19 June 1940
In the early afternoon hours of 19 June, No. 141 Squadron was sent out from Hawkinge to intercept a formation of German Bf 110s which were reported to dive-bomb shipping over the Channel. Unusually for this very wet July, the day was bright and perfectly clear, with no clouds in sight and visibility stretching many miles in every direction. As the formation of nine British aircraft crossed the coast en route to their designated target, they were spotted by a group of Bf 109s from III./JG 51 sweeping high above along the English coastline.
Undetected, the German fighters could position themselves in the sun and then dived onto the climbing fighters, their guns blazing. In a dramatic short combat, the totally surprised British lost six of their aircraft – which happened to be the newest fighter type in the Royal Air Force, the turret-armed Boulton-Paul Defiant. The loss of six aircraft and crew – half of squadron strength – effectively knocked out No. 141 Squadron in a single engagement with the enemy.
When news about No. 141 Squadron’s ordeal arrived at the Fighter Command Headquarters, panic bells went off. Another Defiant unit, No. 264 Squadron, was immediately grounded in fear that the Germans had discovered some disastrous vulnerability of the aircraft. In due course, No. 141 was ordered to Scotland to reform. A month later, by decision of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, Defiants were altogether withdrawn from the role of frontline day fighters.
This way, tragic defeat of one unit cast a dark shadow on reputation of RAF’s new fighter. It was a blow from which the unique Boulton-Paul Defiant never recovered. Seventy years on, the Defiant seems to attract all possible sorts of criticism, being mostly referred to as a flawed concept, brainchild of an “airmchair tactician” and idea “too schizophrenic for anyone actually flying the machine”.
Let’s have a closer look at the Defiant, its faults and its achievements.
Hugh Dowding later commented on his decision to withdraw the aircraft from day fighter operations:
“I think it is now generally agreed that the single-seater multi-gun fighter with fixed guns was the most efficient type which could have been produced for day fighting. The Defiant, after some striking initial successes, proved to be too expensive in use against fighters and was relegated to night work and to the attack of unescorted bombers. It had two serious disabilities; firstly, the brain flying the aeroplane was not the brain firing the guns: the guns could not fire within 16 degrees of the line of flight of the aeroplane and the gunner was distracted from his task by having to direct the pilot through the communication set.
Secondly, the guns could not be fired below the horizontal, and it was therefore necessary to keep below the enemy. When beset by superior numbers of fighters the best course to pursue was to form a descending spiral, so that one or more Defiants should always be in a position to bring effective fire to bear. Such tactics were, however, essentially defensive, and the formation sometimes got broken up before they could be adopted. In practice, the Defiants suffered such heavy losses that it was necessary to relegate them to night fighting, or to the attack of unescorted bombers.”
Dowding was absolutely right. The Defiant was one of those aircraft that proved unable to operate at its best during the Battle of Britain in the hostile air over southern England. In this respect, our judgement over this aircraft needs to be no different than that over the German Junkers Ju 87 or the Messerschmitt Bf 110. That in itself should not detract from the fact that such aircraft could still be (and were) valuable if used under different operational conditions. Alas, unlike the Ju 87 or Bf 110, the Defiant was not to be given another chance.
Dowding was also correct in his statement that the Defiant could not be used in the offensive fighter role – but he did not mention the fact that it was never meant to do so. By design, the Defiant was a bomber destroyer, to be used for home defence. It was never meant to combat single-engined fighters on equal terms. Yet its operational use during the period between May and July 1940 contradicted the very concept which led to its creation.
Boulton-Paul Defiant was the third of Birtish monoplane fighters ordered as part of the rearmament programme of the 1930s – the Hurricane and the Spitfire being the famous other two. Significantly, the Defiant was the only one of the trio which reached operational status only after the outbreak of war, and thus at the time of the Battle of Britain was still very much unproven.
No. 264 (Madras Presidency) Squadron, the unit entrusted with bringing the new aircraft into service, received their first Defiants – only three of them due to slow rate of production – in December 1939. Introducing the type into service was considered a matter of urgency. During the following four months, No. 264, commanded by Sqn/Ldr Stephen Hardy, completed a mammoth task – mastering the operation of modern aircraft, forming pilot/gunner teams, establishing methods of their cooperation, perfecting formation flying and aerial gunnery, helping to iron out the many teething troubles of the aircraft, which included engine, hydraulic and radio problems.
The new tactics developed by Hardy and his pilots focused on attacking formations of enemy bombers. Three attack plans were devised: overtaking on a parallel course, converging on a beam attack, or diving across the noses of enemy aircraft. All of these options used the advantage of Defiant’s rotating armament, at the same time exploiting the weak spots of the bombers’ defensive fire.
Additionally, a defensive tactics was developed in case if Defiants would be attacked by single-engined fighters. It was a spiral descent in formation, described by Dowding and similar to the defensive circle often employed at the time by German Bf 110s. It should be noted that the Defiant’s relatively poor acceleration as compared to single-engine fighters, lower rate of climb and high stall speed – all due to the weight penalty of the turret – were clearly known and understood by everyone involved. Using the Defiant to actively combat enemy fighters hadn’t even been considered.
