Icons of Aviation History: Hawker Hurricane

Although outshined by the more famous Spitfire, the Hurricane bore the brunt of the fighting during the Battle of Britain.

Hurricane IIc on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center

In the early 1930s, the United Kingdom was flying the Hawker Fury biplane as its frontline fighter. For its time it was fast and maneuverable, but as war clouds appeared in Europe and the Nazis began rearming their Luftwaffe, it became apparent that the Fury would be no match for the new German fighters.

So in 1933 Hawker began designing a replacement: a mono-wing version that would use the same Goshawk engine, but which would be much faster and better-armed. Dubbed the “Hurricane”, it would have retractable landing gear, house the engine compartment inside an aluminum skin, and use fabric to cover the wings and the rest of the fuselage. And when the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was introduced, it was decided to drop the old Goshawk and use this instead.

When the prototype first flew in November 1935, it reached speeds of almost 400mph. The Air Ministry immediately placed an order for 600 fighters. This proved to be too much for Rolls-Royce to handle, though, so the engine was switched over to the Merlin II instead. When the first production Hurricane Mark Is began reaching British squadrons in 1937, they had also been fitted with self-sealing gas tanks and armor plating in the cockpit, and shortly later the wings were covered with sheet aluminum instead of canvas, and all of this extra weight dropped the speed to around 340mph. But the Hurricane, with its eight .303-caliber machine guns, was still a lethal machine. To speed deployment, the Gloster Aircraft Company also began turning out Hurricanes.

By the time Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, nineteen RAF fighter squadrons had been equipped with Hurricanes. Four of these were sent to France, which expected invasion at any time. When it came, the Hurricanes suffered 25% losses from German Messerschmitts and bombing raids, and were forced to withdraw when France surrendered.

Hitler next turned his sights onto England. Britain’s Fighter Command now had 32 squadrons of Hurricanes, both Mark I and Mark II, and 19 squadrons of the newer Spitfire at its disposal. While outnumbered three to one, the RAF had the advantage of radar, which could direct the fighters to the area where they were most needed. It was decided that the Hurricanes would be sent against the German bombers, while the more capable Spitfires would attack the German Me-109 fighters that were escorting them.

English losses were heavy, but the Luftwaffe proved unable to overpower the RAF, and the Battle of Britain drew to a close in September 1940. About two-thirds of the German losses were attributed to Hurricanes.

In 1941, the Hurricanes were updated with a more powerful engine and a plant was opened in Canada to produce them, using American-built copies of the Merlin III engine. Many of these were sent to North Africa where, armed with four 20mm cannons, they served as ground-attack fighters. As new models of the Spitfire appeared, however, the Hurricane fell more and more behind. By 1942 it had been relegated to minor theaters, where it was fitted with air-to-ground rockets and continued as a close-support platform until the end of the war. They were dubbed “Hurribombers”. About 3,000 Hurricanes were also sent to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease, but the Russians didn’t really like the plane, considering it to be inferior to the German fighters. And a navalized carrier-based version known as the Sea Hurricane was used in the Pacific against the Japanese. In various models, the Hurricane was not officially withdrawn from RAF service until 1947.

In all, around 14,000 Hurricanes were produced during the war. One of these was serial number LF686, a Mark IIc manufactured in February 1944 and used to train ground mechanics. In 1969, this Hurricane was sent to the United States in exchange for a Hawker Typhoon. Hurricane LF686 was refurbished and placed on display in 2001. Today it is in the Udvar-Hazy Center.

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