Thursday, April 28, 2016

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time - Turret Fighters

I'll (hopefully) pick up my Night Fighters series proper next week. This week, however, I'm going to focus on one of the weird sideshows from the beginning of WWII aviation, and an aircraft that was pressed into service as a night fighter for a while.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In the late 1930s, light- and medium-bombers were outpacing the late model biplane fighters of the day, and it was generally believed that speed, combined with massed turret fire, would allow bombers to attack enemy targets without need for fighter cover. Of course, this thought didn't stop British Fighter Command from asking something along the lines of "Well and good for the enemy, but we can't have our fighters getting shot to pieces. How are we going to intercept the enemy bombers?"

One of the answers went something along the lines of "Well, if turrets are good for bombers, then they'll be great on fighters! Do that!" And so, approximately, were born the Boulton Paul Defiant for the RAF, and Blackburn Roc for the Royal Navy.

Unlike the Defiant, the Roc also carried provision for
underwing weapons, and intended for ground-attack
duties as well.
Blackburn Roc. Ugly in a uniquely British way.
Still not a good fighter, but Merlin engines make everything
at least somewhat better.

Boulton-Paul Defiant

On the surface, it was a concept that solved a couple  of problems. The gunner freed up the pilot to focus on interception and flying duties, while the turret allowed for attacking enemy bombers from underneath, where fewer guns could be brought to bear.

Unfortunately, in actual combat, the turret fighter concept proved cripplingly vulnerable to single-seat enemy fighters. The extra weight of the turret and lack of forward armament put the turret fighters at a serious disadvantage against lighter, faster, more maneuverable opponents. Defiants did have some early success, primarily against German pilots who mistook them for Hawker Hurricanes and initiated attacks from the rear. Lessons subsequently learned, squadrons equipped with Defiants soon began suffering significant loses.

As a stop-gap measure until the Bristol Beaufighter became sufficiently operational, Defiants were re-assigned to night fighter duties. They saw some successes in this role, equipped with some of the early airborne radars, but were soon replaced by the Beaufighter, and eventually the Mosquito. Surviving Defiants were re-assigned to serve as trainers and target tugs,

Like any number of military innovations throughout history, the turret fighter was born from ideas that seemed good on paper, but failed in reality. The sole surviving Defiant is on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in London. No Rocs appear to have survived.

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