The Fairey Battle
One aircraft in the RAF Museum London – which is often overlooked – is a type of aircraft which has two exceptional claims to your attention. These are the first RAF claim of an aerial victory in the Second World War; and having been used on a mission on 12 May 1940, in which the RAF’s first two Victoria Crosses of the Second World War were awarded. Step forward the Fairey Battle.
Genesis and development
The Fairey Battle was conceived at a time of significant political and military change – upheaval, indeed.
At the end of the Great War, the Treasury had imposed a ‘10 Year Rule’ which postulated that there would not be a major war in Europe for the following 10 years, and so budgetary demands from the services should be based on that assumption. This would roll forward from year to year. In June 1930, the Committee of Imperial Defence confirmed the continuation of that policy. However, within a few months, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria. In early 1932 they attacked Shanghai, where there were very significant British political and commercial interests. The Chiefs of Staff called on the British Government to cancel the ten-year rule, which the Government accepted and immediately began rearmament.
For the RAF, this meant replacing their by-then antiquated biplane fighters and bombers in a series of rapidly growing, and desperate, Expansion Plans. These plans went through many contradicting versions, one replacing the other before completion. They were A (1934-36), C (1935-37), F (1935-39), H (1937-39), J (1938-41), K (1938-41), L (1938-41) and M (1939-42).
The Battle’s progress from the Air Ministry identifying a need to a final volume delivery was far from straightforward. Concept, specification and design were often changed, exacerbated by delivery delays. What started out as a high performance, modern aircraft was rather obsolescent the day it entered squadron service. And, in combat, nothing short of a death trap.
One of the major constraints at the beginning of the design process was ‘The Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments’, generally known as the Geneva Conference, held between February 1932 and November 1934. Its objective was to allow countries weapons for defence but prohibit offensive weapons. This was impossible to achieve for both political and practical reasons. Just one example: tanks were excluded from consideration as they could be used for both purposes. For aircraft, the consequence was to limit the weight of single-engined bombers to 6,000 lbs (2,700 kgs) without engine – a major constraint on designers.
In August 1932, the Air Ministry drew up Specification P.27/32 for a high-speed monoplane medium day bomber to replace the RAF’s existing Hart biplane bomber.
The Specification called for a speed of 195 mph (314 km/h) at 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) with a range of 600 miles (1,000 km) carrying a bomb load of 1,000 lb (454 kilos) with armament of one fixed machine gun in the wing.
As an aside, the required range of 600 miles would not have reached Berlin. But would take you to Paris – the assumed opponent in the late 1920s and early 1930s!
The first delay arose in getting the Specification to aircraft manufacturers, finally emerging in June 1933. However, within a month of publication, the Air Ministry recognised this performance was wholly inadequate for their perceived needs so the requirements were increased to match the twin-engined B.9/32 (which produced the Hampden and Wellington). This called for a range increased to 720 miles (1,160 km) and speed of 195 mph (314 km/h) at the increased altitude of 15,000 feet (up from 10,000) (3,000 m to 4,500 m). Added to that a potentially increased tankage for a range of 1,200 miles (1,900 km).
At the tender design conference in November 1933, seven submissions were considered, coming from Armstrong Whitworth, Bristol, Fairey, Gloster, Hawker, Vickers and Westland. (Boulton Paul had been invited but did not bid). Fairey claimed a speed of 223 mph (360 km/h) at 15,000 feet (4,500 m) and was favourite. It was in many ways a modern machine: low-wing and using metal stressed-skin manufacturing techniques – a huge leap from wood and canvas – and bombs carried internally in the wings.
A delay now occurred whilst the choice of engine was reviewed. The Air Ministry had originally written the airframe specification around Rolls Royce’s glycol-cooled Griffon engine but Fairey wanted to install their own (as yet unproven) water-cooled Prince engine. In the end, the Griffon did not enter service until 1942, and the Prince engine was never finished. The Rolls Royce Merlin was chosen instead.
