Contact! There they were, a curiously lopsided Squadriglia of seven Breda Ba.65 fighter-bombers, their characteristic sand and spinach camouflage patterns only partially obscuring their cruciform outline against the wide expanse of golden desert below.
Composed of a leading formation of four, and a vic of three close behind, together they were clearly rapidly closing the distance on the Westland Lysander observation plane now fleeing east back toward the safety of the Egyptian border.
Several thousand feet above, the young Gloster Gladiator pilot had just heard his radio-telephone crackle into life with the voice of his other section leader excitedly announcing the "Tally-ho!"1 on the leading quartet of Italian warplanes. So, together with his wingman, he dropped down astern of the rear formation of three, where he could be of most use. Almost immediately the whole outfit of Bredas scattered in panic, the handful of RAF fighters following in frenzied pursuit. The fight had instantly become a classic free-for-all, with aircraft spilling across the cloudless desert sky in all directions, and the Gladiator pilot found himself chasing two Italians that had clung together for mutual support. However, tempted as he was to chance a burst of fire from his present 300yds range, he knew that If he was to be certain of destroying his quarry, he had to get closer. Much, much closer!
So, he began following them round and down the wide arc of an imaginary inclined semi-circle in a deadly game of airborne tag, the brace of Breda 65s and the pursuing Gladiator dropping to barely 200ft above the jagged wadis and camel thorn below. Both types were theoretically evenly matched in performance terms, even though the Breda was a monoplane, but the Italian fighter-bombers were carrying two diminutive 20-pound general purpose bombs beneath their wings. These were largely ineffectual for most air-ground work, but sufficiently heavy and drag inducing to hamper their efforts to out-run the Gladiator biplane pursuing them. So now the tiny bombs were jettisoned, fluttering down to impact on the desert floor to the accompaniment of miniscule explosions and clouds of sand.
Thus freed of their burden, they started to pull ahead of the doggedly-flown Gladiator, whose pilot felt his chances of victory start to evaporate. In desperation, he was on the point of firing a burst in the probably vain hope of damaging at least one of the Italians when, suddenly, something quite unexpected happened: the Bredas turned north for the Italian fighter airfield of El Adem. Quick to capitalise on their blunder, the RAF pilot reefed his Gladiator around to cut inside their turn, closing to just 150 yards before pressing his gun button to deliver a quarter attack on the nearest aircraft. His four .303in machine guns blazed, then the port set stopped: something had jammed them! Nonetheless, some rounds had already found their mark, as the Italian began to visibly slow down. Closing in dead astern, the pilot used the Gladiator's remaining guns to rip into the Breda's wings and fuselage and, after the starboard side of its Fiat engine began gushing white smoke, he fired several more well aimed bursts into it before watching it eventually crash-land amid a shower of Saharan dust. The second Breda, now showing a clean pair of heels, was uncatchable. But the Gladiator pilot was satisfied. This was his first air combat of the war, and he had scored a victory.
In fact, he would go on to score at least fifteen more victories in the Gloster Gladiator, including another less than a quarter of an hour later that same August day. His name was F/Lt Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle, known to all as "Pat", a 26-year-old South African who had joined the RAF in 1937. More than any other fighter pilot who flew her, Pat Pattle would prove that, in skilled hands, the obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane was, to put it in canine terms, a proper little terrier with a quite lethal bite. Usually outrun, often outgunned, but seldom outmanoeuvred, the biplane that had first flown six years earlier would, in the hands of exponents like Pattle, prove a worthy adversary to the Axis air forces in the tumultuous fighting over North Africa and Greece in 1940/41, and in many other theatres, and in the hands of the pilots of many other nations.
But the Gladiator story really began some 17 years previously, when the then Gloucestershire Aircraft Company Ltd, based in Cheltenham, in the sleepy English county from which it derived its name, had rolled out a new fighter, the first it had named after a particular kind of bird: the Grebe.
