Hellcats in the Royal Navy

The Royal Navy acquired large numbers of F4Fs as Grumman Martlets and made extensive use of the type. The F4F’s successor was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, designed as a private initiative in response to feedback from fleet aviators, which entered front-line service in mid-1943. It was powered by a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, giving it a maximum speed of 376 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 168 miles per hour, and a range of 1,090 miles on internal fuel or 1,590 miles with a 150-gallon drop tank. The F6F was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and also could carry rockets or bombs. The Royal Navy also operated substantial numbers of F6Fs as the Grumman Hellcat.

From April 1943, the British started receiving F6Fs as part of the Lend-Lease program, which America used to arm its ally. At first, they renamed these planes with the far more British title of “Gannet” instead of “Hellcat”.

The British received 252 Hellcats, but these planes never became as important for the Royal Navy as they were for its US counterpart.

On 16 July 1945 four carriers of the British Pacific Fleet joined the American fast-carriers as Task Force 37. They contained 112 Seafire or Firefly fighters, 73 Corsairs, and 62 Avengers. But the HMS Formidable also embarked a detachment of Hellcats from the HMS Indomitable’s outstanding 1844 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm.

British use of Hellcats in the Pacific extended back to the fall of 1944. In a series of strikes on Sumatran oil fields in December and January, 1844 and 1839 Squadrons off the Indomitable had accounted for some 15 aerial victories with few losses. Then came the Okinawa Campaign where 1844 ran up the largest one-day score for British F6Fs by downing four Oscars, a Tony, and a Zeke over Formosa on 12 April. It was a mighty small bag by U.S. Navy standards, but proof the British could put the Hellcat to good use.

The Royal Navy put its F6Fs to a different use the night of 25 July. When a small Japanese formation was detected heading for the British task group, two of 1844’s Hellcats were scrambled from the Formidable under a full moon. These were conventional Hellcat II’s (F6F-5s) without radar, but their pilots had been trained in night flying and were vectored by the ship’s FDO to an intercept position.

Lieutenant W. H. Atkinson, a Canadian, led the element and made contact. He identified the bandits as big, single-engine Grace torpedo planes and took his New Zealand wingman, Sub-Lieutenant R. F. Mackie, into the attack. Atkinson latched on to a pair of Graces and shot them both into the water while Mackie dumped a third. Then, in routing the other bandits, a fourth Grace was damaged and the attack was completely broken up.

It was ironic that the British, who led the Allies in night flying experience, should find themselves without their own carrier-based single-seat night fighters. Two Hellcat NF-II squadrons, 891 and 892, were forming with F6F-5Ns but would not become operational in time to fly combat.

These three victories raised the Hellcat’s tally to 47½ under British colors in the Pacific. Not surprisingly, 1844 Squadron remained the most successful F6F unit in the Fleet Air Arm with 31½ of the Royal Navy total. It also produced the individual top scorer, Sub-Lieutenant E. T. Wilson, who claimed 4.83 victories flying from the Indomitable in the Sumatran and Okinawan operations.

The Grumman F6F Hellcat was an American designed carrier borne fighter. Its design began as a development of the F4F Wildcat  powered by the R-2600 engine, but soon evolved into a much larger and more capable aircraft, with the R-2800 engine. The Hellcat was designed and put into service in a very short period in order to counteract the A6M ‘Zero’ from the second half of 1943 onwards, and soon became the main shipboard fighter of the US Navy for the last two years of the Pacific War. The Hellcat was the most sucessful allied fighter in WWII with over 5,000 aerial victories, and credited with 76% of all aircraft destroyed by USN carrier fighters.

On 30 June, 1941 the US Navy ordered the prototypes XF6F-1 and XF6F-2,  rugged aircraft that lacked aesthetic appeal.  In order to keep the take-off and landing speeds at a reasonable level, Grumman made the wings proportionally larger than most aircraft (including the Thunderbolt) to reduce wing loading. In fact, the Hellcat had the largest wing area of any single engine fighter of WWII at 334 square feet (102 square meters). They were to have the Pratt-Whitney Double Wasp 2600-10 with a two-stage supercharger installed delivering 1,700 hp (1,269 kW) for take-off. Immediately after the first flight of the XF6F1 on 26, June, 1942, the craft was redesignated the “XF6F-3”.

In 1942, the design of the prototype  was adapted to take into account the analysis of the first ever captured and undamaged Japanese Zero, found by a  US Navy PBY Catalina making a routine patrol over Akutan Island in the Pacific. The Zero was dismantled and shipped directly to the Grumman Aircraft factory in California where it was reassembled and flown. The information from the test flight of the Zero aided in the final design development of the Hellcat.  It was found the XF6F-1 was marginally slower than the Zero, thus the change from the Pratt-Whitney Double Wasp R-2600 to the R-2800. This engine boosted the Hellcat’s top speed to 375 mph, 29 mph faster than the Zero. No other unfavourable differences between the two planes could be found and the Hellcat was deemed ready for production. The finalized version of the XF6F-3 was almost identical to the production F6F-3 and Grumman shifted the assembly line into high gear.

Hellcat production started in 1943 and a quick and effective distribution was subsequently organised. Well over 2,500 Hellcat were delivered during the first year, making it possible to re-equip Hellcat squadrons rapidly with this more potent fighter, and it remained in frontline service with the FAA and US Navy for the remainder of World War II.

The Hellcat was used extensively as a search aircraft and fighter-bomber,  playing a major and increasing part in strikes on Japanese warships and mercantile shipping in 1944 and 1945.  In this role, and for ground attack,  it could carry up to 2,000 lb of bombs, or be armed with six 5-inch rockets on underwing pylons.

By the time Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat production ended in mid-1944, a total of 4,423 Hellcats had been built. Their numbers included 18 F6F-3E night fighters with APS-4 radar mounted in a pod beneath the starboard wing, and 205 generally similar F6F-3N night fighters with APS-6 radar. Postwar some were converted into unmanned flying bombs, used in Korea.


 Hellcat I          FAA equivalent F6F-3, 252 lendlease, initial production model

 Hellcat II         NF.II, FAA equivalent of F6F-5, 5n. 930 lendlease, redesigned cowling, provision for rockets or bombs, also nightfighter version (N)

The Royal Navy received 252 F6F-3s as Hellcat I under Lend-Lease. Production continued until November 1945 by which time 7870 F6F-5s had been built, of which some 930 had been supplied to the Royal Navy as Hellcat II and 1434 of the total had been completed as F6F-5N night-fighters. Ultimately, the Hellcat equiped 14 FAA front-line squadrons.

The first Hellcat Mark Is started to be delivered to the Fleet Air Arm on 13 March 1943,  FN321 and FN323 arriving three months later, in June 1943 to the A and C Flights of A&AEE, Boscombe Down for service trials by RN pilots, and in July 1943 FN330 was tested by 778 squadron at Crail.

Very soon afterwards the Hellcat was distributed to operational squadrons, 800 squadron receiving its first Hellcat in batches in July, August and October 1943 (eg FN337, FN334, FN332, FN334, FN332), and 1839 squadron from December 1943 (FN328). Not long after this, on 31 August, 1943 the first combat sorties were being flown by the USN VF9 and VF-5 squadrons aboard USS Yorktown against Japanese targets on Marcus Island (Minami-tori Island) some 700 miles southeast of Japan.

The first batch and second batches of 188 F6F-5 Hellcat Mark IIs started to be delivered to the Royal Navy from May 1944, primarily to 1840 squadron. By this time many Hellcats were being shipped to overseas FAA squadrons directly from Norfolk, Virginia, USA to HMS Thane 14 August 1944 and on to RNARY Wingfield, thence to 804 squadron in September 1944.

The subsequent batch of 295 Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat Mk F.II was also shipped directly to RNARY Wingfield (eg JX670 to JX720) in HMS Ranee in September 1944,  and on to RNARY Coimbatore. Many of these Hellcat were still in service in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after the end of the war and into1946. However, quite a number were surplus to requirement after VJ-Day and dumped in the sea off Australia by HMS Colossus in 1945 (eg JX821).

The final 293 Hellcat II to be delivered to the Fleet Air Arm arrived between January and May 1945, the very last aircraft, KE265 being delivered on 11 May 1945.

The Hellcat served post war and some of the earlier batches managed to remain in RN service, for example JV247 in 709 squadron. After this aircraft was paid off it went to Fairey Aviation at Hayes in 1946. Whilst Grumman F.II KE209 remained as the personal aircraft of the Lossiemouth Station Flight Commanding Officer Caspar John until 1952, and the Aircraft Holding Unit in 1954 (this aircraft is extant in the Fleet Air arm Museum).

