Always remembered as the first of the four-engined bombers to join the RAF, the Stirling suffered from several design limitations which severely affected its performance and load-carrying capability. As a consequence, its service with Bomber Command was marred by heavy losses when used on operations alongside the higher-flying Halifaxes and Lancasters.
Air Ministry Specification B12/36, to which the Stirling was one of 11 designs proposed by various companies, called for a four-engined heavy bomber capable of carrying a bombload of 14,000lbs with a range of 3,000 miles a remarkably demanding request for the time). It also specified that the wingspan should not exceed 100 feet to enable the aircraft to fit inside current RAF hangars (although, curiously enough, the most common type of hangar, the C Type, could open to over 125 feet). As a consequence, certain aspects of the Stirling's performance suffered namely that operating altitude of the aircraft with a full load, as the wings could not generate the lift required to operate a higher altitudes.
Shorts, the aircraft's designers, were well versed in the design of flying boats and had never designed an aircraft with retracting undercarriage before. Taking the basic design of the company's most recent flying boats, Shorts modified them to accommodate four engines and wheel undercarriage. To prove the design, Shorts built a half-scale prototype and this flew for the first time in September 1938 and after a series of test flights it was decided that the aircraft take-off and landing runs were overly long. This was countered by increasing the length of the undercarriage legs to increase the angle of the wings to the ground, but the legs were overly-complicated and lanky affairs and throughout its life, the Stirling suffered from a number of undercarriage-related accidents.
Early test flights of the Stirling were dramatic affairs; on the maiden flight of the first full-size prototype in May 1939, a wheelbrake locked on landing causing the aircraft to slew violently and collapse one of the undercarriage legs. The aircraft was a write-off. On the first flight of the second prototype two months later, and engine cut-out on take-off but the aircraft was landed safely.
With test flying sufficiently advanced, deliveries to squadrons commenced in August 1939 when No 7 Squadron at Leeming received its, and the RAF's first four-engined heavy bomber. Eight days later, at the height of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe attacked the Shorts' factory in Rochester and destroyed six aircraft. Within a week, the same fate had befallen the Belfast factory and a further fiver aircraft lost.
Early aircraft had a retractable belly turret but this was soon discarded after a number of leaks had caused the turret to lower and strike the ground while the aircraft was taxying. With other minor problems cured, the Stirling finally flew its maiden operation during the night of 10th/11th February 1941 when aircraft from No 7 Squadron took part in a raid on Rotterdam. But then another fault with the aircraft's design was encountered. As Bomber Command started operations in earnest over Germany towards the end of 1941, the lack of power produced by the four Bristol Taurus engines severely limited the loads carried by Stirlings. On missions against long-range targets such as Italy or deep inside Germany, the Stirling was restricted to 3,500lbs of bombs (seven 500lb-ers) and could barely climb over the Alps during the flights to and from the targets. The design of the bomb-bay meant that the heaviest bomb that could be carried was the 2,000lb armour-piercing shell - the new 4,000lb High Capacity bomb being introduced was too big for the compartmentalised bay of the Stirling.
Some way to remedying the poor performance of the basic Stirling design with the introduction of the Mark III from the start of 1943, but still the aircraft suffered much higher losses than the other aircraft of the Main Force. Within five months of being introduced, 67 out of the 84 aircraft delivered had been lost to enemy action or written off after crashes. During the year, the Stirlings were gradually phased out of the Main Force and moved to less dangerous duties such as minelaying. Only one Stirling squadron served with the Pathfinders - No 7 - but the Stirlings had been replaced by Lancasters by mid-1943.
By mid-1944 the Stirlings had found a new lease of life as troop-carriers or glider-tugs, being used as such during the D-Day landings. The final Bomber Command operation was flown by No 149 Squadron against Le Havre on 8 September 1944.
Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to Stirling pilots. The first was to Flight Sergeant RH Middleton, and Australian serving with No 149 Squadron. Middleton's aircraft was hit repeatedly by flak during a raid on Turin in November 1942. With severe wounds and blind in one eye, Flight Sergeant Middleton and his second-pilot coaxed the Stirling back over the Alps to England. It was as they crossed the coast that only 5 minutes fuel remained and the pilot gave the order to bale out; Middleton managed to control the aircraft while five members of the crew parachuted to safety, but was unable to prevent the aircraft from crashing, killing himself and two others who had stayed to assist. The second, also for gallantry during a raid on Turin, was posthumously awarded to Flight Sergeant AL Aaron DFM of No 218 Squadron. During a raid on the Italian city in August 1943, Aaron's Stirling was attacked by a night-fighter. The navigator was killed; Aaron himself had his jaw shattered by a bullet as well as being wounded in the chest and one arm. With one engine out and two others damaged, Aaron placed the bomb-aimer in control of the aircraft and set a course for North Africa. Five hours later, after being restrained from taking over the pilot's seat again, Aaron assisted the bomb-aimer in making a wheels-up landing at Bone. All the crew survived except Flight Sergeant Aaron who died nine hours later of his wounds.
Short Stirling Specifications
Details for Stirling III
|Length:||87ft 3in (26.58m)|
|Wingspan:||99ft 1in (30.19m)|
|Height:||22ft 9in (6.93m)|
|Maximum Speed:||270mph (435kmh)|
|Cruising Speed:||200mph (323kmh)|
|Range:||2,010 miles (3,242km) with 3,500lb (1,589kg) bombload|
|Powerplant:||Four Bristol Hercules XVIs of 1,650hp each|
|Defensive Armament:||2 x .303 machine guns in nose turret and mid-upper turrets, 4 x .303 Browning machine guns in tail turret.|
Long, slender fuselage which tapers gently at the rear. Comparatively small vertical surfaces mounted above the rear fuselage with mid-upper powered gun turret at the mid-point.The canopy is prominent above the forward fuselage and the nose tapers away sharply from the canopy to front turret. The wings are mounted on the forwatd part of the airframe with the main undercarriage retracting into the inner engine nacelles.