Hawker Hurricane: the true hero of the Battle of Britain

Largely overshadowed by the Spitfire, the Hurricane was one mighty plane.
Christopher McFadden
The Hawker Hurricane.dynasoar/iStock

The Hawker Hurricane is one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War. With its distinctive outline and impressive service history, this aircraft truly deserves its place in aviation history. 

Primarily overshadowed by its cousin, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane is arguably one of the most fundamentally important aircraft of the war. Let's find out a little bit more about this hero of the Battle of Britain. 

What was the Hawker Hurricane?

The Hawker Hurricane was a British single-seat fighter plane used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) throughout the 1930s and 1940s. It was designed and built mainly by Hawker Aircraft Limited. Made famous by its involvement in the "Battle of Britain" in 1940, the far more attractive Supermarine Spitfire overshadowed it in the public's mind.

facts about the Hawker Hurricane
Source: BAE Systems

However, the Hurricane was responsible for the lion's share of Luftwaffe's losses and, like the Spitfire, also fought in all the major battles of the Second World War. Consequently, the aircraft also suffered some of the heaviest losses for the RAF during the war. 

In the early 1930s, RAF officials and aircraft designer Sir Sydney Camm talked about making a monoplane version of the Hawker Fury biplane.

This was the seed of an idea that would eventually lead to the development of the mighty Hurricane. Even though most planes at the time were biplanes and the Air Ministry showed little interest, Hawker decided to go ahead with the plans and develop the aircraft anyway. 

They added retractable landing gear and the more powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, both of which would be important to fighter planes during the war.

The gamble paid off, and the aircraft soon caught the attention of the Air Ministry, who in 1934, ordered Hawker's Interceptor Monoplane. On November 6, 1935, the prototype Hurricane K5083 took off for the first time.

This proved highly successful, and in June 1936 the Hurricane went into production. The first production airplane went into service in October 1937. 

One of the main selling points for the aircraft was its relatively simple construction, enabling maintenance and repairs relatively easy compared to other frontline fighters of the day. The Hurricane was built using a light but strong framework covered by canvas. However, in addition to the traditional wooden framework, it also used high-strength steel tubing for the aft fuselage and a girder structure covered in sheet metal for the forward fuselage. The cockpit sat high in the fuselage to lend greater visibility for the pilot and was enclosed by a sliding canopy. 

By the time of the outbreak of WW2, 18 RAF fighter squadrons were equipped with Hurricanes. As it turns out, this would prove to be a blessing for the RAF.

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last of the hurricanes
Hawker Hurricane PZ865 is widely considered the last of her kind. Source: BAE Systems

The aircraft was used to defend against Luftwaffe, including in dogfights with Messerschmitt Bf 109s in many battle zones.

The Hawker Hurricane would prove to be incredibly versatile, leading to the development of many variants, including fighter-bombers and fighters and ground-support variants.

It would even be modified for use by the Royal Navy. Called the "Sea Hurricane", this design of the aircraft was modified slightly to enable it to be launched with a catapult. By the time production stopped in July 1944, something like 14,480 Hurricanes had been made and deployed in Britain, Canada, Belgium, and Yugoslavia across 24 different variants.

What are the vital stats of the Hawker Hurricane?

Since there were many variants of the Hawker Hurricane developed, we'll focus on one of the most iconic, the Mark IIC.  

First flight: 6th November 1935

Official introduction: December 1937

Retired: 1944-45 (phased out by Hawker Typhoon)

Top speed: 340 mph (547 kph) at 21,000 feet (6,400 m)

Crew: 1

Unladen weight: 5,785 pounds (2,624 kg)

Service ceiling: circa 36,000 feet (11,000 m)

Range: 600 miles (970 km)

Wingspan: 40 feet (12.19 m)

Length: 32 feet 3 inches (9.83 m)

Propulsion: 1 number Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 in-line liquid-cooled piston engine, 1,185 hp (883 kW) at 21,000 ft (6,400 m)

Armaments: 4 number 20 mm (0.79 in) Hispano Mk II cannons, and up to 2 number 250lb or 1 number 500 lb (110 or 230 kg) bomb, or 8 number 3-inch (7.62 cm) rockets

Was the Hawker Hurricane better than the Spitfire?

For aircraft enthusiasts, especially those fascinated with the Second World War, this is one of the most common questions ever asked about these two aircraft. It is also difficult to answer, as it is frankly akin to comparing apples to oranges. 

hurricane and spitfire
Hurricane and Spitfire flying together. Source: Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia Commons

The first thing to note is that both of these aircraft were exceptional for their time, but were designed from the outset for entirely different roles. For this reason, such a question would need more qualifications. 

Better in what regard? Speed? Maneuverability? Ability to shoot down enemy fighters or bombers? 

The latter is easy to answer, as this was the intended role of the Hawker Hurricane.

For attacking groups of bombers, the Hurricane had better visibility and made shooting much more steady. The Spitfire, on the other hand, was a slightly better plane—it was faster, it could climb faster, and the controls were much more responsive. However, it was not as effective at knocking out heavier targets, like bombers. 

Add in the fact that the Spitfire tended to act as a superiority fighter, specifically tasked with keeping Hurricanes safe from enemy fighter screens. Therefore, you would expect them to make more fighter kills than bombers, and vice versa for the Hurricane - that was their role during the battle!

In other words, both had good and bad things about them.

But, don't take our word for it. According to Battle of Britain veterans, "the Spitfire and the Hurricane went together like peanut butter and jelly."

A former pilot of No. 65 (Spitfire) Squadron has pointed out that the Hurricane did more damage to the enemy bombers than the Spitfire. However, without the Spitfire squadrons to fight the Messerschmitts, the damage done by the Hurricane might not have been enough to win the battle.

How many Hawker Hurricanes are left?

Despite almost fifteen thousand Hawker Hurricanes being built in the 1930s and 1940s, only a few now survive. Official numbers do vary, but according to sources like the RAF, at present, only around 12, or so, are still airworthy. 

hawker hurricane flyby
Source: Cpl Phil Mahor ABIPP/Wikimedia Commons

Others do exist, but most are in varying levels of repair, with most currently serving as museum display pieces worldwide. 

Two prime examples include Hurricane LF363 (an Mk IIC), which is believed to be the last Hurricane to enter service with the RAF. This aircraft is currently on display at the Battle of Britain Memorial (BBMF) at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, UK. Another is Hurricane PZ865 (also an Mk IIC) which is believed to be the last Hurricane ever built. 

This aircraft is also on display at the BBMF.  

And that, famous WW2 aircraft anoraks, is your lot for today.

The Hawker Hurricane remains one of the most iconic aircraft from the Second World War and remains a fond favorite for aircraft enthusiasts worldwide. The aircraft would have a relatively short period of active service but would serve with distinction, earning its place in history. 

Several still exist today, so if you get a chance, make a beeline to pay homage to this venerable machine of war. 

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