On a wing and a beer

Charlotte Bailey meets the sky-high ‘beer-bombers’ of WW2


If, after a long day, the idea of an ice-cold beer somehow spontaneously falling from the sky seems an attractive (if ultimately unrealistic) proposition, think again. This ‘flight of fancy’ – the clue is in the name – is far more than a contemporary consideration, driven by drone developments and the seismic shift Covid has had on our shopping habits (notably, our collective reliance on online ordering). 

Decades before our recent UK lockdowns, an inventive delivery method was focused on raising morale as well as raising a pint, as revealed in archive research by famed beer historian Martyn Cornell. The vital role the RAF played in the Battle of Britain is immeasurable, yet of the many responsibilities embodied by the iconic Spitfire, one remains relatively obscure: a bringer of beer. Pioneered in 1944, this ingenious airborne option was devised to unite beverages with British soldiers serving in France. So just how was it done? 

The events of the morning of June 6th, 1944 are well documented: the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy – dubbed ‘D-Day’ – represent the largest seaborne invasion in history, with troops from Britain, Canada and America helping pave the way for an ultimate Allied victory against the Nazis. However, the newspaper report that broke days later is less well known. As a Reuters correspondent back in London wrote, the boys on the beaches were in desperate need of beer. 

Now, although fighting the threat of fascist oppression is undoubtedly thirsty work, the plea for a pint may have been more than wishful thinking among the multitude of young men deprived of a drink. For a start, safe drinking water was often scarce (it was rumoured that Nazis were poisoning French drinking water), not to mention the very realistic threats encountered whilst storming beaches under treacherous conditions. Having faced down danger – before pressing on inland - who could accuse the soldiers of not having earned a tipple or two? Clearly, the “watery cider” – all that was available, according to the Reuters report – wasn’t going to do the job. 

Who could accuse the soldiers of not having earned a tipple or two?

Thankfully, help was at hand: in a show of cameraderie, the Chichester-based Henty and Constable brewery offered to provide free beer to British troops serving in France. Hurrah! However, with a supply sorted, the next issue would be the delivery. Merchant shipping convoys crossing the Channel – even if they did have space among items deemed more ‘essential’ - were at very real risk of attack, and could take time; meaning a more immediate option had to be devised. Thankfully, the RAF had a plan. Their sky-high solution essentially involved ‘beer-bombing’ the Allied troops in Normandy, using specially modified drop-tanks containing none other than the brew the troops had been craving.

Perhaps inspired by successful ‘bootlegging’ runs during the infamous Prohibition period, in which alcohol was transported out of sight of the authorities, volunteer RAF pilots back in Britain soon sprang into action; devising ingenious ways with which to actually convey their precious cargo. But the pilot is only one crucial element in this successful partnership. In addition to its work in the interceptor, fighter-bomber and photo-reconnaissance roles, the legendary Spitfire now found itself responsible for possibly the most unprecedented of its wartime duties: that of ‘bringer of beer’. 

Two main methods were devised for carrying this unorthodox cargo. The first involved the repurposing of jettisonable tanks. (Traditionally, these extra tanks increased fuel capacity, allowing Spitfires to fly further and faster; when empty, they would simply be dropped). However, after being steam-cleaned and fastened beneath the wings of Spitfire Mk.IXs, they made the perfect receptacle for what brewers Henty and Constable themselves dubbed “joy juice”. Each ‘drop-tank’ had a capacity of 45 gallons, meaning a single aeroplane could deliver 90 gallons of beer per trip. 

