Fairey Battle

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Fairey Battle.jpg
Fairey Battle trainer
Role Light bomber
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Fairey Aviation Company
Designer Marcel Lobelle
First flight 10 March 1936
Introduction June 1937
Retired 1949
Status 5 remain in museums
Primary users Royal Air Force
Belgian Air Force
Royal Australian Air Force
Royal Canadian Air Force
Free Polish Air Force
Produced 1937–1940
Number built 2,185

The Fairey Battle was a British single-engine light bomber built by the Fairey Aviation Company in the late 1930s for the Royal Air Force. The Battle was powered by the same Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine that gave contemporary British fighters[N 1] high performance; however, the Battle was weighed down with a three-man crew and a bomb load. Despite being a great improvement on the aircraft that preceded it, by the time it saw action it was slow, limited in range and highly vulnerable to both anti-aircraft fire and fighters, having only two defensive .303 in machine guns.[1]

During the "Phoney War", the Fairey Battle recorded the first RAF aerial victory of the Second World War but by May 1940 was suffering heavy losses of well over 50% per mission. By the end of 1940 the Battle had been withdrawn from combat service and relegated to training units overseas. For such prewar promise, the Battle was one of the most disappointing of all RAF aircraft.[1]

Design and development[edit]

The original Fairey Battle was designed to Air Ministry Specification P.27/32 as a two-seat day bomber, to replace the Hawker Hart and Hind biplane bombers, and to act as an insurance policy in case heavier bombers were banned by the 1932 Geneva Disarmament Conference.[2] At the time Britain expected any future war would see France as its enemy and so the distance to Paris was a factor in determining the range it needed.[3]

The resulting design was an all-metal single-engine low-wing cantilever monoplane, equipped with a retractable tail wheel landing gear.[4] Its clean design with its long and slim fuselage and cockpit for three (pilot, navigator and gunner) seated in tandem with a continuous glazed canopy, was similar to a large fighter rather than a bomber.[5] The armament and crew were similar to the Blenheim: three crew, 1,000 lbs bombload and two machine guns, although the Battle was a single-engine bomber, with less horsepower available. The Battle's standard payload of four 250 lb (110 kg) bombs was carried in cells inside the wings and an additional 500 lb (230 kg) of bombs could be carried on underwing racks.[6] As the engine occupied the nose, the bomb aimer's position was under the wing centre section, sighting through a sliding panel in the floor of the fuselage using the Mk. VII Course Setting Bomb Sight.


The prototype Battle first flew on 10 March 1936.[7] When the RAF embarked on the pre-war expansion programme the Battle became a priority production target, with 2,419 ordered[8] and an initial production order placed for 155 Battles built to Specification P.23/35. The first of these was completed at Hayes, Middlesex in June 1937 but all subsequent aircraft were built at Fairey's new factory at Heaton Chapel, Stockport[4] and tested at the company's Manchester (Ringway) facility. Subsequently the Shadow factory operated by Austin Motors at Cofton Hackett, Longbridge, manufactured 1,029 aircraft to specification P.32/36. Total production was of 2,185 machines, as production lines were closed in advance, in September 1940.[9] Production Battles were powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin I, II, III and V.


Replacing the RAF's Hawker Harts and Hinds when it entered service in 1937, the Battle was obsolescent even then as fighter technology had outstripped the modest performance gains that the light bomber possessed over its biplane antecedents.[10] The Battle was armed only with a single Browning .303 in machine gun fixed ahead and with a trainable Vickers K in the back; this was desperately inadequate.[4] Moreover, it lacked an armoured cockpit and self-sealing fuel tank.[11]

Operational history[edit]

Fairey Battle, K7650 / 63-M of No. 63 Squadron, RAF Benson, November 1939. This was the first operational squadron to be equipped with the Battle.
RAF No. 218 Squadron Fairey Battles over France, c. 1940

The first RAF squadron to be equipped with Fairey Battles was No. 63 Sqn. in June 1937. The Battle had the distinction of becoming the first operational aircraft to enter service with a Merlin engine, beating the Hawker Hurricane's debut by a few months.

The Battle was obsolete by the start of the Second World War, but remained a front-line RAF bomber owing to a lack of a suitable replacement. On 2 September 1939, during the "Phoney War", 10 Battle squadrons were deployed to France to form a vanguard of the Advanced Air Striking Force. On 20 September 1939, a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 was shot down by Battle gunner Sgt. F. Letchard during a patrol near Aachen, marking the RAF's first aerial victory of the war.[12]

Nonetheless, the Battle was hopelessly outclassed by Luftwaffe fighters, being almost 100 mph (160 km/h) slower than the contemporary Bf 109 at 14,000 ft (4,300 m). The Battle's defence consisted of a single .303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers K machine gun mounted in the rear cockpit and a single forward-firing .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine gun in the starboard wing.

