The Short Stirling was the first of the four-engined bombers to fly, the prototype taking to the air in May of 1939. However its undercarriage collapsed on landing and it was not until February, 1941 that the aircraft flew its first operation against the enemy.
The largest of the British built heavy bombers of the war, the Stirling towered to a height of almost twenty-three feet with 6,600 horsepower being provided by its Bristol Hercules radial engines. The Stirling rendered great service and was said to have been second to none as a sturdy and dependable aircraft. When it was introduced during the darkest days of the war it also served as a morale-building symbol of Britain’s growing aerial offensive power.
Tragically, the aircraft was needlessly limited at its conception. The engineers at Short’s were faced with the restriction that the wingspan had to be less than one hundred feet so that it could fit into the standard RAF hangars of the day. This resulted in poor high altitude performance and a low ceiling. At low altitudes however, the Stirling was the fastest of the heavy bombers.
During the autumn of 1943, the use of the Stirling as part of Main Force operations began to decline. A Bomber Command study of losses on raids to Nuremberg and Berlin between August and November of 1943 had shown that between ten and fifteen percent of the Stirlings committed were lost. This loss rate was much higher than either the Halifax or Lancaster. Some of the losses were credited to the deadly SchrageMusik form of underside attack made by German night-fighters. The aircraft was removed from bombing operations early in 1944. The remainder of Stirling operations within Bomber Command would be mine-laying, electronic countermeasures, and agent/supply drops over Europe. It also continued to serve as a transport and glider tug until the end of the war.
After the war a British company used a few of the Stirling Mk.V’s as passenger aircraft between England and the continent for a short time.
Murray Peden, author of the highly acclaimed, “A Thousand Shall Fall,” flew the Stirling and wrote fondly of the aircraft in his book, “The Stirling was truly a wonderful aircraft which rendered great service as Britain’s first four-engined bomber. But for its needless maiming at birth by the short-sighted planners who conjured up the Air ministry specifications, the Stirling might well have out-performed even the great Lancaster. She assuredly was second to none as a sturdy and dependable battler. . .The Short Stirling earned the highest honours, and never received them “except from every pilot she ever bore aloft.”