Tag Archives: Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire

24 May 1930

Amy Johnson lands at Darwin, Australia. (Fox Photo/Getty Images)
Amy Johnson lands at Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. (Fox Photo/Getty Images)

24 May 1930: After a 19-day, 11,000-mile (17,700 kilometers), solo flight from Croyden Aerodrome, London, England, 26-year-old Miss Amy Johnson arrived at Darwin, Australia, in her de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth, G-AAAH, named Jason.¹ She was awarded a £10,000 prize from the Daily Mail newspaper.

Amy Johnson was awarded a prize of 10,000 by the Daily Mail for her flight. (DailyMail.com)
Amy Johnson was awarded a prize of 10,000 by the Daily Mail for her flight. (DailyMail.com)

Miss Johnson’s flight was made in 18 legs. From London, she flew to Aspern, Austria; San Stefano, Republic of Turkey; Aleppo, French Mandate of Syria; Baghdad, Kingdom of Iraq; Bandar-Abbas, Persia; Karachi, Sindh; Jhansi, British India; Allahabad, British India; Calcutta, British India; Insein, Burma; Bangkok, Kingdom of Siam; Singora, Siam; Singapore, Straits Settlements; Tjomal, Samarang, and Sourabaya, Dutch East Indies; Atambua, Dutch Timor; and across the Timor Sea to Darwin, Northern Territory, Commonwealth of Australia.

Route of Amy Johnson’s flight to Australia, 5–24 May 1930. (FLIGHT, 30 May 1930, No. 1118, Vol. XXII, No. 22, at Page 578.

For her accomplishment, Miss Johnson was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.). She was also awarded the Harmon Trophy, “for the most outstanding international achievements in the arts and/or science of aeronautics for the preceding year, with the art of flying receiving first consideration.”

Amy Johnson with her DH.60 Gipsy Moth at Calcutta, May 1930. (DailMail.com)
Amy Johnson with her DH.60 Gipsy Moth at Calcutta, 12 May 1930. (DailMail.com)

Her Gipsy Moth is in the collection of the Science Museum, London, England.

Amy Johnson was a rated Engineer (aircraft mechanic) and Navigator, as well as a licensed Pilot. She had set many flight records, both individually and with her husband, James Mollison, whom she had married in 1932. He proposed to her during an airplane flight, only eight hours after having met her.

Amy Johnson arrives at Darwin in her DH60G, G-AAAH, 24 May 1930.
Amy Johnson arrives at Darwin in her DH60G, G-AAAH, 24 May 1930.

During World War II, Amy Johnson flew for the Royal Air Force as a First Officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary (equivalent to the RAF rank of Flight Lieutenant). On 5 January 1941, at approximately 3:30 p.m., Johnson bailed out of the Oxford and parachuted into the Thames Estuary. The airplane crashed into the river a short distance away and sank.

Amy Johnson’s parachute was seen by the crew of HMS Haslemere, a barrage balloon tender assigned to the Channel Mobile Balloon Barrage in the Estuary. They attempted to rescue her and in the process, the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Walter Edmund Fletcher, Royal Navy, dove into the water. In the cold temperatures and rough conditions, Fletcher died. For his effort to rescue Johnson, he was awarded the Albert Medal, posthumously.

In recent years, stories have emerged that the AS.10 was shot down after Johnson twice gave the incorrect response to a radio challenge. Tom Mitchell, an anti-aircraft gunner of the 58th (Kent) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, at Iwade, a small village along the shore of the Thames Estuary, said in 1999 that he shot her down under orders, firing 16 shells at the Oxford. The men of the battery were ordered to never mention the incident. There were contemporary reports that a destroyer had also fired on Johnson, though the Admiralty denied this.

Amy Johnson’s de Havilland DH.60G G-AAAH. (Mirrorpix)

The de Havilland DH.60 was a light-weight, two-place, single-engine, single-bay biplane. The fuselage was covered with plywood and the wings and tail surfaces were covered with fabric. It was 23 feet, 5½ inches (7.150 meters) long with a wingspan of 29 feet, 0 inches (8.839 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 9½ inches (2.680 meters).

