“Battle of the last Biplanes”
In the second half of the 1930s the days of the biplane were well and truly numbered. With emphasis on speed the monoplane offered significant drag reductions while the biplane was reaching the limits of what it could safely fly. That being said however the biplane would continue in frontline service right through World War II especially in some of the lower intensity zones.
Two of the best biplane fighters of the war were the British Gloster Gladiator and the Italian Fiat CR.42. Both these designs were the best biplane fighters of their respective nations and also the last to be built and it would be these two fighters that would meet in the early days of the North Africa campaign. With both designs being the epitome of biplane fighter design for their respective nations the question must be asked; which was better?
Both these aircraft were designed with the traditional fighter role in mind. They were intended to have the speed to catch the latest heavy bombers and have the firepower to shoot them down. However in this respect neither were well suited to this requirement. The latest monoplane twin engine bombers were either comparable or even superior in speed resulting in both aircraft having to gain altitude ahead of the bomber force and attacking from the front in a high speed pass. The RAF quickly replaced their home squadrons of Gladiators with Hurricane and Spitfire monoplane fighters and instead relocating them to Africa where the sophistication of the opposing Italian forces were not as modern as the Axis forces in mainland Europe; at least initially.
The Italians also used their Fiat CR.42 as a bomber escort and offensive fighter during the Battle of France with some degree of success thanks largely to the German Luftwaffe achieving air superiority over the British and French. However, when they tried the same during the Battle of Britain the biplane suffered horrendous loses at the hands of Spitfire and Hurricane pilots forcing the type to be withdrawn. The type then saw extensive use as a ground attack aircraft being fitted with underwing bomb racks while a small number were converted for use as night fighters equipped with a high powered searchlight.
The Gloster Gladiator was powered by an 830hp Bristol Mercury IX radial engine that pulled it comfortably along at 210mph at 14,000ft. With the throttles opened up the Gladiator could reach 253mph and it could attain a service ceiling of nearly 34,000ft. In terms of agility, after-action reports filed by British and Commonwealth pilots stated that they found that their Gladiators were more manoeuvrable in the horizontal plane than the Italian aircraft which meant that the Gladiator could turn inside the turn circle of the CR.42.
The CR.42 was powered by a similar 840hp Fiat A.74 RC.38 radial piston engine that could allow it to attain a maximum speed of 267mph at 16,000ft and reach a service ceiling of 33,300ft. This gave it a 15mph advantage over the Gladiator but at the cost of a marginal height disadvantage. The CR.42 had an extremely marginal lead over the Gladiator in terms of climb rate but could flip its nose over slightly faster allowing it to reverse its turn through the vertical plane quicker.
The Gladiator was initially armed with four Vickers .303in machine guns; two mounted in the fuselage synchronised to fire through the propeller and two in the lower wing. In later models these were replaced by Browning machine guns to bring them in line with the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. The Brownings had a higher rate of fire and were more reliable than the older Vickers weapons.
The CR.42 entered service with two fixed 0.5in (12.7mm) machine guns mounted in the forward fuselage firing through the propeller however the Italians saw that this would not be enough in the face of aircraft equipped with armour and self-sealing fuel tanks. Therefore another pair of guns were fitted to the lower wing in bolt-on blister fairings. Additionally up to 441lbs of ground attack ordinance could be carried.
The Gloster Gladiator achieved notable export successes before the war especially with some of the poorer air forces who could not afford the more sophisticated monoplane fighters or lacked the infrastructure to support them. Additionally there was a Sea Gladiator version that was modified for carrier operations. This was never seen as ideal by the Royal Navy despite good take-off and landing characteristics thanks largely to its slow straight line speed compared to monoplanes and it’s single pilot; at the time the Royal Navy believed that the navigational equipment needed for operating over the sea was too much for a single pilot to cope with and this resulted in the two-seat Fairey Fulmar monoplane fighter. One seemingly insignificant advantage the Gladiator pilot had over the CR.42 pilot but much appreciated during the fighting in Northern Europe was having a canopy that could be closed over the pilot improving his comfort. The CR.42 pilot was left exposed to the elements but in the heat of Africa the Gladiator pilot often flew with the canopy open to reduce the build-up of ambient temperatures.
Whereas the Gladiator’s use during the war was largely out of necessity due to there being no other available aircraft the CR.42 was greeted by the Italians with more enthusiasm. It entered service even though monoplane fighters were already being built for the Italian air force and development continued throughout the war with several versions being produced. As well as the aforementioned fighter, ground attack and night fighter versions there was also a specially designed anti-Partisan version for use by the Luftwaffe in Yugoslavia and the occupied territories of the Soviet Union where fighter opposition was minimal. This forerunner to what we would now call a COIN (Counter Insurgency) aircraft was armed with two 220lb bombs as well as its standard machine gun armament. There was also a floatplane version for use by the Italian Navy in the spotter role but this variant was not pursued. One disadvantage the CR.42 pilot found himself with was a lack of a radio set.
The Gladiator and the CR.42 were quite evenly matched aircraft although in most respects the CR.42 held the advantage. It was marginally faster with a higher rate of climb and its higher calibre guns could inflict more damage than the Gladiator’s .303in weapons. The Gladiator pilot did have the advantage of a higher turn rate so providing that the CR.42 pilot didn’t cut the circle in half by either climbing or diving across (known as a yo-yo in aviation parlance) then the Gladiator pilot could keep the CR.42’s guns out of position. Summed up it would be pilot skill that would be the deciding factor in a fight between these iconic biplane fighters.
Actual Combat Results
The results of actual combat between these two types over Africa shows just how closely matched they were. On June 14th 1940 the two types met for the first time over Egypt where a CR.42 shot down an RAF Gladiator. There were sporadic engagements over the coming weeks but then on the 24th July 1940, 17 CR.42s attacked a formation of nine RAF Blenheims. The Blenheims were escorted by 15 Gloster Gladiators from the RAF’s No.33 Squadron who downed four CR.42s without loss. Thanks to these encounters the RAF developed their tactics for fighting the CR.42 and this experience became obvious on August 8th 1940 when a force of 16 CR.42s operated by a supposedly elite Italian unit were ambushed by 13 Gladiators. The Gladiator pilots almost annihilated the Italian force with 13 confirmed kills and the three survivors being heavily damaged to the point where the RAF listed them as “probables”. Surprisingly, an assessment of the engagement ruled that the deciding factor was that the Gladiators had radios to communicate allowing them to properly organise themselves in combat whereas the CR.42 was left to old-fashioned hand signals.
Unfortunately for the British and Commonwealth air forces this kind result was in no way guaranteed and this was proven on Novmember 6th 1940 when a flight of CR.42s engaged South African Air Force (SAAF) Gladiators over Ethiopia during the start of the Commonwealth forces’ offensive. Five Gladiators were lost in the engagement to the Italians without a single CR.42 loss. The battle was decided by the fact that the Gladiators weren’t operating in a large formation but in sections too far apart to support one another properly. This meant that when the Italians attacked the Gladiators were always outnumbered.
The last combat between the two types occurred on 24th October 1941 when three SAAF Gladiators intercepted a CR.42 attempting to desperately strafe a British airfield. The Gladiator emerged victorious but was on the verge of being replaced by newer types such as the Hawker Hurricane and the US-supplied P-40 Tomahawk. Looking at these combats the answer is obvious; training of the pilot(s) was the deciding factor. In this respect British and Commonwealth pilots held the advantage and it showed in the results. What this also proves however is that both these aircraft were potent in the hands of a good pilot and deserve their iconic status in their respective countries for being the last and best biplane fighters of their generation.