Stanley Orr


The Demon-

Demons had a very active career, seeing combat duty around Quemoy and off the Lebanon in 1958. Last deliveries took place in 1959 and replacement by the McDonnell F-4 was complete by August 1964 (first line) and February 1965 (reserve),

In service, the Demon performed dependably and gained praise from pilots for its stable ­ flying characteristics, at high altitude as well as during carrier operations. Between 1956 and 1964, a total of 23 US Navy ‑ fighter squadrons ­ flew versions of the F3H Demon. The type was withdrawn before it could serve in Vietnam, where the F-4 Phantom II, itself conceived as an advanced development of the Demon, was a mainstay.

The F3H Demon was the first swept-wing jet fighter aircraft built by McDonnell Aircraft and also the first aircraft designed to be armed only with missiles rather than guns. The carrier-based, transonic, all-weather Demon fighter was designed with the philosophy that carrier-based fighters need not be inferior to land-based fighters. However, the planned powerplant, the new J40 turbojet, failed to meet its expectations and left early Demons (F3H-1N) underpowered. Production delays were also caused by the Navy’s desire for the Demon to be an all-weather nightfighter. And so, although the prototype had flown in August 1951, the radar-equipped Demon did not enter service until March 1956 as the F3H-2N and then with the Allison J71 turbojet as the powerplant.

By the time production ceased in 1959, 519 Demons had been built including the definitive Demon fighter-bomber (F3H-2). At its peak US Navy use, the Demon equipped 11 squadrons.

Beyond doubt McDonnell’s most trying programme-due to circumstances outside their control-was the F3H Demon. Like all the company’s jets so far it was designed around an axial engine from Westinghouse. In this case it was the huge J40, on which virtually all the Navy’s plans for fighters and bombers rested in the late 1940s. The XE3H-1 Demon was ordered in 1948 as a carrier-based fighter equal in performance to land-based machines. The result, flown on 7 August 1951, was even more advanced than the Voodoo, though the family likeness was obvious. The wing had a different form, though just as much sweep. To facilitate carrier operation, the wing was broader and liberally endowed with slats and flaps. The tail was fully swept and the horizontal surfaces were single-piece slabs. The main undercarriage had an extremely wide track, while the J40 engine was fed by lateral inlets and discharged under the tail, occupying the space which in the XF-88 had mainly been fuel.

After four disastrous years, the Navy had to abandon the J40 in early 1954 and reshape or abandon its aircraft programmes. Though 60 F3H-1 Demons were delivered as instructional airframes, the company managed to rescue the programme with the Allison J71-A-2, rated at 6,470 kg (14,2501b) with full afterburner. With the inevitable delay, McDonnell redesigned the Demon as an all-weather missile-armed interceptor.

The F3H Demon was what might be called a mature design for a shipboard ­ fighter. It had swept wings from the start (unlike Grumman’s F9F), a single pilot and just one engine (when many recent designs had featured two or even four, such was the low thrust rating of many early turbojets). First prototype XF3H-1 125444 ‑ flew from Lambert Field on 7 August 1951, under the power of a non-afterburning J40-WE-6. Early ‑ flight testing with the two prototypes, which saw the loss of 125444, only con­firmed that the J40 had serious reliability problems and left the aircraft under-powered. Even before this time, the US Navy had ordered the Demon into production, although as the night ­ fighter F3H-1N rather than the planned day ­ fighter. Engine failures and crashes plagued early production F3H-1Ns, leading to a grounding of all F3Hs in the spring of 1954. With no confi­dence that Westinghouse would ever manage to resolve the J40’s problems, the Navy took the decision to re-engine the F3H, its choice falling on the Allison J71.

No F3H-1 ever reached squadron service, although several were issued for ground training purposes. There was then a delay in the programme until the re-engined F3H-2N became available; two F3H1Ns modi­fied to ­fit the J71 ‑ flew in January 1955 and production F3H-2Ns started to come off the line three months later. Acceptance testing progressed to carrier trials aboard USS Ticonderoga in September 1965, and deliveries were made to the ­ first front-line squadron, VF-14 `Top Hatters’ at Cecil Field, FL, in April 1956. VF-14 undertook a shake-down cruise aboard USS Forrestal early the following year, by which time further units were taking delivery. In service, the aircraft proved rugged, nimble (`we outturn anything’) and well adapted to carrier operations. Better it was marginally supersonic in level ­ flight. The Demon had a ­ flight refuelling probe, semi-retractable, on the starboard forward fuselage. In Operation `Pipeline’ in May 1958, VF-64 ­ flew four aircraft non-stop across the Atlantic, thus underlining the US Navy’s ability quickly to reinforce its carrier-embarked Air Wings by ferrying aircraft from east coast air stations to its Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.

The F3H-2 entered service aboard US Navy carriers in 1957 as the most advanced combat aircraft then to have put to sea. Altogether 519 were delivered, most being F3H-2 strike fighters but final batches comprising 79 F3H-2M missile platforms with the A1M-7C Sparrow and 146 being F3H-2N night and all-weather fighters with different radar and AIM-9C Sidewinders. All versions saw extensive active service, including combat air patrols over Quemoy, Formosa and the Lebanon in 1958. These aircraft were redesignated F-3B, MF-3B and F-3C in 1962.

Specifications: McDonnell F3H-2 Demon

First flight: August 7,1951 (XF3H-1)

Power: Allison 6350kg/14,0001b afterburning thrust J71-A-2E turbojet

Armament: Four 20mm/0.78in cannon and four AIM-7C Sparrow AAMs

Size: Wingspan – 10.77m/35ft 4in

Length — 17.96m/58ft 11 in

Height – 4.44m/14ft 7in

Wing area – 48.22m2/519sq ft

Weights: Empty -10,039kg/22,1331b

Maximum take-off – 15377kg/33,9001b

Performance: Maximum speed — 1041 kph/647mph

Ceiling – 13,000m/42,650ft

Range – 2205km/1370 miles

Climb – 3660m/12,000ft per minute

First Wartime Aeroplane Flight

Bleriot XI (French, early WWI). Single-seat/two-seat reconnaissance. Developed from Louis Bleriot’s 1909 cross-Channel monoplane; existed in several sizes/ forms. Used in Italo-Turkish War 1911-12, Balkan Wars, early months World War I; thereafter as trainer. 50hp or 80hp Gnome engine; max. speed 75mph (120kph); makeshift armament of pistols and/or rifle or carbine.

Pioneers of Italian aviation. Captain Luca Bongiovanni and the sub-lieutenant De Muro. students pilots at the school of Aviano. photographed before a training flight. Italy 1912. (Photo by: SeM/UIG via Getty Images)
Nieuport monoplane

In the earliest air actions, carried out by Italian airmen in Libya (Tripolitania), the bomb dropped by Lieut. Gavotti was a 2-kg weapon like the one shown here: it was known as a Cipelli bomb, so named after its inventor.

Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it,” wrote Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to his father. With other military aviators of the new Italian Royal Army Air Services Specialist Battalion, Lt. Gavotti had been sent to the Ottoman Turk provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica to fight in the Italo-Turkish War. His aeroplane was a Blériot monoplane, one of only a handful in Italy’s possession.

Today two boxes full of bombs arrived. We are expected to throw them from our planes. It is very strange that none of us have been told about this, and that we haven’t received any instruction from our superiors. So we are taking the bombs on board with the greatest precaution. It will be very interesting to try them on the Turks.”

Etrich Taube

The influence of World War I on the use of aeroplanes for military purposes has left a general impression that aerial warfare was originated during those fateful years. In fact, the true pioneers of air warfare in aeroplanes were a handful of courageous Italian airmen who served during the little-known Italo-Turkish War in Libya in 1911-12, almost three years before the commencement of the European conflict.

In August 1911 the Italian Army manoeuvres had shown a potential for aircraft in general reconnaissance roles, and on 25 September came an order to mobilise the Italian Special Army Corps and, more significantly. an Air Flotilla. On that date the Flotilla comprised a total of nine aeroplanes-two Bleriot XI monoplanes, two Henry Farman biplanes, three Nieuport monoplanes, and two Etrich Taubes-manned by five first-line pilots, six reserve pilots and 30 airmen for all forms of technical maintenance. All nine machines were immediately dismantled, crated and sent by sea to Libya, arriving in the Bay of Tripoli on 15 October. With minimum facilities available, the crated aircraft were put ashore and transported to a suitable flying ground nearby, where assembly commenced almost immediately. The first aeroplane was completed by 21 October.

