Wings of victory

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 33, Winter 2012

Page 26

The Hurricane was a very British plane. It wasn't as agile as the Spitfire, but this was the machine that battled through the storm. Patrick Bishop reports

In the early summer of 1940, two aircraft came to symbolize Britain's dire predicament and the spirit in which she was facing up to it. Across the Channel sat the massed wings and squadrons of the Luftwaffe, awaiting the order to batter Hitler's last enemy in Western Europe into submission. To the men and machines of the RAF's Fighter Command fell the task of preventing London from going the same way as Warsaw and Rotterdam.

It's tempting to regard the aeroplanes the Fighter Boys flew in as mirroring the society they were fighting to defend. The Spitfire's outstanding performance and agility seemed a reflection of British aggression and ingenuity. The Hurricane, a calmer, more stolid craft, appeared to speak of fortitude and resolution. It was a brilliant partnership which saw the country safely through the Battle of Britain.

The glamorous 'Spit', with its cleaner lines and greater pace, occupied center stage in the nation's imagination. But it was the homely 'Hurri' that formed the backbone of Fighter Command and, by virtue of its greater numbers, knocked down most enemy raiders.

The Hurricane was the creation of the Hawker Aircraft company and its remarkable chief designer Sydney Camm. Hawker specialized in producing high-performance biplanes, including the Fury which – in the early 1930s – was the best fighter around. The age of the biplane was clearly waning, however, and in 1933 the Air Ministry, which directed the RAF, was looking for a new generation of fast single-engined monoplanes.

Despite having an early effort rejected on the grounds that it was "too orthodox", Camm and Hawker persisted. When the Ministry invited designs for a fighter to be built around a new and powerful 12-cylinder Rolls Royce aero-engine that was capable of reaching 300 mph-plus, they set about matching airframe to powerplant.

The prototype was wheeled out onto the grass of Brooklands airfield in Surrey on the bright morning of 6 November 1935. Spectators were impressed by the futuristic impression given by the streamlined look, the silvery sheen of the paint job, and the way the rounded wings fitted beautifully flush below the neat, narrow cockpit. In fact, the Hurricane was a fusion of tradition and modernity.

The fuselage was made of metal tubes and wooden struts, and the skeleton and wings were covered with Irish linen, stiffened and smoothed by layers of 'dope' lacquer to reduce drag. Camm's design featured significant new features, however – notably an enclosed cockpit with sliding canopy and retractable undercarriage.

The aircraft seemed big, as indeed it was – larger than any existing fighter, and very heavy at more than 6,000 lbs. Could a single engine, even the Rolls Royce 'Merlin' as it became known, get
it airborne?

The task was in the hands of Hawker's chief test pilot, PWS 'George' Bulman, a small, bald, ginger-moustached extrovert who had won an MC with the RFC in the First World War. According to one account, "Bulman vaulted into the cockpit, watched by Camm and the other Hawker executives. The Hurricane bumped away into the distance then turned into the wind. The rumble of the Rolls Royce engine deepened into a roar. The machine moved forward, gathering speed, but slowly so that some thought Bulman would not get airborne before he ran out of field. At the last moment the Hurricane left earth in an abrupt bounding movement and climbed steeply." The wheels of the undercarriage swung smoothly up to disappear into the fuselage, and the aircraft dwindled to invisibility. Half an hour later, Bulman brought it down in a perfect three-point landing. He dismounted, and ran over to Camm and shook his hand. "It's a piece of cake," he told him. "I could even teach you to fly her in half an hour, Sydney." An order from the Air Ministry for 600 came the following year.

When Hurricanes started arriving at squadrons in December 1937, pilots found it a forgiving aircraft. Christopher Foxley-Norris, who flew in the Battle of Britain, judged it "very stable but at the same time maneuverable". Its relatively simple construction meant it was also easy to maintain, repair and manufacture: it took 10,300 man-hours to make one compared with 15,200 for a Spitfire.

It was slower than a Spitfire, but could turn more tightly – a vital consideration in a dogfight. It had two other great fighting qualities. The fabric and girder construction of the fuselage meant bullets and cannon shells could go straight through it without bringing it down. And its sturdy wings provided solid bracing for the eight Browning machine guns that were its original armament, making it an "excellent gun platform".

The great test came with the Battle of Britain. At the height of the battle, 31 squadrons were equipped with Hurricanes against 19 with Spitfires. Improved engines, metal-skinned wings, and the introduction of the Rotol constant-speed propeller meant that the Hurricane was able to narrow the performance gap with the Messerschmitt 109. Nevertheless, the Spitfires tended to take on the fighter escorts, while the Hurricanes dealt with the bombers. By the end, according to one estimate, the relative tallies of enemy aircraft shot down were Hurricanes 656, Spitfires 529.

After the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane went on to serve in every major theater of war, undergoing numerous evolutions, including reincarnations as a fighter-bomber and as a carrier-borne aircraft protecting the Atlantic convoys. In all, more than 14,000 were made. Its reliability and good nature won it the warm regard of those who flew it. As 151 Squadron's Flight Lieutenant Hugh Ironside put it, "The Hurricane was absolutely viceless – provided you treated it right."

Patrick Bishop's Wings: One Hundred Years of British Aerial Warfare has just been published by Atlantic.

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