The airplane was designed so that the wings could be folded parallel to the fuselage, giving it an approximate width of 9 feet (2.7 meters). The wings had a chord of 4 feet, 3 inches (1.295 meters). The vertical gap between the wings was 4 feet, 10 inches (1.473 meters) and lower wing was staggered 3 inches (7.62 centimeters) behind the upper. Both wings had 3.5° angle of incidence and 3.5° dihedral. There was no sweep.

Empty, the DH.60 had a weight of 764 pounds (346.6 kilograms) and loaded weight of 1,650 pounds (748 kilograms).

De Havilland DH.60 Moth three-view illustration with dimensions. (FLIGHT, 5 March 1925, Page 127)

The original DH.60 Moth, which first flew in 1925, was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 4.503 liter (274.771-cubic-inch-displacement) A.D.C. Aircraft Ltd., Cirrus inline 4-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engine with two valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 5.4:1. The direct-drive engine produced 60 horsepower at 1,800 r.p.m., and 65 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. The Cirrus was 0.983 meters (3.225 feet) long, 0.908 meters (2.979 feet) high and 0.450 meters (1.476 feet) wide. It weighed 260 pounds (118 kilograms). The A.D.C. Cirrus was designed by Major Frank Bernard Halford, who later designed the de Havilland Gipsy engine, as well as the Goblin and Ghost turbojet engines.

The DH.60G Gipsy Moth was first produced in 1928. It was powered by a 318.09-cubic-inch-displacement (5.212 liter) air-cooled de Havilland Gipsy I inline 4-cylinder direct-drive engine with a compression ratio of 5:1. It was capable of producing 130 horsepower, but de-rated to 100 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m. The Gipsy I was 40.5 inches (1.029 meters) long, 29.9 inches (0.759 meters) high and 20 inches (0.508 meters) wide. It weighed 285 pounds (129 kilograms).

The Gipsy Moth has a cruise speed of 85 miles per hour (137 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 102 miles per hour (164 kilometers per hour). Range for the standard aircraft is 320 miles (515 kilometers). The service ceiling is 14,500 feet (4,420 meters).

De Havilland built 8 pre-production and 31 production DH.60 Moths. 595 DH.60s of all variants were produced at Stag Lane.

Amy Johnson's de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth, Jason, G-AAAH, at the Science Museum, London.
Amy Johnson’s de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth, Jason, G-AAAH, at the Science Museum, London. (Science Museum)

¹ Amy Johnson’s father, John William Johnson, provided £600 to pay for the airplane. He worked for Andrew Johnson & Knudtzon and Co., Ltd., which used “Jason” as a trademark. The Automobile Association’s badge appears on the Gipsy Moth at the Science Museum, although it was not present on the airplane during her record-breaking flight.

Amy Johnson

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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Reginald Joseph Mitchell, C.B.E., F.R.Ae.S. (20 May 1895–11 June 1937)

Reginald Joseph Mitchell, C.B.E., F.R.Ae.S., by Frank Ernest Beresford, 1942. Oil on canvas, 127 x 102 cm. (Southhampton City Art Gallery, via Art UK)

Reginald Joseph Mitchell born 20 May 1895 at Butt Lane, a suburb of Kidsgrove, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, England. He was the first of three sons of Herbert Mitchell, a school teacher, and Eliza Jane Brain Mitchell, whom some sources also describe as a teacher.

Mitchell attended  the Higher Elementary School on Queensbury Road, which provided a “semi-technical and more advanced education” in Normacot, and then Hanley High School, Stoke-on-Trent, leaving at the age of 16. He found work as a Premium Apprentice at the Kerr Stuart & Co., Ltd., locomotive engineering works in Fenton, where he was employed in the drafting room. Mitchell attended night school, studying mathematics, mechanics and technical drawing.

