The story of the Fairey Battle light day-bomber is the story of a once seemingly promising aircraft which, when put to the test of war, failed tragically to perform its task. A large yet gracefully slender machine, it was handicapped by being almost as big as a Blenheim, yet with the engine power of the Hurricane, i.e. one Rolls-Royce Merlin; it was virtually defenceless from the rear and its speed quite insufficient for evasion when attacked by fighters or exposed to accurate ground-fire.
However, at the time when the prototype appeared -in 1936-its speed performance (257 m.p.h.) was far in advance of any contemporary day-bomber; indeed, early production models, when pitted against contemporary fighters during the air exercises of August 1937, were almost unopposable. To catch the low-flying Battles, Gladiator pilots opened their throttles far beyond the permissible limit when flying near the ground and risked wrecking their engines in doing so.
The prototype Battle (K4303) was designed by Marcel Lobelle to meet an Air Ministry Specification of April 1933, which called for an experimental two-seat single-engined monoplane day-bomber capable of carrying 1,000 lb. of bombs for 1,000 miles at 200 m.p.h. By the time the production model flew (June 1937) the Hawker Hind was the mainstay of Britain’s day-bomber squadrons and it was this machine, the last of the R.A.F.’s biplane light bombers, that the Battle helped to replace in front-line service. By then, though, some (if not all) of the Air Staff had reached the conclusion that the light bomber was outmoded on the score of insufficient range and bomb load to attack the obvious enemy, Germany. However, the pressure for immediate expansion of the R.A.F.’s first-line strength so as to maintain at least numerical parity with the Luftwaffe had become irresistible, and the Battle went into large-scale production. Under the threat of the Third Reich 2,185 Battles were built in Britain-almost half of them by Austin Motors at Longbridge under the shadow factory scheme by which Blenheims were also built in large (and, as it turned out, largely useless) numbers by Rootes at Speke. The Battle was patently obsolescent many months before war broke out, but because of the need to maintain existing labour forces intact and difficulties in getting other types into production to take its place, it was kept in production. Thus it was that this light bomber was destined, to a large extent, to become just another of the redundant types which sat in hundreds, ‘watching the grass grow beneath them’, on war-time dispersal airfields.
The initial Battles-Mk. Is-were fitted with RollsRoyce Merlin I engines. Later, Merlin lIs, Ills, and in some cases Mk. IVs and Vs, were installed in Battles, and in order to differentiate between the variants, the aircraft were retrospectively designated Mks. II, III, IV, and V according to power plant.
Although basically a’ two-seater, the Battle also provided accommodation for a third crew member-a wireless operator/air-gunner. Armament consisted initially of a Browning gun in the starboard wing, and a Vickers K gun on a free mounting in the rear cockpit. Most Battles were built as bombers, but the total British production figure of 2,185 included 226 target tugs (Battle T.T. Mk. Is) and 100 dual-control trainers (Battle Ts). Several machines built as bombers were subsequently converted to these non-operational roles. In addition to the British production, eighteen Battles were built in Belgium for the Belgian Air Force.
First R.A.F. squadron to be equipped with Battles was No. 63, based at Andover. It received its first machine (K7559) on May 20 1937, and by the year’s end had fifteen on charge. Nos. 105, 226, 52, and 88 Squadrons-in that order-also received Battles in 1937, and it is of passing interest that 105 Squadron’s link with the type is commemorated in the unit’s badge -a battle axe, with the motto ‘Valiant in Battles’.
By May 1939 a total of seventeen Battle squadrons was in being, and these were serving in Nos. 1,2, and 5 Groups of Bomber Command, No.1 Group being an homogeneous Battle Group. The 2 Group Battle squadrons assumed a non-mobilising role, and in September 1939 they were transferred to 6 (Training) Group of Bomber Command and made into Group Pool squadrons (i.e. operational training units) or, in the case of 98 Squadron, a reserve squadron. It was from the No.6 Group pool squadrons that some of the first big wartime Operational Training Units were formed in the spring of 1940. Apropos what has already been said about the continued production of the Battle after it was patently obsolescent, the position by the outbreak of war was that no less than 1,014 were already on charge (179 had already been struck off for various reasons); it was the second most numerous type on charge, pride of place going to the Blenheim (1,089).
When war seemed inevitable, the ten mobilising Battle squadrons of 1 Group were the first British aircraft to arrive in France. They formed the first echelon of the Advanced Air Striking Force (A.A.S.F.) flying on September 2 1939 to previously selected airfields and landing-grounds in the heart of the champagne country (as arranged during pre-war Anglo-French Staff conferences) to await the arrival, some days later, of their ground-crews. The idea behind the despatch of the A.A.S.F. to France was that, should the Germans begin bombing, the Battles could retaliate on Ruhr targets at closer range than from Britain. At first the A.A.S.F. remained under Bomber Command’s control.
