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A Brave if Checkered History: The Boulton Paul Defiant


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 A stirring image of the Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I in action from the box of an Airfix 1/48 kit (pic from modellingnews.gr):

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  "On 17 August I took a Boulton Paul Defiant from St Athan in Wales to Prestwick, with two stops en-route at Speke and Millom. I remember the Defiant was quite a slow aircraft. It was built to carry two people and had a turret to house a heavy gun and the gunner, and whilst the Defiant looked like a Spitfire it certainly didn't fly as fast. The maximum speed was listed in my Ferry Pilots Notes at 304 mph. I wondered how the gunners who had to stand in that turret so vulnerable to enemy fire could deal with the terrible noise made by their own guns. It must have been deafening and a terrible experience all round. I thought of the pilot too as he must have had a most difficult job flying in the direction of an enemy aircraft so precisely that it ensured the gunner could get a good aim on the enemy.

    On 19 July 1940, during the Battle of Britain, seven out of nine Defiants of 141 Squadron were wiped out by the Luftwaffe, which had attacked them from underneath - this day has become known as 'The Slaughter of the Innocents'. Boulton Paul built 1,064 Defiants, and during my ATA career I happened to have flown a few of them."

(Above quote from Ellis & Foreman (2016 & 2019))

 

 

Over the period of World War One, there was a considerable development of armaments mounted in fast and manoeuvrable aircraft to be used for offensive attack against opposing aircraft. By the end of that conflict, the best form of armament for fighter planes was considered to be twin machine-guns firing forward and synchronized in such a way that the bullets passed through the propeller between the revolving propeller blades. There was little change in this arrangement until the 1930s and the arrival of monoplane fighters and machine gun mechanisms that were more reliable; the guns were then shifted to the wing and the firing synchronization gear was abandoned. Wing-mounted forward-firing machine guns as the sole armament on fighters reached its ultimate effectiveness with the Hurricane, introduced in December 1937, which carried eight machine guns harmonized to concentrate their fire at an optimum aiming point, and for a while Hurricanes (and Spitfires) so equipped represented a formidable foe. Unfortunately, other nations were quick to jump on the bandwagon and equip their fighters similarly; to keep ahead of the game, a new tactical fighter concept was mooted in the mid-1930s which called for the installation of a revolving multi-gun turret in the aircraft. The basic elements of this idea emerged in 1934, though for different reasons - essentially to protect the rear gunner from slipstream effects and permit him to aim and fire his single Lewis gun with sufficient precision - when a modified Hawker Demon two-seat biplane was fitted with a Frazer-Nash hydraulically operated turret by Boulton Paul.  Boulton Paul manufactured 59 modified Hawker Demons for Hawker, and Hawker themselves also retrofitted turrets on many Demons themselves.

The multi-gun turret proposal seemed to be advantageous in more than one way. Firstly,  it relieved the fighter pilot of the dual task of flying the aircraft and seeking out, holding in view, and destroying an enemy aircraft. And secondly, the weapons in the turret could be used equally for defence and attack, and covered a far greater field of fire than a fixed battery of guns on the wings.

Given their experience with the Hawker Demon, it was not surprising that both Boulton Paul and Hawker made submissions for the 1935 Air Ministry Specification F.9/35, calling for a two-seat fighter with a power-operated gun turret. Hawker's prototype, the Hawker Hotspur, proved to be a non-starter due mainly to a lack of sufficient production capacity, and Boulton Paul therefore took up the slack and started work on their two ordered prototypes under the direction of J. D. North. The first Boulton Paul Defiant prototype made its initial flight on 11 August 1937, and attained a speed of 302 mph (486 km/h). Its flight characteristics were deemed to be excellent, with the plane having very few vices. Stability was excellent with practically no trim required when the undercarriage and flaps were lowered.

