Short Stirling

The Short Stirling was a British four-engined heavy bomber of the Second World War. It has the distinction of being the first four-engined bomber to be introduced into service with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Stirling N6101 from No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit at Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, being "bombed up".
Role Heavy bomber
Glider tug
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Short Brothers, Rochester
Short Bros. and Harland, Belfast
Austin Motor Company
Designer Claude Lipscomb / Sir Arthur Gouge
First flight 14 May 1939
Introduction 1940
Retired 1946 (UK); 1951 (Egypt)
Status Retired
Primary users Royal Air Force
Egyptian Air Force
Produced 1939–1945
Number built 2,371[1][2]

The Stirling was designed during the late 1930s by Short Brothers to conform with the requirements laid out in Air Ministry Specification B.12/36. Prior to this, the RAF had been primarily interested in developing increasingly capable twin-engined bombers but had been persuaded to investigate a prospective four-engined bomber as a result of promising foreign developments in the field. Out of the submissions made to the specification, Supermarine proposed the Type 317 which was viewed as the favourite, while Short's submission, named the S.29, was selected as an alternative. When the preferred Type 317 had to be abandoned, the S.29, which later received the name Stirling, proceeded to production.

During early 1941, the Stirling entered squadron service. During its use as a bomber, pilots praised the type for its ability to out-turn enemy night fighters and its favourable handling characteristics, while the altitude ceiling was often a subject of criticism. The Stirling had a relatively brief operational career as a bomber before being relegated to second line duties from late 1943. This was due to the increasing availability of the more capable Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster, which took over the strategic bombing of Germany. Decisions by the Air Ministry on certain performance requirements, such as to restrict the wingspan of the aircraft to 100 feet, had played a role in limiting the Stirling's performance; these restrictive demands had not been placed upon the Halifax and Lancaster bombers.

During its later service, the Stirling was used for mining German ports; new and converted aircraft also flew as glider tugs and supply aircraft during the Allied invasion of Europe during 1944–1945. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the type was rapidly withdrawn from RAF service, having been replaced in the transport role by the Avro York, a derivative of the Lancaster that had previously displaced it from the bomber role. A handful of ex-military Stirlings were rebuilt for the civil market.



In the 1930s, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was interested primarily in twin-engine bombers.[3] These designs put limited demands on engine production and maintenance, both of which were already stretched with the introduction of so many new types into service. Power limitations were so serious that the British invested heavily in the development of huge engines in the 2,000 horsepower (1,500 kW) class in order to improve performance. During the late 1930s, none of these were ready for production. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were pursuing the development of bombers powered by arrangements of four smaller engines, the results of these projects proved to possess favourable characteristics such as excellent range and fair lifting capacity. Accordingly, in 1936, the RAF also decided to investigate the feasibility of the four-engined bomber.[3]

The British Air Ministry published Specification B.12/36, which called for a high-speed, long-range four-engined strategic bomber aircraft, that would be capable of being designed and constructed at speed.[3] Amongst the several requirements specified, the bomb load was to be a maximum of 14,000 lb (6,350 kg) carried to a range of 2,000 miles (3218 km) or a lesser payload of 8,000 lb (3,629 kg) to 3,000 miles (4,800 km) (incredibly demanding for the era). It was to have a crew of six and was to have a normal all-up weight of 48,000 lb, while a maximum overload weight of 65,000 lb was also envisioned.[3] The aircraft would have to be capable of cruising at speeds of 230 mph or greater while flying at 15,000 ft (4,600 m), while possessing three individual gun turrets (located in nose, amidships and rear positions) for self-defence.[4]

Additionally, the prospective aircraft should also be able to be used as a troop transport for 24 soldiers,[5] and be able to use catapult assistance for take off.[4] The concept was that the aircraft would fly troops to far corners of the British Empire and then support them with bombing. To help with this task as well as ease production, it needed to be able to be broken down into parts, for transport by train.[6] Since it could be operating from limited "back country" airfields, it needed to lift off from a 500 ft (150 m) runway and be able to clear 50 ft (15 m) trees at the end, a specification most small aircraft would have a problem with today. Aviation author Geoffrey Norris observed that the stringent requirements given in the specification for the prospective aircraft to be able to make use of existing infrastructure, specifically the specified maximum wingspan of 100 feet, negatively impacted the Stirling's performance, such as its relatively low altitude ceiling and its inability to carry anything larger than 500 lb bombs.[3]

Various companies responded to B.12/36, including Supermarine and Armstrong Whitworth.[3] Initially left out of those asked to tender designs, Shorts were later included because the company already had similar designs in hand while possessing ample design staff and production facilities to fulfil foreseen production commitments. Shorts were producing several four-engined flying boat designs of the required size and created their S.29 proposal by removing the lower deck and boat hull of the S.25 Sunderland. The new S.29 design was otherwise largely identical to the Sunderland: the wings and controls were the same, construction was identical and it even retained the slight upward bend at the rear of the fuselage, which had originally been intended to keep the Sunderland's tail clear of sea spray. As originally designed, the S.29 was considered to be capable of favourable high-altitude performance.[3]