A contract for one prototype was placed on 11 June 1934, to be delivered by September 1935. Yet more changes were afoot. The Disarmament Conference collapsed so the weight limit was waived. Mr CR Fairey and his principal designer, Belgian engineer Marcel Lobelle, visited the USA and upon their return wanted to modify the prototype’s design to reflect the manufacturing improvements observed there. Also, the specification was changed to be capable of night bombing. Further modifications and redesigns led to a revised Specification (P.23/35) and again in 1937 (P.14/36). In April 1936, efforts were made to reduce weight. Throughout these changes the single forward-facing gun was retained. A contemporary note records that ‘there was no logical reason [for the gun] but the effect on the morale of the crews is substantial’.
The prototype flew on 10 March 1936 (five days after K 5054, the Supermarine Spitfire prototype). However, there were further delays and the prototype was not delivered to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) for service trials until October 1936. The original specification had called for just two crew: pilot and observer. The latter had to carry out the duties of navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and rear gunner. The Battle, as delivered, had a crew of three: pilot, observer (navigator / bomb aimer) and wireless operator / air gunner, the latter to operate the Vickers ‘K’ 0.303 inch rear-facing gun. (The RAF Museum Battle’s gun was removed at the request of the Metropolitan Police some while ago.) Maximum speed at sea level was 257 mph (414 km/h) with a cruising speed of 200 mph (322 km/h) at 16,000 ft (4,877 m) and range of 900 miles (1,450 km). It was, though, being developed in parallel with the more capable – and twin-engined – Bristol Blenheim and the superlative Vickers Wellington, whose two engines gave bomb capacity and range performances far exceeding that of the Battle.
In the rush to rearm, the RAF wanted as many aircraft as the factories could turn out and a production order for 155 Battles was placed in 1935, even before the prototype had been delivered. By November 1936, 1,363 were on order. And plans were being drawn up for the car maker Austin to build Battles under contract to Fairey. More orders followed with increasing urgency. Or was it desperation?
By December 1938, its impending obsolescence was recognised in that an order was placed for a further 200 Battles explicitly as a means of maintaining production capabilities in the aircraft industry for the impending production of the Avro Manchester.
Total build was 2,184 by Fairey and under contract by Austin Motors. As well as those delivered to the RAF, some were sold to Belgium and Finland. In June 1939, there is reference to a tropicalised Battle with a Taurus engine but nothing seems to have developed further.
The first production Battle flew on 14 April 1937 and Battles entered RAF service in May 1937 with No. 63 Squadron at RAF Upwood, Cambridgeshire. By January 1939, the Royal Air Force could call on over 400 Battles in 10 squadrons of No. 1 Group and 8 training squadrons in No. 6 Group, Bomber Command.
Turning now to the actions in which the RAF’s first aerial victory and first two Victoria Crosses of the Second World War were won.
Advanced Air Striking Force
After Germany invaded Poland, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) set sail to France for the second time in 25 years. This time it was not accompanied by the Royal Flying Corps, but by the British Air Forces France (BAFF), comprising the Royal Air Force Component of the BEF and the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF). The former operated Westland Lysanders for tactical reconnaissance and photographic survey of the front line; Bristol Blenheims for strategic reconnaissance as far as the Rhine; and Hawker Hurricanes to defend the bases and reconnaissance aircraft. The AASF contained 10 squadrons of Battles and Bristol Blenheim bombers supported by Hurricane fighters, with the original purpose of enabling the short-range bombers to reach German industry in the Ruhr (strategic bombing of military facilities and particularly oil and railways). But a combination of the extreme weakness of the French Air Force and the vulnerability of the Battles led to them being switched to army support, intended to attack bottlenecks such as bridges and road junctions.
