Sunday, 31 August 2014

Avro Heroes - Andrew Mynarski VC and 'The Great Zura'

Following on directly from the last post on Avro Canada, inspired by the visit of Vera the Canadian Lancaster to these shores, here is a post about two flying heroes connected to the Avro story.

Vera the Canadian Lancaster

Last weekend I got my chance to see the two Lancasters flying for myself at the Little Gransden Airshow in Cambridgeshire. What a sight! Before the appearance of the Lancasters, a brief memorial service was held for those who gave their lives in the air during the Second World War. Three Lancaster veterans who were present received the heartfelt applause of the crowd. After the traditional words of remembrance, the crowd stood for a minute's silence in contemplation of the bravery of those who flew and those who did not make it home. As the silence drew on, the hum of engines steadily grew louder until, perfectly on cue as the sound of a lone piper signalled the end of the silence, the two Lancasters appeared over the tree tops.

Vera and Thumper in formation
The crowd remained hushed as the Lancasters made four passes over the airfield. The loudest sound we made was the snapping and whirring of cameras as everyone took in the glorious sound of eight Rolls Royce Merlin engines and the sight of the two aircraft flying together. It was a sight that everyone appreciated and one that we may not see again in our lifetimes. As the two aircraft finally headed away to their next appointment, I looked around me to see that almost everyone had a tear in their eye. Everyone there felt part of something special.

During the minute's silence, I had thought about the bravery of Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions of the night of 12th June 1944. The Canadian Lancaster affectionately known as Vera is more properly known as the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster in his honour and is painted in the markings of the aircraft in which he lost his life. Mynarski was the mid-upper gunner aboard a Canadian built Lancaster Mark X, KB726-VR-A, serving as part of 419 'Moose' Squadron. During a raid on Cambrai, the 13th mission for the crew, the Lancaster was hit by fire from a JU88 night fighter and was swiftly engulfed in flames.

Vera the Canadian Lancaster

Mynarski's Victoria Cross citation reads:

Pilot Officer Mynarski was the mid-upper gunner of a Lancaster aircraft, detailed to attack a target at Cambrai in France, on the night of 12th June, 1944. The aircraft was attacked from below and astern by an enemy fighter and ultimately came down in flames. As an immediate result of the attack, both port engines failed. Fire broke out between the mid-upper turret and the rear turret, as well as in the port wing. The flames soon became fierce and the captain ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Pilot Officer Mynarski left his turret and went towards the escape hatch. He then saw that the rear gunner was still in his turret and apparently unable to leave it. The turret was, in fact, immovable, since the hydraulic gear had been put out of action when the port engines failed, and the manual gear had been broken by the gunner in his attempts to escape. Without hesitation, Pilot Officer Mynarski made his way through the flames in an endeavour to reach the rear turret and release the gunner. Whilst so doing, his parachute and his clothing up the waist were set on fire. All his efforts to move the turret and free the rear gunner were in vain. Eventually the rear gunner clearly indicated to him that there was nothing more he could do and that he should try to save his own life. Pilot Officer Mynarski reluctantly went back through the flames to the escape hatch. There, as a last gesture to the trapped gunner, he turned towards him, stood to attention in his flaming clothing, and saluted, before he jumped out of the aircraft. Pilot Officer Mynarski's descent was seen by French people on the ground. Both his parachute and his clothing were on fire. He was found eventually by the French, but was so severely burnt that he died from his injuries. The rear gunner had a miraculous escape when the aircraft crashed. He subsequently testified that had Pilot Officer Mynarski not attempted to save his comrade's life, he could have left the aircraft in safety and would, doubtless, have escaped death. Pilot Officer Mynarski must have been fully aware that in trying to free the rear gunner he was almost certain to lose his own life. Despite this, with outstanding courage and complete disregard for his own safety, he went to the rescue. Willingly accepting the danger, Pilot Officer Mynarski lost his life by a most conspicuous act of heroism which called for valour of the highest order.

