Gloster Gladiator

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The Gloster Gladiator represented the final generation of biplane fighters. In the decade before the outbreak of the Second World War the biplane reached a peak of performance, and then became almost instantly obsolete with the appearance of the first generation of monoplane fighters (including the Hurricane, Spitfire and Bf 109).

The Gladiator was almost never built. At first the Gloster company  were not interested in the F.7/30 specification, issued in 1930 by the Air Ministry, as they were still heavily involved in producing the Gauntlet, which only reached the RAF in 1933. Eventually, they did put forward the SS.37, basically a modified Gauntlet.

Even once the aircraft had been designed, the RAF did not want to have to order it. In 1934 the Gauntlet was just beginning to enter front line service. In the same year work was already in progress on the Hawker Hurricane. It was initially hoped that the monoplane fighters would be able to replace the Gauntlet. However, like most aircraft engines the Rolls Royce Merlin ran into design problems, and so the RAF placed an initial order for 180 Gladiators. The first Mk I Gladiators were delivered to the RAF on 22 February 1937, and it entered squadron service in April and May 1937.

SS.37

Several years after the F.7/30 specification was issued, Gloster decided to submit a design after all. The aircraft they chose was the SS.37, a modified Gauntlet. The prototype flew on 12 September 1934. It used a slightly less powerful Bristol Mercury IV nine-cylinder air-cooled radial engine, capable of providing 530 HP (down from the 536 HP of the engine in the Gauntlet prototype of 1933), but a series of changes to the airframe reduced the overall drag, producing a increase in speed from the 210 mph of the Gauntlet to 236 mph at 10,000 feet.  This was too slow for the RAF, and so Gloster made a series of improvements, the most significant of which was the switch to the 830 HP Mercury IX engine. The design was now also altered to use a fully enclosed cockpit, although this was not fitted to the prototype. The new version had a maximum speed of 254 mph, three miles quicker than required in 1930. A new specification (F.14/35) was issued, and 23 aircraft ordered. 

Mk I

The first production version of the Gladiator used the 830 HP Mercury IX nine-cylinder air-cooled radial engine, powering a two bladed Watts fixed pitch wooden propeller. This gave it a maximum speed of 253 mph at 14,500, an improvement of 40 mph over the Gloster Gauntlet. Despite some RAF reservations, the covered cockpit was used. The aircraft was armed with four .303 calibre machine guns. Early models used twp Vickers Mk V machine guns in the fuselage, and two .303 calibre Lewis guns under the wings. The Lewis guns were soon replaced by Vickers ‘K’ guns. Finally all four guns were replaced by Browning .303 calibre machine guns. 378 Gladiators were produced between 1936 and 1937.

Mk II

The Gladiator Mk II appeared in February 1938. The main change was the use of the 830 HP Mercury VIIIA engine, powering a three bladed fixed pitch metal propeller. The speed of the aircraft increased by only four mph at 14,500 feet, but the loaded weight had increased by 260 lbs. The biggest change for the pilot was in the cockpit, where a new electric engine starter, airspeed indicator, altimeter and artificial horizon were amongst the improvements. 270 Mk II Gladiators were built between 1938 and the final end of production in 1940.

Sea Gladiator

Between the wars the Fleet Air Arm had seen no need for single seat fighters. In 1937 they suddenly changed their mind in the face of the new German threat. As would happen frequently in the early years of the war, the Gladiator was chosen to fill a gap. The RAF was already concentrating on the Hurricane, but the Gladiator II was just about to enter production. The first batch of 38 Gladiator IIs were taken by the Fleet Air Arm and converted for carrier operation. The most important change was the fitting of an arresting hook, to aid in carrier landing. Minor changes were also needed, including changing the airspeed indicator to show knots. This first batch of Sea Gladiators was divided between training squadrons and carriers in the Indian Ocean. A further sixty improved Sea Gladiator IIs, with catapult points and space for a dinghy soon followed. These were otherwise identical to the standard Mk II. At the outbreak of war, the Sea Gladiator was used to protect Scapa Flow, in the Norwegian campaign, in the defence of Malta, and on carrier operations against Greek forces in the eastern Mediterranean. It was largely phased out by the end of 1940.

