264 Sqn. L7013, PS-U, Martlesham Heath,Suffolk July 1940
War induces combatants to seek advantages by any means possible. In regard to World War II aircraft, the quest for an edge encompassed numerous aspects, such as size, bomb capacity, speed, rate of climb, altitude, maneuverability, and potency of armament. Even though the fundamental configurations of aircraft had been established by the end of World War I, the quest for an advantage in the air brought a spate of new variations into the sky. For every successful innovation, such as the radar-equipped all-weather fighter, there were interesting failures, such as the turret fighter and the lightweight interceptor. And for every evolved or carefully conceived design, there was a wartime improvisation that occasionally worked—though not always as originally intended.
The British should have known better than to develop the turret fighter. The two-seat fighter from which it evolved, the Bristol F.2B of 1917, had achieved its phenomenal success by being flown as a single-seater with a sting in the tail, rather than relying primarily on the rear gunner’s weapon. The F.2B’s successor in 1931, the Hawker Demon, differed little from it in armament, but the problems encountered by the gunner in handling a .303-inch gun in the open cockpit of an airplane flying at nearly twice the Bristol’s speed led the Air Ministry to seek a more advanced weapons system.
One solution to the problem was offered by Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd., which had been subcontracted to build Demons for the RAF, and which had also obtained the rights to produce an electro-hydraulically operated turret—invented by French engineer Joseph Bernard Antoine de Boysson—capable of traversing 360 degrees and incorporating either a 20mm cannon or four .303-inch machine guns. After seeing the turret demonstrated in the nose of a Boulton Paul Overstrand bomber, the Air Ministry issued a specification for a fighter armed with four machine guns in the de Boysson turret and capable of flying as fast as the Hawker Hurricane fighter. Since Hurricanes were expected to protect the turret fighter from enemy fighters while it attacked enemy bombers from the side or below, the specification limited armament to the turret. Such a measure saved weight, but in essence it made the pilot nothing more than a chauffeur for his gunner—hardly a role that went over well with aggressive fighter jockeys.
Designed by John Dudley North, the Boulton Paul Defiant was a commendably clean and compact airplane, powered by the same 1,030-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin III engine used in the Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. A retractable fairing helped to smooth the airflow behind the rear turret when it was not in use, and in spite of the drag that the turret still imposed on it—as well as a gross weight of 8,600 pounds compared to the Hurricane’s 6,218—the Defiant managed a maximum speed of 302 miles per hour at 16,500 feet compared to the Hurricane’s 316. It took the Defiant 11.4 minutes to climb to that altitude, however, whereas the Hurricane could reach it in only 6 1/2 minutes. First flown on August 11, 1937, the Defiant was approved for production, but because Boulton Paul was then relocating from Norwich to a new plant at Wolverhampton, the first operational Defiants were not deployed with No. 264 Squadron until December 1939. When the Germans invaded the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, the unit moved from its training base at Martlesham Heath to Duxford; from there, A Flight flew to Horsham Saint Faith and B Flight returned to Martlesham, where it would operate alongside the Spitfires of No. 66 squadron.
The Defiants did their intended job fairly well in their first combat. On May 11, No. 264’s commander, Squadron Leader Philip A. Hunter, and Pilot Officer Michael H. Young flew an evening convoy patrol as far as the Happisburgh lighthouse. The next day Flt. Lt. Nicholas G. Cooke led A Flight on a patrol off the Dutch coast, accompanied by six Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron. They soon encountered enemy aircraft, and the Defiants drew first blood five miles south of The Hague as a Junkers Ju 88A fell victim to Hunter and his gunner, Sgt. Frederick H. King, while a second was claimed by Young and Leading Aircraftman Stanley B. Johnson. Cooke added a third victory to the squadron’s opening tally when he caught an He 111 six miles south of The Hague and his gunner, Cpl. Albert Lippett, shot it down.
