Wednesday, 9 August 2017

What do we know – about the Mos?

There are roads named after what had been a well-known aircraft; there's a sculpture of the founder of the factory which built them, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, and there are static examples of probably the most famous of the Hatfield aircraft factory's models, the DH98 Mosquito, in the museums at Hendon and Duxford, and locally at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum near London Colney.

For all that, we have, for the most part, a forgotten memory of the former de Havilland Aircraft factory in Hatfield.  Homes, a university campus, businesses and a police station stand on the site and part of the runway.

As to the aircraft themselves there are confusions.  We are reminded every time we pass the Ramada Hotel at one end of Comet Way, that the Comet which gave the hotel its original name was not the post-war fine passenger aircraft which came from this factory, but the pre-war Comet Racer, build especially for international competition.  A red-painted model of it still stands on its column at the front of the Hotel.

Then, if we ask anyone to name a well-known World War Two aircraft, the only name in town is the Supermarine-manufactured and Mitchell-designed Spitfire.  That had came into production before the 'Mos' and over half of its production of 20,000 units came from Castle Bromwich.  It was devised as a fighter and for photo-reconnaissance, though was adapted for other roles too.  It achieved top operational speeds up to 380mph, and even today it is not unusual to see 'Spits' flying overhead at shows and in movies.

By contrast, the Mosquito came on stream in 1940, around 4,800 of the production of 7,700 were made at Hatfield or Leavesden.  It was very light, had a top operational speed of 400mph and was adapted to almost every role a light aircraft was required to undertake.  Oh, and its unique characteristic was its construction material: wood, taking advantage of readily available raw material from the Chilterns and large numbers of experienced furniture makers.

It is this feature of its construction which means its story and lasting memory is now more vaguely recalled.  You won't see the Wooden Wonder, as it came to be known, in the skies today.  The original planes could not survive the seventy years or so since they were made.  There is a restored flying 'Mos' in Canada, one in New Zealand, and that is about it.  So there is little to remind us – especially those of us who live near to the former seat of manufacture – so we let the Spitfire have its glory!

What a delightful surprise this week that a last-minute rescue of thousands of engineering drawings of the Mosquito took place at a redundant factory near Chester which had manufactured fewer than one hundred versions.  It is a miracle that so much fragile archival material came to lay untouched for so long and was finally identified by members of a project which aims to rebuild a Mosquito rescued after it crashed near Coltishall after the war.  This will not be a matter of cleaning it up and giving the remains a spit and polish.  Remember its unique quality: the Buckinghamshire wood, which made it cheaper to build and gave it such superior speed and manoeuvrability that it was considered superfluous to fit on-board guns.

For these two reasons alone, the Wooden Wonder was unique in military aircraft.  Even more important, therefore, that its story should now be better known, especially to all of us who today live here on the east side of St Albans and in Hatfield.  We will follow the promising People's Mosquito Project with interest, because its story began right here, on our doorstep.

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