Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to 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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1 comment:

  1. Wars always seem to be filled with "unsung heroes." Nice of you to give the Hurricane its due.