Bomber Command's 15 Best Aircraft, revealed and rated (but do you agree?)

15. Fairey Battle

Fairey Battle


Construction: The first aircraft was completed at Hayes, but all subsequent aircraft were manufactured at Fairey's factory in Heaton Chapel, Stockport

Number built: 2,201

First flight: The prototype flew for the first time on March 10, 1936

Powerplant: One 1,030hp (768kW) Rolls-Royce Merlin I, II, III or IV V12 engine

Dimension: Span 54ft 0in (16.5m). Length 42ft 2in. Height 15ft 6in. Wing area 422sq ft (39.2sq m)

Weight: Empty 6,647lb (3,015kg). Loaded 10,792lb

Performance: Max speed 241mph (388km/h) at 13,000ft (3,962m). Service ceiling 23,500ft. Typical range 795-900 miles (1,280-1,450km)

Armament: One 0.303in (7.7mm) machine gun in starboard wing, one in rear cockpit. Max bomb load 1,000lb (454kg)

Crew: Three

The distinctive looking Fairey was virtually obsolete by the time it was deployed in the Battle of France. Despite the undoubted valour of its crews, the lumbering machines proved to be easy prey for both ground fire and enemy fighters.



14. Vickers Wellesley Mk.I



Construction: Designed by Rex Pierson, it incorporated a geodesic airframe, derived from Barnes Wallis’ work on airships, and first flew at Brooklands in Surrey

Number built: 177, including the prototype

First flight: On June 19, 1935 with Vickers chief test pilot ‘Mutt’ Summers at the controls

Powerplant: One 925hp (690kW) Bristol Pegasus XX nine-cylinder radial engine driving a three-bladed propeller

Dimensions: Span 74ft 7in (22.7m). Length 39ft 3in. Height 15ft 4in. Wing area 630sq ft  (59sq m)

Weight: Empty 6,760lb (kg). Loaded 11,100lb

Performance: Max speed 228mph (367km/h) at 19,700ft (6,000m). Service ceiling 25,500ft. Range 1,220 miles (1,960km)

Armament: One 0.303in (7.7mm) Vickers machine gun in right wing, plus one in rear cockpit. Normal bomb load 2,000lb (907kg)

Crew: Two or three – pilot, bomb aimer, and rear gunner

A pre-war design, the Wellesley had largely been outclassed by the time hostilities began. Examples did however serve in East Africa, Egypt and the Middle East. The final Wellesley unit – 47 Squadron – flew them in the maritime reconnaissance role until withdrawal in 1942. The aircraft’s unusual geodesic design influenced that used on the more successful Wellington.

13. Avro Manchester Mk.I

Avro Manchester

Construction: Avro constructed the majority of Manchesters with Metropolitan-Vickers building the rest

Number built: 202, including prototype

First flight: The prototype flew on July 25, 1939 at Manchester’s Ringway Airport

Powerplants: Two Rolls-Royce Vulture I X-24 liquid-cooled piston engines, each developing 1,760hp (1,310kW)

Dimensions: Span 90ft 1in (27.5m). Length 68ft 10in. Height 19ft 6in. Wing area 1,131sq ft (105.1sq m)

Weight: Empty 29,440lb (13,354kg). Maximum take-off weight 56,000lb

Performance: Max speed 265mph (426km/h) at 17,000ft (5,180m). Service ceiling 19,200ft. Range 1,630 miles (2,623km) with typical bomb load

Armament: Eight 0.303in (7.7mm) machine guns in nose, dorsal and tail turrets. Max bomb load 10,350lb (4,695kg)

Crew: Seven

The much-maligned Manchester is mostly remembered as the forerunner to the much more significant Lancaster. Unlike its younger sister, the Manchester was underpowered, relying on two Rolls-Royce Vulture engines rather than four Merlins. Introduced in November 1940, it was an operational failure – production was terminated the following year.

12. Boeing B-17C/Flying Fortress Mk.I

B-17 FF

Construction: The bulk of B-17 production streamed from Boeing, Douglas and Vega factories at an average of 330 per month between 1943 and 1945. Manufacture of the B-17C/Mk.I was considerably more limited

Number built: A total of 12,731 were built, of which only 38 were B-17Cs

First flight: Designated as Model 299, the prototype flew on July 28, 1935

Powerplant: Four 1,200hp (895kW) Wright R-1820-65 Cyclone nine-cylinder radial engines

Dimensions: Span 103ft 9in (31.62m). Length 67ft 11in. Height 15ft 4in. Wing area 1,420sq ft (131.9sq m)

Weight: Empty 30,600lb (13,880kg). Loaded 46,650lb

Performance: Max speed 323mph (520km/h) at 25,000ft (7,620m). Service ceiling 37,000ft. Normal range 2,400 miles (3,862km)

Armament: Five or six 0.50in (12.7mm) and one 0.30in machine guns. Normal bomb load 4,000lb (1,814kg)

Crew: Nine

The legendary Flying Fortress went on to great success with the USAAF and must be regarded as among the most significant warplanes of all time. It’s earliest use, with the RAF, turned out to be nothing more than a footnote in its history. Twenty B-17C airframes were acquired in early 1940 – they performed poorly and were unreliable. By September, the RAF had abandoned daylight raids using the type.

11. Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk.V


Construction: Production of the type initially took place at three factories in Coventry, Warwickshire, with final assembly at Baginton

Number built: 1,814 of all variants

First flight: Prototype K4586 made its debut on March 17, 1936 from Baginton in the hands of Armstrong Whitworth chief test pilot Alan Campbell-Orde

Powerplants: Two Rolls-Royce Merlin X liquid-cooled V12 engines, each delivering 1,145hp (854kW)

Dimensions: Span 84ft 0in (25.6m). Length 70ft 6in. Height 15ft 0in. 1,137sq ft (105.6sq m)

Weight: Empty 19,350lb (8,777kg). Normal loaded 28,200lb. Max loaded 33,500lb

Performance: Max speed 228mph (367km/h) at 17,750ft (5,410m). Service ceiling 26,000ft. Range with max load 470 miles (756km)

Armament: Five 0.303in (7.7mm) machine guns in nose and tail turrets. Max bomb load 7,000lb (3,175kg)

Crew: Five

The Whitley was a mainstay in Bomber Command early in the war, equipping six units. It has the distinction of being the first aircraft to drop bombs on Germany since World War One, the first to attack Italy and to fly over Berlin (dropping leaflets). It was nevertheless quickly overshadowed by more modern types and retired from frontline operations in mid-1942.


10. Handley Page Hampden Mk.I


Construction: Built by Handley Page at Cricklewood, London; English Electric at Preston, Lancashire, and Canadian Associated Aircraft consortium in Ontario and Quebec, Canada

Number built: 1,432, including prototypes, plus 20 or so conversions from the similar HP Hereford

First flight: June 21, 1936 by prototype K4240 from Radlett, Hertfordshire, with Maj J Cordes in the pilot’s seat

Powerplants: Two 1,000hp (746kN) Bristol Pegasus XVIIIs

Dimensions: Span 69ft 2in (21.09m). Length 53ft 7in. Height 14ft 11in. Wing area 668sq ft (62.06sq m)

Weight: Empty 11,780lb (5,343kg). Loaded 18,756lb

Performance: Max speed 254mph (408km/h). Cruising speed 167mph. Range 1,885 miles with 2,000lb of weapons, 1,200 miles with 4,000lb load. Service ceiling 19,000ft (5,791m)

Armament: One fixed Browning gun forward and twin Brownings in the rear ventral and dorsal stations. Max bomb load 4,000lbs

Crew: Four – pilot, navigator/bomb aimer, wireless operator/upper rear gunner and lower rear gunner

Easily identified by its cramped and narrow fuselage and ‘tadpole’ rear end, the Hampden was one of the RAF’s regular bombers at the outbreak of World War Two. The type was engaged in attacking invasion barges, minelaying and leaflet dropping, but its shortcomings were soon revealed, relegating the distinctive looking machines to night operations. They went on to achieve some success as torpedo bombers with Coastal Command.

9. Short Stirling Mk.III

Short Stirling

Construction: Built at Short’s Rochester, Kent factory, with some production relocating to Austin Aero at Cofton Hackett, near Birmingham

Number built: 2,371 of all variants

First flight: May 14, 1939, by S.29 prototype, but crashed on landing. A half-scale ‘proof of concept’ S.31 version had flown on September 19, 1938, in the hands of John Lankester Parker

Powerplant: Four 1,650hp (1,230kW) Bristol Hercules XVI radials

Dimensions: Span 99ft 1in (30.2m). Length 87ft 3in. Height 22ft 9in. Wing area 1,460sq ft (135.6sq m)

Weight: Empty 46,900lb (21,274kg). Loaded 70,000lb

Performance: Max speed 270mph (434km/h) at 14,500ft (4,420m). Service ceiling 17,000ft. Range fully loaded 590 miles (950km) or 2,010 miles with 3,500lb load

Armament: Eight 0.303in (7.7mm) machine guns in nose, dorsal and tail turrets; maximum bomb load 14,000lb (6,350kg)

Crew: Usually seven – first and second pilot, navigator/bomb aimer, front gunner/radio operator, two air gunners and flight engineer

The first of the British four-engined ‘heavies’ and in fact the biggest of them all, the Stirling could carry a substantial bomb load and had good range for its payload. Unfortunately, its relatively small wing hampered performance at altitude, and due to the design of its bomb bay, it could not carry the heavier individual weapons commonly borne by Lancasters. When large numbers of Halifaxes and Lancasters became available, the Stirling was relegated to secondary duties such as glider towing and transport – final versions were successfully developed for these roles.