Incredibly complex and tight Rules of Engagement were promulgated, having been agreed at a political and military and level with France, the predominant power. The official plans stated that bombing was not permitted unless the Germans bombed first; indeed, in his post-war autobiography Marshal of the RAF, Sir Arthur Harris, wrote “when the invasion started, it proved impossible to persuade General Gamelin [French army commander-in-chief] to permit the use of bombers at all … eventually [Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Ugly’] Barrett, Commander-in Chief of British Air Forces in France, had to order the squadrons into action on his own initiative”. The official plan even went so far as to say that, if the Germans did attack, the AASF was only expected to be called upon to attack significant targets – defined as more than 50 tanks, 50 artillery pieces or 100 vehicles, and using 40 lb (18 kilo) bombs. Bomber Command Operation Instruction No. 22 stated that columns of troops were not to be attacked if there was any risk of heavy German civilian casualties. Written orders also emphasised the criticality of day bombers having fighter support.
What followed Britain’s declaration of war was widely called the Phoney War: perhaps Phoney for the BEF and French armies – dug in facing the Germans for months with nothing happening – but for the Royal Air Force it was very immediately real war.
In England, the RAF quickly and bloodily learned that the ability of bombers to defend themselves against German fighters was a myth. Wellingtons and Blenheims attacking German warships at Wilhelmshaven by day on 4 September – the day after Britain declared war on Germany – suffered savage losses. Of the 27 aircraft which took part, 7 ‘failed to return’, a 24% loss rate. 26 September saw 5 of 11 Hampdens lost (45%); and on 13 December, 12 Wellingtons attacked German warships in the Schillig Roads of which 5 did not return (42%). But worst of all was 14 December with 15 out of 22 Wellingtons (68%) were either shot down, ditched in the unforgiving North Sea on the way home or crash-landed away from their bases. This vulnerability of unescorted day bombing was a lesson also painfully learnt by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain and by the United States Eighth Army Air Force 2 years later.
A Battle has the honour of claiming the RAF’s first aerial victory of the Second World War. On 20 September 1939 – 17 days after Britain joined the Second World War, a flight of three Battles from No. 88 Squadron on patrol near Aachen was attacked by Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Two Battles were shot down but the gunner of the third, Sergeant Letchford, claimed a Bf 109 destroyed. Although his claim was endorsed by French troops, Luftwaffe records show no losses that day. Alternatively, the honour goes to Leading Aircraftman John Ernest Summers of No. 103 Squadron on 27 September 1939 when, again, three Battles were attacked by Bf 109s, one of which Summers shot down.
The Phoney War abruptly ended on 10 May 1940 with the German invasion of Holland, Belgium and France. By 12 May, German forces had reached the Albert Canal in Belgium, on the route to Brussels, where Belgian forces had failed to destroy two key bridges at Maastricht and Sedan, specifically a concrete bridge at Vroenhoven and a steel one at Veldwezelt. over which the German armour was swarming. BAFF issued Task 109 at 1300 hrs ordering an attack by three Battles on each bridge, which had to be destroyed – as the subsequent London Gazette Victoria Cross citations stated – ‘at all costs’.
No. 12 Squadron with their Fairey Battles was assigned the mission. By this stage, it was generally appreciated that what had been cutting-edge aircraft performance in 1934 were by 1940 obsolete death-traps. The crews were under no illusions as to the dangers they faced. Elsewhere in France, as early as 30 September 1939, 4 out of 5 Battles on armed reconnaissance patrol over Germany were shot down, the 5th damaged beyond repair. And the day of the German attack – two days earlier – a total of 32 Battles was despatched, of which 13 were lost and all the remainder badly damaged. No. 12 Squadron had participated with 4 Battles, of which only 1 returned safely. Their Commanding Officer called for volunteers: the whole Squadron stepped forward so the six crews selected were those already on the day’s ‘readiness’ roster but due to the unserviceability of 1 aircraft, as well as the spare, only 5 actually took off.
As expected, the bridges were very heavily defended, both by Bf 109 fighters and Flak [‘Fliegerabwehrkanon’, Anti-Aircraft Artillery]. In accordance with Standing Orders, a flight of 8 Hurricanes from No. 1 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader ‘Bull’ Halahan went ahead of the Battles but were closely engaged by the Bf 109s and could not help them. The Battles stood no chance but pressed on bravely. The Bf 109s were 100 mph faster, more manoeuvrable and had lethal 20mm cannons. Of the 5 Battles which attacked, 4 were brought down and the 5th landed away from its base, badly damaged and without the 2 crew who had been ordered by the pilot to bale out as the wing fuel tank was on fire. The lead pilot of the flight of 3 Battles targeting the Veldwezelt bridge was Flying Officer Donald Garland, with Sergeant Gray as his Observer [Navigator].
