Skua! The Royal Navy’s Dive-Bomber

B1809

The author has done a very good job in recounting the story of the Blackburn Skua. Two excellent photo plate sections and an annex containing drawings, provide able support for clear and easy to read text. There is a great deal of information. The author has close access to the FAA Museum archives and is connected with the Skua restoration.

Even those not closely interested in naval aircraft will find this book of great interest. It demonstrates how the RN coped with venial politicians who wanted to rob them of close air support at sea and provides an example that will hopefully be followed again as the RN regains fixed wing aircraft with the arrival of the F-35. It is interesting that the RAF was reduced to sending Gladiator biplanes to Norway, but the FAA was able to deploy the capable Skua metal monoplane from their aircraft carriers.

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NAME: Skua! The Royal Navy’s Dive-Bomber
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
FILE: R1809
DATE: 200213
AUTHOR: Peter C Smith
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
PAGES: 271
PRICE: £25.00
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWII, Second World War, World War Two, Fleet Air Arm, FAA, naval aviation, dive bomber, fleet fighter, monoplane, carrier aircraft, radial engine
ISBN: 1-84415-455-6
IMAGE: B1809.jpg
BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/anan4mv
LINKS:
DESCRIPTION: During the wasted years, when the RAF held a monopoly on operating aircraft, the Royal Navy had to be content with designing and building aircraft carriers, a few years running the remaining airships, and lobbying to regain control of naval aviation. In 1937, the Royal Navy was allowed to regain control of naval aviation, but it had been carefully chipping away at the RAF monopoly from the foundation of the RAF in 1918. Hanging on to airships for a brief period was a gesture that the RN still had some aviation assets, helped by the RAF’s almost total distain for airships. The RN also insisted on aircrew observers being serving RN officers, and gradually forced an increase in the percentage of pilots who were RN officers. To provide a beachhead in the fight to regain control, the RN insisted on placing aircraft on its budget. The RAF was happy to see some of the cost of aircraft being removed from its budget and perhaps failed to understand how this helped the RN regain almost full control of naval aviation.

However, the period between 1918 and 1937 still left the Air Ministry with the major say in placing contracts for new aircraft. That placed emphasis on strategic bombers and land-based point defence fighter aircraft. Even the RAF flying boats failed to pay much attention to maritime patrol and shipping strike roles. The result was that the RN moved ahead significantly in designing aircraft carriers but had to access lack lustre canvas clad biplanes to fly from them. By the early 1930s, naval aviation was provided by military designs that were little improvement on WWI designs and could be comfortably outrun by civil passenger aircraft. The RN had to wait until 1940 to get its first real monoplane fighter with 8 rifle calibre machine guns mounted in the wings, the same Merlin engine as early Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, but with a lower performance because of the weight of extra fuel, reinforced undercarriage to stand carrier landings, and an observer armed with a flexible machine gun.

There was one spark of hope before 1939. The RN had contracted with Blackburn Aircraft to design and build a monoplane fleet fighter and a monoplane dive bomber. The two aircraft were very similar. The Roc fleet fighter was a two seat metal monoplane with a rugged radial engine in front of the pilot, reducing the length in front and improving the view for landing on a carrier. The undercarriage was retractable and the aircraft stressed of rough landings at sea with arrester wires to reduce landing run. Following the fashion of the time for naval aircraft, it was designed to take floats in place of the retractable wheels. The most unfortunate aspect of design was that the RN had accepted an Air Ministry pre-occupation with ‘heavy fighters’ that also produced the Boulton Paul Defiant for the RAF. For both the Blackburn machine and the Defiant, this added the weight of a gunner and placed all the machine guns, a total of only four, in a very heavy four gun power-operated turret behind the pilot. This significantly reduced performance and provided a poor arc of fire for the gunner. The result was that the RN rapidly relegated the Roc to second line duties ashore. In the same way, the RAF relegated the Defiant after German pilots came to realize it was not a Hurricane and learned to attack outside the arc of the turret guns.

The sister Blackburn design was the Skua. It was intended as a dive bomber and performed well in that role, but it also became a successful fighter. It carried a crew of two but the second man was observer, radio operator and defensive gunner having a single flexibly mounted rifle calibre Vickers K gun. The pilot controlled the bomb release but also had control of four fixed, forward-firing, wing-mounted rifle calibre machine guns. Not having the performance of single seat monoplane fighters and having a lighter gun armament, the Skua should not have been expected to be effective in the fighter role, but the first German aircraft of WWII to fall to the guns of a British aeroplane was shot down by a Fleet Air Arm Skua.

The Skua performed well beyond expectations during the difficult first years of the war. Skua flew patrols over the beaches of Dunkirk during the evacuation of British and French troops. This duty was unusually poorly documented and it appears that some Skuas were flown over Dunkirk by civilian pilots without orders, the pilots having been considered too old for FAA combat service, having flown with the RNAS during WWI and later with an intervention force fighting alongside the White Russians. They had been accepted as civilians attached to DGSTN with some very lose orders, possibly intended to be available should extra pilots be desperately needed and primarily expected to move aircraft and assist training. During the Dunkirk evacuation a number of individuals acted outside orders. For example, the skipper of MTB102, the Vosper prototype MTB equipped with Italian engines, decided on his own initiative to head for Dunkirk, having said that he was carrying out tests on the boat. This proved fortuitous because Admiral Wake Walker transferred his Flag to MTB102 for the closing stages of the evacuation, having run out of destroyers.

The author has done a very good job in recounting the story of the Blackburn Skua. Two excellent photo plate sections and an annex containing drawings, provide able support for clear and easy to read text. There is a great deal of information. The author has close access to the FAA Museum archives and is connected with the Skua restoration.

Even those not closely interested in naval aircraft will find this book of great interest. It demonstrates how the RN coped with venial politicians who wanted to rob them of close air support at sea and provides an example that will hopefully be followed again as the RN regains fixed wing aircraft with the arrival of the F-35. It is interesting that the RAF was reduced to sending Gladiator biplanes to Norway, but the FAA was able to deploy the capable Skua metal monoplane from their aircraft carriers.

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