Icons of Aviation History: The Mosquito

The “Mozzie” was the most versatile aircraft of the war, fast and lightweight. Different variations served as interceptors, photo reconnaissance, light bombers, and ground attack.

Mosquito in American markings, on display at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH

When the Second World War broke out, it was apparent that every military in the world would need a lot of aircraft. In England, designer Geoffrey De Havilland, who had built airplanes in the First World War, also realized that the materials used to make them, especially aluminum, would also become scarce, as would the engineers and skilled metal-workers who knew how to assemble parts from these materials.

And so De Havilland went off in a different direction. He proposed a design for a twin-engined bomber that would be made entirely of plywood. This would help save on scarce aluminum, and could also be assembled quickly using cabinet-makers and carpenters as workers. And then De Havilland became even more radical. Unlike the conventional bombers like the Lancaster, which were big and slow and depended on heavy armor and machine guns for protection, De Havilland’s bomber would be small, light, and have no armor or guns at all—it would depend entirely on speed for protection. The DH98 Mosquito would be able to reach occupied Europe, come in fast and low to evade and outrun enemy fighters, and drop its 1,000-pounds of bombs on a pinpoint target.

It was a unique vision, but it was too unorthodox for the British Air Ministry, and they turned him down. De Havilland, undeterred, used his own money to continue work on the project, remarking to a colleague, “They may not want it now, but they will.”

And he was correct. After the Battle of Britain, the English began to look for some way to strike back against Germany. There were not enough heavy bombers yet to begin the nightly air raids that would start devastating the Nazis in 1943, but there was a small fast bomber that could reach targets in Europe: the Mosquito. In November 1940, De Havilland was commissioned to build 40 of his twin-engined bombers. In their first flights, they reached speeds of over 400mph—and remained the fastest bombers in the world until the jet age. It quickly became known as “The Wooden Wonder”. Soon, woodworkers at 400 locations in Britain would be gluing and screwing  Mosquito parts together from birch wood, to be assembled at the De Havilland factory.

It was its low-level precision that made the Mosquito so useful as a bomber. While the Lancaster was good for area-bombing, dropping large bomb loads over an entire city from height, De Havilland’s bomber could come in low under German radar and pinpoint a specific target. Although the plane was designed to be unarmed, it was found that it could indeed carry a variety of rockets and guns, all the way up to an immense 57mm cannon, for attacking ground targets (this version was known as the “Tsetse”).

This opened up an option that had never existed before: unlike the heavy bombers, the Mosquitoes had the capability to go in and target a single building, destroying it while minimizing any damage to its surroundings. One of the first of these types of raids was against the Nazi Gestapo headquarters in Oslo, Norway, where members of the anti-Nazi Resistance were being held. Other similar raids followed against the Jail in Amiens, France, the Shell House in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the Central Registry Building in Occupied Holland. The first British raids on Berlin took place in January 1943—and they were made by Mosquitoes. That morning, Goering was scheduled to give a speech at a Berlin parade bragging that Allied aircraft would never be able to reach Berlin, which was disrupted by a flight of Mosquitos roaring in at rooftop level. Later that same afternoon, the performance was repeated at another rally where Goebbels was speaking. Throughout the war, Mosquitoes would be sent in for pinpoint attacks on small targets like power stations and V-1 launch sites. They were also one of the few British aircraft that were fast enough to reach V-1 buzzbombs in the air and shoot them down.

Once the Mosquito was flying, it also did not take long for the British to realize the tremendous versatility that their light fast long-distance airframe offered. The most obvious adaptation was for photoreconnaissance: the bomb load was replaced with up to five cameras, and with its superior speed the Mozzie could streak over a desired target at treetop level, snapping clear closeup 3d stereoscopic photos the entire way.

Other adaptations soon followed. The planes were used to deliver weapons and supplies to Resistance fighters in Europe, and also functioned as light cargo planes and VIP transports. Mosquitoes became “Pathfinders” which went in at low level ahead of the heavy bomber raids and accurately marked the target; these long-range bombing missions became test platforms for various electronic navigation systems such as “Oboe”. By 1944, small flights of Mosquitoes were flying diversionary raids over Germany, which used electronic devices to make them appear as a much larger force on radar, luring German fighters away from the actual bombers—a practice known as “spoofing”.

Fitted with torpedoes or depth charges, the plane also proved to be effective as shore patrols and submarine hunters, and some were modified to drop anti-ship mines into harbors. When small radar sets became available, the Mosquito was converted into a formidable night fighter, armed with four 20mm cannons.

Even after the war, the Mosquito was still useful. The RAF continued to use it as a reconnaissance platform until 1953, when it was replaced by the jet-engined Canberra. Of the 7700 total De Havillands that were manufactured, around 1,000 came after 1945.

The United States obtained around 160 Mosquitoes from Canada and the UK, using them for photoreconnaissance, advance weather planes, and as light bombers. After the war ended they were used to tow target drones for gunnery practice. One of these Mosquitoes, delivered to the US in 1946, is on display at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH.

One thought on “Icons of Aviation History: The Mosquito”

  1. I first learned of the Mosquito as a child, from an unlikely source: a Tintin comic. More specifically, “The Red Sea Sharks,” published in the 1950s; one plot point concerns the smuggling of Mosquitoes to a fictional Middle Eastern country. In a famous scene, a small boat on which Tintin and his pal Captain Haddock are traveling is attacked by Mosquitoes. Found the sequence online:


    Perhaps rather unlikely, Tintin manages to shoot one down.

    In any event, it has long seemed to me the mozzies were among the somewhat unsung heroes of the war. One hears a lot about more glamorous aircraft like the famous Spitfires, but the Mosquitoes could fly circles around almost everything else available at the time.

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