Vickers Vildebeest Mk I to IV

Vickers Vildebeest Mk. III

Vickers Vildebeest Mk. IV Perseus Engine Version

Vickers Vincent

In the period between the two world wars, the RAF operated a number of types of large single-engine biplanes, the Vickers Vildebeest being a typical example. Its origins went back to 1926, when Vickers tendered to Specification 24/25 for a torpedo-bomber to replace the Hawker Horsley. An Air Ministry order for a prototype was received, and as the Vickers Type 132 it flew from the company’s Brooklands Airfield, Weybridge, in April 1928, powered by a 460-hp (343-kW) Bristol Jupiter VIII geared engine, later going to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath for competitive trials with the Blackburn Beagle. Following these it was tested on floats at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe.

Initial problems were concerned mainly with engine cooling, and several versions of the Jupiter were tried without encouraging results. Eventually, a second prototype was built as a private venture: this flew from Brooklands in August 1930, powered by a geared Armstrong Siddeley Panther IIA engine, but its performance was, if anything, worse.

Finally, the 660-hp (492-kW) Bristol Pegasus became the standard Vildebeest powerplant, and with successful trials at last behind it the type was accepted, nine aircraft being ordered to revised Specification 22/31. In 1932 Vickers signed a licensing agreement under which 25 Vildebeests, with 600-hp (447-kW) Hispano Suiza 12Lbr engines, were built by CASA at Madrid for service with the Spanish navy.

Deliveries to the RAF began in 1933, when No. 100 Squadron at Donibristle received a batch of the first production Vildebeests, having had one aircraft for familiarisation for several months. The squadron moved subsequently to Singapore, and the type was to remain in service in the Far East well into World War II.

Further contracts followed, and improved marks of Vildebeest entered service. The Mk II, ordered in December 1933, was fitted with a 635-hp (474-kW Pegasus IIM3 engine, but when 30 had been built a modification was requested by the Air Ministry to a new specification, 15/34. A third crew member position was required and the rear cockpit was redesigned. In this form the aircraft was designated Mk III. Production aircraft were delivered to Nos. 22 and 36 Squadrons during 1935-6 and 12 were ordered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, another 15 being diverted later from the RAF order. The RNZAF Vildebeests had folding wings.

The final production version was the Mk IV, 56 of which were ordered in December 1936 with 825-hp (615-kW) Bristol Perseus VIII sleeve-valve engines, the first such engine to enter RAF service. Performance was considerably improved, and the first Vildebeest Mk IVs were delivered to No. 42 Squadron in 1937, remaining in service until replaced by Bristol Beauforts in 1940. The last Vildebeest IV was delivered in November 1937, and total production of the Mks I to IV amounted to 194.

At the outbreak of World War II about 100 Vildebeests were still in service, and the Singapore-based aircraft with Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons operated against the Japanese until Singapore fell in 1942.

Specification Type: two/three-seat torpedo-bomber Powerplant (Mk IV: one 825-hp (615-kW) Bristol Perseus VIII radial piston engine Performance: maximum speed 156 mph (251 km/h) at 5,000 ft (1525 m); service ceiling 19,000 ft (5790 m); range 1,625 miles (2615 km) Weights: empty 4,724 lb (2143 kg); maximum take-off 8,.500 lb (.3856 kg) Dimensions: span 49 ft in (14.94 m); length 37 ft 8 in (11.48 m); height 14 ft 8 in (4.47 m); wing area 728 sq ft (67.63 m) Armament: one fixed forward-firing 0.303-in (7.7-mm) machine-gun and one Lewis gun in rear cockpit, plus one 18-in (457-mm) torpedo or 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs Operators: RAF, RNZAF

Vickers Vincent

A need to replace the Westland Wapiti and Fairey IIIF general-purpose biplanes led the Air Ministry to order a modified version of the Vickers Vildebeest to Specification 21/33. A tour of RAF stations in the Middle East and Africa in 1932-3 by a converted Vildebeest had shown that the type would be a suitable replacement, and 51 were ordered on 8 December 1933 under the name Vincent. In place of the torpedo, the Vincent carried a long-range fuel tank beneath the fuselage, and other special equipment included message pick-up gear and pyrotechnics.

The first production Vincent, converted from a Vildebeest Mk II to the revised Specification 16/34, was seen for the first time in public at the 1935 RAF Display at Hendon. However, initial deliveries of production aircraft had been made to No. 8 Squadron at Aden in late 1934, eventually replacing the Fairey IIIFs then in service with Bristol Blenheims.

Total Vincent production was 171, and a number of others were converted from Vildebeests to bring the total to almost 200. More than 80 were still in service at the beginning of World War II, and Vincents saw action with No. 244 Squadron in Iraq in 1941, being replaced eventually by Bristol Blenheims.

Specification Type: three-seat general-purpose biplane Powerplant: one 660-hp (492-kW) Bristol Pegasus IIM3 radial piston engine Performance: maximum speed 142 mph (229 km/h) at 4,920 ft (1500 ml; service ceiling 17,000 ft (5180 m); range 625 miles (1006 km), or 1,250 miles (2012 km) with long-range tank Weights: empty 4,229 lb (1918 kg); maximum take-off 8,100 lb (.3674 kg) Dimensions: span 49 ft in (14.94 m); length 36 ft 8 in (11.18 m); height 17 ft 9 in (5.41 m); wing area 728 sq ft (67.63 w?] Armament: one 0.303-in (7.7-mm) forward-firing machine-gun and one Lewis gun in rear cockpit, plus up to 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs Operators: RAF, RNZAF

To Malaya

The Vildebeest first entered service with 100 Squadron at Donibristle in November 1932. The unit was shipped to Singapore as part of the beefing up of the naval base’s defences and was ready for duty at Seletar in January 1934. The resident 36 Squadron retired its Horsleys in July 1935 and converted to Vildebeests.


