The Fairey Battle was intended as a relatively light and agile light bomber designed and manufactured by the Fairey Aviation Company and flew combat missions during the early stages of the Second World War. 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 powered various contemporary British fighters.
During the "Phoney War", the type achieved the distinction of attaining the first aerial victory of an RAF aircraft in the conflict. But just days after this feat on 30 September 1939 five Battles of No. 150 Sqn on a photo recce sortie over Saarbrucken were caught by fifteen Bf 109s. And during May 1940, the Battle suffered heavy losses - on four days in particular these were in excess of 50 percent of sortied aircraft per mission. By the end of 1940, the type had been entirely withdrawn from active combat service, instead being mainly relegated to use by training units overseas.
Most writers would probably qualify the Battle as " ..relatively slow, limited in terms of range and .. highly vulnerable to both anti-aircraft fire and hostile fighters, possessing only two defensive .303 machine guns " (See the wiki entry for the Battle.) Jeff Ethell in his 1995 volume 'Aircraft of WWII ' wrote that "..for an aircraft which had been viewed to possess a high level of pre-war promise, the Battle quickly became one of the most disappointing aircraft in RAF service..
." And the type's reputation has never really recovered, despite or perhaps because of the fact that the first two RAF VCs went to Battle crews or that it was the first RAF machine to shoot down an enemy aircraft at the start of WWII. Perhaps it is time to look again at the Battle.
Below; Three Battle Mark Is, K9353 HA-J, K9324 HA-B and K9325 HA-D, of No. 218 Squadron RAF, based at Auberives-sur-Suippes, in flight over northern France. K9325 went missing during an attack on enemy troops near St Vith on 11 May 1940, and K9353 was shot down north of Bouillon the following day. K9324 survived the Battle of France to serve with the RAAF until 1944. (IWM photo)
The Belgian aeronautical engineer Marcel Lobelle served as the aircraft's principal designer. One of the early decisions made by Lobelle on the project was the use of the newly developed Rolls-Royce Merlin I engine, which had been selected due to its favourable power and compact frontal area. The Merlin engine was quickly paired to a de Havilland Propellers-built three-bladed variable-pitch propeller unit. The choice of engine enabled the designing of the aircraft to possess exceptionally clean lines and a subsequently generous speed performance.The resulting design was an all-metal single-engine aircraft, which adopted a low-mounted cantilever monoplane wing and was equipped with a retractable tail wheel undercarriage. On 10 March 1936, the first Fairey prototype, K4303, equipped with a Merlin I engine capable of generating 1,030 hp, performed its maiden flight at Hayes, Middlesex. The prototype was promptly transferred to RAF Martlesham Heath, Woodbridge, Suffolk for service trials, during which it attained a maximum speed of 257 mph and reportedly achieved a performance in advance of any contemporary day bomber.
Upon the commencement of the BoF in May 1940, Battles were called upon to perform unescorted, low-level tactical attacks against the advancing German army; this use of the type placed the aircraft at risk of attack from Luftwaffe fighters and within easy range of light anti-aircraft guns. Results were predictable and horrific. In the first of two sorties carried out by Battles on 10 May 1940, three out of eight aircraft were lost, while a further 10 out of 24 were shot down in the second sortie, giving a total of 13 lost in that day's attacks, with the remainder suffering damage. Despite bombing from as low as 250 ft (76 m), their attacks were recorded as having had little impact on the German columns. During the following day, nine Belgian AF Battles attacked bridges over the Albert Canal, losing six aircraft, and in another RAF sortie that day against a German column, only one Battle out of eight survived.
On 12 May, a formation of five Battles of 12 sqn attacked two road bridges over the Albert Canal; four of these aircraft were destroyed while the final aircraft crash-landing upon its return to its base. Two VCs were awarded posthumously for the action.
On 14 May 1940, in a desperate attempt to stop German forces crossing the Meuse, the AASF launched an "all-out" attack by all available bombers against the German bridgehead and pontoon bridges at sedan Having graciously given the Germans three days to prepare their defences, the light bombers were attacked by swarms of opposing fighters and were decimated.. Out of a strike force of 63 Battles and eight Blenheims, 40 (including 35 Battles) were lost. After these abortive raids, the Battle was switched to mainly night attacks, resulting in much lower losses.
On 15 June 1940, the last remaining aircraft of the Advanced Air Striking Force returned to Britain. In six weeks almost 200 Battles had been lost, with 99 lost between 10 and 16 May.
According to Drix at the 'Aviation Flashback' blog ;
"..The Battle was a good bomber, used by outstandingly brave crews. They had the huge misfortune to be sent on missions by completely incompetent generals..
While it is probably true to say that the Battle was only "partially " maligned it was definitely mis-used. It was a single engine 'strategic' bomber pressed into tactical use without proper training (low level bombing vs medium or high altitude) for the crews. It usually flew unescorted - and what bomber flying unescorted at low level won't or doesn't pay a heavy price! Fighters and anti-aircraft fire at low level have been seeking out bombers since the dawn of combat aviation. The Battle was slow ? Some 50 km/h faster than the Whitley, only 10 km/h slower than the Fairy Fulmar shipborne fighter. However with better wings - its span was almost the same as the twin-engine Blenheim IV and wing loading as low - not ideal for an aircraft committed at low level.
" ..With better armour and heavier armament the Battle could have performed well and enjoyed a Sturmovik-like reputation...
The Battle's story is what happens when you take a medium level strategic bomber and use it in penny packets as a low altitude interdiction bomber against pinpoint targets - to blow up bridges and troop columns - with little or no escort against an enemy who has in the main air supremacy and good anti-aircraft. In the mid-1930s the RAF needed something (anything?) to equip the rapidly forming squadrons and the Battle was picked as one of the types. It was ready, it was cheap, it was better than the existing biplanes. It trained an industry in modern construction techniques. It turned out to be sturdy, easy to fly with few, if any vices. If the war had broken out in 1937/38 it might be remembered differently.