In 1917 Mitchell was employed as assistant to Hubert Scott-Paine, owner of the  Supermarine Aviation Works, Ltd., at Southampton, Hampshire. (Scott-Paine is known for his hard-chine motor torpedo boat designs.) Supermarine concentrated on building flying boats and amphibians.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell married Miss Florence Dayson, a school teacher 11 years his senior, 22 July 1918, at Cheadle, Staffordshire, England. They would have a son, Kenneth Gordon Brunt Mitchell, born 6 November 1920.¹

Mitchell was promoted to Chief Designer at Supermarine in 1919, and Chief Engineer, 1920. Mitchell’s first complete airplane design was the Supermarine Commercial Amphibian of 1920.

Three-view drawing of R.J. Mitchell’s Supermarine Commercial Amphibian, 1920. (FLIGHT, No. 613 (Vol. XII, No. 39) 23 September 1920, at Page 1017)

Supermarine had been involved in the Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider (the Schneider Trophy races) since 1919, when the company entered its Sea Lion biplane flying boat. The Sea Lion II amphibian won the race at Naples, Italy, in 1922.

Supermarine S.4 (BAE Systems)

For the 1925 Schneider race, Mitchell—called “Mitch” by officers of the High-Speed Flight—designed a new monoplane seaplane, the Supermarine S.4, G-EBLP, which was powered by a liquid-cooled Napier Lion VII “broad arrow” W-12 engine. The S.4 was damaged prior to the race, which was won by Jimmy Doolittle with the Curtiss R3C-2 racer.

During this period, Mitchell also designed the Supermarine Southampton biplane flying boat for the R.A.F. He was named Technical Director in 1927.

For the 1927 race, Mitchell designed the Supermarine S.5., which featured a monocoque duralumin fuselage. Three S.5s were built, N219, N220 and N221. Flown by officers of the Royal Air Force High-Speed Flight, the S.5s took first and second place.

With its engine running, this Supermarine S.5 shows off its very clean lines.

Two Supermarine S.6 seaplanes, N247 and N248, were built for the 1929 Schneider race held at Calshot, not far from the Supermarine Works. These airplanes were powered by the new Rolls-Royce R liquid-cooled V-12.

Supermarine S.6B S.1596 (Crown Copyright)

For his work on the Supermarine racers, His Majesty George V, King of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, appointed Reginald Joseph Mitchell a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.).

CENTRAL CHANCERY OF THE ORDERS OF KNIGHTHOOD.

St. James’s Palace, S.W. 1,

1st January, 1932.

     The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the following promotions in, and appointments to, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire :—

To be Commanders of the Civil Division of the said Most Excellent Order :

Reginald Joseph Mitchell, Esq., A.M.I.C.E., F.R.Ae.S. Director and Chief Designer, Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers) Limited. For services in connection with the Schneider Trophy Contest.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell C.B.E.

In August 1933, Mitchell underwent a routine medical examination, which resulted in a diagnosis of rectal cancer. Treatment options were very limited in the 1930s. He underwent a major surgical procedure which included a permanent colostomy. It can be assumed that Mitchell suffered from illness, significant pain and fatigue, but he continued working.

“Dad at work!” Reginald Joseph Mitchell. (Solent Sky Museum)

R.J. Mitchell decided that if he learned to fly, he would better understand the airplanes he was designing. He began flight lessons in December 1933, just a few months after the cancer surgery. He was awarded his pilot’s license in July 1934.

During this period, Mitchell worked on the single engine Supermarine Walrus and twin engine Scapa and Stranraer flying boats. The Walrus first flew 21 June 1933, with deliveries to the Royal Australian Air Force in 1935, and to the Royal Air Force in 1936. The Walrus was used extensively in air-sea rescue operations during World War II, saving more than 1,000 airmen.

In 1936, Mitchell began working on the Type 316 four-engine heavy bomber. Two prototypes were ordered but not completed. They were lost when the Supermarine factory was bombed in 1940.

In October 1936, Mitchell won a landing competition award from the Hampshire Aero Club. His trophy is now in the collection of the Solent Sky Museum.

