The Gloster Gladiator was the last in a series of British inter-war single-seat fighter aircraft produced by the Gloster Aircraft Company. The Gladiator began its life as a private venture designed by HP Folland. The prototype, S.S.37, took to the air for the first time in September 1934. The aircraft was soon ordered into production by the Air Ministry in July 1935 as the Gladiator Mark I, in an attempt to bolster the ranks of Fighter Command, providing a stop gap for a short period of time. A biplane1, fabric-covered, slow and cumbersome, it was outperformed by many of the newer metal monoplanes of the late 1930s such as the British Supermarine Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters.
Although reminiscent of older biplanes like the Sopwith Camel of the First World War, the Gladiator was something quite different. Powered by the 840-horsepower Bristol Mercury VIIIA 9-cylinder air-cooled radial engine, it had considerable grunt with a top speed of 257 miles per hour, along with being heavily armed (for the time) with four Browning .303 machine guns. Two were on the sides of the fuselage behind the cowling and firing through the propeller, and two mounted under the bottom wing. Unlike older biplanes, the Gladiator also featured modernised landing gear, 'flaps'2 and an enclosed cockpit with a sliding cockpit canopy. The later Mark II introduced a three-bladed metal propeller, automatic fuel mixture control and an electric starter from an internal battery. Total production amounted to at least 756 Gladiators in total; 480 went to the RAF, 60 to the Royal Navy and 216 were exported to other countries.
First deliveries were made to 72 Squadron at Tangmere on 23 February, 1937 and the type went on to equip eight squadrons of Fighter Command. The naval version, the Sea Gladiator, differed only slightly and was fitted with an arrester hook, a catapult attachment and a streamlined dinghy compartment under the fuselage. The Sea Gladiator saw action with Fleet Air Arm squadrons from 1938, but first embarked aboard HMS Courageous with 801 Squadron in March 1939. 802 Squadron of the FAA aboard HMS Glorious and 804 Squadron (attached to HMS Furious but operating from Hatston, Scotland) both saw action off the coast of Norway:
At 1825 [hours], six enemy Ju-87 'Stuka' dive-bombers were sighted 3 miles ahead, on opposite course, in open 'V' formation. The order was given to open fire and the section half-rolled individually onto the tails of the enemy aircraft, each pilot attacking one enemy. Fire was maintained in short bursts, as the enemy twisted, and turned, until the final bombing dive was commenced.
-Lt Cdr J. Cockburn, 1 May, 1940
An Old Airplane for a New War
The Gloster Gladiator was the RAF's last biplane fighter and at the outbreak of the Second World War, only four home-based RAF fighter squadrons were still equipped with the aircraft - the Spitfire and Hurricane were already phasing out the older biplane. Two Gladiator squadrons, 607 and 615, were sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939. In just ten days of hard fighting following the opening of the German assault on 10 May, 1940, all the aircraft were destroyed. In a desperate attempt to provide fighter cover for the evacuation of Dunkirk, a detachment of Gladiators known as 'G' Flight was formed at RAF Manston in late May. Then when the Battle of Britain was being fought, only two home-based units used the Gladiator operationally: 247 Squadron at RAF Exeter and RAF Roborough and 804 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm at Hatston in Scotland.
Gladiators of the Norwegian Jagevingen3 at Fornebu Airport, consisting of seven operational biplanes, managed to shoot down a total of five German aircraft on 9 April, 1940. The Jagevingen claimed two Messerschmitt Bf-110 fighters, two Heinkel He-111 heavy bombers and a Junkers Ju-52 transport plane, with only one Gladiator being shot down. Two were destroyed on the ground when refuelling and rearming at Fornebu while the four remaining aircraft were ordered to land wherever they could, just not at Fornebu. The Gladiators scattered, landing on frozen lakes around Oslo, never returning to active duty:
There were plenty of targets, but at the same time I was forced to manoeuvre to not get an enemy behind me. Suddenly I saw a German. I cut back the throttle, made a half-roll and dived straight down on him. I opened fire at a good shooting distance and kept him in my aim until only 50 metres separated us. Then he rolled over and disappeared downwards in a spin.
-Sergeant Kristian Fredrik Schye, April 1940
Gladiators also served in the Middle East theatre, but are most remembered for their part in the defence of Malta between April and June, 1940. Malta was a perfect stepping-stone into Africa for German forces and RAF 261 Squadron defended the island against both Italian and German air forces valiantly. For ten days, 11 - 21 June, 1940, the squadron had to rely on the only serviceable fighter aircraft, these being the modified Sea Gladiators 'Faith' (N5519), 'Hope' (N5520) and 'Charity' (N5531)4. The three were what was left of five crates dropped off in Malta by HMS Glorious weeks beforehand. Many aircraft were shipped in crates, one of the reasons why pilots used to call them 'old crates'!
The Sea Gladiators used by 261 Squadron were modified, having their arrester hooks and dinghy fairings removed, and armour plate was fitted to the cockpit bulkhead. The Italian Air Force staged bombing raids against the island, but there were only three occasions that the island was actually threatened. The Italian aircraft were dated biplanes and bombers, so the Gladiators were more than a match for them. Flt Lt George Burge and Flying Officer Bill 'Timber' Woods claimed several Italian aircraft during this period and went on to further their tallies when their squadron was later equipped with Hurricanes:
'Timber' went in first but I did not see any results. I managed to get right behind the Itlaian and shoot off the port engine. I was told this happened right over Sliema and Valletta and caused quite a stir with the population. The aircraft caught fire and crashed into the sea off Kalafrana.
-Flt Lt G. Burge, 22 June, 1940
Glad to be of Assistance
In the Far East, the Gladiator fared little better against the Japanese Air Force than it had against the Luftwaffe. Although it played a part in the defence of Singapore in 1942, the aircraft was soon withdrawn from front-line service and used in liaison, communications and meteorological reconnaissance roles until January 1945. However, the Gladiator, fondly nicknamed the 'Glad' by its pilots, proved more than its worth for the few years it saw combat duty. It was a widely-used aircraft despite being produced in relatively small numbers and saw service with the following countries: Australia, Belgium, China, Egypt, Finland, Greece, Iraq, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and South Africa.
Last of a Legend
L8032 is the only airworthy Gloster Gladiator in the world and was the last Gladiator I to come off the production line. It was built by the Gloster Aircraft Company in 1937 and was first posted to No 2 Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit and used to assist in training anti-aircraft gunners. After the war, L8032 was entered in a few races and later used as a civil aircraft before being returned to the Gloster Aircraft Company on 23 February, 1948, exactly eleven years after the first Mk I made its way to 72 Squadron. Rebuilt, refitted with .303 Browning machine guns and repainted with RAF markings, L8032 can now be seen as part of the Shuttleworth Collection.