20 August 2010

The Dismal Career of the Chinese Mosquito

During the Second World War, a second De Havilland Mosquito production line was set up at the De Havilland Canada facility at Downsview Airport in Toronto. A total of 1,133 Mosquito aircraft were built at the Canadian production line but when the war ended in 1945, there were 100 aircraft completed at Downsview that had not yet been accepted by the Royal Canadian Air Force. These aircraft were put into flyable storage and joining them were another 110 surplus Mosquito bombers that were part of a larger group that were excess to the end of the war effort and were divided up amongst several storage sites across Canada. The Globe and Mail newspaper ran a story on 20 May 1947 about the stored aircraft at Downsview that were worth approximately $30 million and would be sold to the highest bidder or scrapped.

In the late summer of that year, a delegation arrived in Toronto wanting to purchase the Mosquito aircraft. They were the Chinese Nationalist,s dispatched by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, that were in the midst of a civil war against the Communists led by Mao Tse-Tung. Interestingly Chiang had sent a group to Downsview in 1944 to evaluate the Mosquito but no sale resulted. Now fighting a bitter conflict for control of China, the Mosquito bombers represented an irresistible deal that would give Chiang the most modern and still in those days, fast bombers available. Though the details of the transaction have been lost to history, the estimate is that for $5 million the Chinese Nationalists got approximately 300 aircraft, though most were to be obtained to act as spare parts for the flying aircraft. Four hundred spare Merlin engines were also included in the deal which included disassembly of the aircraft for transfer to China and then reassembly there for the Chiang's forces. De Havilland Canada would also provide training for the first cadre of pilots at Downsview. 

By October, an assembly bay at the plant was turned over to a "disassembly" line as the aircraft were taken apart and crated for transport to China. Given the political sensitivities of the time, the sale was noted by the Canadian government as a "commercial sale" and all publicity of the transfer was discouraged. The first group of fifteen Chinese pilots to be trained at Downsview started their conversion in February 1948 with former RCAF Mosquito pilots as instructors. Having previously flown B-25 Mitchells, the Mosquito was quite a handful for the Chinese pilots and in short order seven had to be written off. To avoid any publicity, the training program was quickly shifted to China and that first group of pilots ended up writing off another nine aircraft, resulting in the Mosquito being nicknamed "Lin Tai Yu" by the Chinese, after an empress who was beautiful but wicked. 

Chinese flight training began with the second group in April 1948 and very quickly another 13 accidents occurred, this time with fatalities. Despite the presence of numerous De Havilland Canada technical specialists and ex-RCAF pilots in China, the accident rate continued. A second training unit set up by Chiang's forces resulted in the write off of five aircraft in only five days. Many of the accidents were in ground handling, so De Havillland's technical staff built a taxi trainer that had struts on the rear fuselage to prevent ground looping. The Chinese even managed to wreck that trainer! The Mosquito force that Chiang Kai-Shek wanted spent more time in training than in actual combat missions. Some of this was the quality of his pilots, but a lot of it was that the Mosquito was simply too much airplane for what was a Communist guerrilla insurgency. With the Communists advancing and gaining control of more of China, the Canadians noted the deteriorating situation as the local currency was falling and non-Chinese citizens were leaving the country in droves. 

On 10 December 1948 the capital, Peking (now Beijing) fell to Mao's forces and the De Havilland team was ordered to depart immediately. Most of the team managed to escape via Hong Kong, but some of the lead engineers found themselves "retained" by the Nationalists to help keep their aircraft flying. De Havilland Canada's management arranged for a special DC-6 flight to get this last group out of China. Nationalist soldiers refused to allow the Canadians to depart, but gunfire on the airfield perimeter from advancing Communist forces provided a distraction for the Canadians who managed to successfully depart as the airfield came under attack. 

Needless to say, much like the less-than-salutory operational career of the Martin B-57 by the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1965, the career of the otherwise brilliant De Havilland Mosquito in China was very much a failure and an unusual footnote to the history of the Mosquito. 

Source: De Havilland in Canada by Fred W. Hotson. CANAV Books, 1999, p120-121. 

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