When the Battle of France began, Battles were called upon to perform unescorted, low-level tactical attacks against the advancing German army. This put the aircraft at risk of attack from Luftwaffe fighters and within easy range of light anti-aircraft guns. 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 had little impact on the German columns.[13]

The air gunner of a Battle mans the aircraft's defensive weapon, a single pintle-mounted rapid firing Vickers K machine gun, France 1940
The bomb aimer position in the Battle was in the floor of the aircraft; here the CSBS Mk. VII is being demonstrated.

On 11 May, nine Battles of the Belgian Air Force attacked bridges over the Albert Canal on the River Meuse, losing six aircraft,[14] and in another RAF sortie that day against a German troop column, only one Battle out of eight survived.[15] During the following day, five Battles of 12 Squadron attacked the bridges; four of the aircraft were destroyed with the final aircraft crash-landing back at its base.[16] Two Victoria Crosses were awarded posthumously for the action, to Flying Officer Donald Garland and air observer/navigator sergeant Thomas Gray of Battle serial P2204 coded PH-K, for pressing home the attack in spite of the heavy defensive fire. The third crew member, rear gunner Leading Aircraftsman Lawrence Reynolds, did not share the award. Both fighters and flak proved lethal for the Battles. Although Garland's Battle destroyed one span of the bridge,[17] the German army quickly erected a pontoon bridge to replace it.

Wreckage of a Fairey Battle shot down by the Wehrmacht, France May 1940

On 14 May 1940, in a desperate attempt to stop German forces crossing the Meuse, the Advanced Air Striking Force launched an "all-out" attack by all available bombers against the German bridgehead and pontoon bridges at Sedan. The light bombers were attacked by swarms of opposing fighters and were devastated. Out of a strike force of 63 Battles and eight Bristol Blenheims, 40 (including 35 Battles) were lost.[18][19] After these abortive raids, the Battle was switched to mainly night attacks, resulting in much lower losses.[20]

A similar situation befell the German Luftwaffe during the early days of the Battle of Britain, when the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber suffered equivalent losses in a similar role. With the exception of a few successful twin-engine designs such as the de Havilland Mosquito, Bristol Beaufighter and Douglas A-20, low-level attack missions passed into the hands of single-engine, fighter-bomber aircraft, such as the Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Typhoon and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.

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.[21] After the return from France, for a short period of time, the RAF continued to rely on the light bomber. Reforming No. 1 Group and later equipping four new Polish squadrons with the type, it continued to be deployed in operations against shipping massed in the Channel ports for Operation Sealion. Their last combat sortie was mounted on the night of 15/16 October 1940 by No. 301 (Polish) Squadron in a raid on Boulogne, and Nos 12 and 142 Squadrons bombing Calais. Shortly afterwards Battle squadrons of No. 1 Group were re-equipped with Vickers Wellington medium bombers.[22] Battles were operated into 1941 by 88 and 226 Squadrons in Northern Ireland and 98 Squadron in Iceland, for coastal patrol work.[23]

Meanwhile, the South African Air Force had been supplied with some Battles. In August 1940, No. 11 Squadron took possession of at least four, which were flown north to be operated in the Italian East Africa (Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea) campaign. They conducted bombing and reconnaissance operations. Whereas in France the RAF's Battles had encountered modern German fighters in large numbers, the South Africans faced a smaller number of Italian biplane fighters (Fiat CR.32 and CR.42s), which enabled the aircrews to contribute more effectively to the campaign; but not without several losses, especially when surprised above some predictable targets (air bases, ports etc.), since Italian biplanes dived as fast as possible over the bombers, trying to shoot them down in the first pass.[24][25]

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. A few Fairey Battles of the RAF and about a dozen belonging to the RHAF - serial numbers starting from B274 - participated in secondary bombing roles against enemy infantry. Most of them were destroyed on the ground by Luftwaffe air attacks on the airfields of Tanagra and Tatoi north of Athens between end of March and mid April 1941. No significant contribution of this type was reported during this period, although some hits were recorded by the Greek Air Force.

