Gloster Gladiator I (L8032)

Gloster Gladiator I (L8032)  [@ Shuttleworth Collection]

The Gladiator was the last in the line of inter-war Gloster fighters, following the Grebe, Gamecock and Gauntlet, and it was the last biplane fighter used by the RAF.  The type saw action with a large number of air forces, some of them on the Axis side, during the WW2.  The RAF used it in France, Norway, Greece, the defence of Malta and the brief Anglo-Iraqi War (in which the Royal Iraqi Air Force was similarly equipped).

The type started as a private venture and was designed by H P Folland from the Gloster Gauntlet to meet Specification F.7/30.  This specification required a top speed of at least 250 mph, an armament of four machine-guns and it encouraged the use of the new Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine.  This engine proved unreliable and so the prototype, S.S.37, first flew on 12th September 1934 powered by a 530 hp Bristol Mercury radial engine.  On 3rd April 1935 the RAF commenced operational evaluations with S.S37.  The type was soon ordered into production by the Air Ministry as the Gladiator I (378 built) and became the first RAF fighter to have four Browning machine guns, flaps and an enclosed cockpit but was also the last RAF biplane fighter.  Powered by an 840 hp Mercury IX air-cooled radial engine and a top speed of around 257 mph.  The first production Gladiator I flew during January 1937 with the last one being delivered to the RAF during the end of 1937.  Clearly the type was not destined to have a long RAF service life as the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire were about to enter RAF service.

Gloster Gladiator I (L8032)

Gloster Gladiator I (L8032)  [@ RAF Duxford]

The first RAF squadron to be equipped was 72 Squadron at Tangmere which started in February 1937 and the type went on to equip eight squadrons of Fighter Command.  72 Squadron was reformed at RAF Tangmere on the 22nd February 1937 from 'B' flight of 1 Squadron and was reequipped with Spitfires in 1939.  The Gladiator II was enveloped to fulfil foreign orders, 147 being produced for this purpose, and 252 were built for the RAF.  This variant was powered by a marginally more powerful Mercury engine which drove a Fairey three-bladed, fixed-pitched metal propeller instead of the two-bladed wooden one.  The first export order placed by Latvia on the 27th May 1937 while the initial order for 50 Gladiator Mk IIs was placed by Air Ministry during early 1938.  The navel version, the Sea Gladiator, was an adaptation of the Gladiator II and equipped seven Fleet Air Arm (FAA) squadrons from 1939.  The variant was fitted with a strengthened frame, an arrestor hook, catapult points and an under-belly fairing for a dinghy lifeboat.  During March 1938 the Admiralty placed an interim order for 38 Sea Gladiators.  The first Sea Gladiator entered Fleet Air Arm (FAA) service during December 1938 with last being delivered during March 1939.  Sea trails of this variant began on HMS Courageous during March 1939.  By the 1st September 1939, when WWII started, the FAA were equipped with 54 Sea Gladiators.

L8032 is currently the only airworthy Gloster Gladiator in the world and was the last Gladiator I to come off the production line.  It was built by the Gloster Aircraft Co. Ltd. based at Hucclecote, Gloucester, in 1937 and was originally intended as a sequence of replacement machines.  First posted to 2 AACU [Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit which was used to give training to the A.A. sites] and then later to 1624 Flight and then to 61 OTU (Operational Training Unit) based at RAF Rednal, Shropshire, for film work.  A number of Gladiators had been gathered together for the filming of the book “Signed With Their Honour” by James Aldridge which was based on 80 Squadron's Gladiator operations in Greece in 1941.  Unfortunately the film was abandoned when two of the Gladiators were destroyed in a mid-air collision during filming.  L8032, together with N5903, was allocated for meteorological survey work and returned to Gloster Aircraft for conversion in January 1944.  However these conversions did not happen as more modern types took on these duties.  On the 23rd February 1948 Gloster bought both L8032 and N5903 since they are the last two surviving Gladiators from the Air Ministry.  L8032 remained "abandoned" at Gloster Aircraft Ltd until November 1950 and was then handed over to Air Service Training Ltd and allocated to RAF Hamble, Hampshire, as a ground instructional airframe.  Sold during December 1951 into private hands, N5903 was used for spares to enable L8032 to become airworthy again in June 1952.  Both airframes were repurchased by Gloster in August 1953.  L8032 being extensively rebuilt, refitted with Browning machine guns and repainted into RAF markings.  L8032 flew as K8032 and L8032 during the 1950's.  After the closure of Gloster Aircraft in November 1960 L8032 was given to the Shuttleworth Collection for safekeeping. L8032 has worn many different colours during its life and in the photograph wears the dual markings '423/427' of the Norwegian air force, which were applied for a film.

