The Handley Page HP.52 Hampden was a British twin-engine medium bomber of the Royal Air Force serving in the Second World War. With the Whitley and Wellington, the Hampden bore the brunt of the early bombing war over Europe, taking part in the first night raid on Berlin and the first 1,000-plane raid on Cologne. The newest of the three medium bombers, the Hampden, known as the "Flying Suitcase" because of its cramped crew conditions, was still unsuited to the modern air war and, after operating mainly at night, it was retired from Bomber Command service in late 1942.
While the Hampden was powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines, a short-lived variant known as the Handley Page Hereford instead featured in-line Napier Daggers.
Design and development
Handley Page designed the Hampden to the same specification as the Wellington (Air Ministry Specification B.9/32) for a twin-engined day bomber. One prototype HP.52 (Serial K4240) was ordered which first flew on 21 June 1936. The first production batch of 180 Mk I Hampdens was built to a production Specification 30/36 with the first aircraft flying on 24 May 1938. Lady Katharine Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, Viscountess Hampden, christened the first flight at Radlett aerodrome in 1938.
The Hampden used a stressed skin design reinforced with a mixture of bent and extruded sections with the wing having a single main spar. Construction was from sections prefabricated then joined. The fuselage was in three major sections – front, centre and rear. The centre and rear sections were themselves made of two halves. This meant the sections could be fitted out in part in better working conditions before assembly. In a similar way, the wings were made up of three large units: centre section, port outer wing and starboard outer wing, which were in turn subdivided.
The Mk I had a crew of four: pilot, navigator/bomb aimer, radio operator and rear gunner. Conceived as a fast, manoeuvrable, "fighting bomber", the Hampden had a fixed .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine gun in the forward fuselage. To avoid the weight penalties of powered turrets, the Hampden had a curved Perspex nose fitted with a manual .303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers K machine gun and two more single .303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers K installations in the rear upper and lower positions. The layout was similar to the all-guns-forward cockpits introduced about the same time in the Luftwaffe 's own medium bombers, notably the Dornier Do 17. The guns were thoroughly inadequate for defence, consequently, by 1940, the single guns had been replaced by twin Vickers K guns.
The fuselage was quite cramped, wide enough only for a single person. The navigator sat behind the pilot, and access in the cockpit required folding down the seats. Once in place, the crew had almost no room to move.
"I did my first flight and first tour on Hampdens. A beautiful aeroplane to fly, terrible to fly in! Cramped, no heat, no facilities where you could relieve yourself. You got in there and you were stuck there. The aeroplane was like a fighter. It was only 3 feet wide on the outside of the fuselage and the pilot was a very busy person. There were 111 items for the pilot to take care of because on the original aircraft he had not only to find the instruments, the engine and all that, but also he had all the bomb switches to hold the bombs. – Wilfred John 'Mike' Lewis
A total of 1,430 Hampdens were built: 500 by Handley Page, 770 by English Electric at Samlesbury in Lancashire; and in 1940–41, 160 in Canada by the Canadian Associated Aircraft consortium (although some were retained in Canada, 84 were shipped by sea to the United Kingdom).
No. 49 Squadron received the first Hampdens in September 1938 and by the end of the year, 49 and 83 Squadrons at RAF Scampton had re-equipped.
A total of 226 Hampdens were in service with ten squadrons by the start of the Second World War, with six of these squadrons forming the operational strength of 5 Group of Bomber Command based in Lincolnshire. Despite its speed and agility, the Hampden was no match for Luftwaffe fighters and its career as a day bomber was brief but Hampdens continued to operate at night on bombing raids over Germany and mine-laying (code-named "gardening") in the North Sea and the French Atlantic ports.
Flight Lieutenant Rod Learoyd of 49 Squadron, was awarded the Victoria Cross for the attack that he led on the Dortmund-Ems canal on 12 August 1940. Sergeant John Hannah was the wireless operator/air gunner of an 83 Squadron Hampden; he was awarded the Victoria Cross on 15 September 1940, when he fought the flames of the burning aircraft, allowing the pilot to return it to base.
Almost half of the Hampdens built, 714, were lost on operations, taking with them 1,077 crew killed and another 739 missing. German flak accounted for 108; one became the victim of a German barrage balloon; 263 Hampdens crashed because of "a variety of causes" and 214 others were classed as "missing." Luftwaffe pilots claimed 128 Hampdens, shooting down 92 at night. Guy Gibson spent most of the first two years of his wartime service flying Hampdens and his book Enemy Coast Ahead (1946) gives a strong flavour of the trials and tribulations of taking these aircraft into action. The last Bomber Command sorties by Hampdens were flown on the night of 14/15 September 1942 by 408 Squadron, RCAF.
After being withdrawn from Bomber Command in 1942, it operated with RAF Coastal Command through 1943 as a long-range torpedo bomber, (the Hampden TB Mk I with a Mk XII torpedo in an open bomb bay and a 500-pound (230 kg) bomb under each wing) and as a maritime reconnaissance aircraft.