On the morning of 23 October 1911, Captain Carlos Piazza, commander of the Air Flotilla, took off at 0619 hours in his Bleriot for an urgently-requested reconnaissance of an advancing body of Turkish and Arab troops and eventually landed back at base at 0720 hours. This was the first-ever war flight in an aeroplane. Shortly after Piazza left, his second-in-command. Captain Riccardo Moizo, piloting a Nieuport, also took off but returned after 40 minutes with little to report. Both men were airborne again on the following day, seeking the location of enemy troops and, in Moizo’s case, being successful.

Next day, 25 October, Moizo was again in the air and sighted a large Arab encampment in the Ain Zara region. As he circled his objective, Moizo was greeted with a barrage of rifle fire and three bullets pierced his Nieuport’s wings. Though these caused no serious damage, it was the first occasion on which an aeroplane had experienced hostile ground fire. Within the following three days two more aircraft had become available. These-an Etrich Taube, piloted by Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, and a Henry Farman, by Lieutenant Ugo de Rossi-soon joined their seniors on scouting patrols over enemy camps and emplacements.

The Flotilla commander, Captain Piazza, quickly perceived further roles for his aircraft and, after several unsuccessful attempts, finally achieved a measure of air-to-ground co-operation with the local Italian artillery commander; Piazza dropped messages of correction or confirmation (in small tins) after observing the actual results of artillery fire. This presaged a major role for aeroplanes in the imminent European war. Piazza also envisaged the possibilities of aerial camera work and, on 11 November, sent an urgent request to his headquarters for provision of a Zeiss Bebe plate camera. After several weeks of waiting. Piazza took it upon himself to borrow a camera from the Engineer Corps in Tripoli and had this fixed to his Bleriot, positioned just in front of his seat and pointing downwards. Manipulation of the controls and the plate camera at once meant that only one exposure could be made on each flight, but it was the birth of airborne photo-reconnaissance.

The Turks, without any air arm, were forced on to the defensive and retaliated by rifle and machine gun fire. Since the Italian aviators could not fly very high, these weapons had some effect; one Italian aircraft outside Tripoli was hit seven times by rifle fire while flying at 2500 feet, though neither the aircraft nor the pilot was disabled. One luckless flyer had an engine failure behind enemy lines and was captured, though there appears to be no record of his subsequent fate; with the reputation the Turks had in those days it was probably grim.

Aerial bombardment

Although there appears to be no evidence that any of the Flotilla’s pilots ever attempted to take aloft and use any form of firearm, the concept of an offensive role for their aircraft was exemplified by the use of aerial bombs. The first-ever bombing sortie was that undertaken on 1 November 1911 by Second Lieutenant Gavotti, when he dropped three 2kg Cipelli bombs on the Taguira Oasis and a fourth bomb on Ain Zara. The relative success of Gavotti’s sortie led to the use of modified Swedish Haasen hand grenades and these were replaced by a small cylindrical bomb, containing explosive and lead balls, designed by Lieutenant Bontempelli.

By February 1912, the Flotilla’s machines had been modified to carry a large box (dubbed Campodonicos), each of which could hold ten Bontempelli bombs, which could then be released, simply by the pilot pulling a lever, in salvo or singly. The age of aerial bombardment had dawned. Nor was this form of aerial warfare confined to daylight sorties. Later in the campaign, on 2 May 1912, Captain Marengo, commander of a second air formation which arrived at Benghazi in late November 1911, made a 30-minute night reconnaissance as the first of several similar patrols. Then, on 11 June before dawn, Marengo dropped several bombs on a Turkish encampment, inaugurating the night bomber role.

During December 1911 and January 1912 the work of the Flotilla was severely hampered by atrocious weather conditions, including high winds and sudden storms. However, its aircraft continued to give direct tactical support to the ground troops by scouting ahead of advancing columns and locating enemy troops in the vicinity. Fresh aircraft for the Libyan airmen began arriving in January, along with new pilots, including Lieutenant Oreste Salomone, later to gain honours and national fame as a bomber pilot during World War 1. By the end of January, due to the eastward movements of the advancing Italian ground forces, it became necessary for the Libyan Flotilla to change its base airfield, and a move was made to Homs on 12 February. From here the aircraft flew in yet another new role: aerial propaganda. The pilots scattered thousands of specially prepared leaflets far and wide amongst Arab camps, with the result that large numbers of tribesmen were persuaded to become allied to the Italian cause.

Revolutionary tactics

By this time the value of the aircraft was being fully recognised by Italian Army commanders and the feats of the pilots were acclaimed in official dispatches. The overall commander of Italy’s Air Battalion. Lt Col di Montezemolo, arrived in Libya in February 1912 to inspect the Air Flotilla and report on its activities and results. One item in his subsequent report was the recommendation that Captain Piazza be repatriated to Italy, due to the commander’s bouts of fever, and that he be succeeded by Captain Scapparo. Piazza, once fit again, should be employed in organising flying tuition.

The obvious success of the Libyan Air Flotilla soon led to a second, though smaller flotilla being dispatched to Cyrenaica and based at Benghazi. Once established, this formation’s first war sortie-a reconnaissance patrol- was flown on 28 November by Second Lieutenant Lampugani. Though mainly restricted to the areas close to Benghazi, this formation had its full share of operational experiences. Most flights were met with fierce opposition from Turkish ground fire, including anti-aircraft artillery. This latter novelty was first experienced by Lieutenant Roberti on 15 December 1911 when flying over some Turkish trenches; his aircraft and propeller received several shrapnel strikes. As if to compliment the gunners on their accuracy, Roberti coolly dived across the enemy battery positions and dropped some of his personal visiting cards.

A terrible precedent

As recorded earlier, the commander of the Benghazi formation, Captain Marengo, instituted a series of night bombing and reconnaissance sorties between May and July. His only night-flying aid was an electric torch, fixed to his flying helmet and operated by a normal hand- switch, in order to read his few instrument dials. Tragically, it was a pilot of Marengo’s formation who became the Italian Air Service’s first-ever wartime casualty. On 25 August 1912 at 0610 hours Second Lieutenant Pietro Manzini took off for a reconnaissance patrol but almost immediately side-slipped into the sea and was killed.

With the end of the campaign, the Italian airmen won acclaim from the international Press. One particularly prophetic war correspondent, with the Turkish Army throughout the war, wrote, `this war has clearly shown that air navigation provides a terrible means of destruction. These new weapons are destined to revolutionise modem strategy and tactics. What I have witnessed in Tripoli has convinced me that a great British air fleet must be created.’ Certainly, by their skill, imagination and courage, the Italian Air Flotillas had inaugurated man’s latest form of destruction, pioneering most of the military roles for the aeroplane.


BE 2

The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 was a British single-engine tractor two-seat biplane designed and developed at the Royal Aircraft Factory. Most production aircraft were constructed under contract by various private companies, both established aircraft manufacturers and firms that had not previously built aircraft. Around 3,500 were manufactured in all.

The B.E.2 has always been a subject of controversy, both at the time and in later historical assessment. From the B.E.2c variant on it had been carefully adapted to be “inherently stable”, this feature was considered helpful in its artillery observation and aerial photography duties: most of which were assigned to the pilot, who was able to fly without constant attention to his flight controls. In spite of a tendency to swing on take off and a reputation for spinning, the type had a relatively low accident rate. The stability of the type was however achieved at the expense of heavy controls, making rapid manoeuvring difficult. The observer, often not carried because of the B.E.’s poor payload, occupied the front seat, where he had a limited field of fire for his gun.

Ilya Muromets

The Sikorsky Ilya Muromets  (Sikorsky S-22, S-23, S-24, S-25, S-26 and S-27) were a class of Russian pre-World War I large four-engine commercial airliners and military heavy bombers used during World War I by the Russian Empire. The aircraft series was named after Ilya Muromets, a hero from Slavic mythology. The series was based on the Russky Vityaz or Le Grand, the world’s first four-engined aircraft, designed by Igor Sikorsky. The Ilya Muromets aircraft as it appeared in 1913 was a revolutionary design, intended for commercial service with its spacious fuselage incorporating a passenger saloon and washroom on board. During World War I, it became the first four-engine bomber to equip a dedicated strategic bombing unit. This heavy bomber was unrivaled in the early stages of the war, as the Central Powers had no aircraft capable enough to rival it until much later.

Caproni Ca.3

The Caproni Ca.3 was an Italian heavy bomber of World War I and the postwar era. It was the definitive version of the series of aircraft that began with the Caproni Ca.1 in 1914.

