The Fairey Battle was one of the most notorious aircraft of the Second World War. During the German invasion of France in 1940 the Battle squadrons suffered very heavy losses during a series of desperate attacks on the German spearhead.
The Battle was designed to replace the Hawker Hart light bomber. In 1933 the Air Ministry wanted an aircraft that could carry two crew and a 1,000lb bomb load for 1,000 miles at 200mph. Unfortunately they wanted this from a single engined aircraft, and in 1933 no engine existed capable of achieving that performance. Despite this, in April 1933 the Air Ministry issued specification P.27/32.
Fairey submitted several designs. C.R. Fairey, the head of the company, was convinced that the Air Ministry specification was not practical. As a result Fairey submitted several alternatives that they believed were more realistic as well as a design that more closely matched the specifications. Needless to say, it was that design that was accepted by the Air Ministry, who issued Fairey with a contract to produce a prototype on 11 June 1934.
The aircraft that emerged from this specification was in some ways a very modern machine. It used the stressed-skin method of construction with a low wing, giving it the look for an oversized fighter aircraft. Although Fairey had a series of aircraft engines under development, none of them received official approval, and so the Battle was powered by a single Rolls Royce Merlin engine. It could carry four 250lb bombs in its bomb bay, and two more under the wings. The final aircraft carried a crew of three in with the pilot and air gunner/ radio operation in the long “glasshouse” cockpit and the bomb aimer/ observer in a prone position in the bottom of the fuselage. The Battle had very limited defensive armament, carrying one .303in Browning machine gun in the starboard wing, with the potential to add a rear-firing Vickers “K” gun on a mounting at the back of the cockpit.
The prototype first flew on 10 March 1936. While it did meet the requirements of specification P.27/32, with a top speed of 257mph and a range of 980 miles with a 1,000lb bomb load, by 1936 that specification was badly out of date. Other aircraft first designed to 1933 specifications, such as the Vickers Wellington, emerged with performance figures well in advance of the original requirements.
By the time of its first flight, the Battle was always obsolescent, and given the choice the RAF would probably not have ordered large numbers of the type. However, by 1935 the threat posed by the Luftwaffe was becoming clear, and the government wanted to maintain numerical parity with the Germans. The only way to achieve this was to order every possible modern design into mass production. Accordingly the first order for 155 Battles was placed in 1935, well before the first flight of the prototype. Eventually 2,201 Battles were built for the RAF, 1,155 by Fairey, 1029 by the Austin car company as part of the Shadow Factory Scheme and one by Hayes, all to orders placed by the end of 1939. The majority of these aircraft were powered by the Merlin III engine, and are sometimes referred to as Battle IIIs, although this only refers to the type of engine used.
The first production Battle flew on 14 April 1937. The next month No. 63 Squadron became the first RAF squadron to receive the aircraft. At the outbreak of war, the Battle equipped eight training squadrons in No. 6 Group and ten front line bomber squadrons in No. 1 Group, part of the Advanced Air Striking Force. On 2 September 1939, following a prearranged plan, the ten Fairey Battle Squadrons of No. 1 Group moved to France, in preparation for a possible bombing campaign against the Ruhr. However, this campaign would only begin if the Germans launched a bombing campaign in the west. The Germans had no intention of provoking the western powers while the bulk of their forces were engaged in Poland, and so the western front settled down into the uneasy “phoney war”.
During this period, the Battle was used to fly reconnaissance missions over the German front line. It was during one of these missions, on 20 September 1939, that a Fairey Battle of No. 88 Squadron shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109, giving the Battle the honour of having achieved the first RAF kill of the war. However, the phoney war period also saw the Battle suffer significant losses. It was becoming clear that the bombers of 1939-40 were incredibly vulnerable when attacked by German fighters.
Just how vulnerable the Battle was would become tragically clear after the start of the German Blitzkrieg in the west. The Battle was used to make desperate low level attacks on the advancing German troops. This reduced its vulnerability to the German fighters, but massively increased the numbers being shot down by anti-aircraft fire and even small arms fire.
The pattern was set on 10 May 1940. On the first day of the German assault, 32 Battles were sent out to attack advancing enemy troops and 13 were lost. The next day seven out of the eight Battles dispatched were lost. On 12 May, a force of five Battles were sent to attack crucial bridges over the Albert Canal. All five were lost. The commander of the formation, Flight Officer D.E. Garland and his observer, Sgt. T. Gray, were both awarded posthumous Victoria Crosses.
The 14th saw the low level attacks abandoned in the face of the heavy losses. At first the new tactics produced success – all ten aircraft sent against the canal bridges that morning returned. However, that afternoon all 63 remaining Battles were sent against the bridges. They were intercepted by Bf 109s, and 35 Battles were shot down. High losses continued for the next month, as the RAF contingent in France retreated in the face of the German breakthrough. Finally, on 15 June 1940 the surviving squadrons were withdrawn to Britain. They had lost the vast majority of their aircraft, and proved that the Battle was too slow to operate at low level or against fighter opposition.
Once back in Britain, No.1 Group reformed, still with the Battle. Like the rest of Bomber Command, No. 1 Group now abandoned daylight raids. The majority of remaining Battle squadrons were used to make night time attacks on the German invasion barges in their French and Dutch ports. By the end of 1940, No. 1 Group had reequipped with the Vickers Wellington.
Three squadrons of Battles were used on coastal patrol duties, Nos. 88 and 226 Squadrons from Belfast and No. 98 Squadron from Iceland. These squadrons retained their Battles for most of 1941 – at this period Coastal Command often had to make do with whatever aircraft could be spared.
The Battle continued to perform usefully in the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. 739 were sent to Canada, more than 300 to Australia, 150 to South Africa and a number to New Zealand, accounting for just over half of the total production.
The Fairey Battle was hardly the only aircraft to suffer heavy losses in the early years of the Second World War. Like the German Stuka, the Battle could only safely operate in areas where it was protected by local air superiority. Unlike the Stuka, it was almost never operate under such conditions. Never a particularly impressive design, the Battle was utterly outclassed by the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Of course it was by no means unique in this, but the type of missions it was called on to perform exposed it to terrible losses.
Engine: Merlin I, II or III
Max Speed: 241 mph at 10,000ft, 257 mph at 20,000ft
Cruising Speed: 200 mph at 16,000ft
Initial Climb Rate: 920 feet per minute
Range: 900 miles
Span: 54ft 0in
Length: 42ft 4in
Bomb load: 1,000lb made up of four 250lb bombs
Armament: one 0.303in Browning machine gun in starboard wing, one .303in Vickers K gun in rear cockpit.