The protototype Supermarine Stranraer, K3973, in flight over the Solent, 1935. (Charles Brown Collection, RAF Museum)

R.J. Mitchell is, without question, best known as the designer of the Vickers-Supermarine Type 300, a private venture, built to meet an Air Ministry requirement for a new single-place, single-engine interceptor for the Royal Air Force. The prototype, K5054, flown by Vickers Aviation Ltd.’s Chief Test Pilot, Captain Joseph (“Mutt”) Summers, made its first flight at 4:35 p.m., Thursday afternoon, 5 March 1936. Landing after only 8 minutes, Summers is supposed to have said, “Don’t change a thing!”

The Vickers-Supermarine Type 300, K5054, during its first flight, 5 March 1936. The pilot is Captain Joseph Summers. (BAE Systems)

The Air Ministry ordered the Type 300 into production as the Spitfire Mk.I before K5054’s first flight, with an initial order for 310 airplanes. The first production fighter was delivered to the Royal Air Force 4 August 1938. Between 1938 and 1948, 20,351 Spitfires were built in 24 variants.

Supermarine Spitfires under construction at Castle Bromwich.

The Spitfire became a legendary fighter during the Battle of Britain. It is a prime example of the saying that “if an airplane looks good, it will fly good.” And the Spitfire is a beautiful airplane. It was well armed, fast and maneuverable, and performed well at high altitudes. Reportedly, Luftwaffe pilots felt that there was greater dignity in having been shot down by a Spitfire than by a Hawker Hurricane, or Bolton Paul Defiant. The BBC reported, “It is a plane that came to symbolise British spirit and freedom from aggression. A bird of paradise, and it is still recognised in every country throughout the world.”

Supermarine Spitfire F. Mk.Vb R6923 (QJ-S) of No. 92 Squadron, 19 May 1941. © IWM (CH 2929)

In October 1936, Mitchell won a landing competition award from the Hampshire Aero Club. His trophy is now in the collection of the Solent Sky Museum.

Cancer recurred in 1936. Mitchell was hospitalized in February 1937. This time he stopped working, though he would often go to the airfield to watch his Spitfire being tested. He travelled to Vienna, Austria for medical treatment in April, but returned home in May.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell, C.B.E., F.R.Ae.S., died at his home on 11 June 1937. His ashes were interred at the South Stoneham Cemetery, Hampshire, England.

Supermarine S.6. R.J. Mitchell is standing, second from right, wearing “plus fours.”
Main Title

In 1942, a popular film, “The First of the Few”, dramatized Mitchell’s life. The movie was produced, directed and starred Leslie Howard as Mitchell, and David Niven as a composite pilot character. It was released in the United States under the title, “Spitfire,” 12 June 1943, six years after the death of Mitchell, and less than two weeks after Leslie Howard was killed when BOAC Flight 777 was shot down by Luftwaffe fighters over the Bay of Biscay.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell, C.B.E., F.R.Ae.S.

¹ Gordon Mitchell served aboard air-sea rescue launches in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, 1942–1944. (Many of these had been designed by Hubert Scott-Paine.) He was commissioned as a flying officer in September 1944 and served as a meteorological officer until 1947. Dr. Gordon Mitchell, Ph.D. worked at the University of Reading, National Institute for Research in Dairying, from 1952 until 1985. Dr. Mitchell died 24 November 2009.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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4–7 May 1936

1st April 1936: English aviator Amy Mollison, nee Johnson (1903 - 1941) wearing a woollen suit from the collection of flight clothes designed by Madame Schiaparelli for her solo flight from London to Cape Town. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)
“1st April 1936: English aviator Amy Mollison, nee Johnson (1903 – 1941) wearing a woollen suit from the collection of flight clothes designed by Madame Schiaparelli for her solo flight from London to Cape Town. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)”

4–7 May 1936: British aviatrix Amy Johnson, C.B.E., departed Gravesend Aerodrome, Kent, England, at 8:02 a.m. GMT, 4 May 1936, in her Percival D.3 Gull Six, registration G-ADZO, enroute to Cape Town, South Africa. In July 1932, she had set a record for flying this route, solo, breaking the existing record which had been set by her husband, James Mollison. The current record, though, was held by Flight Lieutenant Tommy Rose. Her goal was to retake the record.