Apart from the Italian Army, original and licence-built examples were used by France (original Capronis were used in French CAP escadres, licence-built examples in CEP escadres). They were also used by the American Expeditionary Force. There has been some confusion regarding the use of the Ca3 by the British Royal Naval Air Service. The RNAS received six of the larger triplane Ca4s and did not operate the Ca3. The British Ca4s were not used operationally and were returned to Italy after the war. Some of the Ca.36Ms supplied after the war were still in service long enough to see action in Benito Mussolini’s first assaults on North Africa.

Breguet 14

The Breguet 14 was a French biplane bomber and reconnaissance aircraft of the First World War. It was built in very large numbers and production continued for many years after the end of the war.

Apart from its widespread usage, the Breguet 14 is known for being the first mass-produced aircraft to use large amounts of metal, rather than wood, in its structure. This allowed the airframe to be lighter than a wooden airframe of the same strength, in turn making the aircraft relatively fast and agile for its size; in combat situations, it was able to outrun many of the contemporary fighters of the day. The Breguet 14’s strong construction allowed it to sustain considerable damage, in addition to being easy to handle and possessing favourable performance. The type has often been considered to have been one of the best aircraft of the war.

The first powered aircraft had been flown by the Wright brothers only a decade before World War I began, but the airplane was soon to play a major role. At first planes were only used for observation and reconnaissance, and indeed they were able to provide an important new view of the battlefield. At the Battle of Mons in southern Belgium on August 23, 1914, British forces rushed to the rescue of the French as the Germans attacked them. Just before the clash, the British sent out an observation plane to see what was going on and discovered, to their surprise, that the Germans were trying to surround them. The British high command immediately ordered a retreat, which saved them from a disaster. A little later a French observation plane noticed that the Germans had exposed their flanks, and the French attacked, stopping an attempted drive to Paris. The value of the observation plane was soon evident.

It wasn’t long, however, before observation planes on opposite sides began to come in contact. At first they merely fired at one another with pistols and rifles, although at times they also tried to throw rocks at one another’s propellers. One of the first pilots to escalate air warfare was Roland Garros of France. Although most of the early airplanes used in the war were “pushers,” like the Wright brothers’ craft, with the propeller behind the pilot, it was soon discovered that the “tractor” design, with the propeller in the front, was much more effective. The problem with this, however, was that if machines gun were to be mounted so pilots could easily aim and fire them, they would have to fire through the whirling blades of the propeller, and this would quickly destroy the propeller blades. Garros decided to protect the blades by adding steel deflectors to them.

In early April 1915 he tried out his new invention for the first time. The recipients of his attacks were no doubt surprised when they saw Garros’s airplane flying straight at them, shooting a stream of bullets. Garros shot down four German airplanes using his new device, but on April 18 he was forced down behind German lines. His airplane was seized, and the German high command called in Anthony Fokker of the Fokker aircraft company and ordered him to copy the device. Fokker saw, however, that it was seriously flawed: many of the bullets hitting the blades were deflected, and some of them were being deflected backward. Fokker and his team therefore began working on a system in which the machine gun was synchronized with the propeller blade. A cam was placed on the crankshaft of the airplane; when the propeller was in a position where it might be hit by a bullet, the cam actuated a pushrod that stopped the gun from firing. The new device was placed on German airplanes, and for many months the Germans had a tremendous advantage in the air.6

In the meantime the British were also experimenting with the mounting of a machine gun on an airplane. Aviator Louis Strange attached a machine gun to the top of the upper wing of his plane so that the bullets would clear the propeller. However, on May 10, 1915, his gun jammed. He stood up on his seat in an attempt to pry it loose, but as he worked on it the plane suddenly stalled and flipped over, then it began to spin downward. Strange was flung out of the plane, but he managed to hang on to the gun on the upper wing. For several moments he swung his legs around wildly, trying to get back in the cockpit. Fortunately, he succeeded and was able to pull the plane out of its dive just before it would have crashed.

Nevertheless, with the new Fokker design, the Germans quickly achieved air superiority. Strangely, most of their new guns were mounted on the Eindecker E1, a plane that was generally inferior to most British aircraft. The casualties, however, were not as great as they were later in the war because the British pilots stayed clear of the Eindecker. The morale of the British, however, had been shaken, and they rushed to produce fighters that could match the Eindeckers.

The era of the dogfight had begun. A dogfight was an aerial battle between two or more aircraft. The Germans had an advantage when the dogfights first began. As a result, they began knocking down British planes at the rate of the about five to each of their losses. German aces such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke became heroes at home as a result of the large number of British planes they downed. Between them they shot down almost sixty enemy aircraft before they were stopped. Finally, though, in the fall of 1915, the British introduced two fighters, the F.E.2 and the DH2, which were a good match for the German planes, and they also developed tracer ammunition that helped. With it a pilot could see his stream of fire and adjust it if needed.

Pilots with eight kills became known as aces. At first, most pilots went out alone, searching for enemy planes, but after 1917 squadrons were introduced on both sides. The British developed squadrons of six planes that usually flew in a V-shaped formation with a commander in the front. In combat, however, they would break up into pairs, with one of the two planes primarily on attack while the other was a defender. The German squadrons were usually larger, and their groups eventually became known as circuses.

One of the leading British aces was Mick Mannock. He was a leading developer of British air tactics, and between May 1917 and July 1918, he shot down seventy-three German planes. Almost all pilots were under the age of twenty-five, with many as young as eighteen. Many, in fact, were sent into battle with as little as thirty hours of air training. So, as expected, their life expectancy once they joined up was not long.

Dogfight tactics were well known, and everyone used them as much as possible. The major tactic was diving toward another plane from above when the sun was shining in the eyes of the opposing pilot. Both sides also used clouds for cover as much as possible; they would attack, then head for the clouds.

The best-known ace of the war was, no doubt, the German Manfred von Richthofen, who was also known as the Red Baron. He was credited with eighty combat victories during his career. As in the case of most aces, however, many of them were against greenhorn pilots with only a few hours of experience. He did, however, down one of the leading British aces, Major Lance Hayden. During 1917 he was the leader of the German squadron called the Flying Circus. The plane he piloted was painted red, both inside and out. His career came to an end on April 21, 1913, when he was shot down by ground fire near the Somme River.

On the Allied side, Billy Bishop was one of the most celebrated aces; a Canadian, he was credited with seventy-two victories, and he was instrumental in setting up the British air-training program. At one point he fought against the Red Baron, but neither man gained a victory. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917. The best-known American ace was Eddie Rickenbacker. Before he became a pilot he was a racecar driver, so flying a fighter plane was a natural next step for him. When the United States entered the war in 1917 Rickenbacker enlisted immediately and was soon flying over Germany. On September 24, 1918, he was named commander of a squadron. In total, he shot down twenty-six German aircraft. Another major American figure was Billy Mitchell; by the end of World War I he commanded all American air combat units.

Although the fighter planes got the most attention during World War I, a much larger plane also played an important role. It was developed to carry and release bombs over enemy territory. Strategic bombing was used quite extensively during the war. Its object was to destroy factories, power stations, dockyards, large installations of guns, and troop-supply lines. The first bombing missions were by the Germans, who launched terror raids using large Zeppelins (huge balloons) to bomb small villages and civilians as a way to destroy the enemy’s morale. There were a total of twenty-three of these raids over England, and at first there was little defense against them. But quite quickly it became evident that they were easy targets, as most were filled with flammable hydrogen and therefore easy to shoot down. So the airship raids finally stopped, but Germany soon developed bomber airplanes. The British also developed the Handley Page bomber in 1916, and in November of that year they bombed several German installations and submarine bases. By 1918 they were using four-engine bombers to attack industrial zones, with some of the bombs weighing as much as 1,650 pounds. They developed a squadron that was able to penetrate deep into Germany and hit important industrial targets. The Germans retaliated, bombing both British and French cities, but in the end the British dropped 660 tons of bombs on Germany—more than twice the amount the Germans dropped on England.


The SM.79 Sparviero (“Sparrow Hawk”) bombers were constructed of a welded tubular steel frame, covered with duralumin forward, duralumin and plywood over the top, and fabric elsewhere. The wings were made of wood. They first saw service with the Aviazione Legionaria units serving in the Spanish Civil War, where over 100 of these bombers assisted Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces mainly in Catalonia. By the time Italy entered WW2, Sm.79 bombers were the backbone of the Italian bomber force. They were used in France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Crete, Malta, Gibraltar, Palestine, and North Africa. They were responsible for sinking 86 Allied ships totaling 708,000 tons. After the Italian surrender, 34 SM.79 bombers served with the pro-Allies government and 36 served with the pro-Axis government in the north.

In 1939, 45 SM.79 bombers were sold to Yugoslavia. Most of them were destroyed during the German invasion in 1941, but a few survived to serve in the pro-Axis government after the invasion. Four of them were evacuated to Britain and were used by the Royal Air Force under the designations AX702, AX703, AX704, and AX705.

