Fairey Battle – The slaughter of the RAF’s Advanced Air Striking force, May 1940

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Some of you may recognise the box art from the old Airfix Fairey Battle kit.
12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Siegfried Sassoon

Having read Rat Catcher’s excellent essay on the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, I asked why some aircraft such as  the Fairey Battle were so hopeless, despite having this outstanding engine.  Thomson’s Hankey nailed it: too  big an aircraft, three crew and a single engine.  I decided to do some research on the Fairey Battle light  bomber and uncovered a sad, depressing and all too frequent story of British Service personnel sacrificed  needlessly because of inferior equipment, coupled with senior officers’ incompetence.

The Battle was a single-engine light bomber designed and manufactured by the Fairey Aviation Company. It was  developed during the mid-1930s for the RAF, as a monoplane successor to the earlier Hawker Hart and Hind  biplanes. The Battle was powered by the same high performance Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine that provided  various contemporary British fighters, however the Battle was weighed down with a three-man crew and a bomb  load.  Despite being a great improvement on the aircraft that preceded it, by the time it saw action, the  Battle was relatively slow, limited in terms of range and was quickly found to be highly vulnerable to both  anti-aircraft fire and hostile fighters, possessing only two defensive .303” machine guns.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Hawker Hind that the Battle replaced in 1937

Operational History

No 63 Squadron RAF was the first to be allocated the Fairey Battle in June 1937.  To the aircrews it was a vast  improvement on the Hind and Hart biplanes, spacious and able to carry twice the bombloads of its replacements.   It was also the first Merlin powered aircraft to enter RAF service, beating the Hawker Hurricane’s debut by  several months.  Unfortunately due to the development of single seater fighters in Germany, the Battle was  obsolete by the time that war broke out in September 1939.  There being no replacements available at that time,  the ten Battle Squadrons formed the vanguard of the Advanced Air Striking Forces (AASF), sent to France during  the “Phoney War.”  The Battle has the incredulous distinction of shooting down a Messerschmitt BF 109 that must  have been flown by an exceptionally inept or unlucky German pilot on 20th September 1939, during a patrol near  Aachen.

Nonetheless, the Battle was hopelessly outclassed by Luftwaffe fighters, being almost 100 mph (160 km/h) slower  than the contemporary Bf 109 at 14,000 ft (4,300 m). The Battle’s defence consisted of a single .303 in Vickers  K machine gun mounted in the rear cockpit and a single forward-firing .303 in Browning machine gun in the  starboard wing.

The command structure for the British Forces in France was convoluted, inefficient and should be a teaching  point in the Joint Services Staff College of how not to set up a command structure.  General Lord Gort’s  British Expeditionary Force (BEF) Headquarters was at Boulogne-sur-Mere, while the Headquarters of the AASF was  at Rheims.  Air Vice Marshall Barratt had under his command 135 serviceable light bombers, but political  considerations stipulated they were not to be used until the Germans attacked.  The Air Tasking Orders issued  from BEF Headquarters were hopelessly out of date and the targets had moved on in the fast-moving Blitzkrieg  operations.

The Battle light bombers were ordered to perform unescorted attacks against targets that had moved or at known  pinch-points that were extensively protected by mobile flak and fighter screens.  This put the aircraft at risk  of attack from Luftwaffe fighters and within easy range of light anti-aircraft guns. In the first of two  sorties carried out by Battles on 10 May 1940, three out of eight aircraft were lost, while, in the second  sortie, a further 10 out of 24 were shot down, giving a total of 13 lost in that day’s attacks, with the  remainder suffering damage. Despite bombing at dangerously low levels their attacks had little impact on the  German columns.

