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BLACKBURN SKUA

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Skuas attacking the German Cruiser Königsberg. Painting Copyright John Dell.

The Blackburn Skua was a fighter/dive-bomber used by the British Fleet Air Arm in the early years of World War II. All but forgotten now the Skua was flown in combat over Norway, the beaches of Dunkirk and in the Mediterranean. It gained the distinction of being the first Fleet Air Arm aircraft to shoot down a German aircraft in World War Two (a Dornier Do Flying boat on 26th September 1939) and also being the first aircraft to sink a major warship in wartime when Skuas sank the cruiser Königsberg in Bergen harbour on 10th April 1940. The Skua was also the first aircraft to carry out an interception of an enemy aircraft controlled by shipbourne radar.

Specification:

Engine: Bristol Perseus XII nine cylinder, sleeve valve, air cooled radial engine rated at 815 hp (could give a higher power rating of over 900 hp for 5 mins on emergency boost).

Max Speed: 225 mph at 6,700 ft, 204 mph at sea level.

Service ceiling 20,500 ft (reached in 43 mins), the Skua had a very poor rate of climb.

Total fuel: 163 imperial gallons, giving a maximum range of some 760 miles (an endurance of over 4 hours).

Armament: Four Browning .303 machine guns in wings with 600 rounds per gun (nearly double the number of rounds-per-gun of a Hurricane or Spitfire). One Lewis .303 machine gun in rear cockpit (whenever possible the gunner would try to replace this with a Vickers "K" gun which was more reliable and had a higher rate of fire). One 500 lb semi-armour-piercing bomb(SAP) or one 500 lb armour-piercing (AP)* or one 250 lb general purpose (GP) bomb recessed under fuselage and held in a bomb crutch to swing it clear of the propeller in dive bombing attacks. A "light series carrier" bomb rack could be fitted under each wing. Each carrier could hold 4 x 20 lb Cooper bombs or incendiaries or 2 x 40 lb bombs or incendiaries. Some reference books mistakenly  give the impression the light series bomb racks were only ever used for "practice" bombs. The same carriers were used on Lysanders, Battles and Blenheims and were very much a weapon of war. The 500lb AP and SAP bombs was only used against armoured warships, for attacks on merchant ships and ground targets the normal bombload was a 250 lb bomb in the fuselage recess and either 20lb or 40lb bombs on the light series carriers. The 250 lb bomb had only a little less explosive content than the 500lb SAP and AP bombs (the extra weight of the latter was down to the casing, needed to punch through armour). If used against ground targets the SAP and AP bombs would often bury themselves deep before exploding, reducing the blast effect. The small and largely ineffective 100 lb anti-submarine (AS) bomb could also be carried in the fuselage recess.

Skua3view.jpg (32085 bytes)

Above is a reproduction of a rare wartime aircraft spotters recognition card. It shows the underside of the aircraft and you can see the "V" arrestor hook frame, the cradle to swing the 500 lb bomb away from the aircraft in a dive-bombing attack, the recess for the bomb itself and the extended "inverted gull" fillets which joined the trailing edge of the wing to fuselage. Every published plan I have ever seen of the Skua gets this aspect of the Skua's design wrong, representing it as a flat area instead. The Blackburn Roc did have this area redesigned as flat, also incorporating a ventral escape hatch for the gunner, but on the Skua it was a complicated profile where the curves of the round fuselage mated with the wing fillets.

The first prototype Skua had problems with stability and it and the second prototype (both known as Skua MK Is) had to be modified with a longer nose and upturned wingtips, features carried over to the production aircraft (known as Skua Mk IIs). The Skua prototypes used the well tried Bristol Mercury engine but use of these engines in the huge Blenheim bomber programme meant that production Skuas had to use the new Bristol sleeve valve Perseus engine. There is no evidence that the Perseus engine as used on the Skua was particularly unreliable in itself, (later Bristol sleeve valve engines, paricularly the Taurus, went through a stage of very bad reliability when first mass-produced by unskilled labour, faults cured in the supremely reliable later model Hercules and Centaurus) but the new sleeve valve technology must have made maintenance more difficult and the Perseus's small production run must have made spares hard to find as the war years rolled by. The spin characteristics of the Skua were bad enough to prompt the fitting of an anti-spin parachute in the tail to aid recovery.

