Hawker Chief Designer Sydney Camm's Hurricane fighter ranks with the most important aircraft designs in military aviation history. Hurricanes proved vital to win the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940, when the Nazi Blitzkrieg seemed unstoppable. These airplanes also performed other roles flying on nearly every front until the end of the war. The Hurricane was the first British monoplane fighter aircraft, and the first British fighter to exceed 483 kph (300 mph) in level flight. That it was designed and built at all was a major undertaking that literally flew in the face of conventional aeronautical wisdom in the mid-1930s. At that time, the biplane was omnipresent and monoplanes were considered unstable and too radical to be successful fighter aircraft.
In 1925, Camm was appointed Chief Designer of the H. G. Hawker Engineering Company, the forerunner of Hawker Aircraft Ltd. During that same year, Camm designed a monoplane fighter and although it was not built, he realized that biplane fighters could not be designed to go faster than monoplanes. Two wings simply generated more drag than a single wing. It was time for a radical advance in fighter technology. In 1933, under Camm's direction, the Hawker design team began work on a new monoplane fighter and informal design proposals were made to the Air Ministry in August 1935. Camm and his team proposed a single-wing adaptation of the highly successful Hawker Fury biplane. They selected a liquid-cooled, 660 horsepower Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine to power the new aircraft. It was called the Fury Monoplane. Soon a new powerplant, forerunner of the legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin, was proposed for this airplane.
Camm revised the design, based on this new engine, and introduced a wide track, hand-operated, retractable landing gear, a retracting tail wheel, and an enclosed cockpit. These features reduced drag even further and made the aircraft faster. More modifications and refinements followed and on September 4, 1934, Camm submitted a new, revised design known as the Interceptor Monoplane. A mock-up was begun later that year. Official approval for a prototype was given in February 1935 and the military serial number K5083 was assigned to this revolutionary airplane.
The Interceptor Monoplane was a blend of the old and new. It was a monoplane with retractable landing gear but the internal airframe structure reverted to the formula Hawker had proven on all his biplanes: tubular metal cross braced sections covered with fabric. While the prototype was under construction, another new specification was issued, causing a design change from a four-machine gun armament system to a scheme that used eight, license-built, American .303 caliber, Browning weapons. A Rolls Royce Merlin, twelve-cylinder, 990 horsepower engine driving a two-blade, fixed-pitch wooden propeller, supplied power. Despite early engine difficulties, the new aircraft proved to have excellent potential. It flew for the first time on November 6, 1935.
Flight trials began immediately but engine troubles continued to plague the aircraft and the Merlin engine was continuously upgraded to increase performance and reliability. Camm had started out with the Merlin C series engine, then tried the F series, known as the Merlin I, and then the Merlin II. The Merlin III, developing 1,030 horsepower, became the most satisfactory engine variant and it powered most of the early production aircraft.
As prototype evaluation continued, Hawker received an unprecedented contract order for 600 aircraft on June 3, 1936. This was one of the largest production orders ever placed for a single military aircraft design during peacetime. On the 27th, the name Hurricane was officially adopted. Hawker was expecting production orders so the company had already began to tool their production lines to build the airplane. They made 40 within three months and a short time later, the Royal Air Force (RAF) accepted their first Hurricane. In December 1937, ten weeks after the first flight of a production Hurricane I on October 12, 1937, the first RAF squadron to convert to the new fighter, No. 111 at Northolt, traded in their Gloster Gauntlets biplanes for the new monoplanes. Hawker never paused in flight-testing improvements to the fighter and in 1939, the company began using the variable-pitch, three-bladed propeller. This technology significantly increased the Hurricane's climb performance and service ceiling.
This relentless pace of production, the introduction to service, and continued flight-testing was driven initially by the threat of war posed by Nazi Germany. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the Hurricane joined the fight. Hurricane pilots drew first blood for the RAF during air battles fought over France. Flying a Hurricane, Pilot Officer P. W. O. Mould of No. 1 Squadron, RAF, destroyed a Dornier Do17 (German twin-engine bomber) on October 30, 1939. Soon several Hurricane squadrons were heavily engaged with German aircraft but the Luftwaffe (German air force) outnumbered the smaller force of British fighters and inflicted heavy casualties.
The Hurricane's most important role in World War II came a few months later during the Battle of Britain, fought between July and October 1940. On the eve of this great battle for England's survival as a free country, the British could muster only 26 Hurricane I squadrons. In addition to Hurricanes, there were 19 Supermarine Spitfire squadrons and 10 other fighter squadrons equipped with Defiants and Blenheims. Once the battle began, these latter two aircraft quickly proved utterly inferior to the Messerschmitt Bf 109. All together, RAF Fighter Command had about 720 serviceable Hurricanes, Spitfires, and other combat airplanes. Against them stood a force of about 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, flush with sweeping victories over every air force in Europe that had opposed them.
For Hitler's Luftwaffe, the primary goal of the great contest about to unfold was to engage and destroy all RAF fighter aircraft in the air or on the ground. Once this was accomplished, Hitler could launch Operation Sealion, the amphibious invasion of Great Britain, unopposed by the RAF. The Luftwaffe would then revert to its earlier role as the air component of Blitzkrieg, or Lightning War. German fighters, in conjunction with level bombers such as the Heinkel 111, and the Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, would work in direct support of the German Army's tank and infantry forces by attacking British troops, tanks, and fortifications.
