The early 1930s was a time of great development for aircraft designers and engineers and one of the best examples of this can be seen with the British manufacturer, Handley Page. In 1930, they first flew the Heyford bomber, which went into service with the Royal Air Force in 1934.
The Heyford was a biplane with open cockpit and gun positions, had a fixed undercarriage and used a mixed construction of metal and fabric.
Now let’s compare it to Handley Page’s next design – the Hampden.
It may look odd to modern eyes, but I think we can all agree that the leap between the two was huge – and the difference in time of introduction was a mere four years.
The Hampden was developed in response to a British requirement for a new medium, two-engine bomber that was issued in 1932. In fact, two submissions would ultimately be chosen to meet this need, the other being the famous Vickers Wellington.
But in contrast to the Wellington, and indeed the previous Heyford, Handley Page went all out to make the Hampden a real hot-rod in comparison to other similar aircraft of the time, with the intention being that the aircraft would be a “fighting bomber”.
The Hampden, which received the company designation of HP 52, was built as a monocoque design with all metal skin using flush riveting. This was intended to maximize the aircraft’s streamlining, which was further added to be the sheer slimness of the design. The wings were highly tapered, again for low drag, but with careful flap design the aircraft had a landing speed of only 73mph, remarkable for such a big machine.
However, the most noticeable feature of the Hampden was the slimness of the fuselage – it was just three feet (0.9m) wide! And these efforts at improving performance paid off.
Powered by two Bristol Pegasus 9-cyclinder radial engines that produced just under a thousand horsepower each, the aircraft demonstrated a top speed of 265 mph in testing in 1936.
This in turn led to an initial order being placed for 180 aircraft, which was rapidly followed by further plans to build the type in considerable quantities. Soon after the Hampden entered service in 1938 with the RAF it was decided to build the aircraft at multiple factories across the UK and in Canada with the intention of making the Hampden a key type in Bomber Command.
This no doubt was a result of the aircraft’s extremely impressive, on paper at least, performance. The Hampden couldn’t carry as heavy a bombload in terms of maximum capacity as its contemporary medium bombers in British service, the bigger Wellington and Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. But it could carry only a slightly smaller bombload over the same distance as them, but at a much higher speed.
In fact, the Hampden was only slightly slower on bombing operations than the Bristol Blenheim light bomber, an aircraft that was considered positively speedy at the time, but capable of carrying four times the bombload than the smaller bomber.
In terms of weapon load, the Hampden could carry a four thousand-pound (1,800 kg) bombload and, when it first entered service, had a total of four .303 machine guns. Three of these were Vickers “K”’s that were mounted on flexible mountings in the nose, dorsal and ventral positions. The thinness of the fuselage, plus the desire to keep down weight, meant that these were all manually operated as powered turrets, as used on the other British aircraft, were too bulky and heavy for fitting.
An additional Browning machine gun was fixed in the upper nose that the pilot was, theoretically, going to use if the opportunity arose. This probably seemed like a real possibility when the Hampden was being designed. As said, its performance was good for a bomber of its day, and it was considered a real pilot’s aircraft in terms of its agility.
However, the exceptional narrow fuselage meant that the cockpit was extremely cramped, and only a single pilot could be carried – a real issue for an aircraft intended for long range missions.
In fact, the crew – comprising the pilot, a navigator/bomb aimer/gunner in the nose; a wireless operator who also manned the dorsal gun position and a ventral gunner – was essentially stuck in place once they took off, with no room to move about the aircraft or aid any of their comrades. Even things like relieving yourself was something that didn’t seem to occur to the designers. All this led to the aircraft receiving some unfavourable nicknames from those who would fly it, probably the most well remembered being “the flying suitcase”.
But as said the Hampden was earmarked to be a major type with the RAF, and at Britain’s entry into World War Two in September 1939, a total of 226 were on strength with more in production. They were soon in use, flying aerial reconnaissance and leaflet dropping missions in the early “Phoney War” period, and then being used to lay naval minefields after the German invasion of Norway in April 1940.
Unfortunately, in service it was soon proved that no bomber, no matter how fast or agile, was going to be able to outpace or outmanoeuvre modern German fighters. Daylight raids by British bombers proved easy meat for the Luftwaffe, and the Hampden was particularly vulnerable. Its comparatively weak defensive firepower was not enough to defend the aircraft and combined with lack of powered turrets this limited protection had rather poor fields of fire anyway.
Losses meant the British swiftly switched to a strategy of night bombing and in 1940 the Hampden’s were up armed by having their two rear gun positions fitted with a twin Vickers “K” in place of the single guns. This was mainly at the instigation of Arthur “Bomber” Harris who commanded the RAF’s No.5 Group in which most of the Hampdens were deployed.
