The torpedo bomber saw its heyday during the Second World War, as well as very much mixed fortunes. In the right circumstances it could be highly effective, such as with the Japanese B5N bombers at Pearl Harbor. Torpedo aircraft could also make a decisive difference, such as when Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Swordfish’s struck the German battleship Bismarck, damaging her rudder and allowing the Royal Navy to run her down.
But the torpedo bomber was horribly exposed when faced with proper opposition. Well remembered is the attempted attack by Douglas Devastators on the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
The crews of these aircraft bravely pushed their attack but were slaughtered by defensive fighters and fire, and the Devastator is condemned by history as obsolete deathtraps.
In fact, the lesson had already been demonstrated a few months earlier when the famed Swordfish’s that had thwarted the Bismarck were butchered trying to attack the German fleet dashing through the English Channel in February 1942.
It’s easy to look at both the Devastator and Swordfish – interestingly, aircraft that have very different historical reputations – and think on their limitations. In fact, both were comparatively “modern”, if that’s the right term, with the Swordfish entering service in 1936 and the Devastator in 1937.
But while these aircraft were fighting their desperate battles in the first half of 1942, another torpedo aircraft, one from an even earlier period, was throwing itself against the might of the Japanese Imperial fleet. And its attacks, not well remembered, must rank as some of the most desperate, and bravest, aerial actions of the entire war.
The Vickers Vildebeest.
(Pronounced with a “W”; apparently the “V” was a spelling error.)
This aircraft was designed to a 1924 Royal Air Force requirement for a land-based coastal defence plane that could utilise both torpedoes and bombs. When the prototype flew in 1928, it was a remarkably modern aircraft. The fuselage was of all-metal construction, with the biplane wings being unstaggered and fabric covered.
Armament, which remained the same throughout the aircraft’s lifespan, was a single fixed .303 Vickers machine gun forward firing, and a .303 Lewis gun on a flexible mounting at the rear of the aircraft crew area. Standard ordnance load was a single 18” aerial torpedo or up to 1,100 lbs (500kgs) of bombs.
The first prototype, fitted originally with a Bristol Jupiter radial engine, was assessed by the RAF as an excellent aircraft but suffered vibration issues from its powerplant. Several other fits were trialled, and ultimately the first production model, the Vildebeest Mk.I, was fitted with a Bristol Pegasus that produced 600hp.
The aircraft was first ordered in 1931, and a small run of 22 was made before thirty of an improved version, the Mk.II were ordered in 1933.
Both early marks were two-seat aircraft with the pilot’s cockpit located just in front of the leading edge of the wings while a rear gunner was located just behind the trailing edge. They also formed the basis for a new aircraft with a three-man crew to provide support to the British army in Africa and the Middle East – the Vicker’s Vincent.
In 1932 the Vildebeest won its only non-Empire export when Spain bought a license to build 25 which were fitted with a Hispano water-cooled inline engine.
In 1935 the RAF began to receive the Mark.III Vildebeest. This adopted the three-man crew of the Vincent, adding a navigator just in front of the rear gunner.
Now, I’m a little uncertain on this, but I believe by this point the aircraft was now metal-skinned, including the wings. This is according to the Air Force Museum of New Zealand – more on them to follow.
Regardless, the MK.III was to be the primary production variant, with 162 built. This was followed by a small production run of eighteen MK.IVs.
These had a more powerful Bristol Perseus engine producing 825hp with a NACA cowling for streamlining but suffered from overheating issues in hot climates and thus only served in the UK and New Zealand.
As aero technology raced along in the 1930s, the Vildebeest’s rather archaic appearance and stately performance meant they were outdated in a matter of years. As a result, they were rapidly sent off to the remoter corners of Britain’s empire as new aircraft replaced them in Europe. Like many aircraft of their generation, they might have plodded around for a few years before ending up in scrap yards. But circumstances meant that the Vildebeest was to have a very busy end to its service life.
The first to see action were the Spanish aircraft. These saw use with the Republican forces against the Nationalist as the Spanish Civil War raged between 1936 and 1939. Despite lacking bomb sights and proper hardpoints for the job, they were employed as bombers during the first months of the war. They did this by apparently having a third crewmember throw bombs out a hatch under the pilot’s seat.
