Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Fighter Aircraft of the Battle of Britain - the Hurricane

 While the Spitfire was the "glamor girl" of the RAF, the Hurricane was the unsung heroine of the Battle of Britain. Hurricanes destroyed more enemy aircraft than Spitfires and were flown by more RAF pilots on more squadrons. The Hurricane might not have captured the hearts of the nation nor intimidated the pilots of the Luftwaffe, but the men who flew her swore by her, and pilots familiar with both the Hurricane and Spitfire found much to praise about her.

The Hurricane was a less radical design than the Spitfire. It evolved from earlier generations of fighter aircraft, and was still partially a wood and canvass construction; although the cockpit, engine and wings were metal, the tail and rudder remained wood and canvas. Antiquated as this sounds, some aviation experts argue that it was actually an advantage because cannon shells that exploded on impact with the metal casing of a Spitfire, simply passed straight through the canvas without exploding or impairing the Hurricane's flying abilities. Furthermore, RAF riggers were familiar with this kind of construction and adept at making repairs -- something they often could not manage on the more sophisticated Spitfires. Indeed, Hurricanes could be packed in crates, shipped to distant theaters of war and re-assembled with equipment available in the field. Industrial manufacturing of the Hurricane was also easier and cheaper than for the Spitfire, requiring just 10,300 man-hours for the Hurricane compared to 15,200 man-hours to produce a Spitfire.
Unlike both the Spitfire and Me109, its wings were strong enough to support not only eight guns but the aircraft itself. Then meant that the retractable undercarriage could fold inwards from positions under the wings giving the aircraft a stable base which made it easy to taxi, land and take off. Its cockpit was designed to sit high on the distinctive "hunchback" giving the pilot unparalleled, all-round vision -- better than that of any other fighter in service at this time.  Furthermore, as many pilots testified, it was an incredibly stable gun platform. In addition, the Hurricanes guns were better concentrated and could do greater damage to the well-armored bombers. These three factors help explain why Hurricanes accounted for 60% of all German aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain.
RAF test pilots soon determined that the Hurricane was "simple and easy to fly and ha[d] no apparent vices." [McKinstry, Leo. Hurricane: Victor of the Battle of Britain. London: John Murray, 2010.] With a top speed of 340 mph it was slower than both the Me109 and the Spitfire. On the other hand, it had a faster rate of climb (2780 ft/min vs 2,600 ft/min) and a service ceiling just 500ft lower than the Spitfire and identical to the Me109.  Significantly, it had a tighter turning radius than any of its contemporaries. It could turn inside both the Spitfire and the Me109. All-in-all this aircraft was highly competitive and, as it proved, could well hold its own in the company of the Spitfire and Me109.
It was also popular with the pilots who flew it -- and particularly the squadron and flight commanders who had go into combat with young pilots with very little flying experience. As already noted, it was a responsive aircraft that was easy to learn to fly and could be flown effectively without many hours of practice. Because it could take direct hits without necessarily falling apart, fledgling fighter pilots stood a better chance of surviving an unlucky encounter with the enemy than had they been flying a Spitfire or Me109. This is the reason Battle of Britain Ace Bob Doe, who flew both Hurricanes and Spitfires in the course of the war, said the Hurricane was the better machine for the "average" pilot, although an expert pilot could get more out of a Spitfire. (Photo below courtesy of Chris Goss.)

 Although Stephen Bungay in his excellent analysis of the Battle of Britain [The Most Dangerous Enemy, Aurum Press, 2000, p.83] claimed the reserve fuel tank was insufficiently protected by the Linatex, a substance that was self-sealing and helped prevent fire, there is no evidence that fires occurred more frequently in Hurricanes than Spitfires or Me109s. Not one of the pilots who flew Hurricanes makes any mention of this and there was clearly no reluctance on the part of squadrons to fly Hurricanes, which should have been the case if the pilots thought they were more likely to be incinerated in a Hurricane than a Spitfire. Nor would a particularly dangerous aircraft have continued in production for so long nor found so many roles as was the case of the Hurricane. So any disadvantage caused by this arrangement must have been comparatively marginal.