During the next three days, Johnson flew approximately 6,700 miles (10,782 kilometers). She made several stops to refuel her airplane, but she slept only about six hours.

She arrived at Wingfield Aerodrome, Cape Town, at 2:31 p.m. GMT, 7 May, for an elapsed time of 3 days, 6 hours, 29 minutes. Her average speed over the course was 122.65 kilometers per hour (76.21 miles per hour), setting a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course.¹ She broke Tommy Rose’s time by 11 hours, 9 minutes. Her plan was to then make the return flight and beat Rose’s two-way record.

Amy Johnson’s record-breaking Percival D.3 Gull Six, G-ADZO, at Gravesend. (Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library)

Amy Johnson’s Percival D.3 Gull Six, c/n D63, was a single-engine, low-wing monoplane, with fixed landing gear, designed by Edgar Percival and built by Percival Aircraft Limited at Gravesend. It was built primarily of wood and covered by doped fabric. The Gull was flown by a single pilot and could carry two passengers.

The airplane was 24 feet, 9 inches (7.544 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 2 inches (11.024 meters) and height of 7 feet, 4½ inches (2.248 meters). The D.3 had an empty weight of 1,170 pounds (530.7 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,050 pounds (929.9 kilograms).

The Gull Six was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 9.186 liter (560.57-cubic-inch-displacement) air-cooled de Havilland Gypsy Six I, an inverted, inline six-cylinder engine which produced 184 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., and  205 horsepower at 2,350 r.p.m. for takeoff. The engine turned a two-bladed fixed-pitch propeller via direct drive. The engine weighed 432 pounds (196 kilograms).

The Gull Six was capable of reaching 178 miles per hour (286.5 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling was 16,000 feet (4,876.8 meters) and range was 700 miles (1,126.5 kilometers).

G-ADZO had been sold to Harold Leslie Brook, 12 December 1935. Amy Johnson had flown it in a previous attempt for the London-Cape Town record in April 1936, but G-ADZO was seriously damaged when she ground-looped the airplane at Colomb-Béchar, French Algeria.

The Gull was raced by R. Falk, flying for the Marquess of Londonderry, in the King’s Cup, 10–11 July 1936, carrying race number 12. G-ADZO finished in 7th place with a time of 2 hours, 10 minutes 48 seconds, and average speed of 163.44 miles per hour (263.03 kilometers per hour).

In 1937, H. L Brook flew G-ADZO to Capetopwn and back.

G-ADZO was scrapped 8 February 1938.

G-ADZO in the water at King’s Lynn.
Percival Aircraft Company advertisement in FLIGHT, 21 May 1936. (Aviation Ancestry Database of British Aviation Advertisements 1909–1980)

Amy Johnson had set many flight records, both individually and with her husband, James Mollison, whom she had married in 1932 (divorced, 1938). He proposed to her during an airplane flight, only eight hours after having met her. For her record-setting flight from England to Australia in May 1931, she was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) and won the Harmon Trophy.

During World War II, Amy Johnson flew for the Royal Air Force as a First Officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary (equivalent to the RAF rank of Flight Lieutenant). Tragically, on 5 January 1941, while flying over London, she was challenged by an RAF fighter. Twice she gave the incorrect recognition code and she was then shot down. Her airplane crashed into the Thames, where she was seen struggling in the water. Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher of HMS Haslemere dived into the river to rescue her, but both died. This incident was kept secret and it was publicly reported that she had run out of fuel.

¹ FAI Record File Number 13241

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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23 March 1948

John Cunningham with the record-setting de Havilland DH.110 Vampire (BNPS).
John Cunningham with the record-setting de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1, TG/278. Note the metal canopy with porthole. (BNPS).

