None Came Back…

Bristol Blenheim IV (ww2today.com)

Bristol Blenheim IV (ww2today.com)

One of the biggest obstacles to the preservation of history is that the legend of an event tends to cover over the reality to the extent that for the vast majority the legend becomes the history. This is especially true when referring to passionate subjects that are in the public mind because of an anniversary and a classic example of this is the Battle of Britain. Throughout the summer of 1940 Britain stood on the verge of annihilation by the forces of Nazi Germany which seemed to sweep away all opposition on the continent. As the legend goes the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF threw themselves against the juggernaut of Hitler’s Luftwaffe that sought to destroy them and pave the way for Operation Sealion – the Nazi invasion of Britain.

What this particular legend ignores however are the efforts of organizations such as the Royal Observer Corps who helped identify and track the attacking German formations. It also ignores the efforts of the British Army’s artillery units on land and the Royal Navy destroyers in the English Channel who turned their guns skyward to add to the defence. Perhaps one group’s contribution more than any other seems almost forgotten to history which is remarkable when you consider that they are an airborne force that fought just as hard a battle as the fighters in the sky – RAF Bomber Command.

History’s view on Bomber Command’s contribution to the battle is primarily focused in the retaliatory attacks on Berlin following the bombing of London’s docks by a flight of lost German bombers. The attacks on Berlin by British bombers forced Hitler’s hand and he ordered the Luftwaffe to turn their attention to London and other British cities thus sparing the RAF bases from attack and keeping Fighter Command operational. However this is only part of the story as Bomber Command, already bloodied and weakened from fighting in France and Norway, tried to take the fight to the Luftwaffe’s own bases in occupied Europe. It was a desperate effort to save the country from defeat for the Battle of France had proven just how vulnerable British bombers were to the German fighters such as the superlative Messerschmitt Bf 109E.

Bristol Blenheim I (commons.wikimedia)

Bristol Blenheim I (commons.wikimedia)

The Bristol Blenheim was a classic example of British thinking in bomber design during the years leading up to the Second World War. The Blenheim was conceived in a time when it was believed that bombers could fly higher and faster than any fighters sent up to intercept them. Consequently the Blenheim and its contemporaries like the Handley Page Hampden had quite light defensive armament. When the snub nosed Blenheim Mk.I first flew in 1935 it seemed like this view was justified since with its top speed of 266mph it was 60mph faster than the Heinkel He.51 biplane fighter which was then equipping the Luftwaffe. That lead however would be lost very quickly as by the time the Mk.I actually entered service in 1937 the first Messerschmitt Bf 109s were becoming operational with the first versions being able to fly at 285mph and that speed was due to rise in time. Operating over France in 1940 the Blenheims, now in the long nose Mk.IV form, couldn’t outrun or outfight the German fighters and they suffered accordingly.

With the Germans now amassing their forces for the invasion of Britain the only way that the RAF could hit back was to keep sending the Blenheim out on daylight raids to target the airfields where the Germans were basing their invasion aircraft such as the Junkers Ju 52 transports. One such base that was frequented by the Blenheims of RAF Bomber Command was Aalborg in northern Denmark. Aalborg had been vital to the German Luftwaffe during the invasion of Norway and now its strategic location made it just as vital in the coming invasion of Britain. During the Battle of Britain Aalborg served the dual purpose of housing a number of the Ju 52s to initially support the Luftwaffe’s logistics efforts for its forward bomber force before becoming a staging post of German paratroops when the actual invasion began. Secondly, Aalborg housed up to 50 Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers that were devastating the RAF’s bases. Aalborg therefore was a high priority target for Bomber Command and it was attacked several times leading up to mid-August 1940 albeit with very little success.