Foreign Service

Combat Record

The Gladiator saw combat in a surprisingly large number of theatres early in the Second World War. Eight squadrons were still flying the biplane at the outbreak of war. They saw combat in France, Norway, Malta, Egypt, North Africa, Greece and Iraq. The last Gladiators were retired by the Meteorological Flight in 1944.

France

Two squadrons of Gladiators were sent to France in November 1939 (607 and 615 with 30 aircraft between them). Based in the north of France, they saw little of the Germans during the phoney war period, but between 10 May when the Germans invaded the Low Countries and 20 May (by which time most of the Gladiators had been destroyed) that changed. Unfortunately the squadron records were destroyed in the retreat from France, so we can not be sure how well the obsolescent biplane performed. 607 squadron pilots claimed to have shot down 72 German aircraft. Even assuming the normal over-claiming of at least two to one, the two Gladiator squadrons may have shot down two German aircraft for every Gladiator. Most of these would have been the more vulnerable German bombers. All thirty Gladiators were lost, most destroyed by German bombers while on the ground or destroyed before the retreat.

Norway

When the Germans invaded Norway on 8 April 1940 twelve Gladiators made up the entire fighter strength of the Norwegian Air Force. Ten were serviceable, and in the air were able to put up a surprisingly effective fight against the German aircraft with the range to reach Norway. This excluded the Bf 109, which did not have the range and which would have massively outclassed the Gladiators. However, the majority of the Norwegian aircraft were destroyed on the ground by German bombers. The last serviceable aircraft was written off after suffering from engine problems on 21 April.

This was not the end of the Gladiator’s role in Norway. 263 Squadron had been preparing to move to Finland, to aid the Finns in the Winter War against the Soviet Union. Luckily that war ended before Britain could get entangled, but when the Germans invaded Norway 263 Squadron and its 18 Gladiators were ideally placed to be sent to Norway. On 24 April they launched from the carrier HMS Glorious and landed on the frozen Lake Lesjaskog, in central Norway. This deployment was short lived. Despite achieving some success against German bombers, the British fighters were always outnumbered. Bomber attacks on their frozen base destroyed all but three of the Gladiators, and those aircraft had to be destroyed after their fuel ran out (27 April).

New aircraft were found in time for 263 Squadron to take part in the expedition to Narvik. Once again 18 Gladiators were launched from an aircraft carrier (this time  HMS Furious) on 21 May, but with less success. Two crashed, eight arrived that day, and the final eight were forced to turn back on 21 May, before reaching Norway safely on 23 May. Fifteen Hurricanes also joined the expedition before the end of May. At first the Gladiators were successful. Narvik was a long way from the German bases in central Norway. This meant that the Bf 109 was still not a factor, although long range Bf 110s soon began to appear. The sixteen Gladiator fighters destroyed 23 German aircraft (mostly He 111s, Ju 87s and Ju 88s), but all sixteen British fighters were eventually lost. On 7 June ten of the Gladiators had been flown onto the Glorious (as were the surviving Hurricanes). Tragically, the next day the Glorious was sunk by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, and all ten Gladiator pilots were lost. The allied expedition to Narvik had not been defeated in Norway – it had been defeated in France, where by the start of June the Blitzkrieg was already threatening disaster.

Malta

The Gladiator’s most famous exploits came on Malta. It had been hoped to base four fighter squadrons on Malta, but the by the time Italy declared war on 10 June 1940 these squadrons had been moved elsewhere. The only fighters based on Malta were six Sea Gladiators scrounged from the navy. The air defence of Malta depended on these six aircraft until the end of June, when they were replaced by Hurricanes. During that period, the Gladiators managed to shoot down several Italian bombers, despite being slower than them. The number of airworthy Gladiators fluctuated as the stress of constant flying and the inevitable accidents that followed took their toll. When possible the Gladiators were used in a flight of three aircraft (the standard RAF fighter formation of the time). It was these flights of three that gained the aircraft the unofficial names of “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity”.  These were never officially approved names (and the same three aircraft rarely flew together for long), but they helped maintain morale on Malta at a crucial time.