Evolving the Last of the Line
Although designed with an innovative wing layout that bestowed maximum lift for take-off and climb, while simultaneously reducing drag for high-speed flight, the Grebe was not particularly revolutionary when it first emerged from the firm's Sunningend, Cheltenham, factory in August 1923. With an entirely traditional wood and doped fabric structure, it was a single-bay4 biplane powered by a 400hp Armstrong-Siddeley Jaguar fourteen cylinder, two-row radial engine5, carried two externally mounted synchronised Vickers .303in machine guns with 600 rounds apiece, had a ceiling of 23,000ft attainable in 20 minutes, and could reach 152mph in level flight. Therefore, although possessed of lively performance and frisky handling, in its concept and construction it differed little from the later generation of fighters that had flown in The Great War of 1914-18. Nonetheless, for its 34-year-old designer, Henry Philip Folland, the type had the distinction of being his first genuinely significant fighter design project since joining the Gloucestershire Aircraft Company two years previously. For the RAF it was its first all-new post-war fighter, rapidly displacing the Sopwith Snipe in squadron service, and was warmly received by the pilots who flew it.
Small companies that go on to achieve great things often owe their vitality to the vision of one individual, and the Gloucestershire Aircraft Company was one such. Its very existence was due to one Harry Burroughes, who had founded it on 5th June 1917. Two years earlier the Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco) had been looking for a subcontractor to help with the production of components for its DH2 fighter and had selected Cheltenham based H.H. Martyn & Co, which possessed a well-equipped woodworking factory and a reputation for excellence in the field of architectural engineering. Burroughes formed Gloucestershire to take over this sub-contract work, renting Martyn's production facilities for the purpose. By 1918 the company was also producing 45 new Bristol Fighters per week for the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company. When, at war's end, H.H. Martyn struggled to find work back in its own field, Gloucestershire capitalised on its position and, despite the almost overnight cancellation of production orders, bravely elected to remain an aviation company.
As for Folland, he was the son of a stonemason. Born in Cambridge, England, on 22nd January 1889, his engineering and design expertise had its origins in his days as an apprentice with the Lanchester Motor Company of Birmingham, starting in 1905. Once fully indentured he had then moved briefly to the Swift Motor Company before becoming a draughtsman for the German automotive concern Daimler in the latter part of 1908, during which time his nascent interest in powered flying machines had begun to grow – possibly because of the first flight in the UK of a heavier-than-air aircraft in October of that year.6 But his signature work up to this point was the brilliantly successful SE5 scout aircraft, which he had designed in 1916 while working for the government-owned Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough, and which, in the hands of aces such as Albert Ball and James McCudden, had reigned supreme as a dogfighter until the end of the war. The following year, 1917, he had accepted the post of chief designer with the Nieuport & General Aircraft company, immediately embarking on the design of the Nighthawk fighter (an aerodynamically good design bedevilled by engine reliability issues). When that company folded in 1921, and Folland had received his appointment to the Gloucestershire Aircraft Company, he had brought with him his design assistant, Howard Preston, a specialist in the then relatively new science of airframe stress.
Now, as 1924 dawned, the duo began to evolve the Grebe into something more potent. The unreliable Armstrong-Siddeley Jaguar engine, which not only had a poor power-to-weight ratio but also displayed an alarming propensity to burst into flames in the air, was replaced by a lighter and more powerful normally aspirated nine-cylinder Bristol Jupiter Mk VI powerplant developing 455hp, and aerodynamic improvements included more streamlined fuselage contours, together with revised ailerons and tail surfaces (the Grebe's fin and rudder had been a virtual copy of those of the SE5), while the twin Vickers Mk 1 .303in machine-gun armament was now buried in troughs in the lower forward fuselage sides. In addition, Preston strengthened the aircraft's internal structure with new bulkheads and discarded the plywood engine firewall in favour of one formed from mild steel. Overall, these modifications, which reduced form drag for only a modest increase in weight, slightly improved the aircraft's handling and significantly enhanced the aircraft's climb performance, particularly at lower altitudes. The new fighter, now christened the Gamecock in line with Gloucestershire's policy of allocating avian names to its fighter designs, first flew in February 1925 and 108 examples were eventually built. These would serve with no fewer than six squadrons of the RAF (including 43 Squadron, which adopted the nickname "The Fighting Cocks" in homage to its new fighters) and various flying training units, as well as squadrons of the Finnish Air Force.