Over 14,000 Hurricanes were produced altogether and the aircraft saw service in every theater of the war. Hurricanes served as night as well as day fighters. It was catapulted from Armed Merchant escorts, and flown from carrier decks. It was used as a close-support fighter-bomber and fitted with skis to serve in Russia. 
The Hurricane flew against the Luftwaffe in Norway, the Battle of France, over Dunkirk, in the Battle of Britain, and in North Africa -- where it was a particularly effective "tank buster." The RAF's highest scoring ace, Squadron Leader "Pat" Pattle, flew Hurricanes in defense of Greece against both the Italians and the Germans. Hurricanes also confronted the Imperial Japanese Air Force, seeing successful service in Burma, Ceylon, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies.  Hurricanes flew in the defense of Malta, and also engaged on the Eastern Front. Hurricanes were initially sent to the Soviet Union to help protect convoys coming from the West to Murmansk and two RAF squadrons were detailed to operate them. During their deployment in August and September 1941, they accounted for 25% of the Luftwaffe aircraft shot. After the RAF withdrew, however, the Soviets tried to mount heavier guns which made the Hurricane slower and less maneuverable, so the "Soviet" Hurricane cannot be compared to its British counterpart. Likewise, Soviet "assessments" of the Hurricane are utterly irrelevant as they refer to the mucked-up machine they themselves mangled not the real Hurricane.

If there had never been a Spitfire, the Hurricane probably would have been the mechanical heroine of the Battle of Britain. The beauty and glamor of the Spitfire, however, cast a shadow over the image of the Hurricane. That shadow was darkened by the  "Spitfire snobbery" of the Luftwaffe pilots (who frequently refused to admit they had fought -- and lost -- to Hurricanes) and the equally bigoted attitude of the Soviets, who mucked up a perfectly good fighter to no purpose at all. Yet, there can be no doubt that the Hurricane played a vital role in the Battle of Britain. 
Park's preferred tactic was to send Spitfire squadrons, with their faster aircraft, to divert and engage the Me109s while Hurricane squadrons, with their more stable gun-platforms and concentrated fire, sought to claw the bombers out of the sky. The standing orders to controllers to operate the different squadrons in this manner show the extent to which the Hurricane and Spitfire complimented each other during the Battle of Britain. Neither aircraft would have been as effective alone. In the remaining years of the war, both aircraft likewise went on to play different yet equally valuable roles in all theaters of war.

It was in part to give greater credit and visibility to this under-appreciated fighter that I chose a Hurricane squadron as the focus of my novel Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.  Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at:



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Friday, May 21, 2021

Fighter Aircraft of the Battle of Britain - Spitfire

 No aircraft is more closely identified with the Battle of Britain than the Supermarine Spitfire. No matter that more Hurricanes flew in the Battle or that the Spitfire made major contributions in other campaigns of the Second World War. The Spitfire, with its unique elliptical wings, is quite simply THE symbol of the RAF -- of "the Few" -- in the Battle of Britain. 

If the Me109 descended from gliders, the Spitfire's forefathers were racing aircraft designed to win trophies for speed. So, it is perhaps not surprising that the Spitfire was the fastest of the four fighters that figured prominently in the Battle of Britain with a maximum speed of 360 mph -- or (a very marginal) three mph faster than the Me109 and ten mph faster than the Me110. Yet it was not the Spitfire's speed that made it the fighter most feared by the Luftwaffe. It was her sheer mastery of the air.

For those focused merely on the technical specifications, this statement is not comprehensible. The Spitfire could not dive as steeply as the Me109 -- her Merlin engine, which did not have fuel injection, cut out if she dived to steeply. Nor could she climb as rapidly as the Me109, at least at altitudes below 20,000 feet. Furthermore, the Me109 packed a harder punch in the form of two cannon rather than eight machine guns. 

Yet the focus on the purely technical aspects of an aircraft -- at least in the 1940s -- is dangerously misleading. In the Second World War, aircraft had to be flown by humans, and it was the symbiosis between pilot and aircraft that accounted for combat (as opposed to test) performance.

