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The Name Suits the Plane: The Supermarine Walrus


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   “The only aircraft I really disliked intensely was the Supermarine Walrus. A single-engine amphibious biplane reconnaissance aircraft, the Walrus flapped about all over the sky, and at times seemed almost uncontrollable. On land it was like a penguin, but apparently it was good on the sea and during its history it had saved many lives. It is extraordinary to think that the same designer had created the beautiful Supermarine Spitfire in all its beauty. Yes, Reginald J. Mitchell must have had a bad day when he drew up his plan for the Walrus.

   I can’t think of one ATA pilot who liked this aeroplane. It was like flying a deadly-heavy elephant. It wobbled about in the air like a crazy thing. In fact, the Walrus had a mind of its own. Even the ATA’s highest achieving women pilots loathed it, including the indomitable Lettice Curtiss.” ...

(Above quote from Ellis, 2016 & 2019)

 

 

 

Evocative picture of the Walrus at sea (Pic from tangmere- museum.org.uk):

Walrus-5.jpg

 

 

 

 Development & Production

 

 The Supermarine Walrus was originally developed as a private venture in response to a 1929 Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) requirement for an observation sea-plane to be catapult-launched from cruisers. The new plane, designed by R. J. Mitchell of Spitfire fame, was originally called the Seagull V, but although in general configuration it resembled the previous Seagull III, it was very different in a number of important respects. During 1930, Supermarine began construction of a prototype but with other commitments regarded by the firm as more pressing, the aircraft was not completed until 1933.

The Seagull V/Walrus I design was a single-engine, four-seat, amphibious biplane incorporating a number of innovations in its design. It was the first British squadron-service aircraft to incorporate in one airframe a fully retractable main undercarriage, completely enclosed crew accommodation, and an all-metal fuselage. It had a single-step hull constructed from aluminium alloy, with stainless steel forgings for the catapult spools and mountings; metal was chosen over wood as the hull construction material because in practice it had been found that wooden structures deteriorated quickly in tropical conditions. The slightly set-back wings had wooden ribs and stainless steel spars and were fabric-covered; the lower wings were set in the shoulder position with a stabilising float mounted under each. The elevators were high on the tail fin and braced on either side by ‘N’ struts. The wings could be folded, giving a stowage width of 17ft 6 in (5.33 metres). The single 620 hp (460 kW) Bristol Pegasus II M2 radial engine was housed at the rear of a nacelle mounted on four struts above the lower wing and braced by four shorter struts to the centre section of the upper wing. This powered a four-bladed pusher propeller rather than the more conventional tractor configuration, so keeping the engine and propeller further out of the way of spray when operating on water and reducing the noise level in the aircraft. The propeller was safely away from any crew standing on the front deck, when picking up a mooring line. The nacelle contained the oil tank, arranged around the air intake at the front to act as an oil cooler, as well as electrical equipment, and had a number of access panels for maintenance. A supplementary oil cooler was mounted on the starboard side. The engine was offset by three degrees to starboard, to counter any yaw that might be experienced due to vortex from the propeller creating unequal forces on the rudder. A solid aluminium tailwheel was enclosed by a small water-rudder, which could be coupled to the main rudder for taxiing or disengaged for take-off and landing (NB Mondey (1994) states that the Walrus I had a rear skid, only replaced by a tailwheel with the advent of the Walrus II). Fuel was contained in two tanks in the upper wings.

The aircraft was usually flown with one pilot but had provision for two. The main, left-hand, position had a fixed seat in front of which was the instrument panel; the right-hand seat could be folded away to allow access to the nose-gun position via a crawl-way. An unusual feature was the detachable control column, which could be inserted into either of two sockets in the floor. Habitually, only one column was in use; it could be detached and set into the other socket when control was passed between pilot and co-pilot. Behind the cockpit was a small cabin with work stations for a navigator and radio operator, with the whole crew quarters being completely enclosed.

