Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Boulton Paul Defiant by Alec Brew

The Myths of the Boulton Paul Defiant

The aircraft most associated with Wolverhampton’s Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd, and the Black Country’s highest profile contribution to the Second World War, was the Defiant turret fighter. It fought over the beaches of Dunkirk, two squadrons fought in the Battle of Britain, and then, during the dark nights of the Blitz, it was our most effective night fighter, seven Defiant squadrons operating against the German raiders using its unusual characteristics.

A rare photograph of the Defiant prototype, K8310, in the air, fitted with the turret and other modifications, including a tailwheel and ejector exhausts, but as yet without guns. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

The Defiant was built to an official requirement for a fighter with all its guns concentrated in a power-operated turret. In the belief that bomber formations could only be broken up by fighters attacking in squadron strength, with pilots maintaining formation and gunners aiming the guns in their power operated turret. This theory had been around since the First World War, but finally came to fruition in the form of an official requirement in the mid Thirties, as bombers were becoming all metal, and much faster.

The Defiant was born in Norwich, where the Aircraft Department of the firm of Boulton & Paul Ltd had existed since 1915. It had recently been sold off and was having a new factory built alongside Wolverhampton’s new Municipal Airport at Pendeford. The prototype was started at Norwich but its first flight was at Pendeford in August 1937, and a total of 1062 were to be built there.

The first squadron of Defiants, No.264, went to War over Holland as the Germans invaded but it was over the beaches of Dunkirk that it had its greatest day. In two sorties over the Channel No.264 claimed 37 German aircraft shot down, for no loss of their own. The first of the myths surrounding the Defiant was created that day. It was said that the Germans mistook them for Hurricanes, attacked from the rear and were shot from the sky by the concentrated fire of 12 four-gun turrets. This hardly stands up to a second’s scrutiny, the majority of the German aircraft claimed were bombers, it was the Defiants doing the attacking. When they were attacked by Messerschmidts No.264 they adopted their practiced tactic of a defensive circle or spiral, and it didn’t matter from which direction the Germans attacked, they were met with defensive fire. These were tactics they successfully used on several other occasions over the Channel.

A flight led by No. 264's CO, Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, which undertook the first patrol over the Netherlands together with six Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron. Between them they shot down a Junkers Ju.88. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

The CO of No.264 was careful to explain these tactics to the second Defiant Squadron, No.141, which joined the fight over the Channel on 19th July 1940. A patrol of nine Defiants was attacked by superior numbers of Messerschmidts and was decimated, six of them shot down, another written off and ten aircrew killed. The myth arose that the Defiant was a sitting duck against single seat fighters. The truth is that No.141 did not adopt No.264’s successful tactics, but continued to fly straight and level, and the Germans, who recognised the Defiants, took advantage. Even so the heavily outnumbered Defiants claimed four of the 109s in return.

Nevertheless the panic button was hit at Fighter Command, and No.264 Squadron who were actually in the air at the time, were ordered back to the ground. No.141 was taken out of the Battle to lick its wounds and re-equip. No.264 eventually re-joined the fight, and had many more successful days of daylight fighting. I have interviewed many Defiant aircrew from No.264, and to many they believed they could hold their own in daytime battles and did not have a bad word to say about the aircraft. It is apparently true that whenever members of the two squadrons met in bars there was trouble, because No.264 blamed No.141 for the Defiants soiled reputation.

The next myth now arose, that because the Defiants were failures during the day, they were relegated to night fighting. The truth is that, as the nights lengthened during the Autumn of 1940, the Germans increasingly attacked at night in what has been termed the Blitz, the front line was now at night, and the Defiants which had been designed as day or night fighters from the beginning, were the best available. They were faster than the clumsy twin-engined Blenheims, and in the days before radar they had the advantage over single-seaters of two pairs of eyes. In addition their very configuration enabled them to attack unsuspecting German bombers from below, silhouetted against the stars, and their gunners were often able to carefully aim for one engine or the other from very short range.

Early production Defiants with 'L' serial numbers, that on the right being L7009, which was to be shot down on No. 141 Squadron's sole daylight operation. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

Seven squadrons of Defiants fought through the Winter of 1940/41, and then through the second Winter of the War, by which time twin engined heavier-armed, radar equipped fighters, like the Beaufighter and Mosquito, were becoming available. At the Wolverhampton factory, Boulton Paul workers would pin newspaper articles about Defiant successes on the noticeboard, with the words ‘Our Work’ scrawled across them.

Even when they were withdrawn from night fighting the Defiants found new frontline roles. They equipped five air sea rescue squadrons looking for downed airmen all around the coast, and often having to defend themselves over the contested waters of the Channel and the North Sea. One unit of Defiants also equipped the World’s first electronic countermeasures squadron, No.515, jamming and spoofing German radar.

When even these roles were taken by newer aircraft, the Defiant still had an important role to play as a target tug, towing targets for ground and air gunners in theatres right across the World, from India to the West Indies. The Defiant served right through the War and is rightly revered by the people who built them, men and women.

At Wolverhampton’s Tettenhall Transport Heritage Centre, which has a display about the Defiant, including a restored cockpit, volunteers still have to defend the aircraft when visitors repeat the myths that beset it. They can now point to Amberley’s illustrated history of the aircraft to back them up.

Alec Brew's new book Boulton Paul Defiant is available for purchase now.