During an attack on a German troop column on 11th May 1940, seven out of eight aircraft were shot down as well  as six Battles from the Belgian Air Force.  The following day an attack was ordered on the bridges over the  Albert Canal by No 12 Squadron.  Only five aircraft were left and the Squadron survivors flew into a barrage a  light flak and fighters.  Four aircraft were shot down and one crash-landed back at its base.  Two Victoria  Crosses were awarded for the mission, both posthumous.  Flying Officer Garland and air observer/navigator  Sergeant Gray of P2204 coded PH-K, were awarded the medals for pressing home the attack in spite of the heavy  defensive fire. The third crewmember, rear gunner Leading Aircraftsman Lawrence Reynolds, received no award  because he was not deemed to be part of the crew’s decision-making process.  A shameful event as the air  gunners were not then constituted aircrew and were all volunteers from the ground crews.  Although Garland’s  Battle destroyed one span of the bridge, the German engineers quickly erected a pontoon bridge to replace it.

On 14 May 1940, the AASF was tasked with a desperate attempt to stop German forces crossing the Meuse and  launched an all-out attack by every available bomber against the German bridgehead and pontoon bridges at  Sedan. The light bombers were attacked by swarms of opposing fighters and were devastated. Out of a strike  force of 63 Battles and eight Bristol Blenheims, 40 including 35 Battles were lost.  Finally the mauled crews  had a reprieve as the Battle was switched to mainly night attacks, resulting in much lower losses.  The  continual tasking of inadequate aircraft against heavily defended targets with no fighter cover, was in my view  tantamount to a war crime.

However, the Hurricane fighters based in France were having their own problems.  The Hurricane could hold its  own against the twin-engine Messerschmitt 110, but the BF 109 was far superior and so were the Luftwaffe  tactics.  It the period 19th May – 1st June 1940, the RAF lost 119 Hurricanes, 75 Spitfires and 242 other  types.  Despite the French Air Force flying their fighters south to Algeria to preserve them and their pilots,  the French demanded that the British send ten more fighter squadrons to France.  Air Chief Marshall Dowding, C  in C Fighter Command flatly refused Churchill’s request, as the fighters would be needed to fight the  inevitable Battle of Britain.  Churchill showed his vindictiveness when after winning the air battle, he forced  Dowding to step down.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The remains of a downed Battle. The only real winners were the French scrap metal dealers

The few remaining aircraft of the AASF were evacuated to Britain on 15 June 1940.  In six weeks almost 200  Battles had been lost, with 99 between 10 and 16 May.  The Battle continued in a front line role for a short  period of time.  The aircraft was flown against the massed barges in French and Belgian ports, assembled in  preparation for Operation SEALION.  Their last combat sortie of the French Campaign was mounted on the night of  15/16 October 1940 by No. 301 (Polish) Squadron in a raid on Boulogne, and Nos 12 and 142 Squadrons bombing  Calais. Shortly afterwards Battle squadrons of No. 1 Group were re-equipped with more potent Vickers Wellington  bombers. Battles were operated into 1941 by 88 and 226 Squadrons in Northern Ireland and 98 Squadron in  Iceland, for coastal patrol work.

The last combat operations carried out by Fairey Battles were during the Italian and German invasion of Greece,  from the end of 1940 until April 1941. A few Fairey Battles of the RAF and about a dozen belonging to the Royal  Hellenic Air Force, took part in bombing enemy infantry formations.  Most of the aircraft were destroyed on the  ground, by Luftwaffe air attacks upon the airfields of Tanagra and Tatoi north of Athens, between end of March  and mid-April 1941.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Fairey Battle suffered the highest loss rate pro-rata of any aircraft that has been in RAF service.  It was  underpowered and obsolete by the time war broke out, but so was the Blenheim, Bloch and Dornier 17.  The high  losses were due to sending the aircraft in penny-packet suicide attacks, against targets thick with defences  and with no fighter cover.  The aircraft had its failings, but nothing like the failings of senior officers who  produced the Air Tasking Orders.  The tragedy is that young men died because of the shortcomings of older men,  fighting the last war.  ‘Twas ever thus.

© Blown Periphery