Fairey Battle Mk 1 (R3950)

Fairey Battle Mk 1 (R3950)  [@ Koninklijk Leger Museum, Brussels]

The Rolls Royce Merlin powered Fairey Battle light bomber, one of the first types chosen for large-scale production, was designed to Specification P.23/35, and issued in 1933 to find a modern replacement for the ageing Hawker Hart and Hawker Hind biplane day bombers then in RAF service.   The first prototype Battle Prototype (K4303) took to the air on the 10th March 1936 but with a number of design changes including the addition of a third crew member reduced its performance.   The first production aircraft (Mk 1s) were completed at Hayes, Middlesex, in June 1937 and were powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin I engines.   Later variants Mk IIs, IIIs and Vs were powered by Merlin II, III and V engines respectively.   In fact subsequent variants took their Mark numbers from the type of engine used i.e. an Mk II was powered by a Merlin II.   First deliveries entered RAF service with 63 Squadron based at RAF Upwood, Cambridgeshire, in May 1937 and by the time war was declared there were about 1000 Battles in RAF service. 

Similar to the Bristol Blenheim the type had a three man crew (pilot, navigator and gunner) and a 1,000 lbs bomb-load and two machine guns.   A single forward-firing Browning 0.303 machine gun in the starboard wing and with a trainable Vickers K mounted in the rear cockpit.   The type had the appearance of a large fighter rather than a bomber.   The standard payload of four 110 kg bombs was carried in cells inside the wings and an additional 230 kg of bombs could be carried on under-wing racks.   Bomb aiming was achieved using the Mk.   VII Course Setting Bomb Sight.   The bomb aimer's position was under the rear portion of the wing and the sighting was done through a sliding panel in the floor of the fuselage.   Most importantly the type lacked an armoured cockpit and self-sealing fuel tank.   This placed the Battle at risk when attacked by Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft guns.

 

Fairey Battle Mk 1 (R3950)

Fairey Battle Mk 1 (R3950)  [@ Koninklijk Leger Museum, Brussels]

On the 2nd September 1939 ten Battle squadrons of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) were deployed to northern France mainly in an armed reconnaissance role.   Sgt. F. Letchard, a gunner, on patrol with 88 Squadron on the 20th September near Aachen managed to shoot down the first German aircraft (a Bf 109) of the RAF's war, however, the success was not to last as the Battles became easy prey for the German fighters, typically being almost 100 mph slower than a Bf 109.   Five unescorted Battles of 150 Squadron were shot down by Me109s on the 30th September whilst on patrol.

 

Fairey Battle Mk 1 (R3950)

Fairey Battle Mk I (R3950)  [@ Koninklijk Leger Museum, Brussels]

Built in 1939 as a Mk I in the Austin Motors shadow factory at Longbridge, R3950 was delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force on the 7th April 1941 as RCAF 1899.   Converted on the 1st July 1941 to Battle TT standard R3950 was Struck off Charge on the 16th February 1945 and sold on the private market.   Purchased by a farmer from Alberta R3950 was sold on in 1970 with the intention to be restored to a flying condition.   However, R3950 was bought in 1972 by Sir William Roberts for the Strathallan Aircraft Collection, Auchterader, Scotland and so R3950 returned to the UK.   Purchased from the Strathallan Collection in 1987 R3950 was loaned to the Imperial War Museum at RAF Duxford.   Painted as HA-L in 1988 and then sold to the Historic Aircraft Collection.  Exchanged for a Spitfire XIV (RN201) with the Musee Royal de l'Armee, Brussels, R3950 was finally transported by a Belgian Air Force C130 H Hercules to the museum on the 3rd May 1990.

 

With the Germans pushing through the Low Countries in May 1940 the Battles were employed in the Bomber role and in the same month they suffered appalling losses in desperate attempts to bomb enemy columns and bridges over the Meuse.   For example, in the first of two sorties carried out by Battles on the 10th May 1940 three out of eight aircraft were lost and in the second sortie a further ten out of twenty four were shot down, giving a total of 13 lost in that day's attacks with the remainder suffering damage.   Not surprisingly the first VCs of the war was awarded in this month when Flying Officer DE Garland and his observer Sergeant T Gray of 12 Squadron in P2204 were posthumously honoured after a courageous attack on the vital bridges crossing the Albert Canal near Maastricht.   Strangely the third crew member, rear gunner Leading Aircraftsman Lawrence Reynolds, did not share the award.   On the 11th May nine Battles of the Belgian Air Force attacked bridges over the Albert Canal on the River Meuse losing six aircraft.   Thirty five Battles from 12, 103, 105, 150 and 218 Squadrons (plus eight Blenheims) were lost to enemy fighters and mobile anti-aircraft batteries on the 14th May attacking German bridgehead and pontoon bridges at Sedan.