In October 1936, the S.29 was low down on the short list of designs considered and the Supermarine Type 317 was ordered in prototype form in January 1937. However it was decided that an alternative design to Supermarine was needed for insurance and that Shorts should build it as they had experience with four-engined aircraft. The original design had been criticized when considered and in February 1937 the Air Ministry suggested modifications to the original Short design, including considering the use of the Bristol Hercules radial engine as an alternative to the Napier Dagger inline, increasing service ceiling (28,000 ft) and reducing the wingspan.[7] Shorts accepted this large amount of redesign work. The project had added importance due to the death of Supermarine's designer, Reginald Mitchell, which had generated doubt within the Air Ministry.[8]

The S.29 used the Sunderland's 114 ft (35 m) wing and it had to be reduced to less than 100 ft (30 m), the same limit as that imposed on the P.13/36 designs (Handley Page Halifax and Avro Manchester). In order to get the needed lift from a shorter span and excess weight, the redesigned wing was thickened and reshaped.[3] It is often said that the wingspan was limited to 100 ft so the aircraft would fit into existing hangars but the maximum hangar opening was 112 ft (34 m) and the specification required outdoor servicing.[6] "The wing span was limited by the Air Ministry to 100 ft"[9][10][3] The wingspan limitation has been alleged to have actually been enforced as a method of restricting the designer into keeping the overall weight down.[11] In June 1937, the S.29 was accepted as the second string for the Supermarine 316 and formally ordered in October. Both Shorts and Supermarine were issued with instructions to proceed.[3]


The Air Ministry issued Shorts with contract number 672299/37, under which a pair of prototype S.29s were ordered.[3] However, prior to this, Shorts had decided to undertake a successful practice which had been performed with the earlier Empire flying boat in producing a half scale version of the aircraft, known as the S.31 (also known internally as the M4 – as per the title on the tailfin), to prove the aerodynamic characteristics of the design.[3] The S.31, which was largely composed of wood, was powered by an arrangement of four Pobjoy Niagara engines and featured a retractable undercarriage, operable bomb bay doors, and other measures to realistically represent the larger production aircraft. It was constructed at Short's Rochester facility.[12]

On 19 September 1938, the S.31 conducted its maiden flight, piloted by Shorts' Chief Test Pilot J. Lankester Parker. Impressed with its performance, on 21 October 1938, Parker flew the S.31 to the RAF Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, where it was evaluated by the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment and received mostly favourable reviews.[13] There was one notable criticism amongst the feedback from pilots, being that the length of the take off run was considered to be excessive and that improvements would be desirable. Fixing this required that the angle of the wing to be increased for take off; however, if the wing itself was modified, the aircraft would fly with a nose-down attitude while cruising (as in the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley); making this change was also complicated by the fact that work on the production line had already reached an advanced stage. Thus, Shorts lengthened the undercarriage struts to tilt the nose up on take-off, leading to its spindly gear which in turn contributed to many take off and landing accidents.[14]

The S.31 also received the lengthened undercarriage in order to test this; subsequent trials found that there was no need for further modification in this respect.[13] Other modifications made included the adoption of a larger tailplane with conventional elevators to improve aft controllability. The sole S.31 was scrapped after a take off accident at RAF Stradishall, Suffolk in February 1944. Meanwhile, prior to the maiden flight of either of the prototypes had flown, the Air Ministry had decided to order the S.29 into production "off the drawing board" in response to reports of further increases in strength on the part of the German Luftwaffe.[12]

On 14 May 1939, the first S.29, which had by this point received the service name "Stirling" after the Scottish city, performed its first flight.[13] The first prototype was outfitted with four Bristol Hercules II radial engines, and was reported as having satisfactory handling in its two months of flying. However, the entire programme suffered a setback when the first prototype suffered severe damage and was written off as a result of a landing accident, in which one of the brakes locked, causing the aircraft to slew off the runway and the landing gear to collapse.[13] A resulting redesign of the undercarriage led to substantially stronger and heavier struts being installed upon the second prototype. On 3 December 1939, the second prototype made its maiden flight.[13] During its first sortie, one of the engines failed on takeoff but the second prototype managed to land with relative ease.


Prior to the Munich Agreement of 1938, Shorts had received a pair of orders for the Stirling, each for the production of 100 aircraft; however, as a result of Munich, the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) enacted 'Plan L', under which Stirling orders were rapidly increased to 1,500 aircraft.[15] In addition to contracts extending the projected work at Rochester and Belfast; some of the additional contracts were placed with Austin Motors to be produced at their Longbridge facility and with Rootes, who were to manufacture the type at their new shadow factory in Stoke-on-Trent. At its height, manufacturing activity on the Stirling was being performed at a total of 20 factories.[15] According to Norris, while the aircraft's design had incorporated an inherent ability for production of the Stirling to be broken down in practice, strict supervision of the work remained necessary.[15] In order to coordinate the dispersed production approach adopted for the Stirling, Shorts and MAP operated a travelling team of 600 production engineers and draughtsmen that routinely travelled throughout the United Kingdom to the manufacturing facilities involved.[15]

On 7 May 1940, the first production Stirling, conducted its first flight.[13] According to Norris, initial rates of production were disappointing, and were in part due to delays in the delivery of machine tools and forgings. It has also been alleged that production of the Stirling was negatively impacted by a decision by Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, which had ordered a change in priority from four-engined bombers towards fighters and twin-engined aircraft to replace those lost during the Battle of Britain.[16] In August 1940, series production of the Stirling commenced at the Rochester factory.

