Hawker Hurricane in Combat

Hurricane in Combat - Mk I - Mk II - Mk III - Mk IV - Mk V - Mk X-XII

The Hawker Hurricane served in more theatres during the Second World War than any other British fighter. As the first monoplane fighter to enter RAF service, it was present in greater numbers than the Spitfire. As more Spitfires became available, the Hurricanes that were replaced could be sent to quieter areas, where they were a massive improvement on the Gloster Gladiator that they often replaced. However, the war kept catching up with the Hurricane. It slowly became obsolete as a front line fighter against the Luftwaffe, first on the home front and then in Malta. However, it remained a key British fighter in the Far East for the entire war. The number of Hurricanes available also meant that it was the aircraft of choice for the many minor campaigns of the war, such as the allied invasion of Syria, or the East Africa campaigns against the Italians in Ethiopia.

Combat Record

Battle of France

The Hurricane Mk I was the most advanced fighter available in any numbers to the RAF in France. Indeed, when war broke out two fighter squadrons were still flying the Gloster Gladiator biplane. Four Hurricane squadrons were sent to France soon after the start of the war, and another three were rushed across after the German attack in 1940. The Hurricane squadrons suffered huge losses during the fighting in France and the Low Countries. Seven Hurricane squadrons took part in the battle of France. They lost nearly 200 aircraft (72 destroyed, 120 damaged and abandoned during the final retreat from France), from a total force that had numbered 500 aircraft at the outbreak of the war. However, the Luftwaffe also suffered heavily during the fighting in France, and had not entirely recovered by the time of the battle of Britain. The Germans recorded losing 299 aircraft to RAF fighters (this will include some lost to Spitfires over Dunkirk and some to Gloster Gladiators, but most will have been lost to the Hurricane). The Hurricane had proved itself entirely capable of destroying German bombers, and even the Bf 110 heavy fighter. Against the Bf 109E it was at a slight disadvantage, but much still depended on the skill of the competing pilots. At this early stage in the war, that advantage still lay with the Luftwaffe pilots, many of whom had already fought in Spain and Poland.

Battle of Britain

Although the Spitfire has the more glamorous image, the Hurricane Mk I was actually the mainstay of the RAF during the battle of Britain. More than half of all German aircraft lost during the battle were shot down by Hurricane pilots. The Hurricane was the most numerous British fighter during the battle.

The Hurricane was no longer on a par with the Bf 109E. Although the Hurricane could out-turn the 109 in level flight, the 109 could climb faster and dive faster, so the standard German fighter tactic was the ‘bounce’, an attack from above followed by a rapid dive to escape. However, as the battle of Britain went on, the German fighters were more and more allocated to close escort roles, restricting their ability to get above the British fighters. Despite this, in encounters known to be between Hurricanes and 109s, the 109 came out the winner, shooting down 272 Hurricanes for the loss of 153 Bf109s.

One reason for this was that the prefered duty of the Hurricane’s during the battle of Britain was to shoot down the German bombers that were the real threat. Here the Hurricane excelled – it was a more stable gun platform than the Spitfire, was fast enough to catch the German bombers and could take a certain amount of damage. The Junkers Ju 87 Stuka soon had to be withdrawn from the battle, while the Bf 110, the much vaunted destroyer of the air, needed to be escorted by Bf 109s!

Leaning into France

The Hurricane’s last day fighter duties in Britain came in 1941. It had been decided to launch a series of raids into occupied Europe, either small scale bombing raids with fighter support, known as Circuses, or raids by pairs of fighters, known as Rhubarbs. These were not very effective, and saw RAF losses rise for little tangible return (other than the feeling that the RAF was striking back).

Although the Hurricane began 1941 as a fighter, by the end of the year the appearance of the Mk IIB Hurri-bomber saw the aircraft swap to the ground attack role. A small number of the anti-tank Mk IIDs also operated in Western Europe, although more often against trains and other forms of transport than against tanks.

Malta

The Hurricane played a crucial role in the defence of Malta. After the Italian declaration of war, the air defence of Malta depended on four Sea Gladiators. Finally, on 21 June 1940 eight Hurricanes reached Malta. The Hurricane was superior to the Italian fighters it came up against in 1940, and more than capable of dealing with the SM 79 bomber. By August 1940 the Italians had been forced to abandon daylight raids over Malta.

Things changed at the start of 1941. With the Italians facing the very real threat of being expelled from North Africa, Hitler was forced to send help to his ally. February to March saw the first concerted German raids on Malta. Once again, the Hurricanes could cope with their Italian opponents, and with the German bombers, but the Bf 109Es posed a more serious danger. Luckily for Malta, the German involvement was short-lived at this point – the invasion of Russia soon pulled the Germans away to the east.

The respite was short. In December 1941 the Luftwaffe was back, this time with the Bf 109F. The Hurricane Mk IIs that were defending Malta were outclassed. Ten pilots were killed in December alone. The only possible reaction was to replace the Hurricanes with Spitfires. The process was completed on 9 May 1942, when 64 Spitfires from HMS Eagle and USS Wasp reached the island. The previous day saw the last Hurricane victory over Malta.

