Handley Page Halifax – Not Quite a Lancaster
The Handley Page Halifax formed a significant part of the RAF’s strategic Bomber Command during the Second World War. Conceived in the 1930s as what the British Air Ministry described as a ‘worldwide use’ bomber, it was the second in a family of four-engine heavy bomber aircraft to be produced. Although somewhat overshadowed by the famous Lancaster bomber, the Halifax demonstrated a more versatile use during the Second World War and continued to play an important role in post-war civilian operations.
The origins of the Halifax can be traced back to a British Air Ministry specification issued between 1936 to 1937 to produce a heavy, long-range bomber for the Royal Air Force (RAF) that could carry a significant payload.
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The specification called for the new bomber to have what Air Command described as world-use capabilities. It would also have a cruising speed of at least 275 miles per hour, be able to reach a height of fifteen thousand feet and would be fitted with the Rolls-Royce Vulture engine under development at the time.
Aircraft designers wanted to meet the standards of the Air Ministry’s specifications but were aware that previous two-engine bomber designs had caused performance and power issues, especially when the planes had tried to carry heavy bomb payloads.
British aviation companies had investigated the idea of creating more powerful engines with increased horsepower, but these were still underdeveloped or unavailable for commercial production in the late 1930s.
The British government noted that the United States and the Soviet Union had altered the designs of their heavy bombers to feature smaller but more engines with successful results and instead called for research into a potential four-engine model as part of the specification.
The specification demands resulted in a family of three heavy bombers being produced by different aircraft manufacturers: the first was the Short Stirling which completed its maiden flight in May 1939. The third was the Avro Lancaster which became operational in 1941. The middle sibling was the Halifax.
The Halifax was conceived and built by the Handley Page Limited aircraft company in Cricklewood, London. Chief designer George Volkert was tasked with drawing up the prototype ideas. Volkert’s initial concept design was called the H.P.55 and formed a template for what the Halifax would become. However, the Air Ministry rejected Handley Page’s H.P.55 design and initially opted for the Vickers Warwick instead.
Handley Page chose not to be swayed by the rejection and went back to the drawing board before resubmitting an updated concept, the H.P.56 to the Air Ministry.
The H.P.56 proposal was successful. The Halifax design was subsequently approved by the Air Ministry as the second option along with the Stirling and the Lancaster, with the RAF ordering two prototypes of each aircraft.
As the research and development process continued, Handley Page revised the design further and created the H.P.57 model. This prototype was larger than the previous designs and was notable for switching the Vulture engines for the more advanced Rolls-Royce Merlin. Changing the engines proved to be good foresight as the Vulture program was eventually terminated and this disrupted the design process of other aircraft that had stayed with the Vulture engine.
The H.P.57 prototype made its maiden flight in October 1939 and the second in September 1941 before production was given the green light.
Like other heavy bombers built in Britain, the Halifax followed the tradition of being named after a large town or city, in this instance Halifax in West Yorkshire. Suitably, the naming ceremony of the first-generation Halifax was officiated by politician Lord Halifax.
The Halifax was designed with six bomb cells in total and defence was provided by two Browning machine guns placed in the nose and four in the tail turret. It carried a crew of seven; two pilots, a navigator, a bomb aimer (who also doubled as an additional gunner) and two gunners.
Production was based at the Cricklewood plant, and the first Halifax aircraft were delivered to No 35 Squadron at RAF Leeming in August 1940. RAF Squadrons No 76 and 4 became the second units to operate the Halifax in June 1941.
With war already raging in Europe, the Halifax was placed into service with RAF Bomber Command to bomb strategic targets across the German mainland and Nazi-occupied territories.
Its entry into frontline service began to expose several weaknesses. Although Handley Page had switched to building the Halifax with the advanced Rolls-Royce Merlin, the designers and pilots found the aircraft had more drag and speed issues than first anticipated during initial testing.
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The original wingspan of earlier generation Halifax airframes was 98 feet, which fell short of the original Air Ministry specification’s call for a wingspan of 100 feet and was found to sometimes cause performance problems in the air.
However, the most fatal flaws discovered by its aircrews were that the Halifax’s armour was too weak against enemy strafing attacks and that some fully loaded aircraft would enter an uncontrollable spin and dive towards the ground.
To make matters worse, the Halifax was also considered an inferior plane to the Avro Lancaster by Air-Commander-In-Chief of Bomber Command Arthur Harris due to its smaller bomb payload.
