Saturday, 26 October 2013

The unsung hero of the Battle of Britain

As a young lad, I used to have a vast squadron of Airfix models hanging from my bedroom ceiling, but it was always the iconic Spitfire that took pride of place. This elegant machine designed by R. J. Mitchell has acquired almost mythical status as the hero and saviour of this green and pleasant land during this island's hour of need. Yes, it was fast, and yes, Germans genuinely feared it, and yes, it was a great deal sexier than anything back then that took to the skies; and of course it had a wonderful name. It was, in short, the big brand of its day. Whenever journalists wanted to know about advances in aeronautic technology, the Ministry of Defence would always talk up the capabilities of the Spitfire. And it became romanticized by films like 'The First of the Few' directed and starring the charismatic Leslie Howard.

There can be little doubt that the Spitfire did play an important role during the Battle of Britain, but to say that it played the most effective and important role is in fact questionable. You only have to look at the facts and figures to see that the most prolific fighter plane during the Battle of Britain in terms of the number of German planes shot down, was actually the Hawker Hurricane. 55% of enemy planes shot down during those critical and eventful days were attributed to this remarkable workhorse of a plane.

Designed by Sydney Camm, it was characterised by its rugged workmanlike construction and utter dependability. The Hurricane may not have had the looks, but it was the fighter plane of choice for most pilots. Indeed, Douglas Bader insisted on flying one for the entire duration of the Battle of Britain. And many of the great aces chose the Hurricane over the Spitfire, including the Czech Joseph Frantisek of 303 Squadron who in 1940 alone shot down at least 17 enemy planes.

So what was it about this lesser known fighter plane that made it so potent?

For a start, its machine guns enjoyed a far more stable platform than the Spitfire, which made it far more accurate and controllable when firing at your enemy. Generally speaking, pilots didn't like the guns on a Spitfire which sprayed bullets everywhere like a scattergun.

Once the Hurricane's engine was upgraded to a more powerful Merlin III, it became a formidable force. It may not have been capable of attaining the speed of a Spitfire when flying in a straight line, but what it could do most effectively was climb at speed and dive down at the enemy from the direction of the sun where it couldn't be seen. And when it came to manoeuvrability it was every bit as agile as a Spitfire.

There was one other big advantage it had over the Spitfire, and that was its remarkable robustness. Though much of its body was constructed from stretched canvas, it could take a great deal more punishment than a Spitfire before being downed. And if it did require repairing, it was far easier and quicker to repair holes in cloth than replace the metal plates on a Spitfire. So it stayed in the air longer than its counterpart.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

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