vendredi 18 octobre 2013

The Fairey Battle: Outstanding crews, good bombers, but a lot of big mistakes (revised June 11, 2017)

The Fairey Battle: A sound design

For every witness of the maiden flight of the brand new Fairey Battle, in March 1936, it might appear that this bomber was well bred.

Her conceiver, Marcel Lobelle, obviously, had in his mind to create a very fast and nimble bomber, may be with the idea her speed would be sufficient to fly away from occurring fighters (remember, the first Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter, 410 kph, ordered in July 1935, was delivered to the RAF in July 1936...).

The fuselage - a bit too large - was very well streamlined as was the very long glass cockpit.

Fairey Battle on this site - A too large aircraft to carry only  450 kg of bombs!

The Battle carry only 2 very weak defense weapons, 2 Vickers riffle caliber machine-guns, one firing ahead and  the other behind(!).

Her dedicated armament consisted in four 114 kg bombs in bomb cells and two more bombs externally (reducing both the speed and the combat range).

Her empty weight was 3,000 kg and the take off weight was 4,900 kg.

The wingspan was 16.46 m and the wing area was 39.2 m², allowing a wing loading of 125 kg/m².

Her top speed were 415 kph at 6,100 m and 335 kph at sea level, a bit slower than expected, but faster than a lot of current prototypes of bombers in the World. 

Her cruising speed at altitude was 335 kph

The former Vickers Welleseley was about 50 kph slower.

The climbing to 1500 m need as long as 4 minutes...

Nevertheless, it was easy to fly, stable, with a gentle stall behavior and had a good visibility for her pilots. 

Some test pilots complained about the heaviness of the elevator during take off but other test pilots found the elevator oversensitive at low speed...

She was seen as a top priority bomber and orders were placed for 2400 machines. 

A mass production very much efficient than for the RAF modern fighters!

At the outbreak of WWII, more than 1,000 Battle bombers were ready to their operational duty.

If you compare to the 800 modern British fighters produced at the same time, you may observe that only 500 Hurricane I and 300 Spitfire Mk I were produced.

It's more striking if you compare the 300 Spitfire to the 570 Morane 406: Ok, the Morane was obsolete, but she needed exactly the same time than the Supermarine fighter to be produced (Now, in 2017, I'm convinced the Morane 406 needed 30% more building time than the Spitfire!). 

Moreover, the Spifire entered production in 1937, a full year before the poor Morane 406.

One may conclude that either the British fighter industry was absolutely inefficient or the British government was absolutely not aware of the rising risks of war...

A fair British proposal for France

At the end of March 1939, the British government proposed 200 Battle bombers (among them 50 immediately) to the French government.

The French Air Authorities refused, as they wanted exclusively twin-engined bombers.

As the assault specialized Bréguet 691 / 693 were not operationally ready before the Fall of 1939, such a refusal was a completely inappropriate decision which wasted 4 training months at least and an appreciably strong reinforcement.

A bloody operational career: The lack of proficiency of the generals

The first British aerial victory of the WWII was achieved by a Battle gunner, the September, 20, 1939.

Thereafter, the Battle squadrons managing some recce missions over Germany suffered some losses.

The losses became worst at the May 10.

The Wehrmacht succeeded very easily to deceive British and French generals with an apparently overwhelming offensive against both the Netherlands and Belgium. 

So, our Allied Supreme Command believed to the repetition of a kind of the famous Schlieffen plan. 

Such a believe was exactly what Hitler, Guderian and Manstein expected.

But, if the German armies were creating only a diversion, they had a very powerful defense with intense Flak fire and a strong air cover.

So, all the French and British aircrafts lost or damaged in the Netherlands or the North of Belgium skies were absent from the decisive Battle on the Meuse river, from Sedan to Dinant.

A rather accurate bombing  of a German column in Belgium the May 12, 1940 - The flying altitude seems ~20 m AGL
-  one see a handful of German soldiers running to escape the bombing -

The enemies columns were bombed at very low level (250 ft = 76 m AGL). 

Such a low flight implied the use of time bombs (delay of 10 seconds) to avoid to be self downed.

Indeed, such bombing was accurate, but the bombers, flying low at, at most, 320 kph, were splendid targets for 20 mm Flak, as for the machine guns of the armored vehicles.

