(first posted 7/23/2015) 75 (update: 80) years ago this summer, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe were engaged in the first battle fought exclusively in the air, which has come to symbolize Britain’s lone stand against Hitler’s Germany, and ultimately made it possible for freedom to prevail in Europe. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of ‘Britain’s finest hour’, and it would not have been possible without 2 of Britain’s, maybe the World’s, finest and most significant aircraft – the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
But first, the background. By 1938, Austria and Czechoslovakia had fallen under German control, and Nazi ambitions towards Poland were obvious. Britain began a massive programme of defensive rearmament in 1935, ending post WW1 neglect of its armed forces. In 1939, when the invasion of Poland led to Britain and France declaring war, Britain sent land and air forces to France, ready for another defensive campaign like 1914. But the Blitzkrieg of May 1940, when the Germans rushed through Belgium and Holland to outflank the allies and pushed the British to the coast at Dunkirk and the French into headlong retreat, was overwhelming. The British rescued most of their troops, but not their equipment (over 900 RAF fighters were lost in France), through Dunkirk, and France sued for peace.
New Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in May 1940 ‘the Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin’. The German objective was simple – to drive the RAF from the sky, so the Luftwaffe bombers could attack British cities and the German Navy could launch a cross-Channel invasion – Operation Seeloewe (Sealion). Only the RAF’s Fighter Command squadrons stood in the way, with a front line of two superficially similar but actually quite different fighters – the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
Both were monoplanes with enclosed cockpits, 8 Browning 0.303 machine guns and, of course, the wonderful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine – a 27 litre (1650 cu in) V12, designed specifically for fighter plane use, but later also used in the Avro Lancaster and the de Havilland Mosquito, an unarmed wooden light bomber. Early Merlins produced 1,030hp; by 1940, the Merlin XX produced 1,480hp, with aid of a two speed supercharger, and the Merlin 61 of 1942, fitted to high altitude photo reconnaissance Spitfires, produced 1,565hp.
CC has already heard of Hawker Aircraft and the engineering genius that was Sir Sydney Camm .The Hurricane story began after the RAF sought proposals for a 250 mph fighter, and rejected Camm’s biplane proposal. Camm moved forward to a cantilever monoplane design, and in September 1934 the RAF ordered a prototype Hurricane (serial K5083), which flew in November 1935, 4 months before the first Spitfire.
The Mark I Hurricane of 1939-40 could reach 325 mph, and 35,000 feet, compared to the Spitfire’s 360 mph, and the Spitfire had a better rate of climb. But even so, the Hurricane’s performance was a huge step forward for the RAF – it was the first RAF plane capable of 300mph – although its construction was not. Like all previous Hawker planes, it used a skeleton of formers (albeit in alloy, not the traditional wood), covered in fabric. The first production Hurricane, in an order for 600, flew in October 1937, and it entered squadron service, with 111 Squadron, in December. In February 1938, a Hurricane demonstrated the design’s potential by flying from Edinburgh to London at an average of 408 mph. By the outbreak of war, 500 out of an expanded order of 3,500 were in RAF service. Production was spreading beyond Hawker’s own facilities, to include factories of rival Gloster Aircraft, and by the time of the Battle of Britain, improvements including metal skinned wings and a constant speed/variable pitch propeller were in place.
This simple construction became a virtue in the pressure of the Battle of Britain, as the fabric could absorb damage better than the stressed skin of the Spitfire, and could be more easily and quickly repaired at a time when every plane was vital. It was also cheaper and quicker to build than the Spitfire, with less demand for skilled labour. The Hurricane could take huge amounts of punishment and stay airborne, made a stable and manoeuvrable gun platform, and was more than fast enough to tackle any German bomber.
In addition, while a Hurricane could be refuelled and rearmed in 9 minutes, the Spitfire needed 26! It served throughout the war, in every theatre and on every continent. By 1944, over 14,000 had been built, around 10% by Canadian Car and Foundry (now part of Bombardier), in Montreal. However, by 1945, fabric covered planes were obsolete, outperformed by more modern designs and clearly outclassed in the jet age, and the Hurricane ended RAF service in 1947.