Before World War II, in spring 1939 the Polish government ordered 100 Battle bombers, but they had not been delivered before the war. The first 22 aircraft were sent in early September 1939 on two ships to Constanta in Romania, to be received there by the Polish crews, but the ships were ordered back, while in Istanbul, due to the inevitable fall of Poland. They were next offered to Turkey.[26]

Some sources state that the Fairey Battle was licence-produced in Denmark for the Danish Air Force before the German invasion in 1940, but no such plane is known to have been completed.[27]

Trainer role[edit]

As the dual-control Fairey Battle T, it served as a trainer. As the winch-equipped Fairey Battle TT target tug it was used as a target-towing aircraft for training in air gunnery. The Battle served as a trainer with the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the South African Air Force. From August 1939, 739 Battles were stationed in Canada as trainers in the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Most were used for bombing and gunnery training with a small number equipped as target tugs. Some aircraft had the rear cockpit replaced with a Bristol Type I turret for turret-gunnery training.[28]

Although the Battle was retired from active use in Canada after 1945, it remained in RAF service in secondary roles until 1949.

Engine testbed[edit]

While the Battle was no longer used as a combat aircraft, its benign handling characteristics made it an ideal platform for testing engines, and it was used in this rôle to evaluate engines up to 2,000 hp (1,500 kW) including the Rolls-Royce Exe and Fairey Prince (H-16). Battle K9370 was used to test the Fairey Monarch 2,000+ hp (1,490+ kW) aero-engine with electrically-controlled three-bladed contra-rotating propellers in 1939. According to Jane's All the World's Aircraft 1946-47, the aircraft was shipped to the U.S.A. after 86 hours test time.


Fairey Day Bomber
Prototype (K4303).
Battle Mk I
Three-seat light bomber version. This was the first production version, which was powered by a 1,030 hp (770 kW) Rolls-Royce Merlin I inline piston engine.
Battle Mk II
Three-seat light bomber version. Powered by a 1,030 hp (770 kW) Rolls-Royce Merlin II inline piston engine.
Battle Mk V
Three-seat light bomber version. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin V inline piston engine.
Battle T
After May 1940, a number of Battle Mk Is, IIs and Vs were converted into training aircraft.
Battle IT
After May 1940, a number of Battle Mk Is, IIs and Vs were converted into training aircraft with a turret installed in the rear.
Battle IIT
In October 1940, a sole RCAF Battle Mk I was converted into a prototype for a future series, powered by an 840 hp Wright Cyclone R-1820-G38. The Battle IIT was conceived as a stopgap conversion in the likelihood that supplies of RR Merlins were unavailable.[29]
Battle TT
After May 1940, a number of Battle Mk Is, IIs and Vs were converted into target tug aircraft; 100 built.
Battle TT.Mk I
Target tug version. This was the last production version; 226 built.


In total, 2,185 Fairey Battles were built during the machine's production life; 1,156 by Fairey and 1,029 by the Austin Motor Company. A further 16 were built under licence by Avions Fairey at Goselies, Belgium for service with the Belgian Air Force. The 16 Battles were delivered early in 1938 and were differentiated from British-built examples by having a longer radiator cowling.[8]


In addition to the units listed, a many Battles were operated by training schools, particularly for bombing and gunnery training.

 South Africa
 United Kingdom

Accidents and incidents[edit]

On 2 August 1940, Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a racing motorist, aviator and prolific collector of veteran cars and aircraft was killed when Fairey Battle L4971 of No. 12 Operational Training Unit RAF Benson crashed into a hill during a solo night flying exercise.[32]

On 23 September 1940,Fairey Battle K9480 on a training flight, crashed on to a house, killing the Polish pilot and five civilians from one family in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. [33] [34] [35] [36]


Media related to Fairey Battle museum aircraft at Wikimedia Commons

Battle R3950 under restoration at the Royal Military Museum, Brussels, 2006.

Five examples of the Fairey Battle are held by various museums, none in flying condition.

Specifications (Mk.II)[edit]

Orthographic projection of the Battle.

Data from Fairey Aircraft since 1915[40]

General characteristics


  • Maximum speed: 257 mph (223 kn, 413 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4,600 m)
  • Range: 1,000 mi (870 nmi, 1610 km)
  • Service ceiling: 25,000 ft (7,620 m)
  • Climb to 5,000 ft (1,520 m): 4 min 6 sec


See also[edit]

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists


  1. ^ The Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire were powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin.
  1. ^ a b Ethell 1995, p. 177.
  2. ^ Air International March 1981, p. 127.
  3. ^ Buttler, British Secret Projects: Fighters and Bombers 1935-1950 2005 Midland. p65
  4. ^ a b c Orbis 1985, p. 1693.
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External links[edit]