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The Mighty Mosquito

de Havilland Mosquito B.IV
de Havilland Mosquito B.IV in 1942 (UK Public Domain)

The de Havilland Mosquito was the most versatile combat aircraft of World War II and the most feared by German Luftwaffe pilots. It went by several nicknames: “The Wooden Wonder” and “The Bamboo Bomber” or just the plain and affectionate “Mossie.” Designed by the British originally as an unarmed high-speed day bomber, the Mosquito also performed remarkably well as a fighter, fighter-bomber, pathfinder-marker for heavy bombing raids, and a photo-reconnaissance aircraft. It was fast, maneuverable, well-armed, lightweight for its size, and could reach altitudes above 35,000 feet on long-range operations that took the crews as far as eastern Germany. And because of its wood construction, it could often slip “under the radar” at best or leave only a slight blip at worst.

During the course of the war, Mosquito squadrons made strategic raids on Gestapo offices and headquarters.  One raid hit Amiens prison in occupied-France in 1944 that freed Resistance fighters waiting execution. Other Mosquitos were used by BOAC to transfer secretive cargo and different VIPs--inside the bomb bay--to and from such countries as neutral Sweden and over other occupied areas of Europe. In total, over 6,000 Mosquitos were built in Great Britain, over 1,000 in Canada, and another 200-plus in Australia.

Here in Canada, the Mosquitos were assembled at Downsview, Ontario, north of Toronto from 1942-45. Once these production lines got rolling, the plant saw sixteen finished aircraft wheeled out per day: a grand total of 1,134 by war’s end. They were test-flown in London, Ontario, then flown overseas from there. The powerplant: the Packard-Merlin V-1650 produced in Detroit by Packard Motor Company to Rolls-Royce specifications. This same engine also saw placement in American-built North American P-51 Mustangs and Canadian-built Avro Lancasters, the latter factory not far from Downsview.

When first conceived by de Havilland in 1937, the Mosquito was not an easy sell to the military. The last thing the Royal Air Force wanted was a two-man, unarmed bomber made of wood, an outdated construction design at the time. However, once the aircraft was fitted with two modern Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 liquid-cooled engines producing well over 1,000 horsepower each, the RAF soon realized that in test flights this machine could get it on without the need of guns aboard.

The Mosquito’s wood construction was something still unique for the time period: pre-formed plywood, made up of various layers of woods glued over each other making the pieces extra strong. Plywood had been around for a number of years already, but not the strong and lightweight material crafted especially for the Mosquito. The woods were a combination of Alaskan spruce, Canadian birch, Ecuadorian balsa, and English ash. The fuselage was manufactured from molds in right and left pieces that were glued in place then drilled together with hundreds of small brass wood screws. The aircraft’s other pieces--the wings and tail--were made as single assemblies and fastened to the fuselage. The only metal applied to the body was engine mounts and fairings, control surfaces, and the screws. Because of the lightweight plywood combined with the ever-improving Merlin V-12, the Mosquito’s power-to-weight ratio gave the aircraft her tremendous all-out speed.

The Royal Air Force truly saw what they had when they deployed an unarmed photo-reconnaissance PR.I prototype in September 1941 to snap pictures along the French Atlantic coast. The result: the German Bf 109 fighters sent to intercept couldn’t catch her. Two months later, RAF 105 Squadron received the first of the B.IV Mosquitos which could carry four 500-pound bombs. After that, the Mosquito only got better, faster, and more powerful.

The Mosquito Canadian production plant
The Mosquito Canadian production plant at Downsview, Ontario during World War II (Canadian Public Domain)

The most mass-produced model was the FB.VI, with over 2,500 built.  Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannon under the floor and four .303 Browning machine guns in the nose, the FB.VI could take two 250-pound bombs in the bomb bay and two 500-pounders on wing racks. Also, 50- or 100-gallon drop tanks, mines, depth charges or 60-pound rockets could be added, making this version of the Mosquito a formidable weapon.

Royal Canadian Air Force Flying Officer George Stewart of Hamilton, Ontario flew 50 operations using the Mossie during World War II with RAF Squadron 23 based near Fakenham, England in 1944. Decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFM), he and his navigator, Flying Officer Paul Beaudet, engaged in dozens of Night Intruder attacks in which their job was to circle specific German night fighter aerodromes to prevent the fighters from returning successfully after engaging British bombers that had crossed into occupied-Europe. They and the other Night Intruder crews had to fly to the target in the dead of a moonless night, at very low altitude (perhaps 50 to 100 feet off the ground) at somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 miles per hour. Once they struck a vulnerable Luftwaffe fighter about to land, they’d high-tail it out of there, using the Mossie’s 400 miles per hour top speed!

Stewart flew the popular FB.VI.  Armed with the already-stated .303 machine guns and 20mm cannons, their Mossie sometimes had two 500-pounds bombs on the wings depending on the actual operation. “The Mosquito was a fantastic aircraft! It was versatile, maneuverable, and had the armament,” Stewart told me.  “When I flew the Mosquito, it was considered the fastest aircraft in the world. I loved every minute of it! The serviceability was great,” he added. “I flew one for 100 hours and the only repair was a Pesco pump.”

Prior to a handful of their Night Intruder attacks, Stewart and Beaudet thoroughly enjoyed taking their fighter up within 24 hours of a called RAF operation in order to check it for any snags. “The Mossie was such a delightful aircraft to fly that we looked forward to any excuse that would allow us to fly her--a pilot’s dream!” Stewart recalled.

RCAF Flying Officer Hank Seidenkranz from Burlington, Ontario remembered the Mosquito, but in a different capacity than Stewart. Trained as a navigator, Seidenkranz flew for No 45 Transport Command, a branch of the Royal Air Force that ferried different factory-fresh Canadian and American-built bombers and transport aircraft--such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, C-47 Dakota, B-25 Mitchell, and Mosquito--across the Atlantic for use by combat crews on the war front.

“Flying the Mosquito was quite an experience,” Seidenkranz remembered about the Downsview-built aircraft. “Only two seats: the pilot and radio-navigator. I had to do the radio work, too. All the navigators did. To get aboard, the pilot climbed in first and sat down, then I got in and closed up the hatch at my feet. It was a tight squeeze. Our seats were almost in line, with mine slightly behind and the radio equipment behind his seat. I navigated with the charts resting on my knees. Nothing fancy. No matter what plane you flew the navigator was always busy. I would make a calculation on where we were, which would take a few minutes, and by the time I was finished, we were 100 miles past that point. So I had to make another calculation, and so on. Always busy.

“In March 1945, I navigated a special Mosquito flight with pilot Flying Officer HC Graham. We started from London, Ontario, and took four hours to fly 1,300 miles to Gander, at 9,000 feet and a ground speed of 330 miles per hour. We stopped to refuel, then took off again, put our oxygen masks on, got up to 21,000 feet to take advantage of ice-free weather and a tail wind of 70 knots, and  landed in Prestwick, Scotland exactly five hours and 38 minutes later--a world record for Trans-Atlantic crossings! We averaged 387.5 miles per hour! It was front page news around the world. A few hours later another Mosquito chopped one minute off our time to make a new record. But we got most of the publicity because we were first!”

Even German Luftwaffe leader Hermann Goering respected the de Havilland Mosquito. In a statement in 1943, he admitted: “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminum better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they can give it a speed which they have now increased yet again.

“What do you make of that,” he went on to say. “They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops!”


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