8 min read

‘Defiant’ Jack Holmes: The man who rebuilt the Battle of Britain’s forgotten fighter

© IWM

Aircrew of 264 Squadron next to their Boulton Paul Defiant. © IWM

We talk to the man who built the forgotten fighter of the Battle of Britain: The Boulton Paul Defiant

The Battle of Britain Museum in Kent recently acquired a replica World War Two Boulton Paul Defiant fighter, lovingly built from scratch by Jack Holmes and colleagues of the Boulton Paul Association at their workshop and museum in Wolverhampton.

The acquisition by the museum in Hawkinge marks the culmination of a very long journey for a much-maligned aircraft and the man who made them. As a boy in the 1930s Jack Holmes lived with his parents and younger brother Brian in Norwich not far from the Boulton Paul factory where his father worked. When the company moved to Wolverhampton, Jack’s family and lots of others moved with it – lock stock and barrel.

When he was old enough Jack got an engineering apprenticeship at Boulton and Paul Aircraft and worked there for over 47 years. Happily married to Florence, they had two children, Penny and Paul. Jack is now 88 years old, and still living in Codsall, near Wolverhampton.

Working for Boulton Paul Aircraft

a photo of a factory with the fuselages of many planes

Another turreted fighter, the Blackburn Roc on the production line at Boulton Paul

I worked man and boy at Boulton Paul Aircraft; I was educated by them. I entered apprenticeship at 16 and qualified at 21. I was destined to go into the drawing office, but I thought “that’s boring – I want to build aeroplanes” and in no time at all I was leading a team of men twice my age.

When I think back to how those men responded to me it was unbelievable. But I soon became known for trouble shooting. The gaffer used to say “send for Jackie Holmes – he’ll know what to do…” So I seemed to get on alright.

I can remember walking into the factory for the very first time and seeing the lines of Defiants there. What a wonderful sight. Working at Boulton Paul with the technicians in those days, being a youngster, I wanted to find out everything I could about the Defiant.

When we were in the factory during the war it used come across the Tannoy “the Defiants were in operation last night, they got X amount of planes” and a great cheer would go up. It was quite a morale booster. It was a very successful night fighter.

The Defiant was originally designed in Norwich and as a youngster I remember there was a great curtain hanging from the ceiling of the hangar in the factory there and my father would say, “you must never look behind that curtain – it’s secret”. So that was like a red rag to a bull to me, I peeked through the curtain and low and behold there was a mock-up of the Defiant. It was called the wonder plane in those days.

Re-building the Boulton Paul Defiant

a colour photo of a fighter with a turret and camouflage

The rebuilt Boulton Paul Defiant. Photo courtesy Boulton Paul Society copyright Mark Ansell

During my time at Boulton Paul I worked on a number of aircraft, including the Defiant, but by the time I got into the factory the contract was coming to an end and we switched to Night Fighters which was the Mark II. But the one I was always interested in was the Mark I, which was used in the Battle of Britain, and when we formed the Boulton Paul Heritage Society I was determined to re-build one.

I just did it for the love of the Defiant and to try and stop the critics running the Defiant down – there are lot of critics about. But when said I wanted to build one, of course they all laughed at me – they said it could never be done, but I persevered.

I did all the design work, the calculations, and all I had to go on was part of the component of the turret. I had half a turret and I got my dimensions from that, and with the help of photographs, line drawings (not detailed drawings) I was able to calculate with dividers the actual statistics of the aircraft.

I knew what the wingspan was and I knew the length and the diameter of the turret, and armed with those I was able to lay it all out in detailed form. I used a little bit of license on the minor details like the control columns, controls rods, wires etc. I even used bits and pieces from bicycles, a chain and a back sprocket of a bicycle for the control surfaces.

The space frame of the aircraft is all wood because at that time we didn’t have the money to buy special tools for bending it into shape – that came later. So I had to say “right oh, we’ll build it out of wood”. But that brought with it a problem; how was I going to hang the skins onto a wooden structure?

What I did was cut long strips of alloy on the guillotine, the width of the wooden stringers, screwed the strips onto the stringers with wood screws so that I could manipulate the materials to suit the form of the wooden structure, and then popper it on. There are about 35,000 pop rivets on that Defiant – approximately. The money we spent on pop rivets alone was quite phenomenal.

Later on somebody came along who said “I know somebody who works in a little hydraulic firm and they could probably help you with pneumatic jacks”, so they brought them in (they were a gift) and I used them on the flaps, which all operated from a compressed air source.

