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The forgotten fighter plane which won the Battle of Britain
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Pilot climbing into Hurricane (Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Eighty years ago, a small single-seat fighter was largely responsible for defeating Germany’s attempts to invade Britain. But it wasn’t the Spitfire.
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On 7 September 1940, southern England suffered what was then the biggest air raid the world had ever seen.

Over the previous three months, the aircraft of Germany’s Luftwaffe had tried to break the resistance of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF). Already severely depleted from the heavy fighting during the invasion of France, the RAF had buckled several times under the strain. A particularly brutal offensive against its airfields and the factories producing its fighter planes over the weeks before had left it dangerously close to running out of both planes and pilots.

If the attacks had carried on with the same intensity for a few more weeks, the RAF might have collapsed completely. German invasion barges were waiting on the other side of the channel for just such a moment.

But then Germans then turned their attention – mystifyingly – to Britain’s cities, hoping that indiscriminate bombing would cause widespread panic and force Britain to surrender. The Luftwaffe decided to throw every available aircraft into the offensive. It started on 7 September.

During the early afternoon, British radar observers hunched over their screens started seeing something massive taking shape. From airfields across France, wave after wave of German bombers and fighters took to the air, forming up into one enormous formation over the English Channel. It was so large – nearly 1,100 planes – that it covered 800 square miles (2,072 sq km). The last time a force this powerful had threatened England was the Spanish Armada, 500 years before.

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The aircraft defending London that day were spearheaded by the Supermarine Spitfire, an iconic single-seat fighter plane which had only entered service a few months before the start of World War Two. The Spitfire was fast, sleek and very agile – but it was outnumbered two to one by another fighter, one often ignored in the popular retelling of the battle. It was the Hawker Hurricane, and most of the RAF squadrons flying over London that day were equipped with it.

It was an aircraft that not only helped turn the tide of a war, but whose legacy can be found today in a wide range of modern life – from aviation to medicine. This year marks the 85th anniversary of the Hawker Hurricane’s first flight, and what follows offers some insight into the impact it has had.

The 7 September raid marked the first time in history 1,000 aircraft had taken part in an air raid (two-thirds of them were fighters protecting the bombers). London’s docks and the working-class neighbourhoods of the East End were devastated. The fires were so fierce that one of the RAF’s fighter airfields 40 miles away couldn’t operate because huge palls of drifting smoke made it too dangerous to fly. The fires – like the ones in the factories of Woolwich, which produced flames hundreds of feet high – burned long into the night, a beacon for further night-time attacks. “Black Saturday”, as it became known, marked the start of The Blitz, an eight-month-long series of night attacks which destroyed vast swathes of London’s industry and housing, causing unimaginable despair among the civilians who endured it.

The Hurricane was largely overlooked in favour of the more graceful-looking Spitfire, seen on the right (Credit: Iwan Lewis/UK Ministry of Defence/Getty Images)

The Hurricane was largely overlooked in favour of the more graceful-looking Spitfire, seen on the right (Credit: Iwan Lewis/UK Ministry of Defence/Getty Images)

Several Hurricane pilots lost their lives that day, among them Richard “Dickie” Reynell, a 6ft 6in Australian who must have found the Hurricane’s cramped cockpit a tight squeeze indeed. Reynell’s aircraft was hit by a German fighter in a huge dogfight in the skies over Greenwich, the historic naval district on the south side of the Thames River. Local military historian Steve Hunnisett, who has combed through the declassified records from Reynell’s squadron, says he was most likely wounded in the aircraft, and had managed to get his canopy open and jump out of his stricken plane, but blacked out before he could open his parachute.

He fell into the garden of a house in the suburb of Blackheath, the house of a naval officer who happened to be at home on the day. According to a declassified casualty report that Hunnisett has been able to read, "life was extinct and the body was removed to the Royal Herbert Military Hospital, Woolwich”. Reynell was 28 and left behind a wife and young son. He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

Richard Reynell died a minute’s walk from my house. He was a highly experienced test pilot who had flown Hurricanes for Hawker, the company which had designed and built it. The RAF had been so short of pilots that Reynell has been seconded to a fighter squadron during the summer, partly, Hunnisett says, because Hawker wanted him to “get combat experience and feedback on modifications that might need to be made”.

His secondment had ended that morning. If he hadn’t decided to delay his trip back to Hawker until the Monday, he would probably have been on a train out of London when the Black Saturday raid lumbered towards the capital.

***

The Hawker Hurricane flew only a few short years before the Spitfire, but to all intents and purposes it was from an earlier age. Where the Spitfire was sleek and streamlined, the Hurricane was stubby and workmanlike. It wasn’t just a case of aesthetics, either. The Hurricane had as much in common with aircraft built 20 years earlier than it did with the Spitfire – aviation in the 1930s really did sprint forward in leaps and bounds.

