ALAS POOR WALRUS

By the outbreak of the war the Supermarine Walrus - a British single-engine amphibious biplane reconnaissance aircraft designed by R. J. Mitchell and operated by the Fleet Air Arm was already something of an anachronism.

Nevertheless, this single-engined biplane amphibian was a welcome sight for many a downed fighter pilot bobbing around in the English Channel or the North Sea. It was the first British squadron-service aircraft to incorporate a fully retractable main undercarriage, completely enclosed crew accommodation, and an all-metal fuselage.

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The Walrus hull was constructed around a central keel inside a form slung from an overhead beam. Bulkheads were then put in place.

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Walrus K5552 about to get airborne

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Supermarine Walrus frame No. 8, located at the wing forward spar and undercarriage connections as received from a subcontractor. In many respects this frame was the main strength of the aircraft linking undercarriage, wings and keel together.

As the Walrus was stressed to a level suitable for catapult-launching, rather surprisingly for such an ungainly-looking machine,  it could be looped and bunted. This was first done by the test pilot Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, flying the prototype at the SBAC show at Hendon in June 1933; this feat surprised even R.J. Mitchell, who was amongst the spectators. However, in practice any water in the bilges would make its presence felt when the aircraft was inverted. This usually discouraged the pilot from any future aero-batics on this type!

In 1934 an early pre-production Walrus became the first amphibian according to its manufacture to be launched from a land-based catapult. The strength of the aircraft was again demonstrated in 1935, when the prototype was attached to the battleship HMS Nelson at Gibraltar. With the naval commander-in-chief on board the pilot attempted a water touch-down, but with the undercarriage accidentally lowered. The Walrus was immediately flipped over but the occupants only had minor injuries; the machine was later repaired and returned to flight. Soon afterwards, the Walrus became one of the first aircraft to be fitted with an undercarriage position indicator on the in-strument panel.

Part of the wing assembly shop. In the foreground was a port upper wing with the fuel tank anchorage jig in position. Beyond it was a reversed port lower wing with the wooden wheel casing fitted.

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Angle steel ribbons were employed to space and align the frames positively in position before the skin was applied to the Walrus hull.

By the start of World War Two the Walrus was in widespread use. Although its principal intended use was gunnery spotting in naval actions, this only occurred twice: Walruses from HMS Renown and HMS Manchester were launched in the Battle of Cape Spartivento and a Walrus from HMS Gloucester was used in the Battle of Cape Matapan. The main task of ship-based aircraft was patrolling for Axis submarines and surface-raiders, and by March 1941, Walruses were being deployed with Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) radars to assist in this. During the Norwegian Campaign and the East African Campaign, they also saw very limited use in bombing and strafing shore targets.

By 1943, catapult-launched aircraft on cruisers and battleships were being phased out; their role at sea was taken over by radar. Also, a hangar and catapult occupied a considerable amount of valuable space on a warship. However, Walruses continued to fly from carriers for air-sea rescue and general communications tasks. Their low landing speed meant they could make a carrier landing despite having no flaps or tailhook.

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This view shows a lower wing with the aileron jig mounted on the rear spar. On the left can be seen a wheel-casing sub-assembly resting on a wing.

When flying from a warship, the Walrus would be recovered by touching-down alongside, then lifted from the sea by a ship’s crane. The aircraft’s lifting-gear was kept in a compartment in the section of wing directly above the engine – one of the Walrus’ crew would climb onto the top wing and attach this to the crane hook. This was a straightforward procedure in calm waters, but could be very difficult if the conditions were rough. One procedure was for the parent ship to slew several degrees just before the aircraft touched down, thus creating an evanescent ‘smooth’ astern of the ship on which the Walrus could alight, this being followed by a fast taxi up to the ship before the ‘smooth’ dissipated.

The RAF used Walruses mainly in the Air-Sea-Rescue role. The specialist air-sea rescue squadrons flew a variety of aircraft, using Spitfires and Boulton Paul Defiants to patrol looking for downed aircrew. Avro Ansons were then used to drop supplies and dinghies, and if required, Walruses were used to pick up aircrew from the water. A number of RAF air-sea rescue squadrons were deployed to cover the waters around the United Kingdom, the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

Three Walruses, delivered in March 1939, were used by Irish Air Corps as maritime patrol aircraft during the Irish Emergency of World War Two.

After the war, some Walruses continued to see limited military use with the RAF and foreign navies. Eight were operated by Argentina, two flew of which from the cruiser ARA La Argentina as late as 1958. Other aircraft were used for training by the French Navy’s Aviation Navale.

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