By Patrick Masell

Hurricane IIA photo courtesy of NASA

The Hawker Hurricane is universally thought of as a merely adequate fighter, although this does not do it justice. It receives only a footnote in history, mainly because the handsome Spitfire overshadowed it. Hurricanes were rugged, dependable, and extremely versatile. During its long career the Hurricane was an interceptor, night-fighter, fighter-bomber, and ground-attack aircraft. They saw combat in every theater in which the British were involved, taking off from British grass flying fields, snow-bound Russian airfields, and make-shift Burmese dirt strips. It was, in fact, Britain's workhorse, fighting for king and country until January of 1947, when it was officially taken out of service.

The Hurricane's story starts as a private venture in the early 30's. It was designed by Sydney Camm and first flew in November of 1935. To their great credit, the Hawker company pressed forward with the Hurricane's development without a government contract, certain that war was coming and the UK would urgently need modern fighters. Impressed with its performance, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) finally ordered 600 planes in July of 1936, making the Hurricane the first British monoplane fighter to see service, and the first to exceed 300 mph in level flight.

The original Hurricane's airframe was made of braced metal tubing, mostly covered by fabric (including the wings). The engine cowl and the front part of the fuselage had a metal skin. After 29 September 1939, all Hurricanes were delivered with wings of stressed skin, all metal construction, but the fuselage behind the trailing edge of the wings remained fabric covered. This dual construction is easy to spot in photos of Hurricane fighters.

The first production Hurricane's were delivered in 1937. These were initially powered by a 1,030 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin II engine driving a two-bladed fixed-pitch propeller, giving them a top speed of 318 mph at 17,400 feet. The Hurricane I was later standardized with a Merlin III engine of similar power, but driving a three bladed constant-speed propeller. These had a top speed of 316 mph at 17,750 feet, took only 6.3 minutes to climb to 15,000 feet, and had a range of 600 miles at 175 mph. They were armed with 8-.303 inch bore Browning machine guns, four in each wing. Hurricane Is bore the brunt of the Battle of Britain.

In September of 1940 the Hurricane IIA came into service, augmenting the Hurricane I in the Battle of Britain, which was then fiercely raging. It was powered by a more powerful Merlin XX with two stage supercharging, rated at 1,460 hp at 6,200 feet, which improved speed and high altitude performance. Late in 1940 the Hurricane IIB appeared, armed with 12-.303 wing mounted machine guns. In 1941 the Hurricane IIC, armed with 4-20mm Hispano wing mounted cannons, became the standard production model. In mid-1942, with the Hurricane being superceded in the air superiority role, the brute of the lot, the IID anti-armor model went into production. This was armed with 2-40mm Vickers cannons and 2-.303 caliber machine guns, making it one of the premier tank busters of World War II.

The following specifications relate to the Hurricane Mk IIC (taken from The Complete Book of Fighters by William Green and Gordon Swanborough). Max speed, 327 mph at 18,000 ft; Initial climb, 2,750 ft/min.; Range, 460 miles at 175 mph (on internal fuel); Armament, 4-20mm Hispano cannon + external stores; Empty weight, 5,658 lbs.; Max weight, 8,044 lbs.; Span, 40 ft.; Length, 32 ft, 3 in.; Height, 13 ft. 3 in.; Wing area, 258 sq. ft.

No Hurricane IIIs were produced, but the Hurricane IV entered production in mid-1943. A 1,650 hp Merlin 24 or 27 engine powered the Mk IV. It had a "universal" wing, which could be configured with various stores for ground attack. These included 40mm cannon packs, 8-rockets, or up to 500 pounds of bombs.

The last version of the Hurricane was the Mk V. There were only two prototypes built. They were basically Mk IVs powered by new 1,700 hp Merlin 32 engines driving four-bladed propellers.

Another variation of the basic Hurricane fighter was the Sea Hurricane. These carrier based versions of the various Hurricane fighters served with the Royal Navy from early 1941 until April of 1944. The Sea Hurricane IIC of late 1942, a navalised version of the regular Hurricane IIC, was powered by a Merlin XX engine and had a top speed of 342 mph at 22,000 feet. Climb to 22,000 ft. took 9.1 minutes. Other specifications were similar to the regular Hurricane IIC.

