The Deadly Defiant, A Game-Changing British Warplane in WW2

Ground crew from No. 264 inspect the damage to a Defiant's elevators. This plane had just returned from the amazingly successful sorties of May 29th, 1940. When 264 Squadron shot down 37 German aircraft, without a single loss. Source: wiki/ public domain.

Ground crew from No. 264 inspect the damage to a Defiant’s elevators. This plane had just returned from the amazingly successful sorties of May 29th, 1940. When 264 Squadron shot down 37 German aircraft, without a single loss.

The Defiant pilots also discovered how useful their plane could be as bait for German fighters. From above, the Defiant fuselage resembles that of the Hawker Hurricane, a British fighter. German formations would “bounce” the British fighters, swooping down from behind to hit the undefended Hurricanes. But this proved deadly when they mistook Defiants for their turretless cousins. German fighters would dive down, only to be met with coordinated and devastating machine gun fire from multiple directions. German pilots quickly learned the differences between Defiants and Hurricanes, and changed their tactics, attacking Defiants from the front.

Hawker Sea Hurricanes of the Fleet Air Arm, based at RNAS Yeovilton, flying in formation, 9 December 1941 © IWM (A 9534)

Hawker Sea Hurricanes of the Fleet Air Arm, based at RNAS Yeovilton, flying in formation, 9 December 1941

Thanks to No. 264 Squadrons success, another Defiant squadron was launched, No 141. But the officers of No. 141 refused to listen to those from No. 264 who attempted to teach them the new and unconventional fighting tactics they had developed for their Defiants. Instead, the pilots of No. 141 flew in a steady, tight formation, relying solely on the turrets for defense, rather than maneuvering. This proved disastrous, and casualties were very high.

A Bf-109 E in 1940. These were developed before the Defiant, and were their main foes. As the range of German fighters increased, Defiants became increasingly vulnerable while attacking German bombers. Source: wiki/ public domain.

A Bf-109 E in 1940. These were developed before the Defiant, and were their main foes. As the range of German fighters increased, Defiants became increasingly vulnerable while attacking German bombers.

By the end of Summer, 1940, it had become clear that the Defiant wasn’t truly meant to be a daytime frontline fighter. While it was effective against enemy bombers, the Germans were increasingly using fighter escorts, which negated the Defiant’s advantages. The RAF decided that the Defiant would be better used as a night fighter. It was in this role that these planes truly came into their own.

Painted pitch black, and fitted with coverings for their exhaust, these night fighters proved deadly against the German bomber raids during the London blitz of 1940-1941. Initially, the fighters weren’t equipped with radar, relying on ground based stations, and expert navigation to find their targets. But with the addition of plane mounted radar, the Defiant became a deadly foe. They followed the initial theory behind the craft: fly below an enemy formation, and fire upwards, aiming at the undefended belly of a German bomber. Using these tactics, Defiants proved the most successful night fighter of the Blitz, with more victories than any other type.

A night fighting Defiant, painted in all black. In this role the Defiant truly proved its worth, claiming more German kills than any other British night fighter during the London Blitz.

A night fighting Defiant, painted in all black. In this role the Defiant truly proved its worth, claiming more German kills than any other British night fighter during the London Blitz.

But by 1942 the German bombers had gotten too fast for the often cumbersome and slow Defiants. Their night fighting role was replaced with larger two engined fighters, but the tactics No. 264 had developed remained in use, and their turrets were often fitted onto other craft. The Defiant then found its new role: an auxiliary craft.

They were used for radar jamming for much of the war, carrying the British “Mandrel” system. This allowed a flight of eight Defiants to appear to be around 100 strong on the German radar, which would attract enemy fighters. These would then be pounced on by British fighters from up above. This tactic proved effective, and helped to achieve the air superiority which was necessary for the eventual invasion at Normandy. Defiants were also used as target tugs, search and rescue planes, and one was even used as the testbed for a revolutionary new idea: an ejection seat. These planes continued service throughout the war, not being retired from the RAF until the end of 1945.

A Defiant being used as a target tug. That extra propeller was a wind powered generator for an electric winch, pulling in the glider target behind it. Source: wiki/ public domain.

A Defiant being used as a target tug. That extra propeller was a wind powered generator for an electric winch, pulling in the glider target behind it.

The Boulton Paul Defiant is an excellent example of the experimental aircraft developments in the 1930s. No one knew what the next war would look like, and nearly everything was tested. While their operational success was limited, that was due in large part to the RAF not using the Defiants properly. They’ve gone down in history as a very niche design, but a concept which was proven to be effective, if used correctly.