Serial killer Dennis Nilsen wasn’t the only killer from Cricklewood, there was also the Handley Page Halifax. This heavy bomber is always overshadowed by the Lancaster but matured into an excellent aircraft depsite an undeservedly poor reputation. We spoke to the much-respected veteran aviation journalist and author Jon Lake to find out more.
“Some 29% of Halifax aircrew survived being shot down, compared to just 11% of Lancaster aircrew. Unfortunately, though, live aircrew in the Stalags and Offlags were of little interest to Bomber Harris.”
Complete this sentence:
“The Halifax was.. Very much better than many would have you believe!”
How did it compare to its peers? “Comparisons are difficult, since the pace of development was so rapid. The tendency is to compare the Halifax with the Lancaster and the two aircraft were not really contemporaries. The Halifax was designed to a specification that included peacetime limitations on wingspan, and the type made its maiden flight on 25 October 1939, and flew its first mission on 11/12 March 1941. The Lancaster made its maiden flight 15 months later than the Halifax, and entered service one year later. This meant that the Halifax was broadly contemporary with the Spitfire V, while the Lancaster’s timing made it closer to the Spitfire IX. Comparing the Halifax with the Lancaster is thus a bit like comparing the Blenheim with the Mosquito, or the Gladiator with the Hurricane. There is also the fact that the Lancaster represented Avro’s ‘second bite at the cherry’ – having failed to dramatically with the Manchester, Avro were able to address all of its problems and weaknesses with a radical redesign, where Handley Page had to pursue a more evolutionary approach. Moreover, the earliest Halifax variants were operational just when Bomber Command was suffering its heaviest losses, before tactics and techniques had been refined, and the type became associated with this failed phase of the bomber campaign. However, at the peak of its service career, the Halifax equipped 35 frontline squadrons, with about 1,500 aircraft in service and the type dropped more bombs on Germany than the Battle, Blenheim, Boston, Fortress, Hampden, Manchester, Mitchell, Mosquito, Stirling, Ventura and Wellington put together! The Halifax was certainly a vast improvement over the Stirling, and indeed the Wellington and the remainder of its contemporaries. It was only by comparison with the Lancaster that the Halifax fell short – and then it did so arguably only in its early form. But an over-concentration on the aircraft types used in the Wartime bomber campaign – the tools – may be an unhelpful distraction from the big picture. It doesn’t really make much difference if the Lancaster dropped a few more bombs on slightly more distant targets. It doesn’t even matter terribly whether losses of one type were marginally higher than for another. A more interesting question is whether using heavy bombers for area bombing attacks against enemy cities was either the best solution militarily or morally, and I remain fascinated by how the course of the war might have been altered if every Stirling had instead been two Whirlwinds, and every Lancaster and Halifax had been two Mosquitos.”
Why is it less famous than the Lanc and is this fair? “The rival Lancaster was built in larger numbers, flew more sorties, and dropped a higher tonnage of bombs, and enjoyed more high-level support and a better reputation. The Lancaster equipped more Bomber Command squadrons, and enjoyed a longer career, far more aircrew flew in the Lancaster than in the Halifax, more groundcrew serviced it, and more people saw it fly. Bomber Harris was scathing about the Halifax, famously saying: “I will state categorically that one Lancaster is to be preferred to four Halifaxes…. The Halifax suffers about four times the casualties for a given bomb tonnage when compared to the Lancaster. Low ceiling and short range make it an embarrassment when planning attacks with Lancasters.” This isn’t the whole story, and it’s far from fair. The early Halifax was a whole lot better than its Avro contemporary, the dreadful Manchester, and later radial-engined Halifaxes were probably better aircraft than the Lancaster. But reputations are sometimes hard to live down. In a pilots’ air force, the Lancaster was nicer to fly than the Halifax, and this counted for a great deal back in the 1940s. My Dad flew Lancasters at the RAE post war, and preferred the Lanc to the Liberators he flew during the war, and to the Lincolns, Halifaxes and Fortress that he flew at Farnborough. But while he liked the Lanc as a ‘flying machine’ he was always glad that he hadn’t had to go to war in one!”