No.82 Squadron (www.raf.mod.uk)

No.82 Squadron (www.raf.mod.uk)

Nevertheless another raid was ordered and the date set for it to take place was August 13th 1940 now remembered as “Adlertag” or “Eagle Day” – the Luftwaffe’s all-out offensive to finally crush Fighter Command and allow the invasion to begin. Twelve Blenheim Mk.IVs of No.82 Squadron then under the command of Wing Commander Edward Collis de Virac Lart were selected for the mission. Lart had been in command of No.82 Squadron for a little over two months and was a competent and respected officer having flown with distinction on a similar raid to Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. Despite this however his new posting had been a difficult one for he had been brought in to replace the popular and charismatic Earl of Bandon who held the post previously before being transferred. Bandon left some big shoes to fill in that respect and while Lart was able to do the job the squadron felt the loss of their previous commander even if it wasn’t in action.

On August 13th the squadron’s aircraft were dispersed at RAF Bodney (designated “B” Flight) and RAF Watton (designated “A” Flight) in Norfolk. It was not uncommon for squadrons to disperse their aircraft among nearby bases during the Battle of Britain as this limited the possibility of the entire squadron’s inventory being destroyed in a single raid by the Luftwaffe. As the sun began its ascent in to a largely overcast English summer sky the two airfields began to drone with the sound of 920hp Bristol Mercury radial engines. Many of the crews were inexperienced replacements brought in after the loss of more experienced men over France including Lart’s navigator and this would have tragic consequences later in the flight. Just as the aircraft were about to start taxiing on to their respective runways one aircraft (believed to be flying from Watton) was ordered to cut its engines and its place to be taken by a spare crew who were on stand-by. The reason the aircraft was pulled from the mission was because the pilot had recently received news that he was to become an instructor and with experienced instructors in short supply it was decided not to risk him on another operation.

At 0830hrs the two flights of aircraft took off from their bases and headed out over the North Sea towards Denmark. The aircraft flew in four groups of three Blenheims flying in the then standard “vic” formation at 6,500ft. Each aircraft was armed with four 250lb bombs and eight 25lb splinter bombs that would spread over a large area to destroy or disable parked German aircraft. The flight out was unspectacular despite the intense air activity that was about to hit mainland Britain but the more pressing issue for the crews was that the Blenheim was operating at the very extreme of its range in reaching Aalborg. As the Danish coast neared for one aircraft this was about to prove a problem as the pilot of Blenheim R3915, Sergeant Norman Baron, calculated that his aircraft was burning fuel excessively and that if he continued then he would most likely have to ditch in the North Sea on the way back. He therefore signalled to his squadron mates that he had to return to base and turned his aircraft back to Britain.

Little could Baron know that he would never see any of those aircraft or their crews again.

Bristol Blenheim IV (www.iwmprints.org.uk)

Bristol Blenheim IV (www.iwmprints.org.uk)

Keeping their altitude low the aircraft passed over the Danish coast but when Lart’s inexperienced navigator, Pilot Officer Maurice Gillingham, identified their position as being Søndervig he realised that they were 55 miles off course due to strong winds. Operating in radio silence other navigators in the formation had realised the mistake and tried to signal the lead aircraft with their Aldis lamps but somehow the gunner in the upper turret of Lart’s Blenheim failed to spot the signals and therefore Lart and Gillingham remained oblivious to the fact. Lart’s decision to have the inexperienced Gillingham in his aircraft leading the mission was later brought in to question and many in No.82 Squadron believed that Lart chose him over other navigators that were available purely because he was the only one with a commission even though some of the other non-commissioned choices were more experienced.

Nevertheless the formation altered course and continued on to their target unaware that the navigational error had done more than put them off course. They had inadvertently alerted a German observation post at Søndervig who in turn alerted the local Luftwaffe fighter headquarters who began to organize an interception but a last chance to abort the mission presented itself when protective cloud cover began to disperse. Lart had instructions that if the cloud cover went below 50% then he was cleared to abort the mission and return to base; better have the aircraft available to fight another day then risk them unnecessarily. As the formation closed on Aalborg the cloud cover was now falling well below 50% and the increasingly nervous crews waited for Lart to give the order to turn around. That order never came.