 

 

 

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(above pic from i.pinimg.com/originals)

 

Two Boulton Paul Defiants of 264 Squadron; the 'A' on the fuselage signifies the squadron leader's aircraft (pic from upload.wikimedia.org)

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An air gunner of 264 Squadron about to climb into his turret in a Mk I Defiant at Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire, in August 1940; note the bulky so-called "rhino suit" he is wearing (see text for details) (pic from upload.wikimedia.org):

340px-An_air_gunner_of_No._264_Squadron_

 

 

 

 

The Defiant was a low-wing cantilever monoplane of all-metal construction with retractable tail wheel type landing gear and the first prototype was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin I inline engine generating 1,030 hp (768 kW). The second prototype had a Merlin II engine. Both prototypes featured the heavy four-gun power-driven dorsal turret mounted within the fuselage. The Boulton Paul Mk IIID turret that was installed in the production Defiant Mk I was a removable self-contained unit with an integral hydraulic system; it was mounted with four belt-fed Browning 0.303 inch machine-guns each with 600 rounds of ammunition. The bare turret alone weighed 361 pounds (164 kg) to which was added the guns, ammunition, and the gunner’s oxygen system, sights, etc., and all this weight was in an aircraft of similar power to the Hurricane yet with less wing area; hardly surprising then that the Defiant could not compete in terms of level speed, climb and manoeuvrability. In connection with the overall level of drag, some improvement was obtained by the novel method of attaching the light alloy skinning to the stringers and ribs and then attaching these to the fuselage frames and wing spars. By this means the skins did not need to be preformed, and by riveting them when flat and countersinking the rivets, an exceptional surface finish was obtained. Nevertheless, the drag from the protruding section of the turret, even with the aerodynamic fairing in place (this could be retracted into the fuselage to allow the turret to turn freely), was to conspire with the turret’s loaded weight to reduce the various performance parameters of the aircraft. 

An initial contract for 87 Defiant Mk Is was placed in March 1937, and 363 more were ordered in 1938. It had been decided that the Merlin II engine should power the new type, a decision that caused delays. In fact, by the time the first production defiant flew, on 30 July 1939, it was powered by a Merlin III engine which featured a standardized shaft for De Havilland (DH) or Rotol constant-speed propellers. It has to be noted that comparative trials between a Hurricane and a Defiant conducted by 111 Squadron in October 1939 revealed the relatively poor performance figures for the two-seat Defiant, but by then the RAF had a desperate need for fighters, and with the Defiant about to come on stream there was no turning back. In the same month, 264 Squadron was formed, in readiness for the Defiant fighter.

 

 

 

The sole surviving Boulton Paul Defiant is this Mark 1 example (no. N1671) which has been reassembled and restored; it is now housed at the RAF Museum Cosford in Shropshire, UK. A history of this particular aircraft, which first joined the RAF in August 1940, can be found online at:  warbirdsnews.com/warbird-restorations/boulto-paul-defiant-goes-on-display-at-raf-museum-cosford.html

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(Above 2 pics from i.pinimg.com/originals)

 

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(Above pic from Biggles Wiki/Fandom at vignette.wikia.nocookie.net)

 

 

 

Deliveries of the new type - the Mk I Boulton Paul Defiant - to No. 264 Squadron commenced in December of that year; this squadron being the first to deploy the Defiant operationally, on 12 May 1940, over the beaches of Dunkirk, with devastating effect on the enemy. The new Defiant took the Lutwaffe completely by surprise; German fighters attacking conventionally on the tail of the Defiants were met with an unprecedented burst of fire from the four machine-guns mounted in the turret and in that one day the Defiants claimed 38 enemy aircraft destroyed. By the end of May, that figure had risen to 65. A short but useful account of this incredible window of opportunity for the Defiant is given by Bickers (1990):




“... The first Defiant squadron, No 264 commanded by Sqn Ldr Philip Hunter, a greatly liked and admired leader, had made a discouraging début on May 12 on a patrol near The Hague. A Ju 88 was seen over the sea, bombing two British ships. Hunter and two others went after it and Hunter’s air gunner, Leading Aircraftman F. H. King, shot it down. On May 20, 264 Squadron shot down 17 Bf 109s without loss and 11 Ju 87s and 88s, which established an unbroken record for the number of aircraft destroyed by any one squadron in one day.

