The British Gloster Gamecock may have a name like something from a “Carry On” film, but it was an aircraft that, while barely remembered today may hold the record for being the oldest fighter to have scored a kill in the Second World War.
Although, that claim is rather subjective, and I’m looking forward to the discussion in the comments on the topic. But we will get to that later.
The Gamecock was designed to 1924 specification to build an improved version of the Gloster Grebe fighter that had just entered service with the RAF. Though extremely popular with pilots, the Grebe had the misfortune to use the unreliable and difficult to service Jaguar engine.
The Gamecock would replace this with the new Bristol Jupiter radial then in development, an engine with greater power potential as well as being lighter and less complex. The new aircraft, designed by a team led by Henry Folland, first flew as a prototype in February 1925 and quickly proved to have its predecessor’s excellent maneuverability.
The Gamecock was constructed almost entirely from wood, the last RAF dedicated fighter to use this construction method. It was, however, one of the first British aircraft to do away with the traditional gun mountings over the top of the engine. Instead, the two .303 Vickers machine guns – each with six hundred rounds of ammunition – were carried internally and mounted in troughs on the side of the fuselage.
Testing showed the Gamecock to be an excellent aircraft, which is odd as the use of the earlier Grebe’s wing and tail on the design, admittedly with a few tweaks, meant that in service it would experience the same flutter and spinning problems as it’s progenitor.
Regardless, the Gamecock was a superior aircraft and an order placed in September 1925 for an initial production batch. These began to enter service as the Gamecock Mk.I in May 1926 and generally the aircraft was very popular, with ninety ultimately being purchased for use by the RAF.
Using a Bristol Jupiter VII radial engine that produced 425hp the Mk.I had a top speed of 148mph (238kph). With its compact design, and an engine mounted close to the centre of gravity, the Gamecock was an extremely agile aircraft.
But a couple of issues meant that the Gamecock didn’t enjoy a very long service life with the Royal Air Force.
As mentioned, the design had the same aerodynamic flaws as the Grebe and this led to a heavy accident rate. During its first nineteen months with the RAF twenty-two aircraft crashed, resulting in the deaths of eight pilots. The causes varied from total structural failure in flight to loss of control from sudden spinning and landing accidents.
Considering that only ninety aircraft were in service, that’s a significant proportion.
Keen to resolve this and secure more orders, Gloster built the Gamecock Mk.II. This used a larger tail unit and an increased size upper wing which resolved the spinning and flutter issues.
The Mk.II proved a much better aircraft than the Mk.I, including squeezing a little more speed out of the design. But only three were built for testing by the RAF, entering service in early 1928.
These served briefly alongside the one-and-only Mk.III created by the air force to test fuselage improvements for spinning trials, but the British had no interest in buying more Gamecocks by this point. This is often attributed to loss of faith in the aircraft, but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that the Gamecock was recognized to be soon obsolete.
Even before the Gamecock first got airborne, the Fairey Aviation company flew their Fox attack bomber.
A private venture, the Fox had a top speed that matched the Gamecock and surpassed many other contemporary fighter aircraft.
With aircraft like this in existence, fighter design needed to be thoroughly modernized to stay relevant in any conflict – and that is exactly what was occurring as Gloster were pitching their Gamecock Mk.II. In fact, even while the Gamecock Mk.II was being tested by the RAF, it was doing this alongside the Bristol Bulldog Mk.II.
This was a thoroughly modern design that used an all-metal structure with a fabric covering and was capable of higher performance than the new Gamecock. In fact, the Bulldog would soon displace the Gamecock from RAF service, with the Gloster aircraft being taken from frontline squadron service in 1931.
With further orders for the RAF vanishing over the horizon, Gloster did what any good aero company would do. They flogged the Gamecock abroad.
Here at least they found some interest. The biggest user was the Japanese, though of a derivative aircraft. The Gamecock had been used as the basis for Gloster’s Gambet carrier fighter. Though this didn’t get adopted by the British, the Imperial Japanese Navy was extremely interested. This led to a license for the type being sold to the Japanese in 1929 and 150 aircraft built there as the Nakajima A1N.