It was a privilege to pay tribute to his bravery by watching the Lancaster that still flies in his honour.

Andrew Mynarski VC

In my previous post on the eventful history of Avro Canada, I mentioned their star test pilot Janusz Zurakowski, who flew the famous Arrow. Zurakowski was a veteran of the Second World War and had served in the defence of Poland and the Battle of Britain. At the outbreak of war Zurakowski was a serving officer in the Polish air force as a flying instructor in Deblin. Flying an obsolete PZL-P7 armed with 2 WW1 Vickers machine guns fired from the cockpit, he was involved in actions against German Dorniers and succeeded in possibly downing one of them.

After the fall of Poland, Zurakowski escaped to Romania and then made his way via Syria to France and then to Britain where he joined the RAF, 234 Squadron. Flying a Spitfire, Zurakowski got his first of three kills on 15th August 1940 when he downed an ME110 which he was chasing at treetop level. On another occasion he downed an ME109 which had gone into a vertical dive to evade him, pursuing the enemy aircraft in a blind dive with his cockpit windshield frozen and opening fire at point blank range.

The PZL-P7 as flown by Zurakowski in the defence of Poland

Zurakovski was moved to a training role following the Battle of Britain and ended the war as the leader of 306 'Polish' Squadron. Unable to return to Poland, Zurakowski remained in Britain and enrolled as a test pilot with the Fleet Air Arm. In 1947 he became chief test pilot for the Gloster Meteor, undertaking over a thousand flights in the aircraft. In 1951 he demonstrated the new ground attack variant of the Meteor at the Farnborough air show, where he wowed the crowds by performing an entirely new aerobatic manoeuvre, the 'Zurabatic Cartwheel'. His feats earned him the nickname, the Great Zura.

Zurakowski in a Meteor 1951

Zurakowski moved to Canada in 1952 where he became chief test pilot for Avro Canada. In December of that year he took a Mark 4 CF-100 through the sound barrier in a vertical dive. Two years later he was forced to eject from an out of control CF-100 and broke his leg on landing. Nevertheless he was soon back in the cockpit. In 1955 he took the aircraft to Farnborough and once more amazed the crowds to the extent that the Belgian air force decided to buy fifty of the fighters, snubbing the British and Americans.

Zurakowski was the main test pilot on the Arrow programme and took the third prototype to Mach 1.89 in September 1957. He retired from flying the following year. When Avro Canada closed down in 1959, Zurakowski opened a small tourist resort and settled down to a much quieter life. He died in 2004 aged 89.

Avro Arrow

Footage of the Zurabatic Cartwheel at approx. 2 mins 30 secs.

This site is in Polish but has some great photographs

More on Zurakowski

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Rise and Fall of Avro Canada

This summer British aviation fans are being treated to the rare sight of the last two airworthy Lancasters flying together. This has been made possible by the arrival of Vera, a Canadian built Lancaster Mark X now owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

During the Second World War, the threat to British factories posed by enemy bombing prompted the establishment of 'shadow factories' for aircraft production in Canada. Here, safe from the threat of bombs, aircraft could be built under licence, sticking scrupulously to the same specifications as their British built counterparts, ensuring that there would be no difficulties with spares once on front line duty.

Lancaster Mark X

The largest of these 'shadow factories' was Victory Aircraft in Malton Ontario, set up in 1941. The factory was initially intended to build the twin engined Avro Anson, a somewhat obsolete aircraft used predominantly for training bomber crews and deployed in large numbers by the Canadians in an anti U boat role. In 1942 however the decision was taken to commence production of the new Lancaster. Between 1943 and 1945 the factory turned out 430 Lancasters as well as producing over 3000 Avro Ansons, employing almost ten thousand workers at its height. Vera rolled off the production line at Victory Aircraft in July 1945, too late to play an active role in WW2. She nevertheless enjoyed a career with the RCAF as a maritime patrol aircraft, serving until 1963.

