Gloster ‘Irish’ Gladiator
By AP (Tony) Kearns
Cover image: The three Gladiators of No. 1 Fighter Squadron out from Baldonnel for a photo shoot. No. 24 flown by Lieutenant Kelleher, No. 26 flown by Lieutenant Des Johnston and No. 25 flown by Lieutenant Maloney. Picture taken from a Westland Lysander No. 65 flown by Lieutenant Jimmy O’Brien. (Photo courtesy of Air Corps Museum)
First published in Autumn 2017 issue.
During the Emergency years, the Irish Air Corps was equipped with a variety of aircraft. The sound of Miles Magisters, Hawker Hectors, Avro Ansons, Westland Lysanders, and Supermarine Walrus’ were common over the skies of Ireland during those years. The majority of aircraft available were tasked with pilot training, maritime patrol, army co-cooperation or were simply obsolete. For the first few years of the Emergency, the Gloster Gladiators of No. 1 Fighter Squadron defended Irish airspace from belligerent aircraft.
In 1935, the era of the Bristol Fighters in the Irish Air Corps service came to an end with the withdrawal of the last three aircraft from use. The final flight was undertaken by Bristol Fighter No. 18 on 24 June 1935. It was to be a further three years before a replacement fighter was obtained and although the Bristol Fighters were completely obsolete by that time, they had served the Air Corps well in service as an army co-operation aircraft. It was urgent at this time to obtain a replacement fighter in the light of the deteriorating political situation in Europe.
In September 1937, a specification was drawn up by the Air Corps, calling for a single seat fighter with a top speed of 250mph at 15,000ft, a stalling speed of 59mph, climbing to 15,000ft in 6.25mins, 20,000ft in 9.2mins and a service ceiling of 32,000ft. The specification further called for an aircraft with an enclosed cockpit and powered by a Bristol Mercury IX engine. In fact, the specification was drawn up with the Gloster Gladiator very much in mind.
Ireland’s financial resources were limited at that time and only four aircraft were provided for in the 1937/38 defence estimates. The No. 1 Co-operation Squadron, the then forerunner to No. 1 Fighter Squadron, was by now equipped with the Vickers Vespa, Avro 626 and Avro 636 types. The Vespa had in fact been reduced from the original eight to one aircraft and the Avro types were basically training aircraft with performances lacking those of fighter aircraft. The number of aircraft available was sufficient to equip only one flight (A Flight). There was an immediate necessity for the completion of the equipment for a second flight. It was emphasised by Air Corps that it was important to provide the equipment for advancing training to the required service standards. In this regard, the Gladiator was considered ideally suited to the Air Corps requirements. It had entered service with 72 Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in February 1937, and was considered an extremely good aircraft of its type, free from vice, very manoeuvrable and suitable for the training of pilots in fighting tactics.
In early October, the official order was placed for four Gladiators with the Gloster Aircraft Company at Hucclecote and work proceeded on them apace. Known as the Gloster ‘Irish’ Gladiator, the Air Corps serials were to be No. 23 – 26. In January 1938, Gloster discovered that they could not obtain a promise on delivery of Mercury IX engines before April and asked the Air Corps to consider the Mercury VIII. The Air Corps agreed to this request as it would have delayed the delivery date and with consequent delays in introducing the type into service at Baldonnel.
The four Gladiators were completed in February 1938, and the first Irish Gladiator, No. 23, took to the air for its first flight of 20 minutes on 23 February, at 10:00hrs, flown by a Gloster test pilot.
Gloster ‘Irish’ Gladiator
- CREW – 1
- LENGTH – 27 ft 5 in (8.36 m)
- WINGSPAN – 32 ft 3 in (9.83 m)
- HEIGHT – 11 ft 9 in (3.58 m)
- WING AREA – 323 ft2 (30.0 m2)
- EMPTY WEIGHT – 3,217 lb (1,462 kg)
- LOADED WEIGHT – 4,594 lb (2,088 kg)
- POWERPLANT – 1 × Bristol Mercury VIII nine-cylinder, air-cooled, single-row, piston radial engine, 825 hp, compression ratio 6.25:1, lightened engine
- PERFORMANCE MAXIMUM SPEED – 253 mph (220 knots, 407 km/h) at 14,500 ft (4,400 m)
- CRUISE SPEED – 210 mph
- STALL SPEED – 53 mph (46 knots, 85 km/h)
- ENDURANCE – 2 hours
- SERVICE CEILING – 31,800 ft (10,000 m)
- RATE OF CLIMB – 2,300 ft/min (11.7 m/s)
- CLIMB TO – 10,000 FT (3,050 M) 4.75 min
- ARMAMENT GUNS – Four .303” calibre M1919 Browning machine guns; two synchronised guns in fuselage sides and one beneath each lower wing.
