The Whirlwind was developed for the RAF in the mid-1930s, following the retirement of biplane fighters. With increased fighter attack speeds creating shorter times for firing on targets, it was decided to improve the weight of fire that could be delivered. Instead of two rifle-calibre machine guns, six or eight were required; studies had shown that eight machine guns could deliver 256 rounds per second. Cannon, such as the French 20mm Hispano-Suiza HS.404, which could fire explosive ammunition, offered another type of heavy firepower, and requirements were made for aircraft designs which could carry four cannon.
A problem for designers in the 1930s was that most agile combat aircraft were generally small. These aircraft had limited fuel storage and only enough flying range for defensive operations. A multi-engined fighter appeared to be the best solution to the problem of range, but a fighter large enough to carry an increased fuel load might be too unwieldy to successfully engage in combat. Germany and the United States pressed ahead with their design programs, resulting in the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
The first specification for a high performance machine-gun monoplane was F.5/34 but the aircraft produced were overtaken by developments by Hawker and Supermarine.
The first squadron to receive the Whirlwind was No. 25 Squadron, then based at North Weald. The squadron was fully equipped with radar-equipped Bristol Blenheim IF night fighters when Squadron Leader K. A. K. MacEwen flew prototype Whirlwind L6845 from Boscombe Down to North Weald on 30 May 1940. The following day it was flown and inspected by four of the squadron's pilots, and the next day was inspected by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, and Lord Trenchard. The first two production Whirlwinds were delivered in June to 25 Squadron for night-flying trials. It was then decided, however, to re-equip No. 25 Squadron with the two-seat Bristol Beaufighter night fighter, as it was already an operational night fighter squadron.
It was instead decided that the first Whirlwind squadron would be 263 Squadron, which was reforming at Grangemouth, Scotland after disastrous losses in the Norwegian Campaign. The first production Whirlwind was delivered to No. 263 Squadron by its commander, Squadron Leader H. Eeles on 6 July. Deliveries were slow, with only five on strength with 263 Squadron on 17 August 1940, with none serviceable. (The squadron supplemented its strength with Hawker Hurricanes to allow the Squadron's pilots to fly in the meantime.) Despite the Battle of Britain and the consequent urgent need for fighters, 263 Squadron remained in Scotland - Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, in charge of RAF Fighter Command, stated on 17 October that 263 could not be deployed to the south because "there was no room for 'passengers' in that part of the world".
The first Whirlwind was written off on 7 August when Pilot Officer McDermott had a tyre blow out while taking off in P6966. In spite of this he managed to get the aircraft airborne. Flying Control advised him of the dangerous condition of his undercarriage, and to land the aircraft in such condition was extremely hazardous. PO McDermott bailed out of the aircraft between Grangemouth and Stirling. The aircraft dived in and buried itself 30 feet into the ground (see Survivors).
No. 263 Squadron moved south to RAF Exeter and was declared operational with the Whirlwind on 7 December 1940. Initial operations consisted of convoy patrols and anti E-boat missions. The Whirlwind’s first confirmed kill occurred on 8 February 1941, when an Arado Ar 196 floatplane was shot down; the Whirlwind responsible also crashed into the sea and the pilot was killed. From then on the Squadron was to have considerable success with the Whirlwind while flying against enemy Junkers Ju 88s, Dornier Do 217s, Bf 109s and Fw 190s.
The squadron also occasionally carried out day bomber escort missions with the Whirlwinds, one example was when they formed part of the escort of 54 Blenheims on a low-level raid against power stations near Cologne on 12 August 1941. Owing to the relatively short range of the escorts, including the Whirlwinds, the fighters turned back near Antwerp, with the bombers continuing on without escort. Ten Blenheims were lost.
The major role for the squadron's Whirlwinds, however, became low-level attack, flying cross-channel "Rhubarb" sweeps against ground targets and "Roadstead" attacks against shipping. The Whirlwind proved a match for German fighters at low level, as demonstrated on 6 August 1941, when four Whirlwinds on an anti-shipping strike were intercepted by a large formation of Messerschmitt Bf 109s, claiming three Bf 109s destroyed for no losses. A second Whirlwind squadron, No. 137, formed in September 1941, specialising in attacks against railway targets. In the summer of 1942, both squadrons' Whirlwinds were fitted with racks to carry two 250 lb or 500 lb bombs, and nicknamed Whirlibombers. These undertook low-level cross-channel "Rhubarb" sweeps, attacking locomotives, bridges, shipping and other targets.
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