Back to the Drawing Board: The Defiant

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Daffy, the forgotten fighter

Boulton Paul Defiant Mk IIs flying in formation.
Boulton Paul Defiant Mk IIs flying in formation.

Ask most people to name an RAF fighter from the Battle of Britain and they will answer ‘Spitfire’ or ‘Hurricane’. However, during the summer of 1940, two squadrons of Boulton Paul Defiants operated alongside them, achieving considerable success against German bombers. So why has the ‘Daffy’ – as it was known by many airmen – been forgotten?

Although 1,000 Defiants were built, they were outnumbered by the 14,000 Hurricanes and 20,000 Spitfires, and from autumn 1940 they switched to night-fighting, effectively ‘disappearing’ from public view. Strictly speaking, the Defiant was not a fighter but an interceptor for destroying bombers. Designed by John Dudley North in 1937, it looked rather like the Hurricane, and used the same Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Unlike the Hurricane, which had four 20mm cannon fixed in the wings, the Defiant had a turret behind the cockpit from which a gunner fired four .303 Browning machine-guns.

So while the pilot concentrated on flying the aeroplane beneath the undefended ‘belly’ of a bomber, the gunner could focus his attention on using his wide arc of fire to destroy it. This was a theory that proved very effective. On 29 May 1940, 264 Squadron claimed 37 kills in two sorties – 19 Stuka dive-bombers, nine Me 110 heavy fighters, eight Me 109 fighter, and a Ju 88 bomber.

Unfortunately, this success was short-lived, due to an Achilles heel Luftwaffe pilots were quick to exploit. Although the Daffy’s gunner could fire at targets above and behind, the aircraft was completely defenceless against frontal attack. Furthermore, the addition of a turret and extra crewman made the Defiant 25% heavier than the single-seater Hurricane, and nearly 100mph slower than the German Me 109 fighter.

In July 1940, nine Defiants from 141 Squadron were intercepted by Me 109s, and six were shot down before Hurricanes intervened to rescue the survivors. The more-experienced crews of 264 Squadron used the Luftbery technique to repel German fighters, forming a circle and descending, so that the enemy pilots could not fly in front or underneath them.

However, this was a complex manoeuvre that required coordination and communication, made tricky by the obsolete and unreliable HF radio transmitters fitted to the Defiant, which could not communicate with VHF-equipped Hurricane and Spitfire units. During 26-28 August, 264 Squadron lost eight aircraft and, although they inflicted similar casualties on the Luftwaffe, such losses were unsustainable. Daytime operations were cancelled.

 Royal Air Force Boulton Paul Defiant Mk Is of 264 Squadron,
RAF Lincolnshire, August 1940.
Royal Air Force Boulton Paul Defiant Mk Is of 264 Squadron, RAF Lincolnshire, August 1940.

As a night-fighter fitted with AI MkIV Airborne Interception radar, the Defiant could attack unescorted German bombers unmolested. However, its flying time was limited – less than two hours – and by 1942 the Defiant was replaced by the Bristol Beaufighter and de Haviland Mosquito, both of which were faster and had a much longer range.

From then on, the Defiant was used for gunnery training and special operations, such as jamming German advanced warning systems and air-sea rescue, further receding from the public eye. A fighter that struggled to defend itself, the Defiant ‘proved to be too expensive in use against fighters’ according to Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command. You can see the only complete survivor on public display at the RAF Museum Hendon.

Dan Sager

This article originally appeared in issue 44 of Military History Monthly.

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