DeHavilland DH.98 Mosquito – The Wooden Wonder

A Legend Almost Stillborn

Restored Mosquito on display at the Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton, Canada in 2012
Restored Mosquito on display at the Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton, Canada in 2012

DeHavilland’s DH.98 Mosquito, which earned the nickname “The Wooden Wonder”, really needs no introduction. It achieved legendary status in the hands of Allied pilots and crews in the Second World War and continued in military service for several years after the conflict ended. In its lifetime, it served the air forces of nearly 25 countries.

For all of its accomplishments, contributions and accolades; the mosquito had a rather convoluted and tenuous beginning that could have seen the aircraft not exist at all. The origin of the Mosquito can, though somewhat indirectly, be credited to a 1936 British Air Ministry specification for a medium bomber.

DeHavilland were invited to submit a design for consideration, however they generally felt that the specification as written would not produce a particularly good aircraft. The company felt that the performance requirements and weapon loads outlined in the specification could not be adequately supported by the two Rolls Royce Merlin engines which were also part of the specification.

DeHavilland were not alone in their skepticism of the ability of the Air Ministry’s specification to lead to a worthwhile aircraft. The Handley Page company went so far as to propose a fast bomber concept as an alternative to the specification that would possess enough speed to negate the need for heavy defensive gun turret armament. While conceding that the idea had some merit, the Air Ministry felt that speed would not be an advantage for long and that Germany could likely produce a fighter capable of intercepting such an aircraft without much trouble.

In 1938, after experimenting with Merlin powered examples of their own DH.91 Albatross airliner, DeHavilland designed an entirely new aircraft to present to the Air Ministry. The new design was very clean and would be fast enough that any defensive armament could be dispensed with; the aircraft’s speed and maneuverability would be enough to protect it. From a supply standpoint, a turret-less design presented the advantages of simplified and faster production of the aircraft. In spite of all these advantages, the Air Ministry rejected DeHavilland’s new aircraft and suggested the company’s energies could be put to better use as a sub contractor building wings for other companies’ aircraft.

Undetered

Nose art on Alberta Aviation Museum Mosquito.
Nose art on Alberta Aviation Museum Mosquito.

Given the cold shoulder by the Air Ministry, DeHavilland continued to pursue their fast bomber design as a private venture, now known as the DH.98, in secret. The design was in many ways at odds with Royal Air Force bomber design conventions of the period; not only did it lack defensive armaments, it was also designed to be built predominantly of wood.

Through their DH.88 Comet air racer and the DH.91 airliner, DeHavilland had proof that aircraft made of largely wood construction could be every bit as strong as their metal counterparts as well as lighter and faster.

In an exemplary piece of visionary thinking, DeHavilland chose wood construction as a contingency should metal become scarce in wartime and so that non metal working professions such as carpenters, cabinet makers and piano makers could be called upon to manufacture the aircraft. Even if the potential metal shortage never occured, the DeHavilland design would give the Allies an aircraft that wouldn’t divert more metal workers from their existing projects.

The DH.98, while promising a great deal of development potential, was still not keeping within RAF bomber design standards. Through a great deal of negotiating, as well as the fact that World War Two had by then begun, DeHavilland did manage to get the Air Ministry to approve their design as an unarmed high speed reconnaissance aircraft in December of 1939.

An initial order for 50 DH.98 aircraft, including prototypes, was placed by the RAF in spring of 1940; production of this order was however subject to many false starts and delays until summer of that year. The prototype was completed and flown for the first time in November of 1940.

“The Wooden Wonder” in Service

Eight gun nose armament of the Mosquito fighter variant.
Eight gun nose armament of the Mosquito fighter variant.

The very first Mosquito mission was a reconnaissance flight over France in September of 1941. It would be a modest start for an aircraft that would quickly prove itself as a great all rounder and leave its detractors in the Air Ministry eating their words.

In the course of the war, the aircraft successfully turned its hand to a variety of jobs from the Reconnaissance bomber and fighter role the RAF had initially accepted it in. Among these were: medium bomber, fighter bomber, night fighter, tactical strike, torpedo bomber, maritime strike, target marking, training and mine laying. The aircraft also saw some use in clandestine transport and courier missions.