Pre-war postcard

Above is a contemporary postcard of a painting of a Skua. The markings are probably authentic (the serial number is).

When reading histories of the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War you often find naval writers blame the lacklustre performance of the Skua on the RAF and Air Ministry who effectively ran the Fleet Air Arm and controlled its supply of aircraft until 24th April 1939. Meanwhile writers in the RAF camp blame the Skuas poor performance on the specifications laid down by the Admiralty, particularly for it having to share the role of fighter and dive bomber. It is interesting to note that both the USA's Dauntless dive bomber and the Japanese Aichi "Val" dive bomber are often praised for their ability to act as fighters in an emergency! It is also worth remembering that when Skuas joined the Fleet Air Arm they went to fighter squadrons which operated a mix of Hawker Nimrod single seat fighters and Hawker Osprey two seat fighter-bombers. There is no doubt that the FAA found the Osprey with its dual-role, longer endurance, and top speed only a little lower than its single seat stable-mate, a much more useful aircraft. A lot of the enthusiasm for "multi-role" aircraft in the FAA seems to have come from the pilots themselves, rather than the Admirals (see Geoffrey Till's book "Air Power and the Royal Navy 1914-1945"). The Skua was designed with a very specific task in mind, the sinking of enemy aircraft carriers, for which its single 500 lb bomb would have been more than adequate (only Britain developed and deployed aircraft carriers with armoured decks during World War II). The role of fighter was secondary (see chapter 9 of Peter C. Smith's "Dive Bomber! An Illustrated History" for details of how the specification for the Skua was drawn up). In combat however the Skua was forced to be used as a fighter much more often than as a dive bomber. Off Norway and in the Mediterranean its performance as a fighter was often better than might be imagined just looking at its modest speed in level flight. Its long endurance meant it could loiter at altitude (once it got there, it had a very poor rate of climb) and dive onto its victims. Where the Skua was badly misused was in the raid against the Scharnhorst and Admiral Hipper, targets its 500 lb bomb would have caused little damage to.

One aspect of the Skua design that is often misrepresented is its two seat layout. In numerous books it is asserted that the second crewman was a navigator who's job it was to keep track of the aircraft's position over the open ocean. In fact the second crewman was usually a Telegraphist - Air Gunner (TAG) who was not trained in navigation at all. In fact on most missions the TAG would not even be in the pre-flight briefing and would have only the haziest idea of where they were flying to! (See the article "Oh Calamity!" for verification). It was actually the pilot who was responsible for navigation and who had the maps in his cockpit. Having said that the TAG was essential to the pilot finding his way back to the carrier; the Skua carried an ingenious device, the R1110 receiver that picked up radio signals from a Type 72 rotating beacon on the aircraft carrier. This allowed to TAG to work out the bearing of the carrier and thus the Skua could find its way home even if the carrier had to change position because of enemy action. The process was complicated, and could never have been done by the pilot, hence the need for a second crewman.** Having said that a navigator (called an Observer in the wartime FAA) could be carried on a Skua for the purposes of finding the way to a target - For example the raid on the  Königsberg and the flight to find the SS Fanad Head were both led by Skuas with an Observer, rather than a TAG, on board.

While the Skuas means of finding it's way back to the carrier by radio homing was strikingly advanced other aspects of it's radio "fit" were not particularly good. Its only means of radio communication was by Morse code back to the carrier. There was no speach-based radio communication with the carrier and not even Morse code communication with other Skuas. This meant communication between aircraft was limited to hand-signals or Aldis-lamp. This must have severely limited the ability of the Skua crews to co-operate, particularly in the fighter role - No "Tally Ho Red Leader, bandits 9 o'clock low" for the poor Skua pilots!