Even so, the Gamecock had its flaws. For instance, the aeroplane tended to mush downwards when recovering from a high-speed dive or when pulling high-g in a turn. Like the Grebe, it also suffered from a propensity to wing (and tail) flutter and often exhibited pernicious spin characteristics. The former was attributed to the patented Gloucestershire High Lift Biplane (HLB) wings the type had inherited from the Grebe, while its short-coupled fuselage was identified as the primary cause of its spinning problems. Although the wing flutter problem was eventually cured in 1927 by the simple expedient of fitting V-shaped bracing struts to the HLB upper-wing overhang (in the process robbing the Gamecock of a few miles per hour off its top speed, and causing the fighter to receive the unflattering soubriquet, "Folland's Cock's Cradle"), the spinning problem was never fully resolved, and these defects led Folland to adopt a more cautious engineering approach in his key future designs.
It is therefore perhaps no coincidence that, by the second half of the 1920s, the company – now renamed Gloster (see endnotes) - had become wedded to the idea of the use of metal in aircraft structures. Folland had for years been championing the use of such material despite the reluctance of some of the company's directors (who had been around since the earliest days of the company's existence and were steeped in the woodworking tradition) to make the switch. Finally, in 1926/27, following the personal purchase of a fifty per cent interest in the Steel Wing Company7 by Gloster's far-seeing founder, Hugh Burroughes, he had succeeded in producing a metal version of the Gamecock to meet an Air Ministry specification issued in 1925 (F.16/25). Known as the Goldfinch, it was built mainly of steel, aluminium, and duralumin, alloys which demonstrably eliminated the wing and tail flutter to which the Gamecock and Grebe had been prone. Although in a revised form it was ultimately knocked out of the competition to be the RAF's new all-metal day and night fighter (as envisaged by specification F.9/26), its design and construction afforded Folland invaluable experience with metal airframes and left him well prepared to start on the design of an aircraft to meet an Air Ministry specification issued in the summer of 1927 (F.20/27).
However, it was now apparent that the move to all-metal construction made Gloster's Sunningend factory an unsuitable base for future production, so it purchased the nearby airfield of Hucclecote (sometimes referred to as Brockworth), seven miles to the south-west, together with its adjacent hangars and neighbouring office space. Gloster staff were already very familiar with the airfield as, lacking its own, the company had hitherto sent its new designs there by road for flight testing. Now, with Hucclecote as Gloster's permanent operational base, the SS.18 began to take shape.
Like the unrealistic Air Ministry specification F.9/26 before it (for which the Goldfinch, and all the other submissions, had contended unsuccessfully), the essential requirements of the more viable F.20/27 were for an all-metal day and night fighter powered by a radial engine and armed with just two guns. In official circles, it was now widely accepted that metal structures would be mandatory in the next generation of fighter aircraft to prevent the kind of wing and tail flutter problems that had troubled the Gamecock, particularly as higher performance was demanded, and airframe stresses increased accordingly. Indeed, the need for significantly greater speed and climb from RAF fighters had become embarrassingly obvious to Air Ministry strategists when, from 1926, the new Fairey Fox light bomber, with a top speed of more than 220mph, routinely outran and outclimbed the current crop during the annual Air Defence Exercises. Remarkably, pilots of the Fox were eventually instructed to fly no faster than 140mph to give the defending fighters a reasonable chance of intercepting them!
Against this background, Folland conceived the SS.18, the first direct forerunner of his next major project, the Gladiator. Although confident that it would meet the requirements of F.20/27, in the event it would be the Bristol Bulldog that the RAF procured as its new fighter. Nonetheless, assured in the belief that the performance advantage possessed by the Bulldog was marginal, Gloster encouraged Folland to continue development of the SS.18 as a company funded private venture.
