The not-so-Defiant

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

Many successful fighters of World War I were two-seaters with a rear seat gunner armed with two machine guns – as many guns as the pilot.

This idea of a successful fighter with rear firing armament never really went away in the Royal Air Force, and in the early 1930s the advent of fast bombers made them consider the idea again.

The RAF’s fast bombers, unlike other bombers, were equipped with multi-gun power operated tail turrets that made them seemingly immune to fighter attack. To counter these types of bombers, the RAF began to consider a fighter that could attack bombers by other than the conventional rear attack where the defenses would be heaviest.

It seemed plausible that a turret-armed fighter, with the gunner protected from the slipstream, could approach an enemy bomber from different angles – below or from the side – and destroy it with a concentrated burst of fire. On June 26, 1935, the British Air Ministry issued specifications for a two-seat fighter with all its armament concentrated in a turret with performance like a standard single-seat monoplane fighter.

The Boulton Paul Company offered the P.82, a quite conventional low winged monoplane design. The central feature was the turret behind the cockpit, an electro-hydraulically powered “drop-in” unit with a crank-operated mechanical backup with four .303 Browning machine guns.

The fuselage was fitted with pneumatically powered aerodynamic fairings that helped reduce the drag of the turret. In combat, the fairings were lowered into the fuselage so that the turret could rotate freely. Too allow the turret a clear field of fire, the two large radio masts were located under the fuselage rather than on top.

The Browning guns had cut-off points in the turret ring that prevented them from hitting the propeller or tail. The gunner could rotate the turret directly forward and transfer firing control of the guns to the pilot, with the guns firing along each side of the cockpit canopy, but this was not very useful since the pilot did not have a gun sight.

The gunner did not have an enviable job. He could not wear a normal parachute and had to wear a special bulky suit with the parachute included. Additionally, the entry/escape hatch was in the rear of the turret and it had rotated to one side or the other for the gunner to try and struggle out of a crippled aircraft.

The first P.82, powered by a 1,030 horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin I, was rolled out in 1937 and named “Defiant.” The first Defiant prototype made its maiden flight on Aug. 11, 1937, with the turret position fared over since the first turret was not ready. Without the drag of the turret, the aircraft handled well, though it was 1,500 pounds heavier than the similarly powered Hawker Hurricane.

Performance with the aerodynamic drag and additional weight of the turret and gunner was somewhat anemic, but the Defiant was still considered to be useful. In December 1939, four months after the war began, the RAF’s 264 Squadron became the first to be equipped with the Defiant.

The first operational sortie was May 12, 1940, during the evacuation of Dunkirk. A fighter with rear firing armament was expected to be a nasty surprise to the Luftwaffe, but the next day, on May 13, five of six of the 264’s Defiants were shot down in a frontal attack by German Bf 109s.

Luftwaffe fighters proved able to out-maneuver the sluggish Defiants and attack from below or dead ahead, where the turret offered no defense. While the 264 Squadron claimed 48 kills in eight days over Dunkirk (they actually seemed to only have scored 12 to 15), the cost was high – 14 Defiants were lost, and virtually no gunners survived. After this, when attacked by fighters, the 264 Squadron’ Defiants flew in an ever-descending Lufberry circle, which eliminated the possibility of attack from underneath while giving 360 degrees of defensive fire. At the same time, the maneuver made the Defiants useless on offense.

A second squadron of Defiants, the 141 Squadron, was committed to combat a few months later during the Battle of Britain, but suffered a similar fate. On July 19, 1940, six out of nine Defiants from the 141 Squadron were shot down and the remaining three were saved by the arrival of a squadron of Hurricanes. The interception of unescorted German bombers often proved successful, but the 264 Squadron lost two aircraft on Aug. 26, then another five on Aug. 28. Nine crew members died. At that point, the Defiant was withdrawn from day combat operations.

The 264 and 141 squadrons’ Defiants were painted all black, fitted with flame damper exhausts and became dedicated night-fighter units. The first night kill was claimed on Sept. 15, 1940, and during the winter Blitz on London in 1940 and 41, Defiants equipped four squadrons and shot down more enemy aircraft than any other type. In the autumn of 1941, AI Mk 4 radar units began to be fitted to the Defiant. An arrow type aerial was fitted on each wing, and a small H-shaped aerial added on the starboard fuselage side, just in front of the cockpit. But with the additional drag, the Defiant was too slow to catch the latest German bombers and was completely withdrawn from combat in September 1942.

Dr. Michel is currently deployed downrange.