Both the Me109 and the Me110 required considerable strength to handle at high speeds or altitude. The Me109 had a number of other bad habits such as right torque. The Spitfire, in contrast, could be controlled with the pilot's fingertips. She could be trimmed practically to fly herself. Pilots report coming to after losing consciousness in a dive or spin to find that the Spitfire had  literally trimmed  herself to fly straight an level. Pilots loved her -- unabashedly and uninhibitedly. Their confidence in her made them bolder. Their trust in her sustained morale even at the darkest moment. Their love of the Spitfire enabled them to perform on average at a higher level than had they been in a different aircraft.

While the Me109 has been compared to a vamp, the term most commonly used to describe the Spitfire was "a lady." The term was probably first coined by the Supermarine Test Pilot Jeffrey Quill, who allegedly remarked after his first flight in "her": "Here is a real lady." One of the RAF's highest scoring aces, "Sailor" Malan called her "a perfect lady." He claimed, "she had no vices. She was beautifully positive. You could dive till your eyes were popping out of your head ... [and] she would still answer to the touch." Battle of Britain Ace Bob Doe preferred to fly the Spitfire in shoes rather than flying boots in order to obtain a lighter and more direct control of the rudder -- rather like a rider on a young thoroughbred rather than an old hack. He claimed that the Spitfire "became part of you. It was an absolute joy."

The British public fell in love with the Spitfire too. Drives to collect scrap metal were called "Spitfire funds" -- not "Hurricane funds." Bungay in his book The Most Dangerous Enemy claims the Spitfire played "the role of the mythological role of a magical weapon, the equivalent of Achilles armour or the swords Excallibur or Nothing." [Aurum Press, 2000, 82]

Yet the greatest compliment to the Spitfire came from her opponents. The Luftwaffe respected the Spitfire but quite unjustly dismissed the Hurricane. This became known as "Spitfire snobbery." Luftwaffe pilots repeatedly made claims of shooting down  -- or at least dogfighting with "Spitfires" -- when RAF records show there wasn't a Spitfire in the sky at the time and place designated. The Luftwaffe was fighting with and being shot down by Hurricanes -- they just weren't willing to admit it.

The later point is particularly glaring because far fewer RAF squadrons were equipped with Spitfires than Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain: 19 Spitfire Squadrons compared to 33 Hurricane squadrons. Furthermore, in the course of the Battle, Hurricanes accounted for more RAF "kills" at a rate of 3 for every 2 kills made by Spitfires. These kills, however, included bombers, while the Spitfires accounted for a higher proportion of the German fighters shot down.

Historically, the value of the Spitfire was demonstrated by her endurance. The Spitfire not only served in every theater of the war, it served in a variety of roles as 20 different "marks" or modifications of the Spitfire were designed. Spitfires flew from Royal Navy aircraft carriers, they were converted to fighter bombers, capable of carrying a 250 lb bombs under each wing and a 500 lb bomb under the fuselage. They were extremely successful and valuable as high altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft.

Later models of the Spitfire were capable of speeds of 440 mph and could fly at 40,000 feet. They successfully shot down V1 rockets. Spitfires were not retired from service with the RAF until the introduction of jet aircraft in the early 1950s.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.  Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at:



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Friday, May 14, 2021

Fighter Aircraft of the Battle of Britain - Me 109

 The German fighter that caused the most damage to the RAF during the Battle of Britain was not the heavy "Destroyer/Zerstoerer" but the smaller Me109. It has been compared to a vampire, and it proved such a good design that, with modifications, it remained in service throughout the Second World War. Altogether, nearly 34,000 Me109s were built, more than any other World War Two fighter.

The Me109 was the brain-child of Willi Messerschmitt, who had started his career in aviation as a glider designer. The Me109 inherited from Messerschmitt's glider designs wings with superior lift and an overall design that was streamlined and light. 

This design, however, created other problems. The wings were too delicate to carry eight machine guns, ammunition boxes or support the weight of the aircraft when on the ground. As a result a series of work-arounds had to be developed. Two machine guns fired from beside the engine cowling and two cannons were fitted on the wings rather than eight machine guns. (Latter versions removed guns from the wings altogether and had cannons fired through the spinner of the propeller. The ammunition boxes were located in the fuselage and the guns fed by belts that stretched to the wingtips and back. But the problem was the very narrow undercarriage was never really solved and caused many accidents while taxiing and landing throughout the war.  Furthermore, because the canopy was hinged and opened to the side, it could not be left open during take-off and landing; this meant the pilot could not simply lean out to look around the long nose (that blocked forward vision); he had to weave back and forth slightly to see where he was going.

