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  • 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.

  • Alarmstart East: The German Fighter Pilot's Experience on the Eastern Front 1941-1945 by Patrick G. Eriksson

    The German surprise attack on the Soviet Union began before dawn on 22 July 1941. Oberleutnant Gűnther Scholz, Staffelkapitän 7/JG 54 recalled this historical day: ‘On 22 June 1941 in the early morning at 03h00 the first intrusion over the Soviet border took place; our target was the airbases near Kowno. I will never forget flying over the border. As far as one could see from our height of approximately 2,000 m in the emerging dawn, to the north and to the south, white and red Very lights were ascending high into the sky and army units on the ground and fliers in the air crossed the border punctually at 03h00.’ Tactical surprise was achieved in massed attacks on Soviet air bases, the exultant pilots claiming 1,489 aircraft destroyed on the ground, 322 in the air as the Russians responded. As always in aerial combat, actual losses (864 ground, 336 air) didn’t match claims made.

    It was a young man’s war. Leutnant Erich Sommavilla, Stab I/JG 53, returns from a mission over Hungary, early 1945. (Erich Sommavilla, Alarmstart East: The German Fighter Pilot's Experience on the Eastern Front 1941-1945, Amberley Publishing)

    These were catastrophic losses, and the Russians would continue to suffer grievous losses for a long time, but they never stopped fighting. Often their stubborn resistance, their continued advance towards targets as their bomber formations were shot to ribbons, were seen as stur (pig-headed) and stupid, characteristics typical of Untermenschen as many of the Germans saw them. Many German Jagdflieger were highly experienced, with campaigns from Poland to the Balkans behind them, as well as the sobering defeat of the Battle of Britain. Fighter pilots are aggressive and often ambitious, and the lure of success, high decorations and joining the panoply of propaganda heroes of the Third Reich kept many of them focussed. Their victory claims soon mushroomed and as the Russian campaign went on, the envelope of the top scorers exceeded first 100, then successively 150, 200, 250 and even 300, Hartmann their top ace achieving an incredible 352 claimed successes. The German fighter pilots in the East were thus the top scorers not only of the war, but of all time. This image of Luftwaffe Experten has remained largely entrenched, and their claiming system, with rigid administrative steps leading up to confirmation is seen as being reliable. Somehow, the German aces appear as having been better than anyone else a viewpoint still enjoying credence even today; however, it needs to be seen as the propaganda of a race-obsessed Nazi regime, of great benefit when your air forces are suffering strategic defeat, over an ever-retreating Eastern Front.

    In order to get closer to the truth, this book relies on a core of testimony from 70-odd Luftwaffe fighter pilot veterans who flew Me 109s or Fw 190s, and crewmen of the Me 110 two seater Zerstörer. Recollections of their training period show that it was thorough, unusually included exposure to a wide range of different aircraft types, and was surprisingly accommodating of pilots needing more time for any part of their training. The veterans gave freely of their time, and supplied copies of original documents: flying logbooks, diaries, combat reports, and claims paperwork. Fellow aviation historians were also most generous, one providing the Startkladde 7/JG 51 for September 1943 – April 1944, giving a record of each flight made by all pilots, operational mission or not.

    Tired pilots of III/JG 52 back from a mission, field base Gonstakowka, Terek bridgehead, Caucasus, October 1942. Oberleutnant Rall (Staffelkapitän 8/JG 52; third ranking Luftwaffe ace) second from left, witness Gerd Schindler at right. (Gerd Schindler, Alarmstart East: The German Fighter Pilot's Experience on the Eastern Front 1941-1945, Amberley Publishing)

    This enabled some statistical evaluation of the combat record of a single Staffel over several months. One of the pilots figuring prominently in this record was Hauptmann Gűnther Schack, whose diary excerpts provide fascinating reading of the daily life of a top ace (174 victory claims); he was a very modest man who decried all hero worship of Luftwaffe aces. However, his success and high decorations saved his father (a senior cleric opposed to Nazism and resisted joining the Nazi-sponsored Protestant church) from imprisonment or worse. Oberst Hanns Trűbenbach, commanding JG 52, describes his shock upon landing at a frontline airfield, where an NCO proudly showed him a fresh, only partly covered mass grave of Jewish men, woman and children. Later on he tells of intercepting a brand new Russian fighter over the Black Sea, whose test pilot was concentrating on writing up his technical notes, and did not see Trűbenbach until he got really close; however, he had nothing to fear, the German pilot had no intention of shooting such an innocent down. Peter Dűttmann, posted into II/JG 52 in the Kuban in May 1943 gives a detailed account of his first few days at the front, during which several of his Staffel comrades were lost, including his C/O; what an introduction for a greenhorn. Hans Grűnberg, one of the few surviving members of Platzschutzstaffel Pitomnik, the few fighter pilots of JG 3 flying from within the Stalingrad pocket, recalls sitting in his Me 109 and seeing Russian troops overrun his field base as ground crew struggled to warm up the engine enough for take-off; alas he had to flee on foot in the chaos, eventually getting out the pocket on one of the last Ju 52 transporters to leave Gumrak, a small field several miles away. Other Stalingrad veterans remember not being able to fly tight manoeuvres in combat due to a starvation diet. Diary extracts of Hans Strelow, a very young Leutnant in JG 51 were rescued from amongst his effects after his death by Luftwaffe psychologist, Professor Paul Skawran; forced to crash-land after his final combat, Strelow shot himself in the head rather than become a prisoner.

    The thorny issue of the Luftwaffe’s multi-step victory claims procedure, often seen as exemplary due to its extensive paperwork, is in fact rather more complex, having also been subject to human influence as in a simpler system. It changed during the war, for most in approximately August 1942, when claims which equate essentially to probables became the norm. A group of Geschwader Kommodoren give detailed testimony about the system. One emphasised the critical distinction between the terms Luftsieg (cf. complete, witnessed destruction) and Abschuss (enemy aircraft leaves formation, descends obviously damaged). In autumn 1942, the Abschuss concept became basically standard; high claims in the east were acknowledged within a changing and even manipulated system. High eastern scores, can be related to careful use of the Luftwaffe’s favourite bounce tactic, skewed towards enemy fighters; tactical expedience and scoring thus largely replaced strategic application of limited and shrinking aerial assets.

    Patrick G. Eriksson's new book Alarmstart East: The German Fighter Pilot's Experience on the Eastern Front 1941-1945 is available for purchase now.

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