The Sea Hurricane Mk 1A was produced in response to the dire situation Britain found herself in by the end of 1940, and was designed to be fired from catapults carried on converted merchant ships in an attempt to provide some air cover for vulnerable convoys. Although the long range Fw 200 Condor had posed a threat to British shipping from the very start of the war, the fall of Norway and France in June 1940 dramatically improved the German position. Condors could now operate over vast expanses of the Atlantic, reaching into areas that were empty of British aircraft, but filled with convoys. The Condors were particularly effective in January-February 1941, when they inflicted serious losses on five convoys.
The eventual solution to the Condor threat would be a combination of escort carriers and very long range land-based aircraft, but neither of these solutions were available over the winter of 1940-41. Instead a desperate temporary solution was developed. This involved fitting merchant ships with catapult gear, capably of launching a fighter aircraft in only 80 feet. The fighter would be launched when a Condor appeared, and hopefully chase it off or destroy it. The pilot would then be left with the problem of how to reach safety. If he was lucky his aircraft still had enough fuel to reach the nearest friendly landmass, but this was rare, and most of the time he would have to either ditch the aircraft or bail out, and then hope to be rescued by a ship from his convoy.
Although the Fairey Fulmer was also used in this role, it is most associated with the 'Hurricat', or Sea Hurricane Mk IA. Hawkers were first approached to see if it would be possible to fit catapult gear to the Hurricane in October 1940, and on 19 January 1941 it was decided to go ahead with the idea. An order was placed for the first 20 conversion kits, soon expanded to fifty, while at the same time Hawkers began work on producing a more fully navalised Hurricane (the prototype Sea Hurricane IB). The conversion involved strengthening the airframe to allow it to absorb the shock of the rocket-assisted take-off and adding catapult spools on the rear spar of each wing and on either side of the radiator, shackles on the front spar on either side of the centre section to allow the airframe to be lifted onto the ships, tie-down eyelets under the wing tips to allow the aircraft to be secured in rough weather, a naval radio and a new special head-rest to absorb the power of the rockets.
The Hurricat was used from two types of ships - the Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen (CAM-Ships), which were modified cargo vessels, and the Fighter Catapult Ships, which were modified from existing naval ships (most of which were themselves converted merchant ships).
The Hurricat didn't seem much service on the Fighter Catapult Ships. HMS Patia, a former Ocean Boarding Vessel, was sunk before she could take her aircraft onboard. HMS Ariguanu (another boarding vessel), HMS Springbank (a sea-going auxiliary AA vessel) and HMS Pegasus (the small aircraft carrier Ark Royal of 1914, renamed Pegasus in 1934 to make way to the famous Ark Royal of the Second World War) all operated the Fairey Fulmer, mainly because this aircraft could be launched from the smaller catapults immediately available. This only left HMS Maplin, another former Ocean Boarding Vessel, to operate the Sea Hurricane IA.
The Maplin operated the Hurricat from its two catapults for a short spell during 1941. The type's first success came on 3 August 1941, when Lt. R.W.H. Everett, RNVR, shot down a Condor, winning the DSO in the process. This first successful mission almost ended in disaster. The radiator on Everett's aircraft struck the water violently when he ditched, and he was 30 feet underwater before he was able to escape from the aircraft. After this pilots were instructed to tighten their harness, release the emergency escape hatch, slide back the canopy and retract the flaps and wheels before ditching.
During this early period the Sea Hurricane IA had been flown by volunteers from the Fleet Air Arm, but towards the end of 1941 the Fighter Catapult Ships were replaced by the CAM-ships, and the Fleet Air Arm pilots by RAF pilots. The same period also saw the introduction of the Type K single-man dinghy and a special seat-pack (Model A Mk II), both of which improved survivability.
The early trials with the Sea Hurricane had taken place on CAM Ships, first on the Empire Rainbow off Greenock, and then off the SS Michael E in Bangor Bay in the spring of 1941. The Michael E had actually been the first ship to take a Hurricat to sea on operations, sailing on 27 May 1941, but she was sunk without launching the aircraft. The first operational use of a CAM Ship and Sea Hurricane didn't come until 1 November 1941, when Plt Off G.W. Varley launched from SS Empire Foam.
The CAM-Ship system was well organised. There were four shore bases, at Belfast, the Mersey, the Clyde and Bristol, where CAM-Ships could pick up aircraft and pilots. At their peak they were used on Atlantic, Gibraltar and Russian convoys, and were at their most important on the Russian route, which was out of range of other fighters while within range of German attack for longer than the other routes. The first Russian convoy to receive a CAM ship escort set off on 26 April 1942 escorted by SS Empire Morn. Her Sea Hurricane successfully shot down a Ju 88 and drove off a Bv 138 during its one sortie, although sadly the pilot was killed when he bailed out too low.
The CAM ships and the Hurricane IA were withdrawn from the Atlantic in August 1942, but remained in use on other routes into 1943. They were eventually made obsolete by the increasing number of escort carriers, both purpose-built and Merchant Aircraft Carrier (MAC) ships, which were much more flexible, and made better use of their aircraft.
The Sea Hurricane IA and CAM ship concept suffered from a number of problems. It was a one-shot weapon - once the fighter had been launched it was gone, while the German Condors could linger for some time; the aircraft was exposed to damage on the launcher, causing a number of mechanical problems, including jamming the guns and the rocket used to power the catapult was bright enough to be spotted by the Condors, allowing them to escape. In total three Condors were shot down by CAM ship Hurricanes (alongside a larger number of shorter range German aircraft), but they played an important role in discouraging the Condors during the gap before more suitable weapons appeared.
'Hurricat' Catapult-launched convoy defence fighter
Engine: Rolls-Royce Merlin III
Wing span: 40ft
Length: 31ft 4in
Height: 12ft 11.5in
Normal Loaded Weight: 6,589lb
Max Speed: 317mph at 15,000ft
Time to 20,000ft: 11 minutes
Service Ceiling: 34,200ft
Range: 505 miles
Armament: Eight 0.303in Browning machine guns
Naval Equipment: Naval radio and catapult spools