What were the best and worst things about the aircraft? “One could be a smart-arse and say: “Best thing: It wasn’t a Stirling. Worst thing: It wasn’t a Mossie!” The Halifax was under-powered and draggy in its early form, and the original tailfins gave inadequate directional stability, and a tendency to irrevocable rudder ‘hard overs’ if the aircraft was mishandled during violent manoeuvres (eg during an evasive corkscrew). Early aircraft had to be stripped of armour and some defensive armament as a weight-saving measure. The Halifax had a relatively roomy interior, and it was possible to walk from one end to the other without having to scramble over or around the wing spar. This gave the aircraft a degree of multi-role versatility, and also (together with bigger, better located escape hatches) made it much easier to abandon if things went badly.”
What did crews like and not like about it? “Halifax crews had very different experiences of the war. If you were unlucky enough to be flying B.Mk Is or B.Mk IIs at the beginning of the aircraft’s career, there would not have been much to like. If you were flying B.Mk Vis in 1945, it was a very different matter!
How did its construction compare to the Lancaster, Stirling and Wellington? “Of these aircraft, only the Wellington’s construction was notably different, with its fabric-covered geodetic structure. Because the Manchester (on which the Lancaster was closely based) was designed in part as a torpedo bomber it had a much deeper bomb bay, and this was the key to the Lancaster’s success. The other bombers, by contrast, had a shallow bomb bay that proved inadequate for wartime bombloads. The Halifax, for example, could carry a 4,000-lb ‘cookie’, but only with the bomb doors partially open, with a significant drag penalty.”
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Was it fast enough? “Could it carry enough and go far? None of the wartime heavies were fast enough to avoid being mauled by German defences, but the Halifax was not significantly slower than any of its rivals. Early variants perhaps didn’t have a high enough ceiling. The Halifax did carry a reasonable bombload, and could reach the furthest targets. It could not carry the really over-sized weapons that the Lancaster took in its stride. The average Lancaster would deliver 154 tons of bombs in its 27.02 sortie lifetime, while the average Halifax dropped just 100 tons. And the Halifax was more expensive to build, too! But might the Halifax have got more of those 100 tons on target? We will never know!”
How many were built? Was it exported? “6,178. In addition to its wartime service with RAF, RAAF, RCAF, Free French and Polish units, the Halifax was operated post-war by the Royal Egyptian Air Force, the Pakistan Air Force and the French Air Force. The Pakistani aircraft were apparently the last in service, being retired to storage in 1954.”
How survivable was it? “What were loss rates like? A Lancaster lasted, on average, 27.2 sorties, while Halifaxes were lost after 21.05 sorties on average. This was much better than the loss rate for the Stirling which reached one per 10.7 sorties! And the Halifax loss rate was distorted by heavy losses suffered in 1941 and early 1942 – before the Lancaster was even in service. In Pathfinder service, and in the daylight missions at the end of the War, Halifaxes returned a lower loss rate than the Lancaster. In fact, it seems that the later Hercules-engined variants tended to survive longer than contemporary Lancs. Moreover, while the average early model Halifax crew may have been slightly more likely to be shot down than a Lancaster crew, they were much more likely to survive the experience. Some 29% of Halifax aircrew survived being shot down, compared to just 11% of Lancaster aircrew. Unfortunately, though, live aircrew in the Stalags and Offlags were of little interest to Bomber Harris.”
What were the engines and how well did they perform? “Early Halifaxes were powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin, but the installation in the Halifax was not as aerodynamically efficient as the ‘power egg’ installation in the Lancaster. The earlier 1130 hp Merlin X was not as reliable as the later 1280 hp Merlin XX, but the Merlin XX was ‘worked harder’ in the Halifax than in the Lanc, which needed higher boost just to cruise at a reasonable speed. The Halifax B.Mk III introduced the Bristol Hercules XVI radial engine, with an output of 1675 hp. With the Hercules engine, the Halifax could achieve a cruising speed of 225 mph at the service ceiling of 24,000 feet, bettering the Lancaster. The Halifax B.Mk VI was powered by the 1,800 hp Hercules 100 and had a maximum speed (in ‘Full Speed’ supercharger mode) of 309 mph at 19,500 ft and a cruising speed of 265 mph.
Notable raids or missions? “The bomber war was not about individual missions – which Harris regarded as unwelcome diversions from his single-minded campaign to pulverise the Reich into submission. Such high profile raids were, in any case largely given to the Lancaster (Augsburg, Op Chastise, missions against the Tirpitz) or to the Mosquito.”
What should I have asked? “You could have asked me where Hush-Kitters could read more about the Halifax – giving me a chance to plug the book I wrote for Osprey on the aircraft, or where they could put the Halifax in context alongside other RAF heavies, in which case I could have plugged the bookazine that Dave Willis and I produced for Key on just that subject!”