Gloster also pitched the Gamecock to several countries, but only one was interested – Finland.
In March 1927 a Gamecock Mk.II, flown by Howard Saint, flew at the Finnish Air Pageant over Helsinki. His aerial display must have been something, as a local newspaper stated that: “His flying really exceeded one’s imagination”.
The following year the Mk.II won the contract to be the next Finnish fighter and a licence for the production of 15 aircraft by the National Aircraft Factory in Helsinki was procured. These were all built in 1929/30, and entered service, being given the nickname of Kukko – which I believe means “Cock” or “Rooster”.
Like their RAF fellows, they had a short front line lifespan, serving with Fighter Squadron 24 from 1929 until 1935. The Kukko’s were then relegated to training squadrons.
And that would appear to be that – the Gamecock was a competent aircraft which, like most designs of the 1920s and 30s, was rapidly outpaced by the gallop of aeronautic progress that was occurring during that period.
If you want to see any of them today, two partial fuselages exist in Finnish museums, whilst the Jet Age Museum in Gloucester, England, has a full-sized replica on display.
Except…we have that initial question that I posed in the title, don’t we?
And this will provide the fodder for what I hope will be a lively – and polite, please – discussion.
In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, an episode recalled in history as “The Winter War”. The Finns, heavily outnumbered, had to throw every available resource into the fight. That included the remaining Gamecocks and two of these made a rather remarkable achievement.
On the 29th of January 1940, two Soviet DB-3s mistakenly landed on a frozen lake in Finnish territory after a bombing mission. The DB-3 was a modern bomber that first flew at the same time as the Kukko’s were relegated to training units. In the air they had almost twice the speed of the old fighters. But on the ground, they proved nice targets for two Gamecocks from a nearby unit.
Informed of the Soviet pilots mistake, they proceeded to strafe the two aircraft and the crews, reportedly killing some. The Russians all scrambled onto one of the aircraft and fled, leaving behind one of their bombers to be captured.
This aircraft, serial number 392320, was drafted into the Finnish Air Force as a valuable addition to their limited resources. It served until June 1941 when it suffered an engine failure and had to ditch in a lake. The crew survived, but when the plane was recovered, it was too ruined to be repaired and was written off.
And now, let us get to the meat of the subject.
Was the Gamecock the oldest fighter to score a kill in the Second World War?
Now, this brings up the following issues.
Firstly, does the Winter War count as part of World War Two?
After all, though it occurred in the same period, it was technically only between Finland and the Soviet Union, though plenty of others stuck their nose in. If we are going to include such periphery campaigns as relevant for consideration, do we then include things like the Franco-Thai War and such like, which also saw old aircraft employed in action.
To go back to the Gamecock, the last one was scrapped by the Finns in September 1944, which is an impressive run. I don’t know of any other combat actions fought by the type during that period, but it is entirely possible they did (happy to hear from anyone who knows) and they certainly served.
And this period, the “Continuation War”, certainly counts as part of the Second World War.
Though also to be considered is do we count the “oldest fighter” designation from the aircraft’s origin, or from a particular aircraft’s build date. After all, the Gamecock was a 1924 design, but the Kukko’s were largely built in 1930.
Additionally, the afore-mentioned DB-3 “kill” was on a grounded aircraft. In my opinion, that does count as a kill, though apparently it isn’t listed in Finnish Air Force records as one.
Plus I have been particular about stating this is about the oldest fighter design in World War Two. Because there were quite a few old bomber designs that fought.
In fact, remember the Fairey Fox that I mentioned earlier? One of those, serving in the Belgian Air Force, actually claimed a Bf 109 in May 1940.
Anyway, I think there is a whole range of topics for discussion here and I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say.
James, Derek N.; Gloster Aircraft since 1917; Putnam & Company, London (1971)