In contrast, the Spitfire was a step change in fighter design. It was a product of the Supermarine division of Vickers Armstrong, which had originated as a builder of seaplanes before the First World War. Supermarine seaplanes designed by chief engineer Reginald Mitchell won the prestigious Schneider Trophy races in 1927, 1929 and 1931, competing against rivals from across Europe. The Supermarine S.6B won the 1931 race by achieving 380mph, and later became the first plane to exceed 400mph.
The Spitfire’s design can be traced directly to these seaplanes, with development getting properly underway in 1934. Key features of the design were the monocoque construction and the famous elliptical wings, designed to be aerodynamic, strong and light. The Spitfire was a complex piece of cutting edge engineering, built of a stressed duralumin skin formed into a series of compound curves to get the aerodynamic shape around alloy frames. The beautiful and distinctive wing shape allowed for a thin wing, and provided space for retractable undercarriage and the guns.
Impressed by Mitchell’s design work, the RAF issued a development contract in January 1935. By May 1936, the plane was achieving 350mph in level flight, and in June the RAF placed an order for 310 aircraft. The first production aircraft was completed at Southampton in mid-1938, after many delays and arguments which almost led to the cancellation of the project over Vickers’ reluctance to allow work to be sub-contracted. Squadron service began in autumn 1938 with 19 Squadron, based at Duxford near Cambridge (and now home to the Imperial War Museum’s Air Museum and the American Air Museum, which doubles as a memorial to the US airmen who fought and died over western Europe).
From mid-1938, the key production site was a new government sponsored ‘shadow factory’ at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, initially run by William Morris’ Nuffield Organization with a contract for 1,000 planes but soon taken over by Vickers. The plant is now part of Jaguar Land Rover and produces the Jaguar XF. By the outbreak of war, over 2,000 Spitfires had been ordered, and production peaked at 320 per month. One reason for dispersing production was the Luftwaffe; in September 1940, Vickers’ Southampton plant was flattened. By 1948, over 20,000 Spitfires had been produced; they served with the RAF until 1954, and the last finished active service, with the Irish Republic, in 1961. There was also a naval version, the Seafire, adapted for operation from aircraft carriers.
Unlike the Hurricane, the Spitfire was capable of continuous development, and kept pace with newer German designs like the Focke-Wulf 190. It became the principal British fighter of the war, and was the only fighter to be in production before and after the war. Developments included larger fuel tanks, stiffer wings and improved carburettors as well as more powerful Merlins. By 1943, the RAF was using Spitfires for high level, high speed photo reconnaissance, with fuel tanks replacing the guns for additional range. The Mark XII of 1943 was fitted with a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, and could reach 400 mph in level flight – sufficient to catch and shoot down the German V-1 ‘flying bomb’ rockets launched from northern France at London.
The Luftwaffe also had an impressive modern fighter – the Messerschmitt BF109 – which was comparable in performance and power to the Hurricane and Spitfire. Ironically, early versions were powered by a Rolls-Royce engine, the Kestrel. The BF109 had different strengths and weaknesses – it could outperform the Hurricane, and fuel injection in preference to carburettors aided performance, but a larger turning circle hampered it in combat. The Germans also had the advantage of having seen action in support of General Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. One big drawback was fuel capacity and hence range – while the Brits were fighting over home soil, the Luftwaffe had to cross the English Channel, and allow fuel for the return, which severely limited their time over England – in some cases, to just 10 minutes. Overall, in reality the three fighters were evenly matched.
Britain had a unique advantage over the Germans – the world’s first radar. Radar had been invented in typically British fashion – as an offshoot from research into rumours that the Germans had a death ray to destroy planes from distance. By 1935, radar’s potential was recognised and between 1937 and 1940, a chain of 19 stations provided coverage from Southampton to Newcastle.
Radar warnings were passed to Fighter Command HQ in north west London, where incoming raids were plotted on large map tables whilst the Group’s commanders watched from a gallery and deployed their forces in response When radar detected an incoming German formation, squadrons would be ‘scrambled’ in response, and were then directed to the enemy using the same radar system – the first air force to have that advantage. The priority for the RAF was driving back and destroying the German bombers – and the speed and firepower of the Hurricane and Spitfire were great advantages over heavy, slow and poorly armed bombers.