23 March 1948: During a 45-minute flight over Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, the de Havilland Aircraft Company chief test pilot, Group Captain John Cunningham, D.S.O., flew a modified DH.100 Vampire F.1 fighter to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude of 18,119 meters (59,446 feet).¹ Cunningham broke the record set nearly ten years earlier by Colonel Mario Pezzi in a Caproni Ca.161 biplane.² (See This Day in Aviation, 22 October 1938)

DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 prior to high-altitude modifications. (de Havilland)
DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 prior to high-altitude modifications. (de Havilland)

The de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 flown by Cunningham was the fifth production aircraft, TG/278. It was built by the English Electric Company at Preston, Lancashire, with final assembly at Samlesbury Aerodrome, and made its first flight in August 1945. It was intended as a prototype photo reconnaissance airplane. The cockpit was heated and pressurized for high altitude, and a metal canopy installed.

The photo reconnaissance project was dropped and TG/278 became a test bed for the de Havilland Engine Company Ghost 2 turbojet (Halford H.2), which produced 4,400 pounds of thrust (19.57 kilonewtons) at 10,000 r.p.m. The Vampire could take the Ghost engine to altitudes beyond the reach of the Avro Lancaster/Ghost test bed already in use. The airplane’s wing tips were each extended 4 feet (1.219 meters) to increase lift.

De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 before the record flight. (De Havilland)
De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 after modifications. (de Havilland)

The aircraft was stripped of paint to reduce weight. Smaller batteries were used and placed in normal ballast locations. Special instrumentation and recording cine cameras were installed in the gun compartment, and ten cylinders of compressed air for breathing replaced the Vampire’s radio equipment. At takeoff, the Vampire carried 202 gallons (765 liters) of fuel, 40 gallons less than maximum, sufficient for only one hour of flight. The takeoff weight of TG/278 was 8,400 pounds (3,810 kilograms).

John Cunningham had previously flown TG/278 to a world record 799.644 kilometers per hour (496.876 miles per hour) over a 100 kilometer course at Lympne Airport, 31 August 1947.³

TG/278 continued as a test aircraft until it was damaged by an engine fire in October 1950. It was used as an instructional airframe at RAF Halton.

De Havilland DH.100 F Mk 1 Vampire TG/278 after high-altitude modifications (Vic Flintham)
De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 with high altitude modifications (de Havilland)

A standard Vampire F.1 was 9.370 meters (30 feet, 8.9 inches) long with a wingspan of 12.192 meters (40 feet, 0 inches) and overall height of 2.700 meters (8 feet, 10.3 inches). The fighter had an empty weight of 6,380 pounds (2,894 kilograms) and gross weight of 8,587 pounds (3,895 kilograms).

The basic Vampire F.1 was powered by a de Havilland-built Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. This engine used a single-stage centrifugal-flow compressor and single-stage axial-flow turbine. It had a straight-through configuration rather than the reverse-flow of the Whittle turbojet from which it was derived. It produced 2,460 pounds of thrust (10.94 kilonewtons) at 9,500 r.p.m., and 3,000 pounds (13.34 kilonewtons) at 10,500 r.p.m. The Goblin weighed approximately 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms).

It had a maximum speed of 540 miles per hour (869 kilometers per hour), a service ceiling of 41,000 feet (12,497 meters) and range of 730 miles (1,175 kilometers).

The Vampire F.1 was armed with four 20 mm Hispano autocannon in the nose, with 150 rounds of ammunition per gun.

De Havilland DH.100 Vampire FB.5 three-view illustration with dimensions.
Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (Daily Mail)
Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (BNPS)

Group Captain John Cunningham C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., D.L., F.R.Ae.S, was born 1917 and educated at Croydon. In 1935 he became an apprentice at De Havilland’s and also joined the Auxiliary Air Force, where he trained as a pilot. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, 7 May 1936, and was promoted to Flying Officer, 5 December 1937. Cunningham was called to active duty in August 1939, just before World War II began, and promoted to Flight Lieutenant, 12 March 1940.