The Hurricane actually began life as a biplane, based on an earlier aircraft Hawker had built

The Hurricane was the first monoplane fighter to enter service with the RAF. Up until then, it had been flying biplanes, which tended to be sturdy, agile, stable and easy to fly. There was a drawback, however – speed. The extra drag from two sets of thick wings prevented them getting much faster than 300mph (480km/h). Engines, however, were getting more and more powerful, and aircraft designers were already coming up with monoplane bomber designs that could fly faster than biplane fighters.

The Hurricane actually began life as a biplane, based on an earlier aircraft Hawker had built. Paul Beaver, an aviation historian and pilot, says: “If you look at the construction of the original aircraft, it had fabric-covered mainplanes [wings]. Fabric wings are very easy to repair, but they make it difficult to fly the plane robustly.”

Hawker’s chief designer, Sidney Camm, changed the wings to ones made of metal, partly to support the weight of the eight machine guns the Hurricane would carry. But the rest of the aircraft? Most of it was a wooden frame then enclosed in “stretched Irish linen”, Beaver says, and then ‘doped’ – covered in a lacquer which stiffened and tightened it. Compare that to the Spitfire, which was the first all-metal fighter plane and whose construction and repair demanded far more sophistication than the humble Hurricane.

During the Battle of Britain, the slower Hurricane was expected to concentrate on German bombers (Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/WPA/Getty Images)

During the Battle of Britain, the slower Hurricane was expected to concentrate on German bombers (Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/WPA/Getty Images)

The Hurricane first flew in 1935. “It was a game changer at the time,” says Hunnisett. “It would have looked like something completely alien to pilots used to flying biplanes with the cockpit open. It would have been a quantum jump.”

Only a few months before, pilots would have climbed into a biplane with an open cockpit – there’s a reason those old movies show pilots in sheepskin-and-leather jackets and flying helmets, a necessary barrier to the bone-chilling cold outside the cockpit. Instead, the Hurricane had an enclosed cockpit with a sliding canopy.

The new fighter plane was a good 50 or 60mph faster than most of the biplane fighter planes at the time. In the days before the Spitfire and its all-metal rival, the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, the Hurricane became a new benchmark for fighter plane design.

The display he gave blew everyone’s socks off – Steve Hunnisett

Hawker had ambitious export plans for the aircraft, assuming other countries’ air forces would be as impressed as the RAF. One famous aerobatic display at the Brussels Air Show in 1939 was breathlessly reported by aviation magazine Flight. The pilot? Richard Reynell.

"No one who had the good fortune to witness it is ever likely to forget his performance on the Hurricane at the Brussels show,” the magazine’s correspondent wrote. “His aerobatic display was one of the high spots of the day, eliciting gasps then uncontrolled applause from the spectators. At one moment horror swept through the whole assembly; the Hurricane was diving vertically with the engine off and when two very large sheets of flame licked along the fuselage. But [Richard] pulled out and rocketed past, whipping over into a vertical turn at fantastic speed."

“The display he gave blew everyone’s socks off,” says Hunnisett. “He showed everyone what it could do. As a result of the display, the Belgian Air Force put in an order for them.” Also in the audience that day were high-ranking German officers, including the Luftwaffe’s chief planner Erhard Milch. German pilots would soon get a much closer look at the Hurricane.

Some Hurricanes operated from airfields in the north of Russia, protecting Arctic convoys (Credit: Sovfoto/Getty Images)

Some Hurricanes operated from airfields in the north of Russia, protecting Arctic convoys (Credit: Sovfoto/Getty Images)

After World War Two broke out, several RAF Hurricane squadrons were sent to France, where they occasionally encountered German aircraft during a period of relative calm. It’s here that an unintended advantage of the Hurricane’s wood-and-fabric construction became apparent. German fighters were armed with small fast-firing cannon whose shells would explode when they hit their target. One or two would normally be enough to fatally damage an aircraft. The Hurricane’s fabric fuselage, however, wasn’t rigid enough to set the shells off. “The fabric allowed the cannon shells to go right through,” says Beaver. He says that in one early encounter in 1940, one RAF pilot returned from a mission with five gaping holes in his fuselage from German cannon shells; the pilot had had no idea he had been hit.

Not all Hurricane pilots would be so lucky, however. The RAF doctrine during the Battle of Britain was for Spitfires to engage German fighters, and let the slower Hurricanes try to stop the bombers. Though nimble at low altitudes, the Hurricane was more sluggish at greater heights; German fighter pilots were more aggressively trained and adept at attacking from behind, flying with the Sun at their back. It was almost impossible to spot a small fighter in such a position.