Production of the Stirling was delayed by the ongoing bombing campaign of the Luftwaffe.[17] The area, which included a number of major aviation firms, was heavily bombed in the opening days of the Battle of Britain, including one famous low-level raid by a group of Dornier Do 17s. A number of completed Stirlings were destroyed on the ground and the factories were heavily damaged, setting back production by almost a year. Some production was moved to Austin's Longbridge factory at Cofton Hackett just south of Birmingham, the Longbridge production line eventually produced nearly 150 Stirlings.[18]

From this point on, the Belfast factory became increasingly important as it was thought to be well beyond the range of German bombers. However, Belfast and the aircraft factory were subjected to bombing by German aircraft during the Easter week of 1941. To meet the increased requirement for its aircraft during the war, satellite factories near Belfast were operated at Aldergrove and Maghaberry, producing 232 Stirlings between them. In 1940, bombing damaged Supermarine's factory at Woolston and the incomplete Type 316 prototypes. In November 1940, development of the 316 was formally cancelled, leaving the Stirling as the only B.12/36 design.

The first few Stirling Mk.Is were furnished with Bristol Hercules II engines, but the majority were built with more powerful 1,500 hp (1,100 kW) Hercules XI engines instead. The Stirling Mk.III, introduced in 1943, was similar with the exception of the new dorsal turret and the improved 1,635 hp (1,200 kW) Hercules VI or XVI engines, which improved maximum speed from 255 to 270 mph (410 to 435 km/h).

Proposed developments

Even before the Stirling went into production, Short had improved on the initial design with the S.34 in an effort to meet specification B.1/39. It would have been powered by four Bristol Hercules 17 SM engines, optimised for high-altitude flight. The new design featured longer span wings and a revised fuselage able to carry dorsal and ventral power-operated turrets each fitted with four 20 mm Hispano cannons; despite the obvious gains in performance and capability, the Air Ministry was not interested.

In 1941, it was decided that the Stirling would be manufactured in Canada and an initial contract for 140 aircraft was placed.[19] Designated as the Stirling Mk.II, the Hercules engines were to be replaced by 1,600 hp Wright GR-2600-A5B Twin Cyclone engines; a pair of prototypes were converted from Mk.I aircraft. However, it was decided to cancel the contract in favour of manufacturing other aircraft; thus, no production Mk.IIs were ever completed.[19]

Shorts also pursued the development of the Stirling for potential use on the civil market.[20] Designated S.37, it was a full-furnished transport aircraft that was capable of seating 30 passengers and was constructed to conform with civilian standards. A single prototype, known as the Silver Stirling, was converted from a Mk.V aircraft; however, partially due to greater levels of interest being expressed for a more promising civil version of the Handley-Page Halifax, the proposal met with little official interest.[21]

In 1941, Short proposed the development of a new variant of the Stirling, the S.36,[N 1] which was nicknamed "The Super Stirling" in a company publication.[20] This aircraft would have featured a wing span of 135 ft 9 in (41.38 m), four Bristol Centaurus radials and a maximum takeoff weight of 104,000 lb (47,174 kg). The projected performance estimates included a speed of 300 mph (483 km/h) and a 4,000 mile (6,437 km) range, along with a weapons load of 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg) over 2,300 miles (3,700 km), or 23,500 pounds (10,700 kg) over 1,000 miles (1,600 km). The defensive armament of the S.36 was to be an assortment of ten .50 BMG machine guns that were set into three turrets.[22]

The S.36 was initially accepted for testing under Specification B.8/41, which had been specifically written to cover the type, and an order for a pair of prototypes was placed. However, Arthur Harris, as commander of Bomber Command, felt that achieving bulk production of the type would take too much time and that the effort would be better expended on outfitted the existing design with improved Hercules engines with the aim of providing a higher operational altitude ceiling. However, despite the Air Staff having initially found the proposal to have some attraction, it was eventually decided to favour increased production rates of the rival Avro Lancaster instead.[20] In May 1942, Shorts were informed that the Air Ministry would not be continuing the project; in August 1942, Shorts decided to terminate all work.[22]



The Short Stirling was a four-engined monoplane heavy bomber designed to provide a previously unmatched level of strategic bombing capability to the Royal Air Force (RAF). It was powered by four Bristol Hercules radial engines which were spaced across its mid-mounted wing.[23] The Stirling has the distinction of being the only British bomber of the period to see service that had been designed from the start with four engines - the Avro Lancaster was a re-engined, stretched-wingspan Avro Manchester while the Halifax was planned to be powered by twin Vulture engines but was similarly re-designed to use an arrangement of four Merlin engines in 1937.[3][N 2]

Although smaller than both of the pre-war American "XBLR"-designation designs; the 149-foot wingspan, 35-ton loaded weight Boeing XB-15 and the enormous, 212-foot wingspanned, 79-ton loaded weight Douglas XB-19, and nearly as large Soviet experimental heavy bomber designs, the Stirling had considerably more power and far better payload/range than anything then flying from any British-based aviation firm. The massive 14,000 lb (6.25 long tons, 6,340 kg) bomb load put it in a class of its own, double that of any other bomber. It was larger than the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster which replaced it but both of these were originally designed to have twin engines.

