I am an avid reader of allohistory, the realm of ‘what if'? Or, as the character of Holly (played by British actor, Norman Lovett) in the BBC TV sci-fi series ‘Red Dwarf’, said “ Well, for instance, in this universe, it could be that Hitler won the Second World War. It could be something even more incredible, like perhaps Ringo was a really good drummer.” (ED. Sorry, Ringo!)
Let’s assume that the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Neville Chamberlain, flies back to Croydon Airport from Munich on the morning of 30th September 1938, aboard British Airways Lockheed 14F-62, G-AFGN, without his famous ‘piece of paper’ signed by Adolf Hitler. Further, let’s assume that the Second World War starts a year EARLY…..
What did the RAF have by way of fighter aircraft to defend Britain in October 1938? Answer..SIX squadrons of modern fighters (Hurricane Mk1, Spitfire Mk1) and a mix of Hawker Furies, Gloster Gauntlets and Gloster Gladiators – the Gladiator being virtually a ‘cleaned up’ and modernised Gauntlet. Admittedly, the Luftwaffe were not at their 1940 levels, but it would have been a nasty scrap.
The Gladiator was really a stop-gap fighter. The Air Ministry was pinning its hopes on the Supermarine Spitfire, but they had made a real mess of that at the start, by insisting on the use of the truly terrible steam-cooled Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine, then a poor cylinder-head design of the original Merlin 1. Whilst the ‘new’ Merlin-engined version of the Spitfire was being created Hurricane production was being ramped up, but in these days of peace Hurricanes didn’t so much flow, as drip, from the production line.
The Gladiator I was built to Specification F.14/35, with the first production machines entering service with No. 3 and No. 72 Squadrons in January 1937. A strange mixture of old and new (enclosed cockpit, yet biplane layout), the power was supplied by a nine-cylinder Bristol Mercury IX radial of 840 hp driving a wooden, two-bladed Watts propeller (although later Gladiator II aircraft had a Fairey-Reed, fixed-pitch, three-bladed unit). Armament was 4 x .303 Browning machineguns. Despite the need for more and more aircraft the British Government allowed the export of Gladiators (and also gifted, outright, other aircraft); the list of recipients includes Sweden, Eire, Finland, Iraq, Latvia, Norway, Lithuania, Belgium, Portugal, Greece and China. The Chinese Gladiators were very successful against attempted Japanese raids on the aircraft factory at Siuchow. The Gladiator Mk II was followed by the Sea Gladiator for the Royal Navy (first at sea in HMS Courageous in May 1939), and four of these (with engines and variable-pitch props intended for Bristol Blenheim bombers) were the sole fighter defence of the island of Malta against the Regia Aeronautica for a number of weeks – the Sea Gladiators were named Faith, Hope and Charity, plus a spare – until reinforced by Hurricanes. The RAF’s ‘ace of aces’, Sqn. Ldr. Marmaduke ’Pat’ Pattle, with at least 51 kills, flew the Gladiator at the start of his career in North Africa (many of his kills are still unconfirmed due to the fact that he lost his life during the fighting retreat of British forces in Greece in 1941).
The Gladiator you can see here, G-GLAD, ’N5903′ in the pre-war markings of 72 Squadron, is operated by The Fighter Collection and based at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield. Two Gladiators, N5903 and L8032 (now with the Shuttleworth Collection), were formerly owned by the eccentric (and brilliant) pilot Viv Bellamy.
Oh, yes, and the Gladiator actually fought during the Battle of Britain, after all! The RAF needed fighter defence for the important Devonport Naval Dockyard near Plymouth in Devon. No 247 (China British) Squadron, RAF, was re-formed in August 1940 and equipped with the fast-climbing Gladiator. Flying from the grass airfield at Roborough, to the north of the city of Plymouth, the Gladiators held the line until No. 247 Squadron was re-equipped with Hurricanes in December 1940.