Between 1936 and 1945, 1,350 SM.79 bombers were built. After the war, a few of them continued to serve with the new Italian air force Aeronautica Militare as passenger transports; they were retired in 1952. A few of them made their way to the Lebanese air force and served until 1959.

Squadriglie 252,253

Stormo 46

This Gruppo formed on 15 February 1940 with 15 SM 79 bombers. In June they made bombing raids on Corsica, escorted by G 50s of 51 Stormo, and on 21 June nine SM 79s bombed Marseilles naval port.

The unit adopted several camouflage finishes, from banded to mottled in the same squadriglia, as new colour orders filtered through from H. Q. In November they transferred to the Balkans for operations over Greece and Yugoslavia. To save weight the bombers reduced their defensive weapons from four to two, despite several combats with RAF Gladiators. The winter produced heavy snows which reduced the number of operations, but some bombing was still undertaken. Escorting G 50s joined in with ground strafing.

On 1 May 1942 the unit became Aerosilurante and the more experienced crews were sent to Sardinia in June for operations against the HARPOON convoy. On 14 June four aircraft out of twelve were lost, with Medaglia d’Oro being posthumously awarded to Tenente Ingrellini and Sergente Maggiore Compiani. On 3 July the whole Gruppo went to the Aegean to operate against shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. They made armed reconnaissance sorties as far as Haifa, Port Said, and Port Alexander. On 1 September they became Autonomo, often co-operating with Fliegerkorps X on convoy attacks and reconnaissance missions.

By 1 January 1943 they had 8 operational aircraft at Gadurra, on day and night reconnaissance missions along the eastern and central African coastlines. On 15 February two SM 79s were intercepted by P-39s between Tobruk and Mersa Matruh, claiming one fighter shot down. By 20 March six aircraft were still operational out of thirteen.

From January to March crews were transferred between Kalamaki and Gadurra for night training by instructors from 1 and 3 NAS. Despite the setting up at the start of the war of a Blind Flying School (La Scuola di Volo Senza Visibilta) most new pilots had very little experience of instrument or night flying as they were rushed to the front with minimal training.

Pilots briefly trained on the Junkers Ju 88 for dive and torpedo bomber operations, using Luftwaffe aircraft based at Athene. The practical difficulties of acquiring and supporting such a unit precluded further pursuit of this role, despite the initial success with training.

In April 1943 one squadriglia sometimes used Coo and Scarpanto as forward bases. Two aircraft used Timpaklion, Crete, for armed reconnaissance flights between Appollonia and Benghasi. There were very few aircraft operational by mid-May, but morale was high with the recent successful missions which had followed a long wait. On 23 May three SM 79s escorted two unarmed SM 75s from Gadurra to bomb Gura base in Africa at night. 253 Sq was detached to Iraklion on Crete, from 25 June to 16 July. By 9 July the unit had only five out of eleven aircraft serviceable at Gadurra.

In July the Gruppo moved to Italy for re-equipment. They then carried out night attacks against the invasion fleet off Sicily. 253 Sq claimed an enemy night fighter off the Ioinian coast on the night of 18 July. On 7 September eight aircraft were still operational. The two squadriglie commanders took off at 19.30 hours on 8 September to attack ships in the Gulf of Salerno. It was not until they were nearing the target area that the radiomen heard the order for all bomber and fighter units to cancel operations and return to base. They only turned back when a direct order to all torpedo bomber units was received from the H. Q. of Squadra 3, landing at Guidonia and returning to Siena the next day.

The Soviet Union: Glider Pioneer?

G-11s, along with the Antonov A-7 constituted a majority of Soviet transport gliders. They were mainly used from mid-1942 for supplying Soviet partisans with provisions, weapons, equipment and trained men, towed mainly by SB or DB-3 bombers. Most intensive use was from March to November 1943 in Belarus, in the Polotsk-Begoml-Lepel area, on the Kalinin Front. Several hundred Soviet gliders (of all types) were used in night supply flights there. After landing, the gliders were destroyed and pilots were sometimes returned by aircraft. The only known instance of a glider returning from the field occurred in April 1943, when a famous glider and test pilot Sergei Anokhin evacuated two wounded partisan commanders in a G-11, towed by a Tupolev SB bomber, piloted by Yuriy Zhelutov, on a 10 m (33 ft) short towrope.

Gliders were also used to supply partisans in some areas in 1944 and to transport sabotage groups behind enemy lines. G-11 gliders were also used in at least one small-scale airborne operation, the Dnepr crossing, carrying anti-tank guns and mortars.

A less typical action was an airbridge from Moscow to the Stalingrad area in November 1942, to rapidly deliver anti-freeze coolant for tanks, during the battle of Stalingrad.

The A-7 was considered a successful design, but it had less capacity than the other light glider, the G-11. Moreover, a place for cargo was limited by an arrangement of seats and a presence of cantilevers of a retractable landing gear in the center of a transport compartment. It could transport seven troops (including pilot) or up to 900 kg of cargo.

The G-11 enjoyed relative success as a light transport glider design, having more capacity than the Antonov A-7, and its transport compartment was a better fit for cargo, although light guns could only be carried in parts due to small hatches.

While this glider transport experiment [Russian transport of infantry in gliders attached to bombers] first attracted attention and caused much comment among aviation writers and experts, the military leaders among other great powers took little heed of the glider potential, except for the war-minded Germans.

Just after dark one day in the spring of 1943, gliders took off from an airfield whose name, if it had one, is now lost. Their destination was secret. The Soviet Union was fighting for its life. No one was yet convinced that her armies had conclusively stemmed the German onslaught. The gliders carried Matjus Sumauskas, president of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, Henrikas Zimanas, editor-in-chief of Komunistas, and seventy others. They were all Lithuanians and members of Operative Group II, organized to launch partisan movements in German-held Lithuania.

Some 600 miles behind German lines, the gliders cut away from their tow planes. It was black below. Some came in to fairly good landings. One crashed, killing all. Zimanas’s glider hit an obstacle and was virtually demolished, with the pilot killed and the passengers badly bruised or severely injured. The accident hurt Zimanas’s spine and leg. Despite his injuries and the arrival of an evacuation aircraft, he remained with the mission, assisting as best he could as a radio operator while the other partisans made their way to the Kazyan Forest. Regaining strength, although limping and in severe pain, Zimanas caught up with the main force in the Kazyan Forest. He then went with it to Lithuania.

Nothing was ever known in the West during the war of these isolated but daring partisan operations behind German lines that were frequently launched with gliders. It was through those missions that the use of transport gliders was finally coming into its own in Soviet military operations, the culmination of years of preparation.

Like the Germans, the Soviets had long been avid gliding and soaring enthusiasts. The Soviet Union was one of the few countries to compete with the Germans with any degree of success in the development of gliding. The meager amount of information allowed to seep out of the Soviet Union gave no idea of the great activity centered around glider development there. Soviet progress appears to have anticipated that of Germany by perhaps as much as five years, a fact of immense historical significance.

In the Soviet Union, the state took a direct interest in soaring. Under its support, Soviet glider pilots began to gain international recognition shortly before World War II. In 1925, the Soviets held their first national glider competition in the Crimea.

While Germany originally used the glider as a subterfuge to improve its aeronautical technology and skill resources, the Soviets embarked upon a substantial glider development program for entirely different reasons. Germany’s interest in the glider was rooted in those of its qualities that could serve military ends and took absolutely no notice of its commercial value. In the Soviet Union, it was the other way around. Military use became a coincidental offshoot. Soviet commercial aircraft could fly passengers and cargo into areas that had no trains and where roads were impassable in bad weather. The aircraft was solving historical communication problems that had reined in domestic development over the centuries. The aircraft was meeting a vital economic and political need at a critical point in the history of the Soviet Union. The Soviet expansion of commercial air transportation strove to keep up with the increasing demand to fly more and more passengers and cargo.

Short in technological skills and lacking the industrial capacity and production know-how to turn out the increasing number of aircraft demanded of a strained economy, the Soviets turned to the transport glider as offering a way to double air-cargo capacity, using substantially less resources in airframe materials, aircraft, engines and fuel than would be necessary to achieve the same cargo lift with powered transport aircraft.

By then, Soviet-built gliders had been towed long distances in single tow. Experiments were started in double and triple tows, with the thought that ultimately a single aircraft could tow many transport gliders carrying passengers in “glider train” formation. So rapidly did they progress, that by 1939 they had managed the art of towing as many as five single-place gliders with a single aircraft, a feat never matched elsewhere and an accomplishment not surpassed outside of the Soviet Union since.