At the outbreak of the Second World War just four home based RAF fighter squadrons were still equipped with Gladiators.  Two of these squadrons, 607 and 615, were sent to France in 1939 and were heavily engaged in the Battle of France.  In just ten days of hard fighting, following the opening of the German assault on 10th May 1940, all the aircraft had been lost.  Both squadrons had their Gladiators replaced by Hurricanes just as the Germans invaded France.  In a desperate attempt to provide fighter cover for the 'little ships' involved in the Dunkirk evacuation a detachment of home based Gladiators, known as 'G' Flight, was formed at RAF Manston in late May for a week and were used for aerodrome defence.  During the "Phoney War", Gladiators flew patrol flights that led to occasional clashes with Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft.  On the 17th October 1940 607 Squadron shot down a Dornier Do 18 flying boat from 2.KuFlGr 606 over the North Sea, while on the 10th April 1941 804 NAS flying from RNAS Hatston, Kirkwall on Orkney, intercepted a wave of German aircraft destroying one and damaging another.

Gloster Gladiator I (K8042)Gloster Gladiator I (K8042)

Gloster Gladiator I (K8042)  [@ RAF Hendon]

The Norwegian Campaign saw both Norwegian and British Gladiators engaging the Luftwaffe.  18 RAF Gladiators from Squadron 263 was sent to Norway following the German invasion and they fought a rear-guard action during April, May and June 1940.  The squadron arrived on the carrier HMS Glorious on the 24th April.  Also aboard were eleven Blackburn Skuas of 803 NAS and eighteen Sea Gladiators from 802 and 804 NAS.  Later Glorious returned on the 18th May with six Supermarine Walrus of 701 Squadron and on the 26th May with 18 Hurricanes of 46 Squadron to reinforced 263 Squadron.  Operation Alphabet, the evacuation, began on the night of 3rd/4th June.  HMS Glorious arrived off the Norwegian coast on the 2nd June to provide support although she only carried nine Sea Gladiators of 802 NAS and six Fairey Swordfish from 823 NAS for self-defence.  By the end of the Campaign 263 Squadron had flown 249 sorties and had claimed 26 enemy aircraft destroyed.  Unfortunately, during the trip home the 10 surviving Gladiators and the Hurricanes of 46 Squadron were destroyed when HMS Glorious was intercepted in the Norwegian Sea by the German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and sunk.  Only two home-based units used the Gladiator operationally during the Battle of Britain, 247 Squadron at RAF Roborough, Devon, and 804 NAS based at RNAS Hatston.  In fact 804 NAS together with 808 NAS (equipped with Fairey Fulmars) were the only two FAA squadrons operating with RAF Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. 

Built by Gloster Aircraft Ltd at Hucclecote, Gloucester, K8042 is a second production batch and initially served with 87 Squadron at RAF Debden from June 1937 to July 1938.  K8042 was transferred on the 13th February 1939 to 5 MU for storage at RAF Kemble, Gloucestershire.  After returning to Gloster Aircraft on the 1st June 1941 K8042 was posted to Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down for Research and Development trials.  Temporarily transferred to 27 MU based RAF Shawbury, Shropshire, on the 20th April 1942 K8042 was posted to 5 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit (formally 5 Flying Training School) based at RAF Ternhill, Shropshire, who were predominately flying Hurricanes and Masters.  Similar to Gladiator L8082, K8042 had been assigned on the 27th October 1943 to 61 OTU to work on the later abandoned film based on the book “Signed With Their Honour” by James Aldridge.  Transferred to Marshalls Flying Services, Cambridgeshire, on the 11th February 1944 K8042 was later transferred to 8 MU based at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire, for storage.  Officially Struck off Charge on the 16th March 1948 K8042 was either in storage or on display until entering the RAF museum during the early 60s.  Following restoration in 1967 K8042 is currently displayed in the markings of the CO's aircraft of 87 Squadron at RAF Debden, Essex, in 1938.  

