Without the Royal Air Force’s first monoplane fighter aircraft, Britain would probably have lost the Battle of Britain, and eventually the Second World War
Ask any group of aspiring combat pilots to name the most significant Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter aircraft in the early stages of the Second World War and most would probably say it was the Supermarine Spitfire. They would be wrong. It was rather the Hawker Hurricane that accounted for more than 1,500 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down during the crucial first year of the War. And this number was only slightly exceeded by all other RAF aircraft combined. During the Battle of Britain itself, Hurricanes flew around 35,000 operational sorties and notched up over 60 per cent of the air victories, more than the Spitfires and ground defences combined. The Hawker Hurricane was eventually produced in 24 different variants and sub-variants and flew in a variety of roles with 25 air forces around the world.
The single-seat Hurricane, manufactured by Hawker Aircraft, Ltd, was the first British monoplane fighter. Every significant aircraft till the mid-1930s had been a biplane. Although monoplane designs had been occasionally tried out, they were considered unstable and too radical to succeed as fighter aircraft. After considerable effort to convince the British Air Ministry, and the introduction of major innovations including retractable landing gear, Hawker finally received its first order in June 1936. In fact the contract for the now officially-designated Hurricane was for 600 planes – one of the largest till then for a single military aircraft in peacetime. The Hurricane first flew on October 12, 1937, and 40 aircraft were built within three months. It entered RAF squadron service in December 1937.
The Hurricane had a stubby and unremarkable appearance, unlike the sleek, streamlined and glamorous Spitfire. It was a low-wing cantilever monoplane with a steel-tube structure. An advantage of this structure was that cannon shells could pass right through the wood and fabric covering without exploding, as numerous live engagements proved. Most damage to the airframe was relatively simple to repair, even by ground crew at the airfield. The enclosed cockpit was a first for RAF pilots. In fact the transition from flying biplanes with fixed undercarriage and open cockpit to monoplanes with retractable undercarriage and enclosed cockpit was a quantum leap. However, the plane had excellent flight characteristics. Performance wise, the new fighter was 80 to 95 km/h faster than most of its biplane rivals. It was the first RAF fighter capable of exceeding 300 miles (480 km) per hour in level flight. A single Rolls-Royce PV-12 Merlin, twelve-cylinder, 990 horsepower engine driving a two-blade, fixed-pitch wooden propeller, supplied power. In 1939, Hawker introduced a variable-pitch, three-blade propeller that significantly increased the aircraft’s climb performance and service ceiling. The main armament consisted of a formidable array of eight remotely-operated wing-mounted 0.303-inch Browning machine guns. This facilitated short, sharp dogfights.
When the Second World War broke out, the RAF already had over 550 Hurricanes equipping a total of 18 fighter squadrons, with another 3,500 aircraft on order. They proved invaluable in countering the Luftwaffe air raids. Hurricanes shouldered the major share of air combat in the Battle of France (May–June 1940). By the time the Battle of Britain – the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces – commenced in July 1940, the RAF had 30 Hurricane squadrons as compared to just 19 Spitfire squadrons. The Hurricane was slower than the Spitfire and not really equal to the versatile Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter, especially in a climb and descent, but proved superior to the German aircraft in a turning fight.
Since wave after wave of lumbering Luftwaffe bombers were being deployed against Britain, the RAF simply decided to assign them to the Hurricanes while using the Spitfires to tackle the escorting Bf 109 fighters. The concentrated wall of fire of the Hurricane’s eight machine guns proved deadly against the German bombers. The Hurricane was also simpler to fly, less prone to landing accidents, and far quicker to restore to frontline service when it sustained combat damage, than the Spitfire was. A total of 1,715 Hurricanes flew with the RAF Fighter Command in the three and a half months of the Battle of Britain, far in excess of all other British fighters combined. Britain’s victory in the three month air campaign would not have been possible without the Hurricane.
The Hurricane was of relatively simple construction and ease of manufacture and hence much cheaper than the Spitfire. It took just 10,300 man hours to build a Hurricane against 15,200 man hours for a single Spitfire. When production ceased in July 1944, 14,487 Hurricanes had been manufactured in Britain and Canada, with some more aircraft produced in Belgium and Yugoslavia. According to Paul Beaver, an aviation historian and pilot, without the Hawker Hurricane, Britain would probably have lost the Second World War.