While flying with No. 604 Squadron, Cunningham was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, 28 January 1941. He was appointed Acting Squadron Leader, Auxiliary Air Force, and was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, 29 April 1941. The Gazette reported,

“This officer has continued to display the highest devotion to duty in night fighting operations. One night in April, 1941, he destroyed two enemy bombers during a single patrol and a week later destroyed  three enemy raiders during three different patrols. Squadron Leader Cunningham has now destroyed at least ten enemy aircraft and damaged a number of others. His courage and skill are an inspiration to all.”The London Gazette, 29 April 1941, Page 2445 at Column 1.

His Majesty George VI, King of the United Kingdom, greets Squadron Leader John Cunningham, D.S.O., D.F.C., 1941. (BNPS)

Acting Squadron Leader Cunningham’s promotion to Squadron Leader (Temporary) became official 10 June 1941. The King approved the award of a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross, 19 September 1941. Squadron Leader Cunningham took command of No. 604 Squadron 1 August 1946.

On 3 March 1944 Wing Commander Cunningham received a second Bar to his Distinguished Service Order. According to The Gazette,

“Within a recent period Wing Commander Cunningham has destroyed three more hostile aircraft and his last success on the night of 2nd January, 1944, brings his total victories to 20, all with the exception of one being obtained at night. He is a magnificent leader, whose exceptional ability and wide knowledge of every aspect of night flying has contributed in large measure to the high standard of operational efficiency of his squadron which has destroyed a very large number of enemy aircraft. His iron determination and unswerving devotion to duty have set an example beyond praise.

The London Gazette, 3 March 1944, Page 1059 at Column 1.

Promoted to Group Captain 3 July 1944, Cunningham was the highest scoring Royal Air Force night fighter pilot of World War II, credited with shooting down 20 enemy airplanes. He was responsible for the myth that eating carrots would improve night vision.

In addition to the medals awarded by the United Kingdom, he also held the United States Silver Star, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Order of the patriotic War (1st Class).

Following the War, John Cunningham returned to de Havilland as a test pilot. After the death of Geoffrey Raoul de Havilland, Jr., in 1946, Cunningham became the de Havilland’s chief test pilot. He remained with the firm through a series of mergers, finally retiring in 1980.

Cunningham was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in 1951, and promoted to Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1963. He relinquished his  Auxiliary Air Force commission 1 August 1967.

Group Captain John Cunningham C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., D.L.,  died 21 July 2002 at the age of 84 years.

Wing Commander John Cunningham, D.S.O. and two bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., Auxiliary Air Force. (Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

¹ FAI Record File Number 9844

² FAI Record File Number 11713: 17,083 meters (56,047 feet)

³ FAI Record File Number 8884

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 March 1945

Pilot Officer P. Martin's Avro Lancaster B Mk.I Special, PB996, YZ-C, releases the 22,000-pound Grand Slam earth-penetrating bomb over teh railway viaduct at Arnsberg, Germany, 19 March 1945. (Imperial War Museum)
Pilot Officer P. Martin’s Avro Lancaster B Mk.I Special, PB996, YZ-C, releases the 22,000-pound Grand Slam earth-penetrating bomb over the railway viaduct at Arnsberg, Germany, 19 March 1945. © IWM (CH 15735)
The Grand Slam bomb drops away from the No. 617 Squadron Lancaster B Mk.I Special, YZ-C, 19 March 1945. (Imperial War Museum)
The Grand Slam bomb drops away from the No. 617 Squadron Lancaster B Mk.I Special, YZ-C, 19 March 1945. © IWM (CH 15374)

19 March 1945: Modified Avro Lancaster B Mk.I Special heavy bombers of No. 617 Squadron, Royal Air Force, attacked the railway viaduct at Arnsberg, Germany, using the 22,000 pound (9,979 kilogram) Grand Slam earth-penetrating bomb. The bomb had been first used just days before, 14 March, against another railway viaduct.