Skuas in formation, note the different roundel styles

The Skua was built to Specification O.27/34 issued in 1934, two prototypes were ordered in 1935 and the first prototype (K5178) did not fly until nearly two years later on 9th Feb 1937. In October of that year it went for handling trials at A.&A.E.E. Martlesham.The second prototype (K5179) did not fly until 4th May 1938, and the first production Skua (L2867) flew on 28th August 1938. A total of 190 Skuas had been ordered as far back as July 1936, even before the first prototype had flown. Thus production was started a full two years after the order. However deliveries were prompt after that and over 150 had been delivered by the time War started, with all but one being delivered by the end of 1939. This meant that the Skua was very much a "new" aircraft when it first went to war and its pilots were still finding their way in this big metal monoplane aircraft with retractable undercarriage and enclosed cockpits, all a novelty to British carrier pilots of the time. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if the original expected "in-service" date of 1937 had been kept to. Then the crews would have had two years to get to know their aircraft and the Navy would probably have had 4 or 5 fully equipped and trained Skua Squadrons "ready to go" at the outbreak of war. There would probably have been follow-on orders for a second production run, maybe another 100 or so aircraft, perhaps incorporating minor improvements.  As it was the Skua was viewed as obsolete from the start of it's service career and many of the later Skuas were clearly destined never to have a combat role, being  delivered from the factory fully equipped as target tug trainers in a yellow and black striped livery.

The Skuas wings folded to lie alongside the fuselage to aid in storage in the cramped hanger-space available on aircraft carriers.

One thing that should never be forgotten when considering the Skua is that it was custom-designed for operation from aircraft carriers. Its wings folded back to lie alongside the fuselage so that the aircraft could fit onto the lifts of even the oldest of the Royal Navy's carriers. The small floor-space required by the Skua meant more could be carried aboard. The Skua was also built to float on water if ditched, with water-tight compartments to give the necessary boyancy, and there was a dingy in a compartment in the rear fuselage;  released by pulling a cable (although it didn't always work - see "Oh Calamity!")

The Skua had a major disadvantage in that it been designed without any armour protection for the crew or self-sealing fuel tanks to cope with bullet and shrapnel holes. An armoured windscreen and some armour plate behind the pilot was provided for combat squadrons in late 1940, but the poor TAG in the rear seat had no such protection and faced being roasted alive by the blow-torch flames of a burning fuel tank blown back by the airflow. It is reported that before each combat mission the TAG had to sign for a small bag which contained corks of various sizes with which he was expected to plug any bullet holes in the fuel tank!***

Considering the small production run of only 190 aircraft the number of combats the Skua was involved in is phenomenal. See the "Norway" "Mediterranean" and "Dunkirk" pages for more details...

Notes on Skua serial numbers.

The two Skua prototypes had the serials K5178 and K5179.
Production Skua serials, were allocated in 4 production batches; all consecutive, running from L2867 through to L3056
First batch 69 aircraft - L2867 to L2935 - first one delivered 14/9/38
Second batch 21 aircraft - L2936 to L2956 - first one delivered 25/4/39
Third batch 50 aircraft - L2957 to L3006 - first one delivered 25/5/39
Fourth batch 50 aircraft - L3007 to L3056 - first one delivered 8/8/39   - last one delivered 10/3/40
The last Skua L3056 seems to have been kept back by the manufacturer for some reason as the second-to-last was delivered in December 1939.

* Most descriptions of the Skuas armament make no mention of the fully Armour-Piercing (AP) 500 lb bomb and its existance is disputed. However, armourers who served with Skua squadrons are adamant such a weapon existed and was used in the attack on the Scharnhorst. It was apparently identical in shape to the 500 lb Semi-Armour-Piercing (SAP) bomb and it is likely to have been the SAP bomb with a hardened nosecone or nose "plug".

** The R1110 receiver was replaced later in the war by the R1147 which could be operated by the pilot. For a technical description of the Type 72 beacon and the R1110 receiver see this document <click here>, on a website belonging to Frank Dörenberg.

*** An account of the "bag of corks" is found in Chapter 1 of Stuart E. Sowards book about R.E. Bartlett "One Mans War" . ISBN 0-9697229-3-1, Published by Neptune in Canada.

Skua Target Tug in Black + Yellow colour scheme.

Click here for more Skua pictures and extra info...

Modelling the Skua | Blackburn Roc | Sinking of the Königsberg | The Fanad Head incident |Bibliography | Skua Postscripts | Skua and Roc colour schemes

Some links to Skua info on other sites are listed below

The excellent "Operation Skua" web site

Fleet Air Arm Archive - Skua details 

The "Padbury Aircraft Hanger" have a Skua and Roc for Microsoft Flight Sim 2004

Jamie Tindall's Skua for Combat flight Sim 2.

Combat Flight Sim Icarusgold Skua

 

Peter C Smith's book on the Skua. Click here to order online.        Matt Willis's Book on the Skua and Roc , click here to order online.

 

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