Saturday 18 January 2014

Flying with The Enemy: The 'Rafwaffe'

Bf109 in RAF colours (author's collection)

The job of the test pilot, whilst on the face of it a glamorous one, is also one of the higher risk professions that one can choose. Today it is undoubtedly safer due to advances in technology such as computer simulation, ground testing and the testing of unmanned models but during the Second World War, test pilots were being killed sometimes at the rate of one per week, such was the urgency to get new designs and new technology literally off the ground.

During the wartime years, as well as testing new designs, test pilots on both Allied and Axis sides had another vital role to perform - that of testing captured enemy aircraft. Whilst to the layman the prospect of flying the enemy's aircraft might seem a needless luxury, it actually played an important part in trying to stay one step ahead of the enemy, adopting their technology where necessary, countering it when it proved a threat and understanding what moves they might be making next. Flying these sometimes strange, often unknown machines was an even higher risk than flying new designs built by one's own industries.

In Great Britain, this task of flying enemy aircraft fell to 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight RAF, based at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, which soon acquired the nickname of the 'Rafwaffe' due to proliferation of German machines on it's strength.

The story of how some of these aircraft were acquired was extremely varied; in the early years of the war when the British were largely on the defensive, it was nigh on impossible to capture German aircraft on the ground but sometimes opportunities presented themselves. One of the first Luftwaffe machines to fall into British hands was a Bf109, which was forced down more or less intact by RAF fighters at Amiens on May 2nd 1940. Quickly repaired, it was flown back to England and was used in comparison trials with Hurricanes and Spitfires which gave vital data with which to brief RAF fighter pilots in the forthcoming Battle of Britain. It established that whilst the Bf109 was indeed a formidable machine, it was not unbeatable and that the Spitfire was more than a match for the German machine, especially in the dogfight. Sometimes, German aircraft would present themselves to the RAF in more unlikely ways.

By the spring of 1942, the Battle of Britain won, RAF Fighter Command was persisting with it's ill advised policy of 'Leaning towards the enemy' by sending it's Spitfires - by now the improved Mark V version - on fighter sweeps across occupied France. Seemingly having learned nothing from the Battle of Britain when German fighters found themselves in hostile territory at the limit of their endurance, Sholto Douglas and Leigh Mallory, now in command of Fighter Command and 11 Group respectively, lost many experienced pilots and much needed fighters on these pointless 'Rhubarbs' as the fighter sweeps were christened. It was during this time that a new and more deadly German fighter began to appear on the scene - the superb Focke Wulf FW190, designed by Kurt Tank. The Spitfire Mk V was being outclassed by the new fighter and losses in 11 Group in particular, which bore the brunt of these almost daily sweeps, were mounting at an alarming rate. Very little was known about the FW190 and whilst it was hoped that the new Mk. IX Spitfire, with the upgraded Merlin 61 engine was going to be able to match the 190, an example was required for evaluation purposes. The problem was that the Germans were now masters of Europe, there were no FW190s flying in the North African theatre of operations and there seemed to be no way of getting hold of an undamaged example.

Jeffrey Quill (author's collection)
An ambitious plan was hatched by Captain Philip Pinckney of 12 Commando, Royal Marines, who in cahouts with Supermarine test pilot Jeffrey Quill, planned a raid on a Luftwaffe airfield in occupied France to snatch an example, with Quill being the man with the capabilities to fly a strange aircraft back to England. The idea was to take 'E' Troop, led by Pinckney across the Channel in a motor gun boat, land covertly near Cherbourg before moving on the nearby aerodrome at Maupertus. The plan was codenamed 'Operation Airthief' and on Quill's advice, was planned to take place shortly after dawn, when the aircraft engines were regularly started and run-up. This would save Quill the trouble of fumbling in the dark, trying to start from cold a strange aircraft with potentially even stranger controls. Quill himself was somewhat dubious about the whole enterprise, although he was confident about being able to fly the FW190 and understanding the controls, as he had flown the captured Bf109 back in England. His cause for concern was being able to reach the airfield at the right time and then to reach the cockpit of a likely aircraft - he gave the whole plan no better than a 50:50 chance of success but with their seemingly being no other option, he was quite prepared to go along with it. 

