Hendon’s recovered Handley-Page Halifax brings new meaning to the phrase ‘battle trim’
Visitors to London’s Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon may notice that, unlike the other lovingly preserved aircraft on display, one museum resident isn’t exactly in pristine condition. It’s missing part of a wing and three of its four engines, there are holes in it, the paint job and markings are worn—it looks a wreck, in fact. The airplane is one of the few surviving RAF Handley-Page Halifax heavy bombers, and there’s both a good reason and a noble purpose behind its appearance.
A Mark II variant of the versatile four-engine bomber workhorse, Halifax serial number W1048 was built by English Electric in 1942. Early that April it arrived at No. 35 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse and was given the official call sign TL-S, better known as S-Sugar. After some training flights, S-Sugar moved to RAF Kinloss in Scotland with 10 other Halifaxes from No. 35 to become the spearhead of a desperate attempt to destroy the dreaded battleship Tirpitz, then moored at Foettenfjord in Nazi-occupied Norway.
At 8:30 p.m. on April 27, 1942, S-Sugar took off commanded by Pilot Officer Don MacIntyre, a 24-year-old Canadian, and soon joined up with the rest of the attack force. All the crews knew that although Tirpitz might merely be sitting dead in the water, it wouldn’t be an easy target: Not only was the battleship bristling with heavy armament, it was de – fended by anti-aircraft batteries and escort ships. Added to that would be the difficulty of locating the ship at nighttime and making an accurate, on-point attack.
Somehow the force of 31 Halifaxes managed to find their quarry, beginning their bombing runs on Tirpitz just after midnight. Each of the No. 35 Squadron planes carried four 1,000-pound Royal Navy spherical mines. The hope was that the mines would roll down the fjord’s steep sides and explode in the water between the battleship and the shore, directing their explosive force at Tirpitz’s weaker areas below the waterline instead of its heavily armored topside. S-Sugar was eighth in line.
Dropping low to see through the protective smokescreen blanketing the battleship, MacIntyre released his mines at an altitude of about 200 feet. Instantly the aircraft was violently wrenched by direct hits from flak. As MacIntyre pulled up from his bomb run, the crew reported that S-Sugar was on fire, with almost the entire starboard wing and engine blazing furiously.
MacIntyre was far too low for the crew to bail out, and he realized that his aircraft would never make it back home or even to Sweden, the nearest neutral territory. He told his five-man crew to prepare for a crash landing. Through the smoke and flak, MacIntyre picked out the only flat surface he could find: nearby Lake Hoklingen, which as far as he could tell was still frozen over—solid enough, he hoped, to set S-Sugar down on it in more or less one piece.
With the Halifax burning fiercely and breaking apart, MacIntyre managed to make a belly landing on Lake Hoklingen. The plane slid across the ice for about half a mile before finally stopping, still on fire. When the crew scrambled out onto the ice, the only casualty was flight engineer Vic Stevens, who’d broken his ankle in the crash landing.
Although three other RAF planes had been downed in the raid, the German battleship they had targeted wasn’t scratched. (Tirpitz would spend most of the next two years as a harbor queen until another RAF bomber raid in November 1944 finally sank it.) With the aid of the Norwegian resistance, MacIntyre and his crew managed to escape the Germans—except for Stevens, whose broken ankle made it impossible for him to evade capture. About 12 hours after MacIntyre brought the bomber down on the frozen lake, S-Sugar finally broke through the ice and sank to the bottom near the southern end of the lake, ending its first and final mission.
By 1972, members of the Draugen Diving Club from the nearby town of Trondheim had rediscovered where S-Sugar was resting on the lake’s bottom. That October the RAF sent several professional divers to take a closer look. The Halifax was partially mired in mud, broken and scarred, but still readily identifiable. The divers located the gun turrets, even swimming inside the fuselage up to the cockpit, where their flashlights made the luminescent instrument panels glow through the darkened depths. The bomber’s controls could still be moved by hand.
Even after three decades, the lake’s cold fresh water, less corrosive and harsh than salty ocean water, had proved a relatively benign environment. The most serious damage to S-Sugar was the loss of its outer starboard engine, which had sustained a direct hit from flak. A few other bits and pieces were missing, taken as souvenirs by amateur divers, and at some point the tailwheel tire had broken free and floated to the surface, after which a farmer fished it out and turned it into a makeshift flower pot.
In June 1973, an RAF team arrived in Norway for “Operation Halifax.” Assisted by members of the diving club that had originally located the airplane, RAF divers attached 54 40-gallon oil drums to S-Sugar at strategic points, then filled the drums with compressed air to raise the bomber to the surface. It didn’t work at first. S-Sugar sank back down into the mud, its weakened outer starboard wing breaking off in the process. But three days later the team tried again, and this time the Halifax broke the surface of Lake Hoklingen shortly after 2 p.m., to the cheers and applause of a large crowd gathered along the shore. Towed to shore by motorboat, the bomber was then pulled farther onto dry land by bulldozers.
Although missing its outer starboard wing and one of its Rolls-Royce Merlins, S-Sugar still offered testimony of its gallant attack on Tirpitz. Its machine guns held about 8,000 rounds of ammunition, unopened food and survival packs were still inside the fu selage and some of the crew’s personal effects were found exactly where they had been left in 1942. Even the instrument panel promptly came back to life when dried out and hooked up to battery power.
The recovery team carefully dismantled S-Sugar before its long-delayed journey home to England. The original intention was to fully restore the aircraft, starting with the forward fuselage section, which was moved to RAF Wyton to begin the process. But when part of the understructure collapsed, experts realized that the Halifax was too fragile to withstand a complete restoration. They decided to limit their efforts to the forward gun turret and the pilot’s and flight engineer’s instrument panels. Perhaps, it was suggested, S-Sugar could tell a more powerful story if the bomber was left mostly as it had been found, scarred by battle, rather than restored to pristine glory. Meanwhile, one of the remaining engines was restored and rebuilt by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society—with such attention to detail that its starter motor was later borrowed to get a restored Spitfire off the ground.
After a 1983 ceremony attended by the Queen Mother and surviving crew members who had lived through that harrowing night in April 1942, Handley-Page Halifax W1048 S-Sugar went on permanent display in the Bomber Command Hall at the RAF Museum in Hendon. Although it had logged only 13 hours of official flight time and just one combat sortie, S-Sugar’s ultimate mission has turned out to be far more lasting and perhaps more important: serving as mute testimony to the bravery and sacrifice of the aircrews of all nations, particularly those that, unlike S-Sugar’s crew, never made it home.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.