Amongst the many developments that World War Two bought to maturity, was air transportation. In fact, for many of the campaigns fought during the war, air transport was either critical to their success, or to their failure.
As a result, several transport aircraft remain famous to this day. Who hasn’t heard of the Douglas C-47? The Junkers Ju-52? The Bristol Bombay?
OK, maybe not the Bristol Bombay.
Which is ironic, because whereas the Douglas and the Junkers had their origins as pre-war passenger aircraft for use with air lines, the Bombay was built as a dedicated military aircraft for use from rough fields.
It was also, despite appearing antiquated, a thoroughly modern design at the beginning of the Second World War.
The Bristol Bombay originated in a 1932 British requirement for an aircraft that was intended for colonial duties, primarily in Africa, India and the Middle East. This would be capable of operating in the most basic conditions and of doing… anything that was needed of it.
The Royal Air Force had used aircraft like the Vickers Vernon and Victoria in the 1920s for the role, and these had conducted troop transport, medical and emergency evacuation, propaganda campaigns and bombed rebellious villages – the British Empire in the post-World War One era being somewhat lively in some places.
These colonial aircraft had proven their value on multiple occasions, but as basically evolutions of the Vickers Vimy bomber of World War One, it was recognized that a modern purpose-built aircraft would be even more useful.
The specification called for an aircraft whose primary role was as a transport capable of carrying at least 24 fully equipped troops, ten stretchers or an equivalent load of fuel or water in tanks mounted in the fuselage. But because the aircraft would have to be able to operate in the most basic conditions, it also needed to be capable of self-sustaining itself, and this led to the requirement for it to be able to load and accommodate three aircraft engines within the fuselage.
And considering that the new aircraft would be expected to act in a hostile manner if need be, it was also to be capable of carrying eight 250 lb (113 Kg) bombs and eight 24 lb (11 Kg) bombs. Gun positions were also needed in the nose and tail for a single .303 machine gun.
Crew was expected to be four, which in accordance with RAF bomber protocol of the time, would be two pilots; one flying, the other acting as navigator and bomb aimer and swapping duties between them when on mission. The two gunners would be volunteers who were normally squadron maintenance personnel and so would be able to conduct repairs if need be.
Seriously, the specification expected these guys to pull off a “Flight of the Phoenix” if necessary.
Obviously, for an aircraft to perform in the sort of areas expected of it, it needed to be both tough and well-engineered. And the Bombay was certainly that.
Bristol had been researching a new monoplane wing form since the 1920s that utilized seven wing spars and was of stressed metal skin construction. In fact, the production aircraft would be almost entirely metal skinned, with only the control surfaces being fabric-covered – a feature that many modern fighter aircraft of the time did not have.
The British Air Ministry ordered a prototype for testing, and this was delivered in June 1935. Trials revealed that the aircraft was largely vice less, with handling and the pilot’s visibility being praised. The high mounted wing gave the aircraft an exceptional stall speed of only 42mph (67.5 kp/h) which allowed the big aircraft to drop into tight spots if needed.
In fact, the RAF were so happy with the prototype that it began to fly regular trips for the service throughout 1935. And 1936. And into 1937.
Though the RAF were happy with the Bombay, the international situation and, hence, RAF procurement priorities had changed drastically. With rapid rearmament occurring across Europe after the Nazi party came to power in Germany, the need for a colonial aircraft was far down the list of importance.
So it wasn’t until March 1937 that the first order was placed for the Bombay. This specified that the type, called the Bombay Mk.I, needed higher powered Pegasus XXII engines which produced 1,010hp, three-bladed propellers and a new design of front and tail turret.
The front turret had been one of the main complaints about the prototype, using an odd “zipper” system to mount the gun.
The new turrets were Bristol designs that mounted a single Vickers “K” machine gun in powered mountings and unfortunately the new rear turret seems to have altered the Bombay’s trim characteristics. This led to several losses during the type’s career and also probably played a part in the small numbers that actually ended up being built, though not the main cause.
Because even though orders were now on the board, the Bombay still wasn’t going to get into service anytime soon. In 1937 Bristol had more than enough work on, being at capacity building the new Blenheim bombers. So, it was decided that production would be undertaken at a new factory that was being constructed in Belfast. This was being financed by the Air Ministry and run as a joint venture by Shorts and Harland and Wolff.