Wartime colour scheme
Initially the Gladiators had aluminium wings and light green fuselage. In May 1939, Gladiators 24 and 25 were ordered to be camouflaged in green/earth. Tricolour stripes on the upper wings were replaced with a green/orange Celtic boss, which was repeated on the fuselage sides. The aircraft serial number was painted black on the fuselage and on the bottom surface of the lower wing. There were no tailfin markings. No. 26 was not camouflaged until July 1940. At the same time for a short period Gladiator 24 had a three colour boss applied. In April 1941, the Army requested that a white square be added to the fuselage boss to aide identification.
For full details on the Gladiator colour schemes used by the Irish Air Corps please see Gloster ‘Irish’ Gladiator in Flying in Ireland magazine, December/January 2008.
No. 1 Fighter Squadron crest
In 1940, Lieutenants Dessie Johnston and Andy Woods designed a crest for No. 1 Fighter Squadron – a black Leopard’s head in a circle with an orange background. The inscription Beag Act Fiacmar (Small but Fierce) was adopted later.
Three Air Corps officers were present at Hucclecote at this time and one of them Lieutenant Andy Woods flew Gladiator No. 24 on a 40-minute test flight on the afternoon of 2 March, and pronounced himself happy with the performance. The Irish authorities however, specified that delivery of the four aircraft would be the responsibility of the company. The four Gladiators left the airfield at 11:00hrs on the morning of 8 March, to fly to Baldonnel via Speke (to clear customs) where they landed 35 minutes later. Due to weather, the Gladiators could not complete their journey until the next day. At 10:25hrs the foursome set off once again and despite strong headwinds arrived safely at Baldonnel two hours and fifteen minutes later. The arrival at Baldonnel was awaited with much excitement and as the four landed and taxied in, one wag was overheard to mutter ‘Faith, Hope, and Charity and more Hope’.
The four Gladiators were checked and handed over to B Flight No. 1 Co-Operation Squadron on 16 March. Working up commenced immediately, the pilots expressed great satisfaction with the latest acquisition. During one of the training flights on the afternoon of 2 June, the squadron CO, Captain Sheerin, suffered a landing mishap at Baldonnel. Apart from pride, the CO was unhurt but the aircraft suffered damage as a result of the landing. Due to the difficulty of obtaining spares it did not fly again until July 1940. This was a problem that was to subsequently haunt the Air Corps up to and during the Emergency for all types.
On 1 September, Lieutenant Woods had to force land Gladiator No. 25 after engine failure. The pilot successfully landed the aircraft. Fuel contamination was suspected. B Flight’s strength was reduced to two aircraft after Lieutenant Malachy Higgins in No. 23 suffered an engine failure just after take-off on the morning of 20 October 1938 and ended up inverted in a field in Kingswood. The Gladiator was a writeoff after only amounting 97hrs and 40mins flying hours. With B Flight down to two Gladiators, in the meantime four more aircraft were ordered on 30 August, from Gloster with serial Nos. 27 – 30. A further order for four was placed with the Secretary of State for Air on 13 September, with serials 57 – 60 and with Bristol Mercury VIIa engines. These eight Gladiators had not been delivered by late 1940 when the delivery position was reviewed.
No. 1 Fighter Squadron
No. 1 Fighter Squadron was formed in January 1939 and during the following months the Gladiators and Lysanders were taken on charge. As tensions in Europe mounted, an Air Corps detachment under the command of Captain W.J. Keane was sent to occupy the new airfield at Rineanna (Shannon airfield) at the end of August. The detachment was comprised of Anson and Walrus aircraft of the No. 1 Reconnaissance & Medium Bombing Squadron and No. 1 Coastal Patrol Squadron with instruction to conduct daily coastal patrols. The Gladiators were retained at Baldonnel in A Flight to provide a token defence of the Dublin area. With three Gladiators only, fighter defence was almost non-existent as unfortunately their speed and general performance was no match for the modern aircraft of the RAF or Luftwaffe who were overflying neutral Ireland at will.
After war broke out in Europe, No. 1 Fighter Squadron was on a high state of readiness. With no advanced warning system, the Air Corps had to rely on the observers manning the Look Out Posts for details of belligerent aircraft. Gladiators were scrambled on several occasions throughout the Emergency to intercept aircraft and drifting barrage balloons. Two such examples include: a Gladiator being scrambled on 26 August 1940, after two Heinkel He IIIs bombed the Ambrosetown Railway Viaduct and the Shelburne Cooperative Society premises at Campile Co. Wexford; and on 29 December 1940, after a Junkers 88 reconnaissance aircraft from 2.F/Obdl (the second staffel of the Luftwaffe High Command) a long-range reconnaissance unit flew inland over Tramore and continued on a course to Kilkenny, Carlow, Kildare and Meath where it changed course south and crossed over Collinstown (Dublin Airport), Baldonnel and the former RAF base at Tallaght. On both occasions, the Luftwaffe aircraft had left Irish airspace by the time the Gladiators reached the designated areas.
In May 1943, the Gladiators were deployed to Rineanna. With the introduction of the Hawker Hurricane, the Gladiators were phased out of service. No. 24, the last Gladiator in service, left Rineanna for Baldonnel on 22 January 1944.
The Gladiators were very popular with the Air Corps. Although few in numbers, they helped develop a nucleus of trained fighter pilots.