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Boulton Paul Defiant

Daffy was the fighter that never ducked its duties despite Battle of Britain highlighting its limitations

THE Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940 made heroes of many RAF pilots and aircraft, names like the Spitfire and Hurricane defining the defence of the UK that repelled a concerted effort by the Luftwaffe to gain control of British airspace.

A formation of Defiants

(A formation of Defiants) 

Alongside the better-known aircraft was the Defiant, a fighter that earned its spurs during the Battle of France earlier in 1940, its firepower a surprise to German bombers who were unaware that the British possessed an aircraft with armaments at its rear. The two-seater had a pilot and gunner, its marksman with a swinging turret able to engage the enemy as it passed, taking the Luftwaffe somewhat by surprise as they had only encountered fighters firing at them ‘face-to-face’.

While it would be incorrect to label the Defiant an unsung hero of the war – its primary duty was curtailed a matter of months after it began due to limitations that became clear in July 1940 – it did play a front-line role in the early part of the campaign before it was relegated to other duties. 

The Defiant, or Daffy as it was known amongst RAF pilots, had only entered service late in 1939, around two years after the first prototype took to the skies, K8310 departing from Wolverhampton Airport close to the Boulton Paul factory, complete with Rolls-Royce Merlin engine but minus the Defiant’s most notable feature – the turret, which was not ready for installation. Several alterations were required so it was May 1939 before the second prototype was airborne, K8620, with both an improved engine and a turret. By that point the design had created enough interest at the Air Ministry to push it ahead of the Hawker Hotspur in its thinking.

With a top speed in excess of 300mph and a large degree of stability despite the revolving turret mechanism, an order was placed for the Defiant Mk 1, but delays in production meant only three were delivered by the time WW2 broke out. Trials in October 1939 between the Defiant and the Hurricane should have set alarm bells ringing with the new aircraft struggling to compete on performance and manoeuvrability, but it appeared that a desire to boost fighter numbers with a third supporting the Hurricane and Spitfire led to its limitations being overlooked in favour of simple arithmetic: the more fighters the better.  

Defiants of 264 Squadron in 1940

(Defiants of 264 Squadron in 1940) 

The Mk I entered service in December 1939 by which time more than 500 were on order, No. 264 Squadron the first unit to operate the new aircraft from Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire and then Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, its early service seeing action during the Battle of France and the Dunkirk evacuation. Between May 27 and May 31, 1940, the Defiant claimed 57 enemy aircraft, 37 of those in one single day – the problem for the Luftwaffe was that they mistook the Defiant for the Hurricane, the two similar in outline, so when it flew past their guards were effectively ‘down’ until it started opening fire; when Messerschmitt Bf 109s attacked from above or from the rear, they were then playing to the strengths of the British fighter. 

This early advantage, however, was soon lost when enemy aircraft learned to attack from ahead or below, leaving the turret to provide limited defence, Defiant losses quickly mounting. Its limitations were exposed to an even greater extent during the Battle of Britain, and on July 19, 1940, nine Defiants of No. 141 Squadron took off from Hawkinge near Folkestone on patrol, soon encountering ten Bf 109s who were able to quickly shoot six down. The arrival of the Hurricanes from No. 111 Squadron saved the other three Defiants who were able to make it back to Hawkinge.

On August 22, No. 264 Squadron was posted to RAF Hornchurch in Essex, six days later being forced to withdraw from front-line duties due to the loss of 11 aircraft, five pilots and nine air gunners. The Defiant was never again committed to daytime fighter operations within range of enemy aircraft, future duties limited to night-fighter operations where the A.I (airborne interception) radar equipment on the Mk II models proved vital. 

Further improvements to AI followed with Defiants equipped with the Mk. IV radar introduced late in 1941 to enhance their night-fighting capabilities, and by this point the Mk IIs were in full production. Figures for 1940/41 showed the Defiant to have shot down more raiders per interception that any other night fighter and it was only when the larger and better armed Bristol Beaufighter stepped up to night-fighting operations in 1942 that the Defiant’s role was again reassessed, this time handed duties with RAF Search and Rescue with modifications allowing dinghies to be carried in containers beneath both wings.

 Defiant TT Mk III target tug N1697 at RAF Desford, May 1944

(Defiant TT Mk III target tug N1697 at RAF Desford, May 1944)

There was also a special target-tug version of the Defiant, the turret space occupied by an observer station in the T.T. Mk Is, operating this role mainly overseas in both the Middle East and Far East. While most of these versions of the aircraft were withdrawn in 1945, one was still operating as late as February 1947.

One of the Defiant’s more secretive roles developed following its withdrawal from daytime fighter operations was in radar jamming, No. 515 Squadron established at Northolt in October 1942 to carry out the top-secret work. They worked in support of USAAF bombing raids until February 1944 when they were replaced by the De Havilland Mosquito.

The Defiant was continually utilised throughout the remainder of the war to test new technology, a number fitted with the first Martin Baker ejection seats in the observer’s station (the old turret section), dummy trials beginning in May 1945.

Defiant N1671 in the RAF Museum(Defiant N1671 in the RAF Museum) 

Despite the numerous modifications made to the Defiant, the last production model came out of the Wolverhampton factory in February 1943, and in total there were 1,064 built. Today, the one sole surviving Boulton Paul Defiant, RAF serial N1671, is fully reassembled and available to see on display at the RAF Museum at Cosford in Shropshire.

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