The Grand Slam was the largest and heaviest aerial bomb used during World War II. It was designed by aircraft engineer Barnes Neville Wallis, and was scaled up from his earlier, smaller “Tallboy.” (Wallis also designed the “Upkeep” Special Mine used to attack hydroelectric dams in the Ruhr Valley in 1943.)

The Grand Slam bomb dropped by Flying Officer Martin's Avro Lancaster exploeds underneath the railway viaduct at Arnsberg, Germany. (Imperial War Museum)
The Grand Slam bomb dropped by Flying Officer Martin’s Avro Lancaster explodes underneath the railway viaduct at Arnsberg, Germany. Bomb craters from previous unsuccessful attacks are visible in this RAF photograph. © IWM (CH 15378)

Wallis’ idea was that a very heavy, supersonic bomb could penetrate deep into the earth and detonate, causing an “earthquake” which could destroy nearby heavily protected targets.

Tall Boy and Grand Slam Deep Penetration Bombs (British Explosive Ordnance, Part 1, Chapter 7)

The Grand Slam bomb (officially, “Bomb, D.P. , 22,000-lb., Mk I”) was 25 feet, 5 inches (7.747 meters) long and had a maximum diameter of 3 feet, 10 inches (1.168 meters). When fully loaded with the explosive material, Torpex, the bomb weighed 22,400 pounds (10,160 kilograms).

Completed bomb casings for Wallis’ smaller 12,000-pound “Tallboy” deep penetration bomb. The individual weight is stenciled on each casing. (Tyne & Wear Archives)

The bomb case was cast of steel at the Clyde Alloy and Steel Company, Glasgow, Scotland, then, after several days of cooling, machined to its precise shape. The casing made up approximately 60% of the bomb’s total weight. At the nose, the casing had a wall thickness of 7.75 inches (19.685 centimeters).

A "Bomb, Medium Capacity, 22,000 Pounds, lifted by a crane at a Royal Air Force bomb dump. (Imperial War Museum)
A “Bomb, Deep Penetration, 22,000 Pounds”—the Grand Slam—lifted by a crane at a Royal Air Force bomb dump. © IWM (CH 15369)

The bomb case was filled with approximately 9,200 pounds (4,173 kilograms) of molten Torpex, with a 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) topping of TNT. Torpex was an explosive designed for torpedo warheads and depth charges. It was made up of approximately equal quantities of two other explosives, Research Department Formula X (RDX), 42%, and trinitrotoluol (TNT), 40%, mixed with 18% powdered aluminum and wax. The resulting combination was approximately 1.4 times more powerful than TNT alone. About one month was required for the explosive to cool after being poured into the bomb case.

Because of its size and weight, the only Allied bomber capable of carrying the Grand Slam was a specially modified Avro Lancaster B.I Special, flown by No. 617 Squadron, Royal Air Force, “The Dambusters.”

Wallis intended for the Grand Slam to be dropped from very high altitudes so that during its fall, it would go supersonic. The bomb had large fins that were offset 5° to the right of the centerline to cause it to rotate for stability. However, the bombers could not carry it to the planned release altitude, and it was typically dropped from approximately 9,000 feet (2,743 meters). Its very sleek design did allow it to come close to the speed of sound, however, and its stability made it a very accurate weapon. The bomb was capable of penetrating 20-foot-thick (6 meters) reinforced concrete roofs of submarine bases. ¹

Arnsberg railway viaduct following Grand Slam bombing attack.

Barnes Neville Wallis, Esq., M. Inst. C.E., F.R.Ae.S., Assistant Chief Designer Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd., was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (Civil Division), by His Majesty, King George VI, 2 June 1943.

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis C.B.E., was knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, 13 December 1968.

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis C.B.E.

¹ “The striking velocity of the bomb, when released at an altitude of 16,000 ft. and an air speed of 200 m.p.h., is stated at 1,097 ft./sec., at which speed is has developed a rotational velocity of 60 r.p.m.” —British Explosive Ordnance, Part 1, Chapter 7

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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