One Battle (from 40 Squadron) ditched in the English Channel en route to France owing to engine failure, but the crew were rescued. Some of the landing-grounds in France were no more than small, recently harvested cornfields surrounded by woods. The aircraft were quickly dispersed about their landing grounds and hidden among trees or under camouflage nets; armour was fitted and all unauthorised markings, such as under-wing serial numbers, obliterated.
As things turned out, both the Allies and the Germans refrained from starting any unrestricted bombing offensive, and this phase became known as the ‘phoney’ war. The Battles were employed on daylight reconnaissance ten to twenty miles over the Franco-German border, but not without suffering losses. On September 20 three Battles from 88 Squadron (Mourmelon-Ie-Grand) were intercepted by enemy fighters during a patrol and two of them were shot down. However, the score was partly levelled: for Sgt F. Letchford, air-gunner in another Battle (K9243), destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf. 109; this was the R.A.F.’s first air combat ‘kill’ of World War II. Exactly a week later, on September 27, three Battles 58 from ‘A’ Flight of 103 Squadron (Challerange, one of the most forward A.A.S.F. bases, near Verdun) were reconnoitring the frontier between Bouzonville and the Rhine at 3,000 ft. when they were attacked by three French Curtiss Hawks which came out of a cloud. The formation leader, FlU M. C. Wells, fired his recognition lights and brought his flight down until it was flying close to the ground. After the first attack the French aircraft broke away, presumably having identified the Battles. At this point the Battles were engaged by three Bf. 109s which suddenly appeared ‘out of the blue’. Sgt Vickers, navigator of Battle K9271, F/Own by V. O. Vipan, was badly wounded and in great pain, and so Vipan, whose engine was already failing, forced-landed in a field. On the way down, apparently, one of the enemy fighters presented itself as a sitting target, and the air-gunner sent it down in a spin to equal the score. Vipan landed, on one wheel, in a field close to a Maginot Line fort, and saw a French poilu running towards him, shouting in Cockney: ‘Blimey, Guv’ner, you’re bloody lucky.’ The wounded navigator was removed from the aircraft, and the Frenchman then explained his Cockney accent and command of English bad language by saying that he had lived in Chelsea. Later, more French soldiers arrived and, pointing to a dense column of smoke from a nearby wood, said that was the Messerschmitt which Vipan’s gunner had brought down with them. A French report later confirmed this. Vipan’s navigator, Sgt Vickers, subsequently died in hospital as a result of his wounds, but just before he died he was awarded the Medaille Militaire by order of General Gamelin, the French Generalissimo. This was the first French decoration awarded to the B.E.F. in World War II.
Three days after this incident involving 103 Squadron, five Battles of 150 Squadron (Ecury-surCoole), after having crossed the frontier above 20,000 ft. to reconnoitre a strongly defended position in the Saar, were ‘jumped’ by fifteen Bf. 109s. The enemy attacked in flights, with anti-aircraft fire ‘filling in between attacks. The ’109s broke their formations and attacked the Battles from astern, zooming up underneath. The fight continued for thirty-five minutes and three Battles were shot down, while a fourth forced-landed. Eight men (out of the twelve aboard the four machines) baled out. S/Ldr W, M. L. Macdonald, leader of the formation, pressed on alone, ‘jinking’ continuously while his gunner fired from the rear to drive off the attackers. The nearest Messerschmitt, hit in the engine, fell in flames. The second one spun down, trailing black smoke. At this juncture the other ’109s withdrew. The lone Battle (K9283) was struck by eighty bullets and was in a very sorry state: its ailerons and rudder were damaged, both petrol-tanks were holed and F/Ooding the cockpit, the undercarriage was jammed half-down, and the port tyre was punctured by bullets; the navigator’s instruments were smashed and his head grazed by a bullet, but he continued to do his job. Soon after crossing the French frontier the engine failed but the Battle regained its base and Macdonald made a forced-landing. The aircraft spun round on the damaged undercarriage after touching the ground, somersaulted on to one wing and caught fire. The pilot was flung out, dazed but not badly hurt. The navigator was jammed inside the fuselage but the air-gunner hauled him out and beat out the flames from his blazing flying-jacket with his bare hands.