In the air, the Me109 fitted with a 1,000 hp engine was without doubt a superb fighter. At the duel between prototypes competing for the Luftwaffe contract in 1935, the Me109 preformed a spectacular series of spins and a power dives that blasted the competition right out of the game.  It was easy to handle, and in the hands of an expert was extraordinarily maneuverable and agile. Fitted with fuel-injection engines, the Me109 had a maximum speed of 357 mph at 12,300 feet and a service ceiling of 36,000 feet -- substantially higher than that of its opponents in the Battle of Britain. Americans who test flew the Me109 before the start of the war (including Charles Lindbergh) considered it superior to any fighter aircraft the U.S. had at the time. 

Yet it had drawbacks in the air too. The canopy was made up of several panels fit into a metal frame and that created bars that blocked the pilot's vision -- that could be fatal in a dogfight.  The Me109 could not be trimmed to fly straight and level; it required constant right ruder to counter the torque of the propeller. Perhaps the most serious drawback was the canopy that opened sideways and could not be readily released during an emergency. Without doubt many German pilots died because of this feature. 

Although much is usually made of the turning radius of a fighter, in the Battle of Britain, the Me109, the Hurricane and the Spitfire had technical radii so similar that it was the capabilities of pilot more than those aircraft that were the deciding factor in a dogfight. Pilots were more likely to black-out in a tight turn than for the aircraft to stall. Experienced pilots with a better feel for their aircraft were able to push their machines closer to the latter's limit, while inexperienced pilots often stalled, lost consciousness or were unnecessarily afraid of tearing the wings off. Nevertheless, technically both the Spitfire (by a very small margin) the Hurricane (by a considerably greater margin) could out-turn the Me109, so in the hands of a skilled and confident pilot, this was a British advantage.

When all was said and done, the Me109s accounted for 3/4 of the 1,023 RAF fighters shot down in the Battle of Britain,  Me110s, bombers and accidents accounting for the rest. Thus, on a fighter-to-fighter basis, the Me109 was the clear victor of the battle , shooting down 770 Spitfire and Hurricanes for losses of just 650 of their own number. Yet the RAF fighters combined shot down 223 Me110s, and more importantly 1,014 bombers for a total of 1,887 German aircraft. The Me109 alone, at least not in the numbers deployed, could not win the Battle of Britain.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The leading German characters are pilots and women auxiliaries serving with and Me109 Gruppe in Northern France. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or see an video teaser at: 



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Friday, May 7, 2021

Fighter Aircraft of the Battle of Britain - Me110

 At the start of the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe thought they had the perfect weapon. It had been especially designed as a "destroyer" and its role was to be an offensive fighter. It had range, speed, forward and rearward firing guns, and it had already proved its value in the fight against Poland. It was the Me110:

The Me110 had been designed by Messerschmitt to specifications from 1934. It had a speed of 350 mph at 22,000 feet, roughly the same top speed of a Spitfire and marginally faster than the Hurricane. It was armed with two forward-firing cannon and four forward-firing machine guns as well as an additional machine gun that faced backwards and was manned by a dedicated gunner. Serving an aggressive dictator, the Luftwaffe confidently ordered enough of these "Destroyers" (Zerstörer) to outfit a third of their fighter squadrons. 

When war came in September 1939, the Luftwaffe's fighter force during the invasion of Poland was composed almost exclusively of the Destroyers, while the smaller Me109s were left in the Reich for air defense purposes.  The Destroyers' job in this campaign was two-fold -- to destroy the enemy's air force and to protect the Luftwaffe's bombers.  In the first role, the Destoryer rapidly proved to be a formidable bomber-killer. It was fast enough to catch or even over-take contemporary bombers (including RAF Wellingtons that ventured too far into German airspace), while its fire power was sufficient to destroy them. As an escort fighter, it likewise appeared to do good work because the Polish Air Force was largely destroyed on the ground and the Destroyers did not have to contend with defending fighters.