With the war over, it was questionable whether Canada needed to maintain its wartime aircraft industry. Wartime Munitions minister and arch moderniser CB Howe, known during the war as the Minister of Everything, championed the industrialisation of the Canadian economy and was keen to develop a home grown aviation industry. Howe oversaw the sale of Victory Aircraft to the British Hawker Siddeley group whereafter it became Avro Canada.

C102 Jetliner
The first project for the new company was to be the world's first commercial jet airliner. The C102 Jetliner first flew in August 1949, having been beaten into the air by the De Havilland Comet by just 13 days. Initial interest in the plane from TWA aviation mogul Howard Hughes seemed to promise a bright future for the Jetliner but the outbreak of the Korean War put an end to development efforts. Avro Canada was instead put back on a military footing and the Jetliner project was cancelled in 1951.

Efforts instead now focused on the CF100 Canuck. This was a twin engined all-weather interceptor whose primary role was to take on Soviet nuclear bombers in the event of the Cold War turning hot. Between 1950 and 1955 692 aircraft were built. The prototype Mark 4 variant broke the sound barrier in a vertical dive in the hands of Battle of Britain veteran turned Avro test pilot Janusz Zurakowski. Some Canucks continued to serve in a training role with the RCAF until 1981.

CF100 Canuck

The Canuck was rapidly rendered obsolete by the appearance of jet powered bombers and a replacement was required. This was to be the CF105 Arrow. The Arrow was designed to meet a demanding list of specifications set down by the RCAF which no existing or planned aircraft anywhere in the world could meet. The Arrow would be required to reach Mach 1.5 in level flight, reach an altitude of 70,000 feet and perform 2G turns at supersonic speed. Avro's charismatic president Crawford Gordon committed the company to meeting the requirements and doing so with an all-Canadian designed and built aircraft. The Arrow would be powered by the new Iraquois engine built by Avro's engine subsidiary Orenda. It was an incredibly ambitious approach. The airforce were suitably convinced however and $236 million of Canadian taxpayers' money was stumped up for the development of the aircraft and the delivery of 35 operational Arrows.

Despite setbacks, the first cutting edge aircraft rolled out on 4th October 1957 and an intensive programme of testing commenced. Due to complications with the engine development, the Iraquois engine would not be fitted in an Arrow until the sixth prototype. The Arrow achieved close to Mach 2 using the stand in Pratt and Whitney engine. With the lighter, more powerful Iraquois it was expected to break all records for speed and altitude. Sadly, it would never get the chance and the all Canadian Arrow would never fly.

CF105 Arrow

The Arrow programme would fall victim to a combination of events. The ousting in 1957 of the Canadian liberal government by their conservative rivals, who were determined to cut military spending did not bode well for Avro and the spiralling costs of the engine programme did not endear them to the new administration. The death blow however came on the very same day that the first Arrow rolled out of the hanger. For this was the day that Sputnik was launched.

Sputnik changed everything. All at once the world had entered a rocket age and what use now was an overpriced jet interceptor designed to shoot down bombers? Under the 1957 NORAD defence agreement the US committed to supplying Canada with the new Bomarc surface to air missile, itself an untested and ultimately unreliable design. Whilst the government dithered over its defence options the Arrow programme continued for another year but in February 1959 the plug was pulled on the Arrow. It was a catastrophic blow for the Canadian aviation industry and wider economy and spelled the end of Avro Canada. By this time Avro Canada employed almost 15,000 people on production of the Arrow, all of whom were immediately laid off. Perhaps as many again working for subcontracted companies also lost their jobs as a result of the cancellation of the Arrow programme. The lack of prospects resulted in a brain drain of Canada's best and brightest to the US. Many of the top engineers at Avro left the country for good and found roles in the US aerospace industry. Several members of the Arrow design team went on to work on the US Space Programme.

