At the start of World War II every combatant still had hardware that looked like leftovers from the previous era. But some of those weapons were very effective in the right hands.
Let’s look at a British plane and a proficient pilot.
The Gladiator was essentially an improved version of Gloster’s Gauntlet fighter, a very successful design of the early 1930s. It was the first British fighter with an enclosed canopy, it also had a more modern airfoil design. But of course it relied on traditional fabric over wood construction and was the last RAF biplane fighter. After trying several engines, Gloster and the RAF settled on the Bristol Mercury IX engine with 830 horsepower. This allowed the Gladiator Mk I, armed with four .303 Browning machine guns, a maximum speed just over 250 miles per hour.
This all makes the type a pretty cautious new design. But its one of those examples of a desirable sort of cautious. Hawker was developing their Hurricane and Supermarine their Spitfire when the Gladiator entered service in early 1937. It quickly equipped British fighter squadrons and was widely sold on the export market.
A year later, the Hurricane was entering squadron service and the Gladiators were pushed to more out of the way locations. By the time World War II started the Gladiator was still in many of the sort of far flung locations that guaranteed it would see a lot of action in the early War years (including exotic locales like France with the BEF!).
Among the early operators of the Gladiator was China, who purchased 36 of them in 1937. On February 24, 1938, Chinese-American pilot Capt John Wong scored the very first Gladiator kill over Nanking. He shot down a Mitsubishi A5M, which was also the first combat loss for that type. John Wong went on to become the first Gladiator ace, but he was killed by an A6M Zero on March 14, 1941.
This particular airplane served with RAF 80 Squadron in North Africa. The Squadron and its Gladiators were assigned to Egypt in 1938. It was flown by Marmaduke Thomas St John “Pat” Pattle; generally recognized as the top allied biplane ace (so of course, that also means top Gladiator ace), the top Hurricane ace, and top ace of the Western Allies overall for the War.
Pat Pattle was a South African, born July 3, 1914. He tried to enlist in the South African Air Force in 1933 but was rejected. Two years later, when the RAF was starting what would become wartime expansion, he visited a different recruiter and succeeded in joining the RAF. He excelled through training and was the second ranking officer in 80 Squadron when the War started. When Italy joined the War in June 1940, 80 Squadron deployed forward to the Egypt/Libya border. On August 4 Pattle claimed his first two kills, but was himself shot down, probably by Spanish Civil War ace Tenente Franco Lucchini in a CR.42. He scored two more kills over North Africa, but when the Italian offensive started later that month 80 Squadron found itself flying mostly close support missions.
By November the unit was withdrawn to reequip with new Mk II Gladiators, then sent to Greece. In Greece Pat Pattle scored regularly with 11+ kills. Often listed with 15.5 kills in the Gladiator, only one pilot, the Italian Mario Visintini with 16 had more biplane kills in the Second World War. In February 1941, 80 Squadron switched to Hurricane Mk Is and Pattle started scoring significantly in that type right away. On March 12 he was made Squadron Commander of 33 Squadron. Veterans recall the immediate impact he had on their operations, teaching them how to fly and fight more effectively. Germany joined in the Greek conflict that April, which led to Pattle scoring 25 kills in 14 days. He had three five kill days and on April 19 scored 6.
Pattle was flying with a fever from influenza by this time. On April 20, 15 Hurricanes were the total remaining Allied strength over Greece. Pattle saw Irish ace Timber Woods about to get jumped by Bf 110s that he obviously wasn’t aware of. He went to that pilot’s defense and apparently did not see a number of higher Bf 110s that in turn went after him. Neither Woods nor Pattle survived this fight.
It does get harder to trace his success with his later kills, not only were Luftwaffe records ordered destroyed before the end of the War but 33 Squadron was caught up in the disastrous route of the Greek Campaign and most of their records were lost too. Those records that do survive indicate around 40 of his kills can be confirmed. There is reason to think another ten claims are pretty solid, and his success is often rated at 51 or “around 50”. Those who served with him in Greece claim that number should be closer to 60. 15.5 kills in a Gladiator and maybe 35 in a Hurricane; Pat Pattle was the most successful pilot of the Western Allies for all of World War II.
This is the Roden kit. It was a bear. Overall the detail is nice and most parts fit well enough. But aligning the top wing was brutally difficult. Then the rigging was very tough, worse even than the Po-2 I did previously. I have some ideas on how to do better next time, but I’m not eager to start another of this kit. A final insult, the decals were horrible. They exploding into many pieces when applying them. I don’t have any aftermarket replacements for this aircraft, every marking (strangely not the roundels, just the side codes and serial number) had to be reconstructed like a jigsaw puzzle while wet and in place.
Just a quick observation I felt belonged outside the main body of the post. Pattle’s success over Greece reminds me of reading about certain Luftwaffe pilots over Russia. Except you know, he was fighting the Luftwaffe and not the VVS.
To an Englishman, the most famous Gloster Gladiators were the three who defended Malta. They were called “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity”.
It’s a nice little story about the tiny island the Axis could not capture.
Yes that’s an excellent story. I do eventually have to do another Gladiator just to do one of them.
I like all the “leftover” WWII biplane types, the Gladiator in particular. Roden kits can be a bear!
It sure was!