The Mosquito operated in all theatres of the Second World War and finished that conflict with the lowest loss rate of any aircraft in Allied Bomber Command, this can largely be credited to its speed. Indeed, it held the record as the fastest aircraft in Bomber Command until 1951.

While the Mosquito’s wartime exploits are well known and documented, its postwar life is somewhat less familiar to many.

Both the Belgian and Swedish air forces used Mosquitoes in the night fighter role in the post war years, replacing them with Gloster Meteor and DeHavilland Venom jet fighters respectively.

Even in the post war era, the Mosquito still found a place in the combat arena as the Royal Australian Air Force used them over Malaya until the end of 1955 and the Israelis used the Mosquito in the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Mosquitoes Today

The Mosquito's nearly seamless wooden fuselage in all it's glory.
The Mosquito’s nearly seamless wooden fuselage in all it’s glory.

From a standpoint of non airworthy examples, the Mosquito is decently represented with around 30 known preserved examples of the type in various museums around the world. Many more are known to be in one state or another of restoration.

As a flyer, the Mosquito is a true rarity. In 1996, the then only airworthy Mosquito was lost in a tragic crash at an airshow in Manchester, England.

Happily, on a much more recent timescale, the New Zealand based Avspecs company has put a Mosquito back into the air. With the tools to make fully new built examples of the type, Avspec’s first airworthy Mosquito took to the air in September of 2012.

We should all be thankful for an outfit like Avspec and wish them well in giving us back flying examples of this iconic aircraft.

Here’s a link to Avspec’s website with more information on their activities:

http://www.warbirdrestoration.co.nz/current.html#ka114

As of June, 2014, Canadian skies have been graced with the image and sound of a restored Mosquito. Under restoration since the 1960s, VR796 took to the skies as the world’s only flying original Mosquito.

This link documents the first flight of the restored VR796:

http://www.calgarymosquitosociety.com/feature49/feature49.htm

Here’s a link to a Mosquito currently being restored to flying status in the UK:

http://www.peoplesmosquito.org.uk/

 

4 thoughts on “DeHavilland DH.98 Mosquito – The Wooden Wonder

  1. aviationtrails August 23, 2014 / 12:52

    There are hopes in the UK to rebuild a Mosquito to flying condition and funding is being sort for the project. All being well we will have another classic aircraft over the skies of Britain once more.

    I have posted This link on other pages, maybe your readers would like to visit the DH Museum where one of the original prototypes is under restoration. A fabulous write up as always!

    http://www.dehavillandmuseum.co.uk/
    http://peoplesmosquito.wordpress.com/

    • pickledwings August 23, 2014 / 13:08

      Thanks! I definitely follow The Peoples Mosquito blog.

      Thanks for the links, I’m sure visitors will enjoy having them available here.

  2. Mustang.Koji August 31, 2014 / 07:59

    I consider the Mosquito to be one of the aviation engineering marvels of WWII. Their speed and nimbleness had them participating in many of the critical missions of WWII – some in obscurity yet so important. The Mosquito mentioned in the comment above took to the air shortly thereafter as you know. I wish I could have heard the engines… May all who flew and perished in them find peace.

    • pickledwings August 31, 2014 / 11:07

      The Mosquito definitely was one of the standout aviation achievements of the period, though not quite the breakthrough that many references make it out to be. DeHavilland had achieved a very high level of competence with molded plywood structures through the interwar period; as such, the techniques were not new territory for them when the Air Ministry’s specification for the new medium bomber was issued.

      The Mosquito was more a culmination of the experience that DeHavilland built with their DH-88 Comet racers of 1934 and the DH-91 Albatross of 1937. While neither was built in large numbers, the DH-88 proved that the molded plywood construction method was suitable for high performance aircraft and the DH-91 showed that it was practical and applicable to larger aircraft.

      That, of course, is not to detract from the Mosquito as the great aircraft it was; but so many things I’ve read about it either gloss over or completely ignore its ancestry and make it look like some stroke of genius that hit DeHavilland out of nowhere when that’s really not the case at all. DeHavilland were strong proponents of plywood aircraft construction well before WWII broke out.

      Like yourself, I would love to hear a Mosquito start up. There’s nothing like the sound of a Merlin engine. 🙂

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