It is difficult to understand why Lart never followed the instructions of his superiors. He was known to be an ambitious officer and perhaps he was concerned that if he had made it all the way to Denmark and not dropped a single bomb it might put a stain on his record. It is also possible that still living in the shadow of the Earl of Bandon he wanted to prove himself to his men that he was either the match or even superior to his predecessor. Either way the 33 men in the eleven aircraft with no cloud cover began to feel like their father’s did walking across no-man’s land on the Western Front of World War One; totally exposed to enemy fire.

The Germans were frenziedly hurrying to get fighters in to the air to meet the British. A formation of nine Bf 109s that was returning to Jever airfield from escort duty were refuelled and launched to protect Aalborg. Meanwhile, the British formation blundered in to a flak battery as a result of crossing the Danish coast off target and having to alter their approach. Puffs of red and black smoke filled the skies around the six Blenheims of “A” Flight as they made their way to Aalborg but the Germans failed to bring down any of the British planes which now pressed on to attack their target oblivious to the nine Messerschmitt fighters speeding to their location.

German 8.8cm flak gun (commons.wikimedia)

German 8.8cm flak gun (commons.wikimedia)

Less than a minute or so later “B” Flight ran the gauntlet of flak. Unfortunately they had not altered their height and so by now the German gunners had corrected their aim. At approximately 1217hrs the first aircraft was hit when Blenheim R1933 took a direct hit in the tail causing the whole rear fuselage to catch fire. The aircraft’s pilot, Pilot Officer D. Parfitt, lost control and the aircraft crashed at Restrup Enge killing Parfitt and his crew. Barely two minutes later and the flak gunners inflicted a second loss on “B” Flight bringing down Blenheim R3800 although this time all three crewmembers managed to escape their doomed aircraft. Between two to three minutes later another two of “B” Flight’s Blenheims were brought down in quick succession; one crew managed to bail out while the other were all lost. The last aircraft of “B” Flight made it all the way through the flak and despite being badly damaged attempted to attack Aalborg before the aircraft succumb to its damage and crashed on the outskirts of the airfield.

Despite “B” Flight’s annihilation, “A” Flight had succeeded in bombing the target and was now running for the coast when the Messerschmitt’s pounced upon them. The Bf 109s cut in to the British formation and Blenheim R3904 was quickly shot down with only its pilot, Pilot Officer B. Newland, escaping by parachute. At the same time two more Blenheims were attacked and shot down with three aircrew bailing out between them while the remaining three were killed. Of the eleven aircraft that crossed the Danish coast there were now only three remaining including the lead aircraft flown by Lart.

The Messerschmitts repeatedly made attack after attack on the aircraft as they flew south away from Aalborg in an attempt to shake off their pursuers. All three aircraft had taken heavy damage before finally Lart’s Blenheim was mortally wounded and crashed killing him, Gillingham and their gunner. At almost the same time another Blenheim went down but short on fuel and ammunition the Messerschmitt fighters had to return to base leaving the last Blenheim, T1889, to turn west back towards the coast. Its pilot, Sergeant J. Oates, could feel that his aircraft had been heavily damaged and had to wrestle with the decision of whether to press on over the North Sea and hope to reach Britain or bail out and be taken prisoner. As the aircraft reached the coast it became obvious that the aircraft would never make it to Blighty and with a heavy heart he turned his aircraft around. In one final twist however his route back across the Danish coast took the Blenheim directly in to the path of more pursuing Bf 109s which swooped down on the stricken aircraft unaware that the crew were surrendering. The aircraft crash landed near the town of Vust and Oates himself was seriously injured and would have probably suffered worse had the Germans and Danish not given him excellent medical care at Fjerritslev Hospital.

Back in Britain the magnitude of the disaster was becoming apparent as the hours ticked by and none of the attacking aircraft were returning. By the late evening it was confirmed that the entire attacking force had been annihilated and in the heated emotion of the tragedy Sergeant Norman Baron, the pilot of the Blenheim that had to turn back before reaching Denmark, came under intense scrutiny with some claiming he was a coward who left his comrades to die. These accusations became so serious that Baron found himself facing a court martial on the charge of being Lacking in Moral Fibre. Investigation showed that his aircraft was mechanically sound and the ground crew speculated that Baron had ran the fuel/air mixture at higher than normal levels which accounted for the very high fuel consumption.

