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The People’s Mosquito

The People’s Mosquito

Written by Henry Simpson, young historian

The People’s Mosquito charity was formed in 2011, their goal being to return a de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito to the skies of the United Kingdom as despite over 7,000 of the type being produced none remain airworthy in the UK.

On February 12th this year they held a dinner at the RAF Club in central London to celebrate the success of their "Operation Jericho” fundraising campaign (named after the 1944 Amiens Prison raid)  as well as their on-going “Operation Crossbow” initiative. I was fortunate to attend in person and recently discovered from my Grandfather’s logbooks that he actually flew the legendary aircraft during his time in the RAF. The dinner was to be a great success raising over £10,000 for the project.

Those present included key members and supporters of the project among them Guy Black of Retrotech who is responsible for the reconstruction of the Mosquito and gave a discussion on the project after dinner. He already has several restoration projects under his belt including the sole surviving Hawker Fury biplane, the only airworthy WW1 era DH9 bomber and an on-going Battle of Britain veteran BF109 project. He has a personal connection to the type too, his father having flown Mosquito’s in Burma, “at about the time” he recalls “that they started falling out of the sky.”

The source of the problems that afflicted the early Mosquito’s in tropical climates was that the glue that held “the wooden wonder” together, was not waterproof. This had not been an issue in the European theatre but in the Far East the humidity became a threat. The shortcoming was corrected later in the war with the application of waterproof glues and today’s restoration will use modern aerodux resin in the construction. Guy described the sheer number of original plans required for the aircraft, over 22,300 technical drawings having been thankfully gifted by Airbus and now preserved to allow the first Mosquito to be constructed in the UK for over 70 years. Guy describes the work most enjoyably as “like treasure hunting” and highlights that “remanufacturing an aircraft 70 years later is not easy!” Constructing the aircraft as they did originally he adds, “is key”. Indeed some parts are so rare, cockpit instruments in particular, that there have been public searches for parts with several items donated to the organisation. Part of the instrument panel set up that was on show included the Perspex cover for the bombing panel, “so you didn’t drop your bombs on Dover,” an original that will be included in the finished aircraft. Indeed if anybody has parts or equipment from a Mosquito, The Peoples Mosquito would be glad to hear from you. Original parts Guy jokes, “have a habit of turning up just after you have remanufactured a new one!” But in all seriousness the examination of rare original surviving equipment is often the only way to reproduce them in the modern era.

Most notably, guests were honoured to have 3 WW2 Mosquito veterans in attendance; pilot Colin Bell DFC, navigator Des Curtis DFC and pilot John Trotman DFC.  I was fortunate to have met Colin several years ago, when he told me of his experience of being pursued by an Me262 over Berlin at night, in February 1945, on one of the last of his 13 trips to Berlin. His Mosquito’s radar warning receiver, known as a “boozer”,  detected that he was being scanned by a night fighter’s radar, he dived down to avoid his pursuer, but every time he leveled out the warning still glared, eventually, at high speed , he shook off the enemy when close to roof top height! How did he know his adversary was an Me262? “Nothing else” he said “could challenge the Mosquito.”  When I met him back then he still kept at his job as a chartered surveyor, now though, he tells me he has been retired for around two to two and a half years, not bad for someone celebrating his 101st birthday this March!

After dinner he shared some more of his stories; Before flying the Mosquito “I was flying the Blenheim” he comments, “Flying a Blenheim was rather like flying a Model T Ford as opposed to a Ferrari, (the Mosquito), but “it could cause a spot of bother” he reflects. “It needed handling with a bit of skill or it would bite you.” During his operations he had a couple of run ins with anti-aircraft fire, “I was in the habit of taking a “nap” on the way home as I knew the mosquito could fly faster than any German (piston) aircraft, the only threat to us was the Me262.” He recalled “I was awoken by a bang right under the wing” and whilst the damaged machine made it back to base, he discovered the shell in question was most likely fired from a Luftwaffe AA training school, one mostly manned by women, something that would lead to some humour around the squadron and still endures today.