8. Bristol Blenheim Mk.I


Construction: Built by Bristol at Filton; Avro at Chadderton, Lancashire; Rootes at Speke, Merseyside and at Blyth Bridge, Staffordshire; Fairchild Aircraft in Longueuil, Quebec, Canada; Valtion Lentokonetehdas in Tampere, Finland, and by Ikarus at Zemun, Belgrade, Yugoslavia

Number built: Around 4,500 of all variants

First flight: June 25, 1936 from Filton by prototype K7033, with Cyril Uwins at the controls

Powerplants: Two 840hp (627kN) Bristol Mercury VIIIs

Dimensions: Span 56ft 4in (17.19m). Length 39ft 9in. Height 9ft 10in. Wing area 469sq ft (43.57sq m)

Weight: Empty 8,839lb (4,009kg). Loaded 12,500lb

Performance: Max speed 260mph (418km/h). Cruising speed 200mph. Range 920 miles. Service ceiling 25,500ft (7,772m)

Armament: One fixed Browning and one Vickers machine gun in the dorsal turret. 1,000lb of bombs

Crew: Three – pilot, navigator/bomb aimer and wireless operator/gunner

Although it was briefly the fastest aircraft in RAF service, the Blenheim was no match for enemy fighters during World War Two, giving some idea of the speed of technological progress during the conflict. It nevertheless soldiered on and was used in a variety of roles, including light bomber and night fighter. It saw extensive use in overseas theatres and was used with some success on anti-shipping strikes.

7. North American B-25J/Mitchell Mk.III


Construction: The majority (6,608) were produced at North American’s Fairfax plant in Kansas. The most numerous version was the B-25J with 4,318 made

Number built: A total of 9,984 of all variants

First flight: The prototype flew for the first time on August 19, 1940

Powerplant: Two 1,700hp (1,268kW) Wright R-2600-92 14-cylinder radials, driving three-bladed propellers

Dimension: Span 67ft 7in (20.6m). Length 52ft 11in. Height 15ft 10in. Wing area 610sq ft (57sq m)

Weight: Empty 21,100lb (9,571kg). Loaded 34,000lb

Performance: Max speed 272mph (457km/h) at 13,000ft (3,960m). Service ceiling 24,200ft. Range with bomb load 1,275 miles (2,052km)

Armament: Up to thirteen 0.50in (12.7mm) machine-guns, rockets and max bomb load of 4,000lb (1,814kg)

Crew: Five or six

The Mitchell is another aircraft that won fame with the USAAF, particularly on the famous Doolittle Raid against Japan, but it also served other air arms well, including the RAF. Initially used in operational training units, the first RAF Mitchell ‘op’ took place in January 1943, a strike on oil installations in Ghent. Four B-25 units later supported Allied troops after D-Day, and various second line units used the reliable and robust type both at home and overseas.

6. Consolidated B-24J/Liberator Mk.VI


Construction: Aircraft were assembled at factories run by Consolidated, Douglas, Ford and North American. The B-24J was the most produced version, with deliveries beginning in August 1943

Number built: From a total of 18,482 built, 6,678 were B-24Js

First flight: The XB-24 prototype first flew on December 29, 1939, followed by seven test aircraft in 1940

Powerplant: Four 1,200hp (895kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-65 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radials

Dimensions: Span 110ft 0in (33.5m). Length 67ft 2in. Height 18ft 0in. Wing area 1,048sq ft (97.4sq m)

Weight: Empty 38,000lb (17,237kg). Loaded 65,000lb

Performance: Max speed 278mph (447km/h) at 25,000ft (7,620m). Cruising speed 237mph. Service ceiling 28,000ft. Range 1,540 miles (2,478km) with 8,000lb bomb load

Armament: Ten 0.50in (12.7mm) machine guns in nose, dorsal, tail, ventral and waist positions. Maximum bomb load 12,800lb (5,806kg)

Crew: Between eight and ten, depending on use

Produced in vast numbers for the USAAF, and used to spectacular effect over Europe, the Liberator played a lesser – but still important – role for the RAF. Two squadrons were deployed to the Middle East in 1942, and, from October 1944, Liberators supported clandestine operations throughout Southeast Asia. Other examples flew with Coastal Command and with BOAC, the latter in transport and cargo-carrying roles.



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