Gloster Gladiator Mk I and II

Contact! There they were, a curiously lopsided Squadriglia of seven Breda Ba.65 fighter-bombers, their characteristic sand and spinach camouflage patterns only partially obscuring their cruciform outline against the wide expanse of golden desert below.

Composed of a leading formation of four, and a vic of three close behind, together they were clearly rapidly closing the distance on the Westland Lysander observation plane now fleeing east back toward the safety of the Egyptian border.
Several thousand feet above, the young Gloster Gladiator pilot had just heard his radio-telephone crackle into life with the voice of his other section leader excitedly announcing the "Tally-ho!"1 on the leading quartet of Italian warplanes. So, together with his wingman, he dropped down astern of the rear formation of three, where he could be of most use. Almost immediately the whole outfit of Bredas scattered in panic, the handful of RAF fighters following in frenzied pursuit. The fight had instantly become a classic free-for-all, with aircraft spilling across the cloudless desert sky in all directions, and the Gladiator pilot found himself chasing two Italians that had clung together for mutual support. However, tempted as he was to chance a burst of fire from his present 300yds range, he knew that If he was to be certain of destroying his quarry, he had to get closer. Much, much closer!
So, he began following them round and down the wide arc of an imaginary inclined semi-circle in a deadly game of airborne tag, the brace of Breda 65s and the pursuing Gladiator dropping to barely 200ft above the jagged wadis and camel thorn below. Both types were theoretically evenly matched in performance terms, even though the Breda was a monoplane, but the Italian fighter-bombers were carrying two diminutive 20-pound general purpose bombs beneath their wings. These were largely ineffectual for most air-ground work, but sufficiently heavy and drag inducing to hamper their efforts to out-run the Gladiator biplane pursuing them. So now the tiny bombs were jettisoned, fluttering down to impact on the desert floor to the accompaniment of miniscule explosions and clouds of sand.
Thus freed of their burden, they started to pull ahead of the doggedly-flown Gladiator, whose pilot felt his chances of victory start to evaporate. In desperation, he was on the point of firing a burst in the probably vain hope of damaging at least one of the Italians when, suddenly, something quite unexpected happened: the Bredas turned north for the Italian fighter airfield of El Adem. Quick to capitalise on their blunder, the RAF pilot reefed his Gladiator around to cut inside their turn, closing to just 150 yards before pressing his gun button to deliver a quarter attack on the nearest aircraft. His four .303in machine guns blazed, then the port set stopped: something had jammed them! Nonetheless, some rounds had already found their mark, as the Italian began to visibly slow down. Closing in dead astern, the pilot used the Gladiator's remaining guns to rip into the Breda's wings and fuselage and, after the starboard side of its Fiat engine began gushing white smoke, he fired several more well aimed bursts into it before watching it eventually crash-land amid a shower of Saharan dust. The second Breda, now showing a clean pair of heels, was uncatchable. But the Gladiator pilot was satisfied. This was his first air combat of the war, and he had scored a victory.

gladiator zd 1

In fact, he would go on to score at least fifteen more victories in the Gloster Gladiator, including another less than a quarter of an hour later that same August day. His name was F/Lt Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle, known to all as "Pat", a 26-year-old South African who had joined the RAF in 1937. More than any other fighter pilot who flew her, Pat Pattle would prove that, in skilled hands, the obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane was, to put it in canine terms, a proper little terrier with a quite lethal bite. Usually outrun, often outgunned, but seldom outmanoeuvred, the biplane that had first flown six years earlier would, in the hands of exponents like Pattle, prove a worthy adversary to the Axis air forces in the tumultuous fighting over North Africa and Greece in 1940/41, and in many other theatres, and in the hands of the pilots of many other nations.
But the Gladiator story really began some 17 years previously, when the then Gloucestershire Aircraft Company Ltd, based in Cheltenham, in the sleepy English county from which it derived its name, had rolled out a new fighter, the first it had named after a particular kind of bird: the Grebe.

gladiator zd 2

Evolving the Last of the Line