Crew accommodation

Under typical operations, most variants of the Stirling were flown with a crew of seven, performing several different roles. It was flown by a pair of pilots, who were supported by a navigator/bomb aimer, a front gunner/wireless operator, two further gunners, and a flight engineer.[25] The flight engineer and wireless operator were housed in a cabin just forward of the leading edge of the wing, and directly forward of them was the navigator's station. The two pilots were contained within a fully glazed flight deck positioned level with the forward end of the bomb cells; the provision of a separate flight engineer's station led to the cockpit having a relatively simple appearance in comparison with the majority of the RAF's bombers.[26]

The cockpit containing the flying officers was provided with numerous controls and features; to the left of the first pilot were the controls for the auto-pilot and a P.4 compass; the pilot was also provided with a beam approach indicator (to aid nighttime landings) and DF visual loop indicator in addition to the standard flight controls.[26] Switches for the flaps and position indicators were located on a central panel set between the two pilots, while the master fuel cocks were set above these on the roof; throttle and mixture controls were also normally positioned between the pilots. Only limited engine instrumentation was provisioned for, such as engine speed indicators and boost gauges.[26]

The navigator/bomb-aimer would perform the latter of these roles in a prone position within the aircraft's nose.[26] For bomb-aiming, a drift sight, camera, and steering control over the auto-pilot were provided; directly above this position was the front turret position of the bomber. Just aft of the wireless operator's position, the centre section of the wing cut across the fuselage; the space above this was used for storing oxygen tanks while the space below was used as a rest bunk.[26] Behind the rest area, the uninterrupted deck ran across the full length of the bomb cells to the location in which the retractable ventral turret was installed upon early production aircraft; the internal area aft of this position were used to store flame floats and reconnaissance flares, as well as an escape hatch, lavatory, rear turret position, and the crew entry door on the port side.[27]

The Stirling was armed with nose and tail turrets (the latter was notable for the wide angles of fire) along with a single retractable ventral ("dustbin") turret located just behind the bomb-bay. This proved almost useless due to cramped conditions, with the added distraction that the turret tended to drop and hit the ground when taxiing over bumps.[27] The retractable turret was removed almost from the start and temporarily replaced by beam hatches mounting pairs of machine guns, until a twin-gun dorsal turret could be provided.[15] This turret also had problems; it had a metal back fitted with an escape hatch which turned out to be almost impossible to use. The later Stirling Mk.III used a fully glazed turret (the same FN.50 as in Lancaster) that had more room and an improved view. Later Stirlings could also carry an improved, low-drag remotely-controlled FN.64 ventral turret.[28]


The construction of the Stirling shares considerable similarity to the earlier Short Empire flying boats.[3] The cantilever mid-mounted wing, which employed a two-spar structure covered by aluminium alloy sheeting that was flush-rivetted to the internal spars and ribs, was one instance of the two designs' convergence.[29] The wing housed three large self-sealing fuel tanks within the spar truss, along with a fourth non-self-sealing fuel tank within the leading edge of the wing root, which provided for a combined tankage of 2,254 gallons. Up to six ferry tanks could also be installed within the wing bomb cells in order to increase fuel capacity by a further 220 gallons.[29] Significant attention was paid to reducing drag – all rivets were flush headed and panels joggled to avoid edges – but camouflage paint probably negated the benefit. The wing was fitted with Gouge flaps similar to those of the flying boats.

The fuselage of the Stirling was distinct from Short's flying boat lineage, being constructed in four separate sections and employing continuous stringers throughout each section, as opposed to interruptions of the stringers at every frame as per established practice at Shorts.[26] The four sections were joined together using tension bolts through the webs of the end frames. The lower sides of the centre-section spar booms aligned with the main deck of the aircraft, which was supported upon the three longitudinal girders which formed the three parallel bomb cells.[26] These bomb cells were further sub-divided into 19-foot compartments sufficient to accommodate conventional 500 lb bombs or 2,000 lb armour-piercing bombs, but nothing in excess of these dimensions.[26]

Hydraulic power was used for various purposes throughout the Stirling.[27] The nose and dorsal turrets were powered by a duplex pump driven by the inner port engine, while the dorsal turret was powered by a single pump driven by the inner starboard engine. Pulsations in the hydraulic lines were smoothed out by a series of recuperators; German fighter pilots soon learned that by shooting at the area around roundels painted on the fuselage, two of the three turrets could be disabled, thus the recuperators were repositioned in later models of the Stirling to reduce their vulnerability.[15]

The first production model of the Stirling was powered by the Bristol Hercules II radial engine, which were housed in fully monocoque nacelles.[29] Upon the availability of the improved Hercules XI engine, new welded steel-tube framework engine mountings were incorporated, further changes were implemented to the installation of the power units were subsequently made by Bristol. Hydraulic control of the throttle was employed, which would often be a source of slow responsiveness and irritation, often proved problematic during take-offs.[30]

Flying characteristics

Pilot accounts generally report that, once airborne, the Short Stirling was a delight to fly, surprisingly manoeuvrable for such a large aircraft and without any vices. According to Norris, the Stirling was "more maneuvreable and responsive than any other aircraft in its class".[3] The shortcomings of the aircraft in terms of lower operational altitudes and limited range are largely forgiven in pilot autobiographies.[31] The Stirling did, however, exhibit some vicious flying characteristics during takeoff and landings.

