Secret Files – Hampshire’s ‘Luftwaffe’
Picture the scene – a sunny early September day in 1942.
Young Rachel and Eddie Jones are playing in their garden near Romsey.
They hear an unfamiliar drone in the sky and look up. Rachel is a Brownie Guide, and is very interested in aeroplanes, having had a recognition manual bought for her by her grandfather.
To her horror, she recognises the familiar aircraft outlines – a Heinkel III, Junkers 88 and a Messerschmitt 110 are flying towards them in a loose formation. She shouts at Eddie, looks up again and sees a strange sight – not only are these enemy aircraft being escorted by Spitfires, but they seem to be sporting RAF roundels!
She blinks twice and looks again – she runs into the house and tells her mother what she’s seen. Sent to bed early with no supper for ‘telling fibs’ – she wonders whether she imagined the whole thing.
What Rachel and Eddie had seen were captured enemy aircraft of the RAF’s 1426 [Enemy Aircraft] Flight, who were on their sixth tour of military bases and airfields for ground recognition purposes – this tour taking in Hampshire – Ibsley, Andover, Old Sarum and Colerne airfields.
Earlier in the war, current enemy aircraft had started to fall into British hands in an almost or completely airworthy condition in a variety of ways – by forced or mistaken landings, captured intact by advancing troops, or indeed civilian aircraft impounded on the outbreak of war.
It was therefore a logical move for these aircraft to be inspected and if possible test flown to compare them against their British and later American foes, to make them ‘tick’, and to pass the intelligence gained on to all branches of the Allied services. Prior to this, most enemy aircraft knowledge had been to a certain extent guesswork – gleaned from grainy photographs, enemy propaganda, or dogfight reports.
Although this wartime testing process seems at first glance to be no different to that used on new aircraft types both British and American lend-lease entering RAF and RN service, flying enemy aircraft must have caused large number of administrative, technical and flight headaches.
Firstly, the aircraft, particularly those with minor damage would have to be repaired and made airworthy – a difficult process without adequate spares, workshop manuals and instruments in metric, and of course in a different language.
Other crashed aircraft were cannibalised for usable spares, and differing Marks noted.
Secondly, although the staff on the unit formed to use these aircraft – 1426 Flight – were the best qualified in their respective fields, with the pilots, fitters and technicians being experienced, the aircraft were still to a certain extent unknown quantities.
Initial testing of an individual aircraft was made, logically, at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough by various departments – including the Aerodynamics Flight of the Experimental Flying Unit, and also the Wireless and Electrical Flight, indeed some aircraft were retained because of their onboard equipment for radar and electrical test purposes.
Aircraft were then passed to the RAF and Fleet Air Arm through firstly the Air Fighting Development Unit [AFDU], initially at RAF Northolt, later at RAF Duxford, and finally from November 1941 to 1426 Flight for further testing and evaluation.
The AFDU and 1426 Flight, now nicknamed by the staff ‘RAFwaffe’ were based at RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire until early 1943, when with the influx of USAAF fighters to that base, they moved to RAF Collyweston, a satellite airfield from RAF Wittering, just inside Lincolnshire.
It was decided to fly the aircraft around bases and military units on ‘tours’, allowing military personnel to see the ‘enemy’ ‘up close and personal’ as it were, with the composition varying throughout the war as more up to date enemy aircraft were ‘acquired’ – with the previous aircraft being disposed of, either to Allies for their own use, broken up for spares or placed into storage.
Enemy aircraft tested and flown over Britain throughout the war by 1426 Flight included the following:
Fiat CR42 Falco
Focke-Wulf Fw190 – various marks including A-3, A-4/U-8, A-5/U8
Focke-Wulf Fw200B Kurier/Condor
Heinkel He115 floatplane
Junkers Ju88 – various marks including A-4, A-5, G-1, R-1, S-1
Messerschmitt Me109 – various marks including E-3, E-4B, F-2, F-4B, G-2/Trop, G-14
Messerschmitt Me110C-4 and C-5
Messerschmitt Me410 Hornesse
Some of the aircraft were acquired under interesting and occasionally bizarre and amusing circumstances, for example:
The Condor airliner, Dania’, was registered to the Danish Air Line, and after Denmark’s fall to Germany in April 1940, was impounded on landing at Shoreham Airport on 9 April 1940. Passed to BOAC, she was then given to the RAF in January 1941 and painted in RAF camouflage. It is alleged, that if a German invasion of Britain had succeeded, this aircraft, having the necessary range, could have been used to fly the Royal Family to Canada, had the evacuation plan to use warships not been feasible.
Disorientation and navigation errors by Luftwaffe pilots seemed to be a fairly regular occurrence, to the delight of 1426 Flight.
RAF Manston in Kent welcomed at various times three undamaged Me109’s and two Fw190’s – much to their pilot’s chagrin and annoyance!
Similarly, one of the latest and brand-new Fw190 fighters landed at RAF Pembrey in Wales – almost to order; another Fw190 landed at RAF West Malling; a Ju88 fighter at RAF Lulsgate Bottom and another at RAF Chivenor.
A night fighter Ju88 fitted with [thank you very much!] the latest Lichtenstein radar landed at RAF Woodbridge, while a similar version flown by a defecting crew landed at RAF Dyce in Scotland.
A Me110 was forced down onto Goodwood racecourse [RAF Westhampnett] in 1940 – the crew were perhaps a little premature – the Enemy Aircraft Flight didn’t actually move there until 1945!
Several Norwegian Air Force Heinkel He115 floatplanes managed to escape from Norway after the invasion – they were based at RAF Calshot and later in the Mediterranean and were used for clandestine missions until finally they were grounded due to the lack of spares.
Other ‘gifts’ were captured in Italy, North Africa and France – all eventually making their way to 1426 Flight for evaluation.
Britain was obviously not the only nation to evaluate opposing aircraft during the war – the Soviet Union, under the Air Forces Scientific Research Institute evaluated bombers and fighter/reconnaissance aircraft separately, under different commanders – as their Air Forces were to a certain extent separate. They were initially mainly looking at the impressive German power plants, far superior in the early part of the war to their own – only much later did they fly aircraft in comparison to Soviet ones.
The USAAF’s main evaluation unit was in the Pacific Theatre, which also encompassed the RAF and RAAF, evaluating captured Japanese aircraft.
Germany also test flew a whole variety of captured Allied Aircraft, mainly located at Rechlin in North East Germany.
Rechlin was in some ways the ‘German RAE’ – aircraft recorded as being test flown there include:
And even Gloster Gladiator biplanes, in addition to various Soviet and French aircraft.
The unit responsible was nicknamed the ‘Zirkus Rosarius’, but a special unit was formed to use larger aircraft for clandestine missions – KG200.
1426 Enemy Aircraft Flight was formally disbanded in January 1945, with the end of the war in sight, however the testing of captured aircraft continued, and indeed with the capture of the advanced jet aircraft increased, now at the RAE Farnborough, and was commanded by Lt Cdr Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown RNVR.
Brown was the ideal candidate – already a test pilot of note, he had flown many enemy aircraft both in the UK and on the Italian Front, and he was a fluent German speaker.
During his period in charge, he flew 53 different German aircraft, including such jet and rocket aircraft as the Arado Ar234 twin-jet; the awesome Messerschmitt Me262; the Heinkel He162 ‘Volksjager/Salamander’ and the potentially lethal [to the pilots] Messerschmitt Me163 rocket fighter.
These captured aircraft were also put on display at the RAE Farnborough Open Days in 1945 and 1946.
It would be nice to think that perhaps young Rachel saw them there with her father and said, ‘’See Daddy, I told you so!’’.