Fitted with a Bristol Mercury MKIIA radial engine, and flown by test pilot Howard Saint, the prototype, J9125, made its maiden flight in January 1929. Disappointingly for Gloster, however, the engine failed to deliver its promised 500hp output, and so after some deliberation, the decision was taken early that summer to substitute a 490hp Bristol Jupiter unit. The prototype simultaneously received a new designation: SS.18A. In fact, in the quest for maximum flight performance, this would turn out to be only the first of multiple engine changes the design received over the next few years, each of which led to its re-designation. Thus, when fitted with a 560hp Armstrong-Siddeley Panther MKIII fourteen-cylinder, two-row radial, J9125 received the designation SS.18B. When, in the middle of 1930, another sub-variant of the Jupiter VII was substituted, it was again re-designated, this time becoming the SS.19. And following the incorporation of various airframe refinements, J9125 became the SS.19A. Later still, after being fitted with the 536hp Bristol Mercury VIS in January 1933, it was again re-designated, this time as the SS.19B. What the various engine trials had revealed by then was that while the Armstrong-Siddeley Panther produced the fastest top speed – around 205mph at 10,000ft – its considerable weight had a somewhat detrimental effect on the aircraft's all-important rate-of-climb. The Bristol Mercury VIS, on the other hand, was apparently the most reliable of all the engines tested.
Nonetheless, Folland remained determined to continue refining his design, and further engine changes and re-designations continued for several more months. Eventually, in September 1933, Air Ministry officialdom stepped in with an initial order for 24 aircraft (covered by the official production specification F.24/33), to be based on the SS.18B and powered by the 645hp Bristol Mercury VIS. The new plane was to be called the Gauntlet MKI.
In choosing that name, Gloster was abandoning its long-established tradition of allocating avian names to its fighter designs. In instead choosing to name the aircraft after a medieval knight's glove fashioned from plate armour, it was starting a new tradition of eponymous branding that brought to mind the ancient warrior and his combat accoutrements. It was a sound piece of marketing. Gerry Sayer, seconded from Hawker to become the chief test pilot of Gloster by this time, doubtless had little interest in the firm's naming policy as he took the first production Gauntlet MKI, K4081, aloft from Hucclecote on 17th December 1934. Subsequently, some early production examples were sent to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), Martlesham Heath, for evaluation by RAF test pilots, as well to its first intended operational recipients, 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford, in Cambridgeshire. To these pilots, viewing their new fighters for the very first time in May 1935, there seemed something about the type that was as outdated as the ancient apparel whose name it bore, specifically its two-bay wing design. The rationale offered by Folland was merely that he was still very mindful of the wing flutter problems that had dogged his earlier Grebe and Gamecock and had led to a number of fatalities and, even though the Gauntlet's metal construction ensured greater structural integrity, he believed that a two-bay design was the only guaranteed way of preventing it in his new fighter. In spite of this, the open cockpit, and the encumbrance of the fixed undercarriage, the Gauntlet's superb flight performance was testament to Folland's dedication to the incorporation of drag reducing features in its construction wherever possible. As a result, with a top speed in level flight of 230mph, it boasted a 56mph speed advantage over the Bristol Bulldog that had earlier beaten it to win the F.20/27 contract and even outpaced the Hawker Fury8 by around 30mph. Similarly, its ability to climb to 33,000ft meant it had the highest ceiling of any RAF fighter. It was also, much to its pilots' delight, a superb aerobatic machine!
For all this, however, it was still the last link in a chain of designs dating back to the First World War. Its armament comprised only a pair of rifle calibre Vickers machine guns, and its open cockpit was the last that would appear on any RAF fighter. Its introduction into service, therefore, marked the end of a lengthy, and technologically rather un-progressive, era. Thinking around fighter design was swiftly evolving, and Gloster, as embodied by the personage of its chief designer, Folland, was evolving with it.
One of the significant turns in the company's fortunes about this time was its purchase by Hawker Aircraft Limited in June 1934. This meant that, henceforth, it would have to adopt the latter's methods of airframe construction. Thus the second batch of 204 Gauntlets ordered, designated the MKII, were built using a different technique. Hawker's manufacturing methods differed from those of Gloster primarily in its use of rear fuselage Warren Girder side panels, which were made from steel and aluminium tubing bolted together with fish plates. As a result, the new Gauntlet's fuselage required fewer internal bracing wires. In a move to add strength and increase aerodynamic efficiency, the wing spar was also re-modelled, utilising steel strips rolled to form an octagonal structure, which was then connected with steel webbing. The advantage was a structure that was far easier to build and repair than it would have been using Gloster's welded method. In addition, a Fairey-Reed fixed-pitch, three-blade metal propeller superseded the earlier Watts wooden two-blade unit.
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