 

 

 

A Royal Navy 277 Squadron  Mk I Walrus flying over fields in 1941 (pic from mediastorehouse.com):

supermarine-walrus-mark-1-i-18396986.jpg

 

 

 

 

Specified firearm armament for the Walrus I comprised two Vickers K .303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns, one each in the open positions in the nose and behind the wings in the rear fuselage. An attempt was made in 1940 to fit a Walrus with a forward-firing Oerlikon 20 mm cannon as a counter-measure against German E-boats, but although the aircraft proved to be a stable gun-platform, the muzzle flash quickly blinded the pilot and the idea was dropped. The Walrus could also carry six 100 lb (45 kg) bombs or either two 250 lb (110 kg) bombs or two 250 lb (110 kg) Mk VIII depth charges, mounted under the wings. Like other flying boats, the Walrus carried marine equipment for use on the water including an anchor, towing and mooring cables, drogues and a boat hook. When flying from a warship, either being catapulted or taking off after being craned to the water, the return journey to the ship entailed touching down alongside the ship and being lifted from the sea by the ship’s crane. The aircraft’s lifting gear was kept in a compartment in the section of the wing directly above the engine. A crewmember would have to climb up onto the upper wing and attach this gear to the crane hook; an easy enough procedure in calm water but difficult in rough weather. The usual practice was for the parent ship to turn through about 20 degrees just before the aircraft touched down, creating a ‘slick’ on which the aircraft could alight and taxi quickly up to the ship before the slick could dissipate.

The first flight of the Seagull V prototype took place on 21 June 1933, piloted by chief test pilot J. “Mutt” Summers. Five days later, at the SBAC show at Hendon, R. J. Mitchell and other spectators witnessed Summers looping the aircraft, a stunt that was only made possible by the built-in strength of a plane designed to cope with the stresses of catapult-launching. 24 Seagull Vs were ordered by the Royal Australian Air Force in that same year.

 

 

 

The Seagull V prototype (N2) during catapult tests at RAE Farnborough in January 1934 (pic from mediastorehouse.com):

prototype-supermarine-seagull-v-9897867.

 

 

 

 

On 29 February 1933, the Seagull V prototype was flown to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe for Air Ministry trials. Over the next few months, extensive testing took place including shipborne trials aboard the British warships Repulse and Valiant on behalf of the Royal Australian Navy, and catapult trials carried out by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. During these trials, the Seagull V became the first amphibious aircraft in the world to be catapult-launched with a full military load; the pilot was Flight Lieutenant Sydney Richard Ubee. In May 1935, 12 of these aircraft were ordered under Specification 2/35, being given the name “Walrus” when in RAF service from August of that year. Also in 1935 an episode occurred when the prototype was attached to the battleship Nelson which showed just how strong the aircraft was. With the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Roger Backhouse on board, the pilot attempted to touch down on water, forgetting that the undercarriage was in the down position. The Walrus was instantly flipped over but the occupants received only minor injuries; the plane itself was later repaired and returned to service. Not long after this, the Walrus became the first aircraft to be fitted with an undercarriage position indicator on the instrument panel. Test pilot Alex Henshaw later praised the strength of the Walrus, stating it could land on grass with little damage, although he also complained that it was “the noisiest, coldest and most uncomfortable” aircraft he had ever flown.

 

 

 

A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Seagull V,  launching from a warship; aircraft number A2-9 (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):

291d6aced09b1fb7b8537429939c9f6a.jpg

 

 

 

 

Production Seagull V aircraft for the Australians were delivered from 1935. The first of these sailed with HMAS Australia in September 1936 and the second was assigned to HMAS Sydney, with the aircraft serving with Nos. 5 and 9 Squadrons RAAF. Further aircraft were issued to No.1 Seaplane Training Flight and No. 101 Flight. The last Seagull V for Australia (A2-24) was delivered in 1937. Note that production aircraft for this order differed from both the prototype and the aircraft flown by the RAF in having Handley Page slots fitted to the upper wings.

Production Walrus I aircraft from the May 1935 British order came on stream in March 1936, with the first production aircraft - serial number K5772 - flying on the 16th of that month. The first two production aircraft were initially delivered to Felixstowe for trials before being used for pilot training at Calshot and observer training at Lee-on-Solent. The third production Walrus I was probably the first to be assigned to a specific ship, serving aboard HMS Achilles which was then with the Royal Navy’s New Zealand Division. Later, in 1942, after being transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy, Achilles and her sister ship HMNZS Leander unloaded five aircraft in New Zealand to equip the Seaplane Training Flight of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), preparing pilots for conversion to Catalinas. Production aircraft differed from the prototype Seagull V in minor details; the transition between the upper decking and the aircraft sides was rounded off, the three struts bracing the tailplane were reduced to two, the trailing edges of the lower wing were hinged to fold 90 degrees upwards rather than 180 degrees downwards, and the external oil cooler was omitted. The Walrus was apparently liked by its operational crews and had a reputation for its ability to absorb battle damage; the plane acquired the nickname, “Shagbat”, and it was also called the “Steam-pigeon” on account of the steam given off when water hit the hot Pegasus engine. It is notable, however, that pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), among whom were women fliers, were not so keen on the Walrus; the ATA was tasked with delivering aircraft by flying them to their operational destinations Indeed, one of the doubters, First Officer Anne Walker, was badly injured in a serious accident with a Walrus while taking off in a cross wind from Somerton Airport in June 1945 which was in part due to the instability and clumsiness of the aircraft and difficulty in reaching the control pedals (see Ellis, 2016 & 2019 for an account of this crash).