Despite the issues, the aircraft were to be at the forefront of the first two years of the bombing campaign against Germany. Amongst these actions were the first raids on Berlin, which took place on the night of the 25/26 August 1940, when Hampdens of No.5 Group, operating at the very limit of their range and carrying 2,000lbs of bombs, attacked targets in and around the German capital.
However, it wasn’t just in the bombing campaign that Hampden’s found a role. In November 1940 the German’s own night bombing campaign against British cities began to mount up, with the raid on Coventry on the night of the 14/15 of that month being especially damaging when 515 German bombers hit the city.
The British were desperate to improve their defences and, with night fighters being few and far between, one expedient tried was the “Hampden Patrol”. This saw Hampden’s assigned to fly patrol circuits in areas that German bombers were expected at, a job where their superior performance – again, comparatively – would allow them to catch intruders.
Lacking an intercept radar, the extra crew scanning in all directions was hoped to provide an ability to acquire targets and the long loiter time possible for a bomber meant the aircraft could stay up for quite a period.
For this job, the aircraft were also equipped with an additional gun and gunner, squished into a beam position, the idea being that the Hampden could engage German bombers side on. Quite how much damage a single machine gun was expected to do shows how desperate the idea was.
After about two-weeks of fruitless effort, where Hampdens tried on several occasions to attack enemy aircraft but failed, the squadrons involved had nothing to show for it except a number of crew suffering from frost bite. So, the whole thing was called off and Hampdens stuck with their role in Bomber Command until 1942.
Though the aircraft was far from ideal, it did provide British and Dominion crews with critical experience in their trade, with pilots like Guy Gibson, later commander of the famous Dambuster Raid, cutting their teeth on the Hampden.
But it was recognized that all three of the pre-war bombers needed replacing with better aircraft for the Bombing Campaign, and by 1942 enough aircraft like the Avro Manchester were coming into service, as well as the four-engine “heavies” that would bear the brunt of the campaign for the rest of the war.
Hampden’s would participate in the first of the “1000-bomber raids” against Cologne in May 1942, with 79 taking part in the attack, but this very much marked the final days of the Hampden in service with Bomber Command.
The final bombing missions flown by the Hampden were in September 1942. But this did not mean the end of the aircraft’s service. The same year Hampden squadrons began to transfer to Coastal Command. For this 285 aircraft were modified to TB.1 configuration, which involved installing torpedo sights in the cockpit, extra armour plate and ASV radar. These aircraft also had their bomb bays lengthened to take an American or British air droppable torpedo and bomb shackles fitted under the wings.
In September 1942 thirty-two Hampdens of RAF Squadron No. 144 and RAAF Squadron No. 455 flew to the Soviet Union as the strike force component of Operation Orator. This was intended to attack the German battleship Tirpitz if she sallied out from her Norwegian home port to attack Allied convoys.
Though the mission never launched an attack on any German capital ships it is thought that the Germans, who became aware of the force, may have been far more circumspect on sending out raids knowing that they were liable to come under aerial attack from the Hampdens.
When Operation Orator ended, the aircraft were transferred to the Soviets, serving with the 3rd Squadron of the 24th Torpedo Regiment.
Here they are thought to have served until mid-1943, when they were replaced with Soviet types once again due to lack of spares and losses.
As well as serving with the Soviets, the Hampden saw widespread use with the Royal Australian, New Zealand and Canadian Air Force squadrons stationed in Britain, as well as some of the Canadian built aircraft serving as navigator trainers and maritime patrol aircraft on the Pacific coastline.
The only other user was Sweden, who purchased a single example in 1938 with a mind to building the type under license.
The outbreak of the war seems to have ended that idea, but the Swedish Hampden served for evaluation and reconnaissance for several years before being sold off to Saab, who used it as a testbed.
As a final note, mention must be made to the one other variant built, the Hereford.
Concerned that supplies of Pegasus radials might be short supply with such large numbers of aircraft on order, the Air Ministry ordered that a version should be built fitted with Napier Dagger air cooled inline engines. One hundred were ordered, but the Napier proved unreliable and was so noisy the crews found them uncomfortable to fly.
As a result, few Herefords got into squadron service, mainly being reserved for training duties and ultimately largely being converted to Hampdens when Pegasus engines were available.
Naturally, this very active service career meant that the Hampdens suffered serious losses. By the time their front-line use finished with Coastal Command in December 1943, 714 of the 1430 Hampdens built had been lost on operations, literally just under half the total.
No flying examples of the type now survive, but thanks to the efforts of several museums, three have been rebuilt or are in the process of restoration.
All these aircraft crashed during the war and have been recovered and can be seen at the Canadian Museum of Flight in British Columbia, which hosts the only currently complete aircraft, while aircraft being restored are kept at the Royal Air Force Museum, Cosford and at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.
So, if you want to see this rather unusual aircraft, go along and have a look if you can. Because despite its flaws, the Hampden was a very important, if now somewhat unappreciated, aircraft.