RAF Museum Archives has the accident card and the Squadron Operations Record Book lists all five aircraft, with serial numbers, individual squadron letters and crew. Garland’s was P 2204 and the identification markings were PH-K (where PH is for No. 12 Squadron and K the individual aircraft). Both Flying Officer Garland and Sergeant Gray were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Valour. But pity the poor Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. He had volunteered and died alongside them but received no recognition. His name was Leading Aircraftman Lawrence Reynolds and he is buried alongside the others in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Heverlee War Cemetery, Belgium.
In the surviving aircraft, the pilot, Pilot Officer Davy, was awarded the DFC and his Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, Leading Aircraftman Patterson, the DFM. Sadly, all their heroic sacrifices were in vain. Although the bridges were damaged, within hours the very efficient German army engineers had thrown pontoon bridges across the Albert Canal. Garland was one of four brothers, all of whom died in action, flying in the RAF during the Second World War. Gray was one of seven brothers: four joined the RAF and three died flying.
And the next day, the slaughter continued. Overall, between 10 and 14 May 1940, Battles flew 118 sorties; 60 of these ended in destruction (51%). Bomber Command, operating from English bases, suffered as well. On 17 May 12 Blenheims attacked German army formations by day, of which 11 were shot down and the 12th was so badly damaged it crash-landed in England. By June 1940, the Battles were withdrawn to England and never again flew daylight combat missions over North-West Europe.
Battle of the Barges
‘What General Weygand called the “Battle of France” is over.
I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin’
Winston S Churchill House of Commons 18 June 1940
The overwhelming image of the Battle of Britain is of vapour trails from Spitfires and Hurricanes against an azure blue sky. However, in the darkness of night, Bomber Command was hard at work – suffering greater casualties in what became known as the Battle of the Barges. And not all casualties were from the Luftwaffe and Flak. Apart from ‘routine’ flying accidents, misidentifications (‘blue on blue’/’friendly fire’/’fratricide’) were fatal. On the night of 31 July/1 August, a Battle was shot down by RAF fighters over the North Sea near Skegness.
‘Unternehmen Seelöwe’, Operation Sealion, the German plan for the invasion of Britain, necessitated transporting a massive army in vast numbers of commercial barges which were assembled in the French and Belgian Channel ports, particularly Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk, and Bomber Command was tasked with their destruction.
Assets listed as available in squadrons on 17 May 1940 were heavy bombers (Wellington, Whitley, Hampden) and medium bombers (Blenheim) but no Battles. These latter are recorded as being 103 at immediate availability (within 7 days) and as many as 753 at longer availability (beyond 7 days). Additionally, there are a further 52 Battles listed separately as having limped back from France.
At 8 pm on 7 September, General Headquarters, Home Command, issued the code word ‘Cromwell’, meaning an invasion was imminent [i.e. within 24 hours]. Bomber Command was already at Alert II, requiring 24 medium bombers at 30 minutes readiness to support Home Forces and 50% of the remainder earmarked for anti-invasion tasking. The first entry for ‘docks and barges’ as targets in Bomber Command diaries was for the same night of 7/8 September. Battles were back in action – though fewer than the twin-engined types – with Nos 12, 103 and 150 Squadrons, reformed after their mauling in Belgium and France, as well as the newly-formed Nos 300 and 301 Squadrons of Poles who had escaped, first from Poland to France, then from France to England.
