The Fairey Battle remembered after 75 years

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Fairey Battles over France circa 1940. b Photo: RAF Flying Officer S A Devon - Imperial War Museums photograph C 447.

Fairey Battles over France circa 1940.
Photo: RAF Flying Officer S.A. Devon – Imperial War Museums photograph C 447.

13th October 2015 | Tonight the ghosts of Fairey Battle aircrews, long deceased, will stir. The night of 12th October and the early morning hours of 13th October 1940, exactly 75 years ago, saw the final combat sorties of the Fairey Battle light bomber with Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Overnight 9 Battles conducted raids on Calais and Boulogne. As (page 95) As Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt state in The Bomber Command War Diaries, this “was the last occasion on which this aircraft operated with Bomber Command.”

An artist's rendering of a Fairey Battle.

An artist’s rendering of a Fairey Battle.

Perhaps best remembered as one of the airplanes flown in the 1942 colour film Captains of the Clouds, the Fairey Battle is now largely forgotten.

Yet, early in the Second World War Battles were workhorses and carried the war, as best they could, to the German ground forces invading Belgium and France. More importantly were the training roles Battles subsequently undertook after 1940, for many an air gunner learned his craft in the rear of a Battle’s cockpit via the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

A restored Hawker Hart in the 1950s.

A restored Hawker Hart in the 1950s.

At first the Fairey battle looked to be promising. The two-seat day light bomber had the sleek lines of a fighter. Advanced for the time, the Battle was a two-seat day bomber replacement with retractable undercarriage. They would replace outmoded Hawker Hart and Hind biplanes.

The design’s first flight was in March 1936.  In the Concise Guide to British Aircraft of World War II David Mondey wrote (page 96), “In general it proved popular with the test pilots at the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath and the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough.”

A Fairey Battle crew consisted of a pilot, bomb aimer/observer, and radio operator/gunner. Because the engine took up most of the nose area, the bomb aimer’s position was under the wing centre section. He sighted through a sliding panel in the floor of the fuselage. A Battle’s standard payload of four 250 pounds (110 kilograms) bombs was carried within cells inside the wings. An additional 500 pounds (230 kilograms) of bombs could be carried on underwing racks. The type was rated (Mondey, page 99) as having a maximum speed of 257 miles per hour (414 kilometre per hour) at 20,000 feet, range 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometres) at 16,000 feet and 200 miles per hour.”

As Mondey states on page 98, “The Fairy Battle light bomber was a considerable improvement on the Hawker Harts and Hinds it superseded in the mid 1930s, but by 1939 was totally obsolete in terms of performance and armament.” Battles were powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin I, II, III or V engine of 1,030 horsepower, but the type was large and heavy. Furthermore, the planes’ defensive armament was poor, consisting of a single, fixed, forward-firing Browning .303-calibre (7.7 mm) machine gun in the starboard wing and a trainable .303 Vickers K gun at the air gunner’s station.

No. 63 Squadron, based at Upwood, received Battles in May 1937, and by September 1939 approximately 1,000 were on strength with the RAF. In 1940 the Battles assigned to Bomber Command were under No. 1 Group control. With hostilities imminent, these 10 squadrons were sent to France to comprise the Advanced Air Striking Force.

Unfortunately, in France Fairey Battles proved to be slow, limited in range and highly vulnerable to both anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. The Battle, with a top speed of 241 miles per hour (387 kilometres per hour), was nearly 100 mph (160 kilometre per hour) slower than the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109 standard day fighter at medium altitude. Regardless, Battles, without the benefit of protective fighter escort, were repeatedly tasked to perform unescorted armed day reconnaissance and low-level tactical attacks against advancing Wehrmacht (German army) troops and armour.

On 10 May 1940 Battles were sent on desperate low-level (as low as 250 feet) missions with the hope of slowing or stopping advancing Wehrmacht forces. The Battles received heavy ground fire from machine guns and rifles, and 3 of the 32 Faireys were shot down and the remainder damaged. On 11 May 7 of 8 Battles were downed, and on 12 May all 5 Faireys sent to attack road bridges over the Albert Canal were fatally hit by ground fire. 14 May saw another crippling loss when 35 of 63 Battles went down during attacks on bridges and concentrations of German troops.

Thus, by the middle of 1940 Fairey Battles routinely suffered heavy losses. Contributing to the high loss rate was the fact that the aeroplanes lacked an armoured cockpit and self-sealing fuel tanks.

Nevertheless, throughout the summer of 1940 Fairey Battles carried out attacks, as a result of the threat of German invasion of England, against enemy-controlled Channel ports. It is believed that the last combat operations carried out by Fairey Battles took place during the Italian and German invasion (late 1940 to April 1941) of Greece.

Despite a poor overall combat showing, Fairey Battles did record a few firsts. One was scoring the first RAF’s aerial victory of the war when one downed a Luftwaffe (Nazi Germany’s air force) Messerschmitt Bf 109 on 20 September 1939, and the first Victoria Crosses were awarded to a valiant Battle crew in May 1940.

More than 2,000 Fairey Battles were built by the Fairey Aviation Company between 1936 and 1940. The aircraft would still greatly contribute to the war effort but in non-combat functions. “Despite its shortcomings as a first-line aircraft, the Fairey Battle I was admirably suited for use as an engine test-bed. . .” (Mondey, page 96). Powerplants evaluated on battles included the Napier Dagger and Sabre, Bristol Hercules and Taurus, Rolls-Royce ‘X’ and Merlin XII, and Fairey Prince. Propeller experiments were also conducted while mounted on Battle engines, and Battles proved valuable in various training roles. In fact, 100 were built as dual-control, dual cockpit trainers and 266 target-towing models were supplied to the RAF.

Beginning in August 1939, in excess of 700 Battles commenced service in Canada with Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the first being posted to the Camp Borden. Notably, winch-equipped Fairey Battle TTs (target tugs) became target-towing aircraft for training air gunners. The Fairey Battle additionally served in training capacities with the Royal Australian Air Force and the South African Air Force.

Although the Battle was for all intensive purposes retired from RCAF service active in 1945, the type remained in the RAF’s inventory until 1949.

Few Fairey Battles survive. One extant examples, a Battle IT (modified with a Bristol Type I turret for turret-gunnery training), sits inside the Reserve Hangar at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Provenance.

It is fitting to recall the men’s sacrifices and the Fairey Battles in which so many met their deaths. One should not forget that, for all their shortcomings, Battles literally carried the battle to the Germans when England desperately needed a striking force.

Suggested Viewings

Captains of the Clouds. Warner Bros., 1942.

Fairey Battle

Tribute to the: Fairey Battle

Fairey battle restored

Sources & Suggested Readings

Captains of the Clouds

Fairey Battle IT

Fairey Battle

Fairey Battle

Fairey Battle

Fairey Battle

Fairey Battle 1

Fairey Battle in Detail

Huntley, Ian. Fairey Battle, SAM Publications Limited, 2006.

Middlebrook, Martin and Chris Everitt. The Bomber Command War Diaries. An Operational Reference Book: 1939-1945, London: Penguin, 1990.

Mondey, David. Concise Guide to British Aircraft of World War II. Middlesex: Temple Press, 1982, pp.96-99.