At 11:15 hours local on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. A day later, 6,800 miles (10,840km) to the east, the seriousness of the world situation was felt at Seletar. A 100 Squadron Association pamphlet relates that a film being shown in the station cinema was interrupted. A notice flashed on the screen ordering all personnel of `A’ and `B’ Flights of 36 Squadron and `B’ Flight of 100 Squadron to report to their hangars immediately. There is a note that those that got up and left did not get a refund!

Three Vildebeests of 100 Squadron were being prepared: K6384 (Flt Lt Smith, the flight leader), K6385 (Plt Off Richardson) and K6379 (Plt Off Davis). Each aircraft was to carry two more crew members, a mixture of wireless operator/gunners, fitters and armourers.

The commanding officer, Sqn Ldr R N McKern, set a sombre tone, explaining that the unit was on a war footing and wished the men good luck. The document takes up the story: “The three aircraft became airborne at 09:45 hours local on September 5, 1939, just 39 hours an 10 minutes after war was declared…

“As soon as the aerodrome was cleared, the pilots opened their sealed envelopes and then told their crews that their destination was Kepala Batas, north of Alor Star. [On the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, 20 miles from the border with Siam, today’s Thailand.] The aircraft set course for the northwest tip of Malaya and a loose formation was adopted. The flight took 4 hours 30 minutes and proved to be uneventful.”

After ‘tiffin’ at the government rest house at Kepala Batas, around 16:00, the nine men: “All got busy unpacking and `hunking’ around bombs, 112- and 250-pounders, both general purpose and armour piercing, which were stored there for emergency use. There were no trolleys nor any means of moving these bombs – only brute strength and sweat!

“Each bomb was in its own wooden crate which was screwed, not nailed, together. The bombs were manhandled to rows some distance from the aircraft and covered with tarpaulin sheets. They were completely safe – they hoped – and the fuzes were locked up well away from both the bombs and the machines, in the rest house. There were no torpedoes.

“Fifteen days later those nine men, with their Vildebeests, saw Seletar again.” The men of 36 and 100 Squadrons were thrown into the front line from December 1941 fighting rear guard action before Singapore fell to the Japanese.

The three aircraft that deployed to Kepala Batas on September 5, 1939 illustrate the fate of the Vildebeest force. While attacking a Japanese ship during the intense naval engagement off Endau up the eastern Malayan coast from Singapore, on January 26, 1942, K6379 was seen to dive into the sea. It was one of 13 of the torpedo-bombers lost that day.

Further up the eastern coast on February 9, the Vildebeests were flying from a strip at Kuantan and K6385 was destroyed on the ground by Japanese aircraft. By late February 1942 surviving British forces had regrouped in central Java, including two serviceable Vildebeests. On the 29th K6384 failed to return from a recce and it is believed to have been shot down near Semerang, east of Jakarta. With that the big biplane’s last stand was over

Disaster at Endau

From Brian Cull’s Hurricanes Over Singapore: RAF, RNZAF and NEI Fighters in Action Against the Japanese Over the Island and the Netherlands East Indies, 1942.

64th Sentai operated from Ipoh in January 1942, the 59th Sentai from Kahang.

The Hayabusa fighters of the 64th Sentai were among the very first fighters to saw action in the Pacific. The Ki-43s Hayabusa of Kato Air Group escorted Yamashita’s troop transports en route to invade Malaya and some were lost when they were unable to return to Pho Quok island a day before the war broke out. They flew air cover within the maximum operational range which was quite a feat in those days.

Hiroshi Onozaki was among the ‘Nate’ pilots who flew air cover over the Takumi’s invasion force at Kota Bharu beach on the first day of the war.

Even today in Japan his memory is kept alive by the popular song ‘Kato Hayabusa Sentoki Tai’ (Fighter Air Group Kato).

Cull states that Yasuhiko Kuroe was the only pilot of the 47th Independent at the “disaster at Endau”, the disastrous RAF attack on the 26th January 1942.  Pilots of the 1st and 11th Sentais also took part.

The Ki.44 entered combat for the first time on January 1, 1942, when a flight of three Ki.44s led by Captain Yasuhiko Kuroe attacked three Buffalos of 21 and 453 Squadrons in the vicinity of Johore Baru, just north of Singapore, with Captain Kuroe scoring that first kill.

The Ki-44 was quite fast compared with other Japanese fighters and most of the attacking British planes at Endau were very slow such as the Vildebeeste biplanes.

1st and 11th Sentai had Nates but no mention made of those units’ kills.

Japanese losses were two Nates,1st Sentai:

Lt Mizotani shot down but baled out safely

Lt Toshiro Kuboya, shot down and seriously wounded, died three weeks later.

RAF attacking force is given as 21 Vildebeest,3 Albacores,9 RAAF Hudsons,18 Buffaloes and 9 Hurricanes as escorts. The Japanese also claim a Dutch Catalina was encountered. A ABDA force of US B-17s from Java, via Sumatra, was requested as well but “arrived too late”.

RAF losses in the two raids are given as 10 Vildebeest,2 Albacores,2 Hudsons and 1 Hurricane. Two more Vildebeests were written off, too damaged. 39 aircrew were initially lost–28 killed, 2 taken prisoner, 9 who eventually made it back to Singapore.

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