The Battle of Britain is usually dated from 10 July, when the first raids were launched against the south coast of England and convoys in the Channel, to 30 October. By now, the Luftwaffe had approximately 1,000 fighters and 1,500 bombers in France; Fighter Command had just 750 planes facing them. At the same time, invasion barges were assembling in the Channel ports, and RAF Bomber Command did what it could (which was not a lot) to destroy them. In distinct phases, combat in the skies was relentless. From mid-July to mid-August, the Luftwaffe attacked convoys in the Channel, forcing the British to avoid the Channel in daylight. This period exposed the weaknesses of planes on both sides – notably, the British Boulton-Paul Defiant and the German Junkers Ju87 Stuka dive bomber; both were poorly armed and slow, and withdrawn from the frontline. Fighter Command tried in this period to hold its Hurricanes and Spitfires in reserve, after significant losses in France – of both planes and pilots.
Mid-August saw a period of heavy assault on Fighter Command’s bases in south east England and the Chain Home radar stations (the Germans had belatedly identified them for what they were). 13 and 15 August saw the heaviest daylight bombing, including attacks from Denmark on RAF bases in northern England. Between 11 and 16 August, the RAF shot down 250 German planes for the loss of 130 of its own. The ratio of crew loss was even starker, given the larger crews in bombers and the chance for RAF pilots to bail out over home soil.
“Eglatine Cottage? Go down the lane past the Messerschmitt, bear left and keep on past the two Dorniers, then turn sharp right and it’s just past the first Junkers”
Punch Magazine, September 1940
From 24 August onwards, the battle focused on control of the skies over Kent, the south east corner of England and just 20 miles from France, with the Germans seeking to destroy the RAF’s bases in the south east. They were unsuccessful – only 2 of 13 stations were significantly damaged, and none were put out of use for more than a few hours. So the Germans changed tack again, and from the start of September, began to attack British cities, notably London, to force the RAF to fight over the city where the Germans could concentrate their fighters
The RAF responded by grouping squadrons into larger formations, known as ‘big wings’. Key targets were the docks of east London, along the River Thames and the associated heavy industry, but bombs also fell in central and west London, and the Germans also struck at Liverpool and at Portsmouth and Southampton. The bombing failed to inflict decisive damage, and bomber losses were high, so the Luftwaffe switched to night bombing; again, the RAF disrupted these attacks with large wings of fighters – but the Germans knew that, if their fighters flew at 25,000ft, they could reach London in 17 minutes from radar detection, while the RAF fighters would take as much as 25 minutes to get to that height – forcing the RAF to support constant patrols over the capital.
The Battle reached its peak on September 15, when the Luftwaffe launched its largest daylight raid on London, with around 1,500 aircraft; in defence, the RAF had around 250 Spitfires and 500 Hurricanes in the south east of England. The Luftwaffe attacked in 3 waves, with the 3rd being the largest – approximately 500 German planes (with fighters outnumbering bombers by 4 to 1) facing 250 RAF fighters at any one time – the RAF was fully committed, with no reserves available in reach of London. At the end of the day, the RAF claimed to have destroyed 183 German planes; the Germans claimed they had destroyed 80. The actual numbers were later established as 90 German and 30 British planes – such is the fog of war. But the Germans had failed in their main objective – Fighter Command still controlled the skies of southern England.
On September 17, Hitler postponed Operation Seeloewe, and gradually, the pace of the fighting dropped through October. By the end of October, it was apparent that the immediate threat had receded. The RAF had lost over 1,000 planes in 3½ months, including 270 Hurricanes and 180 Spitfires; the Luftwaffe, over 2,600.
Throughout the Battle, the RAF had shot down more than 2 German planes for each loss of its own – and the Hurricane had outscored the Spitfire by the same ratio. Hurricanes destroyed more German planes than all the other RAF and ground defences combined. Largely, this was because the Hurricanes were focused on the slow, heavy bombers, and the Spitfires on the faster, more nimble Messerschmitts – but, remember, the bombers were the big threat, and the fighters were only there to protect them.
