A World War Two Boulton Paul Defiant fighter is going on permanent display at the Kent Battle of Britain Museum in Hawkinge
A World War Two fighter that played a small but often misunderstood part in the Battle of Britain has been saved from the scrap heap by the Kent Battle of Britain Trust at Hawkinge in Kent.
© Photo Mark Ansell 2013 Courtesy Kent Battle of Britain Museum / The Boulton Paul Association
The faithful recreation of the Boulton Paul Defiant turreted fighter is one of several historic aircraft built by volunteers of the Boulton Paul Association, which had a workshop and museum at the company’s site near Wolverhampton until the factory was put up for sale by its new owners.
Following months of uncertainty which could have seen the Defiant and other aircraft in the collection scrapped, the iconic fighter is going to be displayed at the Kent museum on the former RAF base at Hawkinge, where Defiants of 141 Squadron flew one of the last fateful missions of the fighter during the Battle of Britain.
Chairman of the Museum, Dave Brocklehurst MBE, who has volunteered there for nearly 40 years, says he is “delighted” with the permanent acquisition, which he expects will allow the museum to commemorate the two fighter squadrons that flew operationally with the Defiant in the Battle of Britain.
Both 264 and 141 Squadrons flew Defiants during the early stages of the Battle of Britain.
The museum has had a “bit of juggling” to do to accommodate the new arrival, which is due to arrive in early February 2015. One of the Spitfires will be moving outside to join the static display of three Hurricanes to leave space for a line-up of the Defiant, the Hurricane and the Spitfire in Battle of Britain colours.
© Kent Battle of Britain Museum
“It will be the only display of its kind anywhere in the world,” says Brocklehurst. “It means we can properly tell the story of the Defiant, which is much maligned – often unfairly.”
Debate still rages about the merits of a two-man fighter originally designed as a “bomber destroyer” and of the tactics used by Fighter Command in its brief deployment.
Yet Brocklehurst, whose dedication to telling the story of the Battle of Britain saw him receive his MBE in 2013 (backed by personal letters from eleven Battle of Britain veterans), says he is looking forward to telling its story.
“They call it ‘the slaughter of the innocents’,” he says of the infamous incident on July 19 1940, when the Defiants of 141 Squadron at Hawkinge were effectively wiped out by Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters.
“There are a lot of facts that have never been properly written about that day and I think we can redress the balance,” he adds.
“A lot of people have blamed the Defiant but 141 Squadron took off south over the channel, climbing as they headed towards Calais. Any Squadron doing that would have had heavy losses.
“There were Hurricane and Spitfire Squadrons that took off to the east and west of Hawkinge that were hit on the climb and had heavy losses too. It was just unfortunate. They were misused by Fighter Command.”
There seems to be consensus on the idea that the Defiant, which had no fixed forward firing machine guns, was ill-suited to daylight fighter-to-fighter combat. (In reality and not often mentioned, the turret could be rotated into the forward position and the guns could then be fired by the pilot via an electrical gun button on his control column).
The gun turret, which had proved to be lethal when attacking bombers from beneath or the side, also led to increased drag and hindered maneuverability.
Brocklehurst, however, points to a training exercise in which 264 Squadron Leader Philip Hunter flew a Defiant that out maneuvered by the then Flying Officer (later Wing Commander) Stanford Tuck in a Spitfire. "So the Defiant wasn’t as bad as people make out," he points out.
The new acquisition is painted in the colours of 264 Squadron, who were the first to take the new fighter in 1939. 264 Squadron pilots enjoyed some spectacular early successes with the Defiant during the Battle of France and in the early days of the Battle of Britain. The museum has some relics of their exploits.
“We have excavated three crash sites of 264 Squadron and we’ll be very proud to display those colours,” says Brocklehurst.
“Defiant L7005 was flown by Sergeants Thorn and Barker, the top-scoring crew from the Battle of Britain. We actually have a piece of the original aircraft which was shot down on August 28 1940 by a Messerschmitt 109, which was then shot down by a Hurricane.
© IWM CH 2526
“The Defiant forced-landed and burnt out. What we have is a fistful of molten aluminium, but it will form part of the display and story of the aircraft and its crew.”
The museum, which is completely self-funded and volunteer run, is a treasure trove of artefacts and stories from the Battle of Britain. It houses finds from more than 700 aircraft recovered from crash sites dating to a 20-week period of the Battle of Britain, together with an impressive collection of uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, artwork and replica aircraft.
“But we’re really the museum of the men who fought in the Battle of Britain,” says Brocklehurst.
“It’s the story of the 2,938 Allied crew and approximately 10,000 Germans who fought in the Battle and we tell it through their individual stories. I defy anyone coming here not to find a connection to their own life story.”
The brief but heroic narrative of an experimental fighter with an unusual gun turret will now become an integral part of those stories.
After the Defiants of 141 Squadron at RAF Hawkinge were mauled by Luftwaffe fighters, the squadron was transferred to night fighter duties, a role in which it enjoyed some success during the Blitz.
Later versions of the Defiant were used during World War Two as target tugs and in anti-submarine and turret gunnery training.
Gun turrets were something of a speciality for Boulton Paul, who continued to develop them for the RAF throughout the war with examples supplying bombers including the Halifax and some Hudsons, Lincolns and Liberators.
After switching its factory to Wolverhampton in 1935, the Boulton Paul Aircraft Company continued to build components and planes there until the 1960.
Following the Boulton Paul Heritage Museum’s closure, the collection, which includes a P6 bi-plane developed as a prototype in 1916 and a post-war Boulton Paul Balliol RAF trainer aircraft, was transferred to the care of the RAF Museum at nearby Cosford, which had planned to display them.
But a new strategy focusing on the story of the RAF in time for its centenary in 2018 has seen the RAF Museum switch its focus - and resources - to RAF planes that aren’t already represented in the collection.
The world's last original Defiant, painted in the black camouflage colours of a Polish night fighter squadron, currently resides in the Battle of Britain Hall at the RAF Museum in Hendon, London.
Ironically, Defiant L7005 is believed to be the plane that shot down the RAF Museum's famous Dornier 17, which it recovered from Goodwin Sands in 2012 and is currently preserving.
Other elements of the Boulton Paul Association collection are going to the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton on January 18.
© Photo Mark Ansell 2013 Courtesy Kent Battle of Britain Museum / Boulton Paul Association
The Kent Battle of Britain Museum opens on Friday April 3 and is open Tuesday to Saturdays Easter to October 31. April, May and October 10am – 4pm. June to September 10am – 5pm. Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays. Last entry one hour before closing. Visit www.kbobm.org or their Facebook Page for further information.
© IWM (CH884)
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