The plan was approved by Combined Operations on 23rd June 1942 but by an amazing coincidence on the very same day, the whole operation was made redundant by one Oberleutnant Arnim Faber of the Luftwaffe, who landed an undamaged FW190 at RAF Pembrey in South Wales and compounded his error by making no attempt to destroy his aircraft once he realised what he had done. It later turned out that Faber, having shot down an RAF Spitfire over Start Point in Devon, became disoriented and instead of flying south to his base in France, flew a reciprocal course and landed at Pembrey instead. Whatever the reason, the British had their 190 without the need for a Commando raid and although Philip Pinckney was outraged that 'some bloody fool' (as he put it) had gifted the British with one, there was no guarantee that the raid would have been successful. Jeffrey Quill later had the chance to fly the FW190 and speculated whether he could have worked out the controls during the course of a rushed take off - he felt reasonably confident that he would have been equal to the task. Later still, when testing the new Griffon engined Spitfire, Quill flew in a race against the FW190 and comfortably beat both it and the Hawker Typhoon. 

Capt. Eric 'Winkle' Brown in the 1960s (BBC)

One of the leading lights in the 'Rafwaffe' and indeed someone who was to become it's commander, was not an RAF officer at all but rather an officer from the Senior Service, the legendary Eric 'Winkle' Brown. In early 1945 Brown, a German speaker and then a Lieutenant RNVR but already with a great reputation as a test pilot was promoted to command the Enemy Aircraft Flight and in April 1945 was despatched as part of a large team to Germany with a brief to capture and interrogate leading personalities of the German aircraft industry as possible. Included on the list of potential 'interviewees' were such luminaries as Werner von Braun, Dr Ernst Heinkel, Willy Messerschmitt, Kurt Tank, Hanna Reisch and the Horten Brothers. The other part of their mission was to get hold of as many of the new and highly advanced German aircraft, which fortunately for the Allies, had not come into service in time in sufficient numbers to alter the outcome of the war.

Arado 234B (Kogo)
Upon arrival in Germany, Brown visited Belsen and despite having worked and studied happily in Germany before the war, this experience left him in no doubt as to how Germany had been corrupted by Nazism. Brown soon selected the airfield at Schleswig as a suitable base to gather captured German aircraft before flying them back to Farnborough for evaluation. He soon built up excellent relationships with his American and even Russian counterparts, although with the latter, the distrust and suspicion that would soon degenerate into the Cold War was all too apparent. Brown was also able to select suitable German ground crews, who could be trusted sufficiently to work upon the aircraft selected for shipment back to the UK. Under Brown's stewardship, the 'Rafwaffe' was quickly able to build up a large stock of ex-enemy aircraft, including the Arado 234, a new jet bomber design as well as the Me262, a superb jet fighter which could have wrought havoc with the Allied bombing offensive had it not been for Hitler's instructions to convert it into a fighter-bomber, which fortunately for the Allies delayed development sufficiently for this potential world-beater only to come into service in relative penny-numbers. Brown was able to test fly both of these aircraft, as well as the many other that the unit was able to acquire, such as the fearsome rocket powered Me163, the huge Blom + Voss flying boat, the BV222 and the tandem engined Do337 'Pfiel' (Arrow), as well as more familiar aircraft such as the Ju88 night fighter, with it's advanced radars.

Eric Brown also got to speak to many of the people on his original list including Hanna Reitsch, whom he had briefly met before the war but whose apparent unrepentant devotion to Hitler and the Nazi cause made Brown's blood run cold. He also managed to interview Hermann Goering, on the strict instruction from the Americans that he was to limit his conversation to aviation matters only.

The 'Rafwaffe' was officially wound up in December 1945, although individual aircraft continued to be evaluated at Farnborough into 1946. The information yielded from these aircraft and from their test flights provided vital data in the development of British (and American) aircraft and radars well into the 1950s.

Eric Brown continued at the forefront of test flying and pioneered many developments in aviation during the 1950s and early 1960s. He made the world's first deck landing at sea in a jet aircraft in December 1945 when he landed a de Havilland Vampire on the flight deck of HMS Ocean and holds the world record for the number of deck landings (2,407) as well as the record for the number of aircraft types flown by an individual pilot, which at 487 is unlikely to be broken. He retired from the Royal Navy in the rank of Captain in 1970.

At the time of writing, Eric Brown is still going strong and is about to celebrate his 95th birthday on the 21st January. To him and all of his colleagues, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.

Published Sources:

Spitfire: A Test Pilot's Story - Jeffrey Quill, Arrow Books 1985
Wings on my Sleeve - Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown, Phoenix 2007

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