Egypt and North Africa

The first Gladiator squadron (No. 33) reached Egypt in March 1938. By the time war broke out there were three Gladiator squadrons in Egypt. The Gladiator had an excellent record against the Italians in the western desert. No. 33 Squadron shot down 38 Italian aircraft and destroyed another 20 on the ground in the first six weeks of the war, when they were rested. Their best day came on 6 August, when 13 Gladiators engaged 27 CR.42s, shooting down at least nine of the Italian aircraft for the loss of two Gladiators. The focus of the war in the Mediterranean then switched to Greece. By the time attention returned to North Africa, the Gladiators had been replaced by Hurricanes. 

Greece

When the Italians invaded Greece on 28 October 1940, the British sent two Gladiator squadrons from Egypt to help their new allies (Nos 80 and 112). Once again the Gladiators proved themselves to be well able to cope with the Italian aircraft they faced. The Gladiator was in the process of being phased out in Greece, and only 112 squadron was still using them when Rommel’s threatened invasion of Egypt forced the RAF to pull its pilots out of Greece. The Gladiator aircraft were left behind and given to the Greek air force. However, in April 1941 the Germans invaded Greece. All of the surviving Gladiators were destroyed on the ground in a German air raid on 19 April.

Aden

The port of Aden (now in the Yeman) was an important deep water port and refuelling station for the Royal Navy. Just across the Red Sea was Italian-occupied Ethiopia and Eritrea. When the navy sent eight Sea Gladiators to Aden to join HMS Glorious, the RAF intercepted them, and used them to defend the port, along with a similar number of the older Gladiator Mk Is. The Italian threat to Aden never really materialised. A lone SM.81 bomber attacked the port on 13 June 1940, and was predictably shot down. After the Italians attempted to bomb Aden at night, the British launched a counter attack. Gladiators destroyed the fuel dumps at Massula on 28 June and attacked the Italian airbase there on 2 July, destroying seven CR.42s on the ground.

The most significant action in the Horn of Africa was the Italian invasion of British Somaliland and French Somaliland. For three weeks from 24 July six of the Gladiators were based at Bernera in British Somaliland, where they found themselves covering another British retreat. The Gladiators were finally replaced by Hurricanes in April 1941.

Iraq

In April 1941 there was a pro-German revolt in Iraq. Eight Gladiators played a part in defending the RAF base at Habbaniya, west of Baghdad. A small number of Axis aircraft, including He 111s, Bf 110s and Italian CR.42s, were flown to Iraqi to help the rebels. The eight Gladiators shot down on He 111, two Bf 110s and a CR.42 for the loss of one aircraft, before the revolt ended on 30 May. 

Stats

Stat

Mk I

Mk II

Engine

Bristol Mercury IX

Bristol Mercury VIIIA

Horsepower

830

830 (0.572 gear ratio)

Span

32 feet 3 inches

Length

27 feet 5 inches

Empty weight

3450 lbs

3444 lbs

Fully loaded

4592 lbs

4864 lbs

Max speed

253 mph at 14,500 feet

257 mph at 14,500 feet

Ceiling

32,800 feet

33,500 feet

Range

428 miles

Weapons

Two .303 calibre Browning machine guns with 600 rounds per gun in forward fuselage and
two .303 calibre Browning machine guns with 400 rounds per gun in the lower wings.

The Sea Gladiator was similar to the Mk II, although was four miles per hour slower due to the extra naval equipment.  

Gloster Gladiator Aces, Andrew Thomas. A look at the wartime career of the only biplane fighter still in RAF service during the Second World War. Covers the Gladiator's service in Finland, Malta, North Africa, Greece, Aden, East Africa and Iraq, where despite being outdated it performed surprisingly well. cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 March 2007), Gloster Gladiator http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_gloster_gladiator.html

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