How the Fairey Battle won the War

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The Fairey Battle endured a disastrous wartime career. However, in this counter factual article aviation historian Greg Baughen argues that things could have been very different. 

In September 1939 ten Fairey Battle squadrons head for France. Nobody expects them to achieve much.  Ludlow-Hewitt, in charge of Bomber Command, has given up all hope of using them to bomb the Ruhr.  Instead they will be used for short-range low-level  ground attack missions against advancing German forces. Early reconnaissance missions over France demonstrate just  how vulnerable the bomber is. Battle formations prove totally incapable of defending themselves against  Bf 109s. Planes burst into flames as soon as their unprotected fuel tanks are hit.  The French Air Force comes to the rescue and provides fighter escorts and for a while the Battles are able to operate reasonably successfully. However, General Vuillemin, the French Air Force chief, is short of fighters and asks the RAF to provide their own escorts. Air Vice-Marshal Evill indignantly explains to Vuillemin that RAF bombers have no need of escorts, their defensive fire power can fight off any attacker. A puzzled Vuillemin cancels further French escorts.  Two days later an unescorted formation of five Battle is butchered by Bf 109s. Only one badly damaged plane limps back to its base.  The future prospects for the Battle squadrons look bleak.

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Then Air Marshal Sir Brooke-Popham comes to the rescue. Brought out of retirement to help the war effort, Brooke-Popham is given the task of inspecting RAF squadrons in France.  Some claim his intervention changed the course of the war. After speaking to the crews, he decides that if the Battles are going to operate at low-level, they need more guns and armour.  A meeting in October 1939 at the Stockport Fairey plant with Brooke-Popham, Battle pilots and  Fairey engineers decides that if the fuselage fuel tank is removed  300 lbs of armour and self-sealing material for the fuel tanks can be added. The armour already exists in stocks, and is hastily sent to France and fitted to the Battles.  Self-sealing tank have already been developed and tested for the Battle and the disastrous 18 December Wellington mission against Heligoland Bight underlines their importance.  Following this disaster, key Ministry figures are dragged away from their Christmas holidays to discuss what to do. They decide all bombers will be fitted with self-sealing tanks and because the Battle will be especially vulnerable during its low-level missions, Battle squadrons will have priority. Dowding enthusiastically agrees to send more fighters to France so that the Battles can be escorted. Plans are drawn up for Battle squadrons to launch hit and run raids to block the lead elements of any German attempt to push through the Ardennes.

On 10 May, however, these plans are forgotten. Battle squadrons are ordered to fly over the advancing German forces and attack targets deep in the German rear, exposing them to ground fire and interception for far longer. The armour, self-sealing tanks and fighter escorts help, but even so losses are heavy. Six of the thirty-two planes fail to return.   Plans the next day for a daring low-level strike on targets near Prum, inside Germany,  are dropped. (The  mission  would have involved flying forty miles diagonally across the advancing panzers.)   Instead, Battles follow the original plan and fly continuous sorties against the first enemy column they meet. The German advance is slowed and they reach the Meuse behind schedule.  Nevertheless, a fierce Stuka bombardment enables German infantry  to cross the Meuse and for a while French defences are in disarray. However, crucially, continuous Battle attacks on the crossing points delay the arrival of the panzers on the west bank  and French counter attacks successfully  push the German infantry back over the Meuse.

Some claim that if Brooke-Popham’s  recommendations had not been followed, the result would have been very different.

And for what really happened

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7 comments

    • tonyo262

      I believe the Battle is one of many transitional 1930s aircraft designs. It would have slipped into aviation history largely unnoticed if it hadn’t been placed into a new and evolving arena of aerial warfare. Placed in context, we can draw analogies with the Bf110 and it’s failings as a heavy fighter during the BoB. Perhaps it has something to do with aesthetic? The Battle is a bit of an odd looking cove. Despite its failings, it was used successfully in many roles later in the war just as the 110 was adapted to new scenarios.

  1. duker

    The answer came later in the war, by adding a stronger undercarriage and bomb shackles, the high powered fighters could become ‘fighter-bombers’. The RAF was very odd for a long time when it came to ground attack keeping with toss bombing till the late 80s when guided weapons had been the norm for years

  2. Greg Baughen

    Hi everyone

    In my “counter factual” history of the Fairey Battle, in the first two paragraphs everything is absolutely as it happened, apart from three small changes.
    Does anybody want to have a go at guessing which three facts I reversed?
    Obviously not open to anyone who’s read the book!!

    I’ll be interested in any responses!

    Greg

    • AndrewZ

      OK, there are several statements in the text which can be “reversed” so the question is which three of them are only “small” changes? My guess:

      1. “Ludlow-Hewitt…has given up all hope of using them to bomb the Ruhr” – small because it didn’t matter what he hoped

      2. “Dowding enthusiastically agrees to send more fighters” – small because “these plans are forgotten” immediately afterwards (and frankly it sounds a bit too Gung-Ho for Dowding)

      3. “Battle squadrons will have priority” – also small because “these plans are forgotten”, plus giving the priority to smaller tactical bombers rather than strategic bombing sounds a bit too modern and I’m not sure that the decision-makers at the time would have thought they had time to implement it even if they wanted to

      I’ve rejected all the stuff about French fighters and designing the upgrades to the aircraft because that all seems too important to the story to be “small”. I’ve rejected the statement that “Ministry figures are dragged away from their Christmas holidays” because surely the situation would have been too dangerous for that not to be true, especially if they were discussing “all bombers” instead of just the Battle.

      • Greg Baughen

        Not bad! 2/3

        1. Ludlow-Hewitt had given up on the Fairey Battle as a strategic bomber but not the Air Staff. When the Battle squadrons were officially taken out of Ludlow-Hewitt’s hands with the formation of the BAFF in January 1940, Barratt started getting instructions from the Air Ministry about how to use the plane as a long-range bomber by night.

        2. Quite right. Dowding would have had a heart attack at the very thought.

        3. Spot on. The Fairey Battle was at the bottom of the list!

        The one you missed was the extra armour. It was sent France but it never reached the squadrons. What happened to it nobody knows.

        And if you are wondering about the third paragraph:

        On the 10th losses were sixteen not six – half the sorties flown. (No self-sealing tanks, no extra armour, no escorts)

        The Prüm raid went ahead (seven out of eight lost)

        And we all know what happened on 14 May.

        But the rest is true.

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