Almost, but not quite, 100% wrong – the de Havilland D.H.9, IWM Duxford


Sometimes all an aircraft needs is a ‘tweak’ or two to get it right, and sometimes it takes much more than that. There are several cases of the ‘replacement’ aircraft being so bad that it was actually withdrawn in favour of the ‘old’ (Fairey Albacore being withdrawn ahead of the Fairey Swordfish, for example). Captain Geoffrey de Havilland designed a lovely ‘day bomber’ for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company Ltd in 1916. It was of classic spruce and ash wire-braced construction, fabric-covered except for the front fuselage which was sheathed in sheets of plywood – a material which Geoffrey de Havilland would return to, again and again. The prototype D.H.4 had flown with a 230hp B.H.P. engine (Beardmore-Halford-Pullinger), a power unit which was to give endless trouble in the years ahead. Other engines in the 200 hp range were used in production machines including the R.A.F.3A (standing for Royal Aircraft Factory, in this case) and the 250hp Rolls-Royce Mark III. Pilots who handled the new bomber were delighted. Beautiful controls, wide speed range and relatively sturdy. It was rushed to the squadrons on the western Front and subcontracting broke out everywhere, it seemed.

Within the year, the Air Board were looking for a replacement. It wasn’t that the D.H.4 was bad, they just wanted – more of everything! They wanted more bomb load and, above all, more range. The D.H.4 had an endurance of around 3 3/4 hours, and with the formation of the RAF’s Independent Air Force (one of the world’s first true strategic air arms) they wanted to strike deep into Germany; they knew they would have their ‘bloody paralyzer’ of a bomber, the huge Handley Page O/400, but they also needed a smaller, faster, long-range bomber. They turned to the D.H.4 in order to modify it, but they soon did much more than that. What came out of the struggle was an aircraft with the same tail and wings as its predecessor, but ‘new’ everything else. The pilot no longer formed a sandwich, with the engine in front of him and a 60 gallon fuel tank behind him! Now he and the gunner/observer could communicate, as their cockpits were back to back. The Siddley-Deasey Car Company Ltd, had altered and lightened the 6-cylinder B.H.P powerplant, and were predicting 300hp in service; they called it the Siddeley ‘Puma’. It was so bad that it had to be de-rated to 230hp. The prototype D.H.9, ‘A7559’, was a D.H.4, converted by AirCo, and it became obvious that this was NOT a winner, even as the flight trials began at Hendon, in March, 1917. One RFC source, was quoted as saying, ‘The D.H.9 is a D.H.4 which has been interfered with in order to be suitable for mass production and the B.H.P. motor’, and mass production there was! At one stage a D.H.4 was being produced SOMEWHERE at the rate of one every 40 minutes, for a grand total of 3,204 machines. They were built by Short Brothers, Waring & Gillow the furniture manufacturers, the National Aircraft Factory No.2 at Stockport, and in many other places. With so many aircraft flooding from the factories, something had to be done with them – so they were sent to the front – it was a disaster.

With a full war load, the ‘Nine’ climbed at 545 ft/min (‘Four’ at 1,042). had a top speed of 111 mph (versus 136) and had a ceiling of barely 15,000 feet, where it was fair game for enemy fighters. About the only thing that the D.H.9 had over the D.H.4 was endurance – 4 1/2 hours as against 3 3/4 hours. It was supposed to carry 2 x 230lb bombs, 1 x .303″ Vickers machinegun (pilot) and 1 (or 2) .303″ Lewis guns (observer). With this load it was sluggish and could not maintain its rated altitude. On July 31st, 1918, 12 machines from 99 and 104 Squadrons went out on a raid into Germany – 2 came back. After receiving the D.H.9, 99 and 104 Squadrons had 123 engine failures out of 848 sorties before the Armistice in November! Despite this, the type was used alongside the O/400 in the Independent Air Force until the end of the War, and yet it was hardly effective; for example, of 29 aircraft which attempted to attack Aulnoye, France – which was in German hands, at the time – no less than 15 turned back. It was intended by the American authorities that no less than 14,000 D.H.9 would be built in the U.S.A. Fortunately for all concerned, it was decided to stick with the proven D.H.4 and re-engine it with the V-12 Liberty engine, something that the RAF did right at the very end of the War, creating the D.H.9A, an aircraft that would serve in various forms until 1931!

When hostilities finished, a few D.H.9s continued in specialist roles, particularly in the Middle East where they had performed reasonably well against the sparse enemy opposition. The very last examples served with No. 55 Squadron in Egypt and Palestine in 1920, and a handful of air ambulance conversions with ‘Force Z’ in Somalia (e.g. ‘D3117’, able to carry one stretcher in the rear fuselage). A small number had seen action with General Denikin’s ‘White Army’ forces during the fighting against the Bolsheviks in Russia, and also with the Belgian Air Force and the U.S. Naval Northern Bombing Group. However, amazingly, the vast majority were either scrapped (the RAF was still burning spares in bulk into 1931), or given away. Yes, there was a system called the ‘Imperial Gift’, whereby friendly countries, especially those of the British Empire, were handed aircraft and other armaments to aid in their defence. D.H.9s featured prominently! Belgium got 18, Poland 12, 48 went to South Africa (where a re-engined version, the M’pala lasted until 1937), 9 to New Zealand and as many as 48 to Australia. Canada, Afghanistan, Greece, the Irish Free State, Holland, Latvia and India also received some D.H.9s.

It is to India, that we must now turn to finish our story. Here we see, a superbly restored D.H.9, ‘D5649’, which by its serial number would have been built in 1918 by Waring & Gillow, which is on display in ‘AirSpace’ at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Its tale is straight out of an Indian folk legend. It was found, abandoned, in a Maharaja’s disused elephant and camel stables, in Bikaner, Rajasthan in the rugged North-West of India, with most of its structure severely damaged by termites! It is uncertain just how it came to be there, but it was obviously part of the ‘Imperial Gift’; the remains were carefully transported to Duxford in 2000. Its loving restoration is a tribute to the highly skilled technicians and volunteers at Duxford, and we are fortunate, indeed, to be able to view this genuine WW1 aircraft.

The D.H.9 – truly, a ‘horse designed by a Committee’. Oh, and one last thing, according to the records of the Royal Commission on Inventors, in 1921, Lord Invernairn (formerly Sir William Beardmore) and others were STILL trying to get £47,000 out of the British Government, on the grounds that they had made a loss on the BHP engine – you have to admire their intestinal fortitude!

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3 comments on “Almost, but not quite, 100% wrong – the de Havilland D.H.9, IWM Duxford”

  1. A fantastic history about this one — I had no idea, thanks 🙂

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  2. This Dh9 was restored NOT by the IWM but by Guy Black’s Retrotec Ltd., who found the aeroplanes in the first pace, Why do we not get credit for this I do not know, but there are not the facilities or skills at IWM – volunteers or not – to have carried out this extensive conservation project. This is not a criticism of the IWM, but a simple straightforward fact.

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