the Blackburn Dart, and suggests that a revival of the specification would completely solve the fleet's problem with dispersal of force through multiple types. Torpedo fighters would be self-escorting.**** Even more cheekily, in a 23rd March Letter to the Editor, the pseudonymous "I. M. Leach," proposes a "Multi-Purpose Single-Seater," which he names as the "Wyvern," a blatant reference to the still-in-development Westland Wyvern and an unprecedented violation of the Secrets list by Flight.
It's not just that there's ferment within the Admiralty about the new generation of military aircraft taking shape (finishing up the major strands, here are the Short Sturgeon and Fairey Spearfish), it's that it is breaking into the open so obviously. This, I think, speaks to just how different the Pacific War is going to be from the European, at least in London minds in 1944. It's America's war, with Britain as an auxiliary, and the nature of Britain's participation is going to determine who, not to be too blunt about it, makes the most money: Fairy, Blackburn, or Vickers; Rolls-Royce or Bristol. At least, that's how I read it. But perhaps I'm being too cynical. We're a long way from the crisis of 1942, though.
*"Catapult," Flight, 9 November 1944, 500--03.
**Kingston was very high on the Henley. By designing it with interchangeable components with the Hurricane and their unordered Defiant rival, the Hotspur, they presumably hoped for massive crossover orders of variant types in the same way that the Hart family proliferated. People have ever since looked at the design and wondered what might have happened if the RAF had Henley "close support bombers" in France in 1940. To head off speculation, my answer is that then the RAF would have had a slightly less vulnerable version of the Battle doing the same thing as the Battle did, with about the same effect.
Unless it decided to build the Henley as a substitute for the twin-engined bombers of Bomber Command and recruited and trained the massive manpower base required to project Bomber Command onto French bases. Which would have been an even dumber reason for not having 4th Corps, 1st and 2nd Armoured Divisions, and 23 Army Tank Brigade with the BEF on 10 May 1940 than the one they actually came up with.
***Oddly, its naval rival, Blackburn, was another one. Even more oddly, Blackburn's export partner was none other than Boeing, which produced a squadron of Blackburn Shark torpedo/spotter-reconnaissance plane for the RCAF at a British Columbia satellite plant in 1937--39. Someone's got to write a paper about that!
***B. J. Hurren, "Backbone of the Fleet: Some Seversky Statements Challenged: The Case for a Torpedo Fighter," Flight, 3 February 1944, 115--18.