On another occasion, whilst over Berlin, “I allowed myself to be caught by a salvo of shells, one exploded right underneath the aircraft. This he describes “lifted the aircraft up and both engines stopped,” his navigators only comment being “what do we do now?” “After what seemed like 6 months” Colin recalls he got the engines started again and they made it back to England with the rear of the aircraft “a bit like a colander.” When on the ground a member of the ground crew came up to him and handed him small pieces of shrapnel “were did you get those” he asked, “Actually I got them out of the parachute you were sitting on!” was the response.

Des Curtis DFC, 98, meanwhile had a very different experience with the Mosquito in the naval strike role.  He was assigned to 618 Squadron, which formed the same day as the legendary 617 “Dambusters” in early 1943.  Des was sent to Wick for training and told “we were going to do a very secret mission,” a low level daylight bombing raid on the German battleship Tirpitz.

The weapon 618 squadron trained to use was Highball, a smaller version of the “upkeep” bouncing bombs used against the Dams.  However there was a problem, aside from not relishing facing the 110 AA guns on the Tirpitz, plus those of any ships moored alongside, by the time the squadron was ready its target had moved further north in Norway, some 950 miles from 618 Squadron’s base. “Our range, was 1,100 miles, raising the question, should we survive, where do we go from there?”  “It was very simple” he jokes, “to work out this was a one way trip.” Various plans were discussed as to how to retrieve the aircrew after the attack. One involved bailing out over a royal navy carrier at a predetermined location, “the only problem was the Royal Navy did not want to stop engines on a carrier in a sea full of U-boats!.. So that didn’t seem to be too good..” The next idea was to “land on the tree tops” and to get on a train that ran “from Narvick to Sweden,” clearly also a far from sensible plan. In any event other issues hampered the operation, “we needed 20 aircraft, we had 6” and in the end Highball was never used in combat. “We heard on the radio 617 squadron had carried out a successful attack, it was the first we had heard of 617, such was the secrecy of the whole affair.”

After this the squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVIII. The Mk18 was equipped with a 57mm canon, “a very effective weapon,” he recalls. The squadron’s new target was U-boats in the Bay of Biscay as they arrived and departed from their bases at St Nazier, Lorient and Brest.  However the first operation, with Des flying as navigator in the number two machine, was a disaster. They attacked a German trawler that was suspected as being a support craft for the U-boats, (due to the lack of birds around it), the squadrons commanding officer went in first, he fired on the ship but was seen to crash straight into the water on its far side. A few weeks later they had more luck when a Canadian pilot knocked the conning tower off of a U-boat with the 57mm canon severely damaging it.  Finally in March 1944 Des and the squadron encountered a U-boat with a minesweeper escort, the U-boat was sunk to the bottom “our first real success”.  Two days later he describes that they had a “ding dong” of a battle with 2 U-boats and their escorts, one of the submarines was damaged and out of action for a few weeks.  “The Germans thought we were using bombs, they didn’t realise it we were using an anti-tank cannon!” On a later operation the squadron was engaged by a flight of Junkers Ju-88’s protecting the U-boats, a highlight of which he recalled was the shooting down of a Ju-88 which span into the sea.  After this the unit moved up North again to carry out operations against shipping off of Norway. This they did with fighter escort, often including long range P-51 Mustangs, to protect them against the German fighters who could easily target the raiders by flying straight out of their Norwegian bases.

It was a risky business, Des reflects. Out of the squadrons 13 aircraft modified to carry the gun, “7 of us survived, 6 of us were lost.”

These stories thoroughly enraptured the audience and both Des Curtis and John Trotman have written books about their wartime experience titled “A Most Secret Squadron: The First Full Story of 618 Squadron and Its Special Detachment Anti-U-Boat Mosquitos ” and “J' for Johnnie: A Pilot's Experiences Flying Wellington & Mosquito Aircraft with 150 & 692 Squadrons During World War II” respectively.

They also remind us of the importance of remembering the past and preserving such stories for the future. That is why The Peoples Mosquito are continuing their work to return a DH.98 to the skies of the UK. Their motto: ‘To fly; To educate; To remember’

For those who wish to learn more about the aircraft and read another veteran’s account of flying the type then do check out:

Photos provided by Henry Simpson

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