Gloster Gladiator II (N5903)

Gloster Gladiator II (N5903)  [@ RAF Duxford]

Gladiators also served in the Middle East theatre, but are most remembered for their part in the defence of Malta between April and June 1940.  The popular myth associated with the defence on Malta is that only three Gladiators named 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity' defended the island from the enemy attacks.  In fact the aircraft names came into being only after the battle was over and also there were more than three.  HMS Glorious had delivered a stock of 18 Sea Gladiators to Malta during April 1940.  The Navy agreed that some of them could stay for the air defence of the island and the rest of them had to be transferred out aboard another aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle.  Of those that remained three were later shipped out to take part in the Norwegian Campaign and another three were sent to Egypt.  Based at RAF Hal Far and staffed by both RAF and FAA personnel, the remainder of the Gladiators went on to form Malta's fighter protection.  Several Sea Gladiators were assembled and test-flown.  Hence more than three aircraft were operational, though not always at the same time, while the others were used for spare parts.  When Italy entered the WW2 on the 10th June 1940 only "three" Sea Gladiators opposed all the aircraft the Reggia Aeronautica threw at the island.

Built by Gloster Aircraft N5903 was the last of the 25 Gladiator IIs to be built under Contract 773235/38 and was probably delivered to 41 Squadron based at RAF Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, in 1939.  141 Squadron had reformed on the 4th October 1939 at RAF Turnhouse (now Edinburgh Airport) and was briefly equipped with Gladiators and then Bristol Blenheims.  These were replaced with the Boulton Paul Defiants in April 1940.  During December 1939 N5903 was transferred to the Air Ministry Development Pool as a flight trials platform before being placed into storage with 27 MU at RAF Shawbury, Shropshire, in May 1940.  In October 1943 N5903 was transferred to 8 MU based at Little Rissington and then, like to Gladiator L8082, N5903 was assigned in November 1943 to 61 OTU to work on a later abandoned film.  Together with L8032 both Gladiators were assigned for meteorological survey work and returned to Gloster for conversion during January 1944.  However the conversions did not take place and so the pair were “abandoned” at Hucclecote.  Purchased by Gloster on the 23rd February 1948 from the Air Ministry N5903 remained with Gloster Aircraft Ltd until November 1950 and was then handed over to Air Service Training Ltd and was allocated to RAF Ansty, Warwickshire, as a ground instructional airframe.  Sold into private with L8032 during December 1951 N5903 acted as donor, even giving up the Bristol Mercury VIII engine that had just eight hours logged since being installed, to enable L8032 to fly again during June 1952.  Gloster repurchased both airframes in August 1953.  The following history of N5903 is unsure but it is generally accepted that after the closure of Gloster Aircraft Ltd during November 1960 the remains of N5903 accompanied L8032 to the Shuttleworth Trust at Old Warden.  During 1971 N5903 was loaned by the Shuttleworth Trust to the Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton.  Following refurbishment N5903 was placed on static display in 1978 as Sea Gladiator N2276, complete with a dummy arrestor hook, of 804 Squadron.  N2276 operated from HMS Glorious during the evacuation from Norway and was flown by Lieutenant Commander Cockburn who was credited for damaging two Ju 87s.  Purchased by The Fighter Collection based at RAF Duxford in 1994 N5903 underwent a long and exhaustive restoration to flying condition.  In the photograph N5903 is displayed in the livery of 72 Squadron the first RAF squadron to be fully equipped with the Gladiator.

Gloster Gladiator II (N5628)

Gloster Gladiator II (N5628)  [@ RAF Hendon]

Built by Gloster Aircraft Ltd at Hucclecote, Gloucester and powered by a Bristol Mercury VIIIA engine, N5628 was delivered to 263 Squadron at RAF Filton, Gloucestershire, on the 27th October 1939.  One of the 18 RAF Gladiators that were ferried by the carrier HMS Glorious to Norway and flown from the carrier on the 24th April 1940 to take part in the Norwegian Campaign.  Damaged by a German air attack while based on the frozen Lake Lesjaskogsvatnet on the 28th April 1940.  Abandoned on the same day, N5628 eventually sank in May and was recovered in 1968 by a diving team from RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire.

A total of 483 Gladiators were built for the RAF.  The final Gladiator was delivered to the RAF on the 30th August 1939 with the last RAF operational sortie taking place on the 26th September 1941.  After withdrawal from front-line RAF service, the Gladiator continued in RAF use for liaison, communications and meteorological reconnaissance until the 7th January 1945.  Of the 60 Sea Gladiators built and the interim 38 Gladiator II conversions, 54 were still in service with the FAA by the outbreak of the WW2.  The Sea Gladiator was withdrawn from frontline FAA service on the 1st May 1941 and second line service during1943.  A total of 216 Gladiators were exported to 13 countries, with some of these from the total allotted to the RAF.  The Portuguese Air Force retired the last export Gladiator from advanced training duties during 1953.