The Fairey Battle was a prewar British light bomber design that proved a step-forward for the nation when it was designed during the early-tomid-1930s. However, it was quickly outclassed in the fighting of World War 2 (1939-1945) where it held little advantage against more nimble enemy fighters put forth by the Germans. Nevertheless, Battle crews and British warplanners soldiered on due to the lack of a better alternative and production would eventually range into the thousands. The aircraft was used by several major air arms of the conflict and was not formally retired until the late 1940s.
The Battle was born from Specification P.27/32 appearing during 1933 which called for a two-seat, light-class bomber aircraft to replace the aging stock of Hawker biplanes in the same role. At this time in history, British thinking centered on a compact, light-class bomb delivery platform with France being the assumed future enemy of Britain - thusly range proved of little import. The storied Fairey concern returned with a modern, two-seat, low-wing monoplane which recorded its first flight on March 10th, 1936. By the time the aircraft made it aloft, it had changed considerably from the original direction, now incorporating a greater bomb load capability as well as a third crewmember to help take on more of the operational workload. This forced a long slender fuselage with a long-running, greenhouse-style canopy to be implemented and these changes regrettably increased the airframe's intended weight with the result becoming degraded performance.
Even before the readied prototype (K4303) had even flown, the Air Ministry contracted for 155 of the modern aircraft to offset its outclassed interwar-era biplanes (many air forces were incorporating all-metal, enclosed cockpit aircraft during the period). Production followed as quickly as possible and order numbers grew despite limitations in the design already understood by commanders who would be managing the fleet during wartime. No. 63 Squadron became the aircraft's first recipient during May of 1937 as Europe grew more and more unsettled and by September of 1939, 1,000 Battles stocked the Royal Air Force (RAF) inventory in preparation for total war. Initial variants were recognized rather simply as "Battle Mk I" and these were powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin I inline piston engine of 1,030 horsepower - the same engine that would make stars out of the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire in due time. Armament was just 1 x .303 (7.7mm) Browning machine gun in a fixed, forward-firing mounting along the right-hand-side wing leading edge with 1 x Vickers K machine gun in an aft mounting in the cockpit. The Battle managed an internal bomb load of 4 x 250lb conventional drop bombs and an additional 500lbs of external stores.
World War 2 (1939-1945) began on September 1st, 1939 when German forces began their campaign to conquer Europe, crossing into sovereign Poland. They were soon joined weeks later by the Soviet offensive in the East which divided Poland in two. Prior to the invasion, the British had already delivered some ten squadrons of Fairey Battles to French soil in anticipation of war.
When Battles were put to the test, it proved itself an already outclassed aircraft type - too slow to counter enemy fighters and holding too small of a bomb load to be an effective strike aircraft. Self-defense was truly lacking and its size worked against the crew, providing a large target and revealing many vulnerable approach angles to the enemy. If left on their own, Battles fended poorly during sorties than when under fighter escort protection - Battles were neither true bombers nor dedicated fighters, instead something of an obsolete cross-breed that realistically held little value in the upcoming war of fluid fronts. During one mission undertaken in September of 1939, five Battles fell to German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters with little trouble - such was the German fighter advantage when facing unprotected Battle aircraft.
Following the initial Mk I variant was the slightly improved Battle Mk II with their Rolls-Royce Merlin II inline piston engines outputting at 1,030 horsepower. Performance included a maximum speed of 257 miles per hour with a range out to 1,000 miles. It service ceiling was 25,000 feet with a rate-of-climb nearing approximately 1,250 feet per minute.
The Mk V was then brought online and this mark introduced the Merlin V series engine. From the Mk I, Mk II and Mk V lines was born the converted "Battle T" trainer model. The "Battle IT" trainers were given a turret along the aft end of the fuselage for aerial gunnery practice. The "Battle IIT", appearing October 1940, was a one-off Mk I outfitted with the American Wright Cyclone R1820-G38 engine in case Rolls-Royce Merlins would go into short supply during the war. Others fell to use as target tugs - "Battle TT" and "Battle TT.Mk I".
As the Germans advanced through the Low Countries and, ultimately, France during May of 1940, the Battles were continually pressed into action simply due to the lack of more viable alternatives in an ever-growing desperate situation. Battles undertook armed reconnaissance/patrols and strike where possible and additional threats remained ground-based anti-aircraft fire leading to increasing losses. The Germans, through their quick Blitzkrieg approach, forced Allied warplanners to catch up on the ever-evolving situation along varied fronts. In one mission on May of 1940, dozens of Battles were lost to Axis fighters which further reduced the type's value in combat. With the fall of France and vital resupply ports along the Channel, the aircraft joined other military equipment that had survived the onslaught back on English soil.
Despite the relocation and their disastrous outings, Battles continued in service throughout what remained of 1940. Targets became Axis positions across the Channel for which Battles were originally designed for. However, results were no better and the line was removed from frontline service by the end of the year. Remaining stocks were then used in the aerial gunnery training role and as target tugs.
Battles were officially retired from all service in 1949, well after the war had ended in 1945. Despite their production total reaching 2,185 (manufactured from the period spanning 1937 to 1940), only five remain today as protected museum showpieces (2014). Beyond their service with the RAF, the aircraft also stocked the inventories of Australia, Belgium, Canada, British India, Ireland (sole target tug example), Greece, Free Polish Forces, South Africa and Turkey. Manufacturers including Fairey itself, Avions Fairey (Goselies, Belgium) and the Austin Motor Company
Some twenty-six RAF squadrons made use of the Battle. Additional service was seen through the Fleet Air Arm (FAA).