In mid-march 1940, No. 264 Squadron – still being the sole unit equipped with the new aircraft – was declared operational. After German assault on France and the Low Countries, they were thrown into battle directly – in offensive capability, first in air battle over Holland, then over Dunkirk.
There, on 29 May, the Defiant made history. In an incredible two afternoon patrols over Dunkirk, No. 264 Squadron achieved a score of thirty-seven (!) German aircraft destroyed, plus three probables. It was the best score that any RAF squadron ever had; it left everyone in awe, including the participating aircrew. Nicholas Cooke, who himself claimed eight victories that day, told one reporter “It was like knocking apples off a tree!”.
Even considering an inevitable massive overclaiming which was inherent of these early engagements, this was a tremendous success for the Defiant. At one moment during the evening patrol, British fighters caught a formation of Ju 87s at the vulnerable moment when they were pulling out of their dives after attacking the beaches. The Defiants joined their formation and then massacred the Stukas, pouring accurate fire into one after another, and sending them crashing into the sea. They also successfully attacked twin-engined He 111s and Ju 88s, overtaking the bombers and shooting from close range directly into their glass cabins.
During the day there were also engagements with Bf 110s and Bf 109s, but both German fighter types were successfully waved off, and some of them hit by the Defiants’ defensive fire.
The sheer size of the day’s success surprised everyone. W/Cdr Harry Broadhurst, station commander at Wittering who happened to be at Manston when the Defiants landed, might have been the first to exclaim “they [the Germans] must have mistaken them for Hurricanes!”. Some exhilarated pilots agreed, looking for some logical justification of their fantastic success. The alleged German confusion between the Hurricane and Defiant was just a guess – most of the aircraft claimed by the squadron that day were bombers – but a myth, so often repeated since, was born. It is notable that it was never confirmed by the German sources.
No. 264 Squadron closed its score in May with 64 enemy aircraft claimed destroyed to the loss of fourteen Defiants. A spectacular success paid for with heavy losses.
Experiences of No. 264 Squadron – good and bad – were not employed by No. 141, which was but the second Defiant squadron to enter service. The new unit performed their operational training on their own, without any significant transfer of the first unit’s operational experience. Sqn/Ldr Hall, still enthusiastic about the possibilities of the Defiant, was in contact with Sqn/Ldr Richardson, CO of No. 141, on at least two occasions, on 21 June and 10 July. Trying to explain the tactics which his unit had developed and successfully used many times, Hall was met with outright dejection. Richardson let it be known that he had very low thoughts about the aircraft, and he was not to be swayed by enthusiasm displayed by Hall and his pilots.
The fatal mission of 19 July was the first operational sortie to be flown by No. 141 Squadron. The new unit was thrown into the heat of the battle, without any plan for coordination of their actions with Hurricane and Spitfire units. Tragically, the negligence in tactical training of the crews proved to have fatal consequences – attacked by schwarm after schwarm of Bf 109s, the Defiants continued to fly straight and level, a disastrous behaviour regardless of the type of fighters under attack.
Another operational blunder was deploying the Defiants at Hawkinge, located only about three miles from the Channel coast. With the proximity of German fighters based just across the Channel, the Defiants were not only faced with roaming Bf 109s, they also couldn’t be scrambled in time to reach altitude before the arrival of the enemy. Instead, they were bound to climb under enemy formations – a severe disadvantage shared by all Fighter Command squadrons stationed along the south coast, but in the case of the Defiant exaggerated by its lower agility, climb rate and – not least – lack of constant-speed propellers on the aircraft.
Last but not least, the Defiants were still equipped with the obsolete HF radio transmitters, which required wire aerials, in the case of the Defiant spun between two retractable radio masts underneath the fuselage. The aerials themselves were source of frequent radio failures but more importantly, using the HF wavelength made it impossible for the Defiants to coordinate their actions with Hurricane and Spitfire units, which by that time had largely converted to vastly superior VHF radios. At a conference on 21 June, Sqn/Ldr Hall pointed out this deficiency, also stressing the need of common briefings between collaborating fighter units.
In all, the demise of the Defiant was not as much the fault of the aircraft itself as of the Fighter Command, which insisted to employ its new and largely untried weapon all-out, with alarming ignorance with regard to its known strengths and weaknesses.
The heavy bomber-destroyer fighter, so rapidly dismissed by the RAF, was to be later revived by the Luftwaffe, in different guises – albeit without the rotating turret – against the American heavy bomber offensive against Germany. German experiences confirmed that although always a niche concept, the bomber-destroyer could be quite effective as long as it was used against unescorted bomber formations.
Had the Defiant been employed in Scotland or in defence of the East Coast, where the Luftwaffe bombers still arrived unescorted and where long approaches over the sea guaranteed early detection by the radar chain, its place in history may have been small, but rather different.
Not as a scapegoat of the Battle of Britain.
- Alec Brew: The Turret Fighters – Defiant and Roc, Crowood Press, 2002
- Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding: Despatch submitted to the Secretary of State for Air on August 20th, 1941
- John Frayn Turner: The Battle of Britain, Pen & Sword, 2010