Despite interest from Britain and the US in purchasing the six completed Arrows, on the orders of the Canadian government they were cut up in an act of short sighted vandalism and all related material was destroyed. The Arrow had been a source of immense national pride in Canadian technological achievement. Now it seemed the Canadian government wished to obliterate its memory altogether.

Artist's impression of the Avrocar in action

The Arrow was not the most advanced of Avro Canada's projects. Tucked away in an old building on the Malton site was the Special Projects Group headed up by maverick engineer John 'Jack' Frost. With funding from the US army and air force, Frost and his team developed the flying saucer-like Avrocar. It was intended to serve as a kind of flying jeep, hovering on a cushion of air, capable of flying over the landscape at 300mph or soaring to a height of 10,000 feet. In the event, problems with stability restricted it to a modest 35mph at no more than 3 feet off the ground. The project was cancelled in 1961 and Avro Canada closed its doors shortly after. They had dared to dream, but reality can be cruel to dreamers.

Vera the Canadian Lancaster

Lancaster Mark X

Documentaries on Avro Canada

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Trumpeting Death - Elephants in Battle

They were the tanks of the ancient world. The war elephant was a formidable weapon in the arsenal of many ancient armies. They were capable, when properly handled, of causing devastation to the ranks of an opposing force, terrifying men and horses and trampling all resistance under foot. There seem to be as many examples however, of elephants becoming a liability on the battlefield as there do of them playing a decisive role in victory. In some cases elephants have indeed played a decisive role in the defeat of the side that deployed them in the first place. The Roman historian Livy described elephants as a genus anceps; an untrustworthy species, as if the elephants themselves harboured treacherous designs, rather than simply becoming terrorised in the midst of battle and running amok when they were overcome by fear and pain.

We first meet elephants in western historical accounts during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Elephants were deployed by the Persians at Gaugamela but seem to have had little impact on the battle. When Alexander reached India however, war elephants in their hundreds were arrayed against him. At the battle of Hydaspes in 327 BC against the rebellious Indian potentate Porus, Alexander's troops were able, by presenting the Indian battle elephants with a wall of spears and showering them with arrows and javelins, to drive them back upon their own side.

Raphia 217 BC

During the interminable wars of the successors following Alexander's death, war elephants made their way westwards with the army of Seleucus, who had obtained five hundred of the beasts from the Indian conqueror Chandragupta in return for ceding a swath of Alexander's conquests beyond the Indus. These would prove useful in the pivotal battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, helping to seal the fate of the Antigonid cause and establish the Seleucids as rulers of the east.
The Seleucids of Asia and the Ptolemies of Egypt would clash repeatedly in Syria and Palestine. At the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC the armies of Antiochus III and Ptolemy IV fought each other in what is the only known clash of African and Indian elephants. The Seleucids had the better of the battle with the 102 Asian war elephants of Antiochus seeing off Ptolemy's 73 African elephants. For a long time it was assumed that Ptolemy's force of elephants were north African forest elephants, a smaller, now extinct species native to northern Africa. Mitochondrial DNA research however, published in January of this year showed that the elephant population in Eretrea from where the Ptolemaic armies sourced their pachyderms, are descended from African savannah elephants. This begs the question as to why the larger African elephants were bested in battle. Perhaps the Asian elephants were better trained or better handled on the day?

The Romans first encountered elephants in the armies of Pyrrhus of Epirus during his invasion of Italy in 280 BC. Pyrrhus had just twenty battle elephants but they made quite an impression on the Romans who had never seen such terrifying beasts before. Nevertheless with typical ingenuity the Romans attempted to thwart the war elephants of Pyrrhus, albeit with limited success. At the Battle of Asculum the Romans came up with an ingenious counter to Pyrrhus’ elephants, adapting carts into mobile fortresses, filled with troops armed with missile weapons and protected by wicker screens. The carts were fitted with catapults which threw burning missiles at the elephants. This innovation ultimately proved to be of limited use as the troops mounted in turrets atop the elephants were still able to pick off the troops in the carts, which were then reduced to matchsticks by the enraged beasts.
Pyrrhus' victories over the Romans turned out to be, well, Pyrrhic and his Italian campaign ended in failure.