 

 

 

Supermarine Walrus I, aircraft number K8341, onboard HMS York; note the damaged top left wing caused by the aircraft hitting the side of the boat while swinging on the ship's crane. This was a common problem with pre-War Walrus catapult-launched aircraft being retrieved from a rolling sea (pic from upload.wikimedia.org):

800px-Supermarine_Walrus_K8341on_the_HMS

 

 

 

 

In 1936, further orders for the Walrus I, powered by the 620 hp (462 kW) Pegasus II M2 engine, were placed under Specification 37/36, shortly before the more powerful 750 hp (560 kW) Pegasus VI 9-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine began to be installed in the aircraft, in 1937. When increased demand for manufacture of the Spitfire fighter began to impinge on Supermarine’s other activities, production of the Walrus was transferred to Saunders-Roe Ltd at East Cowes, Isle of Wight. At first, production of the Walrus I continued at Saunders-Roe under licence until another 270 of these aircraft had been completed, adding to the 287 already built by Supermarine. However, due to a need to economize on the use of light metal alloys, Saunders-Roe introduced the Walrus II which had a heavier wooden hull and the more powerful Pegasus VI engine. The prototype Walrus II first flew in May 1940 and a total of 191 Walrus II aircraft were built before production of the type as a whole ceased in January 1944. It is not clear as to what changes, if any, were made to specified armament with the new Walrus II but Mondey (1994) in his list of specifications that would seem to refer to the Walrus II indicates that the aircraft could carry up to 760 lb (345 kg) of bombs or depth charges on underwing racks, plus having a Lewis or Vickers machine gun in the bow position and one or two such weapons on flexible mount in midships. It is also notable that Mondey (1994) also disagrees slightly with Wikipedia in figures for how many aircraft of each variant and in total were built; when totaling up the figures for the three variants - Seagull V, Walrus I and Walrus II - and taking into account the discrepancies between a number of different sources, the total number of the type built was somewhere between 740 and 765. With regard to the Walrus II, it is interesting that pilots preferred this successor to the Mk I Walrus; in addition to having the more powerful Pegasus engine, take-offs and landings were much "quieter" and the aircraft performed better on water than its predecessor. 

 

 

 

A Supermarine Walrus on the catapult of HMS Mauritius, date unknown (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):

0380d6272832dcbce8ec53bdc78fb34f.jpg

 

 

 

 

According to Classic Warbirds, the Walrus I and Walrus II had the same top speed of 135 mph, service ceiling of 18,500 ft, and range of 600 miles. Other basic specifications of the type which seem to relate to the later models of the Walrus I with the Pegasus VI engine are as follows (Wikipedia):

 

Length: 37 ft 7 in (11.46 m) on wheels

Wingspan: 45 ft 10 in (13.97 m)

Height: 15 ft 3 in (4.65 m) on wheels

Wing area: 610 sq ft (57 sq metres)

Empty weight: 4,900 lb (2,223 kg)

Gross weight: 7,200 lb (3,266 kg)

Cruise speed : 92 mph (148 km/h)

Rate of climb: 1050 ft/min (5.3 m/s)

Time to altitude 10,000 ft (3,000 m) in 12 minutes 30 seconds

 

A successor to the Walrus was the Supermarine Sea Otter, a similar but more powerful design. However, both types were used for air-sea rescue in the latter stages of World War Two, and the Sea Otter never completely supplanted the Walrus. Instead, Supermarine planned a replacement for both types, to be called the Seagull, and prototypes were constructed for this aircraft. However, the project was cancelled in 1952, partly because helicopters were now taking over the air-sea rescue role from small flying boats.