Once in sight (or in the scope of the Freya radars in use near the German boundaries) the Battle had a strong likelihood to be also "welcomed" by German fighter.

You can read, here and there, that the German fighters outclassed completely the Battle bombers. 

What a tremendous discovery!

From the beginning of the aerial warfare, early in 1915, always the bombers were the natural prey of the fighters and the Anti-Aircraft Fire

The only exceptions to this law are some very nimble bombers displaying high speed as also the flying qualities of fighters. 

That was the case of the De Havilland Mosquito as of the Dassault Mirage IV nuclear bomber.

The counterexamples for all other bombers were only caused by the use of new good methods by the persons who were in command.    

So, the Battle were used only four days:
  • May 10, 32  were sent into sorties, without fighter cover, in North Belgium to stop the German columns, 13 were downed by Flak fire, all other being damaged,
  • May 11, 8 Battle were sent by RAF, 7 were downed. The same day, 9 Battle of the Belgian Air Force were sent to attack the Canal Albert bridges, 6 were downed.
  • May 12, 5 Battle, protected by 6 Hurricane, were sent do destroy 2 road bridges on the Canal Albert, only damaging one of their target (with their very light bombs...). Four were downed by Flak (one posthumous VC for the crew of the leading Battle) and the last, badly damaged, crash-landed on her own airfield.
  • May 14, 63 Battle and 8 Blenheim were sent to the Sedan were Guderian was breaking the line of the French front line. 35 Battle were downed by the German fighters, as also 5 Blenheim
In only four days of very intense fight, 60 Battle were lost among the 108 sent by the RAF Command, giving a losses ratio of 56%. 

A slow bomber?

Today, you can read that the Battle was frequently downed because she was too slow. 

This assertion is not demonstrated at all. 

The only true establishment is that the Battle suffered from heavy losses. 

Was she as slow as it was said after the June 1940 defeat? 

She was clearly 40 kph faster than the most praised Armstrong Whitworth Whitley or the Vickers Wellington, and, following the sources, her speed was the equal to that of the Handley Page Hampden.

Moreover, she was only 10 kph slower than the Fulmar shipboard RN fighter (425 kph at 2,300 m).

The Fairey technical staff had no occasion to develop truly fast aircrafts (for race or speed record breaking). 

So, they were not aware of how numerous were the points to check to obtain the cleanest possible aircraft. 

A first point was the variable pitch motors which were not protected by a spinner (which was displayed on the prototype of the Battle), as usual.

That may result from some overheating of these motors. 

The speed loss may be evaluated to ~10 kph.

Another loss is the cooler position, at the maximum section of the air frame. 

This loss may be more heavy than the previous one.

The legacy of the biplane formula

But the most important drawback was in the wings which were excessively large. 

There was some redundancy to maintain together a very low wing loading with an efficient system of flaps (such a bomber could never play as a Japanese fighter, relying essentially to her maneuverability, because her inertia was far to strong).

The Wellesley of 1935 had a weak wing loading (86 kg/m²).

One year later, the Battle, with her 39.2 m² wing area, had still 125 kg/m² (the same order of magnitude than a Spitfire Mk I). 

Such a weak wing loading was a huge handicap for crew flying by hot weather near the ground: Each turbulence move savagely all the aircraft, tiring the crew and disturbing the aiming of the bombs.

For example, the Bréguet 693, had the same take off weight but her wing area was 10 m² lower than those of the Battle and her wing loading was 166 kg/m².

So, using two 680 hp radial air cooled engines, they were able to fly at 490 km/h. 

If you object me the Br 693 had near than 40% more power, I would answer that a twin-engined motor had three fuselages instead of one, adding a 1.57 m² additional section and so on.

So, with a wing of less than 30 m², the increase of speed would have been at least 50 kph.

A defenseless bomber

The Battle had absolutely no armor, nor self-sealing fuel tank, exactly as if the enemies don't have weapons...

With a fair armor, smaller wings and twice the armament, the fate of this bomber would have been glorious, as was the fate of the very similar Ilushine #2 Sturmovik

The Russian assault bomber, with a similar shape, was smaller and had a 1000 kg heavier take off weight. 