Even though they were only a few years old, the Vildebeests were already badly out-of-date with performance that can only be described as “stately”, and so suffered heavily to Nationalist fighters and air defences. Only two survived to the end of the war.
The Vildebeest was obsolete throughout the Spanish Civil War but served because there wasn’t a lot of alternatives. But by the time it saw its next action, the aircraft was positively archaic.
As said, with attention focused on the coming war in Europe, and its eventual eruption, the RAF couldn’t spare modern aircraft for the distant colonies. Vildebeests were dispatched to provide torpedo aircraft to areas that, in the late 1930s, weren’t considered to be facing significant threat.
So it was that two squadrons based in Singapore and Malaya, Nos. 36 and 100 of the RAF, were equipped with Vickers Vildebeests in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked. There was also a small detachment of three Vildebeest’s at Hong Kong, where they represented the primary offensive aerial weapon system for the colony – which pretty much sums up how low a priority Asia was to the British at the time. These were destroyed in bombing attacks on the first day.
As a little aside, though Pearl Harbor is considered the start of the Pacific War, the Japanese had already shot down an RAF Catalina the day before when it spotted the Japanese invasion force heading for Malaya, said invasion starting not quite an hour before the first wave hit Pearl.
Anyway, the two Vildebeest squadrons on the Malay Peninsula had been expecting to receive Bristol Beaufort’s, but now had to go into action with their biplanes. It’s easy to look at the Vildebeest, as many historians have, as some ancient dinosaur from a bygone era, which, to be fair, it pretty much was.
In fact, the continued use of the Vildebeest perfectly demonstrates just how fast aero technology had progressed throughout the 1930s. In 1942 the initial design was only fourteen years old, and the Vildebeest Mk.III’s that Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons were flying were only built seven or eight years before!
But that span was enough for the Vildebeest to become horribly obsolete.
The aircraft had a top speed of only 143mph. Laden with 2,000lbs of torpedo, it was much slower than that. Regardless, the Vildebeest’s were thrown into action immediately, launching unsuccessful torpedo attacks against the invasion armada and its escorts.
They then continued to launch attacks against the Japanese as they marched down the peninsula towards Singapore.
This was a bloody affair. In the face of Japanese Army fighters such as the Nakajima Ki-27 and Ki-43, or the Navy’s fearsome A6M Zero, the Vildebeests were largely sitting ducks.
Even when fighter cover was available, they were horribly exposed. Twice on January 26, 1942, Vildebeests were dispatched to attack the Japanese landings at Endau, 250 miles north of Singapore. Of the twelve aircraft in the first wave, five were shot down. Of the eight in the second attack, six were lost.
On January 31, the few survivors were withdrawn to the Dutch East Indies. Here they fought their last actions, with the type’s swansong occurring on February 28. Nine Vildebeest attacked the Japanese invasion fleet off Rembang, northern Java. This attack saw them claim to have torpedoed eight ships, though again losses were heavy.
In early March the last two survivors in theatre tried to fly to Ceylon – now known as Sri Lanka. This rather desperate attempt came to naught when both aircraft ditched off the coast of Sumatra.
That was the end of the Vildebeest’s combat record – hopelessly obsolete but thrown into action in desperation and flown with immense courage. The last remaining Vildebeests with the RAF were finally replaced in service later that month when 273 Squadron on Ceylon swooped them with Fairey Fulmars, which by that point was itself obsolescent but compared to the Vildebeest must have seemed like a quantum leap.
With that the Vildebeest largely passed into history. But now, one at least may be on the way back.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force operated 39 Vildebeest between 1935 and 1944. One of these, NZ102, was scrapped in 1944, but luckily much of the parts remained in existence. These were recovered in 1972 and in 1986 came into the care of the RNZAF museum. They have been conducting a slow restoration, but now apparently are accelerating the process.
So, with a bit of luck, if you are in Christchurch in a couple of years’ time, you’ll be able to see a Vickers Vildebeest restored to its full and antiquated glory.