I’m of the belief that if you’re going to do a job you should do it well and I did my best. We launched it in 2003, 60 years since the last Defiant flew out of Penderford [the World War Two training airfield next to the Boulton Paul Factory in Wolverhampton]. Our chairman at the time, Jack Chambers, who has since passed away, wanted to do that. There were 2,000 people in our little place. You couldn’t move. When you look back I think we started the revival of the Defiant and people are starting to get interested in it again.

The Defiant in the Battle of Britain

The pilots of 264 Squadron in front of a Boulton Paul Defiant fighter aircraft © IWM (CH 197)

The pilots of 264 Squadron in front of a Boulton Paul Defiant fighter aircraft © IWM (CH 197)

The Defiant was designed in 1933 – when Churchill’s war clouds were descending over the continent and Boulton Paul went into competition with Hawker to produce a fighter. Boulton Paul won the contract.

The Air Ministry at the time wanted an aircraft to fire on bombers that were unescorted. In 1933/34 we knew Germany would be our next enemy and at that time they would have had to overfly France – three or four hundred miles. There was no fighter cover, but as they always said, “the bomber would always get through”.

During the Battle of France the Defiants of 264 Squadron shot down 37 aircraft in one day without loss (a turkey shoot). It was doing what it was good at, shooting down mainly bombers ,but quite a few German fighters were also destroyed – when attacking from behind they were met with four 303 Brownings firing at them. Admittedly the German fighters were caught off guard and once they were aware of the “fighter with turret” did not make the same mistake again.

The Defiant required fighter escort and used in that way it was very successful indeed. But you cannot concentrate on shooting bombers while there are fighter escorts coming at you so the idea was for the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons to keep the German fighters busy.

But quite often the Defiants were left to their own devices and 264 Squadron proved themselves to be quite capable. Phillip Hunter [Squadron Leader of 264 Squadron] developed the defensive manoeuvre called a descending spiral.

What the squadron would do was fly in a circle lower and lower and as they descended the bottom plane would go to the top and so on, so they had a 360 degree field of fire. It was a system that worked very well. With the descending spiral formation 264 held their own, but 141 squadron did not use this defensive spiral and paid the price. And the loss of double the aircrew per aircraft was not acceptable at a critical time of the war in the air and this is when the damaging bad press was born – and the Defiant has never recovered from it.

The press ruined it and everyone believed what the press said – that the Defiant  was a ‘turkey’ or a ‘death trap’. But I have spoken to a lot of the men who flew them; one in particular was Fred Barker, the air gunner with Pilot Sgt ER Thorne who flew the famous Defiant in the period of the Battle of Britain and who shot down 13 planes. Fred Barker loved it.

It was a lovely aircraft to fly apparently, but I think the reason the Defiant didn’t perform so well in the Battle of Britain was the fault of [Air Chief-Marshal Hugh] Dowding and [Air Chief Marshal Keith] Park . When they got short of fighters they threw the Defiant squadrons in on their own – and that was the downfall of the Defiant  I’m afraid.  It wasn’t a conventional fighter, it was a bomber-destroyer and was designed as such. Too often the Defiants were expected to protect airfields against fighters.

It could fire over and above the head of the pilot to a certain extent, but it couldn’t fire fully forward because it wasn’t synchronised with the propeller. It fired at an angle of about 35 – 40 degrees so the pilot would dive and they would fire forwards. But apart from the propellers, if the pilot had put his arms out the gunner would have shot his elbows off!

But using it against enemy fighters was a tactical blunder. John North [Boulton Paul’s chief aircraft designer] said: “I could put guns in the wings” but the Air Ministry said no, that would be defeating the object because the gunner was the man in charge. He told the pilot the best situations to get into for firing at the bombers.

Of course more and more Hurricanes and Spitfires came on line because of the Defiant’s Achilles heel. But, as I said before, if they had used it for what it was intended for it could have been a successful aircraft. When you consider the Defiant shot down the first 100 aircraft – only just over 1,000 Defiants were built – now how does that ratio of kills compare to the Spitfires and Hurricanes? I have the silver salver that was given to 264 Squadron by the company in December 1941 for shooting down the first 100 aeroplanes – so how can they say the Defiant was a turkey?

