Saturday, 18 July 2015

Boulton-Paul Defiant: Stupid Idea or Dreadful Leadership?

The Boulton-Paul Defiant has been the subject of much discussion on the @BofB1940 twitter feed. Most have the view that the aircraft is a flawed concept, an idea that couldn't possibly have worked, an idea that needlessly cost lives.

A small minority on the @BofB1940 feed have defended the aircraft saying that it was Fighter Command's mis-use of the aircraft that was flawed, not the design concept. 

Slaughter of the Innocents

On the 19th July 1940, No 141 Squadron (Defiants) sent up nine aircraft (together with a Spitfire squadron and a Hurricane squadron) to intercept Bf110s that were reportedly dive bombing shipping off Dover. 

Whilst they were still climbing, a group of Bf109s were sweeping high above the English Channel with perfect visibility. Undetected by the climbing Defiants, the Bf109s performed the perfect bounce and attacked from the sun.

The brief but brutal combat resulted in the loss of six out of the nine Defiants and signalled the end of the RAF using them as daytime front-line fighters. No 141 Squadron was withdrawn to 13 Group and the Defiant was eventually relegated to that of a night fighter role.

Stupid Idea?

Many people (like me) think that a fighter the size of a Spitfire with a less powerful engine, with the extra weight of a second crew member and a one ton turret is a really stupid idea.

If you then take that stupid idea and make sure that the pilot has no forward firing armaments and that the turret can only fire upwards and that the gunner has to constantly tell the pilot what he's trying to shoot at - then this must surely be the most monumentally stupid idea of all human conflict?

Such people (like me) can't understand why on earth the Boulton-Paul Defiant could possibly have been deployed into 11 Group as a day time front line fighter in Hell Fire Corner. We assumed that this "stupid idea" must have seemed a "good idea" a long time before the War, like the Blenheim, but by the time war broke out, it was out-dated. If that's true, what was it doing in Hell Fire Corner?

The Defiant at its Best

It turns out that the Boulton-Paul Defiant was actually the newest fighter in the RAF which would explain why it was used in front-line day time duties in Fighter Command.

Sadly the Defiant wasn't designed as a fighter to take on single seat fighters, it was designed as a Bomber Destroyer to kill unescorted bombers.

During the Winter of 1940, No 264 Squadron was equipped with the first ever Defiants. They developed new tactics for the new type. 

No 264 Squadron was Operational in March 1940 and was highly successful in the Battle for France.

A properly trained Defiant squadron, it would seem, can be highly successful at destroying Ju87s, He111s and Ju88s. A valuable asset indeed for the Battle of Britain

No 264 Squadron (Defiants) had 64 enemy aircraft claimed destroyed for a loss of 14 Defiants.

141 Squadron had its Own Ideas

No 141 Squadron was the second squadron to be equipped with Defiants but decided they would take little notice of the tactics developed by the highly successful 264 Squadron before it.

When 141 Squadron was thrown into the heat of battle on 19 July 1940, it had none of the well trained, well thought through, tried and battle-tested tactics of 264 Squadron.

Defiants couldn't Speak to Spitfire or Hurricane Squadrons

One of the shortcomings of the Defiant (as highlighted by 264 Squadron but not fixed by Fighter Command) was that the Defiants were fitted with a different radio system to that of the rest of Fighter Command.

When No 141 Squadron was sent up to engage the enemy on 19 July 1940 with a Spitfire squadron and a Hurricane squadron, they had no method of communicating with them.

The Defiant was an Unescorted Bomber Destroyer why on earth was 141 Squadron ever deployed to 11 Group. It was possibly the only Group in Fighter Command that was likely to have fighter escorted bombers almost all the time because it was so close to enemy airfields in France.

No 141 Squadron would presumably have been far better deployed to 13 Group in Scotland or the East Coast.

Stupid Idea or Dreadful Leadership?

Whilst I have always been of the view that the Boulton-Paul Defiant was a stupid idea, I had been ignorant of the tactics developed for it in 264 Squadron and how amazingly successful they had been in France.

I was also unaware that it's concept was one of the Unescorted Bomber Destroyer, for which (looking at 264's statistics) it would seem to have been remarkably well suited.

This does leave me with these three burning questions:
  1. Why was No 141 Squadron leadership allowed to completely ignore battle-proven tactics as developed by No 264 Squadron and to go into battle on 19 July 1940 un-prepared?
  2. Why was No 141 Squadron not deployed to a Group in Fighter Command where it was more likely to come across "unescorted bombers", like Scotland or the East Coast?
  3. Why was the interoperability issue not addressed regarding the different radio systems used on Defiants?
For me, thanks to No 264 Squadron, I no longer consider the Defiant a stupid idea. 

