Sunday 19 July 2015

The Battle of Britain: Defiants & Disasters

Defiants of 264 Squadron (RAF official photo)

Friday July 19th 1940 was the worst day of the Battle of Britain thus far for RAF Fighter Command and in particular a day that was nothing short of disastrous for 141 Squadron, flying their Boulton Paul Defiants, which before the war had been championed in certain quarters of the RAF as the preferred choice over the eight gunned Hurricanes and Spitfires.

July 19th 1940 was a showery day with bright intervals and the nine Defiants of 141 Squadron, newly arrived from Edinburgh, took off from Hawkinge a little after 12:30 and had been ordered to patrol at a height of 5,000 feet south of Folkestone. They had not long been airborne when they were 'bounced' by twenty Bf109s diving out of the sun. It was a slaughter; within moments, five of the Defiants had plummeted into the Channel, whilst a sixth crashed in Dover itself. Another of the once much-vaunted 'turret fighters' was so badly damaged as to be a write off and the remaining survivors were only saved by the timely intervention of the Hurricanes of 111 Squadron who managed to break up the attacking fighters. At the end of the engagement, four pilots and five air gunners of 141 Squadron were dead, with two more injured. The battered remnants of 141 were hurriedly sent back north, this time to Prestwick, where they could lick their wounds and await conversion to the night fighter role. The other Defiant squadron, No. 264 was also removed from the fray shortly afterwards.

The events of July 19th were the final nail in the coffin for the so called 'turret fighter' experiment. In 1938, William Sholto Douglas, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, had been of the opinion that Fighter Command should form at least 9 squadrons out of Fighter Command's then planned strength of 38. The Deputy Director of Home Operations, Donald Stevenson, went even further and argued for the Defiant to be produced in large numbers in preference to the Hurricane and Spitfire. Fortunately for the outcome of the Battle of Britain, the AOC of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding, argued even more vigorously against this plan, and managed to keep the eight gun Spitfire and Hurricane in development and was eventually able to build his command around these two more than capable fighter aircraft.

Sholto Douglas, like Dowding and many of their contemporary senior officers in the inter-war RAF, had served in the First World War and had seen the success of the two seater Bristol Fighter in the air war over the Western Front. This was the thinking behind the Defiant, a two-seater 'heavy fighter', armed with an aft-facing powerful turret containing four .303 Browning machine guns but crucially and unlike the earlier Bristol, no forward firing machine guns. Douglas and Stevenson conveniently overlooked this fact, but fortunately for the RAF, Dowding did not and strongly objected to the introduction of what he saw as a white elephant designed on the basis of now outdated tactics. 

Sholto Douglas (left) with Keith Park at Malta 1943 (RAF)

To engage enemy bombers by day, the Defiant had to place itself in the most vulnerable position for an attacking aircraft - ahead of and below it's intended prey and whilst it could adequately defend itself against a stern attack by fighters, it was helpless against a determined head on attack. Furthermore, although it was powered by the same Merlin engine that made the Hurricane and Spitfire such nimble adversaries for the Luftwaffe fighters, the Defiant was over half a ton heavier than than the Hurricane, as it carried the extra weight of both the turret and the air gunner, making it sluggish in the extreme.

In it's initial encounters with the Luftwaffe over Dunkirk, the Defiants of 264 Squadron had acquitted themselves well as the pilots of the Bf109s had mistakenly identified them as Hurricanes and had received an unpleasant surprise when they attacked from astern. By July 1940, however, the secret was out and the German pilots had amended their tactics accordingly with disastrous results for the pilots and particularly the air gunners of the Defiants, who found their turrets almost impossible to bale out from in combat conditions.

As mentioned earlier, the remaining Defiants were quickly removed from the action and eventually converted to the night fighter role, in which they had some limited success. However, the truth of the matter was that the concept of the 'heavy fighter' was a faulty one, in much the same way as the Bf110 'Zerstorer' or Destroyer was for the Luftwaffe and whilst the Bf110 became a more than useful night fighter, the Defiants were eventually relegated to the menial role of target tugs, as far removed from the enemy as possible.

Had Sholto Douglas had his way - and he was a man who usually did get his own way - and had Dowding been less determined in his opposition to the concept of the 'turret fighter', then Fighter Command could have gone into the Battle of Britain saddled with large numbers of a fighter that was worse than useless and which could have lost the battle inside a matter of weeks. Fortunately, Dowding knew the potential of the Spitfire and Hurricane and fought tenaciously to equip his command with these two wonderful aircraft.

Sholto Douglas was also one of the main proponents of another faulty doctrine, that of the 'Big Wing'; once again he met with implacable opposition from Dowding and whilst the latter's view prevailed long enough to ensure that the Battle of Britain would be won using the tactics preferred by Dowding and Park, that of using smaller numbers of fighters to intercept the enemy as far forward as possible, this time Douglas did get his own way and replaced Dowding as Head of Fighter Command in November 1940, replacing Park with another of his 'Big Wing' champions, Leigh-Mallory at the same time. Both of these men favoured the policy of deploying large fighter sweeps or 'Rhubarbs' over enemy occupied Europe, a policy which showed that both men had learned nothing from the Battle of Britain and which effectively placed the RAF in the same position as the Germans in 1940 - i.e. that of sending large numbers of short range, single engined interceptor fighters over enemy territory with very limited fuel endurance and with any downed pilots having little chance of getting home. It was a policy which was to cost the RAF dearly both in machines and men but which is another story.

Published Sources:

Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990


  1. A wider perspective on the Defiant at

  2. If the nice person who left a rude post ever has the courage to leave his/her name AND be polite, then I may consider publishing your comments. Otherwise, please don't bother. All comments are moderated and I will not entertain abusive or anonymous comments. Thanks - Steve