When tempers had relaxed the charges against Baron were dropped on the grounds of his inexperience but the stigma of the accusation still loomed over him. Nevertheless, perhaps spurred on by the experience, Baron went on to have an exemplary combat flying career eventually earning the Distinguished Flying Medal for an attack on a large German merchant vessel in 1941. Less than two weeks after his medal was awarded Baron was killed attacking enemy shipping around Le Touquet. He was just 20 years old.

For the thirteen survivors of the attack on Aalborg all but one were forced to endure nearly four and a half years of captivity. Sergeant William Magarth whose aircraft was shot down by flak on approach to Alborg effected an incredible escape from his PoW camp in November 1941 and for the next five months worked his way to Gibraltar through France and then Spain arriving in March 1941 exhausted but alive and was soon repatriated. From the same aircraft as Magarth, Sergeant Bill Greenwood became endeared by his captive comrades when he fashioned together a makeshift radio from scrap laying around the camp so that they could listen in on the progress of the war.

These are two small positive stories that were born out of the tragedy of the Aalborg attack on August 13th 1940. As is too often the case the sacrifice of those who never came back has been overlooked by events elsewhere in this case in the skies over Britain as “Eagle Day” raged.

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The Rafwaffe – No. 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight

No.1426 Flight was formed on the 21st November 1941 with the task of demonstrating captured enemy aircraft to RAF and allied personnel with the aim of exposing them to their appearance, performance, and even their sound. Based at RAF Duxford all the aircrew involved in flying the captured types had engineering backgrounds so as to help with evaluation of the aircraft. The unit’s first aircraft was a Heinkel He.111 that was shot down over the UK in 1940. Landing relatively intact it was repaired and flown by the unit. Other aircraft included a Bf109 and a Ju88.

Over the course of the war the Flight acquired aircraft through numerous means. Most were the result of the aircraft being damaged in combat with Allied pilots. Some were captured on the ground during the fighting in North Africa and Italy while a handful were effectively “delivered” to the RAF when their pilots landed in the UK through navigational error and even the odd defector.

Over the course of the Flight’s wartime career numerous German types were evaluated and then lessons given to frontline crews. With the Americans entering the war in December 1941 the Flight began working closely with American evaluation units, even exchanging aircraft as well as experience. In early 1943 the Flight relocated to RAF Collyweston. At the time the US Amy Air Force was embroiled in a bitter fight with the Germans during their daylight raids and so the Flight took their aircraft on a tour of USAAF bases in England for the American crews to gain experience fighting some of the German fighters the Flight operated. One of the Flight’s Ju88s actually appeared in a wartime propaganda movie.

The Flight moved one more time in 1945, to RAF Tangmere, before being disbanded in December 1945. During the course of its existence the unit became nicknamed the “Rafwaffe” by the frontline squadrons. As well as German aircraft the unit also acquired an Italian CR.42 biplane fighter.

The Franken-Spitfire

Spitfire DB605 (1)

Large numbers of aircraft were captured by opposing forces during the Second World War and in some cases these aircraft were airworthy allowing for the captor to assess its performance and develop countermeasures. One such aircraft was Supermarine Spitfire Vb EN830/NX-X which crashed in German-occupied Jersey having been hit by flak over France on November 18th 1942. It’s pilot, Pilot Officer (Sous Lt.) Bernard Scheidhauer of the Free French Air Force, crash landed the aircraft relatively intact in a turnip field and both he and his aircraft were transported back to Germany where he would later be shot for his part in a mass break out of allied PoWs.