 

 

Operational History

 

By the start of the Second World War, the Walrus was in widespread use. The Royal Navy Town-class cruisers each carried two Walruses during the early part of the War and the York-class and County-class heavy cruisers were also equipped with Walrus aircraft. Other carriers of the Walrus were the battleships HMS Warspite and Rodney, the monitor Terror, and the seaplane tender HMAS Albatross. Also at the beginning of the War, in late 1939, a pair of Walruses were used experimentally at Lee-on-Solent for trials of ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) radar, the dipole aerials being fitted on the forward interplane struts. In January 1940, the catapult launched Walruses on Admiralty-equipped warships were combined into a single squadron, Fleet Air Arm No. 700 Squadron; this was later run down, in 1943, and finally disbanded in March 1944, although the Royal Navy continued to use Walruses for various purposes until after the end of the War (see text below) - the last Walrus to be scrapped by the Royal Navy was in 1956

Although primarily intended as a gunnery spotting plane in naval actions, the Walrus was only so used twice: in the Battle of Cape Spartivento and the Battle of Cape Matavan, when they were launched from British battleships. In fact, the main purpose of ship-based aircraft was the patrolling of waters for Axis submarines and surface raiders, and by 1941, Walruses were being deployed with Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) radar to assist in this.  At least five enemy submarines were destroyed or damaged by the Walrus, including the Vichy French submarine Poncelet which was bombed by Walrus no. L2268 of No. 700 Squadron (HMS Devonshire) and attacked by HMS Milford on 7 November 1940 off the Cameroons. During the Norwegian Campaign and the East African Campaign, they were used, to a very limited extent, in the bombing and strafing of shore targets. In August 1940, a Walrus operating from Hobart bombed and machine-gunned an Italian headquarters at Zeila in British Somaliland. By 1943, catapult-launched aircraft on cruisers and battleships were becoming redundant due to improvements in radar; another factor was the valuable space on a warship taken up by having a hangar and a catapult on board. The Walrus itself continued to fly at sea, carried by Royal Navy carriers, but was now used mainly for air-sea rescue and general communications. The low landing speed of the Walrus was an advantage on carriers as it meant that the aircraft could land despite having no flaps or tail hook.

 

 

 

A scale model of the Walrus I (pic from renderhub.com):

supermarine-walrus-mk-1-01.jpg

 

 

Side view of the Walrus I and II  (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):

1c631bdd9e948b48796c8f2314f4d051.jpg

 

 

 

The Walrus was adopted for an important role in air-sea rescue by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The specialist RAF Air Sea Rescue Service squadrons flew a variety of aircraft; Spitfires and Bolton Paul Defiants patrolled for downed aircrew while Avro Ansons were used to drop supplies and dinghies, and Walruses picked up the crew members from the water. RAF air-sea rescue squadrons operated in the waters around the United Kingdom, over the Mediterranean Sea and in the Bay of Bengal. Over a thousand aircrew were picked up during these operations, with 277 Squadron responsible for 598 rescues. It has to be said that extreme bravery was sometimes shown by Walrus rescue crews when they had to land in minefields or were forced to taxi over long distances in rough seas when the aircraft could not take off all to rescue personnel and bring them back to Allied territory.

In the hands of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm, the Walrus found service in twenty-four naval air squadrons and fourteen squadrons of the RAF; in the case of the RAF, some Walruses continued in limited military use after the War, with the type being retired from RAF service in April 1946. Leaving aside these operators, the Seagull Vs/Walruses operated by the Australians, and the use of the Walrus by the New Zealand navy and air force, there were other military users of the aircraft during the World War Two period, including the Turkish and Canadian air forces, Portugal, France and Argentina; some of these aircraft continued to serve after the end of the War. For example, eight were operated by Argentina; two were flying with the Argentine Navy from the cruiser La Argentina throughout the War and up until 1958 (see picture here below). The French naval air arm, Aviation Navale/Aéronavale, used a number of Walruses for training purposes.

Three Walruses N.18 (L2301), N.19 (L2302) and N.20 (L2303) were scheduled to fly from Southampton to Baldonnel Aerodrome, Ireland, for service as maritime patrol aircraft with the Irish Air Corps during the wartime Irish Emergency. Only No. 19 was delivered on time at Baldonnel; No. 20 had to be re-routed to Milford Haven and the crew of No. 18 (Lt. Higgins and LT Quinlan) had no choice but to ditch the aircraft in high seas near Ballytrent, just south of the former US Naval Air Station at Wexford, due to engine failure. The hull was damaged in the process and it was decided to tow No. 18, with the help of the Rosslare lifeboat and a local fishing boat, to the launch slip previously used during World War One for the Curtiss H-16s. Once on dry land, the aircraft was loaded on to a truck and made its way to Baldonnel where it was repaired. On 9 January 1942, N. 18 was stolen by four Irish nationalists who intended to fly to France and join the Luftwaffe. However, they were intercepted by Spitfires and escorted to RAF St Eval; the aircraft and its occupants were returned to Ireland. A restored composite Walrus in which the engine and fuselage came from No. 18 is now housed at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, England, and is one of only a handful of surviving Walrus aircraft.

