True colours – de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth Mk I, Imperial War Museum, Duxford

The de Havilland Tiger Moth was so important to the Royal Air Force, that its continued production nearly prevented the prototype de Havilland Mosquito from being built! It is quite true that this little biplane trainer was the lynchpin of the Royal Air Force’s training system during the period 1939 – 1941, and it was only when they gave assurances to the Air Ministry that their efforts to design and build the incredibly fast prototype aircraft that was to become the Mosquito would NOT interfere with vital work on the Tiger Moth that they were given the go-ahead. Plus, a promise that de Havilland would look to obtain a sub-contractor to take over the production of the DH82a Tiger Moth as soon as possible.

The DH82a was a development of the incredibly successful DH60 Gipsy Moth series of light planes, which had revolutionized private flying in the 1920s. The RAF was not really satisfied with the ability of an instructor (in the front seat) to escape, whilst wearing a parachute, from between the mass of struts and wires connecting the fuselage and the upper wing of the little biplane, however. The solution? Well, apparently a DH60 Moth was disassembled and laid out on a hangar floor at Hatfield; the cabane struts were moved forward, the resulting ‘sweepback’ of the upper wings was coped with by taking sections out of the rear spars, weight and balance calculations made, and the ‘new’ aircraft reassembled. Et voilà! One DH82 Tiger Moth!

The prototype aircraft (covered by Air Ministry Spec. T.23/31) first flew on 31st October, 1931, and was quickly cleared for aerobatics and instrument flying. Intended as the Royal Air Force’s new elementary trainer, the first batch (serials K2567 to K2601) were powered by a four-cylinder de Havilland Gipsy III engine, of 120hp, and called the Tiger Moth Mk I. One of this batch, which went to the Central Flying School, gave a display ‘of inverted flying’ at the 1932 Royal Air Force Display at RAF Hendon. Following the initial production batch, a few changes lead to the adoption of the Mark II, built to Spec. T.26/33; these included a plywood rear decking (from the rear cockpit to the the tail) rather than the fabric covering previously used in that area, and the adoption of a de Havilland Gispy Major engine of 130hp. There was even a floatplane version, produced to Spec. T.6/33, which used a specially-made pair of Shorts floats. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933, and the steady abrogation of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, meant that increasing efforts were made to expand the armed forces of Great Britain, and that included the formation of civilian-operated Elementary Flying Training Schools alongside the Service establishments; examples of these training units included No 1 EFTS at Hatfield, No 6 EFTS at Sywell and No 13 at White Waltham. These schools provided ‘ab initio’ training, to prepare trainees for the rigours of RAF pilot training which would follow.

By the outbreak of WW2, around 1,000 Tiger Moths had been delivered to both the EFTS and the RAF’s Reserve Flying Training Schools, both of which fed graduates into the Service Flying Training Schools for advanced pilot training. There were no less than 28 EFTS and RFTS in Great Britain during WW2, 12 in Australia, 25 in Canada, 4 in New Zealand, 7 in South Africa, 5 in Rhodesia and 2 in India. All of them, at one time or another had Tiger Moths on charge. The Tiger Moth was challenging enough to ensure that piloting skills developed, and yet had no major vices; please note the folded canvas ‘blind flying hood’ for use by the pupil when undertaking instrument flying training. Its maximum speed was 109 mph (cruise was 93 mph), and it had a 19 gallon aerodynamic fuel tank, located on the centreline, between the upper wings; this gave an endurance of about 3 hours. The Tiger can be flown down to about 40 mph in level flight, whereupon it enters a spin to the right (although you can force a left-handed spin, by using the rudder). This characteristic caused the RAF to ask for ‘Mod. 112’, a pair of flat, anti-spin strakes, extending forward from the base of the fin, on later production aircraft. As an aside, postwar the Dutch authorities insisted on a huge dorsal extension to the fin on their Tiger Moths, which was a) amazingly ugly b) appeared not to alter the spinning characteristics a great deal!

No less than 4,668 Tiger Moths were built for the RAF, 3,433 of these being produced by the main sub-contractor, Morris Motors Ltd of Cowley, near Oxford from 1941 to 1945. Also, 2,751 were built in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to service the needs of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan – some of the Canadian machines had enclosed cockpits to counter their harsh winters and Menasco Pirate engines (these were classified as the DH82c). In 1940, when the need for pilots was at it height, Tiger Moths were spread all over the globe (examples included ‘N9374’, a camouflaged Mk II from No 22 EFTS at Cambridge and ‘K1778’, an Indian Air Force machine, finished all-over silver, at the Indian Air Force Flying School, Risalpur, India).