    The reason for this success, it appears, was that the enemy mistook the Defiant for a Hurricane. Bf 109 pilots thought they could attack it from astern with impunity but were disabused when the four guns in its rotating turret, blasted them to oblivion. Bomber crews were unperturbed when a Defiant flew in front of them for the same reason and were equally astonished to find themselves under fire. The ideal attack from a Defiant was to cross ahead of its target at 90 degrees, so that the air gunner could swing his guns to point over the beam. The guns could not fire forward, so a Defiant was defenceless against a head-on attack.

    On May 27 over Dunkirk, where the Defiants were sujpporting the British retreat, 264 Squadron met Bf 109s for the first time. Seeing eight of these, Hunter ordered the squadron to form line astern. LAC King sent a 109 down in flames. Two other Defiants shared another 109 destroyed. The squadron landed, refuelled and returned to the Dunkirk area. This time they saw 12 He 111s of which they bagged three. By May 31 the squadron’s total victories stood at 65.”




Bickers above mentions the theory that Luftwaffe pilots mistook the Boulton Poole Defiant for the similarly sized Hurricane (the Spitfire was more easily singled out by its shape) and paid a heavy price for this misidentification; whatever the cause of the Defiant’s initial success, the period of “elation” did not last long, and German pilots were quick to realize that the Defiant could be attacked effectively and with impunity either head-on or against the belly of the aircraft - an enemy aircraft being able to creep in under cover of blind spot beneath the tail. The Defiant was doubly handicapped; not only did it not effectively have useful guns facing forward, but it just wasn’t sufficiently fast or manoeuvrable in the air to make a quick getaway. Another problem that had not been foreseen was to emerge when the going became tough for the Defiant, and this was the way that the “flying” and “fighting” roles had been divided up between the pilot and the gunner; the pilot (whose  only weaponry he could sight was in the hands and aim of the gunner in the turret) was expected to not only fly the plane but also to continually take account of his gunner’s line of sight during an attack, which was no easy task [see note * at the end of this topic]. In operational terms, the Defiant also proved to be less flexible than its rival single-engine fighters and tended to rely more on tight formation flying in order to achieve massed firepower. As a final disadvantage and one that was to result in more deaths than should have been the case, the dorsal turret proved to be something of a death trap; the exit was at the rear of the turret making it necessary to turn the turret side-on, and exit was hampered by the all-in-one “rhino-suit” worn by the gunner as the only way he could fit in the turret with a parachute.

 

 

 

Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I in flight (pic from upload.wikimedia.org) and newly built Mk I Defiants outside the factory (pic from aeroflight.co.uk) :

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The emotive title photograph for an article in the Times of 26 May 2020 by Mark Bridge entitled, "In defence of the 'feeble' Defiant"

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By mid July 1940, the painful realization that the Luftwaffe had sussed out the “trick” of having a multi-gun dorsal turret was dawning on Defiant crews, confirmed by the disastrous Defiant mission of 19 July 1940, an account of which is given by Bishop (2009) from which I quote at length here below. It concerns 12 Defiants of 141 Squadron on a patrol that day, 141 Squadron being the as yet untested in combat, Defiant-equipped, sister squadron to 264 (which had been so successful with the Defiant in May). Bishop goes on to describe the events of that mission as follows:

 

 

  “Northeast of Dover an armed trawler was under attack from Me110s, escorted by 20 Messerschmitt 109s of Jagdgeshwader 51, led by Hauptmann (Captain) Hannes Trautloft. Having shepherded the Me110s back to France, Trautloft decided to return to the English coast on a free hunt. He soon spotted the Defiants far below flying in tight formation, seemingly unaware of his presence. This time, the British planes were correctly identified for what they were. Checking that there were no Spitfires or Hurricanes about, Trautloft led his Me109s in a dive out of the sun. ‘I aimed at the right Defiant … my guns fired … pieces of the Defiant … broke off and came hurtling towards me … I saw a thin trail of smoke … then just a fiery ball’ [Quoted in Townsend, Duel of Eagles, p. 276]

    In this first attack, John Gard’ner’s Defiant was also hit. ‘The first that I knew,’ he said, ‘was suddenly I had white tracer bullets going through the cockpit and then I had a flash of airplanes right and left under fire. I thought, I’m going to get out of this. I dived down. The prop was dead in front of me. I was lucky I didn’t catch fire. There was a dreadful smell of cordite and bluey smoke in the cockpit.’ Meanwhile the Me109s attacked again. Clearly, they had worked out the Defiant’s debilitating weakness: an attack from the front and below met no resistance, as the Defiants had no forward-facing guns. In effect, as one pilot later complained, you had to fly past the enemy to fire at him. But as the Defiant was also slow - with a top speed of only 298 mph - there was little chance of this happening when matched against Me109s. The Germans now attacked from head-on and below, and two more Defiants went down.