The battle for air superiority over England saw RAF Fighter Command devise a strategy for singling out the German bombers. They assigned Hurricane squadrons to concentrate on the bombers while the faster Spitfires engaged the escorting fighters. This tactic was determined by the differences in performance between the Spitfire and the Hurricane. The primary German fighter airplane, the Messerschmitt Bf109, outclassed the Hawker fighter in speed and armament; the difference was small enough that many times the outcome depended upon individual pilot skills. The Hurricane did enjoy several advantages over the Bf 109. It could out-turn the German fighter at all operational altitudes, it could sustain more damage and return to base, and when battle damage was so severe that a crash-landing became unavoidable, the Hurricane usually fell on friendly territory. The Hurricane's sturdy tubular construction allowed many machines to survive combat and return quickly to the fight.
The Battle of Britain ended in early November when Göring ordered the Luftwaffe to switch to bombing cities, ports, and factories at night. The sea borne invasion was called off and Hitler turned his attention east to plan the invasion of Russia. It had been a near thing for Britain. The RAF nearly ran out of pilots and serviceable aircraft. Mechanics patched together every Hurricane and Spitfire that could stagger back into the air but losses were terrific. Between July 10 and October 31, the Germans lost 1,733 aircraft to the RAF. The Royal Air Force lost 915 airplanes and 415 pilots. Hurricane production figures reveal the airplane's critical importance to the RAF. Every week of the battle, Hurricane losses exceeded that of any other fighter type, yet the Air Ministry consistently ordered more Hurricanes built than any other type of fighters (Spitfires, Blenheims, and Defiants).
As the Battle of Britain ended, Hawker continued to modify and improve the Hurricane. At the same time, several Hurricane squadrons learned night fighter tactics and many Hurricanes were modified to fly and fight in darkness and bad weather. Others were fitted with tropical filters and sent overseas to the Mediterranean. Hawker also sold Hurricanes to Yugoslavia, Belgium, Iran, Rumania, Turkey, and Poland. Early in 1941, the Royal Yugoslavian Air Force replaced the Merlin engine with a Daimler Benz DB601A. After flight trials, Yugoslavian test pilot claimed the German engine was superior to the Merlin. Hurricanes also fought in Malta and the western desert of North Africa. The Hurricane even went to sea aboard CAM (Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen) ships. These hastily modified sea-borne interceptors were nicknamed 'Hurricats.'
The Hawker design staff wanted to increase engine power without interrupting production, so they selected a new, more powerful version of the Merlin. The new Merlin XX engine was only slightly larger than earlier versions, yet it generated 1,280 horsepower and a maximum speed in the Hurricane of 550 kph (342 mph). This new version was called the Hurricane II and a prototype first flew on June 11, 1940. Armament was increased from eight guns (Mark IIA) to twelve guns (Mark IIB). The biggest weapons modification came with the Mark IIC Hurricane. A specification dating back to 1935 had called for a fighter armed with four 20mm cannons. After initial test results proved successful, Hawker began building the Mark IIC in 1941 equipped with a very potent battery of four 20 mm Oerlikon cannons, and more than 4,700 examples of this Hurricane were built.
Several other variants of the Hurricane appeared including the Mark IID with two 40mm cannons mounted under the wings. Most of the Mark IID's were shipped to the Middle East, North Africa and Burma, and one squadron flew them in northern Europe. The Mark IV Hurricane showed little difference from the Mark II series, but it had improved armor and universal wing mounts for various ground attack roles. Several other versions of the Hurricane were created including Sea Hurricanes designed for convoy escort and equipped with arresting hooks. From 1936 until production ended in September 1944, Hawker, Gloster, Canadian Car and Foundry, and Fairey built 14,233 Hurricanes. One of the last Hurricanes built was purchased by the Hawker Company and named "The Last of the Many." It is maintained in flying condition to this day.
The National Air and Space Museum owns a Hawker Hurricane Mk. IIC bearing RAF serial number LF686. Hawker built this fighter at the Langley factory, near Slough, Buckinghamshire, just six miles from what is now called Heathrow airport, early in 1944. It was part of the last RAF Hurricane order for about 1,300 aircraft. On March 14, 1944, the RAF moved LF686 to No. 5 Maintenance Unit at RAF Kemble airfield for installation of operational equipment. The fighter was delivered to No. 41 Operational Training Unit at RAF Hawarden airfield in Cheshire on April 15, 1944. It served in this OTU until the RAF reclassified the aircraft a maintenance training airframe, number 5270M, on June 27, 1945, and transferred it to RAF Maintenance Command at Chilbolton, Hampshire, where it was used to train mechanics. At some point the original engine was probably removed. In July 1948, the RAF issued the Hurricane to No. 7 School for Recruit Training, RAF Bridgenorth. Another Merlin XX was installed and the fighter was placed outdoors, opposite the guardroom. Sometime later, the entire airplane was painted silver. In 1963, Bridgenorth closed its doors and LF686 moved to RAF Colherne for overhaul and storage.
During the late 1960s, the Smithsonian arranged to trade a stock Hawker Typhoon to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in exchange for Hawker Hurricane LF686. An RAF transport hauled the fighter to the U. S. in 1969. Specialists at the Garber Facility began restoring the airplane in 1989 and finished the project eleven years later. The fighter is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.