And, as planes and pilots were lost, replacements were coming on stream. British fighter production had been close to 500 per month throughout the summer, and, despite heavy losses, Fighter Command’s strength increased by 10% in August alone. Alongside the planes came pilots – and Fighter Command quickly became a multi-national force of Brits, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders – and many from the newly occupied countries of Europe. Men from Poland, Czechoslovakia and France all formed dedicated squadrons within the RAF, and fought with great distinction right through the war. These men are the famous few of Churchill’s unforgettable ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. 303 Squadron, formed by Poles, was the highest scoring RAF squadron, with 126 victories in 6 weeks – Sergeant Josef Frantisek getting 17 of them. In July, Fighter Command had 1,200 available pilots; by November 1940, 1,800.
The names of the 2,353 British and 574 allied pilots officially recognised as having fought in that tumultuous summer, of whom 544 were killed, are inscribed on a granite wall at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, near Dover in Kent, known as the ‘National Memorial to the Few’. This is now the key museum and memorial to the Battle, perched on the top of the famous White Cliffs and with views across the Channel to France, while at Duxford and other air museums across the UK, Spitfires and Hurricanes are always popular.
The RAF Memorial Flight (often known by its unofficial name of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight) regularly operates its fleet of Spitfires and Hurricanes at air displays and public events throughout Britain.
And model makers still do good business with the Hurricane and Spitfire.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle, the RAF has gone the extra mile; one of its new Eurofighter Typhoons has been repainted into the colours of the Hurricane of Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson, who won a Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award for gallantry) on 16 August by persisting in an attack on a German bomber despite a burning fuel tank. The Typhoon is spending the summer performing a joint display with the BBMF’s Battle of Britain fighters – quite a sight, and sound!
And a very appropriate and awesome tribute to ‘the Few’ – the debt endures, and so do the planes.
Wonderful post! As a WWII history buff I love this.
The Luftwaffe’s 109 was not qualitatively inferior to the British fighters – as mentioned, it had a faster rate of climb, higher ceiling, and the fuel injected engine helped it in dives or manuervers where the carbureted British planes would cut out.
OTOH, it was a trickier plane to fly, its controls were very sensitive to the touch.
Its biggest drawback in this situation was its limited range, as mentioned.
Japanese ace Saburo Sakai remarked that the Battle of Britain would’ve turned out very differently if the Luftwaffe had the Zero, with its excellent range. It was this quality that recommended the P-51 to him as well. The Spitfire’s range was about as short as the Messerschmitt’s; that mattered less in its defensive role, but rendered it practically useless in the bombing campaign against Germany. Most American types had better range than the Spitfire; no surprise given the relative sizes of the two countries & design priorities.
USAAF fighter project officer Benjamin Kelsey flew a Spitfire across the US ca. 1942. He found it tiring to fly, probably due to its instability which of course made it a good dogfighter. Otherwise, most US pilots who flew the Spit liked it.
BTW the expat Polish pilots, having more combat experience than most British, racked up excellent scores against the Germans.
Eagle Squadron pilots protested loudly when they were told they had to give up their Spits for Thunderbolts (“seven-ton milk-bottles”) upon joining the USAAF, but later came to appreciate the aircraft. The fastest-diving fighter of the war, once ‘Jugs’ were fitting with paddle-blade props (P-47D), they could out-climb the Spit (if not out-maneuver them), and, being air-cooled, were much better suited to ground support roles (no cooling system to be hit by ground fire). They were also superb at altitude, being turbosupercharged.
Yes; the Spit & Jug were complementary types; the Jug had much longer range once they developed drop-tanks. Unfortunately they retired it by the Korean War in favor of Mustangs, a big mistake, since the latter were more vulnerable in ground attack for the same reason as the Spit & had less firepower.
My favorite Spit is the Mk. IX, which was the answer to the Focke Wulf scourge. Fantastic climb rate with good firepower.
This is an excerpt from The Ragged, Rugged Warriors by Martin Caidin:
In March, 1942, the British decided to put an end once and for all to the obvious superiority of the Japanese fighters in combat. Still ignoring the astoimding success of Chennault’s men, the RAF rushed a crack Spitfire squadron from Europe to Australia to teach the Japanese a thing or two.
The Spitfire, acclaimed as perhaps the finest close-in fighter plane of the war, came over with pilots well experienced against the German Messerschmitt Me-109 and Focke-Wulf FW-190. And there was no question, even from Chennault, that the “Spitfire was far superior to the P-40 as a combat plane.” In two raids the British lost 17 out of 27 Spitfire pilots at the hands of the Zero fighters!