There were a lot of aircraft that were retired at that time like the Fairey Battle and the Blenheim that had outlived their usefulness, but I still think the Defiant could have been useful if it had been used in the right way.

Thorne and Barker and Defiant L7005

Flight Sergeant E R Thorn (pilot, left) and Sergeant F J Barker (air gunner) of No 264 Squadron RAF - the most successful Defiant partnership of the war © IWM (CH 2526)

Flight Sergeant E R Thorn (pilot, left) and Sergeant F J Barker (air gunner) of No 264 Squadron RAF – the most successful Defiant partnership of the war © IWM (CH 2526)

Airfix have made a kit of Defiant L7005 because they think it was the Defiant that shot down the Dornier* that was found off Goodwin Sands [in 2013 by a team from the RAF Museum Cosford who are currently preserving the remains of the German bomber]. And I’m in favour of that line of thought – but I would say that wouldn’t I?

But the reason I picked L7005 was because it was the Defiant flown by Ted Thorne and Fred Barker who were the top scorers of 264 Squadron. I’m going back 20 years now, so I didn’t know anything about the Dornier found on Goodwin Sands at that point.

They recorded 11 kills [later confirmed as 13] before they were shot down on August 26 1940.

After they had been shot up, Fred thought Ted had been hit and killed because he couldn’t see any movement in the cockpit, so Fred was half out of his turret before he realised he could see Ted wrangling with his stick to try and make a reasonable belly landing – so he got back into his turret. A Bf109 made another pass at them and Fred shot it down with the last of his ammunition.

They crash-landed and walked away and then had to get the train back to Hornchurch! There they were, on the station, carrying their parachutes, dirty and dishevelled and nobody said a word to them.

When they got home Fred’s wife said “what’s happened to you?”. He said “I fell off the back of a lorry”, so she turned to Ted Thorne and said, “Well, what happened to you?” and he said “I fell off the same lorry”. That was the way they were in those days, they were wonderful men, great guys.

They were real heroes, there’s no doubt about that. I have got nothing but respect for them. I met Fred Barker on one occasion and I formed the impression that he was a man who had done it and didn’t want to talk too much about it.

But when my Defiant was finished I sent him a framed photograph of it in the Heritage Centre and he was thrilled to bits. He said, “Oh Jack, that brought back some happy memories”.

The Defiant today

Production Defiant Mk Is at the Boulton Paul Aircraft Factory, Wolverhampton © Boulton Paul Association

I still love the Defiant; Ken Wallis [World War Two bomber pilot and Wing Commander] who became famous for flying his autogyro in one of the James Bond films, had flown a Defiant, so when he heard about my replica he called me and we had a right old ‘chalk’. And at the end he said, I’m going to call you ‘Defiant Jack’.

But the Defiant is Boulton Paul – I’m a company man through and through – I spent all of my life there, man and boy. When we formed the Boulton Paul Heritage Association the company were good enough to let us have part of the factory to build my Defiant – and with the help of a few good men – a lot of other projects too.

Many of the original members have passed but the work and the hundreds of man hours put in, especially by our chairman Cyril Plimmer, has been well worth the effort. We were forced to give up a lot of our projects when RAF Museum Cosford said they wanted the collection, then decided they didn’t – so they had to go.

But the  Defiant is so special to me because I grew up with it, it was my dream to build one and, with the help of Mr Dave Brocklehurst, it has now got a permanent home at Kent Battle of Britain Museum.

* We can confirm that Boulton Paul Defiant L7005 was involved in a combat with Dornier Do. 17s on 26 August 1940, while on patrol between Herne Bay and Deal in Kent.  Our records also show that the crew made claims for two Do. 17s and a Messerschmitt Bf. 109 shot down, while other members of the squadron claimed a total of six more Do.17’s destroyed and one damaged. However, our records do not provide any identification for the individual German aircraft claimed by any of the RAF aircraft involved, or details on the crash sites. At the end of the combat, L7005 was forced to crash land at Herne Bay due to damage received……
Stuart Hadaway, Air Historical Branch (RAF). Ref. D/AHB(RAF)/8/13

See ‘Defiant’ Jack Holmes’ Boulton Paul Defiant L7005 at Kent Battle of Britain Museum. Visit kbobm.org for more details.

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The most important collection of Battle of Britain artifacts on show in the country. The Museum was lucky to acquire one of the sites of Britain's epic struggle for survival in 1940, in what was the greatest air battle of all time. The airfield itself was the nearest Royal Air…

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