The Hurricane was to play one further part in the defence of Malta, in the shape of the Sea Hurricanes of the Fleet Air Arm. Malta was kept alive by a series of desperate convoys, and those convoys were defended by carrier-born Sea Hurricanes.

North Africa and the Mediterranean

The Hurricane was the most advanced British fighter aircraft in the Mediterranean and North Africa from the outbreak of war with Italy in June 1940 until the arrival of the first Spitfires in March 1942. At first the Hurricane was more than capable of dealing with the various Italian fighter aircraft it came up against, and could just about hold its own against the Bf 109E when the Germans appeared in the theatre. However, the Bf 109F was a much superior aircraft, possibly the best version of the German fighter, and once it appeared the Hurricanes began to struggle.

Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940. At that point the RAF had three fighter squadrons in North Africa, equipped with the Gloster Gladiator biplane. There was only one Hurricane in the area, and that was unarmed! It did perform a useful duty, being moved from base to base under the orders of Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw, and convincing Italian reconnaissance flights that the Hurricane was present in some numbers.

A small number of Hurricanes Is reached Egypt before the collapse of France. By the time of Operation Compass at the end of 1940, the RAF had 60 fighter air craft in North Africa, half of which were Hurricanes. The much larger Italian air force in North Africa was forced onto the back foot.

The Luftwaffe appeared in the desert at the same time as it appeared over Malta, and with similar results.  The Bf 109 had evolved quicker than the Hurricane, and the relative parity of the battle of Britain was gone. However, the desert air force had more aircraft than the defenders of Malta – nine squadrons of Hurricanes took part in Operation Crusader at the end of 1941.

1942 saw the fighting move back to El Alamein. By now the Hurricane was totally outclassed by the Bf 109. Hurricane pilots were forced to adopt a “defensive circle” formation, which helped their survival but meant they could do little to interfere with the German bombers.

The Hurricane was to get a new lease of life as a ground attack aircraft. After the Eighth Army won their great victory at El Alamein cannon armed Hurricane Mk IICs took a heavy toll of the retreating German and Italian forces. The short range of the 109 always reduced its effectiveness during periods of rapid movement, and by now the Germans were outnumbered in the desert.

The Far East

The Hurricane Mk I served as a front line fighter in the Far East long after it had been superseded in the west. The area had understandably been a low priority during the first two years of the war. When the Japanese went to war there were no modern RAF fighters in the Far East. Fifty aircraft and twenty five pilots were rushed to Singapore, arriving on 20 January 1941. The Hurricane was the only RAF aircraft in Singapore capable of facing the modern Japanese aircraft with any chance of success, but they were outnumbered, and could do little to prevent the Japanese gaining control of the air over Singapore.

This pattern was repeated in the Dutch East Indies and in Burma. Small numbers of Hurricanes put up a brave fight, but were overwhelmed by superior numbers. The situation began to change in mid 1942 on the Indian border. Five more Hurricane squadrons became available (three arrived from Britain, two were reequipped with the aircraft). As their numbers increased, the air battles became much more even,

Just as in the desert, the Hurricane gained a new lease of life as a ground attack aircraft. During 1943 the Hurricane Mk IIC, with its four cannons, became more common. The same period saw the Spitfire finally appear in India, replacing the Hurricane in the fighter role. Every late version of the Hurricane served in the east (IIC, IID, IIE and IV), playing a significant part in the fighting in Burma.

In Russia

2,776 Hurricane Mk IIs were shipped to Russia. Two RAF squadrons (Nos. 81 and 134) had flown the first Hurricanes to Russia, arriving in September 1941. Their role was to train the Russians in the use of the Hurricane and to help in the defence of Murmansk. During their time in Russia the RAF pilots shot down 15 German aircraft for the loss of one Hurricane. Just as in British service, the Hurricane in Russia was often used as a ground attack aircraft, armed with rocket projectiles. Once again the Hurricane was helping to fill a gap – this time the one left when the Luftwaffe destroyed much of the Russian air force on the ground. Although swamped by the massive production of later years, nearly 3000 aircraft was a significant British contribution to the war in Russia.

The Hurricane also served over Greece and Crete, in Yugoslavia and with the Portuguese, Irish and Persian air forces. While its time as a front line fighter aircraft was short, really ending after the battle of Britain, it found new life as a ground attack aircraft in the Middle East and Burma. Never as glamorous as the Spitfire, the Hurricane arguably made a bigger contribution to the RAF’s victory in the battle of Britain.

Hurricane Aces, 1939-40, Tony Holmes. A look at the men who flew the Hawker Hurricane during the first two years of the Second World War, when it was arguably the most important front line fighter in RAF service. This book covers the Phoney War Period, the German invasion of the West, the Battle of Britain and the early use of the Hurricane in North Africa and from Malta. [see more]
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Hurricane Aces 1941-45, Andrew Thomas. This book covers the later career of the Hurricane, starting with its final months as a front line fighter in Britain in 1941 before moving on to look at its career in North Africa, the Mediterranean and over the jungles of Burma [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 April 2007), Hawker Hurricane in Combat, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_hawker_hurricane_combat.html

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