After this, daylight reconnaissance missions were suspended. At the same time efforts were made to mount a ‘free’ gun underneath the Battle to eliminate a dangerous blind spot, but though various mountings were tried none proved entirely satisfactory, so the Battle remained extremely vulnerable to attack from below and astern. One of the experimental ventral gun installations was that produced by No. 12 Squadron-actually a few days before No. 150 Squadron’s tragic encounter. ‘This’, wrote a No. 12 Squadron historian twenty years afterwards, ‘was not awfully successful, as the observer had to stand with his back to the gun, and fire it by bending down and aiming between his legs!’
Training flights and exercises now became the general routine for the Battle force, and various dive-bombing and fighter-evasion tactics were tried. However, the ever-necessary ‘stand-by’s’ reduced flying, as did the weather, which, as the weeks went by, eventually became the coldest winter in France for years. In the absence of real bombing the Battles flew over and bombed the practice range at Moronvilliers, which was situated on a desolate tract of hilly country behind the Maginot Line, where there were acres of trenches and rusting wire and waterlogged shell-holes from the Great War. Two of the squadrons (Nos. 15 and 40) returned to the U.K. in December to rearm with Blenheims. In January the airfield at St. Laurent la Salanque (Perpignan), near the Spanish border, became available as a practice camp from which training flights for air gunnery over the sea could be F/Own. In March came the thaw-and mud. And also the start of a new series of operations in the form of short range reconnaissance-cum-leaflet raids to ease the strain on the heavy bombers of Bomber Command at home.
At dawn on May 10 came the German assault, and the ‘phoney’ war was over. From Headquarters, British Air Forces in France, the following message was quickly relayed to the squadrons: ‘Belgium and Hololand have been violated. Belgium has requested assistance from the Allies. Permission has been given . for fighters to fly over the Low Countries, also recon- 62 naissance aircraft. But not bombers. Bombers are to stand by.’ For the squadrons there followed an agonising wait. While the German columns poured through Holland and Luxembourg, and the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed targets in France, all Allied bombers were grounded on the orders of General Gamelin, who clung with supreme obstinacy to the hope that a ‘bombing war’ would somehow be avoided. At midday the C.-in-C. B.A.F.F., Air Marshal ‘Ugly’ Barratt, took matters into his own hands and ordered the C.-in-C., A.A.S.F., to despatch the first wave of Battles. Their target was a column of German troops reported by a French reconnaissance aircraft some hours earlier as advancing through Luxembourg. As it was impossible to provide the Battles with a close fighter escort, the pilots were told to make a very low approach to the target, and to attack at 250 ft., using bombs fused for eleven seconds’ delay. The orders were carried out, but the bombers encountered a storm of machine-gun and small-arms fire, and three of the first eight crews were at once shot down. A similar fate overtook their comrades who attacked during the afternoon. Of the thirty-two. Battles despatched that day, thirteen were lost and all the rest damaged-a severe price for operations whose effect on the enemy was negligible. On the following day, eight Battles of 88 and 218 Squadrons were despatched on a similar mission. Whether they managed to reach their target area is doubtful. The only pilot to return saw three of his companions succumb to ground-fire in the Ardennes.
On May 12 an attempt was made to stem the German advance towards Brussels by bombing two roadbridges over the Albert Canal near Maastricht. Previous attempts by Allied bombers (including a raid by nine Belgian Air Force Battles on the 11th which cost them six of their number) had failed to destroy the bridges so it now became the turn of the A.A.S.F.’s Battles. Such was the importance of the bridges to the enemy that they had to be destroyed at all costs. Since the ever-increasing strength of the German defences made any further attempt against the bridges almost suicidal, it was decided to despatch six Battles manned by volunteer crews. No. 12 Squadron-the ‘Dirty Dozen’-based at Amifontaine, near Rheims, was chosen for the task and every air-crew member immediately volunteered. It was decided that the six crews next on the duty roster should go in two sections of three, led by F/O D. E. Garland and F/O N. M. Thomas, the first to attack the metal bridge at Veldwezelt, the latter section the concrete bridge at Vroenhoven. One crew of Thomas’s section failed to take off after finding two aircraft unserviceable. Garland planned to make a low-level attack while Thomas decided on a high level. Thomas and PIO T. D. H. Davy ran into enemy fighters, dived from 6,000 ft. through a storm of flak and nearly blew themselves up with the last of their bombs. The battered machines failed to stay in the air. Thomas came down, as his engine failed,o and was taken prisoner. Davy ordered his crew to bale out and succeeded in coaxing his riddled machine almost back to base before it crashed. Between them, these two pilots slightly damaged the bridge and cratered the approaches.