As a class, the large and heavy four-engined tail-wheeled bombers such as the Stirling, Handley Page Halifax, Avro Lancaster and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress could be a handful on takeoff and landing, more so for relatively young and inexperienced new pilots who formed the vast majority of the expanding Commonwealth and American air forces. Later heavy bomber designs such as the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and Boeing B-29 Superfortress used a nose-wheel (tricycle) configuration as did most successful four engined commercial aircraft in the post-war years. Tricycle geared aircraft are typically easier to control on takeoff, landing and during taxiing, and also make for easier cargo loading and servicing as the cabin, engines and other systems are closer to the ground. The long undercarriage of the Stirling was a result of a request by the RAF who sought to increase the wing incidence.[3][N 3]

The Short Stirling had particularly challenging flying characteristics on takeoff and landing, even in comparison with other tail-wheeled contemporaries. After a series of serious accidents and total aircraft losses involving uncontrolled ground loops on takeoff, the Royal Air Force implemented a special training and certification programme for all prospective Stirling pilots. Proper takeoff technique involved feeding in right engine throttle during the initial 20 seconds of the takeoff run until the rudder became effective for control. If all four throttles were advanced simultaneously, the aircraft would swing to the right, become uncontrollable and often collapse the landing gear which could be disastrous if the aircraft was loaded with bombs and fuel.[32]

On flare-out for landing, the Short Stirling exhibited a tendency to suddenly stall out and "drop like a stone" to the runway. With such a heavy aircraft, a "dropped" landing could cause serious structural damage.[32] During its service life, it was not unknown for "dropped" landings to render Stirlings or other large four-engined bombers unairworthy and suitable only for parts.

Operational history

In July 1940, the first production Stirling departed Rochester; in August 1940, it was delivered to No. 7 Squadron at RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire.[17] Following a four-month working-up period in which crews adapted to operating the type, the Stirling attained operational status in January 1941. On the night of 10/11 February 1941, the first operational combat mission was performed, flown by the first three Stirlings, against fuel storage tanks at Vlaardingen near Rotterdam, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, all but two bombers were deployed during the mission, which was considered to have run smoothly.[17] By the end of 1941, more than 150 Stirlings had been completed and a total of three RAF squadrons had been equipped with the type. At this point, the Stirling was being deployed on both daytime and nighttime bombing operations and had been found to be most capable of standing up to enemy interceptor aircraft by using a sweeping combination of fighters and bombers, a tactic which became known as the Circus offensive.[17]

From late 1941 onwards, the Stirling played a pioneering role in the formation of the RAF's Pathfinder squadrons - bombers that were dedicated to indicating targets for following bombers to more accurately deploy their payloads upon.[17] From the spring of 1942, the bomber started to be deployed in greater numbers.[33][34] From May 1943, raids on Germany were often conducted using over a hundred Stirling bombers at a time.[35] Stirlings were amongst the RAF bombers used during the First 1,000 bomber raid against Cologne.[36] Norris observed that, by 1942, the type had "given plenty of punishment to the Germans, and was also proving that it could itself take punishment to an incredible extent.[37] There were several incidents in which heavily damaged aircraft, such as one Stirling which suffered a head-on collision with a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter over Hamburg, were able to continue flying and safely return to base.[36]

Despite the "disappointing performance" at maximum altitude,[38] Stirling pilots were delighted to discover that, due to the thick wing, they could out-turn the Ju 88 and Bf 110 nightfighters they faced. Its handling was much better than that of the Halifax and some preferred it to the Lancaster. Based on its flight characteristics, Flt Lt Murray Peden (RCAF) of No. 214 Squadron RAF described the Stirling as "one of the finest aircraft ever built".[39] However, a consequence of the thick wing was a low ceiling. Many missions were flown as low as 12,000 ft (4,000 m). This was a disadvantage on many raids, notably if crews were attacking Italy and had to fly through (rather than "over") the Alps. When Stirlings were on combined operations with other RAF bombers which could fly higher, the Luftwaffe concentrated on the Stirlings. Within five months of being introduced, 67 out of the 84 aircraft delivered had been lost to enemy action or written off after crashes.