“It was simply a matter of tactics,” Chennault said later. **The R.A.F. pilots were trained in methods that were excellent against German and Italian equipment but suicide against the acrobatic Japs.”
I think that was in combat over Darwin, Australia. Chennault was right: Nothing could out-turn a Zero or Ki-27, that was the vital lesson to learn in the SW Pacific. Fortunately, Allied fighters had other virtues like armor, speed, & dive which wise pilots would exploit. For example, the Zero’s nice aerobatic ailerons became unusable at high dive speeds.
The Aussies eventually did pretty well with their P-40 fleet, as did the USN w/ their Wildcats.
The U.S. had a similar learning curve, resulting in tactics like the USN’s “Thach Weave.” Americans had to relearn the same thing in Vietnam, where Phantom pilots would make the mistake of trying to turn with MiG-17s rather than taking advantage of the Phantom’s vastly superior specific power.
The Zero would have been fine until one incendiary bullet found its fuel tank. The Japanese sacrificed self-sealing tanks for weight. The Zero was very easy to shoot down when attacked from above and its much vaunted turn in was severely restricted above 200 knt.
Excellent overview! I highly recommend the 1942 film The First of the Few (released in the USA as Spitfire) with Leslie Howard and David Niven, which chronicles the life of R.J. Mitchell and the development of the Spitfire. It’s on yootoob (link).
I’m pretty sure you posted a WWII era film about the Spitfire’s gestation but now the YouTube account is gone. What was the film?
I have a chart somewhere showing turning radii and the 109 (and even the Hurricane) turning inside the Spitfire, but to do so in the 109 means coming perilously close to collapsing the tail (see those external struts?); a potential OUCH.
Of course, it’s sacrilege to suggest that a Spitfire couldn’t outfly and outfight anything from a 109 to a TIE fighter.
Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe ace, reported trying to turn inside when engaging a Spitfire in a 109 and found that the his airframe couldn’t take the stress, as the plane’s design sacrificed a bit of structural strength to maximize speed and agility.
I heard that too. Willy Messerschmitt emphasized lightness almost to a fault (perhaps reflecting his glider experience), explaining the brace on the 109’s vertical stabilizer & very bouncy ground handling which claimed a lot of airframes. It also explains why its added wing guns were a major design kludge. The RAF was way ahead in introducing wing guns on the Spit/Hurricane.
Details are hazy in my mind, but the gentleman responsible for choosing the armament on the Hurri and Spit was said to have tried different gun configurations, and finally settled on eight, having calculated how much lead was needed to take out an opponent with a 2-second burst (or thereabouts) – he figured the “average” pilot could only hold a bead on an opponent for that long.
Sounds about right. A different opinion was USN pilot Jimmy Thach who argued, “A gunner who can’t hit with 4 guns will miss with 8,” in objection to up-gunned F4Fs. But then, he was an ace who used M2 Brownings against fragile Zeros!
The .303 Browning was ballistically weak against German bombers. Unfortunately, the Brits couldn’t get the much more effective HS.404 cannon to work in time for the Battle of Britain; they sorted it out later. The US never completely debugged its Hispano; it was effective only in the P-38 & P-39, both with centerline mount, which was its French usage too. No wing-mounted HS.404 was reliable on US fighters. Even by the 1960s, the USN had cannon reliability problems!
Digressing even further. JImmy Thach was from my hometown, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He invented the Thach weave which helped win lots of dogfights. One of his compatriots was Butch O’Hare for whom the Chicago airport is named.
This was a great writeup. Many, many thanks to the author.
Nice summary, I’m a Hurricane fan myself, and spent a wonderful day at the Duxford museum during my month long trip to the UK years ago.
We used to have a Hurricane & Spitfire at the CWHM here in Hamilton,but they were lost in a 1993 hangar fire. Still have the Lancaster if you want to hear Merlins though!
It was a shame to have lost those aircraft in the fire, but lucky that the Lanc survived. I seem to recall that the Lanc was immobile with the front wheels removed at the time, so it couldn’t even be towed out of the hangar.
I was very surprised to see a Hurricane all the way over here at the Pima Air Museum, AZ. Hope it wasn’t there on loan.
I’d like to see someone here do a piece on the Hurricats. An interesting story and a prime example of the narrow line between heroically brave and just barking mad.
