'Mosquito' Taught Valuable Life Lessons

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The most valuable lessons in life are timeless. Their import is a constant across the decades—or longer — serving as models that guide and shape our thinking and perceptions. The key is to recognize when we are being presented with such a lesson, since their presence is often not obvious and their instructive significance frequently escapes our notice.

The de Havilland Mosquito, a British World War II aircraft, is a perfect example of one such lesson. The exigencies of national crisis place demands on a country that can almost never be seen in advance or planned for. From one day to the next, conditions change, circumstances shift and previously reliable relationships are thrown into uncertainty. It’s easy from the safety of time and distance to claim that such life-altering events should have been foreseen, but at the time of their occurrence, most radical incidents come as a complete surprise.

Great Britain’s entry into World War II in September 1939 found the country unprepared for a large-scale life-or-death struggle against the aggression of Nazi Germany. By the spring of 1940, Germany had vanquished all of Western Europe with its newfound blitzkrieg tactics of fast-paced attacks of coordinated ground armor and tactical air forces. France, a longtime historical continental rival to Germany, had fallen in a particularly humiliating and feeble manner, surrendering after barely a month of fighting without ever having mounted a serious defense of its homeland. It was perhaps the most feckless, anemic fight for national survival in the annals of military history.

Britain rose up when it stood alone

And so, in early summer 1940, Britain found itself standing alone against Germany. Like many countries thrust unwillingly into all-out war, Britain’s munitions and industrial manufacturing capacity were not ready. Critical resources, raw materials and high-technology infrastructure were in short supply.

Luckily for Britain, there was one visionary whose farsightedness proved immensely fortuitous: His name was Geoffrey de Havilland. De Havilland conceived of a twin-engined warplane, a fast bomber powered by the same high-performance engines used by the legendary single-engine Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane. This new plane would be named the Mosquito. 

The Mosquito was absolutely unique in conception and execution: A relatively trim aircraft for a twin-engine bomber (a wingspan of just 56 feet and length of only 44 feet), the Mosquito was intended to be as fast or faster than any fighter/interceptor aircraft in the sky. Its engines boasted nearly twice the horsepower of the Royal Air Force’s standard bombers of the day (the Bristol Blenheim and Vickers Wellington) and the Mosquito exceeded their speed by well over 100 mph! In fact, the Mosquito was every bit as fast as the famous Spitfire fighter plane.

With its speed, it would not need the normal defensive machine guns that ordinary bombers carried, nor would it need to be saddled with the heavy, performance-robbing armor plating of conventional bombers. De Havilland’s idea—highly controversial in its day—was that the Mosquito would live by virtue of its ability to outrun any adversary.

Mosquito was made of wood

But de Havilland’s vision and genius was not limited to merely the concept of equipping a lightweight bomber with two fighter plane engines in order to give it great speed. Indeed, that was definitely subordinate to the primary manifestation of the Mosquito’s unequalled character. Unlike every other warplane of its day, the Mosquito was not made from aluminum and steel. It was made from wood! Recognizing that wartime manufacturing would put incredible demands on both metal resources and skilled high-tech metal workers and fabrication facilities, de Havilland had the foresight to use wood, for two main reasons:

  1. The supply of wood was far less likely to be interrupted due to high manufacturing demand than metal; and
  2. The nation had thousands of cabinetmakers, furniture manufacturers and piano makers who were highly skilled and experienced in precision woodworking. While there might be a shortage at any time of experienced metal fabricators, the nation’s army of professional woodworkers was always at the ready.

The Mosquito established an enviable record for success and versatility from the day it entered service in 1941, unexcelled by any other warplane from any combatant. High-altitude photo-reconnaissance, medium-height level bombing, night fighter, anti-shipping raider, V-1 buzz-bomb interceptor, the Mosquito was superb in every role in which it served. However, it was as a fast, treetop level intruder that it carried out its most dangerous and memorable missions.

Amiens: A Mosquito mission to remember

None was more audacious than the Feb. 18, 1944 mission against the German prison camp at Amiens, France. Over 400 French resistance fighters were being held prisoner there and were scheduled to be executed the next day. The prison was surrounded by 20-foot tall concrete walls, with the two German guard quarters located to either side of the main building, which housed the prisoners. Underground resistance communications to Britain gave them the camp’s exact daily schedule and provided the instructions for the raid.

Eighteen Mosquitoes left Britain to attack the camp, flying in bad weather at high speed, barely 100 feet above the ground. The plan was that a wave of six planes would place their bombs at the base of the 20-ft concrete walls, exactly at noon, blowing holes in the wall through which the prisoners could rush out. A second wave of six planes would bomb the two German guard quarters at precisely 12:02 PM when they were eating lunch, in order to prevent the guards from stopping the escape. There was no margin for error, not in timing or location. The bombs had to hit exactly where and when they were needed, or else the British bombs that were intended to free the French prisoners would kill them instead.

In a show of unsurpassed piloting skill, the bombs hit their targets at the exact time and location. The Mosquito’s great speed, long range, impressive load-carrying capability and ease of handling made the mission a resounding success—and this was more than half a century before so-called “smart bombs” that could be radar-guided to their targets even existed. Although the Germans did manage to react in time to shoot many prisoners, several hundred others ran through the gaping holes created by the bombs’ direct hits and made it to safety.

Mosquito was key on every front

On every front on which Great Britain fought during World War II, the Mosquito distinguished itself with its stellar performance. The head of the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was quoted as saying:

It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminum better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a [great] speed, which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops.

That it was constructed of wood and manufactured by traditional craftsmen demonstrates the timeless importance of people with seemingly ordinary skills. Whether it be carpentry, plumbing, electrical work or any other time-honored avocation, the success—indeed, the very survival—of a civilized society often depends on a fine balance of high-technology expertise and what some might regard as merely working-class proficiency. The de Havilland Mosquito’s invaluable contribution to Britain’s survival and eventual victory in World War II is proof of that.

© 2020 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

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