The Stirling's maximum bomb load could be carried for only a short distance of around 590 miles (950 km). On typical missions deep into Germany or Italy, a smaller 3,500-pound (1,600 kg) load was carried, consisting of seven 500-pound (230 kg) GP bombs; this payload was in the range of that which was already being carried by the RAF's medium bombers, such as the Vickers Wellington and, by 1944, the de Havilland Mosquito. Perhaps the biggest weakness present in the design was that, although the bomb bay was large at 40 ft long (12 m),[40] it had a pair of structural dividers that ran down the middle, limiting the bay to nothing larger than the 2,000-pound (910 kg) bomb. As the RAF started using the 4,000-pound (1,800 kg) "cookies" and even larger "specials", the Stirling became less useful. The Handley-Page Halifax and especially the Avro Lancaster offered better performance,[N 4] so when these aircraft became available in greater numbers from 1943, the Stirlings were relegated to secondary tasks.[19]

During the type's service with Bomber Command, Stirlings flew a total of 14,500 sorties, during which 27,000 tons of bombs were dropped, and 582 aircraft were lost in action while a further 119 were written off. By December 1943, Stirlings were being withdrawn from frontline service as bombers.[19] The aircraft continued to be used on various alternative mission types, such as minelaying operations in the vicinity of German ports ("Gardening" missions), electronic countermeasures, and dropping spies deep behind enemy lines at night.

During 1943, it had been recognised that there would be a requirement for a force of powerful aircraft capable of towing heavy transport gliders, such as the General Aircraft Hamilcar and Airspeed Horsa, it was found that the Stirling would fit this role admirably. During late 1943, 143 Mk.III bombers were rebuilt to the Stirling Mk.IV series specification, which lacked both nose and dorsal turrets, which was used for towing gliders and dropping paratroops, in addition to 461 Mk.IVs that were manufactured. These aircraft were heavily used for the deployment of Allied ground forces during the Battle of Normandy and Operation Market Garden. On 6 June 1944, several Stirlings were also used in Operation Glimmer for the precision-laying of patterns of "window" (later known as "chaff") to produce radar images of a decoy invasion fleet.[42]

From late 1944, 160 of the special transport variant Stirling Mk V were built, which had the tail turret removed and a new nose opening added; most of these being completed after the war. By 1946, the Stirlings of Transport Command were being phased out and replaced by the Avro York, which was a transport derivative of the Lancaster that had previously replaced the Stirling in the bomber role.[43] While many aircraft were scrapped, 12 Stirlings were modified to conform with S.37 standards and sold to Belgian charter operator Trans-Air in May 1947.[43]

Victoria Cross recipients

In recognition of their deeds of valour, two Stirling pilots were awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), both posthumously in separate incidents. Flight Sergeant Rawdon Hume Middleton of the RAAF received his VC while serving as the pilot-in-command of a No. 149 Squadron Stirling in a raid on Turin in November 1942.[36] Middleton, having been severely wounded due to an anti-aircraft shell that had exploded in the cockpit, insisted that his co-pilot, flight sergeant Hyder, tend to his own wounds while Middleton personally flew the aircraft back to England. Middleton along with two other crew members who had stayed to help him, were lost after ordering other crewmembers to escape the descending bomber.[44]

Acting Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, was awarded his VC while serving as the captain of a No. 218 Squadron Stirling in a raid on Turin in August 1943.[19] Aaron was heavily wounded while piloting the aircraft and refused to rest, directing the flight engineer, who was acting as co-pilot, to fly to Bone Airfield, Algeria; he died of exhaustion following the aircraft's safe landing.[19]

Service with other nations

The Stirling is listed in the appendix to the novel KG 200 as one flown by the German secret operations unit KG 200, which tested, evaluated, and sometimes clandestinely operated captured enemy aircraft.[45]

Six Stirlings were purchased by the Egyptian Air Force for use in the 1948 Arab Israeli War, forming the 8th Bomber Squadron. These flew a number of air raids on Israeli targets in the 1948 war, one of their number being lost either as a result of an accident or sabotage. The remaining five appear to have been scrapped or retired by 1951.[46]


  • Trans-Air, later known as Air Transport (Post-war civilian use, a total of 10 planes, 9 of which went on to the Egyptian Air Force. The 10th (OO-XAC, ex-PK172) crashed during operations in Kunming, China)[47][48]
 United Kingdom


Short S.31
Half-scale flying test-bed, powered by 4x Pobjoy Niagara 7-cylinder radial engines
Stirling I
powered by Bristol Hercules XI engines.
Stirling II
Wright R-1820 Cyclone powered variant, not produced.
Stirling III
Heavy bomber, powered by Bristol Hercules XVI engines.
Stirling IV
Para-dropping and glider towing assault transport, powered by Bristol Hercules XVI engines.
Stirling V
Cargo aircraft, powered by Bristol Hercules XVI engines.

Surviving aircraft

Of the six major Allied four-engine bombers - Boeing B-17, Consolidated B-24, Boeing B-29, Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax, Avro Lancaster - the Stirling is the only one of which there are no surviving examples. There are, however, two sections of Stirlings which are displayed in museums.[53] At the Musée du terrain d'aviation militaire in Vraux, France there are sections of the rear fuselage of Stirling LK142. Part of 196 Squadron, the plane crashed near Spincourt on 24 September 1944. The second remaining section is located at the Museum Vliegbasis in Deelen, Netherlands, and comes from Stirling LK545. After the 299 Squadron plane crashed near Nijmegen on 23 September 1944, a piece of the fuselage was cut off and subsequently used as part of a pig sty on a farm in Beuningen. In 2003 the section was transferred to museum.

