It is almost unimaginable to think that brave pilots once took to the skies in biplanes to take on the best of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe. Yet, the Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter did just that in defense of France, Norway, Great Britain, Malta, and North Africa.
GLOSTER GLADIATOR SPECIFICATIONS
According to the Royal Air Force, the Gloster Gladiator had the following specifications:
Engine: 1 Bristol Mercury VIII.AS air-cooled radial engine producing 840 horsepower
Top Speed: 257 miles per hour at 14,600 feet
Range: 428 miles
Service Ceiling: 10,860 feet
Weapons: 4 .303 Vickers Machine guns.
The Gloster Gladiator was a footnote in the Second World War. While the brave pilots who flew these old planes shot down more enemy planes than they lost, the old biplanes were also lost at an unacceptably high rate.
The bravest, but saddest, defeat of the Gloster Gladiator occurred in Norway. RAF Squadron 263 operated from a frozen river where the crews and planes had trouble coping with the cold. Many were caught on the ground and destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing and strafing attacks. Once re-equipped with replacement Gladiators, they valiantly scored 26 kills in the air, but as Norway fell, they had to withdraw. The pilots and few remaining aircraft steamed for home aboard the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Glorious. Unfortunately, the carrier was caught and sunk by the German cruisers Scharnhost and Gneisenau with the loss of all the surviving pilots and planes.
The Gloster Gladiator is best known for its successful defense of Malta against the Italian Air Force. According to the Malta History Museum, twelve Sea Gladiators were based on the island during the war allowing for three to be airborne much of the time. The islanders thought there were only three planes and nicknamed them Faith, Hope, and Charity. The small air wing held off an Italian Air Force onslaught and fought many dogfights against the Fiat C.R. 42 Falco, a well designed Italian biplane of similar vintage. The Gladiators defended the island for about a year until the old fighters were replaced by Hawker Hurricanes.
Once the pride of the RAF, the Gloster Gladiator was hopelessly slow by World War II standards. While it was maneuverable and fairly well-armed, it was unable to fight well against Luftwaffe fighters like the ME-109 which were 100 miles per hour faster and armed with cannons. Nevertheless, the Gloster Gladiator fought better than might be expected. According to the Malta History Museum, the Gladiators of Finland claimed 45 kills against Russians with a loss of 15 aircraft, the Norwegians claimed 5 kills against the Germans with a loss of 3 Gladiators in aerial combat, and the British downed 26 German aircraft over Norway in 249 sorties with a total loss of 36 Gladiators in the air, on the ground, and including 10 at sea aboard the HMS Glorious.
Only a handful of airworthy Gloster Gladiator’s remain in the skies today. They are generally in British or Swedish hands and can be seen in airshows from time to time.
Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Wings. Simon & Schuster, 1997.
“Gloster Gladiator,” Royal Air Force website.
“Gloster Gladiator and Faith, Hope, and Charity” Malta War Museum.
Ludeke, Alexander. Weapons of World War II, Parragon Press, Bath, UK, 2007.
Rickard, J (21 March 2007), Gloster Gladiator http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_gloster_gladiator.html