The captured EN830 before fitting of the DB 605A-1 engine

The captured EN830 before fitting of the DB 605A-1 engine

With the aircraft repaired the Germans went about assessing it and it’s Merlin 45 engine comparing it to previous captured Spitfire marks and of course to their own Bf109 and Fw190 fighter aircraft. The aircraft was painted in Luftwaffe test markings in order to avoid any frontline Luftwaffe pilot mistaking it for an RAF machine and attacking it. Once these tests were completed talk turned to assessing how the aircraft would handle with a German engine installed. A similar experiment had been attempted on an earlier Spitfire with a DB 601 engine from a Messerschmitt Bf109 but it required too many modifications to be practical. The newer Spitfire Vb however had a much larger engine bay for its more powerful Merlin 45 and this afforded the Germans much more space to develop mounting brackets for the DB 605A-1 engine which would drive a Bf109 propeller. The project was given the go-ahead in early 1944.

The aim of the experiment was to establish whether the engine would dramatically improve the aircraft’s performance to the point far beyond that of the Luftwaffe’s fighter. The Germans knew they had an excellent engine in the DB 600 series and it was almost always slightly ahead of the Rolls-Royce Merlin series fitted to the Spitfire in terms of capability and technology. The results did indeed prove startling.  The similar engined Messerschmitt Bf109G still proved faster at low altitude thanks to its smaller dimensions whereas the larger Spitfire/DB 605 incurred more drag. However this advantage was lost over 11,000 ft where the speeds evened out and the Spitfire handled better. The DB 605A engine gave the Spitfire a ceiling of 41,666 ft, a staggering improvement of some 5,000ft over the original Merlin 45 engine and was around 3,200 ft. more than the Bf.109G. This showed the soundness of the Spitfire’s design but as iconic as it has become in aviation circles the Merlin proved it was not the wonder-powerplant the British would have liked.

However, by the time this Franken-Spitfire had been properly tested the original material was already out of date with the Spitfire V having been replaced by the superlative Spitfire IX. This had the Rolls-Royce Merlin 66 engine which actually produced an aircraft with similar performance to the German experiment. The experiment itself came to an end abruptly on the 14th August 1944 when the aircraft was destroyed in a US air raid.

CAM Ships – Protecting the Convoy from the Condors

CAM-ship-with-Hurricat-on-launcher

Much has been written about the Battle of the Atlantic and the convoys that kept Britain alive. One aspect of this battleground has largely been forgotten however being overshadowed by the menace of the U-Boats. Dönitz‘s U-Boats were just the end of an an intelligence gathering campaign to track the convoys that started with the four engined Focke-Wulf Fw200 Condor maritime patrol plane. With a range in excess of 2,000 miles and bases in France and Norway the Condor could sweep large areas of the Atlantic, detecting and tracking the convoys before passing that information on to the U-Boat command who relayed that data back to the U-Boats via the Enigma coding machine. Destroying the Fw200s before they could get back to occupied Europe with their information became a matter of urgency.

The Fw200 Condor provided the U-Boats with vital intelligence

The Fw200 Condor provided the U-Boats with vital intelligence

The Royal Navy had conducted tests launching Sea Hurricanes (the naval version of the RAF’s famous single seat fighter) off catapults mounted on the bow of ships but it was to be the RAF who would provide and train the vast majority of pilots. The plan called for the Hurricane to be catapulted off the ship when an enemy aircraft was sighted and go after it. If the action occurred close to a friendly country then the pilot was allowed to attempt to land there however more often than not the action would take place far outside the range of a land based airfield and so the pilot would have to ditch his aircraft in front of the convoy he was protecting in the hope of being picked up. This required a special kind of mentality and belief in one’s own invincibility.The RAF formed the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit (MSFU) to handle this new dangerous assignment and 35 merchant ships were modified it carry a single Sea Hurricane and catapult gear. The Royal Navy did provide a handful of their own aircrew for the role but the Fleet Air Arm remained primarily a carrier and land based force.