On the following morning, six Defiants of B Flight, accompanied by six Spitfires of 66 Squadron’s A Flight, were flying another sweep over the Dutch coast when they spotted Junkers Ju 87Bs dive-bombing a railway line and attacked. Between them, the British claimed ten of the Stukas—four of which were credited to the Defiants—before themselves coming under attack by Messerschmitt Me 109Es of the 5th Staffel of Jagdgeschwader 26. Flight Lieutenant Kenneth McLeod Gillies, a Spitfire pilot who had shot down a Stuka east of Rotterdam, damaged an Me 109 before 66 Squadron disengaged. One Spitfire fell victim to Ltn. Hans Krug, but its pilot managed to force land his damaged plane in Belgium.
The fight had a much grimmer outcome for 264 Squadron. In their first encounter with enemy fighters, the six Defiant crews found themselves unable to evade the Me 109s, and five were shot down in short order, although only one German, Fw. Erwin Stolz, identified his adversary as a Defiant at the outset; the other victors—Ltn. Eckardt Roch (who claimed three), Leutnant Krug, Uffz. Hans Wemhöhner, and Fw. Wilhelm Meyer—all claimed Spitfires, before subsequently learning the true identity of their adversaries. The sole Defiant pilot to return, Pilot Officer Desmond Kay, claimed that five German fighters went down in the course of the massacre, and they were duly credited to the squadron.
In actuality, the Defiants had managed to shoot down only one of their assailants, who—contrary to popular misconception—already knew what he was up against and fell victim to overconfidence, rather than from mistaking the turret fighter for a single-seater. As Ltn. Karl Borris himself recorded it in his diary:
Enemy contact with a mixed British formation . . . I bank toward a Defiant, I can clearly see the four machine guns in its turret firing; however, I do not think they can track me in a dogfight. I approach closer, and open fire at about seventy meters range. At this moment, something hits my aircraft, hard. I immediately pull up into the clouds and examine the damage. The left side of my instrument panel is shot through; a round had penetrated the Revi [reflex gunsight]; and a fuel line has obviously been hit—the cockpit is swimming in gasoline. The engine coughs and quits, starved of fuel. I push a wing over and drop from the clouds. Unbuckle, canopy off, out!
Borris parachuted onto a dike wall near the mouth of the Rhine River and made his way back to 5./JG 26 four days later. Having lived to profit from this reminder of the price one pays for cockily dismissing any armed opponent, he would survive the war with forty-three victories.
For the next ten days, No. 264 Squadron refrained from operations, but on May 23, its Defiants joined in the RAF’s desperate effort to cover the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. By the end of the month, the squadron had claimed forty-eight victories—thirty-seven on May 29 alone—but lost nine planes, including that of Cooke and Lippett, killed on the thirty-first. Occasionally, the Defiant’s superficial resemblance to the Hurricane did mislead German fighters into attacking it from the rear, with sometimes fatal results for the attackers. Soon the Germans learned to distinguish between the Defiant and its single-seat stablemates, however, with results that spoke for themselves. A second Defiant unit, No. 141 Squadron, had a disastrous combat debut on June 28, when nine of its planes tangled with Me 109Es and lost seven while claiming only four victories. On July 19, nine more Defiants of 141 Squadron encountered Me 109Es of JG 51 and again lost seven planes, while one of the two surviving crews, Flt. Lt. Hugh N. Tamblyn and Sgt. S. W. N. “Sandy” Powell, claimed one of the enemy in return. In August the Defiant units’ air bases were moved farther north, but the RAF’s need for anything which could fly and fight at that time kept them engaged—and suffering mounting losses. By late 1940, the Defiant Mark Is were being relegated to the night-fighting role, and a radar-equipped version, the Defiant Mark II, was introduced. As such, they did well, being in fact the most successful night fighters of 1941 until sufficient numbers of Bristol Beaufighters and de Havilland Mosquitos became available to phase them out of first-line service.