Hurricane pilots often had only a few seconds to get out of the cockpit

A mix of design defects and pilot habits created one particularly gruesome problem with Hurricanes. At first, the aircraft did not have armour around the fuel tanks, and nor did the tanks “self-seal” if they were punctured, something which became standard during World War Two. The doped fuselage and wooden frame could catch fire quite easily. Fuel would flow from damaged tanks in the wings to an empty space under the cockpit, but a bigger problem was the main fuel tank which sat directly in front of the cockpit. If it was ignited, it shot a jet of super-heated flame straight into the pilot’s face.

Another factor compounded this. Some of the more experienced pilots at the start of the Battle of Britain had originally flown biplane fighters in the 1930s and tended to fly with the canopy open. Also, early Hurricanes had a problem with carbon monoxide fumes leaking into the cockpit, so an open canopy meant they could take their oxygen mask off (it was an incredibly uncomfortable thing to have on your face for the whole mission). “All they did by having the canopy open was the temperature would go up to several thousand degrees in about three or four seconds – it was like turning the cockpit into a blast furnace.” Hurricane pilots often had only a few seconds to get out of the cockpit or face life-changing injuries, or worse.

A handful of Hurricanes are still flying today (Credit: Ross Land/Getty Images)

A handful of Hurricanes are still flying today (Credit: Ross Land/Getty Images)

So many pilots suffered such very similar injuries – severe burns around the eyes, and on their hands as they tried to shield their face – that British surgeons came up with a nickname for it: “Hurricane Burns”. The open canopy, the unarmoured fuel tank in front of the cockpit, the tendency for Hurricane pilots to fly with an unfastened mask, all combined with agonising, disfiguring effect.

The severity of these burns cases was a huge challenge for doctors. A leading reconstructive surgeon, New Zealander Archibald McIndoe, set up a special surgical unit at East Grinstead in West Sussex to treat them. McIndoe used experimental techniques – pioneering plastic surgery – on pilots with severe burns. McIndoe’s groundbreaking programme revolutionised burns care. He discovered saline water treatment helped burned skin heal more quickly after noticing shot down pilots who had been rescued from the English Channel tended to recover quicker than those who went down over land.

McIndoe became aware some of his patients might need years of medical treatment, and realised treating the mental effects was as vital as the physical. The pilots were able to wear normal civilian clothes or their uniforms while they were recovering and were encouraged to leave the hospital grounds when they wanted. The people of East Grinstead were asked to invite the pilots into their homes and ignore their injuries. As a result, East Grinstead became known as “the town that didn’t stare”. The pilots who went through McIndoe’s far-sighted approach set up a drinking society called “The Guinea Pig Club” that at its peak had nearly 700 members. The club held yearly reunions in East Grinstead until 2007, more than six decades after the end of the war. Some of the club members lived to see their 100th birthdays.

The Hurricane’s flaws had, in a way, been a necessary spur for McIndoe’s trailblazing techniques, many of which remain the bedrock for burns victims’ treatment today.

***

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is famous for the graceful Spitfire which leads it from the front. But next to it is always Hawker Hurricanes. The Hurricanes made an outsized contribution to the battle itself. More than half of the nearly 1,200 German aircraft shot down were by Hurricanes, but its impact has tended to fade into the background compared to the more graceful Spitfire. “The Spitfire had mystique about it,” Beaver says. The Germans would always say they had been shot down by a Spitfire rather than a Hurricane. It was OK to admit you’d been shot down by a Spitfire, but not a Hurricane.”

Dozens of Hurricanes survive as museum pieces, but fewer than 20 of these are currently airworthy

The Battle of Britain prevented Germany from invading and occupying Great Britain, eventually meaning that Europe could be liberated. Hurricanes served in the Blitz as night fighters, directed to their targets by radio operators on the ground and on the pilot’s own keen eyesight. They helped prevent the vital Mediterranean island of Malta from being invaded. In the deserts of North Africa they served as ground attack aircraft, being much better suited to the rough conditions than the more fragile Spitfires.

Early on in the war, there were not enough aircraft carriers to protect the convoys carrying much needed food and supplies to the UK, and German long-range planes would shadow the convoys, either bombing the ships or calling in their position to submarines. These planes could fly far outside the range of Britain’s fighter airfields. A short-lived solution – at least until more carriers could be built – was to fit catapults onto merchant ships. A Sea Hurricane fighter could be launched from these rocket-fired catapults and shoot down or chase off enemy planes. There was only one problem – it was a one-way mission, as there was nowhere to land the aircraft. More than 30 ships were refitted, and several were launched in combat. Incredibly, despite the challenges of ditching a small plane into rough, freezing seas, only one Sea Hurricane pilot was killed in combat.

