The Westland Whirlwind was the first single-seat, twin-engined, cannon-armed fighter of the Royal Air Force and when it first flew in 1938, the Whirlwind was one of the fastest combat aircraft in the world, and with four Hispano-Suiza 404 auto-cannon in its nose, the most heavily armed.
The Whirlwind was quite small, only slightly larger than the Hurricane but smaller in terms of frontal area. The landing gear was fully retractable and the entire aircraft was very "clean" with few openings or protuberances. Radiators were in the leading edge on the inner wings rather than below the engines. This careful attention to streamlining and two 885 hp Peregrine engines powered it to over 360 mph, the same speed as the latest single-engine fighters although the aircraft had a short range of under 480 km, which made it marginal as an escort.
Many pilots who flew the Whirlwind praised its performance. Sergeant G. L. Buckwell of 263 Squadron, who was shot down in a Whirlwind over Cherbourg, later commented that the Whirlwind was "great to fly – we were a privileged few... In retrospect the lesson of the Whirlwind is clear... A radical aircraft requires either prolonged development or widespread service to exploit its concept and eliminate its weaknesses. Too often in World War II, such aircraft suffered accelerated development or limited service, with the result that teething difficulties came to be regarded as permanent limitations"
One common criticism of the Whirlwind was the high landing speed imposed by the wing design. Because of the low production level, based on the number of Peregrines available, no redesign of the wing was contemplated, although Westland did test the effectiveness of leading-edge slats to reduce speeds. When the slats were activated with such force that they were ripped off the wings, the slats were wired shut.
As the performance of the Peregrine engines fell off at high altitude, the Whirlwind was most often used in ground-attack missions over France, attacking German airfields, marshalling yards, and railway traffic. The Whirlwind was used to particularly good effect as a gun platform for destroying locomotives. Some pilots were credited with several trains damaged or destroyed in a single mission. The aircraft was also successful in hunting and destroying German E-boats which operated in the English Channel. At lower altitudes, it could hold its own against the Bf 109. Though the Peregrine was a much-maligned power-plant, it was more reliable than the troublesome Napier Sabre engine used in the Hawker Typhoon, the Whirlwind's successor. The twin engines meant that seriously damaged aircraft were able to return with one engine knocked out. The placement of the wings and engines ahead of the cockpit allowed the aircraft to absorb a great deal of damage, while the cockpit area remained largely intact. The rugged frame of the Whirlwind gave pilots greater protection than contemporary aircraft during crash landings and ground accidents.
The basic feature of the Whirlwind was its concentration of firepower: its four closely-grouped heavy cannon in the nose had a rate of fire of 600 lb./minute – which, until the introduction of the Beaufighter, placed it ahead of any fighter in the world. Hand in hand with this dense firepower went a first-rate speed and climb performance, excellent manoeuvrability, and a fighting view hitherto unsurpassed. The Whirlwind was, in its day, faster than the Spitfire down low and, with lighter lateral control, was considered to be one of the nicest "twins" ever built… From the flying viewpoint, the Whirlwind was considered magnificent.
The Whirlwind’s first confirmed kill occurred on 8 February 1941, when an Arado Ar 196 floatplane was shot down; the Whirlwind responsible also crashed into the sea and the pilot was killed. From then on the squadron was to have considerable success with the Whirlwind while flying against enemy Junkers Ju 88s, Dornier Do 217s, Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.
While occasionally used to carry out day bomber escort missions the Whirlwinds were mostly flown in low-level attack sorties across the channel ("Rhubarbs" against ground targets and "Roadstead" attacks against shipping). The Whirlwind proved more than a match for German fighters at low level, as demonstrated on 6 August 1941, when four Whirlwinds on an anti-shipping strike were intercepted by a large formation of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and claimed three Bf 109s destroyed for no losses.
137 Squadron's worst losses occurred on 12 February 1942 during the Channel Dash, when they were sent to escort five British destroyers, unaware of the escaping German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Four Whirlwinds took off at 13:10 hours and soon sighted warships through the clouds about 32 km from the Belgian coast. They descended to investigate and were immediately jumped by about 20 Bf 109s of Jagdgeschwader 2. The Whirlwinds shot at anything in their sights, but were heavily outnumbered. While this was happening, at 13:40, two more Whirlwinds were sent up to relieve the first four and two more Whirlwinds took off at 14:25; four of the eight Whirlwinds failed to return.
From 24 October until 26 November 1943, Whirlwinds of 263 Squadron made several heavy attacks against the German blockade runner Münsterland, in dry dock at Cherbourg. As many as 12 Whirlwinds participated at a time in dive bombing attacks carried out from 12,000–5,000 ft using 250 lb bombs. The attacks were met by very heavy anti-aircraft fire, but virtually all bombs fell within 500 yd of the target with only one Whirlwind was lost during the attacks.
The last Whirlwind mission to be flown by 137 Squadron occurred on 21 June 1943, when five Whirlwinds took off on a "Rhubarb" attack against the German airfield at Poix. Unable to locate the target the Whirlwinds bombed a supply train north of Rue instead.
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