    Meanwhile, John Gard’ner wrestled with the controls of his stricken aircraft: ‘There was no engine and the rudder pedal was just loose under my foot. I don’t know how I managed to keep it level. I saw this boat and I thought, I’m going to have to crash by that boat, but I was going so fast that it was impossible. For some reason or other I stupidly undid my safety straps and I thought, I’m going to get into the water so I wanted to get out quickly, forgetting that I would hit at 100 m.p.h.’ Gard’ner hurriedly pulled the hood back on the cockpit. ‘At the moment of impact,’ he says, ‘ I was thrown forward and hit my head. I blacked out and came to deep down in blackness. But the hood was open and I could get out. There was a big flap of skin that was hanging loose from my forehead and I had been hit on the back of the head as well.’ [Quoted in Parker, p. 59]

   Up above, the five surviving Defiants swerved into cloud to try and escape the Me109s. One, flown by Flight Lieutenant Ian Donald, was hit and set on fire. Unlike any of the other men on the downed Defiants, the gunner Pilot Officer Arthur Hamilton did manage to bail out but drowned. The pilot was killed and the aircraft hit the ground in Elmsvale Road, Dover. The carnage would have almost certainly been worse, had it not been for the arrival of Hurricanes from 111 Squadron, sent to rescue from Hawkinge.

    The remaining Defiants limped back to their airfield. One of them crashed on landing; another was so badly damaged as to be irreparable. The squadron was effectively a write-off. In just a quarter of an hour, six machines had been destroyed and ten men killed. John Gard’ner, quickly picked up by a coastguard launch, was the only survivor of any of the downed crews.”

 



After the massacre of 141 Squadron on 19 July 1940, it was clear that the Defiant was already obsolete, at least in its role as a day fighter, but stretched resources made it necessary to reprise that role towards the end of August. On 24 August 1940, having dealt with one major bombing raid, a second was detected crossing the Channel from Cape Gris Nez. Among the squadrons scrambled to counter this attack was No. 264 at Hornchurch, equipped with its Boulton Paul Defiants. 

The raid was successfully broken up and the Defiant squadron returned home, which this time meant the forward base at Manston, the RAF’s most unpopular airfield. A number of Defiants were still refuelling when, shortly after 1 pm, an air raid warning sounded. Although most of the Defiants managed to take off, as bombs were falling on the base, they were unable to gain height fast enough to avoid being prey to German fighters. Three Defiants were shot down, including that of the Commander, Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, and tragically all six men in the three aircraft were killed. The rest of the squadron returned to Hornchurch only to be forced to scramble again amid falling bombs at just after 3.30 pm when the base came under attack. Two of the Defiants collided as they raced to take off, and another was shot down shortly afterwards.

The final coup de grâce for the Defiant occurred on 28 August 1940 after a raid was plotted building up over the Pas de Calais. Thirty-two Hurricanes were sent to intercept the raid together with 12 Defiants from 264 Squadron. All made contact as a formation of Heinkels and another comprising Dorniers crossed the coast north-west of Dover.  Bishop (2009) takes up the story:  “No. 79 Squadron attacked the Heinkels but was engaged by the escorting fighters. In the meantime, No. 264’s pilots went in on the attack against the bombers, claiming one shot down and another damaged; but they were pounced on by Me109s lurking above. Their Boulton Paul Defiants were slow and vulnerable, and their gun turrets could not fire forwards, rendering the aircraft vulnerable in daytime action. Four of them were downed, and a further three damaged. It was the end of the road for the Defiant. After today’s events, the aircraft was withdrawn from daylight duties.”