Hurricat takeoff procedure (from wiki):
Launch of a Hurricane.
1) The trolley receiving bar was removed at dawn.
2) The airmen started the aircraft and warmed up the engine at intervals.
3) The pilot climbed into the aircraft when enemy aircraft were reported.
4) The ship hoisted the international flag code F when the decision was made to launch. (CAM ships were usually stationed at the head of the outboard port column of a convoy so they could manoeuvre into the wind for launch.)
4) An airman removed the pins, showed them to the pilot, and took them to the CDO.
5) The pilot applied 30 degree flaps and 1/3 right rudder.
6) The CDO raised a blue flag above his head to inform the ship’s master of his readiness to launch.
7) The ship’s master manoeuvred the ship into the wind and raised a blue flag above his head to authorise the launch. (The ship’s master stood on the starboard bridge wing to avoid the catapult rocket blast which sometimes damaged the port side of the bridge.)
8) The CDO waved his blue flag indicating he was ready to launch upon a signal from the pilot.
9) The pilot opened full throttle, tightened the throttle friction nut, pressed his head back into the head-rest, pressed his right elbow tightly against his hip, and lowered his left hand as a signal to launch.
10) The CDO counted to three, waited for the bow to rise from the trough of a swell, and moved the switch to fire the catapult rockets.
There’s an old saying: “The nicer an airplane looks, the better it flies”. I believe it totally applies to the Spitfire.
This documentary that shows a honest comparison between the 109 and the Spit…
The Hurricane’s main advantage was logistical: it was easier to build, & easier to repair in the field with its frame/fabric construction. Even for a monocoque design, the Spitfire was not designed with ease of manufacture in mind, which is why it looks so cool. The more angular 109 was easier to build, too.
Love reading about the RAF during those troubling times. I would guess that the closest the US came to something like that would be our Pacific Submarines. Of course, I am biased but both took heavy losses.
US sub crews were terribly let down. It took Naval Ordnance almost 2 yrs. to sort out various problems with the Mk. 14 Torpedo, thanks to inadequate & unrealistic peacetime testing, coupled with the usual bureaucratic arrogance. We should’ve just bought ’em from Britain.
The Japanese, OTOH, had very deadly weapons like the Long Lance, for they took torpedo warfare very seriously & funded their development accordingly in the ’20s. They also emphasized night fighting, another USN weakness. What saved our Navy was Miles Browning plus the skill of Navy fighter pilots, who unlike Army fliers, were trained in gunnery.
Correction: the IJN Type 93 (AKA Long Lance) was shipboard; the Type 95 was a sub-launched derivative. But both were very effective with long range & powerful warheads.
I agree that we had shoddy torpedoes and it caused the loss of some boats. We sank a lot of ships from surface approaches and lost some too. What I meant here was that our country took a beating at Pearl Harbor like the allies did in Europe. Our carriers were not in port but, until then, we were a battleship navy anyway. Submarines (and carriers) fought a protracted battle while the rest of the country was recovering it’s strength. Like the RAF there was a heavy loss. 52 subs were lost. 50 of them in the Pacific. Subs sank more tonnage in the pacific than all the other types of activity combined. Nimitz credited them for that.
I see a lot of resemblance to the RAF as described in this article. Gutsy pilots and/or crew taking on a major battle against all odds and preserving their country while it recovered. I don’t think it’s a terrible reach but as a Balao and Sailfish class submariner I think I might be biased.
Didn’t expect this on CC, but sure glad I clicked on this. The lowly C-47 (DC-3) was the machine Dad and the brave men in his Army Airborne 82nd Division infantry jumped out of over Italy during the Normandy invasion. WW2 fighters are something I could read about for hours. Nice write up and great historical photos as well.
I love reading about this stuff. Thanks for posting!
Ditto. Fascinating machinery. How bout it, Paul, time for a spin-off? (pun intended) Call it Hangar Historics maybe? In any event, I for one enjoy a little mechanical diversity here at CC. Periodic aircraft, locomotive, and motorcycle articles are welcome reads that enhance our gear head nature. Thanks.
Thank you for a great read.