The famous aviation pioneer Amy Johnson served as an ATA pilot (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The famous aviation pioneer Amy Johnson served as an ATA pilot (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hurricanes continued to serve until the end of World War Two, particularly in Burma – where they were able to take off from basic airfields cut out of the jungle. Nearly 14,500 were built; fewer than the Spitfire, but Hurricanes were both faster and cheaper to produce. Beaver is unequivocal about the plane’s contribution – without it, he says, Britain would have lost the war.

Dozens of Hurricanes survive as museum pieces, but fewer than 20 of these are currently airworthy. One of the pilots who regularly flies them from airfields in southern England – places where Hurricanes once took off during the Battle of Britain – is Anna Walker.

There are a number of pilots accredited to flying World War Two planes these days, but Walker stands out. She started flying with her father in her native Brazil when she was only six, and was flying gliders herself at the age of 13. For the past 27 years she has been an aerobatic pilot.

The ATA’s history is something that’s really close to my heart – Anna Walker

It was after an aerobatic display at an airshow that she was invited by one of the teams that operates World War Two aircraft to join their roster of pilots. After learning to fly a 1940s-era American Mustang, she began flying a Spitfire and then finally a Hurricane in 2009.

Walker was keenly aware of the work of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a pool of pilots who delivered aircraft from factories to airfields. With so many pilots needed for combat operations, the ATA drafted in any pilot who could fly a plane. Of the more than 1,300 pilots who flew planes to airfields, more than 160 were women.

“The ATA’s history is something that’s really close to my heart,” says Walker. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet quite a few of them [the female pilots]. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to some of their reunions. There are only two of the women pilots left in the UK.”

The ATA’s women pilots included the aviation pioneer Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia. She drowned in the Thames Estuary after parachuting out of a plane she was delivering for the ATA that had run out of fuel. Joan Hughes was another – she became the youngest female pilot in the UK when she got her flying licence at the age of 17. Of special significance to the Hurricane was Winnifred Crossley Fair: she became the first female pilot in the world to be accredited as a Hurricane pilot. Walker is still in touch with Nancy Miller Stratford, an American volunteer ATA pilot who is now 102.

Anna Walker is the only female pilot to fly Hurricanes in the world today (Credit: Courtesy Anna Walker)

Anna Walker is the only female pilot to fly Hurricanes in the world today (Credit: Courtesy Anna Walker)

Eighty years later, Walker is the only woman in the world who still flies them. Her own research into the ATA suggests the last woman to fly a Hurricane was a South African ATA pilot who delivered Hurricanes for scrapping on her way back home after the end of World War Two. “It was quicker than waiting for a steamship to take her back home,” Walker says. “So, I think that makes me the first woman to fly one since the last of those ferry pilots.”

To those interested in aircraft, Walker has an enviable job – apart from her aerobatic displays, she flies pleasure flights in two-seat versions of the Spitfire and the Hurricane. “I love the Hurricane,” she says. “Most of the pilots who fly the Spitfires think the Hurricane is a bit of a dog, but I love it.

They’re doing it for completely different reasons than those flying in the Spitfire. They know what the Hurricane did – Anna Walker

“It’s not the most beautiful aeroplane. I have to choose my words carefully when I describe the Hurricane. But I’m not a great believer in beauty for beauty’s sake. The Hurricane really was just a complete workhorse. It was an aircraft that just evolved. When you fly it, it really does fly like a biplane – just a biplane with one of the wings missing. It really does fly like a 1930s aircraft. All you have to do is look at it from the front, at the thickness of the wing, and you know it’s not going to be super-fast.”

Walker also flies passengers in a two-seat Hurricane, as well as a Spitfire. The people who opt for a flight in a Hurricane, she says, have often done their research about the aircraft’s role. “They’re doing it for completely different reasons than those flying in the Spitfire. They know what the Hurricane did.”

While her pleasure flights have been somewhat curtailed this year by the coronavirus pandemic, Walker has still got to have some fun in this under-rated aircraft.

As Britain entered its second lockdown thanks to the virus, Walker had to return the two-seat Hurricane back to Hawker Restoration in Suffolk, the company that had resorted it. “We were already in lockdown so I couldn’t take anyone in the back seat, not even one of the engineers,” she says. “But it did mean that once I got out into controlled airspace, I could really throw it around to my heart’s content.”

  • Many thanks to the Royal Aeronautical Society for their help with this article

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