In September 2019, exactly 75 years after the liberation of the southern Netherlands, the excavation has started of the Short Stirling W7630 at the site of Lilbosch Abbey near Pey, Echt, Netherlands. The plane crashed here on 10 September 1942. The crew did not survive the crash and the excavation team expects their remains are still within the wreckage. They also presume the plane crashed as deep as 3 meters into the ground. The excavation was delayed for many years as the plane was severely shredded upon impact and it is unknown if the bomb load is also amongst the remains. The total costs of the excavation ranges up to €650,000.[54]

Several proposals have been made to raise under-water Stirling wrecks, but none have materialized. In 1986, the RAF Sub-Aqua Association investigated the possibility of raising Stirling EF311, which on 26 August 1943 was ditched seven miles off the coast of Selsey Bill by 196 Squadron's Ralph Campbell.[55] After assessing the wreck, which lay at a depth of 60 feet, the group decided against proceeding. In 1994 the same group looked at the possibility of raising Stirling LJ925, a 196 Squadron plane which crashed on 25 February 1945 in Hølen Lake outside of Arendal, Norway. The plane was discovered at a depth of 35 feet, and was buried in mud and tree bark shavings. This plan was also abandoned, although the group did recover a single propeller blade. During preparations for the laying of the North Sea Link electricity cable link in 2017, the suspected remains of a Stirling were located in the North Sea between England and Norway.[56]

Specifications (Short Stirling I)

Data from The Short Stirling, Aircraft in Profile Number 142,[43] Flight International[57]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 7 (First and second pilot, navigator/bomb aimer, front gunner/WT operator, two air gunners, and flight engineer)[25]
  • Length: 87 ft 3 in (26.59 m) [57]
  • Wingspan: 99 ft 1 in (30.20 m) [57]
  • Height: 22 ft 9 in (6.93 m) [57]
  • Wing area: 1,460 sq ft (136 m2) [57]
  • Aspect ratio: 6.5:1
  • Empty weight: 49,600 lb (22,498 kg)
  • Gross weight: 59,400 lb (26,943 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 70,000 lb (31,751 kg) [58]
  • Powerplant: 4 × Bristol Hercules XI 14-cylinder air-cooled sleeve-valve radial piston engines, 1,500 hp (1,100 kW) each
  • Propellers: 3-bladed metal fully feathering constant-speed propeller, 13 ft 6 in (4.11 m) diameter


  • Maximum speed: 282 mph (454 km/h, 245 kn) at 12,500 ft (3,800 m)[58]
  • Cruise speed: 200 mph (320 km/h, 170 kn) [58]
  • Range: 2,330 mi (3,750 km, 2,020 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 16,500 ft (5,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 800 ft/min (4.1 m/s)


See also

External video
Period News Report on the Short Stirling
Recording of a talk held by a former Stirling pilot on his wartime experiences with the aircraft
Documentary on the Stirling bomber

Related development

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

Related lists



  1. Not to be confused with a prototype light aircraft that was built in 1912, which was also known as the Short S.36.
  2. The Vulture engine which had been preferred for the large twin-engine bombers such as the Avro Manchester and the early concept for the Handley Page Halifax became clear upon its entry into service, such as a nasty habit of catching fire and spitting out connecting rods, sometimes within 10 minutes of being started.[24]
  3. According to Geoffrey Norris, Shorts had sought to adopt a larger wingspan for the Stirling in order to improve that aircraft's performance, however, the company's preferences were overruled and this was to the type's detriment during its service.[2]
  4. the Lancaster could carry twice the Stirling's bombload over long distances and was at least 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) faster while having an operating altitude of about 4,000 feet (1,200 m) higher[41]