To address the problem of the armour, Bomber Command redesignated the Halifax as a nighttime bomber in 1941, and in March of that year, the Halifax became the first RAF bomber to complete a nighttime bombing run over Hamburg. In 1943, Bomber Command again reassigned the Halifax from bombing campaigns over Germany to flying sorties against less dangerous targets.
The tailspin problem was addressed after Handley Page replaced the smaller, triangular winglets with larger rectangular designs. Later models featured a longer wingspan and the more powerful Rolls-Royce Hercules engine which was found to drastically improve performance and safety.
Despite the initial flaws with the aircraft and Harris’ doubts, the Halifax often proved popular with the crews who flew it and was regarded as a reliable and strong aircraft when it performed well. Some Halifax pilots even objected to their squadrons considering a change to the Lancaster.
Even after its reassignment in 1943, the Halifax flew a recorded 75,000 bombing runs over Germany between 1941 and 1945, and accounted for over a quarter of the bombs dropped on Germany by the RAF.
By 1945 as the war was starting to draw to a close, the Halifax was again reassigned by Bomber Command as a day bomber to fly sorties against strategic transport and defence targets in Germany ahead of Allied ground advances.
At its peak, Bomber Command operated 38 Halifax squadrons based in Europe and the Middle East. As well as with the RAF, the Halifax also saw service with the Royal Canadian and Australian Air Forces and the Free French Forces.
In contrast to the other members of its family, the Halifax was also deployed into more diverse and versatile uses. It was variously used as a glider-tug, for meteorological research, electronic and anti-submarine warfare and for transporting agents to be parachuted into occupied countries.
Handley Page continued to manufacture the Halifax throughout the war with a total of 6,176 units rolling off the production line until manufacturing ceased.
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One of the most notable operations to feature the Halifax took place on the 24th of July, 1941 when No. 35 and No. 76 squadrons of the RAF flew to the port of Brest in Northern France to bomb the German battleship, Scharnhorst.
Although the Scharnhorst was not sunk during the attack, it sustained heavy damage and had to be moved to a safer location as a result.
The Scharnhorst attack was also the first time the RAF publicly acknowledged the existence of the Halifax.
At the end of the war, the RAF retired the Halifax as a heavy bomber and replaced it with the more advanced Avro Lincoln.
By 1947, the RAF deemed the Halifax outdated and several aircraft were withdrawn from military service and scrapped.
However, its end of service as a bomber did not mean the Halifax ceased to play an important role with air force and civilian operations.
Along with other war aircraft, civilian airline companies converted some former RAF Halifax models into freight transporters, with some civilian examples being renamed the Handley Page Halton.
In 1948, the Halifax made a return to Germany but as part of a humanitarian relief flight during the Berlin Airlift. The Halifax played a crucial role transporting diesel fuel and freight to German civilians after Soviet forces blockaded the city.
The Halifax remained in civilian operation up until 1952 when demand for airfreight declined.
Although the Halifax has sometimes been overshadowed in history by the Lancaster and was regarded as a somewhat inferior plane by Bomber Command, it played a very significant role during strategic bombing campaigns and was known to be preferred by those who flew it.
It also played a role in demonstrating how continued and determined development of an aircraft can improve its performance.
Many of the remaining Halifax models were consigned to scrap following the demise of civilian operations, but since 1994 there have been moves to rescue and restore Halifax airframes by the Canadian-based Halifax 57 project.
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The project successfully recovered and raised an intact Halifax airframe (identified by its serial number NA337) from the bottom of Lake Mjøsa in Norway. The rescued Halifax was fully restored in 2005. A second Halifax was raised from a marsh in Geraardsbergen, Belgium and parts were used to help restore NA337. The remainder was melted down and used in the construction of the Bomber Command Memorial in London.
- Crew: 7 (pilot, co-pilot/flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, radio operator/gunner, two gunners)
- Length: 71 ft 7 in (21.82 m)
- Wingspan: 104 ft 2 in (31.75 m)
- Height: 20 ft 9 in (6.32 m)
- Empty weight: 37,870 lb (17,178 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 65,000 lb (29,484 kg)
- Powerplant: 4 × Bristol Hercules XVI 14-cylinder air-cooled sleeve-valve radial piston engines, 1,615 hp (1,204 kW) each
- Maximum speed: 282 mph (454 km/h, 245 kn) at 13,500 ft (4,100 m)
- Service ceiling: 24,000 ft (7,300 m)
- Rate of climb: 750 ft/min (3.8 m/s)