In his autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead, Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO*, DFC* describes his raids as a Flying Officer with No. 83 Squadron in Hampdens. ‘Each squadron was given a port which was to be considered its own particular port and the pet baby of all concerned; each crew was given a basin; in each basin there were so many barges, sometimes 200, sometimes even 400. After each raid, a reconnaissance was made and the C.O. would call all the crews together. “I have got some pictures of C Basin at Antwerp. Yesterday there were 400 barges there, today’s reconnaissance shows 350. Who is on C Basin?” Some pilot would shuffle to his feet. “Well, you sank fifty, you and the rest, but that is not enough”. Gibson continued ‘I once gained 100 barges, and neither the C.O. nor anyone else could tell me that I was responsible for them’.
Fighter Command’s success in the Battle of Britain meant that Hitler – his mind already turning East to Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union, ultimately his nemesis) – could not achieve air superiority over the English Channel and called off the invasion of Britain. On 30 September, Bomber Command was notified that the threat of imminent invasion had been withdrawn and the last major raid on the barges was by 24 Blenheims and 6 Battles on 12/13 October. Bomber Command was now free to switch to its original role of the strategic bombing of Germany and the Fairey Battle was withdrawn from combat.
With the exception of one squadron transferred to the Luftwaffe-clear skies of Iceland, by the end of 1940 Battles were relegated to second-line functions: training, with dual-control in a separate cockpit some with a turret added to train gunners and others for target towing. Canada received 739, Australia more than 600, South Africa 150 and a handful to New Zealand, all under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
The RAF Museum’s Fairey Battle
Our Museum’s Battle airframe is a bit of a mongrel. Serial number L5343 was built under sub-contract by Austin Motors and delivered on 13 September 1939 to a Maintenance Unit, then transferred to No. 266 Squadron. This was an odd move as No. 266 was training to become a Spitfire squadron. After a few more moves, L5343 was allocated to No. 98 Squadron, which transferred to Coastal Command and on 27 August 1940 moved to Iceland. Its purpose was to defend against any German invasion. Iceland was, of course, a vital air link in the protection of Atlantic convoys.
However, on Friday 13 September 1940, engine failure resulted in a forced landing in the interior of the island, miles from anywhere. A recovery team decided it was not feasible so removed valuable equipment and set fire to the remainder.
There L5343 lay until 1972 when a team from RAF Leeming recovered the wreckage to the UK as the basis for a Battle restoration project. Work really began in 1982 under the guidance of Flt Lt Len Woodgate, Officer Commanding of the RAF St Athan historic collection. Bits and pieces were scavenged from various redundant RAF stores and also from Battle L5340: the breakdown is 40% from L5343; 30% L5340 (from the same Austin Motors batch) and 25% new-build. L5343 first entered RAFM Hendon on 20 March 1990.
Battle L5343 has one very unusual feature – a depiction of a field modification not found in the manufacturer’s drawings and introduced in December 1939. Realising the Battle’s wholly inadequate performance and defensive armament, 500 Battles were scheduled to be fitted at Aircraft Servicing Units with a rear-facing machine gun mounted below the fuselage on a ball joint just aft of the bomb-aimer’s hatch. The Navigator/Bomb Aimer had to lean out of the bomb-aiming hatch to operate the gun to fire downwards to protect the vulnerable underside of the tail where the usual gun could not bear.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
The National Archives
‘Royal Air Force 1939-45. Volume 1 “The Fight at Odds”’ Denis Richards HMSO 1974
‘Bomber Command War Diaries: an operational reference book 1939-1945’ Middlebrook and Everitt, Viking 1985
‘For Valour; the air VCs’ Chaz Bowyer Grub Street 1992
‘Works and Bricks: Royal Air Force Station Architecture 1911-1945 Volume 1’ Paul Francis, Airfield Research Group 2022
‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DFC*, DSO* Pan Books 1955
‘Enemy Coast Ahead Uncensored’ Guy Gibson Crecy Classic 2003 [on sale at RAF Hendon’s shop]
‘Bomber Offensive’ Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris GCB. OBE, AFC Collins 1947
‘Bomber Command The strategic bombing offensive 1939-45’ Max Hastings Pan Military Classics/Macmillan 1979
‘Stopping Hitler: an official account of how Britain planned to defend itself in the Second World War’ Captain GC Wynne Frontline Books
Cemetery photos are courtesy of The War Graves Photographic Project