It doesn't sound like a flawed concept but a niche and specialist role.

I have to say that I'm a convert. I now agree with the small minority on the @BofB1940 feed who say it wasn't the Defiant that was the problem, it was the leadership...the leadership of No 141 Squadron and the leadership of Fighter Command.

Churchill wanted Defiants but Dowding wanted Spitfires & Hurricanes

Churchill supported the concept of the Defiant but Dowding wanted fast single-seater forward-firing fighters.

Dowding only equipped two of his squadrons with Defiants and when one of them suffered heavy losses it gave him the ideal reason to withdraw Defiants from his front line.

Was it Dowding's lack of enthusiasm for the Defiant that created the conditions which led to a series of leadership failures that resulted in No 141 Squadron suffering such heavy losses?

Churchill later felt that he'd been wrong to support the Defiant...but maybe he hadn't been, maybe he'd been ignorant of the leadership failings surrounding No 141...he might even have been ignorant of the incredible successes of No 264 Squadron.

Why was No 264 Squadron Withdrawn from Operations?

By May 1940, the successful No 264 Squadron started to suffer mounting losses as the Luftwaffe discovered the Defiant was vulnerable to frontal attack. 264 was withdrawn from operations as a day fighter and started to train for the night fighter role.

Nevertheless, had Defiant squadrons been restricted to that of Unescorted Bomber Destroyer,  maybe 264 would have faired better.

Maybe it was right that the Defiants were withdrawn but maybe there was also an element of self-fulfillment about Dowding's prophecy.

Should the Defiant have been Withdrawn?

Is it possible that if enough Defiant squadrons had followed the battle-proven tactics and training of 264 

...and if Fighter Command and ensured that all Defiants could have communicated properly with their protecting Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons 

...and if Fighter Command had ensured that Defiants were largely engaging with unescorted bombers by deploying them into Scotland and the East Coast and freeing up single seat fighters for 11 Group, it possible that the RAF's newest fighter, the Defiant, could have come out of the Battle of Britain with high scores and low losses

...and when we said the words Spitfire and Hurricane with patriotic pride, perhaps we might also have said Boulton-Paul Defiant.

by Steve Dunster


  1. Typo! "During the Winter of 1940" should be 1939.

    It served well during the Blitz, when Luftwaffe bomber escort wasn't a problem.

    Just... too heavy and too niche.

    1. My info is 264 were reformed 8 December 1939 to bring the Defiant into service and went Operational in March 1940, so I summarised it as "Winter of 1940"...thanks for your comment Kenny

  2. One of the biggest supporter of Defiant idea was Douglas.

    1. Its my mistake. Big supporters were Air Staff's Deputy Director of Operations and Intelligence Air Commodore Richard Peirse and Deputy Director of Operations) Donald Stevenson Donald Stevenson. But there must be someone in the Command who pushed Defiant to the front and that had to be Douglas.

  3. The Defiant was later used as night fighter with some success. I knew a guy who flew them during the war his name is Sam Hall is also wrote a book about his time as a fighter pilot. He flew spitfires during the Battle of Britain and then moved on to Defiants. He told me once I crashed 3 in one day so they could haven't been easy to fly.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. I know a Spitfire pilot who ended up flying Defiants for air-sea rescue. He reckoned it was a good day if you could get the Defiant to clear the boundary hedge on take off. Hated the aircraft!

  4. My father was an air-gunner (MUG on Lancasters), from an air-gunners point of view the Defiant was a death sentence due to being difficult for the gunner to bail out.

    On aircraft which were never really used, how about the Whirlwind which would have probably been a better "bomber killer" (heavily armed compared to a Defiant).

    1. Thanks for sharing that Craig. You make a good point about the Whirlwind it does seem to have been under used. It must have had some perceived weakness or other.

    2. I've never understood why the Whirlwind wasn't developed more. Presumably it didn't stack up against the Spitfire, and the later twin engined Mosquito because its Kestrel engines were inadequate.

      Maybe it was beyond its airframe to accommodate Merlins.

  5. The Defiant came from the same school of thought that the Blackburn Roc did (let's take a slow aircraft and make it even slower) and push the point that deflection shooting is an effective way to bring down enemy aircraft. Sadly, it just wasn't so.

  6. Very interesting blog. I agree there is something in the failure of command view. However, whatever the proposed use, it was a poor design decision to have no forward firing armament and the turret was too heavy for the type.

    They essentially made a niche aircraft which eventually found its place as a night fighter. Had they followed the Me 110 lead they would have had a more versatile type.