 

Fairey Battle Mk III (L5343/L5340)

Fairey Battle Mk III (L5343/L5340)  [@ RAF Hendon]

Due to its inability to defend itself the type was withdrawn from France to England by the 15th June 1940 and assigned to second-line duties.   In six weeks almost 200 Battles had been lost, with ninety nine lost between the 10th and 16th of May.   Although in the autumn of 1940 the Battles of 1 Group carried out many night attacks on the concentrations of invasion barges needed for Operation Sealion in the German-occupied Channel ports.   Replaced by the Vickers Wellington, Battles did operate into 1941 by 88 and 226 Squadrons in Northern Ireland and 98 Squadron in Iceland for coastal patrol work.   The last combat operations carried out by Fairey Battles were during the Italian and German invasion of Greece from the end of 1940 until April 1941.   In fact the type remained active in secondary roles within the RAF until 1949.

 

Fairey Battle Mk III (L5343/L5340)Fairey Battle Mk III (L5343/L5340)

Fairey Battle Mk III (L5343/L5340)  [@ RAF Hendon]

Powered by a Merlin III L5343 was built by Austin Motors at Longbridge and entered RAF service on the 13th September 1939 with 24 MU based at Stoke Heath, Worcestershire.  On the 9th December L5343 was transferred for a short while to 233 Squadron based at RAF Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire.  This newly formed squadron were training on Battles while waiting for the delivery of Supermarine Spitfire 1s in early 1940.  Transferred to 20 MU based RAF Aston Down, Gloucestershire, for temporary storage L5343 was soon transferred to 98 Squadron based at RAF Gatwick, Surrey, on the 13th July 1940.  98 Squadron had been withdrawn from France on the 17th June 1940 and was reforming after service with the RAF Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF).  The AASF had itself been formed the 24th August 1939 from 1 Group and its 10 squadrons of Fairey Battles had been dispatched to airfields in the Rheims area on 2nd September 1939.  During the first nine months of WW2 98 Squadron had served as a reserve squadron and from April to June 1940 was based at Nantes, France.  Although the squadron flew no combat missions it did lose 90 of its personnel when the RMS Lancastria was bombed and sunk off Saint-Nazaire on the 17th June 1940.  Attacked by Junkers 88 aircraft from II Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30, with the loss of over 4,000 lives, the facts of the sinking are still shrouded by Official Secret Legislation.  By the end of July 1940 98 Squadron had been transferred to 15 Group Coastal command with the result that L5343 was flown to Kaldadarnes, Iceland, as part of “Operation Frigidaire” the purpose of which was to defend the island from enemy attack, carry out patrols against U-boats and later to escort convoys.  L5343 was probably the first RAF land based aircraft to land on Icelandic soil on the 27th August 1940 when Wing Commander G. R. Ashton AFC led nine Battles in L5343 on the 700 mile flight from RAF Wick. Escorted by two Sunderland’s the flight was of 5hrs 20mins duration with the first operational patrols taking place the next day.  On the 13th September 1940 L5343 became the first RAF aircraft to crash in Iceland.  With the crew safe, L5343 was stripped of all useful equipment a few days later and set on fire.  Officially Struck off Charge on the 20th January 1941 a decision to rescue the remains of L5343 and use them as the basis of a restoration project was taken during 1972.  The remains of L5343 returned to the UK on 21st November 1972 on board an RAF Shorts Belfast.  A number of parts were required from other Battles during the restoration, in particular the centre and rear fuselage and wings of L5340 which were obtained from the Strathallen collection.  The tail of L5343 was grafted onto the main fuselage section of L5340 as was L5343's forward cockpit section.  L5340 had entered RAF service at the same time and location as L5343.  Transferred to 36 MU at RAF Sealand, Flintshire, for packing on the 10th January 1940 L5340 was transferred to the RCAF and arrived at 1 Training Command as RCAF 1614 on the 2nd April 1940.  Later transferred to 2 Training Command on the 19th March 1941 L5340 eventually placed into storage on the 17th April 1943.  Struck off Charge on the 16th February 1945 and sold to a private buyer whose intention was to convert the fuselage into a boat.  The remains were purchased by Sir William Roberts, who at the time was the owner of R3950 (see above) for spares during 1975, and transported to the UK.  Restoration of the composite aircraft was completed in early 1990.

After May 1940 a number of Battle Mk Is, IIs and Vs were converted into the Battle T (duel control) training variant and others were converted into the Battle IT, a training variant with a turret installed in the rear.   Also a number were converted into target tug aircraft as the Battle TT variant.   In fact the Battle TT.Mk I was the last production variant to be built.   In total 2,185 Battles were built (1,156 by Fairey and 1,029 by the Austin Motor Company at Longbridge) before the final Battle had left the Fairey Heaton Chapel factory at Stockport in October 1940.   A further eighteen were built under licence by Avions Fairey at Goselies, Belgium, for service with the Royal Belgian Air Force.