Thursday 12 January 2023

Bye Bye Berlin: Türkiye’s He 111 Bombers

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Looking at the title and header image one might easily be led to conclude that we've gotten the aircraft type wrong for this particular article. Where is the characteristic fully glazed cockpit everyone has come to know the Heinkel He 111 for, one might ask.* Nonetheless, this aircraft too is a German-made Heinkel He 111. In fact, it's one of 24 aircraft of the type delivered to the Turkish Air Force (Türk Hava Kuvvetleri) in late 1937 and early 1938. The lack of the He 111's most distinguishing feature is explained by the fact that the aircraft purchased by Türkiye were of the earlier J series, while the infamous glazed nose cockpit design was only introduced on aircraft from the more common P series onwards.

With that potential stumbling block out of the way, it is time to answer why Türkiye ended up acquiring He 111s in the first place. 1930s Türkiye lacked the military means to confront newly emerging threats, most notably the rise of fascist Italy in the Mediterranean. Confronted with a dilapidated military, Türkiye began ordering large quantities of armament from abroad. This also included the country's first true bombers in the form of the Martin 139WT purchased from the U.S. [1] Though a significant improvement over the 1920s-era Breguet 19 biplanes that still made up the brunt of the country's offensive aerial capabilities, the acquisition of just 20 bombers was hardly sufficient for the defence needs of a country as large as Türkiye.
For this reason, a number of aircraft manufacturers were invited to show off their latest products in Türkiye in March 1937. Eager to do business with Türkiye, Heinkel showcased its newest He 111 F-0 design. This type appears to have won the admiration of its Turkish hosts, and the demonstration flights were soon followed by an order for 24 He 111 J-1s in March 1937. [2] 18 of these already arrived in October of that same year, with the remaining six following suit in early 1938. It has also been reported that Türkiye received two Dornier Do 17s, though this could possibly be a mix-up with the aircraft that were demonstrated in the country in 1937 for the tender that was ultimately won by Heinkel. [3]

One of two images that show a Do 17 M or P in Turkish markings. It remains uncertain whether Türkiye actually acquired the type or if Dornier painted one of its aircraft in a Turkish livery during the 1937 demonstration flights.

The quick delivery of the He 111s just seven months after they had been ordered is sure to have pleased the Turkish Air Force, and allowed for the retirement of the obsolete Breguet 19 biplane bombers acquired secondhand from France in 1932. After their arrival to the country, the He 111s entered service with the 1st and 2nd Squadron of No. 1 Battalion of the 1st Air Regiment at Eskişehir in the northwestern part of the country. [4] Each of the two squadrons operated eight He 111 J-1s with six more aircraft used as operational reserves. [5] New Turkish He 111 pilots were trained on six Focke-Wulf Fw 58 Weihe multi-role aircraft also received from Germany in 1937. [4]

However, the Turkish Air Force soon ran into a bit of a pickle as Berlin notified Ankara in June 1941 that the further supply of spare parts for the He 111 was unlikely because of the aircraft's obsolence. [5] The reason for this poor excuse became apparent days later when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, thus requiring all spare parts for its own He 111s. Not willing to relinquish its He 111s to the aircraft dumpyard, Türkiye then turned to the United Kingdom with the curious request if it could supply He 111 spare parts scavenged from aircraft that crash-landed during the 1940 Blitz. London agreed and provided eight engines, engine spare parts, airframe parts and cockpit instruments. [5]

The dwindling number of operational He 111 airframes could meanwhile be made up for by a steady supply of bomber aircraft from the United Kingdom, including some 50 Bristol Blenheims and Beauforts. In 1944 the remaining He 111 J-1s were grouped together with five interned ex-USAAF B-24D Liberator heavy bombers in a ''Strategic Bomber'' unit. The B-24Ds were part of two formations of eleven aircraft in total that had crash-landed in Türkiye in 1942 and 1944 and had been made operational by the Turkish Air Force. When the He 111 J-1s were withdrawn one year later in late 1945, eight of the 24 aircraft originally acquired were still operational, a testament to its sturdy design.

The Nazi roundel used during the He 111's delivery flight makes way for the Turkish flag on the tail of a He 111 J.

There still exists some confusion whether the He 111s received by Türkiye were of the F or of the J series. The He 111 J was largely similiar to the He 111 F but incorporated two Daimler-Benz DB 600G engines (with non-retractable coolers) and a new wing design with trailing edges. The He 111 J had originally been developed to meet a Kriegsmarine requirement for a torpedo bomber, but the Luftwaffe eventually ended up as the sole operator of the aircraft after the Kriegsmarine lost interest in the type. Up to 120 aircraft were manufactured that mainly served in the maritime reconnaissance role until replaced by Ju 88s in 1941. The Js were used in training schools until 1944. The reason why Türkiye ended up acquiring the 'navalised' He 111 J-1 was likely because of its short delivery time (7+ months). The operational parameters of the F and J variants were roughly the same: a maximum speed of 305 km/h and a defensive armament of three 7.92mm MG-15 machine guns in the nose, on top of the fuselage and a third in a ventral retractable "dustbin" turret. The bomb bay could hold a 2000kg payload, compared to just 1025kg for the Martin 139WT.

One might easily (but mistakenly) believe this image shows two Heinkel He 111s over the English countryside hadn't it been for the Turkish markings on the wings.

Unlike most other He 111s, Türkiye's aircraft would never drop a bomb in anger, but did end up in operation for much longer (some eight years) than those aircraft operated by the countries that did use them in the war. Had Türkiye declared war on Nazi Germany sooner (rather than only doing so in February 1945) as had been hoped for by the Allies, the use of He 111s against their own designers would have made for an interesting chapter in history. Regardless, tales of early Turkish aviation and the often peculiar avenues of their acquisition never fail to capture the imagination, and arouse a sense of wonder about these tumultuous times that are now slowly becoming a distant memory.
* Despite reader feedback, the author remains convinced that the He 111's famous glass nose should be considered common knowledge.
[1] From Martin 139 To Kızılelma: 85 Years Of Turkish Bombers
[5] The Turkish Air Force, 1939-45: The Rise of a Minor Power