Where else but on CC can you get such a great article on Britian`s finest fighters? I`ve always been a Spitfire fan, with the Griffon version being my favorite. As for American planes, count me as a fan of the P51 Mustang and Thunderbolt,bubble canopy versions as opposed to the “razorback” design.BTW, I have the Airfix 1-48 scale models of the Hurricane and Spitfire in my stash. Even though I`m a car modeler, this article with its fine color pictures has inspired me to build them.
As a young teen, I built a large-scale highly detailed plastic model of the Hurricane that hung in the corner of my room until I left for college. Wish I had a picture of it now!
The first Airfix model I built and painted was a rocket carrying Hurricane.My favourite American fighter of WW2 was the P39 Airacobra,a sleek looker which didn’t quite work as well as it looked.
True, it was hated by Anglo-American pilots; Britain’s order was canceled & some found their way to the S/W Pacific, renamed P-400. However, the Russians loved theirs; it turned out to do well at the low altitudes common in that theater, & they liked the punch of its 37mm cannon, which however was slow-firing & inferior to Russian models. The Russians have amazing talent for gun design compared to gun-happy Americans.
Great summary of 2 great aircraft. The shot of the pair over the White Cliffs sends a shiver down the spine of any UK citizen.
The RAF Museum in north London has a superb and permanent exhibition to the Battle of Britain also, done as well (may be even better) as you’d expect from such a professional service. It even has Elgar’s Nimrod playing quietly in the background! You only have to look at the faces of those viewing to see the importance of it all. Without this, the Lancaster would not have happened…..
I was lucky enough to see the debut Spitfire/Typhoon double act at the Abingdon Air Show in May – it more than made up for the rain.
“Hurricanes destroyed more German planes than all the other RAF and ground defences combined” new information to me, ánd another reason for how the gate guard at the best aircraft museum in Europe (www.iwm.org.uk/duxford) was chosen. And, yes, it does turn in the wind!
We can only say “thank you” to Flight Lieutenant Nicolson and his comrades, and to those who designed, buillt and serviced these aoircraft.
Sadly, Nicolson was killed later in the war, but he and his comrades will always be remembered. They must be.
My father was a kid in England during the first part of the Second World War. He lived in Sunderland, and he went through the Blitz there. He came to the US just a little bit before Pearl Harbor.
I mention this to show that History can be what happened yesterday, or 70 years ago, or 700 years ago. I find it all fascinating.
Just spent ten minutes in history heaven. Thanks for this article. Respects to all those that fought the last war.
I really enjoyed this article and even learned a few details too . For many years I’ve read and studied everything I can on ww2 aviation. My brother as was my late father are life members in the Commemorative Air Force organization. I recall Chuck Yeager who flew every allied fighter and after reassignment to Dayton, Ohio flew every captured axis fighter the base had for evaluation. He stated in his biography that the Spitfire was the best fighter of WW2 for its versatility and adaptability in performing a wider range of task in varied tactical situations in European and Pacific theaters.
Thanks for a great article! I’ve been a WWII aviation buff since I was a kid, encouraged by my grandfather, who had been a USAAF mechanic, primarily on P-47s. Anyway, the discussion comparing the relative merits of the Spitfire & Hurricane vs the Bf-109 reminded me of a book I read some years ago, “The Prize” by Daniel Yergin, which is a history of the oil industry. It said that the British planes had a power advantage in using 100-octane gasoline vs the Germans’ 87. The problem was supply, though, with catalytic cracking only a recent invention not yet in widespread use, and the U-boats making it difficult to get anything at all through from the US, which was the main supplier of oil to the Allies in general. Overall, “The Prize” is a surprisingly gripping read at times, and I highly recommend reading at least the section on WWII – it’s sobering to read just how close to the edge the Allies were running in terms of their oil supply, and how critical the Axis issues with it were to the outcome of the war, particularly in the Pacific.
What’s interesting so far as postwar history goes is that the Soviets seemed to have paid very close attention to the Battle of Britain as a model for air defense. The postwar Soviet PVO-Strany took the principles — ground controllers with radar vectoring fighters and AA/SAM batteries in specific zones — and applied them religiously.