One lucky escape for a Defiant crew during this sortie occurred when 21 year-old Jim Bailey was forced to crash-land his aircraft in a field after his engine stopped in mid-flight. Bailey (1999) says of his escapade: ‘As this was August the ground was hard and the field I chose had a double hedge. The fields of Kent were obstructed by wooden poles to prevent German glider troops landing, so I had to weave my way between (them) before hitting the hedge. As I climbed from the cockpit, my super air gunner Sgt Oswald Hardy said to me “Did you see this?” He pointed out that a number of the poles had connecting electric cables. I had flown underneath without even having noticed!’

Finally then, at the end of August 1940 and none too soon, the Boulton Paul Defiant was withdrawn from daylight operations, even as the improved Mk II model was forecast to come on stream. This model was developed through the conversion of two Mk I  aircraft, and as a production aircraft it was first flown on 20 June 1940. The Defiant Mk II used the more powerful (1,280 hp/954 kW) Merlin XX engine and was given increased fuel capacity, a greater rudder area, and incorporated modifications to the engine cooling and fuel systems. The total number of Defiant Mk II aircraft built was to be 210, of which many were later converted as TT. Mk I target tugs. Delays in availability of the Merlin XX engine meant that deliveries of the Defiant Mk II did not get underway until August 1941.

 

 

 

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(Above pic from i.pinimg.com/originals)

 

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(above pic from images-eu.ssl-images-amazon.com)

 

 

 

Rather than cut losses and abandon use of the Defiant altogether after the day-fighting debacles, it was decided to use the aircraft as a night fighter, painted pitch black and fitted with coverings for the exhaust. The first of these were not equipped with radar and relied on ground stations and navigational expertise, but later, the relatively new and highly secret (Mk IV and Mk VI) AI radar was installed in many of the Mk I Defiants, which planes were then designated NF.Mk IA. With this equipment, the Defiant proved to be a valuable addition to Britain’s night defences in the winter of 1940-41, recording more “kills” per interception over this period than any other night fighter. The tactics followed were similar to the previous Defiant anti-bomber strategy, but now under cover of darkness - use the turret to fire upwards from beneath an enemy formation. At the height of its deployment as a night fighter, the Defiant equipped 13 RAF squadrons, and the aircraft continued to be a serious threat to incoming German bombers until 1942 when its modest speed meant that it could no longer intercept enemy aircraft. A number of Defiants were also used to accompany Allied bombers on missions to Germany, equipped with Moonshine or Mandrel radar jamming systems. With the Mandrel system, a group of eight Defiants could give the appearance of a 100-strong force, encouraging a major response from German fighters who would appear on the scene, only to be attacked by fighters from above; this proved to be an effective role for the Defiant and assisted the RAF in achieving air superiority.

 

 

 

The powered hydraulic turret of the Boulton Paul defiant with its four Browning machine-guns (pic from warhistoryonline.com):

Boulton_Paul_Defiant_gun_turret_WWII_IWM

 

Fitters working on a Merlin engine in a Defiant of No. 125 Squadron, Fairwood Common, Wales, in 1942 (Pic from upload.wikimedia.com):

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A TT. Mk I defiant target tug in flight (pic from upload.wikimedia.org):

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The Defiant remains an iconic British warplane, as this picture is the illustration for the Blood Red Skies computer game, " No 264 Boulton Paul Defiant Squadron" shows (pic from spikeybits.com)

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After serving as a combat aircraft, the Boulton Paul Defiant night fighter squadrons were completely re-equipped and the type subsequently saw use at home and in the Middle East, Africa and India in the role of target tugs; these aircraft were designated with the initials TT appended to the model number. 140 purpose-built high-speed Defiant TT Mk III aircraft were constructed incorporating modifications for the role as target tugs including the removal of the dorsal turret, and many Defiant Mk I aircraft and 150 Defiant Mk II planes were also converted, to TT. Mk I target tugs. In addition, about 50 Mk I aircraft were modified for use in air/sea rescue missions, serving with Nos. 275, 276, 277, 280 and 281 Squadrons; these planes were fitted with underwing pods carrying two dinghies.