Hurricane catapult launch

Hurricane catapult launch

Hawker’s Hurricane was considered the best choice for the job because it had proven a sturdier aircraft than other contemporaries such as the Supermarine Spitfire. Its position as a premier fighter had also deteriorated as newer German fighters appeared freeing the airframes up as they were replaced by newer Spitfires in the RAF. The Hurricane was an excellent gun platform with its close coupled guns proving devastating to multi engined bombers. Later versions also became armed with four 20mm cannons in place of the .303 machine guns thus increasing their lethality. The Fleet Air Arm units initially operated the Fairey Fulmar in the role before they too resorted to the Hurricane. A dedicated naval fighter the Fulmar was also a very tough and sturdy design and had the advantages of longer range and a second crewman to aid with navigation. It was heavier which meant that the catapult launch was that much more difficult however and this was one of the reasons why the FAA switched to the Hurricane – that and the fact the Hurricane was now more readily available thanks to a Canadian production line.

Fairey Fulmar two seat naval fighter

Fairey Fulmar two seat naval fighter

The first CAM ships joined the convoys in June 1941 after the RAF deemed the unit and its pilots ready. It was decided that pilots who were detached to these units would be allowed to make just two convoy journeys before retraining or reassignment to a frontline squadron. It was feared that pilot skill would deteriorate if kept from flying for too long. A handful of early CAM ships left with convoys but were not used and the main threat remained from marauding U-Boats. That changed however on  the 3rd of August 1941 when a convoy traversing the North Atlantic codenamed OG17 was spotted by a Fw200. A Hurricane flown by Lt. Robert Everett was launched to intercept the aircraft. Despite persistent defensive fire from the German crew the Fw200 fell to Everett’s guns. Everett then ditched his aircraft and was recovered by a destroyer escort for the convoy.

CAM-ship_hurricaneoncatapult

It would be just under a month later when a second combat launch was undertaken. This time a Fw200 was intercepted but no doubt the Germans had become aware of the threat posed by these catapult fighters as the Fw200 crew thought survival being the better part of valor and elected to retreat rather than duel with the Hurricane. Having patrolled around the convoy in case the Fw200 came back the RAF pilot ditched in the water when his fuel was gone and was recovered by a destroyer. There were a total of nine combat launches in which the Hurricanes engaged enemy aircraft or scared them away (this was still a success because it meant the German crews could not complete their mission). As well as patrol aircraft the Hurricanes had to deal with torpedo armed German bombers such as the Heinkel He111h-6 and the Junkers Ju-88. There were numerous false alarms where aircraft were launched only to discover they were allied aircraft with the B-17 Flying Fortress (which looks remarkably similar to a Fw200 when in flight) and the B-24 Liberator being the biggest culprits.

Torpedo armed He111 was also a target for the CAM fighters

Torpedo armed He111 was also a target for the CAM fighters

Despite the immensely dangerous nature of the operation there was only one fatality amongst the MSFU. On 25th May 1942 convoy QP12 was homeward bound from Russia when it was spotted by a German Bv138 flying boat. Flying Officer J.B. Kendall launched in his Hurricane and scared it away. Shortly after a Ju88 appeared and the still patrolling Kendall engaged the twin engined bomber, sending it crashing in to the sea. By now Kendall’s fuel was low and so he was forced to ditch in to the sea. Unfortunately his parachute failed to open correctly and he landed hard in the sea mortally wounding him. He was given a burial sea at sea by a grateful convoy.

By 1943 the introduction of escort carriers negated the need for the CAM ships and as such the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit was disbanded. In total they claimed nine kills and scared off a similar number of other aircraft (exact numbers vary). Their success can be measured in many ways and not just the number of kills they achieved. The very fact these pilots and their aircraft were in the convoy did much to lift the spirits of the merchant navy sailors who had suffered horrendous losses to the Germans. Their bravery and dedication was truly inspiring.

Turret Fighters

roc-8

The turret fighter was a concept in air warfare that was quite popular with the British Air Ministry in the 1930s. The theory was that a fighter aircraft could be fitted with a rotating gun turret behind the pilot which would not only provide a defence against an attacking enemy aircraft but could also relieve the pilot from having to get on an opponent’s tail since attacks could be made by the gun turret from nearly any angle (akin to the modern air warfare concept of off-boresight missile firings).

