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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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All hail the Hawker Hurricane

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HENRY Getley’s splendid article in TCW about the Rolls-Royce Merlin and its use in the Spitfire and Hurricane reminds us of how Britain used to be a manufacturing superpower and how British engineers came forward with designs at precisely the right time to save the country from the Luftwaffe.

One such engineer was Sydney Camm, born in Windsor in 1893, the eldest of 12 children of Fred and Mary Camm. Fred was a carpenter and instilled in Sydney the need for precision. As a schoolboy Sydney built model aircraft which he sold directly to the pupils of Eton. These were delivered at night on a string lowered from a dormitory to avoid the masters.

He joined the Martinsyde aeroplane company at Brooklands at the outbreak of war in 1914, learning the business and developing his skills in aircraft design. In 1923, 100 years ago, he joined the Hawker Engineering Company at Kingston upon Thames as a senior draughtsman, becoming Chief Designer in 1925.  

Camm was a hard taskmaster and if everything wasn’t just spot-on there ‘would be hell to pay’. He was involved in a total of 52 designs in a 43-year career, including the Harrier jump jet, but the Hawker Hurricane was his masterpiece.

In the popular mind it was the Supermarine Spitfire which carried the day for the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. The grace of R J Mitchell’s design was appreciated by the public as something very special, as it was for the pilots who flew it.

But it was the slower Hawker Hurricane which accounted for most of the German airmen killed in 1940 and destroyed most of their Heinkels, Junkers and Dorniers. Although nearly 200 Hurricanes had been lost in the Battle of France there were 32 squadrons of Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain compared with 19 of Spitfires.

By the time air battles commenced over England in 1940, the RAF had a secret weapon – BAM 100. This was British Air Ministry 100 octane fuel which had been developed and manufactured in the United States, bought for cash by the UK government, and shipped across the Atlantic by tankers. Compared with the previous 87 octane petrol, the new fuel boosted the speed of the Hurricane and the Spitfire by around 30mph. The Luftwaffe pilots were taken by surprise and couldn’t understand where the extra power came from until later in the war German technicians tested fuel from a downed aircraft.

Side by side the Spitfire and Hurricane, both powered by the iconic Rolls-Royce V12 Merlin, were very different. The Spitfire with its elliptical wing and perfect proportions ‘looked as if it could fly’, as Sergeant Cyril Bamberger of 610 and 41 squadrons said. But the Hurricane, if not quite an ugly duckling, had an ungainly appearance.

While the Spitfire was of all-metal construction, the Hurricane’s structure was a halfway house between fabric covered biplanes, such as the Gloster Gladiator, and all-aluminium monoplanes. An unintended consequence of the Hurricane’s fabric-covered fuselage was that German cannon shells could pass straight through without exploding. Its pilots soon realised that the Hurricane could take a lot of punishment, and the ground crews, the unsung heroes of the battle, could often repair the aircraft on station unlike the Spitfire, which was difficult to produce, maintain and repair.

Getting airborne in a squadron scramble, or landing on a grass airstrip, the Hurricane was safer than its compatriot because Camm had designed its undercarriage to open outwards, not inwards, making its track wider.

In the air the Hurricane shrugged off its ugly duckling appearance and became a killing machine. Flight Lieutenant Peter Brothers of 32 and 257 Squadrons said: ‘It was a superb combat aircraft . . . it was a better gun platform than the Spitfire.’ Squadron Leader Tom Dalton Morgan said that, although he had flown more hours on the Spitfire, ‘as a fighting machine I preferred the Hurricane’.

The Hurricane could out-turn a Messerschmitt Bf109. Its turning radius of 785ft compared with 895ft for the German machine and 860ft for the Spitfire. The Hurricane’s thick wing allowed a different configuration of its eight .303 Browning guns giving a closer concentration of fire at a rate of 19 rounds per second.

Hurricane pilot Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson of 249 Squadron was awarded Fighter Command’s only Victoria Cross. Paisley-born Squadron Leader Archie McKellar and Czech Sergeant Joseph Frantisek were the highest-scoring RAF pilots in the battle. Both flew Hurricanes.

The Battle of Britain in 1940 was the most vital combat in Britain’s history. Alone, and expected to surrender within weeks, Britain fought for her survival, and inflicted the first defeat on the hitherto invincible Wehrmacht. The RAF prevented invasion, and prepared the ground for ultimate victory over the Nazis. Without Camm’s Hurricane there would have been a different outcome.

Camm was knighted on June 2, 1953, on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He retired as chief designer at Hawker in 1965, and died the following year aged 72, while playing golf.

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William Loneskie
William Loneskie
William Loneskie is a retired geography teacher. He lives in the Scottish Borders.

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