Aviation History

Shedding light on a mystery: why RAF Museum Do 17 was not shot down by a Defiant ‘bomber formation destroyer’

One particular claim made by a Defiant crew of No. 264 Sqn has had some resonance in recent years – Do 17Z 5K+AR of 7./KG 3, shot down over the English Channel on Aug. 26, 1940. It has been stated that this was the same aircraft recovered by the RAF Museum in 2013.

In April 1935, the Air Ministry issued Specification F.9/35, calling for a high-speed two-seat day and nightfighter with armament concentrated in a power-operated turret. Twelve companies responded, including Boulton Paul of Norwich, which submitted its P.82 proposal. In April 1937, the Air Ministry accepted the P.82 design straight off the drawing board, ordering 87 of the type.

Fitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin III engine, and now named Defiant, Boulton Paul’s prototype, P8310, made its first flight in the hands of Cecil Feather on Aug. 11, 1937. It was found to be an excellent flying machine without any serious vices. Importantly for a gun platform, it was also exceptionally stable, with its concentrated battery of four Browning 0.303-in. machine guns being mounted in a power-operated turret behind the pilot.

As explained by Andy Saunders in his book RAF Fighters Vs Luftwaffe Bombers, Battle of Britain, the Defiant’s all-important turret made it unusual for a single-engined fighter, the aircraft being conceived very much as a ‘bomber formation destroyer’. Whilst conventional wisdom might have us believe that this was a hopelessly outmoded design concept for modern air fighting, it was certainly not as ill-conceived as has subsequently been noted by numerous historians. Such suggestions inevitably arose from its poor performance during the daylight fighting in the Battle of Britain, where it proved to be no match for enemy fighters.

By the time war broke out, only three production Defiants had been delivered. However, by January 1940, more than 40 were in service, and orders stood at 135. The first unit to equip with the type was No. 264 Sqn in December 1939.

In service, the tactical and strategic situation for which the Defiant had been conceived had evaporated. Now, in the summer of 1940, Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters were within range of southern Britain, and bomber formations attacking the mainland were, for the most part, heavily escorted. Thus, if the Defiant was to perform as a bomber formation destroyer then it had to either penetrate a defensive fighter screen or deal with the Messerschmitts when they pounced. All the time, of course, the gunner was reliant on his pilot getting the aircraft into the best attacking or defensive position.

With luck, and a fair wind, Defiants might see some success against bomber formations if these were unescorted, or if they could keep away from the fighter screen. One particular claim made by a Defiant crew of No. 264 Sqn has had some resonance in recent years – Do 17Z 5K+AR of 7./KG 3, shot down over the English Channel on Aug. 26, 1940. In this engagement, Plt Off Desmond Hughes and Sgt Fred Gash have been suggested as being responsible for bringing down a Do 17Z that crashed on the Goodwin Sands. As we have already explained, it has been stated that this was the same aircraft recovered by the RAF Museum in 2013.

In his unpublished memoirs, Hughes wrote of the action on Aug. 26, which took place at 15,000ft over the East Kent coastline. Having set up his gunner for an attack from beneath the bombers, he described what happened next:

Goodwin Sands Dornier Do 17

‘The specks grew into the long pencil-slim silhouettes of Dornier 17s and suddenly there were the black crosses, insolently challenging us in our own backyard! Fred Gash took as his target the second Dornier and made no mistake – his De Wilde incendiaries twinkled all over it, but particularly on its engine. It began to fall out of the formation, the hatch was jettisoned, two parachutes streamed as little dark figures bailed out and the stricken aircraft went down increasingly steeply, with its starboard engine well alight.’

That day, Hughes and Gash were credited with downing two Dorniers, one of them having since been identified as the Goodwin Sands aircraft. The second victory occurred in a chaotic action that followed the initial attack on the formation. Of this second success, Hughes wrote ‘Fred had been blazing away at another Dornier’, which he later reported as having ‘brewed up’. The Defiants were then attacked by Bf 109s, and after shaking them off, Hughes and Gash headed back to base, where they discovered six bullet holes in their aircraft. That night, Hughes sent a telegram to his parents. It said, simply, ‘Two up and lots to play.’

Hughes and Gash were credited with downing two Do 17s in that action, one of them having since been speculatively ‘identified’ as the Goodwin Sands aircraft. However, the latter cannot be the one that Hughes saw two crew bail out of, since that aircraft made a forced-landing on the sands with the crew still on board. The mystery is further deepened by the fact that the recovered aircraft exhibited a bullet strike from dead astern in one of the propeller blades. This does not ‘fit’ with Hughes’ angle of attack from underneath, although it is entirely possible that the bomber was also targeted by other fighters. And it cannot be the one which Gash describes as having ‘brewed up’, a description typically used to describe a complete destruction by fire and explosion.

In short, the recovered Dornier has, to date, yielded no evidence that it is the machine downed on the Goodwins on Aug. 26, 1940. In fact, and as we have seen, that aircraft landed on the sands at low water, where the notoriously glutinous sand would have quickly swallowed up the bomber on successive tides. That being the case, it is hard to explain how the Dornier – if it is this one – was discovered on its back and on the seabed.

All told, the difficulty in attributing specific ‘kills’ to specific aircraft is amply demonstrated with this case. So, too, is the difficulty Defiant gunners often had in properly identifying what had happened to aircraft they had shot at. Equally well demonstrated is the vulnerability of singleton bombers in the unfriendly skies over southern England during 1940. In the RAF Intelligence Report on the downed Dornier that landed on the Goodwin Sands, which included PoW interrogation details, it is stated that the aircraft became separated from the formation after the crew lost their bearings. They were then attacked by fighters (plural). Evidence as to the Dornier being on its own also flies in the face of Hughes’ assertion that what he had attacked was a group or formation of Do 17s.

RAF Fighters Vs Luftwaffe Bombers, Battle of Britain is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Boulton Paul Defiant

Photo credit: Crown Copyright

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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