Ilyushine 2 Stormovik

In her model of 1942, her armament was considerably heavier: 2 cannon ahead in addition to the 400 kg of bombs. 

But, especially, she carried ~700 kg of armor.

With a Mikulin AM 38 engine yielding 1600 hp, she was able to fly up to 415 kph at 2500 m (the very speed of the Battle).

Her wings totaled 38.5 m², her empty weight was 4250 kg and her take off weight was 6000 kg, so, her wing loading was a bit less than 160 kg.

Although she was not designed to be a fighter, she was sufficiently nimble to be used to destroy German observation aircrafts (Hs 126, Heinkel 111 and Focke-Wulf 200 Condor) very easily.

Russian engineers have had the time to learn all the problems of the Battle and to avoid them.

Ok, the Stormovik achieved the heaviest losses of all soviet aircrafts: Attacking the German troops was ever like to enter the Hell.

Nevertheless, they attacked relevant targets, destroying them very frequently.  

So, the human losses being not for peanuts, they were more easily acceptable by the crews.

Bad generals induce frequently huge defeats

In the Wikipedia (October 17, 2013) you can read: "For such prewar promise, the Battle was one of the most disappointing of all RAF aircraft."

My opinion is completely different: 
"The Battle was a good bomber, used by outstandingly brave crews. 
They had the huge misfortune to be sent in mission by completely incompetent generals".

As those ruling my own France, the British politician preferred simplistic expressions to careful analyses.

Obviously, these men had never thought to anticipate the influence of the new war material on the warfare. 

Most of them had no scientific or technical competence. 

So, they were not able to chose the most competent chiefs for the Armies.

So, it's not surprising the British generals in place misused of the Battle. 

They thought they can use of the bombers as a stopgap for the difficulties of the land armies. 

Doing that, they were as inefficient as their French colleagues.

If they had been better Air warriors, they used more relevantly the aircrafts they had.

May be, the things had turn to the worst owing to the stupid political Allied choice to defend the Dyle front line.

The Dyle river - A natural defense line? You must be joking!

It was a too near from Germany and very hard to defend line. 

The larger Escaut would have been better suited, knowing the delay to organize static defenses. 

Remember, general Rommel, leading the VIIth Panzerdivision, need 2 full days to cross the Meuse river at Dinant. In front of him, there was only 2 not specially powerful French infantry regiments.

Once the Allied artillery having open fire on the German troops, the bombers may intervene on disturbed troopers, depressing their mood and destroying their tanks, all of this with an strong fighter cover.

To use at best the Battle as there were, it seems that a short incursion of less than 10 km inside the enemy lines, at ~3,000 m (to avoid the 20 mm AA cannons), with at least 50 bombers would had create some surprise. 

Then, a sudden shallow dive full out until 100 m AGL to attack the targets at will, would have minimized the hazards.

Such saturating attacks, prepared by high flying fast bombers to distract AA fire, would had improved the Allied efficiency and lowered that of the Germans...

When you have 1400 bombers (the minimal amount of Battle in the RAF units in May 1940), in a very difficult battle, you need to use at least 1000 of them. 

That was the way the French Général Duval used with his Division Aérienne to save the British troops attacked in March 1918 during the Michael offensive. 

The escort problem

From all available sources telling me the Battle story, one of the most striking problem was the weakness of the fighter cover.

A few attacks were managed with only half a dozen of fighters (translate that as peanuts, but for the Hurricane pilots), the other without any escort!

The famous Defiant was not used for this duty, however, at few meters above the ground level, she would be more efficient against the German Fighters.

At the same time, several hundreds of fighters were waiting on the English airfields. 

The official objective being the protection of the British soil against bombing which cannot be initiated by the Luftwaffe before August 1940. 

It was not trustworthy at all.

May be, one future day, the British archives release the true reasons...

A lesson

I want now to say my absolute admiration for the brilliant crews of the Battle (as also for the French crews of the Bréguet 693 and the Loire-Nieuport 401 / 411) sent to the Hell of the Flak and the Jagdwaffe without a fair fighter cover.

All these men had taught to the survivors the bad methods to be avoided in all cases and the good methods to be efficient. 

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