In the attack on the metal bridge, Garland’s section went in at low level, in line astern formation, below the cloud base at 1,000 ft., encountering a growing volume of flak as they did so. PIO I. A. McIntosh, with flames pouring from his machine, jettisoned his bombs and crashed, he and his crew being taken prisoner soon afterwards while hiding in a ditch. ‘You British’, said their German captors, ‘are mad. We capture the bridge early Friday morning. You give us all Friday and Saturday to get our flak guns up in circles all around the bridge, and then on Sunday, when all is ready, you come along with three aircraft and try and blow the thing up.’ But even as he spoke, the western truss of the bridge hung shattered in the air, while two other aircraft lay broken and burning on the ground nearby. Either Garland or his No.3, Sgt Marland and all the available scraps of evidence indicate that it was Garland-had seriously damaged the bridge. One of these two aircraft (believed to have been Marland’s) had been seen momentarily, just before, trying to fight its way out; it suddenly stood on its tail, climbed vertically for 100 ft., stalled, and nose-dived to earth.
For their valour in ensuring success even at the sacrifice of their lives, Garland and his observer, Sgt. T. Gray, were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross-the first to be won by the R.AF. in World War II.
On May 10 the AA.S.F. had 135 serviceable bombers-Battles and Blenheims-on strength, but by the close of May 12 this number had dwindled to seventy-two. The following day the Battles were despatched on only one small operation, during which No. 226 Squadron (Rheims Champagne) hampered the enemy’s advance by bringing a factory down over a cross-roads near Breda.
In the early morning of May 14 ten Battles of 103 and 150 Squadrons attacked German· pontoon bridges in the Sedan area, and, furthermore, did so without loss-for no enemy fighters were encountered and the tactical low approach had now been abandoned. In the afternoon the entire available force of A.A.S.F. bombers was flung in against the Sedan bridgehead, but this time things were very different: The Bf. 109s were now on guard. 12 Squadron lost four aircraft out of five; 142 Squadron, four out of eight; 226 Squadron, three out of six; 105 Squadron, six out of eleven; 150 Squadron, four out of four; 88 Squadron, one out of ten; 103 Squadron, three out of eight; and 218 Squadron, ten out of eleven. In all, from the sixty-three Battles which took off, thirty-five did not return. To these losses were added five out of eight Blenheims of 114 and 139 Squadrons which also took part in the attack. This brought the total losses in the raid to forty bombers out of seventy-one. No higher rate of loss in an operation of comparable size has ever been experienced by the R.A.F.
This suicidal effort, and another by Blenheims the same evening, were not without effect on the enemy, but even so it only delayed the breakthrough at Sedan by a few hours. With its bases astride the Aisne under increasing threat by the enemy’s advance, the A.AS.F. withdrew south during the next two days to a number of airfields around Troyes. As it did so, unserviceable aircraft were destroyed to prevent their capture by the Germans. No. 76 Wing alone burned sixteen machines before moving. To improve the mobility of the A.A.S.F. at this time, two of its Battle squadrons, Nos. 105 and 218, which had but four aircraft left between them, were ‘rolled up’ and their machines and surviving crews transferred to other Battle squadrons. Likewise the two Blenheim squadrons (Nos. 114 and 139), with nine aircraft between them, joined the reconnaissance element of the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. Thus reduced, the AA.S.F. continued the fight at a strength of six Battle and three Hurricane squadrons.
The force carried out three further withdrawals during the remaining weeks of the campaign and finally escaped from the west coast. During this period the Battles continued their task of delaying the enemy’s advance but they now operated mainly by night, and with few losses. To quote the R.A.F. Short Official History:
‘Flying and landing a Battle by night was no easy task-there was a brilliant glare from the exhaust which dazzled the pilot, and the view from the observer’s seat was poor-but those difficulties which were not overcome were ignored, and there was an immediate and dramatic decline in the casualty rate. During the intense daylight operations of May 10-14, one aircraft had been lost in every two sorties; during the night operations of May 20June 4 the loss was just over one in every two hundred…. [Night bombing] however was by no means all gain, for safety could only be achieved at the expense of accuracy. In fact so many Battle crews now dropped their bombs with no more precise identifications of their target than that provided by their watches, that Barratt was compelled to forbid bombing on “estimated time of arrival”. After that the phrase ceased to appear in the pilots’ reports. The practice, however, continued.’
In the final stage of the campaign the Battles attacked troop movements by day and communications by night.