Elephants had their limitations as Pyrrhus found when he returned to Greece and attempted to the roll over the defences of Sparta with his elephants. A line of carts buried up to the axles and defended by the determined populace was sufficient to drive Pyrrhus off. He met his end in 272 BC in street fighting in Argos when he was felled by an old woman who hurled a roof tile at him. Ironically his troops were prevented from entering the city as quickly as they would have liked when one of his war elephants became stuck in the city gate.

The Romans most famously encountered elephants fighting against the Carthaginians. During the brief Roman invasion of Africa in 255 BC the forces of Marcus Attilius Regullus were comprehensively routed when the Carthaginian elephants sewed panic in the Roman ranks.
The beasts used as war elephants by the Carthaginians were most probably north African forest elephants. They were known to be more tractable than the African savannah elephant but still big enough to cause devastation in the ranks of the enemy when unleashed in a thundering, trumpeting charge.

Elephants required a great deal of care and fodder to keep them going but were well worth the trouble if they could be used successfully. In order to put them in a suitably foul mood the elephants were fed figs and given alcohol before battle. The figs caused diarrhoea which made the animals irritable and the alcohol fuelled their irritability and made them aggressive. All that then remained was to point them at the enemy and let them take out their drunken annoyance at the state of their bowels on the hapless enemy soldiers who were barged and trampled underfoot. Of course once in this state of mind, elephants had little concern for whether it was the enemy they were flattening or their own side, and if they could be driven off with missile weapons, they could just as easily turn and run amok amongst their own troops. Against this eventuality the Carthaginian mahouts carried a metal spike and a hammer and could if necessary drive the spike through the top of their elephant’s skull in order to kill it to prevent casualties by ‘friendly’ trampling.

Hannibal most famously deployed elephants against Rome. Having achieved the remarkable feat of getting a force of war elephants over the Alps, of which fifteen out of thirty survived to make it into Italy, he deployed them with great success at the Battle of the Trebia where they crashed through the allied infantry on the Roman wings. In the following months however, all but one of Hannibal's elephants succumbed to disease, highlighting the difficulty of keeping them fed and healthy on campaign.

Hannibal crossing the Rhone

Hannibal's last battle against the Romans at Zama in 202 BC demonstrated once again the dangers of elephants being turned back against their own side. Hannibal's opponent Scipio formed up his army in the usual triplex acies formation although as a counter to Hannibal’s eighty war elephants which were waiting to wreak havoc in his ranks, he abandoned the quincunx deployment and instead placed his maniples directly behind each other, leaving wide lanes through which the charging beasts could pass harmlessly. Velites were stationed ready to shower the elephants with pila and the opening Carthaginian attack came to little as the elephants naturally chose the path of least resistance and lumbered straight into a lethal storm of missiles. As the elephants nearest the flanks were driven back by volleys of pila they turned and stampeded back towards their own cavalry, causing panic and disorder. Immediately seizing the opportunity, Scipio's ally, the Numidian king Massinissa launched an attack on the cavalry opposing him and the Roman cavalry on the other wing followed suit. The result was a rout of the cavalry on both wings of Hannibal’s army, leaving his infantry to be carved up by the Romans in a long and bloody fight.

The use of elephants against them by their most terrible enemies Pyrrhus and Hannibal resulted in a deep mistrust and dislike of the beasts by the Romans. The Roman mob took particular delight in seeing elephants humiliated and slaughtered in the amphitheatre. Despite their reservations they did make some use of elephants themselves, most notably using a force of elephants loaned to them by Massanissa to shatter the Macedonian flank at Pydna in 168 BC.