The origins of the concept can be traced back to World War I where the majority of aircraft such as the Bristol F.2B fighter had two man crews with the crewman in the rear position manning a machine gun on a pivot to supplement the fixed forward firing armament available to the pilot. The trend in fighter design in the interwar period leaned towards single pilot aircraft with faster performance and heavier fixed forward armament but there were still those who believed that aircraft armed with trainable weapons would offer an advantage.

The introduction of the powered turret as defensive armament on a bomber aircraft had two distinct impacts on air warfare doctrine. Firstly, it was believed that defensive armament was becoming so potent and the bombers becoming so fast that escort fighters would not be needed. As combat experience would later prove this was a fatally flawed belief. Another impact of powered turrets was the idea of mounting them on fighter aircraft creating a bomber-destroyer that could attack the unescorted enemy bomber formation from any angle with concentrated firepower.

Boulton-Paul-Defiant-Prototype-Merlin-II-engine-K8620-England-01

The RAF began a series of experiments using Hawker Demons equipped with a powered turret and it impressed the Air Ministry enough to issue specification F9/35 calling for a two seat, single engined turret fighter armed with four .303 machine guns. This specification resulted in the famous Bolton Paul Defiant turret fighter. At around the same time the Air Ministry issued O30/35 which called for a naval equivalent to operate off the Royal Navy’s carriers. This resulted in the Blackburn Roc turret fighter.

The RAF and Royal Navy leadership and planners might have been confident in the concept but this was in ignorance of how far technology was developing. Single engined fighters were becoming faster and more heavily armed tipping the balance back in their favor over the bombers. This meant that any bomber attack on Britain would require escort fighters and this meant that the Defiant and the Roc would have to ‘mix-it’ with the superlative Messerschmidt Bf109D. The weight of the turret and its mechanism meant that both the Roc and Defiant were sluggish in comparison to the single engined German fighter which was one of the very best in the world in 1939.

Boulton_Paul_DefiantWhen war came the Defiant did prove a nasty surprise to German fighter pilots that attacked from the aircraft’s rear before getting cut to pieces by the .303 guns. It would not last however as German pilots quickly learned that the Defiant could be attacked from below and the front since the aircraft lacked any forward firing armament. Losses mounted dramatically as the German pilots used their superior agility to keep out of the turret gunner’s line of sight. By the time of the Battle of Britain in 1940 it was obvious that the Defiant was going to have to operate with the single engined Hurricanes and Spitfires to keep the Bf109s at bay while the Defiants attacked the bombers. Quietly however the aircraft was slowly withdrawn from frontline service but it was at this point the night bombing campaign began and the aircraft received a new lease of life as a nightfighter carrying one of the first air intercept radar sets.

9_4The Royal Navy’s Roc turret fighter had an even less successful career. Rather than equip entire squadrons with the type it instead served in mixed squadrons comprising Blackburn Skuas (a nearly identical aircraft but lacking the turret and instead used for bombing) with Rocs acting for fighter defence. Very quickly the Roc proved incapable of catching German fighter aircraft and was almost impotent during the Norway campiagn. The aircraft is only credited with a single kill, a Ju88 bomber, in 1940. While useless as a fighter the aircraft did find itself very adept at destroying high speed torpedo carrying E-boats in the English Channel. The aircraft was quickly relegated to second line duties such as target towing and training.

In theory the turret fighter should have been a war winning concept but in practice the aircraft technology in terms of engine and airframe design wasn’t available to compensate for the weight of the turret and even if it was the technology would no doubt be used in single seat fighters as well and the turret fighters would be at a disadvantage again. However the contribution the Defiant made to the development of night fighting tactics can’t be underestimated so as the old saying goes every cloud has a silver lining – and the Defiant could shoot down a German plane inside it thanks to its radar.

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