During the offensive in the West in 1940, the situation was largely repeated. The majority of enemy aircraft were caught on the ground and there were never enough RAF fighters around to effectively challenge the dominance of the Luftwaffe. Victories in individual dogfights sometimes went to one side or the other. There was no evidence of clear advantage for one fighter or another -- especially since no Spitfires had been deployed to France.

Even during the evacuation at Dunkirk, the weaknesses of the Me110 did not become apparent. While the British mounted a massive defense of the airspace over the beaches of Dunkirk, they had only 200 fighters to the Luftwaffe's 550 and to deploy over Dunkirk they ate up a lot of fuel crossing the Channel, which left them little time for dog-fighting. Furthermore, the need to destroy the bombers before they reached their targets was paramount and so the RAF concentrated on bringing down bombers, not engaging fighters unless absolutely necessary. 

Not until the so-called "Kanalkampf" of July 1940 did the first inklings of problems with the Me110 emerge. When the Luftwaffe started to probe British defenses, it soon discovered that both Hurricanes and Spitfires in the hands of skilled and motivated pilots did not have much difficulty evading -- if not shooting down -- the vaunted "Destroyers." The problem was that while the Destroyers were fast, they did not accelerate rapidly. To make matters worse, they could not turn tightly and, like most multi-engined aircraft, they didn't particularly like rolling. What this meant was that any competently flown Hurricane or Spitfire could easily evade the massive firing-power fixed facing forward and maneuver onto the tail of the Me110 -- where they equally easily made a mockery of the Me110's rearward-firing guns. Rather than destroying much, the Destroyers were rapidly becoming the prey. 

To stay alive, the Me110s devised the tactic of forming a defensive circle that slowly lumbered across the sky in one direction or another. The idea was that the Me110's could use their forward guns and cannon to protect the tail of the aircraft ahead of it. It worked -- up to a point. Spitfires and Hurricanes were so nimble they could turn inside these circles, shooting up one Destroyer after another. That, or they merrily swooped down from above or up from below to take pot-shots at the flying merry-go-rounds robbed of all offensive abilities. 

Far from protecting the bombers (except in the sense that they may have distracted some RAF fighters from them), the Me110 was a itself vulnerable in an engagement with modern single-engine fighters. Still the Luftwaffe believed it's long range would enable it to play a role in attacks launched against the North of England from Norway. The Luftwaffe presumed that Scotland and northern England were denuded of fighter defense and so, they calculated, the Me110s would have a field day.  The Luftwaffe was wrong. When the attack was made on August 15, casualties were so high among the Me110 squadrons that Goering gave orders for them to be protected -- i.e. the "super" fighter needed a fighter escort. Altogether, the Luftwaffe lost 223 Me110s during the Battle of Britain -- essentially their entire Order of Battle at the opening. While replacements meant entire units were not wiped out, aircraft strength was in some cases reduced to nearly 50%.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the Me110s as worthless. On the contrary, they proved highly effective -- in different roles. The Me110 demonstrated its worth as a low-level, precision bomber even during the Battle of Britain itself, when as part of the Test Wing 210, it was responsible for some of the most devastating attacks on airfields or radar installations. However, it was as a night-fighter that the Me110 found its true niche. 

The Me100 was equipped for instrument flying and its cockpit was large enough to accommodate a radar operator, making it suitable for night fighting. More importantly, however, it was strong enough to be outfitted with twin, upward-firing 20 millimeter cannons. So equipped, the Me110s found it easy to slip in undetected below the RAF's night bomber streams, maneuver to a point where the obliquely upward-slanting guns were directed at the wing tanks of the bomber and fire away. Because they did not use tracer, the RAF didn't know the Me110 was there unless or until they were hit. One experienced Luftwaffe pilot destroyed seven Lancasters in this fashion in a single night -- and then quit because he was tired of killing. It has been estimated that the kill-to-loss ratio of the Me110 vs RAF bombers was 30:1.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.  Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at:



Buy now!

 direct from Itasca or from Barnes and Noble

Buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk