For twenty-six years the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum located at the Reading, Pa Regional Airport has conducted its World War II Weekend. Consistently attracting a large audience to any venue constantly requires something new and exciting. And that’s just what the Reading show has done for more than two decades. Drawing attention to this year’s show was a British invasion of two rare and unique planes, a de Havilland DH-98 Mosquito (KA114) and Supermarine Spitfire Mk IXe (MJ730), both from the Military Aviation Museum located in Virginia Beach, VA.
de Havilland DH-98 Mosquito
The de Havilland DH-98 Mosquito, almost entirely constructed of wood, is affectionately known as “The Mossie.” Airplane number KA114 was manufactured in Canada in 1945 but never saw World War Two combat action. The Military Aviation Museum purchased the plane’s crumbling remains in 2004 and shipped it to AVspecs in New Zealand for reconstruction. A major obstacle to restoration was recreating the forms needed for the wooden fuselage, wings, and tail sections. Glyn Powell of Auckland spent nearly a decade rebuilding the thirty-six foot long molds for the fuselage alone! In tribute to the New Zealander’s accomplishments, the only flying Mosquito in the world today is painted in the 487 Squadron RNZAF color scheme.
Based on the design of the DH-88 Comet and originally conceived as an unarmed fast bomber, de Havilland began production of the wooden aircraft in 1941. Why was the plane made from wood? During the war, aluminum for aircraft as well as experienced skilled metal craftsmen was in short supply. On the other hand; woods like spruce, birch plywood and Ecuadorean balsa were not strategic materials and were plentiful. There were also, in large supply, many experienced- carpenters, piano, cabinet, and furniture makers whose skills could be readily employed. Another advantage of wood; when covered with a thin layer of doped fabric, it made for a remarkably smooth, strong, drag-resistant surface free of rivets and seams. Additionally, battle damage could be quickly and easily repaired in the field.
Starting in 1942; the Mosquito saw widespread use as a twin-engine, two-seat bomber but was soon modified to serve as a day-night fighter. From mid-1942 to mid-1943; Mosquito bombers flew high-speed, medium and low-altitude daytime tactical bomber missions and high-altitude night bombings against enemy factories, railways and other pinpoint targets in Germany and German-occupied Europe. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the Mosquito bomber with its aerodynamic vee-screen was as fast as a fighter and could carry a bigger bomb load farther than a B-17. Some bombers were modified to carry two-ton blockbusters. As a high speed two-crew fighter, recognizable by their flat windscreens, the aircraft was outfitted with four .303 caliber machine guns in the nose and four 20mm cannons under the cockpit floor. Some Mosquitoes were equipped with night-fighting radar and rockets used to attack Nazi shipping. As a result, Mosquitoes were the most successful British night-fighter of the war. The Mossie’s maneuverability and quick speed made it very difficult for the Luftwaffe’s fighters to successfully attack it. The only enemy plane that had a chance against the Mosquito was the Me-262. The Germans could run, but they couldn’t hide. No advisory was safe from the Wooden Wonder.
Later in the war, the Mosquito was adapted as a low-altitude, unarmed, high-speed, high-altitude photo-reconnaissance pathfinder. Flying night raids on Germany with Bomber Command, the Mosquito would fly ahead of the main force of heavy bombers, guiding them to and accurately marking the targets. The Mosquito suffered fewer losses than any other plane attached to Bomber Command, making it the war’s most effective extreme low-altitude intruder. To go along with its 380+ mph speed, the Mosquito had a 1,800 miles range and 44,000 feet operational ceiling- making it the most productive photoreconnaissance, high-speed courier and weather-recon airplane aircraft of the war, and the fastest operational plane of its day.
On the downside, The Mossie was not an easy aircraft to fly. The plane’s engines needed to be carefully handled and RAF Mosquito pilots were typically selected for their airmanship and experience. Built in thirty-three different variants, a grand total of 7,781 Mosquitoes were built with 6,710 of those being delivered during the war years. No other WWII multirole combat airplane flew as many different kinds of missions, performed and amassed such a remarkably successful combat record in so short a time as did the Mosquito. It was probably the most successfully versatile twin-engine plane built between 1939 and 1945.
Supermarine Spitfire Mk IXe
The Military Aviation Museum’s Spitfire, number MJ730, has an interesting and storied history. Born in 1943, MJ730 was shipped to North Africa where it first saw action with the Royal Canadian Air Force. The plane then transitioned to British Royal Air Force squadrons 417th, 154th, 32nd and 94th and 249th as it moved to different theaters of operations in North Africa, Sicily, Corsica, Greece and finally Italy in 1945. The Spitfire’s last military role was in 1951 with the Israeli air force as a trainer. At what point the Israelis retired the plane from service is not known, but in 1976 the Spitfire was discovered by England’s Rob Lamplough in a Kibbutz playground as just a frame and being used a teeter-totter. The Israeli air force’s intention was to introduce aircraft to children at a young age, hoping to inspire their interest in aviation. After several years, a few owners and various stages of restorations later, the Spitfire was purchased by Fed Ex’s Fred Smith, who had the restoration completed by Trent Aero Engineering in southern England. On November 12, 1988 the Spitfire saw its first flight in more than forty-five years! In 1989 the plane was procured by David Pennell of England who painted it to its current scheme with the GZ code, British roundel and question mark commemorating the 32nd squadron. The Military Aviation Museum obtained the plane in 2002 where it has since continually flown in air shows throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada.
Why the “?” During WWII British aviation squadrons were split into “A” and “B” flights. It was tradition for the commanding officer (CO) to have his squadron’s flight (A or B) painted on the plane’s side. When the Spitfire was given over to 32nd squadron, the plane captain, with paint bucket in hand, presented himself to the CO inquiring as to which flight he would be choosing. The CO informed the maintainer, “That’s still a question mark.” The creative mechanic, possibly expressing his frustrations, decided to paint a “?” on the side. The next day the CO saw it, laughed, and there it stayed for the duration of the war.
Communications, vital to any war effort, help accurately execute battle plans by achieving strategic goals with minimum loss of lives. Below are just two examples from WWII.
It was more than two years in the planning. The June 6, 1944 offensive would turn out to be the greatest allied invasion of WWII. However, before the main battle force could land on the Normandy, France shoreline, interior landing areas had to be taken and prepared for drop zones.
Starting in World War II the army instituted specialized units called Pathfinders. These units were trained to set up drop zones and guide transport planes and gliders- loaded with paratrooper soldiers- for insertion into the theater of operation. Prior to dropping the main force of paratroopers, ten to twelve Pathfinder soldiers along with a group of six bodyguards- who defended the pathfinders while they set up their equipment- were parachuted into the battlefield to mark the area and set up a locating radio beacon. Once on the ground, it took about thirty minutes for the Pathfinders to set up the beacon sticks into a T-formation in front of the transmitting antenna. For easier identification, a green light was added to the sticks for night operations. Upon set up, the Pathfinders would transmit a short-range ground-radio navigational radar signal to the gliders and transport planes. The plane’s highly directional antenna system could calculate the range and relative position of the ground beacon by using the timing of the returning signals. The plane’s receiver was known as “Rebecca” or Recognition of Beacons. The ground-based transmitter was referred to as “Eureka” meaning “I have found it!”
During the Normandy invasion, Pathfinders were responsible for guiding C-47 aircraft and gliders carrying nine regiments of 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to their destination drop zones. Because they were the first ones in, Pathfinders quickly attracted the attention of the Germans. Like many WWII heroes, the job of a Pathfinder was a dangerous proposition carried out by brave and courageous souls. During the June 6th D-Day invasion alone some Pathfinder groups lost as many as ten of their eighteen soldiers.
L-4 Artillery Directing Aircraft
Once the troops were established on the ground and had secured the Normandy beach-heads, the infantry- supported by artillery- began moving farther inland. In order for the artillery to be effective, it was imperative to accurately direct their heavy fire onto enemy positions. During WWII, the most efficient platform to accomplish that goal was an Artillery Directing Aircraft. Chief among those was the L-4 Piper Cub Grasshopper Observation Plane. The L-4 would launch with a Field Artillery Pilot and Aerial Plane Observer onboard. With use of BC-659 aircraft transceivers, the observer would communicate the enemy’s position back to the Fire Direction Center-usually located twenty miles from the frontline. The L-4 would loiter over the area and accurately direct the shells from the allies eight inch 155mm howitzers onto the enemy. These L-4 Artillery Directing Aircraft were so successful the Nazis considered them more effective than the B-17 bomber and with good cause. Artillery Directing Aircraft were responsible for placing more tonnage of bombs on the enemy than B-17s bombers! Unfortunately, because the Germans recognized how dangerous the L-4s were, they became a priority target.
June 1944 proved to be the deadliest month of the war for Field Artillery Pilots and their Artillery Directing Aircraft. This statistic was probably attributed to an undefined and fluid frontline. During flying observations, L-4 pilots often ventured over German columns- not realizing their mistake until they took on enemy fire. In order to minimize the danger of enemy ground fire, Field Artillery Pilots attempted to fly just inside friendly lines. However, this strategy placed them in the airspace traversed by the 155mm artillery shells they were directing to German targets. When an L-4 plane was shot down by one of these shells, the tactic was quickly abandoned. Field Artillery Pilots ultimately concluded that the best location from which to direct fire was immediately over the target.
For twenty-six years, re-enactors, pilots, plane maintainers and an army of volunteers at the Reading World War Two Weekend have been faithfully depicting these historical events. The three day show takes place annually the first weekend in June.