  1. Angelucci, Enzo (1988). Combat aircraft of World War II. ISBN 0-517-64179-8.
  2. Norris 1966, p. 16.
  3. Norris 1966, p. 3.
  4. Buttler 2004, p. 96
  5. Barnes 1967, p. 371.
  6. Flight 29 January 1942, p. 96
  7. Buttler 2004, p. 98
  8. Buttler 2004, p. 99
  9. Mondey 1994, p. 189.
  10. Winchester 2005, p. 48.
  11. Buttler 2004, p. 100
  12. Norris 1966, pp. 3-4.
  13. Norris 1966, p. 4.
  14. Winchester 2005, p. 49.
  15. Norris 1966, p. 7.
  16. Norris 1966, pp. 7, 10.
  17. Norris 1966, p. 10.
  18. "Cofton Hackett production." Archived 23 August 2012 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 27 December 2009.
  19. Norris 1966, p. 12.
  20. Norris 1966, p. 13.
  21. Norris 1966, pp. 13-14.
  22. Buttler 2004, pp. 115–116
  23. Norris 1966, pp. 4-5.
  24. Mason 1994, p. 329.
  25. Flight 29 January 1942, p. 100
  26. Norris 1966, p. 6.
  27. Norris 1966, pp. 6-7.
  28. Barnes 1967, pp. 377–378.
  29. Norris 1966, p. 5.
  30. Norris 1966, pp. 5-6.
  31. Peden 1997, p. 227
  32. Peden 1997, pp. 232–233
  33. Bowyer 2002, pp. 53–54.
  34. Bowyer 2002, pp. 142–146.
  35. Bowyer 2002, p. 203.
  36. Norris 1966, p. 11.
  37. Norris 1966, pp. 10-11.
  38. Bashow 2005, p. 39.
  39. Peden 1979, p. 229.
  40. "Short Stirling." Flight, 3 October 1941. Retrieved: 27 December 2009.
  41. Mason 1994, pp. 315–316.
  42. Interview on DVD "Remember the Stirling." The Stirling Project. Retrieved: 27 December 2009.
  43. Norris 1966, p. 14.
  44. Norris 1966, pp. 11-12.
  45. Gilman & Clive 1978, p. 314.
  46. Crawford, Alex. "Stirlings in Egypt". Retrieved 30 January 2013.
  47. Hall 1998, pp. 18, 23–24.
  48. Crawford, Alex. "Stirlings in Egypt." Retrieved: 27 December 2009.
  49. Trypitis, Yannis. "Stirlings in Egypt." Retrieved: 27 December 2009.
  50. Gilman & Clive 1978, p. 314.
  51. Gomersall 1979, pp. 20–23.
  52. Falconer 1995, pp. 187–201.
  53. Lombardi, Pino (2016). Short Stirling: The First of the RAF Heavy Bombers. Fonthill Media. ISBN 978-1781554739.
  54. "After years of discussion finally the excavations starts". L1 Limburg (in Dutch). 3 September 2019. Retrieved 19 September 2019.
  55. Campbell, Ralph (1995). We Flew by Moonlight. Orillia, Ontario: Kerry Hill Publications. p. 71. ISBN 0-9680257-0-6.
  56. "'WW2 bomber's remains' found in North Sea". BBC News. 28 August 2017. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
  57. Flight 29 January 1942, p. 98
  58. Buttler 2004, p. 113
  59. "Stirling." Archived 26 August 2009 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 27 December 2009.


  • Barnes, C. F. (1967). Shorts Aircraft since 1900. London: Putnam. OCLC 493114510.
  • Bashow, D. L. (2005). No Prouder Place: Canadians and the Bomber Command Experience 1939–1945. St. Catharine's, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing. ISBN 1-55125-098-5.
  • Bowyer, Michael J. F. (2002). The Stirling Story. Manchester, UK: Crécy. ISBN 0-947554-91-2.
  • Buttler, T. (2004). Fighters & Bombers, 1935–1950. British Secret Projects. III. Hinckley, Kent, UK: Midlands Publishing. ISBN 978-1-85780-179-8.
  • Falconer, J. (1995). Stirling in Combat. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-4114-6.
  • Gilman, J. D.; Clive, J. (1978). KG 200. London: Pan Books. ISBN 0-85177-819-4.
  • Gomersall, B. (1979). The Stirling File. Tonbridge, Kent, UK: Air Britain and Aviation Archaeologists Publications. ISBN 0-85130-072-3.
  • Hall, A. W. (1998). Short Stirling. Warpaint. 15. Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK: Hall Park Books. OCLC 826644289.
  • Mason, F. K. (1994). The British Bomber since 1914. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books. ISBN 0-85177-861-5.
  • Mondey, D. (1994). British Aircraft of World War II. London: Chartwell Books. ISBN 0-7858-0146-4.
  • Peden, Murray (1979). A Thousand Shall Fall. Stittsville, Ontario: Canada's Wings. ISBN 0-920002-07-2.
  • Norris, Geoffrey. The Short Stirling, Aircraft in Profile Number 142. Windsor, Berkshire, UK: Profile Publications Ltd., 1966.
  • Peden, Murray (1997). A Thousand Shall Fall (Updated ed.). Toronto: Stoddart. ISBN 0-7737-5967-0.
  • "The Short Stirling: First Details of Great Britain's Biggest Bomber: A Four-engined Type with Fighter Manœuvreability". Flight. Vol. XLI no. 1727. 29 January 1942. pp. 94–101.
  • Winchester, J. (2005). The World's Worst Aircraft: From Pioneering Failures to Multimillion Dollar Disasters. London: Amber Books. ISBN 1-904687-34-2.

Further reading

  • Bowyer, Michael J.F. The Stirling Bomber. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1980. ISBN 0-571-11101-7.
  • Falconer, Jonathan. Stirling at War. Shepperton, Surrey, UK: Ian Allan Ltd., 1991. ISBN 0-7110-2022-1.
  • Falconer, Jonathan. Stirling Wings: The Short Stirling Goes to War. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Budding Books, 1997. ISBN 1-84015-004-1.
  • Mackay, Ron. Short Stirling in Action, Aircraft Number 96. Carrollton, Texas: Squadron/Signal Publications Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-89747-228-4.
  • Potten, Charlie. "7 x X x 90" (The Story of a Stirling Bomber and its Crew). Self-published, 1986.
  • "First Details of Great Britain's Biggest Bomber: A Four-engined Type with Fighter Manoeuvreability." Flight, 29 January 1942. pp. 94–101.
  • Short Stirling Remembered, Air History Series No. 1. Kidlington, Oxford, UK: Wingspan Publications, 1974. ISBN 0-903456-03-6.
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