The first recorded beer delivery run took place on June 13th, 1944, mere days after the Reuters report was published. Three Spitfire Mk. IXbs departed from RAF Tangmere, Chichester, loaded up with 270 gallons of local beer. After braving the 110 mile journey south to Bény-sur-Mer, a staggering 2,160 pints were successfully dropped – much to the delight of thirsty troops in Normandy, who allegedly received one pint each. It had even been kept nicely chilled, thanks to a cruising altitude of 15,000ft and an average ambient temperature of around just 9 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The first recorded beer delivery run took place on June 13th, 1944

If the beer was well-received by the soldiers themselves, the propaganda success of such a story – and the boost to morale it surely represented – was equally important. The Air Ministry themselves sent a photo to the national newspapers, depicting a tank being filled with beer while the pilot lounges alongside his waiting Spitfire. And even if the volunteer deliveries weren’t officially sanctioned, the ‘top brass’ of the RAF certainly seemed inclined to turn a blind eye to the ongoing operations. In fact, the modified drop-tanks were even given an official designation: ‘Modification XXX’, reminiscent of the crosses on a moonshiner's whisky jug. According to No.123 Wing’s commanding officer, such beer “took on a rather metallic taste, but the wing made short work of it”. 

If no drop-tanks were available – or the troops preferred a pint untainted by the residual hint of aviation fuel – another storage solution was suggested. This was achieved with the use of kegs attached directly beneath the Spitfire on wing-mounted pylons, removing the need to decant the beer in the first place. Some squadrons elaborated on this design – such as the RAF’s No.131 Wing (Polish) – who laid claim to the ‘bomb barrel’ concept. Fitting a homemade wooden nose-cone onto the barrel resulted in a bomb-like resemblance, improved aerodynamic handling characteristics, and prompted an enduring nickname. 

These barrels had a smaller volume overall, but at least their contents tasted better. Fortunately, as refuelling facilities began to be established in liberated territories, British drop-tanks became redundant as aeroplanes no longer had to set out with the additional fuel they required to get home. Surplus unused examples could now be used exclusively for beer: maximising the volume a Spitfire could transport, minus the bad taste. 

James ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, a Spitfire pilot of legendary renown - credited with 38 confirmed ‘victories’, and wingman to famed Douglas Bader early in his career – was also instrumental in the beer-bombing runs. (In his memoirs, Johnson notes: “the versatile Spitfire has participated in many diverse roles…. Now it has fulfilled yet another role, perhaps not so vital as some of the tasks it has undertaken in the past, but to us of supreme importance”.) 

Other pilots were allegedly nervous about their delivery ‘duties’, citing the pressure a pilot who disappointed expectant troops could feel.  

One such botched beer delivery occurred on July 19th, 1944, when a Hawker Typhoon pilot from the RAF’s 123 Wing at Martragny (just east of Bayeux) was returning home, having flown to Shoreham, on the south coast of England, to fill two drop-tanks with beer. However, inexperienced American Thunderbolt crews mistook the Typhoon for the much-feared Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, and the hapless Allied pilot was forced to jettison his cargo into the Channel as he sought the speed to outrun his would-be attackers. A case of Guinness was allegedly sent as a replacement, which the troops mixed with champagne to create ‘black velvet’. 

Identification mistakes aside, American crews - inspired by the British successes - also turned to airborne delivery options of their own. Wrote one American pilot: “We soon followed their lead… those British types sure know how to take all the comforts of home to war with them”. In November 1944, the US government ruled that 5% of all national beer production (with a lifespan of over six weeks) would be supplied to overseas troops. Deliveries were initially made using modified tanks on a P-51 Mustang, and later using P-47 Thunderbolt fighters (who were also employed to transport sweet treats such as iced custard and ice-cream).  

Unfortunately, this unique form of morale-raising mission couldn’t last indefinitely. British Customs and Excise called time on the beer-bombing runs, claiming the operation was breaking the law as breweries conveying their products overseas were bypassing export tax. Official supply lines once again became the best way to procure a pint – although the breweries in liberated areas of France were at last able to step in to assist with supplies.

So while it’s pertinent to raise a glass to those who served and fought in the name of freedom, next time you pour a pint of beer, remember the ingenuity with which this was once delivered – truly ‘raising the bar’ indeed. 

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