Although Soviet interest focused chiefly on sport gliding in the 1920’s, the government decided to expand Soviet gliding activities in the 1930’s. In 1931, a dramatic upsurge occurred when the Komsomol passed a resolution calling for an unheralded expansion of the gliding movement during the Ninth Party Congress, held in January. The Komsomol announced a threefold purpose in its resolution: first, it sought to build an enormous pool of glider pilots through training programs; second, it hoped to gain useful information for its aeronautical research program through research and development and the testing of new glider models; and third, it was setting out to capture as many world records as it could.

To back up the program, the government built a glider factory in Moscow in 1932. It set production goals at 900 primary trainers and 300 training gliders per year. It named Oleg K. Antonov, an aircraft engineer and designer who was to become famous for his glider designs, to head design and engineering at the plant.

Shortly after the Komsomol resolution was passed, eighty leading glider and light-plane designers assembled at Koktabel. They studied twenty-two glider designs and selected seven for construction and tests to be made in 1932. In retrospect, the pace at which the whole movement progressed gives some indication of the importance the government placed on the program.

In thirty-six days of tests, Soviet glider pilots flew 662 flights, averaging more than an hour each in the seven gliders to be tested. Together with testing conducted on other gliders from distant parts of the Soviet Union, they established six new Soviet records. During that year, V. A. Stepanchenok in a G-9 glider looped 115 times and flew upside down for more than one minute in a single flight. Soviet glider pilots went on to perform new and unexpected aerobatics and carried out long-distance tows and a multitude of other feats. By 1939, Olga Klepikova flew a glider 465 miles to capture the world distance record, a feat that was unbeaten for twenty-two years. On the same occasion, B. Borodin flew two passengers for more than four hours in a single flight and, with that feat, the transport glider was born. It was then up to some perceptive person to recognize the significance of the flight, and it appears that this was not long in happening.

Although Soviet authorities saw the transport glider as a solution to commercial needs for more air lift, they apparently concurrently saw that the transport glider had some military potential. Military and commercial development began simultaneously in the very early 1930’s, perhaps in 1931 or 1932, and ran on closely parallel paths. The Moscow glider factory was their design and production focal point. In 1934, the Moscow glider factory produced the GN-4, a five-place glider that could transport four passengers and was designed for towed flight.

The idea for a multi-passenger towed glider, as opposed to the two-passenger soaring glider already flown, must have blossomed in 1932 or 1933, inasmuch as Groshev (designer of the transport glider GN-4), had one on the drawing board then. The GN-4 appears to have been a modest development compared with others then on the drawing board, for General I. I. Lisov, in his Parachutists—Airborne Landing, published in Moscow in 1968, reveals that as far back as 1932 the work plan for the Voenno Vozdushniy Sily (VVS) design bureau included the G-63 glider, a craft that could carry seventeen soldiers or a like amount of cargo. What is even more remarkable is that the bureau was daring enough to include a requirement for a fifty-man glider, the G-64, which was to be towed by a TB-1 bomber.

While there are those who would criticize such bold statements as an attempt to bolster the Soviet ego with another first or discount them as pure propaganda, there is evidence based on what was to come that the statements did not come from unrealistic fantasy. In 1935, the Soviet magazine Samolet (Flight) discussed the use of gliders for carrying passengers, citing an eighteen-passenger glider, and having a photograph in support. The article goes so far as to give an illustration of a transport glider train drawn by a four-engined aircraft. This would mean that the 1932 VVS design requirement was realized, in part, by 1935 or earlier, since gliders cannot be designed, built and tested overnight. On 9 October 1935, the New York Times reported that a 118-passenger glider with a ninety-two-foot wingspan, the G-3, had been built by the experimental institute in Leningrad and test-flown several times. It was to have been flown from Leningrad to Moscow the same month. This was undoubtedly the glider reported in Samolet.

In his book Without Visible Means of Support, Richard Miller mentions that the Soviets experimented in 1934 with a thirteen-passenger troop glider, grossing 8,000 pounds. In that same year, the Soviets could boast ten gliding schools, 230 gliding stations and 57,000 trained glider pilots.

Around 1934, a new concept took hold, fostered by Lev Pavlovich Malinovskii, head of the Scientific Technical administration of the Grazhdanskiy Vazdushniy Flot (Civilian Air Fleet). Malinovskii conceived the idea of using a low-powered freight glider plane, easy to produce and cheap to operate, that could solve some of Russia’s long-distance fast freight needs. The fully laden glider would carry around a ton of goods and be powered by a single 100-horsepower engine. The engine would assist the tow plane during take-off. Once safely airborne, the glider would cast off and deliver its cargo to a distant terminal under its own power.

Because most of the models were underpowered, only one or two went beyond the experimental stage. Several apparently grew into sizeable ten-passenger models, and there is a strong likelihood that these models, with engines removed, became the first of the larger twenty-passenger transport gliders developed in the Soviet Union and observed during the mid- 1930’s.

While Soviet designers and engineers were busy at the task of creating and producing the new aircraft, military leaders went about the task of building airlanding and parachute forces to use them. By 1933, the first of these formations appeared. The Soviet Union startled the world when 1,200 soldiers landed by parachute with all weapons and equipment during maneuvers around Kiev. Later in the year, aircraft transported a complete division, together with armored vehicles, from Moscow to Vladivostok, a distance of 4,200 miles. Minister of War Kliment Voroshilov was fully justified in stating at a congress in 1935:

“Parachuting is the field of aviation in which the Soviet Union has a monopoly. No nation on earth can even approximately compare with the Soviet Union in this field, far less could any nation dream of closing the existing gap by which we are leading. There can be no question at all of our being surpassed.”

That gliders were used in these maneuvers is not confirmed, although they may have been. Because of the secrecy surrounding them and the fact that they were so similar to powered aircraft in appearance, their presence among the powered aircraft could have passed unnoticed. Terence Otway states, however, that “by 1935, [the Soviet Union] had gone a long way towards creating an effective airborne force, including parachute troops carried in gliders.”

In the Caucasus maneuvers of 1936, the paratroopers participated publicly. From that point forward, however, all exercises and maneuvers of the arm were carried out in strict secrecy. Keith Ayling reports in They Fly to Fight on a large number of personnel carried in gliders, in one instance, in 1936. They were undoubtedly from the same Caucasus maneuver.

After dropping the veil of secrecy over airborne developments, the Soviets did not entirely neglect the fledgling airborne arm, contrary to foreign observer indications. By 1940, they approved an airborne brigade of 3,000 men, of which more than a third were glider troops. By mid 1941, in a doctrinal turnabout, glider troop elements disappeared from Soviet troop lists, although glider manufacture continued. Only recently has information become available that in 1941, just before the war started, the Soviet Union had already built a glider tank transport, the world’s first, which was capable of transporting a light armored vehicle. Shortly after this flight, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and no more experiments with that glider were conducted. However, the daring experiment, far ahead of those of any other nation manufacturing gliders, gives some indication of the extent of the Soviet Union’s interest in, and progress with, the glider as a military tool.

To what extent German military leaders learned from Soviet transport glider developments is not certain, but those developments certainly could not have gone unnoticed, in view of a curious succession of events involving both the Soviet Union and Germany. In a much overlooked clause, the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922 enabled the German military to produce and perfect in Russia weapons forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. To that end, the Soviets turned over the remote, disused Lipetsk airfield, about 310 miles southeast of Moscow, in 1924, where they established a flying school and also tested aircraft. Through these activities, the Red Air Force gained information about German technical developments.

In 1923, the Germans opened a “Moscow Center” liaison office in Moscow, manned by German officers who reported to the Defense Ministry in Berlin. Junkers and other German aircraft manufacturers built factories in the Soviet Union, staffed by German officers and aircraft engine experts. Many officers, such as August Plock, Hermann Plocher and Kurt Student, who were later to become generals and who occupied important posts in the Luftwaffe, served in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. General Student, who masterminded Hitler’s glider attack on Eben Emael while an infantry officer, visited the Lipetsk airfield every year from 1924 to 1928.

Three factors strongly suggest that early German development and use of the transport glider followed Soviet developments by three to five years. The Soviets must have had their transport glider on the drawing board perhaps as early as 1932 to enable them to produce their five-passenger GN-4 in 1934 or earlier. The Germans produced their Obs (flying observatory) in 1933 or 1934, a glider that was not a true transport vehicle but closer to a scientific laboratory. Second, foreign observers saw Soviet transport gliders in flight in 1935 or 1936, carrying perhaps as many as fifteen to eighteen passengers. The nine-passenger German DFS 230 glider did not appear before 1938, and it proved to be a substantially smaller model than those seen in the Soviet Union up to that time. Third, the Russians had large airborne organizations in planning in the early 1930’s and actually flew them in the large airborne drop at Kiev in 1935, while it was not until 1938 that the Germans finally organized their 7. Flieger-Division.

