The Hawker Hurricane - a personal view
The Hawker Hurricane is an example of private enterprise producing a superior aircraft to those built to Air Ministry specification. The highly successful Spitfire, Lancaster and Mosquito are among other aircraft built by private enterprise.
The Hawker Hurricane held the fort in defending northern France and the skies over Dunkirk until Spitfires (which took twice as long to build and needed more metal, which was in short supply) became available in useful numbers. Before the Battle of Britain had even begun, Fighter Command had invested 645 Hurricanes across the Channel, of which only 66 returned, meaning, of course, a significant number of pilots and ground crew were lost.
At the beginning of the Battle, the RAF was outnumbered by the Luftwaffe four to one. One big advantage the Hurricane had over the Spitfire was that its simple robust construction of stretched doped canvas over a wooden frame meant that it could get back to an airfield when quite badly damaged and be easily and quickly repaired. It was not unknown for it to be back in action the same day.
In combat, the Hurricane had one significant advantage over the formidable Messerschmitt bf109 (more commonly known as the Me109) in that it could out-turn it, a distinct advantage that enabled it to escape pursuit.
At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane and Spitfire worked well together, but when the Luftwaffe changed its tactics and decided to fly straight across the Channel at much higher altitude to bomb London, only the Spitfires could climb fast enough in the 20 minutes radar warning to gain the height advantage and position themselves with the sun behind them (essential strategy in any fighter attack). Nevertheless, the Hurricane went on to make a vital contribution to the RAF's success in the Battle of Britain and after.
As well as doing sterling work in the Battle of Britain and Malta, variations of the Hurricane did vital work overseas as fighter bombers, tank busters and carryring out a range of other duties . One highly specialised duty (little known and therefore usually overlooked) was one that was as close as the RAF ever got to the Japanese technique of the Kamakazi, as it was a one way flight for both machine and pilot. This was the duty known as the MSFU, standing for Merchant Ship Fighter Unit.
The background to this was that as well as merchant ships crossing the Atlantic bringing their precious cargoes to Britain being sunk by German U-Boats, they were also bombed from the air by the Luftwaffe's long range Condor bombers. These operated too far out in the Atlantic for any RAF fighters to reach them. The Navy's aircraft carriers were fully occupied in other parts of the world and none could be spared.
A solution was suggested, but it could only be carried out by pilots who understood the enormous risks and would, nevertheless, volunteer. The idea was that a certain number of merchant ships in a convoy would have, along the length of their decks, a wide steel girder, with a steam catapult at its stern. This had in front of it a Hurricane, ready to go into action at a minute's notice, with its pilot also ready. Once one of the Condors was seen overhead, the pilot would “scramble” into his machine and would be catapulted into the air. It would then attack and, hopefully, destroy its prey. There was then, of course, no chance of landing back on the ship, so the pilot had to ditch as near as possible to a merchant ship and hope to be picked up.
As with most things it's not all good news, and the Hurricane was no exception. It is often asked why the Hurricane pilots seemed to suffer more serious burns than other fighter pilots.
First of all, of course, there were more Hurricane pilots (i.e. 39 Hurricane squadrons and 19 Spitfire squadrons in the Battle of Britain), so statistically, alone the chances were greater. Beyond that the construction, materials used and the layout of the machine were responsible.
In front of the pilot, on the engine side of the thin aluminium instrument panel, was an 85 gallon tank of high octane aviation fuel. Once this was hit, and caught fire (reaching several thousand degrees within seconds) it became, as one pilot described it “like sitting in front of a giant blow torch” ( Wing Commander Geoffrey Page DSO, DFC).
If the slab fuel tanks in the wings were hit and the contents set on fire, with no self sealing lining available at the time, more fuel poured out into the wings and added to the fire. What worsened the already serious situation was that where the wing roots joined the fuselage there were no sealing sheet metal strips, so the river of flaming fuel came flooding in around the pilot's feet.
The fuselage, constructed with wooden slats and doped, stretched canvas, would be consumed in flames within seconds. The intense heat invariably rapidly distorted the sliding canopy, preventing, or at least delaying, the pilot's escape. It was said by pilots that if it took longer than eight seconds then they would need extensive treatment with skin grafts, and probably reconstruction of bones.
A specialist burns treatment unit was set up at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, under the brilliant and unconventional surgeon from New Zealand, Archibald McIndoe. Those treated there formed what became known as the “Guinea Pig Club” or ”McIndoe's Army”.