 

 

 

Rescue by a Walrus at sea; painting by Michael Turner (Pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):

201c8d76af8d7d63f40d275abccf0efb.jpg

 

A powerful image of a Walrus in combat mode - image by roen911 at deviantart.com/roen911/art/The-Supermarine-Walrus-287310725):

the_supermarine_walrus_by_roen911_d4r22d

 

 

 

 

A Walrus I was shipped to Arkhangelsk with other supplies brought on the British Convoy PQ 17. After sustaining damage it was repaired and supplied to the 160th air transport detachment, flying with Soviet Naval Aviation until the end of 1943.

In addition to military operators of the Walrus, the aircraft also found civilian and commercial use. They were briefly used by a whaling company, United Whalers, where they were catapult-launched from the factory ship Balaena in Antarctic waters using a surplus navy aircraft catapult. The aircraft used were slightly modified to improve conditions for the crew; electrical sockets were fitted to power electrically heated suits worn by the crew beneath their immersion suits, and a small petrol-burning heater was located in the cabin to help keep crews comfortable in flights which could last for over five hours. Another (Dutch) whaling company also took on Walruses aboard the Willem Barentsz but never flew them. Finally, four aircraft were purchased from the RAAF by the Australian company Amphibious Airways, owned by Eric McIlree and operating out of Rabaul, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, in the 1950s. These planes, licensed to carry up to ten passengers, were used for charter and ambulance work, remaining in service until 1954.

 

 

 

77acb2470de069027ab5ee8c585dbec7.jpg

(Above pic from i.pinimg.com/originals)

 

 

One of the Walrus aircraft in the service of United Whalers (see text above_ (pic from flight-manuals-online.com):

Walrus-photo.jpg

 

 

 

REFERENCES AND SOURCES FOR THE TEXT OF THIS ARTICLE

In alphabetical order of author/editor

 

Airline History, “Amphibious Airways”; Airline History: airlinehistory.co.uk/airlines/amphibious-airways/ (Last updated 9 July 2018).

Classic Warbirds, “Supermarine Walrus”; Online article: classicwarbirds.co.uk/british-aircraft/supermarine-walrus.php (undated).

Ellis, Mary, as told to Melody Foreman, “A Spitfire Girl: One of the World’s Greatest Female ATA Pilots Tells her Story”; Frontline Books, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Yorkshire & Philadelphia, 2016 & 2019.

Ireland, Bernard, and Crosby, Francis, “The World Encyclopedia of Aircraft Carriers and Naval Aircraft”; Southwater, an imprint of Anness Publishing Ltd, London, 2015. Previously published in two volumes.

Mondey, David, “The Hamlyn Concise Guide to British Aircraft of World War II”; Chancellor Press, an imprint of Reed Consumer Books Ltd, London 1994. First published by Hamlyn, 1982.

Shortfinals - Aviation and More!, "The Vickers Supermarine Walrus, an ugly duckling but a stout performer"; Online blog: shortfinals.org/2013/10/22/the-vickers-supermarine-walrus-an-ugly-duckling-but- a-sgtout-performer/

Wikipedia Article, “Supermarine Walrus”; https:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermarine_Walrus, last edited 30 September 2020.

Yenne, Bill, “Seaplanes & Flying Boats”; BCL Press, New York/ Book Creations LLC, 2003.

 

 

 

A restored Walrus on display at the RAAF Museum at Point Cook (YMPC), Victoria, Australia.  This plane was originally delivered to the Australians from the Royal Naval Fleet Air Arm on 19 September 1943 and became part of the RAAF Antarctic Flight in 1947 when it was painted bright yellow. It was wrecked by gale force winds on Heard Island on 21 December 1947, eventually recovered by the RAAF in 1980 and subsequently re-built by staff at the RAAF Museum.  Not seen here are transparent panels allowing visitors to see the internal wing structure. The construction number of this aircraft is unknown and it has been variously listed as being a Seagull V, Walrus I or Walrus II (pic from cdn.jetphotos.com):

69486_1204864700.jpg

 

 

Artwork-Walrus-MkII-RAF-275Sqn-PV-S-HD92

(Above pic of air sea rescue Walrus II from Asisbiz.com)

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