In the brief lull before the Germans launched their drive southwards on June 5 the main body of the A.A.S.F. was withdrawn from the South Champagne to the region round Orleans and Le Mans. From this central position and from the refuelling bases retained in the South Champagne, the bombers were well placed to intervene along the whole line of battle, and this they did, attacking troop movements by day and communications by night. When on June 11 the enemy broke through the French positions on the Marne, Oise, and Seine-the last line on which any hope of successful resistance could be built-every unit was endangered. The situation rapidly deteriorated during the next few days, and rather than risk the remnants of the Battle force being destroyed on the ground, Barratt ordered them back to England.
No. 1 Group was now re-formed and equipped with Battles once again. From August onwards the squadrons of the Group operated by night mainly from Newton (Notts.) and northern airfields against Dutch and French ports in which Hitler was massing his invasion craft for Operation Sea Lion-the projected invasion of Britain. The raids were undoubtedly successful. The crews were greatly helped by the fact that most of the approach to the targets could be made in safety over the sea and the targets themselves were fairly easily distinguished. Two recently formed Polish Battle squadrons-Nos. 300 and 301, both based at Swinderby (Lincs.)-shared in 1 Group’s night offensive from mid-September, and an armourer-fitter of one of these, L.A.C. S. Nowak, earned the first Polish decoration to be awarded in Great Britain to a Pole. While a large parachute flare was being put in on a bombed-up aircraft ready for flight, the striker of its detonator was inadvertently activated. Nowak, immediately realising the danger to the bomber and the ground-crew working on it, pulled the flare off its mounting and ran some fifteen or sixteen yards before it exploded. He was badly burned but saved the bomber and the ground-crew.
Active operations by 1 Group’s Battles finally ended on October 15-16 1940, when 301 Squadron bombed Boulogne and 12 and 142 Squadrons bombed Calais. Thereafter the Group completed the task of converting to Wellington aircraft.
Not all the Battle units flew bombing missions following their withdrawal from France. When 88 and 226 Squadrons had remustered they took their new Battles to Sydenham (Belfast), and were engaged until 1941 in patrolling the coast of Northern Ireland to prevent enemy agents being landed from V-boats. Another ex-A.A.S.F. unit (98 Squadron, which had served as a reserve squadron whilst in France) was posted in July 1940 to Iceland, where it subsequently saw almost a year of active service with Coastal Command.
In addition to being used for operational duties the Battle was used for air-crew training purposes, special variants being produced for pilot training and bombing and gunnery training. It not only flew with the R.A.F. in these roles, but also with the R.C.A.F., the R.A.A.F. and the S.A.A.F.
Fairey Day Bomber
Battle Mk I
Three-seat light bomber version. This was the first production version, which was powered by a 1,030-hp (768-kW) Rolls-Royce Merlin I inline piston engine.
Battle Mk II
Three-seat light bomber version. Powered by a 1,030-hp (768-kW) Rolls-Royce Merlin II inline piston engine.
Battle Mk V
Three-seat light bomber version. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin V inline piston engine.
After May 1940, a number of Battle Mk Is, IIs and Vs were converted into training aircraft.
After May 1940, a number of Battle Mk Is, IIs and Vs were converted into training aircraft with a turret installed in the rear.
After May 1940, a number of Battle Mk Is, IIs and Vs were converted into target tug aircraft; 100 built.
Battle TT.Mk I
Target tug version. This was the last production version; 226 built.
In total 2,185 Battles were built during the machine’s production life; 1,156 by Fairey and 1,029 by the Austin Motor Company. A further 18 were built under licence by Avions Fairey in Belgium for service with the Belgian Air Force.
* Crew: 3
* Length: 42 ft 2 in (12.85 m)
* Wingspan: 54 ft 0 in (16.46 m)
* Height: 15 ft 6 in (4.72 m)
* Wing area: 422 ft² (39.2 m²)
* Empty weight: 6,647 lb (3,015 kg)
* Loaded weight: 10,792 lb (4,895 kg)
* Powerplant: 1× Rolls-Royce Merlin II liquid-cooled V12 engine, 1,030 hp (770 kW)
* Maximum speed: 257 mph (223 knots, 414 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4,570 m)
* Range: 1,000 mi (870 nm, 1,600 km)
* Service ceiling 25,000 ft (7,600 m)
* Rate of climb: 920 ft/min (4.7 m/s)
* Wing loading: 25.6 lb/ft² (125 kg/m²)
* Power/mass: 0.095 hp/lb (157 W/kg)
o 1× .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine gun in starboard wing
o 1× .303 in Vickers K machine gun in rear cabin
o 4× 250 lb (110 kg) bombs internally
o 500 lb (230 kg) of bombs externally