The U.S. ADC did to some extent (in fact, one of the ancestors of the modern Internet was a secure communications system intended for vectoring interceptors onto incoming bombers), but I don’t think the USAF was ever quite as comfortable with the rigidity of the Soviet model. With jet aircraft, especially supersonic ones, having an external controller managing tasking and direction was necessary because of the high speeds involved — there just wasn’t time for anything else — but fighter pilots typically prefer a little more sense of autonomy rather than just being a backup for a remote control system.
I love that first photo…. you can almost hear Vera Ellen singing “There’ll be bluebirds over, the white cliffs of Dover . . . “
Vera Lyn, Great read
Now I want to have a pint and start singing “Ten German Bombers!”
“Coming in on a wing and a prayer”
One of my favorite streaming radio stations is the 1940s UK Radio web site:
Great read and great commentary. I have a passing interest in these having been exposed to my brother’s war comics when young. Thanks Big Paws.
Yes, a great read ( I love the cartoon), albeit with less than great undertones. The Polish pilots were hugely influential because they had survived the German invasion of Poland, giving them the combat experience that the British pilots lacked. After the war, by all accounts, the British goverment sent them back to Poland where the Russians were waiting to welcome them – and it wasn’t a heroes welcome…
But at least we’re friends with the Germans these days so it’s best to heed Basil Faultys’ advice and not mention the War.
Fantastic article! An excellent melding of history and machinery.
lessee…I have the following requests: Vera Lynn, “White Cliffs of Dover” and RAF fighters.
In the interests of historical accuracy, the Luftwaffe did not begin bombing London as part of a change in tactics, but as retaliation for RAF raids on Berlin. They had inflicted heavy, almost fatal, damage on the British air defence system, and, had they continued that policy, the RAF would have been rendered combat ineffective in another few weeks, perhaps a month at best. It was not a question of damaging the airfields, but the casualties, and aircraft damaged in the attacks, that were the issue. Their emotional, and political decision to change from attacking airbases and the radar system is considered, in retrospect, one of the biggest strategic blunders of the Battle of Britain. Hitler’s anger, and Gorring’s boasts that no British bombs would fall on Berlin, were the driving forces behind the decision to switch targets. It is, of course, debatable if Germany could have invaded England, in any case, given the lack of suitable invasion craft, and the British Navy’s overwhelming numerical advantage vs the Kriegsmarine.
A little more historical accuracy. The article mentiones 2600 german aircrafts shot down during the Battle, but that is “headline-victories” in the press. Winston Churchill put the number at 1733 planes shot down. Later research has revealed that the correct number is about 1400. Likewise, Churchill put the number of own losses at 915 aircrafts, but they have later been estimated at 980. And then we are not counting the losses of the bomber and coastal command and the Fleet air arm. But the last three did also contibute in the Battle of Britain and lost approx. 497 planes.
So, in the end the losses were about the same, probably a little higher on the British side.
Finally, since 303 squadron is mentioned as the highest scoring unit with 126 victories, historians trying to verify those victories cant get past 44…..
A great aircraft. After it’s day as an interceptor, the Hurricane was used as a very effective ground attack aircraft.
Claims of how many enemy aircraft were shot down should be taken with a huge grain of salt.
I remember seeing Hurricanes and Spitfires flying above in my youth, well sort of. I used to build the kits made by Guillow’s and hang them from the ceiling by fishing line. They were balsa wood and covered in tissue paper. They gave a kid a good understanding of how a plane is built. This article gave me a lot of insight into the roles that each one played in the war. Well done.
My dearly remembered Dad joined the RAF in 1939 and served as a ground crew member in front line Hurricane squadrons during the Battle of Britain and throughout the rest of the war. As the airfields were prime targets of the Luftwaffe, he lost many colleagues, both in the air and on the ground and was still grieving for them as long as he lived, although he rarely talked about it. These guys were mostly in their late teens or early twenties and justly referred to as “the greatest generation “.
Well now, we have both ends of evolutionary spectrum in engineering excellence reprinted today don’t we, the Spitfire/Hurricane, and the Morris Marina. I feel that a German visiting Torquay in his W116 in 1973 must have looked at the sad BL thing and said not “how ever” but “Why ever did they win?”
Great piece, Mr P, a deal of which I didn’t know before.
Incidentally, I did read the article on the Marina (by that Carr fellow), and, considering his gigantic disadvantage in subject matter to yourself, it too must qualify for greatness – a highly readable piece about a wholly undesirable scourge.