Although Soviet military leaders conducted few and only marginally useful air assaults during the war and the glider saw only limited use as a military transport to support these operations, it did play some role.

For the Dnjepr River crossing operations of 24 September 1943, the Soviets planned to use thirty-five gliders to transport heavy guns and equipment. In planning, the glider landings had been sandwiched in between the first and second massed parachute drops. Apparently, the glider phase was not implemented. Apart from this, it was used extensively in partisan support operations and in many raids.

German forces found guerrillas annoying and persistent. Although guerrillas lived off the land to a great extent, the regular military force kept them supplied with weapons and ammunition by glider and, where possible, by powered aircraft. The magnitude of these operations and the importance played by the glider can be judged by the fact that in counterguerrilla operations conducted just in and around Lipel alone, the German forces overran one field that held more than 100 gliders.

Gliders transported rations, weapons, medical supplies and, at the same time, provided partisans with key personnel and important orders and information. Gliders landed by night on emergency airfields and during the winter on the ice of frozen lakes. This support enabled the partisans to carry out successful attacks on railroads, roads, airfields, bridges, convoys, columns of troops, rear area command agencies and even troop units. The Germans suffered heavy losses of personnel and materiel. The Germans flew reconnaissance missions to discover air-drop and landing fields in partisan-held areas, attacked airlift operations wherever they were identified, used deception by setting up dummy airfields and giving fake signals and eventually activated a special antipartisan wing, comprised of 100 Ar 66’s. The results achieved against the guerrillas, especially in the central sector of the front, remained unsatisfactory. In the final analysis, this use of airlift by the Russian Air Force must be considered a success, since the relentless night airlift operations enabled the partisans to carry out their tasks.

After the war, Soviet interest in gliders did not immediately wane, and new models were reported, though sources of these reports are few and hard to find. As late as 1965, the Soviets had three glider regiments, which they have since deactivated.

Conflict over the Bay, 1943

Gradually the boffins and engineers had improved the lot of the air crews by developing ASV radar, more reliable depth charges, anti-sub bombs and acoustic torpedoes, while they now had better aircraft. The fact that Dönitz had now effectively withdrawn from engaging in the mighty convoy battles of the North Atlantic, was as much due to the losses inflicted on his boats, as the losses, also in 1943, of boats traversing the Bay of Biscay.

As 1943 got underway for 19 Group, so the actions increased week after week. Space does not provide as much detail of these actions as described in previous chapters, but in my book Conflict over the Bay (Grub Street, 1999) full coverage is given in a blow-by-blow account.

In the early months of 1943, German tactics had not yet changed. The Leigh Light had prevented U-boat commanders crossing the Bay at night, and they were forced to travel for the most part on the surface, especially if their batteries need to be recharged and the boat’s fresh air supply replenished. This made them vulnerable as ASV could pick them up more easily.

By May U-boat captains had been ordered to remain on the surface and fight back, their chances, Dönitz believed, would be better if they deflected an aircraft’s approach in the face of gunfire at low level – and the big Sunderlands and Liberators particularly, offered a huge target for gunners who held their nerve. As mentioned earlier, Coastal Command’s counter to this was to circle some way off, and either call up other aircraft in the vicinity in order to make a co-ordinated attack from different angles, thereby dividing the defensive fire, or, if in luck, one of the Navy’s anti-sub escort groups might not be too far away and could be homed in.

The 2nd Escort (or Support) Group in particular seemed to be able to roam the outer Bay areas with impunity, and was constantly on the alert for U-boats, coming or going. Captain F. J. Walker CB DSO*** RN, with five sloops, would be responsible for a number of U-boats attacked, sunk and damaged. Sadly he died in July 1944, aged forty-eight, from cerebral thrombosis, brought on by overwork and exhaustion. He lost a son serving aboard a submarine in the Mediterranean in August 1943.

By this time too, the USAAF had joined the fray, sending Liberator squadrons to England where they, like the Iceland-based USN units, came under Coastal Command control, joining the Battle of the Bay. Their first success came on 20 February, First Lieutenant Wayne Johnson of 1 Squadron USAAF damaging U-211.

Six days later one of Coastal’s best pilots, Squadron Leader P. J. Cundy, flying with 224 Squadron (Liberators), damaged U-508. He had already flown many sorties with 53 and 120 Squadrons and his experience was about to pay dividends. Wellingtons were still being used by 19 Group, and so too were Whitleys of No.10 OTU, released by Bomber Command in order to help support the group. On 22 March one 10 OTU crew damaged U-665. Quite a few boats were damaged in these early months, but some were also sunk. Pilot Officer J. B. Stark of 58 Squadron put his Halifax over U-528 on 11 May and his depth charges sent it to the bottom. Four days later, Wing Commander W. E. Oulton DFC, CO of the same squadron, sank U- 266. The next day, the 16th, Flying Officer A. J. W. Birch made it three for 58 by sinking U-463 – a tanker supply boat.

Another new innovation by the Germans, now that they were beginning to stay up and fight, was the introduction of flak boats, carrying extra defensive armament. They were intended to be ‘flak traps’ to surprise and destroy attacking aircraft. One was U-441. Most U-boats encountered were the Type VIIC and it was a few of this type that were converted (others being U-211, 256, 263, 271, 621 and 953). Sailing for her first mission in her new role on 22 May, U-441 was found by a Sunderland of 228 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer H. J. H. Debnam. He attacked in the face of extreme anti-aircraft fire and, although he placed his depth charges around the sub, the boat’s gunners were on target and the flying boat dived into the sea with the loss of all on board. However, U-441 had been damaged sufficiently, and sustained crew casualties, for it to be forced to return to base for repair.

On the last day of May, Wilfred Oulton again encountered a U-boat, and began stalking it during an approach through cloud. Finally diving, he made a good straddle, leaving the boat in obvious difficulty and a second attack was made, after which the boat was seen to be trailing oil. Oulton kept the sub under observation while calling up another 58 Squadron aircraft, flown by Pilot Officer E. L. Hartley, but his charges fell short. A Sunderland of 10 RAAF Squadron was next on the scene and after two attacks the boat stopped and began to sink, with men appearing on deck in life-jackets. Another Sunderland arrived, from 228 Squadron, and made an immediate attack, bodies being seen thrown into the air as its charges exploded about the vessel. Oulton later received the DSO, and the two Sunderland captains received DFCs. There were no survivors from U-563.

“Biscay Excursion”
In March 1942, 236 Squadron RAF received the Bristol Beaufighter MkI.At first the squadron was used for shipping reconnaissance and escort duties, before in July it began operations against enemy shipping off the Dutch coast. At the same time detachments operated over the Bay of Biscay to protect anti-submarine aircraft against German attack.
David Pentland Art

These large four-engined aircraft were not the only aircraft operating over the Bay in 1943. The Germans had Junkers 88C fighters on the French coast and often made forays into the Bay to attack the RAF aircraft. It is amazing that the Germans did not make more of this, but fortunately they did not, although a number of running air battles between them did take place, and Coastal aircraft were lost. As a counter, the RAF sent Beaufighters out, hopefully to engage these Ju88s, but they also searched for U-boats. No. 236 Squadron also carried rockets and, on 1 June, Flying Officer M. C. Bateman found U-418 which he attacked and sank with his RPs. As these were still on Coastal’s secret list, Mark Bateman had to report sinking the sub with depth charges. He was awarded the DFC, although no mention of this attack was mentioned in his citation.

Another fight-it-out duel on the night of 13/14 June had U-564 shooting down a 228 Squadron Sunderland, from which nobody survived. The boat was damaged, however, and limped away, only to be located the next day by a Whitley of 10 OTU, piloted by Sergeant A. J. Benson RAAF. Buzz Benson shadowed the sub, and another boat (U-185) that had suddenly appeared to help, while carrying out homing procedure but was then given permission to make an attack. Benson selected U- 564 and also met gunfire, but his depth charges went down and finished her off. Benson’s Whitley was badly hit, with his hydraulics knocked out and one engine giving problems. He radioed base saying he was heading home but did not make it. He and his crew survived a ditching and were fortunate enough to be rescued by a French fishing boat, but when they suggested to the skipper that he take them to England, he had to refuse, as his family would suffer if the Germans discovered what he had done. Thus Benson and his crew were taken to a French port and ended up as prisoners, although he later heard he had been awarded the DFM and promoted to warrant officer. Survivors from U-564 were taken aboard U-185 although twenty-nine of them had been lost. U-564 had been a successful boat, having been credited with sinking at least nineteen ships and damaging others.

