As an airliner, the Lockheed Super Electra was a commercial failure. It was a brilliant aircraft with excellent performance, but it lacked the capacity of the Douglas DC-3, which appealed to profit driven airlines. Even so, you may be wondering what would happen if one were to send the Super Electra (or derivatives of it) to war – where performance and durability mattered more than profitability.
The Lockheed Super Electra first flew in 1937 - two years before the beginning of the Second World War. In spite of its rather poor sales figures, the Super Electra was a highly capable airliner. For example, Howard Hughes (who was to some extent the Richard Branson of the 1930s) completed his highly publicised circumnavigation of the Earth in a Super Electra. Also, in late 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain utilised a Super Electra, when he flew to Germany to establish a peace agreement with Adolf Hitler. Of course, that peace agreement lasted about five seconds and the Royal Air Force (RAF) soon had an urgent requirement for a maritime patrol bomber that could also be used as a navigation trainer. Lockheed’s solution consisted of modifying its Super Electra design to meet those requirements. The resulting aircraft was known as the Hudson, and it became the first American-built aircraft type to be used by the RAF. Hudsons were effective U-Boat hunters and were used by Commonwealth and American forces in all theatres of World War II.
Meanwhile, Lockheed had started developing a replacement for the Super Electra. Its new aircraft, the Lodestar, differed from its predecessor by having a lengthened fuselage, enabling it to carry more passengers. Lodestars appealed to a wide range of international customers, including SAA, and were even used to transport military VIPs or troops. Lockheed realised that the RAF would eventually need to replace its Hudsons, so they developed the Lockheed 37 - a military version of the Lodestar. The RAF ordered 675 examples of the Lockheed 37 and changed the aircraft’s designation to ‘Ventura’.
I have to warn you that the next few paragraphs are going to be rather technical, so if you prefer reading about action packed adventures, you are welcome to skip to the ‘Combat History’ section of this article. These technical details, however, do help us to see how SAAF Venturas fitted into the big picture.
The first Lockheed 37 variant, the Ventura Mk I, had more powerful engines (1 850 hp per engine) and more effective armour than the Hudson. With its lengthened fuselage, the Ventura could also carry more bombs. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) operated Lockheed 37s as B-34s (equivalent of the RAF’s Ventura Mk II) and B-37s (Ventura Mk III), whilst the U.S. Navy designated the maritime version the PV-1.
PV-1s were also used by the RAF as the GR.Mk V. Later on, the U.S. Navy’s PV-2s and PV-3s were named ‘Harpoons’ and had redesigned airframes and larger wings to allow bigger bomb loads. The South African Air Force (SAAF) operated Ventura Mk Is, Mk IIs (B-34s) and PV-1s (Mk Vs).
PV-1 Venturas had even more powerful engines than its predecessors (2 000 hp each) and could reach a respectable maximum speed of 280 kts. PV-1s had a range of almost 2 200 km and, if necessary, could fly at an altitude of just over 26 000 ft. Defensive armament consisted of forward firing machine guns, a dorsal turret and a ventral machine gun position. Depth charges, bombs or a torpedo could be carried in the bomb bay, whilst later models were often equipped with under-wing rockets. Some U.S. Marine Corps PV-1s incorporated British radar technology and were used as night fighters.
The RAF initially used its Venturas to conduct bombing sorties over Europe. Venturas were more vulnerable to enemy fighters than most contemporary bombers, so losses became unacceptably high whenever these bombers were used to attack well-defended targets. Mosquitoes and Bostons proved to be much more effective in conducting similar daylight raids, leaving the Venturas to be transferred to Coastal Command. The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) had similar experiences when using its Venturas as daylight bombers. During a raid on a target in Amsterdam, the RNZAF lost ten Venturas, with only one aircraft managing to limp back to England. However, there were some successful raids and Venturas even participated in the epic raid on the Philips radio and valve factory at Eindhoven.
Nevertheless, Venturas were much more successful whilst serving in maritime squadrons in the Mediterranean, where they were used mainly to attack ships, hunt U-Boats and perform search and rescue missions. In the Pacific theatre, RNZAF Venturas performed a variety of additional tasks such as mine laying and conducting strike and reconnaissance sorties. Venturas often mixed with Japanese fighters and occasionally managed to damage and even destroy their pursuers. U.S. Navy PV-1s and PV-2s performed just as well as their New Zealand counterparts and were used with deadly efficiency against Japanese land and sea targets, whilst managing to defend themselves against enemy fighters. PV-2s participated in many of the significant Pacific battles and remained in service with the U.S. Navy for several years after World War II.
SAAF Venturas were used extensively for search and rescue missions and to attack U-Boats and enemy shipping. Several SAAF squadrons performed these duties effectively in the Mediterranean theatre. This month’s gatefold drawing features a 22 Squadron PV-1 that operated in the Mediterranean area during that time period. Images of Walt Disney cartoon characters with popular wartime slogans were often applied to the paint scheme at Lockheed’s Vega plant, as can be seen on this particular example. The second PV-1 on the gatefold was one of several target-tugs based at Langebaanweg and Ysterplaat. It was primarily used to drag drogues for naval anti-aircraft gunners.
Meanwhile, the South African coastline itself became the hunting ground of U-Boats. SAAF patrol aircraft attacked a total of 26 Axis submarines and helped intercept 17 blockade-runners along the South African coastline. Venturas were instrumental in rescuing surviving sailors whose ships had been destroyed by U-Boats. The presence of SAAF Venturas had a definite impact on U-Boat activity, resulting in safer seas for the many supply ships that sailed around Africa.
South Africa was one of several countries that continued operating Venturas after the Second World War. In fact, during the early stages (1960s) of the Angolan War, Portuguese forces were still using Venturas in counter insurgency operations and close air support sorties. From its civilian roots to difficult and discouraging days in Bomber Command, the Ventura had grown into a battle hardened maritime warrior. Rugged reliability and versatility caused the type to be used in almost every imaginable role in practically every part of the world. It filled U-Boat crews with terror, yet it brought hope to downed aircrews and shipwrecked sailors. The Lockheed Ventura was indeed a legend of contrasts.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2008 - www.africanpilot.co.za