Halifax aircraft in the air

Handley Page Halifax

Handley Page Halifax

Rarely mentioned in the same context as the Lancaster as a great aeroplane, the Halifax, through successive improvements to the basic design, became a very able support aircraft to the Lancaster.

Like its illustrious partner, the Halifax can trace its origins back to a failed design tendered in 1936/37 against the latest Air Ministry bomber Specifications. In this case, the HP56 which was offered for Specification P13/36 which called for a long-range medium-heavy bomber capable of cruising at 275mph at 15,000ft and defending itself with nose- and tail-mounted powered gun positions. A crew of four was specified (2 pilots (1 acting a navigator, bomb aimer and front gunner!), wireless operator and rear gunner). Handley Page, like Avro, who were offering the Manchester against the same specification, chose the power the aircraft with two Rolls Royce Vulture engines. The company foresaw problems with the supply of these engines, which had not yet been flown, and was allowed to alter the aircraft design to incorporate four Merlin engines. This revised design was known as the HP57 and two prototypes were ordered early in September 1937, although this subsequently increased to 500 aircraft in light of the planned expansion of Bomber Command.

The change of engines benefited the Halifax, as the design was christened, as the Vulture engines of the rival Manchester proved incredibly unreliable, and only 200 of a planned 1500 entered service before Avro's hand was forced and the Manchester re-engined with four Merlins. This new aircraft, the Lancaster (originally, the Manchester III), went on to far greater success than its ill-fated predecessor.

The first Halifax took to the air on 25 October 1939 from the RAF airfield at Bicester but it was to be almost a year before the second aircraft flew (August 1940). Within two months however, the first production aircraft had flown and barely five weeks later the first squadron to form on the Halifax, No 35, was receiving its initial aircraft at Leeming. The Aircraft was the second of the RAF's new four-engined 'heavies', being preceded by the Stirling by three months into service.

Halifax plane flying over fields

After working up on its new mounts, No 35 Squadron carried out its first operation on the Halifax during the night of 10/11 March 1941 - an attack on Le Havre. The debut was unfortunately marred when one of the aircraft was shot down by an RAF fighter whilst returning to Linton-on-Ouse with the loss of the crew. The following night saw the debut of the Halifax over Germany when two aircraft joined an attack on Hamburg. In June of 1941, No 76 Squadron became the second Halifax unit and within a year a further ten squadrons (all in No 4 Group) had converted to the type.

This first series operations highlighted several weaknesses in the Halifax design, namely a lack of speed, and so Handley Page revised the design, removing the mid-upper turret and exhaust fairings to reduce drag as well as the nose turret which, it was deemed, was underused. A revised nose with a perspex fairing in place of the turret was produced and these aircraft were known (somewhat confusingly) as the Halifax B.II Series 1 (Special). These were superseded by the B.II Series 1A which, equally confusingly, restored the mid-upper turret (albeit a low-drag one) and featured an extended nose which was to become standard on all models as well as higher-powered Merlins. Later versions, still, had rectangular fins in place of the triangular ones of earlier models, and these improved the directional stability of the Halifax, particularly during the bombing run. A full list of the myriad of Halifax Marks and sub-Variants can be found on the specifications page.

With these improvements in place, the Halifax was a far more capable aircraft, and a Halifax became the first aircraft to carry a new bombing aid known as H2S in March 1942. That said, it still suffered from a lack of power from its Merlins which adversely affected its bomb-carrying capability at higher altitudes and a restriction preventing Halifaxes attacking more hazardous targets was imposed in September 1943 until improvements had been made. The next version to enter Bomber Command service was the B.III fitted with Bristol Hercules radial engines, a retractable tailwheel to further decrease drag and either H2S or a mid-upper gun turret. These changes allowed an increase in altitude of some 2,000ft and the restriction on targets was lifted in February 1944.

Subsequent versions of the Halifax had higher-powered Hercules engines and additional fuel tanks, but the aircraft was still inferior to the Lancaster and this was reflected in the higher losses suffered by Halifax squadrons on operations throughout its service life. The final Halifax Bomber Command operation took place during the night of 2nd/3rd May 1945 when aircraft from Nos 171 and 199 Squadrons raided Kiel. Immediately after the war, the Halifax was withdrawn from Bomber Command and declared obsolete at the start of 1946.

Only one VC was awarded to a Halifax pilot. Pilot Officer Cyril Barton of No 578 Squadron was posthumously honoured after bringing his stricken aircraft back to England from the Nuremburg raid of 30th/31st March 1944. The aircraft could not be coaxed back to base and Barton was forced to crash-land. He unfortunately lost his life but the remaining members of the crew survived.

The aircraft did see service in other RAF Commands; with Coastal Command the Halifax soldiered on until March 1952 when No 224 Squadron finally retired its last aircraft and with Transport Command, Halifaxes flew many missions with Airborne Forces after the war and some were converted to carry a pannier tank for cargo in the bomb-bay and fitted out to carry 11 passengers. Including all marks, a total of 6,176 Halifaxes were built for the RAF.

Handley Page Halifax Specifications

Details for Halifax B.VI

Length:71ft 7in (21.81m)
Wingspan:104ft 2in (31.74m)
Height:20ft 9in (6.32m)
Maximum Speed:309mph (498kmh)
Ceiling:22,000ft (6,703m)
Range:1,260 miles (2,032km) with max bombload
Powerplant:Four Bristol Hercules 100s of 1,800hp each
Payload:12,000lbs (5,448kg)
Defensive Armament:One manually operated .303in gun in fixed nose poistion, 4 x .303in Browning machine guns in mid-upper and tail turrets.
Recognition:Deep, narrow fuselage with slight taper on the rear towards tail turret. Two large, rectangular tailfins at the rear. Some aircraft had a fairing under the belly for the H2S radar. Large, glazed nose and small, faired in cockpit. mainplanes mounted on the fuslage mid-point with the mainwheels ratracting into the inner two engine nacelles.

Halifax B.VI 3-angle view

A Rough Guide to Halifax Variants

Halifax B.I
  • B.I Series 1 : Basic Halifax version introduced in November 1940 with No 35 Squadron (Linton-on-Ouse). Fitted with Rolls Royce Merlin X engines.
  • B.I Series 2 : Stressed for higher all-up weights.
  • B.I Series 3 : Additional fuel tanks giving 18% increase in fuel load.

Halifax I

Halifax B.II

  • B.II Series 1 : Strengthened for higher weights and 15% higher fuel load than standard B.I. Powered by Merlin XXs. Bulbous mid-upper turret.
  • B.II Series 1A : Nose turret deleted and replaced by Perspex fairing with 18in increase in length; revised mid-upper turret and engine fairings - all to reduce drag. Merlin 22 or 24 engines.
  • B.II Series 1 (Special) : Standard B.II with nose and mid-upper turrets removed. Later versions fitted with rectangular fins to improve directional control.

Halifax II Series 1a

Halifax II Series 1 (Special)

Halifax II Series 2

Halifax B.III

  • Increase in operating altitude and top speed improved to 282mph. Fitted with Bristol Hercules VI or XVI radial engines.

Halifax III

Halifax B.IV
  • Increased wingspan and top speed increased to 300mph and powered by Merlin 65s.
Halifax B.V
  • As per B.II but with Merlin 22 engines and revised undercarriage.
Halifax B.VI
  • Increased speed (312mph) and higher maximum weight. Bristol Hercules 100 engines.
Halifax B.VII
  • As per Halifax B.III but with increased span wings.

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