Now It Can Be Told! - Old Locos Were Fighters' 'Guinea Pigs'

The War Illustrated, Volume 9, No. 227, Page 685, March 1, 1946.

On a lonely R.A.F. Fighter Command station in Northumberland early in 1943 old railway engines, battered tanks and worn-out motor-lorries played a part in the success of the invasion of Europe. They were “guinea-pigs” for a set of experiments to test the effectiveness of R.A.F. fighters against ground targets. Data gained from these tests reduced tank-busting and ground-strafing to a mathematical formula which helped to bring victory for the Allies. The tests were arranged by ballistics experts in co-operation with the “Boffins” of Fighter Command, a team of civilian scientists acting as advisers to the Commander-in-Chief.

Rocket projectiles and all types of cannon and machine-gun ammunition were tried out against the vehicles at the fighter station at Milfield, near Alnwick, and the effectiveness of each type of attack was tabulated after constant rechecking. Finally, the civilian scientists could produce such formulae as “If one Spitfire Mark 5 attacks a railway engine with its cannon, the resultant damage will take an average of twelve man-hours to repair.”

Another vital piece of ballistics work carried out was the evolution of a method of making maximum use of the British multi-gun fighters. When such a fighter goes into action each of its guns does not fire simply straight ahead. Each gun is set to fire on a slightly different aim, so that a “pattern” of bullets strikes a target at a given range. Intensive research into bullet “patterns” resulted in fire-power being put to the best possible use for the job in hand.

For instance, a concentrated blast of fire to tear a Nazi bomber apart at 200 yards' range might be desirable for a night fighter, but the same pattern would be wasteful and inflict less damage on, say, scattered troops at low level. A bug part of the scientists task was to reduce the complicated formulae used by ballistic experts to describe the behaviour of bullets or rocket projectiles under the influence of wind and gravity.

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