A Wellington of 172 Squadron sank U-126 on 3 July (Flight Sergeant A. Coumbis, who had damaged U-566 in April), while Peter Cundy of 224 sank U-628 on the same day. On board his Liberator was Lieutenant Colonel Farrant, an army officer helping to promote the use of a new anti-submarine bomb. These were called Hedgehog bombs, a 35lb device with a hollow charge. With enormous luck they found a surfaced U-boat and Cundy went in dropping depth charges and eighteen of these small bombs, that needed a direct hit to be effective. The boat engaged the approaching Liberator and did score some hits while the Lib’s gunners also hit the boat, knocking one man into the sea. In the first attack one depth charge actually bounced off the conning tower and in the second run more charges straddled the vessel. As the water cleared, several men could be seen in the water, and the Colonel was seen taking off his Mae West prior to throwing it down to the ‘poor devils’. He was, however, persuaded not to, as there might be a chance it might be needed for ‘the poor devils up here’. Cundy, who got home on three engines, received the DSO.

Despite the Germans staying up to fight, July was proving a successful month as far as kills were concerned. On the 7th one pilot, Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank of 210 Squadron, damaged U-267. It would not be his last contact with a U-boat.

Terry Bulloch was now in 19 Group, flying with 224 Squadron. He had lost none of his skill and on 8 July sank U-514. He had been given something of a roving commission to fly where and when he wanted, so now flew a Liberator equipped with rocket projectiles which he was testing. On board he had Flight Lieutenant C. V. T. Campbell, an armament specialist, who just happened to spot the U-boat in amongst a group of Spanish fishing boats. Turning towards it, Bulloch could see half a dozen men on the conning tower and fired a pair of RPs at 800 feet distance, two more at 600 and then four from 500 feet, from a height of 500 feet. The boat disappeared, but came up again stern first at about a 20-degree angle. Not in the official report was that Bulloch also carried an acoustic torpedo, which he dropped as well, plus a couple of depth charges for good measure. Whatever got the sub, it was fatal and U-504, set for South African waters, was destroyed.

U-441, the converted flak boat, was back out after being damaged on 24 May, but it did not fare any better this time. She was found by Beaufighters of 248 Squadron on the 12th, and not some large Coastal aircraft that she could trap. The Beaus worked her over with their 20mm cannon, felling some of the crew who were on deck. After several strafing runs the boat went down, badly damaged, to return to home port once more. Ten of her crew had been killed and thirteen more wounded, including her captain. The flak-trap did not seem to be working.

Junkers Ju-88C-6 F8+BX, 13.KG40 Battle over the Biscay

No. 19 Group were still using their patrol areas; Musketry was mentioned previously. The areas did alter slightly from time to time, and other areas, named Derange, Seaslug and Percussion were also being used. Between 14 and 27 June patrols in Musketry had sunk one sub and damaged another, while outside them one had been sunk and five damaged. In July Musketry was extended, and within it Coastal sank seven and damaged two; outside it, four more were sunk and another damaged.

Another case where U-boat and aircraft were lost together came on 24 July. Flying Officer W. H. T. Jennings, 172 Squadron, was guided to a surfaced U-boat by his radar man and went in for an attack. The boat’s gunners opened up, hitting the Wellington and presumably killed or wounded the two pilots, for although the depth charges were released, the Wimpy ploughed right into the sub and blew up. Only the rear gunner, Sergeant A. A. Turner, survived. One charge had landed on the boat’s deck and exploded when the crew pushed it overboard. A Wellington of 547 Squadron arrived and attacked the crippled boat, its crew abandoning it. A RN destroyer later picked up thirty-seven Germans, but not, however, its captain, and, hearing shouts from the rear gunner some way off, found him too. Turner had been involved in two other damaging attacks earlier in the year, with other pilots.

Coastal Command HQ still had a fair idea where the U-boats were from the code breakers, but they needed to be on the surface if they were to be located by aircraft. One of the most dramatic events during this period occurred on 30 July. By this time the month had seen five sinkings, one by Flying Officer R. V. Sweeny, an American with 224 Squadron, flying with Pete Cundy’s crew. In company with another Liberator, from 4 Squadron USAAF, U-404 had been sunk on the 28th. The American B-24 had been damaged by the boat’s fire. Bobby Sweeney had been adjutant of the first American Eagle Squadron, his brother Charles having been the inspiration behind the Eagle Squadrons.

On the 30th, U-461, a type IV supply boat, was seen by Flight Lieutenant D. Marrows and his 461 Sunderland crew. By a strange coincidence, the aircraft letter was ‘U’, so it was U-461 meeting 461/U. U-boats were still making crossings of the Bay in groups for mutual protection, and the Marrows’ crew spotted three of them shortly before noon. Other aircraft had found them already, a Halifax from 502 Squadron coming over, and an American B-24, both of which were circling. As the B-24 made a move towards the boats – U-461, U-462 (another supply boat, a Type XI, and U-504, a Type IXC) – the B-24 met the full force of the boats’ gunners. This gave Marrows an opportunity to nip in, managing to straddle U-461 to good effect. Meantime, his gunners blazed away at the other two boats. As the water cleared, survivors could be seen in the water, and a dinghy was dropped, some sailors being seen to get into it. With one remaining charge on board Marrows went for another sub but gunfire made him break away after hits caught the Sunderland.

In the Halifax, Flying Officer August van Rossum, a Dutch pilot in the RAF, had seen the sloops of the 2nd Escort Group heading for the U-boats, and when he arrived, all three aircraft began making attacks, and even another Liberator, from 53 Squadron, joined in, but was hit by flak and headed off. By now the gunfire from the U-boats was making it necessary to bomb them from height, Van Rossum putting a bomb close to the stern of U-462, but he could also see that the U-boat attacked by the Sunderland was being abandoned. Just then shells from the approaching sloops began to explode near the subs. U-504, attacked by Rossum, limped away and began to dive, but the sloops harried her and depth charges finished her off.

On the first day of August, two Sunderlands, one from 10 RAAF, the other from 228 Squadron, sank two U-boats, U-454 and U-383, while on Musketry patrol but the Australian crew were shot down, just six of them being rescued by a sloop, and 228’s machine had also to limp back home, damaged ailerons making it impossible to turn. Everything was being thrown into the Bay battles, even a twin-engined Hampden of 405 RCAF Squadron, that, on the 2nd, assisted a US Liberator of 1 Squadron to sink U-706 in Musketry. This same day U-106 was destroyed by a 228 Sunderland flown by Flying Officer R. D. Hanbury, shared with a 461 Sunderland. Gunners on the boat continued to fight back even as their comrades were taking to dinghies, but then the sub blew up. Thirty-seven of its crew were picked up by a sloop.

A further U-boat group of three was spotted by the crew of a Wellington of 547 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer J. W. Hermiston RCAF, on the 2nd. They were on their return to base when the airman manning the front gun saw the wake of the first boat. Informing his skipper, he was instructed to take photographs and then open fire when in range. Knowing they would meet the combined fire of the boats, Hermiston decided to drop an anti-sub bomb from 2,000 feet. Sergeant W. Owens, manning the gun, opened accurate fire at the boat, as the others began to close up. Hermiston then decided to drop depth charges, lowering to fifty feet to do so, but they overshot. Bill Owens opened up on other runs, but then all three boats went under. U-218 had been their main target and, while undamaged, Owen had caused so many casualties that she had to abort her mission to Trinidad and return to Brest.

The Germans now countermanded the order to remain on the surface and fight, for this had obviously caused considerable losses. A few still did stay up, but these were generally cases where the boat was surprised and it was too late to dive safely. Those encounters on 2 August were the last for the month, and there were only two in September, a Wellington of 407 Squadron RCAF sinking U-669 on the 7th and a Halifax of 58 Squadron destroying U-221 on the 27th. However, in this attack Flying Officer E. L. Hartley and crew, which included their Station Commander, Group Captain R. C. Mead, was hit by flak as he went in, forcing Hartley to ditch. Two men did not survive the crash, and the others were not rescued for eleven days by the Royal Navy. They had not been searching for them and it was pure luck that they saw their signal flares.

November saw just three successful attacks with two boats sunk and one damaged and just one sunk in December. It had been a momentous year and desperate summer but, with the losses in the North Atlantic, the U-boat arm was all but smashed. However, with the coming invasion, the U-boats and 19 Group, would have one last encounter.


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.