The Supermarine Walrus was one of the unsung workhorses of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF during the Second World War, operating as a fleet spotter and air sea rescue aircraft and fighting in just about every theatre of the war.
The Walrus was developed from the Seagull, a three-seat amphibian fleet spotter first developed in the early 1920s. A decade later the RAAF issued a specification for a similar aircraft, and Supermarine responded with the Seagull V, a much improved version of the earlier aircraft. The new Seagull V was powered by a Pegasus engine in a pusher configuration. The wings were of the same size as on the Seagull II, but with the number of struts reduced from twelve to eight, and the engine carried on the inner four struts. The open cockpit of the Seagull II was replaced with a enclosed cockpit. In August 1934 the Australians place an order for twenty four Seagull Vs, some of which were still in service as late as 1943.
The Air Ministry was also interested in the new amphibian, and in May 1935 placed an order for twelve Seagull Vs. The first of these aircraft made its maiden flight on 18 March 1936. At about the same time the aircraft was renamed as the Supermarine Walrus.
Early Walruses were very similar to the Seagull V. A more powerful engine – the Pegasus VI – was installed on most production aircraft, raising the aircraft’s top speed by 10mph. The number of aircraft ordered rose steadily from the initial twelve, and in July 1936 an order was replaced for 168 aircraft. Supermarine lacked the capacity to build these aircraft alongside the 310 Spitfires ordered in June, and so production was sub-contracted to Saunders-Roe.
The Walrus entered service with the Fleet Air Arm. Existing County Class cruisers were modified to carry the aircraft, while the Town Class was designed with them in mind. By the start of the Second World War the Walrus was also in use on the monitor Terror and the formerly Australian seaplane carrier Albatross.
The Walrus very rarely carried out the role it had been designed for – spotting the fall of shells during naval engagements. The aircraft from HMS Renown and HMS Manchester were used during the battle of Cape Spartivento of 27 November 1940, and that of HMS Gloucester during the battle of Cape Matapan on 29 March 1941, but a combination of the presence of carrier borne aircraft and the development of radar spotting meant that the Walrus wasn’t needed in this role.
Equally important tasks were soon found for the Walrus. In the campaigns in Norway and East Africa it was used as a combat aircraft, even performing some ground attack and bombing sorties. It was also used on anti-submarine patrols and for convoy protection, both on Atlantic and Russian convoys. They were also used as reconnaissance aircraft during the invasion of Madagascar in the spring 1942, and during Operation Torch. By the end of 1943 the ship-born Walrus had been phased out, and in the last years of the war the RAF was the main operator of the type.
The RAF used the Walrus as an air-sea rescue aircraft. No.276 Squadron at Harrowbeer was the first to get the type, using it alongside longer range land planes. The downed airmen would be spotted by fast fighter aircraft, supplies dropped from Avro Ansons, and finally be picked up by the Walrus. At least 1,000 British and Allied airmen were rescued by the Walrus, with most coming from RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF 8th Air Force.
A total of 555 Walrus Mk.Is were produced, 285 by Supermarine and 270 by Saunders-Roe. This was the standard metal hulled version of the aircraft, and was the version most often used on active service.
270 of the 461 produced under license by Saro- the standard metal hulled version
Plus 285 built by Supermarine
A further 191 wooden hulled Walrus Mk.IIs were produced by Saunders-Roe, bringing the total produced to 746. The wooden-hulled Mk.II was heavier than the Mk.I, but was easier to repair and didn’t use any of the limited supplies of light alloys needed so urgently for other aircraft. Most of the Walrus Mk.IIs were used by training units, where their lower performance didn’t matter but the ease with which they could be repaired did.
Statistics – Walrus I
Engine: Bristol Pegasus VI radial engine
Wing span: 45ft 10in
Length: 37ft 3in
Height: 15ft 3in
Maximum speed: 135mph
Service ceiling: 17,100ft or 18,500ft
Maximum range: 600 miles
Armament: One 0.303in Vickers K gun in nose, one or two K guns in beam positions
Bomb load: 600lb of bombs or two Mk VIII depth charges