The colourful example you can see above is a Mark II, ‘N6635’, “25”, suspended from the ceiling of ‘AirSpace’ at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. It typifies the ‘early war’ camouflage scheme for RAF training and second-line aircraft (such as prototypes) that is, Dark Earth and Dark Green above, with Roundel Yellow on all undersurfaces – please note that this aircraft has a very high demarcation line between the yellow and the other paint colours. You can also see the many stencil markings in black all over the aircraft. Interestingly, this aircraft is NOT fitted with Mod. 112 – it has no anti-spin strakes. As with many other examples of WW2 aircraft in museums around the world, this is a ‘composite’, containing parts from several Tiger Moths; it is known that it contains components from ‘K2572’, and was once displayed as ‘DE998’. Suffice it to say that before it was hoisted into the roof, it underwent a comprehensive restoration and repainting exercise; it was rolled out of the restoration shop in March, 2006, and much admired and photographed outside the hangar before taking up its permanent position.

The Tiger Moth had a 15 year service life with RAF Flying Training Command, from 1932 to 1947, during which it was the standard elementary trainer; it was eventually replaced by the de Havilland (Canada) Ltd DHC-1 Chipmunk. After this, it continued to train pilots with the RAF Volunteer Reserve until withdrawn in 1951, making it the last biplane trainer in RAF service. Their Lordships of the Admiralty were, as always, rather more conservative – the Royal Navy still had 11 Tiger Moths in service up until February, 1960, some of which were used for towing gliders; one of them had been ‘impressed’ in 1939! This meant that the de Havilland Tiger Moth was in service with the British Armed Forces from 1932 to 1960 – amazing! In the 1950s, there was a flood of Tiger Moths onto the civilian market, and they were welcomed by flying clubs and private individuals; many of these had their 19 gallon fuel tank removed, and a 29 gallon tank, designed for the de Havilland Queen Bee (a radio-controlled target version) substituted.

Although the Tiger Moth had a long and distinguished Service life, some even carrying out unarmed coastal reconnaissance patrols over British inshore waters during the dark days of 1939 and 1940, when there were not enough ‘warplanes’ to cover shipping routes, perhaps their most frightening and suicidal mission of all fortunately never had to take place. In the Spring and Summer of 1940, it seemed absolutely certain that Hitler would invade the South of England. It was highly likely that the RAF would have to abandon their airfields south of London, and operate from north and west of the capital. In this desperate eventuality, (circumstances which would have triggered the activation of the GHQ Auxiliary Units), every single thing that could carry a bomb would have been used. After tests at Hatfield by Major Hereward de Havilland, it was found that the Tiger Moth was capable of carrying 8 x 20lb light bombs (four under each wing); it was also possible to carry a single 250lb bomb under the fuselage; 1,500 sets of these bomb racks were distributed to the training units. The bomb racks were similar to those used by the military version of the DH84 Dragon, built earlier for the Iraq Air Force. Under ‘Operation Banquet Light’, Tiger Moths would be bombed up and, flown by instructors and their better pupils from the EFTS and Reserve Flying Schools, would have attacked the invading German forces. Losses amongst the trainers would have been high, but it is possible that by restricting their attacks to dawn and dusk and the short Summer nights (rather like the Russian Po-2 units on the Eastern Front), they could have caused a worthwhile amount of damage. Even more challenging was the suggestion that the Tiger Moth be fitted with a long, straight scythe blade on a pole held underneath the aircraft, then released in flight to hang down below the undercarriage. This so-called ‘Paraslasher’ was designed to cut and collapse the parachutes of invading German ‘Fallschirmjäger’. Although tests proved that this was possible, the idea was not pursued.

The de Havilland Tiger Moth – a long-lived, superb example of a training aircraft.

2 comments on “True colours – de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth Mk I, Imperial War Museum, Duxford”

  1. A wonderful primer Ross, well done 🙂


  2. Thank you, Joe….very kind of you! This was prompted by reading about Operation Banquet.


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