Operation Banquet (i)

This was a British contingency plan for the operational use of all available training aircraft in the event of a German invasion of the UK (summer 1940/October 1943).

On 13 July 1940, Air Marshal Sir William Welsh, commander of RAF Air Training Command, was instructed to develop a plan that would maximise the the number of training aircraft available for combat operations. This ‘Banquet’ was divided into a number of separate operations that could be enacted independently: for example, the Banquet 6 Group would see the absorption of Air Vice Marshal W. F. McN. Foster’s No. 6 Group group pool units into the operational striking force of Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal’s RAF Bomber Command, and the Banquet 22 Group would move army co-operation aircraft of Air Vice Marshal C. H. B. Blount’s No. 22 Group into the operational striking force of RAF Bomber Command.

Striking more of a note of desperation were Banquet Alert, which called for the employment of Fleet Air Arm training aircraft under Air Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill’s RAF Coastal Command and Banquet Training which called for the absorption of aircraft from RAF Air Training Command into the operational striking force of RAF Bomber Command.

It was conceded that any aircraft allocated under Banquet would, in many cases, lack what were otherwise clearly seen as essential features such as bomb sights, armour, defensive guns and self-sealing fuel tanks. While these would be added wherever and whenever possible, RAF instructions were very clear that no aircraft were to be considered unfit for operational service for want of these types of equipment, so any aeroplane that was capable of dropping bombs could and would be pressed into emergency service.

Ground service crews would go with their aircraft and in some cases would have involved civilian volunteers. The air crews for Banquet Alert and Training would be the experienced instructors as well as those students that had reached ‘a reasonably satisfactory standard of training’.

The most desperate of the Banquet plans was Banquet Light which would have seen the creation of striking forces composed of de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes and other light aircraft of the elementary flight training schools. de Havilland put forward plans for converting the Tiger Moth into a light bomber by equipping it with eight under-fuselage racks beneath the rear cockpit, each able to carry a 20-lb (9.1-kg) bomb, or as an alternative four bomb racks below each half of the lower wing. The racks had been designed for the military version of the de Havilland Dragon supplied to Iraq eight years earlier. Trials were undertaken at Hatfield in Hertfordshire by Major Hereward de Havilland and at the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, and the conversion gained a satisfactory report. Tests were also carried out of a Tiger Moth carrying a single 240-lb (109-kg) bomb.

Modification of the relatively small number of Miles Magister monoplane trainers was also attempted, but this proved troublesome, so Banquet Light was centred on use of the Tiger Moth. The Banquet Light strike force would have been employed in the army co-operation role, which would have required the aircraft to bomb concentrations of airborne troops or soldiers landing on the beaches. The plan was that the Tiger Moth two-seat trainer adapted as a single-seat bomber would be flown at low altitude until the target was identified and then climbed to 800 ft (245 m) before being dived to 500 ft (150 m) for bomb release.

Most of the pilots for Banquet Light would have been students who had not yet graduated, and the high priority allocated to the scheme required that trainee pilots were introduced to bombing at an early stage in their instruction so that they could go into action immediately should the situation demand. With no dummy bombs available early in 1940, however, training exercises were carried out with the aircraft flown from the front cockpit by instructors and house bricks being thrown over the side from the rear cockpit. About 350 aircraft were available, and while this was not an insignificant force, the Tiger Moth conversions and their inexperienced pilots would have been enormously vulnerable to fighter interception and anti-aircraft fire, and the scheme was widely regarded as all but suicidal.

Consideration was also given to adapting civilian aircraft for Banquet Civil. However, the plan was not thought useful and was dropped. ‘Banquet’ was never put into effect in the way that was originally intended, but was periodically exercised under various guises, and one such ‘exercise’ provided secret cover for the temporary reorganisation needed for ‘Millennium’, the first thousand-bomber raid sent against Köln on the night of 30/31 May 1942. This plan required considerable reorganisation including the contribution of bombers from Coastal Command and Training Command. ‘Banquet’ was formally cancelled in October 1943.