Rome's ambivalent relationship with the elephant is perfectly illustrated by this incident related by Pliny the Elder in which Pompey, as part of his triumphal celebrations of 55 BC, attempted to stage a re-enactment of the battle of Zama. On this occasion the fickle Roman mob, instead of delighting in the suffering of the elephants, took pity on them.  It is interesting that Pliny, understanding that elephants were highly intelligent animals, actually credits them with appealing to the sympathy of the crowd.

Twenty elephants fought in the Circus against men armed with javelins. The battle waged by one elephant was remarkable. When its feet had been pierced through, it crawled on its knees against its human opponents, snatched their shields, and threw them in the air. The spectators experienced pleasure when the shields, as they fell to the ground, made a loop, as if thrown by design, not by the rage of the huge animal. The elephants attempted to break out from the iron barricades which surrounded them, and this caused anxiety among the people. But when the elephants had lost hope of escape, they sought the compassion of the crowd and supplicated it with an indescribable gesture and bewailed their fate with a kind of lamentation. In contradiction to Pompey’s plan the wounded elephants were pitied by the people when they stopped fighting and walked around and stretched their trunks toward heaven.  In fact, there was so much grief among the people that they forgot the generosity lavished in their honour by Pompey and, bursting into tears, all arose together and invoked curses on Pompey for which he soon paid the penalty.
Elephants in the arena

Like the Romans, when the armies of Islam set out to conquer the Sassanid Persian Empire, they were confronted for the first time by battle elephants and daunted by these terrifying beasts. At the Battle of the Bridges in 634 AD the Persian elephant corps played a decisive role in driving back the Arab forces. Arriving on the banks of the lower Euphrates, the Muslims found themselves faced with a Persian army complete with war elephants drawn up on the opposite bank. Undeterred, they charged across the river into withering Persian arrow fire but their horses baulked at the unfamiliar scent of the elephants and they were driven back. The Muslims continued fighting on foot against the advancing beasts but when their commander was trampled to death they lost heart and were routed with heavy losses as they fled back across the river. So ended the first Muslim invasion of the Persian Empire.

Two years later when the Persians and Muslims clashed once more at Qadisiyyah, the Persians began with the same tactics which had won the day at the Battle of the Bridges, driving forward with their battle elephants supported by archers. The Arabs however had learned from their previous defeat and had developed tactics for dealing with the elephants. As before the Arabs’ horses took fright but the infantry stood firm. Fighting with spears they stabbed at the elephants’ eyes and drove them back, whilst swordsmen risked a trampling by getting in close and cutting through the straps that held the howdahs in place upon the elephants’ backs to send the archers mounted atop them tumbling to the ground. The elephant corps sat out the second day of the battle, which was fought to a stalemate, repairing their gear.

The third day of battle was the fiercest yet and the Persians, having repaired their equipment once more, sent their elephants into battle. Just as before the Arabs were able to stand their ground, closing in fearlessly and urging each other on into ever bolder feats;  hacking off trunks and jabbing spears into the elephants’ eyes, cutting the howdahs loose and once more creating havoc by sending the poor enraged beasts running amok. The battle started to swing the Arabs’ way but the fighting prowess of the Persians prevented them from gaining a decisive upper hand and once more the armies parted with the outcome of the battle still hanging in the balance. On the final day of the battle, with the elephant corps finished as a fighting force, the Arabs carried the day when the Persian commander Rustam was slain.

Zama 202 BC
Porus, Pyrrhus, Hannibal and Rustam had all found that battle elephants were highly effective against enemies who had not faced them before but that once their opponents got over the initial 'shock and awe factor' they would devise tactics to counter elephants. They were consistently able to terrify the mounts of the opposing cavalry, but disciplined infantry protected by missile troops could hold their ground and potentially drive the elephants back upon their own side with disastrous consequences. They were to be deployed, in modern health and safety parlance, at the users own risk.

DNA evidence for Ptolemaic war elephants

Elephants and the Romans

Like a good battle? - Check out The Battles are the Best Bits