Production of the Boulton Paul Defiant ceased in 1943, by which time a total of 1065 Defiants, including prototypes, had been built. In terms of combat during World War Two, the Defiant had no true successor - not surprising given its chequered history - and it’s place was filled by two twin-engined aircraft, the Bristol Beaufighter** and the de Havilland Mosquito.



Boulton Paul Defiant Mark II Basic Specifications (from Crosby (2002 & 2007)):

Power: Rolls-Royce 1280 hp Merlin XX piston engine

Armament: Four 7.7mm/0.303in machine-guns in power-operated dorsal turret

Size: Wingspan - 11.9m/39ft 4in

         Length - 10.77m/35ft 4in

         Height - 3.45m/11ft 4in

         Wing area - 23.23 sq m/250 sq ft

Weights: Empty - 2849kg/6282lb

              Maximum loaded - 3821kg/8424lb

Performance: Maximum speed - 504kph/313mph

                     Ceiling - 9250m/30350ft

                      Range - 748km/465 miles

                      Climb - 580m/1900ft per minute



 

NOTES

* It has been stated that the Defiant had no guns facing forwards but technically speaking, this is not the case. In fact, the aircraft could fire its turret guns directly forwards on either side of the cockpit canopy with control of the firing switchable to the pilot. However, this feature was rarely used and was ineffective in practise, mainly because the pilot had no gunsight but also because the maximum forward elevation was just 19 degrees.

** For those interested in the Bristol Beaufighter, I wrote and posted an article on this aircraft on the Forum entitled, “Packing the Punch: The Bristol Beaufighter”. This topic, posted on 29 April this year, can be accessed using the Forum search feature. 



 

REFERENCES & SOURCES FOR THE TOPIC TEXT

In alphabetic order of author


Bailey, Jim, “Defiant Survivor”; Battle of  Britain Remembered, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1999 [quotation and reference from Bishop(2009)].

Bickers, Richard Townshend, “The Battle of Britain”; Salamander Books Ltd, 1990.

Bishop, Patrick, “Battle of Britain: A Day-by-Day Chronicle 10 July 1940 to 31 October 1940”; Quercus Publishing, London, 2009.

Christy, Gabe, "The Deadly Defiant, a Game-Changing British Warplane in WW2"; War History Online, 11 August 2016 (warhistoryonline.com/miitary-vehicle-news/defiant-lasthow-odd-design-refused-stop-fighting-ww2.html).

Crosby, Francis, “Fighter Aircraft”; Hermes House, Anness Publishing Ltd, London, 2002 & 2007.

Ellis, Mary, as told to Foreman, Melody, “A Spitfire Girl”; Frontline Books, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, Yorkshire, and Philadephia USA, 2016 & 2019.

Leinburger, Ralph, “Fighter: Technology, Facts, History”; Parragon Books Ltd, 2008.

Mondey, David, “The Hamlyn Concise Guide to British Aircraft of World War II”; Hamlyn, 1982 (reprinted by Chancellor Press, 1994).

Parker, Matthew, “The Battle of Britain, July-October 1940”; 2000 [quotation and reference from Bishop (2009)].

Townsend, Peter, “Duel of Eagles”; 1970 [quotation and reference from Bishop (2009)].

Wikipedia, “Boulton Paul Defiant”; Article last edited 20 September 2020.

 

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At my new works as a part time recycler we get lots of books, I always think it’s such a shame to effectively destroy them but I guess not many people actually buy or save books anymore. I occasionally keep anything that looks interesting.

Anyway although my ex CID plod mate always reels off the standard “there’s not such thing as a coincidence” line I’m not so sure.

I got this one this week and was in the process of having a read through it.


 

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Dear @BondandBigM, I placed a "like" on your post here above but just wanted to thank you in particular for adding a few more details about the turret on the Defiant.  I did manage to find out quite a lot of interesting details in the various sources I used for my topic, and your contribution has added to those.:thumbsup:

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A most captivating read, I had no idea they were so unsuccessful as daytime fighters, I did however, know about their unrivalled night fighter abilities particularly as a low level defender.

Thanks for that.

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