Gloster Gladiator: Mk I and II (And Sea Gladiator)

  • Published

Gloster Gladiator: Mk I and II (And Sea Gladiator) by Adam Cotton and Marek Ryś. Kagero Publishing, 2019, 216 pp. 

Gloster Gladiator: Mk I and II (And Sea Gladiator) by Adam Cotton and Marek Ryś is the story of the last biplane fighter to enter service in the British Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm and one aircraft that should have never really seen action during World War II.

The Gladiator entered active flying service with a long and successful pedigree as one of the fastest biplanes ever built and was already obsolete upon its introduction to service in January 1937, remarkably one year after the first flight of the Supermarine Spitfire. Nonetheless, in the first 18 months of World War II, the Gladiator garnered numerous combat plaudits in the skies over frozen Norwegian fiords, the Mediterranean Sea, and Middle Eastern deserts against an array of Italian and German biplanes and monoplanes.

In Britain, the Gladiator provided crucial defense of the Royal Navy Fleet anchored at Scapa Flow and was among the first aircraft sent to France to aid the British Expeditionary Force. Adopted early by the Federal Aviation Administration and renamed Sea Gladiator, for a time this navalized version represented the nearest thing the service had to a modern shipborne fighter as the Royal Navy struggled toward air parity with its Axis opponents during the first half of the war.

Developed in an era of appeasement, reduced defense budgets and emerging aircraft and engine technologies during the interwar years of the 1920s and 30s, the Gloster Gladiator was a stop-gap fighter designed when it was obvious among British Empire defense planners that monoplanes like the Spitfire and Hurricane were indeed the future, but full production of the aircraft were still a few years off.

This era was also the time of resurgent German, Italian, and Japanese militaries; all the while the Royal Air Force (RAF) was still soldiering on with aircraft like the obsolescent Hawker Fury and Bristol Bulldog fighter aircraft. Equipped with such modern features as an enclosed cockpit, flaps, radios, and wing-mounted machine guns, the Gladiator’s outward appearance seemed more fitting for dog-fighting Fokker D. VIIs and Pfalz D.XIIs over the skies of the World War I Somme, but was in fact a stepping stone to more modern World War II aircraft for future British Aces like South African Air Force Squadron Leader Marmaduke “Pat” Prattle with 26 confirmed kills in Gladiators and RAF Squadron Leader William “Cherry” Vale accounting for another 10 in type.

The Gloster Gladiator’s chapters bring to life an aircraft overshadowed by its Second World War contemporaries like the Spitfire, Hurricane, Defiant, and Mosquito fighters. From the Gladiator’s early development by Gloster aircraft designer Henry Philip Folland in 1934 to the aircraft’s 1938 combat debut with the Chinese Nationalist Air Force against Japanese Mitsubishi A5M Claudes, to the Gladiator’s final battles in 1942 against the German Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica over the skies of the Mediterranean, Cotton and Ryś do an excellent job of mixing the historical facts with the details of this aircraft.

In terms of technical quality, Gloster Gladiator’s 88 pages of 3D airframe, engine, and cockpit visualizations are impressive. The 3D imaging provides the reader with an excellent reference for better understanding of Phillip Folland’s intent to, even for a biplane, reduce as much as possible drag and increase speed while still providing a reliable fighter aircraft for the British Empire’s multitude of air defense needs. Folland himself had a remarkable pedigree, having originally codesigned the Royal Aircraft Factory’s World War I Scout Experimental 5 (simply known as the SE5) aircraft in 1916. The Gladiator was a fighter that became famous as one of the most rugged and reliable Royal Flying Corps (RFC) aircraft of the period. In the hands of RFC Aces from across the British Empire and United States like Albert Ball, Billy Bishop, James McCudden, and George Vaughn, it was “ nimble fighter that has since been described as the ‘Spitfire of World War One,’” according to aviation writer Robert Jackson. Thus, Folland had the rare distinction of having his successful fighter aircraft designs span two world wars.

Gloster Gladiator is both professionally written and cited with a variety of secondary resources to take an objective assessment of this unique aircraft’s performance and its pilots’ conduct during the war. The book’s text throughout is clear, concise, and logically organized, which is just as well considering the breadth of the subject matter. The authors cover the aircraft’s remarkable operational history, including the fact that RAF Pilot Officer and Ace Roald Dahl, later an author of children’s books like Charlie and Chocolate Factory and Matilda, flew Gladiators before transferring to the more modern Hurricanes. They also clearly outline the Gladiator’s journey to its production in the waning days of the biplane era. The book also covers Second-line duties and service with foreign air forces, 15 in all, like Latvia, Lithuania, China, Sweden, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Iraq, Erie, Portugal, Egypt, and Greece in detail.

The book’s 118 pages of lavish 3-D artwork exploded views of the Gladiator, vividly bringing the aircraft to life in detail. What distracts from the book are Gladiator aircraft and pilots’ photographs being out of sequence with the chapters. Additionally, some photos are also darkly reproduced, a challenge with black and white photos taken 80 years ago, making it difficult to discern details. These comments are minor criticisms and ones that should not dissuade future readers of this book.

Gloster Gladiator is one of a series of 75 aircraft-specific reference books published by Kagero Publishing in Lubin, Poland. Kagero has a reputation for quality English publications on military history. Ranging from the Arado 234 Blitz bomber to the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair to the Yakovlev Yak-1 fighter, the Kagero series of aircraft reference books are ideal for aviation enthusiasts, aerospace historians, and aircraft modelers.

Colonel Jayson A. Altieri, USA, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."