THE TIMES THURSDAY OCTOBER 14 2004 / text only

Veterans celebrate the war’s gnattiest aircraft

By Peter Davies

WHEN the members of the Mosquito Air Crew Association meet at the RAF Museum Hendon at the weekend as part of their final reunion, it will be to celebrate the career of the most successful multi- role combat aircraft of the Second World War.

De Havilland Mosquito – image 'Wikipedia'

The remarkable wooden Mosquito was conceived by the de Havilland design team as an unarmed bomber, fast enough with its more than 400mph top speed to outrun almost any fighter, and, astonishingly, able to cart a 4,000lb "blockbuster" to Berlin. And yet, in some minds, the aircraft is thought of quintessentially in the nightfighter role, in the hands of such legendary aces as "Cats Eyes" Cunningham, whose feats actually owed less to the good night vision ascribed to him than to the aircraft's excellent airborne interception radar (which the authorities were painfully anxious to keep a secret). With its forward-firing battery of four belly-mounted 20mm cannon and a similar number of nose-mounted .303 machine guns, the Mosquito made itself a lethal opponent in the night skies over Europe.

Yet, in truth, there was scarcely any role in which the Mosquito was not the best aircraft which could be thought of for the job. With its cannon, machine guns and a 2,000lb bomb load, it was the scourge of enemy armour, truck convoys and ammunition and troop trains both before and after D-day. It was highly effective as a pinpoint accurate strategic or tactical bomber by day and by night, whether at high or low level.

Its development as a marker aircraft ranging ahead of the main bomber force was fundamental to the concept of the Pathfinders. Modified to carry a 57mm anti-tank gun, which could fire 25 six-pounder shells in 20 seconds, the "Tsetse" as it was called, was one of Coastal Command's potent weapons against U-boats close inshore. Another shipping-strike version was equally dreaded by the skippers of German coastal forces and convoys, since it could tear a minesweeper or coaster apart with its salvo of eight 601b rockets.

Other versions of the Mossie excelled at photo-reconnaissance, electronic warfare, mine laying, weather reconnaissance, long-range escort, shooting down V1 buzz-bombs and even as high-speed and virtually invulnerable military transport.

Its pilots had confidence in the knowledge that they were flying an aircraft of the highest class, and the Mosquito executed some of the most audacious hit-and-run operations of the war. Among the most famous of these were the attack on the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo in 1942; the 1943 assault on the main Berlin broadcasting station, which put the garrulous Goering off the air as he was about to launch into a key speech; the surgical precision of the bombing of Amiens jail in February 1944, which released 258 prisoners; and the equally effective October visitation on the Aarhus Gestapo HQ, which destroyed all its reco

rds of Danish resistance figures and activities.

For the Mosquito crew there was something purely exhilarating about being able to scorch in over enemy territory, raise hell and get out again, almost before the Germans knew what had hit them. Eric Atkins, DFC and Bar, founder and chairman of the Mosquito Aircrew Association, who as a flight lieutenant flew two tours of operations with 464 (Australian) and 305 (Polish) Squadrons, describes the Mosquito as the racehorse of the RAF's wartime aircraft.

"Overall it was so nimble and speedy it made other aircraft seem like drayhorses," recalls Mr Atkins, who had previously flown Mitchells and Blenheims. In addition to his two DFCs he holds the Polish Cross of Valour and Bar, the latter pinned on by the C-in-C of the Polish Free Forces, General Sikorski.

Sadly, with most of its members now well over eighty, the Mosquito Aircrew Association is having to "call time" on its existence, and this reunion will be the last But for the 100 or so veteran pilots and navigators who gather with their wives at the weekend, there is the proud consciousness of having belonged to an elite which was privileged to have flown against the enemy in one of the world's great combat aircraft.