By September of 1939, the month the war started for the UK, the British had 527 Hurricanes and 321 Spitfires to pit against Germany's 2700 combat planes. These were organized into 32 Hurricane squadrons and 19 Spitfire squadrons.

After swiftly conquering most of Europe, Germany turned its attention towards the island nation of Britain, the last major power standing in Hitler's way. A requirement for the invasion of Great Britain was German aerial superiority over England. Hitler called upon the Luftwaffe to destroy the RAF.

The Battle of Britain started in August of 1940. Germany sent wave after wave of He 111, Do 17, and Ju 88 bombers, escorted by Messerschmitt 109 and 110 (Destroyer) fighters. Being out numbered 3 to 1, British pilots were often forced to use hit and run tactics. Ideally, the faster Spitfires mixed with the German escorts as Hurricanes engaged the formations of twin-engine bombers. In practice, Hurricanes got plenty of action against German fighters as well as bombers. Paper performance meant little, and in actual combat the Hurricane proved itself a dangerous opponent for the vaunted Bf 109, and clearly superior to the heavy Bf 110 long-range fighter.

Throughout the Battle of Britain the outnumbered English fighter pilots scored numerous victories against overwhelming enemy numbers. Still, by October the RAF had suffered unsupportable losses and was on the verge of defeat. But the Luftwaffe had also suffered greatly, and Hitler had no intention of continuing a failing campaign. In October he made the fatal blunder of turning on his former ally, the USSR, and abandoning his plan to invade Britain. From that point on, German air attacks decreased, and British fighter strength increased. The Battle of Britain was over.

The victory was a bittersweet one, for large parts of London and other cities had been bombed to rubble. The RAF lost 1,085 planes, but considerably fewer pilots (the RAF was fighting over its own territory). The Luftwaffe lost 1,641 aircraft, along with almost all of their crews. The victory was mainly a Hurricane one. The Hawker fighter destroyed more enemy aircraft then all other defenses combined. Yet it did not get as much publicity as did the legendary Spitfire. The Hurricane didn't receive as much fame as the Spit because the Hurricane was regarded as somewhat inferior in dogfights against the German Bf 109E fighter. This forced Hurricane pilots to direct their attention towards the bombers and try to avoid the escorts. Even John Wayne would have trouble glorifying that role. Also, its agile peer, the Spitfire, was more graceful than the Hurricane. Unfortunately, these factors have diminished the Hurricane's historical role in the defense of Britain.

In 1942 the British recognized that the Hurricane was becoming obsolescent as an interceptor. Being the versatile airplane it was, its role changed to fighter-bomber for the North African campaign. The Hurricane's armament was modified to make it more formidable in the ground attack role. Although it took serious losses at the hands of increasingly faster and more maneuverable enemy fighters, it still carved out a reputation as a tough, reliable ground-attack plane, burning Rommel's panzers by the bushel. The Hurricane, due to its versatility, fought on all fronts in which the British Empire was involved, proving to be a valuable aircraft everywhere it went.

A total of 14,533 Hurricanes were produced, including a few built under license in Yugoslavia and Belgium before the war and many built in Canada from 1940 through 1942. Hurricanes were sold to Turkey, Egypt, India, Ireland, Finland, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Persia. A single Hurricane I was sold to Poland before that country was overrun by the Nazis. Nearly 3,000 Hurricane IIs were supplied to the USSR for service on the Eastern Front, where they were probably the best Allied fighter available.

It's unfortunate that many commendable aircraft are not given credit where credit is due. The Hawker Hurricane was overshadowed by the beautiful Spitfire, but it was the workhorse of the RAF. Sturdy and versatile, it bore the brunt of German attacks during the Battle of Britain, and inflicted 60 percent of all enemy losses.

Back to the Naval & Military History Page

Copyright 2001, 2016 by Patrick Masell and Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.