The Hawker Typhoon was a good example of an aircraft that failed in its original role, before excelling in a new one. It was designed in response to Air Ministry specification F.18/37, which was intended to produce a fighter to replace the Hawker Hurricane. Sidney Camm’s design was based around the Napier Sabre engine, an engine that was still under development when Camm began work on the aircraft in 1937.
To guard against problems with the Sabre, Camm produced a design that could also take the Rolls Royce Vulture. This was also an experimental engine, but despite this it would be the Vulture powered Type R (Hawker Tornado) that would fly first, in October 1939. Despite this initial lead, the Tornado project failed with the Vulture, which never lived up to expectations, and was eventually cancelled.
The Type N first flew on 24 February 1940. The new aircraft did not live up to expectations. The Sabre engine was unreliable, and during the testing process could only fly for ten hours between services. At low level the Typhoon was fast, but above 20,000 feet its performance fell off badly. In an ominous shadow of things to come, the prototype suffered from a failure of the rear fuselage, and only the courage of the test pilot prevented a crash. There was a real chance that the Typhoon would be cancelled entirely.
The Hawker Typhoon entered production with the Gloster company, which had spare capacity. The aircraft developed yet more problems in testing. Carbon monoxide from the engine leaked into the cockpit, forcing pilots to wear an oxygen mask. The Sabre engine was difficult to start, with a tendency to burst into flames before even leaving the ground. Despite these problems, the first Typhoons were issued to No. 56 Squadron early during the autumn of 1941. The first Typhoon IA, armed with twelve .303in machine guns, reached the squadron on 26 September 1941.
1942 was not a good year for the Typhoon. Several aircraft suffered from mysterious structural failures, with the tail falling off. This was eventually solved by riveting extra metal plates around the problematic joint. A number of Typhoons were shot down by flak or by other British fighters, as it could be mistaken for the Fw 190. This problem was solved towards the end of 1942 by painting back and white stripes on the underside of the wings. The Typhoon was only saved from cancellation by the appearance of the Fw 190, which could outperform the existing Spitfires, especially at low level. From late in 1941 the Typhoon was used to maintain low level standing patrols, designed to intercept hit and run raids being launched by Fw 190s.
Although the Typhoon proved to be very capable at this duty, it would not have become such an important aircraft if that was all it could do. Its excellent low level performance and robust construction suggested that the Typhoon might make a very good ground attack aircraft. During 1942 the Typhoon IB became standard, replaced the twelve .303in machine guns with four 20mm cannon, a much more effective weapon against ground targets. After a series of tests at Boscombe Down, the Typhoon was cleared to carry two 500lb bombs, one under each wing. In September 1942 Nos. 181 and 182 Squadrons received bomb armed Typhoons, and went onto the offensive.
The Typhoon began to come into its own as a ground attack aircraft during 1943. Day and night the increasing number of Typhoon squadrons launched attacks on the German transport system in occupied France, becoming adept at destroying railway trains. This was a dangerous duty, operating at low level against defended targets, and 380 Typhoons were lost during 1943 (many to flak). During the same period the Typhoon shot down 103 German aircraft, including 52 of the formidable Fw 190s. This was an impressive record for an aircraft was considered to have failed as an interceptor.
Research during 1943 would prepare the Typhoon for its moment of glory in 1944. Tests confirmed that the bomb load could be increased to 1000lb under each wing, making it the first fighter to carry such a high bomb load. Perhaps more importantly, the Typhoon was cleared to carry rocket projectiles. The normal payload consisted of eight rockets, although that could be doubled by the use of a specially designed two level rocket rack. The first rocket attack was made by Typhoons of No. 181 Squadron, against Caen power station on 25 October 1943.
The Typhoon’s moment of glory came during and after D-Day. The introduction of the Hawker Tempest allowed the Typhoon squadrons to concentrate entirely on their ground attack role. Eighteen of the RAF’s twenty Typhoon squadrons were allocated to the 2nd Tactical Air Force. Their first task was to destroy the German radar net in Normandy. On the days before D-Day Typhoon squadrons destroyed several crucial radar stations, including the station at Jobourg that covered the Normandy beaches. Once the landings had begun, the Typhoons turned to tactical support. The Normandy countryside was perfect for defensive tank warfare. A single German tank dug in behind the high hedges of the bocage country could seriously delay the allied advance. The standard response was to call in air support, and let a rocket armed Typhoon take out the stubborn Panzer.
By the end of June the Typhoon squadrons had relocated to France, allowing them to increase the speed with which they could respond to calls for assistance. A crucial development was the use of the “Cab Rank” or “Taxi Rank” system. This involved maintaining a standing patrol of Typhoons over the battlefield. Below them would be a Forward Air Controller, whose job it was to direct the Typhoons onto the most important target at any moment. Once a target was identified, a stream of Typhoons would descend on it.
This system came into its own during the battle of the Falaise pocket (14-25 August). This saw the German 7th Army almost encircled around Falaise. Only one narrow escape route remained. The Typhoon played a crucial role in blocking the route, destroyed bridges, blocking roads and devastating German armoured formations. The dominating image of the final German collapse in France is of rockets streaking from a Typhoon towards German armour.
The Typhoon squadrons were heavily involved as the fighting moved towards Germany. During the Battle of the Bulge, they played an important part in the allied air attacks that began on 24 December when the weather cleared, suffering heavy losses but inflicting critical damage on the German armour.
The need for the Typhoon squadrons to be located as close to the front as possible made them very vulnerable during Operation Bodenplatte, the final major Luftwaffe operation of the war. This was meant to be a knock-out blow, in which the Luftwaffe would inflict such heavy damage on the allied air forces as to knock them out of the fighting. The actual result was the reverse of this. Allied losses were heavy, but they could easily be replaced. The eight Typhoon squadrons then based at Eindhoven lost nineteen aircraft destroyed and fourteen damaged, mostly on the ground. Luftwaffe losses were also heavy, but could not be replaced. Operation Bodenplatte was the end of the Luftwaffe as a significant factor in the war.
This did not mean that Typhoon losses ended. The main danger to the low flying Typhoons was posed by anti-aircraft fire, not enemy aircraft. Between D-Day and the end of the war in Europe some 500 Typhoons were lost in action. During this period the rocket armed Typhoons destroyed countless German tanks, firing just under 200,000 rockets in action. The failed interceptor of 1942 had become the RAF’s most effective ground attack aircraft of 1944-45.
Engine: Napier Sabre IIA 24 cylinder H-form sleeve valve
Span: 41ft 7in
Length: 31ft 11in
Max Speed: 412 mph
Range: 980 miles with drop tanks
Armament: Four 20mm cannon
Payload: two 1,000lb bombs or eight 60lb rockets