But it, and its adjacent airfield, were still being built and as a result the first production Bombay didn’t fly until March 1939 – some six years after the specification was issued and four after the prototype flew.
Some of this was down to the complex and sophisticated construction of the aircraft, which delayed the Belfast factory getting up to speed, though ironically that sophistication wasn’t readily apparent, and the Bombay, with its fixed undercarriage, was often thought to be an old aircraft by those who saw them. Admittedly, the Bombay was hardly a rocket ship, with a top speed of only 192mph (309km/h), but that was never the intention of the design.
With the start of the war in September 1939, Bombay’s were just coming into service in limited numbers in Egypt, but when the situation deteriorated the following year with the German invasion of France, Bombay’s found themselves thrown into action transporting critical supplies to France and then helping to evacuate troops as the front collapsed. A number were lost in the desperate fighting, though two managed to be recovered rather remarkably.
One damaged Bombay was found abandoned by Jean-Francois Demozay, who had been a commercial pilot before the war. He managed to get it into the air with fifteen French personnel onboard and flew it back to England, where he subsequently joined the Free French Forces and fought as a fighter pilot throughout the rest of the war, scoring eighteen kills.
Another was found abandoned by Pilot Frank Carey, who had been shot down in his Hurricane. Carey and three other injured flyers managed to scrounge up enough fuel to get airborne, and upon returning to England found out that he had been proclaimed dead – somewhat presumptuous as he would end his career as a Group Captain with 23 credited kills.
But it was in North Africa and Mediterranean that the Bombay’s saw their main service. With Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940, Bombay’s based in Egypt became one of the prime night bombers for RAF forces in the theatre until modern aircraft could replace them in the role, and they were soon attacking Italian targets in Libya and East Africa.
But the Bombay’s really came into their own as transports. The British intervention in Greece saw Bombay’s flying troops and critical cargoes, sometimes well over their stated maximum capacity, to that country and then to Crete after the fall of Greece. A Bombay was used to fly the Greek Royal Family out to Alexandria from Crete, apart from King George II who initially tried to stay until it was obvious that the island was going to fall.
As the fighting built up in North Africa Bombay’s were in demand everywhere, and their short takeoff and landing capabilities meant they were used to run supplies in to and casualties out of the besieged port of Tobruk and other Allied garrisons holding the line.
The Bombay’s rough field capability meant that it also began to be used more for special operations, notably Operation Chocolate. This saw detachments of aircraft fly out to remote locations in the Libyan desert where they would set up a temporary base to attack Axis forces far beyond the expected range of Allied aircraft.
And Bombay’s with their ability to carry diverse cargoes, and even to carry and fit a heavy unloading beam from its hatch – a legacy of its ability to carry its own spare engines – made them perfect supply aircraft for this job.
Bombay’s would also play a critical part in the first mission of an organization that was one day to set the standard for special operations – the Special Air Service (SAS).
On the night of the 17th-18th November 1941 the SAS launched Operation Squatter. The plan was for fifty-five SAS troopers to make a parachute raid on German airfields to destroy enemy aircraft and five Bombay’s were assigned as transport for the raiders.
Squatter was a disaster, primarily due to atrocious weather conditions and one Bombay was lost when it was forced to land in the desert at night, only to find in the morning that it was close to the target airfield and was subsequently attacked by German fighters.
As US aircraft became more and more available under lend lease in 1942 and ‘43, particularly the C-47, the dwindling numbers of Bombay’s gradually got shunted into roles such as casualty evacuation. But they continued to make valuable contributions.
After the invasion of Sicily and then the Italian mainland, Bombay’s flown by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) 1 Air Ambulance Unit evacuated thousands of Allied casualties, with one crew alone being given credit for transporting six thousand injured.
Of course, all this service meant that by 1944, the Bombay’s were all extremely worn and were finally replaced by new aircraft. They had flown countless miles, carried tonnes of stores, tens of thousands of personnel, worked in the toughest conditions, conducted special operations and been in action practically from the start of the war.
And there had only ever been a total of fifty built.
In the words of aviation writer Bill Gunston:
“I doubt any batch of 50 aircraft accomplished more hard work than the Bombay.”
Personally, I’m inclined to agree, and I have just touched on the aircraft’s service life in this video.
If you want to know more about the Bristol Bombay, John Dell at the Dinger Aviation website has written his typically thorough history of the aircraft, which I thoroughly recommend having a look at.